Part I: It's times like these you learn to live again
It was gray and drizzly the day they put Tony in the ground. Steve was glad for it. A clear blue sky, so perfect for a crimson and gold figure to go flying past, would have only been a mockery.
He wore his military uniform, every button polished for the occasion. On the other side of the casket, Colonel Rhodes was dressed in a similar fashion. The other pallbearers were likewise somberly attired, but Steve barely noticed any of them.
The funeral itself was a testament to the battle that had waged behind the scenes between good taste and Tony's wishes. At one point, rock music played. Lights streamed down from above, implying some kind of divine intervention. Superheroes, celebrities, engineers, and members of the general public all sat mixed together, sometimes with uncomfortable results. The media clamored outside the venue, angry at not being allowed inside, reporting all kinds of outright lies in retaliation.
After it was over, still dry-eyed and in a numb haze, Steve returned to the helicarrier. Natasha walked with him, waving aside his usual escort of two dour SHIELD agents. They did not speak as they made their way through the ship. When they reached the holding cell, she remained in the hall as Steve went inside.
"You don't have to do this," she said. She met his eyes. "It wasn't your fault."
He had heard this before, many times, and not just from Natasha. And though he appreciated the support, he could not let himself accept it. "He's dead because of me," Steve said. "Because I killed him." He shook his head. "This is the right thing to do, and you know it."
She looked at him for a long moment without speaking. She left him then, and he supposed he would never see her again.
Alone in the cell, he sat down on the edge of his narrow bed and clasped his hands between his knees. He stared down at his shoes, which were still slightly wet from the rain.
After a long time, he began to cry, but he hardly noticed that, either.
A few months later, he found himself in a large lab in the Baxter Building. He was in full costume, minus the shield.
"You understand," Reed Richards said, somewhat anxiously. Except for his wife Sue and Nick Fury, he was the only one present. "This is a one-way trip. You aren't coming back from this. And of course if any of the calculations are off even just a little, you could end up in any number of parallel worlds, not our own. Not that that's going to happen, but still…"
The machine Reed was so proud of stood off to one side, dials glowing and monitors displaying readouts of data Steve couldn't even begin to understand. Reed had some fancy name for it, but to Steve, it was just the time machine.
Officially, of course, this mission did not exist. The whole thing was actually Reed's idea. He had gone to Fury with it, and together they had approached Steve. At the time, they were the first visitors he had had in weeks. He had been surprised to see them, and even more shocked at what they proposed.
Still in disbelief, he had asked why.
"I really think I have something here," Reed had said quickly. "But it's difficult to test. And then I realized that this would be the perfect opportunity for it." He had looked away then, and rather awkwardly added, "And Tony was my friend. If I can help. In any way…"
Steve had been sold then, although truthfully he had known that he would say yes from the moment he first heard the plan.
Fury had told him months ago that no charges would be pressed and he was free to leave, but Steve had refused. He had taken a man's life, and he had to deal with that. So he had remained in his holding cell while Reed finished the time machine, leaving only when his presence was required for official Avengers business.
Even then, when he donned the costume and Steve Rogers became Captain America, he didn't feel right. Despite the official verdict, there were too many rumors and unanswered questions surrounding Tony's death. Steve's general disappearance from public – along with the rumor that he was incarcerated – was seen by many people as an admission of guilt, and not just the conspiracy theorists.
Things were falling apart out there. The Avengers were not the only superheroes who were viewed with mistrust and suspicion; Fury had taken Steve to the Baxter Building today via an underground route in order to avoid the people carrying signs who stood clustered outside the home of the Fantastic Four. Hero worship had slid into cynicism and an almost baffling desire to see them fail. Nowadays the crowds that gathered when they battled villains were more likely to take videos not out of admiration, but a desire to capture the superheroes in illegal or just plain inappropriate behavior.
The roots of the public's distrust went back as far as the Avengers' first appearance during the Battle of New York, but things seemed to have accelerated since Tony's death. When he was able to think about it at all, Steve was just grateful that he was being given an opportunity to set things right. He might fail – and according to Director Fury, the odds of that were high – but at least he still had a chance.
And so here he was, once again a test subject preparing to step forward into an unknown future. The only difference was, this time he had to get there via the past.
He looked at Reed. "I know all this," he said. He tried to hide his impatience, but it was difficult. He was ready to go, ready to put right what he had done wrong. "You already told me."
"Yes, but I don't think you really listened," Reed said. "So I'm telling you again."
There was no sense in arguing about it. Steve pressed his lips together and locked his gaze forward and just stood there, a soldier receiving orders.
"Once you arrive in the past and you deliver your message to Tony," Reed said, "your very existence will start to unravel. The conditions and history that created the current you will no longer exist. You'll start to fade. It may be quick, it may not be. I really don't know. But for all intents and purposes, you will die."
Steve nodded. It was only fair. He had taken a life, so now his would be given up in return.
"The you from one year ago will be the one to live on. That Steve Rogers will replace you. If all goes well, he won't even know you were there, or that his life was ever anything different from what it is."
This was exactly what he was hoping for. Steve nodded again. "I'm ready."
Reed exchanged a glance with Sue. "Okay," he said. He didn't look too convinced – but his eyes were alight with that gleam Steve recognized from long hours in the lab with Tony. It was the glow of scientific curiosity, a thirst for knowledge that could never be fully assuaged.
Steve stepped into the device. There was no room to sit, but he didn't really need it. He turned around to face outward, and met Nick Fury's gaze.
Fury's arms were folded across his chest. He watched Steve carefully, his one dark eye revealing nothing. "Make this right, Cap," he said. "I've got enough problems with people distrusting superheroes. The last thing I need is for the media to get wind of the fact that Stark was killed by one of our own."
Steve said nothing.
"Fix this, and no one ever needs to know," Fury said. "It'll fix itself."
The doors on the machine began to slide closed, cutting off Steve's chance at a reply. He wasn't really sure what he could have said, anyway.
He couldn't see anything except the curved walls of the device. It reminded him a little of the pod he had stepped into all those years ago. He suddenly wanted to go back there, back to that day when scrawny Steve Rogers had become the mighty Captain America. He wanted to grab that young man by the shoulders and shake him, and demand that he listen.
When the day comes, you have to fight it. You can't give in. If you do, you'll lose everything.
You'll lose the only man you will ever love.
A light began to rapidly flash on one of the monitors. Steve closed his eyes, but he could still see a ghostly echo of light and shadow, each one lasting only a brief moment before giving way to the other.
Steve? Tony's voice echoed in his memory, shaky with pain and fear. Don't do this.
Light washed over him, then shadow. A deep humming noise rose to fill the confined space surrounding him.
He was about to travel back in time one year. No one had ever done such a thing before. He was the first, worth the risk because of what he could achieve if he managed to succeed. Anyone else would be excited by the whole thing, but Steve didn't care about man's triumph over time. His only thought was for the mission, and delivering his message.
And the chance to see Tony again. Not as Steve had last seen him, his eyes open and unseeing, the arc reactor lying within arm's reach, tauntingly near but so unattainable. No, this Tony, just one year in the past, would be vibrantly alive and healthy. This Tony wouldn't be in love with him – not yet. But this Tony would also have no reason to suspect that in a year he would be dead at the hands of the one person he trusted most in this world.
The flashes of light and shadow were cycling ever faster. The humming noise was almost unbearable. Just when he thought he couldn't take it anymore, everything abruptly stopped. The lights went out completely. Silence surrounded him. His entire body felt trapped in a vise, under such immense pressure that he couldn't even breathe.
And then in a rush, it all came back. Not the close confines of the time machine, but the real world. It felt like an invisible hand settled itself between his shoulders and gave him a mighty push forward. He had to fight not to stagger as he found himself returned to reality.
The first thing he saw was daylight. He was in an office; there were four walls and a row of windows with blinds covering them. Ugly but expensive carpet. A conference table and chairs. A tasteful desk.
A man sitting behind the desk. Speaking carefully. "…and ask the question. Do you want me back? Can you forgive— Steve?"
It was Tony.
Except it wasn't. The man sitting at the desk, speaking into a familiar red and gold helmet, was definitely Tony Stark. In some ways the resemblance was almost uncanny. But he wasn't Steve's Tony. He had blue eyes, for one thing. He was also younger, with no gray yet in his dark hair and mustache.
He was also currently staring at Steve with wide-eyed shock.
"No," said the Tony who was all wrong. He looked like he was recovering from a pretty major battle; exhaustion had scored lines on his face and shadowed his eyes. He stood up, both hands flat on the desk, his arms braced and bearing his weight. "No," he repeated. "You're not here. You can't be here. Just go away and let me do this."
Steve looked around at the office, searching for the punch line. This had to be a sick joke, he thought despairingly. The time machine had malfunctioned. Or maybe they had always meant to send him here – wherever here was. Maybe this wasn't a second chance like Fury had promised, but a punishment. This was justice being served. He had his chance to speak to Tony, just like they had promised. What they hadn't told him was that it wouldn't be the Tony he wanted to see. The Tony he wanted to save.
"I don't believe this," he murmured.
The Tony behind the desk reacted as though he had been shot, flinching back and looking down at the ugly carpet beneath his feet. "Just go away," he muttered. "Please."
"Sorry," Steve said. "I can't do that." One-way trip, Reed had called it. For better or for worse, he was stuck here now, wherever, whenever, this was.
He looked around again for some clues that might fill him in, and saw the Iron Man helmet resting on the desk, the blue light of recording still aimed perfectly at the chair. And suddenly he remembered what Tony had been saying at the moment of his arrival.
Can you forgive me?
A horrible thought struck him. "Were you just…" He could barely get the words out. Even if this wasn't his Tony, the idea still scared the hell out of him. "Who were you talking to?"
"You know who," Tony said dully. "Would you just… I can't deal with this right now. With you." He reached up to pinch the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. "I'm on a tight schedule here, okay? You can haunt me later this afternoon, I promise." Despite the forced levity of his words, his voice was ragged, his breathing uneven. And when he lowered his hand and saw Steve still standing there, his shoulders slumped and he closed his eyes. "Damnit, Steve."
"I can't go," Steve said. Never mind that he had nowhere to go and wouldn't know how to get there even if he did. Right now there wasn't a chance in hell of walking away from this. So this wasn't his Tony. That didn't matter one bit, given what he had obviously just interrupted. Only Tony Stark would record his suicide note into Iron Man's helmet instead of writing it out by hand. Even in death, he relied far too much on his technology.
Not that he was going to die today. Steve had already lost one Tony Stark. He would be damned if he lost another.
He stepped forward. "I don't know what's going on here, but it stops. Right now."
Tony was looking at him now with wary suspicion. "You're not Steve Rogers."
"I'm not your Steve," he replied. "Just like you're not the Tony I expected to find. But I'm here now and so are you, so I guess we better make the most of it."
"Who…" Tony glanced around. He looked completely confused. "Who did you expect to find?"
"Another Tony Stark," Steve said. "The one from my world. My time." He wondered if he would ever know how this had happened, then decided that most likely he would never find out. He was certainly never going to see Reed Richards again, or Nick Fury, or anyone from his world.
"Your world," Tony repeated faintly. He sat down, collapsed really, into his chair. The blue light from the helmet played about his face, accentuating the sharpness of his cheekbones and his pallor.
"Yes," Steve said.
Tony stared at him for a long moment. And then he began to laugh.
Steve clenched his jaw in irritation. Some things, it seemed, remained the same no matter which Tony he was talking to.
"I'm sorry," Tony said, still laughing. He covered his eyes with one hand, holding the other across his chest, supporting his elbow with the back of his hand. He leaned back in his chair, his shoulders shaking. "But this is just too funny."
"How is this funny?" Steve said stiffly.
Tony dropped his hand. His blue eyes – so strange! – were overly bright, as though he were close to tears. "Because you're dead," he said.
Steve reared back in shock. "What?"
"You're dead," Tony repeated. "And I killed you."
Tony hadn't really been surprised when Steve suddenly appeared in front of him. It certainly wasn't the first time he had seen Steve's ghost, and he doubted it would be the last. Although he did have some hope that these unwelcome visitations would soon be coming to an end.
I'm not your Steve, and yeah, he should have known that. The cowl hung down his back, exposing a terrifyingly familiar face. This Steve Rogers looked exactly the same as the man Tony had known, except that he was almost impossibly young. Even his costume looked younger and brighter. The real difference, though, was in their eyes. This was a Steve who still had innocent eyes, who hadn't been worn down yet by time and the constant battling against an unending wave of enemies. This was a Steve who didn't know that his greatest enemy was the man who was supposed to be his best friend.
And it was colossally unfair that the one thing he had wanted for so long had finally come true – but in the worst way possible. This was not his Steve, the man he had silently, hopelessly loved for most of his life. This was some stranger who just happened to look like Steve, a cruel joke, a trick of fate and the cosmos and whatever other forces felt like fucking with him.
He could not deal with this. Not today. Probably not ever, but definitely not today. So he forced the tears back, took a deep breath, and reminded himself fiercely of what he was supposed to be doing and why he was doing it. "Look, you seem like a nice guy, so let me give you some advice. You should really go back to where you came from. You won't like it here, trust me."
That other Steve just looked at him, so young and strong and innocent. In spite of everything that had happened over the years, he could remember his Steve looking like that once. Long ago, this had been, when they were both so much younger and full of hope for the future.
Whatever had happened to those days?
"Why won't I like it?" Steve asked him. "Because I'm dead?"
"Something like that," Tony said. He stood up, forcibly putting the past and all his shattered hopes behind him, where they belonged. "I have to go. I have a meeting I'm going to be late for." He had already lost too much time. He would have to record his farewell and final instructions back at his penthouse. It would be cutting things close, but he could do it. And it wasn't like he had much choice. If he was late to this meeting, Osborn would have all the more reason to suspect him of foul play.
"I can't go back," Steve said. Either he had not heard Tony say that he had a meeting, or he was choosing to ignore it. "This was a one-way trip."
Tony dropped into his chair again. Goddamnit. Now what? He certainly couldn't let anyone here see Steve. The only reason SHIELD – or HAMMER, as it was now called – agents weren't beating down his door right now was because he had disabled all the security feeds.
"You said I was dead," Steve said. "And you…killed me?"
"Metaphorically speaking," Tony said. His throat was suddenly tight, his mouth dry. "I didn't—"
"So it wasn't a role reversal," Steve murmured to himself. "So why bring me here? I don't understand." He looked up suddenly. Despite his words, there was nothing uncertain about the sharp clarity in his gaze. "That recording you were making. What was that all about?"
How much had he heard? Tony had almost grown used to ghostly people suddenly appearing in front of him. If it wasn't for the fact that it was Steve, he might have ignored the vision altogether and just finished recording his message. But no, it had to be Steve, demanding his attention. Completely disrupting his life and changing everything. "Nothing," he said, trying not to sound defensive. "It was nothing."
Steve's eyes narrowed. "I can't let you do it, Tony."
His heart beat faster, which was just stupid. This Steve couldn't possibly know what he had been doing, what he had planned. "Do what?" he asked. "And anyway, what are you going to do? Stop me?"
"If I have to," Steve said. "Maybe that's why I'm here. Maybe…" His jaw firmed up in determination. "I couldn't save my Tony, but I can save you."
"Wait. What? Save your Tony?" A sudden thought struck him. "What happened in your world? Why are you even here?" He should have asked before this. For all he knew, this was another Skrull imposter, not really Steve Rogers. He could only blame his delayed response on shock and fatigue and the mounting pressure to get to his meeting with Norman Osborn.
"You said you killed me. Metaphorically," Steve said. He bit his lip. "Well, I killed you. Literally." He looked down at his hands and flexed his fingers, wincing a little as though the movement hurt him.
Tony gave him a wretched smile. The only thing surprising about this revelation was how little he was actually surprised by it. He thought about a battlefield of fire and light, Steve looming over him on the street, shield cocked over one shoulder, murder in his eyes. Apparently in that other world, where this Steve had come from, Tony Stark's last words had been uttered in the midst of a bloody Civil War. What are you waiting for, Steve? Finish it.
"I do tend to bring out the worst in you," he muttered.
Steve's head whipped up. "It isn't funny!" he shouted, and incredibly, he looked like he was maybe about two seconds away from bursting into tears.
He looked the way Tony felt inside every time he thought about Steve being dead.
Tony was too shocked to respond. What was going on here? Was there really a world where his feelings had been shared and reciprocated? Was it possible that this Steve was grieving for his Tony the way he, Tony Stark, still grieved for his Steve?
Steve continued to stare at him with that silent misery, and Tony decided right then and there that this was not a Skrull. No Skrull could fake that kind of emotion. And for all their technology, he was pretty sure no Skrull could simply materialize in front of him the way Steve had just done. This was the real deal, this was really Steve Rogers.
He didn't know what to say. He hoped the other Tony had appreciated this man and loved him as he deserved to be loved, before everything had gone to hell at the end. "Sorry," he said. "I guess your Tony didn't use inappropriate humor to deflect?"
For an awful moment he thought maybe he had gone too far, pushed too hard. Then Steve uttered a thick sound that was half-laughter, half-groan. "No, he did," he said. He shook his head a little, the faintest of smiles playing at his mouth. "I guess that's a common trait among the Tony Starks of the multiverse?"
Tony feigned a shudder. "Now there's a terrifying concept. Tony Starks of the multiverse."
Steve's little smile grew just a tiny bit wider. "You know what else seems to be universal? Thinking that I'm going to let you distract me."
Standing there, a glint of humor in his blue eyes, his lips curved in that small smile, he looked so much like the Steve whom Tony had loved and lost that his breath caught. Pain stabbed his chest, reminiscent of the old days when he had walked around with a damaged heart. Well, his heart was damaged again, there was no denying that. Only this time there was no virus, no pacemaker, no technology that could repair it.
He had no idea what he was going to do now. He couldn't let this Steve just blindly walk out there, unprepared and ignorant, into a world that thought he was dead, a world that wouldn't know what to do with him. If Bucky Barnes didn't kill him for being an imposter, Luke Cage and his New Avengers would swoop in and grab him. Either way, Tony would probably never see him again.
He didn't like thinking about that. Maybe this man wasn't his Steve, but he was still Steve Rogers, still worth defending and protecting. And Tony wanted to keep him close by. Because, well, he was Steve.
And because for a little while, at least, he could pretend.
Steve drew in a breath to say something else – and the phone rang.
Impatiently, Tony jabbed at it without looking, answering it on speaker. "Yeah?"
Instinctively he recoiled from the phone. Even Norman Osborn's voice was slimy.
"You call yourself a futurist, don't you?" Osborn asked.
Tony nodded, then remembered that the phones here were voice only. "I'm sorry I'm late," he said. "I'll be right there."
"Along the way, Mr. Futurist, you might want to envision what will happen to you if you don't show up in the next sixty seconds," Osborn said.
"I think I got it," he said dryly, and hung up.
He stood up in time to see the baffled shock on Steve's face. "My Tony would never have let anyone talk to him like that."
"Yeah, well, I'm guessing things are pretty different in your world." Of course they were. That other Tony, whoever he was, had clearly done a far better job of being Tony Stark, simply by virtue of not getting Steve killed.
"I'll say," Steve said.
"But," Tony continued, "I bet you still have meetings. And I really have to go to this one." If he didn't show, Osborn would know he had been up to something. And the longer he took to get down there, the greater the chance that Osborn would start poking around the network, taking advantage of this lull in his schedule to try to find the database of registered superhumans. That was something Tony could not allow. Not yet.
It would happen, of course. It was inevitable. Having anticipated that, though, Tony had left a nasty little "surprise" behind for Osborn. The problem with that though, was that he needed to be far away from this place when Osborn discovered it.
Very far away.
He walked around his desk, and his gaze fell on the Iron Man helmet. He winced at the sight. His recording was only halfway finished. Even better, everything he had said to this Steve was now included, because he had never given the command to stop recording.
Who the hell was he kidding? He couldn't attend a meeting with Norman Osborn. Not when Steve Rogers was standing in his office. His first priority now was getting Steve out of here and to a place of safety.
"Who was that?" Steve asked. "That didn't sound like Director Fury."
"That's because it wasn't," Tony said. "It was Norman Osborn."
"Norman Osborn? As in Oscorp?" Steve said. "Why is Norman Osborn talking to you like he's in charge?"
Tony looked at him. The bewilderment on Steve's face was genuine. Which told him a lot about that other world. So even though he absolutely did not have time for this, he made the time anyway.
"Because he is in charge," he said. "Norman Osborn is the Director of SHIELD now. Or rather, HAMMER. His new name for it. Whatever." He rolled his eyes. "And today is the changing of the guard. Out with the old, in with the new, and all that. Which means we really have to get you out of here. Osborn is already like a kid on Christmas morning. If he knew you were here, it would just be the cherry on top."
Now Steve looked completely at sea. "Out with the old? You were the Director of SHIELD?"
"Unfortunately for SHIELD, yes," Tony said, still trying to think of a way to get Steve out of there unseen and unnoticed. "I'm sure this is a great day for all of them, finally getting rid of me. Not that I can blame them…"
He trailed off, forgetting what he had been about to say. He had just seen the Iron Man helmet on his desk. Really seen it, this time.
It was so ridiculously easy then, he couldn't help smiling. "Perfect."
"What is?" Steve said.
"We get you suited up," Tony said. He gestured to the helmet. "Obviously I can't give you my suit, because I have to turn it over to Osborn, but until then, it's mine to do with as I please." Some simple programming would handle most of what he needed, and sheer bravado would take care of the rest.
"You have to turn over the suit?" Steve looked like he was about half a second away from having a spluttering fit borne of pure confusion. "Tony, are you… Are you under arrest?"
He laughed, and yeah, it was bitter. He couldn't help it. "Um, not yet. But I'm sure it's just a matter of time."
Steve folded his arms across his chest and set his jaw. It was a magnificent sight. "I think you better explain to me what's going on here."
"I think I better, too," Tony said. "But this isn't the time or the place. We need to get out of here first. Can you trust me on that?"
Steve stared back at him, considering him and the situation. After a long pause, he said, "I trusted my Tony with my life. You might not be him, but you're still Tony Stark. And obviously things are happening in this world that I don't understand. So yes, I'll go with you. But no, I don't trust you."
Tony smiled. "Good for you," he said.
"Don't come near me. Because if you come any closer…any closer at all…I might just be tempted to break your neck, you traitorous scum."
"Traitorous," Tony echoed. "Wow. Okay, boss. As you wish."
The meeting with Osborn was going about as well as he had guessed it would. It was difficult to stand there and pretend he didn't despise the man with every bone in his body. It was even harder to do it when he knew Steve was out there waiting for him.
"And what about the database?" Osborn asked.
And there it was. The sole reason Osborn had called this meeting. Just the thought of him getting his hands on the list of registered superhumans made Tony's skin crawl. And it reinforced his determination to do whatever was necessary to make sure Osborn never obtained it.
"It's not your personal File-o-Fax," he said with some exasperation, wondering why he even bothered. "You can't just browse it at your leisure."
He could have gone on. He could have told Osborn that he had uploaded a virus into HAMMER's network that would activate the moment Osborn tried to open the phony database he had left behind as bait. He could have said that he had in fact deleted all the copies of the actual database in an effort to protect the superhumans of this world. All of the copies except for the one in his head, of course. But he knew he would never be allowed to leave this room if Osborn knew those things, so he held his tongue and kept his snark confined to making fun of Osborn giving himself a new title.
"Well, 'Commander.' You don't get to go flipping through the database any more than you get to seize someone's cell phone records or decide to call yourself Commander." He headed for the door. It was time to end this meeting before it degenerated into name-calling and hair-pulling. "Good luck running the world, Osborn. Don't squeeze it too tight too fast or all the good parts will dribble out right between your fingers. I'll show myself out."
Away from Osborn's lunatic presence, Tony breathed a little bit easier. Victoria Hand, Osborn's personal assistant, gave him a cool look as he passed by, but made no move to stop him. Which was fortunate, because he was in no mood to be detained any longer than was absolutely necessary.
Nobody spoke to him as he moved through the halls. People looked down as he walked past, no one even wanting to make eye contact with the notorious Tony Stark, the man who had gotten Captain America killed and allowed the Skrulls to invade the Earth. He heard a few whispers behind his back, but no words he could actually make out.
The departure scan was every bit as humiliating as he had known it would be. Stripped naked, his entire body scanned for stolen contraband, a penlight shone into his mouth, even. Once upon a time he would have cracked jokes about it and tried to enlist the agents on his side, get them to admit how stupid the whole thing was. Today, though, he just stood there and let them do their job, and silently urged them to move faster.
An armed and helmeted HAMMER agent stood at the exit, waiting to escort him outside. As they stepped out into the sunset, Tony finally let himself breathe deep. "Well," he sighed. "That was mortifying."
"I bet," Steve said dryly. The helmet rendered his voice flat and emotionless. The uniform itself was a poor fit, but it was better than nothing at all. The Mark 1616 had done its best on this, the last task Tony would ever ask of it. It had scanned Steve from head to toe, then gone off to retrieve a uniform for him. Maybe it hadn't done the greatest job, but the results had still been good enough to pass muster, because here they were, standing outside, no one at HAMMER even suspecting that a dead man had briefly been among them.
The flying car was pretty much the only thing he got to take with him – and that was because it was his personal property, not HAMMER's. As he started the engine, he felt some of the tension drain from his body, and his shoulders slumped.
They had made it.
"Better buckle yourself in," he said, and they rose into the air.
Steve made a faint yelp, a sound made all the cuter coming from behind the helmet. He clutched at the door, then quickly let go, no doubt embarrassed by his reaction.
Once they were airborne, Steve removed his helmet and let it drop to the floor. He had put the HAMMER uniform on over his own costume, which had to be uncomfortable for him, although he had not once complained. All his attention was focused on the vista below. "This is…wow." He stared out the window like a big overgrown kid.
"So I'm guessing you don't have these," Tony said. He liked seeing that surprised pleasure on Steve's face – and even better, knowing that he was the one who had put it there.
"Not so much," Steve said. He looked over with a smile. "Actually, you know, the first time I ever met Howard Stark, he was promising the world we'd all have flying cars within a few years. Good to know he kept that promise here." He gestured to the steering wheel. "Although I'm a little surprised you're driving it yourself instead of having Happy pick you up."
Between the double whammy of hearing his dead father invoked and the innocent mention of Happy Hogan, Tony's good mood evaporated in an instant. "Happy's dead," he said shortly.
There was an awkward pause. He could practically see Steve mentally beating himself up for his mistake. "I'm sorry."
He figured he knew what was coming next. "And before you ask, Pepper is fine but currently not very happy with me. Rhodey is fine. But the rest of the world, particularly the superhero community, hates me. Did I leave anyone out?"
Steve looked like he wasn't sure if he should laugh; he obviously didn't know if Tony was joking or not. "Well," he said slowly, "you forgot Jarvis."
Tony was startled. "Jarvis? I haven't seen him in a few weeks." He had been avoiding the Tower ever since the Skrull invasion. He knew perfectly well that he was not welcome there anymore, and he wasn't about to force his presence on people who would just be uncomfortable around him.
Steve's brow furrowed. "Seen him? Jarvis is a person here?"
That was interesting. "He isn't in your world?"
"No," Steve said. "Well, there was a man named Edwin Jarvis, but he's been dead for a while. The Jarvis I know is an artificial intelligence Tony uses." He winced. "Used."
"Oh," Tony said, reminded all over again that he was dead in the world this Steve came from. "Well, yeah. Here too. But the man is still very much alive." And probably not doing too well, come to think of it. Being replaced by a Skrull was enough to rock anyone's world, even the usually unflappable Jarvis.
He sighed. "Look, we could play po-tay-toe, po-tah-toe all day here. But this isn't the time for it."
"You keep saying that," Steve said.
"Because I mean it," Tony replied.
"Then what is it time for?" Steve asked. "Killing yourself?"
Tony was so shocked by this that he accidentally jerked the wheel, causing the car to bank sharply to the right. "What?"
"Isn't that what you're planning?" Steve demanded.
Tony looked over at him, which was a big mistake. Those brilliant blue eyes were fixed on him, watching him carefully, looking for signs of a lie. "Um, no," he said.
Steve did not look convinced. "So that wasn't a suicide note you were recording when I arrived," he said flatly. It wasn't really a question.
Tony returned his eyes to the horizon. "Not exactly," he said.
"What does that mean?" Steve asked. He had the exact same stubborn determination to get to the bottom of something as his own Steve had. Which wasn't exactly a surprise, even if it was decidedly inconvenient.
"It's complicated," Tony hedged.
"So explain it," Steve said.
Tony shook his head. "You wouldn't understand." How the hell was he supposed to explain nearly fifteen years of history in five minutes? He wasn't even sure if it was possible. This Steve would never understand the long and rich friendship he and his own Steve had shared. This Steve would never understand the way they had been so in sync that often words had not even been necessary. This Steve would never understand how he could have fallen in love with that Steve but never dared to say anything about those feelings, let alone act on them.
"So use small words," Steve said. He looked a little bit pissed off. Like maybe he had heard this line of bullshit from his own Tony before, and grown sick of hearing it.
Tony sighed. He had already wasted enough time just randomly driving in circles. And time was something he didn't have a whole lot of. Even now, Norman Osborn was probably discovering the virus Tony had uploaded. Did he really want to spend his last remaining hours of freedom explaining himself to this version of Steve Rogers?
But it was Steve. And he was a selfish man, enough to grab gratefully at any chance to prolong this encounter.
Besides, he told himself, if it was true that Steve couldn't return to his own world, then he had to be armed with the knowledge necessary to survive in this one. So in essence he was doing Steve a favor by answering his questions.
He took a deep breath. "Have you ever heard of the Superhuman Registration Act?"
Steve shook his head. "No."
With just that one word, he understood so much about this Steve Rogers. Although it also raised a host of questions in his mind. If there was no SHRA and no Civil War, how exactly had that other Tony Stark died? And if it hadn't happened during that bloody battle on the street, why did Steve label himself the killer?
"So it hasn't hit your world yet," he said. "Well, it will, trust me. Although it might not be so bad with your Tony being dead."
Anger flashed in Steve's eyes, darkening their blue color. "Why don't you just tell me what happened and skip the commentary?"
"Fine," Tony sighed. "But don't say I didn't warn you."
He let the car hover in place as he ran through an abbreviated version of the Superhuman Registration Act and the Civil War that had torn the superhero community apart. There were a lot of things he had to skip out of necessity, but he made sure to hit the highlights. The way Tony himself had led the heroes who supported the law, while Steve had opposed it so strenuously that he and his allies had gone underground. The fighting that had deepened the divide between both sides, until it seemed that nothing could stop the hostilities.
He kept his eyes on the sky and his voice even and emotionless. He had practiced that tone for so long that even without the Iron Man helmet to do it for him, it came almost naturally to him now. He made no effort to justify himself and his actions. Like he had been planning to say in his farewell recording, what had happened, had happened. There was no changing it. No apology could ever even scratch the surface of what he had done, anyway.
His recitation faltered, though, when he reached the point in the narrative that included Steve's arrest and death. It was impossible then to keep the emotion from his voice, to pretend that he wasn't reliving the horror of watching as Steve was shot and killed on the courthouse steps. Grief swelled within him, surprising him all over again with its intensity and bringing helpless tears to his eyes.
Except for one quickly-checked protest when Tony had explained the registration law, the other Steve had listened without interrupting. But now he said softly, "I'm sorry."
"We were friends for almost fifteen years. He was one of the best men I ever knew," Tony whispered. "And he died because of me." He died hating me.
Steve made a short sound of disagreement, but thankfully he did not pursue the issue. "What happened then?"
He wondered what Steve had been about to say, but it was better this way, he decided. Better not to know if Steve had been about to agree with him on the question of blame. Or even worse, if Steve had been planning to tell him that it wasn't really his fault.
"That was it," he said. "The end of the war. Not that you would have known it, the way we all treated each other."
He continued with his story, telling Steve about the New Avengers and the Mighty Avengers and the numerous superhumans who had followed the law and registered with the government, creating the database that was at the heart of his problems right now. He told Steve that in the aftermath of the Civil War, he had been appointed the Director of SHIELD, much to the displeasure of pretty much everyone involved – himself included. He did not say anything, though, about how much everyone hated him, or how he couldn't sleep for more than a couple hours at a time anymore, or how he wore the armor for weeks on end not just out of paranoia but because sometimes it was literally the only thing keeping him on his feet.
"And then the Skrulls invaded."
But this required some backtracking, because based on Steve's responses to some of the most basic things he took for granted in this world, he suspected this next part would be incomprehensible. "You don't know what Extremis is, do you?"
Steve shook his head. "Never heard of it."
Tony nodded. "I thought so." And though time was growing very short now, he explained what Extremis was and how he had come to possess it, and the changes he had made to the code in order to give him unique abilities like being able to communicate with computers and satellites in his head. He told Steve that Extremis had remade his entire body and given him a healing factor, and allowed him to store the underarmor in his bones. Talking about it made him realize how much he missed having it, and he couldn't help sighing a little.
"It all sounds…kind of amazing, actually," Steve said. A rueful little smile tugged at his mouth. "My Tony would have loved all that."
"So did I," Tony admitted. "But the Skrulls took it all away."
He moved quickly through the rest of his story, telling Steve about the sleeper agents who had spent years masquerading as superheroes and members of SHIELD, only to reveal themselves as Skrulls at a crucial time. He told Steve how the superheroes had finally managed to put aside their lingering distrust from the Civil War in order to work together to defeat the Skrulls. He was honest about the failure of all his Starktech, and how Thor had been the first to lay the blame for the invasion at his feet – the first, but not the last. And finally he told Steve how Norman Osborn had killed the Skrull Queen and used that moment of glory to rise to power and take control of what remained of SHIELD.
"I don't think you need to be from this world to understand how bad this is," he concluded. "The first thing Osborn will do is pull up the database of registered superhumans and use it for his own ends. It's only a matter of time before secret identities are made public and innocent people are hurt. That's why I have to stop him."
"How are you going to do that?" Steve asked.
"By deleting all the copies of the database," Tony said. He paused for a moment to let that sink in, then pointed his first two fingers at his forehead in a gesture deliberately meant to invoke a gun aimed at his head. "All of them."
Steve shook his head. "I don't… You can't just delete a memory. It doesn't work that way."
"Not a memory," Tony said. "The actual database. Among other things. My repulsor tech, the Iron Man specs, SHIELD personnel files. Anything you can think of that you wouldn't want Norman Osborn to get his hands on, I've got it. My brain is like a computer now. That's what Extremis did for me. That's how you have to think of it. And what do you do with a file on your computer that you don't want anymore? You delete it."
Steve said nothing, but his eyes widened with horror.
"The only problem with that," Tony continued, "is that even if you delete a file, there's almost always a way to restore it. So you have to make sure. So you wipe the entire hard drive."
Steve was silent for a long time. Tony waited, letting him process it all. He had intended to talk to Pepper and Maria Hill first, but doing it this way worked, too. It gave him a chance to refine his explanation and make sure he had answers for all their potential rebuttals.
Very quietly, Steve said, "You told me you weren't planning to kill yourself."
"I'm not," Tony replied.
"Then what would you call it?" Steve asked. It sounded like he was having difficulty in restraining himself and keeping calm. "Cause that's sure what it sounds like to me."
"Persistent vegetative state, actually," Tony said.
"That's not funny," Steve snapped.
"Do I look like I'm laughing?" Tony shot back.
"But you can't… I mean, Tony…" Steve's eyes were still wide with horrified denial. "Deleting your brain?" He shook his head. "There has to be another way."
"Sure there is," he said. "I go on the run and hope my luck holds out. And then ignore it when Norman Osborn starts killing my friends in order to flush me out of hiding. Of course he would make it look like an accident, not murder, but let's be honest here."
"He wouldn't," Steve said, but without much conviction. "He couldn't."
"Yeah?" Tony challenged. "Who's gonna stop him?"
"The Avengers," Steve said, more confident now.
"He's got his own Avengers now. The real ones can't afford to make any waves," Tony said. "Plus he's going to be watching them like a hawk. And you forget, they all hate me now. I seriously doubt any of them would defend me and my non-existent honor."
"Maybe not," Steve argued, "but they would defend themselves. And I might not know any of them but I can't believe any of them would deliberately let Osborn kill innocent people."
"They wouldn't," Tony allowed, "if they could get their shit together and work as a team instead of mistrusting each other and carrying grudges."
Steve lifted his chin and squared his shoulders. "Someone has to stop him," he insisted.
Tony shook his head. "There is no stopping him. Deleting the database is the only way to make sure it doesn't fall into his hands."
"No," Steve said, and even though Tony had just met him, there was no mistaking his tone. He spoke now with the firm determination that meant he had an idea and he would be sticking to it no matter what. It was the same stubbornness that had led to his death on the courthouse steps, and it chilled Tony to the bone to hear it now from this version of the man he had loved so desperately.
"You made your plans when you thought there were no other options. But that was before I showed up," Steve continued. "It's different now. We can do this. And if things are as bad as you say they are, then the way I see it, we have to do it. It's our duty. Besides, it sounds like we're the only ones who can."
Tony was too shocked to respond right away. He was stuck on the use of the word "we." He hadn't been a willing part of any "we" in a long time. To hear it now from Steve of all people, was almost too much. "You…you'd team up with me?"
"Why wouldn't I?" Steve asked simply.
He didn't know what to say. For so long he had been on the losing side – he didn't care who had "won" the Civil War, he knew he had still lost – that he had almost forgotten what it felt like to fight back. To be able to take a stand and defend himself. With Steve at his side he wouldn't have to meekly accept the accusations of blame and treason. He wouldn't have to be complicit in tearing himself down, finishing the job that the rest of the world had started with the Skrull invasion and the failure of all his tech.
He could really fight back this time.
Not on opposite sides anymore. He and Steve would be working together, planning together, making jokes and creating strategy.
And yeah, this wasn't his Steve. That was abundantly clear, and he knew he would never forget it. But just to have this, to be with Steve one last time…
He would do anything to get that chance.
He could only nod, and hope that Steve couldn't tell how close he was to doing something stupid like start to cry.
"Okay," he whispered.
They ended up at an abandoned factory with the depressing name of Funtime. Tony muttered something about how he had hoped to have time to return to his penthouse first, but this would just have to do.
Steve just nodded and didn't ask any questions. He had spent most of the drive in silence, thinking about everything Tony had told him. The Avengers breaking up, the Civil War between the superheroes, the death of Steve Rogers, the Skrull invasion. He was perfectly aware that he had arrived in the middle of a situation that was the result of a long series of events stretching back many years. If he was to have any hope of understanding it all, his best bet lay in keeping his mouth shut and his eyes and ears open.
What he had seen and heard so far, however, did not exactly fill him with confidence.
What kind of world was this where Captain America could be arrested for breaking the law, then spat on as he walked to the courthouse for his sentencing, only to be shot and killed by an assassin? What kind of people would blame Tony Stark for an entire alien invasion, ignoring all the good he had done for them in order to hold him personally responsible for something completely beyond his control?
What kind of world was this?
Well, whatever was going on, it was going to end. He would put a stop to it himself, if no one else would or could. He had spent his entire life fighting back against bullies of one kind or another. Really, that was all Norman Osborn was – one more bully. And just like all the others, he too could be knocked off his self-made pedestal and made to face justice.
Taking Osborn down wouldn't solve the problems this world was facing, but it would go a long way toward helping Tony Stark, and that was enough for Steve. He wasn't blind to the pinched exhaustion on Tony's face, or the slump of his shoulders. Tony had the look of a man who had been ground down for so long that he was in danger of forgetting what it was like to live any other way.
He counted himself lucky that he had never had to see that look on his Tony's face. Tony had already been through hell and come out the other side by the time Steve entered his life. It hadn't taken long for Steve and the Avengers to become a part of him in a way Tony had never even imagined. Steve knew this because Tony had told him so as they lay naked together atop the roof of Avengers Tower one night, sweating under a sticky summer sky. He had felt an indescribable mix of things then: relief and pride and awe and respect, and above all, such a rush of love that it had made him shudder with the force of it.
He had never loved anyone the way he had loved his Tony Stark. He doubted he ever would again.
"Sorry about the mess," Tony mumbled as he led the way inside Funtime. He shed his suit coat and loosened his tie, draping both items over his right forearm. "I kind of had to put this together in a hurry."
Steve smiled wryly. If "in a hurry" meant the same thing it did coming from his Tony, it still meant a meticulously detailed plan that left very little to chance.
Funtime itself was empty and full of dust and cobwebs, but the armory-cum-lab hidden beneath the factory floor was perfectly functional. There was even a crude living space in the corner, complete with a narrow Army cot and a mini-refrigerator.
Far beyond these human necessities, though, stretched a seemingly unending array of armored suits. Each one was painted crimson and gold, and each one stared blankly at nothing, deactivated and dark. Steve was awestruck over how many versions of Iron Man were assembled here – and this was only one of Tony's armories.
He tried to imagine his Tony doing such a thing, creating and stashing away so many copies of the suit – and failed utterly. The sheer scope of such a project was almost beyond his ability to comprehend. Here was a man who had been an Avenger for nearly as long as his own Tony Stark had been the CEO of Stark Industries. While his Tony had spent years happily designing weapons and throwing his life away, this one had been fighting constantly to save the world. Little wonder, then, that he had built so many suits and hidden them away.
"So what was your next step?" he asked. He began to undo the SHIELD – or HAMMER, he supposed – uniform. It had worked admirably as a disguise to get him out of the building without anyone being any the wiser about his real identity, but it had to be two sizes too big in order to accommodate his Captain America costume, and it was uncomfortable. He was glad to be rid of it.
"Well," Tony said as he set his suit coat and tie down on the Army cot. "I had originally planned to come here with Pepper and Maria Hill. They were kind of integral to my plan. But now…?" He rubbed at his chin. "I really don't know."
"They knew you were going to delete your brain?" Steve asked. Obviously he didn't know either one of them in this world, but he found it hard to believe that they would be on board with such a terrible plan.
"Not yet," Tony said. "I was going to tell them today." He let his hand drop back to his side. "I was supposed to leave HAMMER with Maria, so I could talk to her along the way."
Steve frowned in thought. He found it interesting that Tony had chosen Maria Hill to help him, and not Nick Fury. Unless Fury was dead, which would explain why Tony had been the Director of SHIELD. But if Fury was dead, why had civilian Tony Stark been given the job, not Maria Hill?
He shook his head. Once again he was forcibly reminded that there was too much history here. Too many things he would probably never know.
Unless he asked.
"Maybe we should start by finding Nick Fury," he suggested.
Even before he finished the sentence, Tony was shaking his head. "Fury's in hiding, and obviously doesn't want to be found. He showed up when we needed him, to stop the Skrulls, and that was it. I guess he figures he's done his part."
So Fury was alive. That made Steve feel a little bit better. He could not imagine the Nick Fury he knew skulking around in hiding, but he accepted what Tony told him. He had to stop comparing the people he had known with their counterparts in this world. Doing that would not get him anywhere, and only make it harder to fit in here. He had left his world and the people he knew forever. He had to keep moving forward now. It was the only option he had.
"See, the thing is," Tony said. He stopped, and for a second he looked utterly miserable. Then he blinked, and the moment was gone; he was calm and in control again, his face almost blank. "What Steve never understood, what he refused to see, was that the public wanted registration. Confidence in superheroes was at an all-time low. Someone like Norman Osborn is exactly who they want right now. He's visible, he's all about accountability, and he's a born leader. He's also a total nutjob, but they don't see that."
The solution seemed simple enough. "So we make them see it," Steve said. "They won't want him around then."
"Okay. So how are we going to do that?" Tony asked. Even on short acquaintance, Steve could tell that he didn't really mean it. To him it was nothing more than a rhetorical question.
That was too bad. Because he was being perfectly sincere. And it was time to demonstrate that, to show this Tony just how stubborn he could be. "That's your call," he said. "You know him. I don't."
Tony made a face. "I was afraid you were going to say that."
Steve just shrugged, pretending to feel far more casual than he really did. "Your world, not mine."
The humor that had just begun to glimmer in Tony's eyes disappeared in a hurry then. "Listen, Steve. About that. I appreciate your willingness to help me out. I really do. More than you can know. But as you just pointed out, this isn't your world. Steve Rogers is dead here, and there's a new Captain America."
Steve froze in shock. There was a new Captain America? He hadn't heard that before. He didn't even know what to think about that, if he should be pissed off that he could be so easily forgotten, or glad that Cap lived on even if Steve Rogers was gone.
It also made him wonder what else Tony had conveniently left out of his narrative on the way here.
"I think we should go see Reed," Tony continued. "If anyone can get you home, he can."
Steve spent a few more moments debating whether or not to pursue the whole "new Captain America" topic before deciding to let it go. For now. "Reed is the one who sent me here," he said. "And he didn't do a very good job of it. What makes you think your Reed can do any better?"
"Nothing," Tony said. "Except we have to try." He didn't quite look Steve in the eye as he said it, though.
Steve did not respond. Maybe comparing his world to this one was a bad idea, but it was fascinating the way his experience with his own Tony came to the rescue now. It was plainly obvious to him that Tony did not actually want to visit Reed and find a way to get him home. It seemed that no matter which world they came from, Tony Stark's body language remained the same.
And he suspected that there was something more at play here. It was in the way Tony kept sneaking little glances at him, as though he couldn't keep his eyes off him for longer than a few seconds. Then there was the way Tony had become choked up when he had talked about Steve's death, and his grateful surprise at the offer to join forces to take down Norman Osborn.
This Tony, he suddenly realized, had been in love with Steve Rogers. But he had never said anything. He couldn't have, otherwise his story now would be vastly different.
It was a sad thought – and it made him miss his own Tony terribly. Out of nowhere grief rose up to claim him. He thought about Tony grinning at him from across the workshop; Tony wrapping one metal-clad arm about his waist as they flew through the air; Tony's head thrown back, his eyes closed as he moved beneath Steve; Tony's desperate attempt to flee as he finally realized that Steve meant to kill him—
He shuddered convulsively, and Tony, this Tony, looked at him with concern. "You okay?"
"I'm fine," he said, because he had to be. There was no other choice. "But I think we can forget about going to see Reed. I can't get back to my world. Even if I could, there's nothing there for me now."
"Not even the Avengers?" Tony asked.
Steve shook his head. "I can't drag them down with me." He had already gone over this in his head in the weeks after his arrest, when he had sat in his cell and waited for SHIELD to hand down his sentence. "What I did was unforgivable. I can't expect them to take me back. Even if they would have me, the public wouldn't. They were already growing leery of superheroes. If I were to stay on the team, it would just give them more reason to distrust us."
A terrible thought occurred to him then, along with the memory of something Tony had said. Confidence in superheroes was at an all-time low. He looked up and saw the same slowly dawning horror on Tony's face. Oddly enough, it made him feel worse to see that, to know that his suspicions were correct. "That's it, isn't it?" He wanted to throw up. "What I did paves the way for the Registration Act in my world."
Tony's eyes widened a little. "You mean… Oh God, that's right. The Civil War didn't happen for you yet. But you said…?"
Steve knew what he was thinking then. It was plainly obvious in the sudden wary light that entered his eyes, and the way he almost physically drew back. He was remembering that Steve had confessed to killing him. Obviously he had made several assumptions, the first being that the Civil War had happened in Steve's world as well as his own, and second, that Steve had killed Tony during the fighting. Assumptions that he was now having to let go, and instead wonder about what had really happened.
Don't ask, he prayed. Please don't ask me. Sooner or later he would have to tell Tony the truth, he knew that. But not now. Not yet.
His thoughts must have been equally as obvious, because Tony drew in a short breath and forced a smile. "What you said about the SHRA… There's no way to know," he said. "But…you're probably right."
Steve dropped his gaze and stared at the floor.
"If it wasn't you, it would have been something," Tony said. He spoke kindly, as though he sought to mitigate the painful truth. "There isn't a world out there like this one that hasn't gone to war over registration. And believe me, Reed's been looking. He's still looking, but I doubt he'll find any that were spared."
That did not make Steve feel any better. He sighed loudly.
"There is one way to find out," Tony said. He let the words trail off.
"No," Steve said. He took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and looked up. "No," he repeated. "There's nothing for me in that world. Not anymore. This is where I ended up, and this is where I'm staying."
Tony gave him a long look before slowly nodding. "Okay," he said. Thankfully, he did not ask what Steve had done to deserve such self-censure, or pursue the subject any further. Steve was grateful to him for that. His own Tony would never have let the matter drop, would have driven him crazy pestering him for more information until he gave in and talked.
Apparently this Tony knew the value of silence and secrets.
"So what happens now?" he asked.
"Well," Tony said. He gazed out at the Iron Man suits, his expression distant. "I'm already at the top of a lot of people's shit list. And I'm about to be on some more. So we do what I originally intended. At least, part of it. We blow the suits and we get out of Dodge."
Steve couldn't help wincing at the thought of all those suits going up in flames. Still, it was better to destroy them than let a madman get his hands on them. His Tony would have done the same thing, were he in this situation. "Okay, then what?"
"We head to Texas," Tony said. He glanced over his shoulder at Steve. "There's something there I need to retrieve. I was going to send Maria for it, but now…" He shook his head a little. "I need to get it before anyone else does."
"What is it?" Steve asked.
Tony started to reply, then hesitated. A sad little smile touched his mouth. "Not yet," he said. "When we get there."
Steve could feel his temper starting to fray. "Fine. We blow the suits and we go to Texas. That still doesn't answer the question of what we're going to do about Osborn."
"We can depose Osborn later," Tony said. "The important thing now is making sure he doesn't get his hands on that database."
"Right," Steve said. "By deleting your own brain!" He hadn't intended for it to come out quite so loud, but there was no taking it back now.
Now Tony turned to face him fully. He looked baffled. "Why are you shouting?"
His oblivious bewilderment did nothing to ease Steve's rising anger. It was a look he had seen too many times before. Sometimes he had thought it was deliberate ignorance, Tony just pretending not to know why he was upset. Other times, that confusion had been genuine – usually when Steve had been angry with him for his latest stunt that had involved serious risk to his own safety, like he hadn't been able to understand why Steve would be distressed over such a thing.
And it was the same thing all over again now, that same honest lack of comprehension on Tony's face, that same terrible sense of helpless frustration that seized Steve and made him yell. "Because you always do this!"
Tony blinked in shock. "I always do what?"
"This!" Steve snapped. He flung out one arm, gesturing to the Iron Man suits standing there like sacrificial lambs. Only they weren't the real sacrifice, were they? Tony himself was the one marked for sacrifice. "Act like your life is less important than anyone else's. Go to such extremes."
For a moment Tony looked almost stricken. Then Steve blinked and the moment was gone, and Tony had already recovered his equilibrium. "For a moment there it sounded like you were confusing me with your Tony."
Even though this was exactly what he had been doing, Steve couldn't bear to hear it said aloud. Not by this other Tony, this man who wore his dead lover's face (except for the eyes, those blue eyes), this man who had been planning to throw his life away so that everyone else could live.
Before he could respond, though, Tony said, "You had something with him, didn't you?"
He drew himself up, squared his jaw. "Not that it's any of your business, but yes."
"Good. I'm glad." Tony's mouth twisted into something resembling a smile. It could almost have passed for the real thing, too, if it weren't for the bitter envy in his eyes. "At least one of us did."
That answered his question from earlier about whether this Tony and Steve had been in a relationship. And it only added to his grief, making him wonder if what he and Tony had shared had been truly unique, if in all the worlds out there, they were the only ones who had known what they had and actually acted on it.
And now it was gone, lost forever because of his weakness, his failure to protect the man he loved.
"I don't want to talk about it," he said dully.
"Fair enough," Tony said. "But you should know, it's a long drive to Austin. So we better find something to talk about."
Steve stared at him. "What?"
"We have to stay off the grid," Tony said. "No one can even know you're here, and I've gotta lay low. That means no private jets, and no public transportation. We're doing this the old-fashioned way."
"I didn't come here to hide," Steve protested.
"It's only for a little while," Tony said. "Until we can figure out what we're doing about Osborn." A strange expression crossed his face. "Don't worry. We won't keep it secret for long."
It wasn't the answer he wanted, but it was probably the best he could expect for now, Steve thought. "All right," he sighed. "What do you need from me?"
"Nothing," Tony said. "Just…" He mustered up a smile. "I hope you're not a backseat driver."
Of course, the trip did not get started right away. Steve stood respectfully off to one side as Tony made some phone calls. He did his best not to listen in, but sometimes it was hard not to overhear a little.
Most of the calls were professional in nature, last-minute instructions to attorneys and the like. Only two of them were personal, to Pepper Potts and James Rhodes. In both cases, Tony urged them to disassociate themselves from him for their own sake, wished them luck, and said he would be in touch when he could.
With nothing better to do, Steve wandered aimlessly among the rows of Iron Man suits. Some of them he touched randomly, remembering his own Tony in flight, sunlight reflecting off crimson and gold armor. He could practically hear the whine of the repulsors and the roar of the boot jets, the rapid-fire banter between Tony and JARVIS. He could even feel the wind on his face as he flew with one metal arm wrapped about his waist, holding him close, the sky arching clear overhead.
God, he missed Tony.
He closed his eyes, and Tony was right there, standing in front of him with his artfully disheveled hair and a smirk on his face. In his imagination, Tony looked critically at the Iron Man suits standing here, then nodded a little. Not bad. Not bad at all.
You could have done it, too, Steve told him. He ached to think of all the things Tony would never get to do.
Tony flashed him a grin. Who says I didn't?
That threw him, thinking about Tony keeping such an enormous secret from him. He wouldn't have…would he?
Why the long face, Capsicle?
I miss you.
Tony nodded, one hand lingering on the crimson shoulder of a suit. Guess you should have thought about that before you killed me, huh?
Grief clutched him by the throat, choking him. God, Tony. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I never meant—
Steve, honey. Relax. It's okay. I know. I don't blame you. I never blamed you.
Tears stung his eyes. He wanted so badly to believe that was true – except he knew that it wasn't. That was his guilty conscience talking, not Tony himself.
He remembered it all too clearly. At the end there had been nothing but terrible confusion in Tony's eyes. He had not forgiven Steve. There had been no time. He had died still struggling to understand what was happening to him.
Startled, he looked up. Tony was walking toward him. Not his Tony, but the one who belonged to this world. Taller. Younger. Blue eyes.
But still Tony Stark.
He blinked rapidly to get rid of the tears, and cleared his throat. "Yeah."
Tony eyed him like he didn't believe it, but all he said was, "Ready to go?"
Steve nodded. "Yeah."
"You know, usually right about now I'd be going for the clean-shaven look and dyeing my hair blond."
They were on the outskirts of Washington, DC, headed for yet another one of Tony's armories. Steve gave him a bemused look. "That's your idea of a clever disguise?"
Tony shrugged. "You'd be surprised how often it works."
Steve frowned. There were stories hidden in those words, but there would be time to ask about that later. Right now he had to stay focused. Besides, he had learned from his own Tony that sometimes he achieved better results when he ignored the subtle – or not-so-subtle, in this case – hints at dark secrets. "So basically when you want to hide, you become me," he said, feigning a casual tone.
"Trust me," Tony said shortly. "That's not possible."
Steve looked away, uncomfortably aware that he had said the wrong thing. He was unfortunately all too familiar with that undercurrent of self-loathing, but apparently in this Tony it ran much closer to the surface.
It was well after midnight and there wasn't much to see out the car window. They had traded in the SHIELD flying car for something a little less conspicuous. Something that didn't scream "billionaire industrialist on the run," as Tony had said with a somewhat bitter smile.
Pepper had met them in the middle of nowhere with the car and two duffel bags full of clothes and toiletries. She had not seen Steve, didn't even know he existed. He had remained off to one side, hidden in the night while Tony went ahead to talk to her. From what Steve had seen, this Pepper was shorter than the one he knew, but she was still beautiful and she was still someone who cared deeply about Tony. He had watched with some relief as she hugged Tony tight, obviously reluctant to let go. It had made him feel a little better to know that Tony had someone out there who was still on his side.
After returning to the car with the bags, Tony had reported that she had agreed to do what he asked, and take control of Stark Industries. She would do great, he had said with pride. She could handle Norman Osborn.
There had been nothing to delay them after that. They had gotten on the road shortly after 9:00, and headed south. The drive to DC had been mostly silent. Tony had turned the radio on once. They had listened to about thirty seconds of a news report on Norman Osborn's first day as the Commander of HAMMER. The reporter said that Osborn had promised the American people all kinds of transparency, unlike his predecessor Tony Stark, who, it was rumored, was soon to be under investigation for possible misconduct while he had been the Director of SHIELD.
Steve had turned the radio off. "I think we've heard enough."
Tony had not argued.
The car was slowing down now; apparently they had finally arrived. Steve sat up, looking around with interest.
Right away he wondered why he even bothered. Their destination was unmarked and unlit. From the outside it looked like just one more abandoned warehouse on a quiet industrial street, with broken glass in the windows and an ugly sign warning all trespassers they would be shot on sight. He couldn't keep from frowning at that sign – or noticing the bullet holes that pockmarked it.
"Wonderful neighborhood," he muttered.
"It used to be," Tony said.
Despite the decrepit appearance, there were several layers of electronic security to get through before they were allowed inside. Steve was reassured by that, until he remembered that this was just one armory of many Tony had scattered around the world.
His overall sense of unease only deepened when he saw the living quarters hidden beneath the factory floor, similar to the one in New York. These weren't just armories. They were boltholes. Safe havens. And it spoke volumes about Tony and this world that he felt like he needed not just one, but many of them.
He looked around at it all and sighed heavily. They were going to spend the night here, in this enormous, empty warehouse where spiders scuttled in the corners and even the tiniest sound stirred up an echo. It was a decidedly unappealing prospect. But they could hardly check into a hotel, and they certainly weren't going to sleep in the car. So this was it, unfortunately.
"Here," Tony said, startling him out of his dark thoughts.
Steve looked up and saw that he was holding out a tablet. "What's this?"
"Some light reading," Tony said dryly.
Steve took the tablet without looking at what was on the screen. "Such as?"
"Pepper put it together," Tony said. "It's your 'Brave New World' montage. All the news that's fit to print, and then some. Most of it stars yours truly, and before you even say it, guilty as charged. Yes, I love seeing myself in the news." He smiled brightly, but Steve was not fooled. He had seen that smile on his own Tony's face far too often. It was the public smile, the one meant for the media, for calming platitudes and smooth lies. There was nothing honest about that smile, and even as Steve recognized it for what it was, he saw that Tony knew that he knew, and that terrible grin vanished.
"Some of it might be a little…intense," Tony said. He did not look at Steve anymore. "Your call if you want to read it or not. Don't worry, you can't get online or anything, so there's no danger of anyone tracking us with it."
This was something Steve hadn't even realized that he had to worry about, but clearly Tony had it handled, so he just nodded. "Okay." He was about to add his thanks, when his stomach rumbled. Loudly.
Embarrassed, he pursed his lips and laid a hand over his stomach, as though he could quiet the offending noise that way.
The way Tony reacted, though, that little tummy gurgle might as well have been a roar. One shoulder twitched upward, and he looked utterly stricken. His mouth tightened into a thin line. "Oh shit. God. Steve, I'm so sorry. I didn't even think…" He trailed off miserably.
Steve didn't know what to say. He was hungry, it was true. He wasn't about to apologize for that. It had been a long day, and although Pepper had brought some bottled water with her care packages, there hadn't been any food included. He didn't mind, though; she had been pressed for time, and she didn't know the real reason the bags were even necessary, so he could hardly blame her for not bringing food.
It was Tony's confession that he found vaguely alarming. Already he had been here long enough that the strange was starting to become familiar – he had to actively work to find some objectivity again when he looked at Tony. And yes, there it was. The sharp lines of Tony's face, the weary slump not just in his shoulders but in every line of his body. It was just one more piece of the puzzle, one more hint about what was happening in this world – and it did not sit well with him at all.
"I don't know about your Steve," he said briskly, "but I was taught that a soldier needs to eat if he wants to stay on his feet. And right now you look like you're about five seconds from falling over."
Immediately Tony threw his shoulders back and stood up straighter. "I'm fine," he said. "But I am a terrible host, apparently. What can I say? It's been a long time since I had guests over."
"It's okay," Steve said. "It can wait until morning." He made a mental note to be sure they ate a large breakfast – both of them. He was starting to get an idea of how badly Tony had been neglecting himself lately, and he didn't like it one bit. What kind of life was Tony living if it never even occurred to him to make sure he had enough to eat?
"I'm sorry," Tony said again.
"It's fine," Steve said. It wouldn't be the first time he had gone hungry. He would survive, no harm done. He glanced down at the tablet he was still holding, then around at the tiny living quarters. In a deliberate attempt at changing the subject, he said, "Aren't you worried that Norman Osborn will find out about these places?"
"Oh, he will," Tony said. He shrugged. "Eventually. Once he starts digging into SI's financial records. That's where Pepper comes in, stalling him as long as she can. But even after he does, all he'll find are ruins."
He sounded so calm, talking about the destruction of everything he had worked so hard to create. It boggled Steve's mind. "How can you stand this?" he asked. The rows of silent Iron Man suits blended into the darkness in the far corners of the warehouse; he couldn't count them all, couldn't even see how many were standing here. And there were so many more out there, just waiting to be found. "It must have taken you years to put all this together. And now you have to destroy it all."
Tony just looked at him. "I rebuild," he said. "It's what I always do." He gave Steve a weary smile, and in it Steve saw how truly exhausted he was. But if he had any regrets, they were not apparent.
And suddenly Steve couldn't bear to see him standing there, so rundown and tired, willing to give up everything he had – including his mind – to save people who hated him. It was too much, too reminiscent of the sacrifices his own Tony had made, and would never get the chance to make again.
When he had first arrived here, he had heard Tony recording what sounded like a suicide note. He had thought then that he hadn't been able to save his Tony, but that he could save this one. He still believed that – but he was starting to realize just how difficult his task would truly be.
"You should sleep," he said.
"No, I…" Tony glanced up at him, yet avoided making actual eye contact. "I'm not tired. Feeling kind of wired, actually. It's been one of those days, you know?"
Steve didn't doubt that he was running on pure adrenaline, and not just today, either. "You should still sleep. We've got a long day ahead of us tomorrow." He didn't even know the plan, but he felt confident in saying that anyway.
"I can't," Tony said. "Besides, not tired, remember?"
He ignored that last lie. "You're worried about the database, aren't you?"
Tony's shoulder hitched upward again. "Yeah."
"But you said the only existing copy is in your head," Steve pointed out. He kept his tone calm and quiet. He knew this drill all too well, knew that if he sounded like he was preaching or lecturing, he would only meet with stubborn resistance.
"It is," Tony said.
"So then, you can relax," Steve said. "Osborn isn't going to find us – or it – tonight."
"Yeah?" Tony said. He looked at Steve with something like a challenge in his blue eyes. "How do you know that?"
"Because I know you," Steve said. "Or, well, I know Tony Stark. You wouldn't have brought us here if it wasn't safe and you didn't have a ton of security measures in place."
"You're right," Tony said. "And what that means is that you are going to sleep and I'll keep watch. Besides, I've got a lot of work to do around here before I blow it all to kingdom come."
"That's not what I meant," Steve said.
"Well, it's what you've got," Tony said. He sounded too hearty, too cheerful. It was the vocal equivalent of that bright, fake smile, and Steve hated it.
But he was a strategist, and he knew that sometimes you had to lose a particular battle in order to win the war. "Fine," he said. "Wake me in four hours."
Tony nodded, clearly relieved that they were no longer arguing. "Okay."
Steve headed for the little cot set up in the corner. He knew perfectly well that Tony wouldn't follow through on that promise. But that was all right. He had a good internal clock; he could wake up at any hour he set his mind to. And in four hours when he woke up and confronted Tony about the lie, they could…well…he would find out then, he supposed.
For now, he curled up beneath a tan blanket and shut his eyes. He felt almost like he was rocking, his body still in motion, a leftover relic of the trip in the flying car. He would sleep, he decided, and then he would keep watch while Tony slept, and in the morning they would leave this place and be miles away when the timed explosions went off and everything in here was reduced to charred rubble.
And then, he and Tony would talk.
The lab is so new that there is nothing in here except the built-in tables; the cabinets don't even have doors yet.
He knows exactly what he is doing. His hands know, too.
Tony clutches at one of the lab tables as he hauls himself to his feet, leaving a bloody handprint behind. He turns, tries to run. But it's too late, he's already bleeding too badly inside, his beaten body failing. He falls, and this time he does not get up again.
"Steve? Don't do this."
The end is inevitable now. He could just wait and watch it happen, but time is working against him. He has to finish it quickly. He drops down to one knee, sets one hand on Tony's shoulder and shoves him flat onto his back. He pulls the arc reactor out with a simple twist of his wrist and tosses it aside. Tony arches up and utters a choked cry. He reaches out for it – or maybe for Steve himself, it's hard to say – and Steve catches his wrist, snaps it without a moment's thought.
Every little bit helps.
"Finish it," says a voice. It comes from the man standing in the corner and from inside Steve's brain, all at the same time.
The command must be obeyed, but there is really no need. The span of Tony's life can be measured in seconds now. He gasps and coughs, and blood flies from his mouth. Droplets of scarlet strike Steve in the face.
He stands up and looks down, dispassionately watching the result of his work.
Blood drips from his hands.
At the end, Tony doesn't look at him. He dies staring at the arc reactor, one hand outflung, trying to reach the thing he still thinks can save him.
"Well done," says the voice
looks at what he has done
He woke with a scream still echoing in his ears. His throat felt raw.
In those first few moments, he didn't know where he was. The huge warehouse was echoing and sinister. The shadows were too dark and deep, where anyone and anything could be hiding. He sat up, his eyes sweeping the area, searching for the source of his fright and confusion, trying to remember where he was and how he had gotten here.
The voice was achingly familiar, making his heart cry out just to hear it. And yet it was different. Deeper. More polished.
He turned his head and saw Tony standing off to the side, arms crossed over his chest, watching him with some concern. He looked tired, but alert; clearly he had not been sleeping when Steve's nightmare had caught his attention. In the dim light, his blue eyes were darker – but not dark enough to be brown. He was taller and younger and yet more beaten down than the Tony who still lived and breathed in Steve's memory.
But he was here. He was alive. And he was Tony Stark.
"Yeah," he said. It came out rather hoarsely, and he cleared his throat, tried again. "Yeah. Just a…a dream."
"Want to talk about it?" Tony asked.
He did. Or rather, he didn't, but he knew he had to. It was time.
He nodded. "I think I need to."
"Okay," Tony said simply. He continued to stand there, leaving some space between them.
Steve looked meaningfully at the foot of the bed. "Sit," he said. "You make me nervous, standing there like Colonel Phillips ready to give me KP duty."
A slightly bemused expression crossed Tony's face. He walked over to the bed and sat down in the spot Steve had indicated. There was still some space between them, enough that Steve felt comfortable telling his story, but not so much that he felt like he was doing it alone.
He took a deep breath and slowly blew it out. "I don't know how it happened here," he said, "but in my world, I wasn't the first to try the super-soldier serum. A man named Johann Schmidt was."
Tony's eyes lit up with recognition. "The Red Skull."
"So you have him, too," Steve said flatly. "That figures."
"Yeah, we have him," Tony said. "Lucky us."
"Well," Steve said, "after he took the serum, he went insane. Maybe he was unbalanced to begin with. I don't know. All I know is that he lost his mind and became the Red Skull."
Tony nodded, but did not interrupt.
"So when Dr. Erskine was approached by the U.S. Government to try again," Steve continued, "it was with one condition. He had to find a way to control his subjects. So no one else could go off the deep end like Schmidt did.
"He agreed. He built a failsafe into the project. I don't even know how it was done, to be honest. But it was basically a post-hypnotic suggestion. So if I suddenly started talking about power and supremacy, Erskine would just have to speak the right words, and he would have instant control of me. I would do whatever he said, including let myself be put in prison or an asylum or whatever their plan was, if I started…doing things."
"Oh my God," Tony said. He looked like he was going to be sick. "You don't have to say anything else. I know where this is going."
"No," Steve said. He appreciated being let off the hook like that, but he couldn't take the easy way out. Sooner or later Tony had to know what he had done. It might as well be now. "I have to say this. And you should know what you're getting into. If you stay with me."
Tony gaped at him, and Steve knew he was thinking that it should be the other way around, it should be Tony making those dire warnings about what would happen if they stuck together. But that was because Tony didn't know the truth. Tony didn't know what he had done.
"I didn't know any of this," he said. He looked over at Tony, pleading with him to believe him. "No one did. But Erskine…he left notes behind. And someone found them."
Director Fury hadn't told him much about the man who had destroyed his life. Just enough to satisfy his burning need to know without giving him enough to go on, should he decide to take matters into his own hands. "His name was William Cross. He was former CIA. Mind control was his…specialty."
Tony hissed in a sharp breath. "Crossfire. I know him, too."
"I don't know how he got Erskine's notes. Or why he found those but not the rest. Thank God he didn't." That was one of the things that had kept him up at night, wondering what would have happened if Cross – or anyone – had found Erskine's notes on the serum itself, and the formula. What had happened to Bruce Banner during his efforts at recreating the serum was bad enough. Imagining it in the hands of someone without scruples was simply horrifying.
"He got into Stark Tower somehow. He probably stole someone's company ID, I don't know. There's a lot they didn't tell me." He clasped his hands tightly between his knees and stared at his knuckles. When he blinked, he could still see the blood on them. "He got to me when I was coming back from a run in Central Park. He spoke the words and I…"
He swallowed hard. "It was like… like I ceased to exist. I could still feel things physically, but I had no thoughts of my own. Nothing except what he wanted me to think."
There were no words that could describe the horrifying experience of losing control of himself like that. He hadn't even known that he should be afraid, or that he should be fighting it. He had been so thoroughly under Cross's control that nothing had remained of his own personality. Worst of all, that terrible blankness in his head only made the memories of that day sharper and more vivid.
"He led me to an empty lab that was under construction. I guess he wanted to experiment, see what he could make me do. I don't know." He squeezed his hands together so tightly his fingers hurt. "JARVIS alerted Tony that someone was with me in the lab. The AI named JARVIS, that is. And when Tony came in to investigate, Cross told me to kill him."
He would never forget the look on Tony's face when he saw Steve coming after him. In one instant Tony's confident derision had turned into fearful concern. Yet Steve was convinced, after mentally replaying it over and over in his head, that Tony's fear had been for Steve. Not for himself and his own safety.
If it had been, though? If Tony had turned and bolted in those first few moments?
Maybe things would have turned out differently. Maybe not. He would never know.
Instead of running, Tony had stood his ground. He had fired off some quick orders to JARVIS and then he had turned his attention to Steve, trying to talk him down and make him snap out of it. He had still been talking when Steve hit him for the first time.
"I beat him to death," Steve whispered. "It happened so fast." His hands pressed and squeezed until he thought he would break his own fingers. "He tried to run, but it was too late. I just kept hitting him. All the things I learned in the war. Maximum damage. Internal bleeding. I—" He choked on the words, could not continue.
"It's okay," the other Tony murmured. "You don't have to."
"I do," Steve insisted. He kept his gaze focused on his hands, trying not to see the blood there.
"The Avengers were coming. And he had remotely summoned the suit. I didn't have much time. When he fell…" He reached out, mimed a plucking gesture in mid-air. "I pulled out the arc reactor." He could see it in his mind's eye, the white light glowing steadily even as he tossed it to the side like unwanted trash.
Then, even though the question hadn't been asked, he said, "The arc reactor kept his heart beating. He designed it himself. It was so beautiful. Just like he was."
His voice broke and he had to breathe in deep, getting control of himself once more. "Later they said… I wasn't supposed to hear… But they said he was already going into cardiac arrest from the blood loss and the trauma. When I took it out, I just made it happen faster."
At the end Tony hadn't looked at him, or tried to stop him anymore. He had stared helplessly at the arc reactor, blood streaking down his face, his eyes wide with shock and a terrible, hurt confusion.
And then he had just…died.
"I didn't feel anything. Satisfaction, I guess. Maybe. I don't know."
He remembered looking up at Crossfire, and seeing the smile slowly spreading across the man's face. Until it actually happened, Cross hadn't really believed that Steve would obey a command that went so counter to his very nature. The true potential of what he had achieved had finally begun to dawn on him then.
And Steve had just stood there.
He had still been just standing there when the doors – and one of the walls – burst in and the Avengers came pouring inside. He hadn't done anything at all as they worked to subdue Crossfire. Natasha had run up to Tony and knelt beside him. He would never forget the look on her face when she had raised her head from checking Tony's pulse – and spotted the blood on Steve's hands.
She had been the first one to realize what had happened, to understand the true horror of the situation.
Crossfire's control had been broken when Thor knocked him unconscious. Steve had staggered a little, blinked in dazed shock, and then looked down at Tony.
It was growing harder to keep talking, to make himself remember. "They wouldn't let me…" Thor had held him back, pinning his arms, refusing to let him go even when he howled and pleaded. Now, so long after the fact, he understood the reasons why, but it still hurt to remember. "I didn't get to say good-bye. I would've…"
He had been trying so hard not to cry, but now that became impossible. "I would have touched him one last time. I would have kissed him. I would have told him I was sorry. I'm so sorry." Tears ran down his face, blinding him.
"I wish I could have told him how much I loved him."
He couldn't speak anymore. He buried his face in his hands and wept.
Tony had heard some awful tales in his time, had even been the key player in some of them. But he had never heard anything like this.
The worst part was the sure knowledge that there was nothing he could do. Not two feet away from him sat Steve Rogers – and he was weeping for another Tony Stark altogether.
Yet he had to do something. He had to at least try. Carefully he shifted over on the bed so he was closer to Steve. He raised his hand, hesitated, then let it drop back to his lap.
He had expected something like this would happen. Sleep wasn't something he got very much of lately, but tonight it had been the furthest thing from his mind. Standing there watching Steve sleep, he had felt the oddest rush of protectiveness, as though he alone stood between Steve and the horrors of this world. This Steve was so young yet, so inexperienced, so profoundly – and blissfully – unaware of what awaited him beyond their mission.
So he had anticipated the nightmares. Steve had let it slip to him back in his office that he had killed his own Tony. And the shock and confusion of arriving in this world instead of his own would not go away so easily, even if he was good at pretending to move forward. All those things would have blurred into a mess in his head that could only present itself in one way.
He lifted his hand again, and this time found the courage to let it rest on Steve's shoulder.
Immediately Steve jerked away, lifting his head and glaring at him. "Don't," he ordered.
Tony lowered his hand. "Okay," he said.
"Don't," Steve said again. He slid off the bed, backed away a few steps, then pointed at Tony. "I know what you want, and I'm telling you now, no. You're not him, you will never be him, and I would never…" He shook his head. "No."
The rejection stung, even though Tony told himself it shouldn't. "Okay," he said again. He managed a tight smile. "I heard you the first time. Although for the record, I was only offering a shoulder to cry on."
"…oh." Steve stood down right away, his shoulders slumping, his head dropping. "Sorry."
"No worries," Tony told him, and forced himself to smile wider, to make it more genuine. This Steve had been intimate with his Tony, and would be that much quicker to spot a fake. "You're not the first person to fear for their virtue around me."
"Tony…" Steve looked pained. "That's not what I meant."
"I know," he reassured Steve. "I was making a joke. It's what I do when I'm in this kind of situation. I mean, it's either laugh or cry, right?" He stood up, but was careful not to take a step forward or do anything to make it look like he was up to something.
"Right," Steve said with a rather forced, weak chuckle. He sniffed a bit loudly and wiped quickly at the wetness on his cheeks.
If this were his Steve, there were a dozen things he could say now. Old inside jokes, reminders of previous obstacles they had overcome, a promise for a brighter future. But this was not his Steve. This was a stranger wearing Steve Rogers' face, and he had to remember that.
He sighed. He hated to do this, but some things were too important. As kindly as he could, he said, "Steve, I have to ask you. The phrase Crossfire used to take control of you. Could it be used again, even accidentally?"
The color drained from Steve's face. He shook his head. "No."
"You're sure," Tony insisted.
"It's a very specific phrase," Steve said. "It makes no literal sense." He smiled bitterly. "You don't have to worry. You're safe from me."
"I know I am," Tony said immediately. He had absolutely no fears in that regard. He didn't even need to know what the trigger was. "I'm sorry for asking. I just had to be sure."
"No, it's good that you thought of it," Steve said. He sounded tired now. "That's why I went back, you know. It was the whole reason they sent me through time. They thought if I could warn Tony and tell him the words, he could find a way to either remove the trigger from my mind completely, or else just protect himself when the day came and it…it happened."
"I'm sorry it didn't work out that way," Tony said.
"Yeah," Steve sighed. "Me too."
Tony blinked. That swift response hurt, although he knew he should have expected it.
Steve saw his reaction, and hurried on. "But if I had to end up somewhere else, I'm glad it was here. I'm glad I got to meet you and stop you from doing something terrible to yourself."
Tony didn't know what to say to that. He felt strangely guilty, suddenly aware all over again of how close to suicide his plan had been. He couldn't imagine what it must have done to Steve to learn of it.
He cleared his throat. "You should rest. When was the last time you slept?"
Steve made that weak little laughing noise again. "When was the last time you slept?"
About a year ago, he would say, if he were being truthful. But he and honesty had long ago parted company. At least, that was what everyone said.
"Don't worry about me," Tony said. "I'm fine. And I've got lots to do, really." That part was entirely true, unfortunately. In the morning he was going to blow this place sky-high, but first he had to make sure each suit was dead and dry, with the repulsor tech removed and destroyed. He could take no chances that even a single one could be salvaged from the wreckage.
"Try to get some sleep," he said. "I'll see you in a little bit." It would be longer than that, but hopefully by the time he was done, Steve would be fast asleep and never know about his lie.
Steve nodded miserably. Tony hesitated, wishing he knew what to say that might make him feel better, even though that was like wishing he wasn't in this situation in the first place. Completely impossible, in other words.
He sighed, then turned around and walked away.
In the morning they headed southeast, toward Atlanta.
Right away Tony realized that he had a problem.
Pepper had brought plenty of cash, so buying food and gas wasn't the issue. It was the necessary social interaction involved with those things that was the issue. Because he had done nothing to disguise his appearance, he couldn't be the one to pay for their gas, or charm the cashier at the fast food restaurants. Steve had to do those things.
And Tony didn't want to let Steve out of his sight.
It was stupid, he knew it was stupid, but he was afraid that if he took his eyes off Steve for too long, he would vanish as suddenly as he had first appeared. As though Steve was just another hallucination, not one come to choke him and then give him useful information, but one who was just as ephemeral, destined to disappear on him.
In the middle of the night, when Steve had finally slept easily and Tony had stood there watching over him, it had occurred to him that maybe he was delirious. Maybe he had started the brain delete after all, and all this was only happening inside his head. Maybe his mind was playing out this scenario to rationalize the loss of all that data, substituting Iron Man suits for cold hard facts and unwanted memories.
Maybe none of this was real.
There were thousands upon thousands of worlds out there, each of them spinning along in tandem with this one, separated by nothing more than a fateful choice, a moment of decision. Reed had shown him some of them one day when they were supposed to be working on 42, practically glowing with pride over his portals and the chance to demonstrate what lay beyond them.
Tony had been morbidly fascinated by the whole concept. In some of those worlds he had been dead, killed by shrapnel in Afghanistan. In some of them he had died fighting Galactus, or Kang, or the Mandarin. In some of them, he was beaten down on a bloody, fire-riddled street in the middle of a Civil War.
In other worlds, he was happy. He was married to Rumiko. Sometimes there were children. He was with Bethany, with Pepper, with Tiberius. And in some of those worlds, he was with Steve.
Those were the ones he hadn't been able to look at.
But all those wide and varied parallel worlds had been just that – parallel. He had never imagined that one day they might intersect, that he would find himself beside Steve Rogers again.
He stood at the gas pump now, a baseball cap pulled low over his forehead, his back to the security camera perched up above. The pose also gave him the perfect line of sight to watch as Steve chatted easily with the cashier inside the store while he waited for his change. He too was wearing a ball cap, along with a pair of dark sunglasses and some of Tony's clothing that Pepper had brought, all of it just a little too tight on his broad frame. Tony watched the cashier closely, looking for signs that the young man recognized Steve. If that happened – not just here, but anywhere – they would be in big trouble. The best thing they could hope for then was someone who merely tried to kill Steve for being a Skrull imposter.
He lingered beside the car as Steve finished up inside, waiting for him to approach before getting back behind the wheel. Steve had offered to drive earlier, but Tony had refused. He wanted to do this himself.
"The guy in there had a TV," Steve said as he buckled his seat belt. "The morning news was talking about Osborn's press conference. There's supposed to be hundreds of police officers there to keep the peace, along with HAMMER agents."
Tony's lip curled. He started the car and drove away from the pump. "I don't know why. He can't really think I'm going to swoop in there and hit him in the face with a repulsor blast." He checked traffic, then pulled out onto the road. "Tempting though it may be."
"Maybe he's worried about the Avengers," Steve suggested. "You do know you aren't the only superhero out there, right?"
"None of them will do anything," Tony said. They might show up, and in fact he was pretty sure some of them would, but they wouldn't act. Not with all those innocent civilians and reporters gathered together. Not to mention, none of them would lift a finger if Osborn declared war on Tony Stark, as Tony suspected he would. They all hated him now.
He missed Extremis then, missed it badly. The days when he would have monitored Osborn and the press conference all in his head were long gone, though. The Skrulls had seen to that. He was like everyone else now, forced to get his information from the news media and the Internet.
The press conference was at 2:00. He would have to make sure they stopped somewhere so they could watch it. He needed to know what he was up against. It wasn't just his life at stake – it was Steve and the Avengers, Peter Parker, the Fantastic Four – every superhero who was listed in the database Osborn wanted so badly. Speculation and a futurist's guesswork weren't going to be good enough this time. He needed facts.
He needed to be ready.
They drove on.
An uneasy silence filled the car. Most of Tony's attention was for the highway, but he kept stealing little glances at his passenger.
Steve was finally reading the news articles on the StarkTablet Pepper had provided. Occasionally he made a quiet sound as he read something that caused him to react. Each time he did this, Tony tried to imagine what had prompted that particular little outburst.
For sure one of them must have been caused by the news that he had killed innocent people when Yinsen's son had hijacked his mind and taken control of him through Extremis. Then there was the horror of Stamford, and all those children killed. The news that the Superhuman Registration Act had become law. An editorial stating that Captain America was right for breaking that law and going into hiding. The Daily Bugle's three-page article about Steve's murder. The blaring headlines and horrific photos of the damage after the Skrull invasion, complete with scathing commentary on how complacent Tony Stark had become, leading to the total failure of all his tech, allowing the Skrulls to get as far as they had in their attempt at conquering the planet.
Steve did not say anything to him at first – although he did look up from time to time and give Tony an inscrutable look, his blue eyes narrowed thoughtfully, before he returned to his reading. It wasn't until they had been on the road for a couple hours that he finally spoke. "You know, it's funny." He held up the StarkTablet. "It's almost like you want me to dislike you."
Tony gripped the steering wheel tightly and kept his eyes on the road. "I just want you to know the truth," he said quietly.
"I think I can figure that out for myself," Steve said. And with that, he lowered his window and let go of the tablet. It struck the asphalt of Interstate 95, bounced once, then shattered into a dozen pieces.
It was on the tip of Tony's tongue to protest the senseless destruction of such a fine specimen of technology, but before he could say anything, Steve put the window back up and said, "I'm getting hungry. When do we stop for lunch?"
"Um," Tony said, buying himself time as his thoughts raced. He could hardly believe what he had just seen. Steve had read it all – and didn't care.
It didn't seem possible. How could he not be affected? How could he read about his own death, and remain so calm? Why didn't he blame Tony like everyone else did?
He risked a glance at Steve, and was again struck by how young he was. It seemed impossible that he and his own Steve had once been that age. When his Steve had been this young, he hadn't even known that Tony Stark and Iron Man were the same person.
And that… God. That just wasn't fair. Time should have stood still for them. Instead it had dragged them forward against their will, into a future neither of them had wanted.
He had never realized how precious those early days were, when the Avengers were the center of his life and he had a family like none other. When he was young and stupidly in love and too afraid to say anything.
His breath caught on a sudden stab of pain. That pain was almost physical, like a knife in his chest. But he knew what this was. He was familiar with grief, the way it could lie dormant for weeks, months, even years, just a part of you like having blue eyes and a damaged heart. Then without warning it was there, in your face and undeniable, a pain that demanded acknowledgement.
Like right now. Making him want to pull over to the side of the road, drop his head onto the steering wheel, and cry for lost opportunities. For all the words he had never said and would never get to say, for the heartache of having this new Steve all to himself.
Because it wouldn't last, of course. Sooner or later he would have to tell other people what had happened, and introduce them to Steve. Decency demanded that he tell Bucky Barnes and Sharon Carter first, but he couldn't bear the thought of facing either one of them right now. Once Steve was aware of the demands of being Captain America in this world, Tony would lose him for good. Duty would call, and Steve would get out from under his influence and find out what kind of person he really was, and that would be the end of any friendship between them.
But for now he still had Steve to himself. It was time to move past the Steve Rogers he had silently loved for so long. He had been given a second chance, and he had never been one to waste that kind of opportunity.
Right here beside him, through some amazing miracle, was another Steve Rogers. He barely knew this man, but already he could tell that his heart was in the right place. He had offered to help Tony fight back against Norman Osborn and he didn't even know – or care – how dangerous that was. He just wanted to help. He might be young, but he was a genuinely good person.
He hoped like hell that the other version of himself, the one from this Steve's world, the one he was not bitterly jealous of, had known just what he had. That the other Tony had treasured this Steve, had loved him like he deserved to be loved, had told him that he was loved.
He hoped they had been happy, even if it was only for a short time.
He sighed now and glanced again at Steve, who was still waiting for an answer to his question. "We can stop whenever you want," he said.
At 1:59 they were standing in front of a wall of television sets in a Best Buy store outside Charlotte, North Carolina.
Every single one was showing Norman Osborn's press conference.
It certainly wasn't the best way to watch it, but it was the only thing Tony had been able to think of. A sports bar might have worked, but he couldn't be certain the TVs there would be turned to the press conference. Then there was the issue of volume. In a bar the volume on the TVs was usually muted. Here in the store, he could hear every word – in perfect stereo sound.
Beside him, Steve was pretending to study a price tag on one of the larger TVs. They were both wearing ball caps now, and Tony chewed thoughtfully on his thumb so he could keep one hand in front of his face and hide his mustache. Under the guise of buying a new TV, he and Steve kept shooting little glances at the other customers, checking to see if anyone had recognized them yet.
They were playing a dangerous game, but then, Tony didn't know how to play any other kind.
Precisely at 2:00, Osborn walked on stage. He was wearing a crisp gray suit, and he looked perfectly relaxed and at ease. The reporters had a field day taking pictures and shouting his name. Osborn soaked up the attention for a little bit, then got down to business.
The very first question made it clear what was really going on. "What did Tony Stark know exactly and when exactly did he know it?"
"Great question," Osborn answered. With a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, Tony wondered just how much he had paid that reporter to start things off. "We're asking ourselves the same thing because right now we can't answer it precisely."
The next reporter must have been paid, too. "Did Stark negotiate with the Skrulls?"
Osborn was good. Very good. He managed to make his well-rehearsed answer sound spontaneous. "Well, again, we've got a lot of questions for Mr. Stark – that's one we'd definitely like to ask. Either Tony Stark tried to negotiate with the Skrulls or he didn't. And either result was disastrous, I think you'd agree."
Tony clenched the hand at his mouth into a fist. And either result was disastrous. With just five words, Osborn had condemned him to the entire world. No matter what he did now, he couldn't win. Either he had tried to save the world and failed, or he had tried to sell out the world and failed.
The irony was, the common denominator in those two scenarios was actually true.
From the corner of his eye he saw Steve watching him, but Tony could not look away. The TVs stretched halfway across the room, a wall of Norman Osborns looking down at him, hiding a smile as he casually dismantled Tony's future, one brick at a time.
The questions now turned to the suits, to Iron Man. And here again, Osborn had an answer ready to deliver. "I can tell you this. Oscorp is retrofitting any Iron Man technology that HAMMER has seized, and will continue to do so in the name of the public good. The Iron Man will no longer be Stark's personal plaything. HAMMER's cleaning it alllll up." He held up a clenched fist, giving the cameramen a great pose to capture.
Tony felt sick. He had known, of course, that Osborn would raid every factory, every warehouse, every office building connected to Stark Industries. Pepper would do her best, but there was only so much she could do. Right at this very moment, people were losing their jobs. He was good to his employees, and they in turn were loyal to the end. It wasn't their fault that the end had come far sooner than anyone could have anticipated.
A new reporter stood up. Unlike the others, she stood there with her arms crossed and an expression of healthy skepticism on her face. "Are you actually bringing any charges against Tony Stark? Has he committed any crimes?"
Tony could have kissed her. For a fleeting moment he wondered if Pepper had paid this reporter.
Osborn looked ticked off; he too folded his arms. "I don't know how to say it any clearer: We have questions. We have an intriguing amount of circumstantial evidence that demands they be asked. And only Tony Stark can answer them."
That was the last question Osborn answered. He announced that he would be in Restoration Park – formerly Central Park – tomorrow morning at 10:00, and that he hoped Tony Stark would meet him there to turn himself in and cooperate with HAMMER's investigation of the Skrull invasion. He posed once more for the flashing cameras, then he left the stage.
From start to finish, the whole thing lasted less than five minutes.
"Hey." Steve spoke very quietly.
The view on the wall of TVs cut away to the broadcast journalists on the various news stations who had were now dissecting Osborn's words. Tony stared at them blankly; he did not hear their discussion.
"Hey." Steve touched his elbow.
He startled back, dropping his hand from his mouth to hold it palm outward, aimed at Steve's head. Just a few weeks ago he would have been able to mentally summon an actual repulsor to aim, but that ability was lost now – just one more thing the Skrulls had stolen from him when their virus had affected Extremis.
"We need to go," Steve said. His voice was very calm, but very serious.
Tony just looked at him. He could feel the ground dropping out from beneath him. Every word Norman Osborn had said was another hole dug in the earth. Soon there would be nothing solid to stand on at all.
Soon he would fall.
"We have to go now," Steve said. His gaze flicked up to a point past Tony's shoulder, then returned to Tony's face. "Are you listening to me?"
Where the hell were they supposed to go, he wanted to ask. They were on their way to Atlanta, and another armory to destroy. There would be more after that, and then the factory in Austin and the hard drive he had to recover, and that was all well and good, but what came after that? When did they stop running? When did he stop dragging Steve down into the mud with him and turn him loose? When did he accept that there was no atoning for what he had done, that nothing he did would ever put things right again?
"I know it's upsetting," Steve said. His voice was low and urgent; his hand was still outstretched. "But we need to leave. Now."
"Sir?" The speaker came from behind them. "Sir, would you mind coming with me?"
And abruptly Tony remembered where he was.
And what he had done.
That move he had made. That single gesture, that classic Iron Man pose. It was so simple, but it was enough.
And in doing it, he had revealed his face.
He knew what came next, unfortunately. All too well. "How many?" he murmured, barely moving his lips.
"Three," Steve said. "Two more by the door."
Tony took a deep breath. "Ready?"
Steve gave him a tight smile. "Are you?"
"Watch me," Tony said.
Five of them. Unarmed civilians. Store employees, no doubt. Maybe a couple of well-intentioned shoppers who had realized what was going on. He had no desire to hurt any of them. But he would, if he was left with no other choice. He hadn't come this far and gone through so much just for it all to end in a Best Buy in North Carolina.
He whirled around, and Steve moved into position beside him – or at least, tried to. The move was timed badly; they collided, their shoulders and upper arms bumping. Tony reeled and staggered to his right. He shot Steve a filthy look, but Steve didn't see it because he was already running for the door.
A split second later, he saw why. One of the employees had hit the button that activated the metal grating that covered the doors when the store was closed, preventing anyone from breaking the glass and getting inside. It was already almost halfway down. No matter how fast they ran, they wouldn't make it in time. They were too deep inside the store.
Steve spun and dodged the reaching grasp of an employee, planted one heel and came to a halt, avoiding a lunge from one other employee, then began running again.
A hand seized Tony's arm. "Mr. Stark?"
It was too easy. All those sparring lessons with Steve – his Steve – and he had never forgotten a single one. He broke the man's hold and put him down with a sweeping kick, then began to run after Steve.
People were shouting now. Some looked around for safety, while others stood in shell-shocked silence. Cries of what's going on and Stark filled the store. The wall of TVs was still showing the news anchors discussing Norman Osborn's remarks at the press conference.
Steve had reached the center of the store. A large display of the latest releases in video games took up a big chunk of space there, complete with a full-size replica of an armored soldier who was probably a playable character in one of the games. The soldier was armed with an M60 machine gun – but there was a shield strapped to his back.
Without a moment's hesitation, Steve grabbed the shield. It came free from the model with a sharp crack.
Tony's eyes widened. It was already bad enough that he had been recognized. If he let Steve do this, it would only be a matter of time before people put it together and guessed the identity of his mystery companion.
But there was no time to call out a warning. Steve faltered slightly as his furious yank toppled the model of the soldier, then hurled the disc with all his strength.
Tony didn't stop running. He dodged a tall shopper who tried to grab his arm, and watched the shield go flying. It struck the descending metal grate hard enough to knock it off the track with a loud clang. With an ugly grinding noise, the grate came to a halt, still four feet above the ground.
"You should be ashamed!" a woman cried shrilly. "Captain America was a good man!"
Immediately another voice shouted, "He was a traitor!" and a heated argument sprang up.
And, well, that settled that question. Apparently people were going to put two and two together and come up with five.
The two employees who had stationed themselves in front of the doors looked nervous now. Steve's makeshift shield had clattered to the floor instead of rebounding back to him, but the man and woman standing there both skittered away from it as though it might leap up and attack them. In their moment of fear, it was simple to shove them at each other, squawking and with arms flailing, duck beneath the grating, and run out the door.
The afternoon seemed very bright and hot compared to the air-conditioned fluorescent lighting of the store. Tony fumbled in his pocket for the keys even as he and Steve split up in order to go around the car.
"Got 'em?" Steve asked breathlessly.
"Yeah," Tony panted as he finally managed to pull the keys free. He jammed his finger on the button to unlock the car, grabbed at the door handle, missed, grabbed again, and yanked it open.
Behind them, people were spilling out of the store.
"Stark! Just turn yourself in!" one guy shouted.
"Why did you do it?" cried another.
"You got a lot of nerve!" yelled still another.
Tony started the car and floored it as they backed out of the parking space. The engine roared and the car shot backward. Shoppers and store employees scattered. Nearly half of them were already on their phone – and others were busy snapping pictures of the car and the New York license plate.
He drove through empty parking spaces and cut corners to reach the exit as soon as was humanly possible, then pulled out into three lanes of traffic, cutting off a white Chevy. Horns blared. Tony checked the rearview mirror anxiously, but of course there was no one there. By the time the quickest person was able to follow them, they would be long gone.
Not that it mattered. Within minutes Osborn and HAMMER would know what kind of car he was driving, and where he was.
"Are you okay?" Steve asked. "Were you hurt?"
"I'm fine," Tony said curtly. "But the next time we have to make a run for it, I'd appreciate it if you told me your plan ahead of time."
Steve looked away. "I thought you would know," he muttered.
"Well, I didn't," Tony said. He checked the rearview mirror, confirmed that there was no one following them, then changed lanes.
"We need to pay for the damage we did," Steve said.
Tony shot him an incredulous look. "We just ran for our lives from a Best Buy, and you're concerned about property damage?"
Steve just returned his stare calmly.
Forced to return his attention to the road, Tony sighed. "I should have known you would say that. My Steve would've--" Abruptly he realized what he was saying, and he broke off and swallowed hard.
"Not so different after all," Steve said quietly.
No, Tony thought sadly as they got back on the interstate, heading south to another armory, to another round of destruction.
Not so different at all.
That night Tony shaved off his mustache. It was harder than it should have been. He had a headache and he was so tired he could barely focus his eyes. He nicked himself twice, much to his displeasure, and it seemed to take a long time for the bleeding to stop.
Steve stared at him for so long that Tony actually felt a little bit self-conscious – which was an unusual feeling for him. "What?"
"Nothing," Steve said. He gave a half-hearted shrug. "It's just that I've never seen you – him – without facial hair."
Tony chose to ignore the slip in pronouns. "It grows back."
"I know," Steve said, a bit indignantly. "I just…"
"It makes for a good disguise," Tony said. "You should let yours grow."
Steve made a face. They were deep below the Atlanta armory; he was walking aimlessly around the small living space, cradling a cup of coffee that had to be stone-cold by now. "You said you've gone in disguise before. When was the last time you had to do that?"
Tony rinsed the last of the hair down the sink. He could feel his heart doing a funny little quivery thing inside his chest. He knew the answer to Steve's question, all right, but he wanted to give himself some extra time before replying. "Ah, about a year ago. When I, um, when that kid hacked into Extremis."
Steve nodded a little and pretended to study the contents of his coffee mug. "When you… When that… When that happened, and you did those things… Did you know? How did it feel?"
When you did those things. Such a bland euphemism. What he really should have said was, When you killed those innocent people.
None of his friends had asked him that question. Sal Kennedy had come close, the day he had gone to his friend for refuge, too stunned and horrified over what he had done to even think straight. He had often wondered if things might have been different if he had gone to Steve that day instead. If that show of trust could have been enough, if it might have allowed him to take still another leap of faith and tell Steve about the Registration Act and the problems that would arise from it.
But he hadn't. He had gone to Sal's house, and he had handled the whole incident on his own, doing things his way, without telling anyone of his plan. The way he always did. Just one more nail in his coffin, as far as the superhero community was concerned.
"I didn't know," he said quietly. He glanced up at his reflection, then winced away, wishing he hadn't been so stupid. The man in the mirror looked haggard and worn, his eyes deeply shadowed, his mouth too exposed without the cover of a dark mustache. That man looked guilty.
"I didn't know it was happening," he said. "I wasn't missing any time. I had no blackouts. Nothing to indicate anything was wrong."
Steve nodded. Still speaking to his coffee cup, he said, "I know that Crossfire forced me to kill Tony. The same way Yinsen's son forced you to kill those innocent people. But it's a hard thing to believe."
"Yeah," Tony breathed.
At one point or another, nearly all of the Avengers had experienced mind control of some form. It happened, people did terrible things while under its influence, and then it was over. They didn't talk about it. Ever. None of them compared experiences, none of them spoke about it, none of them even mentioned it again. It was just buried in the past, as though such a thing could be so easily left behind, not a terrible part of you, forever there.
And Tony was fine with that. He didn't actually want to talk about it. Remembering it was awful enough. And thinking about what Steve had done while under the influence of mind control was still worse.
But at least Steve had the courage to talk about it. To say, in essence: I understand. I know how you feel. Because I feel it, too. And that was more than anyone else had ever done.
He looked over at Steve staring morosely down at his coffee, and was struck all over again by his youth. He could barely remember those days when he had been so young, when being Iron Man and an Avenger was still new and exciting. "Can I ask you a question?"
Steve's jaw clenched. No doubt he was expecting a question about the murder he had committed. "Okay."
"How old are you?" Tony asked.
Steve looked up in surprise. His shoulders slumped a little as he relaxed. "I'm 27. Or 95. Depending on how you want to look at it. What about you?"
Tony told him.
Steve's eyes widened a little. "But all that stuff you've done…?"
And this Steve didn't even know the half of it. Hell, this Steve didn't know ninety percent of it. "I was young when I started out," he said.
"I guess so," Steve said. He started to raise his mug toward his lips, then grimaced and lowered it again.
With a casualness he didn't really feel, Tony turned away from the sink. He squatted down in front of his bag and put his razor back in its travel case, then zipped the bag up. On the floor beside it rested the suitcase that held his armor. Not the Extremis suit anymore, no, but the one that had come before it. The one he was still relearning how to use.
He stood up, ignoring the way the room did a slow tilt around him. "By the way, you know it's not true, right? What they said at the store. You weren't – Steve wasn't a traitor."
Steve just nodded. He looked down at his coffee mug, then slowly sat on the metal folding chair that was all this particular armory had to offer as far as living room furniture went.
That non-answer wasn't good enough. This was important. Tony needed some kind of acknowledgement, some proof that Steve had heard him – and believed him. "Steve?" he prompted.
"I know," Steve said quietly.
It was the best he was going to get, and Tony knew it. He sighed and let the matter drop.
Taking him by surprise, the sigh turned into a jaw-cracking yawn. He blinked rapidly to clear his fuzzy vision. When he could focus his eyes again, he saw Steve staring up at him with a worried frown.
"When was the last time you slept?" Steve asked.
"I…" Tony stopped and scowled at him. "You know, it doesn't matter. There—"
"It doesn't matter?" Steve repeated. He looked slightly incredulous, slightly angry. "Taking care of yourself doesn't matter?"
Tony bristled. The last thing he needed right now was to be scolded by this replacement Steve Rogers. "There are more important things happening right now," he snapped. "You think Norman Osborn's out there taking a nap? You think his HAMMER agents are stopping to cook themselves dinner? We're on the run, Steve. People's lives are on the line. If Osborn catches up to us, if they take me into custody and hook me up to their network, it's all over. Do you understand? I had a plan, a good plan. But then you showed up and everything changed, and that's okay, because I can adapt, but now we've got a problem. Because there is no new plan and we still don't know how to take Norman Osborn down. We—"
"Don't blame me," Steve said tightly. "If you think coming here was my idea—"
"I'm not blaming you." Tony interrupted him before he could really get going. "I'm just saying. I had a plan. And now I don't."
"And you don't like that," Steve said.
"No," Tony said. "I don't." He could feel another yawn wanting to build in his chest and throat, but he ruthlessly stamped it down.
"And I thought my Tony had control issues," Steve said wryly.
Tony opened his mouth to say that he wasn't that bad, when Steve said, "And for the record, your plan was not a good one. It was terrible." He set his coffee mug down on the floor beside the Army cot, then stood up. "Now I'm going to go do a patrol of the area. And you are going to sleep."
"I'm really not," Tony said – and yawned again.
Steve looked at him with some amusement. "You were saying?"
Tony just stared back at him. "I can't," he said. Now that his body had betrayed him into admitting just how tired he was, he found that sleep was all he could think about. And yet the idea of sleeping here, now, in Steve's presence, was too awful to contemplate.
"You need to," Steve said. He sounded so kind, like he genuinely cared, that it made Tony's heart ache.
"I know," he sighed. He looked away, gazing down at a crack in the unfinished concrete floor. "But I can't."
"Why not?" Steve asked, still in that terribly kind voice.
Tony closed his eyes. "Because I dream about…about you."
"Oh," Steve said on a sad exhalation of breath.
"Not like that," Tony said, even though nothing in Steve's response had suggested he was thinking such things. "But just…like y-- like he's still there. Helping me out. Giving me information." He shook his head and opened his eyes, although it was very difficult; his eyelids seemed to weigh a ton now. "He helped me with the Mandarin when I needed it."
"When was this?" Steve asked.
"Pretty recently," Tony said. He wished he hadn't brought it up. Thinking of his latest altercation with the Mandarin only served to remind him that Sal Kennedy was dead now, thanks to him. One more friend gone, sacrificed on the altar of the great Tony Stark's ego. "Just before the Skrull invasion, actually." He mustered up a smile. "I pushed Extremis's healing powers to the limits then. It's probably just as well that I don't have it anymore, or I'd still be pushing at it."
Steve frowned. "Why? What happened?"
Tony gestured to his foot. "I sliced my heel off."
Steve's earlier compassion might have been an act, but there was nothing fake about his pained wince. "God, Tony. Didn't that hurt?"
He shrugged and fought back another yawn. He could only blame his sudden willingness to talk about the past on how tired he was. "We do what we have to, to get the job done. I figure you might know something about that. But yeah, it did. I was bleeding out in my boot the whole time."
"You really do go to extremes, don't you?" Steve shook his head.
That stung, but Tony was too tired to really defend himself. "I've got a lot to atone for," he said, and left it at that.
Steve sighed heavily. "Yeah," he said. "I know that feeling."
An uneasy silence fell between them. Tony thought about spending the night huddled in the dark on Sal Kennedy's deck, feeling utterly alone in the world even though his friend slept not ten feet away. He thought about Steve – his Steve – and what he would say to this other version of himself.
He took a deep breath. "When we get to Austin, once we've done what we came there to do, I'll make a few calls. It's time you met the new Captain America."
Steve drew himself up a little, like the soldier he was. He probably didn't even know he was doing it. "You aren't going to tell me who it is, though, are you?"
"Not yet," Tony said. He still didn't know if Bucky Barnes was alive or dead in this Steve's world. With that in mind, he had figured it was best not to take any chances, so he had deliberately asked Pepper to make sure that none of the news articles pre-installed on the StarkTablet mentioned Bucky.
He would tell Steve the truth, though. All of it. He owed the man that much.
But not tonight. He had already faced too many truths for one day.
"I thought so," Steve said. "I tell you what. I'll make you a deal. You get some sleep, and I won't ask you every five minutes who took my place in this world."
Tony glared at him. "You wouldn't."
Steve folded his arms and set his jaw. "Try me."
He didn't know this Steve all that well yet, but something told Tony that he wasn't bluffing. "You're a cruel man. Has anyone ever told you that?"
"A few," Steve replied. He didn't sound at all apologetic.
"Fine," Tony sighed. "I'll do my best. But don't blame me if it doesn't work."
Steve relaxed his stance, lowering his arms. "You didn't blame me last night," he said quietly.
Tony eyed the cot. The hard, narrow mattress looked more heavenly than the largest, fluffiest bed in all the world. Despite that, he guessed he might get two, maybe three hours of sleep before the nightmares set in. He hoped it wouldn't happen that way, but he hadn't made a name for himself as a futurist for nothing, after all.
"All right," he said. "Here goes nothing."
In spite of all his protests, once he finally surrendered and lay down, Tony fell asleep almost instantly. Steve waited long enough to make sure he wouldn't wake up again right away, then left the living quarters and roamed restlessly through the armory.
He was thinking.
The Iron Man suits here were of many varieties. Some were meant for underwater work, others for deep space. Some of the designs were eerily identical to ones Steve had seen before, in New York and Malibu. Others were completely new to him. And in the morning, they would all be destroyed.
He sighed. His Tony Stark had been a mass of conflicting emotions and impulses; arrogance and insecurity, selfishness and generosity, charm and abrasiveness. This Tony had all those things, too, but to a much higher degree.
And it could not have been clearer that this Tony Stark hated himself.
Every one of the news stories on the tablet Tony had provided had cast him in a negative light. Even his own recitation of his history had been deeply skewed, giving no real explanation or defense for his actions.
It's almost as if you want me to dislike you.
Steve looked at a suit that was obviously older; the faceplate had a weird metal nose piece. Even with the nose, the face looked blank, unfinished. He reached out to touch it, then let his hand drop back to his side with a sharp sigh.
He wasn't a fool. He could read between the lines. And he understood far more about Tony and this world than Tony thought he did.
That business with Extremis, for instance. When Tony had been mind controlled and forced to kill those people. It had only ended when one of his own armors had attacked the Avengers in New York City. The suit had seized Steve Rogers, intent on squeezing the life out of him.
And Tony, without hesitation, had killed himself in order to stop the armor.
He had killed himself to save Steve.
But Steve only knew that because it had been in the news article on that tablet. Tony himself hadn't mentioned it. As though it didn't count, wasn't important, wasn't enough to make up for the horrors he had committed before that moment of self-sacrifice.
It seemed that in any world, Tony Stark was doomed to be his own worst enemy.
Steve ran his hand down the cool metal arm of the suit with the nosepiece. All these armors, never even worn or used. Stored here in the event that one day they might be needed. Marked for destruction now, so Norman Osborn wouldn't get his hands on them – as he would, once he delved deep enough into the financial records from Stark Industries and realized that the company was still paying for the utilities on all these supposedly abandoned warehouses.
It had to be killing Tony to destroy all this, years of hard work and planning erased in an instant. Yet he was doing it, and without any apparent regret. All to save the lives of people who, according to him, hated his very name. People who had fought alongside him until recently – and then they had fought against him.
And that was the fate that awaited Steve's world. Friends turning on each other, heroes fighting among themselves, mistrust and paranoia ruling them all. Even though he wouldn't be there to witness it, he still grieved for all the people he would never see again, for the future he had unwittingly set in motion with his single act of violence.
A faint sound from the room behind him caught his attention. He turned around, listening for it again, all the while hoping he wouldn't hear it…
And there. A faint whimper. Barely audible even to his super soldier hearing. He had expected it, but this was ahead of schedule.
Quickly he moved back into the tiny living quarters. Tony was lying on the narrow cot, his face pressed into the pillow, his tall figure curled up tight. His eyelashes were spiked with tears.
Something twisted painfully in Steve's chest at the sight of those tears, evidence of a grief so deep and profound that it could only find release in sleep. He wondered fleetingly if he looked the same when he slept, and then Tony whimpered again, and Steve forgot about everything else.
Cautiously he leaned down. He reached out a hand, then withdrew it. He didn't want to accidentally make things worse. Too many times before, he had seen the disastrous results of waking Tony from a nightmare the wrong way. There was no reason to think things would be any different with this Tony.
So he did not touch. Instead he just leaned down a little bit more, his hands clasped behind his back, and he said, "Tony?"
Tony did not wake up. But neither did he settle back into sleep, as Steve had hoped. One hand clenched into a fist, and he whimpered again; the sound trailed off into a quiet keening under his breath.
Steve tried again, louder this time. "Tony?"
Tony's eyes flew open. In one swift, silent move, he sat up, twisting around so he faced Steve. Both hands were raised, palms out, in that classic gesture of self-defense – or attack. "Who are you?" he spat.
The prelude to violence didn't bother Steve – it was sad, but expected – but the question caught him flat-footed. He didn't know how to answer that.
But even as he fumbled for words, Tony blinked and recognition flooded his face. "Oh," he said. He dropped his hands and sagged a little. "Sorry."
"It's okay," Steve said.
Tony shook his head. He reached up and pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. "It's not okay," he muttered. He let his hand fall back to his lap and started to scoot off the bed. "And I'm clearly not going to get any more sleep tonight, so we should—"
"No," Steve said. He held out his hand, physically preventing Tony from moving forward. "That was barely an hour. And I know you didn't sleep last night, despite what you said this morning. So you are going to lay back down, and you are going to sleep. Because if you don't, I am not getting in that car with you tomorrow."
Tony looked torn between anger and chagrin. "To be fair," he said, "I never actually said that I slept while you did. You just assumed that I did."
"Yes," Steve said. "I did. But Tony, this has to stop. Starting right now, you have to take better care of yourself."
"I told you," Tony said determinedly, "there's no time."
Steve could deal with that. He knew he was more determined. And this was a battle he had already fought – and won – with his own Tony. He knew exactly what to do here.
"Then we make time," he said calmly. "It won't matter what you do if you aren't alive to see it."
Tony looked up at him. "You're wrong," he said quietly. "It matters even more then."
And there was nothing Steve could say to that, not to this man who so willingly threw his own life away if it meant doing the right thing and saving others. All he could do was play his last card, and cross his fingers. Honesty had always worked best for him in the past; he could only hope that it would work now.
"Please," he said. "I'm worried about you."
Tony flinched a little. His shoulders hunched upward as he dropped his gaze to stare at own knees. "Don't."
"I'm sorry if that's hard for you to hear," Steve said. "But it's the truth."
Tony said nothing. But he didn't have to. The look on his face said it all.
"Get some sleep," Steve said. "I'll stay here, if you think that might help." At the utterly miserable expression that crossed Tony's face then, he quickly added, "Or I can go. Whatever you think's going to make it easier for you. Just tell me, and I'll do it."
The silence drew out between them. Steve began to grow impatient. Then at last, his gaze still downcast, Tony said, "Stay. Please."
Part II: It's times like these you give and give again
It rained the next morning. Against the dull gray winter sky, the fireball when the warehouse exploded was very bright.
They watched the fire for a while, then without a word they turned around and got back in the car. They drove southwest on I-85, headed for New Orleans and the next armory. There was one in Miami, but it was too impractical to hit that one right now. They could always come back to it later, Tony reasoned, although he really hoped that it wouldn't be necessary.
Steve had insisted on taking the first shift driving. Tony had agreed, but only reluctantly. He knew Steve was feeling restless, though, and if they were going to be spending long hours in the car, the least he could do was let Steve drive every now and then. He still didn't like it though; he was a bad passenger even at the best of times, but especially now when he was forced to be idle.
After his nightmare last night, he had dozed fitfully for a few hours. Every time he had woken up, he had seen Steve sitting in the lone chair in the armory's living space, or else pacing up and down. He felt guilty about that, playing on Steve's sympathies to watch over him while he struggled to sleep, and cutting into Steve's chance at getting any sleep of his own.
He wanted to apologize, to say that tonight he would not ask for Steve's presence. But the words didn't want to come, and anyway, there was nothing he could say that wouldn't sound self-pitying and banal. So he kept his mouth shut, and he told himself fiercely that he would do better.
He had to do better.
At 10:00 they turned on the radio. The announcer was describing the scene in Restoration Park at length. The police presence, the armed HAMMER agents, the crowd. Norman Osborn on center stage, dressed in the Iron Patriot armor.
"What will he do when you don't show up?" Steve asked.
"I don't know," Tony said.
Fifteen minutes later, they found out.
"Ladies and gentlemen of the global press." Osborn's voice was slightly distorted and electronic. He had put the helmet on, then.
"I'm issuing a warrant for the arrest of Anthony Edward Stark. For crimes against humanity, collusion with an alien menace, flight from justice, conspiracy, criminal neglect, and treason against the planet Earth."
There was more, but Tony felt sick to his stomach, and he barely heard it. Osborn went on at length, detailing how HAMMER had declared war not just on Tony personally but on Stark Industries, how anyone refusing to cooperate with the search and investigation would be arrested, how Starktech would be used to find Tony and bring him to justice. "All over the world, Tony Stark's reign of terror is coming to a close."
Steve turned the radio off, a look of disgust on his face.
Well. There was no turning back now.
He had the strangest urge to laugh. It was absurd, really. Everything he had ever done for the world, both as Tony Stark and as Iron Man…and it had come to this.
"Are you okay?" Steve asked.
"Do I have a choice?" he asked, somewhat bitterly.
"There's always a choice," Steve said.
They ate lunch in the car after going through a drive-thru in Alabama. Tony drove now, his eyes fixed on the road. The news of the warrant for his arrest hung heavily between them, but they did not talk about it. Or about anything. The silence was uncomfortable, but Tony didn't know how to break it, and obviously neither did Steve.
About an hour after they ate, he spotted their tail, and there was finally something to talk about.
He cleared his throat. "We're being followed."
Steve didn't seem surprised; he just nodded. "The black SUV?"
Tony glanced at him sharply, wondering how he could have known that. Then he noticed the way Steve had angled the side mirror so he could see the traffic behind them. "Yeah."
"Can you lose them?"
Tony smiled grimly. "I've been driving fast cars since I was 12. I think I got it."
For a little while he did nothing. Their side of the interstate had only two lanes, and he was riding in the left lane. So was their tail. They were just south of Greenville, but they were rapidly running out of city. In another few minutes they would be in more rural, isolated areas, where anything could happen.
One exit went past. Another approached. Tony looked at it critically, decided it would do.
He checked the rearview mirror. There was a car behind them in the right lane, but it was far enough back that he didn't need to worry about it. In their own lane, behind a blue Honda, was the SUV that had been tailing them since they had stopped for lunch.
The exit approached – and then they were past it, still going almost 70 miles an hour. The ramp paralleled the interstate for a little bit before gradually curving away from it. The area between the interstate and the ramp was grassy and fairly level. It was also growing wider with every second, as the ramp curved away. Their window of opportunity was rapidly closing.
"Hang on," Tony murmured, then jerked the wheel to the right.
The car shot across the right lane, then they were on the grass, bouncing toward the exit ramp. He slammed on the brakes, but then let up again almost immediately, not daring to slow the car too much. Not enough and they wouldn't make the curve, but too much and they ran the risk of being caught again.
They jolted onto the ramp, going fast, too fast. Tony had to fight to hold the car steady, instead of sailing right off the edge. "Did they…?"
"No," Steve said. He was twisted around in his seat and hunkered down so he could stare out the back passenger window. "They kept going."
Tony wanted to see for himself, but at the moment it was all he could do to keep them on the curve of the exit ramp, which had become much sharper.
There was a traffic light at the top of the ramp. Currently the stoplight in their direction was red. Turning right would send them east, left would take them west. Going straight would take them right back onto the interstate.
"Tonyyyy," Steve drew his name out in a warning, one hand braced on the glove compartment.
"I know," he grunted. A pickup truck was sitting at the top of the ramp, waiting for the light to change. There was no one in the left-turn lane, however.
Without slowing, Tony twitched the wheel to the left. They drove through the empty turn lane and across the road, narrowly missing a truck that was coming up from the west.
Horns blared. Steve hollered in fright.
Then they were on the entrance ramp, returning to the interstate. The black SUV that had been tailing them was now ahead of them, no doubt looking to get off on the next exit and double-back to continue the pursuit.
They merged with the traffic on the interstate, and Tony let his speed slow a little. He wanted to keep some breathing room between them and the SUV. There was always a chance that their pursuers had pulled over and were waiting for them to pass by again, but he thought not. They wouldn't want to lose them so early in the hunt.
"You okay?" he asked.
"You're crazy, you know that?" Steve said.
Tony glanced at him, checking to see if he was truly angry. Steve looked a little bit incredulous, and a little bit like someone who was about to break out into nervous laughter.
He also looked a lot younger when he wasn't being so serious. And Tony liked that. He wanted to see more of that side of Steve. So he shrugged and said, "That's okay. I've been called worse things."
Steve chuckled, still somewhat dazed-sounding. "No, it's…it's okay. I kinda like crazy."
Tony nodded. He felt almost euphoric with the adrenaline coursing through his body. He had to bite at his lip in an effort at remaining somber. "I'll keep that in mind."
Steve looked at him. He was starting to get serious again. "That was some pretty impressive driving. I wish I could have seen their faces."
Imagining it, the oh shit they're getting away! shock on the dour agents' faces was the final straw. Tony glanced over at Steve – and suddenly he couldn't keep a straight face anymore. All the fear and tension from their near-miss with HAMMER came pouring out in relieved laughter.
After a moment of startled silence, Steve joined in. And for a while they drove onward like that, laughing together over this, their first shared joke.
It took them longer to reach New Orleans than they had planned. After the incident outside Greenville, Tony changed their strategy. In more rural, isolated areas, he remained on back roads, away from places that had traffic cameras. In the cities, though, he got back on the interstate, using the increased traffic volume as a cover for some anonymity and a way to gain back some of the time they lost from traveling the slower back roads.
Late that night they stopped to get gas and some things from a gas station that also housed a fairly large convenience store. Steve went inside, trying not to notice how visibly nervous Tony was as he hung back by the car.
The news about the warrant for Tony's arrest and the active pursuit by HAMMER had brought things into sharp focus. Steve found himself constantly glancing around as he paid for their gas and the groceries he had selected. In his ball cap and sunglasses, with two days of blond stubble on his cheeks, he hoped he wouldn't be recognized, but he was realistic enough to know that he couldn't hide forever.
No one paid him any attention, though, much to his relief. They left the gas station and drove the short distance to their latest destination. It was located in yet another rundown industrial neighborhood, but it had the modern security measures Steve had already come to expect from one of Tony Stark's armories.
At least the living quarters beneath this particular abandoned warehouse were roomier than the ones that had come before. There was an actual bed this time, and there was even a small stove for cooking. Not that it would matter, because they weren't staying, but it was still nice to spend the night in a place a little bit more comfortable.
He looked around with a sigh. He couldn't remember ever feeling so tired before, like he could lay down and sleep for days. It wasn't so much a physical thing, as a general feeling of weariness that had been building for months. Sitting in his holding cell at SHIELD day after day had been surprisingly draining, eating away at his emotional reserves at a time when he didn't have much left to give. Then he had arrived in this world, where he had been on the run since almost the first moment, and he still didn't entirely grasp why. There was too much history, too many things he didn't know – and might never know. Even the thought of trying to learn it all was daunting, and made him question the wisdom of staying here. Maybe he was wasting his time. Maybe he should be focusing his energies on returning to his own world and preventing the senseless murder that was the reason he was here in the first place.
But all he had to do was look at Tony to know that he wouldn't be doing that. His place was here now, for better or for worse. And he liked to think that, even as little as he had been able to accomplish so far, that it was for the better.
Tony still looked like a man on the verge of an exhausted collapse, but some of the strain around his eyes seemed to have eased. He had eaten more today than yesterday, and even taking into account the nightmares, he had slept for nearly four hours last night, which Steve suspected was the longest he had voluntarily slept in a long time.
More importantly, though, Tony believed he had an ally now. And Steve wasn't about to do anything to make him think otherwise.
"Mmm?" Tony was rifling through the bags from the convenience store. Steve himself was at the stove, stirring a pot of chicken-flavored rice. It wasn't much, but he had told Tony he couldn't handle another night of fast food sandwiches. Hearing that this place had a stove had only cemented his determination to make "real food" for dinner.
"What is this?"
He turned around and saw that Tony had spread their food out on the bed. A box of donuts meant for tomorrow's breakfast. A loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter. A package of chocolate chip cookies. A bottle of whiskey.
It was the bottle that had Tony's attention. And understandably so. Steve had been pretty surprised to find that he could buy hard liquor in a convenience store, but when he had seen the display, he hadn't hesitated to grab a bottle.
"I just thought…" He shrugged. "Things being what they are. I didn't know your brand, but…" He stopped himself just in time from saying that his Tony would have had nothing but scorn for liquor bought at a convenience store that had the word "Mart" in its name. They were on the run. Now was not the time to be snobby. He had lived his life under the premise of making do. This was no different.
He looked up, and abruptly he stopped talking. Tony was staring at the bottle like a man might stare at a snake, at something that could rise up and strike him at any second. He had gone very pale.
Steve forgot all about the rice. He had the sudden sinking sensation that he had done something wrong. "Tony?"
"I don't drink," Tony said stiffly. The yearning in his eyes as he stared at the bottle, however, told a completely different story.
Steve wanted to kick himself. I just thought, he had said, but that was the problem, wasn't it? He hadn't thought.
His Tony would have been reaching for a drink long before tonight, using the alcohol as a refuge, as a way to – temporarily at least – forget about the ugliness of his situation. It was just something he did, and if Steve had sometimes thought he maybe drank too much, he had certainly never said anything.
So when he had seen the bottle, he had just assumed that Tony would want it, that the alcohol would be welcome. He had thought – if he had thought about it at all – that it would be an unexpected, but pleasant, surprise.
But he had forgotten who he was with. This Tony was not his Tony. Even though he shared a name and many of the same qualities as the Tony Stark whom Steve had known and loved, he was very much his own person.
Steve sighed to himself. He could not let himself make that mistake again. It wasn't fair to either one of them to keep comparing the two men. He was here now. His Tony was dead and gone. He had to move on.
"I'm sorry," he said. He wanted to snatch the bottle up and take it away, but he didn't want to further humiliate Tony. So he stayed where he was, a spoon in one hand, the rice cooking at his back. "I didn't know."
"Well, how could you?" Tony said. He sounded almost normal, although he was still too pale. He drew in a deep breath and looked up, and he smiled. He had to put too much effort into it, though, and it looked more like a grimace than an actual smile. "It's okay. You aren't the first person to offer me a drink when I'm stressed out. I'm sure you won't be the last. And at least you have a good excuse for it."
That just made Steve feel even worse. He knew now that he had really screwed up. Inadvertently, it was true, but the fact remained that he had made a terrible mistake. "Tony. I really am sorry. It was stupid. And it was wrong. I'm sorry."
"Keep apologizing and you really will drive me to drink," Tony said. He meant it as a joke, of course, but he glanced down at the bottle as he said it, and something dark and hungry flashed in his eyes.
Here was another story he would probably never know. Then again, what was there to say? Obviously there had been a time when Tony drank, and now he didn't. That was all Steve needed to know.
"Don't worry," Tony said. He picked up the bottle and held it out with a smile. This one looked far more natural. "I didn't take a drink when…when he died. Norman Osborn of all people is not going to make me start now."
"Good," Steve said. "Don't give that guy anything." He came forward and took the bottle, then dropped it into his open duffel bag at the foot of the bed. He would dispose of it later, after Tony was asleep.
"Joke's on you," Tony said wryly. "He's already taken everything there is to take."
"That's not how I see it," Steve said as he turned back to the stove. He stirred the rice. Then, before Tony could ask the obvious question, he answered it. "I mean, you've got me."
He deliberately did not turn around to see Tony's reaction. There was no way to miss hearing the sharp intake of breath Tony made, though.
But Tony did not say anything, and Steve did not push the issue, and so they ended up eating their dinner in a rather uncomfortable silence.
Afterward, Tony helped him clean up. It was nearly midnight by then, and Steve began to prepare himself for the inevitable argument about who was going to take first watch and who was going to pretend they weren't going to sleep.
And right on cue, Tony said, "We should get an early start tomorrow." He stood somewhat awkwardly beside the bed, one hand on his hip, his head bent as he studied the nails of his other hand. Dressed in a simple sweater and grease-stained jeans, still clean-shaven, he looked a far cry from the rich industrialist everyone was hunting down. "It'll mean a long day, but we should be able to make it to Austin tomorrow night."
"Sounds good," Steve said. "Remind me again why we're going to Austin."
Tony gave him a quick grin. "Nice try."
Steve pretended it didn't annoy him that Tony didn't trust him enough to reveal his secret, even when there was no one he could possibly tell, and they were only one day away from their final destination. Whatever it was, Tony must surely have his reasons for being so coy, and given the desperate circumstances that had driven him into making this trip in the first place, Steve supposed he couldn't blame him for being so mistrustful.
Nonetheless, it rankled. And Tony's attitude just reinforced his overall sense of weariness. Even though he still wasn't physically tired, all he wanted to do was curl up on the bed and sleep the night away.
Without a word, he went into the tiny bathroom and washed up as best he could; he hoped the armory in Austin would have a shower. He also hoped he would get the chance soon to buy some clothing of his own. Not that he wasn't appreciative of Tony letting him borrow his clothes, but all of the shirts were just a little too tight in the shoulders. He looked forward to getting something that fit better.
When he was done brushing his teeth, he walked out to find Tony still standing where Steve had left him, looking more awkward than ever. "I'm going to bed," he said. He took off his shoes, then lined them up beside the bed where he could quickly step into them should it become necessary.
Tony nodded. "Okay." He made a half-hearted gesture to the echoing space of the armory. "I've got work to do still."
"Okay," Steve said. He began removing everything from on top of the bed.
Tony lingered for a little bit, watching him. He looked like he wanted to speak, but something was holding him back. In the end, he simply turned around and walked out.
Steve crawled into bed, closed his eyes, and fell asleep.
He dreamed of that empty lab, of Tony falling beneath his fists. He dreamed about the blood on his hands, and the bright glow of the arc reactor as it lay on the floor. He dreamed about the light fading from Tony's eyes, forever extinguished even as the arc reactor burned on in silent stillness.
He woke to a pounding heart and wrenching pain in his chest. He reached up to scrub at his eyes and was not surprised to find that they were wet. He pressed his fingers into his eyes, pushing away the tears until spots of brilliant color bloomed in his vision and he was in real danger of hurting himself.
He dropped his hands, started to sit up, then froze. Tony was standing near the foot of the bed, caught in the act of turning away, as though he had approached with the intent of waking Steve from the nightmare, only to be foiled when Steve woke on his own. Strangely enough, he looked almost ashamed of this.
He also looked very tired. Steve wondered what time it was, then decided that he didn't care. He lay back down again, curling up on his side. "Come to bed," he said.
Tony's eyes grew very wide. "What?"
"Come to bed," Steve repeated. He closed his eyes. Last night he had sat on the floor while Tony slept and wondered how things had ever gotten to this point, where it was easier to endure hours of discomfort rather than deal with the intricacies of human contact. He didn't know when he had decided not to do that again, but he had no regrets about making his offer.
In the absolute silence that followed his invitation, he could practically hear Tony's frozen panic. He pulled the blankets up and said, "I mean it. There's enough room."
After another long silence, Tony let out a shaky exhale.
Steve waited. At last he heard Tony move around the foot of the bed. His footsteps drew near, then the mattress dipped as he sat down. He hesitated, then crawled under the covers.
For a long time nothing happened. They lay back to back, as much space between them as the narrow bed allowed. Steve kept his eyes resolutely closed and did not think about how it felt to be sharing a bed with someone again, to feel the warmth of another person at his back, to know that he was not alone.
He curled one hand into the sheet, but did not open his eyes. "Yeah."
"Did you mean what you said last night?"
"That you were worried about me."
"Yes," he said.
There was a long silence. Then, very quietly, Tony said, "Thank you."
Steve didn't know what to say to that. So he just lay very still, and he kept his eyes closed, and after a while, he fell asleep.
This time, he did not dream.
Tony woke up to the unaccustomed sensations of warmth and security. Still half-asleep, he lay there, trying to prolong the experience. His forehead was pressed to the broad plane of Steve's shoulder blade. His breath warmed already heated skin. His knee was pressed to one muscular thigh.
In the back of his mind he knew this was wrong. He should get up. He shouldn't take advantage of Steve like this. But he was helpless against the selfish desire to remain here for just a little bit longer, to delude himself into thinking that he was safe, that this was where he belonged.
He had never shared a bed with Steve. Over the years they had fallen asleep in the same place before, most often after a battle. But stolen naps in the back of the Quinjet were hardly the same thing. This was something new, something he had never had the chance to experience – and never would.
The unexpected stab of grief pulled him out of sleep for good. He opened his eyes, got a good look at the smooth skin of Steve's back – and then went very still.
Apparently certain parts of his anatomy hadn't gotten the memo that Steve was off limits.
Utterly appalled, he quickly rolled away and got out of bed. He turned his body to the side, hiding his erection. The last thing he wanted was for Steve to wake up and see. The other night Steve had made it perfectly clear how he felt about any physical contact between them. And he had to remember that this Steve had been in a relationship with his Tony. It would be the grossest violation for him to even hint that Steve should throw all that history away in exchange for a few minutes of pleasure.
Disgusted with himself, he hurried into the tiny bathroom. He washed up quickly, touching himself as little as possible.
It was true, he found Steve attractive. But that was all it could ever be: an attraction. He had to remember that.
Even if Steve had wanted more, even if Tony would let himself have more, there was no time for it. Not when Norman Osborn and HAMMER were hunting them down. Not when the lives of innocent men and women depended on him staying two steps ahead of that pursuit. He had to remember that, and stay focused on what really mattered.
By the time he stepped back out into the small living area, he was ready to face Steve again. Which was fortunate, because Steve was already awake and sitting up in bed.
"Good morning," Tony said.
Steve glanced down. His hair stood up from sleep, but his eyes were clear. "Morning," he said.
"Hungry?" Tony asked. He walked over to the stove, where the box of donuts was set out. He would have sold his soul for a cup of coffee, but there was none to be had. He would just have to settle for a bottle of orange juice.
"Sure," Steve said. He sounded tense and uncomfortable, and Tony wondered if maybe Steve knew what he had tried to hide, after all. Or maybe Steve was thinking about how they had slept in the same bed. Maybe Steve regretted his impulsive offer from last night and was trying to think how he could gently let Tony down and tell him that it would not happen again.
It wasn't until Tony was at the stove, his back to Steve, that he suddenly realized how Steve was sitting – shoulders hunched, head down, the sheet strategically bunched up in his lap.
Relief washed over him. He shook his head, smiling a little and marveling at his stupidity. It was nothing but a physical reaction, he reminded himself, feeling immensely better about the whole thing. It had been a long time since he had found any comfort or release with another person, and the months of unrelenting stress and anxiety had pretty much put an end to his sex drive anyway. He should be grateful to this morning's incident, he thought. It was proof of life, in a way.
He turned from the stove with the donuts in one hand and a bottle of orange juice in the other. He smiled at Steve.
And besides, it was good to know he wasn't the only one.
The drive to Austin was long and exhausting, and for large portions of it Tony was certain that they were being followed. But somehow those things didn't matter as much as they should have.
Something had shifted between him and Steve. He couldn't define it, couldn't even describe it. They had spent the last two days traveling in silence, but today they couldn't seem to stop talking. And suddenly the hours felt too short, and Tony felt as though he could happily drive them all the way to California without stopping.
It was like a door had been opened, each of them extending an invitation – and the other accepted. All throughout that day, they exchanged stories, comparing situations and discovering a rich history previously unimagined. They shared the same origin story for the Avengers, (Loki), the same teammates who hadn't stayed long (the Hulk), the same living space (Stark Tower), the same galactic enemies (Thanos).
There were crucial differences, though. In Steve's world, Tony Stark had never pretended to be anything other than Iron Man. Most superheroes still operated independently instead of rotating in and out of the Avengers. The Winter Soldier either did not exist or had not been found yet. And Steve Rogers and Tony Stark had been in a relationship for nearly six months before the senseless tragedy that had started Steve on the journey that had ended with him arriving in this world.
They laughed over the ridiculousness of the Rhino's costume and the predictable melodrama of Doctor Doom and his penchant for referring to himself in the third person. They expressed love for the little Italian market that was on the same street corner in both worlds, within walking distance of Stark Tower. They commiserated over the annoyance of dealing with politicians and bureaucrats, and gave thanks for Nick Fury. Tony explained how Nick Fury and Dum Dum Dugan could still be alive despite having known Steve in the 1940s, only to quickly move on when Steve grew visibly saddened. After a moment, Steve mentioned again, rather tentatively, that he had known Howard Stark, then immediately changed the subject when Tony grew silent.
Steve's Avengers – nearly all of the heroes in that world, in fact – were younger and newer to the whole superhero business. They were doing well, though, having already saved the world from several large-scale threats in addition to the usual array of homegrown villains. Yet listening to the stories, reading in between the lines, Tony could see the seeds for their downfall. The lack of cohesion among them all would only make the lines between them deeper and wider. When the Civil War hit them, as it surely would, it would be with catastrophic results.
He said none of this, of course. He just smiled and checked the gas gauge and then the rearview mirror, and asked Steve if the Avengers traveled via Quinjet or some other means.
FuturePharm was located on the outskirts of Austin. Technically it was no longer owned by Stark Industries. Tony himself had prepaid cash for the utilities, enough to keep the place running for several years. Once upon a time it had been a large manufacturer of cutting-edge pharmaceuticals; over two-thirds of the office space had been used for R & D labs. Now it was empty, just one more abandoned building slowly rotting away behind a chain-link fence that just so happened to have one of the world's most advanced security systems still activated.
It was after midnight. He had been forced to resort to some fancy driving again in Houston to elude HAMMER's pursuit, using the tollway around the city to foil them. It had meant losing time, but he and Steve had both agreed that being delayed was far better than the alternative.
And now here they were. A single light shone at the base of the FuturePharm sign, illuminating the weeds growing up through cracks in the asphalt. The sign itself was a throwback to the 1970s, a deliberately anachronistic choice that Tony would never have approved, had it been left up to him.
They had been silent for the last half hour, the stories told, the questions answered. There remained, though, a feeling of camaraderie that Tony held onto tightly. They were in this together, and he no longer doubted that. As incredible as it was, he had someone on his side once again.
"Can you tell me now why we're here?" Steve asked.
If he had needed proof in the subtle change to their relationship, it was all right there in Steve's question. Not snarky and annoyed like last night, but quiet and respectful, giving him a way out, a chance to choose to keep his secret a while longer.
Instinct made him want to hold onto the information. But sooner or later Steve would need to know. And he didn't want to jeopardize the friendship that had formed today. He didn't want to lose Steve, period. Steve had trusted him enough to speak frankly of his past and his life with the Avengers. And although Tony had responded in kind, his stories had been about the team mostly, recalling better days when they had truly been a family.
It was time to share something more personal.
"It's a hard drive," he said.
Even in the dim light from the dashboard, he could see the understanding dawn on Steve's face. "It has the database, doesn't it? The one with all the registered superhumans."
"Not exactly," Tony admitted. He pulled into the parking garage and killed the headlights, then turned the engine off. He got out of the car, and Steve followed suit.
"Then what's on it?" Steve asked.
Tony led him over to the elevators. In times past, FuturePharm's employees would have parked here, the coveted spots closest to the elevators reserved for upper management, of course. They would have taken the elevator to the floors above, accountants and purchasing agents, chemists and researchers, custodians and secretaries. All of them well taken care of by the great Tony Stark and his business practices. All of them scattered to the four winds now, maybe working at other companies, maybe collecting unemployment. All of them watching their televisions and united in their hatred of their former boss.
"What's in here," Tony said. He tapped his temple, then opened the door leading to the stairwell.
"I don't understand," Steve said.
Grit and dust crunched beneath their feet as they climbed the stairs. Emergency lighting located high on the walls illuminated the way, creating dark shadows in the corners. Tony stopped on the landing between floors two and three and said, "I told you my brain is essentially a computer now. Well, what does any responsible computer owner do? They back up their information. That's all I did. Only, what's on my back-up isn't just illegally downloaded movies."
Steve stared at him. "You backed up…your brain."
"Yes," Tony said. "After." He looked away. "After what Yinsen's son did to me, I thought it would be irresponsible not to. I left instructions with my own AI – named JARVIS too, by the way – that if anyone hijacked my mind again, he was to contact certain people I trusted. I had pre-recorded a message for them, instructing them to erase my brain. It was the only way to be truly certain that I was free of any mind control." He remembered recording that message, thinking then that he would surely never have any use for it. "The hard drive was a way to restore my mind, once it was safe to do so."
He tried to smile. "That's the great thing about being me, you know. I plan for everything. So when I realized what I needed to do in order to protect the database, one of the key pieces of the puzzle was already in place. I was going to send Maria Hill out here to retrieve the hard drive so my mind could be restored after the delete. But now…" He shrugged.
"Tony." He looked up and tensed. Something in the way Steve was staring at him made him subtly shift his weight backward, bracing himself for a fight.
"I still can't believe you were going to do that," Steve said. "That you were planning to erase your brain."
He shrugged, able to treat the matter lightly now that he no longer had to actually do it. "I needed a way to put things right. I still do. I fucked it all up, so now I have to be the one to fix it."
"But…" Steve shook his head. "How could you believe you were so unimportant, or think that no one would care?"
"They wouldn't," Tony said, and deliberately did not think about Rhodey or Pepper.
Steve's jaw tightened. He drew in a long breath through his nose. "Well," he said. "I'm here now, and I care. And I'm glad I came along when I did, so I could stop you."
"I am, too," Tony had to admit. Just because he had known what he had to do didn't mean he had exactly been eager to get started. He began heading up the stairs again.
They reached the landing, turned the corner, continued upward. His legs were starting to protest all these stairs. It had been a while since he had had any time to devote to something as personal as exercise. After this was all over, he promised himself, he would find the time. He would get back into fighting shape, sleep more, do all those things everyone was always urging him to do and he was always promising – and failing – to actually do.
"After the Skrulls," he said conversationally, as though he wasn't divulging one of his deepest secrets. "After we defeated them. Everyone was gathered together, making sure people were okay, talking amongst themselves. It was the first time since the Civil War that I'd seen that. It was just like the old days. And I…I kind of forgot myself. I let myself think that I was one of them, like the old days, too." His hand closed about the stair railing, held it tightly, then let go as he moved on, climbing upward.
"I went up to Thor, and I was so happy he was back, and I was so excited, and he…he reminded me of how things stood. He told me the invasion was my fault, and that he wasn't alone in thinking that. And I…I knew he was right. I looked at Cap, and he turned away from me, and I looked up and saw that they had all turned away from me. There was no room for me in any of their little groups."
Behind him, Steve made a faint noise. Tony bit his lip, turned the corner, kept going. "I knew then that this was how it had to be. How it should be. Thor did me a favor, actually. He made me see. They were all starting to come together again, but they would need something to keep them united."
"You," Steve said.
"Me," Tony agreed. "I failed them during the Civil War, and I failed the entire world during the Skrull invasion, but now I had my chance. I could save everyone, and give them something to unite behind in the process." He shrugged a little. "It's actually pretty simple when you think about it."
"Except for the part where you were going to die," Steve said quietly.
"That wasn't a given," Tony said. "I had a contingency plan." He smiled a little in the dim light, although Steve couldn't see it. "I always do."
"And this hard drive was part of it," Steve said.
"Yes," Tony replied. They had finally reached the floor containing the computer servers. He opened the door and stepped out from the stairwell.
"That's what you were doing when I arrived here," Steve said. "Isn't it? Recording your instructions to whoever was supposed to revive you."
"Yes," Tony agreed absently as they walked past empty cubicles once meant for IT personnel. It was cold in here, as it should be for a floor devoted to maintaining computer servers and hardware – but not as cold as it was supposed to be. The lighting was all wrong, too. The emergency lights were still active, but down the hall, the windows of the main server room were backlit in an ugly red.
"And who was that?" Steve asked.
"Shh." Tony held up one hand. He was beginning to wish he had brought the case with the armor up with him. Something was not right.
Steve picked up on his mood. "What's wrong?"
"I don't know," Tony said. He began to ease his way down the hall toward the server room and that red light.
Just before the window, he stopped. Steve ducked down low and went past him, past the window, to stand up on the other side so they could both peer in at the same time.
The server room had become the site of a nightmare. The hardware had been cannibalized, torn apart and reconstituted to create an apparatus that looked like a dentist's chair surrounded by a device that was siphoning a mysterious form of energy. Seated all around the device were dozens of people, all of them with a glowing disc attached to the back of their head. Some of them were merely slumped there like lifeless dolls, but others were attached to the central apparatus by thick cables connected to their discs.
In the center of it all, like a king on his throne, a man sat in the chair. He was encased in lightweight body armor that covered him from head to toe. Tony recognized him instantly, and his stomach knotted with dread.
"Shit," he breathed as he turned away from the window again.
"Who is that?" Steve whispered.
"Basil Sandhurst," Tony said. "Likes to call himself the Controller."
"What does he do?" Steve asked. His left hand flexed, seeking the shield that he no longer had.
"Mind control," Tony sighed. Of course. Because what better villain to face right now, when he was with someone who had been forced to kill the man he loved while under the influence of mind control.
Cautiously he peeked through the window again.
Inside the server room, Sandhurst's eyes opened. He picked up his head. A ghastly smile stretched his lips. "Ah," he said. "Your Controller senses…intruders."
The discs on the people's heads began to glow more brightly, spots of white amid the nasty red light. "Go, you horrid stinking puppets," the Controller ordered. "Find out who disturbs my feeding and assimilate them into the generator."
The people inside the room rose to their feet. They moved in unison, a hive mind now, controlled by Sandhurst and his device. Tony's skin crawled with horror as he watched them head for the door.
"Kill the generator and we kill him?" Steve asked tersely. His breath was coming in short little pants, and he was very pale.
Tony would have given anything for him to not have to deal with this, but things had progressed far beyond that point. They were in it now, until the end. "It won't kill him," he said. The last time he had been in this situation, Rumiko had destroyed the machine the Controller used to absorb mental energy from his victims, while Tony had engaged Sandhurst himself as Iron Man. He could summon the suit now, but the case was locked in the trunk of the car. The armor could blast its way out, of course, but that would mean damaging the car beyond repair and leaving them without a way to make their escape from this place. And he refused to even think about going physically to retrieve it; leaving Steve up here alone to fight off dozens of mind-controlled slaves along with the Controller was simply not an option.
"Those people are innocent," Steve said somewhat shakily as the first of them came into view. They didn't exactly shamble like zombies, but they weren't quick on their feet, either.
"I know," Tony said. "Knock them out, do what you have to do." He wasn't sure if Steve would be able to do that, given his history, but there wasn't much else they could do. "We can't help them until we stop the Controller."
"Stark!" The triumphant yell rose from within the server room. "Bring him to me!"
"Run," Steve ordered.
There were too many of them. If they could find an office and take shelter inside, they could bottleneck the people trying to get at them as they passed through the doorway. Between the two of them, they could handle the sheer numbers then. But here, in the hallway, they were sitting ducks.
Tony turned to run – and froze. More of the Controller's slaves were heading their way, coming up silently from the opposite direction, pinning them down right here in the hallway, directly in front of the window to the server room.
He glanced inside and saw Sandhurst staring at him, smiling with anticipation.
He met Steve's gaze for a moment, saw the same dismay and frustration in Steve's eyes that he was feeling right now.
There was only one thing to do. "Take him out," he snapped. "I'll deal with them."
It wasn't the best plan in the world, but their options were dwindling by the second. Tony took a deep breath and began to run down the hall, straight toward the advancing horde.
Steve was still trying to make sense of it all. The innocent people enslaved to the Controller were the enemy – and yet he felt only overwhelming horror for them and their plight. They did not attack now because they wanted to. They had no choice. Their will had been taken from them. All they knew was mindless obedience.
It was a state of being he remembered all too well.
When Tony took off, he wasted a moment standing there in sheer shock. He had the terrible urge to cry out against this act of abandonment, leaving him to face these people alone. I thought we were in this together!
But he knew why Tony ran, and he knew, too, what he had to do. Unarmed, Tony would not last very long against all those people. He wouldn't pull his punches, but he was only one man against many, and he wasn't exactly in peak shape, either. Seconds counted now, and Steve knew it.
Deliberately he turned away from the sickening sight of the mind-controlled people coming his way. He threw his elbow against the glass of the server window. It shattered inward, and he quickly swept his arm through the hole, clearing out a space big enough for him to climb through. His jacket and shirt protected him from the worst of the broken glass, but he felt a sharp stab of pain, and he knew he had cut himself.
Ahead, Tony was battling the Controller's minions, and not doing too badly, despite being so heavily outnumbered. Steve glanced behind him, saw that he was in danger of being grabbed, and kicked out at the closest woman. The kick knocked her legs out from under her, and she went down, taking out the guy behind her in the process.
Quickly, before anyone else could get close enough to make a try for him, he jumped up and slid headfirst through the window. Even before he could get all the way through, hands were grabbing at him, clutching his shoulders and pulling him further into the room and its red light.
Steve's sympathy toward their predicament only went so far. He bucked and twisted in their grasp. He kicked, felt his foot connect with someone's face. The person fell away without a sound, but another one was there to take his place almost immediately. Hands flailed at his legs, his arms, trying to get a good grip on him. He curled into a ball and went utterly limp, and the people holding him almost dropped him as they suddenly had to bear his dead weight.
Just before he hit the floor he exploded into motion, twisting and landing in a crouch. He swept one leg outward, knocking some of them down, clearing a space. As they started to close in on him again, he drove himself forward and upward, kicking off the floor and diving high over their reaching hands. He sailed above their heads, their wide unseeing eyes fastened on him as he passed by, just out of their reach. Then he was arching downward, landing on his hands, tucking his head as he performed a complete somersault, only to rise onto his feet again.
The bulk of the Controller's minions were behind him now, but still others stood in a protective ring about the generator and the chair where the man himself was sitting. He looked for a gap he could exploit, the quickest way to get through them so he could reach the Controller—
Judging by the sound of it, Tony was in trouble. Steve hesitated, torn between going to his aid and continuing on with his mission.
Hands grabbed him from behind. Someone seized a handful of his hair and yanked his head back. Yelling, he arched, twisting in their grasp. He managed to break one hold and spun around, his fist instinctively pulled back.
The man who had grabbed him had dark hair and a thick mustache. Red light washed over his face like blood. Steve faltered, suddenly overcome by sheer horror.
He couldn't hit this man. He couldn't hit any of them. What was he doing? How could he fight them? They were innocent. Like Tony had been innocent. He couldn't hit them. He would hurt them.
He would kill them.
"Steve!" Tony's voice rose in a shout of pain.
His moment of hesitation proved deadly. The Controller's puppets took hold of him, more than he could break free from. They propelled him toward the chair and the man sitting there.
The Controller gave him a smile that bared his teeth. "And who might you be?"
Noise from the doorway made Steve turn his head; the Controller looked up, too. They both watched as a crowd of people appeared. Tony was in their midst, his arms twisted up painfully behind his back. Two of them had their hands fisted in his hair, pulling his head back. He was still trying to fight, twisting in their grasp and kicking out, but it was a pointless exercise – he wasn't going anywhere.
"Stark." The Controller sounded gloating, his voice warm with glee. "It's been a while."
"I'd say I missed you, but I'd be lying," Tony gritted out.
Light pulsed from several of the control discs the Controller's minions were wearing. Steve didn't exactly see them move, but abruptly Tony cried out, his back arching as his arms were twisted up still higher.
Steve flinched. Tony – his Tony – had made a sound like that when Steve had hit him, again and again.
"What are you doing here?" Tony asked as he was manhandled further into the room.
"No, I get to ask the questions," the Controller said. He leaned forward, hands clutching the arms of his chair. "How did you find me?"
"Happy accident," Tony said.
Light flared a second time as the Controller issued a mental command to the people under his control. Tony cried out again, his face twisting in pain.
Steve jerked against the hands holding him tight. He couldn't hit them. He couldn't. But Tony was in pain. Tony needed him.
"Careful, Stark," the Controller said with a smirk. "I could tell them to break your arms. I could tell them to break every bone in your body. And you could do nothing to stop me."
Tony moaned helplessly, his eyes squeezed shut against the pain.
They were going to die here. The Controller would give the order and his minions would rip them apart all because someone had told them to do it. They would die and it would be horrible, and there would be blood on the floor, Tony's blood, because Tony was going to die.
"No," Steve whispered.
"You should have stayed away from me," the Controller said.
Tony uttered another sharp cry. Red bloodlight spilled over his skin, his hair, his clothes. He was soaked in it, drenched in it.
"Bring him to me," the Controller ordered.
The Controller's puppets forced Tony forward. The blood on his face shifted and changed color as he moved, creating shadows where none had existed before. Steve stared and blinked and suddenly saw it for what it was.
Light, not blood. Tony was still alive. Hurting, but alive. Not dead, not yet, and Steve had one chance at this, and one chance only.
He could do this, he could.
He had to.
The men and women holding him had not relaxed their guard any, but that made no difference. He was stronger than they were, and he was powerfully motivated. He didn't want to hurt them, but he had no choice. He dropped to one knee, wrenched his upper body forward, threw three of them off. A single kick and he was free on the right side.
Then he was up, on his feet again. He punched one in the face, and the man staggered backward, the disc on the back of his head glowing bright white. The man stumbled into the ones who were holding Tony, and the entire group shifted and moved to accommodate the collision.
"Stop him!" the Controller shouted.
It was already too late for him. He just didn't know it yet. Steve followed the man he had just struck, diving into the cluster, fists swinging, spinning and kicking. Two of the people fell, then a third, as Tony finally managed to break free from their hold and add his efforts to Steve's.
Their eyes met across the chaos of the fight. Something sparked between them, a tidal shift that felt almost physical. And without even a single spoken word, Steve knew just what to do.
In having them brought so close, their enemy had done most of their work for them. It was so simple now to manipulate the battle, to push and shift forward, to press their way closer to the generator and the chair where the Controller sat.
Tony was in front of him now. He caught Steve's eye, then with smooth grace, he dropped to one knee, his other foot firmly planted, one fist propped on the floor in front of him. It was a pose Steve had seen a thousand times, although always before it had come while Tony was in the armor.
He took a single running step, vaulted lightly onto Tony's back. As Tony rose upright, Steve launched himself forward, right at the Controller. And as Tony turned and dealt with a new wave of attacking minions, Steve grabbed hold of the thick cable connected to the Controller's exo-skeleton, and yanked it out.
"No!" the Controller shouted. He rose clumsily to his feet.
The control discs immediately went dark. Steve landed on the other side of the Controller's chair, and sent a sharp kick into the generator humming there.
Sparks few. The red light flickered and dimmed.
The Controller glared at him in rage. "Do you think I need that connection to--?"
Steve punched him in the mouth. And for the first time since that terrible day in the lab, he didn't feel horror at what his hands could do. Hitting the Controller felt good. It felt right.
The Controller staggered back, struck the arm of his chair, and toppled over – right into Tony's waiting arms. Tony grabbed him from behind in a chokehold, preventing him from moving.
"You can't!" the Controller gurgled.
Steve stepped up and socked him again. He slumped in Tony's arms and went still. Tony let him fall to the floor, where he lay unconscious.
The effect was immediate. All around them, people started to come out of their trances, rubbing at the discs attached to their heads, looking around and exclaiming with fear and wonder. He worried about what would happen to them, but they could wait. At that particular moment, Steve only had eyes for Tony. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah," Tony said. "Let's never do that again." He was breathing heavily, pale beneath the sick red light. But he smiled as he held out one hand.
Steve smiled back as he clasped Tony's wrist tightly. "Deal."
Two hours later Steve was in the lobby of a cheap motel, waiting impatiently for the clerk to hand over the key to his room.
The TV behind the desk was tuned to Fox News, which was currently showing a live broadcast from FuturePharm. Behind the anchor, who was interviewing one of the survivors, members of the police and HAMMER agents were swarming all over the building and the grounds.
"You believe this?" the clerk asked. He was short and blond, and smelled of cigarette smoke. A brass nameplate on the desk said his name was Dale; it was in dire need of a cleaning.
Steve looked away from the TV and saw that Dale had his key ready. "They're saying Stark himself was there. I bet he arranged all that, paid everyone off ahead of time so he could swoop in and be the big damn hero. Like that's gonna make up for what he did."
Not two hours ago, he and Tony had driven away from FuturePharm, having first called the police and seen that the survivors were in good hands. Steve had protested their hasty departure, wanting to stick around and make sure that everyone would be all right; he remembered all too clearly the sick horror of waking up from mind control. Tony had talked him out of it though, standing in the shadows with the hard drive in one hand, reminding him that they couldn't linger, that they had to get out of there before too many people recognized them.
Steve hadn't liked it, but he had grudgingly allowed that Tony was right. It had helped that one of the first people to come around was a woman who had been in the Navy. She had taken charge with ease, making sure the Controller was down and out for the count before putting everyone into groups based on the severity of their post-mind control haze. When she had waved off Steve's offer of help, he had finally accepted that it was okay to leave, and followed Tony down to the parking garage.
He looked at the hotel clerk. "You really believe that?" he asked mildly, and held out his hand.
Dale gazed steadily at him for a long moment before shrugging, the gesture a little too elaborately casual. "I don't know. It was just a thought." He dropped the key into Steve's hand. "Room 103."
"Thanks," Steve said.
"Yeah," said Dale. He cocked his head to one side. "You know, you remind me of someone."
Steve began to sweat. "Who?" he asked. Tony had told him that he looked ten years younger than the Steve Rogers who had been born in this world, but that otherwise he looked exactly the same. He wanted to kick himself now for relying on his youthful face to fool people, for ever thinking that a ball cap and new beard growth were nearly a good enough disguise.
"Yeah," Dale said again. "Like…" He snapped his fingers a few times, trying to jog his memory. "Oh!" His face lit up. "I know! You look like that Avenger guy!"
Steve did not dare look away, not even to check how far he was from the door – just in case he suddenly had to make a run for it. "I do?"
"Yeah," the clerk said. He snapped his fingers again. "You know. The blond one. Whatsshisname. Hawkeye!"
Steve slumped a little in relief. "Oh," he said with a forced laugh. "Yeah, I get that all the time."
"I bet," said Dale. "Well, you have a good night."
"Thanks," Steve said, and was finally free to go.
Tony was waiting out of sight by the car, holding the suitcase that contained his armor and looking anxiously for him. Steve held up the room key to show he had succeeded, and Tony visibly sagged with relief. "Any trouble?" he asked as Steve walked up.
"Not unless you count the fact that the clerk thinks I look like Hawkeye," Steve said.
Tony blinked, a bit startled. Then he smiled. "Yeah, I can see that," he said. "There's a definite resemblance."
Their room was about as far as you could get from the front lobby and still be located on the same property; only two rooms were between theirs and the end of the building. Steve didn't mind, and he had a hunch Tony felt the same way. They were taking a big risk by getting a room, but they certainly couldn't sleep in the car, and Tony's nearest armory was in Tucson, Arizona, a full day's drive away.
They parked the car in front of the door marked 103, then went inside. The room left a lot to be desired. Steve was pretty sure it had last been cleaned sometime in 1985. He had no intentions of falling asleep either – not unless he wanted to wake up to find a cockroach sitting on his face.
"Well," he said.
"Yeah," Tony sighed. "It's not exactly the Ritz, is it?"
"It'll do," Steve said shortly. He put his duffel bag, which contained exactly one clean pair of Tony's borrowed clothes stuffed alongside all the dirty ones he had already worn, on the floor beside the bed. "Let me look at that shoulder."
Tony threw him a startled look as he bent down to set the suitcase containing his armor – and now the hard drive that held the back-up of his brain – beside the door. "What? Why? It's fine. I'm fine."
"They nearly broke your arms," Steve said. "Don't think I didn't notice that. Let's get washed up, and then I want to take a look." He refrained from mentioning anything about the cuts he had received when he broke the glass window of the Controller's domain. In the aftermath at FuturePharm, he had managed to put his jacket back on before Tony had realized he was hurt, and he had been able to keep it that way so far, much to his relief. Thanks to the serum in his blood, the wounds were already halfway healed, anyway. By morning they would be gone completely, without even a scar to mark that they had ever been there. He could see no reason to tell Tony about it now, and worry him over what was essentially nothing.
"Really, it's fine," Tony protested, but he might as well not have bothered. After they had both taken turns at getting a shower (the water was only tepid, but it was still heavenly compared to washing with a cloth in the sink), Steve made him sit down at the plastic table near the front of the room.
Here in Texas it didn't feel as much like winter, but it was still cool out. Steve turned the heat on, then went to stand behind Tony, who was seated backward on one of the cheap chairs, his forearms braced along the top of the chair back. He had stripped down to a somewhat ragged wife beater, exposing his shoulders and upper arms, all the better for Steve to make certain he hadn't been hurt at FuturePharm.
Steve looked him over with a critical eye. It was easy to see that in times past Tony had carried more muscle on him, whereas now he was verging on too thin for a man his height and build. But there were no obvious injuries to his shoulders or arms, and that was a good sign.
He laid his palm on the flat of Tony's right shoulder. Tony jumped and hissed in a sharp breath through his nose.
"Yeah," Steve said dryly. "You're fine."
Tony made an annoyed grunt. "I am fine," he snapped. "You just…surprised me, is all."
"Okay," Steve said with some amusement.
His smile disappeared, though, as he probed gently at Tony's shoulders, testing for signs of injury. He watched Tony carefully, ready to stop the instant Tony showed any sign of flinching or pain. But that moment never came, and at last he satisfied himself that things were all right.
For a time he simply stood there, his hands resting lightly on Tony's shoulders. He thought about the battle and the way they had moved in such harmony, as though they had been fighting side by side for years, not merely days. He looked down at his knuckles, and for once he didn't see blood there. They were just his hands, nothing more, nothing less. He had used them today and it had been hard, but he had done it anyway.
Next time would be easier.
He flexed his fingers once, twice, studying them as they moved. He had to admit that it had felt good to fight again, to give himself up in battle, to let his body move on instinct, knowing what needed to be done. He missed his shield, but even without it, his hands knew the steps of that particular dance.
"Mmm." The noise Tony made sounded almost contented. With a rush of something close to embarrassment, Steve suddenly realized that the initial flexing motion of his hands had turned into a continuous rubbing of Tony's shoulders.
He very nearly stopped what he was doing, but then he saw the way Tony's head was sagging forward, his eyes half-closed. In fact, he looked more relaxed than Steve had ever seen him.
He made a split-second decision – and kept going. Now that he was aware of what his hands were actually doing, he gradually shifted his movements into a genuine massage, pressing little warm circles into the worst of the knots in Tony's shoulders, trying to soothe away the tension. He knew it was impossible to completely erase the strain of the last few months, but he did his best all the same. His thumbs rubbed the back of Tony's neck, applying the lightest pressure possible while bowing Tony's head still further until at last his forehead rested on his crossed arms.
It was such a little thing. And yet it wasn't. And when Tony made another one of those contented little murmurs, Steve smiled to himself.
"Steve." Tony sounded half-asleep. His eyes were completely closed now.
"Yeah," Steve said.
"…'m so sorry," Tony breathed. Lines of distress appeared on his face.
He wasn't the right Steve, he wasn't the one those words were meant for, but Steve barely hesitated. "It's okay," he said quietly. "I forgive you."
Tony drew in a deep breath. Halfway through it broke, became a choked sob. His eyelids fluttered, and he stirred a little. Caught somewhere between sleeping and waking, for a moment it seemed like he would surely wake. Then he subsided again as Steve's hands continued to gently rub his shoulders. His breathing deepened and evened out. And at last he slept.
Carefully Steve lifted his hands, not wanting to do anything to wake Tony up. He had the rather ridiculous urge to take the blanket off the bed and drape it over Tony's shoulders, as though a simple piece of fabric could provide the kind of protection Tony truly needed. And it was a bad idea anyway, he told himself. Tony would get a bad neck cramp if he slept like this for too long. What Steve really needed to do was wake him up and get him to bed.
He was reluctant to do it, though. He already knew how infrequently Tony slept. Disturbing him now seemed like the worst thing to do. Once Tony was awake, the chances of getting him back to sleep were slim, and Steve wasn't sure that the odds were good enough to take that risk.
There were things he could be doing right now. Things he should be doing. Checking the parking lot for suspicious activity. Turning on the TV and following the news story out of Austin. Doing their laundry in the bathroom sink. Setting out the last of their clean clothes so they could leave as quickly as possible tomorrow morning.
Instead he set his hand on Tony's shoulder again, and gave him a gentle shake. "Tony?"
Tony came awake with a startled jolt. His hands flew up, but it was hard to tell if it was meant as a defensive gesture, or a reflexive fall into battle mode, because he relaxed almost right away when he saw Steve. "What is it?" he mumbled.
"Nothing," Steve said. He backed away. "You fell asleep."
Tony blinked. He looked dazed, not fully awake yet. "Oh."
"I didn't want you to get a cramp," Steve explained. "Come to bed."
"Are you coming, too?" Tony asked. He stood up, swaying a little.
"Yeah," Steve said. "I am."
A man lurked in the corner of the lab. "Kill him."
The voice did not belong to Crossfire, though. It was Norman Osborn, all smug and gloating. And as Steve stalked forward obediently, he saw that it was not his Tony who stood there, but the other Tony, gazing at him with those wounded blue eyes.
He pulled his fist back.
Tony nodded a little and closed his eyes, accepting his fate as just and proper.
Steve hit him. Blood spattered everywhere. Tony staggered back and fell, blood warm and sticky on his face, on his hands—
He couldn't breathe at first when he woke up; his heart was pounding violently in his chest. His eyes didn't seem to want to focus, and he had to blink rapidly a few times before he was able to see and confirm with his eyes what his body already knew.
Tony was lying in front of him, curled up on his side. Steve's left arm was draped over him, and his chest was pressed to Tony's back. Even just yesterday his first reaction would have been to pull away in confused embarrassment. Today, though, wild horses couldn't have made him get up. He knew he should move, that he was only taking advantage of Tony's vulnerability. But he couldn't help it.
I need this too, he thought fiercely.
Maybe it was selfish, but he didn't care. He let himself lie there, feeling the warmth of Tony's body and an inexplicable sense of security. He breathed in the smells of sleep and industrial laundry detergent and the scent that was uniquely Tony. He smiled at the rather ragged edge of Tony's hairline along the back of his neck, the way his hair was starting to curl up with length, saying far more eloquently than words could have that it had been a long time since Tony's last five-hundred dollar haircut.
His smile died, though, when he remembered why Tony had been neglecting himself. It was all going to stop, he vowed. The running and hiding. This meek acceptance of unjust blame and accusation. Yes, Tony had done some terrible things. From the sound of it, however, so had this world's Steve Rogers. So why should Tony shoulder all the guilt?
It wouldn't stop, though – it couldn't stop – until Norman Osborn was deposed. Until the world no longer hated Tony Stark. They had taken the first step toward achieving that goal. They had retrieved the hard drive, rescuing it from Osborn's clutches. But they couldn't rest now. They had to keep going. They had to finish it.
Tony would come up with a plan, he reminded himself. Knowing him, it wouldn't be very good, but that was all right. Any plan was better than nothing at all, and Steve would help him revise and adjust it as needed. One thing was for certain: there would be no more last-stand heroics, no more suicidal atonements.
Slowly he eased his arm off of Tony and rolled over. He got out of bed and went into the bathroom, where he took a quick shower. Keeping a watchful eye on Tony the whole time, he dressed in his last pair of clean clothes; like all the others, the shirt was snug about the shoulders. He put on his jacket and pulled the ball cap down over his head. There was a notepad beside the phone, but he decided against writing a note. He wouldn't be gone that long, and Tony was sleeping soundly; he wouldn't wake up any time soon.
He jogged across the street to a local restaurant for some breakfast. It was still early, and the weak winter sun was barely peeking over the horizon, but the parking lot of the restaurant was nearly full. Steve placed his order, then stood off to one side, his hands thrust deep into his pockets and his head down so no one could see his face.
By the time the food was ready, he was ravenous. He paid cash for it, noticing with a pang of misgiving that their funds were rapidly dwindling. He thanked the cashier and left the restaurant, then crossed the street back to the hotel.
Immediately he realized that something was wrong. There were two black SUVs parked near their car. The exact same ones that had been pursuing them halfway across the country.
HAMMER had found them.
Tony had been soundly asleep when the door burst open and four men poured into the room. Three of them were dressed in HAMMER's black uniforms. The fourth was short and blond and holding a room key.
Still barely awake, he had reacted on instinct, rolling toward the far side of the bed and reaching for the watch strapped about his left wrist. A sharp blow to the back of his head had arrested his forward motion and firm hands had grabbed his own, preventing him from accessing the controls that would summon the armor.
He had fought, but his efforts were doomed from the start. Even before he could land the first punch, the hotel employee had suddenly squawked in terror, and everything had gone very still.
And now here they were, caught in this still frame, while Tony hardly dared to breathe.
"Make another move," one of the agents said, "and he's dead." The gun he currently had aimed at the clerk's head made his message very clear.
The clerk's eyes were very wide. Yet he dared to make one protest. "Hey!" he said feebly. "I let you guys in!"
"And we're very thankful," the first agent said. "Now shut your mouth."
His thoughts a chaotic whirl, Tony let them haul him to his feet, remove his watch, and cuff his hands behind his back. He could think of at least three ways to get out of the situation, but all of them involved violence of some form or another. And as long as the hotel clerk was mixed up in this, that was unacceptable. He could not be responsible for any more innocent people dying.
The plain truth was, he was out of options.
The door to their room was open, the brass 103 barely visible. A HAMMER agent was standing just outside the door, wearing a uniform like the one Steve had donned for his escape from their headquarters on his first day in this world. The agent had a gun on one hip and a radio on the other.
Voices came from inside their room, raised in anger, in fright.
Steve dropped the bags of food and ducked behind a dusty pick-up truck. For a moment he stayed there, crouched down, wondering what he was supposed to do next. Whatever he did, it had to be quick, so the agent would not alert anyone else.
If he had his shield, he could throw it from here and take the man out. Even without the shield, though, he was not powerless. He crept around the truck, staying bent over. Using the cars in the parking lot as cover, he hurried around the corner and to the other side of the building. He leapt lightly onto the window ledge of Room 101, and from there onto the roof.
It was so simple then. A few short strides brought him even with his own door, and the HAMMER agent standing there. He dropped down without a sound, slamming his fist on the man's head and stealing his gun even before the guy hit the ground, already unconscious.
He kicked the radio out of the holster on the agent's belt, then brought the gun up and whipped around the doorway, spinning into the room.
There were five people inside their cheap little hotel room. Three HAMMER agents, Dale the hotel clerk, and Tony. All five of them looked up in shock when Steve suddenly appeared – but not one of them moved.
One of the agents was standing behind Tony, a hand on his left shoulder. Tony himself was in handcuffs; his hair was a mess and he was still wearing the wife beater he had gone to bed in. A second agent stood with a gun aimed at Dale's head. The third was crouched down in front of the suitcase that contained the Iron Man armor.
Dale recovered first. He was incredibly pale, his eyes huge and shocked. "Help!" he blurted.
"Why?" Steve said coldly. The clerk's presence here made it pretty clear that he had ratted them out, calling HAMMER and using his master key to let them into the room while Tony still slept.
"Who the hell are you?" asked the agent beside the suitcase. In one swift move, he stood up and pointed his gun at Steve.
"I'm the guy who's giving you this one chance to leave before you get hurt," Steve said. He would shoot them if he had to, although he hoped it wouldn't come to that. Not to kill, of course. He would never do that.
But they didn't know that.
Incredibly enough, the chances of getting out of this mess dropped sharply when Steve arrived. Tony might have laughed at the sheer irony of it – except that there was absolutely nothing funny about their situation.
The way he saw it, they were well and truly fucked. HAMMER had him. Steve had one of the agents covered, but one of them had Steve in his sights. It was an ugly stand-off, but still one Tony would have bet money they could come out on top of.
Except for the hotel clerk.
The presence of an innocent civilian changed everything. SHIELD would not have threatened harm to the clerk, or used him as a hostage. But this was not Nick Fury's operation, or even Tony Stark's. This was all in the "gentle" hands of Norman Osborn, who would stop at nothing to get his hands on Tony and the information he possessed.
He would not do anything to harm the clerk. Nor would Steve. And HAMMER knew that. They would use the clerk as a bargaining chip, forcing Steve to stand aside as they took Tony away.
And that was the one thing he could not allow. Nothing was more important than staying out of HAMMER's clutches. He had failed everyone he had ever loved, everyone he had ever tried to protect. Rumiko, Happy, Steve…their faces flashed before him. Each one of them had trusted him.
Each one of them was dead.
Many more would follow if he was taken into Osborn's custody. Because he would talk eventually, he knew that. Even if it came in the form of an electronic rape, forcibly downloading the information from his brain, he would talk. How many superheroes would die then in the name of "science", dissected on a lab table? How many would die in the heat of battle, their weaknesses exploited and turned against them? How many would die cursing Tony Stark's name for the last time?
No. He could not be responsible for that.
Maybe, just maybe, if he played his cards right, only one person would have to die today.
And if he was really lucky, maybe no one at all.
"I'm the guy who's giving you this one chance to leave before you get hurt," Steve said, but no one moved, and he saw right away that his vague threat had fallen on deaf ears.
He glanced around the room, taking it all in. Dale stared at him, wide-eyed with fear. All three HAMMER agents were focused on him, waiting to see what he would do next.
Tony gazed at him very calmly, as though he were not standing there handcuffed with a gun jammed in his back. "You can't let them take me," he said.
Steve redoubled his hold on his stolen gun. He wanted to check behind him to make sure the agent he had knocked out was still no danger to him, but he didn't dare take his eyes off the scene in front of him. "I won't."
"You know what'll happen," Tony said. Even in the dull morning light, Steve could see everything about him with utter clarity. The blue of his eyes. The line creasing his cheek where he had been lying on the pillow, deeply asleep when they broke in. The absolute certainty in his expression. "Don't let them."
"Shut up, Stark," said the agent holding him. He gave Tony a rough shake with the hand clamped on his shoulder.
Tony ignored the man. He had eyes only for Steve. "You know what you have to do."
He swallowed hard. In point of fact, he didn't know, although clearly Tony did. But it was too dangerous to let his ignorance show on his face. So he just nodded curtly and spoke to the HAMMER agents as though he was still in command of the situation. "Step away. Now."
"Put it down, son," said the third agent, the one by the suitcase. He stood on Steve's right, very close to the dresser that lined one wall. "No one has to get hurt."
Steve looked at them all again, trying to determine the best order to take them down, then finally back at Tony.
And Tony looked right at him and said, "You have to kill me."
The instant the words left his mouth, Tony knew he had miscalculated.
He had forgotten Steve's story, and the senseless murder that had brought him to this world in the first place. He had forgotten that Steve already had killed one Tony Stark.
All the color drained from Steve's face. Only his eyes remained vividly blue and haunted. The hand holding the gun began to tremble.
That was not good. If Tony could see those things, so could the HAMMER agents. And they would not hesitate to turn Steve's fear against him.
He had to bring their attention back to himself. "Do it," Tony ordered. "Kill me!"
He didn't actually mean it. Of course he didn't.
Except that he did, in a way. Certainly it would solve a lot of problems if he was no longer around. No more database. No more failures of both tech and man. No more Tony Stark, victor of the Civil War, Director of SHIELD, traitor, liar, murderer.
But he didn't want to die. Not here. Not today. Not like this. He had always been prepared to give his life if it meant saving others, but he wanted it to mean something, too. Dying here in this crappy little hotel room was definitely not what he had in mind.
If he could get Steve to play along, though, it would give the HAMMER agents pause. Surely they knew his history. They would believe that he meant it. And if Steve could get over his horror long enough to take up the role assigned to him, then he could really make them believe it. They would back off then, too afraid to lose him and face Osborn's wrath. Better to let him get away now and try for him again when they would have a greater chance of success, than to risk letting him die now, taking everything Osborn wanted with him.
He just hoped it wasn't too late, that Steve was still in there.
Kill me. The words rang in his head, taking him back to that dreadful day when he had been ordered to kill the man he loved, when refusing that command hadn't even been an option. He could see it all again, that empty lab, the look on Tony's face when Steve hit him for the first time, the blood on his hands…
This couldn't be happening. He couldn't go through this again. He couldn't, oh God.
Everything seemed to slow down then, like a movie reel going at half-speed. "Tony." He could barely get the name out; his voice was a mere whisper.
Tony was still staring at him, anguish on his face now. "Do it," he pleaded, like it hurt him to say the words. Maybe it even did.
The HAMMER agents shifted nervously on their feet. Steve did not look at them. He could not take his eyes off Tony.
Don't make me do this, please God, don't make me do this.
"Do it!" Tony shouted.
The agent beside the suitcase snapped, "Drop your weapon!"
"Enough!" yelled the agent who was holding Tony. In slow motion, he brought the butt of his gun down on Tony's head.
Tony's knees unhinged and he dropped like a stone. Whether the agent had hit him too hard, or this was a feint on Tony's part, it didn't matter. The end result was the same. For a second, the HAMMER agent who had hit him was standing wide open.
Steve took the shot.
And the world sped up, fast, too fast, everything happening at twice the normal speed.
Dale screeched in terror. The HAMMER agent Steve had just shot cried out in pain as the bullet struck the fleshy part of his upper arm. Steve sank to one knee as the third agent shot at him and missed. Steve fired at that man, hitting him in the same place as the first one. Dale shouted again as he was jerked backward in a chokehold. Tony fumbled at the pockets of the agent who had fallen behind him, then seized his watch with a shout of triumph. Steve spun on one knee and aimed his weapon at the agent holding Dale, although he couldn't get a clear shot this time. Something beeped, and then the suitcase containing the Iron Man armor opened up.
White light spilled into the room as a gauntlet rose into the air, the repulsor glowing and ready to fire. Steve blinked, and things finally settled into their normal speed again – although his heart continued to race at double time. It felt like every nerve ending was on fire, and he was all but shaking.
"Let him go," Tony ordered. He was still on his knees, his hands cuffed behind his back, but there was no mistaking the fact that he was now the one in control of the situation.
It was a good thing, too, because now that the battle was over, Steve couldn't have moved if his life depended on it.
The clerk made a little whining noise as he pulled on the arm encircling his neck. The HAMMER agent looked at the powered-up repulsor, then back at Tony. He didn't look like a ruthless mercenary anymore; if anything, he was just a very pissed off guy who was only now realizing that he was in way over his head. "You wouldn't."
"I don't know that you want to test that theory," Tony said tightly. His head hurt, his hands were going numb from the cuffs, and he was pretty sure that he was about to drop his watch and lose control of the suit. But none of that mattered right now. "I've done a lot of things lately that I wouldn't normally do."
The HAMMER agent paled, but said nothing.
Tony glanced at Steve, looked again, and then said quietly, "Cover them."
Steve remained still for a long moment before he seemed to realize that the words had been directed at himself. He stood up and shifted his aim so he was now covering both of the agents he had shot. They were conscious and in pain, clutching at their wounded arms, but neither one was in any real danger.
Which was good, because the last thing Tony wanted was anything that would keep them here any longer than was absolutely necessary. There was undoubtedly back-up on the way for these agents. Depending on how bad his luck was, Norman Osborn himself might be en route. He and Steve needed to get out of here, and fast.
"You can't run forever," said the agent holding the hotel clerk. "We will get you, Stark. Make no mistake about that."
You can't run forever, and Tony just stared at him as the words resonated deep within him. Unbidden, they turned in an invisible lock. A door swung open in his mind, revealing a future he hadn't envisioned before this moment, a future he hadn't even guessed was meant for him.
He saw it now, though. Very clearly.
You can't run forever, and it was true, more true than this man could possibly know. Tony only wished he could have known that an hour ago. Even fifteen minutes ago could have been enough.
Maybe it was better this way, though. He had been granted not only this moment of insight, but time enough to implement it. He knew his future now, and it was not bright and shining, but full of fear and uncertainty.
He only prayed he wouldn't have to face it alone.
He looked at the HAMMER agent who was still holding the hotel clerk hostage. He kept his expression cold and arrogant, not wanting the man to know that he had just inadvertently handed Tony the solution to all his problems. "You can keep trying," he said. "Now let him go."
And the man did.
Steve was still entangled in too much emotion, in the trembling aftermath of adrenaline and the sight of blood on the floor. He did nothing as Tony took charge, sliding into the role with the ease that could only come from long practice. Tony was the one who ordered Dale to unlock him. Tony enlisted Dale's help in shackling the HAMMER agents with their own handcuffs. And when Dale didn't move quick enough, Tony was the one to snap that he had better hurry before anyone came over to investigate the sound of gunshots.
"They won't," Dale said. "I put you guys out here because I knew no one was in the nearby rooms." He swallowed hard and looked at Steve. "I recognized him last night when you guys checked in."
Tony choked a little at that. "You recognized him?"
"Yeah," Dale said. "Hawkeye. The Avenger. I saw you in the car when you guys pulled up. We've got security cameras." He looked just the tiniest bit apologetic. "So I called them."
Tony's face closed off again. "Well, now you see what you get for trusting Norman Osborn."
"Yeah, well," Dale said, mustering up a tiny bit of defiance. "I trust him more than I trust you."
"Remember that when you think back on who saved your life," Tony said bitterly. He looked at Steve and took a deep breath, assuming control once again. "Ready to go?"
Steve just looked at him. The worst of his horror was finally receding. He could feel himself getting angry instead. Not just angry, but furious at Tony for what he had done. But he didn't trust himself to speak just yet, so he said nothing.
So it was Tony who gathered up their things and threw them into the car. It was Tony who advised Dale to tell the truth to HAMMER when they came to pick up the pieces of their failed mission.
And it was Tony who stopped in the parking lot, car keys in hand, and said quietly, "I'm sorry."
Steve stared at him from across the car. Away from that room with the metallic scent of blood and the stains on the carpet, he felt more like himself. Enough to say, "What does that mean, you're sorry?"
"I'm sorry for…that," Tony said. "I know that was… I didn't think. I didn't mean to—"
Like a dam bursting, all of Steve's anger suddenly poured forth. "No, you just conveniently forgot that I really did kill you once," he snapped. He held his shaking hands in front of him, fingers splayed, so he would not curl them into fists. "Don't make me play your little games. Not when it comes to something like that."
Tony went very pale. "It wasn't a game," he said quietly. "I would never… Steve, there was no other way out. I couldn't let them take me."
Steve glared at him – and his anger was suddenly doused in a rush of cold shock. "You were serious."
Something flickered in Tony's eyes, too quick to identify. "I was."
"Oh my God," Steve said faintly. He had to look away; he couldn't stand to see the sincerity in Tony's eyes a moment longer. "You were serious."
He had known, of course, that this Tony was not the same his own, that this Tony Stark had his own history, his own inner monologue, his own thoughts and feelings. But until now, he hadn't known it.
His Tony would never have given him that order. His Tony always found another way out, a way to cut that wire.
But this Tony thought nothing of going to such extremes. Of sacrificing himself in order to save everyone else. He had seen no way out of their situation – an innocent life hanging in the balance right in front of him, still dozens more depending on his ability to remain free of Norman Osborn's clutches. So he had chosen to remove himself from the equation, to make it simple for everyone.
He should have remembered Tony's penchant for such behavior, Steve reminded himself. He had first read about it in that news story about Tony stopping his own heart in order to save people from his own armor gone out of control. That should have been his warning. He should have remembered what kind of man he was dealing with.
Well, he wasn't likely to forget now.
He got in the car and put on his seat belt. A moment later, Tony got in and settled behind the wheel.
In silence, they headed east.
They did not speak as they drove through the morning. Tony gripped the wheel tightly and composed apologies in his head that he knew he would never say out aloud.
I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking clearly. They had me out of bed and in handcuffs even before I was completely awake.
But that was a lie, because he had been thinking clearly. Maybe not right at the start, when he had been too muddled with sleep to fight back. But by the time Steve had appeared, he had known exactly what was happening.
I'm sorry for putting you through that. For reminding you so brutally just how high the stakes are.
This wasn't Steve's world, and he had allowed himself to forget that. He had thought their growing friendship would be enough to overcome Steve's ignorance and his own precarious position within the superhero community. He had forgotten that Steve did not truly understand how utterly insane Norman Osborn was, and how vital it was that the list of registered superhumans not fall into his hands.
I'm sorry for making you remember what you did.
That was the worst. Do it. Kill me, he had said, and yes, it would suck to die now when he had just found new hope in this life, but his personal feelings simply did not – could not – matter when so much was at stake. So he had given the order and he had meant it – but he had seen the paralyzed horror on Steve's face, and in that moment he had wanted to take it all back.
He really had forgotten what Steve had done to that other Tony Stark. He had forgotten that it was that terrible act of murder that had paved the way for Steve to step forward in his own world, but arrive in Tony's world. In that first horrible instant when he had seen what his thoughtless words had done to Steve, memory had returned with a rush.
He hated himself then for what he had done to Steve, and for what he would continue to do, all in the name of putting things right. Somehow he always managed to make things worse, no matter how hard he tried.
I'm sorry. I didn't realize what it would mean to you, that for you it would be absolutely real.
Well, he wasn't likely to forget now.
He sighed, checked the rearview mirror, and returned his eyes to the road. They were headed to Houston, although he had not said so, and Steve had not asked. He was tired of running, tired of hiding. There were armories that still needed to be dealt with, but he could not face another round of senseless destruction. Let Osborn find the ones in Tucson, in Los Angeles, in Seattle. Let him take the suits and try to make them work.
It was time to stop running.
They used almost all their remaining cash to get fast food hamburgers and check into a seedy motel not far from Hobby Airport, and that was it, they were going no further. They couldn't afford to gas up the car, and they could only pay for two nights at the hotel, even at its cheap rates. As far as sites for a last stand went, Tony could think of better.
He could also think of worse.
They ate their paltry meal and then sat in silence, Steve perched on the edge of the bed, Tony at the plastic table near the window. The day was dull and gray, and they had not turned any lights on in the room. It was a fitting place to discuss their future, he thought.
And it was time.
He looked long and hard at Steve, noticing the lines of tension that were back on Steve's face. They had been there when he had first arrived in this world, but had been noticeably absent over the past two days. Now they were back, along with the tightness of his jaw and the way he clasped his hands together so hard his knuckles were white.
You are responsible for all this, Tony told himself, and it was all the motivation he needed to get started.
"I realized something this morning," he said. "That HAMMER agent was right. I can't keep running. I always knew that, but I thought I could do a better job of staying ahead of them. I know now how wrong I was."
Steve had been studying the hideous green carpet covering the floor. Now his head snapped up. "What does that mean?"
"It means I've thought of a new plan," Tony said. He took a deep breath. "I'm going to let HAMMER arrest me."
Steve's eyes widened in astonishment. "What?" He recovered fairly quickly, though, his mouth twisting down in wry humor. "And you couldn't have thought of this before HAMMER tried to arrest you this morning?"
"Actually," Tony admitted, "that was when I thought of it."
Steve did not respond. He just gave Tony a look, reluctant amusement and exasperation shifting into genuine disapproval. That look said Tony had damn well better start explaining – and fast.
"Osborn…" Tony started to say. He paused, trying to think of the best way to say it so Steve would remain on his side. If in fact Steve still was on his side.
"He's not going to stop. There's nothing we can do about that. What we need is for the rest of the world to see the truth about him, and how crazy he is. And that means getting inside HAMMER. That's the only way to expose him."
Steve's brows drew together. His face scrunched up a little when he was deep in thought. Despite the very serious nature of their conversation, Tony couldn't help thinking how cute he looked when he frowned like that. "You're talking about a hidden camera."
"Something like that," Tony allowed.
Steve crossed his arms, setting his jaw mutinously. "Okay, what are you not telling me?"
"We need a hidden camera, you're right about that," Tony said. "But it's not going to be me who has it. They'll search me before they take me anywhere near Thunderbolts Mountain. There's no chance of sneaking one in."
"So who then?" Steve said. But he knew. It was written all over his face.
Tony just looked at him.
Steve sat back and let his hands drop to his lap. "And how exactly am I supposed to get in there?"
"By coming out," Tony said. Off Steve's flat look, he quickly added, "As Captain America, I mean."
"You have got to be kidding me," Steve said. "No one is going to believe I'm the real Steve Rogers."
"Yes, they will," Tony said. "You look just like him, except for being so much younger. Anyway, we'll deal with that when the times comes. As long as you have the support of certain people, that's what matters."
Steve still looked skeptical, so Tony hurried ahead, laying out what he needed Steve to do. He had thought about this on the drive from San Antonio, going over and over it in his head until he knew exactly what needed to happen, who needed to do it, and where they would need to be when they did it. "You're going to announce that you're ending the strife within the superhero community," he said. "Say that you'll all be working with HAMMER. That's what the American public wants, after all. You want to meet with Osborn to work out the details, but you're confident you'll be able to come up with something that is in everybody's best interests, and so on and so forth."
That raised eyebrow did not come down. If anything, Steve looked more wary than before. "And what is the real Captain America going to say to that?" he challenged.
"He's going to say nothing," Tony replied. "Because he's going to be on our side." He held up one hand, delaying Steve's inevitable question. "We'll get to him. Let's just… First thing we need to do is get someone inside Thunderbolts Mountain. By the way, that's not you, either."
"That's Cap," Steve said.
"Not him," Tony said. "That's a job for someone else."
Now Steve looked like he didn't know whether he should be pissed off or just plain confused. He didn't ask for clarification, though. Maybe he knew he wouldn't get it. Not right now, at least. "Okay, then what?"
"Once our undercover person is in place, then I show my face in town," Tony said. "I figure within an hour at most, HAMMER will swoop in and arrest me." He wasn't looking forward to that part of the plan at all. He knew damn well that things would get real ugly for him once he was in HAMMER's custody.
"And then I show my face," Steve said. "Right?"
"Yes," Tony said. "You and Cap both. Call a press conference if you want. Make it big. Make it front-page news. The more coverage we can get, the better."
"Maybe Osborn will contact me first," Steve mused.
"He won't," Tony said shortly. "Not directly, at least. He'll send one of his assistants."
Steve nodded, taking him at his word. "So I say that I want to talk to him at Thunderbolts Mountain. Which is…what exactly?"
"Osborn's base of operations," Tony said. "It's in Colorado. He's relocated HAMMER out there."
Steve did not ask why Osborn had felt the need to do this, which was good.
"Once you're there," Tony continued, "I need you to do everything you can to make Osborn discuss his plans for me. Feed him lines, tell him you hate me now because I got you killed, whatever you have to do."
Steve's face crumpled a little. "Tony…" He sounded pained.
Tony had to look away from him then. He tried to imagine how this conversation would sound if his own Steve had somehow come back and agreed to help him. He didn't think Steve would have found it hard at all to say that he hated Tony. After all, Steve had died hating him. The whole world knew that. Why shouldn't he capitalize on that fact? Norman Osborn would simply love to hear a national treasure like Captain America go on the record claiming to hate Tony Stark.
He just hoped Steve would realize all that, and behave accordingly. "Whatever you have to do," he repeated. "Just get him to talk, and get him to be specific. The crazier, the better. Get it all on video."
"And then what?" Steve said.
"Then…some things will happen," Tony hedged. "I don't want to get into them just now." He needed to make sure that all the pieces were in place first, that he had all the right people lined up. "We'll all go over it together once everyone gets here."
To his surprise, Steve did not argue and insist on hearing the rest of the plan. Instead Steve just gave him a long, measuring look that made Tony feel like he was five years old again and staring up at his dad; he had the same sense of profoundly disappointing someone who had expected so much more from him.
After a while, Steve dropped his head and stared down at the carpet. He shook his head. "I don't like it."
"I knew you wouldn't," Tony said. "If it's any consolation, I don't like it, either. But it's all we've got."
Steve looked up again. He gazed at Tony, his blue eyes full of concern. "He's going to torture you to make you talk. You know that, right?"
Tony nodded and let out a slow breath. "Yeah. I know." He would be lying if he said he wasn't scared. Not so much of the inevitable pain, although he was scared of that. His fear was more that he would break, that he would give Osborn what he wanted. Because for Norman Osborn, this was personal. He would do anything to get the information on that database.
He tried to smile. "It's okay. This isn't my first rodeo. It is kind of an occupational hazard in our line of work, you know."
"Tony." Steve frowned severely, not at all moved by his attempt at levity. "Those times can't be avoided. This can."
"No, it can't," Tony replied, all humor gone.
"What if he hooks you up to a computer?" Steve asked, trying a different tactic now. "Plugs you in? You said you can't fight that."
"I can't," Tony admitted. At least, he didn't think he could. Maybe back when Extremis had still been active, when he had been able to access cell phones and laptops and satellites from inside his head. But not anymore. "But he won't do that. Not right away, at least." He sounded more confident than he felt as he lied, "He doesn't know enough about Extremis and how it works, and he won't risk giving me brain damage. He needs me alive and whole."
He prayed he was right on that score. If he wasn't, all this would be for nothing.
"Brain damage… Jesus Christ." Steve got to his feet, his expression full of horror. "Why do you keep doing this, Tony? Why do you insist on believing that you aren't worth saving?"
Tony went very still. "I don't think that," he said faintly. "I mean, I'm letting you save me now, aren't I?" He tried for a smile, but it felt weak and shaky on his face, and he quickly gave up on the lie.
"Only because you know it's the only way I'd ever agree to let you do this," Steve said, his voice rising.
"It's not your choice," Tony said. "It's mine."
"It's mine, too!" Steve exclaimed. "Or did you also 'conveniently forget' that we're supposed to be in this together?"
Tony's breath caught. He hadn't forgotten. Of course he hadn't. But it had been too long, and he had grown too used to going it all alone. An ally just wasn't factored into the equations anymore, pure and simple. Having someone on his side again, especially when that someone was Steve, did funny things to him. There was a dull roaring in his ears, and he had to blink rapidly several times in order to clear his vision; his chest physically hurt just thinking about it, like there was a cold iron vise squeezing his heart.
Steve took a deep breath, calming down with a visible effort. "I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to yell." He looked down at the floor again, collecting himself, then back up. "Okay. I don't like this, and I'm making that clear up front. I think this is a terrible idea and I'm worried about what's going to happen to you. But. I'm in."
The relief that Steve was still with him was so strong that at first Tony didn't register the other thing he had said. Then it clicked, and he actually swayed backward in his chair, struggling to comprehend what he had just heard.
I'm worried about what's going to happen to you.
Oh God, his life sucked so hard, and it just never ended. He had lost Steve once, only to miraculously find him. And now he was about to lose him again, this time to the shield and the Avengers. And he doubted he would get him back a second time.
Still, Steve cared. Steve was worried about him. Maybe later, during all those long, empty nights that stretched ahead of him, he could look back on this day and remember this brief moment in time when Steve had cared about him.
Maybe it would even be enough.
He cleared his throat. "Um. Yeah. Good. That's good." He made himself smile. "Thank you. And think of it this way. This plan doesn't end with me in a persistent vegetative state, so we're already ahead of the game."
Steve did not smile back. "So who else is going to help us with this? I thought everyone hated you."
"Oh, they do," Tony said lightly. Some of the pressure about his heart began to ease up, making it easier to speak and not sound like he was strangling on the words. "It's not about who likes me, though. It's about who I can trust. And right now that's a pretty short list: Captain America and the Black Widow."
Steve bit at his bottom lip. "Natasha, right?" When Tony nodded, he continued, "Are you finally going to tell me who's behind the shield these days? Or do I have to guess?"
"I'll tell you," Tony said. He thought about his carefully probing questions on the last day of their road trip, before FuturePharm, trying to find out how much their two worlds had in common. They had shared a lot of things, but on this subject, their worlds were literally universes apart. However he worded this, it was going to come as a severe shock to Steve. "But you should probably sit back down first."
Steve gave him a rather wary look, but did as he was told, sitting on the edge of the bed. "Is it that bad?" he murmured.
Tony took a deep breath. "I don't know," he said. "You tell me."
Given how many shocks he had already received today, Steve was pretty sure that nothing else could surprise him. "So who is it?"
"You should know," Tony said, "that, ah, this was actually your choice."
"My choice?" Steve echoed dryly.
"Steve's choice," Tony amended.
Steve just looked at him, wondering how that was even possible.
"After… " Tony hesitated. "After he died, a lawyer brought me a letter. Apparently Steve had written it during the Civil War. In it, he asked me to look after this person."
Tony was very good at glossing over hidden truths, Steve was finding out. There was more to the story than that. There had to be. "But not to make him Captain America," he guessed. "That was your call. Not his."
Tony looked pained for a moment. Then he said, "I think I did what Steve would have wanted. And Cap agrees, for what it's worth."
"Okay," Steve said. "So tell me who it is."
Tony took a deep breath. "Bucky Barnes is Captain America."
At first he thought it was a joke, that Tony was making fun of him. In that first instant he felt only angry betrayal, that the one person he had started to trust in this world could turn on him this way.
Then he looked again, and he saw that Tony was serious. And the bottom dropped out of his stomach. "Oh my God. Bucky is alive?"
Tony nodded. "Yes."
"How?" Steve breathed.
He listened in wonder as Tony told the story of Bucky Barnes and the Winter Soldier, how Bucky and Steve had battled each other until Steve was able to restore Bucky's memory of himself. He heard how Bucky initially blamed Tony for Steve's death and came after him, confronting him in the halls of the helicarrier. And finally Tony told him about their brutal fight, how it had ended in a standstill, so that he was able to explain to Bucky about the letter he had received and Steve's final wishes.
"He's been Captain America for several months now, and he's doing a good job of it," Tony said. "Steve would be proud of him." He paused. "So would you."
Steve just stared at the awful green carpet beneath his feet. He couldn't find any words.
Bucky was alive.
"I'm sorry you had to find out this way," Tony said. "But I wanted you to hear it from me, instead of having to read about it online or hear it on the news."
He nodded a little. He could understand that. He could even appreciate it, a little.
"Are you okay?" Tony asked.
He didn't know. He wasn't sure what he was feeling right now. He thought he might throw up, but he also wanted to laugh with pure joy.
Bucky was alive.
"He…" He swallowed hard. "He'll help us?"
After a long pause, Tony said, "I hope so."
Steve looked up, and saw the hope Tony was talking about. Saw that it was aimed at himself.
So Tony was going to use his name to enlist Bucky's help. Well, he couldn't pretend to be surprised. And truthfully it was probably the only way Bucky would agree to help Tony Stark.
He didn't mind. It was the least he could do.
"Right away," Tony said. "I actually don't have a way to contact Bucky. I'm going to call Natasha Romanov. They're…working together. It seems they have a history with the Russians."
In that faint pause, Steve heard all the things Tony hadn't said. They were good things, but strangely enough, thinking about Bucky and Natasha in a relationship only added to both his grief and his happiness.
The cheap hotel room suddenly seemed suffocating. He stood up.
"Are you sure you're okay?" Tony asked quietly.
Steve swallowed hard. "Yeah. I think so."
"You're allowed to say no," Tony said.
"Would it make any difference?" he sighed.
Tony had no answer for that. Steve's sense of suffocating gloom only increased. "I'm sorry," he said. "Look, I don't think I'm very good company right now."
"It's okay—" Tony started to say.
He walked over to the dresser, where Tony had carelessly tossed the car keys when they arrived. "I'm gonna go out for a little bit," he said. He didn't know where he was going to go, or even how far he would get with the limited amount of gas in the tank. He just knew he couldn't stay here. Since his arrival in this world he hadn't really had a chance to be alone with his thoughts, and he needed that now, more than anything else.
Tony just nodded. He looked miserable, like he wanted to argue, even though he knew better. "All right."
"I'm sorry," Steve said again.
He was halfway out the door when Tony said his name. He stopped, but did not look up.
"Be careful," Tony said quietly.
Steve nodded, and left.
It was no doubt dangerous to go driving around, but he simply could not stay in that awful little room a moment longer. He needed some time to think, and the space to do it in. And if he was completely honest with himself, he needed to be far away when Tony called Bucky and asked for his help.
Bucky was alive. It was unreal, incredible, impossible.
And it made him want to cry for his own Bucky, lost for so long. Was he still alive, too? Was he even now trapped in the Winter Soldier, unaware of who he was? Would anyone ever find him?
And what about Natasha? In all the time he had known her, she had never once hinted that she had any knowledge about Bucky. Could it be possible that she had not known the Winter Soldier's true identity?
He would never know. Never get to see his Bucky again and find out what kind of man he had become. Never get to smile at him or remember a shared escapade from their past. Never get to watch him turn from an unwilling villain into a true hero.
But he would believe it, he told himself as he wiped away the tears. He had to believe it.
Someday, somewhere, in his world, Bucky would be found and brought home.
He drove aimlessly for a while, just following his instincts, until he found himself on the shores of a large lake. There were a few people sitting on the grass trying to enjoy the winter afternoon, but none of them did more than glance curiously at him. A sign said that this was Clear Lake, and invited him to enjoy his stay.
He wandered up to the water's edge and stared gloomily out at the lake.
He didn't know what to do anymore. He had thought everything was so simple, that all he had to do was commit to a course of action and keep moving forward, and everything would work out. Instead he found himself wondering if he was doing the right thing, if he was even meant to be here at all.
It wasn't too late, he thought. He could make his way to New York, look up the Reed Richards of this world and ask to be sent back home.
Yes, go back…and do what? Sit in jail for murder? He would be powerless then to affect the course of things, to stop his world from falling into civil war, to save Bucky. What good would it do, what could he possibly accomplish, even if he could go back?
Going home was impossible, and not just for reasons of logistics. This was his world now, and he had to accept that once and for all.
He had promised to help Tony, to stick by him. He could not break that promise. To do that would only confirm in Tony's mind what he already believed – that he was not worthy of anyone's friendship or support. And it would leave a good man all alone, with no one to help him.
He was still angry when he thought about what had happened in San Antonio that morning, Tony ordering him to kill him without even a second thought. But he understood why Tony had done it. And if he ever wanted things to change, if he wanted Tony to stop defaulting to self-sacrifice any time he found himself backed into a corner, then he would have to be the one to make Tony see that there were other options.
There was no one else.
He sighed and looked around. With a start he realized that it was nearly dark; he had been brooding out here for hours. Tony would be freaking out by now.
It took a while to return to the hotel, allowing for time to stop and get more fast food for dinner – leaving them with a grand total of three dollars and sixty-two cents. He also got lost twice, but he decided he wasn't going to mention that part.
Tony did not scold him for being gone for so long, but the pinched look on his face spoke volumes about how worried he had been. "I'm sorry," Steve said. He held up the plastic bag he was carrying. "I brought dinner."
Tony gave him a weak smile. "I'm just glad you're back safely."
His obvious relief and gratitude, and the implication that he had feared Steve had decided to abandon him, made Steve felt like a complete asshole.
"I'm sorry," he said again. "I had a lot to think about."
Tony nodded. "I spoke to Natasha," he said. "I'll meet them down the road tomorrow morning, then bring them back here."
Steve's pulse quickened at the thought of seeing Bucky again. "Okay," he said. He hoped the meeting would go well, but he told himself to prepare for the worst. This wouldn't just be difficult for himself, he had to remember. Bucky was about to see a ghost.
He started setting out the food he had bought, sub sandwiches and chips and drinks. "We're out of money."
"I figured," Tony said. He didn't seem too worried about it, though.
Steve reached for a sandwich. As casually as he could manage, he said, "We were never going to go anywhere beyond Austin, were we?"
"No," Tony admitted as he walked over to the small table and the food. "We didn't have enough money for that. Pepper brought what she could, but she was under the gun and I didn't tell her what I had in mind. It's not her fault." He hesitated, then reached for a sandwich. "Besides, money isn't a concern anymore. Bucky and Natasha will bring everything we need to finish this."
Everything would change tomorrow. He would no longer have Tony all to himself. He would see Bucky again for the first time in over seventy years. He would take his first steps into the greater world, and the superhero community.
Part of him was eager for it, and ready. Part of him was terrified. And part of him didn't want things to change. That part of him wanted to stay with Tony, just the two of them alone together.
He took a deep breath. "Tell me more about Bucky," he said. He sat down at the table and began unwrapping his sandwich.
"What do you want to know?" Tony asked.
"Everything," Steve said.
He woke up before dawn, his heart pounding. He didn't know why at first. He hadn't had any dreams – not that he could remember – and there were no noises to explain his sudden awareness. After a long while he decided that he was merely jumping at shadows, expecting them to be betrayed by yet another hotel clerk eager to make some fast money. But the door did not burst open and HAMMER agents did not come rushing in, and eventually Steve relaxed again.
Beside him, Tony slept on, oblivious to his anxiety. It didn't look like an easy rest, though; lines of distress creased his brow and one hand was curled into a fist.
Steve reached out with one hand and traced a gentle line over Tony's forehead, just above his eyebrow. As though he could soothe away the marks of worry and fear with his touch alone.
Tony stirred and made a sleepy nnnn sound.
Not wanting to wake him, Steve pulled his hand back and sat up. He would let Tony sleep, he decided. They had stayed up late last night talking about Bucky and the Winter Soldier, Natasha Romanov and Russia and SHIELD. He had had to bow his head and cover his eyes once, so Tony would not see his tears when he thought about everything Bucky had suffered.
He considered going for a run. He missed it, the morning air on his face, the satisfaction of physical exertion, feeling all the parts and pieces of his body moving together in harmony. He missed the smell of honest sweat, the sound of his feet on the pavement, the lighting of the sky as the sun rose all around him.
It was too unsafe, though. And he couldn't leave Tony again.
Beside him, Tony stirred again and uttered the same faint nnnn as from before. And abruptly Steve realized that what he was trying to say was No.
Steve turned, thinking that he would wake Tony from whatever horrible thing he was dreaming about, and Tony's eyes flew open. He cried out loudly. "No!" The hand that had been curled into a fist rose in the air, reaching out desperately.
Steve reared back, not wanting to be hit. An instant later, Tony's eyes cleared. He saw what he was doing, and stricken shame flooded his face. He yanked his hand back and looked away.
"It's okay," Steve said quietly. "We've all been there."
"Sorry," Tony said, his voice thick with sleep.
"I should have woken you sooner," Steve said. "I didn't realize."
"Not your fault," Tony sighed. He closed his eyes briefly, then opened them again. He threw back the covers and sat up. "I'm gonna take a shower," he mumbled without looking at Steve.
Steve said nothing, just watched him go. Now that it was too late, he realized that Tony hadn't been lashing out with the intention of hitting him. Tony had been reaching for him.
And he had pulled away.
He sighed. Maybe later they could clear up the misunderstanding. Now he had to focus on the meeting with Bucky and Natasha, and their plan to infiltrate HAMMER and take down Norman Osborn.
Later, he told himself. Later.
At 9:30, Tony left the hotel room. Steve gave him a nervous smile, then sat on the far edge of the bed. He clasped his hands tightly and counted backwards from one hundred and tried to remember all the tricks he had employed in wartime to remain calm.
After a while, he heard voices from just outside the door. His heart did a funny twist in his chest. The lock beeped, and then the door opened, and they walked inside.
Tony was first, with Natasha right behind him. She looked just like the woman Steve had known, slender and beautiful, with eyes that missed nothing.
Behind her, Bucky walked inside, then stopped dead.
For a long moment they just stared at each other. Bucky looked pale and shocked, like someone had just kicked him in the stomach. For his part, Steve felt like he was locked in the ice all over again, his entire body frozen and immobile.
Bucky was the first to recover. "That's not Steve Rogers," he said flatly. His right hand curled into a fist.
Steve held his breath, and just stared. Physically this man looked exactly as his Bucky had, with the obvious exception of the metal hand. Their eyes, though, were worlds apart. Even after his imprisonment, the Bucky whom Steve had known had still experienced a zest for life, and been able to smile. This Bucky looked too hard and cynical, for all his outward appearance of youth.
"Well, it is and it isn't," Tony said.
In a flash Bucky reached out, grabbed Tony by the shoulder and slammed him up against the wall beside the door. With his cybernetic hand, he held Tony there easily, his face dark with anger. "Another clone? First Thor, now Steve? What the fuck is wrong with you, Stark?"
Steve sprang to his feet. "Bucky! Stand down!"
Bucky gave Steve a narrow glare, but did not release Tony. Behind him, Natasha said quietly, "Let him go."
Steve took a single step forward. He could see his own Bucky's hot temper in this version of the man. This Bucky, too, was quick to spring to Steve's defense.
He thought about those long years of friendship and loyalty, when sometimes it had seemed like Bucky was the only one who understood him, who truly knew what he was going through. He wondered what adventures this Bucky had shared with his Steve, what secrets only he knew, what memories he could never tell anyone else.
"I'm not a clone," he said. "I'm Steve Rogers, and I will explain everything to you, but right now you need to let Tony go."
Bucky didn't even glance at Tony, who was watching him warily, obviously expecting to get a punch in the face at the very least. Slowly he released Tony's shoulder and lowered his arm. "Explain it then. Now."
"You okay?" Steve asked Tony with some concern. He was guessing that Bucky had one hell of a grip with that metal arm.
Tony nodded and moved a couple steps to one side. Not quite in full retreat, but putting some prudent distance between Bucky and himself. As he did, Natasha moved up to stand beside him, maybe intending to get between him and Bucky, maybe just wanting to be closer to them all.
Steve returned his attention to Bucky. "You're right. I'm not your Steve Rogers. I came here by accident. I'm not from your world."
"You've heard of parallel worlds, right?" Tony asked.
Bucky frowned. "So you're from another world. And you, what, came here through a portal?"
"I'm actually not sure," Steve admitted. "I wasn't supposed to come here at all. I was only supposed to go back in time within my own world."
"Why?" Natasha asked.
"There was something I needed to fix," Steve said, and left it at that. If he was truly going to stay in this world, he would eventually need to tell the other Avengers the truth. But that day was still far away. Right now he just needed to satisfy himself that Bucky and Natasha could be trusted.
Neither of them asked what he had been trying to fix. "So why don't you go back to your own world?" Natasha said.
"I can't," Steve said. "It was a one-way trip."
Natasha did not react to this, but Bucky looked somewhat distressed. "Are you planning on taking up the shield again?"
"No," Steve said, just as Tony said, "That's something we need to talk about."
Bucky shot him a look, then looked back again at Steve. "Stark said he has a plan to take down Norman Osborn."
"We do," Steve agreed, deliberately using the plural pronoun. He hadn't missed the way Bucky just assumed that he was in charge; he wanted to make sure Bucky understood that they were all in this together now. Not just him and Tony, but Bucky and Natasha, too. By coming here, they had made themselves complicit in aiding a known fugitive, even if they decided not to actually help.
"Okay then," Bucky said. "Let's hear it."
Six hours later they were in a SHIELD safe house, not too far from their hotel. As it turned out, thanks to his stint as Director, Tony had known about the house's existence, and had factored it into his decision to choose that particular hotel. He hadn't assumed it would be safe to use, however. That job he had left for Natasha, who smiled sardonically as she told them it was fine to move there.
Bucky and Natasha were on board with Tony's plan, but they had both registered their protests, particularly Bucky, who didn't seem too keen on giving up the shield so soon after he had begun wielding it. Steve had assured him that he had no designs on becoming Captain America in this world, no matter what he might say to the press. "That's just to get Osborn's attention. We can work all that out later. Right now we just need to stay focused on Osborn himself."
It was strange and wonderful to be working alongside Bucky again, even if he wasn't the man Steve had known. He thought that Bucky might be feeling something similar, judging by the quick glances that were often thrown his way. Several times he saw Bucky look like he wanted to speak to Steve, but each time something came up to distract him, and so the moment was lost.
Later, Steve vowed. Later there would be time. He and Bucky could sit down and talk, and maybe find a way to recreate a friendship that had never, in fact, actually existed.
He was genuinely pleased for Bucky, though, as he watched him and Natasha. At all times, they always knew exactly where the other one was. Sometimes they would look up from across the room and their eyes would meet. When that happened they gave each other secretive little smiles that sometimes barely even touched their mouths, but were no less real for all that.
He was happy for them, but jealous, too. He missed having that with Tony. He saw the way Natasha sometimes touched Bucky lightly on the arm as she moved past, and he missed that, the way he and Tony had touched each other. He missed that feeling of being one half of a larger whole, of knowing that he was part of something extraordinary, of being in love and knowing that he was loved in return.
As they settled into the safe house and hammered out the details of their plan, he found himself watching Tony often, although he quickly looked away any time Tony seemed about to catch him in the act. He wanted to study Tony unobserved, to watch him now that it was no longer just the two of them and they were around other superheroes.
From that perspective, the afternoon was quite interesting. Tony seemed more relaxed around Bucky and Natasha than he had been when there was only Steve present. It took Steve almost an hour to realize what an artful lie that was. In actual fact, Tony was practically desperate to do whatever was required to get them on board.
Yet it was plain to see that he had nothing but respect for Bucky and Natasha. With Natasha in particular, they obviously shared a long history of being Avengers together, and Tony played off it shamelessly, casually dropping references to past incidents that they both knew about. Whenever Bucky or Natasha challenged certain aspects of his plan, he stood his ground and explained why he had chosen to go this particular route. He remained open to suggestion, though, and he was perfectly willing to incorporate new details if they suited the plan better than the original ones. Watching him, Steve was reminded that first and foremost, Tony Stark was a businessman skilled in the arts of negotiation and compromise – and getting what he wanted.
Like Natasha, Tony called Bucky "James." He also made no secret of the fact that his ultimate safety lay in Bucky being where he was supposed to be at a certain time. It was a staggering amount of trust to put in someone who didn't even know him that well, and Bucky was the first to call him out on it.
"You know, Rhodes could do this as easily as me. Better, even."
"He could," Tony agreed. "But Rhodey's been my friend for too long. If this doesn't work, Osborn will tar him with the same brush as me. And I can't let that happen. On the other hand, you have a certain…immunity…that protects you."
Bucky glanced at Steve, but it was Natasha who said, "We'll need to call in reinforcements. His Dark Avengers will all be there."
"I know you'll bring in the right people," Tony said, and Steve had to wonder at that. Who was left out there who wouldn't turn Tony in, who would be willing to fight for him? Or was Natasha perhaps thinking of friends who would answer a summons from Captain America despite the fact that they would be helping Tony Stark?
Neither Natasha nor Bucky named anyone, though. Not that Steve had expected them to. Bucky just said, "You do know he'll figure it out, right? He's gonna know what you're doing."
"Yeah," Tony said. "I know. Don't worry. I've got it under control."
"How exactly are you going to do that from inside a prison cell?" Natasha asked.
Tony glanced at Steve; his expression gave nothing away. "It's being handled," he said. "You two just stick to the plan."
Steve had no idea what Tony was talking about. They had not discussed anything yet between just the two of them. But he nodded anyway, as though he knew what Tony meant. It would have been disloyal not to, especially in front of others.
Clearly unconvinced, Bucky and Natasha exchanged a look. But they let the matter drop, and that was the end of the conversation.
By nightfall, everything was as ready as it could be, and there was nothing left to do but go their separate ways. "Give me three days," Natasha said as they headed for the door.
"Make it two," Tony countered. When her eyes narrowed, he added quickly, "If you can."
"I'll contact you when I'm in position," she said. She hesitated, glanced at Steve, then looked back at Tony. "I'll contact Sharon, too, and fill her in."
"Thank you," Tony said. His gratitude was so obvious that Steve knew immediately there must be a reason he didn't want to make that call himself. Given Natasha's reaction, he was pretty sure that Sharon was someone who had known Steve, perhaps even intimately.
Bucky took a step forward. "For the record, I still think you're crazy, Stark."
Tony shot him a tight smile. "You have to be a little bit crazy to defeat a madman."
Bucky made a low sound of wry amusement. "No arguments there. And, um, sorry about the whole slamming-you-against-the-wall thing earlier."
"I'd have done the same thing in your position," Tony said. He brushed off the apology, still with that smile that didn't quite reach his eyes.
Bucky just nodded. Then he looked over at Steve.
Unconsciously Steve stood a little straighter. It felt wrong to let him leave without saying something. He wanted to acknowledge the importance of what had happened here today, and what was still to come. He wanted to ask about his other self and find out what that other Steve had meant to Bucky, what kind of history they had shared. But it was too soon, and now was certainly not the time for it. And at any rate, he didn't really know Bucky. He had not yet earned the right to ask those kinds of private questions.
He hoped one day he would, though.
He held out his hand.
Bucky barely hesitated. He shifted the suitcase he was holding to his left hand, then shook Steve's hand. His grip was firm and warm.
"I'm glad I got to meet you," Steve said. It wasn't at all what he wanted to say, but it was all he could manage right now without getting choked up. Maybe someday in his own world, Bucky would be found and made whole again, like this one had. Maybe he would even end up with Natasha, and know some of the happiness this Bucky had made for himself.
He hoped and prayed that was true.
"It's definitely been…interesting," Bucky said. He shook his head slowly. "I gotta admit, I didn't expect this when I woke up this morning."
No one ever does, Steve thought sadly.
For a long, awkward moment they all simply stood there, no one wanting to make the first move. Then Natasha stirred, and Bucky walked out the door, and that was it, they were really leaving. Things were in motion now.
For better or for worse, they were committed.
Part III: It's times like these you learn to love again
The next two days were among the most pleasant ones Tony had ever known. Given the fact that he was on the run for his life and considered number one on America's Most Wanted list, he wouldn't have thought that was possible – but he was more than happy to be proven wrong on that account.
He didn't know what to do with himself at first. It was the first time in years he hadn't had eight hundred demands on his time all at once. There were no projects in the lab to oversee. No upgrades to the suit. No Avengers business, no Iron Man business, no Stark Industries business. No one calling on the phone. No one needing his signature. No one wanting a prepared statement.
There was only Steve and himself. Thanks to Bucky and Natasha, they had plenty of food. The safe house was small but well-furnished. There was a TV that they never once turned on. Shelves full of books that had never been read; their spines still crackled when they were opened. A chess set. Two decks of playing cards. Two bedrooms with surprisingly comfortable beds and an assortment of clothing in various sizes hanging in the closets.
They played chess and gin rummy and did their laundry and sat at opposite ends of the long couch reading. Or rather, Steve read. Tony couldn't relax enough to focus on the printed word, but it was enough just to sit there and savor Steve's presence, so close and so companionable. During those times the silence was so profound that when Steve's stomach rumbled with hunger, Tony could hear it and he knew it was time to get up and make something to eat.
They talked a lot, too. They started out small, just sharing little things about themselves. Nothing earth-shattering, nothing that had the potential to lead into dangerous or painful topics. Tony learned that Steve had a weakness for chocolate chip cookies, and in turn he confessed to his deep and abiding love for cheesecake. They talked about baseball – the Dodgers, it seemed, were destined to suck in any universe. Tony wanted to promise to take Steve to the Opening Day game next year, but that was a long way away and he didn't want to speak of the future when he couldn't even be sure that Steve would remain in this world.
Thinking of the future reminded him that he owed Steve information about the past. So now that there was finally time for it – and no more excuses not to do it – Tony spent that first afternoon explaining the history of this world to Steve. They compared major world events and found that nearly all of them were the same. The significant differences mostly seemed to be focused on the superheroes themselves and their lives. He got to hear the full tale of Loki and the Chitauri and how Steve's Avengers had been born, and in turn he shared the details of how his Avengers had come together, and their early years operating out of Stark Mansion.
As the hours passed, as they talked, as they shared stories and meatballs at dinner and toothpaste when they got ready for bed, Tony could feel some of the tension within him trying to dissipate. The easy silences and Steve's friendly smiles wanted to lull him into thinking that he was safe, that he could finally let his guard down. It wasn't true, of course, and it wouldn't have been true even if he didn't have to give himself over to HAMMER in two days. But nonetheless, for the first time in over a year, he began to hope that there might be a life for him beyond the Civil War and Steve's death. Like maybe he truly could let go of the heavy burdens he had been carrying alone for so long.
That first night they split up, Tony claiming the back bedroom, while Steve stayed in the front one. Despite his fatigue, sleep was long in coming. He lay there going over and over everything they had talked about, committing the stories to memory. He thought about the cute little furrow that appeared in Steve's brow when he had contemplated the chess board during their last game, fully aware that he was losing, but going down fighting anyway. He thought about the light that shone in Steve's eyes when he smiled and really meant it. He remembered how it felt when their fingers had casually brushed as he handed Steve the salt shaker at dinner.
So he was awake when he heard Steve cry out. He did nothing at first, not sure what to do, or if Steve would even want his help. Then he heard it again, and he threw back the covers and hurried down the hall.
He wasn't quite fast enough. He had just reached the doorway when Steve's entire body twisted beneath the sheets and he screamed out a terrible, wordless denial. Then, before Tony could even let go of the doorframe and step into the room, he cried Tony's name, his voice thick with anguish.
He woke himself up with that cry, and scrabbled at the covers as he sat up. He froze when he saw Tony standing there; in the dim light, his eyes looked wild, almost inhuman. "Tony?"
Tony cleared his throat. "Yeah," he said. "I heard…"
"Tony, oh my God. Are you okay? I thought…" Steve bit his lip. His bare arms caught the faint blue light that came in through the window.
"I'm okay," Tony said quietly. "Are you?"
Steve moved over to sit on the edge of the bed. "I thought he… I mean, I saw him…" He covered his face with his hands.
After a moment, Tony started uncertainly toward him. He remembered all too well how Steve had rejected him the last time he had tried to comfort him after a nightmare. Most likely his efforts would be rebuffed again, but he had to at least try.
Steve lowered his hands, and Tony went perfectly still. But Steve did not look in his direction. He just stared into nothing as he said, "I saw him. Osborn. You were both in the armor. He had found you, somewhere in the desert it looked like. You were fighting each other. But something was wrong with you. It was like you didn't know how anymore. He was…he was killing you with…with his fists."
Tony blinked in astonishment. Steve had dreamed about him. Not his own Tony. Himself.
That was… He didn't know what to do with that. But God, how horrible for Steve to dream of what he had done, beating a man to death his bare hands. No wonder he had screamed like that.
"Are you going to be okay?" he asked. He winced; it sounded so callous, like he didn't care. When nothing could be further from the truth.
Steve looked up, and for an awful moment Tony saw the depth of his misery and grief. But when he saw Tony, something in his expression lightened. "I will be," he said. He bit at his lip again and dropped his gaze. He looked so young then, so vulnerable as he said quietly, "Would you stay?"
There was no way Tony could refuse. Nor did he want to. He nodded. "Of course."
"Thank you," Steve mumbled without looking up. For a moment Tony thought he was regretting the invitation, then he saw the slight color that rose in his cheeks, and he realized that Steve was just embarrassed at having to ask in the first place.
Well, that was a sensation he was familiar with. God knew he hated it when anyone caught him in a moment of weakness. So as he walked around to the other side of the bed, he said lightly, "For the record, I don't think you have anything to worry about. Thunderbolts Mountain isn't anywhere near the desert."
Steve made a face. "Gee, thanks."
"Also," Tony said, getting into bed, "if I ever get Osborn in my sights, you better believe I'm taking the shot."
Steve lay down, flat on his back. He turned his head to look over at Tony. "I know you would." The last of the pain in his eyes disappeared, replaced with firm determination. "And if you didn't, I would."
Tony just stared back for a long moment. Maybe Steve would, and maybe he wouldn't, but Tony vowed right then and there that he would do whatever it took to ensure that Steve would never have to make that call. He had no doubt that once upon a time, this Steve would never have said that, that he would have advocated another way, that he would have done just about anything to resolve the situation with Osborn peacefully. But that was before a monster had crawled into his mind and taken control. Before he had been forced to kill the man he loved, and just stand there and watch him die.
Aloud, all he said was, "Are you sure you're gonna be okay?"
"Yeah," Steve said. He hesitated, then said, "I wanted to say… Yesterday, when you woke up. I don't want you to think I was…" He grimaced. "I just meant, I thought you might hit me. That's why I pulled away."
At first Tony didn't know what he was even talking about – the change in subject seemed to come out of the blue. Then he remembered his nightmare from yesterday morning, and the way Steve had pulled away from him, and he got it.
"Oh," he said. "It's okay. I knew that." In the heat of the moment, when he had been reaching out, needing to touch Steve to make sure he was real, he hadn't known it. But during those tense minutes when they had been waiting for Bucky and Natasha to arrive this morning, he had gone over and over it in his head, replaying that memory – along with other memories of this new Steve. It hadn't taken him long to figure out what had happened, and to feel annoyed with himself for misinterpreting the situation and letting it get to him.
Apparently Steve had been genuinely worried, though, judging by the look of relief that crossed his face, smoothing out the frown lines on his brow. "Okay," Steve said. "Good." He nodded a little, then rolled his head on the pillow so that he was staring up at the ceiling. He seemed to smile a little to himself, then he closed his eyes. "Good night, Tony."
Tony wasn't sure what to think of that, of knowing that Steve had been brooding over the incident, worried about his reaction. It gave him a funny feeling in his chest to know that Steve had been thinking about him, possibly even in the same way he found himself thinking about Steve.
"Good night," he said softly.
On the second day, Tony told Steve about the Civil War and the Skrull invasion. He went into great detail this time, holding nothing back. Well, almost nothing. In the end, he was too cowardly to tell Steve about the confession he had made to the other Steve's dead body. That secret would go with him to his grave.
Steve listened somberly, occasionally interrupting to ask a question. Tony couldn't meet his eyes when he talked about how Steve had died amid angry shouts and jeers and people throwing things at him. "He didn't deserve to die like that," he whispered.
After a long pause, Steve said, "If you could go back, if your trip back through time actually worked out…would you do it all again? Or would you do it differently?"
Tony already knew the answer to that question. He had spent countless long nights thinking it over. And time and time again he had arrived at the same conclusion. "I would do it all again," he said. "I would have to. Because I believe I did the right thing." He swallowed hard, his gaze on the floor. "But I would do it better. I would do it right. I wouldn't fail this time. I wouldn't let people die."
Because it wasn't just Steve. It was Jan. It was Bill Foster. It was all the innocent bystanders who had been hurt or killed while the superheroes who were supposed to protect them fought each other in the street. It was all those children in Stamford.
But mostly it was Steve. Steve, who was dead and gone, and yet miraculously here anyway. And it was time to face the truth, what he should have seen coming from the moment this Steve showed up in his office and stopped him from deleting his own brain.
He was falling in love with Steve Rogers all over again.
"Tony." Steve sounded reproving. "You can't… You put too much pressure on yourself."
He shook his head. "I have to get it right," he said. "I have to fix what I did. You don't—"
"I don't understand?" Steve asked flatly.
"No." He looked up quickly. "That's not what I was going to say." Because Steve did understand that desperate desire to put things right. Only too well.
"Then what were you going to say?" Steve asked. The challenge had left his voice, and now he just sounded interested.
"That you don't have to help," Tony said. "This isn't your mess. But you are helping, and I just… I wanted to say thank you."
Steve gazed at him for a moment, then smiled a little. "I'll always help," he said. "However I can. I hope you know that."
He did know that, as unbelievable as it was. A sudden lump rose in his throat, and he had to look away again. "I do," he said quietly.
No. It was too much. Too much. He couldn't do this. Not now. Not when Natasha would call at any moment to say that she was in place. Not when he was within hours of having to give himself up to Norman Osborn and HAMMER. Not when he was facing at least a full day of hell before any rescue came.
Not when he was going to have to walk away from Steve.
He stood up. "It's almost dinner time. Did you have anything in mind?" Without looking back, he started toward the kitchen.
After a long silence, he heard Steve get up and follow him. Thankfully Steve did not pursue whatever he had been going to say. And so they made dinner and they ate, and they made small talk, and Tony damned himself all over again for being a coward.
Yet that night as they headed for bed, he was the one who said, "Do you, um…?"
And Steve looked up and smiled. "Yes," he said.
So they spent the second night in the same bed, in the room Tony had claimed, and if there were any dreams that night, in the morning neither of them remembered.
On the third morning, Tony woke up to the by-now familiar sensation of Steve lying close behind him. He could feel Steve's breath warm and steady on the back of his neck. Steve's arm was draped across his chest.
It was still early; winter rain struck the bedroom window. He opened his eyes, but lay perfectly still, not wanting to wake Steve up.
Steve's forearm was lightly tanned, the hair beautifully blond. Even slack in sleep, the muscle there was evident. The back of his hand and his knuckles were just within reach, almost begging to be gently caressed. Yet Tony held back, unwilling to disturb him.
This was the last morning he would ever get to wake up like this. He wanted to hold onto this moment forever, preserve it within his memory so that he never forgot. Assuming he survived the next few days, he wanted to be able to recall this moment with perfect clarity, and remember that brief period of time when he had been with Steve again, once more helplessly, hopelessly, in love.
Now, when it was too late, he wished that he had said something. That he had rolled over in the middle of the night and taken Steve into his arms. Maybe Steve would have held him in return, and he would have that to remember as well.
In a few hours he might be dead. It was always a possibility. Osborn might just assume that he would never talk and simply decide to kill him rather than wasting time on him. It wasn't an option he and Steve had talked about, but it was there all the same, hanging silently, heavily, over their heads. Osborn would make it look like an accident, of course, or maybe a heart attack – the whole world knew about Tony Stark's weak heart – but he would still be just as dead.
Death might not be so bad. After all, only nine days ago he had been busy planning his own demise. Then Steve had shown up, granting him a stay of execution with his mere presence. He hoped that he had used the time wisely, giving Steve a reason to go on, showing him that he could be a part of this world and make it his new home. He had introduced Steve to Bucky. He had planted the seeds for a future where Steve could once again be Captain America. And he had done everything he could to protect all those superhumans who had signed their name to a list in the (naïve) hope that they would not live to regret it.
He only hoped it would be enough.
It wasn't quite noon when Natasha called. Outside, it was still raining. Steve heard the ringing and his heart plummeted into the bottom of his stomach. He stared at the phone, wishing they could choose not to pick it up.
But it could not be ignored. So at last he answered the phone with a curt, "Yes?"
She was brief and to the point. "I'm in place," she said. "Your move."
Steve thanked her and put the phone down. He looked up at Tony, who had gone very pale. "It's time," he said.
Tony swallowed hard and nodded. "Okay." It was barely a whisper.
They had known this was coming, but now that the moment was here, Steve found that he would do nearly anything to escape it. He didn't want to let Tony go. Even just the thought of what Tony was now facing was enough to make him want to clench his fists in helpless frustration.
How could it have come to this? How could he have let things get so far out of hand? Everything that had happened prior to his arrival in this world was out of his control, of course, but since then he had done nothing to help. He had stood by and let Tony destroy years of hard work by blowing up the armories and all those suits. He had done nothing to help clear Tony's name or give him a reason to stop running. And when Tony had proposed to give himself over to the one person who wanted nothing more than to hurt him, he had actually agreed to help.
It was all wrong.
And it was too late to do anything about it.
He had doomed his Tony through helpless inaction, and now he had doomed this one, too, in exactly the same way.
Ever since Tony had first mentioned his plan to give himself up to Norman Osborn, he had acted like it wasn't a big deal. But over the last two days, Steve had sometimes caught glimpses of fear on his face when he wasn't aware that Steve was watching. Those occasions had been fleeting, and he had always quickly brought himself under control again. But now the moment of truth was finally here, and Tony couldn't hide his fear anymore. When he said, "I guess this is it," his voice wobbled all over the place.
If he could have volunteered to trade places with him, Steve would have done it in a heartbeat. He couldn't stand to see the dread that tightened Tony's jaw and dulled his eyes.
Tony took a deep breath and slowly, shakily, let it out. "Give me a few minutes," he said, almost pleadingly, like he was asking for permission.
"Take as much time as you need," Steve said. It was the only thing he could say.
Tony nodded, pathetic gratitude all over his face. Biting his lip, he walked out of the living room. A few moments later, Steve heard the bathroom door close.
Steve glared at the phone. He wished now that he had turned it off, that they had never heard it ring. He wished it was still morning and they were lying in bed, each of them unmoving and quiet, not wanting to wake the other. He wished it was the middle of the night again, when he had thought about reaching out to Tony and holding him close, only to decide that his advances would not be wanted or appreciated.
He wished he had done so many things differently.
Eventually Tony returned. He was still too pale, but he was composed now, obviously having made his peace with what he was about to do. He had pulled a dark blue sweater over his T-shirt and put on a light jacket. "I'm ready," he said, and his voice was steady.
There was nothing to do then but move forward. The way he had always done. The way he always would.
Together they walked to the front door. Tony opened it, and then just stood there. They watched the rain come down for a little while. A car drove past, wings of water rising on either side of it as it drove through a deep puddle.
"Tomorrow afternoon," Steve said. "Just like we said." It might take a while for him to actually reach Thunderbolts Mountain, but tomorrow he would come out to the world as Steve Rogers, and set his part of the plan in motion.
Tomorrow afternoon. Hopefully Norman Osborn would be so intrigued by Steve's sudden announcement and suggestion of a meeting that he would focus on that, and temporarily leave Tony alone.
Tomorrow afternoon. That was how long Tony had to hold out. Just twenty-four hours.
It was still far too long.
Tony nodded. Fear still lurked in the back of his eyes, but he managed to smile. "It's been great, Cap." He held out his hand. "Good luck."
Steve took his hand and shook it. "You, too."
Tony started to release his hand. Before he could let go, Steve pulled him forward and embraced him tightly.
Instantly Tony went rigid in his arms. Then he sort of sighed, making a low, miserable sound in the back of his throat. But he returned the embrace with all his strength, wrapping both arms about Steve and holding on.
Too late, too late, he was always too late, and Steve suddenly wanted to cry. He stood there and he held Tony, and he should have done this before, should have done it last night, and all those other nights. He should have done this yesterday and the day before, when he first saw how afraid Tony was. He should have done it when he realized how horribly lonely Tony was. He should have done it for all those times no one else had, for all those times when Tony had been all alone. He should have done it for all the times the Steve Rogers of this world hadn't.
"Hold on," he whispered. "Stay strong. We'll come for you. Don't ever forget that."
Tony's shoulders hitched, and he made that unhappy sound again. Steve wondered if he was crying. "I know," he whispered back.
Steve would have stood there all day, however long Tony needed him. And it seemed like hours passed, like the whole world was falling down around them in the rain. They held each other and they did not speak, and in the end it finally came down to Tony's courage, allowing him to release Steve and back away.
Steve let him go. He saw that Tony's eyes were dry, and he felt a tiny bit better at that.
Tony looked at him, searching his face. "Can I just…?" He started to lean in.
For a split-second Steve didn't know what was happening. Then he understood, and it was like everything around him vanished in a sudden burst of white light. There was only Tony, and the warm press of Tony's lips on his.
The kiss was soft and sweet. In it Steve saw everything he had lost and everything he might still have, and how they were so tangled up in each other that he couldn't separate the two anymore, or see where one started and the other began. All he knew for certain was that he ached when they broke apart.
Tony smiled a little, resigned to his fate. "I'll see you soon," he said.
Steve nodded, and prayed that he was right.
Tony looked at him for a moment longer, maybe committing his face to memory the same way Steve was doing. Then he turned around and he walked out into the rain.
Steve did not watch him go. He just closed the door and went back inside.
It took Tony twenty minutes to drive down to NASA's Space Center.
Another fifteen minutes to walk around on the fringes of a tour group with his hands in his jacket pockets and a ball cap pulled down low over his eyes, looking around furtively at the tourists, before he finally spotted someone nudge someone else and stare at him.
Another three minutes for someone to make a phone call.
After that, though, things happened very fast. Their tour guide rounded everyone up with an overly bright smile and said that they were in luck, that today and today only, a special exhibit had been opened up. If they would follow her, they were all in for a treat.
Tony obediently followed everyone else, although he remained on the edge of the tour group. He hung back as they were led down a narrow corridor past Mission Control, then through a doorway.
Two tall men in suit jackets were waiting there for him. They seized his arms and led him quickly away from the rest of the group; most of the other tourists didn't even realize what was happening, completely oblivious to the fact that America's most wanted fugitive had briefly been in their midst.
He was led to a small holding room where there was only a long table and a single chair. He sat down without being asked. He did not ask why he had been brought here, or what they wanted with him.
There did not seem to be any cameras in here, and there was no one-way mirror, either. Even so, Tony did not allow himself to relax. He worked hard to maintain a blank face so no one watching would guess at his fear and anxiety. He was expected to be upset now, angry and afraid at finally being caught and brought to justice.
He had spent a lifetime refusing to give others what they wanted from him, though. He could play this game, and play it well.
Still, it was hard to master his expression when the door finally opened an hour later and two uniformed HAMMER agents walked in.
The shorter of the two took up a position at the end of the table. The other man was unfortunately familiar – he was the HAMMER agent who had held the hotel clerk as hostage back in San Antonio, the only one who hadn't been shot during that fiasco. His name badge read Pleasance, which gave the smug look on his face rather ominous overtones.
"I told you you couldn't run forever, Stark," Agent Pleasance said. He gestured with his chin for Tony to rise.
Tony stayed put.
Pleasance motioned to the agent standing next to the table. Together they flanked him, then the second man grabbed his upper arms and hauled him out of the chair. He was thrown none-too-gently onto the table; his hands were yanked behind him and tightly cuffed.
"What are you doing here, Stark?" Pleasance asked.
"I thought I'd take in a tour while I was in town," Tony said lightly. "I always did have a thing for space travel." He steeled himself for a retaliatory blow, but none came.
The short agent pulled him upright and spun him around. "Had your eye on the tech here, did you?" asked Pleasance. "Thought you could maybe steal something?"
Tony said nothing. Let them think that. It would save him the trouble of having to manufacture an excuse and explain why it had been so easy for them to arrest him.
Pleasance's expression turned sour, like he had just smelled something bad. "Anthony Edward Stark, you are under arrest," he intoned. "You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law." He made a dry sound of amusement. "You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney – and you may not know it yet but you really can't, not anymore – one will be appointed for you. Do you understand these rights as I have read them to you?"
Tony gazed at him calmly. "Yes," he said.
Pleasance's eyes narrowed, as though he had hoped for some more defiance and was disappointed not to get it. "Search him," he spat.
The agent holding him let go and began to pat him down. The search was very thorough, much to Tony's discomfort. Pleasance saw him squirm as the agent's impersonal hands roamed over his crotch, and a rather unpleasant smile twisted his mouth. Tony made himself stand still then, and fixed his gaze on a spot on the far wall, refusing to look at either of them.
"He's clean," said the agent who had conducted the search.
Pleasance harrumphed. "Fine," he snapped. Again he seemed almost disappointed. He spun on his heel and led the way out of the room. "Let's get this trash out of here."
With one agent on either side of him, as though they expected him to bolt, they left Space Center through back doors and hallways. The path must have been cleared out ahead of time; not one single employee was there to watch. No one saw the HAMMER agents lead Tony toward one of two black SUVs waiting in the back parking lot. There were two other agents standing beside the vehicles, their faces impassive, their weapons within easy reach.
Tony walked slowly between Pleasance and the shorter guy, trying to remain calm and remember to breathe evenly. They hadn't even taken two steps when Pleasance said, "You disgust me, Stark. You know that?"
Tony did not reply, but he couldn't help tensing up, especially when Pleasance stopped walking, forcing him to stop, too. "You think you got it made, don't you? I bet you never did an honest day's work in your life. You just did whatever the hell you wanted. Thought you could get away with murder. Well, guess what, asshole. You think your money's gonna protect you now?"
The short agent, the one on Tony's left, made a faint sound of warning. Pleasance ignored this; he was on a roll now. "You got away with it for years, Mr. Big Shot, Mr. Rich and Famous. But you finally screwed up so bad that even you can't hide from it." His nose wrinkled in repugnance. "Well, look at you now. You're gonna pay for what you did. Commander Osborn's gonna see to it."
Tony bit his lip to keep from rising to his defense. He wanted to tell Pleasance that he knew perfectly well what he had done. He had never tried to avoid the consequences of his actions. He had always accepted responsibility and blame when those things were his due, and he always would.
But there was no explaining himself, not to these men. He knew what was coming now, and he braced himself for it, hoping he wouldn't fall and give them another reason to hate him.
"The boss said he doesn't want you visibly marked up," said Pleasance. "He didn't say anything about this." He pulled his fist back and punched Tony square in the kidney.
The pain was excruciating. He couldn't even cry out as his knees buckled and he fell. The agent on his left side had to let go of his arm so he wouldn't be hurt still further.
"Not so untouchable now, are you?" Pleasance sneered. He lifted one foot, ready to deliver a kick.
Tony moaned and folded over his knees until his forehead almost touched the wet asphalt. The pain was so bad he thought he might throw up.
"Dan, don't," said the other agent. "Remember what Osborn said."
Pleasance made a sharp sound of contempt. He slid the toe of his boot beneath Tony's chin and forced his head up. "Disgusting," he said, and then he spit in Tony's face.
Tony flinched back. The sharp movement sent another wave of pain through him, and he groaned. Sick wetness slid down his cheek, but there was nothing he could do about it, so he just knelt there on the ground and prayed Pleasance wouldn't hit him again.
"Get him up," Pleasance snarled. He pulled his foot away, and Tony let his head sag forward.
The two agents hooked their hands beneath his armpits and hauled him upright. Searing pain lanced through his lower back, and he moaned again. His knees wanted to buckle, and he could barely stand. They had to bear most of his weight, much to their displeasure.
"Good going," the short agent said in annoyance.
"Let's just get this asshole in the car," Pleasance snapped.
The other two agents now came forward. Tony saw what they had, and in spite of himself, he tried to pull away. For his efforts, he was rewarded with a sharp slap in the same spot where he had just been punched.
His knees gave out again. He retched with the pain and narrowly avoided being sick, just as the black hood was pulled over his head. He hung loosely in the agents' grasp as one of the others closed the shackles about his ankles. The fourth man released his handcuffs, drew his arms around in front of him, then relocked the cuffs. A chain was hooked to both sets of manacles, ensuring that even if he could walk right now, he would be forced to take tiny baby steps or else topple over.
He was dragged over to the SUV and manhandled inside; two of the agents joined him and shut the doors. Within seconds, the SUV began moving. There was a brief spell of stops and starts and a few turns, then the vehicle sped up as they joined the interstate, and the journey to Thunderbolts Mountain officially began.
Tony sat very still, slightly hunched over to his right, coddling his side. He clasped his hands and lowered them as much as he could, so the chain connecting the handcuffs with the ankle shackles wasn't drawn taut. He had been chained like this once before, during his short stay in prison when he had admitted to killing those innocent people as a result of Yinsen's son hacking into Extremis. He had not forgotten what it felt like to be so helpless, but he had never expected to find himself in this position again.
He tried not to think about it, though, or what was going to happen to him when they arrived in Colorado. Instead he thought about Steve. He closed his eyes behind the hood and pictured what Steve was doing right now. It was mid-afternoon and it had stopped raining. The driveway was mottled with dry patches now amid all the wet. Steve was sitting on the couch, reading a book. He was still wearing the green shirt and blue jeans that he had put on this morning, clothing from the safe house that fit him better than what he had been borrowing from Tony all week. The book was open on his lap. The lamp beside the couch was turned on, providing enough light to read by. There was a bottle of water on the coffee table, the cap off, half the water gone already. Or a cup of coffee maybe, mostly gone, the remains slowly going cold.
Was Steve actually reading? Or was he just staring blankly at the open page, unable to concentrate? Was Steve sitting there wondering what was happening to Tony right now?
Surely not. Steve had other things to think about, like what he was going to say in his press conference tomorrow. If he spared a thought for Tony at all, it was probably only to hope that he wouldn't screw up their plan.
The SUV changed lanes once, then again. It slowed down, clearly leaving the interstate. Tony's heart began to beat faster.
They ended up at the airport, which was exactly what Tony had expected. Now that HAMMER finally had him, Osborn would not want to waste any time. He guessed they were going to put him on a private plane, and from there, on to Thunderbolts Mountain.
One of the agents had to help him out of the SUV. The worst of the pain in his kidney had subsided, but it flared up again as he stumbled out of the car and onto the tarmac. For an awful moment he thought he might fall again, but a hard grip on his upper arm kept him upright long enough to get his feet beneath him, and eventually he was able to shuffle forward.
That walk seemed to last forever. Every move he made was cut short by the restraints. With each short, mincing step he could feel the prospect of any kind of future sliding further away, out of his reach. He tried to think of Steve, and what he could say when this was all over that might keep Steve in his life. Even if they only met occasionally as Avengers, as superheroes doing a job, he would take it. Anything, just as long as he got to see Steve again.
The chain connecting the leg cuffs was too short, and the HAMMER agents had to hoist him up the steps and into the plane. He could hear them grumbling beneath their breath, and Pleasance muttered something again about garbage. Then he was finally inside, being led down a narrow aisle, turned around, and shoved into a seat.
After a short delay, the plane took off, rising swiftly to flight level. No one came to remove the hood, or unlock his shackles. No one asked if he needed to use the bathroom or if he wanted a drink of water. No one spoke to him at all. He had lost his personhood when he drove away from the safe house, left it behind along with Steve and a large portion of his heart. He wasn't Tony Stark anymore, or even a man.
He was just a prize now, the spoils of war.
It was hard to say how long the flight lasted. Two hours, was Tony's best estimate. By that time his hands and feet were going numb, he was very thirsty, and very afraid.
The plane landed, and it was Houston all over again, only in reverse. He was led down the aisle, then a hard grip on his arm pulled him to a stop. Hands fumbled at his ankles as the cuffs there were unlocked.
The relief of being able to walk normally was short-lived, however. They let him go down the stairs of the plane, then made him stop again while the cuffs were re-applied, along with the chain connecting them to his handcuffs.
A car was waiting, another SUV judging by the sound of it. He was pushed inside, two agents flanking him. The doors closed, and then they were in motion.
This drive was much longer. There was a noticeable difference in the air here; it was thinner and harder to breathe behind the suffocating blackness of the hood. Tony bowed his head and told himself that it would not last forever. They were nearing their final destination now. When they reached the mountain, someone would take the hood off. After all, if nothing else, Osborn would want to see his face when he asked where the database was.
Still, he remembered what Pleasance had said about Osborn not wanting him visibly marked, and he had to suppress a shudder. What reason could there be for giving such a command? What exactly did Osborn have in mind for him?
One day, he reminded himself. That was how long he had to hold out. Just one day.
Steve would come for him. He had to remember that, and hold onto that.
Steve would come for him.
Under the tender guidance of the Dark Avenger named Moonstone, Thunderbolts Mountain welcomed Tony with open arms.
They had finally removed the hood and the shackles, and he stood there uncertainly. He hated himself for displaying weakness in front of them, but he was unable to keep from ducking his head and wincing against the light, so bright after hours spent behind the dark hood.
When he could finally see again, Moonstone was standing there with her arms folded, wearing the red and black costume that mocked Carol Danvers. Spiteful malice shone in her eyes. "Tony Stark," she said. "Under direct orders from Commander Osborn, you have been named an enemy of the state. Therefore you will be treated as such."
The cell they took him to was small, and contained only a toilet in one corner, jutting out from the wall. It was extremely cold, and the lights were abnormally bright. They made him stand up against the wall – but without touching it – and then told him not to move.
Moonstone smiled sweetly at him, and Tony remembered that she had once been a psychiatrist, although she hadn't exactly been interested in helping people; she had talked several of her patients into killing themselves. Mind games were her specialty.
He knew what they had planned for him then, and he couldn't help shuddering a little. They would do everything they could to wear him down quickly, to make it that much easier for Osborn to break him for good.
From here on out, he could expect nothing but pain and misery.
"Any questions before I go on?" Moonstone asked.
Tony said nothing. He had not spoken since leaving Houston. Anything he said would be twisted and used against him. Right now silence was his only weapon. If he talked now, it would be that much harder to maintain his silence when Osborn finally showed up.
Moonstone seemed to guess what he was thinking. She smirked at him. "Okay then. Take off your clothes."
He flinched a little; he hadn't expected this. There was no refusing her, though. Not when two armed agents stood behind her, and Moonstone herself could inflict more damage on him with her fists than any weapon could.
Reluctantly, he began to strip down. First the jacket, then his sweater. Already he could feel the cold starting to get to him, and he shivered as he bared his chest to the frigid air in the cell.
Moonstone's eyes gleamed at the sight. "Well, well, well," she said. "Look at you, Mr. Stark. Someone's been skipping meals."
Tony did not look at her as he removed the rest of his clothing. He hesitated when he reached his underwear, hooking his thumbs beneath the waistband of his boxers but not actually doing anything just yet.
"Be good and you can have those back," Moonstone said smugly. "For now, though, I'm gonna need 'em."
He should have known. Slowly he stepped out of his boxers, and then he just stood there, naked and shivering in the cold.
One of the agents gathered up his fallen clothing, then walked out of the cell. Moonstone looked him up and down, her lips pursed as she tried not to openly grin. Tony lifted his chin and fought the urge to cover himself. Modesty was pointless now, and any display of shame on his part would only add to her victory – and his humiliation.
"Enjoy your stay," Moonstone said. She stopped trying to hide her smile. "While you still can. Once Commander Osborn returns, you've got a date with his personal laptop."
He had told himself that he would not react to their threats or their taunts, but on this, his greatest fear, Tony could not remain silent. Whether she meant it or whether she was just trying to scare him, he had to respond. "Good," he said. He looked her right in the eye. "I'm looking forward to it."
Her eyes narrowed a little.
"Let him try," Tony continued, putting on the arrogance he was always being accused of. "I've got another little surprise for you guys, one that makes the virus I gave HAMMER look like Windows 95."
Moonstone stared at him for a long moment, maybe trying to decide if he was serious or if he had descended to her level and was just playing mind games. Without another word, she turned and left.
The cell door closed, and he was left alone.
Time slowed to a crawl. Hours passed, each one lasting a full century, seconds ticking out like years.
Even with his head bowed and his eyes squeezed shut, the lights in his cell were painfully bright. It was extremely cold, and he shook and shivered ceaselessly, his arms wrapped about himself in a pathetic attempt at warmth. The constant motion did nothing for the pain in his bruised kidney, which slowly spread to encompass his entire lower back.
He wondered how long he could stand here before he ended up leaning against the wall for support. They wouldn't let him, he knew that much. It was inevitable, though. Sooner or later his legs would tire and he would be forced to rely on that support. The only question was how long he could get away with it before someone came in and forcibly stopped him.
Sometime later, they added a new element to the fun. Without warning, a torrent of excruciatingly loud noise filled the room. Horrendous banging and clashing, dissonant buzzes and beeps, the high-pitched screams of a person in agony. Tony cried out and clapped his hands over his ears, instinctively crouching down as he tried to escape that deluge of noise. He remembered to stand up again before they came in to make him do it, but nothing could have made him lower his hands.
He wondered if the last occupant of this cell was responsible for those horrible screams. If the next person to reside here would get to listen to his own screaming.
He wasn't exactly sure when the cacophony stopped; the ringing in his ears drowned everything else out. Slowly, cautiously, he lowered his hands. He was tense and shivering at first, thoroughly convinced that they would torture him with another round of ear-splitting noise the first moment he let himself relax and believe that it was over.
But the blast of noise was not repeated. Instead he gradually realized that the cell was no longer icy cold. That in fact the air was growing very hot and humid.
A wry smile twisted Tony's mouth. He should have known.
The heat was almost worse than the cold. Sweat ran off him in rivers. A throbbing headache settled behind his eyes. The pain in his back grew steadily worse. His feet and legs were starting to ache, and he shifted his weight from one foot to the other, trying to give tired muscles some relief. The lights remained painfully bright, rendering him as blind as he would have been in the pitch dark.
Helplessly he swayed back against the wall. For a moment he let himself sag against it, needing the support it provided.
Almost immediately the door burst open. He couldn't pry his eyes open under the onslaught of light, but he could hear the rushing sound of footsteps. "You! Get your ass off that wall!" The voice that shouted at him was harsh and unforgiving. "Do it now!"
A thin thread of cooler air had entered the room along with the HAMMER agent. Tony stood up straight again and gasped, desperate for relief from the superheated air filling his lungs.
"Don't make me come in here again," warned the agent. He walked out, and the door closed again.
Eventually, inevitably, he lost track of time altogether.
Everything hurt, from dull, throbbing pains to sharper, stabbing ones. He was shaking all over with cold again, all the worse because he had just been soaked in sweat from another round of brutal heat, and the moisture coating his body now felt like it was turning to ice.
It was getting harder and harder not to lean on the wall for support. It was only inches away, but it might as well have been miles. The last time he had succumbed, the agent who came rushing in had struck him, a hard fist landing exactly where Agent Pleasance had hit him. He had screamed then as he dropped to his knees. Despite the horrible pain, he had known a moment of grateful relief at not having to stand anymore.
Not that the respite had lasted very long. He was still moaning helplessly when the agent forced him back to his feet and made him stay there.
He didn't know how long he had been standing here beneath the random waves of extreme hot and cold. He didn't know how many more times he could endure the ear-splitting racket before his hearing was damaged, or if his eyesight would be affected from the searingly bright lights. He didn't know if he would sweat as much under the next heat wave, as his body slowly dehydrated from a lack of water.
He wondered when he would fall down and simply not be able to get back up again.
He wondered what Steve was doing.
He hoped Steve was thinking about him.
He hoped he was going to survive this.
Steve couldn't sleep that night. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw the way Tony had looked at him after their kiss, so calm and yet so afraid. Willingly walking into arrest and imprisonment, and what was certain to be a torturous interrogation. But he had done it, because he believed that it was the right thing to do.
And because he believed that Steve would come for him.
He had only turned the TV on once all day. The top news story, of course, had been Tony's arrest. The only official quote from HAMMER had come from an anonymous bureaucrat who would only confirm that Tony Stark was in custody right now. Everything else was pure speculation, but that didn't stop the media from going crazy with the story. Steve had only been able to watch ten minutes of it before he felt sick to his stomach and he had to turn it off.
Throughout that night he imagined all kinds of horrible things happening to Tony. Against his will, he pictured Tony strapped to a chair with a large cable attached to the back of his head, like the Controller at FuturePharm. In his mind, he saw Tony sitting there, his eyes wide and terrified, but unable to move or speak. And when Steve reached for him, there wasn't enough of him left to see Steve or even know that he was there.
Worse still was when he imagined only a closed door – and Tony was screaming behind it. In those scenarios he could never make himself walk forward and open that door and see what they were doing to Tony to make him scream like that. He hated himself a little for that, for this cowardice that existed only inside his own head.
There were still a few hours left until dawn when he finally started to doze off, only to wake up with a jolt when he could have sworn he heard Tony saying his name. Not just saying it, a simple word spoken aloud, but a deep groan full of wretched anguish and longing.
His eyes flew open and he scrabbled at the covers as he sat up. "Tony?"
But that was stupid, because of course Tony wasn't here. Tony was in Thunderbolts Mountain, maybe being tortured right this very second as Norman Osborn tried to pry information about the registered superhumans out of him.
He rose from the bed. He wasn't going to get any sleep, and he knew it. He shouldn't have wasted so much time trying.
He did some light exercises, then ran for nearly an hour on the treadmill that had been gathering dust in the bedroom Tony had started out using. It was old and made a loud clacking noise, but the pounding rhythm of his feet soothed his ragged nerves and eased some of the tension from his body.
A hot shower helped still further. He shaved as well, finally getting rid of the beard growth he had been cultivating since his arrival in this world. He felt more like himself as he stared at his reflection in the mirror.
It had been a while since he had taken the time to truly look at himself. There had been no mirrors in his holding cell at SHIELD – nothing glass at all, in fact – and since arriving here he had had neither the time nor the inclination for it.
But he looked now. He saw the smoothness of his skin, still young and unmarked. His eyes, very blue and full of secrets. His mouth, that had once kissed a man whom he had loved more than life itself, only to kiss him again in this brave new world. His jaw, set now with growing tension and strain, a visible sign of his determination to do what he must.
He sighed and turned away. It was almost seven a.m., and Bucky would be here soon. They were traveling to New Orleans, where they would stand together at a press conference that had yet to be called. He would reveal himself to the world then, and announce that he was resuming his duties as Captain America.
Swiftly he dressed in his costume, the one he had worn here, the last relic of his old life. It fit as snugly as ever, but the colors looked almost faded now.
He thought that was maybe just a trick of the morning light, though.
The press conference did not go as well as Steve had hoped.
He and Bucky held the event in the ballroom of the hotel where they were staying, a last-minute request that had the hotel staff shooting glares at them as they scurried to put things together. Attendance was high, but the people of this world seemed almost cynically resigned to their superheroes returning from the dead. The news of his "resurrection" did not draw the shocked reaction he had expected it would. One loud reporter even challenged his assertion that he was really Steve Rogers, saying that his costume wasn't the same. No one came out and called him a Skrull, but Steve could practically see the word hovering above their heads anyway.
Bucky came to his rescue, stating in plain and simple terms that he would never even consider handing the shield over to anyone unless it was the "real" Captain America. He sat at Steve's right side, frowning at the reporters, the two of them presenting a united front.
Steve had practiced the answers to some of the questions he and Tony had most anticipated hearing, but he ended up speaking off the cuff instead. He had never really enjoyed giving rehearsed speeches, going all the way back to those long-ago days when he had toured the nation selling war bonds.
"What will your first order of business be?" asked a young woman near the front of the room.
Steve cleared his throat and leaned a little into the microphone. "The heroes of this world have been fragmented and fractured for too long. It's not their—" Almost too late, he remembered that he was supposed to be one of them, and he hurried to correct his mistake. "It's not our fault. Things have happened. Terrible things. But it's time to put all that aside and remember who we are and why we do this."
He glanced over at Bucky. "That's why, effective immediately, I'm calling upon all the superheroes to work with me in uniting our causes. We all have something to contribute, but together we are far greater than any one individual. It's time to stop calling ourselves New Avengers or Mighty Avengers, and just be an Avenger."
Several of the reporters surged to their feet, calling his name, wanting him to recognize them so they could shout their questions at him.
Steve pointed at one older woman. She squared her shoulders. "Were you the 'mystery man' seen with Stark in Charlotte and again at FuturePharm?"
"Yes," Steve said.
The reporter hurried on, clearly not intending to waste her one question on something so simple. "I don't understand," she said. "Why were you associating with a known criminal? Why didn't you arrest him yourself and turn him in to HAMMER? Were you Stark's hostage?" Her eyes gleamed at this thought, looking for a sensational news story.
"Don't be ridiculous," Steve snapped. He gave the reporter a firm glare, then pointed at a tall young man on the other side of the room.
"So are you saying you think Tony Stark is innocent?" the reporter asked.
He could feel Bucky's stare burning into the side of his head, but Steve did not look away from the man who had asked the question. "I don't believe Tony is guilty of the charges being brought against him, but I accept that it isn't my place to pass judgment on anyone," he replied.
The next reporter asked, "Do you blame Stark for killing you?"
Steve's breath caught. He would have to hear this question over and over, he supposed, if he was going to stay in this world. They would always want to know, always imagine that he must surely harbor some deep-seated grudge against the man who had allegedly been his best friend until a war divided them.
"Absolutely not," he said. He would never know how the Steve Rogers of this world would have answered the question, but he wanted to believe that he would have said the same thing. "Tony Stark remains my friend, and as far as I'm concerned, Iron Man is still an Avenger."
On his right, Bucky discreetly cleared his throat, reminding him of his main purpose in calling this press conference in the first place.
He held up both hands, motioning the reluctant reporters to sit down. "I know the superhero community has a long way to go to earn back the trust of the American people," he said. "So that's why I am officially extending an invitation to Commander Osborn and HAMMER to meet with me, so that together we can create a vision of the future." That was Tony's line, suggested to him over dinner on their first night in the safe house. Steve had said it sounded corny, and Tony had just shrugged, saying that people kind of expected corny from Captain America.
And they ate it up now.
Cameras flashed incessantly. Half the room rose to their feet again, but Steve was done answering questions. "I'll keep you all updated on our progress," he said. "Thank you for your time." He turned toward Bucky, who was already standing up.
Together they made their way off the stage, then quickly headed down the hall toward a bank of elevators. Hotel security stood by, ready to prevent anyone from trying to follow them. "Congratulations," Bucky said dryly as he pushed the up button. "You've just blown the mind of every superhero in this country."
"Good," Steve said. Maybe that was what they all needed. A shock to the system. Something to jolt them out of their distrust and factionalism. "You think anyone will publicly disavow me?"
"Not yet," Bucky said. The elevator doors opened and they stepped inside. "They're probably all still sitting there with their mouths hanging open." He seemed to think of something. "But this might actually bring Fury out of hiding."
Steve did not reply. That was fine. All he needed was for the other Avengers to maintain their silence for the rest of the day. Just long enough for him to get into Thunderbolts Mountain, find Tony, and take Osborn down.
They got off on their floor. Steve took the room key out of his pocket. "So how did I do?" he asked.
"You did fine," Bucky said. "But weren't you supposed to make Osborn think you were against Stark?"
They entered their room, and Steve shut the door behind them. "I couldn't," he admitted. "Not up there in front of everyone." He couldn't betray Tony like that to the entire world. "I'll just tell Osborn it was all about keeping up appearances. I figure he'll get that."
Bucky made a derisive noise. "That's for sure. Get him in front of a television camera and he almost seems sane."
"So do you think he'll contact me?" Steve asked.
"Not directly," Bucky said. "He'll probably just send an agent."
"That's what Tony said," Steve replied. He tossed the room key onto the long dresser that the TV rested on. He was sort of tempted to turn the TV on and see what the 24-hours news stations were saying about his press conference, but he wasn't that curious.
"Well, I've found Stark is usually right about these things," Bucky said. He walked over to the mini-fridge beneath the counter and helped himself to a small can of soda.
Steve looked at him with interest. "But you don't like him, do you?"
Bucky opened his soda, but did not drink. "Doesn't matter what I think," he said.
"That's not true," Steve said. "You're still Captain America. Your opinion carries a lot of weight." He paused, then added, "And it matters to me."
Bucky gave him a long, considering look, then drank half his soda. "Stark isn't a bad guy," he finally said. "He just… Let's just say he's got some serious control issues."
Steve couldn't argue with that. Not when he had already seen ample evidence of how true this was.
Bucky was still looking at him as if he was trying to figure him out. Steve couldn't help squirming a little under that scrutiny. And suddenly he wanted to tell Bucky the truth. Saying it out loud would make it real, would mean he really was feeling these things.
He took a breath, searching for the right way to say it. He had to do this just right. He really didn't know how Bucky would react to the news that a Steve Rogers from another world was falling in love with the Tony Stark who was at least partly responsible for getting his own Steve killed.
It was a scary thought. Falling in love. For so long he had been utterly convinced that he would never be able to feel such a thing again. But it had happened. It was happening. And it was very real, he had no doubt of that.
It wasn't just the way Tony was so obviously broken, making Steve want to protect him from harm. He was falling for the man himself, and everything that made him who he was: brave and stubborn and brilliant and self-sacrificing. A true hero – except Tony himself would never see that, never believe it.
And the thing was, he was pretty sure that Tony was falling for him, too. He didn't know if that made things better or worse. During the long, lonely hours of the night, he had decided that the other Tony, the one he had loved and lost, would tell him to go for it, would urge him to make the most of this new world and truly make it his home.
This was his world now. This was where he belonged. There was so much to be done, and he could do it, he wanted to do it – but he didn't want to do it alone. He wanted Tony by his side.
But the only way that would happen was if he made it happen. And to do that, he had to see Tony's plan through to the end.
So he took a deep breath, but before he could say anything, Bucky said, "Hey, can I ask you something?"
Caught off guard, he blinked rapidly. "Um, sure."
Bucky looked uncertain, almost like he regretted having said anything at all. "I was just wondering… I mean, you're from a whole new world, which is really kinda cool and…weird, because you're not him but you're still Steve and…"
Steve wasn't sure what to say. He had been so wrapped up in worrying about what was happening to Tony, and then there had been the press conference to plan and execute, and somewhere along the line he had forgotten how hard all this had to be for Bucky. It couldn't be easy for him to spend so much time with this man who both was and wasn't a familiar face, reminding him painfully of the friend he had lost.
He glanced around the hotel room, then he smiled. "Well," he said. "We've got a lot of time on our hands." He gestured to the table and chairs set before the window. "Why don't we sit down and talk?"
Bucky gave him a long look, then he nodded. He smiled a little in return. "Yeah," he said. "That sounds good."
Just a little while ago Tony had thought that he would do nearly anything to gain a reprieve from having to keep standing.
Now, however, he wanted to take it all back.
He was still naked, but no longer in his cell. The room they had taken him to wasn't very large, and it contained only a single chair. He was currently strapped in, wide bands securing his wrists, chest, and ankles. He could have told them that the restraints were unnecessary; he certainly wasn't going anywhere. But he wasn't about to break his silence now, and at any rate they wouldn't have listened.
He hurt all over, but at least he got to sit down now, which eased some of the pain in his back and legs. He was horribly thirsty, having been allowed only a single glass of water since his imprisonment had begun. He couldn't tell if the lights in here were also too bright or if his sight was damaged from the blinding glare in his cell; there were hazy haloes around everything he looked at.
But in here at least the temperature was normal, and there were no sudden bursts of horrific noise. It was very quiet and still, in fact, so when the door opened and two HAMMER agents walked in, their footsteps sounded unnaturally loud.
One of the agents was Pleasance. The other was a short woman with a stern mouth. She barely glanced at Tony as she walked up to the chair where he was restrained. She just got right down to business, swabbing at his arm and injecting him with a clear liquid from the syringe she was carrying.
Tony took a deep breath and tried not to panic. It was probably a truth serum, he told himself. Something to lower his inhibitions and make him want to talk. He could handle it. He could resist it.
The second agent walked out, giving Pleasance a crisp nod as she passed him. The door shut behind her, and then it was just the two of them.
A few minutes crept by in silence. Tony gazed steadily at a point on the floor midway between his chair and Pleasance's boots and told himself that he could do this. Steve was coming for him and he could do this.
And then the drugs kicked in and everything changed. Within the space of a few heartbeats, the lights in the room grew unbearably bright; he could hear them humming, a droning noise that grated on his ears. The straps holding him down seemed to grow immensely heavy, and the pressure they applied to his skin became painful. Every hurt and ache in his body suddenly intensified, making him gasp and surge forward against the restraints.
The sound of his own sharp inhalation was as loud as a scream. Even that slight movement of his body sent agonizing pain shooting through him, and increased the terrible pressure on the straps holding him down. Dazed and uncomprehending, he stared blindly at nothing, trying to calm his breathing so he would not add to the ungodly loud noises.
Movement at the corner of his vision made him blink, trying to clear the smeary light from his eyes so he could see. He knew what they had drugged him with now, but he was powerless against it. He could only watch, shaking all over and trying desperately not to, as Pleasance touched the radio in his ear.
"He's ready," Pleasance said. It was a booming shout, the echoes rolling around the room and raking across Tony's ears. He cringed back, and the motion sent sharp pain bolting through his skull.
Slowly Pleasance walked toward him. The look on his face was one of simple curiosity, like he was studying an interesting object, not a human being. He stopped in front of the chair and his eyes narrowed in thought. Then he reached out and poked Tony in the arm.
It was like being stabbed with a stiletto. He tried to remain silent, but he couldn't help it; he cried out with the pain, and instantly regretted it as the sound redoubled and echoed.
Pleasance made a low humming noise of satisfaction that roared and boomed in Tony's heightened senses. He watched helplessly as light burst and reflected off the agent's boot when he pulled his foot back, then kicked him.
Every bone in his ankle surely had to shatter then. It was the only way to explain the agony. He screamed and instinctively threw his body against the straps, trying to get away from his tormentor. All he achieved was to add still more unbearable pain to the unrelenting onslaught on his senses.
He saw Pleasance's hand curl into a fist, saw the hairs on the back of the man's knuckles, the professionally trimmed nails. He wanted to beg, to plead, but he couldn't manage anything but a breathless keening as Pleasance punched him in the side.
Red agony exploded in his entire body. He couldn't scream then, couldn’t even breathe.
The only thing he could then do was pass out, and he did that with absolute gratitude.
He was back in his cell when he woke up. Once more under the searing lights and the burning cold. At least nobody came in to shout at him and hit him in order to make him stand up again. They let him stay curled up in the corner, his eyes tightly shut against the overwhelming pain, breathing shallowly and trying not to move at all.
They hadn't even asked him any questions, he thought dully.
The scariest thing was that he truly didn't know what they would do to him next. Osborn, with his great arrogance, had undoubtedly always figured that Tony would be caught and arrested. He would have given instructions to HAMMER based on that assumption. Moonstone would have had fun planning the conditions of his imprisonment, knowing that she had to soften him up for when Osborn arrived.
And at first, everything had gone exactly according to their plan. But then he had to go and ruin it all with his threat about unleashing a virus into their systems. He had bought himself some time, but what happened now? He couldn't begin to guess. Maybe the drugs had always been part of the plan. Or maybe this was new, something he had forced them into when he made his threat. Either way, he was terribly afraid that another dose lay in his future.
Assuming he survived this one, that is.
The minutes dragged out, each one lasting an eternity. The drug had made his senses hyperaware, turning even the most benign sights and sounds into a terrible assault on his entire body. He lay shivering beneath the icy air in his cell, blinded by brilliant lances of light. His own heartbeat felt painfully leaden in his chest. He dreaded the inevitable moment when the speakers turned on and the awful screaming and buzzing filled the air; the noises that had previously been painful would be unendurable now. He would be lucky then if he just fainted, instead of breaking down screaming.
He had no idea what time it was, or even what day it was. He felt certain, though, that it had been long enough for Steve to hold his press conference and issue his invitation to Norman Osborn.
So what was happening out there now? He hoped Steve had been successful. He hoped Steve was on his way here right now. He hoped Steve wasn't under arrest for aiding a known fugitive, or any other number of trumped-up charges Osborn could bring against him. He hoped Steve hadn't decided that he was right where he belonged, that this was his penance for what he had done in the Civil War and his failures during the Skrull invasion.
No, he told himself fiercely. No, that wasn't true. He started to curl one hand into a fist, but even that simple gesture hurt more than it was worth, and he stopped right away.
Steve wouldn't do that to him. Steve was a good man.
He was letting the pain and the drugs affect him too much. He had to get it together. He couldn't let them break him. Not now, not like this. Not when rescue was on its way.
He shivered, held his breath through a fresh wave of pain, tried to remember the happier times he had spent with Steve. Laughing in the car as they outwitted HAMMER. Waking up with Steve's body warm next to his. The long hours as they sat together on the couch in the safe house, when he had felt so safe and secure. The gratitude and wonder of finally accepting that Steve was on his side, Steve would not abandon him, Steve would come for him.
Please God, let Steve come for him.
"They're not coming," Steve said flatly.
Bucky did not say anything.
"Why aren't they coming?" he demanded. He stopped for the thousandth time to glance out of their window and into the parking lot below.
It was dark out, the winter afternoon not lasting very long even this far south. He and Bucky had spent most of the day sharing stories that were funny or light-hearted, avoiding by unspoken consent anything that was too emotional. They had run out of things to say nearly an hour ago, though, and since then Steve had been pacing restlessly, earning some disgruntled looks from Bucky.
He couldn't help it, though. Tony had been in HAMMER's custody for well over twenty-four hours. Yet their original plan had called for him to already be free by now. And it wasn't just Tony who was affected by the delay. It was Natasha, forced to remain deep undercover within Thunderbolts Mountain. It was Bucky and whoever he had enlisted to help him during the final assault on the mountain.
But it was Tony whom his thoughts kept returning to. Tony suffering all alone, maybe even right at this moment being subjected to horrible tortures in order to make him talk. Had Tony given up on him? Had he decided that Steve wasn't coming for him after all? Did he even know how long it had been since his arrest?
"If you look out that window one more time," Bucky said from where he was sitting propped up against the headboard of the nearest bed, "I may have to throw something at you." All day his cell phone had been ringing as one superhero after another tried to make contact with him and find out what the hell was happening. After the first hour he had silenced the phone and stopped checking it.
Steve shot him a look, then made himself stop pacing. "I don't understand," he said. He stared at the shield propped up against the dresser, and the suitcase that stood beside it. "I thought they would have at least called by now."
"Well, I guess Osborn's a little busy right now," Bucky said. He made a face, realizing how terrible that sounded. "Look, I'm sure they'll send someone. He can't afford to let you run around out here without talking to you. He'll want to make sure you're legit, find out what your intentions are, all that crap." He scooted off the bed and stood up. "Hell, he'll probably want to pick your brain about how you came back to life. Guy like him, that's just the kind of thing he'd want to know."
The hotel room phone rang. It sounded unnaturally loud, the ringing almost archaic in this era of cell phone ringtones.
Steve leapt for it. "Hello?"
"Captain Rogers?" The voice sounded harried and rather muffled – and vaguely familiar. "This is the front desk. A lady from HAMMER is here, and she's on her way to your room. I'm not supposed to tell you that, but…"
Steve recognized the voice now. It was one of the hotel employees who had been so helpful at putting the press conference together on such short notice. "Thank you," he said. "I appreciate it." He hung up and looked at Bucky.
Bucky moved swiftly into action, picking up the suitcase and disappearing with it into the closet. Steve glanced around the room, looking for any sign that someone else might have been here with him. The half-finished water bottle on the counter could be his, and the shield was now his as well. The rumpled bedclothes could be where he had been sitting, just waiting for this visit.
Even though he was expecting it, the knock on the door still made him jump. He squared his shoulders and drew in a deep breath through his nose.
This was it.
Three people stood out in the hall. A woman with red streaks in her dark hair, and two uniformed and armed HAMMER agents. The woman extended her hand. "Captain Rogers?"
Reflexively he reached out and shook her hand. "Ma'am."
The woman smiled a little. "I'm Victoria Hand, Commander Osborn's assistant."
Steve let go of her hand and stepped back, opening the door further. "Please come in." He hoped they couldn't tell that his heart was suddenly pounding.
Victoria Hand and the two agents followed him inside, looking around with a professional eye. Steve stood still, not watching as they checked out the room within seconds. One of them went into the bathroom, scoping it out, and Steve was glad that they had decided not to stash Bucky in there. They had even left the shower curtain open, to show that they had nothing to hide.
"Where's Mr. Barnes?" Victoria asked.
"He left," Steve said. If she asked where, he would give her the cover story he and Bucky had concocted, but he suspected it wouldn't be necessary. She wouldn't want to put him on the defensive. She wanted him to think that she was on his side, that HAMMER was ready and willing to work with him. And as an agency, they probably were. After all, until last week, many of the HAMMER agents had been working for SHIELD. The corruption in HAMMER came from the top, from Norman Osborn himself. It was entirely possible that this woman believed in what she was doing, that she truly thought Osborn was the best thing for the American people right now.
And sure enough, she did not pursue the subject of Bucky's whereabouts. "I've been authorized to escort you to Thunderbolts Mountain," she said. She was quite pretty, but the eyes behind her glasses were cold. "Commander Osborn would like to meet with you."
Steve nodded. "I'm glad to hear it. I'm ready to leave whenever you are."
Victoria Hand gave him another thin smile. "Unfortunately, Commander Osborn won't be at Thunderbolts Mountain until tomorrow. He's been detained on business. To compensate you for the delay, HAMMER would like to put you up in a hotel, at our expense, naturally." She glanced around the room, taking in the two double beds, the cheap painting of fruit on the wall. "Of course we'll provide accommodations slightly more…suitable, shall we say, to a man of your stature."
She was lying. Steve knew it. Surely Osborn was already at Thunderbolts Mountain, already working at prying Tony open and pulling his secrets out. This was nothing but a ploy to buy Osborn some time.
And he could do nothing. He had to lie now and pretend that he was okay with this. That he was pleased by their offer. That he didn't know that whatever hotel they took him to, the room would be bugged and probably even set up with hidden cameras.
So he smiled back at her. "Thank you," he said. "Although I would have to insist on paying Commander Osborn back for his kindness."
Victoria gazed at him, and he knew that she understood the true meaning of his promise. Whatever Osborn did to Tony, Steve would repay it in full.
"Well," she finally said, "that's between you and Commander Osborn."
"Oh, one thing," Steve said. "I don't have any luggage with me. I didn't think I would be here that long." He gestured to himself, and the costume he still wore. "And I'm a little bit conspicuous in this."
She smiled at him again, eyeing him up and down. "Don't worry," she said. "We can take care of that."
There were no other arguments, no reason to postpone the inevitable. He gathered up his shield and his jacket, then scooped up the room key. "Then let's go," he said.
Victoria led the way out of the room. Steve followed her, and the two agents fell into place behind him. "We'll go out the back," she said. "I think it's best that we keep this low-key for now, don't you?"
"Yes," he agreed. He thought about Bucky hidden in the closet, and wondered what he had made of the conversation. He wouldn't get another chance to talk to Bucky again before their attack on the mountain; he could only hope that enforced silence wouldn't come back to bite them in the ass. "That sounds fine."
They reached the elevators. Steve tensed up. If they were going to try to take him down, it would happen right now.
But nothing happened. The two HAMMER agents remained alert, but still. Victoria Hand glanced at him, and her mouth drooped a little with sardonic humor. He guessed she knew exactly what he was thinking.
The elevator doors opened, and she went inside, Steve just one step behind her. The agents followed him, taking positions right in front of the doors as they slid shut.
No one said a word. In absolute silence, they headed down.
Tony hadn't known he could scream this loud. All in all, it was a discovery he would have preferred not to make.
They had injected him with the drugs again. The fluorescent lights were blinding. Voices were shouts and his own screams were agonizingly loud. The pressure of the padded restraints was like a metal vice clamped about his wrists and ankles.
The electricity was fire and acid and lightning coursing through his body, pain like nothing he had ever known, or even imagined that he could feel.
"Ouch," Norman Osborn said. He leaned in close, speaking directly into Tony's ear. "That sounded like it hurt." His voice boomed and echoed, horrifically loud.
Tony tuned away as much as he could. His breath rasped over vocal cords that felt torn in two.
Osborn stood up. "Hit him again."
Electricity poured through him and the screams poured out of him and it seemed impossible that his throat and eardrums didn't just rupture.
The shocks finally stopped, and Osborn stepped close. His eyes gleamed with a sadist's love. Oil glistened brightly on his hair. Beneath the gagging reek of cologne, he even smelled crazy. He stank of lunacy, of the absolute conviction of the self-righteous, of decay and rot.
Osborn wrapped one hand in Tony's hair and yanked his head back. It felt like his neck was going to snap. He gasped and stared upward at the lights that were so bright he could barely see anything at all.
"You will tell me what's on that database," Osborn hissed. "And when I have everything I want from you, you're going to make your confession, Stark. For everyone to see, on live TV. It'll be the mother of all press conferences. They'll be talking about it for years." His hand tightened as he gave Tony a sharp shake. "You'll be begging me for death by then, I promise you that. And I might just decide to grant you your wish. When they come to take you to your precious 42, they'll find you in a pool of your own blood, your wrists slashed. There might even be words written on the wall in blood, something like, 'I'm sorry for everything.' I'm still undecided on that point. But you only get my mercy if you give me what I want. Quid pro quo. What do you think? How does that plan sound to you, Mr. Know-It-All Futurist?"
Tony said nothing. He didn't even know if he could have spoken, had he wanted to. It took everything he had not to keep on screaming.
He knew now why Osborn hadn't wanted him visibly marked. A public confession. God.
Osborn let go of his hair and stood up. "Hit him again."
Molten fire from the wires wrapped about the last two fingers of his right hand, the wires wrapped about his cock. Nowhere to go but convulse against the restraints that felt like they were slowly embedding themselves in his flesh. Screaming and screaming until the whole world was blasted away by shrieking fire.
"Maybe I'll hook you up to my computers anyway," Osborn said. "Maybe I'm willing to take that chance."
No. God, no. Not that. He was freezing, shivering all over and whimpering helplessly despite the pain each little sound caused him. Soaked in pain-sweat and it was cold, so cold the ice burned like blue fire.
"I've got a fully stocked bar in my office," Osborn said. Quietly. Confidentially. Roaring. Echoing. "There must be something there that you want. Scotch? Bourbon? What do you say, Stark? Care for a drink? Maybe I'll just pour the whole damn bottle down your throat. What do you think would happen then? How would it feel to be drunk when you can feel everything so clearly? I wonder if you would talk then."
Terror shot through him, temporarily blotting out the pain. Would he talk then? Would the drugs enhance something internal like getting drunk?
Could he take that chance?
"Tell me what I want to know," Osborn ordered.
He couldn't. He wouldn't.
"Tell me!" Osborn shouted.
There was more, but he couldn't hear it over his own screaming.
"What I want to know is," Victoria Hand said, "how did it feel to put on the costume again?"
Steve looked down at his plate. Half his meal was still sitting there. He wasn't hungry, though. He was too keyed up, too focused on making sure he didn't do anything to give himself away to this woman. She was very sharp, and she missed nothing. He knew that she knew he was uncomfortable sitting here in this fancy hotel restaurant as other diners glanced at them and them discreetly looked away.
True to her word, she had booked him into a very expensive, very swanky hotel. The suite had a large living room and a bathroom the size of his former hotel room. The décor was tasteful and elegant. He had wandered around for a bit, pretending to be impressed while trying to spot the likely places for hidden cameras and microphones.
In the end he had decided that it was best to assume that they could see and hear him at all times. He had shared a drink with her from the extensive mini-bar, then one of the HAMMER agents had arrived with some clothing for him. All of it expensive and tasteful, and nearly all of it his exact size.
Victoria had smiled to see his genuine surprise. "I can usually size up a man right away," she had said.
He had wanted to ask if that was true, why she couldn't see the deception and insanity lurking behind Norman Osborn's façade. Instead he had smiled back and gone into the bedroom to change.
Now they were at dinner, and Steve was starting to think he was going to be saddled with Victoria all night. They had been here for nearly two hours already, and still she found ways to prolong the meal and keep the conversation going.
"It was strange," he said in response to her question. He tried to think how the Steve Rogers of this world would have answered, how it would feel to be dead but then alive again.
Although he thought he had some personal experience with that concept, too.
"But it felt right," he said. He smiled a little. "It felt good."
It was true, in the most literal sense. The costume was his own, but the shield was not. Yet it had felt indescribably right to hold it. The weight and the balance were exactly the same as the one he had left behind in his old world, and it fit his hands perfectly. In the hours following the press conference, he had not handled it much out of deference to Bucky's presence, but he found himself wanting to try it out when he got back to his room later. He wouldn't, of course, because HAMMER would be watching. They would wonder why he was wielding the shield in practice when he was supposed to be working toward a peaceful resolution of the conflict that had gotten him killed in the first place.
But he wanted to. Badly.
Nonetheless, two hours later, when dinner had finally ended and he had survived the obligatory nightcap and another round of pointless small talk, when he was finally, finally alone in his room – he did not touch the shield. He checked to make sure it was in the spot where he had left it, right beside his bed, but he did not pick it up.
He took a shower and brushed his teeth and got into bed. He turned the TV on and channel surfed for a while, noticing absently which programs were the same as where he came from, and which ones were different. After a while he realized that he probably wasn't behaving the way he should. So for the benefit of his silent watchers, he chose one channel and stuck with it.
There was a movie on, an old Western. He had no idea what the plot was, but that didn't matter. The movie was almost soothing in its simplicity. It was always clear who the good guys were and who the bad guys were. The good guys never missed a shot or had second thoughts about their actions. And at the end, a quick shootout took out all the bad guys and saved the day.
If only it were so, Steve thought with a sigh.
His dreams that night were dark and tangled. He was back in that empty lab at Stark Tower, but it now had the ugly green carpet of the hotel in Houston where Tony had told him about Bucky, and it was bathed in the same sick red light of the Controller's hideout at FuturePharm.
Tony was kneeling in the middle of the room, his head bowed. He looked up as Steve approached, and the red light on his face was like blood. His eyes were dark and unfathomable. They could have been blue or brown.
"Kill him," said Crossfire.
"Kill him," said Norman Osborn.
Obediently, Steve raised his fists and took a step forward.
Tony shivered. "Steve."
He stopped. He stared at Tony and something deep within him snapped into focus.
He couldn't do it. In reality he had not even hesitated to obey that terrible command. Always before in his dreams he had done it. But now he could not. He was finally able to resist.
He said, "No."
Tony's fearful hope dissolved into a bright smile of relief. He stood up and came forward. "Steve."
Steve hurried toward him, his heart racing. He had done it! He had defied his fate. He had won.
Norman Osborn snarled in rage at being denied. "No!"
Tony suddenly cried out as though he were in terrible pain. He staggered, then fell to his knees.
Steve shouted his name and broke into a run. He was there in time to catch Tony as he slowly fell forward. He was there as Tony slumped bonelessly into his arms, blue eyes wide, full of a terrible confusion. He was there as the light in those eyes slowly dimmed, then went out forever.
Steve clutched him close and screamed in denial, in grief, in loss.
And in the corner, Norman Osborn laughed and laughed.
As they had arranged last night, Steve met Victoria Hand for breakfast in the hotel restaurant at 7:00 a.m. Unlike yesterday's dinner, he was in costume, the cowl covering his face, the shield strapped to his back.
He was also in no mood to make polite conversation. He could still remember his nightmare in vivid detail, and it made him shudder. His frantic worry over what was happening to Tony had coalesced into a cold, hard determination. He would not be delayed anymore.
He was getting Tony back. Today.
When breakfast was finished, Victoria Hand stood up. "The car is waiting outside," she said. "We should arrive at Thunderbolts Mountain in plenty of time for you to make your appointment with Commander Osborn."
Steve smiled at her like this news pleased him. He had been forced to hide in the shower this morning as he donned the nearly microscopic wire and camera set-up that would show the world what Norman Osborn was really like. Hidden among the scales of his suit, it would be undetectable to anyone searching him.
Or so Tony had claimed. Natasha had brought the devices with her when she and Bucky had first arrived in Houston, having retrieved them on Tony's request. He had smiled to see them, then explained that they were tech he had been working on at SHIELD, with the intention of making them part of each field agent's uniform.
The entire rig was voice-activated. On their second day in the safe house, Tony had programmed it with Steve's voice. Only a certain command would begin the recording and send out the signal. "Natasha will have it all set up for you on her end. Just make sure you're near a computer," Tony had said, "and you're good to go."
In the safe house it had sounded so easy. Now, with only hours to go, Steve was a bundle of nerves. But he was more than ready to speak the words, to sit down with Osborn and set the man up to fall. It was devious and underhanded and in times past he would have objected to using such tactics. Now he knew better. Now he knew that sometimes the only way to win was to get your hands dirty.
And if it didn't work, if he couldn't broadcast it to the world and get his message out there, he would find another way. Whatever it took. He would personally go on every news station in the country if he had to, revealing the truth about the man people trusted to protect them. If he did nothing else of value in this world, he would take Norman Osborn down.
They walked out of the restaurant and through the main lobby. Steve did not glance to either side, but he knew Bucky was there, hidden and watching.
His eyes fixed straight ahead, Steve nodded. We are a go.
And that was it. There was nothing more for him to do until they reached Thunderbolts Mountain.
"I tell you what," Osborn said. "I'll make this easy on you. All you need to do is give me one name. That's it."
Tony just lay on the floor. They hadn't even bothered taking him out of his cell this time. They had just sent someone in to drug him, and a short while later, Osborn had come in.
The cold was as intense as ever, but he lacked the strength to shiver anymore. Some time ago they had given him a glass of water, but his senses had still been heightened, and all he had tasted was a rotting foulness. He had turned away from the water, even though every parched cell in his body had cried out at the loss; if his body still retained enough moisture for it, he would have been in tears.
"Just one name," Osborn said, his voice harsh and grating. Tony couldn't see him anymore. He had stopped being able to see anything at all hours ago, his vision finally burned out by the intense light he could never escape.
"Tell me who Spider-Man is," Osborn said.
He wanted to laugh. Of course that was the name Osborn wanted most. Other secret identities were important, but none so much as the one that had eluded Osborn for so long.
"Tell me!" Osborn kicked him.
Tony screamed weakly as things inside him burst in a spray of blood and flame. His voice broke, his screams turning into choked sounds that had no business coming from a human throat. They hurt as much to utter as they did to listen to.
Osborn panted in rage, his breath hot and heavy. His foot scraped along the ground as he drew it back again. A voice spoke, tinny and bright through the comm in his ear. Tony could hear the words perfectly clear: He's here.
"You're lucky," Osborn said. He lowered his foot in a pounding stomp. "Saved by the bell." He walked away, the floor shaking beneath the vibrations of his tread, rattling Tony's bones.
"Don't think this is over, Stark. You owe me a name."
The door closed in a crash of sound. Cold air blasted over him. Pain wrapped him up tight, refused to let go.
Thunderbolts Mountain was not all that different from the SHIELD helicarrier Steve had known. It was quite obviously a government agency that lacked the proper funding despite having shiny toys. As he walked through the halls, escorted by Victoria Hand and the two anonymous agents, he felt the weight of people's stares on his back. His bright blue costume stood out amid a sea of green; the shield seemed to catch the light and reflect it back, drawing attention to himself still further.
"You're creating quite the buzz around here," Victoria Hand said.
Startled, Steve looked over at her. There was no possible way she could know what she had just said, how the words had catapulted him back to a simpler time, to the world he had left behind.
"They don't know what to make of you," Victoria continued.
"I suppose I could always sign their trading cards," Steve heard himself say.
She blinked at him, then laughed with genuine amusement. "You probably could," she said wryly.
They stepped in an elevator. Three agents crowded in alongside them. One of them had red hair pulled into a severe knot at the back of her head and a cold, disdainful expression. Except for one curious glance, she did not look at him. Steve let his eyes slide off her and kept his gaze on the polished metal of the elevators doors.
The elevator stopped twice. The first time, one of the agents got off. The second time, Natasha and the other agent left. As she passed Steve, she twisted slightly to one side to make her way around his bulk. Her hand brushed his, and he felt a small object transferred into his palm.
He closed his fingers about the comm.
He remained still until the elevator stopped and he followed Victoria out. Casually he reached up to scratch at his nose, then at his ear. He slipped the comm inside the shell of his ear and then let his hand drop back to his side.
The comm remained silent. They were connected now, but they would not communicate until it was necessary. Natasha was on her way to one of the mountain's secret entrances that she had scoped out during her time undercover. The next time she spoke to him, Bucky would be with her.
And Steve had finally arrived at his destination.
Norman Osborn's office was at the top of the mountain. One whole wall was nothing but a great expanse of glass, allowing him to look down at the world below. Another wall was taken up by a long bar and a couch. His desktop was empty of anything personal, and held only a computer and a thin ring binder.
The man himself sat behind the desk, wearing a crisp business suit and tie. In person his hair was even stranger than on TV, seeming to defy nature itself in order to stand in those neat little rows. When Steve walked in, he stood up, fingers splayed and touching the edge of his desk. "Captain."
Steve nodded. "Commander." He used the title not out of respect, but because he wanted to keep Osborn as relaxed as possible.
They shook hands. Victoria Hand asked if they needed anything, and Steve politely declined. She gave them both a smile, then left.
Alone with the man who had single-handedly turned Tony's life into a nightmare, Steve was hard-pressed to maintain his outward calm. He wanted to leap across the desk and demand to know where Tony was. If it came down to it, he was pretty sure he would even be able to throw a punch and sock Osborn right in his prissy little face.
"Thank you for meeting with me," he said as he sat down in one of the black chairs provided for visitors.
"I couldn't pass up a chance to meet with Steve Rogers," Osborn said. "Especially when everyone believed you were dead." His eyes narrowed slightly, although he kept his tone light and casual. If he wondered why coming back from the dead had mysteriously de-aged Steve by ten years, he did not say so. "I hope you'll forgive me for saying that I would love to hear the story of how you came back to us."
Steve hesitated, as though he had trouble thinking about his death and resurrection. "It's a long story," he finally said. "Let's just say that I wouldn't be here right now if it weren't for certain people."
Osborn did not look at all satisfied with this response, but he let it slide. "So you've taken over the role of Captain America again, I see."
"Yes," Steve lied. "I've always believed that if you're able to do a job, then you should do it. Not let others do it for you."
"I feel the same way," Osborn said with a nod. "The world has missed you, Captain."
"Thank you," he said.
"So what are your plans for the Avengers?" Osborn asked. "You do realize that the Superhuman Registration Act is the law now, correct?"
"I'm aware," Steve said shortly.
"And will you be registering?" Osborn asked.
Steve set his jaw. He did not want to discuss politics. Tony had tried to give him enough background on the law and the conflict that had torn the superhero community apart that he could answer questions on the subject, but that didn't mean he was willing to go down that road. "It's the law," he said in the same clipped tones, as though that answered everything. "As for the Avengers, my first order of business is to make sure that everyone who is on the team deserves to be there."
An ugly light gleamed in Osborn's eyes. "Dispensing justice, are we, Captain?"
"You could say that," Steve said evenly. "I believe in accepting the consequences for our actions. Some of the Avengers behaved badly during the…conflict. I intend to address that."
The light in Osborn's eyes grew brighter at the thought of punishment. "A man after my own heart," he said.
Steve had to suppress a shudder at that thought.
It was time for his question, those words that would activate the recording. Yet he hesitated. He had to give the impression now of disliking Tony Stark without going too far and arousing suspicion. Tony had told him to say whatever he had to, and rationally Steve knew that was true, but he still balked at having to do it. It felt too much like a betrayal.
But it was the only way.
He looked at Osborn. "Can I ask you a question?"
Six simple little words. Once, a world away, a lifetime ago, six words had been the seeds of Steve's destruction, sweeping away his mind and leaving only loss in its wake. Today, there was nothing quite so spectacular. There were no red lights, no clicking or whirring, no noises at all. Only a quiet voice in his ear as Natasha spoke into the comm connecting them. "We're good."
From here on out, everything Norman Osborn said and did would be broadcast live to the world. The failure of Starktech during the Skrull invasion was one of the reasons Tony had been branded a traitor and a criminal. Steve derived an immense satisfaction from knowing that it was now Starktech that would bring Osborn down.
Osborn, of course, had no clue what was about to happen to him. He leaned back in his chair and made a gesture of invitation. "Of course."
"Can I ask you," Steve repeated, for the benefit of the viewing public. He shifted his weight, angling his body more toward the computer on Osborn's desk, in case that might help make the signal clearer. "We spoke about consequences. Would you mind telling me your intentions regarding Tony Stark?"
"I intend to bring him to justice," Osborn said, somewhat peevishly. He sat up straight again. "Surely you don't have a problem with that."
"I don't," Steve said. "I just want to make sure the punishment fits the crime."
Quietly, for his ear alone, Natasha said, "We're in." And that was the final piece of the puzzle in place. Somewhere deep within Thunderbolts Mountain, Bucky and whoever he had brought with him were now inside. Bucky would have the suitcase containing Tony's armor, but Steve had sudden doubts that it would be needed. He had the terrible feeling that Tony, wherever he was, was in no shape to fight.
Osborn's eyebrows shot up. "Punishment? For which crime are we talking about here?"
Steve said nothing. He just returned Osborn's gaze steadily, letting the other man draw his own conclusions.
"Oh yes," Osborn said. That malicious gleam still sparkled in his eyes. "Stark will be punished. I can guarantee you that."
"Can you?" Steve asked mildly.
Osborn leaned in, his hands clasped on his pristine desktop. "Let me assure you, Captain, that even as we speak, HAMMER is working on extracting a full confession from Tony Stark. And once I have heard it, I intend to make him give this confession on live television, for the entire world to see."
He looked disgustingly excited by this thought, so Steve decided to encourage him. This was exactly the kind of thing Tony had wanted him to get Osborn to say, so the whole world could see how crazy he really was. "On live TV? That could be difficult to arrange."
"Believe me," Osborn said smugly, "by the time I'm done with him, Stark will say anything I want him to say."
What was happening out there in the wide world, Steve wondered. All those people standing in Times Square, sitting in their living rooms, riding on subway trains and watching on their phones…were they watching this with horror? Or were they nodding in agreement with Osborn?
"So when you say 'extracting a full confession,' what you really mean—" Steve began.
"I say what I mean," Osborn said tightly. "Did you come here to take odds with my methodology?"
"That's not at all why I came here," Steve said smoothly.
Osborn backed down a little then, studying Steve through narrowed eyes. "Well," he said. "I must say, you've changed, Captain."
Steve thought about that empty lab. He thought about a command that had to be obeyed. He thought about the blood on his hands. He thought about a blank holding cell and the long weeks spent waiting for sentence to be passed and judgment to be rendered. He thought about the time machine and how eagerly he had stepped inside, wanting so badly to fix what was broken.
He thought about a man with expressive brown eyes and a quick wit, clever hands and a desperate need to prove himself. He thought about a man with wounded blue eyes and a brilliant mind, a warm smile all the more precious for coming so rarely, and a terrible belief that he was not deserving of kindness or compassion. He thought about a man with blond hair and blue eyes and the desire to do good in his heart, a man who had committed the worst crime imaginable, a man who had dared fate itself in order to correct that wrong.
He thought about the myriad paths a man's life might take, and yet somehow that man always ended up where he belonged.
He said, "If you had been through what I've been through, you would change, too."
Osborn nodded, pretending that he felt sympathy for Steve's plight. Maybe he even did. It was impossible to know what was happening inside that warped mind. "So I take it your feelings for Tony Stark have changed as well," he said.
"They have," Steve agreed. The best part was, it wasn't a lie. "But I don't understand why you would hate him."
"Me?" Abruptly Osborn pushed himself to his feet. He towered over the desk and glared down at Steve. "But of course you wouldn't know. You were too busy being a paragon of virtue. And then you were dead. You haven't seen the things Tony Stark has done. He is a liar, a cheater, a thief, and a traitor."
Steve said nothing, just sat quietly as Osborn grew more and more worked up. For a single instant his eyes seemed to flash bright yellow and a green tint overrode his skin, then he blinked and he looked normal again.
"Stark is everything that is wrong with this country today," Osborn continued. "He's unbelievably arrogant. He thinks he can flaunt his wealth and his superiority, like he's so much better than everyone else. He never makes a mistake, oh no. He's so much smarter than everyone, and he never lets you forget it."
He curled one hand into a fist. "Well, let me tell you something. Tony Stark's reign of terror is over. I promise you that. The last time I saw him, he was on the floor, screaming his lungs out." His mouth curved into a satisfied smile as he gazed into the distance, remembering. "Not so arrogant now, are you, Stark?" he murmured.
Steve's blood ran cold with horror. That was it. That was what he had wanted the world to hear. He only hoped it was enough, because he wasn't sure how much more of this he could sit here and listen to. He didn't dare say anything, though. He had to let this play out, let Osborn hang himself in front of the whole world.
Osborn looked at him, his eyes glinting with malice. "You probably don't know this, but there is nothing more satisfying than seeing a man break. And make no mistake – I will break Stark. There's a limit to how much pain a man can endure. All I have to do is find that limit – and push past it, just the tiniest bit." He smiled again at this thought. "Then we'll see who's better than who."
His expression shifted into one of deep contentment. "And then he'll tell me everything I want to know. Everything I deserve to know."
Steve fought the urge to be sick, to leap up and smash his face in. He had a job to do, and he could not shirk it just because it hurt him to see it through. "Because you're in charge," he suggested.
"Damn right I'm in charge!" Osborn declared. "This is my time! Stark had his! And what did he do with it? Do you even know what he did when he was Director of SHIELD? Do you have any idea of the number of complaints he caused?"
Evidently Steve was not expected to answer that. Without waiting for his reaction, Osborn went on, gathering steam as he went. "Closing the officers' mess and diverting funds into the enlisted men's mess hall. A suggestion box! Casual Fridays! A goddamn day-care on the helicarrier!"
Scorn and derision dripped from Osborn's voice, but Steve felt his chest swell with pride as he listened to this list of Tony's accomplishments. He hadn't known any of these things, because Tony hadn't considered them important enough to bring up. Anything that cast him in a positive light was to be avoided, wasn't worth mentioning.
"Stark doesn't know what power is," Osborn said. "Or how to wield it. Men like that never do. It's up to me, men like me, to educate them."
"Is that what you're doing now?" Steve asked. "Educating him?"
Osborn waved a hand in dismissal. "Call it what you like," he said. "But it won't be long before Stark is begging me to stop the pain long enough so he can tell me his secrets. Every last one of them, down to the time he stole some kid's lunch money in the second grade." He smiled again with that look of deep contentment, savoring the idea of Tony's agony. "And if I'm feeling particularly merciful that day, I might just grant his request." Abruptly his expression went flat. "Otherwise, I'm perfectly content to let him go on screaming."
He glanced at Steve, gauging his reaction. It was a sly, canny look, and it made Steve's skin crawl. Norman Osborn was utterly insane, but he was also very smart. He had to be, in order to have it made it as far as he had without getting locked away in an asylum.
Apparently deciding that he had gone too far, Osborn straightened his tie and cleared his throat. "My apologies, Captain. I tend to get passionate about the things I care about. I'm sure you understand."
"Of course," Steve said. He nodded coolly.
Osborn moved over to the bar. He started to pour himself a drink, then stopped. He stood very still for a moment, his hand clenched tight about the decanter of whiskey. "Am I upsetting you?" he asked. His tone was mild again, the violence gone from his voice and his eyes.
Steve counted to three before answering. "I appreciate your honesty," he said.
"Yes," Osborn murmured. "I'm sure you do." He set the decanter down and turned slightly, reaching up to open a cabinet door above the bar. As he did, Steve saw a small plastic object in his ear.
He knew it was over then. Osborn had a comm, too, and someone – probably Victoria Hand – had just informed him that his conversation with Steve was being broadcast to the entire world.
He was damn glad of it, too.
"You son of a bitch," Osborn snarled. His voice had risen several registers, becoming much more high-pitched. That green tint was on his skin again. He whipped around, a small glass ball in his hand.
Steve threw himself out of his chair and brought his shield up just in time. The grenade struck the shield and exploded in a burst of green smoke. There was almost no sound, just an enormous burst of light and then a tremendous wave of concussive force. He was hurled backward, the shield still covering most of his body. He struck the far wall with a bone-jarring thud and slid down to collapse on the floor.
For a long moment he just lay there. Trying to catch his breath. Trying to understand what had just happened. He knew he had to get up, but his body didn't seem to be his own to command anymore.
Terror washed over him. It wasn't the same as being mind controlled, but the loss of his ability to move at will still filled him with horror. He had to get up. He had to.
Green smoke clouds hung in the room. A strident alarm was going off. Norman Osborn was gone.
He had to get up.
Tony was out there – on the floor screaming his lungs out – waiting for him. He had to get up. Bucky and Natasha needed him to do his part. Osborn was getting away.
He had to get up.
With an enormous effort, he got one knee beneath him. Then one hand. At last he picked his head up and blinked, clearing green smoke from his vision.
It was easier after that. He still felt like his limbs were weighted down with thick ice, every movement slow and sluggish, but with every step some of the haze and fear dissipated from his brain. By the time he staggered out into the hall, he felt almost normal again.
HAMMER was in chaos. Controlled and orderly as befit trained government agents, but still chaos. They were under attack, an alarm still sounding, people running past. The lights flashed and went out, returned momentarily brighter than before, then went out altogether. Full darkness reigned for a few seconds, then the emergency lighting kicked on.
Immediately the halls became filled with shadows that could have been anyone or anything. Several HAMMER agents ran past Steve. They shot him bewildered looks, not quite knowing what to do with him. Was he an ally or an enemy?
"Widow, status report," he said tersely.
"Five by," she said. "Cap and Falcon are making their way to you."
If they needed his help, she would have said so. That left him free to focus on the real reason he was here. "Where's Tony?"
She gave him Tony's location, a spot several floors down from where he was now. He looked around, spotted the stairwell, and ran for it. He strong-armed the door open, and leapt down several flights until he reached the floor he needed.
He burst out into the detention area where HAMMER held its prisoners. The hall was empty and full of shadows created by the emergency lighting. Any agents who had been standing guard here were long gone; there was no one in sight.
He hurried down the hall, looking for the cell he wanted. He was nearly there when a form separated itself from the shadows, a star bursting into sudden bright light.
He dropped to one knee and raised the shield. The unibeam blast was deflected into the ceiling. Sparks flew and debris rained down to the floor.
Norman Osborn stepped forward. The red, white, and blue armor of the Iron Patriot looked dim in the emergency lighting. Steve didn't wait for him to get any closer, or for the weapon in his palm to power up. He just thrust himself forward into a springing, horizontal dive, and bashed the shield in that armored face.
With a yell of anger, Osborn staggered back. Steve brought the shield down again, battering at his helmet, twisting nimbly to the right when Osborn fired at him. He kept on pivoting, smashing his right elbow into the faceplate, then completing the spin and slashing the shield at the helmet once again.
The Iron Patriot reeled, then rose into the air as Osborn fired up the boot jets. He shot past, flying above Steve's head, forcing Steve to drop down into a crouch, the shield raised to protect him from the jets.
"You're under arrest!" Osborn shouted. He landed on the ground, raised both palms and fired.
Steve caught the blasts on the shield, deflecting them harmlessly into the walls on either side. "Funny," he said. "I was just about to say the same thing to you."
"You have no authority here!" Osborn flung his arms out and fired the unibeam again.
This time Steve used the shield to turn the beam squarely back on Osborn, who shouted aloud in pained fury as he was flung backward.
"Neither do you," Steve said grimly. He stood up.
On their last morning in the safe house, Tony had told him about the Iron Patriot armor. How Osborn had stolen it and repurposed it, giving it a new paint job and a name meant to sting and mock. The armor's very existence was an insult and an offense, and Tony hated it. If Steve couldn't neutralize Osborn right away, Tony had said, if Osborn had time to get suited up, things would turn very ugly, very fast. "You'll find yourself facing the Iron Patriot then. And he'll fight to kill.
"If that happens," Tony had said, "you can't beat him. Even without repulsor tech, he's stronger than you. Plus he's got one hell of an armory." He had smiled. "But he forgets, that armor was mine. And I always have a back-up plan." His smile had widened, becoming as beautiful as the man himself. "He has no idea. Even if he does suspect that an override code exists, he doesn't have the authorization to go in there and deactivate it."
Steve raised his voice now and spoke very clearly. "Armor: override code. Steve Rogers, 34-44-54-64."
For a split-second, nothing happened, and Steve braced himself to continue the fight. Tony had warned him this might happen, that his voice was just different enough from the original Steve Rogers that the armor server might not recognize it.
Osborn had just begun to laugh in derision when a mechanical voice said, "Override code accepted. Armor server online."
Steve did not waste his chance. "Armor, disassemble."
The Iron Patriot suit fell apart around Osborn, pieces clanking to the ground and lying at his feet. In their midst, Osborn himself stood there, his eyes wide and incredulous with rage. "What is this?!"
"A little present from Tony Stark," Steve said. Fierce joy raced through his veins. Osborn had called Tony arrogant, but in the end, it was his own arrogance that defeated him. That, and Tony's brilliant ability to predict the future.
Steve strode forward, shield cocked and ready. "And this," he said, "is a present from me."
Punching Norman Osborn in the face was immensely satisfying. He followed through with the shield, putting Osborn flat on his back, down and out for the count.
For a few seconds he stood over Osborn, just long enough to make certain that the man wasn't going anywhere. Then he reached up and touched the comm in his ear. "Cap here. Osborn is down. I'm going in for Tony."
"Roger that," Bucky replied.
"The entry code is 616," Natasha said. "I'll be there as soon as I can."
Steve didn't see why, but he wasn't about to argue with her. She had just spent three days undercover here, after all, and he trusted her judgment.
He dropped down to one knee and pulled two cords out from a pouch on his belt. He pulled Osborn's hands behind his back and secured them tightly, then rolled the man onto his side and tied his ankles.
As he stood up, the power came back on, normal lighting banishing the shadows from the hallway. Even then, the colors of the Iron Patriot armor looked dull and washed out, the pieces lying on the floor like relics from a forgotten era. Steve stared down at them for a moment, then hurried over to the door he wanted.
He input the passcode, and the keypad lit up green. The handle turned beneath his hand, and he stepped inside.
It was very cold inside the cell. The white walls were bathed in blindingly bright light. Tony was curled up on the floor, trembling and naked. It had only been two days since Steve had seen him, but already he looked thinner. His eyes were tightly closed, and he breathed shallowly, like a man in great pain.
But he was alive, and in spite of the terrible circumstances, Steve felt a surge of joy in his heart. "Tony!"
Tony flinched and cringed back with a faint whimper.
Horrorstruck, Steve knelt down beside him. "Tony, it's me."
Tony flinched again. One hand jerked feebly, and Steve saw the raw burns on two of his fingers, and lower, between his legs. A nasty bruise spread across his lower back and side where they had been hitting him, working the same spot over and over for maximum pain. Other bruises marked his wrists and ankles and crossed his chest, the same banded pattern in each place, evidence of where they had restrained him.
It didn't seem like Tony even knew he was there. He set the shield aside and leaned in closer. "Tony, can you hear me?" He reached out and brushed the side of Tony's face.
Tony flinched away yet again, this time making a thin sound of such distress that Steve found himself freezing in place, suddenly afraid to move.
Dear God. What had they done to him?
He stood up and whirled around all in the same move, adrenaline coursing through him, readying him to fight whoever had dared to interfere.
But it was only Natasha, standing out in the hall. "Come out of there," she said quietly.
Maybe she could explain Tony's reaction. With a last, anguished look at Tony, Steve stepped out of the cell. "What did they do to him?" he demanded.
She led him down the hall before she spoke, and when she did finally answer him, she kept her voice low. "They've been giving him some kind of experimental new drug. I haven't been able to figure out what it is exactly, but it drastically heightens sensory input. Under its influence, even a whisper is a shout."
Steve was too appalled to do anything except stare at her. He understood now why Tony had flinched from him, why his cell was so bright, why the air was so cold. The lightest touch probably hurt him now. And the pain from his injuries… God.
He turned on his heel and ran back toward the cell. In the doorway, he paused and looked over at Natasha. He gestured at the too-bright light spilling out into the hall, then raised an eyebrow in a silent question.
She nodded, and took off.
Steve pushed the cowl off his head and stepped carefully into the cell, making as little noise as possible. Slowly he sat down beside Tony.
It was so cold in here. The frigid air made him think of the ice, of life passing him by while he lay still and frozen.
As gently as he could, in one smooth motion, he pulled Tony up and into his lap. He winced at the thin keening sound Tony made when he was moved, but he did not let that stop him. He rested Tony's head on his chest, and made sure his legs weren't in an awkward, uncomfortable position. He wrapped both arms about him, and gently, so gently, held his trembling body.
"I'm here," he said, the words hardly more than a breath.
The rush of cold air coming through the ceiling vents shut off. A second later, the lights went out. Immediately the cell became shadowed, lit only by the lights from out in the hall.
Above and below him, battle was taking place within Thunderbolts Mountain. Steve cared about none of it. He could feel the terrible cold that gripped Tony, much as it had once held him in its grasp, dragging him down into the long sleep he had not wanted.
For Tony, though, that sleep would be final. It also seemed frighteningly inevitable. Osborn had pushed too hard, too fast, wanting to break him quickly. And he had succeeded, beyond his wildest dreams. Tony lay in Steve's arms, utterly still except for the involuntary tremors that swept through him. His pulse was erratic, and the pause between each shallow breath drew out excruciatingly.
Steve sat there and held him, and tears burned in his eyes.
He had found Tony, but he was terrified that he had come too late.
Steve had come for him.
Through the unending pain and the relentless onslaught on his senses, Tony was aware of this one thing. Steve had come for him.
The pounding rhythm of Steve's heart was too loud in his ear. It hurt to be pressed up against Steve's chest, but the warmth of body heat felt blissful after spending so long shuddering with cold. The pressure of Steve's arms encircling him was painful, but he endured it willingly. Gladly, even.
"Tony." Steve sounded like he was crying.
Voices were still too loud, but he barely had the strength to flinch anymore.
"Tony. Stay with me," Steve breathed. "Please." He was definitely crying now.
He couldn't bear that. Steve was crying over him and he couldn't, no, Steve couldn't be crying over him. Steve had already cried too much over Tony Stark. It wasn't fair, it wasn't right, this wasn't how it was supposed to end.
Even with the warmth of Steve's presence, he couldn't stop shivering. With an immense effort, he opened his eyes. He couldn't see anything except blurred impressions of light and shadow. Loud as a shout, he heard Steve's breath catch.
"Steve." He hardly recognized his voice; even as a cracked whisper, it was too loud. He hurt so badly. But he had to say this. He had to. Because Steve had come for him and Steve was holding him with such kindness when he had never done anything to deserve it.
"Don't…don't go," he rasped. It hurt to talk, each word cutting into his throat like a blade.
"I won't," Steve whispered.
No, that wasn't it. That wasn't what he wanted to say. He let his eyes slip closed, and tried again. "Don't…go back. Please."
The words were coming easier. It seemed to hurt less to speak, to hear himself. Or maybe he just didn't care anymore. "Please stay. I'll be…whatever you want. I know I'm… I'm not your Tony, but I love you. I can—"
"Stop," Steve cried, and the agony in that single word made him flinch again. "Oh God, Tony. Don't. I love you. You are my Tony now."
It wasn't possible. But he could hear the truth in Steve's voice, because he could hear everything now. And Steve loved him. Even after everything he had done.
Steve loved him.
He wanted to cry, but his body lacked the moisture for it. Instead he nestled his cheek against Steve's chest. His skin rubbed painfully on Steve's costume, but the pain was worth it in order to feel so close. Steve's heartbeat was too loud, but the steady beat reassured him. And Steve was warm, so wonderfully warm and close.
"I won't let you go," Steve promised him. "I love you."
Tony believed him.
With a sigh, he finally surrendered.
Long after Tony had fallen unconscious, Steve held him close, trying to warm him with his own body. He was afraid to move, afraid of doing anything that would worsen Tony's condition. From time to time, Natasha spoke in his ear, giving him status reports as HAMMER agents laid down their weapons. Whenever she did, Tony would stir fitfully, his brow creasing – although he never did quite rouse all the way.
Out in the hall, Norman Osborn did not wake up. No one came into the detention area. No one demanded to know what he was doing. It was a good thing, too. Had anyone approached and threatened Tony, Steve wasn't sure what he would have done.
There was only one thing he knew for certain. He was in love with Tony. Deeply, irrevocably. He would do anything, go to the ends of the earth, to make sure no one ever hurt him again.
And so he remained where he was on the floor, swallowing back the tears, resisting the instinctive urge to soothe away Tony's hurt. Love froze his hands, stole his voice, kept him still as a stone. He did nothing at all except sit there and hold Tony lightly, so lightly, bearing him up but nothing more.
After a while Natasha announced that it was all over and she was coming to get him. It was time to go then, to leave this horrid place behind. Moving with extreme care, Steve shifted his grip on Tony and eased one arm beneath his knees. Then he stood up, slowly, so slowly, trying not to jostle Tony any more than he had to.
Tony's eyelids fluttered. He gasped and flinched, his breath coming in short little pants.
"It's okay," Steve whispered. "We're leaving."
With painful slowness, Tony's hand crept forward. His reaching fingers found Steve's chest, then curled in, grasping at the fabric. It was molded too tight to Steve's body for him to get hold of it, though, and his fingertips just scraped down the front, causing him to utter a soft sound of pain.
If he could have ripped the costume from his body, Steve would have done it in a heartbeat. "I won't let you go," he said, repeating his promise from before.
He stepped out into the hall, moving carefully in a gliding gait that hopefully minimized the stress of being carried for Tony. He heard footsteps approaching and he stiffened in wary anticipation, but it was only Natasha. Except for a long cut down her neck, she looked no worse for the wear. "How is he?" she asked quietly.
Steve glanced down at Tony, then nodded a little.
"Ready to go?" Natasha asked.
He hesitated and looked pointedly over at Norman Osborn, who still lay trussed up and unconscious.
Natasha followed his gaze, then smiled thinly. "Don't worry," she said. "He'll be taken care of."
He looked down at Tony again and breathed his name, more a thought than a word, it was so quiet. Tony did not react, so he tried again, a little bit louder this time. There was still no response, and Steve let out a slow breath, tightening his hold on Tony a little, even though he knew he shouldn't.
Tony was only asleep, he told himself, and he should be thankful. It meant he was beyond the reach of any drugs or pain, and asleep, only asleep.
He stiffened his spine, lifted his chin. "Okay," he said. "I'm ready."
For a long time he existed in a strange netherworld where things did not make sense. There was pain, sometimes a lot of it, making him cry out. The sensation of movement, someone lifting his body. Intervals of light and sound intermingled with soothing darkness and blessed silence. Warmth and heat surrounded him, finally chasing away the last of the cold.
Sometimes a voice spoke his name. Once, a hand touched his face and it brought not pain but warmth and tenderness.
He slept then, and if he dreamed at all, it was to dream of that moment when Steve had said he loved him.
When he woke up, he was lying in a large, comfortable bed. Warm blankets covered him from neck to toe, and someone had dressed him in thick flannel pajamas that were a size too big; the cuffs were draped over his hands. He still hurt, but the pain was less now, and he could bear it easily. Although his eyes were open, he could see only dim shadows; as he watched, one of them separated itself from the others and moved closer.
Steve. His voice was a whisper. Truly only a whisper now, no longer augmented by senses that had been scraped raw.
He swallowed, licked his lips, tried speech. "Hi." He didn't do nearly so well as Steve, but at least it was audible, so that was a start.
"Hi," Steve whispered back.
He blinked, tried to clear his sight. He thought he should be worried about what was happening with his vision, but he couldn't muster the energy for fear. Not right now, when sleep was already beckoning again, when Steve was lying so close.
"How do you feel?" Steve asked.
"Better," he rasped.
"Can you handle some water?" Steve asked.
The thought of it made him want to cry. He couldn't remember the last time he had been given something to drink.
Steve's hand slid beneath his head and lifted. The glass touched his lips. At the first wash of the water over his tongue, he flinched back, half-expecting it to taste foul, but it was cool and pure, and he drank gratefully.
Too soon he grew tired and he turned his face away. Steve eased his head back down to the pillow. "Let me know when you want more," Steve said softly.
Tony nodded wearily.
The bed dipped and settled. Steve pulled the blankets up to his throat again. One hand touched his temple lightly, brushing his hair back.
"I'm sorry," he whispered.
Steve's hand stilled. "For what?"
There were too many answers to that question, and he lacked the strength to say them aloud. For making you do this. For making you take care of me. For not letting you leave even though I should. For everything I've put you through.
After a little bit, Steve's fingers stroked his temple again. "You have nothing to apologize for," Steve whispered. The bed shifted. Steve's breath was warm on his skin, and then Steve was pressing a soft kiss to the spot where his fingers had just been.
Tony turned his head blindly, seeking Steve even though he couldn't see him.
The kiss was soft, and so tender. Steve's lips were warm and gentle. He opened his mouth beneath them, and Steve's tongue slipped inside, licking at him, tasting him. He gasped into Steve's mouth, tilting his head back and deepening the pressure, wanting to feel more, taste more, have more.
Beneath the covers his hands twitched, trying to rise so he could touch Steve. Pain throbbed in his burned fingers, reminding him quickly that this was not a good idea.
Steve felt him tense up, and he pulled away. "Tony?"
"I—" He wanted to apologize again, say he was sorry for his neediness, for being so selfish.
"It's okay," Steve said. He kissed Tony lightly once, then a second time. "It can wait." The pillow sank a little as Steve lay close beside him, his forehead brushing Tony's ear. "I'll be right here," he whispered. "I love you."
No, he thought in sudden terror. No, God no. The fear pushed back his exhaustion, even made him forget about the pain. That couldn't be true. He had dreamed that, he had imagined it in his delirium.
It couldn't be true.
"Don't," he begged. "Don't say that."
"Why not?" Steve asked quietly. "It's true."
He turned his face away, not wanting Steve to see the tears he was powerless to prevent. "I love you, too," he whispered. "I don't want you to go."
"I'm not going anywhere," Steve said. "I'm staying. This is where I belong. Right here with you." He kissed the soft spot beneath Tony's ear, where his jaw began. Another kiss, lower, along his neck. And with every kiss, "I love you. I love you."
He couldn't bear it. He turned back toward Steve, and it seemed like he could almost see the blue of Steve's eyes through the blur of his tears. "Steve."
Steve kissed him. "I love you," he murmured. "I love you."
No dream had ever been so satisfying, or so real. Tony kissed him back, and it was everything he had ever wanted, everything he had ever hoped for. And it was the most amazing feeling, like coming home.
The pain was worth it then, to pull his arms free of the blankets and reach up and feel Steve's skin beneath his hands, to hold him close with all his strength. It was all worth it then, everything he had suffered, everything he had lost and thought he would never find again.
Safe in the circle of Steve's arms, he closed his eyes and slept.
Epilogue: It's times like these, time and time again.
A light spring rain was falling, but in Avengers Tower, the weather might as well have been miles away. The workshop was warm and dry; like Steve, Tony had lost any tolerance he might have once had for the cold. Hard at work on his latest iteration of the suit – he was thinking of adding a cool sunburst to the front of the space armor – Tony didn't hear Steve come in at first. When he finally glanced up and saw Steve standing there, still in uniform, he quickly swiped the screens to one side and apologized.
Steve just smiled. "It's okay. I like watching you work."
He had said that before. Several times in fact. Tony still wasn't sure he believed it, though. "What time is it?"
"Too late for dinner, too early for a midnight snack," Steve said. He held up a plate stacked high with lemon bars. "But I brought something anyway."
Tony couldn't help smiling at the sight. "Admit it, Commander Rogers. You just want to see me with powdered sugar on my nose."
"I can neither confirm nor deny that," Steve said solemnly. His blue eyes were alight with amusement, though. He held out the plate. "I know you sent me that text a few hours ago, but my meeting ran late. Sorry I had to make you wait. You said you had a question for me?"
"I did," Tony said. He took a lemon bar, but did not eat it just yet.
"So what was it?" Steve asked. The white star and stripes on his chest seemed brighter than ever against the dark blue of his uniform.
Tony hunched his shoulders. He wished now that he hadn't said anything. When he had fired off that text, the day's events had still been new. Now, hours after the fact, he felt kind of ridiculous bringing it all up again.
So he went for a diversion instead. "I was thinking of sending Norman Osborn a card saying, 'Here's to your first 90 days in the Raft. May there be many more.' Want to sign it?"
"Tony." Steve sounded gently reproving – albeit somewhat amused.
He was pretty sure Steve wasn't going to fall for his attempt at distraction, but he had to try anyway. "What? I figure the guy must be desperate for some mail right around now."
Steve just looked at him, all humor gone now. "Is that really why you wanted to see me?"
Using the lemon bar as an excuse, Tony looked away. He barely tasted the sweetness. He hadn't meant to bring up Osborn, but now that he had, he found it difficult to put those thoughts aside.
They had only talked about it once, but once was enough. Tony had promised that he would never again put himself on the line like that, that he would consult with Steve before taking action if he felt threatened, and furthermore promised that he would look into the technology to refine the delete process in his brain. After all, the database of registered superhumans still existed within his memory banks. It would be naïve to assume that it was safe for all time just because they had gotten rid of Norman Osborn.
He actually meant to keep most of those promises, too. He wouldn’t – couldn't – regret what he had done. Not when he had saved countless lives and kept people safe. Even those long days of pain and misery in Thunderbolts Mountain had ultimately proven necessary, although he couldn't say he was eager to ever go through anything like that again. It had taken him days to recover completely from the effects of the sensory-enhancing drugs, and a full week before he could leave a darkened room and actually see anything.
His memories of that time were tangled and hazy, and to this day he wasn't sure how much of it was real. The one thing he did know for certain was that Steve had never left his side. Although people had come and gone – he remembered hearing Nick Fury, Pepper, Bucky, and a very angry Rhodey – all those conversations had happened within earshot, as though Steve had refused to leave him even long enough to officially join the ranks of the superheroes of this world.
Tony could only imagine the less-than-favorable first impression that behavior had given them all, but apparently it hadn't mattered. By the time both Reed Richards and Charles Xavier certified that this was indeed Steve Rogers and not a Skrull or a clone or any other kind of imposter, Steve had already been accepted by them all, having accomplished this on pure merit alone.
Occasionally he dreamed about it, the biting cold, the blinding lights, the brutal noise that wouldn't even let him think. Always he woke from the nightmares to find himself wrapped in strong, warm arms, a heartbeat steady in his ear, soothing darkness on his eyes. And every time, he would gradually stop shivering and lift his head, and Steve would be there with a kiss.
These days the dreams were slowly fading, coming less often to trouble his sleep. Even had they continued, Tony would have considered them an acceptable price to pay. Because at the end of it all, he had won. He had removed Norman Osborn from the equation and seen HAMMER disbanded. Although it had been a slow process, he had cleared his name and taken strides toward restoring his reputation. The Superhuman Registration Act had been repealed, Nick Fury and SHIELD had returned, and Steve Rogers was officially the head of the nation's security. He had Iron Man back, and the Avengers.
And he had Steve.
And he owed Steve the truth now, little as might want to say it out loud.
"What happened today," he said. "With Parker Robbins and the Infinity Gauntlet." He hesitated. For a few minutes this afternoon he had held immense power in his hand – literally. He had been like a god then, capable of doing anything he wanted. No one could have stopped him. "I could have wished for anything and made it happen." He looked at Steve. "I could have sent you back to your own world."
Steve's chin lifted. He swallowed hard. "I know."
"I thought about it," Tony admitted. I could take back things I should never have said or done, he had said then, holding the Gauntlet aloft, the gems shining on his armored fingers. He had felt the power moving through him, enormous potential swirling about his hand and shimmering in the air before him.
"I know you did," Steve said quietly.
He couldn't tell what Steve felt about the whole thing, and that bothered him. He wished again that he hadn't waited so long to bring it up. He should never have let Steve leave the Illuminati meeting without asking about the consequences of what he had done. Back then, it hadn't been too late. He might still have been able to do something about it. "Did you think about it, too?"
Steve hesitated a long moment before responding, as though he would have preferred to remain silent. "Yes."
Tony took a deep breath. "Are you sorry I didn't?"
"No," Steve said immediately. "Never."
"I know it's selfish," Tony said, "wanting to keep you here, but—"
"Tony, stop." Steve set the plate of lemon bars down on the nearest table and came forward. He looked very serious, his jaw set in determination. "I love you," he said. "This is my world now. This is my home. Here with you."
He opened his arms and Tony moved into his embrace without thinking. "God, I don't deserve you," he groaned.
Steve held him tight. "You think I don't feel the same way?" he said quietly.
Tony reached up to cradle his face in both hands. "I love you," he murmured. "I love you so much." He pressed his lips to Steve's, trying to put everything he felt into that kiss, so Steve would never doubt his heart.
After a while, Steve sighed shakily. He tipped his head so their foreheads touched. "Good," he said. "Because you're stuck with me."
"I wouldn't want to be anywhere else," Tony said. He smiled and leaned in for another kiss.
The summer afternoon was maybe a little bit too warm, but that was okay, Steve decided. He wouldn't melt. And apparently he wasn't the only one to feel that way, because no one had started complaining yet.
The picnic was in full swing; most of the food was eaten, and it was time to play. Luke and Jessica sat with baby Danielle, playing a game that seemed to involve making a lot of funny faces. Peter was dangling from a tree, adding the occasional snarky commentary to the baby's reactions. Carol and Jessica Drew were playing Frisbee and yelling at each other to keep both feet on the ground. Watching them all, it was easy to forget that the first time Steve had suggested they all do something like this together, the idea had gone down like a lead balloon.
He looked around and saw Bucky and Natasha sitting on top of a picnic table near the trees, deep in conversation, their hands laced together. A glance upward showed no one lurking above, but he was not fooled.
He rose to his feet and walked over to the blanket spread out beneath one of the taller trees. "Hi," he said.
Tony looked up, squinting slightly in the sun. "Hey," he said.
"I thought this was a work-free picnic," Steve said. He gestured meaningfully to the laptop Tony was currently tapping away on.
"I just had a couple things…" Tony trailed off as Steve leaned down and gently but firmly closed the laptop.
"…to do," Tony finished, and then Steve was kissing him, and he didn't say anything at all.
From out of nowhere, an arrow whizzed past Steve's head and buried itself in the red picnic blanket beside Tony's knee. Despite having expected it, Steve still jumped a little, and Tony cursed out loud.
Steve stood up straight and turned around. He could see Clint now in one of the trees, grinning widely. "Careful," he said, "or I'll revoke your Quinjet privileges."
Clint smirked, completely unfazed by this threat. "Like to see you try." He withdrew into the tree, then leaped nimbly to the ground and walked over to join the Frisbee game.
Steve smiled and shook his head a little. He sat down on the blanket beside Tony. "I get no respect around here," he sighed.
"That's 'cause you're a grumpy old man," Tony said with a smile. He pulled the arrow out of the ground and tossed it to one side.
Looking at him now, so relaxed and content, made a lump rise in Steve's throat. He forgot sometimes that Tony hadn't always been like this, so prone to cracking a joke and offering up a genuine smile. He could still remember the Tony he had first met, the too-sharp lines of his face and his haunted eyes. He doubted he would ever forget, either.
He didn't want to think about that, though. It was a gorgeous, if slightly too warm, summer afternoon. Tony was happy, and he was happy. He wasn't going to ruin anything by dwelling on the past. "I am not grumpy," he said. "I'm just…firm."
One of Tony's hands slid up his arm and squeezed his bicep. "You can say that again."
Steve gave him a quick kiss, then lay down on the blanket, turning his body so that his head rested in Tony's lap. "It's a nice day," he said. "I'm glad everyone could come."
Tony looked down at him. "Me too," he said. He brushed Steve's hair back, then carded his fingers through it, tugging on the thick strands just hard enough for it to feel good.
"Mmm," Steve said. He closed his eyes. "I like that."
"I know," Tony said, and Steve could hear the smile in his voice.
"Wake me up if anyone starts throwing things at each other that aren't Frisbees," he said. He shifted his weight a little, getting more comfortable.
"Okay," Tony said. "What about cupcakes? Do they count?"
Steve opened one eye at that. "Cupcakes?"
"I only ask because it looks like the baby is about to sling one in this direction," Tony said.
"Oh," Steve said. He closed his eyes again and nestled his head on Tony's thigh. "Well, cupcakes are all right. Not exactly what I'd call a deadly weapon."
"Okay," Tony said, "but don't blame me if you get frosting on you."
"Frosting washes out," Steve said. He reached for and found Tony's other hand, the one that wasn't stroking his hair. Their fingers entwined, and he squeezed lightly.
"We can move if you want," Tony offered. He raised Steve's hand to his lips and kissed the back of it, then lowered their still-joined hands back to his lap.
Steve just smiled. "No," he said. "There's nowhere I'd rather be."