Tony watches Steve's limp body hit the floor and he can't move.
They all are silent for a while, but he doesn't look at anyone else, just at Steve, calm, sleeping, so very vulnerable.
Tony's helmet is off and he doesn't know what his face must look like, but it has to be showing all his thoughts, because Reed says, quietly, “you agreed to this, Tony.”
Of fucking course he did. It's not as if Steve gave him any choice, with his moral high ground and unbreakable ethics and refusal to discuss any solution apart from the one they can't repeat.
He can say it to himself all he wants, but it'll never ease the guilt eating at him now. God, how can he look Steve in the eyes ever again? And he'll have to, if he doesn't want him to notice; it's not enough that he agreed to delete his best friend's memory, no, now he'll have to lie to him every fucking day.
He did the wrong thing, but for all the right reasons, and it doesn't matter, because Steve would never do that to him.
Steve would also let two worlds die rather than consider a genocide.
Tony wants a drink.
He nods, doesn't meet anyone's eyes when he goes to pick Steve up, his weight nothing to the suit's strength.
“I'm taking him …” Steve wouldn't consider it home, if he knew. “ …to the Tower.”
It's a quick journey, in the Quinjet. Tony leaves Steve in his room and spends the next few hours planning the Avengers World; when he finally wakes Steve up from his nightmares, the first version of the project is almost ready. Steve looks at him happily, and then frowns, and Tony has a moment of terrible certainty he remembered before Steve says in a concerned voice, “you look as if you haven't slept for a week.”
It's not far from the truth. He hasn't slept since finding out about the incursions. He forces himself to smile. “You know me. I got excited.”
Steve smiles at him, fondly. “Lie down, Tony. The world won't end.”
If only he knew.
Tony opens his eyes, suddenly, because he's pretty sure he was trying to fall asleep, and now he's sitting, and there's Steve's hand on his arm, and they're in the Quinjet –
“Give me the controls, if you're that tired,” Steve says. Tony blinks, not understanding, he looks at the screens and sees the course set to Wakanda …
“It's on autopilot,” he says, because whatever else is happening, he's not irresponsible enough to fall asleep piloting the Quinjet, except he can't remember …
“I know it is.” Steve gives him a look. “Tony.”
“It's all right, really,” he lies and rubs at his eyes. Steve doesn't waver, unimpressed, and Tony gives up, unbuckles and switches places with him. “I'm landing us,” he adds anyway, and looks around for any hint of what exactly is happening.
“If you're awake,” Steve agrees pleasantly. “What do you think T'Challa called us for?”
It was just a dream, Tony thinks, and ignores the gut feeling telling him otherwise. He really must have fallen asleep, and it was all just a dream, he didn't betray Steve like that …
“No idea,” he says, and if it feels like a lie to him, well, it was just a dream, and he's not a fucking prophet.
Or maybe he is, he thinks later, when T'Challa tells them about watching a world die.
It all happens the same, the argument, Black Swan, Steve refusing to listen and the Gems shattering.
Reed comes by his room and invites him to the chamber they all meet in, and he notices he's the last to arrive, again, and he notices they've all agreed already. He thinks, what if I said “no”, but he doesn't, he says “yes” and then he stands still as Stephen Strange wipes Steve's memory, empty apologies on his tongue.
How can it all be happening again, he wonders, and then he answers himself, it can’t.
He puts on his helmet and plugs it into the computer and runs the identification protocols, and the tests for mind control, checks for weird radiation and in the end does his own blood work, and it all comes back normal.
He wakes Steve up, because he knows he's having nightmares and he can't force himself to leave him to them; the Avengers World is still just an idea in his mind, so he invites him to spar and if Steve frowns at his obviously lowered guard, well, everyone has bad days.
He wakes up, suddenly, and he's in the Quinjet again, and Steve looks at him, and –
“Give me the controls, if you're that tired.” –
and how can this be fucking happening.
He's the one to use the Gauntlet, this time.
The Gems shatter all the same.
Reed shows up at his door, and Tony follows him, and says “yes” in an empty voice.
Steve looks at him, hurt and betrayed, in the split second before Strange's spell works.
Tony sets up his machinery to scan for time anomalies, but everything is in perfect order. He hacks Reed's computers, but they didn't pick up on anything, either.
Steve has nightmares. Tony sits next to him and runs a hand through Steve's hair to calm him down. Steve wakes up immediately, sitting up, his hand raised in attack or defence, it doesn't matter; he stops himself and Tony doesn't flinch.
“Waking people from nightmares is stupid, Tony,” Steve says when he catches his breath.
Tony shrugs. “I couldn't very well let you sleep.”
Steve smiles at him, a warm and affectionate smile, and says, “thanks, Shellhead.”
“What if,” Tony finds himself saying. “What if there was something happening … And you and I didn't agree …”
“We'd talk things out, Tony,” Steve answers immediately and seriously. It's adorable, really, how it's his first thought. They went to war once, when they didn't agree. Tony doesn't remember it, but Steve does. Steve doesn't remember the most recent example, and Tony does, three times over, and is suddenly angry, because of course Steve would say that and of course Steve wouldn't even consider an option against his delicate ethics. How's that for talking things out?
“What's this about?” Steve asks after a moment of silence. “Did something happen?”
“What if I betrayed you?”
Steve pushes himself upright. “Tony, I trust you.”
“I did once, didn't I?” Tony blurts out. “So what if …”
Steve, impossibly, relaxes. He puts his hand on Tony's arm.
“I trust you, Tony,” he repeats. “You know that. The war … We both made mistakes.”
How easy it is for him to say, when he knows perfectly well Tony can't remember. How impossible it is for him to admit he's not always right in time to fucking change anything.
Tony shakes his head, silently, but lets Steve pull him into a hug all the same.
Steve is warm, and safe, and trusting, and Tony doesn't deserve it.
He wakes in the Quinjet again. He gives Steve the controls, again. He looks at the Gauntlet lying on the table and thinks.
“What if we used it together?”
“Is that even possible?” Reed frowns.
Tony shrugs. “Steve is the only one of us who believes it'll work at all.” That's not exactly true; Tony knows it will work and also knows how it'll end, probably, but it's far from believing it. “He doesn't have the experience …” Tony ignores Namor's snort, “nor the technical expertise to know what he actually wants it to do.”
“That's why I suggested you, Tony,” Steve notes.
“Yeah, but the Gauntlet, it takes the wearer's thoughts and reshapes the world over them, and I think it needs both of our viewpoints.”
Isn't that what he always thought? He's not half as good at anything without Steve beside him.
“The Gauntlet is just a symbol,” Reed says, looking thoughtful. “It doesn't have to actually look like that. You both could just touch all the stones.”
“Seriously?” Namor asks. “We're going to risk it over the power of friendship?”
“Would you rather risk it over not knowing what to do?” Tony shoots back.
“I know of magical artefacts that would work like that,” Strange admits.
The rest of them agree, and then Tony finds himself standing next to Steve on the incursion field, hoping like hell the Mind Gem won't decide to suddenly grant them telepathy.
Tony doesn't wear the armour this time. Steve gathers all of the Gems in one big hand, and Tony intertwines his finger with Steve's over them, clasps their free hands together as well, because if they're going to do this together, they're going to do this together, and anyway, Steve has nice hands …
Power washes over him, and Steve is just next to him, and it's perfect; together they push the other world back.
Tony swears, feeling the Gems vibrate, takes his hand back and watches as they fly up and shatter.
He doesn't even feel disappointed this time. Namor looks as if he doesn't know which one of them he should punch first.
He's slightly surprised to see Reed at his door later, after another round of arguments with Steve; he goes with him and shakes his head and says “I won't do this to him.” Strange has an apology written in his eyes.
Tony doesn't remember hitting the floor.
He's going crazy, he thinks, waking up in the Quinjet again.
He wakes up. Steve opens his mouth to say something and Tony interrupts him.
“Listen to me,” he says. “I'm sorry.”
Steve raises his eyebrows.
“It's okay, Tony, I know it's on autopilot, I just – you sleep little enough …”
He always sees the best in people. In Tony. Tony wants to kiss him.
“It's not that,” he says anyway and knows in a few moments Steve will either think he's crazy or hate him. “I need to tell you something before we get to Wakanda.”
“What happened, Tony?”
Tony tells him and doesn't look at him at all.
“I don't …” Steve starts saying in a small voice.
“It's true!” Tony snaps. “T'Challa will tell us about the Black Swan in an hour.”
“I don't believe you,” Steve continues slowly, ignoring Tony. “You wouldn't … No. But if someone wanted to mess with your head …”
Tony presses his fingers into his eyes for a moment. He'd never thought he'd have to convince Steve he hurt him like that.
“I checked, Steve. For everything. Every time, I checked, and there's nothing, nothing – it's true.” He risks a look and sees Steve's face closing off.
Steve is silent for a long while. “You wanted to destroy a whole other world,” Steve says. Tony can't help thinking it didn't take much to convince him.
“I didn't …” Tony stops himself. He did, after all.
“You agreed to erase my memories,” Steve says very, very quietly. Tony wants to apologize and realizes how inadequate that would be.
“You didn't want to even discuss …”
“Discuss what, killing a whole planet full of people?!” Steve shouts. “And you excuse wiping my mind because of that?!”
“It's a choice between another world and two universes and by refusing to do anything, you're choosing too, Steve,” Tony answers, forcing himself to sound calm.
“You can't go around and plan how to blow up a planet, Tony. You can't save everything, not at that cost, not …” Steve stops. “I thought you'd changed.”
Steve looks at him. “I thought we were friends.”
“It was a choice between agreeing and having influence on what's happening, and forgetting too,” Tony whispers. It's a lousy excuse.
“It's not an excuse!”
Tony doesn't argue.
“Are you just going to ignore the fact I'm reliving this happening for the umpteenth time?” he asks tiredly.
“Or you're going insane as well as immoral,” Steve snaps. He looks furious.
“I'm sorry,” Tony says. “I'm sorry, okay. I … You can't imagine what it cost me …”
“Oh, so now it's about you,” Steve mocks. “How could I ever forget the world revolves around Tony Stark.”
It hurts, but he knows he deserved it. “It's just … Steve …”
“And if what you're saying is true,” Steve interrupts him. “Then what? I won't agree with you, Tony. You'll make me forget again?”
Tony looks away. “It's a time loop, okay. And it looks as if I'm the only one who remembers all the cycles. I've tried to change things. But …”
But the Gems always shatter, Steve never agrees to negotiate other methods, they always agree he's a liability, Strange always wipes his memory and Tony wakes up in the Quinjet. Rinse and repeat.
“How many times have you had this conversation with me?” Steve asks and looks as if he already knows the answer. “Okay. Let's say you're not crazy and that I'm going to work with you for now. Have you talked to Reed? Anyone else?”
“Are you asking me if I trusted men who erased your memory before I trusted you, Steve?”
“Because you're so much better than them.”
“Can't you, just, consider other options?” he asks helplessly.
“Can you even hear yourself?” Steve stares at him. “I should have known better after finding out about your little group. I should never have trusted you.”
Tony doesn't say anything, because Steve's right.
“I can't stop them,” he whispers. Reed has a family. Hank fights for survival, always has. Strange protects this Earth, and Namor, T'Challa and Black Bolt all have their kingdoms to take care of.
Tony understands them. He has his family, too, and he won't see them killed.
Steve looks absolutely disgusted with him. Steve looks like being in one room with him is too much.
Tony already knows he'll say “yes” again, because Steve disgusted, Steve hating him – it's still better than Steve dead. Dead, along with everyone else they know.
They land in silence and don't say anything, and Steve feigns surprise and suggests the Gauntlet and doesn't suggest Tony uses it.
For a quick second, Tony wonders if Steve will use it to make them forget and almost laughs, because Steve is so much better than that.
Later they stand in the dim room and don't look at each other.
“We're in the same place as the last time we had this discussion,” Steve starts. “And you should all be ashamed.”
“Killing the other world is not a solution,” Steve says.
“Nor is wiping my memories,” Steve says, and how fucking stupid is he, to think that'll convince them not to do it?
They're not half as good as he is, not a single one of them.
T'Challa nods, almost imperceptibly, and Strange raises his hand.
How fucking stupid Tony was to think they hadn't considered it before Steve broke the Gauntlet for the first time?
“Tony,” Reed says.
He nods, quietly, and then takes Steve back to New York.
He doubts he'd be able to watch it happen again. He considers telling Steve everything again, now, but what would it change? Steve would call the Avengers, tell them everything, and they would agree with him, because that's what everyone always does, and their Earth would burn.
Tony sets his scanners to look for Time Gem, because it's the only one that has never shattered and only disappeared, and it's the only one with the power to possibly close the time loop. He starts building a Dyson sphere, and doesn't sleep, because one of the constants so far has been that as soon as he falls asleep, he wakes up in the Quinjet, and he can't do it again. Maybe if he stays awake long enough … Steve will hate him either way, when he finally finds out, and he will, because nothing is ever easy, but Tony can't go through all of that again now.
He meets Steve in the kitchen, looking as bad as Tony feels, and walks out. He can't look him in the eyes.
Two days later Carol surprises him in his workshop.
“What is it with the two of you again?” she asks without preamble.
Tony doesn't look at her. “Nothing.”
She snorts. “That's why he's sulking about you avoiding him. Knock it off, Tony. What's going on?”
“That's none of your business,” he snaps.
“Maybe it's not, but I remember the last time the two of you stopped talking.” She looks at him almost kindly. “He's your friend, Tony, and things – things are never good when you're fighting.”
She leaves him, and he closes his fists to the point of pain and tries to forget the whole short conversation.
It's another two days before he emerges from his workshop again, having found out nothing, and stumbles upon Steve in the hallway.
“Tony,” Steve says, surprised. Tony knows how he must look. He feels shaky, he hasn't slept for longer than he cares to remember, his eyes must be red; everyone would think he's drunk. Everyone but Steve, who just seems worried.
“Hi,” he says, too tired to run away again.
“What's wrong, Tony?” Steve asks.
“I can't sleep,” Tony finds himself saying. “I can't, I, not again –”
Steve puts an arm around his shoulders and leads him to the sofa in the living room. “Calm down.”
“I'm sorry, Steve,” Tony mumbles.
Steve raises an eyebrow, and clearly decides Tony's too sleep-deprived for any kind of a serious conversation right now. He's not wrong, Tony can hardly stay upright. But he can't sleep.
And maybe … What's the easiest way to notice mind control? “Tell me something I don't know,” Tony asks him.
Steve gives him a measuring look at that.
“I'm serious, tell me how to do water colours or whatever, just …”
Steve kisses him, gently, and Tony shuts up.
“How about that?” Steve asks.
Tony doesn't know if he should cry or laugh or run away, and he doesn't have strength to do anything but lean against Steve for support.
Steve is smiling kindly, and sits them on the sofa, and then Tony finds himself stretched over it with his head in Steve's lap, and Steve's fingers in his hair, and he fights to keep his eyes open, but he can't.
“I'll wake you if you have nightmares,” Steve promises, and Tony is out.
He wakes up, and Steve's hand is on his arm, and for one impossible moment he thinks he's still on that sofa in the Avengers Tower, and then he hears the Quinjet's soft engines, and sighs.
He's still bone-tired, but it has nothing to do with sleep deprivation anymore.
He looks at Steve and thinks, if I kissed him now, he'd let me.
The realization is better than drinking, and Tony wants to, wants to so much, and knows he can't do either of those things.
He's tried everything, everything but … How can he convince Steve not to use the Gauntlet? Alternatively, how can he convince the rest of the Illuminati not to delete his memories?
They're not the bad guys in this scenario. None of them is.
Tony knows they've discussed erasing Steve's memories without him first, because they aren't sure he'd agree. They aren't sure he'd do it to Steve.
When Namor thinks you're a better man than you are, you have a problem.
Tony looks at Steve, opens his mouth, closes it again.
I thought we were friends.
He can't bear to hear it again.
Another way, then.
Once T'Challa assembles them in one room, Tony speaks up first. “I know why we're here,”
“I know you saw a world die,” he says. “I know what Black Swan will tell you, Reed. I know another incursion will happen in hours.” He tells them the rest such as it is; doesn't tell them about their solution to Steve's unwavering morals, doesn't tell them anything past “the Time Gem disappears, and I'm in the Quinjet again.” He tells them they've tried to use the Gauntlet in different ways and they all ended the same.
“And it's the first time you've tried to talk to us?” Hank says. Tony levels a look at him.
“You all think me crazy now,” he says matter-of-factly. “Let's say I wasn't looking forward to seeing it.” He's not even lying.
He waits while Reed goes off to talk to Black Swan and patiently lets Stephen put a identifying spell after identifying spell on him.
“You're you,” Strange declares in the end. “You're you, and not mind-controlled.”
His science has told him that already.
He ignores Steve's look, silently asking why he didn't tell him all of that in the Quinjet.
“What do you propose then, Tony, if not the Gauntlet?” he asks and Tony feels his shoulders slump. I can weaponize a star and turn that other planet to dust is not the answer Steve wants to hear.
“I don't know,” he admits. “There's no … The Gauntlet was the only reliable option.”
“And we'll have to sacrifice it again if you need more time,” Steve says.
“Time is all he has, apparently,” Namor says.
He has a point, but Tony used that time to plan weapons and wonder about time machines and he doesn't have any fucking idea how to stop the incursions without destroying the other Earth. Some kind of antigravitational device, maybe, but the necessary field strength?
Stronger than they know how to generate for now.
“Do you or do you not have a solution, Tony?” Steve repeats.
“I don't,” Tony admits. He knows what Steve will do now.
“Then we'll have to assemble the Gauntlet,” Steve says and Tony can only nod.
“Or we can repeat what Black Swan did,” Reed says, coming into the room, and Tony freezes.
Steve turns to look at him. “You aren't serious, Reed.”
“I have family, Captain,” Reed says. “I'm very serious. The Gems, the Gauntlet – we don't know how destroying them might influence the world. The void they would leave could very well destroy the universe just as sure as an incursion would.”
“There are things you just don't do,” Steve grits out.
Reed looks at him for a long while, and then briefly meets T'Challa's eyes, and Tony thinks, this is how it starts.
The Gems will shatter if they use them, and Reed is right. If he wasn't, Tony would have destroyed them himself, when Steve first learned of the Illuminati.
The Gems will shatter, Steve will refuse to consider other options, and they'll erase his memory, again, and they won't have the Gauntlet to use as a last resort.
Steve would tell him that maths is not the way to solve this problem, but if Tony agreed, he would have gotten his mind wiped with him the first time 'round.
He stays silent as Black Panther asks Steve to a walk.
“Tony?” Reed asks.
“I know,” he hears himself replying.
And that, that he's never done before; he's never actually witnessed them discussing it, only ever was asked a simple question, yes or no, and only now he realizes how grateful he was for that. How much of a coward he's been all those cycles when he knew they were discussing it and didn't go to stop them.
“I told Tony that I would very much not advise him to wish the Gems out of existence,” Reed says. Black Bolt nods.
Strange adds, “And rightly so. The damage to the balance of powers …” he trails off.
“You won't convince Rogers to give that plan up,” Namor says.
Tony is silent. He won't suggest it. There's only so much he can do, and that … that would be worse than just saying 'yes' to someone else's idea. Amazing, how he still can look for excuses for himself.
“Hank, you've got the Mind Gem …” Reed starts speaking.
“That won't be necessary,” Strange says very quietly. “I want to consider him a friend, but what he's asking of us is unreasonable.”
“What you're saying is …” Hank starts speaking.
“He doesn't need to remember this group at all,” Strange says.
They all look at Tony. “Do it, Stephen,” he says, and wonders how many times he'll have to betray Steve. He also wonders if he can get drunk while he's destroying everything that matters to him. It would make this so much easier.
Steve and T'Challa come back and it all plays out as it already has so many times; only now Steve insists on using the Gauntlet first, and they refuse him that, and then Stephen does the spell … Steve looks at Tony as if he knows it's not happening for the first time.
Tony doesn't have his armour on to hide in, this time. He's still for a long moment, and then goes to Steve's side.
“How many times have you done this, Stark?” Namor asks.
“Not your fucking business,” he replies, bodily lifting Steve up. Steve is heavy, all of his weight sheer muscle mass, but Tony's not weak, and he slowly manages to carry him to the room Black Panther gave him.
Leaving him feels wrong – no one will wake him up from his nightmares, here, and Tony knows he won't wake on his own, Strange's spell making sure of that while Steve is still in Wakanda – but there's an incursion happening, and it takes priority.
“I'm sorry, Steve,” Tony whispers.
He goes back to the rest of the Illuminati and hopes he looks calm.
For all the times he's had to consider killing another planet, for all the times he's had to argue with Steve about it, he's never actually done it yet.
He'd be so much happier if it stayed that way, but it's not his choice to make, it's no one's choice, and that's why they stand together looking at Black Swan's device.
He's had cycles when he studied it and reverse engineered it and ran computer simulations.
He knows it'll work.
He's not surprised no one trusts his word on that and Reed runs quick scans and calculates possibilities and Hank helps him; T'Challa looks into another options, Strange has disappeared and Namor looks at all of them, annoyed.
They have a few hours, still, and they're going to use them before risking using the alien device.
Tony takes two computers and tries to think of a way to stop the incursion without destroying one of two Earths.
There isn't any.
Steve's morals are all nice and good, but sometimes you have to make a hard decision. Sometimes keeping your conscience clean isn't an option.
Tony knows he's right, but he doesn't feel better for it.
In a way, he envies Steve's ability to just refuse compromising.
The device in his hand shines bright red, reminding them they only have an hour left, and Tony meets Reed's eyes over computer screens. His expression tells him everything.
Strange shows up in a swirl of light and shakes his head.
Tony didn't expect anything else, not really, but his chest tightens all the same.
They're silent while Strange teleports them to the incursion field and then they set the device up and look up at the other world they're trying to kill.
Six billion people, give or take.
Not really a choice.
Black Panther activates the device. The other Earth burns over them, and moments later it is as if nothing happened at all.
Except Tony can't breathe, couldn't even stand upright if not for his armour, and he looks at the sky and searches for signs that something has happened after all, because he's destroyed a whole planet, just like that, and how is he different from the supervillains he fights?
He needs a drink. Enough drinks to forget.
He wants to fly away, but can't, because Steve is still in Wakanda, and he needs to take him back to New York. He could ask Strange to just teleport him back, but … no, he couldn't. He goes with the Illuminati back to Wakanda, to their respective means of transport, and none of them look at each other.
He ignores the urge to fly the Quinjet into the sea, if only because Steve is with him.
Back in the Tower, he looks at his Gem before hiding it away, and wonders if it really was worth it.
He actually hopes to wake up in the Quinjet again.
Steve's hand is on his arm. Safety belt is digging into his hip. He could cry from sheer relief, but he remembers seeing the other Earth over them, and he knows that whatever happens here, it won't change the fact that he did destroy another world.
The Gems didn't shatter and it didn't change anything.
He tells Steve everything. Steve refuses to listen, and after everything happens again, Tony wakes up in the Quinjet.
Steve punches him in the jaw, and nothing else changes, and Tony still looks on as Strange deletes his memories, and then he wakes up in the Quinjet.
Once Steve shakes his head and says it all to the Illuminati himself, and then they agree Tony's unreliable, and Steve looks apologetic as he shuts Tony's armour down, and Tony's not sure what happens later, but he wakes up in the Quinjet all the same.
He doesn't tell a word of it to Steve, and tells the rest of them everything, and it doesn't help anything when it's a choice between morals and survival.
He tries it all and more and doesn't succeed, and Steve never remembers in the end.
He's in the Quinjet and Steve is looking at him, clearly concerned. Tony shakes his head before the other man can say something.
He reaches to the controls and stops the Quinjet, makes it hover over the ocean. He needs time. He needs to make Steve listen and he doesn't know how, and he's fucking exhausted and he destroyed the Earth once and wiped his best friend's memories countless times and he can't go on.
“What are you doing, Tony?” Steve asks.
“I need to explain something to you,” Tony answers. “Just, please, don't interrupt me. Listen to the end.”
“What's going on?”
“Please. Promise me that.” If he sounds desperate, well. He is.
Steve gives him a long, measuring look, and then nods. “Okay, Tony.”
Tony takes a deep breath. He's tried it already. He really doesn't want to do it again, but the scientist in him says that the only thing that remains constant is that Steve doesn't bulge, and then they wipe his memories. So he needs Steve to listen. And …
Tony may be afraid of talking to him, but at the same time he really doesn't want to lie any more. He's done enough of that already. He's had enough.
He made a planet full of people burn.
“I'm sorry,” he says. “Whatever else I'll say in a moment – whatever you'll think of me – I'm really fucking sorry.” He sees Steve wants to interrupt him, but, true to his word, doesn't. “It started … a long time ago. This night.”
He says it all. He's ready for Steve to say, “I don't believe you,” but he doesn't, this time. Instead Steve looks hurt and betrayed and angry and Tony can't look at him and can't avert his eyes at the same time.
“How could you, Tony?”
Tony bites his lip. “Every time I've tried to disagree, they've ended up deleting my memories, too. I knew it'd be like this, the first time over, too.”
Steve slams his fist next to the controls. “I'm not talking about my memories! The entire world, Tony. How. Could. You.”
“I'm sorry if I'm a villain for putting my friends, who I actually consider my family, you, the whole damn universe, two of them actually, before another Earth,” Tony snaps, because he's feeling guilty and he knows Steve has a point and he's tired of hearing it again and again.
He is a villain. If it was alternate-him of the other Earth trying to destroy his? He'd kill him to stop him. Steve's right, he usually is, but Tony still can't let him doom them all.
“This is not a mathematics problem,” Steve grits out. “You can't measure it …”
“Yes I can,” Tony does his best not to shout. Why can't Steve listen? Just once, by some miracle, why can't he listen? “I've told you that once before – you're not avoiding responsibility by choosing not to choose.”
“You can't choose to kill a world, Tony!”
“How is my pressing a button to destroy one Earth worse than you not pressing the button and destroying two universes?”
“How can you not see the difference?!” Steve shouts.
The thing is, Tony does. He knows exactly where Steve is coming from. He understands him. He wishes he had the comfort of agreeing with him. But apparently he can live with having committed a genocide, and he can't live knowing his inaction will lead to all of his friends, all of his world dying. If he needs to sell his soul to stop it, he sure as hell will.
“I should have known better after finding out about your little group. I should never have trusted you,” Steve says.
Tony's heard it before. It doesn't hurt any less.
“I …” he starts saying, but Steve interrupts him.
“You thought you had the right to decide things for the whole world. I should …”
“And what are you doing right now?” Tony cuts in, angry. “What are you doing, if not deciding two universes have to die so that your hands stay clean?”
“It's not a way, Tony!”
“Well then what do you suggest?!”
“I should knock you out and make sure you're not mind-controlled,” Steve says instead of answering.
“Go ahead then,” Tony snarls. They've been through this too before.
Steve doesn't move. “And then the rest of the Illuminati,” he spits the word out. “You can't …”
“Do you really prefer to let everyone die?” Tony asks, quietly. He doesn't know what to say, what could work.
“You don't even know whether she's telling the truth.” Steve shakes his head. “How could I have trusted you? Why am I even surprised that your first thought was 'let's blow it up?'”
Tony feels his eyes burn and blinks away tears.
“And you've only decided to tell me that, because what, erasing my memories doesn't seem to work?” Steve says.
Tony doesn't look at him. Yes, he did. But that's not all, and maybe, maybe for once he should be honest. “I can't do it without you, Steve. I can't.”
“Don't lie to me,” Steve snaps.
He's not lying. He bows his head, because he doesn't need to cry in front of Steve right now. “I need your help,” he whispers. “I'm sorry, Steve, I didn't – I need your help.” He watched an Earth burn. He made it burn. He'll never forget that. “Even that first time … Why can't you believe me? I've always been better with you next to me. Steve. Don't be so stubborn. Dammit, I need to work with you … Just fucking help me.” It's all he can ask for, really. He expects another cutting remark, but the other man is silent. Tony wipes at his eyes and finally looks up. Steve looks as if he's fighting with himself.
“I need your help,” Tony repeats very quietly. Steve closes his eyes for a moment.
“Okay, Tony,” he sighs in the end. “Talk. Tell me how this time is supposed to be different.”
Tony bites at his lip. “You're not going to shut down any discussions,” he says, because it's the only way.
“I can't …”
“I know!” Tony interrupts. “I know! Your morals and everything, I know.” He takes a deep breath. “You don't trust me. Fine. No one knows better than me that you've no reason to. So make sure you can actually have some control over what happens. I told you what happens when you refuse to even talk about our options.”
Steve shakes his head and Tony wants to scream.
“Don't tell me you can't. You have to, dammit.”
There's a moment of silence when they just stare at each other.
“Okay,” Steve says finally. “Let's say that I do.”
“You don't tell them of this.”
Steve nods, doesn't argue that, and Tony wonders how it's possible, because after everything – there's trust in that.
“I … I don't have any ideas on stopping the incursion now … So I guess we use the Gauntlet. It'll break …”
“But it'll give us time,” Steve finishes for him. He clenches his fists, tight. “I'm not promising you anything.”
“Switch the engines back on.”
It all goes the same then. Steve feigns surprise and Tony doesn't see it for the first time, but he still can't believe Steve's lying to his – teammates is maybe a wrong word – allies' faces.
Steve uses the Gauntlet and the Gems shatter.
They return to Wakanda in silence.
“We're …” Steve hesitates. “I'd like to say we're in the same place as the last time we had this discussion, but we're not.”
Tony lets out a breath he didn't know he was holding.
“I still don't like it. I want you all to find a way to stop the incursions without killing anyone. But I suppose … That's not always possible.” Steve closes his eyes and makes his hands into fists and after a while shakes his head. “There's nothing more to say for now. We have a way of communicating.”
He leaves before anyone can question it. Tony looks around and they all look as surprised as he feels, but Reed's nodding and Hank is standing up, and all of them look as if they dream of leaving, so Tony goes after Steve and finds him in a corridor leading to their rooms.
“Thank you,” he says.
He almost jumps when Steve puts a fist into the wall and then laughs as if he's going mad.
“I assumed – you told me you destroyed a world,” he says. “You told me you wiped my mind. And I just assumed you were telling the truth. I just trusted you, though you gave me all the reasons not to.” He laughs again and Tony isn't so sure anymore it's still laugh and not a sob. The vision of Steve crying because of him is terrifying. “Is it you going insane or me, Tony?”
Tony is at the point where he wishes he were insane. It'd solve so many problems.
“Neither,” he answers.
“How can I know that?” Steve whispers. He leans against the wall, heavily. Captain America should not look that weary.
Tell me something I don't know, Tony thinks, and risks it.
He smashes his lips against Steve's, and kisses him for all he's worth, and it takes longer than he expected for Steve to roughly shove him away.
“What the hell are you doing?” he snaps.
“Proving it's real,” Tony answers, trying to catch his breath again. “I thought I was going crazy. Or being mind-controlled. So I asked you to tell me something I didn't know.”
Steve closes his eyes and bows his head. “And I did that,” he says, sighs. “Of course I did. Do you know … if you did it before … Tony.”
Tony shakes his head mutely. Steve slides down the wall until he's sitting against it, his head in his hands.
“I have just considered killing a planet.”
He hasn't, not really, and Tony knows that, and he also knows that for Steve even allowing them to maybe discuss it in the future means absolutely the same.
Tony remembers setting up the world-destroying device and hopes Steve won't ever have to do the same. Wants to laugh, because really, Steve is having a breakdown now over not refusing to talk about it, and Tony's just kissed him, and how much of a fucking idiot he is for doing that now? Not doing it sooner?
Because that's what he needs to wonder about now. His priorities are all in place.
“We'll work on stopping the incursions without resorting to that,” Tony says, because he can't bear Steve's stillness. “We'll do it.”
“How?” Steve asks quietly. “You don't have other ideas. You've told me so.”
Tony closes his eyes briefly. It is the truth. He wouldn't have killed six billion people if he had other ideas.
He sits against the wall opposite Steve, pulls his knees into his chest.
“You don't even know if you won't wake up in the Quinjet tomorrow,” Steve continues. “You wouldn't know why, if you did.”
Tony really doesn't need the reminder. Tony wants to wake up in the Quinjet, to spare Steve ever having doubts like this again, and hopes like hell he won't, because he's finally stopped lying to him. He's a selfish idiot, he's always known that. Tony wants to ask Steve to knock him out to check what happens, because he's so bloody tired of waiting for his body to be exhausted enough to let him pass out and sleep, but Steve would never do that, and anyway, Tony wants to enjoy that moment of honesty just a while longer.
“Then maybe I am going crazy,” he says. “I don't know anymore, Steve.”
Steve looks at him. “I thought that was what kissing me was about.”
Tony can't help it, he laughs. The world may end in a few hours, days, weeks, but he doesn't know how to stop it and for all the time he's spent thinking about it, he still doesn't have any ideas that could work.
He's only ever tried to find a way to stop the incursions without destroying a whole planet because he felt guilty. Because Steve made him do it. Because his first instinct was to blow something up.
He's sworn to be out of making weapons, but he's never really managed it, has he? The Iron Man was always another weapon.
He could drink until he's no longer conscious.
He laughs, long and desperate. He just wants to know what happens when he sleeps, now. If there's even any sense in starting another project. In hoping Steve might ever forgive him and talk to him once he shakes off this feeling of desperation that forces him to talk to Tony now. And he will, he's Captain America. He doesn't give up.
“Every time, something changes,” Tony says quietly. “We'll find a way.” He tries to convince himself as much as Steve.
“I suppose it is an engineering problem,” Steve says. He shakes his head, stands up, offers his hand to Tony.
“Come on, let's get back to New York.”
Tony eyes him a bit warily, and while normally he'd stand up on his own, now he accepts Steve's hand and lets him pull him to his feet. Maybe it's the last time Steve will ever offer him any kind of help.
The flight to New York is quiet. Steve stares into space with a blank expression and Tony concentrates on the controls, though he could do it blindfolded.
He wonders when Steve will snap out of it and remember what Tony did to him.
He lands them, checks if everything is okay and looks at Steve only to see him watching him, looking as if he wants to say something.
“I'm going to the workshop,” Tony says, and all but runs away.
He thinks of ten different ways to stop the incursions and discards all of them.
His thoughts run to the Dyson sphere, to how much power Sun could grant him, and he shakes his head. He won't do it, because if he builds it without any other plan, it will end up a weapon. He's destroyed a world once. He doesn't want to do it again.
But the gravity field he could build over it … God, he's tired. The gravity field could be pretty damn strong, but how would it work between universes …? That was more Reed's field …
He checks over the cables one last time and nods, steps back. T'Challa activates the device. Tony looks up. Earth is burning over him --
No. He's on the streets, and he's safe in his armour, and everywhere around him people are dying and screaming and it's his fault, he made it happen.
He watches as a building falls down and he can't do anything to make it stop.
Slowly everything around him starts to disappear in a void. He knows it won't touch him. He just watches as Earth dies because of him.
He sits up, barely keeping back a scream.
It was just a dream, he thinks instinctively, and then shuts his eyes tight and closes his fists to the point of pain, because it's not true.
He has done it, and it wasn't a dream, and he'll never ever forget it, no matter how many times …
Checks the date and looks around him.
He's not in the Quinjet.
An incursion could happen any moment, but he's not in the Quinjet.
He pushes the dream … not a dream, not really a memory; he pushes it out of his head, stands up.
He goes up to the common area. It's dark and empty, and he thinks, you killed them all, before he remembers the hour. Right.
He finds himself in front of Steve's door before he can think better of it. Steve's probably back to hating him by now, but … Tony's not in the Quinjet, and it has to mean something, because he can't take more of this.
Ignoring the deja vu, he goes inside. Steve sleeps quietly, no sign of nightmares this time, but Tony still wakes him up. Steve is awake and alert in half a second, and Tony suddenly doesn't know what to say, just stays there and looks down at Steve.
“I'm sorry, I know it's late,” he murmurs after a while. Steve looks at his palm.
“The world isn't ending,” he says, asking.
A world has ended already.
Tony shakes his head. “I seem not to be in the Quinjet,” he blurts out, and it's such a stupid thing to say, but Steve understands, nods.
“Thank you for telling me,” Steve says and Tony realizes he must have been wondering about that, too. Of course.
“I'll just – sorry, it's … it's nothing. Go back to sleep,” he says and moves to the door.
“Tony,” Steve says. Tony stops, mid-step, and turns to him. Steve stands up. “I was thinking … I'm, you … After …”
Tony winces inwardly. He hoped to avoid having that conversation. “It's okay,” he says quickly. “I get it. You don't want me on the team. Okay. I, um, I'll tell them it's my fault, it's true after all, I'll …”
He stops talking when Steve crosses the room and puts a hand over his mouth. “I was mad,” he admits. “Mad, and hurt, and betrayed. But here's the thing: you told me what you did. You told me about erasing my memories, and you didn't do it now, and I won't lie, I'm still angry, but you didn't do it this time. You didn't actually do it to me.”
Tony thinks this is a dream.
“You didn't actually do it to me, and you didn't actually destroy that world here, and… I can't hold it over you.”
Steve really is a better man that Tony has ever hopes of being. He's also an idiot, because Tony has erased his memories, and has killed a world, and nothing will ever change that.
“I'm not saying it's okay. I'm far from that. I know what you did, all the other times. I do. But you didn't do it this time. This time, you got it right, and this is what matters to me now. So what I'm saying is this: I want you on this team, with me. I trust you.”
Tony can't breathe.
“I still don't know … I can't imagine doing it. I don't know how you could …” Steve shakes his head. “You said we'll find a way.”
Carol said things were always better when they worked together. Tony said he wasn't half as good at anything without Steve. Both of them were right. He suddenly, stupidly wonders if the Time Gem knew it, too.
But Steve said … Tony catches his hand and pulls it off his mouth, but doesn't let go. Steve's warm hand grounds him, a reminder of what's here and now. “You said it was an engineering problem,” Tony reminds him. “I won't let an engineering problem beat me.” If Steve believes it, maybe Tony will start to, as well. Isn't it how it always works?
He's shaking, he realizes it, but Steve doesn't say anything and Tony's stupidly grateful for that.
They stand together for a long while, Tony still gripping Steve's hand tightly, and then Steve kisses him, briefly, and finally answers, “Good. Don't.”