muccamukk: Spiral staircase decending multiple levels inside a tower.. (Lights: Isolation)
[personal profile] muccamukk
Title: Sea Stars (Part I) [slash]
Author: [personal profile] muccamukk
Fandom: Marvel Comics (616 AU)
Spoilers/Warnings: PG-13 for violence and mature themes (including mind control, discussion of suicide and somewhat graphic description of wounds).
Number of Words: 42,000 (total)
Notes: The following story is the vaguely stoner offspring of comics from the '70s and Harlequin Presents romance novels... yeah, I don't know either. It follows 616 canon up to Invincible Iron Man #09, then goes fantastically AU. Thank you to [personal profile] healingmirth, [ profile] culurien, [ profile] ginjar, and [personal profile] seascribe for beta work and putting up with me going on about this thing for months. All remaining mistakes are my own.

ALSO! The ever amazing [personal profile] dorky illustrated a scene for me! Go look at mildly NSFW pretty!

AND! The entirely talented [ profile] roachpatrol made me even more art. Very attractive art to be found here!

Life came back as bone-deep cold and a choking flood of salt water.

Steve gasped and flailed, running his toe into the bottom. A wave threw him forwards into more rocks, and he tried to catch hold before the leather and mail dragged him down. His gloved hand connected with something jagged and he grabbed on and hauled, pulling his torso up onto a ledge. Another wave roared over him, slamming his legs against the rough stone and trying to tear him free of his hold.

Kicking down, foot scrabbling on the algae coated rocks until it wedged into a fissure, he waited for the next wave, then threw himself up the rock face. The water surged around him carrying him forwards, before slamming a log into the back of his head so hard that he saw stars and almost forgot to grab on again.

He scrambled up again and hauled himself up onto the next ledge, away from the surf. Rolling onto his back, he stared up at the swirling fog above him and wondered what the heck was going on.

The last thing he remembered was blood, pain and Sharon's voice sounding very far away, while the sirens seemed unbearably loud. He remembered thinking, I'm dying, and, Please, God, don't let it have been Tony that did this to me, then... red-black nothingness... followed by sea water.

Steve levered himself up onto his elbows and looked down at his body. He'd figured out pretty early in that he no longer had gaping bullet holes in his chest and stomach. He hadn't noticed until now that his costume was likewise undamaged. He even had his cowl, which he hadn't seen since Tony arrested him.

A wave hit the rock below him, sending a bucket of spray into his face. Rubbing his eyes clear, he spat blood and brine onto the rocks before rolling to his knees.

He seemed to have come ashore at the head of a narrow cove. Cliffs of black rock lined either side, with scrub and tree roots creeping over the edges. The dark tops of the conifers faded into the fog, and he could only just make out the outer limit of the cove. The channel funnelled the waves, increasing their power until they struck the slimy ledges he'd crawled onto. Above him, the shelf sloped up to a small, driftwood-strewn beach at the edge of a forest.

Gravel crunched under his feet and under the beached log he slumped on once he was safely out of the reach of the surf. He'd begun to shiver, and he could feel the metal in his costume leaching the warmth out of his skin. Pulling it off proved more difficult than he would have thought; the beating he'd taken in the water had pushed the mail though the lining and into his skin in places. Also, his fingers didn't seem to work quite right any more, and he couldn't seem to untangle it at all. Eventually, he managed to yank the whole thing over his head, taking his cowl, gloves and a certain amount of skin with it.

Steve stared down at his chest, letting the mail fall from his hands. It made a dull clinking sound as it hit the gravel.

He'd always had scars; even being a fast healer he still picked them up from serious wounds, but this was...

This was incredibly disturbing.

He could see a small circle of smooth skin on his right shoulder and another more ragged patch above his navel. They looked old, like they'd had a couple of years to heal, and the scars he remembered from before seemed fainter still.

The healed remnants of two straight incisions started at his shoulders and joined in the centre of his chest, continuing down to disappear under his belt buckle. Tracing his fingers along it, not quite believing what he was seeing, he felt a slight ridge of flesh, evenly indented by stitch marks. He dipped his fingers under his waistband, finding that the line ended just above his crotch.

They cut me open, he thought, his vision dimming. I died, and they cut me open.

Then he threw up.

He didn't have much in his stomach, mostly blood and sea water, and he wound up doubled over, head between his knees, retching weakly. I guess this means that my internal organs aren't in plastic bags in someone's freezer, he thought dizzily, so that's probably good. His brain felt a bit like someone had soaked it formaldehyde, though.

He tried to spit again, but his mouth was too dry. Straightening up, he spread a hand across his stomach, trying to soften the burning pain. He hated being sick.

Looking up at the fog, he wondered if he might be dead. Maybe this was some kind of afterlife. Only it didn't seem to be heaven, and, even though he'd made mistakes over the years, he couldn't imagine that he'd end up going to hell. If this turned out to be Valhalla, he was going to find Thor and have serious words.

And if he was alive, where was he? This seemed like his Earth, but not somewhere he recognised at all. For that matter, when was he? How many years had he missed this time?

He sighed and automatically reached out to run a hand along the rim of his shield and found only air. He had never gotten used to not carrying it with him, no matter how many times they'd been separated over the years. He wondered what Tony had done with it; if he'd read his letter; if he'd even cared.

Which added another problem to what seemed to be becoming a near-insurmountable heap. Steve had no idea if he was still technically under arrest for treason or not. He could very well find himself back in a cell the second the government realised he was alive, if they didn't know already.

Maybe he was in a cell, and this was that horrendous virtual reality thing Reed and Tony had built into the Negative Zone prison.

None of which would be an issue if he didn't get up and find some shelter before he died of hypothermia. If he didn't warm up soon, he was going to start thinking like the Hulk: World Bad! Cap Smash!

Steve had just bent down to retrieve his costume when he heard something rustle in the bushes behind him. Instinctively, he spun and dropped into a crouch behind the log, bare hands coming up defensively. He really missed his shield.

He probably wouldn't have needed it in this case, at least. The Avengers had only had to deal with golden retrievers as a serious global threat that one time, and that had involved quite a bit of alien influence.

The dog bounded down the beach, barking happily, and immediately tried to lick his hand. "Easy," Steve said, relaxing slightly. The dog had no collar or tag, so no clues there, but it did seem groomed and well-fed. Its owner probably wasn't far off. He patted its head absently, still scanning the woods.

He frowned and made a decision.

By the time the shaggy-haired man in the bright-orange wind breaker and matching gumboots had come into view, Steve had buried most his costume under a log. His boots and trousers had enough scuffs and slime on them that he figured they wouldn't give him away immediately; he wasn't taking them off, regardless.

The dog ran back to its master, tail wagging frantically, but the man had stopped dead in his tracks.

"Hi," Steve said tentatively.

The man blinked and shook his head. "Where the hell did you come from?" he demanded. "You look like you washed in. Jesus, did you wash in? Are you okay?"

Steve evened the gravel out a bit more with his foot. "Uh... yeah," he said, and hoped that he wasn't as obvious a liar as Clint had used to say he was. "My... my boat sank. I think I'm mostly okay, but I sure could use a hand."

"Wow," the man said, pulling a small radio off his belt. "Was there anyone else on board? Should I be starting a search? Shit, there's not much light left, and choppers can't fly in this muck."

Holding up a hand, Steve shook his head. He perhaps hadn't anticipated how quickly his cover story could spin out of control, but it had been the only thing he could think of. "No, I was alone," he said. "It all happened so fast; I don't even know what went wrong," which might have been the truest thing he'd said so far. "The name's Steve, by the way, Steve Hunter.

The man took his hand automatically, shaking it firmly. "Pete Nowiki, Canadian Coast Guard," he said, "Are you sure you're okay? How are you even alive? Usually this is where the bodies come in."

Steve shook his head again. "I think I'm in shock, and really cold," he said. "I really could use a hot shower."

Nowiki peered into his eyes, hand shifting up his to feel the pulse point on his wrist. "You actually don't look that bad," he concluded, letting go of Steve and starting to strip off his wind breaker. "Here, wear this for now. My truck's only ten minutes up the trail; do you think you can make it that far?"

"Thank you. I think I'll manage." The jacket was about four sizes too small, and didn't close across his chest, but its fleece liner retained some body heat, and Steve thought it felt like the most luxurious thing he'd ever worn. Too bad he was getting it covered in blood and slime. As he followed Nowiki and the dog up the narrow trail through the woods, he asked, "Where is this, anyway? You said Canada, right?" Canada was good; last he'd heard, it didn't have anti-superhero laws.

"Oh, right, I guess you wouldn't know, sorry," Nowiki said over his shoulder. "I'm from the search and rescue station out of Cedar Harbour, British Columbia. Welcome to the Middle of Nowhere."

The wrench slipped, and Tony swore, absently sucking his scraped knuckles,though he they would heal by morning. He really didn't understand why Rick didn't just get a new outboard; it would easily work out to be cheaper than Tony's bi-monthly repair bills. Well, glaring at the thing wasn't going to get this corroded mess apart. He ducked under his bench for an impact wrench.

When straightened up, he came face to face with Danielle Evans, who had again managed to get into the shop and slouch on his stool without him noticing. He never could tell how a six-foot-seven mechanic who had to weigh a good two hundred and fifty pounds could do that."Figured you'd still be here," she drawled. Everything Dani said seemed to take at least half again as long as it would for most other people, and twice as long as Tony.

Tony hooked the wrench up to the compressed air and started pulling bolts. "Yeah? How so?" he said.

"Well you're always here, aren't you, Boss," Dani yelled over the noise. "If I didn't know you rented the old Pendray cabin, I'd think you lived in here."

Which was fair. He even had a cot in the cramped office, though he currently had massively overdue month's end paperwork spread all over it, so he really would have to go to the cabin if he wanted to sleep tonight. "So, is this an intervention or something?" He asked. "Are you going to drag me away and feed me soup and hot chocolate and tuck me in?" Everything unfastened, he started to disassemble the carburettor. It was full of junk, of course. "What the hell is Rick using for gas?"

Her dark eyes almost vanished into her round cheeks as she laughed. "I hear moonshine," she said. "If you work yourself to death, I get the shop, so I'm not stopping you. I just wanted to know if you'd heard the latest off the kelp line."

"No, but I'm sure you'll tell me." It wasn't like there was any escaping gossip in this town. He felt pretty sure all of Cedar Harbour had known he'd bought out Paul Lawson's repair shop before he'd decided to do it. "Did another tourist go missing or something?" He hoped not. It was getting pretty late, and shoreline searches in the dark really sucked, especially when it was foggy.

"Nah," she said, waving dismissively, also in apparent slow motion, "One of the SAR techs found a shipwrecked sailor out at Second Beach; a real one, too, eh."

"As opposed to the fake shipwrecked sailors we get sometimes," Tony said, snapping on a pair of latex gloves and reaching for a can of solvent. "I hate those."

Dani batted his shoulder playfully, rocking him on his feet and sending a squirt of liquid across the metal surface of the bench. "No, like not just a kayaker or a fisherman or something. Maggie Charles says he says he was doing one of those crazy around the world solo sailing trips, when his boat went down."

Tony dropped the rag he'd picked up for the spill, and turned to face her fully. "Weird," he said.

"Yeah, he must have been taking the scenic route to get all the way up here." She bounced on the stool a bit, causing it to creak alarmingly. "I haven't even told you the best part."

"I can't wait."

"He washed up in a rock channel in a moderate surf with only a few scratches, wearing leather pants and pirate boots but no shirt, huge scars all over his chest." She ran her hands over her own massive chest to emphasise the point. "He has short hair, no beard and is built like a heavyweight boxer, which must have been a trick living on a small boat for sixteen months. He says his boat sank, but no one's found any seat cushions or junk like that on the other beaches. You know how fast the scavengers come out when a boat's down."

"Has anyone looked up the vessel name to see if it's registered?"

Dani's eyes shone. Clearly, whoever this was would pretty much make her year, no matter he turned out to be. "The Midnight Racer? Maggie did, but no luck." She shrugged. "He says he was out of New York, so..."

"Yeah." Given how many times everything there ended up blown sky high, records of anything back east tended to be incomplete. Tony wondered how anyone could live like that. "Isn't that the name of some old radio show?" It seemed like he knew it anyway, though he couldn't seem to place how. The feeling had grown more than familiar over the last year, and he hated it. He hated the sick sense that he shouldn't, like he should feel glad that he didn't know, even more.

She shrugged again. "I wouldn't know," she said. "So what so do you figure: pirate, fugitive on the lam, suicidal millionaire, or drug smuggler?"

Not many choices for this town; they usually would have come up with at least a dozen or so options by now. Still, the news hadn't had much time to circulate yet. Personally, Tony would lay money on the last one. A lot of gangs used deserted stretches of coastline like this to bring hard drugs up from the States. "I refuse to commit without having met him, but let me know what the odds are down at the Bird's Eye, huh."

"Will do," she said, sliding off the stool and somehow landing without a sound. "You could come find out yourself."

Tony turned back to the carburettor, shaking his head. "No, I want to finish this tonight," he said. He hadn't set foot in the town's only bar in the year he'd lived here, and today wasn't going to be the first time.

"Suit yourself, Boss," Dani said, running a calloused hand over his buzz cut and lightly squeezing the back of his neck. "Don't forget to sleep sometime, eh?"

"I thought you said this wasn't an intervention."

She laughed at him and walked out.

The wind had picked up, clearing away the fog, and the white caps caught the faint light of a setting crescent moon.

Steve shuddered, not entirely from the cold, and pulled his borrowed jacket more tightly around him. At least this one closed across his chest. The coasties at the search and rescue station had been very generous. The clothes and a bed for the night they’d given him, made him feel even worse about the house of lies he'd built. He doubted that he'd be able to maintain it much longer, which might or might not end up being a problem.

It all depended on how this next meeting went.

They'd chosen a deserted beach for a rendezvous point, not the one Steve had washed up on, but a wider patch of sand about a twenty minute walk out of town. It had seemed best to everyone not to have any witnesses or civilians potentially getting caught in the middle of a fight.

Saying that trust was not running high could be considered an understatement.

Steve just hadn't known what else to do. He'd asked as many questions about what had happened in the two and a half years – two and a half years, Jesus – that he'd been gone as he felt he safely could, but had mostly gotten a lot of provincial politics and something vague about the US having gone to hell. He had the impression that the Canadians didn't think that had been too far of a trip, but that they didn't want to provide details lest it seem like gloating. "Omega Flight and some Americans" fighting off mutant spotted owls at the opening ceremonies of the Olympics in Vancouver had been the only superhero-related news in the lot.

In the end, Steve had just given up and borrowed a phone, and now here he stood.

Out over the ocean in the distance, he saw the stars of Orion dim and turn red as something passed in front of them. He didn't move, sure that they'd been watching him long before they made an obvious approach. Looking a little vulnerable might do him some good in the end anyway.

Falcon landed gracefully about ten paces down the beach from him, Ms Marvel by his side. They both wore masks, and Steve couldn't see their eyes in the darkness. The lines of their bodies looked tense and ready for a fight. The sand muffled their footsteps as the approached, the sound buried under the roar of the surf. They stopped just out of arm's reach.

"Hi, Sam," Steve said. "Carol." He was trying very hard not to tense up at the sight of her; strange how quickly he'd learned to see an old friend and teammate as a threat.

They exchanged a glance, then Sam pulled what looked like a palm pilot off his belt and passed it to his companion. "You'd better do this," he said to her, "It always seems to flake out on me."

"It's a portable Skrull detector," Carol explained, "Reed and Braddock finally managed to invent one." Steve nodded, and she activated the machine and pointed it at Steve, which caused it to start beeping and flashing coloured lights.

Sam bounced on his toes and peered at the device. "What's it say?" he asked.

"Give it a minute, will you," Carol answered irritably. "It's not as fast as the base unit."

It beeped a few more times before settling on a steady glow. "Is red good or bad?" Steve asked, suddenly worried himself. While listing potential disasters, he hadn't even considered that he might not actually be who he thought he was.

Eyes wide with shock, she showed him the screen. "IDENTITY 98.7% CONFIRMED," it read, "STEVEN ROGERS." Then she let out what could be described as a squeal and threw her arms, Skrull detector and all, around his neck. The next thing he knew, her lips were warm and wet on his, and he couldn't breathe because Sam had wrapped both of them in an embrace and was holding on as tight as he could. Steve laughed and tasted salt on his lips as Carol broke the kiss and sniffed noisily next to his ear. He thought he heard her whispering that she was sorry, but couldn't tell for sure.

When they finally broke apart, Sam gave him another squeeze on the shoulder. "Damn, partner, it's good to have you back," he said with feeling, and Carol nodded emphatically, wiping her eyes.

"Thanks," Steve said, wishing that he felt as sure about it as his friends seemed to. He met Carol's eyes, adding, "I'm just glad we're on the same side again, old friend." If the world had changed so much that he couldn't trust Sam Wilson to look out for him, then he didn't want any part in it anyway.

Sam's grin faltered, and he again glanced at Carol before saying, "There aren't really sides any more. I mean, the Avengers are still split... six" he paused and wiggled his fingers, "no... five ways, and we're not exactly having weekly love ins yet, but..." he trailed off, looking unsure.

"It's more damage control, than anything," Carol explained, "During the worst of it, just about everyone who was ever a member or even an adherent of the Avengers was active somewhere. It wasn't practical to have just the one team based out of New York, and maybe one in LA. We found out, the hard way, that smaller teams placed strategically across the country had better intel and reaction times. And, well, it keeps the people who still aren't speaking to each other a few states apart. It's not quite the Fifty State Initiative, but it works."

Steve gaped at her. "What the hell happened?"

Sam didn't seem to want to touch that one, and Carol hesitated, collecting her thoughts. At last she said, "Between the SHRA, the Hulk attacking, the Skrulls invading, the global economic meltdown, and the Green Goblin running most of the military and security forces, the government just sort of... collapsed. President Obama tried his best, and he's doing a wonderful job with the reconstruction now, but, at the time, it was just too much all at once."

Which pretty much summed up Steve's state of mind at the moment as well. He thought again of his letter, how he'd asked Tony to take care of his country for him, and again felt his chest tighten at the betrayal. Maybe it hadn't been a fair thing to ask of one man, but Tony had always done so much for them, for him. It had always seemed to Steve like he could do anything. Why not this, the one thing that he'd asked? Maybe Tony hadn't read the letter.

He felt a gentle hand on his shoulder, and looked up to see Sam watching him, concern in his eyes. "Hey," he said gently, "There's good news too. I shouldn't have let Carol fill you in. The team's talking about changing her name to Ms Gloom and Doom. By the team, I mean mostly Clint, because he's back, and Bobbi, and Thor too. The SHRA is effectively dead. Bucky's being doing a great job being you, I mean Captain America; you'll be so proud of him. The UN finally took SHIELD back and put Fury in charge again. You really missed the worst of it."

"Missed" being the key word, Steve thought, then cursed himself for being arrogant enough to assume that things would have gone differently had he been there. He put his hand over Sam's reassuringly. Then he turned to Carol and asked, "Who did we lose?"

She didn't flinch. "Bob Reynolds and Stephen Strange," she said, tone flat. "That we know of, and no one's seen Tony Stark in over a year. We haven't seen a body either, but we're assuming he's dead. He wouldn't have missed all this."

Steve nodded numbly. He expected that pretty soon he was going to feel something about that, but right now he just couldn't do it. Too much all at once, he thought. He let go, and shrugged free of his friend, saying, "I... I need to... look I'm going to sneak back to bed, and..." He shook his head. He had no idea what he was going to do.

Sam stepped forward to follow him, but changed his mind part way, turning the motion into shuffling his feet awkwardly. "Let me give you a ride back to Vancouver," he implored. "I only told Carol and Bucky about your call. I didn't want to get everyone's hopes up, but they'll want to see you."

"You can't imagine how much we've missed you," Carol added. Steve had a pretty good idea though. "The Olympic Committee gave Omega Flight and us a whole hotel," she frowned, pinching the bridge of her nose, "Well, they put us up in part of a hotel, but everyone else moved out after the second attack. There's more than enough room for you anyway."

"Please come, Steve," Sam asked again. Noticing Steve's hesitation, he added quickly "Or I can stay here. Whatever you want."

Steve backed away another step. "I can't go with you," he said. "I'm not even sure why, but I really need to stay here and figure things out. I don't even know why I'm back, and with everything you've said..." Again words abandoned him. He settled at last on concluding, "I need time to think, Sam. I'm sorry. Maybe I'll be better after some sleep."

Sam looked at him for a long time, studying his face in the faint moonlight. They'd known each other for a long time, and, of all the people still among the living, Steve would trust Sam to know if something was wrong with him. He didn't seem to think there was though, because he finally nodded and stepped back. "Okay, partner," he said. "We'll meet you in town tomorrow. I'll bring you some clothes and ID. Just a warning though, I'm pretty sure Bucky is already on his way over, and nothing will stop him once he hears it's really you."

Carol pressed the Skrull detector into his hand, the proof of his identity still lighting up the screen. "Here, it has a team communicator and a bunch of other stuff on it too. Call us if anything at all happens tonight."

"Don't worry about the one point three percent," Sam added, "It never scores much higher than ninety-eight. Reed designed it, and it still says he has a one in thirty chance of being an evil clone." Steve couldn't see more than a flash of white teeth in the darkness, but even then the smile seemed half hearted. "Do you want us to walk you back?" he asked, voice sobering.

"No," Steve said. "I'll be okay. I'll see you tomorrow." He turned, as though starting up to the trail, but stopped after they left. He stood on the beach and tried not to think of anything at all, staring out over the water until the moon sank into the wave. Then he turned and started to walk back.

In the back room at the coast guard station, Steve only managed a few hours of sleep. He woke with a start some time before dawn, and found himself staring at the ceiling unable to remember if he had dreamed or just felt too on edge to rest properly. He had no hope for dropping off again now, and eventually turned to poking at the communicator that Carol had left him.

It turned out to also have satellite Internet access, and a bunch of other features that he couldn't identify, even after flipping through the help files. Browsing the web didn't turn up much more information than Carol and Sam had already told him, at least not anything reliable.

After randomly jumping through news sites, which seemed to expect him to know what happened already, he gave up and decided to ask Sam for more details in the morning. He was about to the machine away, when he thought of something. Opening a search engine, he typed in "Tony Stark."

"NO RESULTS FOUND," it told him.

He stared at it. That couldn't be right. He tried typing in "Anthony Edward Stark" and a few variations thereof, but they all came up with zero results. "What the hell," he muttered. That kind of search should have come up with something; the man had appeared in thousands of magazines and news articles over the years. Even if it wasn't related to his friend, he should have had a few results; it wasn't an incredibly rare name. "Stark Industries," and any of the other company names got him nothing, and "Stark" on its own led to an online dictionary. He tried looking up a list of Secretaries of Defence, but that just had a blank space during the year that Tony had held the position.

"Iron Man" turned out to be more interesting, as besides the entries about a triathlon, he could find some references to the hero. None of them made mention of Iron Man's identity, and they seemed a lot more complete in the last year. Clearly, someone had the armour and was using it to do some good, though not on the Avenger teams, but no one seemed to want to speculate as to who that might be.

He did find Rhodey and War Machine, and an obituary for Happy Hogan, but no reference to Tony in either one. Looking up Virginia Potts, Steve found that she was running a corporation called AES International, which didn't mention any previous incarnations, or a specific employment history for Pepper.

Someone had erased Tony Stark and his avatars and concerns from the Internet.

Steve killed the web browser and booted up the satellite phone.

It took him ten minutes and a three way call to Carol -- who had just been attacked by animate trees -- to convince Pepper Potts that he was in fact Steve Rogers.

"So, hi," Pepper said, finally. "Good to see you again. It's been a while."

"You too," Steve said, "Though it doesn't seem that long for me. How are you doing? You look good." From what he could see on the small screen, she really did.

She smiled faintly. "Positively glowing, I'm sure," she said, as if it were an old joke. "I'm okay. Running this damned company is going to be the end of me, I'm sure, but I like it a lot more than I thought I would."

"I'm glad to hear it," he said. She had largely run Tony's various financial endeavours a lot of the time anyway. He could imagine that doing so without having to worry about the Avengers, the UN, the US government and her boss the alcoholic, heart-damaged superhero with a computer in his brain, all at the same time would save a lot of heartache.

She paused, gazing at him reassuringly for a moment before stating, "So I guess you're calling about Tony, huh."

Steve nodded. "Yeah. I am."

"Why?" Her voice sounded sharp, colder even then when she thought he was an evil clone calling to harass her.

"What?" he asked, taken aback.

"You've been back for less than a day, and you're already calling me looking for the man most people blame for your death." She shook her head. "Before I tell you anything, I want to know why."

"Pepper... I" He stopped and closed his eyes, though he could still feel her glaring at him. "I don't want to fight him, Pep. The war's over. We both lost," he said at last, looking directly into the tiny camera. As angry as he still felt, he couldn't deny that the world had again moved on without him. Again he would adapt and move with it. "I just... I asked him a question, back on the Raft, and he never answered it. I died not knowing. It may have been years for you, but, for me, I fought with my best friend only days ago. I just want to know the truth; not the lies he told me; not the story he spun for the press; the real, honest-to-god reason. Please. I need to settle this."

Pepper sighed, a long, ragged sound. "I think maybe you're the only one he would have told," she said. "Lord knows he never said much to me, though I may have had a better idea of what he was up against than he ever realised, even at the end." He couldn't see if her eyes were brighter or not, but she was blinking a lot more rapidly now. "He left a message for you, in case you came back. It was maybe the only optimistic thing he did in that last awful year. I hope it can answer some of your questions."

He didn't like the sound of that at all. "Pepper," he asked gently, "What happened?"

She closed her eyes, and he could see the tiny glint of a tear on her cheek. Her narrow shoulders shuddered once, but, when she looked at him again, she seemed as calm as the eye of a storm. "Tony killed himself," she said.

She waited for Steve to acknowledge that he understood her, but he couldn't. He couldn't make his mind digest what she said. He opened his mouth to say something, but closed it again a moment later, shaking his head.

Realising that he couldn't ask, Pepper continued. "He wasn't drinking; it was just... it was too much, even for him. He ran some sort of formatting thing that shut down his brain." She sounded cold again, bitter. "Only Rhodey, Maria Hill and I know. The rest... well, I wasn't going to give them anything else to hurt him with, so I told them I didn't know where he was, and let them think what they wanted. Not long after that, the virus kicked in. It seems to be able to wipe out any mention of Tony on any computer connected to the Internet, and only Avenger tech and some SHIELD stuff has been able to fight it. He erased himself."

"Oh, Pepper," he said. "I'm so sorry."

She smiled brittlely. "Yeah, well, you should be," she snapped. "You and your damned war."

"I never..."

"Of course not. Neither of you did, did you?" She had to stop then, and he remained silent as she took a deep breath. "Sorry. I didn't mean to drag all that up again. I'll just send you the message, and you can call back if you need anything else, okay?"

He must have said something, because she nodded, and a moment later her image flickered and disappeared. The message in its place asked him if he wanted to accept a file.

Steve stared at it. The query started blinking different colours and bouncing slightly on the screen, so he pressed "Yes," whereupon it chirped happily. He felt fairly sure that wasn't a feature Reed Richards would have included.

When the file finished transferring, he set the machine down and walked to the window, peering through the blinds. The room faced away from the harbour, so all he could see in the first glow of twilight was a largely empty parking lot, and, across the gravel road, a scruffy grove of spruce trees.

Tony's dead. He tried the idea in his mind, but couldn't make it fit. Tony's dead; he committed suicide. That made even less sense.

Some part of himself said that he shouldn't be surprised, that Tony Stark had never really proven himself to be a paragon of mental stability. He took risks, big ones, ones that Captain America on his wildest day probably wouldn't have seriously considered. Steve knew Tony valued his life less than the lives of his team mates, even less than those of strangers. He knew that Tony had honestly tried to drink himself to death at one point. He hadn't touched a drop in years, but he seemed more afraid of the damage he could do under the influence than the risk it posed to his health. He knew that Tony took responsibility to for the whole world on his shoulders, and that he'd been even worse about that since he'd "upgraded" with the Extremis.

Maybe it made sense, but Steve still couldn't imagine Tony actually giving up like that. If for no other reason, the man seemed convinced that he was the only one who could do the job right, and thinking about how badly everyone else would screw it up if he were gone made Tony want to cry. And as often as Steve had seen Tony guilt-ridden and depressed, nothing, even the problems he'd created for himself, seemed to keep him down for long. How many times, even since Steve had known him, had he rebuilt his company from scratch? No matter how much he grieved the initial loss, he had always come back, seemingly even more determined than before.

How could he have just quit like that, especially when the fighting had been so bad? Steve felt a flash of anger, and again wondered if Tony had ever actually cared, or if he'd just been putting on a show the whole time. Maybe the man Steve had actually come to hate during the war was the real person. In the end, Tony hadn't seemed to feel much past pride and anger. If he'd read Steve's letter, then how could he have done that? Perhaps it wasn't a fair thing to have asked, but Tony was supposed to the one to keep America on her feet when Steve was gone. Steve had come back not three years later and the whole country had gone straight to hell.

He glanced over his shoulder at the bed, knowing that the communicator he'd left there probably held at least some of the answers. He just wasn't sure he felt ready to listen. He knew he hadn't been during the war. He had an amazingly intense desire to punch something right now, and he didn't want to destroy Carol's equipment. He thought about taking off and going running, trying to work away some of his emotions in the sounds of boots pounding on gravel.

He realised, however, that as much as he didn't want to listen, he couldn't not know, either. He'd loved Tony once, and he owed that memory something.

He didn't hesitate this time, just sat down and punched the button. He had made his decision; he wanted to get it over with before he talked himself out of it again.

The image wasn't any larger than the one of Pepper had been, though it focused more tightly on Tony's face, only showing the edge of the gold underarmour at his throat. Still, Steve could tell that Tony had looked better. His skin looked pale and drawn, and though his hair and moustache were neat, something about him seemed neglected, unkempt. Steve couldn't tell what the gleam in his eyes meant, but it seemed off, not at all like the light when fought or talked about his precious machines. Steve wished he could see his hands. When Tony spoke, his voice sounded strained, but it wasn't the lifeless slurring that Steve had come to expect from his depressive periods. It wasn't even close to the cool arrogance he'd displayed during their last meeting.

"I don't really expect that you'll ever see this, Steve," he said, "But hey, if you do, congratulations on being alive, and on me being dead. Two points for good guys everywhere." Steve growled, and, in the picture, Tony held up a hand, fingers just sliding into view. "Don't be mad at me, Steve. Well, I guess that's a lost hope, after everything I've done, but please don't be mad at me for this. It really is for the best; I promise."

Steve decided that if he never heard anyone say those words ever again, he would die a happy man. Jesus, Pepper, he thought, how could you let him decide things like this? The man's lost his mind.

Tony continued, "I'm sure by now someone's filled you in on everything that's happened, and that you're even more pissed at me than you were back on the Raft, if that's possible." He lowered his eyes, but didn't falter in his manic stream of thought. As his head tilted, Steve caught a flash of machinery behind him. Something was attached to the back of his neck. Steve felt his gut twist. "I think the only two people on the entire planet Earth, and probably in the universe, who don't want me dead right now are Pepper and Maria Hill, and I guess I can see why.

"The thing is, though," he added, looking directly at Steve. "I still believe that I did the right thing. It all went to hell and, clearly, I screwed up massively, but knowing what I knew at the time, I think I made the right choices. Which is the problem, isn't it? You asked me to look after a country that's been more or less running for over two centuries, and after one year of doing my damnedest to respect your wishes, that country is pretty much toast. I give it two months, on the outside, before the government collapses." Which was about right from what he'd been able pick up between Sam and the 'Net. "So, obviously, you should have sent that letter to Sam or Hank or someone not me, though Hank turned out to be a Skrull, so maybe not him. I hope you'll give me that I did okay by Bucky, or that I did as much for him as I could, considering that he really just wants me dead too. I guess today's his lucky day."

Steve wasn't sure he really trusted Tony's definition of "doing right by" someone, especially not when it combined with Bucky, who hadn't been stable last time they'd met. Still, Sam had said Bucky was okay...

Tony shook his head sharply. "Which is neither here nor there. The point is that I've lost everything, again, and this time I don't have it in me to rebuild. Even if I did, even if I could, right now I'm more of a liability than an asset to Team Hero. If I make one more mistake -- and I will, because I haven't been on my A game since... well, for a long time -- that psychotic bastard running the world will nail me, and, with what I have in this head of mine, everyone else will pretty much be hooped. So I am, to quote the lovely Ms Hill, taking myself off the board. I'm damned no matter how I go at this point, and Hell can't be much worse than what Earth's like right now." He shrugged, that little twisted grin on his lips again. It made Steve shiver.

"I expect this is only really making you angrier, which I didn't intend. I wouldn't have left this at all, but you asked me a question the last time we talked, and I never answered it -- I don't think telling your dead body counts. So here we go: I supported Registration because it was the will of the American people, and because I believe that the principle, if not the motive, behind it is right. I never lied to you about that."

"Like hell," Steve muttered. He'd known Tony for over ten years. He knew when he was trying to pull one over on him. He'd spent half the war thinking the man who used to be his best friend had either gone crazy or been replaced by an alien, again.

"I didn't tell you the whole truth, either," Tony continued. "I was scared, and I didn't know what else to do. You have no idea of what I was up against, working on the inside, the kind of pressure I had to deal with. I needed your help, but I was too proud to ask for it, and you were too pissed off at me to offer."

Tony ran a hand through his hair. "After the worst happened, and you died, and it was my fault, I visited the memorial in Arlington. I wanted to say what I couldn't at your funeral. When I was standing in front of that awful statue I made them build, I saw two visions of what might have been. They were clear as day, more real than I felt right then, and I absolutely believe them. If I hadn't supported Registration, if I hadn't done as much damage control as I did and sold my soul to the people pulling the strings, it would have gone a lot worse. The government would have found a way to betray and slaughter pretty much everyone we know. I tried to warn you that we couldn't go against the entire country, no matter how strong our convictions, but I guess I didn't do a very good job. I know that I saved lives by betraying you, even if they weren't the ones most important to me. Don't worry; knowing that doesn't help me look in the mirror in the morning."

His voice had shifted from manic and chattering to deliberately serious. Steve had no doubt that he believed every word of it. "On the other hand, if I'd supported registration and asked for your help, honestly asked, and told you the whole truth, we could have ended the war before anyone died. We could have built an America that you would have felt proud to serve again.

"That was my real mistake in all this: I thought I could do it all on my own. I thought that I was strong enough, fast enough, smart enough to push registration through, and that I could win quickly and cleanly, and you'd just... I don't know. I kept thinking that we could actually talk like we used to. I kept thinking that you'd understand, that you'd somehow see that it wasn't so bad working in the system. I didn't want to drag you into all of that mess, the politics and the lies. Maybe I was even trying to protect you, play the villain to your white knight. I've always been good at that. This way, only one of us is damned, at least.

"I'm sorry, Steve. I know you probably don't believe me, and I can't blame you, but I really am. I wish more than anything that we could have fought this together. I said at your funeral, your real one, that you were my rudder, the one I could always count on to keep me on the right path. I didn't listen to you; I didn't trust you, and it destroyed our partnership and one of the dearest friendships that I've ever had. I think it may have destroyed the country too, because I really can't imagine that any of this last year would have happened if you were here."

For the first time, his voice wavered, and broke a little. "Fuck, 'I'm sorry' doesn't really cut it, does it? I don't expect your forgiveness, and I'm not doing this or leaving this message to make amends or ask for pity. I know that can't happen. I just... I wanted to say goodbye, and I wanted to tell you that you mean more to me than you ever imagined, more than I thought anyone ever could.

"So that's it I guess. I love you. I'm sorry. Goodbye." The screen went blank.

Steve put his fist through the wall above the bed.

At around half past six in the morning, just as the sun started to touch colour to the highest clouds, disaster struck.

Tony had rolled out of his bed in the loft, groped his way downstairs, lit an element, and punched the start button on the coffee grinder.

Nothing happened.

He stared at the silent machine in horror. It was probably the second most valuable possession he had -- well, the truck was technically worth more, but -- he'd ordered it special from Europe only six months ago. How could it not be working?

Pressing the button repeatedly, taking all the beans out, and plugging it in somewhere else didn't help, and after ten minutes, he had to concede defeat. He was going to have to go and down at least a pot of that boiled weasel piss the café served. Maybe then he could claim to be caffeinated enough to take on the finest in Italian engineering.

He sighed deeply, tucked the machine under his arm, and headed out into the dawn.

The clear air bit into his bare cheeks, and Tony shivered and buried his hands deeper into his pockets. He absently wondered why he couldn't seem to let his hair grow out in the winter like a lot of the local men did. He'd even tried when it started getting cold in October, but the beard had just looked wrong. Somehow, seeing himself in the mirror on day five had made his stomach had twist in revulsion, and he'd shaved immediately.

That feeling, the inexplicable nausea and compulsions, had grown painfully familiar over the year since the dark-haired military woman had dropped him off on the shores of the Pacific. He'd learned pretty quickly what to avoid: cities, computers, alcohol, trying to remember his dreams, and any number of other seemingly-unconnected things. He never knew when something could become an issue.

One patch of forest looked much like another to Steve, but he felt pretty sure that he recognised the massive stump with the saplings growing on it. "I think this is the turn," he said, peering down the faint trail that branched off beside it.

"You think?" Bucky asked, tone suggesting that he thought Steve should be omniscient.

"I was in shock at the time." He wanted to add that it had been dark and foggy too, but decided it would sound too defensive.

He couldn't quite seem to find a balance with Bucky, which was really starting to get to him. Even when his old sidekick had been vengeful and maybe still a little brainwashed, they'd snapped right back into being partners as soon as they'd had to work together. Now... well, as Sam had misspoken, Bucky was him now, and Steve couldn't quite work out how either of them felt about that. It wasn't that he wasn't glad to see him, but Steve half wished they had a monster or something to fight together. He wished, at least, that Sam was here to run interference, but he'd called to say that the rapidly encroaching old growth forest was taking longer than he had thought it would, and that he'd come when he could.

Bucky, for his part, had put on the military façade Carol had worn the night before. On the walk from the trail head, he'd recited the events of the past year in a clinical detail that really didn't do much to dispel Steve's growing feeling of unreality. Maybe Bucky could only bring himself to talk about the relentless cycle of disaster like it was something in a mission report, but to Steve it seemed as though he were making it up, or it was a story that had happened to people he didn't know. After ten minutes, Bucky had seemed to sense his unease and had fallen silent.

Steve knew the beach from the shape of the cliffs, but it looked startlingly different. The trees shaded the gravel, but the first of the morning sunshine sparkled on a limitless blanket of silver and blue outside the channel. Even though the surf had dropped a bit, he still had to wince as one of a larger set of waves thundered into the rocks, tossing a log into the air. He could see why Nowiki had been so stunned to find someone had crawled out of that alive.

He'd wanted to retrieve his costume before a wild animal or someone's dog dug it up, and to talk to Bucky away from the many ears of Cedar Harbour. Mostly, he just couldn't help feeling drawn to this place. He still had no idea why he was even alive, let alone in Cedar Harbour. He hadn't said as much to Bucky, but he somehow felt that he would find answers if he returned to his point of origin.

Instead, he found his shield.

It rested close enough to a big log that he hadn't seen it from the trail. The tide had erased most of yesterday's tracks, and he couldn't see new ones anywhere near it. It simply sat on top of the gravel and seaweed, looking for all the world like someone had very carefully placed it on the high tide line.

They both stared at it for a moment, and Steve noticed that Bucky's real hand slid back to the artist's case slung over his shoulder before he said, "I'm guessing that wasn't there yesterday."

Steve shook his head. "And it didn't wash up. I found out the hard way exactly how well it floats." A cluster of small purple crabs scuttled out from under the shield when he picked it up. "This feels like one of Tony's replicas," he said after giving it an experimental swing. "A pretty good one too."

He passed it to Bucky, who spun it between his hands, saying, "I wonder if it's the replica from your exhibit in the Smithsonian." Then he shook his head. "No. D.C.'s been a war zone, but I'd know if anyone had messed with it. That and I think the word pretty much got out after Wolverine beat the ever-living shit out of the last guys who tried to loot the place."

Of course they put me in a museum, Steve thought, not sure if he should feel embarrassed or exasperated. Taking the shield back, he launched at the cliffs. It ricocheted off both sides of the cove before spinning back towards the beach. He'd misjudged the angle though, or the differences in the weight and balance had thrown him off. Instead of coming to him, it embedded itself in a log with a thud. He wasn't sure how sensitive a subject his next question was, but he had to know. "Did they... did they bury me with one?" he asked. No one had mentioned his funeral so far, aside from Tony, who had hinted at him having more than one.

Bucky shrugged, turning to look out over the sea. "I only saw it on TV, and it was a closed casket," he said. "Sam said something about burying you as Steve Rogers, in army greens, so maybe not."

Steve nodded and concentrated on freeing the shield from the wood. He really hadn't thought things could get more awkward between them, but wow. Shield acquired, he started to dig up his costume. "Is there anyone in Washington you would trust to check and see if whatever they buried is still there?" He asked, then added, "Discretely. I don't want the word out that I'm back until we have a better idea of what's going on."

"I'll make it happen," Bucky promised. He turned back from the water to face Steve, and frowned. "Look," he started to say, but hesitated, eyes flicking between the shield Steve held in one hand and the newly-resurrected costume in the other. "Look, I didn't mean to say anything right away. You haven't even been back for a day, and maybe you haven't even..."

Steve draped the battered mail over his shield arm and put his free hand on Bucky's shoulder, quieting him. "It's yours now, Buck, all of it," he said softly, meeting his eyes. "Sam tells me you've done America proud, that you've been a true Avenger even when they weren't calling them that. That's what Captain America is for, and you've more than earned the job." He felt pleased at how evenly that had all come out. He thought he sounded like he hadn't been agonising over it all night, like giving up the real shield didn't hurt worse than losing an arm.

Or maybe not. Bucky turned his head away, blinking. "Thank you," he said, voice hoarse.

Steve nodded, satisfied, and let his hand drop. "We should go. I don't think we're going to find anything else here."

"So, what's next?"

"I'm not sure," Steve admitted, frowning. The duffel bag they'd brought didn't quite stretch to enclose the shield, though it did cover most of it and somewhat hid the shape. After a moment of tugging this way and that, he tossed the costume on top of it and just tucked the whole mess under his arm as best he could. "I was thinking of staying in Cedar Harbour for a little while longer. I need to know what brought me here."

Bucky led the way back up to trail. "I guess I'll get a motel room for us, then."

"You don't have to get back to Vancouver?" Steve asked, "That Ent Invasion that Sam and Carol told me about this morning sounded pretty serious."

"I'm sure that Omega Flight and the rest of the Avengers can handle it," Bucky said. "You need me more."

Which was probably true enough, so Steve didn't argue.

As he entered the forest, Bucky looked back, a small grin playing at his lips. "The fifty-foot statue of you in Arlington has a shield, but I think it's made out of concrete."

Steve tripped over a tree root. Bucky obviously knew that he would have infinitely preferred a place under the immutable rows of white stone to all that. "I guess they made a pretty big show of it, huh?" he muttered through his hands. He could feel the heat in his cheeks.

"Yup," Bucky said. "We're pretty sure it was mostly Stark's idea, which I thought was a bit rich, considering you were only dead because he'd arrested you for treason. He couldn't even handle giving your eulogy. Sam did a nice one, though; I can probably dig up a copy if you want to see it."

"I think I can live without that," Steve said. Some years ago, he'd made a personal rule never to watch the coverage of his own "deaths." He dropped his hands, shaking his head in despair, and started walking again. At least Bucky seemed to be acting a little more like Steve thought he should, ever the teasing younger brother. He felt a little of the weight of his decision slide away. He would work something out; he always did.

Bucky didn't take up his recitation on their return trip, but the silence between them felt comfortable. They'd always had this back in the war, the long marches when even his teenage sidekick had run out of things to say, and they just walked, not saying anything because nothing needed to be said.

Predictably, the Time and Tide Café did little to improve Tony's mood. Kirstin had the early shift this week, and absolutely refused to stop laughing at him and the coffee grinder. If he felt the least bit inclined to be fair, which he currently did not, he would admit that, after the way he'd decried her coffee as the source of all evil, it was pretty funny. He must have looked pretty pathetic though, as she took pity on him and dropped an extra strong pot in front of him a minute later. The carafe covered Jon Yang's missing person poster, which suited Tony fine as he was tired of seeing it everywhere anyway.

Instead, he stared morosely into his cup, and wondered if he had always been a coffee snob. He knew the subtleties and origins of the flavours the same way he seemed to know how to take just about anything apart and put it back together better. Except for Rick Warburton's outboard engine, which he suspected of being evil. Sure he had a couple of mechanics certificates with his name on them, or at least, with the same name as his Canadian birth certificate and passport, but nothing to explain why he could build a V8 engine from scratch. Nothing explained why he could picture microcircuits in his head, or why doing so made him want to throw up.

The roar of a motorcycle, probably some kind of Ducati, echoed over the water. Looking out over the deck, Tony saw of flash of black and silver as something shot past a gap in the trees across the bay. It was going a lot faster on the gravel than most people would consider at all safe.

"Idiot tourists," he muttered.

Kirstin, who apparently had ears like a bat, took it as an attempt at coherent communication and came over to stand by the window. "Worse," she said, "It's the shipwrecked drug dealer, or whatever he is, and his biker gang boyfriend."

Tony looked up, noticing, now that he had drugs jump-starting his brain, that she wasn't wearing a bra and with the way the morning sun caught in her purple hair and that little cotton shirt... He swallowed and turned back to his mug, asking, "Boyfriend? When did he get a boyfriend?"

She laughed. "I don't know when they got together or anything," she told him, "But Julie came by to hang out before she headed out to that crappy fish farm. She said that she saw this sweet bit of hotness in black leather roll into the SAR station an hour ago, like before dawn even, looking for Steve the Pirate, if that's his real name. Apparently, there was this huge long hug, and they touched a lot. The new guy, who is tragically gorgeous, spent the whole time gazing at Mister Pirate like he was Angelina Jolie with all her clothes off or something. They hung out for like ten minutes, and then both jumped on that bike and tore off down the Cape Road."

He knocked back the dregs of his current mug, trying not to taste anything, and poured himself another. "If hugging someone you supposedly haven't seen in a really long time equates to an epic romance," he said, "then a lot more of the population is gay than reputable scientists have suspected."

"If you say so," Kirstin said, snorting. "It looks like you'll see for yourself pretty quick though. I bet I'm right." As the bike turned the last corner and pulled into the parking spots, she slid over to the till and tried to give the impression that she'd been standing there, looking bored, all morning. Tony didn't feel that she looked all that convincing.

The riders both wore gleaming black helmets, but only the slighter one had leathers. Tony supposed the one on the back must be the alleged shipwreck victim, though from what he could see under the heavy jacket, the man looked more like a gladiator than the boxer Dani had described.

As he swung off the bike, two things happened at once. Tony knew with absolute certainty that this man was neither a drug dealer nor a pirate, and something in his head started screaming, Get out! Get out! Get out! Get out!

Mindlessly, he dropped his mug and bolted out through the back, almost knocking Kirstin over on the way by, and ran like hell.

It wasn't until he'd slid to the floor of his cabin, back against the bolted door, that he realised he'd left his jacket and coffee grinder in the café.

"Nice coffee grinder," Bucky said, smiling up at the young hippy taking their orders. They'd claimed the seats nearest the floor to ceiling windows overlooking the harbour. The machine he referred to – which looked like it would have done NASA proud – sat next to a battered jacket on the next table.

The waitress wrinkled her nose. "If you say so," she said. "It's broken anyway. The dude who runs the mechanic shop abandoned it here."

"I'm surprised he let it out of his sight," Bucky said, then proceeded to feed her what Steve strongly suspected was a line about a caffeine obsessed friend and an adventure involving a safe and exploding beans. Though unless the Avengers had massively changed since he'd been a member, the story probably didn't need much embellishment. Bucky had his hand on the edge of the table by now, not quite touching her leg, but close enough that she could probably feel the warmth radiating off it through her torn jeans. Steve wondered absently if she'd noticed that the former Winter Soldier had left his other hand gloved.

He also wondered when Bucky had started flirting as a means of gaining intelligence, or when he returned to it, he supposed. He'd never been as bad as Toro during the war, but the boy had turned his charms on for a number of French and German girls. From the little he'd seen of him in action, the Winter Soldier had seemed to prefer sneaking around and beating people up. Time spent with Clint and Jessica Drew had obviously done him some good. Mostly, Steve felt glad no one expected him to hit on a girl young enough to be his great granddaughter.

The young lady in question smiled and leaned forward. Steve dropped his eyes and focussed on the sea chart under the glass tabletop, tracing the lines of the coast with a finger. Cedar Harbour lay in the shelter of the first of a chain of small islands that stretched along the coast to the northwest. Beyond them, a narrow inlet cut deep into the coast of the main body of Vancouver Island. He found the beach he'd washed up on down the coast to the southeast, where only the curled lines of reefs stood between the shore and the open Pacific.

The chart covered an area of about fifty by forty nautical miles. Aside from a couple of lighthouses and another small town up the inlet, Cedar Harbour marked the only human habitation on it.

On the far corner of the table, a poster with a black and white photo of a smiling young woman covered the legend. Steve had to lean into Bucky's space to get a good enough angle to read it. Nicole Blanchard had disappeared near Coos Beach several months before. "This is the second sign like this I've seen here," Steve said.

"Eh?" the waitress asked, not looking too pleased at his interruption.

Bucky nodded, simultaneously kicking Steve under the table and keeping his eyes fixed on the waitress'. "I noticed that too," he said. "Isn't that odd for a little town like this? I mean, back home in New York, we use those things as wallpaper, but I'd always heard how much safer Canada was."

She straightened up sharply, moving her hand away from Bucky's. "Yeah, sure," she said. "It's kind of freaky timing, close together like that, but it's not like we have a mass murderer hiding in the woods or something." She smiled like it was supposed to be a joke, but it seemed forced. "The mounties came down and checked it all out. Some people just don't know how not to get hit by a wave or get eaten by a cougar or whatever. Tofino loses a couple of tourists every year." She yanked a notepad out of the back pocket of her jeans, and asked abruptly, "So do you guys want breakfast, or are you just going to stick with coffee?"

Now Bucky glanced over at him, meeting his eyes briefly. Steve could tell they both had alarm bells ringing, both from multiple disappearances in a town of maybe two hundred people, and the waitress's closed reaction. He didn't let it show though, turning back almost immediately and saying casually, "I could eat. Steve?"

"Sure," he said, "but it will have to be on you. I still don't have a wallet."

When they'd ordered, and the waitress had retreated from earshot, Bucky leaned forwards, eyes glowing. "So what's the plan?" he asked.

Steve sipped his coffee, then grimaced and emptied a couple packages of sugar into it, which didn't really help. "Well, keeping a low profile and doing some subtle snooping isn't going to do us much good here. I think they're already pretty suspicious and just about anything we do will only make it worse."

"Whose fault is that?" Bucky asked, snorting. "A sail boat, Steve? Really?"

"I was in shock!"


Steve waved him away. "I don't want to ask Carol to bring in an official Avenger team just yet, though I may try that if we don't get anywhere. I think we should hole up and do some research, find out who went missing when, and if anything else is odd about this place."

Bucky nodded. "I can get the RCMP records through Omega Flight," he said. "SHIELD's been pretty tight-fisted with information lately, and between Stark and Osborn not a lot of records made it out of HAMMER, but Nat'll tell me if they've seen any blips recently."

Steve wanted to ask what he meant by all that, but this wasn't the place. He suspected the place would be somewhere where they could both yell. A lot. He kept his voice low, asking instead, "Have you had an update on how the Avengers are doing with the invasion of the old growth forest? I wouldn't mind getting Sam and his birds back as soon as he can be spared. The man's a wonder at surveillance."

"I know," Bucky said, "I haven't had much in the way of updates, it sounds like they're still in the thick of it." He tapped his ear casually, staring out over the still water of the harbour. "Clint said something about the owls being back a while ago, but I'm not sure if he was serious."

Steve brushed his fingers over Bucky's steel ones. "It means a lot to me that you're here helping me out, Buck," he said. "I know how hard it is to sit out a fight."

"There isn't any place I'd rather be, Cap."

Tony didn't know how long he sat curled against the door, shaking. When he finally pulled himself together, slowing his heart rate if not his spiralling thoughts, he realised that sweat had soaked though his shirt. His skin felt clammy. Numbly, he stripped and stumbled into the shower.

What the fuck was that? he wondered, turning the water to scalding. The only time in his year of memories that he could recall feeling anything remotely like that had been when Dani passed him a beer. He didn't remember it, aside from the overwhelming emotion, but she told him later that he'd turned absolutely white and dropped the bottle as it touched his lips. He hadn't even heard it shattering on the floor.

This had felt a dozen times more powerful and even trying to think about what had happened made his hands tremble. Maybe, he thought, it's better that I don't know. Steve the Pirate, not his real name, wouldn't stay long, and Tony could easily keep out of his way for a couple of days. He could just let this go and slide back into his life. I want to.

Only it wasn't just the familiar combination of nausea and revulsion this time. The man he'd seen – the man he'd recognised – had utterly terrified him. Something inside him knew and feared him.

He shivered again, and realised that the cabin's minuscule hot water tank had run out. He let the water continue to fall on him for a moment, trying to clear his head, then turned off the tap. Standing in the stall letting the water drip off him, he realised that just staying locked in here forever wasn't going to work.

If he recognised the stranger, he must know him somehow, which made it pretty likely that the stranger knew him. Maybe he was even looking for Tony, and even if he wasn't, he was still dangerous, both to Tony and to the town.

Hiding wasn't going to cut it this time. Running didn't seem like a good option either. If this man had found Tony here, of all places, then he could probably find him no matter where he went. He had enough shadows that he knew he didn't know about without having to worry about something he did. Or something. Being over thirty but only having a little over a year's worth of memories created problems that English grammar wasn't really equipped to handle.

Besides, this place still felt right. The first thing he remembered was wandering. He'd travelled up the coast for weeks, hitching from one town to the next, never quite sure what he was looking for, only that he felt something calling him. Stepping out of the cab of a logging truck beside Cedar Harbour's sole stop sign, he'd felt something new. It had taken him a couple days to figure out that it wasn't a difference he felt: it was an absence. He no longer felt the compulsion to move on after a night in a new place. He had no idea why, but he decided that this was where he was supposed to be. It made as much sense as anything else that had happened to him.

Damned if he was going to give that up.

The pounding on his door made him jump about a foot in the air, and drop the towel he was drying his hair with. He had to fight down the urge to hide, even when a familiar voice bellowed, "Tony? It's me, Dani! Kirstin called me. Are you okay in there?"

Tony relaxed marginally, and shrugged into a robe before going to unbolt the door. "Morning, Dani," he said, letting her in, "I'm glad you're here. I need your help with some research."

"So what did Maggie say?" Tony asked twenty minutes later, bouncing on the balls of his feet

Putting the phone back in the cradle, Dani shot him a dark look. "Why didn't you call her?"

"She's not my cousin. What did she say? Cough it up already, come on." They were at her place now, and he actually had room to pace.

She sighed and leaned back into the armchair, flipping up the foot rest. "That this morning when she called the Rescue Co-ordination Centre to follow up on her original report the duty officer told her to 'take no further action in regards to that incident.'"

Tony frowned, getting to the end of her living room and looping back trough the kitchen to avoid the office. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"No more searches, broadcasts, inquiries, or paperwork relating to it. When she asked why, the officer told that he didn't know either. The order came from Back East, and the file's closed."

"That's weird, right? That sounds weird." He still felt off, sick somehow, but also oddly hyperactive, like his adrenal system was gearing him up for a fight.

"I feel tired just watching you, Tony. Sit down," Dani ordered. He ignored her. "Maggie says it is strange. When a boat goes missing like that, she's supposed to look for it, do notices to mariners and stuff. It's either her or the local RCC commander's decision about when to call it off. She's run that station for ten years, and Ottawa's never interfered in daily operations before."

"Okay. Right. And you haven't heard anything else about him?"

"I already told you everything I've heard, and I hear everything," she said. She'd worked for him long enough that she didn't sound particularly irritated, though she did look somewhat concerned. "I've never seen you wound up like this. Do you know this guy?"

Tony shook his head. "No, I'm pretty sure I don't, but think I recognised him. I know he's important, and really dangerous. I think he's..." He jumped as the phone rang. "I'm not here."

"It's my place, why would you be?" Dani picked up the phone. Her shoulders tensed a moment later, and she sat up straighter in her chair. She mostly listened or said yes or no, so Tony couldn't get much of what was going on. When she put down the phone, she looked as serious as he'd ever seen her. "That was Maggie again," she told him. "Karen Nowiki just called Pete in as overdue. He was supposed to be back from a kayak two hours ago, but no one's seen him since he left the harbour." She got up, coming to stand in front of Tony just as he was about to start pacing again. "They're starting a search. The whole station's going out."

Tony tilted his head back to look her in the eye. "I was just starting to say that I'm pretty sure that our shipwreck guy is involved in whatever happened to the missing people," he said.

"Pete's overdue, not missing," she snapped. Tony knew that the Nowikis were also local people, and that Dani had known Karen since kindergarten.

"Pete," Tony replied, "Could probably kayak before he could walk, and he's been a SAR tech for at least five years. The surf isn't up that much, and he knows the area better than I know my own garage. Is it possible that he has suffered a random boating accident? Yes. Is it remotely probable? Not so much."

She stood silently for a moment, looking through him, and then nodded. "Too many people are gone," she said. "Accidents don't make sense any more. But, Tony, why this man? He just got here."

"I don't know," he said, closing his eyes. He tried to remember exactly what the man getting off the bike had looked like, but recalling the scene only served to overwhelm him in a wash of nameless emotion. He must have swayed slightly on his feet, because he felt Dani's hands on his shoulders, steadying him. "I can't explain why," He said, "I don't know how I know, just that I do."

"That doesn't sound like you."

He shrugged her hands off. "Yeah, well, that's not surprising. I have no idea what I'm supposed to sound like. Look, I've got a plan, but I need your help."

The inevitable argument about Tony didn't turn out to be nearly as long or loud as Steve had predicted, possibly because it took place in one of Cedar Harbour Motel's dozen thin-walled rooms. He also thought that neither of them the heart for it. Bucky didn't want to drag up what he clearly felt to be ancient history, and Steve still felt too crushed to really lash out.

They had mutually, and silently, agreed both that the topic need not be mentioned again and that Steve should go take a long walk. He'd left Bucky talking on the comm with someone he didn't recognise but felt sure he wouldn't have associated with when he was Captain America.

Steve recognised that he was in what Clint would have called a moralising snit, but he felt like he had a right to it. Anyway, experiencing an emotion other than confusion, fear or a numb sense of loss made him feel like he might just be alive and real.

There really wasn't much to this town; they'd ridden past the coast guard station, gas station, general store, slipway, and a lot of docks. From the map, he didn't figure he'd find much more past the café and motel.

He didn't get more than a hundred yards out of the parking lot when a woman on the other side of the road waved him over. She was Native American, a hair taller than him and a fair bit heavier. Her shirt had holes from welding sparks all through it. "Hey," she said, "I was just coming to find you. We need to talk."

"Um..." Steve said. He definitely would have remembered seeing her before, and he hadn't. "What about?"

She frowned. "You are Steve Hunter?"

"That's right," he said, still feeling vaguely guilty about the subterfuge. "I didn't catch your name."

"Dani Evans." She held out a hand. Her grip probably would have crushed anyone without enhanced strength. "I heard you were asking about the missing people. You're right: there's something strange about the whole thing."

Steve nodded he'd figured as much from the waitress' response. He had also figured that the townspeople's distrust of him would exclude them from asking for his help."Why talk to me?" he asked. "Why not go to the cops?"

She didn't quite look over her shoulder, but Steve saw her eyes slide along the road. "The mounties won't help; we've tried, but something's wrong there too. It's hard to know who to trust anymore." She sounded real, and scared, but also determined. Steve found himself liking her. Then she met his eyes again, and told him, "And I know who you are."

"What?" Steve said, involuntarily.

"We can't talk out here," she said, hand on his sleeve now, "My shop's just around the corner. I'll tell you everything there." She must have seen him glance back at the motel, because she added, "Please, just you. I don't know your friend."

She didn't know him either, of course. However, Steve knew that people trusted Captain America, which made her not wanting to talk to Bucky kind of funny. He thought again about how difficult separating Steve from Cap had always been. He almost felt too old to do it again. Sighing, he said, "Okay, but I'm leaving him a note." In playing with the comm unit this morning, he'd figured out that it also sent texts. Steve took a moment punch in and send one, before he started to follow her down the road. He definitely felt too old to wander off with no back up in a creepy small town that disappeared people.

"Nice gadget," she said.


They didn't say anything else until they reached the small fishing supply shop and mechanic bay. She hadn't overstated the proximity; Steve figured he hadn't walked more than three hundred yards. Only another of those spruce groves separated this lot from the motel.

The sign on the main window read "Closed," and, aside from the repair shop's open garage door, Steve couldn't see any lights of signs of life anywhere in the building.

"My office is back here," Dani told him, leading the way into the dim interior.

The door slammed down behind Steve the moment he crossed the threshold. He barely had time to process that Dani dove forward and sideways. Then something came at him from the side, and he found himself down and rolling as well. A bulky engine block hooked on a chain hoist whistled through the air where his head had been.

Steve came up in a crouch, back to the firmly closed door, and to the right enough to avoid the swinging arc of the steel block. He really felt like an idiot for not making a point of scrubbing the salt and sand out of his costume so he could wear it under his clothes. He should have at least taken the faux shield when he went out.

Before he had time to scope out the shop any better, he heard the double click of a shotgun chambering a round. Had Dani, off to his left, been the only person with a gun, he could have dived father right, and maybe found cover and weapons in the doorway. The problem was that he could see another figure in the shadows that way, and it held some kind of rife.

He didn't bother shifting his stance, he was pretty clearly unarmed as it was, but he tried not to sound as angry as he felt. "I came here in good faith," he said, "I don't mean any harm to this town."

"Really?" the figure on his right asked, not lowering his gun. "Then where the hell is Pete Nowiki?"

Steve recognised the voice instantly, but somehow his brain didn't quite know what to do with that information. It wasn't until the man stepped forward, letting sunlight from a crack in the blinds reveal his features, that Steve whispered, "Tony?"

God, he's supposed to be dead, Steve though dizzily. He left a suicide note and everything. Has everything since I got back been another of his damned tricks? But no, Sam had said Tony was gone; he wouldn't lie to Steve. Unless he didn't know. Tony had faked his death before, but never for this long. He would have found a way to tell Pepper at least. This probably isn't actually Tony, Steve decided. It's a Skrull or an LMD or something. If the woman knows who I am, she probably knows this is the best way in the world to distract me.

"Where is he?" the thing that looked like Tony asked again. He either hadn't heard Steve or was ignoring him.

Steve pretended to focus all his attention on the man, trying to look as though he was ignoring Dani entirely. "I don't know," he said, voice low and calm. "I haven't seen him since the coast guard station last night. Is he missing?"

"Of course he's missing," he snapped. "So are six other people over the last year and a half. I know that you..."

Steve didn't give him a chance to finish. While the woman's attention wavered to "Tony," he took the second of distraction to leap into the air. Grabbing the links of the chain hoist as it swung towards him, he pushed off of the garage door and twisted in mid air. By the time the woman had started to bring her gun up to follow him, he'd already let go and launched himself at her.

His foot connected with her hands, knocking the shotgun to the floor. She turned and stepped back, but by then he'd hit the ground and rolled to his feet. It took him all of ten seconds to spin and get her in an arm lock. He had to take another three to re-secure her after a steel-shod toe connected with the inside of his ankle. After a moment of pressure, he relaxed the arm across her throat, asking, "Are you going to hold still now?"

She grunted an affirmative, then subtly tried to block his view as he looked over her shoulder.

"Tony" had shifted closer to the garage door, trying to get a clear shot around Steve's human shield. He had his hunting rifle pointed at the floor. "Don't hurt her!" he demanded. Steve didn't think he'd ever heard any version of Tony sound that desperate and unsure in the middle of a fight.

"I don't want to hurt anyone," Steve said. "You attacked me, Tony." He wanted to see what reaction that name would get.

"So you do know him," the woman said. "You didn't say he was so damn fast."

"I told you he was dangerous," the man said.

Steve's words overlapped as he said, "I thought you said you knew who I was." He had begun to suspect that he had massively misread the situation.

He felt her muscles shift as she tried to shrug. "I lied," she told him, not sounding the least repentant.

Okay, he definitely needed more information, like what the hell the thing that looked and sounded like Tony was.

The woman in his arms shifted, tilting her head back. Steve realised that he had tightened his hold again, and made himself relax. "Sorry," he muttered.

"We can make a deal," she said. "You let me go, and Tony puts down the gun, and we all start over."

"Tony" shook his head. "Then we'll both be unarmed, and he'll still be a freak who can kill us with his bare hands."

Steve forced himself not to flinch at that description. Not that it wasn't true, but Tony, the real Tony, had never called him that even in his worst moments. "I have a better idea," he told her. "I'll release you, and he can decide if he wants to keep the gun or not, but only if I scan both of you first."

"What for?" she asked at the same time as the man said, "With what?"

"The gadget on my belt is, among other things, a Skrull detector."

The tip of the rifle twitched as, if the man really wanted to raise it defensively. "Or, you know, a laser designed to kill us horribly," he snapped. "I think I'd rather take my chances with the hostage situation."

"You're not the hostage," Dani pointed out.

"Fine," Steve said, "I'll give the hostage the potential weapon, and she can point it at me first." When the man hesitated, he added, "The other option is choking her out, taking that rifle away, and then scanning you both while you're unconscious." He really had got to the end of his rope on this one.

Dani wriggled her wrists in his grip. "I like the first one," she said.

It took a bit of shuffling, but she ended up with the Skrull detector in her freed right hand, pointing awkwardly behind her. Steve wasn't sure what Sam had been worried about, as the process seemed pretty much point and click to him: easy to explain.

They all waited tensely as it cycled through its scan. When the woman turned it to see the results, she almost dropped it.

"Steve Rogers?" she squeaked. "We are so fucked."

"Who's that?" the man asked, but Steve could see shudders running though his body. He wondered how he could hold the rifle, his hands shook so badly.

The woman flipped the scanner again and restarted it. "It was Captain America's real name," she explained while watching it scan, when the man didn't acknowledge the significance of that, she elaborated, "Big shot superhero from the States, flag costume, supposed to have died about two years ago? Jeez, Tony, you really don't watch the news, do you?" The machine beeped and flashed red, and she held it up for Steve to see. "Look, almost ninety-nine percent sure to be human. My name's still Danielle Evans. You can enter it in the database later."

Steve barely noticed the result. The man looked like he was about ten seconds from passing out. He'd gone absolutely white, and his eyes, which already stood out because of that god awful buzz cut, were wide and staring. The gun fell from his hands and clattered on the floor.

Dani noticed at the same time Steve did, and tried to yank her left arm free. "Let me go!" She yelled. "I need to help him."

A good part of Steve's mind was screaming the same thing at him, because, God, did that look like Tony, but he forced himself not to move. Tightened his grip, and made his voice hard, "Not until he scans human," he said. And he won't, he added to himself. He can't. God, but what if it is Tony and something is wrong with him? Seeing his old friend like this, weak and in pain, seemed to override pretty much all the anger and resentment Steve had felt towards him during the war. He dropped the arm from around Dani's neck, and snatched the scanner out of her hand.

"He's not a Skrull," she protested. "Why would one be here? We never even got any the first time."

"We'll see," Steve said. The machine seemed to be taking forever this time, even longer than it had on the beach. He wondered if that meant something about the object of the scan, or if he was just imaging the difference.

"He gets these fits sometimes and..." She broke off when it blinked red. "Holy fuck!"


"Oh God," Steve whispered. Then, Tony swayed and his knees started to fold. Steve was around Dani and easing him to the ground before she had even realised that he'd passed her the scanner. "Easy Tony," he said softly. "I've got you. It's okay. It's really me. I'm back now."

Tony tried to pull away, curling into knees. Steve could feel the tremors running through his muscles. He tried running his hands over Tony's arms, to calm him, but it only made him flinch more violently. He'd lost a lot of muscle mass since Steve had seen him last, but at least he looked like he was getting a square meal now and then. His face seemed softer, but he also had a lot more lines around his eyes and mouth than he’d had two and a half years ago. Still, Steve knew the feel of this man, unconscious, wounded or dead in his arms, far better than he would have liked.

Dani tugged on his arm, trying to pull him loose. "Stop it," she said, "You're making it worse. Here." She knelt in front of Tony and pulled him against her. "What is going on?" she asked plaintively.

Steve reluctantly let go, rocking back on his heels. "I don't know," he admitted. "I thought he was dead."

"I thought he was a mechanic from Toronto named Antonio Rossi," she said. "I guess we were both wrong."

Steve tried to decide which of his thousand questions she could answer, and which of those was most important. "Why did you two think I was behind the missing people?" he finally asked.

"I don't know; he said he just knew you were connected." She stroked Tony's back gently. The shakes seemed to be quieting. "He said he recognised you, and that you were dangerous. Then Pete disappeared, and..."

"He didn't seriously think that I..." Steve started to ask then cut himself off. Of course he hadn't, or at least Tony Stark hadn't thought that Steve Rogers was murdering the locals. For one, Tony Stark never would have pulled such an amateur stunt as that on anyone, least of all Captain America. Also, Tony had hardly seemed to recognise him, or he had recognised him, but not known who he was. It was Steve's name that had sent him to the floor in the first place. Something had gone horribly wrong with him. Pepper had said something about Tony trying to wipe out his brain. Obviously, he hadn't entirely failed. "What a mess," he concluded.

Tony groaned into her shirt. "I think my head is going to explode," he mumbled.

Steve reached out a hand, wanting to rest it on Tony shoulder, or stroke his ridiculously short hair, or do something, but ended up withdrawing it. "I thought you were dead," he said again. "We need to get you back to the States, and let the Beast or Mr. Fantastic get a look at you." He decided that what he really wanted to do was hug Tony and maybe never let him go. This wasn't the man he'd been fighting two years ago, which suddenly felt like an age to Steve. This was his friend.

"Not without finding Pete," Tony insisted. Pulling away from Dani, he sat up. Then he winced and pressed a steadying hand to his temple. "Though, some aspirin or something would be good."

Steve sighed. Apparently, some things about Tony didn't change, with or without memories. "There's a computer running your brain, Tony, and I'm pretty sure it's gone haywire," he said. "I don't think that painkillers are going to cut it."

Tony shrugged slightly. "I managed to get through the last year without even knowing that I had a computer running my brain. I'm sure that it won't kill me today." Bracing a hand on the floor, he tried to get his feet under him, but wobbled. "Here, Dani, help me up."

"That makes no sense," She protested, but rose and reached down for him anyway. She turned to Steve as she was lifting him up. "Why does he have an electronic brain?"

"Because it made him better," Steve said, trying not to sounds as bitter as he'd always felt about the Extremis. "Tony, you should sit down before you fall down."

Dani had to keep a hold on his arm to prevent him from doing just that, but Tony, swaying slightly, didn't move. "We need to find Pete," he said again. "It's probably too late for the others, but he just disappeared this morning."

"I should tie you up and get Ms Marvel to ship you straight back to New York," Steve said, wanting nothing more than to get back to somewhere familiar, if not safe. Tony would hate him for it, but he wasn't exactly in his right mind anyway. He could die. Hell, Tony had wanted to die. Maybe he still did.

Still, Steve owed Nowiki, and, if he stayed, finding him without local help in the form of Tony and Dani might not even be possible. He didn't want to force Tony to abandon a friend, especially when he didn't seem to have that many anymore. Steve wasn't sure who he could trust to look after Tony in this state. It really didn't make sense, but if whatever the Extremis had done to him hadn't killed him yet, it quite probably wouldn't in the next few days. He sighed. "Which is exactly what I'm going to do if you show the least sign that whatever this is getting any worse." He shook a finger at Tony, who had opened his mouth, probably to protest. "Don't think hiding symptoms will work either. I know you, Tony."

"Whereas I don't have the faintest clue who or what you are, besides a pain in the ass," Tony grumbled mutinously. "Oh, and you're threatening to kidnap me, and being near you makes my head hurt. I can't even look you in the eyes without wanting to run away. Why the hell should I trust you just because a little beeping machine, that you own, says you're some dead superhero?"

Dani intervened before Steve could think of anything useful to say. "If he wanted to do something to us, he could've pretty easily before. Pete is still missing, and we need all the help we can get."

Steve wondered if he and Tony could ever again be in the same room without needing a mediator. He suddenly felt immensely tired, like cold water had sapped his strength. "I should call my friend," he said, "Before he shows up armed and wondering where I am."

"This is so fucked up," Tony said, sounding resigned. That they could agree on, at least.

Rogers' friend showed up armed anyway, and carrying a couple of bulky packages over his shoulder. He looked at Tony, raised an eyebrow, and asked Rogers, "Is he for real?"

"Apparently," Rogers said.

The newcomer sighed. "Figures." To Tony he said, "Not that I've missed you, but where the hell have you been?"

"Here," Tony snapped. This guy really wasn't doing much for the splitting pain in his skull, though it had abated slightly since he'd fallen. The staggering compulsion to run had also receded, though not disappeared, but his hands still shook from it. "I suppose you're a superhero too."

"Steve?" the man asked reproachfully.

Rogers grimaced and rubbed the back of his neck. "Tony... uh... seems to have some kind of amnesia," he said. "Tony, this is Bucky Barnes, who is indeed a superhero."

"Great," Barnes and Tony said at the same time, and in the same tone. Tony glared at Barnes. Barnes glared back. Rogers sighed.

"Here it is!" Dani called from Tony's office. "You need to organise more." She emerged holding a binder in one hand and a roughly folder sheet of paper in the other. "Would you clear that junk off," she asked, waving at the cans of oil and bits of engine covering the bench in the middle of the room. Tony winced as Rogers swept it all up and dumped it onto the other bench with a clang. She spread the paper open on the metal. It turned out to be the chart he'd had in his office, now with holes in the corners from tearing it off the wall.

It already had circles and scribbled notes where each of the previous people had disappeared, as far as he knew. "I've got all the information we could put together here," Tony said, tapping the binder. "I can't find any connection between any of the disappearances, aside from the location, lack of bodies and the fact that they were all alone. Any one of them would seem totally normal on its own, just boating accidents and stupid tourists, but all together..."

Barnes was flipping though the folder now. "This is pretty much all in the RCMP records," he said. "Though they have criminal record checks for half the town. Nothing significant there, either."

Frowning at the dates on the map, Rogers noted, "They're accelerating. The last disappearance wasn't even a month ago." He closed his eyes, a little furrow appearing in his brow. "I can't see any pattern, other than that."

"I can't find one either," Tony admitted.

"How does any of this help Pete?" Dani asked.

"It doesn't," Tony said. "We're just bringing the newbies up to speed."

Barnes snorted, and Rogers' frown deepened. "We're comparing intelligence," he corrected. "I assume there's a search on already?"

Dani nodded. "Maggie will have the SAR station and half the town out looking. The big helicopter's probably on its way over from Comox Air Force base."

"Then we're better off here trying to figure out the source of the problem than just being more bodies in the search."

Tony caught himself nodding in agreement and stopped. It wasn't that Rogers was wrong, but he didn't feel comfortable with how easily he'd taken charge. He especially didn't like how he seemed to slip into following Rogers, considering the man still scared the shit out of him. He bent over and sketched a red circle around Second Beach, then wrote "Rogers" and yesterday's date. He paused, pen hovering. Adding "drug dealer" might be satisfying, but he didn't want to corrupt the data.

Their fingers brushed as Rogers took the pen from him, drawing a question mark. "I don't know how I ended up here," he said. "What about you?"

Tony shrugged. "I hitch-hiked," he said, ignoring Barnes' smirk. "What does that have to do with anything?"

"I don't know," Rogers admitted, "But if one assumed-dead superhero randomly showing up in the middle of a missing-persons case is unlikely, two is almost impossible."

Well that didn't make any sense. "I thought Barnes showed up because you were here," Tony said.

Rogers frowned. "He did. What..."

"You're the other superhero, Tony," Dani interrupted.

"Oh," Rogers said.

"No I'm not," Tony snapped, because there was no way on earth that was right.

"That's what I said." Okay, this Barnes guy was starting to get on Tony's nerves. He wondered what had caused all that animosity.

"Bucky," Rogers said reproachfully, "Tony Stark's been Iron Man for over a decade. He helped found the Avengers." He didn't add "so show a little respect," but he his tone implied it heavily.

Tony's stomach lurched again at that name. "I'm not..."

"Right," Barnes said, not sounding the least bit repentant. "Then he got you killed and royally screwed the Avengers and everyone else in the country."

"We've already had this argument," Rogers told him. His voice sounded soft and tired. "Let's move on." He circled Cedar Harbour's main intersection. "So when was this, and why did you decide to stay?"

Tony decided that it would probably save time it he gave up on trying to convince everyone that he wasn't this Stark. He didn't have any real evidence, or even any clear memories to contradict it. He just felt absolutely convinced like he wasn't that person, but even thinking that as a justification sounded lame, so he kept it to himself. He just hoped that they didn't expect him to turn into the Tin Man, or whatever, and save the world. "About this time last year," he told Rogers. "I don't remember the exact date. I liked it here. It felt right."

Rogers wrote that date, "Stark" and "Compulsion" under the circle. Then he frowned and added "Compulsion" next to his name too. "That wasn't long after the second disappearance," he noted.

"The mounties didn't look into the first few cases that closely," Dani said. "They both seemed accidental: small boats caught in a storm. It happens."

Barnes had his own computer out. Tony felt a faint buzzing sound in the back of his mind again. It sounded a bit like a crowd of people talking loudly, only from very far away. He remembered why he usually avoided complex electronics. "It doesn't look like they did much follow up later either," Barnes said frowning. "Most of these reports look very preliminary, even the recent ones when they should have been suspicious."

Rogers circled the bench to peer over his shoulder. "I don't think we can count on any of these being accurate," he said. "Do you think the local police are corrupt?"

Tony and Dani looked each other. He could tell she was thinking, bloody Americans, but she said, "We don't like them that much on the reservation, but I've never heard of them screwing up anything to do with tourists."

"Well we don't have time to start an entire police investigation over," Barnes said, "Not if we want to find your friend alive. No one will talk to us anyway, unless you want Evans and Stark to do it."

Rogers shook his head before Tony could say anything. "I don't think sending a civilian and a cyborg with a malfunctioning brain out to question potential murderers is a good idea."

"Agreed," Tony said. Rogers stared at him, mouth open a little, as though he had started to respond then cut himself off. "What? I'm not stupid, and I'm not a superhero, no matter what you say."

For a moment, Tony thought that Rogers looked like he wanted to cry, but he shook his head sharply and said, "Well, Bucky, I guess we're back to your plan." Barnes raised his eyebrow questioningly. "Sneaking about gathering intelligence; we'll have to leave off the part with cover of darkness and high explosives for now though."

Barnes grinned and said, "Pretty much, only now I throw a hunk of metal at things instead of just shooting them. Most of the time." He patted the lump in his jacket at that. Tony wondered if that was legal. "What targets?"

"Where the first two people disappeared," Tony said suddenly, then he blinked. He had absolutely no idea why he'd spoken up. "Um..."

But Rogers was nodding. "Right," he said. "I was thinking the same thing."

"Well you're going to need us," Dani said. "Both those spots are out in the islands." She tapped her finger on the relevant marks on the map. "Unless your bike can fly, you don't have a way to get out there."

Rogers didn't look happy about that, but he admitted, "Local knowledge would be good. I take it you have boats?"

"This is coastal BC," Tony said, "everyone has a boat."

Steve kept glancing over at Tony as he steered the aluminium skiff out of the harbour. He seemed to be steadily ignoring Steve, eyes moving between his controls and the water around them. Having Tony beside him filled him with a wash of conflicting feelings. His presence felt welcome and familiar, but at the same time he felt anger twisting him, both at the last time they'd talked on the Raft, and Tony's message. That lead to worry and guilt, which lead to another wave of protective affection. On the whole, he couldn't decide if he wanted to hug Tony or throttle him. He had a feeling both moves would be equally welcome right now.

Tony had said, rather tersely, that it was about thirty minutes from the town to the fish farm in the islands, the last known location of the second victim. Steve had brought his costume to clean and mend along the way, which he was now trying to use to distract himself from the man next to him. He'd tried clearing the scales of salt and grime, but the choppy sea outside the harbour now prevented finer work. Instead he concentrated on clearing the slime off the leather sections, and on not feeling like he was on a first date from hell. It didn't help that the narrow seats forced them to either sit so close they were touching legs, or in different parts of the boat entirely. Steve didn't want to be up in front of the steering console where he couldn't see Tony or what he was doing.

About the dozenth time his attention slid over to Tony, he caught Tony looking back and glanced back down. Tony didn't. "You actually wear that?" he asked, "Like in public?"

Steve frowned. Close to ten years of working with Clint Barton had taken the sting out of most comments about his costume, but Tony had never said anything of the kind. Probably because he'd had a childhood obsession with Captain America's World War Two records. "Yes. I do," he said, not succeeding at all in sounding like he didn't care. "On and off for more than sixty years, actually."

Tony gaped, then the skiff hit a wave wrong and jarred badly, and he had to turn back to steering. "Is Tony Stark secretly ninety years old too?" he asked.

Letting the costume drop to the deck, Steve turned in his seat. "Eighty-seven," he corrected, though he knew that Tony was only trying to get a rise out of him. "And no, you're not. Tony, why don't you believe you are who I say you are? It's got to make more sense than an ordinary mechanic having no connections to the world and such an improbable kind of amnesia." If he could just get Tony to start trusting him... but no, Tony hadn't trusted him when he'd still remembered a decade of friendship, why would he now? "Never mind," he said, and turned to stare at the rocky coastline as they motored past. They'd passed a few boats on the way out, mostly headed to the search area to the south, but he couldn't see anyone now.

He thought that Tony had let the subject drop, but a few minutes later, he said, "Every time I think of your Stark or Iron Man, I feel this urge to either throw up or run away." His voice sounded so soft that Steve had to lean in to hear him over the engine "Everything about you and your life feels wrong to me. Maybe it does make more sense, but I think I'm literally incapable of believing it."

Given what he'd said on the video, Steve had to wonder how much of that was the Extremis messing with Tony's head, and how much was just how Tony had felt about himself at the end. It occurred to him then that maybe forcing Tony to return to his old life would only bring back that fevered gleam in his eye. "Do you like living in Cedar Harbour?" he asked. "Before I came, I mean."

"Yeah," Tony said, but he had a little line of concentration between his brows, like he had to really consider it. "It's a good place; I have my own shop, and people seem to like me."

"But were you happy?" Steve persisted.

"I don't think I even know what that means," Tony said. "I wasn't un--"

The skiff shuddered and jerked to port. Steve clamped his right hand on the gunwale beside him and the other under the edge of the seat. Tony rose to his feet to better brace against the sudden movement, both hands on the wheel now.

"Did we hit something?" Steve asked.

"Maybe a..." Tony started, but the boat shuddered again, this time jarring to starboard. "I think something's hitting us!" he yelled. He jerked the wheel over and gunned the engine, which should have thrown them port and forward, but somehow didn't.

Instead, the boat bucked so violently that Steve found himself propelled up over the console into the forward section. He twisted in mid air and only just managed to keep from hitting the inner hull face first.

"Sorry," Tony shouted over the straining outboard. "I think we're caught, or something. It's like I'm pulling against a fixed line." Steve scrambled to his knees, unsure how Tony had kept from being tossed with him; more used to boats, he supposed. "I'm going to try coming about," Tony warned him, "Hang on!" He spun the wheel in the opposite direction, but that had little apparent effect. They weren't even bouncing around anymore, apparently held fast. The engine started to emit a high-pitched whine, and Tony throttled it back.

"Can you see anything?" Steve asked.

"No," Tony yelled. "What the fuck?"

Steve got up to a crouch and started to slide back towards the console, left hand on the gunwale. He could see his pack and the fake shield tied down behind Tony's seat, and very much wanted to have it before whatever happened next.

He just about made it.

He was amidships when Tony's yell of, "Rogers, get down," sent him back to the deck. He caught a flash of brown out of the corner of his eye, and rolled over to see a tentacle far too big to belong to any normal sea creature.

The appendage flailed for a second, seeking blindly, then seemed to tune into his presence, maybe sensing his body heat, and reached towards him. Rolling sideways, he came up against the side and scrambled aft, again trying to reach his shield. He could see the edge of it behind Tony's feet, which were now lifting off the deck.

Steve heard a strangled cry, and looked up to see Tony suspended by his neck, hands scrabbling at the tentacle pressing against this throat. Another wrapped around Tony's torso, tightening as Steve watched.

He threw himself forward, and caught the edge of the soft case surrounding his shield, only to have it torn from his grasp as something grabbed his ankle and yanked him back. He kicked at it with his free foot, managing to scrape it off long enough to get a good grip on the case. Even with the unfamiliar bindings, it took only a moment to tear the shield free.

By that time, the tentacle on his ankle had regained its hold, and metal screeched on metal as it dragged Steve back feet first. It grabbed his free leg as well, and, before he knew it, he was upside down in the air

Praying that he had the balance right, he threw the shield. It wavered a little off path, but still flew true enough to slice through the tentacle holding Tony's neck, before arcing back towards him. He had to fold his body up and reach to the side to snatch it out of the air, but it wasn't a bad shot.

He used the momentum to swing up and slash at the limbs holding his legs. They tried to twist away, swinging him out over the water, but he managed to get a hold on one with his left hand. The flesh felt slimy, and had enough give that he had a difficult time hanging on. As he swung the shield at one, it let go of his ankle, and attached itself to his face, suction pads pulling painfully. The tip slid up his cheek, seeking out his eyes.

Swiping behind him as hard as he could, Steve struck the tentacle leading to his face with enough force to knock it away, if not sever it. The suction pads ripped away, taking a fair bit of skin with them. Now that it was in front of him, he swung again, slicing it clean off.

That was when it dropped him in the ocean.

He caught another glimpse of Tony as he fell. He still had a tentacle wrapped around his chest, and appeared to be stabbing it with a screw driver.

The plunge into the frigid water just about knocked his breath out of Steve. The salt water stung the abrasions on his cheek and his eyes when he forced them open. A dark shape lurked in the shadow of the skiff, arms reaching up around the starboard side and stern. Steve thought it looked like an octopus, only much larger than it should be.

He knew it would probably try to hold him under and drown him, so he kicked down towards it before it could get another hold on him. He kept his back to the hull, and shot towards it. He knew that he didn't have the strength to do any damage by throwing the shield underwater, and he didn't have a knife. Even Tony's screwdriver would be welcome at this point.

The creature saw him and turned. Steve felt the hull above him shudder as it dropped Tony to bring the extra tentacle towards him. It trailed a stream of blue-green blood as it came, adding to the murk already filling the water. Its eyes looked so human that Steve wondered if it might be sentient, and the parrot-like bill at its centre had a razor edge..

Steve took his only shot, grabbing a leg with one hand -- his fingers already growing numb from the cold, lungs burning for air -- and yanking the body of the creature towards him. At the same time, he pushed off the bottom of the boat, and started to swing his shield arm forward.

Before he could connect the blow, he felt a set of tentacles he couldn't account for.

He only had a moment to realise how badly he'd miscalculated before his head struck the hull and everything went black again.

Tony rolled to his knees, gritting his teeth as the movement jarred his ankle. It had gone over when that thing dropped him to the deck, and now it felt sprained.

Leaning against the seat, he straightened and tried to look over the side without actually going near it. He'd felt several impacts on the underside of the hull a moment before. Now, both the skiff and the water seemed unnaturally still. "Rogers?" he called, then felt like an idiot. Of course, he couldn't hear, he'd fallen in the water, whereupon the sea monster had probably eaten him. He couldn't possibly have stayed alive underwater without air this long, no matter what he was.

Whatever was going on, Tony would have to get out of this himself. This would probably be easier if I could remember being a superhero, he decided.

He had just turned to the outboard, trying to spot check for damage from where he was, when the skiff shuddered again. "Shit," he whispered, and gripped the screwdriver more tightly in his hand. I should have looked for a knife, he thought, too late. Hell, I should have brought the rifle. The thing just felt so unnatural in his hands that he'd left it in the shop.

A brown tentacle crept over the gunwale near the starboard beam, followed by another closer to the bow. The boat tilted under the weight, and he shuffled back a bit, still on his knees, but knew he had nowhere to go. If Captain America's extremely athletic heroics hadn't defeated whatever it was, he was pretty much screwed. It didn't attack though, instead lifting another two arms up between the first two. Rogers' limp body hung from these for a moment, before they dropped him back into the skiff.

He hit the deck with a crash.

Before Tony could decide what he wanted to do, he heard the scream of rending metal behind him. He spun, striking his ankle against the seat, but only caught the last of the outboard as the creature tore it off. He had to drop to his belly as an arm reached past him and ripped out the steering console and radio as well. Another thing he should have thought of before it was too late.

Or maybe it was creatures. He saw at least four legs here as well, and Rogers had taken out a couple before he went down, which made at least ten, plus whatever was still under water bracing against the hull. If it was, in fact, some sort of octopus derivative -- that was abnormally large and could function like that out of the water -- then there were at least two involved.

All the tentacles retreated from view. Another moment of stillness followed, the boat rocking in the low chop, then it started to make way again. As far as Tony could tell, they were still on their original course for the fish farm. Tony suspected that if he peered over the side, which he had absolutely no intention of doing, he would see the hull wrapped in tentacles, and the creature, or creatures, propelling them forwards.

Nothing he could do about that. Tony got back up and crawled forward to see if Rogers was still alive. He lay unmoving on his back, limbs askew, blood trickling down his face, shield twisting his right arm. He looked very much like a corpse. However, when Tony pressed a finger to his neck, he could feel a faint but steady pulse. From this close, he could also see Rogers' chest rising and falling slightly.

He tried to remember the first aid course Maggie at the SAR station had bullied him into taking last year. That he was breathing was obviously good. Bleeding all over the deck probably not so much. "Rogers," Tony said again, "Wake up!" One of Rogers' cheeks had an ugly abrasion across it, but he smacked the other one lightly. "Come on, you need to wake up and be heroic for me." No such luck. He couldn't find the communicator device he'd had either. Rogers must have lost it in the sea.

He poked around a little more and found the source of most of the blood. It had mixed with salt water, and darkened Rogers' thick blond hair to auburn in places, plastering it to his skull. The main cut seemed to be above his left ear, and the bleeding had already slowed. Tony let it be for the moment.

Realising that soaking wet and cold probably weren't good either, he unbuckled the shield and started to peel Rogers out of his jacket. It wasn't until Tony rolled him over that he remembered the whole c-spine thing. Fuck, he thought, oh well, too late now. He kept going, struggling against limp muscles and wet fabric.

He felt a lot less freaked out being in such close proximity to the man than he had an hour before. Perhaps that was because he was already so terrified by the attack of the giant octopodes. He didn't have the emotional energy leftover for less lethal things.

Finally, he got the jacket, shirt and undershirt free, and rolled him back over. What Tony saw made him gasp. A patchwork of bruises, half-healed abrasions and scars covered Rogers' sculpted torso, extending down his arms and below his belt. Rogers had been so... well superheroic, Tony supposed, that he'd quite forgotten he'd crawled out of the surf not twenty-four hours before. Tony stared, eyes tracing the y-incision down his chest, and decided that if this was the cost of being a superhero, he wanted even less to do with it than he had before. He wondered if his unmarked skin meant that Rogers and Barnes were full of shit, or if something else was wrong with him. He had always healed abnormally fast.

He reached out to touch Rogers' sternum...

Autopsy tables are strangely bloodless, considering. Tony looks down at what is literally a shell of the man he loves. He wants to turn away, to go throw up somewhere private, but he forces himself to stay, to observe. The Extremis had started to record the procedure in every detail, but he'd switched as much of it off as he could. Steve hated that part of him. He can remember this on his own for Steve. Tony will never let himself forget what he'd done.

...Tony snatched his hand back, and squeezed his eyes shut. "What the fuck was that?" he whispered, but he knew the answer already. If nothing else, he could tell by the blinding pain in his temples, which had returned and redoubled. "I don't want this to be real," he told himself. It didn't help.

Not thinking about it didn't really help either, but he tried to focus on helping Rogers. He hesitated before working the belt buckle open, but the saturated jeans really had to go too. Tony was just glad Rogers was wearing briefs under them. The jeans had been tight enough on him, even dry, that he hadn't been sure.

Stripping completed, he opened his shirt and wrapped them both in emergency blankets from the first aid pack.

Lying in the bottom of a boat attempting to convey body heat to a man who looked and felt like a drowned rat didn't turn out to be the most romantic thing he remembered doing. Tony shifted around until he ended up sprawled over Rogers' chest, their legs tangled together, and his head resting awkwardly on a broad shoulder. He didn't remember having given too much thought to the issue before, but muscles ended up being uncomfortable things to have pressed against one. Maybe he was just doing it wrong. It wasn't like he'd had much practice, that he knew of.

The creatures seemed to still be pulling the skiff towards the fish farm. At least Tony couldn't think of anything else on that course, unless there was something on the back side of the island that he didn't know about. He figured that, at this speed, they had about twenty minutes before they got there. Unless Captain America woke up and saved them all, he was pretty much stuck until they got closer to land.

At least listing every small discomfort and thing that could possibly go wrong did something to distract him from the image of the man under him lying gutted on a metal table. Even the growing pain of his ankle couldn't take away the memory of what it felt lose everything. He pressed his face into Steve's neck and tried to pretend that none of this was real.

Part II

Date: 2009-07-16 05:20 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I haven't even finished Part I yet, but I wanted to let you know how much I love the way this builds, and also how well I feel you've pulled together canon elements to support your plot. You even included that "What If?" story, and I never think of those things as actually impacting the canon characters (even when there's a framing sequence set in 616, as there was in that issue). You've already made me cry a couple of times.

♥ ♥ ♥


Date: 2009-07-16 05:21 pm (UTC)
dorothy1901: Gilda: Put the blame on Mame (Default)
From: [personal profile] dorothy1901
Sorry, that was me. I forgot to log in.
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