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A Side/B Side

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A Side:

It wasn’t that she had never woken up with a hangover before; Tony fucking Stark had perfected the fine form of a good hangover, complete with all the hits and highlights. (Just it had been some time since she had woken up with one.) There was a headache that throbbed between her temples. The dry-eyed, dry-tongued disorientation that left her grasping at the blankets and sheets when she finally dragged herself up to sitting. Her gut had the distinct feeling of having tied itself into a knot.

“Jarvis,” she said. The sheets were wrapped around her waist like a slipknot, tightening despite her best efforts to free herself. The effort wasn’t exhausting but nauseating; she fell back into the bed, groaning at the pulsing in her head as she flailed an arm out to the side, knocking this and that off the table nearest her side before she finally found her phone. “Steve?” she said to the time (a mere 5:09 AM, perhaps too early even for Steve to be already awake again). The light made her squint, the screen went fuzzy through her lashes. She kicked at the sheets and almost got free. “Jarvis!” she shouted into the dark of the room.

“Sir?” was a voice that most certainly was not Jarvis.

Tony arched her body off the bed and shoved the blankets down so her legs were finally free. “Lights?” she said. The whole room flickered and came alive, a fine run of blue lights giving way to a gentle glow that brought all the wrong details into focus. If her head hadn’t already been hurting, the shock alone would have been a swift kick to the temple. “Where am I?” she asked. “Who are you?”

“We are in the Avengers tower in New York, sir.” The voice answered promptly. It was a perfectly serviceable answer from a perfectly serviceable AI. “I am Friday, sir.”

She mumbled over the sound of that name. There were many-many-many names tucked away into her skull; the result of a lifetime of bad hangovers and redemption arcs. But that one, that name, “Friday?” that didn’t sound like something she remembered. There were more immediate concerns to deal with besides the presence of an unknown AI, like the scatter of things that didn’t belong to her in a room she didn’t recognize, in a tower that she should have known on sight. “Where’s Steve?” Tony asked.

“Steve Rogers is at the Avengers Compound, sir.”

Tony was shoving her knuckles into the edge of the arc reactor in her chest; it didn’t do a single fucking thing to calm her racing heartbeat but scraping her knuckles across the uneven surface gave her something to think about that wasn’t the three-piece suit strewn all over (not) her floor.

It wasn’t all wrong; if she ignored the details, the room wasn’t unfamiliar. It was just when she started putting all the bits and bobs back in place that nothing made sense. Like one of those ‘what’s wrong with this picture’ puzzles, she gave up trying to catalogue the things that shouldn’t have been around number fifty-six. “Where’s Jarvis?” she asked, “who are you?”

“I am Friday, sir.”

“You said that,” she mumbled to herself. “Who made you?”

“You did, sir.”

“That doesn’t sound unlike me,” Tony mumbled to herself. She twisted around to look at the other side of the bed. It was a blank space, devoid of all the things that Steve left lying on his table. It was empty in every sense—no extra pillow, no folded blanket, no pencil, no paper, no torn-out-pages or MP3 players. No shield propped against the wall. “What happened to Jarvis?” she repeated.

Friday didn’t immediately answer—either it didn’t know or it had struck on an idea that it did not know how to properly convey—finally it said, “Jarvis was destroyed by Ultron, sir.”

“Bathroom,” Tony said when she lost the mounting war with the urge to vomit. Friday directed her to the toilet and was polite enough to offer to call for assistance. Tony was one-hundred percent certified on how to properly vomit without help. She was rinsing her mouth, staring at a travel bag full of toiletries she didn’t recognize. It was the razor that got her, so innocently sitting at the top of the bag: a man’s razor. To match the suit in the other room, to go with the man’s watch on the table. “Whose room am I in?”

“Yours, sir,” Friday answered.

Tony stared into the mirror, both hands going white-knuckled as she gripped the sink. Her eyes were pink all around the edges, her face blotched up red from effort. Her hair was sticking up at all angles, in need of a comb and a bit of gel. “Who am I?” Maybe she could have thought it out faster than the AI but one way or another they ended up at exactly the same conclusion at exactly the same time.

“You are Tony Stark, sir.”

Just not, she was realizing, the one that belonged in this bedroom. “Right,” was mostly to the mirror, the razor, the suit, the watch—all things that were imperfect mirrors of things she recognized. Like a funhouse mirror that distorted shape and gender, she knew without asking the things were hers (or this other version of hers, the one that was a him and kept his things in disarray). “Right,” she repeated to her reflection, “we’ve woken up in bad places before. This is going to be okay.”

“Sir?” Friday prompted.

“Right,” Tony repeated. She wet the comb on the sink and slicked her hair back away from her face. It wouldn’t stay that way without gel and effort, but it was good enough for now. Once she’d managed that, she went to help herself to some clothes she dug out of the suitcase sitting open on a little stand. The jeans were butter soft when she pulled them on, fit to her body with no odd gaps or pinching places. The T-shirts were soft as baby skin, loose enough not to grip at her chest, not baggy enough to give any tabloid writer with a penchant for bad stories the impression she was hiding anything. “Thank God for small favors,” she whispered. She went back to the bed to dig the phone out of the covers, and checked the time and the date again.

Good to know, regardless of where she’d been teleported, her refined taste in electronics hadn’t changed. She stared at the time (5:24) and the little date beneath it (May 29, 2015) with a primal twist of disappointment so sharp it stole her breath. She didn’t gasp but she didn’t breathe either. Maybe it was selfish in the grand scheme of things, to be so taken back with disappointment, to be so overcome with the unfairness of it, but she’d gone to bed the night before with a husband at her side that had been full of silly, sweet ideas about what he planned to do for her birthday.

But she was here; in this place that wasn’t hers. Wrapping her head around the idea of multiple nearly identical universes wasn’t much of a leap when she’d met and talked to and touched an actual God older than she could imagine ever being. She’d seen men fly and skies split open. Hell, she’d wrapped her legs around a living-breathing sci-fi hero.

It was simple. She was here where she didn’t belong, and she needed to return there where she did belong. “Where’s Bruce?” she asked.

“At this time, I have not been able to locate Mr. Banner, sir. His last known coordinates are—”

“Last known coordinates?” Tony repeated, “what does that mean? Why isn’t he in the tower? Or the lab? Wha—where is Jarvis?”

Friday went quiet again, the only sort of defiance an AI had against its bossy creator. She didn’t sound terse (because she couldn’t) when she came back to say (in a way that still managed to convey she’d already said as much): “Jarvis was destroyed by Ultron, sir.”

And that, well that just didn’t make any fucking sense. Ultron had never been completed; it was an idea on a hard drive, a series of recordings of him and Bruce dusting crumbs off their fingertips as they talked shit and shop talk over late dinners in the lab. It had been a fantastic idea but it hadn’t progressed past the first brutish attempts to nail down some concrete purpose for it. In light of greater threats, and more important personal interruptions, Ultron had simply never come to fruition.

There were more important things to worry about than what had become of Jarvis. (Was there? It didn’t feel like it. It didn’t feel like one could simply move past the death of their child as if it were nothing. Tony hadn’t ever been pregnant in any real sense of the word but she’d put enough labor into Jarvis to feel more than a passing attachment.) “Show me,” Tony said.

A wall screen flickered on: it played footage that seemed to be held together with thin strips of tape. The action jumped and popped, the voices cut in and out again. There were too many things happening—too many metal bodies attacking people that looked like people she knew (and loved) and when it was over, they were in the lab again.

There was the man she wasn’t: this universe’s Tony, looking six days past a decent sleep, saying the fight hadn’t been without casualties. Her hand slid over her mouth when Jarvis’ corpse flickered into bright light on screen, the scattered bits of what he had been illuminated just enough to be seen. There wasn’t enough time to feel anything about it before it was Thor striding straight through the glittering remnants of Jarvis, he grabbed Tony (not her, this other Tony) by the throat. His voice was a hiss of accusation, low and dark, as this Tony’s hands lifted to pull at the fingers on his throat.

No, there was no time to process, to think, to feel anything at all about how Jarvis had been destroyed, but there was an eternity of time to hear Steve say, Thor, the legionnaire? To see how he hadn’t moved, or flinched, or blinked when Thor had grabbed Tony.

None of them moved. None of them seemed to care.

It was beyond her control; this history that surrounded her. She reminded herself as she blinked the filmy cloud of excess tears out of her eyes. The screen kept playing as the sound went in-and-out again. She was half-listening to their voices, staring at the dresser beneath the screen. It was scattered with bits of trash, the sort of thing she took out of her pockets at the end of the day: business cards and scratch paper, straw wrappers, lint and spare change. There was a stylus and a bolt and a handful of washers pooled at the bottom of an empty bottle of scotch. The cap was upside down in the debris with precisely the same carelessness as the suit on the floor.

(Don’t jump to conclusions, someone had said to her once upon a time. Don’t assume the first thing you think of is the only answer. Maybe that had been a professor or maybe it had been a lover. Or maybe her Mother, definitely not her Father.)

Sure, it was plausible to think there was a fuck up Tony taking up space in this universe, that she’d landed in a world where she was a man who was a dick who deserved to be lifted into the air by the throat. It wasn’t even a stretch because she’d been enough of a dick in her own universe that some shared the sentiment. It would have been too easy to assume the position of defense for this Tony for no other reason than a shared name and a really nice pair of jeans.

Except, there was Steven Grant Rogers, as big as the Statue of Liberty, taking up all the pretense of leadership with the tone of his voice, wrapping himself up in morals like an impenetrable shield, answering the question ‘how were you planning on defeating that’ with a solemn, condemning, “together.” (Like ideals were real weapons and little boys dressed up in flag costumes could do anything if they really believed.)

Tony ran her tongue across her lips and wrapped her first around the neck of the empty scotch bottle. It scrapped across the dresser top and knocked coins and paper on the floor (not that it mattered, much). She’d given up drinking years back, but the urge was there, the thought that if this bottle were bit heavier she’d have a drink or two or six or sixty. “Go back,” she said. “Show me what happened before—what happened before this?”

B Side:

All things considered, (and Tony did like to consider all things), he would have preferred a new nightmare over the same one. It didn’t seem like too much to ask; not a miracle or even necessarily a drastic change. He wasn’t even trying to trick his subconscious into doing something radical, like simply not having nightmares anymore.

No, Tony Stark had adopted a system of modest goals when it came to sleep. He just wanted a good five hours, six if he could manage it, in a bed and hopefully consecutively. He’d been asking his unresponsive subconscious to give him something besides dread and terror since he’d fallen through a hole in space. (But it was best not to harp on that too much; the best it ever got him was tolerance. Yes Tony, we know. Yes Tony. Move on Tony. Get over it Tony. We were all there Tony.)

So, if his subconscious had a conscious of its own to argue on its behalf, it might have bothered to point out that it had, in fact, provided him with a brand spanking new nightmare. His nightly climb up the mountain of corpses was fresh horror. The visceral sensation of stepping on the lifeless limbs of his friends turned his stomach over-and-over again but none of it, not one single bit of it was half as bad as Steve God Damn Rogers’ hand grabbing him by the arm or the shirt or the leg or wherever his phantom dream arm could grab.

The words never changed. Not once: they were all the same: “You did this. You didn’t protect us.”

It started as a failure to protect them. It got twisted up in Ultron, it took on nuances of his personality, it started to sound like his voice humming (there are no strings on me) as he sat on his throne at the top of the heap.

Sometimes it snowed. Sometimes it rained.

Regardless the weather, or the night, or the body at his side, every single morning started the same.

Tony jerked upright. His elbows hit flesh to the side—(that was strange because Pepper had abandoned their bed months ago to take up safer quarters when possible)—as he gasped when he wanted to scream. The world swam in and out of focus, the fast-fast beat of his heart filling his head up with a nauseous sort of pain as he grabbed at the blankets looking for anchor. There was sweat on his arms and his head, soaked into his shirt.

In half-breaths, he had just enough good sense to remind himself that he wasn’t dying. No-he-was-alive. No, it-wasn’t-the-shrapnel. No-this-was-safe. It never seemed to help; the panic didn’t wane; the morning didn’t change. Tony shoved his fists against his eyes, concentrated on breathing when it felt like he was suffocating (by far his least favorite aspect of the whole ordeal).

“Tony,” interrupted his efforts, a hand wrapped around his elbow, an arm went around his back and suddenly he was being trapped in a very-very small space. He was crowded, too hot, too close, too much of everything.

He jerked sideways and slid off the edge of the bed he didn’t realize was too close, taking the blankets and the pillows with him along the way. He was on his back on the floor with his legs hanging off the side of the bed. There was just enough focus left in his brain (fast filling with static sounds) to realize he wasn’t staring up at Pepper (frowning at him for attacking her while they were sleeping again) but Steve God Damn Rogers, crawling off the bed after him with more honest concern than he’d ever seen the man manage before.

“What are you doing?” Tony shouted at Steve.

Steve had one hand on either side of his shoulders and one knee on the floor, looking at him flat on his back like they’d never been properly introduced. “Who are you?” Steve asked in the same breath. “Where’s my—”

“I’m Tony,” he answered in time with,

“Wife—” and that got jumbled up with:

“Wife?” That had all its syllables spaced out with:

“You’re not Tony.”

It was a charming conversation to have, flat on his back, still damp with last night’s nightmare. He couldn’t even swear he hadn’t had a fantasy or two that ran along these lines, perhaps with sweat of a different nature, but there was such a thing as boundaries. Tony used his elbows to pull himself out from under Steve, kicked his heels against the ground to give him enough of a boost he was completely free. “I think I know who I am,” he said.

Steve was sitting back on his knees, silhouetted by the glittering light that reflected off the water in the distance. It highlighted the desperate confusion on Steve’s face and the way his fingers twitched even as he held his palms up to indicate he wasn’t a threat. But his voice wasn’t unthreatening, only reserved, when it said, “Jarvis, where’s Tony?”

“Jarvis?” Tony repeated. He was all set to remind Steve that Jarvis had been destroyed in the making of his new best friend Vision and just before he managed to get the right words in the right order:

“I do not understand the question, sir,” seemed to be directed at Steve, while, “yes, Ms. Stark,” must have been meant to address him.

“Miss?” he repeated.

“Stark?” Steve echoed. He didn’t move but look Tony over with his lip curled up in something like disgust (seemed like him) or confusion (also very Steve like) at the same time Tony stuck one hand between his legs to check his penis was still intact and pressed the other against his chest to check for a sudden development of breasts. Everything checked out the same as what he’d gone to sleep with the night before. “Jarvis, this is Tony?” he pointed across the room at Tony.

“Yes, sir,” Jarvis said.

Tony was grappling with many things: waking up with Steve in his bed, the reality of Jarvis being alive (as alive as any AI could be), and the five-minutes-late realization of: “Are we in Malibu?” Tony got to his feet while Steve stared at him with open-mouthed confusion. The room was the same shape, the same size, the same look that it had been before. The fine details were altered, but the broad strokes were unchanged. He stood in front of the windows that had been shattered when the building collapsed. The glass was sun warm under his palm, as real and solid as his own flesh. “This is Malibu,” he repeated.

“Yeah,” was Steve behind him. His reflection was hazy in the window, a trick of inconstant bent light, as he got to his feet. He was shirtless, looking flawless, standing there with his hands on his hips. “Ok. What happened?” as if he expected Tony would have some kind of answer. “When we went to bed last night—you were a woman. Are you—I mean, are you still you?”

“Cap,” Tony said (mostly to the waves beyond the glass), “I can safely guarantee you I am not whoever you went to bed with last night.” He turned to look at Steve, “that’s beautiful isn’t it,” he motioned out. “They told me I couldn’t build this house, you know. I said I could, they said I was insane. That I thought too much of myself.” He smiled at the memory, the benefit of wealth and youth and arrogance.

Steve had the clenched-tight jaw of a man trying to understand.

Tony ran his tongue across his lips and looked back out. “I couldn’t rebuild it though.”

“So, you’re not her,” Steve summed up, skipping over all the other bits. “Where is she then?”

“I don’t even know where I am. She?” he pulled himself away from watching the waves to look at Steve again. Jarvis dimmed the panels so the sunlight wasn’t so bright in the room. Without the brilliant glare, Steve’s desperation was heavy with shadows. All those half-noticed details stood out against his memory of the room. The table where Pepper had kept her phone and her Chapstick was piled with books, and notebooks and pencils worn down to nubs. The shield was propped against the wall closest to the bed (no surprise there) and the rumpled bed was covered in two very different blankets. “We don’t share a blanket?” he pointed at it.

“You get colder than I do,” Steve said. “I don’t know how to tell you where you are. Malibu? Our bedroom? 2015? Your birthday?”

“You sleep here often?” Tony asked. He picked up the thin blanket, dragged it back over to its side of the bed like it mattered. Steve bent to pick up the thick blanket and threw it onto the bed.

“Only since we got married.”

“Married?” Tony repeated. He didn’t need Steve to nod to know he was serious, the man was always serious, but that was too monumental to think through. “I’m dreaming. I asked for a new nightmare and I got one. Married? You and I,” he motioned in the space between them, “we don’t get along. We’re barely friends.” That wasn’t important, that wasn’t important at all, he motioned at the whole room. “I’m dreaming.”

“No.”

“You wouldn’t exactly be an authority on whether I am, would you?” Tony countered. “You’re part of it. You’re the dream.”

Steve shook his head at that, hands back on his hips, “that’s something you’ve never called me before.”

“Now I know I’m dreaming. There’s a universe where Steve Rogers isn’t the dream? What a world,” he said softly. “Jarvis, buddy—am I dreaming?”

“You do not appear to be dreaming, Ms. Stark.”

“Well I can’t trust that, can I?” Tony said. He motioned upward. “The guy thinks I’m a woman still—and why is my name Stark if we’re married?”

“You didn’t want to change it,” Steve said. He’d reached the end of his ability to cope, he was shaking his head as he picked a shirt up out of basket across the room and pulled it on over his head. “I have to get coffee, call Bruce—or Thor. There has to be an explanation.” He walked out of the room as if he could simply do that, as if dreams could do what they want.

“Jarvis,” Tony said.

“Ma’am?” That made him giggle, all alone, in the middle of a bedroom that had been destroyed (by his impetuous arrogance) not even a full two years ago. There was a certain sort of humor in that; there had to be. This building had collapsed into the sea, it had dragged him with it. The water had been as dark as space but heavy.

No. There was no good to come of thinking of that. “I’m a man. Call me sir.”

“Of course, sir,” Jarvis corrected.

As far as he could see, he had two options: stand and stare out the window, soaking up a living memory (killing time, waiting for the dream to end), or follow Steve. There was nothing to be gained by lingering here, nothing but another dark rabbit hole to get sucked under. This little fantasy land he’d been trapped in didn’t appear to be full of corpses, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t find some if he saw it through. Maybe if he tripped over the bodies he could wake up in the real world.

“A man?” sounded very much like Pepper in those days back before she’d taken over running his company, the way she’d sounded younger and less burdened, less bothered by apocalypses and better business practices. “And it’s really Tony?”

“My ears are burning,” he said at the door of the kitchen. He was prepared for anything but the way Pepper looked at them like they were strangers. She just stared at him with all the aggression that Steve didn’t seem to be able to bring himself to. “Really Tony,” he said with a motion at his body.

“Where’s the arc reactor?” Pepper asked.

“I had it removed,” he said.

“Removed?” Pepper snorted at that. She held her hand up in his direction and raised her eyebrows at Steve. Whatever unspoken conversation they were having (this early in the morning), it ended with Steve shrugging. “I wasn’t aware it could be removed.”

Everyone got caught up on that. Tony could have explained the entire procedure to them in detail but it didn’t seem like it was worth the effort. Instead he motioned at the platters of food left sitting on the counter, “is that for my birthday?”

“It’s for Tony’s birthday,” Pepper amended.

“Pepper,” Steve whispered. “I can’t tell you how I know, but I know this is Tony. We just have to figure out how and where our Tony is and how to get her back.”

This was the nightmare, Tony realized. This right here. Watching Steve look at him from across a room, one hand around a mug of coffee, looking concerned and confused. It was a clever, cruel nightmare: a little view of a world he couldn’t have to haunt him when he finally woke up. “You should call Bruce,” Tony said. “I don’t—I don’t know where to start looking.”

“I’ll call him,” Steve said.

Pepper didn’t look convinced with her arms crossed over her chest, but she glanced from him to the dishes keeping warm on the counter and back. “Do you still like doughnuts? I’ve got every kind of doughnut I could order.”

“Yeah,” he said. “I like doughnuts.”

A Side:

The feeling was a hard one to describe; there were many feelings left in the world that Steve found himself at a loss to describe in short words. He’d been small as a teenage girl, wheezy and on the verge of dying half his life. He’d been awake and aware the whole time his body was being reshaped into something else. He’d been a laughingstock in tights with a toy shield that had been a real hit during war time with all the future widows needed an ideal to throw money at. He’d been lonesome on his own, trying to figure out how to work the body they’d given him. He’d been a war hero, maybe, once. The leader of a group of men who respected the raw power a few vials of serum and a lifetime of determination had given him.

He’d died and he remembered that too, the sound the plane made when it hit the water. He remembered how cold and how deep he’d gotten before the world went black.

He’d woken up in a world that he didn’t recognize, he’d spent a while searching for something that felt right and came up short every single time. (Not every time. He’d found Bucky, he’d seen his face, he’d seen the recognition and he’d let that haunt him for a while now.) He’d been lonely and he’d been angry and he’d been lost. He had been restless, he had been dissatisfied.

This was all of that and it was none of that. It was a physical sensation of exhaustion that made every bit of him slow to get started. It felt, ever since he woke up at five-oh-nine that morning that he’d been running through a pit of glue. As if the horizon was moving away from him, as if the world itself had changed shape and he was there again, a stranger in a new place that he couldn’t navigate.

“We took a vote,” Natasha said when he jogged to a slow walk. She’d been sitting on an upside-down cooler by the side of the track he’d worn into the grass with his running. “We think it’s dementia. You’re an old man.”

“Get a new line,” he said. She was grinning at him with a towel hanging from her fist; she was a damn good actress, better than anyone he’d ever seen—but she couldn’t hide or didn’t try to hide the concern that was leeching the humor from her face. “You took a vote?” he repeated. He paced and she sat and watched. “You drew the short straw?”

“No.” That was honest, at least. “I’m concerned.”

“You’re too kind,” Steve said. He wiped his face and the back of his neck and came to a stuttered pause in front of her. It was mid-afternoon, pleasantly warm in the unyielding sunshine, and she was wearing all black and smiling at him without a sign of sweat anywhere on her body. “Is everyone concerned?” he looked back over toward the compound that he’d walked out of an hour or so ago when he couldn’t shake the sensation of something being wrong.

“I think Vision is interested in dissecting you for science purposes if that counts as concern.”

Steve snorted, Natasha smiled.

“I’m here, Steve. I’m here for the team; I’m here for the long haul. If there’s something that could put our team in jeopardy—”

“Come on,” Steve said. He was all set to roll his eyes at it, to deny the insinuation that he wasn’t capable or willing. One rough day wasn’t that uncalled for; half the Avengers had done worse with less time and less prompting.

“We never talked about what Wanda showed you,” Natasha said, “if it’s something that’s—”

“You sound like Tony,” Steve said. He balled the towel up and closed his fist around it. She didn’t look away from his face because no matter what he did, she just couldn’t bring herself to even pretend to be threatened around him.

“Half our team was an enemy a month ago,” Natasha said. “We can’t afford to keep secrets, we can’t afford to slip up here.” She stood up, planted her feet in the grass and crossed her arms over her chest as she stared up at him.

“You agreed about Wan—”

“She’s a better ally than enemy, that doesn’t mean I’m ready to be friends. I need to know if this is going to be a problem, Rogers.” She spared a hand to motion at his entire body, the sweat soaked into his shirt, the rut he’d dug with his endless running, and the whole unseen wrongness of the day. “Reassure me,” Natasha said.

“I’m not—” was the start of a denial that wasn’t supposed to end with a shadow stretching across the grass, or the dark shape that couldn’t be seen except at the edges. He could see it well enough to see it was red-and-gold and man-shaped. “Tony?”

“Tony?” Natasha repeated in the split second before Iron Man lifted his arm with his palm pointed straight at Steve’s chest.

“Do you still believe in God, Steven?” Tony asked.

(And this, Steve thought in the half-a-heart-beat he had to think of anything, must have been what that sensation of wrongness was.) Natasha pulled a gun as she moved backward, she said: “what’s going on Tony?”

“We don’t even know if he’s in that thing,” Steve said. He was looking for anything to use as a shield, his hand was clenching in the air grasping for the handles and finding nothing at all. “Shit,” he hissed as the repulsor powered up.

Natasha started shooting and Tony turned his head to look down at her. The suit had no expression but the modulated voice coming from the speaker did when it said, “I’ll get to you in a minute.” The suit split in the shoulder and a dart shot out—it struck Natasha in the neck and she gasped with her hand slapped across it.

“Tony!” Steve shouted. He tried to move forward to grab Natasha as she wilted to the ground but Iron Man (that may or may not contain Tony) dropped to stand in the space between them. It raised its arm.

“This won’t kill you, Cap but it isn’t going to feel good either.” And it shot him, in the chest, with enough force that it knocked him off his feet. He’d been thrown around more than his fair share, he’d been slammed into everything from brick buildings to trees to tanks to glass walls. Nothing hurt the way it hurt to get kicked in the chest by the repulsor, it threw him across the yard and when he hit the dirt it flew around his body. He crossed his arms over his face when he saw the approaching glint of red and gold.

The suit’s hand grabbed him by the neck, yanked him out of the ground and held him where it could stare at him. It was hard to breath with the constricting pain in his chest (a broken rib, maybe) but he managed it enough to stop the fist aimed at his face. The suit was stronger than him in a sheer battle of muscle and Tony (if he was inside of it) was stubborn enough to never give up. “What are you doing?” he ground between his teeth. The mechanical noises of the suit shifting gave him just enough warning to shove his feet into the ground so he could throw himself out of the way of the punch. He cleared Tony’s fist by inches (if so much) with his legs spread around the hole his body had made and Tony’s fist buried in the dirt.

“Cap!” sounded very much like Sam who was running across the yard with a gun in one hand and the shield in the other. He threw the shield with as much precision as he could, it fell short but it was close enough Steve could get it before the suit worked itself up to a second attempt to punch a hole in his chest. They met in the middle, Steve braced behind the shield and Tony’s fist coming to a quick stop just before it hit the shield. There was no impact, no shock that threw them back from one another.

The suit couldn’t smile, but Tony’s voice sounded like it was grinning behind the mask. “That was a good one, Steven. Not a lot of people here understand you, do they?” And Tony’s second hand came up under the shield, it wrenched the shield back and the handles didn’t snap or give but take his arm along with it. Howard had spent an hour (or better) lecturing him about how the handles should have failsafe, that if anyone ever took the shield with enough force he could break his arm.

Thing was: nobody had ever spent too much time trying to take Steve’s shield.

Not until that moment, not until the bone snapped and he screamed at Tony, tightened his fist around the handle and grabbed the top of the shield with his free hand so he could kick both of his legs against the suit’s chest. That was enough to free him, he hit the ground on his back, trying to catch his breath. He had a great view of the bullets hitting the suit from the side as Sam fired at Iron Man without restraint.

He was half on his side when Wanda ran up to the scene and Iron Man didn’t even seem to care about the bullets ricocheting this-way and that-way off his armor. He shook his head when he saw Wanda, raised an arm and said, “not today, bitch,” in a way that Tony simply never would before he fired the repulsor at her. She was quick enough to catch in the shimmery red-pink energy but the look of shock and fear on her face was near to paralyzing.

“Stop it, Tony!” Steve growled. He shoved himself up to his feet, tried to get his numb hand to clench around the shield and couldn’t. It slid half off his arm while the Iron Man suit regarded him.

“That’s annoying,” it said before the shoulders split again and it shot a second dart. It hit Sam without Tony ever having looked sideways at him. Wanda was gasping with the effort of holding the repulsor energy, trying to redirect it up. “It won’t kill her,” Tony said. “I made sure of it.”

War Machine dropped from the sky to Steve’s left as Wanda’s attempts proved fruitless and the energy she’d been holding smacked into her chest. It knocked her back with a startled scream but she was still awake and breathing as she lifted her head up to look at him. Rhodey aimed every gun he had on Tony, “don’t make me use these,” he said.

The Iron Man suit shifted its weight, lifted both its arms palms out and the mask slid up. It wasn’t Tony inside but (a woman) who was smirking at them with a sort of smile that seemed very, very familiar. “That’s a fight I always enjoy, Colonel Rhodes. Not a fair one, I made this suit non-lethal on purpose.” She looked directly at Steve the way a man looked at dog shit stuck to his shoe. “I’ll go peacefully.” The whole suit opened up and she stepped out it, wearing Tony’s clothes all the way down to the socks.

“What the hell is going on?” Rhodey asked.

“I’d like to figure that out myself,” the woman said. “Only, it seems like this bag of dicks,” she motioned at Steve, “did such a shit job with my team the only one of you smart enough to stand a chance of helping me figure it out has disappeared.” And like she only just thought of it, “unless you know where Jane Foster is.”

“Who are you?” Steve asked. He worked the shield strap off the broken part of his arm while she watched him. When he’d finally managed it, she smiled right at his face, exactly the same way Tony did. And Steve knew even before she spoke, he knew exactly what she was going to say:

“I’m Tony Stark.”

B Side

“A man?” seemed to be the bit that everyone was stuck on. Pepper had lingered over the revelation that Tony had been replaced by a man far longer than she’d bothered to be worried about where their Tony had gone. Even the concept of wormholes (or something of the sort) that appeared in a man’s bedroom and soundlessly stole a man’s wife didn’t seem to strike her as absurd. No, it was only that Tony’s replacement was a man. And now Bruce, with his voice small and distant on the other end of the phone.

Steve was sitting on the piano bench with his fingers pressed against his forehead, warding off the memory of a headache. (Much like all other things his new body had gotten rid of, headaches were a thing of the past or very serious concussions.) He had his eyes closed because he liked the world a bit better when he wasn’t looking at it (at present) as he nodded his head and said (again), “yes.”

“How can you be sure it’s Tony?”

“I know my wife,” Steve said. That wasn’t an explanation but a gut feeling. It wasn’t exactly a situation that called for concrete proof. “Jarvis says its Tony. He listens to him; he obeys him. Jarvis doesn’t obey anyone that Tony hasn’t personally given clearance to.”

Bruce sighed on the opposite end of the phone. “I don’t know how much help I’d be. This, this doesn’t sound like my field.”

Steve opened his eyes when the quiet drag of footsteps stopped a polite distance to his left. He turned his head just enough to get a good look at the man who had replaced his wife, the one that stood and stared out the windows like he was working his way around to not crying. “Then come as a friend,” Steve said. “I’ve got to go.” He hung up before Bruce could start up with any more rebuttals or counterarguments. (For a genial guy, Bruce was especially good at changing his argument when the moment called for it.) It was safer behind the piano, watching this person that was and wasn’t Tony.

The space kept them safe, provided the illusion of choice in a situation that was far past their control. Steve was working his way around to saying something, really anything, but Tony got there first, he looked away from the windows long enough to say, “is my lab still here?”

“She doesn’t like people going into her lab,” Steve said.

“I really don’t like that,” Tony agreed. He didn’t seem to believe it was that important though. His fingers were on the glass again, his mouth was making contemplative shapes. “Married,” he said.

“It’ll be a year in August,” Steve said.

Tony nodded, “did you get to wear the white dress?”

“I didn’t wear a dress,” Steve said. In fact, barely either of them had managed to look presentable at all when they showed up to get married by the justice of the peace. It had been a matter of paper work, not public display. Tony had been wearing a dress (but no panties) and Steve had been wearing part of a suit that had survived the night before. Neither of them were technically presentable or of sound mind, but they were married nonetheless.

“I was asking if you were a virgin,” Tony said.

“Uh, no—am I virgin where you’re from?” It wasn’t a dreadful thought; he’d seen no real problem in waiting for the right person (despite what modern society seemed to think of him). It was just, assuming they were all the same age, the other him was ninety-six and single. There was a difference between holding out for the right person and living a solitary life not of your own choosing.

Tony shrugged, “I don’t know,” seemed simply exhausted. “We’re not that kind of friends. There’s a betting pool that says you are but we haven’t figured out how to ask yet.” He turned back to looking out the window with a ghost of a smile, “who was the lucky girl?”

He was Bucky,” didn’t seem like it was what Tony expected to hear. “Depending on your definition of virginity. If we’re defining it as acts of penetration than, you. Just, before our wedding. You were insistent.”

“Always do a test drive,” was exactly what his wife had said to him with both her hands shoving his up her shirt. It had a different meaning when she was straddling his lap whispering filthy promises into his ear than it had here. She had been trying to undo his belt and his high morals (as she called them) and this man was repeating it by rote.

“Yeah,” Steve agreed. He set the phone on the piano, balanced precariously between falling into and falling off of it. Tony took note of it with a cocked up eyebrow of almost disapproval but didn’t say anything. “What happened to your house where you’re from?”

“I invited a terrorist over for tea, he brought RPGs instead. I think I’m just having a little trouble with the fact that you don’t know this, that this house is here, that we’re married? What happened in this world? What didn’t happen?”

“I don’t know,” Steve said.

“The Chitauri?”

“Yes.”

“Loki?”

“Yes.”

Tony squinted out into the sun, “the Mandarin? The suicide bombings? Happy got caught in one of the explosions. Pepper was kidnapped?”

The growing anxiety did nothing at all to reassure Steve that his wife was in a universe she would be safe in. “I think there was a Mandarin?”

“Think?” Tony repeated. “Think?”

“We deal with a lot of threats, Tony.” The word slid so easily off his tongue, it didn’t feel wrong until the second after he said it. There was no defining why, no separating how it was his Wife’s Name and the voice he used for Her and how he’d just used it here, with a stranger who was-and-was not the same person.

“He kidnapped the President,” Tony said.

“That did not happen.” He knew that for certain.

“It was Christmas,” Tony said, “the same year the Chitauri attacked? Everyone thought I was dead?”

“That didn’t happen,” Steve repeated. “If your house was being attacked by—”

“Fire breathing terrorists in helicopters.”

Helicopters,” was the only part of that fantastic idea he could bear to repeat with a straight face, “why wouldn’t we be there to protect you?”

Tony opened his mouth with his hand halfway to declaring victory but he stopped short, mouth closing and face caught in sudden thought. Perhaps the idea hadn’t occurred to him (and that, too, did nothing to reassure him about his wife’s fate) or maybe there were more factors that Steve could understand but either way he dropped his arm at his side and said, “fair question,” without answering it. “It was a little before your time, probably, but did other me do the Stark Expo? 2010?”

“I think so,” Steve said.

“It was attacked in—where was it—Monaco? Ivan Vanko? Did that happen to the other me?” He didn’t pause long enough for an answer, “I almost died? Poisoning in the,” he tapped the place where the arc reactor should have been and seemed surprise to find it wasn’t there. “Hammer drones blew up the Expo?”

“Jesus,” Steve snapped. He stood up and knocked into the piano. The phone fell to the floor (which was better than back into the piano) and he didn’t stop to pick it up. Pacing was, as his wife told him, one of his less attractive hobbies but he was caught up between the need to punch something and the need to move.

“Language,” Tony said. There wasn’t even a touch of irony in it.

They were strangers, staring at one another, waiting for an answer. Steve said, “I wasn’t awake for those events,” because he’d still been unconscious in ice at the time, “but I do not recall hearing about them either. She said that Howard had discovered a new element, that Fury gave her a box of his stuff. It’s about the only polite thing she ever said about Howard.”

This Tony, this stranger, nodded his head the exact same way his wife did whenever someone brought up her Father. All that unresolved anger bubbled and spit under his skin, and his hands clenched just like hers and then loosened again. “Fury just gave it to her? No strings, no—snippiness?”

“Yes,” seemed like defeat.

“I just remembered,” was Pepper interrupting the moment. She had left her heels in the kitchen, so her footsteps were almost silent to undercut the urgency in her voice and the look on her face as she looked up from her phone. “The party.”

“Shit,” Steve hissed.

Language,” Tony said again.

It was better to ignore that and whatever it meant in the world this man was from. “We have to cancel,” Steve said.

“And say what?”

The alternative to coming up with a semi-plausible lie (that wasn’t just Tony not showing up to her own party) was trying to pass this man off as his wife. It would have been a hard sell even without the facial hair and exhaustion. “What do you suggest?” he asked, “we tell everyone to dress in drag?”

“Have Natasha be me.” Tony looked very innocent when he said it, “I’m assuming she’s still a somewhat retired spy? About this tall,” he raised his hand to indicate her approximate height. “She should have some face-altering technology.” Tony motioned at Pepper, “or have Pepper be me.”

Steve was going to be civil about it, “you have a very distinctive presence,” but Pepper was still caught up on how this was a man that had replaced her best friend.

“Wow,” she said, “it’s that easy for you? We could just pick any woman off the street and put a black wig on them, nobody would even notice. Never mind we’re all different heights and weights with different figures and nobody asked you, Mr. Stark.”

“Pepper,” Steve said.

“No, I’m sorry. That was uncalled for. We can’t cancel the party, the best we can do is—I don’t know, say Tony decided not to show up. It’s been years since she didn’t but people will believe it, it’ll restart the pregnancy rumors and I’ll have to sit through another twenty interviews listening to so-called experts tell me how a woman’s body works but that, at least, would be something we could do.” She was shaking her head, teeth grit together and staring at Tony with untampered dislike. (But not hate, just confusion and fear and anger.)

“I can’t think of anything else,” Steve said. “It’ll be okay, Pepper.”

Her smile didn’t seem convinced but she nodded, “I should go. There’s a lot to prepare.”

Tony waited until she’d left before he cleared his throat with one of his fingers running down the length of the piano and his body suddenly an arm’s distance away. “Pregnant?”

He just didn’t have it, not anywhere in the whole of his body, the patience to have that conversation. Instead he rolled his eyes and motioned to the side toward the stairway down to the lab, “come on, I’ll show you the lab. You can look as long as you don’t touch anything.”

Tony shoved his hands into his pants pockets like agreeing to the terms and followed Steve down the steps and into the lab. He stood in front of the display of his suits with the same sorrowful wonder that he’d stared out at the waves. “I blew them up,” he said after a pause. “For Pepper, I think. Or for me. I don’t know; it gets mixed up sometimes. I thought it was something I had to do, to move on. I thought it would make a difference.”

“Did it?” Steve asked.

Tony looked over his shoulder, hands still in his pockets, his lips pulled up into a smile that did nothing to convey happiness or even amusement. “I thought it did.”

“But?”

“Nothing changed,” Tony said as much to the suits as to him. “I’m hungry, I’m going to go get a doughnut.” He pulled one hand out of his pockets long enough to open the door and disappeared up the steps at a jog. Steve was left to look at the suits in their cases, the whole history of Iron Man’s evolution, trying to think out where-exactly his wife was and how much danger she was in.

Chapter Text

A Side


“What are we looking at here?”

A woman playing dress up in Tony’s clothes, sitting in the jail cell in their basement, looking unbothered by the concrete walls. She was leaning back against the wooden bench sticking out of the wall, one leg stretched out in front of her and one bent so she could rest an arm across it. There weren’t many people in the world that could aggravate him just by existing but this-was and it was-not Tony and Steve didn’t need any sort of test or confirmation or logical explanation because there was no person that made him grind his teeth the way Tony did.

It was a series of events that were so perfect and imperfectly in character that the evidence supported the only conclusion. (It was the woman, looking bored and amused in the center of a crime scene motioning toward the compound saying, ‘I’m sure I’ve got a room,’ with all the presumptive arrogance of the man whose pants she was wearing.)

It was Steve’s arm held tight to his chest, his ribs and his aching forearm hardly a worthwhile distraction from the unmoving woman on the screen.

Out in the grass he’d plucked the darts out of his friends’ necks and held them up in her face. She had looked so much like Tony, unapologetic and amused, with one eyebrow lifted up and pity (always pity) making her expression almost a pout as she said, ‘don’t worry Steven, they’ll sleep it off in two hours top.’

“It’s Tony,” Steve said. “I don’t know how.”

Natasha was sitting in a chair, holding her head in one hand, watching the screen with blurry eyes. “It can’t be,” she said, or more importantly, “why would she attack you?”

“Yes, exactly,” Rhodey said. “I think we need to start from the assumption that this woman is not Tony Stark, and figure out where Tony is.” He didn’t look at Steve but at Natasha, “Tony wouldn’t attack the team.”

“No, he’d just build a robot that would,” Steve said (more or less to himself). “Is Sam up?”

“No,” Natasha said. She tucked her hair behind her ear again. “Can we—” but she paused a moment, closed her eyes and rubbed the center of her head with her fingers, “get footage of the tower? Figure out how this woman got in? How she got the suits—I thought Tony’s suits were coded only to him.”

“Friday,” the woman on the screen said, “play me something jazzy.” The speakers filled up with music.

Rhodey’s hand slid up to cover his mouth and Natasha peeled her eyes open to stare at the screen. The PA system for the building crackled to full life and the music poured out. The camera in the cell wasn’t pointed at the woman’s face, but staring at the back of her head, so there was no proving it, but just the feeling that she must have been smirking at the wall.

“Friday,” he said. “Turn it off.”

“Sorry, sir. I’ve been instructed to play it in every room.”

“By who?” Rhodey asked.

“Mr. Stark, sir.”

Steve didn’t punch the screen the idea surfaced in his head like an apple bobbing on the water. It was shiny and perfect. He turned his back, let his head fall and tried to think around the swelling white rage that was springing straight out of his chest.

“Steve,” Natasha said.

“This is impossible,” Rhodey said.

It might have been, last year or the year before or the one before that. Maybe it would have been impossible in nineteen-forty-two when he was working hard at breathing, never mind living. But that word didn’t mean what they thought it meant anymore: it was creeping up on them slowly, less and less things were qualifying for impossible. “We have to call Pepper, we need the security footage from the tower,” he said. When he turned his head back to look at the screen, this Tony who wasn’t Tony hadn’t even moved. “Rhodey?” he prompted.

“She should be there today,” he said. “I’ll make a call, fly over to see what I can get.”

Natasha motioned at the screen, “I could take a pass at this. Interrogation is one of my specialties.”

“Do you think you can make her talk?”

“Tony’s chatty,” Natasha said. She slid up to her feet and she didn’t waver the way she had when she crept into the room ten-or-fifteen minutes ago. Her hands slid around his broken arm, one palm on either side of the fracture and she tightened her fingers just enough to focus the ache. “You need to let Vision set your arm. Don’t be stubborn on this.”

“When Sam’s awake,” Steve said. “We don’t know what was in those vials.” He looked over her head, at the screen, at the unmoving woman in the prison cell. “We need to know where she’s from; we need to know if she’s an enemy.”

“No problem, boss,” Natasha said. She let her hand slide off Steve’s arm. If she had any doubt of her skills (and there was no reason she should, since she’d gotten everyone from Russian mob bosses to demi-gods to confess their plans), she didn’t show them on her face. Steve didn’t bother her with his.

Tony was chatty. Tony could talk for hours, and days, and weeks and years like a wind up record player being constantly cranked. It was just that no matter how much space he filled up with words and nods and jokes and giggles, he never seemed to say anything. Or maybe it wasn’t about how this woman was exactly like Tony but how she wasn’t.

Maybe it was about her voice through modulated speakers, the way her hand went under the shield rather than striking the surface of it. It was the knowing she had when she said: not a lot of people here understand you, do they?

“Captain,” Vision said with his body halfway through the wall separating them from the infirmary. “Sam is awake. I believe we should set your arm now.”

--

B Side

:
Tony had said that he was going to get a doughnut so it made sense he made it three-fourths the way to the master bedroom before he stopped short in the hallway (remembering, very suddenly, that it wasn’t really his).

“Jarvis,” he said before he made up his mind which way he wanted to turn (the front door seemed especially inviting at the moment), “is anyone else in the house?”

“Captain Rogers is in the lab, sir.”

“Captain?” Tony repeated. He went toward the guest bedroom, the one he had almost never had a reason to use (at least, not where he was from). There hadn’t ever been an overwhelming number of people lining up to visit at the holidays. But it was nicely furnished and it had a shower. “That’s a little formal for the house.”

“I was instructed not to call him Mr. Rogers, sir.”

Tony snorted at that; he locked the door once he was inside and pushed his back against it. His legs didn’t give out but he was sinking down the door, pressing both his hands over his face in one last mad attempt to separate this hyper realistic nightmare from reality.

(It wasn’t, though, a nightmare.) His aching left knee attested to the brutal, undeniable truth of the matter. No, Tony Stark was conscious. What it came down to was the matter of where exactly he was conscious. This reality that layered over his own with such easy precision, that acted and reacted with familiarity.

“Breathe,” he said against his palms with his eyes closed. His fingers were pressing so hard against them his vision was turning red behind the lids and it did nothing to take the edge off the hysteria that was bubbling up out of his chest.

It was funny; it was fucking hilarious.

It was absurd; and he was laughing with tears in his eyes and his head knocking against the door at his back. He laughed with his chest aching and it didn’t even surprise him to hear the knock on the other side of the door, the concerned little voice of the very-real but not very familiar Steve Rogers whispering through the door:

“Tony?”

“I’m fine, Cap.” He wiped his damp face with his hands, scrubbed them across the pants he’d woken up in and let out a breath that did nothing to steady him. There was nothing to do but work the problem now. The first, the most important problem, was that he needed a shower and clothes. The door knob was sturdy when he grabbed it and Steve was standing in the hallway on the other side of the door with his hand half lifted to knock again. “Do you have anything clothes related around here that might fit me?”

Steve nodded, “yeah,” seemed like he was just happy to be useful, “yeah I could find something.”

“Great,” Tony said. “I’m going to take a shower. Is Bruce coming?”

“If he’s not here before, he’ll be at the party,” Steve said.

“Perfect.” Look at him, full of vigor, full of life, (full of shit). He closed the door before Steve could get his jaw unhinged to ask whatever question was filling up all the space behind his face. (Looked like something like, are you okay and there was no reason at all to go opening that can of worms.)

Things seemed supremely unreasonable outside of a shower always seemed drastically more reasonable with the removal of clothing and the application of warm water. Standing in the hot water with his eyes closed, nothing seemed entirely insurmountable. He had every advantage in this universe: intelligence, wealth, friends, and Jarvis. It wasn’t that Friday wasn’t a good gal because she had been built to be as good as the original (or better); it was that Jarvis had been the first real success he’d had with any AI, the one that grew with him, that had followed him and it was all human sentimentality gumming up the works but it felt like (at times) Jarvis had supported and agreed with him.

It felt like a choice, not a bit of default programming.

“Jarvis,” Tony said.

“Sir?”

“Nothing.” He grabbed the shampoo (sample sized, like a hotel) off the shelf in the shower and scrubbed his hair clean. When he was finished, standing in front of the mirror wearing nothing but a fluffy towel around his waist, there was a tired old man staring back at him. It was his body, exactly how it had been when he went to bed the night before. All the same scars, all the same dips and bumps and odd bits. “No time like the present,” he said to his reflection.

Out in the bedroom, there was a white button down and a pair of black pants laying on the bed. Either this other version of him had taken up the habit of collection men’s clothing (and she might have, he would have had a collection of forgotten bras if Pepper hadn’t been so insistent about throwing them out) or he was about to try to wear Captain America’s day off clothes.

“No underwear,” he said to the pile of clothes, “what kind of girl does he think I am?”

“Sir?” Jarvis prompted.

“It was rhetorical, buddy.” He shook the pants out and pulled them on, fully expecting that they would be stiff, too long and too tight around his waist. There was simply no explaining how well they fit. He stared at the cuffs and his feet sticking out from under them with both his hands pressed against the waistband, trying to reconcile how he’d come to be standing in the guest room of his formerly destroyed home wearing a pair of pants that had no right existing in a world where he was a woman. “Do we have a screen in this room?”

A light flickered to the side, drew his attention to a TV screen that ran through a series of code before displaying a neutral blue background. “Of course, sir.”

“Show me what I look like. Show me Tony Stark.”

There she was, on the cover of a magazine, smirking at him. The shape of the face was wrong but the eyes were the same, it was unnerving, to look at her, to see the bits that were and weren’t the same. Same eyes, same mouth, same smirk—but her shirts were tailored to fit her breasts. The picture lasted on a minute and it slid sideways to another, and another, and another, a great parade of photos from a pony-tailed prodigy to a pixie-cut-punk with one arm around Rhodey’s shoulders, and there she was in living colors, standing behind a podium with a poorly-covered-bruise under her eye trying and failing to read a lie off a cue card.

“The truth is,” she said (as he thought, in his head, please don’t), “I am Iron Man.”

“That’s enough,” Tony said. “Stop it.” He picked up the shirt and pushed his arms into it. This was Steve’s, all shoulders and long torso, and it unlike the pants that fit him like a glove, it shifted and moved across his back. “Where’s this party?” Tony asked.

“The beach, sir,” Jarvis answered.

“My idea?”

“You are very fond of women in bikinis, sir,” Jarvis said.

He was grinning at it, at the cheek of it, long before he caught up to the insinuation, “well, how about that.” He tucked the shirt in and pushed his hair back away from his face. “First thing, I need my own clothes, where’s Steve, Jarvis?”

“He is in your bedroom, sir.” Why wouldn’t he be?

B SIDE

:
Natasha had not (at least) gotten caught up on the part of the story where Tony was a man now. It was a relief, this many phone calls in, to have someone that didn’t care. She skipped straight over protesting how Tony had been recast and immediately fell into, “what are we thinking? Science? Magic?”

“I know some people who think those are the same thing,” Steve said. He was rubbing his forehead again, willing a headache to form and failing. It wasn’t necessarily that he wanted to be in pain; but that he wanted the sensation of a gathering storm to come to an end. It was there in his skull, filling up with clouds, producing no thunder and no lightning. “I don’t know. I didn’t even wake up until he did—I didn’t feel anything unusual. We didn’t do anything unusual. There was no weather. No indication that anything was wrong and—just not the Tony I went to bed with.”

“Shit,” Natasha whispered. “Who are we putting on this?”

“I called Banner, he says it’s not his field—Thor is coming to the party, maybe he’ll know something about it.” A polite knock interrupted him, Steve called, “it’s open,” and still there was hesitation before the door opened.

“Is that him?” Natasha asked through the phone, as if she could see him if she concentrated hard enough (and maybe she could, it wouldn’t be the first time she’d hacked into the security feed). “I want to meet him.”

“Thanks for the clothes,” Tony said. He was awkward, and shoeless, taking up space across the room. “Your shirt,” he said with a general motion at his own chest, “I assume?”

“She has some T-shirts, I didn’t know what you’d like,” Steve said. He didn’t tell Natasha he had to go so much as hang up on her with a swipe of his thumb and trust she understood there were more pressing matters. “The pants fit. She likes the pockets.”

“The pockets are handy,” Tony agreed. He picked up a picture frame off the dresser and nodded at it. “She’s not bad looking. Maybe a little more feminine than I usually consider myself, but there’s definitely some pretty aspects—I was thinking,” he set the frame down again. “We can’t do anything about this,” he motioned back and forth between them, “until we can gather the data.”

“I asked Jarvis to start compiling everything.”

“Good,” Tony agreed, “I don’t have shoes.” His hands were down in his pockets again.

“Oh, right,” Steve said. “I could loan you a pair.”

“So, we can go buy something that fits me better than this.” Tony ran his tongue across his lips and shrugged off the suggestion as nothing.

“Yeah,” Steve agreed. “Yes. We should; we can’t do anything about this,” and he motioned between them the way Tony had, “until tonight anyway. I called everyone, they’ll be there. Pepper won’t be happy that we’re leaving her to deal with the party guests, but she’ll understand. Happy’ll be there.”

Tony nodded along with everything he said. “Great, good. Let’s do it.”

Steve gave Tony the first pair of shoes he pulled out of the closet and the man accepted them with grace considering how horrified he looked about the sneakers. Rather than protest (or question) he just nodded and slid them on his feet.

“These aren’t as bad as I expected,” he announced halfway to the garage. “Oh, my babies,” he said when arrived. He reached out like he couldn’t help it, ran his fingers across the glossy paint job of the nearest car with the exact same reverence his wife did. And he made exactly the same face, the sour frown of resignation, when they stopped in front of the truck. “Cap,” this Tony who barely knew him, “did I know about this before the wedding?”

“You bought it for me.” He motioned back at the other cars, the sleek, small beautiful machines. “We can take one of those if you want, but the paparazzi have been known to swarm any time they see one.”

“We’ll take your stupid truck,” Tony said. He went around to the passenger side and climbed into the cab. “Not bringing your shield?” he asked.

“I wasn’t anticipating running into any super villains at the mall,” Steve said. There it was again, that spike of worry about the world his wife had been thrown into. It was small and pointed, like a burr that got trapped inside a boot, digging into the meat of his calf. “I try not to take it anywhere I don’t want to start a fight.”

Tony snorted. “I’ve never known you to turn down a fight.”

“Not all fights are worth fighting,” but more importantly, “seatbelt.”

Tony laughed to himself, at some joke he didn’t feel like sharing, as he pulled the seat belt around and buckled it. When he was finished he put his hands on his thighs and looked at him expectantly, “I’m all ready, Cap.”

They were all the way out of the drive before Tony said, “all of them are coming? All the Avengers?”

“Yeah,” Steve answered, “It’s your birthday; they were already coming. This is just them coming earlier. I can’t call Thor but I left a message with Maria Hill about Dr. Selvig and Jane Foster. I don’t know what happened but there aren’t many people I know that are smarter than them, and you and Bruce. If it’s science, you can figure it out and if it’s not—”

“You can punch it?” Tony prompted.

Steve looked over at him, to see the tight-tight-muscles of his jaw and the shake of his head. “If necessary. If it would help,” he agreed. “You don’t like this other me, do you?”

Tony shrugged. “What’s not to like. You’re Captain America. You’re perfect.” Before they could make the attempt at any other conversation (and fail) Tony pointed at the dash, “can we listen to music? I’d like to listen to music.”

“Yeah. We can listen to music.” He’d been working his way through the whole history of jazz (per Tony’s request), he was all set to agree to listen to whatever Tony wanted as soon as the music started but Tony just smiled at it. He leaned back into the seat with his eyes closed. Steve kept his right hand on his thigh, reminded it and himself and the universe, not to go wandering over looking for a hand to hold.

A SIDE

:
The interrogation suite had the pretense of equality. The table was set precisely in the center of the room. There were two chairs. There were no mirrored windows.

Natasha sat on one side with a comfortable smile on her pretty face. No matter the universe, no matter the circumstance, there was really no denying that Natasha was a beautiful woman. She had the sort of face that demanded to be stared at, the exact sort of smile that could have led any person straight to hell.

The longer Tony stared at her, the more the image blurred, the more it seemed there were no differences between the Natasha she’d left in her world and this one that smiled at her with untamed contempt. Maybe there minute differences: a different hairstyle, a different shade of lipstick, a more precise bit of eyeliner but the broad strokes were all the same. Natasha was the same (physically). “Still sore?” Tony asked as she touched her fingers to her own neck.

Natasha mirrored the gesture, “friends don’t shoot friends with sleep darts, Tony.”

Not in most circles, at least. It wouldn’t have surprised her a bit to know this clusterfuck of imposters went around regularly shooting one another with whatever they happened to have on hand. “I suppose that means we aren’t friends, Ms. Romanoff.

“Aren’t we?” was perfectly innocent. “Tony’s my friend. You say you’re Tony. Shouldn’t we be friends?” The transition was so smooth it was nearly transparent; Natasha had shifted her body from aggressive to inviting and her voice had lost its edge. In one second she’d gone from a stand off to a come on. It was now, and had always been, truly impressive to watch Natasha work. There was nobody better.

“I’ve seen the footage, sweet heart. You’re not his friend.” Tony leaned back in her seat, crossed her arms over her chest. “Tell Steven to bring me two cheeseburgers and a chocolate shake and I’ll answer any question he has. I think communication is important and I have every intention to communicate my every emotion directly to his face.”

It was gone again, all the softness that Natasha had manifested. In Tony’s world, the real one, the good one, Natasha and Steve were friends and co-workers, a perfectly genial set of mates. It was different here, like all things were, more violent and less tolerant. “There’s not a lot of people that call him Steven. Most of us like to call him Steve.”

“He doesn’t like being called Steven?”

Natasha shook her head with her face all squished up in a good impersonation at friendly disapproval. “No, I don’t think he does.”

Tony shrugged, “I can’t imagine he enjoyed having his arm broken either.” That didn’t strike Natasha as funny. “All the same, Steven is a big boy and he can handle it.”

“You attacked him. Why would we allow you in the same room as him?”

“You flatter me.” Tony didn’t uncross her arms but shift how she was sitting on the chair so she could glance up at the camera. It was only the obvious one; if this other Tony was half as diligent as she tried to be he would have hidden at least another two in the room. “I like to think I’m impressive,” she rolled the sleeve of her T-shirt up enough to flex her bicep, “but I don’t think I could take him in a bare-knuckle fight.” She smiled sweetly as she added, “not in these clothes.”

That wasn’t the point; it wasn’t even approaching the point. (How frustrating must that be, to come with intimidation and be greeted with humor. It looked frustrating.) “I don’t think you understand the gra—”

“I appreciate the song and dance,” Tony said. She leaned forward so her forearms were against the edge of the table. “I’ve been tortured before. I know how it goes. I know you’re capable of it if the need arises. I also know that Steven would not allow the torture of a woman.” Tony cocked an eyebrow up when she said it, let her lips curl up into a smile. It wasn’t exactly a checkmate but it was enough of moment it knocked Natasha off center for a second. “There’s something to be said for that nineteen forties misogyny. So, tell him, I want two cheeseburgers and a chocolate shake and I’ll answer any question he asks me.”

Natasha leaned back in her chair with her fingers spread on the table top. There was pure murder in her face but she didn’t speak.

Tony leaned back to mirror the stance, let her fingertips drum across the table top. “Friday,” she said.

“Sir?”

“Turn the music back on.” It came through the speakers like pure golden honey, filling up the room with warmth that no amount of Natasha’s impressive cold stare could match. Tony sighed into the music, let it suffuse the whole of her body and tipped her head back as she slid her eyes closed. (And she thought of home and not of this.)

Natasha didn’t leave immediately. She didn’t move. She didn’t tell Friday to stop the music. She just sat across the table imposing her anger and her implied threat on the room. It was a careful balancing act, paying-attention-just-enough to protect herself if she had to and not-caring-at-all with enough authenticity to achieve the desired result.

It happened, one or six, or fourteen songs later. Natasha got up and left. The door locks engaged with a gentle whirr of machine parts and Tony opened her eyes just enough to smile at the camera watching her.

B Side


Steve, doting husband, had volunteered to hold the bags of extra clothes they had purchased under the pretense of not knowing how long Tony’s stay would be. It was a nice gesture on the heels of a hundred nice gestures that had made up his entire day. Tony wasn’t hiding in the family bathroom off to the side of the food court (ten minutes into the lunch rush) but he wasn’t hurrying through the process of changing his clothes. Setting aside the sanitation concerns regarding getting naked in public restrooms, he was taking a small minute to collect himself.

It was hard to know which version of Steve annoyed him more, the pretentious prick with perfect teeth he’d left in charge of the Avengers yesterday or the one that was holding the bags outside the bathroom door undoubtedly smiling at angry Mothers with toddler children complaining about proper bathroom usage. There was no mistaking exactly where Tony stood in his own universe, no confusion on how he fit into the team (he didn’t, not anymore, not with all the new recruits).

Tony didn’t have to wonder, or guess, what his Steve thought of him because the only thing the bastard didn’t wear on his face was his dark side. (That was, of course, assuming Steve was interesting enough to have a dark side. Assuming he was human enough.) This thing wearing Steve Roger’s face was grating on his nerves because it didn’t matter how he poked it, he didn’t get the response he wanted.

“Tony,” Steve said through the door, “there’s a line forming.”

There was a line forming and one could not be discourteous. He unbuttoned the collar of the white shirt halfway down his chest and pulled the whole thing over his head. The T-shirt fit better, the jacket wasn’t loose and dragging at his shoulders. He kicked off the borrowed shoes and leaned against the wall long enough to get his socks on (a feat he really preferred to do while sitting) so he could put the new shoes on. It wasn’t a perfect outfit but it was far better than the one he’d started the day with. He rolled the shoes into the shirt and shoved them into the bag he’d brought with him.

Out in the hall, a line had indeed formed. There was Captain America at the head of the line, looking very solemn and apologetic as he listened to angry woman explain how she had two preschoolers and a baby. The sound she made when Tony came out of the bathroom (all on his own) was almost inhuman.

“We’re very sorry for the inconvenience ma’am,” Steve assured her. He was still looking very sorry about it as they hurried down the line of strollers and away from the delightful smell of public restrooms. Just beyond the foggy grip of dirty diapers, the smell of mass-produced Italian food greeted them like a hammer to the nose. It wasn’t a good smell but it was enough to remind him he hadn’t eaten anything but a doughnut the whole of the day. His liquid midnight snack wasn’t holding him over anymore and there was a whole food court full of easily available food. It was just a matter of figuring out how to suggest they should get something to eat, and he had almost worked out how he wanted to phrase it but Captain Perfect beat him there with a simple, “I’m hungry too.”

It was obnoxious, that what it was. It was obnoxious to have Steve almost smile at the prospect of eating shit food from a mall vendor, obnoxious to be so transparent (or for Steve to be so aware of him) that it was obvious he was hungry. (Maybe it was only obnoxious because it was right.)

“I want a cheeseburger,” Tony said. “Do you eat cheeseburgers?”

“When the occasion calls for it,” Steve said. Like a good husband (just not Tony’s husband) he carried the bags and paid for the food and thanked the servers for their hard work. “You want to eat here?”

No. Someone had recognized Steve—not that it was particularly difficult to recognize the man. Not as if there were many people strolling around the world being physically perfect and painfully polite all at the same time. There were a hundred sets of eyes following their every move so Tony said, “maybe not.”

Steve looked over his shoulder, “ok,” he said to the crowd or Tony, or both.

Steve took them to an overlook, not too far from the house (close enough that one might have wondered why he didn’t just drive them to the house). He plucked the bag of lukewarm burgers out of the console between them and got out of the truck without so much as a single word of explanation. Tony watched him toss the bag in the truck bed, watched him climb in after it and couldn’t figure out if the desire to eat was great enough to participate in the charade.

(Hunger often beat his best intentions.)

Tony climbed into the back of the truck about the same time Steve managed to unwrap a single cheeseburger. The man was staring at it like he hated nothing in the world with the singular, unmatched focus that he hated the combination of bun, pickles, cheese and hamburger. His intense hatred of mustard was so great he closed his fist around the sandwich until the mutilated mess of it slid up between his fingers and fell all over his perfectly good khakis. Tony on the corner by the tailgate, where he could escape if he needed to. “We could have gotten Chinese,” Tony said.

Steve was shaking his head with his shoulders shaking like he was laughing but there was no sound coming from his chest.

“Pizza,” Tony offered.

“It’s your birthday,” Steve said. He shook the hamburger chunks off his palm and pulled out a handful of napkins to start mopping up the mustard-and-ketchup smeared all between his fingers. “I had the day planned.” Steve let his head hang forward, closed his eyes and appreciated the grand unfairness of the world. When he opened them again, he picked up the bag with the remaining food and tossed it to him. “What were you going to do?”

“Sleep, drink probably. Have a very civil dinner date with Pepper, who was going to pretend she wasn’t angry at me for creating a murder-bot that almost destroyed the planet.” He shrugged that off. “I don’t blame her. I haven’t been my best self. I made it almost—two years? Without endangering her, myself and the planet. That’s a personal best.”

Steve didn’t look impressed. “You’re dating Pepper?”

“She’s out of my league.” He pulled one of the cheeseburgers out of the bag. It was greasy and warm in exactly the way he was craving. (Very suddenly, very strangely.) “You don’t think it’s a good idea? Me dating Pepper?”

“I’m biased,” Steve said. “I don’t think you should be dating anyone. Just,” was an attempt to be fair. Steve was squinting his perfect blue eyes to the left, watching the sun in the sky and shaking his head, “I can’t see it working out with Pepper.”

Truth was, two thirds of the time he couldn’t see it working out with Pepper either. It was getting more-and-more obvious, that quiet, empty space at his side. The scripted appearances only relationship they were evolving. Tony couldn’t counter a solid argument, so he settled for: “this isn’t bad. You should have tried eating one.”

“We’re not even friends?” Steve asked.

Tony pulled the last napkin out of the bag to wipe his face. “You heard me say I created a murder bot that almost destroyed the planet a minute ago, right? You didn’t like that. You don’t really like most of the things I do.” He shrugged, “I don’t try to figure out why. We work together when we have to, we give each other space when we don’t.”

“Murder bot?”

“Not a memory I’d like to revisit. Maybe if I’m here next month, I’ll tell you all about it.”

Steve didn’t push, or prod, or complain. He just nodded his head and grabbed the side of the truck so he could pull himself up to sit on it. With his elbows on his knees, he looked lost in the sunlight, just a stranger trying to scrub mustard out from between his fingers.

“When’s this party starting?”

“I asked everyone that could to meet us at the house around six, the party starts at seven and I have to at least go—they should too. You don’t have to.” Steve balled up the napkins and threw the mess of them into the bag. “This other me,” seemed like the closest he’d come to the man that shared his face, “is he going to be a problem for her?”

“I don’t think he cares,” Tony said. “Unless she went looking for him? Would she go looking for him?”

Steve shrugged, “if she thought he could help.”

“He’d help a lady in need.”

Steve snorted. “My Tony Stark is many things but none of them fit the term lady.” Still, he seemed more at ease than he had been a minute ago. “We should head back. Natasha is probably already breaking in.”

A SIDE

:
Natasha had brought him the hamburgers with a shake of her head. “I don’t think you should do this. She’s unstable.”

“It’s Tony,” sounded a little more real every time Steve repeated it. “I can handle Tony.” Natasha hadn’t answered out loud but stared pointedly at the splint on his arm and the ice pack he had pressed against the forming bruise on his chest. “I’m sure there’s an explanation.” (With Tony there was always an explanation.)

He’d made the walk alone, not by forbidding anyone to follow him but because nobody had tried. The door opened when he stopped outside of it and the music that had been bleeding out of the speakers came to a sharp halt. There was the woman, this other Tony, looking perfectly composed with her feet propped up on the table and one of her arms slung over the back of the chair.

“I thought I was getting stood up,” Tony said.

Steve pushed the door shut with his good elbow. “I wouldn’t break a dinner date,” he answered. The bag was still hot on the bottom when he dropped it on the table, the milkshake was half-melted but cold enough. He waited until she pulled her feet off the table before he sat down. “Why are you here?”

“If I knew that, Steven,” she said as she pulled the burgers out of the bag with unashamed anticipation, “I wouldn’t still be here. I woke up here. You remember what that’s like, don’t you? One minute you’re somewhere you recognize, the next you wake up in a funhouse mirror. Everything looks something like what it used to but it’s not the same.”

(Oh yes, he remembered exactly what that was like. He remembered all the little things Fury got wrong. The game, the hair, the bra—he remembered it all.) “Why did you attack us?” was meant to pull Tony back into the conversation. Conversations with Tony had that funny way of derailing themselves half-way-through.

Not like this, not with Tony bent forward against the table, biting into a cheeseburger with a happy hum of appreciation. She closed her eyes as she chewed; when he dropped his hand on the table her eyes slid open just enough to look at him, just enough he could see how amused she was by him. (As if he, as if this were some great joke.) “Not us, just you Steven.” But she was holding up her hand to forestall any protest, she was conceding before he could argue it when she added, “and the witch.”

Why,” Steve repeated.

“I saw something I didn’t like,” she said.

He breathed in through his nose and out again. Once, then twice, then three times: “you said you’d answer my questions.”

Maybe he had the misconception that she was looking at him before, and she hadn’t been. The way her eyes moved, her whole body shifted just a little and her lips quirked up at the edge. She was eating the cheeseburger like a feral dog with her pinkies held out at the sides. It lasted only for a breath or two, the intense focus of her entire body taking in the sight and sound and smell of his. Then she dropped the burger on the paper wrapper and dug into the bag to pull out a napkin. Every motion was unhurried, unbothered by the question and condemnation hanging over their heads.

“If you’re not going to—” answer my questions, Steve meant to say but she silenced him with a single finger held up while she wiped her mouth and her finger tips with the paper napkin. Once she’d finished, she took a sip of the milkshake (and found it unpleasant, apparently) and then set it down as well. “Are you finished?” he asked.

“Steven, I’m not your child.” She leaned back instead of forward, her body the very picture of casual, stretched out long and loose and unimpressed. “I don’t appreciate being spoken to like an unruly grade schooler.”

“I didn—”

“You did,” Tony cut in. “That’s not my problem. My problem is figuring out how I got here and how I’m going to get back. If your Tony puts up with this,” she motioned at the whole space between them, “that’s his business. I try not to judge.”

Steve snorted at that. The lapsed into silence. She was smiling at the edge of her lips, one of her hands across her thigh, the other elbow hooked over the back of the chair. “You said you saw something you didn’t like,” he prompted, “what does that mean?”

“Do you know his suits record everything?”

“I did not,” Steve said. “But it doesn’t surprise me.”

“It doesn’t surprise me either. I’m a scientist, primarily. I like to deal with observable facts—I like to make my assumptions on things I have seen to be true when I can.” She leaned forward then, grabbed the chair between her legs and pulled it after her. There was a spread of food between them, the odor of mustard to every one of her words. “I don’t know what the witch showed him; you can imagine it’s hard to capture nightmares on camera. I know what it did to him—”

“Wanda showed all of us things we didn’t want to see—” (And he was just about fed up constantly having to discuss the matter.)

“But she’s on your team?”

“She’s a kid. They took advantage of her; she’s not the same person anymore.” Steve motioned out the door, out the corridor, out of the basement, to wherever he thought his Tony might have been. “The Tony that belongs in this universe, he understands. Whatever Wanda has done is in the past—”

Tony’s grin was pointed at the edges. Her hands were pressed against the table top with her fingertips going white from the pressure. “You stood by. You stood and you watched and you put all the blame on him.”

He built Ultron, who else is there to blame?”

She laughed like a poor sport, like a bark that mutated into something like a howl. It was quick-and-sharp and over with her fist smacking into the table top. It didn’t startle him but he wasn’t expecting it; he wasn’t expecting it to radiate through his left arm resting against the edge for the spark of ache. “He built Ultron by himself,” she repeated, “he didn’t get help? He didn’t have Bruce—”

“He convinced Bruce to do it.”

“So, Bruce isn’t to blame because he was coerced.”

“I didn’t say that.” He lifted a hand to try to slow the flow of words (a wasted pursuit in any conversation with Tony, apparently regardless of what universe he came from). “You’re taking things out of context.”

“You can’t blame Bruce because it was Tony’s idea, because Tony talked him into and we can’t blame the witch that filled him up with the idea because she was being taken advantage of,” Tony said. She paused, like waiting for him to draw a conclusion.

“Tony has a history of creating things that he can’t control,” Steve said.

Her eyes slid closed, her head was turned slightly like she was listening for a faint sound. With one of her hands up and her fingers half curled into a fist, anyone might have thought it was a posture of patience. But in the very next minute, she opened her eyes with a half-pronounced, “fuck it,” like she was giving in. Then her arms swept the food and the milkshake to the side in one long gesture, her hands wrapped around the end of the table and she pulled it off the floor and shoved it over so it fell against the wall. The metal top slapped against the concrete ground with a clatter of noise. He was half-up to his feet with his good arm moving to protect his face when he saw the chair flying at his body. It struck him across the side when he turned.

“Stop it,” he shouted at her.

Her response was to punch him. It wasn’t that he couldn’t read the intent in her body (because he could) or that he was chivalrous enough to stand still and let a woman beat him. It was that he hadn’t expected it, even when all the signs were there. Both of her hands balled up in his shirt and he found himself pushed against a wall, with his hands pushed against the center of his chest (his palm pressed up to what had to be an arc-reactor under her shirt) to hold her off. “You don’t have a team, Captain Rogers. You’re not a leader. I watched you stand by on the tapes. I watched you look at him with disgust. You invited the witch that stuck her fingers in his brain onto your team and if that doesn’t strike you as maybe the wrong choice you are nothing like the man I know. Because the Captain America I know? He’s got things you haven’t even heard of, son.”

Steve shoved her back and she stumbled back with a fresh laugh.

The door was pulled open by Natasha and Steve just behind her. And Tony was wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. “Guess I was wrong,” she said to Natasha (not him), “these clothes work just fine.” She eyed the glowing blue lights on Natasha’s wrist with a note of actual respect before she bent forward to pick up the chair and put it right. “Since you lost Bruce, is there any chance you still have access to Thor? Jane Foster? Erik Selvig?”

Steve fixed his shirt and picked up his own chair. “Thor went back to Asgard.”

Tony nodded. She was sitting on the chair, dipping to the side to pick up the cheeseburger that was still in the bag. There she was, smiling at Natasha as she unwrapped it, completely oblivious or completely unconcerned with the danger she was in.

“We’re fine,” Steve said. He grabbed the table by the leg and turned it back over. Natasha raised an eye at him and Sam was making a face behind her back. “We’re fine,” he repeated. They left again, pulling the door closed until the lock engaged and it was only him and this woman that was-and-was not Tony. “I don’t know where you’re from, but we generally don’t attack our teammates in this world.”

“So that thing where Thor picked Tony up by the throat, that was just foreplay? The part where you all stood around and blamed him for creating Ultron that was a circle jerk? A gang bang?”

“Nobody attacked Tony,” Steve repeated.

“Wanda attacked Tony.”

There was a point in every conversation with Tony when it became obvious there was no purpose in continuing, that they could not communicate regardless of their attempts. It was a bit like a strategic retreat, they had to part ways and count their wounded.

This woman smiled at him, “that’s a face I recognize. I’m a smart woman so I’m betting he’s a smart man and he can make just about anything he sets his mind to. I’ll let you blame him for filling the pot with water, but the witch started the fire and it was Loki’s scepter that made it explode.”

Tony made Ultron,” Steve repeated. “We all experience things we don’t like; we all saw things we didn’t want to see. Nobody else created a robot that almost destroyed the planet. People died, the ones that didn’t lost their homes. A city that used to exist doesn’t anymore. There has to be accountability.”

“I’m not up to date on all my history, Steven. Did you find out Hydra was hiding in Shield?”

“Yes,” Steve said.

Tony licked a bit of bread or burger out from between her teeth and cheek before she continued, “do me a favor? Tell me who killed Howard and Maria Stark?”

There was no explaining the way his chest went cold, how all the blood in his body seemed to momentarily come to a perfect stop. It was bait, and a trap, and an answer she already had judging by the way she watched him. Steve looked sideways at the camera and then back at her, “the Winter Soldier has been credited.”

Bucky,” Tony corrected. “Your buddy, Bucky.”

“Did you have a point?”

“He was your friend, wasn’t he?” Tony was building up to something that Steve didn’t want to see.

“Bucky?”

“Howard,” Tony finished the sandwich and licked her lips. (Steve didn’t answer because it didn’t seem like she needed his contributions anyway.) She looked sideways at where the shake had been once and frowned to find it splattered across the floor. “I don’t blame Bucky for what he did because he didn’t do it because he wanted to. He was being controlled. I don’t blame your Tony for building Ultron because he didn’t do it of sound mind and body. He was being used. But hey, why not invite the witch less than a month later. I’m sure she’s different now. You should get Thor to bring his brother by. I know he destroyed New York with an alien invasion but that was a few years back now, and he’s great at parties.”

“We’re done,” Steve said.

“Yes, we are,” Tony said. “I’m not your prisoner. I’m not staying here as one. You want to help me, that’s fantastic. You don’t? I’m a smart girl. I know how to figure things out.” She got up and motioned at the door, “Friday?” the locks turned and the door opened.

B SIDE

Steve was wearing the clothes she’d picked out for him, left hanging neatly on his side of the closet. It was a suit for a beach party (nobody’s going to swim anyway) and he’d made some attempt at protest because he wasn’t particularly fond of suits. At least not the type with ties and vests and neat creases.

“So that’s him?” Natasha said. She was sitting on the end of the bed, nursing a glass of (wine or beer or liquor, he never asked), dressed to turn heads at the party. “He’s—”

There were several adjectives that Steve might have used to best describe the man who had woken up on his wife’s side of the bed. Most of them weren’t very nice (rude, abrasive, mouthy), and some of them weren’t terribly kind (arrogant, brash, flighty) but at the end of the day there was only really the fact that he was some version of Tony. “He is,” Steve agreed. He sat in the chair across the room to pull his shoes on and ignored the way Natasha was watching him over the lip of her glass. “Did they sound like they had any ideas?”

“Thor suggested you check the mattress for scroll work,” Natasha said. “He said something about there being many mystical portals in and out of the world but he didn’t actually address the part where this man appears to be from a parallel world.”

“Did Jane have any ideas?”

“Jane was checking for weather phenomenon. She was talking to her assistant about reviewing the tapes of your bedroom from last night. I hope you had sex because that woman needs the thrill,” Natasha shook her head.

“Jane?”

“The assistant.”

Steve snorted. He finished tying his shoes and sat back in the chair. It was almost too small to fit in comfortably, not nearly deep enough to lean into. He ran his fingernail down the seam on the side and tried to figure out anything to say that felt like it was worth saying. “Of course we had sex.”

“Maybe I’ll watch the tapes too,” Natasha said. She winked at him with a dirty smile that should have made him smile back, but the effort was exhausting. When the joke felt flat, she got up, stood by the bed touching the things Tony had left behind. “How are you holding up?”

“I just want her back.”

“What are you going in the mean time?” The skirt she was wearing swished around her legs when she turned. Her finger was pointing out the open door, down to the main floor where the gathering of bright minds were trying-their-best. He could hear Thor and Erik and Jane all talking one over the other but he didn’t hear Tony. “He’s a mess.”

“It sounds like he’s been through a lot. Hey,” since he was trying to remember every bit of history Tony had mentioned throughout the day, “did we stop a terrorist called the Mandarin?”

“Aldrich Killian,” Natasha said. “He was using veterans as science experiments. Extremis?”

“Oh,” he remembered that guy; he hated that guy. Steve stood up and fixed his cuffs, ran his hand down his shirt to make sure it was flat and pointed his thumb out the door as he said (very quietly), “Tony said the Mandarin destroyed his house, this house.”

“Why?” Natasha asked.

Steve shrugged. He spread his arms, “how do I look?”

Natasha looked him over and smiled, “you look like she planned to strip you naked and fuck you on the beach.” That might have been funny too, if things were different, but it wasn’t funny here. “Maybe he’ll just go to sleep and tomorrow she’ll be back.”

Steve didn’t even need to tell her how unlikely he found that to be. She just slid her arm around his back and leaned her head against his shoulder. It was a nice gesture, a steadying sort of gesture, before he had to go downstairs to face everyone again. Before a party full of excuses, and Pepper smiling her way through lying to every person she spoke to.

B Side

At some point, a man had to have enough honesty to admit that he was of no use. He’d spent an hour off-center to a conversation about the possibility of inter-dimensional travel (about twenty minutes of which was Jane patting Thor’s arm every time he added something helpful that didn’t apply to the situation. Dimensions, Jane said, not realms). It wasn’t that Tony couldn’t follow; it wasn’t that he couldn’t have contributed.

It was just that, they were all there in a semi-circle, engaged and busy, each of them looking precisely like the people they had been yesterday when he was still living in a world he recognized. His head was a spinning top of half-thought observations, little things like:

He’d never really had a conversation with Jane Foster, never really had a reason to seek her out beyond an obligatory hello if they were ever in the same place. He’d read her articles in passing but he hadn’t lingered. She was beautiful with pink cheeks, talking about the possibilities of parallel travel and arguing with Selvig (a man that Tony had one or more conversations with) regarding what kind of phenomenon they would expect to find in correlation with their theories.

Thor was nodding along, interrupting to put in a big of ancient magic-science now and again. Even if it wasn’t very helpful, they didn’t interrupt him. It was easy to forget, in the heat of battle, that Thor was older than all of them together. He was a prince and a demi-God, full of eons of knowledge that maybe could and maybe couldn’t help. It didn’t matter where Tony was from, what sort of potential Thor had, beyond his ability to hit things with a hammer and control lightning.

Bruce protested he wasn’t useful but he didn’t shy away from the debate nonetheless, and now and again, he looked directly at Tony with a pinch of pain in his face.

Then there was Steve Rogers wearing a tailored suit, looking like a pin-up poster, walking right up to the gathering with a regretful face. “I hate to interrupt,” he said. (And it looked like he genuinely did hate to interrupt.) “We should head over to the party. Pepper’s going to meet us and brief us on the story regarding where our Tony is.”

Natasha was hovering just behind him, wearing a pretty dress, staring straight at Tony through the crowd. Her lips were quirked up in a neutral smile. It maybe was, or maybe was not a threat.

“Do not worry,” Thor was (suddenly) saying to him. He clapped his hand on Tony’s shoulder in a friendly way. “We will find a solution.” Jane was right there with him nodding along, smiling at him in a way that must have been reassuring to someone.

One by one they stopped to tell him they were going to figure it out before they headed for the door. Bruce lingered with his hands rubbing together, all nerves and uncertainty. “This must be overwhelming for you.”

“It’s certainly not underwhelming,” Tony agreed. “I would say I’m sufficiently whelmed.”

Bruce tried to smile but it didn’t quite make it. “We’ll figure it out. We always figure it out.” Then he left with another pained smile. He passed Steve still standing there looking across the suddenly empty space at him, Bruce said, “you coming?” to Steve who nodded.

The house was silent and settling; Steve said, “are you going to be okay?”

(And well, look at that, there hadn’t even been a point in trying not to answer that question after all. Trust Captain Rogers to hunt a man down with dogged determination.) Tony’s hands were in someone else’s pants pockets, he was standing in a living room that was-and-wasn’t his own, watching people that weren’t his friends (but looked like them) walk out to attend a birthday party for a woman who had his name and his life story. He was fantastic. “Everything’s hunky-dory,” Tony said. (If only for how it made Steve wrinkle up his whole face in disapproval of the word.) “Do you think she would mind if I took a peek around the lab. It was designed to solve problems like this. I could make a pass at it in the bedroom but it’s in everyone’s best interest to have the most tools—” He wasn’t interrupted, he just ran out of things he wanted to say.

Steve (her husband, the protector of her things and her good name) didn’t seem like he wanted to allow it but still he nodded. “Yeah. Under the circumstances I think she’d understand. Just, try to put things back where you found them. She says there’s a purpose for the,” he motioned in a circle to indicate everything beneath their feet, “chaos.”

“Sure,” Tony agreed. “Go, have fun. Tell Pepper I’m sorry.” They parted ways with awkward smiles: Steve to go and keep up pretenses, and Tony down the stairs and into the lab. He’d rebuilt one (or two) since he’d lost this one. They were technologically superior but they were lacking that certain sentimentality. “Wake up,” he whispered to the room, “Daddy’s home.”

The room reacted to the sound of his voice, the screens flickered on and Dum-E (precious, stupid Dum-E) lifted up with a whirr and a hopeful beep. Tony breathed in the smell of the lab: a bit of old coffee, a great deal of machine parts, and a certain smell of baby soft leather. It was like living in a memory. There was nobody there to observe him, nobody to follow him around looking wounded, no reason not to take a look at the suits standing up in their display cases.

“Jarvis, remind me.” There was the Mark II looking outdated but collecting no dust. “I was kidnapped?”

“Yes sir. You were taken hostage by a terrorist organization that referred to itself as the Ten Rings as part of a plot engineered by Obidiah Stane to take control of Stark Industries. After approximately two months and eighteen days you escaped captivity using the Mark I and were rescued by Colonel Rhodes.”

The Mark III was looking good for a suit that had been more or less destroyed by the time he took it off. The paint job had been redone but not all of the dings and dents had been fixed. It looked good standing there, a very pleasant reminder that he’d survived. It had been years since he’d thought of Stane, since he’d lingered on the moment the man who had almost been a father had tried to kill him. (Best not to linger on that thought.) “I shut down weapons manufacturing?”

“Yes sir.”

“How did I fix the palladium poisoning?” He left the suits to their silent sentry duty. Dum-E turned to follow him moving around the room, making little noises when he paused at a countertop to pick up and set down the tools left laying out.

“Natasha Romanoff was sent to assess your fitness to be a member of the Avengers Initiative. Upon the completion of her assessment, Director Fury reached out to you with information regarding a potential new element theorized by Howard Stark.”

“Where did it change?” he whispered to the poster hanging on the wall. It was the Iron Man’s face, artfully done. He remembered hanging it when he thought he was dying and there it was in this stranger’s lab. Dum-E mumbled an inquiring noise. “What was the result of Natasha’s assessment?”

“You were recommended for inclusion in the Initiative. You did not officially join until the following year,” Jarvis said.

Well. Ask and receive answers. Tony collapsed into the chair and tapped his fingers on the keypad in front of him. It turned beautifully blue, helpfully lighting up should he want to use it. He smiled and shook his head (and reminded himself that none of this—not a single part of it—was his). “When did I meet Cap?”

“You were introduced to Captain Rogers in December of 2011.” Jarvis was quiet a moment and then, as if he had been waiting the entire day to ask, “sir, are you feeling well?”

“I’m great, Jarvis. I’m living the dream.” He sank back into the chair and smiled at how nicely it leaned back, how well he fit into it. “Where do I keep the liquor, Jarvis?”

“It has been exactly three years since your last drink, sir.” He must have been instructed to remind her of that; it felt like a poke to remind her that she had given it up; that she didn’t need to fall back into the habit (and why would she? Her life had turned out beautifully).

“Tell you what,” Tony said. “We’ll just leave this one off the record. Where’s the liquor?”

Jarvis didn’t like that (very much, judging by the delay in his answer) but he answered, “the alcohol is kept upstairs, sir.”

Yes, of course it was.

A SIDE

Nobody attempted to stop her from taking the suit; that said enough about their concept of crisis management to make her sick. (Then again, in the end, she would have gotten the suit back even if they had put up a fight. But at least a fight might have said something a bit nicer about their concept of what was an enemy and what was a friend.)

The bedroom she woke up in that morning was dark and empty when she came back to it. Standing in the doorway, feeling weighted and slow, it felt like the single most painful part of the day. This wasn’t her room; this wasn’t the day she had planned. This wasn’t the world she belonged it—and standing there with her arms hanging off her shoulders (feeling useless, feeling heavy) the anger that had sustained her bled into something gray. There was a dark pit in the back of her head, a whispery place that filled up with nightmares when left unattended. She’d spent the past three years channeling all that energy into better things but now and again, those spindle-armed-things crept out of the well, they filled up her head with monsters.

“We don’t have time for that,” she whispered to the gathering despair. The trouble was, she didn’t have anything but time. An unknown quantity of time in an unknown land and she’d introduced herself to her only allies with violence (nothing like letting rage win over sense).

But no. No. None of that. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hands and cleared her throat. There was a matter of dirty clothes on the floor, and careless debris on the tables to be attended to. She worked methodically, tidying up to distract herself from half-discovered regrets.

(Like Steve’s stupid face the second before she wrenched the shield up and to the side. The shock that anyone was smart enough to avoid a target as shiny and obvious as a big round shield. The wide-eyed-surprise that made his whole arrogant face look as fresh as a newborn.)

Maybe Tony threw the glass liquor bottle on purpose, maybe she wanted it to shatter inside the trashcan by the wall. Maybe she was just trying to drop it, to remove it from her line of sight. “Fuck,” she said to it, to the bits of glass all over the floor. She was wearing damp socks and no shoes. “Fuck,” was redundant and necessary, felt like it was the only thing worth saying at the moment. Her hands were clenched up in fists and every bit of her body was vibrating.

“Friday,” she said.

“Sir?” Wasn’t that funny, now that she had a few seconds to think about it, that this AI she’d never met had not once questioned who she was. That was funny, how it was funny that the jackass wearing Steve’s face had looked at her with absolutely certainty that she was-exactly-who-she-said. She was a precisely maintained beard, a few years of unanswered exhaustion and at least an inch of shoulders short of being exactly the same as the man who took up her place in this world. (Probably, also, several inches of penis short but she didn’t want to make assumptions on that matter.)

“Is there a gym?”

“Yes sir.”

Tony left the broken glass and the half-cleaned room for the bright-lit-beauty of the gym. She hadn’t ever, exactly, been opposed to learning how to fight. It had been a pastime with Rhodey, sparring on gym mats (and mattresses, and tile floors, in dorm rooms and club bathrooms, wherever she could incite him into a decent fight) and a great time-killer between projects and board meetings. She’d taken it up in earnest in the weeks after she put Obidiah in the ground (in that space getting caught up in the glory of being a real god damn hero and the realization that if the shrapnel didn’t kill her the palladium poisoning would).

The punching bag hanging from the ceiling had the distinct look of being more of an ornament than anything. (Of course it did; here in this lonely little world, full of sour things, there was nobody around to bother with the damn thing.)

“Friday, play me something loud,” she said while she taped her hands.

Tony was just getting warmed up, just starting to exorcise that demon that lived in the back of her head. (Thinking things on repeat like, this was my god-damn birthday and how some-other-Tony was taking up space with her fucking husband. And Steve, her Steve was probably working overtime to figure it out. There was a party to manage and no wife to show up to it, she could imagine him in the fucking tailored suit, looking apologetic and lying through his pretty white teeth. He wasn’t good at it—he couldn’t be left alone to lie to people. So, it was Pepper smiling with apologies, making up some story or another that Natasha would circulate through the crowd. It was a motherfucking clusterfuck and who god damn knew what this disaster Tony from this stupid world was doing in her house.) She was screaming at the stupid punching bag, feeling the warm-warm-feeling of well-used-muscles, thinking of all the things she didn’t get today, working around to being able to think it through well enough to do something about it.

The music went dead suddenly, the whole gym echoing with the sudden silence and the strike of her fist against the bag. Tony was dripping sweat, just soaked straight through the shirt, and breathing hard.

You’re her?” Pepper asked from across the room. She was-and-wasn’t the exact same as the best friend Tony had left behind: dressed up like she was expecting a dinner date with a grimace on her face and her voice full of tumbling rocks.

“I am her,” Tony agreed. She rubbed her face on the hem of the shirt she wore (which did almost nothing). “I didn’t know you were here.”

“Yeah,” Pepper agreed. She didn’t seem like she wanted to come closer. That other side of the sparring ring must have been safer. “What happened?”

“Don’t know,” Tony said. She started unwinding the tape (thinking a shower wouldn’t have been entirely out of the question).

“Are you going to figure it out?” was more accusing than was necessary.

“Trust me when I say that nobody is more motivated to figure this out than I am. You think I want to be here?” She threw the balled up tape on the floor. Tony leaned against the ropes of the training ring, watched Pepper frown at those words. “If your Tony is in my world, he’s fine. I’ll do what I can here, but he has resources that I don’t.”

“Oh,” was Pepper laughing, “what are those?”

“Friends,” Tony said.

That made her frown even harder and she reached out to pick at the rope like she found a bit of lint or fluff or a stray thread in it. “Tony has friends,” was so automatic there was no thinking about it. “You attacked the Avengers’ compound. So, you should know.” There was a particular way that her Pepper always implied disapproval with her voice. A certain way that she smiled at him, that her hair moved when she spoke that spelled out D-A-N-G-E-R for anyone that was smart enough to see the obvious signs. This Pepper was disapproving but it wasn’t a well-choreographed dance. It was condemnation bleeding into her wounded voice. “Rhodey said you broke Steve’s arm.”

“Steven is fine,” Tony said.

“You broke his arm,” she repeated.

“That will heal in two days or less.” It was best not to go into the science of exactly how much force and velocity it took to break Steve’s arm. She’d calculated it back in her own world, when she was still more bitter about the living-breathing-science-experiment (that her father had loved with far more consistency than he’d loved her) than she was interested in making friends with the man. Her Pepper had rolled her eyes about it (but she understood, it was only curiosity, because the man could get thrown through a wall and emerge unharmed), but this Pepper looked like she might have taken it with less humor. “Would you stop frowning at me if I promised you that I know it’s not causing him any significant pain?”

“No,” Pepper said.

Well, then there was nothing at all that she could do.

“How are we supposed to trust you? How are we supposed to work with you?”

That was the stupidest thing that she’d been asked today. Her brain was filling up with rude answers faster than she could think around them. Maybe if it had been Steven standing across the ring from her she would spit them out (one after another), a dozen or two dozen or three dozen little accusations, but it was Pepper looking heartbroken. (Tony wondered, again, what her Steve had looked like when he woke up to find her gone, to find a strange man taking up space at his side.) “I want to go home,” Tony said. “That’s all I’m concerned with now.”

Pepper had tears in her eyes, “we were supposed to have dinner,” her hand motioned at her outfit. “He’s not here.”

Tony didn’t laugh (but she might have, if she thought Pepper could have found humor in the terrible). “I was supposed to fuck my husband on a beach.”

That did make her smile, just a little. “You’re married?”

Tony nodded. “Yeah. He’s a great guy.” (Looks a bit like the dick you’ve got masquerading as the leader of the Avengers.) “You and Tony, your Tony, you’re—”

“Dating,” Pepper filled in. (Well, wasn’t that a kick in the pants.) “I can’t believe his clothes fit you.”

“You and me both,” Tony said. She ran her hand up the sweaty shirt, cupped her hands around her breast and shrugged. “Although there are a few key wardrobe items I’m missing.” That made Pepper smile too. “Bra, underwear, maybe some shoes.”

There was Pepper, trying her best, wiping tears away from her eyes. “We can, we can definitely get you those things in the morning. Whatever you need.” She looked like she was trying to smile, to sweep away all the nonsense of the day. “It has been a very long day and I think I should sleep.”

Tony nodded along. “Good night Ms. Potts.”

“Good night,” she answered. Her mouth looked like it was working around to forming the word ‘Tony’ and failing. “Ms. Stark,” she said instead as she just let her hand slid off the rope and walked toward the door with her heels echoing in the quiet of the room.

B SIDE

It was Pepper, to the side of the party, that touched his arm with her fingertips and said, “you should go. It’s okay. Nobody expected you’d even be here this long.” She meant every word with the sweetest sort of support. It was just that the reasons he wasn’t supposed to stay at the party were very different now than they had been the night before. “I’ve got this,” Pepper assured him.

Steve took the escape she provided him because smiling had made his face feel bruised and he wasn’t sure how many more times he could laugh off the innuendo that he’d finally knocked Tony up. (Really, it was truly amazing how many unique ways people could think up to say the same damn thing.)

The house felt empty when he let himself in. “Where is he, Jarvis?”

“Mr. Stark is in the guest room, sir.”

That was where Steve found him, sleeping (or passed out) face-down on the bed with all his clothes still on. The bottle he had been drinking from was sitting on the edge of the bedside table. (Steve thought, at least he’s sleeping.) There was no way to get the blankets out from under Tony without waking him up so he retrieved a clean one from the linen closet and spread it over him. The man didn’t notice beyond a flinch between his eyebrows that smoothed out again in the next second. “Sleeping on your stomach is going to make your back hurt,” he said. There was no telling if it was true, maybe things were different for this version of Tony. It didn’t matter, he picked the bottle up off the bedside table and took it with him.

Perhaps the most genuinely unfortunate thing about Erskine’s success was how quickly Steve’s body metabolized alcohol. He couldn’t get drunk on anything short of Thor’s immortal liquor and even that had a short-lived buzz. It didn’t mean he hadn’t given it the old college try now and again. Didn’t mean there wasn’t a kind of phantom comfort in taking a swig of (scotch, tasted like, probably scotch) to ease the uneasiness of the day. He drained the bottle between the guest room and the training room, dropped it in the trash can by the door and started pulling apart the buttons of the suit.

The jacket and the vest he threw in a chair, the shirt was hung over the ropes of the training ring. He left the shoes and his socks in mid-step, just taking up space somewhere between the entrance and his (recently renovated) half of the gym. He thought about punching (the wall, the windows, anything that wouldn’t give) and ended up with both of his fists wrapped around the pull-up bar, leaning his weight forward, trying to find a point of peace.

It was just, Bruce’s quiet, the way he lingered at the edge of the crowd. It was how they were all talking-and-trying-not-to about what had happened and how to fix the problem. In between clusters of guests that were just happy to be invited to a real fine event, every conversation among his friends had been how this could have happened.

It was only Bruce, rubbing one fist against his other palm, playing the part of the rational-minded pessimist. “We should probably be considering what to do if we cannot reverse this.” It was a painful sentence to say, a terrible one to hear, but it was true too. “We don’t know what he can do, if he is familiar with her suits, with our team—”

Bruce meant, how does this effect the team. (He also meant, what if we can’t get her back.)

Steve wasn’t ready for thoughts like that. It was too damn late in a terrible day, too fucking early to give up yet. Every unhappy little part of him was clinging to the what-ifs and they went in cyclones around his head, breaking apart all his optimistic thoughts.

They would figure it out. They always figured it out.

(But what if they didn’t? What if they couldn’t?)

It didn’t matter tonight; there was nothing to do about it tonight. Tomorrow he would have to look at it, the whole big picture, he’d have to gather the team, he’d have to consult opinions and make an educated decision. He’d have to figure out if Tony could operate the suits if the need arose, if they needed him to, if they could function as a team with an unknown entity.

(A drunk one, sleeping in a guest room.)

Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow they would have to start coming up with contingencies and that left him with tonight and nothing. Nothing to do, nothing to think, nothing to cope with.

“I thought I’d find you here,” Natasha said. She was lingering in the doorway, wearing the clothes she sparred in, dropping the dress she’d had on at the party to the side. “I was just thinking, it’s too bad Barton couldn’t come. I could really use a sparring buddy.”

“It’s not a good time,” Steve said.

“You think you can take me in a fight, Rogers?” she countered.

That was a question they had been dancing around figuring out an answer to for the past three years. There was no denying that Natasha had skills that surpassed his own (in many areas) but there was something to be said for the sheer brute strength. “I don’t know, Romanoff. I just don’t think now is the right time to find out.”

“It’ll help me sleep,” she said. (What she meant was, it’ll help you sleep. But it was nice of her not to say it outright.) “Get your ass in the ring, Rogers.”

He sighed. (There really was no arguing with her.) “Rules?”

Natasha was stretching while she thought. “No rules.”

That just meant she planned on hitting him as many times as she could. Here he had been thinking it was something like a friendly sparring match. What she’d meant was it was going to escalate from zero to a hundred in three seconds or less. “I’m wearing nice pants,” he said.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” she promised. Her smile was reassuring in the last second before she moved to attack him. (And even that, in its own way, was a welcome relief.)

Chapter Text

A Side

The morning brought no relief from the day before. (Could have been, perhaps, that Steve had not slept. He couldn’t be sure anymore but it felt like the idea was that sleep made things better, not the sun rising again.) Staring at the repeating tape of Stark going through the motions of stripping out of his day-time-suit while stopping now and again to talk to himself and drink, getting into sleeping clothes and falling asleep only to jerk awake at 5:09 as a woman had not provided any answers.

There was nothing on the tape, not so much as a glitch in the image to give them any sort of idea what time the Tony’s had been switched. No matter how many times he watched it the details never changed. Everything made sense right up to the moment the wrong Tony woke up.

Sam brought him coffee, looking like he was still more asleep than awake. It smelled strong and black (with just a hint of sugar) not that it would matter because caffeine, like alcohol, had no effect on him at all. “How’s the arm?” Sam asked. He pulled a second chair up to watch the tape rather than stare pointedly at all the pieces of the splint he’d pulled off in the middle of the night.

“It’s fine,” Steve answered. He leaned back into the chair with a long sigh. “How’s the,” he motioned at his own neck and Sam reached up to run his fingers across the place the dart had hit.

“Best I’ve slept in years,” Sam said. He sounded amused to have been shot with a sleep dart. Amused to be sitting there watching the screen play forward through the night just one more time. “It’s kind of a relief you know.”

The only thing happening on the screen was Tony sitting on the edge of the bed, fiddling with his phone. There wasn’t anything particularly relieving about that. (Much less so when one considered how much alcohol Tony had consumed and how much lethal machinery he had at his command.) “What?”

“You can get your ass kicked,” Sam said. He was grinning into his coffee cup, looking very pleased with himself as he said it. This wasn’t even the first time Steve had gotten his ass kicked because he had already woken up in a hospital room with this very same man sitting next to him. No, Sam grinned quietly to himself until he knew he was being stared at before he added, “by a girl. Gives me hope for the rest of us normal people.”

“Bucky put me in the hospital,” Steve said. “My arm doesn’t even hurt. There’s no comparison.”

“Man,” Sam countered, “you stood there and let her punch you in the face. She’s like this big,” he held up his hand to indicate a height much shorter than Tony actually was. “Like this big around,” was his finger in a slim circle also significantly exaggerated, “That was half the size of Bucky. He had a robotic arm, some superhero serum. She was going to kick your ass with nothing but her fists. There is no comparison.”

“I was surprised,” Steve said.

“No, I get that.”

Steve was all set to leave the conversation behind, to move on to things that mattered (like where this Tony was from and how to get their Stark back). “I don’t even know what I’m looking at. Nothing happens. He’s gone; she’s there instead.”

“Maybe you didn’t see her move.” Sam shifted in his seat so he could look at the screen more closely, “like how you didn’t see her getting up to punch you. How many concussions have you had? Maybe it’s your age, your vision’s getting bad.”

“There’s nothing wrong with my vision.”

“So, you saw her get up to punch you?”

Yes, he’d seen it. Even if he had been trying to ignore the obvious signs, the animal part of his brain that responded to violence automatically should have made a move to protect itself. No, every little part of him had just stood there with his side smarting from being struck with a chair and let her punch him in the face. “Are you done?” he asked.

Sam shrugged.

“Because we have a problem,” Steve motioned at the screen, “that deserves at least some of our attention.”

Sam hummed his agreement. “How are we feeling about her? I mean, are we really going to let her have control over,” he motioned his hand over his head to indicate the building, (or just Friday), and the sky and the general idea of all the things Tony Stark owned and controlled. “I’m not sure it’d be a wise idea to trust her.”

“I don’t trust her,” Steve said. Or, at least, he trusted her less than he trusted Stark normally. “I just don’t see how we’re going to stop her. Do you know how to override Stark’s protocols? I don’t even know why Friday listens to her, I don’t even know she can control the suits? She’s not Tony. I mean she is,” because she was, “but she isn’t.”

“And she can kick your ass,” Sam conceded (with his shit-eating grin resting so easily on his face). “But, even as smart as Tony is, there’s got to be someone smarter than him.”

That was doubtful. Stark seemed like exactly the sort of person that would teach himself any field of study just to prove he could. He had a brain like a machine, every part working constantly, turning over every problem he encountered to produce a solution before anyone else had time to think of the problem. (If that wasn’t so infuriating; it might have been more of an asset.) “It’s not just a matter of being smarter than him. We don’t know what else he’s built. What if we go poking around and we find another Ultron?”

Sam nodded. “So, what are our options?”

They did not have options. They had a single option and that was getting this Tony back to her own universe as quickly as possible. In the meantime, it meant continuing as they had done. Tony had already excused himself from the Avengers; she wouldn’t need to do anything but stay in the tower and figure out how to get home. “We help her,” Steve said. “I don’t know how. This,” he motioned at the screen, “isn’t anything I’ve seen before.”

“Too bad we don’t have the lightning god,” Sam said.

“Or Bruce,” Steve agreed.

“We know where Jane Foster is, don’t we?” Sam was concentrating on the screen as it sped toward five-oh-nine so that when the man sleeping on the bed jerked upright as a woman, he jumped. “That’s just,” he started, “that’s a damn good magic trick.”

Steve didn’t know exactly where Jane Foster was but he had the resources to find out. It just meant he’d have to call Fury. “I’m going for a run,” he said. He didn’t bother to turn the screen off as the tape reset itself to the night before.

“You sure?” Sam asked. He was looking at Steve’s arm, “it could be dangerous out there. What if she comes back?”

It was just as easy to walk away from that question as it was to answer it.

He heard Sam call from inside the room, “make sure you call if you see her shadow!”

Outside, the sun was creeping up away from the horizon, spreading enough light to make a passable imitation of daylight without making anything too warm. It was good weather for running, he stretched (out of practice, not necessity). He meant to run but he found himself standing in the quiet instead, resting his hands on his hips and staring at the streak of dirt his body had tilled up when it hit.

There was a hole where her fist had gone through, he kicked at the clumps of grass, the bits of dirt to fill it in (just a little) and crouched down to run his fingers along the grainy-damp-earth. (What was it she said yesterday. Nobody here really understand you.) Steve shook his head, like shaking off the doubt and the discontent (and failed). Running wouldn’t change anything but it bought him enough time to try to think of a better solution.

B Side

Breakfast was a selection of favorites: eggs, sausage, muffins, some sort of fried potatoes and fresh fruit on pretty platters. Tony had followed the smell of it and discovered his not-husband in the kitchen frying eggs with his shirt off.

“There’s coffee too,” Steve said. It was distracted, half-interested, mostly spoken to the sausage patties still in the pan. “I don’t know if you drink coffee. I just heard it helps with,” and like he didn’t even want to say the dirty word out loud, “hangovers.”

Tony was ambivalent about coffee; it served a purpose and sometimes it was good and sometimes it wasn’t. Still, a steaming mug would be very helpful in washing away the bad taste of last night’s nightmare. (An old favorite featuring an alien planet, a pile of his team mate’s body parts and Steve fucking Rogers gasping, you didn’t save us. Wasn’t it funny how it was almost a relief to have a familiar nightmare in the midst of this surrealistic event.) “Now, now Cap,” Tony said. “Just because you can’t enjoy the wonders of alcohol like the rest of us doesn’t mean you have to be jealous.” He poured a cup and picked up the paper off the counter. (It must have been meant for Steve, who seemed like a man concerned with words printed on paper.)

“Jealous isn’t the word I’d use to describe it,” Steve answered. He dished up breakfast on a nice plate and set it on the table in front of Tony without so much as asking if he wanted it. (The fact that Tony did, and it smelled delicious, not being the important bit.) “Did you sleep well?” was not a question Steve wanted to ask him as he sat in his own seat. His plate was noticeably fuller and when Tony raised an eyebrow, his doting not-husband said, “I have a higher metabolism, I eat a lot.”

“I did not know that,” Tony said.

“Well why would you, we’re not friends,” Steve countered. It was almost as bitter as the coffee, almost in sync with his image of the man. Except for how it was immediately ruined, except for how Steve looked disappointed in himself, “that was uncalled for.”

“I slept,” Tony assured him. Since they were being civil (or trying) he ate his breakfast and read the entertainment section. He was part of the way through a review of a play (he thought it was a play, every other word just seemed to get fuzzy and lose meaning) before he said, “so what’s the plan for today?”

“I’ve got to meet with the others,” Steve said. “We’ve got—” (secret) “business we have to talk about. Pepper will be here after twelve. I’m sure she’ll want to talk about what kind of story we’ll have to use to explain why you’re living here, who you are, where you came from. I think Jane and Erik wanted to meet up with you again, see if you could come up with a plausible theory together.” Every word was metered out exactly; every syllable used precisely. It was the most deliberate monologue Tony had ever listened to. “I’ve got prior obligations that I have to take care of. I might be gone a few days.”

Tony nodded. “Was Iron Man part of those obligations? Am I still Iron Man? Iron Woman? Iron Lady?”

“Iron Man,” Steve said. “That’s what the papers were calling her before they found out who she was.” But no mention of whether the other Tony was supposed to go along with the business trip.

“Are you mad at me about drinking?” Tony asked. It might have been more polite to leave it alone (but when was he ever polite? Really?). “Yesterday was, I felt, the sort of day that deserved a drink.”

“I’m not angry,” was a terrible, obvious lie. “You’re a grown man. You make your own choices.”

“I told Jarvis not to hold it against her,” Tony said. There was no telling how she’d phrased the original command to remind her that she’d quit drinking; so it might not have been of any use to bother with it. (The thought should count, though. That was a phrase, it was the thought that counted.)

“Thank you,” Steve said. He’d finished eating (which was amazing since Tony had barely managed to nibble a quarter of the way through his own breakfast). Either practice or manners kept him stuck in his seat as he worked through something he was thinking-about-saying. “I should go,” probably wasn’t what he wanted to say.

“Have a good day, honey,” Tony said.

That made Steve laugh (just once, like a bleat of shock). “She doesn’t call me honey,” he said as he got up. The dishes scraped the table when he picked them up, smiling at the very notion of it.

“Sweetie?” Tony said, “snookums? Sugar? Teddy bear?”

“Sometimes she calls me spangles,” Steve said (still smiling). He tipped his cup up to drink the last of his milk (of course Captain fucking America drank his daily required allotment of milk) before he set the dishes in the sink.

“Spangles,” Tony repeated.

Steve nodded, one hand on his hip, the other resting on the counter (clearly used to be effortlessly attractive and on display at all times). “There’s an occasional darling. I think she’s mocking me, she says she’s trying to remind me of when I grew up.” (The thing was, if this Tony was anything like him, she was mocking Steve.) Cap blushed over whatever he was thinking, shrugged his shoulders like it didn’t matter. “Most of the time she calls me sexy.”

Tony didn’t mean to laugh but it bubbled right out of his chest, filled up his throat and erupted into the room. Steve was laughing too, caught up in his pink-cheeked embarrassment and fond-memories.

“I should go,” Steve said when the laughter faded into quiet again. “Pepper will let herself in. Try to think of what you want your story to be?”

Tony nodded. When Steve left, he sat in the kitchen thinking about eating (and failing to follow through) before he refilled his coffee mug and carried it with him down to the lab. Opening the door still felt quite-a-bit like a poking a bruise. Standing just inside the door, concentrating on the smell of the room: clean and metal was still a shade too painful to ignore. But it wasn’t as breathtaking now as it had been the night before. “Jarvis,” he said, “did you finish compiling that data for the twenty eighth?”

“Yes sir.”

“Let’s see it,” Tony said. He sat in the chair. The space in front of him filled up with facts-and-figures and a little video running in the corner that had to have been security feed from the house. It was six playbacks all playing simultaneously, showing everything from the parking lot to the waves in the water. “Pull the same information for the Avengers tower in New York, Jarvis. We’ll need it for comparison.”

Not that, at present, Tony had any idea of what he was comparing.

A SIDE

It took Tony two wrong turns before she located the kitchen. (The exhaustion might have been a contributing factor.) She had expected that it would be empty, but all things considered, it wasn’t surprising to find Pepper sitting at the table sipping out of a coffee mug, looking perfectly professional scanning the news on a tablet.

She must have been shocking to Pepper, what with how she was wearing nothing but the nice white button down she’d picked up off the floor last night. It was long enough to pass for a very immodest (as Steve would say) dress but not nearly long enough to cover the fact Tony still hadn’t found any undergarments. Her hair was doing a credible job of defying gravity, and absent a brush and some hair gel, it was curling into half-hearted swirls everywhere it could. “Morning,” Tony said to Pepper’s aghast expression.

“Good morning,” was compulsory. “You forgot your pants.”

Tony shrugged and padded toward the fridge. “I can’t imagine it’s the first time.” In her house, it had become almost a customary practice to forget one’s pants in the morning. Steve hadn’t caught on to the nature of the game yet but even if he started the day with pants on, he could generally be talked out of them before breakfast.

This fridge, not her fridge, was full of colorful bottles of perfectly healthy food, prepackaged dishes with labels espousing their all-natural good-for-you qualities. She grabbed the creamer (presumably fat free, perhaps even non-dairy) and slapped the fridge shut. “Am I that health conscious?”

Pepper was half turned in her chair, eyebrows lifted to her hairline, looking completely unimpressed. “No, you aren’t.”

“Thank God,” Tony mumbled. She filled her cup and opened the creamer to sniff it. (It had a bland, milky smell. So unflavored creamer but possibly still with a suitable amount of calories.) “Do we have sugar?”

“In the sugar jar.” (There was something deeply familiar with how fed up with her Pepper was. Something almost funny about it.) “I have a few hours this morning that I can devote to assisting you in finding clothing and getting you set up with authorization to access the system.”

“I have access.” Tony poured as much sugar as could be expected to dissolve into the coffee and sipped it (still a bit too bitter but it wasn’t undrinkable) before opening the cabinets in search of something that didn’t seem like it would be entirely terrible.

“There are security concerns,” Pepper said.

Tony snorted at that. “Well, if we’re listing our security concerns, let’s talk about why you let a man who clearly has no idea how to lead a team be the leader of a group of super powered vigilantes? Let’s,” she found a box of breakfast cookies that didn’t look terrible and brought the whole thing with her as she went to sit at the table opposite Pepper, “talk about how Steven Grant Rogers, aka Captain America was given an honorary title back when he was a USO performer and his big break as a hero was disobeying direct orders and engaging an enemy he had no knowledge of? That’s what we in the business call dumb luck.”

Pepper sighed. “Nobody questions Steve’s qualifications to run the team.”

“That’s going to get you in trouble,” Tony said. She dunked one of the cookies (possibly blueberry) into the coffee and shoved the whole thing into her mouth. It wasn’t necessarily an unpleasant taste but the coffee did not do the blueberry any favors. “It’s not my business, I get that it’s not my business.”

“The Avengers have, we all have legitimate concerns. We feel it would be best to limit your access to our files and the Iron Man su—”

“I’m going to stop you right there,” Tony said. “If Steven wants to take my toys, you can tell him to drive up here like a big boy and tell me himself. You can’t lock me out. I built the system, I know the failsafes and I know who has the override codes. I have no interest in interfering with or antagonizing the Avengers or their missions from this point on. I want to go home.” That didn’t mean that she was going to stand by idly, twiddling her thumbs, while they went about the business of slowly stealing this-Tony’s-work. (Because there was nothing in the history she saw, nothing at all, that said they’d ever give it back.) “So, where are we going panty shopping?”

Pepper could not physically have been less amused with her. “I hope you appreciate this is serious.”

“I couldn’t agree more.”

“Tony has worked very hard to reach the point he’s at now. He’s respected in his fields, he’s accomplished, he’s finally,” Pepper said that word with more emphasis than she’d spoken about anything up to that moment, “ready to move on. You may not have asked to be brought here, you may not know why, but if you really are Tony—any version of Tony—you should appreciate that he would like to have his life back how he left it.” She leaned back in her seat, legs crossed, hands in her lap (all the earmarks of a Pepper about to go for a kill). “If we can’t convince you to treat the situation with care, maybe thinking about how your actions effect his life can.”

There were six-or-seven-or-eight objections just to the idea of ‘moving on’ and Pepper’s expectations of what that meant but the general idea of what she said was true enough. Tony was repeating herself (again, again), when she said, “I want to go home. That’s all I care about. That and panties, maybe some pants, a bra wouldn’t hurt.”

Pepper just sighed. “We can’t go until you have pants on.”

“I’ll go get them.”

“Change your shirt,” Pepper said before Tony made it very far. “He has plain black T-shirts, wear one of those. Try not to wear something that looks like you picked it up off his floor.” Because she was his girlfriend, and if she were anything at all like the Pepper of Tony’s world, she had already seen a parade of girls wearing borrowed clothes waltzing out of the house.

“Sure,” Tony said. “Meet you in the lobby.”

B SIDE

Tony had offered to build them a proper Avengers base, complete with a glowing sign to announce to the world that Superheros Often Congregated Here but after a three-week argument, the team had decided it simply wasn’t worth the time, money and notoriety. Instead they had an office building on a busy street, the exact sort of eyesore that nobody liked but nobody really paid attention to. There were some modern conveniences, a security system, a nice coffee machine, a fully stock fridge and a basement with enough soundproofing and precautionary equipment to have a reasonable feeling of safety when discussing private matters.

By the time Steve arrived, everyone else was already sitting around the conference table with empty plates and half-full cups, looking as if they had taken the precaution of already having the discussion without him. “Good morning,” he said.

Nobody seemed to exactly know how to respond to that, even Thor who was very good in awkward situations was glancing sideways at Bruce in a manner that clearly indicated someone would have to respond.

Natasha rolled her eyes, “good morning Steve,” she said. “Tony still not herself?”

“Yes,” Steve pulled out his chair and sat down. It was just as safe to look at the table top as it was to watch everyone react to the news. (Not that ‘maybe you’ll wake up and she’ll be back’ had much chance of happening.) “Is Barton coming?”

The empty seat to the left of Natasha was obnoxiously quiet (as opposed to when Barton was present, and it alternated between obnoxious quiet and quiet obnoxiousness). She glanced at it, “he was delayed, he’ll be here. We have to move on this, Steve. This is the last Hydra base, this could potentially be the end.”

“I agree,” Thor said. “We must retrieve the scepter before it can do any more harm on this planet. It has powers that are not safe in mortal hands.”

“As opposed to the immortal hands that used it tear a hole in a sky?” Natasha said. She was grinning at an argument that had been going on for six-or-more-months, ever since they discovered the scepter had been taken by Hydra. Thor crossed his arms over his chest and Natasha just smirked.

“No,” Bruce interrupted, “we have to. The question isn’t is it necessary but how we plan to do it without Iron Man.”

Steve motioned at Bruce and the much-more-important point that he made. The whole room seemed to settle a good foot lower than it had been a moment before. Thor moved his feet under the table so his boots scraped across the concrete and he found a very fascinating spot on the table to stare at.

Natasha ran her fingers through her hair to push it away from her face, licking at a split in her lip from the sparring match the night before. “If this Tony can control Jarvis, he should be able to use the suits.”

“No,” Steve said. There was a difference between offering a pair of her pants and offering use of her suits. Tony had spent six years recreating her image from the shadow of an irresponsible arms-dealer (so the papers said) into a respected member of the world, a defender and avenger that protected people who didn’t have the power to do it themselves. Steve wasn’t going to hand her identity over to a stranger from a world full of disasters that drank himself to sleep. “We’re going to have to do this one without Iron Man.”

“What about Rhodey?” Bruce asked. “We’d probably have to get clearance from the government but, they have to want Hydra neutralized as well?”

“The suit’s only half the equation,” Natasha said. “Rhodey’s great, we can use all the fire power we can get but you heard Tony, that base is covered in technology. She couldn’t even tell us what we were up against. It was a dumb idea last week when we had a genius that could problem solve on short notice. It’s a dumber idea now.”

“We’ve been up against worse odds,” Steve countered.

“We have the Hulk,” Thor said. He motioned sideways to Bruce as if the presence of him would negate any need for Tony. (If only it were so easy to brush aside concerns.) “I have not seen any technology that can stand up to the might of the Hulk.”

“Thanks,” Bruce said.

Natasha was giving Thor the stink eye while he looked perfectly innocent.

“We’re not going to move forward if we don’t all agree,” Steve said. “I understand everyone’s concerns. I have the same ones I just don’t feel comfortable letting someone else join the team when we—we don’t know anything about him. I don’t think she would like that.”

“We have to go,” Bruce repeated. “We’ll figure it out. Like you said, we’ve faced worse odds. I say we call in Rhodey, worst case—Jarvis should be able to communicate real-time information to this Tony. I mean, he has to have the same intelligence she has? He built all this in his world.”

Steve nodded.

“Barton already blocked all the days out on his calendar, he’d say go. I say go.”

“Thor?”

Thor nodded, “we have faced many foes, together and separately. We can manage this one.”

“Are you going to tell him where we’re going? Give him a chance to study the preliminary intelligence we’ve gathered?” The question wasn’t posed to him (so much) as to Thor (who didn’t appear to care) and Bruce (who was reluctant to have an opinion). Natasha was staring at Bruce, almost like she was willing him to say what she wanted him to say.

“I,” Bruce said, looking sideways at him, “how like Tony is he? If he knows where we’re going, what we’re up against, would he be convinced to sit it out? I’d like our odds better if he had a chance to study the information but how likely is he to not get involved?”

There was no nice way to condense the little bits of information Steve had gotten the day before. It all boiled down to, “I get the impression from him that he’s not used to the Avengers functioning as a real team. He’s—”

“Damaged,” Natasha suggested.

“I think the less he knows, the better it is. I don’t like it,” but Steve didn’t like most things about the situation, not that his wife was in some alternate world with a man who looked like but didn’t sound like he acted like him. Not that this Tony couldn’t sleep without drinking. Not that his team was looking at him with sympathy and concern (for which there was no answer). Steve didn’t like any of it; he didn’t like that it felt necessary. “If you think it’s important,” was directed at Natasha, “your head’s clear, mine’s not. I’ll listen.”

“I think,” Thor put in, “he seemed—” (Maybe he’d just remembered there wasn’t an Earth equivalent to what he was going to say, “weary.”

“Yeah,” Bruce agreed.

“He drank himself to sleep last night,” Steve said.

Natasha sighed. “Then we put the information together, we leave it where he can access it if we need him to. We don’t know what we’re walking into, we don’t know how much of it we can handle even if we have the Hulk. He’s not perfect but he’s a hell of a lot better than nothing.”

Steve watched Bruce-and-Thor nodding along, and he nodded when he said, “then we do that.” It didn’t feel right but asking for something to feel right in this stupid situation was asking too much. “Let’s go over it again, one more time.” He tapped the table top and the holographic map of Sokovia flickered and solidified. “Thor,” he said. Steve sat back and listened, or tried to, and tried not to notice how Natasha was looking at him with such concern.

B SIDE

Tony had not given up. It was just that laying on the ground with his eyes closed, listening to Black Sabbath as loud as he could physically stand it, was an integral part of his thinking process. The trouble wasn’t that he appeared to be doing nothing when Pepper walked in but that there was literally nothing to think about.

Malibu had been warm and mild the night he arrived. As far back as three weeks there were absolutely no outstanding anomalies (and that, all by itself, seemed like an anomaly). The weather in New York was dissimilar but not out of character for the season. The tower had reported nothing out of ordinary.

Tony had even watched the video of that night (politely skipping the frankly impressive length of time sex occurred) and found that it was unremarkable in every single way. Right up to the moment he woke up, there was no telling that any sort of switch had happened.

In summary, Tony was thinking about what he could possibly be missing while having absolutely no idea what sort of thing he didn’t know. He didn’t hear the tapping on the keypad by the door but he knew instantly it was Pepper because she was the only one whose pin automatically silenced the music.

“I see you’re working hard,” she said. Her heels made exactly the same noise in this universe as they did in his. In fact, in a world where things were ever so slightly incorrect, Pepper was picture perfect from that sweet-and-deceiving smile on her face to how her skirt fit the curve of her hips.

“It’s part of the process,” Tony assured her. He had one leg crossed over the other, both of his arms folded behind his back, taking in the sight of the lab roof. “Can I help you, Ms. Potts?”

Pepper flipped open the leather folder she was carrying, looked around for something to sit on and upon finding a rolling chair pushed it over with one hand so she could sit. Once sitting she crossed one leg over the other and pulled a pen out of the folder. “We need to get our story straight, Mr. Stark.”

“What was the story about where Ms. Stark is?” Tony asked. He sat up so he could see her better (if this Pepper was very much like his Pepper she wouldn’t appreciate his casual half-interest).

“Not that it is specifically important for you to know,” (it felt like it might have been, if they were going through the trouble of giving him a fake backstory), “but we said that she was sick and couldn’t attend. Of course,” and Pepper glared at him as she said it, “that will just restart the pregnancy rumors we just put an end to.”

“She’s forty—” (how old was he now? It was his birthday yesterday), “five? That is a bit on the older side to get pregnant, isn’t it?”

Pepper had the look of a woman who was going to disembowel him with a letter opener. (Hadn’t she said something yesterday, maybe, about having to listen to men tell her how a woman’s body worked.)

“I’m no expert,” he offered.

“No, you aren’t,” Pepper clicked the pen she was holding and cleared her throat, “for obvious reasons, we cannot claim that you are a missing relative. Ms. Stark was an only child and has no living relatives.”

“Do I look like her?” It wasn’t that he hadn’t looked at her picture, or stared at his reflection, it wasn’t that he hadn’t devoted half the time he was getting drunk to trying to work out what it was about himself that Steve had recognized. He wasn’t half as pretty as the Tony he was used to (not bad looking, but not pretty either). There was the matter of same-ish hair, and identical eye color but it didn’t seem like it would add up to a sense of instant recognition.

“If you’re insinuating that you could impersonate her, you can’t.”

“I was insinuating the question of if I looked like her,” Tony countered. (He realized, very early in saying it, that the sentence would be a disaster. So, Pepper’s growing frown was no surprise but the way she almost smiled was.) “Hey,” he said, “you do have a sense of humor.”

“Not about this,” was pure exasperation. “I don’t know how things are where you’re from but this Tony can’t just disappear. There’s speaking engagements, there’s Avengers business, there’s half a dozen appearances she’s supposed to put in this week alone. This may be a vacation from your life but now I have to not only explain where my boss has gone but also why a man has moved into her house.”

“How could they possibly know a man has moved in—”

Pepper pulled a folded tabloid out of the leather folder and flipped it open so he could see his frowning face standing not so far from Steve’s shoulder, the pair of them carrying shopping bags and soda cups. The headline was: Captain Roger’s Secret Gay Affair.

It was too ridiculous not to laugh at.

“This is serious, Tony,” Pepper said. There was no aggression or disdain in her voice. It was quiet, pleading. “She’s put up with this,” and Pepper shook the paper, “in one way or another all her life. The media has been dying for a chance to tear apart her marriage.”

“Couldn’t I be a friend?”

“A friend?” Pepper repeated. “A friend that nobody has ever seen before that is now living in her home while she is conspicuously absent?”

“A doctor?” It was a guess; he had no idea what Pepper was hoping to get him to say. (She must have already had an idea, or she wouldn’t be looking at him with such steady, shrewd disappointment.) “Because she is ill?”

“A doctor that went clothes shopping with her husband?”

“You tell me,” was easiest.

Except Pepper pulled the tabloid she was still holding out back and folded it precisely down the center. There was contained violence in every motion. When she finished with that she stared down at the paper in her lap with her shoulders living and lowering. “I don’t know. Nothing I’ve thought of seems like it will hold up to scrutiny. I don’t know how long you’ll be here, I don’t know if it’s worth the time and effort to justify anything.”

“Tell them I’m a doctor, we met at a conference and I’m here to help,” Tony said. “Most of it’s true. I have a doctorate.” Or two. Maybe more. “I’m technically a doctor.”

Pepper didn’t smile but she stopped frowning at him. “Have you found anything? Anything at all?”

No. Because there was absolutely nothing to find. Tony couldn’t (didn’t want to) say that out loud so he shook his head. “I just started, sometimes it takes me a few tries to,” he motioned to the side, “get anywhere. I’ll figure it out. We’ll figure it out.”

“Well,” led to nothing. Pepper flipped the leather notebook closed. “I have work to do. I hope this situation,” where he was a man and not the woman she knew, “resolves quickly but if it does not, if you are out in public and you are asked any questions please do not answer. This will be a nightmare to contain without any complications.”

Tony nodded. “Got it.”

Pepper nodded and got back to her feet. She was looking down at him, sort of flinching with her eyebrows, like she was working out how to ask something. “We’re dating,” was dripping disapproval, “in your world?”

“Yeah, sort of.”

“And you’re Iron Man, you’re still doing all this?” She gestured with a pen around the room at the suits, at the glowing blue holograms displaying every bit of atmospheric data he’d given up staring at.

“I’m sort of retired now,” Tony said. “From the Avengers, not from tinkering.”

Pepper hummed a suspicious noise and then shook her head. “I’ll let you get back to working.” The music turned back on as soon as she closed the door behind herself.

A SIDE

Steve had been attempting a nap when Friday interrupted to inform him that Mr. Stark was less than ten minutes from arriving and would like to speak to him. That was enough time to question the intelligence of the artificial intelligence that assisted in running the building and to find a pair of sweats and a T-shirt to put on. It was plenty of time for him to make it outside to stop Tony from getting into the building (or at least try) and that meant more than enough time for Natasha to join him in mid-stride on his journey from his room to the front door.

“Wanda wants to talk to her,” Natasha said.

“No,” was all reaction, no thought.

“Are you going to be the one that tells her that?” Natasha asked. She was wearing her casual clothes, going for something like non-threatening and barely managing ‘not completely lethal’.

“If I have to,” Steve said. He expected that meant he wouldn’t actually immediately have to but Natasha turned left at an open doorway and Steve went forward toward the door and found Wanda standing just outside of it. (He didn’t sigh.) “Wanda.”

“I heard what she said.” Of course, she had, the entire team had probably been clustered around the TV screen watching this woman say whatever she wanted about things she couldn’t have understood. “I want—”

“There’s no point in trying to defend yourself from Tony,” Steve said.

Wanda crossed her arms over her chest, tried to look brave (but looked small) as she let out a soft sigh. “I don’t want to defend myself. I want to see her, to see if she is who she says she is,” seemed like the worst idea anyone had come up with thus far.

“I just don’t think that would be a very good idea.” The sound of an approaching car made him glance away, just in time to avoid seeing she frowned at him. He didn’t touch her when he looked back. “Wanda, given what we know about this Tony I don’t think she’d agree to—” whatever one called having their skull opened and the contents of their brain sorted through, “I don’t think seeing what she’s thinking would help. She’s made up her mind about you, about me, about all of us. We need to concentrate on getting her back where she came from and not worry about what she says while she’s here.” When that didn’t make Wanda move he said, “please.”

She didn’t go willingly (exactly) but reluctantly, and only just in time for the car to pull to a stop a few feet away. The door was kicked open and a woman almost entirely unrecognizable as Tony Stark stepped out. She was smiling, wearing a pretty skirt that almost swished around her legs as she walked and a black shirt with buttons and make up. “Steven, I see you still can’t control your own face.” She slammed the door behind her. “I was asked, by Pepper, to look as least like Tony Stark as I possibly could.” That explained everything, right down the shoes. “I think I did okay.”

“You did more than okay,” Steve agreed, mostly to her bare calves. It was a surreal moment, one that left him trying to remember if he’d ever seen Tony’s bare legs before. He couldn’t remember—maybe an arm, maybe he’d seen him without a shirt, maybe. They didn’t often existing in one another’s space in a way that didn’t require clothing. “Why are you here,” was safer than trying to pinpoint exactly the thing that made this outfit, the skin-tight black shirt—(the breasts)—exactly so un-Tony like.

(It could have been the skirt, it didn’t seem functional, didn’t seem like something you could fight in. Or maybe the heels.)

“My eyes are up here, Steven,” Tony said. She was smiling that infuriatingly knowing smile. (And it wasn’t even that he was staring at her body with any intent but absolute confusion.) “How’s the arm?”

Steve lifted his arm, ran his hand across it, “good as new,” he said.

Tony didn’t look even slightly surprised about it. “I guessed it might be.” But that wasn’t nearly as important as, “I came to apologize.”

“Did you?” Steve asked.

“I was incorrect to attack you,” was, almost, the least believable thing he’d ever heard coming out of a Stark’s mouth. “Twice.”

Steve crossed his arms over his chest.

Tony put her fists against her hips.

“You know, I’m old fashion but, when someone says they are going to apologize it usually involves an actual apology.”

Tony’s smile just got that same sharp glint it had the night before not so long before she threw a chair at him. Her hands dropped from her waist, she looked to the side at nothing precisely before brushing a bit of hair off her forehead (that dropped right back into the same place). “Look, we both know I’m not sorry and I make it habit not to apologize for things I’m not sorry about. Even if I was inclined to try, I’ve been told that it comes across as disingenuous and condescending.”

“As opposed to this,” Steve motioned at the space between them.

“I came to make peace. I don’t like you, that’s fair. You don’t like me. However, apparently, I can’t expect to work in peace because of my actions. I came so you could tell whoever cares,” Tony motioned toward the building and the many teammates that were undoubtedly listening, “that we settled our differences.”

“Have we?”

“I didn’t hit you with my car,” Tony said. (Yes, what a relief that was.) “I was shocked yesterday. I woke up in a world that I didn’t understand. I found out I—not me, but this other me—lost things that I never had to lose. I saw friends behave in a way they would never behave. You’ve been betrayed before, Steven. You know how that feels. The thing is, shock fades, priorities change. You aren’t my problem. Getting back to my world that makes sense to me, that’s my priority. So,” she spread her arms, “hit me or yell at me, or whatever you have to do. Then tell all of them,” a hand wave at the compound, “that we’re square.”

“It would go a long way toward making things square if you’d agree to certain security restrictions.”

Just for a flash, as quick as the blink of an eye, Steve could see exactly how close she had come to hitting him with a car. It was on her face, in her arms (tensing up at her sides) drowning her whole expression in murder that made the almost-friendly-smile droop at the edges. Quick as it came, it was gone again. “Steven,” she said calmly, “you’ll have to pry his tech, and his systems, and his security clearance at his own fucking building out of my cold dead hands. And I promise you, Steven, you’re not nearly man enough to take me in a fight.”

“This isn’t personal,” Steve said. Because it wasn’t; it was about protecting what was theirs, about protecting what didn’t belong to this woman. “Those things don’t belong to you, you shouldn’t have unlimited access to them.”

“They aren’t yours either.”

Steve clenched his teeth and breathed through his nose. (Thinking, it didn’t seem like such a bad idea just to punch her in the face. It wasn’t a very gentlemanly thought, not something he would entertain seriously, but nonetheless for a few seconds it brought a welcome relief from the red-warm-anger that was spreading out through his whole body.) “You’d let our Tony have complete access to your system? To your suits? To the team?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Well, I guess you’re more trusting than we are.”

Tony smiled. “No argument there. Do we have a truce or not?”

“Are you going to agree to reduced access?”

“No,” Tony said. Of course, she wasn’t. Of course, she would not even entertain the idea.

There was no truce, they both knew it, but there were no other options either. Pepper had high level access into Tony’s systems, but even she couldn’t override him. Natasha had enough experience to make an attempt to break into the programming but it had evolved (so she said) since the first time she’d done it and there was no guessing how long it would take. Vision (who wasn’t Jarvis) said it would be functionally impossible to override Tony’s hold on the AI, the suits, the tower and the compound. It would take (according to Vision) a constant coordinated attack on all fronts both from outside and inside the system.

They were missing the manpower, the know-how, and the brute force to manage it. More important than all that was knowing it didn’t matter if they managed it, she would take it back exactly the same way Tony would have.

Tony knew that, standing there letting the wind blow her skirt against her legs, looking nothing at all like the man she’d replaced. Her lips were a petal-pink in that smile, her whole face a perfect artist rendition of a wealthy, successful woman. It was only her eyes that hadn’t changed, only the way she looked at him that was constant.

Steve said, “I don’t trust you,” because he didn’t, “but I want our Tony back.”

“I’m sure you do,” she agreed. Then she pulled a pair of sunglasses out of her unruly (curly?) hair and slid them on her face. “Nice talking to you, Steven.”

He didn’t move, not a muscle, not a breath, until she was at the end of the drive. The fading sound of her wheels was the only noise besides the breeze across the grass. Steve didn’t move, not at all, because it felt like if he even so much as released the breath that was going hot and stale in his chest that he’d start hitting something and he’d never stop. That sort of feeling was dangerous, out of control, as reckless and antagonistic as the smiling (woman) that had just driven away.

He held it, and held it, and held it as long as he could. Just at the point of his lungs screaming for fresh air, he spun around and punched the building. It had been built to withstand far greater attacks, it didn’t give or groan or notice. The skin split across his knuckles and pain radiated straight up to his shoulder from the impact. Even that did nothing to calm the agitation but it gave him something to think about that wasn’t Tony-fucking-Stark.

A SIDE

Tony had come back to the tower with the intention to dig in and get work done. There was no telling if Steve or Pepper would contact the geniuses that knew more about the theories of interdimensional travel than her. (An astrophysicist would be a blessing now.) Even if they did, having the relevant information already sorted and ready for interpretation would have been useful. That was what she’d intended to do, to get down to the business of getting herself home.

She hadn’t intended to be lying flat on her back under a desk with her bare feet pushed against one it’s legs and her skirt in a puddle around her hips as she stared hatefully at nothing. “Fucking Steven God Damn Rogers,” she mumbled to herself. “Friday,” prompted a quick ‘yes, sir’. “I want everything on Rogers, his whole history, all the news reels, all the newspaper articles. S.H.I.E.L.D.’s old files. I want to know everything.” When and how the prick had gotten to this point. How he’d managed to make it so far in this world on nothing but good looks and amazing muscles.

He didn’t even have a winning smile. He didn’t even have that humble Brooklyn charm.

He was nothing like the man she’d left behind. (And that wasn’t her business. It wasn’t. It wasn’t relevant to her at all.) “Friday,” Tony said again, “don’t, don’t do that—if I ask again, tell me it’s not my business. Tell me I need to go home.”

“Yes, sir,” Friday said. “I have finished gathering the information you asked for.”

“Great,” Tony said. “I’ll look at it in a minute.” Just in one more minute, just a few more seconds, just a couple of breaths from now. As soon as she finished reminding herself she wasn’t here to deal with Steven.

It wasn’t as if she hadn’t wondered what would have happened to that arrogant little shit that had emerged from the ice, furious and without purpose. Maybe she’d had a conversation with the man himself, back in her world where time and effort had tempered all that blind-arrogant-rage into something focused, about what sort of people they’d been if things hadn’t worked out-quite-like-this.

It was a bathtub favorite, while she was soaking off the aches of a battle that had gone right-or-wrong-just-too-long. He was perfection in soapy water, exactly the right temperature, height and softness to recline against with her eyes closed. They were philosophers with steam in the air, his hands mapping new ways to get to familiar destinations all across her bare skin.

Her Steve, the real Steve said, I don’t know. I woke up and I had no direction. I had no purpose. I had nothing. I lost everything: all the people I fought with, the ones I had fought for. It was more than the people, more than the things that I’d lost. It felt like, I lost myself. For the first time in all my life, I didn’t know which way was right, what I should do. The Avengers gave me purpose and perspective. Who knows what I would have been without that.

Well, her Steve’s nightmares were uselessness and despair, and that just showed a lack of imagination on both their parts because there were tears in her eyes and both her hands in fists, trying to convince herself that it didn’t matter what this other Steve did.

“Friday,” Tony said as she scrubbed the dampness off her face. “Get me everything on Steve Rogers.”

“It’s not your business sir, you need to go home.”

Tony grabbed the desk by the edge and pulled herself up. “I can multitask,” she said. “Get me everything on him. Show me what you have on the twenty-ninth. And get me comparable data on the Malibu house.”

“The Malibu house, sir?”

“My house,” Tony said. “In Malibu.”

“That house was destroyed in an attack by the Mandarin, sir.” Before he could ask a video started playing showing the newsreel footage of helicopters shooting missiles into her house. There was no footage of the interior of the house, no sign of anyone, not anyone coming to help. “Should I gather information on the area surrounding the site, sir?”

“Yes, do it,” Tony said. She pulled the buttons of her shirt loose, shrugged it over her shoulders and threw it behind her somewhere. The bra wasn’t exactly comfortable but it was a great deal more comfortable than the constricting feel of all the well-tailored darts hugging that stupid shirt to her body. “Alright, show me.”

The information came in a wave, spreading out across all the available screens and holograms. It was a barrage, a great splatter of numbers, facts and figures. But she’d looked at things that made less sense and reduced them to answers. “I need a pizza,” he said.

“Should I order one?” Friday asked.

“Do it,” Tony said. “Two of them.” Then she got to work.

B SIDE

Steve hadn’t planned to stop for pizza, it was just that halfway home he had thought to himself (pizza sounds good right now) and he’d made it entirely through driving to Tony’s favorite pizza place, ordering, paying for and receiving the pizzas before he’d even remembered that wherever Tony was, she wasn’t waiting at home.

Still, he carried the pizzas down to the lab and found this other Tony sitting in the old hot rod (also known as a 1932 Ford Flathead Roadster, Steve) watching newsreels about Howard. He turned around when the door opened and looked guilty like a child caught eating stolen cookies. “I was taking a break,” he said. “I’ve been,” he motioned over at the desk and the floating figures hovering above it, “working on theories. Jane and Selvig were here and we—”

“It’s okay,” Steve said. He was holding three pizzas he’d bought to share with his wife, feeling miserable and guilty because he couldn’t shake the feeling of pity that got caught in his gut every time he looked at this Tony. (Well, pity and aggravation in somewhat equal amounts.) “I don’t know if you like pizza,” he said as he held the boxes up a bit higher.

“I love it,” Tony assured him. He climbed out of the car and took one of the boxes from Steve. He was balancing it on the edge of a table, flipping open the box to make happy little cooing noises at it, and Steve was watching Howard on the screen.

He’d seen most of the news about Howard, he’d watched the man age on grainy film from the young man he’d been when Steve saw him last to this: a man made far, far older by life than he should have been. “Is it different?” he asked, “I mean, your parents? Where and how you grew up?”

“I wasn’t a girl,” Tony said. He lifted a slice and held it with the very tips of his fingers like it was too hot (not that such a thing as minor burns had ever stopped anyone from eating a pizza) and watched Howard on the screen, “no. Not different enough to matter. It’s interesting how much the same it is—I mean, I thought for sure, no Maxim models? I was wrong. I thought good old Dad wouldn’t have sent a daughter to boarding school. I was wrong.” There was bitterness in the statement that echoed his Tony’s exactly. “No, everything is the same until the news conference where we tell the world we’re Iron Man. I can’t be sure exactly, but I know how my life went and I see how hers,” he gestured, “is. There’s some big differences.”

Steve sighed. “I’m going to be out of town for a few days.”

“I worked that one out,” Tony said. “Whatever it is, you’re going to be careful? Get home safe? All that, whatever spouses say. Be careful? Have fun?”

“Sounds right.” Steve nodded (felt that guilt, thick and leaden, taking up space in his gut). “We usually eat this on the roof.” It was and wasn’t an offer, maybe just a statement. Tony didn’t look like he was sure what it was either. “If you wanted to, the sun’s going to set. I’m sure you’ve seen it.”

“Sounds perfect,” Tony said. “I need a break.” He dropped the pizza slice back into the box and flipped it closed. “Lead the way.”

Chapter Text

B Side

Mornings had developed a certain kind of rhythm: a predictable flow of noise, and motion, and temperature. Mornings were warm and quiet before dawn, full of sleeping noises: hums and breath and a bit of snoring now and again. It was the perfect weight of the blanket laying over his body, the slow fade black-to-gray of the light through the windows. Until Tony woke up without warning, always abruptly jumping from greedily snuggled in blankets to kicking and elbowing as she stretched.

Mornings started, properly, with Tony twisting around under her blanket, with her hand sneaking under his to slide up his arm as she leaned against his body. Just before her head filled up with thoughts-and-obligations, there was a moment that belonged only to him. That sleepy smile on her face as she looked at him like seeing him for the first time in months (instead of hours).

Mornings were Tony in the shower mumbling over things she had-to-do and things she’d-just-thought-up. Jarvis was her bathroom companion, obediently recording her every brilliant idea (even the dumb ones). Steve scrubbed his face and considered a shave, he went for a run (because showers had a way of taking forever) and came back sticky-with-sweat. Tony was in her lab and he was in the shower.

Mornings came together in the kitchen. Half the time Tony sat on the counter eating whatever required no cooking, picking apart bagels and drinking something with more sugar than nutrition, while she asked him questions about his intentions for the day or read him the news. Half the time it was Tony wearing nothing but one of his shirts. Those mornings took longer than most.

The thing was, mornings weren’t like this. They were a quiet room he shared with his wife, absent the warmth of her body at his side. It wasn’t the guilt that settled like a brick in his gut, that grew spider legs through his body. All his veins were filled up with it, swishing and swilling around with every beat of his heart, until all he could think was some cross between:

He wanted her back, right here, right now. (And.) They’d made the right choice; the good choice; the best choice based on what they knew.

Tony (his Tony, the real Tony, the Tony who should have been tiptoeing her fingertips up his arm this very minute) would understand that it was what was best and she wouldn’t have liked it the way he didn’t like it but there were more important things to consider than how it felt.

(But maybe she wouldn’t have; maybe she would have been that little voice in the very back of his head whispering things like: if you thought it was me, thought it was Tony, if you looked at him and you saw me in every way that mattered, how dare you. How dare you treat him like this.)

“Fuck.” Steve kicked the blankets off. (They weren’t keeping him warm anyway.) The sky was still black as coffee, spilled all across the room. There was no hope but a fool’s hope, and fool’s hope was all he had as he went down the hall and opened the guest room door. Those last, perfect seconds before the door opened, he thought it could be her, she could be back, she could be laughing in a minute, telling him about the stupid place she’d gone and how she’d gotten back, but it was only Tony-the-man, sleeping gut-side-down on the bed.

Of course, of course it was still Tony-the-man.

Steve pulled the door closed and stood in the hallway, feeling foolish (and disappointed, and unsure). There were things to do (a shower, packing a change of clothes, breakfast maybe) but he couldn’t force any part of his body to move away from the door, to drop his hand off the doorknob. He stared at his left hand spread across the knob, at the ring on his finger, thought of her.

(Don’t be so selfish, she’d tell him.)

There he was nodding along to the voice in his head. “Jarvis,” he said as he went down the hall. “Make sure he’s awake and in the lab by 4.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Hopefully we won’t need him.” But hope, Steve had found, wasn’t as reliable as it used to be. “I just want to have him there if we do.”

Mornings weren’t like this (anymore): filled up with silence and solitude. They weren’t quick bowls of cereal in a lonely kitchen, staring at the tourist magnets on the fridge (thinking how the first one had been a joke and the second one a callback but it had become a thing and now they had magnets stuck to everything). Mornings weren’t leaving alone, carrying his bag in one fist and his shield in the other, lingering at the open door (feeling like, he’d forgotten something).

Pepper was on her way in while he was on his way out, she smiled at him (hopelessly, exactly how he felt). “No change?” she asked.

“No change.”

“You’re going to be safe?” Pepper asked. It wasn’t anything she usually asked. It served her better to put her energy into managing the business and Tony’s life spent far removed from the world of super villains and crime fighting. She didn’t get caught up in terrorists and supernatural weapons from space. They existed and she knew of them; it was just that they’d struck up an unspoken agreement that Pepper would keep home neat and tidy and always waiting and Steve would watch Tony’s back out in the violence of the world. “She’d want you to be safe.”

“I plan to do the best I can,” Steve agreed.

Pepper smiled and motioned at the door, “I should head in. I’ve got to finalize the press releases.”

Steve nodded, “of course.” He reached the end of the drive as Natasha pulled up. She was drinking coffee, wearing her day-off clothes (because who really wanted to wear their suits when they didn’t have to), glancing past him at the empty space where Tony usually-was.

“I guess you get to ride in the front this time,” she said.

That was a privilege he didn’t often earn. “I guess I do,” he agreed. “Is Rhodes coming?”

“He’s going to meet us halfway,” she said. She sipped her coffee while he got in and buckled his seat belt. Just before she set the cup down, she said, “are we sure about this? One hundred percent sure?”

No. “We agreed,” he said.

But Natasha knew him; she sighed and didn’t argue.

A Side

Tony was a proper bottle of liquor and a cigarette short of the desired aesthetic. It was long after midnight, nowhere near dawn. She’d driven for (what felt like, could have been, might not have) been hours to find anywhere the stars were visible beyond the noisy light pollution. Out here, parked in front of an ailing convenience store at the side of a winding road, the stars were grinning from the big-damn-sky.

Out here, her fingers were cool and slippery on the neck of a glass soda bottle, working off muscle memory of a time not so long removed when all her glass bottles were alcohol. (God how good would that have been, the perfect antidote to the hollow thing yawning in the center of her whole god damn body. But promises were promises were promises regardless of how far removed from the source she’d gotten.) Her feet were resting on the bumper, her legs spread around the license plate, she was leaning forward (not back), staring at the cracks in the pavement with the ghost light of her phone illuminating her shoes.

There was nothing but space around her, a whole wide-open-world with fuzzy, unclear edges. She meant to escape the crowded feeling of walls all around her, the oppressive glow of screens (full of facts, figures, and fuck yous, really). There just wasn’t (and she knew this, she knew it better than most) any escaping the traps you carried in your head. There were no walls and no screens and still she could feel the world shrinking down around her.

It was coming-for-her-sure-as anything. Walls or no walls, it didn’t matter, because things like space and time and reality didn’t have to hold true in this brave new world. Tony had slipped through a hole she couldn’t find and woken up in a place just similar enough it wasn’t unrecognizable.

Oh-but-how-much better it would have been to wake up somewhere else; to come to in a world on fire. Anything, anything but this slow turning hell.

“Friday,” Tony said. The phone perked up in her lax grip. She leaned back, used her elbows and her heels until her back was against the windshield. The phone laid against her chest as she stared up at the stars. “Anything?”

“No change, sir,” Friday said.

No change. No change at all. Tony wasn’t an optimist and she knew it because Steve was an optimist. That man could pull on his blue spandex suit and spout bullshit that would make even the most nonviolent person want to punch a man in the nuts. Tony liked to argue there wasn’t always room for hope and there wasn’t always room for best-case-scenarios because the real world was a mess of rough edges and awkward bits. But Steve could bend reality in his hands, wringing hope out of despair.

Hope had never done Tony any fucking good. Hope hadn’t saved her from her Father’s indifference. It hadn’t spared her the phone call to inform her that her Mother had died. Hope hadn’t kept Obidiah from having her kidnapped, hadn’t kept the smiling terrorists from torturing her. Hope hadn’t saved Yinsen, it hadn’t saved her.

Hope hadn’t stopped the rumors. Hope hadn’t saved her company when the men on the TV spit their bullshit all over her reputation.

But there she was, laying on a fucking nice car, looking up at the stars filling her head up with hope that there was a Tony on the other side of this joke, surrounded by people motivated to get her back. That her Steve was wringing hope out of her despair, even when he couldn’t see her, believing without a moment’s pause that there was-a-way.

“Friday,” Tony said. Her voice was raw-and-wet, all hot when she tried to talk. There were tears in her eyes (and why not, why not here where there was nobody to see. Why not when she’d filled her head up with footage of her life falling apart one fucking piece at a time). “Where were we?”

“2009, sir.”

“Right,” Tony said. “I won the Apogee award.”

“Yes, sir.” Friday was good at shaving off the details that didn’t matter. It was better with bare facts. She recounted Tony’s history with precision. The farther back it went, the more it sounded just-like-hers.

Child genius, distant father, doting Mother, string of public affairs. War monger, merchant of death, Da Vinci of our Time. (Betrayed.) It all lined up, synonymous details filing into place right up to the moment they’d stood in front of the press conference with Pepper’s expectation of providing a detailed lie and the giddy truth just behind their perfect-white-teeth.

It changed there. His life went left and hers went right but here they were, taking up each other’s space. At least, they were operating under the assumption that they had simply been swapped. That she was where he had been and he was where she had been. There could have been an infinity of universes, an unknown number of swaps that happened when the cosmic force in charge of fucking over Starks of all types had struck upon this brilliant idea.

“Friday,” Tony said to the drone of minute details about the effect of Tony putting an end to weapons manufacturing had on the company stock. There would never be another time in her life she needed someone to explain to her what she’d done to the company stock. In her world, they called her unstable. They laughed at her on public TV. They told acidic jokes about that time of the month and puked up their vile, outdated ideas of how women-shouldn’t-make-choices. They’d hailed Obidiah as a savior when he stepped in to steal her company (and they’d reported his unfortunate death with regret, never knowing the treason S.H.I.E.L.D. burned with his body). There was no uterus to take the blame for Tony Stark in this world, no menstruation to scapegoat for his behavior. “You can stop.”

“Yes, sir,” Friday said.

With her eyes closed, and the bottle resting on her thigh, she thought of Howard. Of his stupid face watching her from an old strip of film, his post-humous congratulations and compliments. When she was on the verge of death, it had been a blessing. It had felt like proof that the love she’d spent half her life searching for had been buried under the surface of his skin all that time. But it hadn’t been love, not the kind that mattered, not when it mattered. It was Howard on the film, chasing her away, telling her that girls belonged with their Mothers. It was him in a room, staring at camera, knowing he was never-ever-not-ever going to change. Maybe he believed in her, the way he believed in the potential of all his creations. But belief wasn’t love and one did not require the other.

Howard pissed her off, he filled her from top to toes with anger. Anger was better than this, discontent and despair. Anger was fire, was creation, was change, was staying alive.

So, she laid under the stars and she thought of Howard.

A Side

“Are we going to talk about it?” Natasha asked him between two and three in the morning, long after the others had given up pretenses and worried glances in his direction. One after the other they’d all stopped by to see him, to glance at his bruised knuckles with varying levels of concern, before they moved on to other things.

Sam had come to chat about beer, and memories, and baseball games. (As far as Steve could tell, Sam did not know much about baseball but it was nice of him to try.)

Vision had come to check on his arm (and his mental state, but quietly). They had talked about the plan for the next day, if the training exercises would resume and what they would entail and what Vision should do with all the time he didn’t sleep.

Rhodey had stopped after midnight to look at him with concern, to bother enough to say, “we all know how Tony is. He can overreact. We just need to focus on getting him back.” It wasn’t a very moving plea for mercy from the man that was Tony’s best (only?) friend.

It had only been Wanda that hovered outside the room and left again without saying anything. He didn’t blame her; she was only a kid in a strange place, attempting to cope with the things she’d lost.

“Which thing,” Steve asked. He had spent part of the night trying to concentrate on training exercises (and failing, again, and rewatching the interrogation video, again). He’d made the attempt to sleep and when that had left him with nothing but bedhead, he had come here, to the gym.

Stark had lingered between amusement, annoyance and respect for how many punching bags Steve could kill in a single night of effort. He had been working on making them less destructible ever since the battle in New York, in between other projects, giving Steve new versions to bang his fists against. The ones filling up a closet in the compound were the newest attempt, a better material and a better filling that was meant to withstand more force. It was nice, to have something that could stand up to his strength and it was annoying all at the same time.

Natasha was eating dry cereal out of a cup, wearing the clothes she slept in (which weren’t exactly pajamas) eying the bag creaking as he hit it (again). “I don’t know,” she said, “seems like there’s something you’d want to talk about.”

“No.” There was absolutely nothing he wanted to talk about. Not about this Imposter-Tony (who wasn’t an imposter, who was the real thing, just not their real thing) and how she looked at him with pity and fury.

He didn’t want to talk about how quickly, how easily, how effectively she dug in under his skin. At the dozen things she’d already said to him that he couldn’t get out of his head. They were swimming in the span of space between his ears. Do you still believe in God, Steven?

Nobody called him Steven, nobody but Erskine ever had. He couldn’t even have sworn that he didn’t want to be called Steven, that it bothered him, that he didn’t like it until he had to listen to it on repeat, dripping with sarcasm and mock respect. (But do you still believe in God? Do you still.) It was the details that bothered him, the little things that he couldn’t dig out from under his skin.

Tony said: Howard and Maria Stark were killed but she said he was your friend because she knew (and well everyone should have known) that Steve had met Howard who took a chance on a dumbass kid with broad shoulders and a toy shield. Howard had been his friend, but Steve hadn’t met Maria but seen her picture in all the years since. He didn’t think about what the Winter Soldier did because it had been Hydra that did it. That broke down real easy when the blame was moved right across the line to Hydra and it left Bucky with fresh clean hands.

(Hands, Steve knew, that had killed Howard and his wife. But Howard was a friend but he wasn’t Bucky and Tony knew it, sitting across the table from him.)

“Nothing?” Natasha prompted. She was trying to look casual while watching the chain holding the punching bag creak. There were stress marks where he’d been beating it (relentlessly). His hands felt bruised, his arms were hot from effort, his whole body was coated in sweat. “So, they can’t be the same person right?”

“What?” Steve asked.

“Tony and girl Tony. Friday can’t tell that she’s not him? How does Friday know to respond to Tony’s voice commands? How does it know where she is? How does it recognize her? How do the suits work?”

Steve pulled his shirt up far enough to wipe his face on it (which did nothing but swish sweat around). He shrugged his shoulders, “does it matter?”

“To the ones of us that don’t instantly recognize Tony when he’s switched sexes, yes.” Natasha stuck a piece of cereal in her mouth as she smiled at him. (And that was a tease too, something she wanted him to ask her to explain.)

It wasn’t a matter of proof but a feeling. He knew it was Tony. It didn’t matter so much how he knew it or why he knew it but that he did know it. Steve licked his lips while he tried to think of how to respond. “It’s Tony. You’ve seen the tape. He goes to sleep, she wakes up.”

Natasha didn’t sigh at him. “Does our Tony know about his parents?”

Steve looked at his hands, at the gummy tape around his fists, gone all gray with use. He flexed his fingers and closed his eyes (just for a second, just long enough to let that bit of regret work its way deeper). “I don’t know how to tell him? What good does it do?”

“Things like that always come out, Steve. You really want to wait until the next Loki tells him? Tony deserves to know what happened to his parents.” But just as easily she was shaking her head. “What are you going to do about girl Tony?”

“What can I do?” That’s what it came to. What could he do? He’d entertained a notion of locking her in a concrete room. It was three square meals and plenty of time to reflect on how she got here and how she could get back. He was willing to give her some chalk and a blanket. (But that’s all it was, just an idea, because Tony was annoying but she wasn’t an enemy and you didn’t go around putting your allies and sort of friends in jail cells just for refusing to listen.) “I think she’s made it clear she doesn’t want anything to do with me.”

Natasha hadn’t looked that unimpressed with him since she caught him lying about Fury in a hospital hallway. “Steve,” was very, terribly, awfully patient. “The only thing we do know about this Tony? Is that she is definitely wants something to do with you.”

(She wanted to piss him off, for instance.) “What would you do?”

“If we can’t force her to do what we want, we have to make her want the same thing we want.” Which sounded perfectly logical for a spy and a master of manipulation. Natasha made it obvious and easy: they would simply have to make Tony do what they wanted.

(Only Steve had been consistently failing to get Tony’s cooperation for the past three years.) “And how should I do that? Stand there while she throws things at me?”

“Well, it worked with Ultron.” Natasha was smiling when she said it, but it didn’t last very long. “I don’t know, maybe Rhodey should talk to her? From what I heard, she seemed to recognize him as a friend and she surrendered to him.”

“He had a lot of guns pointed at her.”

Natasha rolled her eyes. “Rhodey’s been Tony’s friend longer than we have. If anyone can tell us something useful about whether she’s a threat, it’ll be him.” She motioned at his whole body, “take a shower, you smell like a rotting moose.” She walked away before he could think up a comeback (or a better idea than sending Rhodey to reconnaissance work).

B Side

It was always the same. (You did this. You didn’t protect us.) The clammy panic that followed him out of sleep, his own hands grabbing his arms where Steve’s dead-hands-had-been. “Jarvis,” was compulsive, searching for something familiar and real in the storm of rapid-heart-beats and not-quite-breathing.

“Sir.”

Tony collapsed back into the pillows, eyes closed and hands covering his face. The t-shirt he had slept it was damp with sweat, stuck to his shoulders and his chest. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe, with both hands pushed flat against his face and no room to get air in or out.

Funny how a few seconds felt like a few years under the right conditions. Tony kicked the blankets off and sat on the edge of the bed, elbows-on-knees, staring at his bare toes. “Whose here, Jarvis?”

“Ms. Potts is in the living room, sir.”

That wasn’t so bad. Tony washed his face and thought about putting a comb to use. In the end he dressed for a day in the lab and went down to the kitchen to find something that required minimal effort to eat for breakfast. While he was debating the merits of frying sausage and eggs versus the quick and effective cold cereal option, Pepper came into the kitchen to refill her drink.

“Good morning,” she said.

“Good morning, Ms. Potts.” Sausage and eggs just seemed better and there was no reason not to take the time to make them. He had no obligation other than reviewing the same information he had the day before, other than looking over whatever theories the others might have sent to him. Making breakfast was a perfect distraction; there was no time to worry about dead bodies and swapped worlds while he was frying sausage.

Pepper was still there when he’d finished piling the necessities on the countertop. She had one hand on her hip and the other resting on the counter closest to the door, her fingers were drumming but poised to start at any moment. “You cook?” she said.

“Infrequently.” He located the pan he wanted (and would you look at that, a whole different universe and the same taste in underused cookware). “Does she not cook?”

“Steve and she claims that she cooks but I’ve never seen it,” Pepper said. “You and I are dating,” she repeated with the same suspension of disbelief she had used the day before when he’d told her. Tony nodded because there was only so many times a man could say the same thing before insanity set in. “Did we start dating before you were Iron Man?”

“Uh,” he had forgotten to retrieve butter, and a bowl and a whisk. He laid the sausage in the pan and rinsed his hands at the sink. “No.”

“You were actively Iron Man when I started dating you?” She couldn’t possibly have conveyed less belief. Between her face and her voice, there was no room for misunderstanding how outrageous she found that claim to be. “I could maybe,” was just to further drive the point home, “understand why I might be convinced to date you before you were Iron Man, but after?”

What a strange feeling this was, the feeling like he should protest and defend himself and thinking he’d always been kind of confused about how it had happened himself. “She’s not a fan of Iron Man all the time,” Tony conceded. (Like when the suit had attacked her. Like when he had almost died. Like when he created a murder bot that nearly destroyed the planet.) “I don’t always make things easy.”

This Pepper cracked a smile at that, almost laughed, “no,” was completely agreement, “you don’t.” But her face softened, “I do love her. I understand that. But I wouldn’t date her, I couldn’t imagine it. Of course, I’m not a lesbian or bisexual so that might make a difference. Are we happy together? Do we take care of one another?”

(No so much; not anymore.) “We’re,” Tony held the whisk he’d pulled out of the drawer in one hand and motioned sideways with it, searching through every word he knew for one that made sense. One that didn’t make him seem ungrateful that wouldn’t hurt his Pepper’s feelings. “Comfortable? It works.” He didn’t want to think too much about the look of pain on this Pepper’s face so he pulled the eggs over to start cracking them into the bowl. “What about her and Steve? Are they happy?”

“Yes,” left no room for doubt.

“Where is Steve? Avengers business?”

Pepper straightened up, she licked her lips and picked her cup up off the counter. It was all the earmarks of a strategic retreat. “I don’t involve myself in Avengers business. I manage the half of your life that doesn’t involve putting on a metal suit and getting shot at. That’s how we’ve maintained our working relationship.” She nodded at the pan, “you should turn those before they burn.” Then she left.

A Side

The only pro to paranoia was the toys. This Tony had thought up thing that she might not have thought up in her entire lifetime. He had suits for everything from arctic exploring to holding up buildings. (Although, realistically, she couldn’t think up a reason she might need to shore up a collapsing structure on the average outing.) His AIs (so many of them) had reached a point of refinement that only repeated attempts could manage.

She was sitting in his bed with her cheek resting on her upturned knee with a spread of tablets laid out on the covers, wearing a long T-shirt like a nightgown, flicking through the blueprints of other Tony’s fucking impressive armory. (Or at least, it had been impressive, once upon a time. Now it was a catalogue of past ideas with little red dots by their name, indicating they had come-and-gone.) “What the fuck happened to you?” she mumbled into her knee.

Because she had imagination that never failed to raise to a challenge; and she’d sat created things that seemed fantastic and unnecessary in her world. Everything from portable suits (shaped like suitcases) to the Hulkbusting Armor (also called Veronica). She’d made the Mark VII to see if she could, and it was useful to have armor that could fly to her. But it hadn’t become this, this madness that filled up portfolios of now-destroyed (terminated, purposefully destroyed suits). If she tapped on the notes she could see where he came back to make little adjustments here and there to improve performance because even after he’d blown them up (for whatever reason) he still had convinced himself he didn’t need them.

It wasn’t just suits, (though the sheer number of those was staggering), but vehicles and watches that became gauntlets. It was dozens of improved versions of the arc reactor. It was lists and lists and lists of proposed weapons that could be added. The documentation of tests for different materials that had been tested to improve the effectiveness of the suit. (And not just his but everyone’s.)

There were designs for the War Machine (that hadn’t evolved very much past its original design save for an occasional paint job and some tune up work) that she couldn’t have thought up in a hundred years.

When she-and-Steve weren’t exactly dating but didn’t precisely hate one another anymore, she had taken up the challenge of trying to make a better shield than her Father had. It was an impossible goal because Steve’s dedication to his fucking shield was only outweighed by how simple and useful it was. While this Tony was descending into panic-driven-productivity, she had been testing the durability of baseballs because maybe-once Steve had mentioned how he had always wanted to play but he kept destroying the balls. (Just as soon as she stopped laughing about the phrase ‘I keep destroying my balls’.) Or losing them, assuming they survived the initial impact. It was hard to find someone to play with him because most humans were made of human things and the ones that weren’t, like Thor, didn’t understand the rules.

This-other-Tony was building fail-safes and house-party-protocols, filling Jarvis up to the gills with medical text books while she was perfecting a baseball mitt that would keep Steve-Rogers-propelled-baseballs from breaking her hand. She built a baseball diamond, other Tony filled a basement with sentries. He built the technology to remotely control his suits, he’d implanted trackers under his skin.

(And where, she would have screamed if she had the energy, were the people that liked to call themselves his friends and girlfriend while he was slipping deeper and deeper into this pit of terror?)

“Friday,” she said. She was exhausted, surrounded by the evidence of failure, but she couldn’t sleep. “Show me the Mark VII footage from New York, 2012.” She leaned back against the headboard, dragged one of the tablets with her (thinking if she just kept swiping, she’d eventually reach the end). The TV screen across from the bed flickered on to the sounds of screams.

And Loki.

And aliens.

And a big, cold black hole in the sky. The video went dark and it never came back.

B Side

“Hey man,” Clint had said when they all boarded the jet. “I’m sorry about—” (that was the moment Barton grasped for tact while Natasha undoubtedly shook her head just behind Steve’s shoulder), “—your wife. Tony’s a man now? That’s weird.”

“Thanks Clint,” was just about the only thing he could think up to say in response to that.

“We’re sure,” Clint added. It was a gentle tone, inviting confidence in the narrow space between them as Thor and Bruce went around them to find their seats. “That it’s really Tony? We’re one hundred percent sure?”

“We’re sure,” was a far simpler answer than trying to explain that there was no way to be one hundred percent sure. There was no way to prove this Tony was their Tony. Even if they broke it down to DNA tests and personal history there would be no proof in the results. This Tony was Tony and all they had to prove it was a video of the man waking up in Steve’s bed and the feeling in his gut when he looked at him, the one he couldn’t deny, the one that said: yes, this is Tony. “Are we ready here?”

“Yeah,” Clint agreed. He smiled and patted Steve on the shoulder, “we’ll figure it out. Right after we take care of this Hydra base thing.”

Most of the flight was quiet. Bruce listened to music and read articles on a tablet. Natasha alternated between snacking, keeping Clint company and napping. Thor kept up no pretense of anxiety or restlessness. When he wasn’t sleeping, he practiced flipping and catching his hammer.

It was the most disjointed they’d been since the first stumbling mission after New York, back when they were more strangers than partners. When they were making assumptions about each other’s abilities, learning the limitations of their unique strengths. Not all quiet was bad quiet, but the sort that festered uneasiness was never the right sort.

Steve had a pencil and a sketchbook; he maybe thought he’d draw his wife. His hands got away from him, his mind wandered into gray mush (throwing out maybes and what ifs, leaving him feeling filled bottom to top with prickly things). When the plane shuddered and Natasha turned to shout, we got incoming back at them, Steve looked down at the sketchpad on his lap to find Bucky’s half-drawn face staring back at him. He slapped the cover closed and pushed it to the side.

Rhodey stepped out of the War Machine suit with a smile, “thanks for the ride.” (Thor laughed, with good humor, as he usually did.) Bruce smiled back and Clint called from the pilot’s seat, “no problem man.” But Rhodey was already on his way to sit next to Steve, not even bothering with the pretense of extended pleasantries. He slid into the seat to Steve’s left and started with an immediate, “I’m sorry I couldn’t make it to the party, there was—” (A national emergency, an incident, a need in another part of the world. It was hard to blame Rhodey for failing to show up when the woman they were all celebrating hadn’t even bothered.) “So, what happened?”

“Tony went to sleep next to me,” Steve repeated (again), “a different Tony woke up.”

“It’s definitely Tony?”

Steve nodded.

Rhodey leaned back in his seat and ran his hands down his thighs before he just shook his head. “Do we have people on this? Does he know how he got here? Do we have ideas?”

“Tony’s working on it. Jane Foster and Erik Selvig are helping. Thor said it’s possible for there to be passages between realms that are imperceptible to the eye and undetectable by,” and Steve lifted his hands to put air quotes on the word, “science.”

Rhodey glanced at Thor who had gotten up in search of something to snack on. As uncomfortable as the quiet inside the jet had gotten, it wouldn’t surprise him if Thor excused himself from the burden of flying inside of something and simply took off to meet them there. “No ideas yet?”

“It’s only been one day.” (If he thought that was far too long to have to wait for his wife, he tried not to let it show.)

Rhodey nodded, slow and even. “Do you want me to, I don’t think I could help but, I don’t know, visit? Wherever he’s from, are we,” Rhodey motioned at the whole interior of the jet, “all there?”

“We’re there,” Steve agreed, “we just aren’t the same people. We’re the people that let his house get blown up by helicopters, the ones that didn’t show up when he was presumed dead. He built a robot, I think, that tried to destroy the planet. Him and I, the other me, we don’t,” he air quoted the words, “get along.”

“Shit,” Rhodey mumbled to himself. “We’re assuming that she’s where he was?”

“We assume.”

“Cap,” was very friendly sounding, “I don’t think she’d take it very well, waking up in that situation.” That was an understatement; a massive, incredible, drastic understatement. “The Malibu house?”

Steve nodded.

“She loves that house,” Rhodey said like it needed to be pointed.

“Jarvis is dead too.”

Rhodey whistled. “Shit,” was repeated with more emphasis. “She’s not making friends there, is she?” He meant it in a humorous way; the way he often meant things to be. It was almost funny, the thought of how angry Tony would be to wake up in the clusterfuck that this Tony described. (And ‘angry’ might have been an understatement all on its own. Things like this, they had the stored energy of an atomic bomb. Things like this drove Tony to a point of anger that would have made the Hulk worry.) “She’ll find a way back,” Rhodey said.

“Yeah,” Steve agreed. They smiled together, reassuringly. “We should go over the plan. We didn’t tell Tony where we were going—but we did leave the information with him if we need his help. Thor,” he called. “Bring Rhodey up to speed on the plan?”

A Side

Steve showered because there was no sense in attempting to sleep. Every time he laid down, his head filled up with noise. It was like an old radio just out of tune, playing static over words, and no matter how hard he tried to concentrate on one thing he couldn’t stop hearing all of it.

There were worse things in the world than another version of Tony Stark. No matter how many times he repeated it to himself it didn’t shake the anger that was burning in the pit of his stomach; how they had come here only three days ago with the intention of building a team. How nobody could derail a simple plan like Tony fucking Stark could. Steve hadn’t so much as managed a full day of routine and it had already fallen apart.

It wasn’t Tony’s fault (this time) but it didn’t matter as much where the fault lay as how he had to rearrange his plans to accommodate the minor emergency of having a former team member (a super genius, with unlimited resources, unlimited imagination and access to unknown amounts of lethal weaponry) abruptly replaced with a different version of themselves. To ignore that would undoubtedly end with another world crisis.

So was delegating duties in his head. Vision was intelligent and not-quite-human. He had the ability to assimilate new information quickly and it seemed like he’d be relatively good at researching any sort of similar occurrences. Natasha was useful for managing assets and navigating tricky situations, she was best suited for keeping an eye on Tony and steering her away from unacceptable behaviors (like showing up in full armor to break friends’ arms). Rhodey was ideal for attempting to figure out where this new Tony’s loyalties lay. (Unless it turned out that Rhodey and other Tony were not friends in their universe.) Sam could set up and maintain surveillance in case Tony decided to show up to fight again.

That left only Wanda.

Wanda who was sitting in the kitchen with a cup of something hot, looking unhappily at the TV playing muted news coverage of the clean-up in Sokovia. Steve tried not to watch it; tried not to listen to all the men in suits with titles that showed up after the fact to say what would have worked better. (Tony not building Ultron would have worked better; but sometimes you had to accept what you were given.) There were scientists, politicians and humanitarians all over the news crying over devastation (and there was devastation, which was terrible but still far better than global annihilation).

No good came of watching the commentators who hadn’t ever stood on the edge of a city being lifted out of the ground criticize choices they would never have to make. No good came of listening to the ones that defended them, that said the Avengers were heroes.

(They weren’t heroes, not this time, just a bunch of men with guilty consciences, trying to fix their mistake.)

But Wanda watched with new horror, with tears in her eyes and her hand folded over the top of her mug.

“There’s cartoons,” Steve said from the doorway.

Wanda didn’t sniffle but wipe her eyes gently, as if he hadn’t already seen the tears in her eyes. “I did not know anyone else was awake,” she said.

Steve grabbed a water bottle from the fridge and pulled out a chair at the table to sit where he could see her (but not the TV). “As far as I can tell, no one else is.” She was staring up at the screen, playing and replaying the same shot of the gaping crater in the ground. The one that showed the buildings at the edge collapsed inward, with cars and streets half-covered by dirt. “Are they saying anything new?”

Wanda shook her head. “No. It is all the same.” (It would be simply asking too much for the world news to discover a new line.) “I have been thinking about accountability.” She didn’t smile exactly but grimace when it seemed like she might have started crying again. Her eyes focused back on the scenes of destruction playing on the news over his head. “That is a good word. I have been trying to find the person accountable,” she put emphasis on that word, “for my parents’ death since I was ten years old. I was driven by this anger that our lives—my brother’s, mine, my entire country’s—had been made worse and the men,” but she wrinkled her nose at that, “the man who was to blame did not even know he had failed to kill me. I had dreams of what I would do to this man.”

“Anger can be useful,” Steve said.

Wanda lifted her hand away from the mug, her fingers twitched and the pink energy coiled around them. It slithered in and out the spaces between her half-bent fingers, “anger made me easy to manipulate. I was happy to be used. I was promised revenge against the man who I thought murdered my parents.” The energy dissipated like smoke, spreading out as it rose until it was nothing. “I did not feel used when Hydra offered me this chance. I did not feel coerced when Ultron asked me to help him. I looked into his head, I saw annihilation; why did I not see it before? Now, my brother is dead. My home is dust. I ask myself, is this what I wanted?” she motioned at the screen over his head. “Did I create this monster?”

“No.” Steve sat up. “Ultron was created in a lab.” But more importantly, “we can’t change what happened. Dividing up the blame won’t change anything; the only option we have now is to go forward, to do our best, to keep this from happening again.”

Wanda had tears in her eyes when she smiled at him. “Yes,” was agreeing for the sake of it, there was no meaning to it. She picked her cup up as she got to her feet and glanced up at the news again. “I should try to sleep while there is still time.”

B Side

His hand had not slipped, but all the same, if anyone had walked into the lab to find him pulling apart the Mark XX he might have said it had. Tony’s intention had been to look at the data again (it hadn’t changed) but he had wandered away after he’d expanded the search parameters by a week in Malibu and New York. (There was no reason to think the sort of thing that randomly ripped a man out of one universe and stuck him in a nearly identical one would obey any time schedule.) Maybe he’d only meant to take a peek at it, to see if she had assembled her suits in the same manner as his. He’d been curious.

Sitting in the center of the deconstructed suit, he couldn’t even be sure that his curiosity had been satiated. It was funny, how they’d been in this business for the exact same amount of time (wasn’t it). It was funny how she’d caught a warhead, how she’d gone through a hole in space, how she’d fallen lifelessly back into gravity (all caught by amateur camera men, all featured on the news), but she hadn’t done more.

No, she hadn’t built thirty-five suits in six months. But she must have been doing something. (Must have, it was impossible to think she hadn’t done something. Created something, built something that would protect her, her friends, the Avengers or the world.) Sitting flat on his ass fiddling with a hinge he would have recognized in his sleep, he felt hollowed out. He felt unnecessary.

But it had felt important, it had felt necessary in the long-long months after New York, to create a force capable of withstanding an alien invasion. It was something he could do and held up against all the things he couldn’t (like explain how New York happened, like bring back Phil Coulson, like sleep) it was the only choice that made sense. The world had grown, in a single moment, from a shiny blue orb floating in a big black expanse of space, into an unknown number of galaxies and realms filled to the brim with things that defied science.

You couldn’t protect people against things you couldn’t anticipate and Tony was human, was mortal, was a scientist and there was no anticipating things that defied all three at once.

Sitting in the wreckage of her perfect suit (and it was, from a design standpoint, from the view of one who had made twice as many, almost entirely perfect, if somewhat basic), Tony’s entire life felt pointless. This other Tony had done none of the things he had done, while he was consumed with panic and dread, she had—

“Jarvis,” Tony said. He dropped the hinge on the floor and wiped his greasy fingers on the shop rag rolled up in his lap.

“Sir?”

“Show me the project files from May 2012 to December 2012, bring them up.” He shoved himself up to his feet so he could stand by the display. Dum-E hummed when he walked closer and Tony waved a hand at him before he could get any ideas about trying to be useful. The holographic display filled up with files. There were files for War Machine, Captain America, Black Widow, Hulk, Veronica, Hawkeye, and even one for Thor (although that man did not care at all for invention. He had a hammer and the ability to control lightning and needed nothing else).

There was a file labeled ‘baseball diamond’. When he clicked on it, the display flooded with schematics for a baseball field. It was covered in little facts and figures and trivia on baseball, thoughtful notes on the grass, the bases, and the pitcher’s mound. “She built this?” he asked and then shook his head, “did I build the baseball diamond.”

“Yes, sir. It was completed by November 2012. It was intended for use by Captain Rogers, sir,” Jarvis said and then: “are you experiencing trouble with your memory, sir?”

“Did he use it?”

“The field is still in use, sir. It suffered minor electrical damage during a particularly intense game but has since been remodeled. Recently, a viewing box was added for spectators who wished to watch a game without the fear of death.”

“Death?” Tony repeated. He tapped on an image in the corner. It was a baseball that opened a second file that spilled contents everywhere. He had been alone in his lab, building an army (a legion) that could withstand an alien invasion and she had been building baseballs. “Do we have footage of one of the games?”

“Which game would you like to see, sir?”

“I don’t care,” Tony closed the files, picked up the drink he’d brought down with him (nothing alcoholic, if only because Pepper had watched him upstairs, making little noises under her breath every time he drifted too close to the bar) and went to sit in the hot rod. “Pick one, put it up on the big screen.” He pulled the car door closed and prepared himself to be outraged.

The baseball diamond was outrageous; it was ridiculous. It was Clint with a bat over his shoulder, laughing at something Natasha said off to the side of the screen. “I can hit a ball,” sounded like the end of a long line of attacks against his person. “Didn’t we agree no Mjolnir? I thought we agreed no Mjolnir.”

Thor protested, with humor, before he dropped the hammer.

“Alright, alright,” was Tony in the Iron Man suit, with her arms up hushing the whole assembly of super heroes. Even Rhodey was there, looking casual in a borrowed suit (one that didn’t have a massive gun on its shoulder, one that wasn’t War Machine) standing right next to Steve Rogers with a baseball mitt on one hand, looking quietly humble. “It has been brought to my attention that our last game was unfair,” and everyone looked sideways at Steve who glanced up with a half-smile on his face, “I tried to disagree but apparently the rules of baseball forbid a team of consisting of just one individual. Therefore, someone must be on Cap’s team. Someone has to volunteer, who’s it going to be?”

They took turns muttering things to one another, glancing up and down the line until they finally got to Bruce who had been kicking dirt clods with his toes, “oh no,” he said. “I watch, I don’t—Tony—I don’t play.”

“I need at least three people on my team,” Steve said. “You have three people that can fly on your team.” He even took the time to point them out, as if anyone needed to be told who they were.

“You’re a super soldier,” Tony retorted.

“I can’t fly.”

“Fine,” was almost as flirtatious as it was ridiculous, “Rhodey, buddy? Soldier solidarity? You like old men, right?”

“Tony.” (The best thing about the way Rhodey said his name was that it was precisely the same as he said it in the real world.) “Don’t do that. We talked about that. Don’t do that.” But he still moved down the line until he was standing by Rogers, who had a hell of a team with Bruce who was looking at the bat he’d been handed like it would murder him and Rhodey who put himself a good two feet away so nobody would think Tony was serious.

“Fair?” Tony asked.

Steve shrugged. “Do you think it’s fair?” (Oh, but look at how he smiled at her, like she was the god damn stars and stripes.)

The game, once it finally started, was a disaster. A great show of theatrics and playfully bad sports. It should have mattered, it should have pissed him off, but there was watching them, all of the Avengers, having fun. (And that did piss him off. Just not in the way he’d thought it would.)

A Side

It was the news that kept her awake, the non-stop replaying of Sokovia. The image of the crater that had been made when, according to eye witness accounts, a large portion of the city had been torn from the surface of the planet. It had been large enough that if it had struck the earth, it would have decimated the planet.

Sokovia.

That was the bit that kept her awake. Sokovia where Baron Von Strucker was hiding. Where the last Hydra base was. Sokovia where Wanda had been, where she’d stuck her fingers into Tony’s head and stirred up his nightmares.

Sokovia where her husband was going (today, in a different world but today).

Tony was in the shower, crouching in the hot water with her head tipped back against the wall, repeating in her head (over and over and over again) that it would be fine that Steve would have made the necessary arrangements to the plan to be safe. That it wouldn’t end in disaster, that they had faced worse, that they had always won before.

That kind of thinking was dangerous; that was Steve’s sort of thinking. He would win, good would win, justice would win, because it had always won because it should always win. Ideals didn’t win wars but nobody had ever told Steve Rogers that.

Tony was tired, beyond an acceptable level of exhaustion and any hope she had of reassuring herself was lost in the forty-something-hours of unrelenting consciousness. The hot water was a constant assault on her skin, a nagging, terrible reminder of how exhausted she was. Every part of her was aching for relief and no matter how still she laid, she couldn’t sleep.

But she couldn’t think either, not about anything but Sokovia. Not about anything but the newscaster explaining (again) that rescue efforts were underway but nobody Had Ever Seen anything of this scale. This was Unprecedented. Not even New York compared to the Devastation in Sokovia.

The shower did nothing. Like a dozen wasted glasses of warm milk (and a fond, fond memory of alcohol-induced-unconsciousness) there was nothing to calm the storm of dread stampeding through her mind. If she could wedge a single thought in between the cascade of sure defeat that was burying her from the inside out, it was only that she was still here in this world, still here surrounded by the endless array of Tony’s brilliant inventions.

Fresh from a shower, she was wearing his watch-and-gauntlet, sitting on the end of his bed with her hands pressed against her temples hard enough it made her head ache. There was too much silence and too much noise all at the same time. Too much, too much, too—

“Tony?” sounded very much like Pepper. It looked like her too, wearing nothing but bare feet, tiptoeing in through the open door. She was dressed to impress, looking sad and worried. One of her hands was halfway out, like she was going to touch (her) but stopped. “What’s wrong? Where did you go? Friday said you left.”

“I can’t sleep,” Tony said. “I’ve been trying, I’ve tried everything—I can’t sleep. I can’t think. I’m a piping hot mess. I—”

Pepper picked up the remote off the end of the bed and turned the TV off, the sudden silence of the room was as unwelcomed as the noise had been before. “You have to think,” was gentle and firm, exactly the sort of unyielding that Pepper always was. “We need our Tony back.”

“They’re going to Sokovia,” Tony said. “My team, my Avengers, we had the intelligence earlier but there were doubts, we didn’t have everything we needed and it was stupid, it was so stupid, he said after your birthday. He said there was nothing to suggest that Hydra planned to make a move, that it didn’t matter if we put it off a day. He said it would give us time to prepare.”

Pepper sat next to her, her arm slid around Tony’s back. Her worried face blurred out of focus and back in. She was a perfect match, right down to the freckles and the color of her eyes. Her white teeth and her pink lips and her voice, “they’ll be okay,” didn’t sound like she believed it for a minute.

“Like they were okay here?” Tony asked.

The way Pepper shook her head was utterly helpless. “The first battle at Sokovia went very smoothly. They captured the base, the retrieved the scepter—Ultron happened here,” Pepper pressed her foot against the floor in emphasis. “Tony wouldn’t build Ultron twice. He knows what would happen. Your team will be fine.”

“I’m not there,” she said. “I’m not there to help them, to protect them, to—”

Pepper pulled her closer, to cut off the flow of words or offer comfort there was no way of knowing. “You have to sleep,” she repeated, “you have to be able to think. We have to figure this out.”

“I can’t,” was a repeat, a rehash, a rewording of the very same thing. Tony pulled away, turned enough to pull at the blanket and throw it with as much success as a toddler having a temper tantrum. “The bed’s empty, the room’s cold, the building’s wrong.”

Pepper smoothed her hands down her skirt. “I can stay,” didn’t seem entirely like what she’d like to do. “The bed won’t be empty.”

Tony sighed. “You don’t look very much like my husband, Pepper. I appreciate the offer but—”

“It’s not about you,” she said. “You think you’re the only one that can’t sleep? I don’t know where Tony is. I don’t know if he’s safe—I don’t know if he’ll ever come back.” There were tears on her lashes, “I’ve got you on one side, running off in the middle of the night so I don’t even know if you’ll be back and Rhodey on the other asking how we prove you are who you are. I don’t know how to prove who you are. I don’t know if you are who you say you are.” She shrugged, motioned at nothing, “It feels like you are, but that’s not real.”

“You can’t sleep,” Tony whispered.

“I can’t sleep,” Pepper agreed, “I can’t sleep and I’m running Stark Industries, and my boyfriend’s gone, and the whole world is begging for a statement about how we feel about Sokovia. I don’t have a statement. I don’t know how I feel.” That didn’t seem like she meant to say it, her hands slapped against her lap and she let out a breath through her nose that wasn’t precisely a sigh. Her lips pulled up in her press-conference smile and she looked at Tony. “I can stay, maybe you can sleep. I need him back.”

There was a great deal of difference between need and want that Tony thought deserved a mention but there was also the slim chance that Pepper’s presence in the bed could help her sleep. It wasn’t about her (this time), it was about her Steve, about Sokovia. “Fine,” Tony agreed, “let’s give it a try.”

“Fine,” Pepper agreed.

The bed was huge, the space between them like a chasm, once they laid down. Pepper sat with her back against the headboard and the blanket pulled over her legs. She was scrolling through something on her tablet, making faces at the screen. Tony stared at the ceiling (thought about Steve, about the schematics of the Hydra base, about Wanda, about nightmares, about—) “Move closer,” Pepper said.

“Why?” Tony asked. She moved anyway, sliding across the bed so her elbow was bumping Pepper’s leg.

“Because,” Pepper answered as her fingers slid into Tony’s hair, “he always falls asleep when I do this.” Her fingertips were soft and warm as they ran through Tony’s hair. They were steady and familiar, gently following the curl of Tony’s hair now and again. It was something to concentrate on, a nearness and an imitation of intimacy that felt real enough. “He’s never slept well.”

“I noticed.” Tony pulled the blanket up to her shoulder and pulled the pillow down so it was fluffy under her cheek. She rolled onto her side and tipped her head up to look at Pepper. “You know the you where I’m from never would have dated me.”

Pepper’s smile was forgiving. “I’m not attracted to women,” seemed to regard that whole matter closed. “Close your eyes.” It was easy enough to listen, to concentrate on the fingers in her hair, the gentle trail of Pepper’s touch. The world was narrowing down to the sound of Tony’s breath trapped between her face and Pepper’s thigh, the growing warmth under the blanket, the calm certainty of the body next to her. The storm of noise in her brain was getting dim, the worries and fears fading back into their dark pit. Pepper said, “who did you marry?”

Tony was half-asleep, saying, “Steve.” (She could have hope for Steve, the way he had for her, she could bend reality just to make it fit. Steve would be fine; they all would be fine. She would get back to them.)

B Side

When Tony had gone back upstairs in search of something for dinner (and maybe, just maybe, something to take the edge off the anger in his gut) the liquor had gone missing. It was no longer on the bar, not in the kitchen, not in the cupboards, not in the closets. “Jarvis, who took the booze?”

“Ms. Potts, sir.”

That just went to show that no matter the universe, Pepper was uniquely protective of him. It would have been endearing if it weren’t more annoying. He had not sworn off drinking and there was no reason to think that his actions should count against her spotless record. “I guess I’m going out, Jarvis.”

“Unfortunately, sir, I cannot allow you to do so,” Jarvis said. (Jarvis said things like ‘unfortunately’ and ‘sorry sir’ and he never seemed to really mean it.)

“What? On whose authority?” Tony was looking up at the ceiling (fully aware that Jarvis was not contained in the ceiling).

“Captain Rogers requested that you not leave the premises, sir.”

“You can tell Captain Rogers that this is my house and those are my cars and I’ll decide when I want to be in which one.” He took a step toward the garage, fully intent on doing exactly what he said he would do, “did he tell you why I can’t leave my own home?”

“He did, sir.”

“Don’t keep me in suspense.” Tony was halfway down the stairs before he got the answer.

“I’m afraid I can’t say, sir.”

“Let me get this straight. You’re not supposed to let me leave,” and even as he said that, a flicker of movement made him turn his head to the side. There was one of Ms. Stark’s perfect suits staring back at him. “What’s this?”

“I’m afraid I can’t let you leave, sir.”

The suit didn’t seem to have any intention of reacting violently to Tony’s presence (but one could never tell with a faceless suit of armor). It was idling at the bottom of the steps, preventing him from going toward the garage without appearing hostile. “And where is my dear husband?”

“I’m afraid I can’t say, sir.”

There had been hiccups along the way while he was building the Iron Legion, there had been mishaps and miscommunications and bugs that needed to be worked out. But he couldn’t swear that Jarvis had ever staged a coup against him regardless of who had tried to order him to do so. Tony shifted his weight back a step and considered his options. The suit and Jarvis couldn’t kill him but without knowing exactly what sort of force they were willing to use he had limited hope of overcoming one (or both) of them. Setting aside his annoyance at being grounded to his house, he had no pressing reason to start a fight with Jarvis. “What can you say?”

“I’m sorry, sir,” Jarvis said promptly.

Tony sighed. “Don’t say it if you don’t mean it buddy.” He hovered for a moment before retreating up the stairs. “Tomorrow?” he said to the general area around him, “we’re having a serious conversation about who owns this house.”

“Of course, sir,” Jarvis agreed.

There was nothing to drink (not such much as a drop of cooking Sherry) but the fridge and the cabinets were stocked full of delicious things to eat. He was hungry but not ambitious so he made pasta that would fill up his stomach (so he could concentrate on how Steve managed to hijack his AI into obeying him).

“Sir,” Jarvis said while Tony was watching the pasta boil. Almost immediately after, Natasha’s voice was shouting through the speakers, “damn it,” was accompanied by the sound of fire, “Tony?”

“Where are you?” he shouted back.

“Sokovia,” Natasha said. “We can’t penetrate the shield surrounded the castle.”

Sokovia. They were in Sokovia. (Where Wanda was.) “Is Banner with you?” Tony asked. He didn’t bother with turning off, “Jarvis—show me where they are,” and like a magic wand, his disobedient son said:

“Of course, sir,” as Tony crashed into the door to the lab. Even before he was inside properly the whole thing was lighting up with real-time footage and facts and figures of real-time events. He was watching the assault on the castle from thousands of miles away, feeling the way his stomach dropped right out of the bottom of his body.

“The shield!” sounded like Rhodey, “We’re getting our asses kicked.”

“The power source is under the North Tower,” Tony said. “Is Banner with you?”

“Yes,” was Steve’s voice, all out of breath. The sound he made when he was fighting six-seven guys with guns. He was a flickering image in the middle of a snow-covered forest. (How many times had Tony had the same argument with him, the one about the necessity of weapons and how a shield was a shield wasn’t a weapon. But Captain America had woken up from the ice with a distaste for firearms and why would he need one when he could just throw a motorcycle at someone.) “I didn’t want to bring you into this.”

That was a lovely sentiment for a stupid man. Tony couldn’t even think of a single thing to say to that; for a minute he was just watching them fight—holding his breath, thinking it would be alright this time (and why this time? What was missing from this time to make it okay.) But it was a punch in the gut when the Natasha said, “Clint’s been hit!”

“Get Banner out of there,” Tony said.

“We have to finish what we came here to do,” Steve said just he was knocked over by Pietro. When he got up again, flickering in and out of focus on the satellite image, he said, “we’ve got an enhanced on the field.”

“There’s two enhanced, and you just met the friendly one. Do yourselves and every civilian in the area a favor and get Banner out of there,” Tony said. “Loki’s scepter is in the castle, don’t go in alone.”

“Sir,” Jarvis said, “the energy source for the shield appears to be disabled.”

“You got this?” was Natasha over comms, not talking to him.

“Yeah,” was Steve’s answer. He was looking up at the castle. “Rhodey, get Clint and get out of here. Natasha—”

“I’ve got the big guy,” she answered.

“Thor, you and I will take the castle.”

Tony rubbed his fingers across his mouth, watched them scatter to obey and shook his head. There were tears in his eyes (angry ones, furious ones, unfair ones). “This is why I couldn’t leave?”

“They anticipated they might need your assistance with the unknown shielding abilities around the castle, sir,” Jarvis answered.

The image got blurry and refocused. The satellite couldn’t see inside the castle, couldn’t see all the hallways and passages where Wanda could hide. Maybe she wasn’t so bad now in his world, after she’d switched sides but she was a raw nerve with catastrophic power prowling through the hallways. “Where are they Jarvis? Where’s Steve? Tell me what’s happening.”

It would be okay because Wanda had hated him, his name, his tech, his legacy. It would be okay because Steve had been okay. It would be okay because they would get out, unharmed.

It would be okay.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER 4

A SIDE

There was a definite effectiveness at putting one’s hair in a pony tail that was impossible to replicate without enough hair to pull back and a decent hair tie. There was always the option of a headband to keep the curls and waves out of her face but she hadn’t thought ahead well enough to have purchased one the day before. Looking through the dresser, suitcases and bathroom vanity drawers hadn’t produced a headband either. (She had thought, perhaps Pepper would have one. Or perhaps this other Tony. It was equally possible.) She did find a baseball cap in the lab that she turned around backward and used to trap her hair away from her face.

The lab was hollow, every little noise loud against the quiet. The lackluster data Friday had spent the past day compiling was glowing blue and unyielding in front of her. (The summary of which had been astutely reduced to two words and an honorific: “No change, sir.”) There was no question that reality had changed around; no question at all that Tony was not where she should have been. She had been picked up from one place and dropped in another; she knew that, she just could not prove it.

“I didn’t know how you took your coffee,” Pepper said as she came into the lab with no warning. (Friday hadn’t so much as whispered an indication that someone else was coming.) There Tony was with the clothes she intended to wear laying over the back of the chair, dressed in nothing but one of the other Tony’s shirts and her brand-new underwear. She was sitting cross-legged in the computer chair grinding her teeth at the unchanging data, reminding herself nothing mattered the way getting home mattered. Pepper was simply there, in jeans and a loose T-shirt (wearing no bra by the look of things) carrying coffee with a sort of perfectly-composed manic energy that meant she probably hadn’t slept lately. “Tony likes espresso usually—what are you, where are your clothes?”

Tony motioned over her shoulder to where they were laying. (And if she had planned to wear this other Tony’s stupidly nice jeans rather than the new clothes bought for her, that was nobody’s business but hers.) “I—I got out of the habit of putting pants on before breakfast,” she said.

Pepper slapped the coffee down in front of her. “Because you’re married?” was an accusation. Pepper looked over her shoulder for a chair, didn’t find one but found a rolling tool box with rounded edges that was sturdy enough to sit on and pulled that over. She crossed her legs at the knee and set her coffee on her leg as she stared at Tony intently.

It was very obvious Pepper wanted something; it was just less obvious what it was she wanted. “Throw me a bone. I can tell I did something but—”

“You married Steve,” was a shout rolled up into a whisper that came out like a hiss, dragging every syllable along for the ride. Pepper’s fingers flexed around her coffee mug. (That didn’t clear things up, exactly, but leave Tony trying to work out if she was meant to apologize for cheating on Pepper or if the thought of marrying Steve was so horrifying it defaulted as a Reprehensible Action.) “And you told me.”

“He’s not the same bag of dicks where I’m from.”

“You broke his arm.” Pepper was folding her whole body in half just to keep up the pretense of whispering confidentially. (That might have been worth the time and effort if not for how the entire lab was being continuously monitored by Friday and anything said inside of it was definitely being recorded no matter how quietly it was said.) “That’s your husband.”

Tony pointed in (approximately) the direction of the Avengers’ compound. “That is not my husband. That’s an angry little boy in a costume.”

Pepper sat up straight to convey she was disappointed in him. “Are you going to tell him?”

“No. I would prefer that you didn’t tell him or anyone else either. I didn’t mean to tell you,” (she didn’t remember mentioning it either but that was the problem with falling asleep in hostile situations, you never knew what you were going to say).

“You broke his arm,” Pepper repeated. That seemed like she was trying very hard to be upset about it but, “Steve?” seemed much more authentically upset. There was worry in that, in the way she half-laughed at it, at how she leaned back for a moment before she remembered there was no seat back. “Steve.”

“Just because I married him doesn’t mean your Tony—”

“I thought you, he didn’t like him. Now I’m thinking, all those times he complained about Steve being perfect, his perfect teeth, his perfect body, his perfect—should I have been paying more attention?”

Tony was not required to participate in this conversation so she took the opportunity to sip her coffee (and found it bitter and black, not at all sweet and creamy as she expected).

“I thought it was just—whatever it is with his Dad, we all know Tony has unresolved issues with his Father and he’s mentioned a few hundred times how his Father was obsessed with finding Steve but, you really married Steve? Steve doesn’t even like you.” The rambling came to a brief stop, Pepper was looking at her again, keeping still in a way that suggested a word might be able to be squeezed in edgewise if one was quick.

“Oh, Howard was obsessed with finding Captain America?” Tony said. She pressed her hand against her chest. “I never knew.”

Pepper had never looked less impressed with her. “I’ve been up all night. I keep trying to worry about whether Tony is safe, whether he’s coming home, but I start thinking about whether or not he secretly wants to have sex with Steve.”

Tony sipped her coffee (and was reminded that it was terrible) and nodded sympathetically. It felt like the right call except for how Pepper’s eyebrows went up and her fingers tapped against the side of her coffee mug. “Oh,” she said, “uh. Yes. He probably does. Doesn’t mean he would do it. Despite what the papers like to say, we Tony’s are capable of controlling our rabid lust.”

“That was not comforting.” Pepper sipped her coffee, looked horrified by it and then peered into the cup, “I gave you the wrong one.” Upon switching, Tony had sweet black coffee which wasn’t perfect but was noticeably better than it had been before. Pepper sipped the bitter black coffee and apparently liked it, she sighed and shook her head. “Do you have any ideas?”

No. Not a single one. “Hopefully soon,” Tony said. Immediately would have been better than soon but no ideas seemed to be hovering on the horizon. “Things are different where I’m from, Pepper. Him and I, we’re not the same people. My Steve and your Steven are not the same people. Don’t worry about it.”

“You’re right,” did not believe her for a second. “I need to get dressed, I have to get back to work.”

B SIDE

“The scepter is in the north tower in a secret passageway.”

Thor glanced sideways at him, one eyebrow lifting toward his hairline and a general gesture toward the north and the tower. “He sounds like her,” Thor took the time to say. It wasn’t what Steve was expecting to follow along with the actions. “Bossy.”

“She’s not bossy,” Steve said. (She was authoritative. She had leadership qualities. Bossy was what you called the playground dictator that told everyone how to play tag.)

“I appreciate the friendly team chit chat,” was Tony from thousands of miles away. His voice was tight with apprehension. “You need to work fast. The less time you’re standing around, the better your chances of getting out unharmed.”

Steve pointed up at the tower and Thor who motioned blatantly at the sound of not-even-their-Tony telling them what to do as proof of being bossy. Steve rolled his eyes and Thor grinned as he took off toward the tower. “What exactly am I going to be harmed by?” Steve asked, “how do you know?”

“I’d rather you not be harmed by anything,” Tony countered. “I’ve been in this castle, Cap. It doesn’t end well for everyone. Is Banner out of the field?”

“Yes,” Natasha answered. “I’ve got Banner and Barton, we’re waiting on Cap and Thor.”

The castle was drafty (in his limited experience, castles did tend to be drafty) with narrow hallways and abrupt turns. The whole inside was cast in gray light, dim and hard to see by. (And if they had enough power to use their weapons, and enough advanced technology to have a damn shield, it stood to reason they should have had the common sense to use lights too.)

“I am in the north tower,” Thor said. “There are computers.” His voice across the comms had the quality of being amused to announce the presence of something as useless as computers. Thor didn’t view most electronics as important but he’d slowly come to understand that while he thought little of them, they were almost always significant to the rest of them.

“If Rhodey’s still there, he should be able to copy the files,” Tony said.

“I’m here,” Rhodey agreed.

Steve had gotten used to the voices in his ear, all the chatter and whispering. The background noise of shouts and explosions that created an entire miniature universe in his right ear. Nine out of ten times it didn’t bother him at all, it was simply something he’d gotten used to, and then it was the tenth time, like now, when he was listening for footsteps in a drafty castle, trying not to make too much noise himself. The silence was too settled, the whole castle a void of noise. Outside had been cannon fire and bullets. It had been cracking tree limbs and heavy artillery. His ears were full of white noise as he climbed the steps, listening (as close as he could) for the sound of enemies approaching.

Thor said, “I have the scepter.”

“Congratulations,” was acid through the comms. “I’ll get you a sticker when you get back. Get out of there.”

Steve turned a corner, heard the sound of rapid footsteps just beyond a guard standing at the end of the hall. He kicked the man forward in time to see Baron Strucker scuttling toward the steps. “Baron Strucker,” he said, “Hydra’s number one thug.”

(“Rhodey do you have the download?” Tony asked.

“Yeah I got it.”

“Then why are you still there? Get Strucker and Steve and get out.”) was playing in his skull overtop everything Strucker was saying, reverberating through the white noise.

“You’ll mention how I cooperated, won’t you?” Strucker said. His eyes slid to the right, he almost smiled. Steve turned his head, (and this is what happened when you couldn’t hear properly), just in time to see the girl wearing red lift her hands. They were reddish-shimmering-full of energy that gathered but didn’t crackle. Instinct made him lift the shield but the motion was too late, the way the girl moved was too swift, he was hit in the face with that gathering pulse of energy. It was like fire in his eyes and his nose, filling up his ears with terrible-noise.

He didn’t scream but shout, cover his face with his hands. The room felt like it was getting dim, the little tinny voice in his ear was screaming at the end of the tunnel. When he opened his eyes again, there was Strucker grinning at him.

“What is Captain America afraid of?” he said.

It felt like a tide, in his skull, an almost glittery misperception. Steve didn’t have much time to gulp down air, not enough time to see where the woman had gone or think properly but enough time to punch Strucker in the face, enough time to gasp, “I’m compromised,” before it dragged him under.

B SIDE

There was something to be said for rationality. There was something to be said for that ability to stand in the middle of your almost certain death and think around that. He used to have that, not-so-long ago, that ability to think regardless of the circumstances. (And oh boy wasn’t he the master of circumstances, drinking and fucking and starting fights. He made weapons that killed people while he was working off last night’s hangover, putting all his thoughts and all his guilt into little compartments where they wouldn’t spill out.) It felt like (now) his brain was on a hair trigger, always wound too tight, always jumping to conclusions with no time to reconsider.

It shouldn’t have been relief before anger, it shouldn’t have been how his breath got knocked out of his body, shouldn’t have been the spring unwinding itself and his brain throwing out thoughts like: It wasn’t you. It wasn’t your fault like it was a good thing that Wanda had attacked Steve. (It felt like it though, just for a minute.) When the anger came it was his fist against the nearest surface, the jump and clatter of tools and pieces. Dum-E worried in his corner and Tony breathed, “fuck” between his teeth.

“Rhodey!” was Natasha in the field, too far away to go back.

“I’m on it,” Rhodey said. “I see him— Cap? Captain?” There was no visual but the inconstant exterior of the castle. There was a blur with a red cape and Thor’s voice over the comms.

“We must go,” Thor said as he smashed through a section of the wall. The image flickered again as Rhodey said:

“Come on Cap, on your feet.” He grunted with effort, “no it’s fine, I’ll pick up the shield too.” (This was the sort of banter that he appreciated when he was there to see things in real time.) “You’re heavier than you look, Steve.”

In another universe, where Steve Rogers was bland as white bread, he’d picked himself up from the hit like it was nothing. It would be the same here (sure it would, because so many things were the same here). “Natasha,” Tony said as he spread his hand out and pushed it against the desk. Things were falling out of their compartments in his head. “Where are you going? Who’s in charge when Cap is down? Where do you go?”

Natasha didn’t answer immediately, when she did, she said: “if you make me regret trusting you, I’ll kill you.” (And really, he wouldn’t expect any less from her. Although perhaps with less genuine threat.) “We’re supposed to regroup in New York.”

“I’ll meet you there,” Tony said.

“You’ll need Pepper or Happy,” Natasha said. “You don’t exactly look like her so I doubt the plane will leave without one of them.”

“Plane?”

“Yes, plane. We’ve got Steve, we’re leaving. Call Pepper,” Natasha said. Then the line went dead.

Almost immediately Jarvis prompted, “shall I try Ms. Potts?”

“Just a minute buddy, give me a minute.” (Just a minute to think through the problem; to think through the compulsion to go and see what he could do. The lingering nightmare always trapped inside his skull. Phantom Steve’s voice saying things like: it’s your fault.) “Right,” he said, “let’s do it. Call Pepper.” He turned away from the fading hologram, out through the door and up the stairs. He went up to his room while Jarvis went through the trouble of dialing the phone. By the time he’d reached the guest room, Pepper’s annoyed voice was filtering through the house speakers.

“I assume this is important?”

“I need a flight to New York,” Tony said.

He couldn’t see but he could hear Pepper on the verge of pinching her nose at him. It was the tone of her voice, the exhausted way she sounded when she was just tired of putting up with him. “Why?”

“Steve took a hit,” Tony said.

“What?”

“There’s an enhanced that can make you experience nightmares as vivid hallucinations—it’s short acting but not everyone can just shake it off. The team said they regroup in New York I need to meet them.” He’d stacked every piece of clothing he owned on the bed before he realized he had no luggage (or really that he might not need all these clothes).

“Tony,” Pepper cut in, “the team will take care of Steve, we all need you here figuring out how to get her back.”

Well that was the problem wasn’t it, he was a super genius with genius friends and an AI capable of processing information almost as fast as he could and between all of them the only evidence they’d amassed in regards to the switch was that Tony existed here. There was no backward engineering a hole in the fabric of reality when he couldn’t find any proof there ever had been one. But he did know Wanda. He did know what she did when she stuck her fingers in your brain. “Pepper,” sounded calmer than he felt. “I’m going to New York. You can get me a plane or I can take a suit.”

“You cannot take one of her suits,” Pepper said immediately.

“Then get me a plane.” If she’d been here, they would have been having a staring match, his anger and her cool disapproval. “Pepper, it’s important.”

Her voice had the tiniest break in it, “fine,” didn’t sound like she agreed at all, “I’ll send Happy to get you. Do not leave the house in one of her cars. Happy will drive you, and you will tell no one that you are Tony Stark. Are we clear?”

“Yes,” Tony said.

A SIDE

Idle hands, as the saying went, were the devil’s plaything. Only Tony had been thinking (for more than a few years) that whoever thought that gem up hadn’t meant it to be applied to the woman that would be considered ‘the merchant of death’. They certainly wouldn’t have said it anywhere this Tony who created truly fantastic machines when his idle hands got to working. No, when people saw her with a screwdriver in her hand they started talking really fast about why it was most likely a bad idea.

Idle hands were what Tony aspired to; not something she could manage. Because busy hands were a busy mind and if she was redesigning the Mark 42 how Tony had always-meant-to-but-didn’t. It wasn’t her favorite suit and it wasn’t the most useful suit but it felt like the most necessary suit.

Was that what he felt like? Like there was a threat over his shoulder all the time, like the walls were listening in? Like his brain was filling up with static white-noise and the floor would drop out without warning. (And dread, dread like a news channel on mute, playing non-stop coverage of the humanitarian crisis in Sokovia.)

So, Tony was tinkering with the propulsion system for the Mark 42, thinking and rethinking the code and the implanted trackers that controlled and called for the suit. There was a long, dirty list of notes and suggested improvements filling out 42’s file. (And that little red dot in the corner of its folder indicating it had been purposefully destroyed.)

“Sir,” interrupted the Beastie Boys, “Colonel Rhodes is approaching.”

“Let him in,” Tony said. She wiped her fingers on a shop rag and then tucked it into her back pocket. The shirt she’d been intended to wear (most of the morning) was still lying over the back of the chair. She was pulling off the other Tony’s shirt when the door opened and Rhodey walked in. He had all the swagger of a man who had come to get answers but was unexpectedly met with a half-naked woman instead. “I didn’t realize you were that close,” she said.

Always a gentleman Rhodey recovered from the shock of seeing her breasts by staring pointedly at the floor. “I thought Friday would tell you.”

“I’ve got a shirt on now,” she said. She tugged it down into place. (She thought, not for the first time, about how she really should bother to wear a bra more often. Not that she ever had, or would start now.) “Steven send you?”

Rhodey double-checked to make sure it was safe to look up and once he was certain he said, “I wanted to come.”

“That must have been convenient for Steven when he told you to come,” she picked up her bottle of water to take a drink and watched how Rhodey tried-and-failed not to frown at her. It wasn’t precisely the same as the way her Rhodey frowned at her. “It’s not a bad strategy. It’s actually such a clever idea I’m having trouble believing Steven came up with it himself.” She dropped the water bottle back on the desk top. “Almost smells like something Natasha would do.”

“Fine,” Rhodey conceded (as if he were being forced, as if he had been doing such an excellent job concealing his motivation up to that moment), “I was asked to come and talk to you. But I wanted to come. Steve believes you are who you say you are.”

Tony sat in the desk chair, pulled her legs up to cross them and shrugged as she said, “and you don’t.”

“You’re not behaving in a way that I would expect my friend to behave.”

That was a laugh. “I haven’t ever been exactly well known for behaving in general, Rhodey. We aren’t exactly the same, your Tony and me, but the basics line up. So, what is it I could possibly say that would convince you I am who I say I am?” She made a show of thinking (a bit of chin scratching, some squinting eyes), “what would I know about you, about us, that nobody else would know? That we wouldn’t tell anyone so I couldn’t just have looked it up?”

“I don’t think there’s anything you could sa—”

“How about how many times you had sex with Tony at college?” she asked. “We, him and I that is, were underage, you know.”

Rhodey’s whole face was suddenly bloodless, his voice stuttered to a stop. The brief, encompassing, embarrassment gave way to a sudden resurgence of blood in his cheeks and he scowled as he said, “I don’t—I wouldn’t—That wasn’t—” But he’d been caught and he knew it and she knew it. “We don’t talk about that.”

“I know we don’t. Because we were sixteen, you were eighteen, when we met. Only seventeen when we graduated. I don’t know how it went for him but, it took me three weeks of constant effort to get your pants off, Colonel Rhodes and even then, I think you were waiting for Howard to pop out of a closet about how you deflowered his only daughter.”

“I didn’t realize he was sixteen,” Rhodey countered. “It was college, everyone experiments in college. He didn’t tell me until after.”

She snorted. “We Tonys do like getting what we want regardless of the consequences.” She had meant it as a joke, as a call-back to the now long-ago days of when she had spent her free time dragging Rhodey into situations he protested as illegal or immoral. It wasn’t her fault at sixteen, teenagers had the habit of making gut choices even when there was ample evidence it wouldn’t turn out well.

But this Rhodey was just barely on the other side of a worst-case scenario, up to his ears with recent memories of catastrophes. The smile he’d almost managed fell instantly. “That’s another reason I’m here,” was as condescending as Steven’s tone of voice. The exact tone of a parent gently correcting an unruly child. (At very least Rhodey was older than her and not by a technicality.) “Nobody knows what your intentions are. We want to help but we need to know we’re helping to reach a mutual goal.”

Tony’s hands folded around her crossed legs. She took in a breath and considered the alternatives. There was a half-dozen placating things that came instantly to mind; the sort of promises that threw vague insults at every member of this universe that stayed happily complacent. “I’ve spent the past day staring at this,” she motioned at the screen that showed an endless supply of data that meant nothing to her.

“We just— I just want to know if I can trust you. Steve doesn’t doubt you. Friday doesn’t. The suits don’t. Pepper,” he motioned over his shoulder, “said you have to be Tony, that you’re exactly like him. That no spy was that good.” Rhodey took a step closer, glanced sideways at the bits of the half-assembled propulsion suit with a nervous frown and then back at her. “I want to be convinced. I need to be convinced.” (Because Rhodey would never stop looking for his friend, would never hesitate to protect him no matter the cost. Because Rhodey was more dangerous than Steve; Steve believed in principle, Rhodey believed in action.)

What would matter enough to Rhodey to erase the doubt. What would be private, between them, that wouldn’t ever have been written down or discussed. (Besides the sex, that had only ever gone undiscussed because Howard really-would-have been pissed. Because Rhodey had plans and dreams that didn’t involve getting disemboweled by a rich white guy.) “The hum-drum-vee is back there,” Tony said. It felt like centuries since she’d been that person, in a desert, (with a drink), mouthing off to a man who was far too good a friend to have to put up with her.

This Tony, in this world, he must have said the same thing because Rhodey looked like he was staring face first at a ghost.

Tony shrugged. “I wouldn’t have told anyone that. How could I? Imagine me telling Pepper: yes, I could have gotten in the Humvee with Rhodey. I could have been safer but I was annoyed because he lectured me on a plane about how I needed to be more responsible. I said, I’m sorry this is the funvee, the hum-drum-vee is back there?.” She cracked a smile (not at an entirely fond memory), “I can’t imagine you’d write it up in your report right? What was it you said to me in the desert when you found me, what was the first smart ass thing you said?”

“How was the funvee?” Rhodey said (like he really, really didn’t want to).

“Next time you ride with me,” Tony agreed. She shrugged again.

All the aggression in his body language shifted, it melted by degrees until he was relaxed (at ease) just looking at her with wonder that couldn’t be faked. (And certainly not by Rhodey who lied about training missions on TV with authority but if you knew the tells, you knew when it was a lie.) “You’re really Tony.”

“Yes.”

Rhodey let out a breath like deflating and rubbed the back of his neck with his hand. He looked over at the half-built suit (at least a new prototype for the propulsion system) and then back at her. “This isn’t going to reassure Steve that you’re not planning on causing trouble.”

Tony smiled. “I think better when I’m busy. It’s the Mark 42, he left a lot of notes on how to make it better and I have nothing else to work on.” She spun in the chair just far enough she was looking at it. “It’s an interesting idea. Nice to have in a pinch but I don’t think it would stand up to a long fight, or one that was—” How to put it? “Dirty?”

Rhodey was nodding along. “My Tony didn’t tell me who his father was until after we had sex.”

“That’s probably because he had that luxury. Howard made very certain that any guys with ideas about putting their hands on me knew it was a bad idea. Every incoming class of freshman was educated on the matter by the older classman. Don’t touch her. Her dad will kill you.” Tony shrugged.

“That sounds like him,” Rhodey agreed. “So, Howard? You didn’t get along?”

“No,” Tony said.

Rhodey nodded again. “I saw him use this one,” Rhodey said as he motioned at the bits and pieces laid out on the work table. “What kind of notes did he leave?”

“I don’t know that he’d like me to tell you that,” Tony said. She was smiling cheekily. “I had to prove who I was and that I was friendly, I have no reassurance that you’re not going to run straight back to Steven and tell him everything you found out here.”

“Tony’s my friend,” Rhodey said. “I outrank Steve. I don’t have to tell him anything I don’t feel is necessary.”

Tony laughed at that. She unfolded her legs and pushed herself up to her feet. “Come on,” she said. “I could use a second set of eyes anyway.”

B SIDE

(This wasn’t real. No matter how real the pieces felt, it did not make a whole. Steve could feel the real world, just beyond his skin, the constant vibrating static of almost heard and almost felt and almost seen things.)

The best conversations were had in bathtubs. Steve Rogers hadn’t ever considered himself overly fond of a tub of water but there he was, soaking up the heat and the scent of the water. The bubbles were giggles against his skin with his eyes closed and her body leaning against his. Her voice was a constant (always a constant) as her hands slid up his arms.

She said, “what is Captain America most afraid of?”

(No that wasn’t his wife, that was Baron Strucker, in a castle, in Sokovia. Those were an echo of words that she hadn’t ever said in that order. Because Tony didn’t call him Captain America in bath tubs.)

Her skin was smooth as silk under his palms, her body arched into his touch as he started at her belly and slid his hands up. He’d memorized every little part of her body, his palms knew the way, his fingers knew all the best detours. With his eyes closed he could think of anything at all, things like:

War. The quick-quick words of a man on his knees, the way his forehead dimpled under the pressure of the barrel of a gun. There was a line of others just like him, on their knees with their bare palms up like white fucking flags. All their words ran together, all of them speaking at once, the whole field was covered in them. He couldn’t make sense of the shape of their words but he could have recognized the rhythm anywhere. They were praying; they were begging. There was Steve with his trusty shield and a gun that hadn’t been used since nineteen-forty-five. War-was-war was hell and who was he to do any less than any other man. When he pulled the trigger the soldiers skull split like a melon.

“I don’t know if I can be afraid of anything,” Steve said when his hands had gone down instead of up. His palms were rough along the inside of her thighs. His fingers dug in just enough to pull her legs up to rest them over the sides of the tub. “I think men are afraid of things they don’t understand, things they don’t think they can survive.”

Death. It was meant to be mercy, putting Bucky down the way you put down a feral dog. There was no satisfaction in doing a job that had to be done. There was nothing good to feel when it was your best friend, standing there without crying, without fighting, without flinching. There was nothing-at-all decent about it but some things just had to be done, like Bucky nodding his head. Just like we talked about, just like we promised. Maybe Steve could have used a gun, but Bucky was special was unique, was important and he deserved something more personal than a bullet to the brain. “Close your eyes,” Steve said. It was his hands and it was his arms and it was Bucky’s neck that snapped with just the right pressure.

“Aren’t you afraid of something?” Tony asked. Her hands were gripped around his wrists, pulling his hands up. “Even superheroes have fears.”

Anger, he’d woken up with it. Like a beast in his chest that vomited venom into his brain. He’d woke up filled to the gills with spite. This wasn’t-his-world. This wasn’t-what-he’d died for. This world, this filthy little mudball, was a mockery of the one he’d left behind sixty-six-years-ago. Things moved, things felt, things smelled different. It was just enough of the same to drive a man insane. The building on the corner was the same but the woman that had always lived there had died sixty-four years ago and it was a coffee shop now. There was a gym where a deli had been and a highway that had taken over grass. Peggy was older than either of his parents ever lived to be, older than his grandparents had managed, older than Steve could have ever imagined being. It was Peggy who had been sharp and strong and beautiful, slowly succumbing to the inevitable grasp of death. Her smile as she glanced at him, her furrowed brow as she glanced around the room, searching-for-anything that felt similar to her. He was only a fragment of a memory that she couldn’t always remember.

Steve had died for this; for men to keep making the same fucking mistakes.

“I think there is one thing I’m afraid of.” His hands were sliding up her body, the tips of his fingers skirting around the metal edges of the arc reactor. Her body vibrated when she hummed a curious noise. “Erskine chose me because I was a good man,” was how is hands flattened against her breasts, the little hiss of pain she made because the grip was too tight, “the serum amplifies everything that’s already a part of you.” Her fingers were digging into the backs of his hands. “I’ve seen what power does to men. Erskine said, a weak man knows the value of compassion,” his fingertips crawled farther up as her hands tried to pull his down. “I was weak once. I stood and let them hit me, I always tried to fight back and I never won.” Her collarbones felt fragile under his touch. “I like winning,” was the soft skin of her neck.

It was the way her voice gasped, “Steve.” The water splashed as her feet kicked against the tub. Her body was twisting, her nails were digging into his skin. But her throat, her throat fit perfectly into the palm of his hand. Her neck was delicate in his grasp.

“I’m afraid I’ll live so long I’ll forget what it was like to be weak. I’m afraid,” as her body thrashed, as the water cascaded over the edges of the tub, “I’ve already forgotten.”

(“Tony!” felt like reality but who was he to judge anymore. The world that had been black before was full of too-bright-colors, surrounded by familiar-and-unknown faces. There was Thor (but was it?) at his side with both hands pushing his shoulders back. Steve was on his back, was fighting, was kicking and punching to get up.

It sounded like, must have been, Natasha leaning over him saying, “Tony’s fine, Steve. Everyone is fine. We’re just taking you home.”

But Tony wasn’t fine. Tony was gone; Tony was lost in a world where they weren’t friends. Steve struggled but Thor didn’t relent. “Be still,” was the voice of a demi-god and a prince, the sound of a man that took on the Hulk with nothing but his bare fists, hardly working up a decent impression of effort. “Whatever the witch has shown you, it is not real.”

But it felt real. At very least, the only sort of real that mattered.)

A SIDE

It was funny (but it wasn’t) how sometimes he couldn’t remember the names of all the chorus girls he’d toured with. He knew there had been a Betty and probably a Jane, and once in a while he thought there was definitely a Myrtle or a Bertie. (It was almost certain there was a Mary or a Martha, there was always a Mary or Martha, always.) But the memory got lost behind a series of grainy newsreel playing the greatest hits of his life. He remembered war: gun metal and tank shells. He remembered Peggy in every-living-detail, like a phantom that made his whole body ache for the things he wanted-and-didn’t-have.

(Or didn’t want? What difference did it make whether or not he wanted it when he couldn’t have it. It was safest not to want; nobody could take something he was willing to give.)

No, he didn’t remember their names, and their faces had gone blurry in his memory. He barely remembered his own Mother so it was no surprise at all a line of same-ish women with harmonized voices didn’t stand out. They were cardboard cut outs in his memory but that fucking song snuck up on him now and again. He found himself humming the words in the kitchen when he was just trying to make a decent lunch.

Star spangled man with a plan, that’s what they called him. "Each one you buy is a bullet in the barrel of your best guy’s gun."

Steve had a plan, three or four days ago, about putting together a team that was more than a group of people brought together by circumstance (and Fury, who had a dream that had almost been a reality). It had been a good idea three-ish days ago, a good plan. It had felt necessary and worthwhile when he was working off the high of defeating Ultron and the guilt of thousands of people who had lost everything.

There was no plan now; no victory high. There was only the counter he was leaning against and the woman on the television repeating exactly what had-already-been-said.

“The reports from humanitarian efforts on the ground are, frankly, harrowing. There’s been a lot of talk of how something like this could have happened, how something of this scale could be done with no warning and how the Avengers knew to respond. Those are important questions that need an answer but, before we get into that debate, I think it’s important to think of the survivors, the thousands—tens of thousands of people that are living in destitution, that are scavenging the edges of a crater that used to be their home.

“We have footage, I think—can we show—”

They had footage, of course they did, because the clean, pretty lady on the news was the face of a company that could take the time to send people with cameras to capture suffering but didn’t bother to bring anything useful along for the trip. Steve had seen the footage, the streets that had survived line with people sitting and blinking. The dirt that was still coming from everywhere, whipped up by the wind.

“I thought you didn’t like watching the news,” Natasha said. He hadn’t heard her enter the room (and he rarely did) before she was just there behind his left side looking up at the TV with half the interest.

“Where’d you hear that?” he asked.

Her eyebrows seemed indicate that it was a commonly known fact that Steve didn’t believe in dwelling on unchangeable things. Time travel hadn’t been invented yet; there was no way to go back and stop Sokovia from being destroyed, no way to save the people or homes or land that had been lost. “It’s a mess,” she said rather than name a source. “You should see channel 4, they’ve got an expert comparing key pieces of the recovered tech to Iron Man.”

Steve sighed, looked back up at the screen—at the newscaster in nice clean clothes standing like a direct contrast just to heighten the horror. “Do they have any proof?”

“Things like this don’t need proof,” Natasha said. “What are we going to do?”

“What can we do?” Steve asked. He had been the front man of a national campaign, standing in front of a singing line up of pretty girls in flirty skirts, convincing every man and woman left at home that the best-bet they had was buying bonds to save lives. He had been propaganda. He had been a tool that men who understood how to use the media wielded to get the results they wanted. But it had only been his face, and their script, saying what he was told. “You think we should tell them it was Stark?”

Natasha shrugged, ran her fingers across a spot on the countertop behind him as she ran her tongue across her lips. (He just couldn’t ever tell with her, exactly how much of it was honest and exactly how much of it was calculated.) When she looked up at him, she seemed sincere, she said, “Tony didn’t make Ultron by himself. He didn’t mean for it to—”

“Does it matter?”

“Intentions should matter,” Natasha countered. “He was trying to protect—”

“He was reacting, he wasn’t thinking.”

“That wasn’t entirely his fault was it?” Natasha asked.

Steve hit the remote for the TV, muted the sound because the last thing this conversation needed was the sound track of tragedy. “Tony made a choice, we don’t get to pick and choose which of our choices we take responsibility for.”

“Bruce made that same choice.”

Bruce actually cared.” Tony motioned upward, at a tower that wasn’t even in the way his hand moved (but behind them) and Natasha shifted on her feet in a way that suggested she was only getting started. “Why do you care?” he asked rather than start in (again). “I didn’t realize you even liked Stark.”

“I don’t not like Tony,” Natasha said.

Steve drew a breath in and let it out again. His hands found their way to his waist (and why not after what felt like half a lifetime of posing that way) so his elbows were pointing out at the sides and he was looking at the spotless ceiling because it wasn’t looking at him like it wasn’t going to quit until it got what it wanted. “Tony didn’t trust us enough to tell us his plan,” Steve said (at last), and he looked at her. “Either he thinks we’re not smart enough to understand or he thought we’d try to stop him. If it’s because we’re stupid next to him, that’s the kind of arrogance that gets people killed. If it’s because he knew we wouldn’t agree—” Steve lifted his hand and let it drop, he shrugged. There was no end to the sentence because he’d been doing his level-best not to think-too-hard-about-that. About how a man as smart as Tony had gotten taken in by a nightmare. “I thought we were getting somewhere, I thought we were becoming a team. I find out, half the people on the team still don’t trust each other.”

Natasha considered that. “Did you trust Tony?”

“I wanted to,” Steve said. He didn’t even need her to say a thing, didn’t need the way she looked at him with one eyebrow almost lifting. He understood the slippery ground he was standing on because Tony-built-a-monster (as accidentally as you could. By striking a match in a room full of gasoline and acting surprised it caught on fire) but Steve was lying through his teeth. Every time he looked at Tony, there was a part of his head filled up with thinking your parents were murdered and all things considered, Steve knowing and never saying what happened to Howard felt as untrustworthy as Tony hiding Ultron.

Maybe Steve never wanted to fucking know, or see, or live with the reality of his best-friends-hands around Tony’s Mother’s neck but it was in his head now, a grainy little film that replayed sometimes when he tried to sleep. No good came from telling Tony; it would become a disaster.

So, it came down to intentions: Steve was trying to protect (who, himself?) Tony, and Tony was trying to protect the world. Everything was even and none of them were without blame.

“Steve,” Natasha said with one of her hands reaching out to touch his arm. “If we do nothing about Sokovia, the world will make up its own mind. We might not like what it decides. We don’t have to like Tony, or agree with Tony, but are we really willing to sit back and let them decide this was all on him?”

Steve looked over his shoulder, at the aerial shot of the crater with the web addresses for charities playing across the bottom on endless repeat. No. Good, bad, or even they won together or they lost together. If it was Tony’s fault, it was their fault and that was their disaster taking up all the space on the TV screen. It was only, Steve had no idea what to do about it. “What would we do?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” Natasha said. “This isn’t my specialty. If I do my job right, nobody knows I was ever there. This is—,” she motioned at the screen, “I don’t know what to do. But it feels like we have to do something.”

Yes, it did. It was just a matter of figuring out what.

B SIDE

“So,” was how Happy introduced himself from the front seat of the car waiting outside Tony’s front door. “You’re her. I mean, you’re a him, obviously a him, but you’re supposed to be her?” It was charming in the way many of the things Happy had ever said to him were simply charming.

“Yes,” Tony agreed. He leaned forward so he was halfway into the front seat. “I’d love to discuss the particulars but I’m hoping to catch a plane. On time,” he added. “For the first time.” In his entire life, probably.

Happy had almost smiled at that.

“Pepper did explain, Steve is in trouble, I need to get to New York?”

That didn’t propel Happy into instant motion but he nodded. “Pepper explained,” he agreed. Then he put the car into drive (at last) and said, “you should sit back, sir.”

Happy had been on the plane ride too, looking at him over the top of a magazine he couldn’t even convincingly fake reading. That was fine when Tony had been fake reviewing information about how to get back home. That’s what he’d said when they got on the plane. (“I’m going to need quiet because I need to think and when I need to think, I need quiet.”) He was reviewing the satellite images of the castle, watching in real time as NATO came to finish mopping up the mess they’d left behind. The soldiers that had defended the Hydra base were in various stages of death, injury or surrender but the castle was standing.

Pietro wouldn’t have left Wanda behind to get captured, they had escaped (no doubt about that). There was just no telling where they had gone or where they would surface again. It was a problem, a useful and worthwhile problem that needed solving, but it wasn’t as pressing, as important as the castle that was still standing.

That castle with its hidden cache of his tech and Chitauri weapons.

Halfway to New York, Happy had given up the pretense to say, “so, you’re dating Pepper where you’re from?”

No part of him had the patience or the calm to answer that question one more time. He dragged himself away from infrared scans to glare at Happy and found the man sitting across the plane from him with his chest puffed out like an over-proud turkey. He was defensive in an offensive way, clearly on the verge of offering up some threat or another he couldn’t possibly maintain. (Wasn’t that interesting, wasn’t that just terribly interesting.) “Is that important?” he asked.

“I just don’t think she’d be interested in a man like you,” was as casual as Steve Rogers two days ago saying I don’t want you dating anyone.

“Huh,” Tony said.

“What?”

“I’m happy for you, Happy,” he said. (Wasn’t that funny, how convincing that was. How he even believed it himself.) “You and Pepper?”

Happy was pink-cheeked-and-pleased. No threats were forthcoming because he was caught in a sudden fit of modesty, trying to look like he hadn’t been exactly trying to say as much. “Well, we’re just testing the waters,” required him to make a general motion with his hands, “we’ve gone out a few times—as friends, but I hope, I think it’s starting to really be something.”

(It was something, there was no denying that.) Tony nodded. “Pepper’s a very special woman,” he said.

“Yes, she is,” Happy agreed. “So are you,” seemed automatic, as if someone had once told Happy never to compliment one woman and not another. So automatic that he didn’t even realize he’d said it, until he did and he was tripping over himself to take it back with: “I mean the real you, the other you—the one that is usually here. Not that you’re a woman. I don’t think you’re a woman.”

“Happy,” Tony said. Just to stop the noise. “It’s okay. I know what you meant.”

“Good,” was a nice place to end the conversation. “Good. Good.”

The rest of the plane ride was a void of sound (and information). He didn’t know what the Avengers had access to, what connections they’d made, what friends in what countries that owed favors. (Or if they’d let Tony use those favors, if he could convince them the whole interior of the castle needed to be wiped out, that Wanda needed to be found, that—)

He hadn’t found any answers or any worthwhile ideas in the time between stepping off the plane and stepping into the elevator at Avenger’s tower. “The elevator needs your authorization to go to the Avengers’ operations floor,” Happy prompted.

“Right, Jarvis?” Tony said. He shoved his fists into his pants pockets and reminded himself (again, again) that Steve-was-fine because Steve had always been fine, always walked it off, always emerged no worse for the wear. Steve was made of pure patriotism and righteousness. There was no handhold in his head for Wanda to get at, so Steve would be fine.

Tony was good at talking himself into things like that; at convincing himself the sky wasn’t going to fall (but he’d seen it more than once, hurtling straight for the planet). The elevator doors opened to a hum of noise. There was Maria Hill looking over her shoulder at him, looking instantly unimpressed (but then again, he didn’t seem to impress her regardless of the universe he was in).

“Happy?” Maria said.

“Oh, this is,” Happy looked Tony up and down, squishing his mouth up in an effort to form words that didn’t seem like they were going to happen (any time soon) as he pointed a finger and cycled through a dozen excuses.

“Tony,” he said at last.

“Tony,” Maria repeated. The information didn’t strike her as utterly ridiculous, “Stark?” That question seemed to be directed primarily to Happy who answered it with a shrug and a nod, one of which seemed enough to contradict the other.

“One of the only two,” Tony assured her.

Maria had not been born with a sense of humor (as far as he could tell) so she just sighed at him instead. “Well, this is one more complication I didn’t need. The team is on its way in, we were lucky Dr. Cho was still here. She’s due to fly back to Seoul tonight.”

“That’s it?” Tony asked. “Any man can,” he motioned back at the elevator, “walk in off the street and claim to be me and you just—what, accept? No questions, no tests? No prove it by doing something only Tony would do?”

Maria shifted how she was holding the tablet so she could level him with the full strength of her disdain. “Steve already told me. He thought you might end up here if the mission didn’t go smoothly. He also said you’d have to travel with Happy or Pepper,” she motioned at his body guard, “and that Jarvis would recognize you.” She shifted on her feet so they could both see the screen behind her, the movement of many bodies on the ground. In the distance was the sound of phones and rapid talking, the general noise of situations being contained. “I have bigger concerns.”

There was no reason to respond to that. “What do we know about Cap?”

“He got hit by one of the Maximoff twins,” Tony didn’t spend too much time in his own universe figuring out how Maria Hill had known about Wanda and Pietro, because it was classified in a different section of the Avenger’s machine than he generally got involved with. He must have thought, might have thought, that maybe she had kept in touch with Fury. Fury was the spy, the original, the best, the one that still had fingers in every single pie in the world. There was nothing Maria wouldn’t know if she wanted to know. “He’s agitated, Thor’s been keeping him calm.”

“What, with Asgardian lullabies?”

Maria couldn’t have been less impressed with him, “he’s in bad shape. He keeps going in and out of what appears to be a nightmare. He’s agitated. I doubt there’s a lot of singing happening.” (No, there was probably a great deal of restraining. Perhaps a bit of manhandling but not a great deal of singing.) But she sighed, “look, we appreciate whatever intelligence you have on Wanda Maximoff and her abilities but,” and it seemed to pain her to say it, “you’re not cleared as a member of the team. Consider yourself an outside contractor.”

“So, I’m good enough to be a consultant but not a team member?” (This had happened once before, with this woman and the man she was still working for.) “Didn’t I build this?” he motioned at the room around them, “hire you? Don’t I pay for all this,” he motioned his hand at the screens and phones and employees that were visible but indistinguishable in the distance. “I can be the bank and a consultant but I can’t be a member of the team?”

She built this,” Maria corrected (with extra emphasis on the world), “and she is the boss. And her rules are no member is added to the team without the unanimous approval of the team and never before they’ve been assessed.” But the stiff-backed-policy broke with a sigh at the sound of the jet approaching. “Look,” was softer, friendlier, “whatever you know that can help us? Whatever you can do to help Steve? We need that. If you’re still here next week, we’ll talk about your place on the team.”

(Put more concisely: he didn’t have one.)

“Fine,” Tony said. “I want to see Steve first.”

“As soon as they get him in a room,” Maria agreed.

“Oh,” Tony said as he snapped his fingers, as Happy gently motioned him away from her. “Things might be different here, but if I—she is paying the bills, do us both a favor and sweep the castle for stolen Stark tech?”

Maria nodded her head when it looked like she wanted to roll her eyes. Tony went where Happy motioned and found himself in a very nice conference room looking at a cart that boasted a dozen bottles of water and tray of cookie crumbs. He stood there with his hands in his pockets and his ears ringing.

Agitated, she said. Steve was agitated. (Sometimes, Bruce got agitated too. Only there was no room, and nobody that could keep him calm.)

A SIDE

When they were new at making friends, Steve had slowly and methodically developed a single look to convey am I really supposed to believe there’s a reason that you’re doing what you are doing at this exact moment that had aimed for subtle but become so universally recognizable that Clint had started referring to it as the ‘Tony look’. It had started with her habit of climbing onto counters, or desks, or up two more steps than Steve. She also hovered off the ground in the Iron Man suit.

Steve who was raised in a time and place where women were demure (and one assumed, sat in chairs as one expected) had finally broken under the constant stress of trying to accept the idea that Tony had a reason for standing on counters and said, there’s a floor as if the concept had escaped her attention.

Sitting on the island counter in the kitchen, eating the fries that Rhodey had just brought back from Burger King (an important addition to any worthwhile diet), she smiled over the sheer exasperation that Steve could convey with the right tilt of his eyebrows. “What is he doing about this?”

Rhodey looked up at the TV, at the evening coverage of the Sokovia disaster. There was a man in an ugly suit jacket and square glasses that considered himself an expert in the field of robotics, he wasn’t suggesting that there was a massive conspiracy to cover up Stark tech that had gone rogue but there were certainly similarities in the robot parts recovered from the disaster site and other pieces of the Iron Legion that had been found in the past.

There was, according to this man, a very particular metal bolt used in both cases. A metal bolt that was infrequently used in any other device. (Which meant he had no proof and therefore any words that sounded like proof would work in their place.)

“I don’t know,” Rhodey said. He stood by the island, opening single serve packs of ketchup to dip the fries in rather than watching the news.

“Do the Avengers have PR in this world?”

Rhodey snorted, “do you have PR in your world?”

Her mouth was full of partially masticated potato so she couldn’t immediately answer. The best she managed was a scoff that became a cough and then another one. Rhodey handed her the drink she ordered and politely covered his fries with a napkin until she was through. “We’re,” was strained through her cough-raw throat, “an American based vigilante group that regularly invades other countries to stop super villains. One of our members is a giant green rage monster. One is a flying demi-god who shoots lightning. Steve dresses up as an American flag and has never seen a glass window he didn’t want to get thrown out of. Of course we have PR. We also have working relationships with the governments of several countries including this one. This tower,” Tony said as she motioned at the ground beneath them, “is filled up with people that make sure we’re not viewed as international criminals.” She motioned at the screen.

“I only became an Avenger a week ago,” Rhodey said.

“Do you still work for the US Government?” Tony asked. She dipped her fry into his ketchup and smiled when he frowned at her. Rather than point out that it was rude to take someone else’s condiments he just pulled out more ketchup and made a second puddle.
`
“If I’m needed,” Rhodey said.

“You did enough of this BS,” Tony said motioning up at the screen, “covering up things the world was more comfortable not knowing. You’ve been the man in front of the camera trying to talk down the conspiracy theorists,” like the bolt man with square glasses, “you know how this ends.”

Rhodey sighed. “It’s not my call.”

“That’s a cop out,” she said. “You hear that man on the screen? That’s my name, that’s his name they’re throwing around. If we don’t get out there, if we don’t get involved, this is going to get ugly and it’ll get ugly fast.”

Rhodey was staring at his fries, gritting his teeth, probably thinking he hated it when Tony developed maturity and responsibility. It threw off the dynamic of their friendship, it undermined the wisdom that Rhodey had from years-and-years of service. Tony didn’t have a service history (or a responsible history) but she had a lifetime of experience of watching the media turn. “I’ll talk to him,” was what Rhodey finally said. He even looked up at her when he said it, his hands smoothed against the countertop. “You need to stop antagonizing him. You need to give him something, show that you’re cooperating, that you can be trusted.”

The only thing she wanted to give Steven Grant Rogers was her fist delivered straight to his face. “It’s not my access that gets taken away,” she said, “it’s your Tony’s. Look me in the eye and tell me you believe, you really one-hundred-percent believe, that Steven would give your Tony back access when he returned and I’ll do it.”

But Rhodey couldn’t. Even if every muscle in his jaw was straining to unhinge and form the words, he was an honest man and a good friend. “Then give something else,” Rhodey said.

Tony sighed. “I’ll think about it.” She picked up the remote from the countertop and flipped the channel over to the game show channel. It was the exact right time for Jeopardy, the opening notes had barely had time to play before Rhodey groaned.

“No,” he said. “No, change the channel or I’m leaving.”

“I’ll give you a head start,” she said. “You’re a college educated man, there’s no reason you couldn’t win.”

“No,” Rhodey said again. She was laughing when she handed over the remote. (And that was nice, to find a friendly face, here in this ugly world.)

B SIDE

Steve recognized the room; he’d been in and out of it enough times to know exactly where he was. He knew how thick these walls were, how closely monitored it was, and exactly how many different methods of neutralizing a threat were hidden inside of it.

That was what he’d become: a threat.

(Right then, with reality vibrating like a guitar string, it felt appropriate. It felt right. Steve-was-a-threat; was a much larger and more grave threat than he was given credit for.)

His head didn’t hurt but it felt immense, as if nightmares were cotton could be stuffed in through his ears. He’d only just pulled himself into the chair bolted to the floor, only just managed that before his body had folded forward. His hand was covering his eyes as the echoes of nightmares went parading like pink elephants through his brain.

Everything else was filtering through, the air recycling through the vents, the whirr and tick of the cameras watching him, the muffled voice of men in the hall and the cool breeze on his arms. His bare arms. They’d stripped him out of most of the uniform, left him wearing his undershirt and his pants. His free hand clenched against the inside of his leg.

This was (necessary) humiliating. To be treated like a threat, to be stripped and locked in.

The door opened, Steve lifted his head away from his hand. There was Tony (not his Tony) with a nice button him plaid shirt and a regretful look. “You look like shit,” he said. There was no pity in his regret; just a tired, aging anger. Tony walked close enough to hand him the shirt, to stare at his face like he was looking for some kind of answer in it. “You’re stupid,” wasn’t what he expected to hear. Tony’s hands were slipping into his pants pockets, his shoulders lifted up and dropped again. “No matter what universe you’re in, you’re stupid. Star spangled man with a plan?” was just dripping with disdain, “it doesn’t have to be a good plan.”

Steve sat up straight enough to get his arms into the shirt (and winced at the pull of bruises he didn’t remember getting in his shoulders) but he didn’t waste the energy to button it. “I had a plan,” Steve said. (His head felt immense, his feet were cold, his memory was full of nightmares.) “It was a good plan. Sometimes, even good plans don’t work. That’s why we have contingencies.”

Tony hovered just beyond reach, looking at him like he was trying to accept that as fact. (That was almost refreshing, the real Tony didn’t believe him when he said it either.) “What did she show you?” Tony asked.

Steve leaned back into the chair, pulled at the bottom of the shirt and stared at Tony’s shiny shoes. He was looking for, failing to find, the words that could wrap up the whole of it. “She showed me,” was the easiest place to start, “something I—something I didn’t even realize I was afraid of,” Steve looked up at Tony’s face. “You’ve met her?”

Tony nodded.

“What did she show you?” Steve asked.

“The bodies of the people I couldn’t protect,” Tony motioned around the room, at him, at the Avengers, maybe at the whole world, “you,” was very specific, “dead.”

Steve drew in a breath, “I killed all of them. That’s what she showed me, that I’ll live long enough to forget who I am. That I’ll become a monster.” He (felt a bit like crying) ran his hands down his legs and shook his head. “I killed her, with my hands, I killed her.”

“She’s not dead, Cap,” Tony said. “What Wanda shows you isn’t real.”

Steve shrugged. “Does it matter? It felt real.” There was no describing the look on Tony’s face then, the anger and the sadness that got all mixed up. It was half-hidden in a scowl and a careless sideways glance, and Tony’s hand pulled out of his pocket to look at his wrist but he wasn’t wearing a watch. “It’s jumbled up,” Steve said, “I know it’s not real. It feels real.”

Tony nodded. “What happens now?”

“It’s not up to me,” Steve said. “I can’t make this call—whatever they decide, that’s what we do.”

They’d already made the call when they put him in a containment cell, when they’d taken his shoes and socks and left him in a room full of traps. The call was caution (of course it was) and somewhere beyond the closed door, Maria, Natasha, Thor and Clint were rifling through the back up files, looking for another man to call in to fill the empty space on the roster. (It would be Sam. It had to be Sam.)

Tony was nodding, “I’ll just go—check, I guess, on how that’s going.” It was a good excuse to leave. Steve didn’t blame him. The room was unnerving (and meant to be, in its own way). “It’ll be okay, Cap,” Tony said when the door opened. “You always get up. This will be okay.”

Just, for a second, there was no telling which one of them Tony was trying to convince.

Chapter Text

B SIDE

Tony just needed a minute. One minute away from the room with no windows. One minute away from the noise of the tower full of people working-working-working like buzzing bees in a hive. One minute away from the reality of history (not) repeating itself. One minute alone in a place full to the brim of concerned faces and hurried voices looking for solutions to a problem they didn’t even fully understand yet.

A minute away from Steve on a chair bolted to the ground, sitting with his body hunched forward and his bare feet flat on the floor.

Just a minute, in a room with chairs on wheels and windows that spanned the entire length. A minute to look out at New York still picking up the pieces of The Event. A minute to cover his face with his hands and listen to the in and out of his own breath, to feel how warm it was against his skin, to feel the bristle of his hardly-shaved face. Just a single minute to find a handhold, a tiny shred of reality in the sudden spiral of disjointed reality that surrounded him.

“Things are bad where you came from, aren’t they?” That was Natasha, as close to his elbow as his breath was to his face. She wasn’t touching him, or trying to, but taking up an authoritative space just beyond his right elbow. Her eyes were trained forward, at the dim reflection on the glass and the unworried world beneath them. The sky had gone dark and the streets were glowing with light.

“They aren’t always great,” Tony said. He tucked his hands into his pants pockets where his fingers wouldn’t fidget too much.

“You have a real gift for understatement,” was a smile on her face as she looked at him out of the corner of her eye. Her lips were pulled up in a genuine smile.

Tony shrugged. He pulled his hand free to point at her, gently (without accusation), “are you the current leader of the Avengers? Since Cap is in a time out and I—she, is out the service area?”

“You don’t think I should be?” (Was there a polite way to say that he didn’t trust her, that where he came from she had a habit of undermining any man’s ability to trust her, that she was a spy first-and-foremost and a team member second? Was there a polite way of saying he was ninety percent sure she’d always save his life but that ten percent felt like a hundred when it was your life on the line.) “I’m not,” conceded that Tony (who hadn’t spoken a single word) may not be entirely wrong. “There are protocols to follow. When our field leader is compromised, we return to base. We consult with the team leader, when the team leader is compromised, we make choices by unanimous consent.”

“Steve is the—?”

“Field leader,” Natasha said.

Which implied that the Tony Stark who was missing from this scene was the team leader. (Wasn’t that funny?) He scratched at the overgrowth of hair on his cheek, “what is your unanimous decision?”

“Our unanimous concern is Steve,” Natasha said. (Because there were no decisions being made at present.) Barton was being repaired. Bruce was groggy with recovery. Thor was around but if he was anything like the Thor that Tony knew, he had one foot out of the door on his way back to Asgard. That was good, the scepter needed to be removed from the face of the planet. It needed to go back to the world beyond theirs where it could call down chaos on another planet that wasn’t expecting it. “We haven’t decided what to do about it yet.” She looked at him with expectation as if he should know what it was she wanted to hear from him, what she was implying with her eyebrows and her casual authority. Natasha was dressed up as Black Widow, armed to the teeth in a skin-tight suit, and it was hard to separate the physical danger she posed with the almost soft way she looked at him.

“Throw me a bone?” he said.

Natasha turned, like she was going to touch him and didn’t. “We won’t discuss Sokovia or our next move until the morning. Steve,” she motioned back toward the room with no windows, “can’t leave that room for twenty-four hours. Active members of the Avengers cannot go into the room with him.”

Oh. Tony nodded.

“You knew about these enhanced the—”

“Maximoff twins,” Tony filled in. “I know them.” (Only they had been swiftly reduced to her.) “Steve and I aren’t friends where I’m from, and I don’t dislike the guy. And he—” Tony motioned back toward the room, “seems like a great guy but this isn’t my field, this isn’t what I do. I can’t—”

“My field is asset acquisition and management,” Natasha cut in.

“Interrogation, assassination,” Tony added.

Natasha cocked her eyebrow up at him. Her hands were resting gently on her hips as she stared at him (in the way that Pepper did, in the way that said be quiet in this world but shut up, Tony in his). “My field requires me to rapidly identify motivation so I can use it to make the subject do what I want.”

“I’m aware,” Tony assured her. (He’d been one of those subjects once, the unknowing animal that was being studied for suitability.)

“You know what it’s like to be afraid of your own mind,” Natasha said. The words were softer than any he’d ever heard her speak. (Even when she was pretending to be from accounting. Even when she was acting as weak as a newborn.) Her head tipped as she looked at him. The intensity of the stare made him shift back on his feet, he opened his mouth to deny it (or play it off, or make it less true) and she added, “I would appreciate your help, Tony.”

(And she was good. She was very, very good.)

A SIDE

Privacy was not something Steve had ample opportunity to enjoy. There was no privacy in the Avenger’s compound, there was only selective ignorance that allowed him the pretense of not being monitored and recorded every minute of the day. Still, there was peace of mind in that ignorance. The sensation of privacy that one got from four walls and a closed door.

But there was also Vision, a six-foot-three-inch infant. Vision’s lifespan was still being measured in days. (Twenty nine of them, to be precise, just after midnight.) Even as supernaturally intelligent and gifted as he was, basic concepts seemed to escape him. Nobody could fault him, if walls were no obstacle, treating them as such must have seemed absurd. “Captain Rogers,” interrupted all the peace of mind Steve had been cultivating (in his room, with his door closed). His body was halfway through the wall, his legs still stuck in the bookcases as he looked expectantly across the room with every expectation to be indulged. Maybe Steve looked annoyed or maybe the concept of boundaries and barriers had just occurred to Vision, but either way, he said, “ah, yes. The door. I apologize.” He leaned backward and other than the rattle of a cup on top of one of the bookcases, there was no evidence he’d ever been there.

Steve dropped the pencil he’d been holding (thinking, but failing, about coming up with a plan). He turned in his chair with a sigh almost perfectly timed with Vision knocking on his door. There was nobody but cameras to see him raise his hand to motion at the pointlessness of it before he rubbed at the phantom of a growing pain in his face (like a headache, trying and failing to form) before he said, “come in.”

And Vision, still struggling with these ideas of solid matter, phased through the door rather than open it. He stood just on the inside, looking very much like an old man (and Steve would know, as he was the oldest man currently living here) attempting to figure out which expression conveyed repentance. “I had a thought,” Vision announced. (Only a man who was once a computer program, a hunk of rare metal and a shimmery alien stone could announce every sentence any other man would simply say.)

“An important thought?” Steve asked. He glanced at the clock on his desk (11:34 PM) but Vision looked confused. (Time was also a difficult concept for newborns to grasp.) “What’s your thought?”

Vision rubbed his fist into the palm of his other hand, glanced around to find something he could sit on and discovered there was nothing but the bed. He visibly weighed the pros and cons of making that move and in the end remained standing while he eyed the perfectly-flat-blanket taking up space on Steve’s bed. “It is about Wanda.”

“Wanda?” Steve repeated.

“Yes,” Vision looked at his face. “And Sokovia and,” as if he were the man the man that discovered it: “guilt.”

“Ok.”

“Emotions are,” Vision hesitated, “unquantifiable. While there seems to be a consensus on the definition of an emotion, there is no standard scale to describe the severity of that feeling or its effects on the person that is experiencing it.” (Steve had to wonder what real babies thought about, if they tried to understand the world the way Vision did. Or if it was broken down to basics: hunger, thirst, pain and how to cure each.)

“I assume this is about Wanda?”

“Ah,” Vision said. “In a way, yes. Wanda is experiencing guilt, and sadness, and regret.” There, again, he paused. “You would rather she did not?”

Steve sighed and stood up. He flipped the sketchbook he’d bothered to open shut and shrugged. “I don’t think it matters what I would rather she feel. I’ve seen what guilt does to men; how it makes them easier to manipulate, it makes them sloppy. I can’t change the past,” (and if he could, he would have started fixing it long before Ultron destroyed Sokovia). “Wanda can’t change the choices she made.”

“Pain is essential to human’s survival,” Vision said. He held up a hand to stave off the objection. “When a child experiences pain from touching something hot, they learn that hot is bad and that it should be avoided or handled with care. If a child could not feel it was hot, it would not learn to be cautious and it would die. Guilt is a form of pain.”

“Pain isn’t always a useful teacher,” Steve said. “You can’t avoid pain. If you’re human, you’ll feel it. You don’t have to like it but you can’t stop it. Guilt doesn’t prevent you from making the same mistakes again.”

Vision cocked his head to the side, narrowed his eyes and just stared at Steve for a moment. He was cataloguing the conversation away in his mental archive, setting it in place with all the other things he’d learned. (Maybe, up there, was an infinite knowledge, all the things Jarvis had known, all the things Ultron had known, all the things the Mind Stone had yet to show them.) “Do you feel guilt?”

Yes. “I try not to let guilt make my decisions for me,” Steve said.

“Wanda is young,” Vision announced. It was a fresh bullet point in the conversation. Steve nodded. “Her youth does not mean she is not capable of making important discoveries about the meaning of life—her life and the lives of the people that her choices have hurt. I feel that we would be in error if we attempted to prevent her from making these discoveries. Allowing the time for reflection and healing will make her stronger.”

There was an awkward lull in the conversation; a point between Vision finishing his sentence and Steve resting his hands on his hips. There was no question (exactly) in everything Vision had said but still the implication of admonishment. (That was a strange sensation to be gently scolded by a man who hadn’t even been alive a full thirty days ago.) “I just don’t think she deserves to take the blame for what happened in Sokovia.” He motioned sideways, back toward New York, “I think there are more important things that need my attention. Wanda is young, if she isn’t ready—”

“We all deserve blame for Sokovia,” was the perfect sentiment for a man who couldn’t be blamed. But at the same time, Vision seemed to have decided there was no point in pursuing the conversation, he nodded his head. “It is late,” was rote-recitation, “you should sleep, Captain.”

B SIDE

No matter how he rubbed his hands, no matter how tight he balled them up, he could feel her neck across his palms. He could feel her pulse under his fingertips, the way her fingernails cut into the backs of his hands. The vivid, constant, visceral sensation of her fake death echoed across the surface of his skin. In the unchanging quiet of the room, there was nothing to distract him from it.

What was that fight they’d had on repeat, over and over, how he had found a moral high ground in refusing to use a gun that she referred to as a ‘moral pit of intentional peril exacerbated by ignorant arrogance’. Gun or no gun, Steve was no less likely to kill a man. But guns made it easy, made it as simple and pointing and squeezing a trigger. Guns were efficient, senseless, needless murderers. They had a place in the theater of war that didn’t exist here in this new place and time he found himself.

No, no—No. Steve killed men with his fists, with the shield, with whatever he had in arm’s reach and only (only) when there was no alternative. There was a decent balance in that, a far cry from the boy he’d been in tights thinking there was glory in battle and honor in war. Steve hadn’t even seen half the faces of the men he’d killed in war. It had felt like a simple necessity and he’d walked it off; he’d put it out of his head, he’d reminded himself there was a line in the sand and all those on the opposite side were wrong.

That was how they felt about him, how they’d felt about Bucky and Peggy and the Howling Commandos. Those men they fought had attacked with every intent to kill and there was nothing more satisfying or justified than the mad-fight for one’s life and one’s Ideals.

This nightmare, lingering all along his body, was an echo of his past. All that was missing was a line in the sand. All that was missing was the moral pretext; the justifiable nature of lethal force in an unfair fight. Steve had killed enough men in his life that it was hardly a leap, hardly a noticeable skip, to go from battlefields to bathtubs.

There was no skinny Brooklyn boy in his mirror anymore; no pretending that he suffered injustices and indignities. No bullies beat him up in the alley outside a theater. Nobody had to protect him anymore.

Steve didn’t need a gun. He didn’t need an ideal to protect. He just needed a battlefield and a fight. He could kill anyone.

The door opened again, hissed lowly as the locks disengaged. The floor buzzed under his bare feet as innocently as a bumblebee flying past on its way to work. Tony stepped in with a plastic platter heaped to the top with sandwiches. There were a few bottles of water balanced on the edge. (Just a typical late lunch, really.) The door swung shut, the locks turned, and Tony was staring at the floor as he shifted on his feet.

“You’ve looked better,” Tony said. He lifted the tray slightly, “hungry?”

No. Steve shrugged. There was no table in the room. It was simpler to slide off the chair and sit with his back against the wall than it was to try to balance the tray and the mountain of sandwiches on his lap. “You don’t have to—” Steve said. He meant stay or be here, (maybe) try to be her. But his skin was vibrating with nightmares and he didn’t want to be alone even if it was a good idea. “Thank you,” was more appropriate.

Tony nodded as he crouched low enough to hand him the tray. He didn’t sit at his side, but against the next wall so their feet were nearly touching. They’d dressed him up casually, covered all the protective material they’d put on him first. The T-shirt and the jacket were convincing but Steve-knew-Natasha well enough to know she’d take precautions. “Whose idea,” Tony asked with a circle of his finger to indicate the whole room.

“Mine,” Steve said. He picked up a sandwich and grimaced at it. The bread was soft (of course it was) and they’d been made exactly how he liked. The proportion of meat, cheese and condiments was exactly perfect and still it looked like tree bark in his hand. “Her design, my idea.”

“Does everyone have their own suite or do we share?”

Steve dropped the sandwich again and dusted his hands. He crossed his legs rather than leave the stretched out. “We have two rooms, this room for everyone but her, Bruce and Thor. The second room is for her.”

Tony narrowed his eyes at him.

“She still has the arc reactor. The floors,” he tapped his knuckle against them, “can be electrified in this room. I’ve been told it wouldn’t hurt the arc reactor but I’d prefer not to endanger the device keeping shrapnel out of my wife’s heart.” He shrugged, the way he’d shrugged at her two hours into her dissertation on how unnecessary a second room was. “The other room is less heavily armed, it’s more focused on preventing her from having access to any materials she could use to build—anything.”

“No rooms for Bruce or Thor?”

“Do you have a way to contain the Hulk or the God of Thunder?” Steve asked. “We use diplomacy with Thor. There’s Veronica for Hulk. And Bruce? There’s a fairly effective sedative if you can get to him before he changes.”

Tony wasn’t laughing but smiling, shaking his head as he rubbed his hand across the scruff growing on his face. It was funny how different his face was from hers, but how similar. How Steve could see her in every motion this man made, how her defeat was hanging in his shoulders. How her dark humor was a half-hearted chuckle in his throat. “Tell me,” was almost a hiccup, “is there anything she hasn’t thought of?”

Steve tipped his head back, sorted back through the darkness. (Because she hadn’t thought of this of holes in the universe, of girls with the power to control your mind, of male versions of herself that looked desperate to find something comforting.) “She doesn’t like our toaster. She tried to rebuild it but it still burns the toast.”

That made Tony laugh, like he wanted to cry, and he just shook his head and covered his face with both hands. When they dropped to his lap again, he said: “Pepper doesn’t eat toast.”

“Want a sandwich?” Steve asked. He picked one up and offered it to him. “I should eat, I just don’t like to eat alone.”

Tony hesitated and then leaned forward. He peeled the bread away from the meat and seemed to find it tolerable. “So,” Tony said rather than eat, “why didn’t you like her? Why didn’t you like me? Was it something I did? Said?”

That there, that was a question that Steve hadn’t ever actually found the best answer to. It was a constantly mutating myriad of reasons. “No,” was the only thing he knew for sure. The only absolute he’d uncovered during all the fights he’d ever had with his wife. “You look more like Howard than she does,” he conceded. “That can’t be easy to look at. We weren’t very close, Howard and I, but he was an ally and a friend. I don’t have much left from then. Peggy’s an old woman. Bucky’s—” Steve shrugged. “But taking it out on her, that was never about her. It’s not about you,” he said.

“Feels like it is,” Tony said.

“If you’re much like her, you didn’t like me either.”

“Yeah,” Tony agreed, “well,” was an excuse, “hard to like the only man your Father ever actually expressed love or concern for. He never liked me,” with a motion at his chest, “he was never proud—not out loud, not unless he could brag—but you, oh boy. Captain America. Steve Rogers. If he was still alive, the day they took you out of the ice, it would have been the happiest day of his life.”

Steve sighed. “I never wanted that.”

Tony laughed. “Me, either.” He looked down at the sandwich again and finding nothing better to say, nothing better to do, lifted it up to take a bite out of it. “Eat,” he said around a mouthful. “If I have to eat this, you do too.”

A SIDE

When Tony thought of fear she didn’t think of big-black-holes in space. It wasn’t aliens and monsters that populated her nightmares. Sitting flat on her ass in the center of Tony Stark’s fantastic safety net (the Mark 42, the suit that would never leave you, the one that would always be there when you needed it) she thought of:

A dark cave. She thought of a car battery attached to her chest. She thought of those first, horrifying moments of consciousness, when her fingers tore the bloody bandages and it had been only Yinsen in the distance, attempting to be respectful but managing nothing more than pity.

The first moment she was lucid enough to remember the bomb, to have some awareness of the memory of the operating table. There was fear in being strapped down, in being mutilated, in waking up in a cave with no windows and no opening doors.

Fear was her face in water, the unrelenting grip of a man’s hand in her hair, the way his body curved across hers. It was the implication in the way they looked at her. It was only a matter of how useful she was willing to be, that’s how Raza looked at her. He was lowering himself to speak with her. He was bothering to hold off the hungry dogs. (And, oh, how hungry his dogs were.) Raza demanded her gratitude for saving her from even-worse-fates as he held her captive and tortured her until she complied. But, (he never exactly said), better this than the alternative.

Yinsen was a soft spot in a hard memory, a kind voice that offered facts and observations when he couldn’t offer her safety or comfort. He knew, like she knew, the only way to keep her life and her body to herself was to do-what-they-asked (or something better). Yinsen knew the price of obedience, how heavy it weighed on you, how it starved you of sleep.

Here, now, in this ugly, awful world, she was staring at the tracking implants that another Tony had built to call the suit to him whenever he needed it. She was studying his notes on how well the neural interfacing worked, how he controlled the suit even when he wasn’t in it. He was searching for relief, for safety, for comfort but the things that crept out of the dark places of her head (of his head) weren’t often tamed by the machines they built.

She thought of Obidiah, thought of his dirty little device that made all the blood drain out of her muscles, how it had left her weak and mute. How long he’d leaned in against her side, how he had licked his lips when he ran his finger down her neck and chest to tap on the arc reactor. He’d been a human sweat mark against her side, lingering long after he’d revealed his plot.

The Chitauri had come to take the planet, they’d intended to leave none but slaves alive. That was upsetting as a person who planned to live (and live free) but it wasn’t personal, it was war as far as they were concerned. No, Tony hadn’t lost sleep worrying over the existence of things from other worlds that wanted to kill her.

It was the nuke that pissed her off. The unknown council members that had made the choice; the ones that hadn’t had the education or the intelligence to understand that detonating a nuclear weapon wouldn’t have done shit to close the hole in the sky. The warhead was the reason she’d poured money into the Avengers, the reason she’d turned the (un)friendly rivalry with Steve into something useful.

“Friday,” she said. She wiped her dirty fingers on the shop rag.

“Sir?”

She looked over at the after-midnight-news, still non-stop Sokovia coverage. The ratings were good on disasters, were better on Avengers, were best on Avengers-based-disasters. Any day now, there would be a flood of celebrities hosting dinners and tele-a-thons, there would be politicians chatting about legislation and the men in Washington that made choices would start thinking to themselves what good came from protecting the Avengers that were making their life so difficult.

Maybe this Tony never had that moment, the morning-after when she woke up to destruction on all sides. Maybe Mr. Stark hadn’t invited himself into Fury’s office to demand what genius had decided detonating a nuclear weapon was the best-case-scenario. Maybe he hadn’t stood across a desk from Fury, hadn’t seen his face caught between the right choice and the company line. Captain America was aligned with SHIELD, was an asset they had resurrected and protected but all Tony had to do was offer Steve a chance to make his own choices. (A chance to put his faith and his trust in a team that wasn’t in it for politics or fame or glory; the collection of girls and boys and green rage monsters that wanted to make a difference.)

Maybe this Steve had-or-had-never had that moment, that one where he stayed or he walked. It didn’t matter to her, didn’t matter at all, because as the good Captain Rogers was so fond of saying: there was simply nothing that could be done to change the past. They had to move forward.

Forward was Rhodey. Forward was understanding there was a fine line the Avengers had to walk to keep themselves on the good side of the US government. They were (mostly) US citizens, mostly useful, mostly helpful but favors had to be traded to be sure they were worth the trouble when they weren’t as useful or as prompt or as good at their job. Rhodey was one part of a whole; a true military man that understood his place in the great moving machine that was the United States Armed Forces. Rhodey had discipline, had loyalty, had experience.

Friday prompted, “sir?” again like she’d forgotten.

Tony glanced over at the clock, (thought about how long ago Rhodey had left to go back to the Avenger’s compound). “Remind me to go to sleep in two hours.”

Good old Steven couldn’t leave a bad situation alone; Rhodey couldn’t work for a single man when there were ideals that needed protecting. Between the two of them, it came down to the definition of truth, justice and the American way.

B SIDE

“Jarvis.” Tony was out of the room, down the hall, finding a corner that was big enough to lean into. There was no space (that he could see, on this floor, nearby) for a man to be alone, and barely enough for him to whisper to himself. “Remind me why I quit drinking?”

“It impairs your judgment, sir,” Jarvis said.

There was no arguing that point. Tony nodded with his back against a wall and full view of anyone that might come looking for him. That felt important (but why, when there were no enemies in this place). He was breathing through the sensation of being pushed into a space far too small. (Thinking, there had to be something decent to drink in this place.) He’d half convinced himself both into looking for the liquor and going back to the room with Steve when Bruce wandered (no better word to describe the motion) around a corner.

“Tony,” Bruce said. He looked over his shoulder, saw nothing, and then looked back him. “Are you alright?”

“Yes.” No, he wasn’t. “Great. How can I help you?”

Bruce had an honest face. The sort of face that only an honest man could possibly have, kind of unassuming and not entirely attractive. He was thinking out how he wanted to phrase his question, maybe shuffling his feet on the carpet because he wasn’t sure this was the right setting to talk but the impulse was greater than his caution. “You’ve been to Sokovia before?”

Tony nodded.

“And you met these two, these twins—the Maximoffs?” (Another nod.) Bruce rubbed his knuckles into his palm and hesitated. “I played the tapes,” because Bruce liked to know what the Hulk did, liked to know how he worked with the team, liked to know the things his body did while it wasn’t quite his. “What happened where you’re from? With me,” but that wasn’t quite the right question, “with the other guy?”

Tony shrugged.

Bruce frowned at him. “The first thing you said was get Banner out of there. That’s not the sort of thing you say if you don’t know something bad is about to happen.”

In this world, they worked over time to anticipate the bad. They worked hard to react to it. They built electrified floors and took people’s shoes and established protocol for bad. If it weren’t effective, if it didn’t seem to be working, he would have been laughing. He would have called it a waste. But this world was different, it played by different rules where Natasha looked at him and saw something worth including, and Bruce frowned at him with caution.

Where Steve, in a cage, looked at him with honest regret.

“I don’t recall saying that. Not those exact words in that exact order.” (Maybe he had, who could know.) “I just know what Wanda can do and it didn’t seem like—it just didn’t seem like a smart idea to you—you know, let her,” he motioned at Bruce’s head. “Poke around.”

“Wow,” Bruce said. He shifted on his feet again so there was space between them. “She’s a better liar than you are.”

Tony crossed his arms over his chest, “I get the impression she’s better than me at most things.” In fact, the only thing he did better than her was create more. By numbers, he outdid her without breaking a sweat. There was no competition where the numbers were concerned. “Just, keep your distance from Wanda Maximoff.”

But Bruce had a worst-case-scenario brain and an analytical mind. “So, she did something. Something to the other guy?”

“Does it matter?” Tony asked. “That was a different place, a different you, a different Wanda.” (A different Tony, a different Steve, a different everything.)

Bruce was sympathetic with a nod, because he understood, he really did. But none the less, there he was nodding his head and saying, “I know, I know.” He looked left, down the hallway, toward where Steve was kept in a containment cell. “But if you know something, if Wanda,” he said the name like he wasn’t even sure it was real, “is capable of manipulating me, of upsetting the other guy, I’d like to know.”

“Yes,” Tony said.

“Yes?”

“Yes, she’s capable of manipulating you. Of upsetting,” with an implication of air quotes, “the other guy.”

Bruce wasn’t surprised but he looked ever-so-slightly disappointed nonetheless. He was nodding softly, really rubbing his knuckles into his palm. “Thank you for telling me,” expressed a hundred things except gratitude.

“She is capable of manipulating all of you, all of,” he spun his finger in a circle, “us. Nobody’s immune.”

“That’s not really a comfort,” Bruce said.

Tony shrugged. “The other guy, the Hulk didn’t do the most damage. If that’s what you’re worried about. Veronica works.”

“We haven’t used Veronica,” Bruce said. He looked pained by diplomacy. “I was hoping we never would. I guess—I guess that’s not really a possibility.” (Disappointed, but not surprised.) Bruce was all set to retire to his dim bedroom and brood about his destructive potential but he stuttered at the stepping-away portion to look back at Tony. “Who did the most damage?”

(I did.) Tony just shrugged. “Hard to tell. We all took a hit. We weren’t our best. I should head back,” he pointed a thumb back toward the containment room. “I’m—I was,” just hiding from the room with no windows. “Sitting with Steve.”

“Yeah, of course,” Bruce agreed. He was nodding the whole time he watched Tony make a strategic retreat. (But it wasn’t strategic it was hurried footsteps taking him back to the exact place his hurried steps had taken him away from not-so-long-ago.)

B SIDE

Steve sat with his back pressed to the chair bolted to the floor. His legs stretched out in front of him, his arms hanging at his sides. Tony sat with his back against the wall, his legs crossed and his fingers fidgeting in his lap. It was-and-was-not what she might have done if she were here. Because she would have been in this room, unsure about what to say to him, but she wouldn’t have been staring at her fingernails, keeping her mouth shut, looking as if the weight of the world was going to crush her.

“It’s almost a relief,” Tony said. He looked up with a smile that didn’t quite make itself entirely believable.

“What?” Steve asked.

“You do have a dark side.” Tony nodded, his smile stretched thin, his hands went still in his lap. “I didn’t think you had it in you.”

“I had a conversation with my wife,” it was easy to call her that, to remind himself that even if she weren’t here she was still somewhere, still alive, and she would still make it back. It was important to remember that (important to remember he hadn’t killed her). “The press, they like to come up with new things to call her. The merchant of death,” Steve said and Tony snorted. “War-Monger, I’m sure you know.”

“I’m familiar.”

“The thing is, the people who benefitted from Stark weaponry, they revered Howard as a futurist. He was thought of as a good man, as necessary and patriotic. People think I’m a patriot,” he motioned at his own chest. It wasn’t hard to imagine why they thought of him as a patriot, what with the stars and stripes as tight as spandex over his body. What with the name they’d given him. “Tony shut down weapons manufacturing but they won’t stop. She’ll always be the merchant of death. She’ll always be the woman that made weapons that killed millions.” Steve shrugged. “I’m Captain America, I’m a Super Soldier, I’m the greatest soldier in history.”

“God’s righteous man,” Tony added, like he was repeating it.

“There’s trading cards with my face on them,” Steve said. (He’d seen them, he’d signed some for people that cared. It was humbling, almost embarrassing, to be revered as something he couldn’t live up to.) “People expect her to be careless, to be flippant, to not care. I’ve seen her after a battle where innocent people died. I’ve seen her,” out in the streets, after New York, staring at the debris with shock-white-lips, trying to figure out what could be done. “She cares. She cares more than I do.”

Tony snorted.

“War kills people. Innocent people die all the time. I don’t like it, and I’ll do what I can to stop it, but I don’t lose sleep over it when I’ve done the best I can. If you can’t make peace with the ones you can’t save, you’ll never be able to sleep.”

“Does she sleep?” Tony asked.

“Yes,” Steve said. “We do the best we can. We save the people we can.” When that wasn’t enough, there was always something that needed doing. Another project, another organization, another fundraiser. Tony was relentless and unstoppable. Steve had to hold her in place (now and again) to remind her that some things had to be felt. Some fears couldn’t be conquered, some tears should be shed. “We have contingencies, and protocols.”

“What about you?” Tony asked. “Do protocols help you feel better? Do you sleep?”

Steve slept like the dead; unbothered by the cost of action. “I choose to believe that things would be worse if we did nothing. Sometimes,” he shrugged, “there’s not much that you can do. Sometimes a car runs a red light, kills a woman on the crosswalk—we blame the driver, he goes to jail. Sometimes a landslide kills ten thousand people, we call it an act of God, people go to Church. Three people died because we infiltrated the castle in Sokovia. How many would have died if we hadn’t? How many have already died while we waited?”

Tony ran his tongue across his lips. “So that’s it? Innocent people will die no matter what, so we don’t have to care? We don’t have to be feel responsible? We’re just— Absolved of guilt because things might have been worse?”

“No.”

Tony leaned forward with his hand in the air, grasping at the thing he wanted to say. “You sleep fine. Those three innocent people that died today? That doesn’t bother you?”

“I wish they hadn’t,” Steve conceded. “I did what I could to stop it.”

They, Tony and him, couldn’t have known one another at all in that other world. They couldn’t have ever shared a conversation or a moment. There must have been no civil disagreements or gatherings, no moment of acceptance or understanding that passed between them. Or worse (much worse, far worse now that his wife was there) the Steve that Tony left in his own world had never been challenged, never been provoked into thinking, really thinking about the world and his place in it. Just there, with Tony staring at him as if he couldn’t understand the words, it felt as if the man that Tony left behind must have been flat as a cartoon character.

“No offense,” Tony said (at last), “but who are you?”

“I’m Steve Rogers,” he said.

Tony didn’t laugh outright but he looked outraged. He slouched against the wall as he stared, as he rearranged his expectations to match up to this new reality. “I’m sorry,” he said (like he’d only just said it), “I’m just having a little trouble wrapping my mind around the idea that the American Dream doesn’t care.”

“I didn’t say I didn’t care. I do care. I didn’t want them to die. I don’t like knowing they did. If I could have saved them, I would have. The point is—” the point had always been, even when Tony argued it out with him, “that we can’t save everyone. We have to save the ones we can. We have to trust that we are doing good in the world—if we can’t trust that, if we can’t accept that we won’t always win, we can’t do our job.”

Tony was breathless, on the verge of hysterics, leaning back in the wall as he shook his head. He opened his mouth to say something and closed it again. Instead he rubbed his hand across his mouth and sighed.

Steve looked at his own hands, at the blue lint under his fingernails. He hated how tight the gloves were around his fingers, but Tony had kissed him with amusement on her lips, reminding him how they were meant to keep him from breaking his fingers when he started punching things. She was fond of matching his every complaint with a reminder that it was only a relatively thin layer of suit between him and imminent death every time he led the charge. He smiled to himself, ran his fingernails across the rough material of his uniform pants and thought of her.

I like you with all your pieces, Rogers, might have been one of the very first nice things she’d ever said to him, when she stripped him down to his underclothes to take his measurements. (Not that she’d needed to, not when Jarvis could have been just as efficient without the near-nudity.) He remembered how silly and dangerous it had felt when he wasn’t wearing anything but his underclothes, holding his pants in one hand, saying: likewise, Ms. Stark.

He was terrible at flirting and she was always the first to tell him that. (I only know you’re flirting because you blush, she told him.) But his memories of her were half-gray. He thought of her in shadows, of her body arching in the tub, how frail and how thin her neck was beneath his hand. It rushed through him all hot-and-liquid, and his hands clenched up into fists.

“Breath, Cap,” Tony said. He looked worried, but no more than normal. “It’s not real.”

His breath was hot as fire being drawn in through his nose, but it was cold and crowded in his chest. “What happened to Wanda in your world?”

The look, quick as a flash, on Tony’s face meant whatever he intended to say would be a lie. But he said, “I don’t know if it’s a good idea to compare.”

Steve closed his eyes, concentrated on how it felt to breath, how reality felt. He concentrated on the sound of Tony trying to sit still, trying not to fidget, trying not to leave. When he thought he could manage it, he opened his eyes and uncurled his fists. His palms pushed down against his thighs as he let a breath out of his mouth. “Tell me?” was asking for the confidence he’d expected from his wife, not from this man.

“She was recruited to join the Avengers,” Tony said (very, very quietly). “She’s a valuable asset. It’s good for the team.”

(Dread, he found, was the closest sensation he had to feeling at home. The lonesome dread of his childhood, every time he caught a cold, every time he found himself alone, every time he got turned away at enlistment centers, every time it became obvious he wouldn’t be enough, that he’d never prove himself.) “Wanda is a member of the Avengers? She did this,” he motioned at himself, at Tony, “she attacked you and she’s a member of the Avengers? When,” this was the important part, “when did she attack you?”

“It’s,” Tony looked at his wrist like he expected it there to be a watch and found only his skin instead. “It has to be, what, June second? So, about a month? A few days short of a month ago.”

(What was it Rhodey had said on the jet? She’s not making friends.) “A month,” he repeated.

“In her defense, she helped us defeat the murder-bot that tried to annihilate the entire planet. As far as resumes go, I’d say it was a good one.” Tony was making light but he wasn’t making sense. Rather than let Steve poke at the wound (raw as it seemed), he said, “I’m guessing recruiting Wanda would be against your protocols.”

Steve laughed. It was like a kettle screaming when it boiled. “Uh, not entirely against protocol. We fought Thor when we met him for the first time. It’s not entirely without precedent. If Wanda was willing to work with us, we wouldn’t dismiss her just because of,” he motioned at himself, “as long as there was a reason, as long as we were sure she was on our side. Just,” Steve shook his head.

“Just?”

There must have been a way to phrase it, to put the churning sensation in his gut into words. He was searching for fairness, watching Tony grow impatient while he waited, and Steve just sighed. “Tony, my Tony, she—she doesn’t always react well.” Every word stalled, almost like a fresh sentence.

This Tony, tired and heavy, lifted his eyebrows at that. “I’m not always well known for my exceptional decisions.” (Yes, but, it didn’t seem likely that his version of poor choices and her version were the same.) “What would she have done? If she were with you at Sokovia? If she saw this?”

“Well nothing,” Steve said. “Once I was compromised, she would have been removed from a leadership role, she couldn’t have made the choice about what happened.”

“Cap,” Tony said. (Like, tell me what you’re not saying.)

Steve shrugged, “if she had been close enough, if she’d had the immediate opportunity, there is an equal chance that she would have used lethal force as there is she would have contained and captured Wanda.”

“What about you? What if it had been the other way around?”

Steve ran his tongue across his lips, thought of his wife caught in a nightmare like this. (Wondered what it would have been, if what she thought lurked in the darkness was really there.) “She’s my wife, Tony,” was the only answer Steve had. Not because he hadn’t been put in the situation, not because he hadn’t had the opportunity to know exactly what he’d do to protect her., but because it wrapped up his answer and his explanation in a single neat sentence. “What did your Steve do?”

“I didn’t,” Tony picked at his fingernails, “I don’t know,” was as honest as the man had been yet. “I didn’t give him the opportunity to do anything. We’re not as big on protocols as you. We’re,” he motioned back and forth with a defeated smile, “not married. Things are different,” was an excuse. He shrugged, was quiet a beat, “I don’t know what he would have done.”

There was the dread again; the idea of her in that other world. Of the things she would find (and she would find them because Tony was like a bloodhound on a trail, always looking for things that made her angry) and of what she would do. Steve hadn’t liked excluding Tony from the team but it wasn’t a matter of loyalty or trust, it had been a choice based on pre-existing protocol, on what was best for the whole team (not just him, not just Tony). But his wife, his Tony would have woken up in a hell where she’d lost her home, Jarvis, her team, and him.

“What’s that face?” Tony asked.

“I was thinking about what my wife must be doing,” Steve said. To him, to this Steve of a different world.

Tony snorted at that. “She’ll be fine.”

It wasn’t really her that Steve was worried about. “Yeah,” was just agreeing. “You don’t have to stay.”

Tony shrugged. “I didn’t have any plans.”

A SIDE

Coffee, like beer, did nothing for him. Every morning, the smell of it accompanied him through the halls, away from the kitchen, toward the gym. He’d tried it, as any human being in this modern time was compelled to, for the sake of it. He’d tried it black, with cream, with sugar, iced, flavored, frozen and found them all to be equally unpalatable. (But he thought, almost like he’d been programmed to think it, I need coffee, every morning he woke up feeling like he hadn’t slept at all the night before.)

Rhodey was already in the gym, just barely after dawn, dressed in workout clothes: sweats and an old, faded Air Force shirt damp enough it clung to his shoulders. There was a towel over his shoulder, one of his hands clenched around a water bottle and the other hanging at his side as he stood beneath the TV and watched morning news.

It wasn’t (for once) a replay of the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Sokovia. Tragedy gave way to movie news and the morning news reset itself to concentrate on better things. Actors and actresses and funny stories about children and dogs. Steve sighed (to himself, not out loud, he didn’t think) at the news, at the sun barely making the sky a soupy sort of gray. He said, “morning.”

Rhodey wasn’t his friend. Up to a few days ago (only five, maybe), they had not even been co-workers. They had managed a polite but indifferent relationship up to that point; the sort of acquaintanceship you maintained with the often-invited friend of a friend. If Steve was being especially honest (and he tried to be honest, when he could) until the moment he showed up Sokovia, Rhodey had been primarily known as ‘Tony’s friend’. Just there, with Rhodey glancing back over his shoulder, offering not so much as a nod, the distance between them had never been so evident.

“How’d it go,” Steve asked. “With Tony? Do you think we can trust her?”

Rhodey didn’t respond immediately. He didn’t ignore the question either, but wipe his face with the end of the towel and pick up the remote to turn the TV off. When he turned, he was considering what he meant to say, picking out the words he planned to use while his body moved without him. Rhodey had the stance and the motion of a career soldier, the perfect posture and the general aura of every commanding officer Steve had ever met in the war. “Well,” was Rhodey being very selective with what he intended to say. “I believe it’s Tony. I don’t know how but she is Tony.”

Steve had known that since the first moment she stepped out of that suit. Since she looked right at his face with a smile, knowing she’d broken his arm and not being even a little sorry about it. He nodded, let his hands rest on his hips. “Can we trust her? Is she working on the problem?”

“She’s Tony,” Rhodey repeated. “I trust Tony.”

It hadn’t not occurred to him, that he would send Rhodey to see if Tony-was-Tony and what her intentions were and Rhodey would return on Tony’s side. That was simple logic; it was default. “Is she working on how she got here, and how she’s going to get back?”

“Yes.” Rhodey’s arms were crossed over his chest now. Steve had stood across a short distance from enough men sizing him up for a fight to recognize the look: the narrow eyes, the bicep flexing, the general demeanor of attempting to look larger and scarier. It wasn’t very often (anymore) he found himself standing across from a man going through the motions without any intent to make a move. Rhodey was bristling with annoyance but he wasn’t going to fight; he was just going to stand, and glare, and think about a fight. “There’s not a lot to work with,” Rhodey admitted.

“So, she has no idea how to get back, how to get our Tony back?”

“Do you?” Rhodey asked.

“I’m not a genius.”

Rhodey looked as if he had never heard anything he agreed with more in his whole life. “At this time, she does not have an idea about how to get back or how she even got here.” But more importantly, as Rhodey shifted on his feet, “what are we going to do about our Tony until he gets back? What are we planning on doing about what they’re saying on the news?”

(Perhaps Steve should have remembered their Tony had convinced Bruce to build Ultron, not once but twice, both times against his better judgment. Perhaps he should have remembered that before he sent Rhodey Tony’s-best-friend to check and see if Tony were trustworthy.) “What can we do?” Steve asked. “I don’t like it, but I don’t know what I can do to stop them? Go on the news, tell them ‘no that wasn’t Tony’s robot’?”

“Why not?” Rhodey asked.

“I’m not a respected member of the robotics field, to start with,” Steve said.

Rhodey didn’t roll his eyes but it seemed to take a monumental amount of effort to restrain himself. “You’re Captain America.”

(As if that would solve anything.) Steve didn’t sigh, he licked his lips and pressed his fingertips in against his hipbones. “That won’t make them believe me.”

Rhodey snorted. “You’re kidding?” wasn’t a question but an accusation. (Had Rhodey been this angry yesterday, before he went to see Tony? Had he been hiding all this just behind his perfectly polite face?) “You’re exactly the person everyone in America wants to believe.” Rhodey motioned at him. “You’re everything American. White, almost blonde, blue eyed. You put an American flag on that chest and it won’t matter what you say, they’ll believe it.”

“That’s—” Ridiculous? (But hadn’t men in suit jackets done exactly that? Hadn’t they slapped him in a suit of stars and stripes and sent him to beg for money for the war?) “I just don’t think it’s a good idea to bring too much attention to Tony right now.”

Because Tony, the one that belonged here, was not present to show up on talk shows and senate hearings to explain his innocence and his future plans. The more they kept talking about him, the more people would want to hear. Steve didn’t know much about how trends and public relations worked but he did know that.

“I disagree,” Rhodey said.

“Of course, you do,” slipped right out of his mouth before he could contain it. “Look,” was meant to cut off the fight before it could escalate. “We need a real plan, one that addresses more than just the—” conspiracy theorists, getting close to but not quite at the truth, “rumors about Tony. I don’t like it, but I think the people of Sokovia deserve more. It doesn’t matter what the news says about Tony, he always comes out alright. Can we say the same thing about the people living on the edge of the crater Ultron made?”

Rhodey’s anger was a bleak silence. He didn’t speak but clench his jaw. There was a lecture rattling behind his almost blank stare; some sort of meaningful reproach that was bubbling in his throat but he didn’t say it.

Steve didn’t want to say it; but it was safe enough to think that this was exactly the reason trusting Tony was so difficult. He had a gravity all his own, one capable of warping and distorting even the most basic facts. Why did you build Ultron, Tony? To protect the planet, to save us from aliens, and what would you have done? Truth was, Steve didn’t know what he’d do. He hadn’t known what he’d do before New York, he hadn’t known what he’d do before he was in that plane in 1945 staring at a screen full of targets, but he knew now and he knew (or thought he did) that these sorts of plans and these sorts of precautions were best thought of together. Not separately. Steve said, ‘we would have done it together’ and Tony said ‘we’d lose’ and reality had warped to make the unknowable into fact.

Look at where they were now: reduced to 5 strangers pretending to make a team. And one Tony that wasn’t their Tony, turning teammates against one another.

“That’s funny, six days ago you had no intention of doing anything about Sokovia. Now that you’re being asked to stand up for a member of your team, you care?” Rhodey wasn’t laughing, wasn’t asking. “It’s not an arguable point; only a monster would stand here and tell you that Tony is more important than thousands of people. That’s very convenient for you, captain.”

Almost as convenient as how Rhodey hadn’t trusted-or-liked this woman that was-and-wasn’t his best friend just about thirty-six hours ago. “You’re twisting my words,” Steve said. “I want to help them both. I just feel like we should have a plan. Plans are what keep us from repeating our mistakes.” Like Ultron, like the glorious disaster of Tony (unsupervised) building nightmares into reality. “What’s your suggestion? Call the president, tell him it wasn’t Tony?”

“That’d be a start,” Rhodey said.

Steve coughed, didn’t laugh, looked sideways out the windows that lined one wall of the gym and then back at Rhodey. “What if I don’t believe it?”

Rhodey nodded while he considered that. He made a show of thinking it over, of rubbing his chin, raising his eyebrows, really taking in the thought of it before he arrived at a conclusion. He stepped forward, lurched into motion without thought, until he was close enough whatever he intended to say was only meant to be heard in confidence. “You’re right about one thing, captain. No matter what happens, Tony will be okay.” There was enough coiled violence in the words that it was only amazing he hadn’t delivered the words with his fist. Instead he brushed past, leaving nothing but heavy silence in his wake.

Steve closed his eyes, let his head hang. (Thought: maybe he’d never been good at this, talking to people, or maybe he had, and he’d lost it. Maybe this is what it felt like when people tried to tell him about what Bucky-had-done and he couldn’t-or-would not hear it.) Regardless, he sighed, “fuck,” into the empty space around him.

Chapter Text

A SIDE

The punching bag never really stood a chance. Even on a good day, they rarely stood a chance, but today riding the coattails (so to say) of a(nother) conversation about what they were going to do—

What they should do—

What they had to do—

For Tony Goddamn Stark, it stood a less of a chance than average. It wasn’t that Steve didn’t agree that something needed to be done; it wasn’t as if he enjoyed listening to the constant news coverage searching for anyone to blame. Tony was an easy, high-profile, well-documented target because there was nobody (no-bod-ee) on the planet as well known for arrogance and genius the way Tony was. He was Iron Man, was a Billionaire, was a Playboy (and a philanthropist). They replayed the videos of him at Senate hearings blowing kisses to Senators when they talked about how he had a history of misbehaving.

It took no effort to side with the men holding up bolts and saying bullshit about how it proved that Tony-Stark-had-created-the-monster. (But what was easy, Steve had learned when he still just a half-grown-kid in Brooklyn, watching the strong boys picking on kids that wouldn’t stand up for themselves, was not always right.) Doing the right thing (damn the consequences) was what he’d built his life on. Challenging bullies to fights he was doomed to lose had always made sense to him; it had always seemed right. It never seemed to matter much to the bullies, as they laughed at him, as they scoffed and they balled up their fists to knock him down again. (But they cared, very much, all those times Bucky found him pinned against a brick wall, getting beat up over bad manners. Bucky was just as big and just as strong. That made them care in a way that almost two decades of constant effort never had.)

Erskine asked him if he wanted to kill Nazis; Steve didn’t want to kill anyone, he just didn’t like bullies.

It would have been easier to accept the 4F, to go back to art school, to find a wife among any of the many women who had lost boyfriends and prospective lovers when all the soldiers shipped out. Steve could have had a quiet life, thanking his lucky stars he lived another day, waiting for the moment when pneumonia got him.

No, doing what was easy, (letting Tony take the blame), was almost never the same as doing what was right.

The punching bag was warm when he pushed his forehead against it. His fists were pulsing with heat, overworked and under-protected. Steve was coated in sweat with his tongue across his lips as he tried to stop the spiral of things unravelling in his head.

He pulled it all back together. It didn’t matter what kind of bitter poison this new Tony had poured into Rhodey’s ear. (Other than the obvious complications it presented to trying to hold a brand-new-team together.) The facts hadn’t changed. The first step had to be in finding someone with experience, someone that could be impartial, and someone that he trusted.

His knuckles were still throbbing while he stood next to (but didn’t sit at) the desk in the little office room. He was holding the phone up against his ear, staring at the freshly painted wall opposite him, thinking about nothing as much as he could, as the call went on ringing without being answered.

“I don’t recognize the number,” Maria Hill said from the opposite end of a long-distance call. “Just making a wild guess—Stark?”

“Steve,” he corrected.

“Steve,” was agreeable enough. “How can I help, Captain Rogers?”

“I guess,” (he hadn’t entirely thought through his side of this conversation, how exactly he planned to present his problem or how he felt that she would be of some assistance to him), “I was wondering when you were coming back to work. If you were coming back.”

Maria was quiet a beat, maybe looking for a quiet place to have a conversation or maybe thinking about she’d let him down gently. “I wasn’t certain that I would have a job.”

“Have you been watching the news?” Steve asked. He turned so his back was against a wall, so he could see the doorway and anyone that might walk up to listen in.

“I’ve caught a few shows.” There was nothing helpful about her answers. Nothing to offer any indication about what she wanted or was willing to do. “I’ve been wondering why I haven’t seen Stark on more programs, explaining why everyone’s an idiot but him.”

(Because he would, he most definitely would, if he were there. He’d ruthlessly disarm all the men who implied he’d been involved in the building of Ultron. He’d do it with a smile.)

“I’m sure he wants to.” Steve looked at his feet. “I need help,” wasn’t the hardest thing he’d ever had to admit, “we need to get ahead of this media circus, we need to—do something about Sokovia and Ultron and Tony. Or the next time we go out and something goes wrong—”

It was just best not to be distracted by what the world thought; by what could go wrong, by what would happen if something did go wrong. It was best not to have to spend too much time looking over your shoulder for cameramen and commentators. Saving people’s lives wasn’t a sports event but there were plenty of men on the news that thought they could have done better.

“Stark is on board?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Steve said.

“You’re a terrible liar, Cap. Does Stark even know?”

Steve didn’t want to relay the disaster that was Tony Stark’s replacement over the phone. “There’s just a slight problem with Tony that I’d rather not discuss over the phone. I’m the Avengers’ leader and I’d like you to come back to work. What Tony wants isn’t exactly a priority at the moment.”

Maria sighed. “I’ll be on the first flight back to New York.”

B SIDE

Tony hadn’t meant to fall asleep, and when he jerked awake on the cool, hard floor it seemed impossible that he should even have been able to fall asleep. But there was, gasping at the tail-end of a familiar nightmare, knocking his elbow against the wall and his head against the floor, looking for anything to grab onto and finding nothing but slick walls and smooth floors.

And Steve, leaning forward to touch his arm, looking tired and concerned and apologetic. “It wasn’t real,” he said.

(But it felt real; no matter how many times he repeated it, it felt like a fresh wound.) “I’m good,” he said without thinking. His palms smacked against the floor and he lifted his back up and shifted until he was leaning against the wall. “How long—when did—did you sleep?” There was no watch on his wrist, (he needed to get one), no matter how many times he looked at it.

“Probably a couple of hours,” Steve said. “Feels like it’s eight? Maybe nine. I didn’t sleep.”

The problem with dealing with someone as perfect Steve Rogers on the average day in his own universe was trying to separate his anger at being faced with the sort of physical perfection that one simply couldn’t attain from the aggravation with Steve Rogers’ unyieldingly good personality. But this Steve managed to one-up the already insufferable righteousness by expressing genuine concern. Tony scoffed. “That’ll take some getting used to.”

There it was again, the genuine regret that permeated Steve’s entire body. There was nothing condescending, mocking or fake about it. He was still making that face when the door opened and the unassuming tech person motioned him out. Of course, one did not need to hire gigantic isolation bouncers to handle Captain America when they thought ahead enough to build a virtually escape proof room.

Tony didn’t make it more than six steps down the hall before he ran (almost literally) into Natasha trying to look casual leaning against a wall. She was dressed for a lazy day in, not particularly threatening, as she smiled at him in a way he was sure was reassuring. “We’re having a meeting in thirty minutes. Is that enough time for you to shower and change?”

“Barely.”

Natasha’s smile was soft and amused, but she was looking him over for wounds and weak spots. There was no telling exactly what she found but she nodded and pushed herself away from the wall. “Thank you,” didn’t seem like what she should have said. “I know you don’t have the best relationship with your own Steve, this really meant a lot to us.”

“Find me something to eat that’s not lunch meat and white bread and we’ll call it even,” he said. But more importantly, “where’s my bag? And the shower?”

Natasha gave him directions and a badge that indicated his name was A. Rogers (what a sense of humor they had) but it allowed him uninterrupted access to the tower. He just had to flash it at concerned security guards and let them scan it and then he was waved through wherever he needed to go. Fresh out of the shower, he stood in front of the mirror rubbing his naked wrist and staring at nothing-exactly.

“Jarvis,” he said.

“Sir?”

No matter how many times they had the exact same exchange, Tony’s heart still jumped in his chest. There was a little burn of unfairness that fluttered and went sour. “Do I have any watches here?”

“I believe there is one in the top drawer, sir.” And not for the first (or second) time, Jarvis said: “are you experiencing memory problems, sir? I could suggest—”

“I’m fine, Jarvis.” He pulled the drawer of the dresser open, expecting to find something dainty or pretty and was pleasantly surprised to find that while there were certainly decorative watches (which he would have worn just to have one on) there were simple, sturdy ones. He picked one with a digital face, that perked up as soon as it was touched. It listed off the weather and coordinates, day and calendar information. At the second loosest setting it fit comfortably. “How do I look?” he asked the mirror.

“As if you are wearing clothes, sir. May I say, again, how refreshing it is when you remember to wear your pants.”

Tony snorted at that, picked up his badge and went to find the conference room the early morning (it was after nine) Avengers meeting was to be held in. They were already assembled, Thor and Barton on one side, Bruce and Natasha sitting opposite and that left Tony to sit at one end or the other. He picked up a water as he watched them all trying not to stare at him, trying not to openly watch his movements. “Where’s Rhodey?”

“He had prior obligations,” Natasha said. “We try not to keep him any longer than we have to, since he is basically on loan from the US Government. He said to tell you that he’d like to meet you if you wanted to see him.”

Well, what was a man supposed to do with an invitation like that. He was spared from having to come up with something to say (he was working on something about setting up a play date) by Clint who was the only one of them not managing to keep from open-mouthed staring.

“You are exactly what she would look like if she were a man,” seemed to have escaped Clint’s mouth even as he tried to contain it. Natasha rolled her eyes across the table and Bruce just pinched the bridge of his nose. “I mean, obviously you are. Not that I think about what she’d look like as a man but—are you even the same height? She’s a tall woman.”

But Tony was not a tall man.

“Let’s move on,” said Natasha who was not the acting leader of the Avengers. “Before we make any decisions about our next move, we’d like to know what you feel comfortable telling us about the Maximoff twins.”

Tony hadn’t even sat down yet. It wasn’t a surprise that they wanted to know. It seemed like exactly what they would have wanted from him. “That’s not a good idea.”

“You have battled them?” Thor asked. He was wearing casual clothes, nothing overly princely or very godly. A T-shirt, a jacket. It did almost a convincing job of hiding his bulging biceps. (Very nearly.)

“Yes,” Tony said. “I don’t recommend it.”

Bruce looked pained, but he said, “I think,” but that wasn’t how he wanted to start, “we can’t know what things are like in your universe and we aren’t looking to make any choices that are completely based off the information that you give us—but,” and this was an important but, “we can’t ignore that you knew exactly where the power source, the scepter and Wanda would be. There appear to be enough similarities in our universes that your information could help prevent whatever,” and he motioned nonspecifically around the room, “happened to your Avengers.”

Thor was nodding, Natasha didn’t nod but she didn’t have to. Clint tapped his fingers on the table top and that left four sets of eyes peering out of four familiar faces of complete strangers waiting for him to tell them something that could make the difference between Ultron and a peaceful resolution.

Here he was, with a chance to do things right. “First, they’re not my Avengers. I’m semi-retired, I’m out of the game. Even before that, they were always Steve’s. I just pay for everything, and design the suits and things like that.” (These kinds of things were the reason he had no friends. He just couldn’t control his mouth.)

Clint snorted and Thor elbowed him with more force than necessary. “Sorry,” Barton said immediately. “I just—I can’t imagine what she’d say if she heard that.”

Thor smiled and tried not to, but he was glancing sideways mouthing words that Tony couldn’t quite make out while Barton added, “and then she’d kick him in the nuts.” They were cracking up together until Natasha cleared her throat.

“What can you tell us about Wanda?” Natasha asked. It had taken her less than a full twenty fours to discover and discard Pietro Maximoff as a threat. Maybe he could have been something more than a footnote to the universe if he hadn’t been killed in action. Maybe he couldn’t ever have measured up to his sister.

“She’s just a kid,” sounded like something he’d heard Steve say once or twice. “She hates me, Stark, specifically. She’s willing and capable of taking down anyone that she thinks is helping me.”

“Why does she hate you?” Bruce asked.

“My weapons.” It was always his weapons, always his legacy, always war-and-blood-and-death. Tony scratched at the overgrowth of hair on his cheeks. “Sokovia’s a warzone, it has been her whole life. One side? Both sides? They used my weapons to fight their war. She got caught in the crossfire, her parents died.”

“Does she believe in Hydra’s mission?” Natasha asked.

Tony shook his head. “She’s just a kid. They offered her a chance to do something to help her country. She’s dangerous,” that was true, “but she’s not—she has the potential to be one of the good guys.”

Bruce was eying him critically, sensing there was a massive hole in the story. “How did you convince her to switch sides?”

He hadn’t; he hadn’t even thought to try. (He probably wouldn’t have thought to try.) It was only that Steve had gone to stall Ultron and he’d come back with Wanda-and-Pietro as allies and team members. “I don’t know,” was honest. It had been something about Ultron and his plans for world annihilation. “Steve did that—I didn’t.”

“Is there anything else we need to know?” Natasha asked.

Tony looked at Thor, (thought maybe he shouldn’t) and said, “Loki’s scepter is powered by the Mind Stone. It’s an Infinity Stone? Capable of untold destruction?”

“I have heard of the Mind Stone,” Thor agreed. Even if he’d heard of it, he didn’t seem to have known that it was hiding in Loki’s scepter. The information made him uncomfortable, made him look across the table with more concern than he’d managed before. “What was Hydra attempting to do with the scepter?”

“Human experimentation,” Bruce offered. “That’s what the Maximoffs are, human experiments?”

Tony nodded. Natasha was watching him too closely, mapping out his body language and his nervous actions. She interrupted the growing noise of conversation to say, “Tony, thank you. I know you couldn’t have gotten much sleep last night. I’m not saying you couldn’t stay if you wanted to, but if you wanted to get something to eat, some sleep, we can talk again after you’ve had a chance to rest.”

Her intention was to give him a quick, clean exit. At the same moment he was almost offended to have been so transparent, he was grateful for the offer. Her smile was sad, the others agreed that he had been kept awake by helping their friend, but was all noise. Tony said, “I am a little hungry,” because he was, “I’ll just get something to eat, maybe a nap.”

A SIDE

Long before she had the Iron Man armor, Tony had developed an impenetrable mask that fit so closely to her face it had seemed as if nobody could tell the difference. It started with a bit of foundation that covered all the embarrassing imperfections. There was a strategic neutrality to the colors she used on her face, a perfect mix of acceptably attractive that didn’t veer too far toward feminine.

She’d built her mask in childhood, always standing to the side of her father with her pretty long hair in delicately twisted curls, wearing a dress and stockings like a precious porcelain doll. She had been a curiosity at company parties, the daughter of the futurist Howard Stark. Her photoshoots were an endless parade of images of a little girl with oversized tools, pretending to be just like her Dad. Back in those days, her mask was a smile and a bat of her eyelashes because all the grown men that wanted her Father’s money, endorsement and cooperation thought she was just precious.

But Tony hadn’t perfected her porcelain face until she shaved her head at seventeen, until she was all alone and furious, staring at her naked face in the mirror that she still hadn’t found at forty-five. Here she was now, both hands against the vanity in the bathroom, wearing nothing but the water that was dripping out of her hair, staring at the imperfections of her face. Those little wrinkles that gathered at her eyes and the edges of her lips. The lines that she’d earned from a lifetime of frowning over books and papers and dissembled machine bits.

There were shrapnel scars all over her chest, those little divots to remind her exactly how effective her weapons really were. There was a constellation of scars on her cheekbones because she never had figured out how to keep the suit from cutting into that part of her face. Pepper was a wizard with a make-up brush in the mornings, just before Tony went to face men with cameras.

“Are you sure?” she asked her reflection. Because it was what Steve (her Steve, the real Steve, her husband), would have asked her if he were there. He’d be just to her left, brushing his teeth with his back leaning against the doorjamb, looking all freshly showered and inoffensively possessive of her naked body. Steve would have listened and when she finished, he would have said, “is this the only way?”

No. There was never just one way to skin a cat.

“Alright,” was what Steve would say when she told him it was what she felt needed to be done. He would argue for hours if the plan were immoral, if it were cruel, but he wouldn’t say a word if she had a good defense and an acceptable goal. “Then let’s do it.”

Tony put her mask on, covering all the human bits of her face with smooth immortality. She wasn’t an artist (not with a paintbrush) but any woman who’d made a place for herself in a man’s world was a master of disguise. Her armor was a good bra and a snug shirt, one that showed off how slim her waist was. It skimmed across the surface, giving the illusion of softness. That was as important as the length of her skirt, right on the edge between old maid and life-long-slut, she found an acceptable median that showed off her knees but not her thighs.

She was fully dressed for battle, wearing a slim watch and a pair of sunglasses, taking one last chance to look at herself in the mirror. One last chance to let the phantom of her husband to talk sense in a world that was filled up to its eyeballs in nonsense. But Steve had nothing to say, not a word against or for, because Steve wasn’t here (not even in the back of her head, where he had often taken up residence since they met almost four years ago).

The drive to the Avenger’s compound was pleasant white noise. She didn’t call ahead but had Friday alert Steve to her approach. She waited outside for him, leaning against the door of her car with the USB drive laying against her palm. A dozen eyes were watching her from the building (only an exaggeration because she wasn’t sure there were even collectively a dozen eyes inside the building) that she could feel crawling over her naked arms and her bare shins.

None of them mattered until Steven stepped outside to look at her. The bastard stopped four-foot-away, hands on his hips and head shaking back-and-forth as he just sighed at the whole presentation. “Tony.”

“Good morning Steven,” she said. The Iron Man had a distinctive sort of motion; it was unavoidable when you covered your body with heavy metal plates powered by hydraulics. It had been weeks of grueling effort to learn exactly what she could-and-couldn’t do in a suit. Ballet dancing was straight out but she could punch through a wall when the need arose.

But this armor, her bare legs and her low-cut T-shirt required an entirely unique sort of motion. This armor moved to grab attention, to keep all eyes looking at her. It was meant to distract and disarm. Steven was glaring at her face when she was standing still but he was watching her skirt shift across her thighs when she started to walk. “I brought you something,” she said when she was close enough to hold the USB drive up.

“You shouldn’t have.” He took the drive from her, turned it over twice and then raised his eyebrow with it sitting in his broad palm.

“Rhodey said I should extend an olive branch, he said it was important to show that I was willing to cooperate.” There were trackers embedded under her skin. Every time she moved her hands she felt them, or thought she did, and maybe that was exactly how this Tony felt: always hyper aware of every motion, just waiting for the sky to fall.

“Did he?” Steven said. “So, you brought me a flash drive?”

Tony smiled. If she’d had the hair to manage it she would have flipped it. “I brought you the schematics of the suit I plan on using while I’m here.”

Too many people accused Steven of being out-of-date, of being behind-the-times, of being outright dumb. (She’d been among those people, in the early days, when dealing with Steve had been more of a chore than a pleasure.) Steven wasn’t educated by modern standards; he was missing a casual lifetime’s knowledge of technological advances. Microwaves and cell phones were space-age-inventions to a man who’d turned into a capsicle before man walked on the Moon. But Steven was smart enough to curl his fingers around the USB drive, to frown at it, to know the trap he’d been caught in. He was smart enough to say, “that’s a start,” when every single part of his body wanted to call her every filthy word he’d learned in the dirty base camps of war.

“I thought you’d appreciate the gesture. I know how important it is to you that you know how to disarm an enemy or an ally if the occasional calls for it.” (That was true, at least.)

“Should I consider you an enemy?”

Tony shook her head without her smile ever slipping off her face. Her arms and her hands were perfectly demure, not making a single move toward attack mode. “From what I understand, I’m not exactly a teammate,” and she let that simmer just long enough to see the muscle in his jaw flinch, before she added, “but I consider myself an ally of the Avengers. It’s in Tony’s best interest to maintain a cordial relationship.” She motioned at the drive presently taking up space in Steve’s tightening fist. “That’s the full schematic. I didn’t redact or alter anything.”

“Of course, you didn’t,” Steve agreed. “Any chance it’s in English?”

“Friday can translate it into any language you need.”

Steven snorted, almost like a half-laugh, as he licked his lips and looked sideways. (All that looking down at her, all that effort he was putting into looking at her eyes when her breasts were right there must have been exhausting.) He was searching for civility in the rage that was making all his muscles flinch and tighten and loosen again. He slid the drive into his pocket because he must have been on the verge of crushing it. “Why do you need a suit?”

Tony was still smiling when she said, “I make it a habit to be prepared.” Steve said nothing to that. “If you need help understanding the technical jargon, Rhodey has—”

“Who do you think you’re helping?” Steven asked. She’d heard that tone before, when her future husband had been up to his eyeballs in ideas that challenged his concept of the world. It was Steve backed into a corner with no way out but through. That the sound of frustration and anger, a great underground fire burning out-of-control, giving off no signs save for the occasional release of hot gas.

“I came here as a show of good faith.”

Steven didn’t believe her for a minute; not for a second. (Because, despite the reports, Steven wasn’t stupid. He was just as smart as he needed to be, with a shrewd stare.) “Then maybe you should show some.”

Tony cocked up her eyebrow, she let her voice drop so it was confidential. They were close enough he could hear her, close enough she could lean into his personal space. (He didn’t like that either, not at first, not until he understood the usefulness of sharing personal space.) “What exactly would you like me to show you, Steven?”

He stepped back, sighed. “Look,” was the sound of a rapid change in subject. “if you actually care about Tony the way you’re trying to make people believe, maybe you shouldn’t be making choices about what’s best for him in a world you don’t understand. Let the people that know and care about Tony make those choices.”

“Oh, I plan to,” she assured him. “Just as soon as I find someone that does.”

“It must be nice to never think you might be wrong. To make judgments about things that you couldn’t possibly understand.” That was Steven working himself up a head of steam, that was him on the verge of a moral lecture.

“You think I couldn’t possibly understand you?” she asked. “Because I’ve got to tell you, Steven. I’ve met a lot of men in my life and the only thing they all have in common is thinking they’ve got depth.”

“What you should concern yourself with,” came out with perfect civility. Steven was nothing if not a master of diplomacy, always ducking his humble head and aw-shucks-ing his way right out of taking responsibility for anything but the right thing. “Is how you got here and how you got home. Interfering with the Avengers doesn’t help anyone, not you, not Tony.”

They were close enough now that anyone might have mistaken them for lovers. Tony’s hands were clenched at her hips, she tipped her head to smile right at Steven’s aggravation-pink cheeks. Her body was familiar with this space, the little whisper of air between them, how Steven’s body moved to answer. He lined them up, kept his hands at his sides when her husband would have been pulling her even closer. He tipped his head to look at her face and they were seconds away from kissing (and she missed that, how easily and how happily her husband touched her). “With all due respect, Steven, there’s only one of us that comes from a world where the Avengers are a functional, respected international response team. I may be a stranger but I am Tony Stark, and where I’m from Tony Stark runs this,” she spun her finger in a circle to indicate the compound and the Avengers in general, “and she does a better job than an angry toddler in a flag costume. So,” she patted her hand against his chest, “I’ll be doing what it is my and his best interest as long as I’m here.”

Steven’s jaw was clenched so tight that he couldn’t unhinge it long enough to manage a response.

That anger was vibrating in her whole body. It was under her skin, making her skin itch. Something was howling in the center of her chest, something feral and ugly, scratching and clawing to get to the surface. But she had played out this scene again and again, and nothing was gained (except personal satisfaction) by introducing her fist to Steven’s face. “But you should do something about Sokovia, Steven. If you keep letting the press write the narrative, they might eventually figure out you don’t shit patriotism.”

The space between them stretched, Steve stepped back. He was furious but keeping all his hands to himself, saying, “people are going to get hurt. What you’re doing? This game,” he spit that word like it offended him, “whatever you think you’re doing? It’s going to get people hurt. People I care about.”

Tony smiled, as sweetly as she’d ever smiled for cameras and men hoping for handouts, “which people, Steven? Which ones do you care about? Wanda? Natasha? Rhodey? Which ones that you,” she pointed at his chest, “care about haven’t already been hurt? What I think I’m doing,” she shrugged, “is offering you an olive branch.”

“Yeah,” Steven agreed without releasing any of the tension holding his body together, “our Tony thought he knew better than everyone too. I’m sure that’s a comfort to the homeless families in Sokovia.” He pulled the drive out of his pocket and held it up. “Thank you for this,” was the least sincere thing any Steve Rogers had ever spoken.

She kept her smile, “you’re welcome.” It was a short walk back to the car with him watching her every single move. “You know where I am if there’s anything else I can do for you.”

“Oh,” was a small break in the tension, a cough of disbelief, “I think you’ve done your share.”

B SIDE

The doors opened exactly twenty-four hours later. Steve waited until he saw Natasha standing in the open doorway holding out a pair of shoes. She was going for apologetic and managing only not-amused.

Still, shoes and freedom were welcome things. He leaned against the wall outside the door and slid his feet into the shoes. There was another bottle of water to match the first fifty he’d already been given (about half of which he’d actually drank) and a couple of Stark Industry’s work-in-progress nutrition bars. They were an attempt to meet Steve (and Bruce, and possibly Thor’s) caloric needs without the trouble of having to eat twelve meals a day. (Not that he usually managed it, or Bruce needed to eat that much when he wasn’t turning into the Hulk regularly.) Tony had been amused and horrified to see him eat in the beginning and then just annoyed at how long it took to consume that amount of food. “My favorite,” he said.

Natasha snorted, “I’d watch what you say. She’s definitely reviewing the footage when she gets back.”

Steve snorted. One of the bars said it was supposed to be banana nut muffins and the other one assured him it was meant to be peanut butter. Neither of them tasted like anything (at least not anything they were supposed to taste like) but they worked in a pinch. “What’d you learn?”

“You know I can’t—”

Steve pulled open the banana nut nutrition bar first. (It smelled like bananas, at least the sort of bland bananas people ate nowadays.) He raised his eyebrow to her quick denial as they walked toward the elevators.

Natasha rolled her eyes. “He’s—” she raised her hands and dropped them. None of them wanted to be the first one to say it. (Loyalty was funny like that, always catching your tongue before you could say anything maybe not-good about the male version of a loved one.) “There’s damage,” wasn’t outright attributing that damage to the person they were speaking about. “He doesn’t trust us, we make him uncomfortable. He’s not used to this,” she raised her arms to indicate the entire building. “He’s not even one of us in his world, he said he retired.”

Steve (worked very hard to swallow the nutrition bar he wanted to spit into a potted ficus) said, “he said he built a murder bot.”

“Tony wouldn’t build a murder bot.”

“Not on purpose,” Steve agreed. But he was living with a nightmare just beneath his skin, a suddenly awakened fear that it was only a matter of time before he outlived his own resolve. There was a thin line between just-a-boy-from-Brooklyn and the villain he’d seen in Wanda’s nightmares.

Natasha spun on her feet when they got to the elevators. It was her body between him and the buttons. “So, what are we going to do?”

That was a question he’d been holding off thinking up an answer to since he woke up next to the wrong Tony. What felt like a lifetime to him (as tired, hungry and sore as he was) couldn’t even be measured in weeks. It was only days. It had been five days. “Right now,” because this choice couldn’t be made here, under these circumstances, “I’m going to take a shower, and maybe a nap, and when I wake up, I will try to figure out what to do.”

No. That wasn’t the right answer. It wasn’t the reassurance that Natasha was looking for.

“I made a promise before God to take care of her in sickness and health,” he had made that promise to a justice of the peace, not a priest, but that was only a minor detail, “I don’t plan on breaking that promise now or ever.”

That, at least, made Natasha step back far enough he could hit the button on the elevator. “We’re calling Sam in,” she said. “There’s no immediate threat because we haven’t made a determination about how to proceed as far as the Maximoffs are concerned but we’d rather not be short staffed.”

“How long am I out?” he asked.

“Thor had to physically hold you down,” Natasha said. As if that translated into measurements of real time. “Whatever that was? It’s obvious you don’t just walk it off. Maybe if that was it, if that was only thing, I’d say a week. But your wife,” she pointed upward through all the floors between them and his bedroom. “And this?”

Steve sighed. He didn’t like it but the system hadn’t been put into place for him to like it under the circumstances. It had been made when all heads were level, by unanimous approval, with provisions and amendments all argued out, so every voice was equal and every concerned was answered. It was the best they could do with the situation they were in. “Yeah,” he said. “Can I go?”

“Get some sleep.”

He was planning on doing that. Inside the elevator he frowned at the bars he’d been given, trying to weigh out rather it was worth it to eat them or to be hungry (and deal with the phantom voice of his angry wife reminding him that nobody really understood how the super serum worked but his metabolism alone required more calories than he habitually consumed). It was just as easy to suffer through eating them as waking up hungry enough to eat a whole pig (he’d been banned at several establishments offering free meals to anyone that could eat their oversized hamburgers).

Steve hadn’t overcome modesty in all situations, just in the ones like his own bedroom. So, there he was shirtless and shoeless with his pants unbuttoned and all set to be shoved down his legs before the sleep-startled, “wait a minute,” interrupted him from the bed. (Natasha could have mentioned that she’d sent Tony to bed.)

“Oh,” was the best he could manage with both his hands caught mid-shove at trying to escape his overly tight pants. “Sorry?”

Tony was sitting on the side of the bed wearing the same clothes he’d been wearing all night, rubbing one of his eyes with the heel of his hand, looking like he’d lost sleep since they last saw each other. “No. My fault. I keep forgetting this isn’t my bed.” He leaned over to grab a watch off the bedside table. “I’ll go.”

“You don’t have to.”

Tony stopped halfway to standing, caught between finishing the motion and sitting back down. The way he looked at Steve was all suspicious (and a bit of the sort of open curiosity that people always stared at his naked body with). “I don’t want to intrude.”

“You’re not. I just need a shower,” Steve said.

“I already napped,” was searching for the right key phrase to release him.

“Tony,” Steve said.

That made the man sigh, made him give up on the idea of standing up. He sat on the bed. He didn’t say anything, but he didn’t try to leave again either. It was a compromise, even as begrudging as it was. Steve sighed to himself and opened the closet to find a pair of pants comfortable enough to wear after being trapped in the Captain America pants for twenty-four straight hours.

“I’ll just be a few minutes,” he said.

“Take your time,” Tony answered.

A shower wasn’t that far removed from a bathtub. There were no bubbles but there was water and the nearness of the memory of his wife’s body against his. He let his head hang in the hot water, let the shower pour over his sore muscles, over the fading pink marks of Thor’s hands holding him down. When he was clean (enough) and the too-tight-feeling of being squeezed into pants meant for combat and not casual wear had faded enough to be bearable he turned the water off and toweled himself off.

It was just there, in front of the mirrors, not so far from the vanity, with the towel hanging from his fist, that he got caught. That he found himself staring at his reflection (wondering if he looked the same in that other world). Tony was-and-wasn’t a fan of mirrors. For her they weren’t meant for preening but talking herself down from rash action. Looking at himself now, without her, he wanted to say: what the fuck should I do but there would be no answer. There would be no wife half-distracted by his naked body, filled up to her eyeballs in aggression, that wrapped her arms around his chest as she leaned in against him. She said things like, What do you want to do knowing that what he wanted and what had to be done almost never matched up.

But this was simple, because Tony would have been white-knuckled with fury, staring at him like a direct challenge, waving her arm at the problem (that man in their bed) as if the answer was so obvious anyone could have figured it out. For her it would have been as simple as that, as easy as pie, just one woman against the world. Tony would have said, we protect our own. We do what it takes.

Steve pulled the loose-legged-sweats on and scrubbed his hair dry. He hadn’t brought a shirt with him but he grabbed one from the dresser on his way back out. He’d expected that Tony would have left while he was in the shower, but the man was still there.

Tony was sitting on the edge of the bed where he’d left him, staring at the watch how he’d been ten-fifteen-minutes-ago. His shoulders slumped with exhaustion, his body seemed to cave in on itself, he looked up with a sad kind of smile, as if he’d only just arrived at a conclusion he’d been working hard not to. (And Steve knew that look, he’d seen it on his wife’s face before.) “Good shower?”

“Yeah,” Steve agreed.

Tony nodded, ran his tongue across his lips, worked himself up to sitting upright. He was trying to reconstruct a mask to hide his face and failing, managing nothing more than a glance sideways as he said (like he didn’t even intend to), “I don’t know how to get home. I don’t know that there is a way.”

“I know,” Steve said. He sat on the bed a quiet distance from Tony, thought about touching him and couldn’t work out if it was or wasn’t a good idea. He meant it as comfort, to give and to receive, but—

“I’m sorry,” Tony said. He looked right at Steve as he said it, and maybe it would have been easier if he hadn’t. If maybe he hadn’t meant it exactly how it sounded, maybe if he hadn’t been sorry for ending up here, for taking her away. “You probably want to sleep, I’ll go—”

“Tony,” jumped right out of his throat. He wanted to say please stay but it would have been cruel. It would have asked too much. So, he just said, “whatever happens, we’ll work it out. Everything will be okay.”

Tony’s smile was hollow, he shrugged with a smirk, saying, “of course. I know that.” But he didn’t.

(And really, alone in the room he was meant to share with his wife, Steve couldn’t quite bring himself to believe it either.)

A SIDE

Steve sat at the head of the table.

To his right was Natasha, keeping a calm face with a questioning eyebrow, as she tried to work out who was friends and who was enemies inside their own god damned team. (Steve wanted to know too, exactly who was for and who was against the idea of proceeding as planned.) Sam was sitting next to her with an air of calm that left him with the appearance of ease that only narrowly missed being convincing.

To his left was Vision looking modest and not all-powerful with a pair of dark khakis and a nice sweater over a button-down shirt. Wanda was tucked into what looked like an alcove in between Vision and Rhodey.

“So,” Steve began. The flash drive that Tony had given him was sitting in between his loosely curled hands and the glass pitcher of water that nobody was going to drink. “We need to discuss how we would like to handle the continuing fallout from the battle in Sokovia. I believe our primary concern should be what we can do to assist the people who were displaced,” and Rhodey made the smallest sound at that, not quite a sigh, not quite a huff, “I’ve called Maria Hill back to help us organize a response to the ongoing press coverage.”

The information prompted no immediate reaction, each of them was wrestling with what they thought of it. (At least the few of them that had ever worked with Hill. Wanda and Vision were managing polite disinterest.) Natasha spoke first: “Hill has the most experience in dealing with this level of scrutiny both from the press and the government.”

Bolstered by that, Vision announced, “I agree that something should be done to ease the suffering of those that were affected by the battle with Ultron.” He glanced sideways as he said it, and Wanda offered him something very like a smile in response.

Sam was shaking his head. “We all want to do something about Sokovia but what are we actually qualified to do?”

“That is my home,” Wanda said. Her smile went cold and flat as she leaned ever so slightly closer to the table. (Not very far, not far enough to escape the safety that Vision at her side provided.)

“It’s always someone’s home,” Sam said. He spoke the words gently but they were still hard.

“So, you do not care?” Wanda demanded, “So, we do not have to do anything? We do not have to worry, it has happened before?”

“That’s not what he’s saying,” Steve said. But she looked at him with anger that made her pale face pink under her cheeks.

Her voice wasn’t amused but boiling when she asked, “What is he saying?”

Rhodey lifted his hand off the table where it had been resting. He spoke directly to Wanda, not to the table, “He’s saying that we should appear to offer assistance without actually getting involved.” He looked over at Steve, like a repeat of the argument they’d already had. “He’s not wrong; the Avengers are not a humanitarian effort, they were formed as a tactical response team.”

“Your tactical response destroyed my home,” Wanda said.

Our response?” Natasha cut in. She was smiling at the words, trying not to laugh (and that would only make a bad situation worse). “I don’t recall it being our response that put a crater where your hometown was. That was Ultron. Remember him, the guy we tried to stop, the one you helped escape us?”

Steve cleared his throat, “Natasha.”

“I’m just calling it how I saw it. Look, we’re not equipped or trained to offer the sort of help that Sokovia needs right now.” She looked down the table at Rhodey. He looked at her with a perfectly placid face, like he was only waiting for her to talk herself out, as if it were only a matter of time before he was proven correct. “Like it or not, the best help we can offer them is to support the most reputable charity doing work on the ground. We go in, we meddle with what’s already being done? We’re going to slow down efforts, we’re going to keep the people that need the most help from getting it.” She looked back at Wanda, at her furious face and the curve of her body, indecisively hovering between the safety of a hidden space and bold aggression.

“You speak from experience?” Rhodey asked. “What was your field again? Before you were recruited?”

Steve looked at the flash drive sitting on the table; thought of the woman that had given it to him. Thought of how she looked at him like he was nothing but an inconvenience she was going to overcome. (Or something lower, something like dogshit.)

“Forgive me,” was Visions eminently polite voice, “I am new— You mean to say we could not of any assistance in Sokovia? We cannot build a home? We cannot provide food or comfort to those that are suffering?”

Wanda rolled her eyes, tipped her body in against his side. (And that would be a problem, how easily and how quickly Vision responded to her motion, how he had put himself in a position to protect her to start with.) “They do not care. Nobody has cared about my country—”

But Rhodey interrupted, “It’s not that simple. There’s politics involved we’re not exactly well liked at the moment, you think we’re going to be welcome on the ground?”

What was it Bruce had said on the helicarrier when they were all strangers? We’re not a team, we’re a chemical mixture that makes chaos? Something like that. Something like the flash drive full of information Tony knew he couldn’t understand, extended like an olive branch. Like Steve caught in the position of accepting it or turning it down but either way he was getting fucked over by someone. Because Rhodey was sitting at the end of the table staring him down, daring (double-daring) him to speak a single word that he didn’t like.

Natasha lifted a hand to clear the air, to bring the point back to: “We have to get ahead of the press, we have to change the narrative while we have the chance.”

Rhodey motioned his hand at her, at the point she made, at the one he’d made, at how there was no denying they had to do something. (And Steve knew that the way he knew it didn’t matter what he tried, it would be used against him.) “Yes. Thank you. We need to start by shutting down the,” and he lifted his fingers to do airquotes around the word: “experts,” before he dropped his hands again, “they keep calling in to prove Ultron was built by Tony.”

“We need to shape the narrative,” disagreed without the pretense of politeness. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to put too much emphasis on Tony.” Natasha glanced sideways at him as she said it but only just for a second, long enough to see she wasn’t going to get cut off.

“As a man whose career has involved both extensive contact with the press and controlling the public perception of Tony Stark, I disagree.”

The whole time Rhodey was talking, Sam was nodding along, cracking up with amusement around the words ‘public perception’ so when he said, “maybe if you’d done your job better we wouldn’t be here,” there was an uneven humor to his voice.

But that wouldn’t help. (Nothing would help.) “Sam,” Steve said.

Sam looked down the table at him, “I’m just saying, maybe if less people thought Tony was capable of building a planet killing robot, we wouldn’t be sitting here discussing how much of our focus needed to be discrediting people who aren’t that far off from the truth.”

“The truth?” was the start of a barfight that would have to be taken outside. Rhodey was still trying to work off that head of steam he’d built up in the morning. He’d had a whole day to prime the anger, to let it fester and grow. Sam wasn’t the target he wanted but it seemed like he was willing to settle for him.

Natasha leaned in to the table, put her hand in the space between Rhodey and Sam. “Nobody is saying that Tony acted alone,” she looked right at Wanda to add, “or intentionally.”

“I believe it is simple.” Vision thought many things were simple. It was the benefit of a young age and limitless knowledge. Things were very simple to a newborn. Cry for food, cry for warmth, cry for comfort. No matter the problem, crying would solve it. “We benefit from the shelter that Mr. Stark provides; if we plan to continue to benefit from it we cannot act as if we are not indebted to our benefactor.” That was true at least; you didn’t stay in a place you couldn’t pay for. “Further more, none of us were ignorant of the threat Ultron posed; none of us is blameless in his creation and so we are all responsible for what happened to Sokovia. To turn our backs on one single member of our group is to deny that we are all to blame.”

“Thank you,” Rhodey said again.

Sam snorted. “Weren’t you born after Ultron was created?”

Vision nodded. “I was.”

“Are you even entitled to an opinion?” Sam asked.

Natasha looked at him, away from the growing noise of their voices flowing together. Rhodey was defending Vision because Vision made a point that supported the outcome Rhodey wanted but Wanda was quiet, looking at her hands under the edge of the table. Steve leaned back in the chair, thought of the war, of the Howling Commandos, thought of how simple the world had been when it broke down to rank and respect.

(No. Steve thought of her, of Tony, of how she looked at his face, how she said: I’ll keep doing what’s in my best interest as she called him a toddler in a costume. It was her voice, her smile, the slant of her body, and the god damned flash drive sitting on the table that was filling up his head as the rabid noise of the room grew-and-grew-and grew.)

“Stop,” he said when he couldn’t make out the individual words anymore. “We are going to do something about Tony,” he picked up the flash drive, “you’re the resident Stark liason? You’re his best friend and a fellow MIT graduate?” He threw the drive at Rhodey, watched him just barely catch it, “work with Hill, find a way to put an end to the rumors, and if you have time take a look at the schematics of the suit she plans to use while she’s here, tell me how to disarm the damn thing if she decides to attack me again.”

The whole table was staring at him. Steve rubbed his face and leaned forward. “We have to do something to help Sokovia,” he said that to Wanda. “I don’t know what. I don’t know what we can do, what we’d even be welcome to try to do. But we are going to do something. If nobody else has anything useful to add, we’re done for the night.”

Natasha looked like she wanted to say something but she didn’t. Rhodey was looking at the flash drive in his hand with something like a smile.

“Ok, good,” Steve stood up and the chair he’d been sitting in was kicked backward. “Hill should be here tomorrow, I’ll keep everyone briefed on our options.” He didn’t run but walk out: out of the room, down the hall, out the nearest exit to the slow-dimming light of an early summer evening. He was alone under the sky, hands on his hips, eyes closed, feeling every single part of his body vibrating out of tune with the other.

(Thinking about her, how sure she was, how she knew everything.)

A SIDE

Pepper jumped when the bathroom door slapped shut. (To be fair, Tony would have jumped too if someone had slammed the bathroom door in her office.) She’d managed to bypass the need for a convincing lie that would allow her access to any part of Stark offices by commanding Friday to tell her the quickest route that took her directly to Pepper without having to show any credentials.

“To— What are you doing here?” Pepper hissed.

“I kind of own it,” Tony retorted.

Pepper balled up the paper towel she’d been using to pat her face (which was pink under her foundation) and threw it into the wastebasket. Her entire body shifted from startled to in-charge, a subtle shift of muscle and ligament that ended with Pepper at her full height not frowning but not smiling. A short eternity of working for Tony Stark made one immune to common scare tactics; Pepper could have faced off against a ruthless dictator without batting an eye. “No. I believe you are mistaken.” She moved to let herself out of the bathroom and Tony slid in between her and the exit. “What are you doing?”

“The bathrooms are the only part of the building that aren’t continuously under survelliance,” Tony said. “It’d make my life easier if I didn’t have to keep coming up with fun alternative names for myself but I don’t think the world is ready to believe I’m Tony Stark.”

Pepper snorted. “I would have thought you, of all people, wouldn’t be surprised by what the world is ready to believe about Tony Stark.” She put one hand on the sink at her side and let her other hand hang at her side. “How can I help you, Ms. Stark?”

“What is Stark Industries doing about Sokovia? Do we have people on the ground? Are we working on shelter? Food? What are the plans?”

There it was, just for a second, how Pepper rolled her eyes. It wasn’t that she didn’t care (because Pepper, in her experience, cared very much but only at certain times and never when being directly challenged), “you trapped me in the bathroom for this?”

“I’d also like to know what kind of experts you’ve got that can maybe go on the news and defend Tony. I mean unless we’re really comfortable letting this one play itself out. I thought the stocks suffered after I shut down weapons manufacturing but I can’t wait to see what happens when the world decides that Tony’s lost his fucking mind and is building homicidal country killing robots.”

Pepper lifted both her hands to stall the flow of words. “What experts?”

“Any that have a degree and a clean shirt at this point.”

Pepper snorted.

“This isn’t funny!” Tony shouted. It hit all the walls around them and echoed back. Things like that would have gotten him a cold shoulder for days. Pepper (her Pepper, the real Pepper) wouldn’t have given her the time of day, wouldn’t even have humored her for a moment, would have brushed right past her and out the door and given herself paid time off for three or four days because a working relationship like theirs required respect and respect wasn’t screaming at a hostage in a bathroom.

Not this Pepper, no this Pepper just shook her head, looked sideways at the mirror and down into the sink. She thought it through and ran her tongue across her lips before she looked back at Tony. “There are no experts when it comes to the Iron Man technology because that is kept at the highest level of clearance. To my knowledge, apart from the modified suit Tony allowed Rhodey to take, there has never been a suit made publicly available. Perhaps things are different where you’re from, perhaps you understand the value of sharing, Mrs. Rogers, but unless you’ve got a useful suggestion to make I need to go keep this company from falling apart.”

Tony punched the wall by the door before she’d even thought it through. It was a stupid, stupid thing to do. (One just as likely to end in a broken fist as not.) The sound it made was sharp and red, Pepper screamed, and Tony echoed it with: “fuck!”

“What are you doing?” Pepper demanded.

Anger had brought her here, had gotten her up the stairs and through the halls and into the locked bathroom, and it was anger that made tears well up in her eyes and anger that made her voice break when she said, “I don’t know how to get back,” but it looked like and it felt like despair. “I don’t even know if there is a way.”

Pepper wasn’t surprised when she pulled Tony into a hug. She didn’t say anything, just tightened her arms and pulled their bodies together. There was almost familiar safety in the ring of Pepper’s arms, almost close enough to be a memory. Her touch was very soft but her voice was unyielding when she said, “I love Tony,” like it needed to be said, “I’ve loved him for a very long time.” She put just enough space between them that they could see each other’s face. “You don’t have to tell me to protect him. I always have.”

This wasn’t, not even close, where Tony thought she would find resolve. It wasn’t where she thought she’d find the first proof that Tony wasn’t alone in the world. It didn’t seem like it should have been Pepper.

There was no chance to respond before Pepper brushed the whole thing away. “We need to give you a name and a badge. I don’t know how you got up here, but I know I wouldn’t like it. What is your first name? I had assumed Antonia.”

“That’s close enough,” Tony said. “Pepper,” felt like it was the start of an apology (maybe).

But Pepper shook her head. “Everything will be fine.” That was what Tony’s husband said when he was just about to bend reality to make it fit. “I’m hungry, we’ll go get something to eat. You probably haven’t had a vegetable in twenty-six hours.”

(She probably hadn’t but she wasn’t about to admit it.) “Thank you,” Tony said.

Chapter Text

B SIDE

Tony wasn’t hiding; he wasn’t contemplating throwing himself off the building but nonetheless he was thinking about falling. It was one of those things his body did to him, the muscle memory of wind rushing at his face, at his chest, the echoing shout of shock and fear that rattled out of his chest. It was (God, what was it?) three years since Loki had thrown him out of the window but it felt like yesterday this high up. It felt like it could have been just a few minutes ago, with his fingers curled in on themselves, his forearms against the rounded rail keeping him from falling. He’d designed this building to give him a good view, to let him see the city, to watch how it lived and breathed; but he couldn’t stop staring at how far down the ground was.

Falling wasn’t so bad but maybe that was only because he’d never actually hit the ground. (Would that be so bad? It was hard to tell, not a lot of people left alive to share their thoughts on the direct consequences of jumping off a building this height.) Things like that got all jumbled up in his head. It left him feeling half-alive, because there was no part of him that wanted to jump and every part of him that felt like it wouldn’t be so bad if someone just came and pushed him.

Wasn’t that a silly thought? Wasn’t that just a knee-slapper?

Here, more than anywhere, he had nothing but reasons to live. A whole building full of people that knew-and-respected the woman (he wasn’t) with his name. A husband, a team of friends. Oh yes, it was a beautiful little window in to the world how he could never have it.

“I looked in the lab first.” The statement was as neutral as any opening line, a well-articulated warning to accompany the sturdy-set-footsteps that had come from the left. Tony looked sideways as Rhodey came to a polite stop three-and-a-half-foot away from him. He wasn’t at ease but faking it.

“I was just getting some air,” Tony said. He straightened so he wasn’t leaning over the edge, so he wasn’t staring down (thinking how things may have gone if the Mark VII hadn’t met him just before he hit the ground). His fist caught the rail like an afterthought, gave him something to hold onto that felt solid-and-real as he looked at this perfect mirror of his best friend.

Rhodey nodded in exactly the way that meant he didn’t believe it for a second. “Do you have a minute?”

As far as Tony could tell he had nothing but minutes. “I always have a minute for a friend.” He pried his hand off the railing, wrapped it up in a fist and put it in his pocket so it wouldn’t get any ideas about hanging onto half-memories and half-intentions of jumping off buildings. “Are we friends?”

There were a lot of things to like about Rhodey (his loyalty, his intelligence, his humor), but the one thing that Tony liked the least was how cautious he could be, how stubborn and how he stood there right now squinting at him. “Are you Tony?”

“If I’m not, I’d have to be a damn good actor.” He’d have to be a genius with a script with the support of a small nation behind him. Altering JARVIS to make him recognize a strange man where his owner and creator had been would have taken (Tony was arrogant enough to think) a very concentrated effort and at least half a dozen of the best minds on the planet. But the attempt at sarcasm didn’t make Rhodey relax so Tony sighed, “yes. I’m Tony. Just not the Tony from here.”

“Steve believes you,” Rhodey agreed. He was still assessing, still taking it in, still making his determination. “Steve is reliably irrational about his wife. Like the people you see in the movies, the ‘if she were dead I would know it’ people. There’s almost no way you’d be able to trick him.”

That required no effort to believe. Tony shrugged. “But that’s not good enough for you?” He thumbed over his shoulder, nowhere in the direction of where he’d met Clint with the rest of the group yesterday. “Barton believed it. He said I looked just like her. Same bra size and everything.”

Rhodey didn’t smile but he wanted to. “I’ve known Tony for a long time. I thought,” and here he looked (sad), “I just thought I’d know when I looked at you.”

Yes, well, Tony just thought he would go to sleep and wake up in the same reality so sometimes people didn’t get what they wanted. “You want proof?” Tony shrugged that off, “as far as I can tell we’re—her and me—operating off the same script until about six years ago. So, assuming that’s true,” (what an assumption), “we met in 86? I was sixteen, you were eighteen?”

“Yes, that’s right.” More telling the compulsive agreement was how Rhodey shifted on his feet as soon as the ages were mentioned. It hadn’t really robbed his Rhodey of any sleep, but Tony was willing to believe that the virginity of a sixteen-year-old-daughter was somewhat more of a precious commodity than a sixteen-year-old-son’s to Howard fucking Stark. “That’s not really going to convince me—”

“Of course, you didn’t know how old I was, or you wouldn’t have had sex with me. You’ve always been annoyingly moral.”

“We don’t talk about that,” Rhodey said.

“I know.” In his world it was a simple matter of college-years-experimentation and the ease and convenience of a friend and a fuck buddy. Rhodey’s aspirations had never exactly included being outed and their youthful indiscretions had never been important enough to bring up at parties.

“Because of Howard,” Rhodey added.

Of course. Tony snorted at that. “Well, not where I’m from. I probably would have had to hear about it every Thanksgiving, but he wouldn’t have cared. Just another thing for him to mention when he listed all my shortcomings as a person: so, Tony, still taking dick on the weekends? You know what,” and maybe it had been Howard, as much as anything, that had kept that dirty secret stuck in his head. “Doesn’t matter,” he said before there was even time to get started. “Racism or sexism?”

“What?” Rhodey asked.

“The reason you don’t talk about it, the reason Howard wouldn’t have liked it? Racism or sexism?”

“Was Howard racist?” Rhodey asked. The words were genuinely startled, right out of his mouth, as if he hadn’t really taken a moment or two to think about it. (It was best not to spend too many moments thinking about what Howard Stark was or was not.)

“Well, he wouldn’t say he was. It wouldn’t surprise me if he were. Ever look at the company photos? Not a lot of variation in those faces.”

Rhodey put his hands up to stop the flow of words before it could get out of hand. “It was common knowledge on campus that nobody that wanted to stay alive should try to get involved with Ms. Stark.”

Tony nodded. (Well, at least he had that advantage over her. At least his Father had never shown up at MIT to threaten all the boys and girls to stay away. No, Howard probably wouldn’t have bat an eyelash at all the women that had taken up a momentary space in Tony’s bed. Hell, he might even have approved.)

Rhodey hesitated, still trying to find something familiar and failing, “are we friends where you’re from?”

“Yes.” (Although, now and again, it was hard to imagine what Rhodey got out of the arrangement besides a great deal of frustration.) “Best friends if you believe in that,” if that wasn’t too juvenile, “not that I’ve got enough friends to bother nominating a number one. We’ve gotten off topic—let’s concentrate on the problem.” He clapped his hands together, watched Rhodey’s suspicious face grow every so slightly disappointed. Or maybe it wasn’t disappointed, maybe it was like Natasha’s straining to stay friendly when all it was managing was concerned. “What would Colonel James Rhodes believe? What would we both believe?” Him and Rhodey, him and her. (Wasn’t that funny, didn’t it almost feel like he’d already had this conversation once. Maybe she’d had it, in the other world, with his Rhodey.)

“I’m just not sure there is anything you coul—”

Tony snapped his fingers, “the funvee? That’s something only we would know. Everyone else that heard it is—” (Dead.) “The hum-drum-vee is back there. I never told anyone. I bet she didn’t either.”

Rhodey almost smiled, like it was a fond memory, like it was something worth smiling over. Getting attacked by terrorist didn’t qualify as a good time to him, but the way Rhodey started relaxing under his clothes made him smile back. The way Rhodey nodded, how he said, “alright,” was almost like agreeing. “You look like shit, Tony.”

Tony smiled. “Well,” he had no follow up to that. He had no end to the sentence, no idea of what he meant to say. “It’s been a long week.”

“This has to be,” Rhodey paused, “a lot.”

That was an understatement. Tony slid his hands back into his pockets and shrugged.

Rhodey glanced back at the building, at the people in it, and then over at him. “Want to go get breakfast? I’ll buy since you’re broke.” Then he smiled.

“I left my wallet in my other universe,” Tony said. That made Rhodey smile, like he wanted to laugh, like he wanted to be familiar and easy with him. “I could eat.” (He could stand to be away from here. To be out in the world where nobody looked at him with their smiles stretched out of shape.) “If you think they’d let me go.”

“I’m sure they would,” Rhodey assured him. “Come on. I’ll take you to her favorite place, see if you have the same taste in breakfast food.”

It was easy to agree, to follow, to wallow in this moment of easy.

A SIDE

Nobody had ever accused Tony of sleeping in. (Except Steve, who could not be counted because he was superhuman among a pool of regular human data points.) Even when she had been younger (and drinking, and partying, and compartmentalizing her feelings into neat little boxes stacked on shelves, and sleeping around) she couldn’t manage a good sleep. Call it an early bird gets the worm or boarding school habits but one way or another, Tony Stark was awake by seven.

Except here, in this awful universe, when she was awake at five-oh-nine, sitting on the side of the bed with her bare feet on the floor and both her hands covering her face. She’d mastered an artful escape from a full bed years ago, but age and lack of necessity had slowed her to a crawl. There wasn’t much of a reason to rush away from Pepper anyway; if there was anyone in this miserable hellhole that understood what Tony Stark really was, it would be Pepper.

The only danger in staying was the starvation on her skin, the longing just under the top layer like an ache that she couldn’t soothe. That need to worm her way under her husband’s stupid thin blanket, to wriggle her fingers under his modest undershirt, to lay her cheek on his chest and absorb the warmth and the nearness of him. Now-and-again (more and more often) there was nothing at all sexual in the way she craved Steve’s body against hers. It was a brand new drug, a whole new itch she hadn’t realized she had, that desire to have his skin on hers and to luxuriate in it.

There was no pretense and no expectation in the way Steve touched her, how easily he folded his arm around her, how his fingers brushed her hair. He was content to lay with her in the evenings, to let her lay on him, or against him or sit behind him and slip her hand into the neckline of his shirt. He was at ease with her hands on him. “Fuck,” she whispered into the cool air, let her hands run down her arms, let her whole body shiver for want of something to brush against.

“Mm?” Pepper hummed from behind her.

“Nothing,” Tony whispered, “stay asleep.” She got up, grabbed a throw off the chair by the bed and excused herself. It was colder in the lab than it was in the bedroom, but there was more space and less expectation of comfort. She ate blueberries she found stashed by the drink fridge in the back as she sat cross-legged and watching the morning news.

Celebrities and politics and charities. The morning programs wanted everyone to have a good day, so they filled up the space with fun stories about frazzled men-and-women with too many babies and kids that survived cancer. There were handsome men in nice suits selling their movies and pretty girls with crossed legs deflecting questions about their private lives.

In between the fluff, and the special interest stories, there was a mention or two of greater disasters. Efforts continue were the words they used. Efforts continue to ease the suffering of the citizens of Sokovia. But a quick google search and an easy calculation proved that left to its own devices, Sokovia didn’t stand a chance in hell of maintaining itself as a country. It was poor, and it was failing. Already crippled by the wars that were waged on all sides, it certainly couldn’t manage to heal itself and maintain independence.

(What was it Steve said? Something about acts of God and men in churches praying. Something about how not even the smartest, strongest, fastest man alive could manage to save the world. It all boiled down, sooner or later, to shit happens.)

Shit happened; but that didn’t absolve anyone of trying. (Steve never argued that; he just argued that shit could not be predicted and therefore could not be prevented and therefore would happen regardless.)

She should be trying. She should be trying to help; she should be out there, up at the compound, laying it all out for Steven. Telling him exactly what hands needed to be shaken, which officials were the best ones to waste afternoons golfing with. (A little bit of wasted time went a long way with old men who traded respect and paparazzi pictures for worthwhile favors.)

No. Tony couldn’t help here. Couldn’t look at Steven’s face without feeling her skin ache; couldn’t stand to listen to the sound of his voice without wanting to rip his tongue out. He was-and-wasn’t exactly the person she wanted. (Steven wasn’t wrong; wasn’t far off from the truth at all, looking at her face and asking her if she thought she was really helping. She wasn’t. She wasn’t even trying.)

Sokovia was bleeding to death and Tony was starting piss fights with a six-foot-baby.

“Friday,” she said. “I need a plane.”

“Of course, sir. Where will we be going?”

“Sokovia.” She leaned forward far enough to pick up the badge that Pepper had given her. It was an all-access sort of thing, something that would give her almost unlimited access to every aspect of Tony Stark’s vast empire. She could get everything but the money. “When’s the soonest we can leave?”

“Seven PM, sir.”

“Good, make it happen.” The face in the photograph on the badge was smiling; the same blank smile Tony had learned as a child. “Do we have any friends in Sokovia? Any contacts?”

“I do not believe so, sir.”

No, of course they didn’t. That didn’t matter as much. Tony was good at making friends; nearly as good at making them as she was at alienating them. She stood up, all set to go and pack a bag, and found Pepper standing not very far away at all, holding two cups of coffee and one hell of a frown. “Oh,” was dripping with sarcasm, “were you coming to tell me?”

No. “I can’t sit here,” Tony said. (Just look at what she was doing to the Avengers with her half-assed efforts. It was a twenty-minute drive to punch Steven in the dick, and that sort of proximity invited disaster.)

“And what should I tell them you’re doing? What should I say when they call to ask why we sent a private plane to Sokovia? When they ask what your credentials are? What you’re over there to do?”

“Tell them I’m there to assess the recovered tech, that I am an expert in Stark Tech.” She was, in fact, an expert. “Tell them I’m there to see how Stark Industries can help. I don’t care what you tell them. Tell them I am Tony Stark.”

Pepper handed her the coffee mug with a polite violence. She wasn’t amused when she looked at the news, but she just sighed. “We aren’t telling them you are Tony Stark. I’d rather we didn’t ever have to tell them you’re Tony but if it comes to that I’d like to have a reliable story.” She sipped her coffee and looked from the news to Tony. “How are you going to hide the arc reactor?”

“I can make a cap to hide the glow.”

“So, you’re not going to try to figure out how to get back? You couldn’t figure it out in three days so it’s not something that can be solved?” Her hands were folded around her mug as she leaned against the desk. The words were perfectly pleasant, hiding that hard edge of challenge buried in them.

“I think best when I’m busy,” Tony said. (Busy and away from here, away from instant replays of other-Tony’s stupid life making her angrier-and-angrier.)

Pepper hummed. She shrugged, “it’s not like I could stop you.” Her smile was sad (not angry) just before she shook her head and added, “I need to get dressed. I’ve got a full day. I’m sure you’ve got to pack.”

A SIDE

It was much easier to show Maria Hill the footage than go through the trouble of trying to figure out how to phrase ‘Tony has been replaced by a female Tony’ in a way that seemed believable. As a rational minded woman, Maria would believe what she saw (maybe) but she might argue about how Steve had known just by looking at the woman named Tony Stark that she was telling the truth.

“So,” Maria said in the static space between watching Ms. Stark wake up in Mr. Stark’s bed and the footage of the same Ms. Stark sitting in the interrogation room. “You didn’t want to tell me on the phone that Tony is a woman now?”

“From another universe,” Steve added. “Apparently one where she is the leader of the Avengers.”

Maria nodded. She was quiet while she watched the video, raised her eyebrows at how easily Tony deflected Natasha’s attempts to coax answers from her. Watching it now, it really was something to see. Very few people were capable of completely shutting down Natasha’s attempts but Tony made it seem effortlessly. “What are we doing about this?”

“It’s not a priority.”

Maria Hill didn’t laugh but turn her head to stare at him with disbelief so palpable that it may as well been a slap to the face. It snuck into her voice as she said, “so we’re not worried that our Tony has been replaced?” She must have seen Tony flip the table out of the corner of her eye because she turned back to look at the screen and took a moment to appreciate the sight of Tony throwing a chair at Steve. “This isn’t a concern?” she asked. “This seems like it should be a concern.”

“It’s a concern. It’s not a priority. Right now, the focus needs to be on how we can help Sokovia and the Avengers.”

“She just punched you in the face,” Maria pointed out. But it wasn’t outrage, it was almost pride, almost like saying: I approve. “Did she say she broke your arm?”

“Yes.”

“How?” Maria was eying him with suspicion. “I’ve seen you go through walls like nothing. You jumped out of a building and landed on a shield. You drove a motorcycle into a jet. You were frozen for seventy years.”

Steve crossed his arms over his chest. “It was a small fracture, it healed. Is it important how?”

“Yes.”

Arguing how it wasn’t important would have taken more time than saying, “she attacked the compound and during the fight she grabbed the shield and pulled it.”

Maria stood like a soldier, (maybe she had been one). With her arms crossed over her chest like that, she was as much a disapproving Mother as she was a man in uniform. For a moment she was quiet and then she said, “that doesn’t sound like luck, Steve.”

It hadn’t been luck. Not with those words, not with the tone of her voice, not with how she looked at him (even now, just yesterday) as if she knew all the questions and all the answers and there was simply nothing he could do to catch up with her. “She was upset. Right now there are bigger problems—she can work on how to get home on her own, we need to figure out how to get ahead of the news.”

Maria didn’t believe him for a minute. “I’ll need a staff.”

“I thought you would.”

“I also need to know exactly what you want me to accomplish,” that was asking for more than Steve could wrap his head around. “I’ve been on the ground in Sokovia, there’s not a lot that the Avengers are equipped to do that would be helpful. There’s no bad guys,” that was ever so slightly sad, “there’s just a lot of—” Her impassive face slipped just a bit, she looked impatient, “there’s a lot of need. The best thing we can do for Sokovia is get the attention off the politics of the disaster and more onto the relief efforts.”

“How do we do that?” (He had an idea from how she was eying him, what she was going to suggest, even before she suggested it.) It must have shown on his face, like a tick in his jaw, and the memory of being a running joke in his own life. “I’d rather not put on tights.”

“That would certainly get some charitable donations,” Maria agreed. “America’s changed,” was not something he hadn’t noticed, “we don’t put our superheroes in tights anymore. Spectacle always works, though. If you want to get the media on your side, getting your face out there, making friends with the right people? Maybe picking up a motorcycle with a girl on it on TV, that would go a long way.”

Steve didn’t sigh. It filled him up from the inside, but he didn’t let it out. There was no point in sighing. “I’d prefer the options that don’t make me look ridiculous.” But also, “I’ve asked Rhodey to assist however he can with Tony. He’s got more experience than anyone at guiding the press’ opinion of Tony.”

“Ok,” Maria said. “What exactly do we want the press’ opinion to be?”

“That he’s not responsible for Ultron.”

“Someone has to be responsible for Ultron,” Maria said. There was no arguing that. “Things like that don’t just happen—someone built him, someone set him loose. We can’t clear Tony of it if we don’t give them someone new to blame. The best we can hope for is distracting them.”

There were people to blame, plenty of people that had worked all together to make it happen. Loki who brought the scepter, Dr. List who used it to turn people into lab experiments, Wanda and Pietro who defended Ultron and let him escape— The world was filling up with people to blame for Ultron but Steve was struggling to find anyone he wanted to offer up as a singular offender. “Hydra,” he said. “They we working toward it.”

“What are we going to tell them about Wanda?” she asked.

“That she’s one of us.”

Maria looked like she felt sorry for him. (But she was like Tony, always trying to complicate simple ideas. Steve didn’t owe the world an explanation just because it wanted one. He didn’t have to justify his choice just because people were looking. A man could go crazy living like that, always under a microscope, always rehearsing excuses in his head.) “I’ll get to work. But this,” she motioned at the screen, at Tony caught in midmotion, recoiling from punching Steve in the face, “this needs to be a priority too. Our Tony can be a pain in the ass but at least we know where he stands. Ignoring a stranger with Tony’s intelligence and this level of anger won’t end well for anyone.”

(Mostly, just for him.) “I know,” he said.

“So, you’re handling it?”

Sure, he was. As long as he was available for getting punched and talked down to, it seemed reliable enough that she’d show up to deliver.

B SIDE

The nightmare was soft as caterpillars, creeping down the back of his neck, whispering down his arms to the palm of his hands. It could have been sheets or pillows or anything caught in the clench of his fingers, but the nightmare was bright-white-light reflection of white porcelain. It was the gentle swish of bubbles over the lip of the tub, the phantom reality of his wife struggling.

He woke up to the rapid-rapid-beat of her heart through her ribs, felt it in is own chest. He woke up with a half-shout, and his hands reaching out. There was no telling what he was grabbing for, no telling what he was screaming only a minute ago. There was only the unrelenting brightness of the day and the ragged-drag of his breath in and out of his aching throat.

“Captain, do you require medical attention?”

“No,” he said before ambulances could be called. But his skin was coated in sweat and his heart was thrumming harder now than it had since the super serum had worked. (Funny how he remembered that, funny how the sensation of gasping for breath was so familiar no matter how long ago it really was.) His hair was dripping, hanging across his forehead as he wiped his face and pulled his legs free from the sheets.

“Would you like me to call Ms. Stark, sir?”

Yes. He’d very much like to call Ms. Stark. He’d very much like her to stop playing around. It wasn’t too much to ask of her, to find a miracle in the nonsense of facts and figures. Jane was copying him in on her theories, summarizing what she was working on in carefully worded sentences. It didn’t matter how she made it simple for a layman, he still didn’t understand most of it. He understood the end result: there was still no explaining what happened. But Jane had stopped an apocalypse with a collection of tripods and a little help, so Steve was willing to put his full faith in her.

“No, Jarvis,” Steve said. He rubbed his hands against his face and took a moment to breath. The nightmares were under his skin, wriggling around beneath the surface. “Where is Tony?” he asked.

“Mr. Stark is having breakfast with Colonel Rhodes, sir.”

That was good. Steve stood up and looked back at the damp spot he’d left in the bed. (Might have been best she wasn’t there. Might have spared him all the comments she would have made about wet spots and expensive sheets.) He pulled the blankets and sheets off and threw them on the floor. There were more in the linen closet, but the bed needed to air out and he didn’t care enough to replace them.

A shower did nothing to calm him down. He spent half a minute in the mirror, scratching the stubble growing in on his cheeks, thinking about and making no choice about employing a razor. He dressed in casual clothes, made for running maybe, and grabbed his sketch book as he headed for the communal kitchen.

Bruce was sitting at the table reading the newspaper with his glasses on, looking entirely at peace with a little glass of water waiting at his elbow and a plate of crumbs just beyond the reach of his hand. “Morning,” he offered (at eleven thirty, long after the real morning had come and gone again). “How’d you like the—uh, what was the flavor this time?”

“Banana nut.” There had been a second one. “Peanut butter? I thought the peanut butter one didn’t taste as much like dirt, but I just can’t get used to bananas. They don’t taste like anything.”

“I didn’t like the peanut butter one,” Bruce picked up his glass and sipped it, set it down again and glanced over the top of his paper at the empty doorway Steve had only just come through. He seemed puzzled by it, and then a smile broke on his face. Bruce smiled for half-a-dozen reasons, none of them ever quite qualifying as amusement. It was just a place holder on his face, a method of maintaining his human skin.

“She’s not coming,” Steve said. He pulled the milk out of the fridge and poured a glass. The cabinets were always fully stocked, with everything any of them had ever admitted to having eaten (even in passing) but all the food looked like mulch to him. The prospect of cooking it or being forced to eat it made something in the pit of his stomach roll over on itself. The milk was sour in his gut, but it was better-than-nothing.

Bruce had to turn in the seat to look over his shoulder at Steve, he pulled his glasses off, looked unsure about how he wanted to proceed. “I read the—latest update that Jane sent. I was waiting for Tony, I didn’t know if he had access? If he was reading them too.”

That didn’t matter. This Tony was drowning on land. This Tony moved like a walking ghost, always flinching at shadows. Steve took another drink of milk and frowned at the glass (the endless glass, that seemed as if it were refilling itself). “He said he doesn’t know how to get home.”

“Yeah,” Bruce agreed. This wasn’t his field: universe-swapping or offering comforting platitudes. But he always tried. “I’m sure she’ll figure it out. She always figures it out.” Bruce smiled hopefully, motioned at nothing in particular, waving his folded over glasses in the air, “I’ve never met anyone as smart as Tony. I’ve met a lot of smart people.”

Steve nodded along, just keeping pace with the words, “it’s not her that I’m worried about.”

Bruce’s small smile fell. “Yeah,” he said again.

Steve rinsed the cup and left it in the sink. (Tony hated dishes in her sink. She hated them intensely.) “I’m going for a run,” he said.

“Outside?” Bruce asked.

“Sure,” Steve agreed. “It’s a nice day.” (He had no idea if it were a nice day or not.)

Bruce waited until he was at the doorway before he said, “are you okay, Steve?” As if he hadn’t intended to ask it at all, as if he had been reminding himself not to ask the whole time he sat there. In the end, he simply had to. “I mean—what happened in Sokovia?”

No. He was off-center, he was carrying around a nightmare made of stringy bits that was floating in his chest like a jellyfish, that was crawling out of his skull on a hundred tiny legs. It wouldn’t have been so bad, it wouldn’t have stuck with him, it wouldn’t have mattered, but it felt like Wanda had reached her arm down his throat and pulled that fear from his gut. It hadn’t come from him but it felt like it had. “I think Tony was right, you shouldn’t go anywhere near her.”

“It’s that bad?”

“It’s not good,” Steve said. He paused just long enough to be sure Bruce didn’t have any other last-minute questions before he went on his way. The trip down to the lobby was quick enough, the sidewalk was welcoming in the way infinite possibility always was. He could run for miles, for hours, for days if he had to. He never had to come back here, and that possibility felt like the first relief he’d had in days.

(He had to come back, of course he did) but the possibility, the possibility was the important part.

B SIDE

Breakfast was lunch at the end of a twenty-minute drive. They sat at a tall table with handsome wood chairs and made idle conversation. (I’ve never been here/I wonder if they have one in your world/What’s good here?)

Tony found a pen tucked between the condiments and the salt, Rhodey produced a slip of paper out of his pocket. “So,” he said as he drew the tic-tac-toe board on the top edge of the paper. “You’re an Avenger?”

“I work with the Avengers,” Rhodey said. That was a fine line. “I haven’t made the permanent move yet.” He pulled a pen out of his pocket too and leaned forward to write an R into the empty middle of the hashmark board Tony had only just finished drawing. His smiling face was perfectly innocent of all crimes. “Whoever draws the board goes second,” was no rule they had ever established.

“You’re full of shit,” Tony said. (But fondly.) He tipped the paper so it was at an angle. (He thought better when it was at an angle,) and ignored the way Rhodey groaned to himself. “Did we ever play chess?”

“Checkers.”

“I’m still the defending champion?”

“You wish,” Rhodey scoffed, “you’ve only got eight options, Tony. Pick one.”

He picked a corner and Rhodey picked the center. They’d played the game so often it was muscle memory, they could have done it with their eyes closed. “So,” he wasn’t entirely sure what he was going to say next, but even he was surprised by, “how the hell did she end up marrying Steve?”

“He’s a good guy,” was by-rote-defense. (Tic-tac-toe was more important.) He scribbled his R on the board and looked up in time to thank the waitress for the drinks. There was the whole matter of pulling the paper off the straw and disapproving of the soda Tony had ordered (he was disapproving of the lack of liquor in his soda as well) and sipping the water to make sure it tasted like water before Rhodey could add anything. “I had my doubts. Steve was insufferable when we first met him. She hated him, every time she went to see him she came back yelling about how she couldn’t stand him, about how he wasn’t worth the time it took to melt the ice. She used to call him a test tube baby. If you’d asked me in 2011 if she was going to marry him I would have assumed it was a joke.”

Tony declared he first game a draw and motioned at the paper so Rhodey, who made up rules that nobody played by, could draw the next board. “That sounds familiar.” Although he hadn’t had the time or space to express any real anger at Steve. It was a whirlwind of a week, between discovering the existence of real-life Norse Gods to getting Shawarma in the aftermath of an alien invasion. “What changed?”

“New York,” Rhodey said. He waited for Tony to claim the middle spot on the tic-tac-toe board before he picked his own square. “Everything changed in New York, for everyone, for the world, I think. But especially for her. Between me and you, I think she asked Steve to leave SHIELD just to take an asset away from Fury but she says that without a figurehead there wouldn’t have been the Avengers. Tony—you, I guess, too—built weapons but she never used them. With the exception of the Iron Man armor and even that isn’t used in war. Steve has been to war, Steve has led more men into a fight than he managed to bring home. She needed that experience, she needed a man that people would follow.”

There was no denying that men would follow Steve.

“Steve needed a place in the world,” Rhodey said. “She loves him. I don’t know how she got there but she loves him.”

Tony motioned at the tic-tac-toe game he won (with very little effort), “are you even trying?”

“You asked me a question,” Rhodey countered. “You purposefully distracted me. That’s a despicable tactic.”

“If it works,” Tony countered. He drew a new board and Rhodey gave him the stink eye as he signed his R in the center square. “I didn’t meet Steve in 2011. I met him in Germany when he was fighting Loki.”

Rhodey frowned at that, “why didn’t you meet him? He was part of the Avenger’s Initiative.”

“I wasn’t,” Tony said. “They sent Natasha to assess me and I was—” (What was the best word to use here?) “Misbehaving. To be fair I was dying, or I thought I was. I feel that anyone in my position would misbehave if they could. Anyway, I wasn’t invited to join the band until after Loki came through the Tesseract.”

The appetizer arrived with a puff of steam and a few extra plates to divide the potato wedges (and cheese and bacon) evenly between them. Rhodey was still staring at him in unmoderated disbelief, “from palladium poisoning?”

“Yes.”

That didn’t make the outrage on Rhodey’s face any less outraged. Whatever he was going to say (perhaps something about how things had progressed differently in this universe) he traded for, “don’t take all the sour cream. I’m serious, Tony. You have to share.”

He hadn’t taken it all, but he did take more than half. Tony ate a few bites and wiped his fingers on a napkin, sat back in the chair with the pen still held in his hand. He could have been in his very own world, trading barbs and stares with his very own Rhodey. “What happens to Steve now? He got put in the time-out room, he’s out now, is he back in charge?”

“I’m not involved with the details. I wasn’t at the meeting this morning so I can only guess, but if they follow procedure—and they usually do—I don’t think they’ll reinstate Steve. I was on the plane, whatever got into his head, it got deep. The man’s been compromised by an outside force in the same week his wife goes missing? They’re not going to let him near a combat situation unless it’s an apocalypse.”

Wasn’t that funny. Wasn’t that just fucking hilarious. Wasn’t that just a cherry on a big heaping cake of shit. Tony wasn’t laughing but shaking his head, feeling like the world was getting too small again, and then again that it was tilted on the wrong axis. (No, he was feeling like it had all happened for no reason that every choice and every mistake, that every death and every tragedy that followed his every choice could have been avoided.) “They think I can help them,” he said.

Rhodey tipped his head, leaned forward a bit, inviting an intimacy that didn’t exist here. “Can you?”

“It’s not my world.” It wasn’t his to fuck up; it wasn’t his to rip to shreds. It wasn’t his because his was a dusty crater and thousands of displaced and dead. It was a constant newsreel of his mistakes playing like a soundtrack. His Avengers were a group of strangers and his Steve wasn’t a good man or even a bad one. (Maybe he was, Tony wouldn’t know.) “I don’t know that it would be a good idea to say too much. Paradoxes,” he waved his hand, “who knows what kind of damage I could do if I say to the wrong thing.”

“Yeah,” Rhodey said. He didn’t argue the point. “We shouldn’t risk paradoxes.”

A SIDE

There hadn’t been enough time between mounting the attack on the Hydra base and stopping the train in Seoul to form any kind of opinion (good or bad) about Wanda. Steve tried not to bring home battle scars (and it was easy when his skin always healed seamlessly). War had been easier in its own way; war broke down a man’s priorities, it drew a line, it said all that stand here are good and all that oppose are not.

There was no line between him and Wanda, there was no cause that divided them. Standing on the same lawn as her, watching her manipulate the energy that glowed pink-and-red between her spread fingers, he didn’t feel anything. There wasn’t fear, there wasn’t anger, there wasn’t revulsion. Vision was in a constant state of wonder when he looked at Wanda, always on the verge of speaking whenever she came close enough to be seen. He could talk for hours about the possibilities of her abilities, and about what potential she had.

Tony was afraid of her. Bruce had hated her. Clint hadn’t cared—good or bad or indifferent, longer than it took to defeat Ultron. Natasha considered her a useful ally and nothing more or less.

But Steve didn’t feel anything. Wanda had simply made sense to him. They had been looking for a way to make a difference, for a chance to become something in a world that viewed them as powerless, that viewed them as nothing. (But was that what she was?)

“You are distracted,” Wanda said.

“Sorry,” he said, “I’m here.”

Wanda let her hands fall at her sides, “no. You are not.” He didn’t know if she could peel back the layers of his skull to see what he was thinking, maybe it was like the energy woven between her fingers, maybe he would see it happen. Or maybe he wouldn’t. “What are you thinking?”

Steve sighed, shook his head, looked at the grass beneath his feet. “I was just thinking,” about Tony. “We should keep working,” he said. He looked across the field at Vision idly floating, taking shots at a series of targets set up at varying lengths. Before (like before Tony) he had set up the week of basic exercises as a starting point. He understood Thor, Clint and Natasha’s strengths. He even knew approximately what Tony was capable of doing (but he kept getting surprised on that front) but he didn’t know what Vision could do. He had no idea what Wanda was capable of. Standing here now, half watching, he could swear that he’d retained any information at all about their abilities.

But Wanda didn’t lift her hands again, she fidgeted, stood still looking across the yard at Vision (who must have felt her looking). She smiled at him, just a little, before she said, “I do not like Tony Stark.” (A greater understatement had never been spoken.) “I think it is not always his fault. I thought it was. Sometimes I still think it is. He has been the monster in my dreams for many years; it would be easy to say he destroyed my country as he destroyed my family.”

He wasn’t certain what she wanted him to say so he said nothing.

“But,” Wanda conceded, “vengeance did not make me happy. I brought his nightmares to life for him,” she raised her hand and the energy flowed brilliant and red in and out of the spaces between her fingers. “I set him on the path that brought us here. Tony Stark did not build Ultron on his own.”

“There weren’t a lot of other people in that room,” Steve said.

“Maybe there should have been,” Wanda suggested. “Maybe he would not have been if I had not made him afraid. Maybe it was the Mind Stone. Maybe you would have stopped Ultron in Johannesburg if my brother and I had not been there.”

Steve sighed, (felt a headache starting that would never fully form). “None of those maybes happened, what happened is the same thing that always happens. Stark does what he wants, the rest of us get to read about in the papers if we’re lucky, if we’re not out there,” he motioned at the field and the world beyond it, “having to pick up whatever disaster he made. If it hadn’t been you it would have been something else. At the end of the day?” and this was the bit that nobody seemed to care about, “Stark doesn’t care about anyone but himself.”

Vision gently lowered himself to the ground to the left of them. He was non-judgmental as he took in the scene, and perfectly diplomatic when he announced, “Captain Rogers, I believe Ms. Hill is looking for you.” (It was just as likely that Maria Hill was caught with the sudden urge to locate him as it was Vision simply wanted to give him the excuse to leave). “Wanda,” was fondly spoken, “perhaps we could work together?”

“Yes,” Wanda agreed.

Steve took the exit Vision offered him, went back inside to find Maria Hill on the phone with three separate computer screens running three separate programs. It didn’t look like she’d had even a half-second to express her desire to see him, and the way she glanced over her shoulder with a confused tilt to her eyebrow suggested she wasn’t even aware she’d asked for him. “Just a minute,” she said to the person on the phone, and pulled it away from her ear. “Can you sing?” she asked.

“What?”

“Can you sing?”

“I’ve never tried,” Steve said. More importantly than that, “why?”

Maria didn’t look like she wanted to tell him, but she said, “I’m exploring our options,” as if that explained anything. Whatever was being said on the phone was more important Steve standing right behind her, so she was back at it.

A SIDE

Natasha was in the backseat of the car Pepper called to take Tony to the airport. The driver didn’t seem to realize that Natasha was one more person in the backseat than he’d been tasked to deliver, but then again, the small matter of convincing a man she was meant to occupy the space wouldn’t have taken Nat more than thirty seconds to manage. (Tony had always appreciated how brilliantly Natasha used her assets. It was truly inspiring to watch.) “Hi,” she said as she pulled the glasses off her face.

“Driver,” Tony called, “we can go.” Once the car started moving, she turned so her shoulder was against the back of the seat and her full attention was on Natasha’s artfully relaxed body. (They’d been here once, when they were strangers, Natasha playing at seduction while Tony tried to distract herself from how she was dying.) “Hi,” Tony said. “Did you get tired of pulling the strings behind the scenes?”

“I haven’t been pulling strings,” but the way her hand was resting on her thigh seemed to suggest she’d pull any string Tony asked her to. (And Tony never figured out how she did it; no matter how long she watched Nat work, she’d never figured out the secret.) “Do I pull strings where you’re from?”

“Steven is a very capable boy when he needs to be, but he is not capable of thinking too many things at the same time.” Tony rested her own hand in her lap and tried not to pay too much attention to the trackers under her skin. (Funny how she only felt them sitting next to the people wearing the faces of her friends. Funny how she hadn’t cared about them all night with Pepper. But here, and now.) “It requires a certain amount of sophistication to decide to send Rhodey and to make them both think it was Steven’s idea.”

Natasha shrugged. “I don’t know that it wasn’t his idea.”

Tony snorted. She thought about taking the invitation to lean into Natasha’s space, thought about seeing how far they were going to play this out. They’d gotten close once or twice in their world, always with the taste of blood in their mouths. There was no contest which of them would win if they really tried (Natasha would, hands down, in fifteen seconds or less) but it was more fun to pretend. “It must get confusing, having to explain to everyone how they had a great idea.”

“I’ve got a great idea for you,” Natasha said.

“I’m sure you do.” (This was fun, almost.) “I’ve got a couple of good ones myself. But please,” Tony motioned into the open space of the backseat, “you can go first.”

“Stop interfering with the team.” Natasha’s smile didn’t falter, the tilt of her body didn’t change. The pulled free button of her shirt didn’t stop straining to hold in her breasts. Nothing changed at all except the sudden frostiness of the air.

“I haven’t done a thing,” Tony assured her. If she’d been wearing pearls she would have clutched them. She had no pearls, only an arc reactor that was cool under her palm when she touched it.

“Liar,” Natasha said. Then she shifted, half turned, bent her leg so it was across the seat between them and her elbow was over the back. She wasn’t smiling, or flirting because they’d shifted tactics. “You set him up.”

“I didn’t.”

“I should have taken it into consideration,” Natasha said. (She really should have taken it into consideration.) “That Rhodey would do anything for Tony. But, I wasn’t expecting you to even try. Tony wouldn’t have.”

“No he wouldn’t have,” she agreed. “Ms. Romanoff, I do appreciate seeing you,” and Tony glanced down at the inviting spread of Natasha’s button down shirt, stretched so artfully across her breasts, “I’ll give you nine out of ten stars—you would have gotten the tenth one if you’d kissed me, that would really have tied the whole seduction attempt together—but I have prior engagements. If you came to say something, maybe we could skip the lead in.”

“Call Rhodey and tell him to stop.”

Yes, she wasn’t going to do that. Tony smiled. “No.” But also, “driver, could you pull over up here, we need to let Ms. Romanoff out she’s got a very important appointment.” (Unless she murdered Tony in the back seat of the rented car. Which seemed as likely as anything.) “Don’t look at me like that. Rhodey is making his own choices, I only asked him why there was no man on the news protecting his friend.”

“Stop poking Steve,” was the most honest threat that Natasha had ever spoken to her, and the closest. There was violence in the words and the pretty white show of Natasha’s teeth. “He’s trying to build this team and he can’t do it if you’re in the way blocking his every attempt to move forward. Tony left the Avengers.”

There was certainly a valid point or two in there. “Stop protecting him. You’re not doing yourself or the world any favors setting him up to think he’s infallible,” Tony said. The car pulled to a stop and she smiled, motioned at the door. “I believe this is your stop.”

But the moment dragged, Natasha stared at her like she was working out exactly what had to be done. In the end she said, “I’d be careful. This isn’t the world you’re from, things aren’t the same here. You have no friends, but you don’t have enemies either.” Natasha leaned in, pressed their lips together in the briefest, least sincere kiss she’d ever received, and then Natasha smirked as she added, “yet.”

Tony should have let Natasha go, (Tony should have let a lot of things go), but she wrapped her hand around Natasha’s arm and pulled her to a stop when she tried to leave. “Steven doesn’t believe he can fail, you can’t follow a man who doesn’t believe he can fail.”

“That’s rid—”

“No, it’s not. He’ll tell you knows you may not win, he can give a great speech, he can inspire a hundred men to run into a burning building. It’s important to have a leader that can inspire, it’s important to believe your leader is capable of anything. That kind of thing keeps men motivated and happy, but Captain America is an ideal and Steven Grant Rogers is just a man— Where I’m from, he knows the difference, where you’re from? He’s buying into his own propaganda. You saw it too, in Sokovia.”

There it was, just a flinch, as quick as the blink of an eye, and gone again. Natasha had seen it. “You don’t know Steve.”

Tony shrugged. “Maybe not.” She leaned back into her seat, let her hand loosen and fall away from Natasha’s arm. “But do you?” There was no answer to that, just a glare, a frown and Natasha sliding out of the car. She was gone in a second, mixing into a crowd and disappearing. “We can go,” Tony said to the driver. “I’ve got to catch a plane.”

B SIDE

It was impossible to look casual with a cape. (And really, Steve considered himself lucky that the costume designer of the original Captain America travelling circus hadn’t taken a liking to the idea of tying a bedsheet onto his back. The tights had been enough of an embarrassment without the addition of tripping over a cape.) Thor always made a great attempt at casual, an attempt at inconspicuous, but he ended up leaning against a wall with his arms across his chest and Mjolnir dangling from his wrist. “Steve,” Thor said with great fondness. He leaned away from the wall, knocked Mjolnir against the wall (and dented it) and stepped on the edge of his cape in a way that stalled out his forward motion. For a moment, Thor was not the Prince of Asgard but a just a man that was incredibly annoyed.

“Heading back to Asgard?” Steve asked. His shirt had fused to his skin with sweat. If Tony had been there she would have asked him why he ever bothered with the pretense of a thin layer of fabric. He’d meant to run for a hour or so, but he’d left at noon and he’d come back when the sky started going dark.

“Yes,” Thor agreed. He turned just far enough to pull the cape up and held it over one of his arms (so it wouldn’t trip him again). “I must return the scepter before it can do any more harm. It is more dangerous than we thought.” But he couldn’t say why, and he possibly shouldn’t have said as much as he did.

“You’re not going to take off from the hallway are you?” Steve asked. “You know she doesn’t like the burn marks.” Not that it mattered because she wasn’t presently here. (He had been thinking about that for hour, or two, long enough that the soles of his shoes had worn a bit thin.) All he wanted was a long shower, enough food to stop the screaming in his gut. (Milk had not, it turned out, been enough to sustain him.) But he couldn’t hit the elevator button because he was being looked at.

“No,” Thor agreed. He smiled and motioned upward, “I can’t, there are too many floors. Hey,” he held out the hammer and nudged Steve with it, “are you well?”

Steve shrugged. “I’ve been better. I’ve been worse.” He rubbed the sweat in his hair, felt it slick between his fingers and tried not to grimace at it. “I should,” he motioned upward, “shower.”

“Yes,” Thor agreed. He didn’t immediately move out of the way though. He lingered directly in the way, waiting for some sign that things would be okay. That was what they did, the lingered, they watched, they offered shoulders and hands when it was necessary. “I have spoken to Jane,” Thor offered.

“Yeah.” It was an acknowledgement and a question. Maybe. Or maybe it was just a space holder in an awkward conversation. (Steve thought that Thor might have tried to hug him, might have been thinking about it as he indecisively rocked on his feet. A hug wouldn’t have been so bad. It wouldn’t have been bad at all.)

“Sometimes things happen that cannot be explained immediately,” said the man who had lived for over a thousand years. “There is always a solution. While I am in Asgard I intend to ask,” (Loki, but Thor did not say his name here, not in New York, not on Earth, not in the middle of the Avenger’s tower), “if this has happened in the past, if there is a solution that we cannot see. Have faith,” Thor grasped Steve’s shoulder with his free hand and squeezed it. “We will find a solution.”

“Together,” Steve agreed.

“Yes,” Thor’s smile brightened. “Together.”

Steve smiled back. He’d gotten good at smiles with no feeling, he’d still been a novice in the art when he woke up from the ice but taking up shared space next to Tony Stark had taught him the importance of a good smile. The men with cameras loved them, the men with keyboards and endless words that wrote the news were nice to smiles. “Thank you,” he said. “I’m going up,” he motioned upward again. “Before this,” he plucked at the shirt stuck to his skin, “becomes permanent. Have a good trip.”

Thor always laughed at the sentiment, as if it were capable to complete an interdimensional trip poorly. His hand slid off Steve’s shoulder and he frowned at the tacky sweat that was stuck to his own skin before he wiped it across the tail of his cape. “Be well, Steve. Do not lose heart.” Then he strode away, still holding his cape in his arm.

The day ended the way it began: with Steve, alone, looking at the bed he’d stripped the blankets off. The shower had melted the sweat off his skin but it hadn’t washed away the feeling of uneasiness. Standing at the end of the bed, wearing nothing but a fresh pair of sweats, there was no part of him that wanted to be here.

This was the bed he shared with his wife, the one that had been hers before him. She’d made space in it for him, cleared out half the closet, half the dresser, half the room just for him to make a home. Without her, it was hollow. It was just another reminder.

He found a bag in the closet and he filled it with his clothes. He stuffed his sketchbook and his pencils into it (and he thought about his shield, safely tucked away in a secure room, just waiting for someone to decided he was sane enough to carry it). The building wasn’t quiet, no matter how late it was, but buzzing full of sound of still-working-parts.

The private elevator was quiet, and empty, and it took him all the way down. It opened into the parking garage, to find Natasha leaning against the buttons to the left, looking not at all as casual as Thor had attempted. She said, “I saw you on the cameras. I’m not that good at reading people, Rogers.”

“You aren’t?” was old banter.

“Well,” wasn’t an answer or the start of a new sentence. Natasha hugged him with both her arms across his shoulders, dragging him down. It was easy to hug her back (far too easy, far too welcome). She rubbed her hand up and down his back before she leaned away from him. “You’ll be in the old apartment?”

“She told me she’d keep paying the rent. I think,” he shrugged, “I think she figured we’d fight eventually. I guess that’s the—”

“Dog house?”

“Couch,” Steve said. “I’ll be back.”

Natasha nodded at him. “Of course, you will. I’m not worried.” But she was. Just beneath the calm of her smile, she was as worried as the rest of them. “Make sure you eat. I’m not attending another seminar on super serum and its effects on the human male just because you decided to go on a hunger strike. And she’ll know. She’ll take one look at you and she’ll know.”

“Fine,” Steve said. “I’ll eat.” He lifted his bag, took a step toward the motorcycle and turned enough to look at her sliding into the private elevator (the one she wasn’t technically supposed to have access to). He smiled at how Jarvis greeted her and she waved at him just before the doors slid shut.

The apartment was as empty as the bedroom had been, with a stale smell of having gone too long without being lived in. There was dust on all the surfaces and no food in the fridge but at very least, the bed didn’t feel empty. There’d never been anyone but him to sleep in it.

Chapter Text

B SIDE

It had been difficult—yes. Difficult but not impossible. (That was a funny word wasn’t it? Impossible. There weren’t a lot of things that were truly, really, actually impossible. That Tony had learned in forty five years. Improbable. Unlikely. Difficult. But very rarely, if ever, truly impossible.) It was a matter of cabinets.

Why had he built the Avenger’s tower with so many cabinets?

Design flaw aside, he had managed to locate the liquor after an exhaustive search. It had only been a matter of opening and closing the cabinets until he found what he was looking for. (One might say, if one were inclined, that he’d followed his nose. And one would not be entirely wrong. There was a refreshingly home-ish smell to scotch. Or any fine liquor. Pepper would have told him that people don’t equate the smell of alcohol with home and she meant healthy, normal people didn’t but Tony had taught himself how to be a man in between a sip of this and a drink of that. Fine liquor was an old friend. A reliable, trustworthy, sort of friend.)

Trustworthy was another funny word. As far as he was concerned the very idea of trust was somewhat nebulous. He looked it up in the dictionary once or twice, (maybe, maybe he hadn’t) and as far as he was concerned the whole fucking concept was overrated. Then again it hadn’t always been that, because he must have (must have) trusted Obidiah at one point or another. He must have trusted the man to be the person he said he was, he one he acted like. Trust was thinking someone’s face matched their mind, so trust must have been an explosion on a rooftop. Trust was intentional blindness and that, well, that was hysterical, really.

But reliable, oh reliable was the one that would sneak up and stab a man in the back. Because things were supposed to be reliable: things like time, things like space and yet here he was, drinking a well-hidden bottle of scotch out of a coffee mug with his back against a pane of glass he was trusting to hold him in.

Reliable was a tricky sort of bitch; the kind of thing that funneled your thinking into grooves and left you utterly unprepared to react to things that couldn’t have been predicted. Reliable was thinking that Steve Rogers, your alternate-universe-husband, would still be in the same bedroom he’d been in that morning and finding the mattress naked and the bedclothes in piles on the floor.

Oh, reliable was a tricky bitch, always twisting around.

(Or maybe it wasn’t, maybe Steve was what Steve had always been: reliably known to never let a bad situation get worse. A man out of time, always looking for the next thing he could be righteously offended about. Like naked beds and boys where girls had once been.)

Reliable had never, not ever, not once, been the sound of sock feet on the floor and the slow-steady approach of Natasha fucking Romanoff doing her very best to look neutral and friendly. She was sneaking up on tiptoes, with her hands where he could see them. Her face caught in a paradoxical disaster of pity and disapproval when she found him in a little pool of light.

“I told him,” Tony motioned upward, toward Jarvis (another reliable feature of his life whose murder couldn’t have been predicted), “not to count it.”

Natasha nodded, ran her hands down her thighs as she worked out what she wanted to do. A lecture was brewing beyond her lips, but she bent her knees and slid down to sit next to him. Her fingers plucked the bottle out of his hand but only long enough to take a drink of it. “I was just thinking: a drink would be nice.”

There was nothing nice about a drink. Reliable was a bitch and trust was a lie but a drink was a sturdy friend that fucked you exactly like you thought you wanted. Tony’s head was leaned back against the glass, his legs were spread out in front of him, his loose hands were pulling the bottle back over when it was offered. With his eyes closed, the world was fuzzy enough that he didn’t have to think about how it was different and how it was the same. Everything was pleasantly numb, everything was happily neutral. “Where’s Steve?” just sort of snuck right out of his mouth.

“At his apartment,” Natasha answered. She wasn’t leaning against the wall but sitting with her legs crossed, picking at nothing under her fingernails. Her head was inclined, and her red hair was falling forward. In the low light, her pale face almost glowed. But her smile didn’t.

“Oh,” Tony said. “Pepper still has her own apartment. We say its because it’s convenient, that we all need our own space—but,” he shrugged, “it’s an exit strategy. It’s important to know the exits.” He took another drink, considered how light the bottle had gotten and how much he’d regret it in the morning. “I used to know,” (no he hadn’t, not the ones that mattered), “I used to know when to use them.”

“Is her having her own apartment her exit strategy or yours?”

Tony shrugged. “Maybe it’s both. I didn’t ask her to give it up; she didn’t think it was a good idea.” He snorted, like a giggle crushed in between his teeth. “Sorry, that’s funny isn’t it? We’re trying. With me? It’s always trying, everyone tries. I try. Trying is hard isn’t it?” He motioned at her with his free hand, “I mean, look at you. You’re trying, at least where I’m from, you’re always trying to be something. I don’t think,” and he shifted so his body was leaning forward, so he was squinting at her face, “I’ve ever seen your real face, Ms. Romanoff.”

Natasha smiled at him, “that’s very unfortunate, Mr. Stark.” (Yes, terribly unfortunate.) “But, it doesn’t surprise me. I have a lot of faces.” She pulled the bottle out of his hand and took another drink, grimaced at it and didn’t give it back. “You’re a fucking mess, Tony.”

He laughed at that. She didn’t laugh with him. “Sorry, that’s not funny.” He motioned at his own chest, “I thought I knew what kind of mess I was.” But look at this, look at this world with it’s cogs and wheels and well-oiled pieces. Look at this fucking place.

“She’s not perfect,” Natasha said. “She works hard to have this.”

“Oh,” well, “I guess I don’t. I guess all the—” he slapped his hands back against the window to lever himself up off the ground. “—things I’ve been doing, I guess they aren’t work. Building the tower? Not work. Defending New York? Not work. Designing the suits, the gear, the AIs, making appearances and shaking hands isn’t work. Showing up to press conferences isn’t work because if it were work,” and he wasn’t sure how his voice had gotten so loud, “this Tony Stark wouldn’t do it!”

Natasha didn’t move from where she was sitting and that was as ridiculous as him shouting was. She tipped the bottle up and took a sip of it, cocked her head and looked right at him. “I guess team work isn’t something that comes naturally to you either.”

“The Avengers aren’t much of a team where I’m from.”

“That’s very obvious.”

Tony frowned at her, she smiled back. “Give me back my liquor.”

Natasha did stand up then, a graceful single motion that took her from sitting with her legs crossed to standing directly in front of him. There was her face, and her smile, leaning in against him. There was her hand gripped around the neck of the bottle and her voice that said, “no.” She stepped back, turned away from him, “come on, I’ll help you find your bed.”

Tony snorted. “I’ve never been too drunk to find my own bed.” (But he didn’t have one, not here.)

A SIDE

There were no direct flights into Sokovia. Not even the benefit of a private jet could have gotten her there. Or perhaps it could have, perhaps she just wanted a layover in a lap of luxury. She wanted the pleasing familiarity of a high-class hotel. A deep tub and a long hot bath did wonders to make a woman feel more at ease with her place in the world.

The hotel room asked nothing of her; it had no preconceived notions of what or who she was. It wasn’t troubled, concerned or saddened to see that she had take up a space former reserved for another. It didn’t care about where she’d come from, or where she was going. It was only concerned with this moment, these soft bubbles in this luxurious bath.

But her thumb worried, it rubbed against the inside of her left ring finger, trying and failing to find a ring to spin. It kept meeting damp skin but that didn’t seem to stop it from trying. The anonymity and the lack of expectation didn’t extend to the inside of her skull.

What she’d said to Pepper was true: she worked best when she was busy. She wasn’t busy here and all her thinking was about a well-stocked mini-bar and how sublime a decent drink would be. Alcohol was a terrible temptress with bright red lips that leaned against her ear and whispered filthy, wet promises that she’d never follow through with. Liquor was quicker, but it always left in the end.

(Was that why she quit it? Because she went to bed with bottles and woke up with hangovers? Every night she told herself, it would be the last night but every morning started with hair of the dog. Was that why she quit?)

“We gave it up,” she said to the ceiling. Jarvis wasn’t there to answer her; Friday (a passable imitation) wasn’t there either. It was only her own voice and the closed-in-echo of four walls, that had to pretend to care. “We are not drinking tonight.”

(But she wanted to.)

The bubbles were clouds on the water, and flirty kisses against her skin. She let her thumb worry at her ring finger, searching for and finding nothing. With her shoulders against the tub and her feet pressed against the other end, she closed her eyes.

Thoughts always came out of order: Happy’s presence at her elbow, the smell of his cologne and the vague warmness of his body just behind her. She could measure her sobriety by the nearness of his warmth. The less sober, the closer he got until he was all but snarling at men with conman smiles and women with glittering dresses.

Maybe she should have apologized to him; written him a letter or sent a gift, something that said: I know you tried. I know you tried to protect me, I know I never let you. Because Happy had tried, at every conference and every award and every public gathering, he’d been there with his body like a heated shadow, always making faces and subtle threats. Happy had protected her drinks and held her purse (when she had to have one) and waited for her just outside the bathroom.

It was had been Happy, with fists like pink hams, that had picked her up in the long, quiet, days. Happy with all the strength in his arms and the unyielding loyalty that carried her back to safety. He sat at her bedside while she slept off too many drinks and he left her glasses of water for the morning after.

Tony hadn’t wanted protection when she was twenty-five and furious. She’d wanted freedom and she’d been willing to trade anything to get it. There was no virtue on earth (or in heaven) that meant more to her than the exhilarating thrill of climbing on a table with a pretty girl and a drink in her hands, knowing that nothing mattered.

She was forty-five now, too old to crave carelessness, but here (and now) all she wanted was the relief that oblivion gave her. Because her thumb was looking for the wedding ring that was sitting on her bedside table.

“We’re not,” felt like it deserved a repeat, “drinking tonight.” She couldn’t explain it, not even to herself, how it felt like no matter what she said, no matter how resolved she was, no matter whether she took a drink or not, she’d already lost.

A SIDE

The plan was multi-layered because, as Hill stressed to him standing at the end of a short table with the plan projected onto the screen behind her:

“Despite Sokovia, the general public opinion of the Avengers in the US is still largely positive. If we’re going to move forward with any kind of support from the government—and we need the support of the government—we’re going too need to keep it that way.”

Rhodey was nodding along because this had been half his career long enough that the bustle of noise, the shuffle of paper, the coming-and-going of brand-new faces didn’t aggravate him. Steve was half-listening and half-noticing the name badges dangling off the newcomer’s necks. Because the name badges were new and they were different colors at the edges. Everyone was wearing business casual with phones and folders clasped in their hands, hurriedly moving in the hallways and in and out of the conference room to leave additional information in a growing stack at Hill’s left side. “So, we’re sending Captain America out for photo-ops with senators?”

Hill nodded, but she didn’t like the simplification of the plan. The Plan had many parts (many, many parts) and no single part stood a chance of working if the others didn’t. “It’s important that we make friends with influential lawmakers,” she conceded. Her hands closed around the remote she was holding as she sighed, “I’m reaching out to Pepper—for obvious reasons I would prefer Tony—”

“Obvious reasons?” Steve asked. A woman with a yellow name tag handed him a water he hadn’t asked for and Steve didn’t even have time to thank her before she was gone again. (Was it always like this, always a swirl of motion and noise? He couldn’t remember now.)

“Tony has a lot of friendships in Washington,” Hill said.

“Tony’s a billionaire,” Rhodey added. “He saved the President’s life. He designed the War Machine suit—its in their overall best interest to stay on good terms with Tony Stark.”

“He knows how to play the game,” Hill said.

“Game?”

“Politics,” Hill clarified. “Now, as far as shifting the blame away from the Avengers,” (and by that she meant the growing boldness of the experts on the TV screen repeating unbelievable numbers about the dead, dying and displaced just seconds before they stated that the Avengers had created and destroyed the problem at the cost of the people of Sokovia), “we can generate a few leaks, let them start to circulate the news programs. We have to move slow, we have to let the tide change—but while we’re waiting,” and she looked directly at Steve, “there are certain things that would help.”

“Certain things?” Steve repeated. There was nothing polite about being vague. He could read as well as anyone, he knew exactly what she was asking him to do: to put on a silly suit and do a song and dance. Maybe he wouldn’t be the one singing but he would have to say something stupid, have to perform like a monkey while a gawky audience watched and a camera filmed it.

“I think it’s a smart idea,” Rhodey said.

“You’re not the one wearing the tights,” Steve countered.

“It’s harmless.”

“Participating in a benefit for the Sokovia Relief Fund—that says that you care about the people of Sokovia and if it’s a little campy, that says that you’re humble enough to make a fool of yourself for their benefit. Right now, the only thing that most Americans know about what happened in Sokovia is the Avengers were there and a lot of people lost everything. It’s been almost a month, nobody’s gone on the news. Nobody’s issued a statement, nobody’s done a damn thing.” The tone of Hill’s voice had stopped a man in his tracks, halfway to delivering another folder. He looked at Steve and Rhodey, back at the door and then at her before he inched forward far enough to drop it on the pile and leave.

Steve sighed. He set the water on the table.

“So, you’re not?” Rhodey asked. (Steve conveyed not what with his eyebrows, or Rhodey didn’t care. It was hard to tell.) “Humble enough to make a fool of yourself for their benefit?”

Maybe it was that simple; maybe Steve had gotten too high on the horse (was that how the phrase went). Maybe he just didn’t want to be laughed at, nobody liked to be laughed at, but in this god-damn modern world it was more than a shared giggle and a story told across the dinner table. No, a little foolishness never died in a world of camera phones and Youtube videos.

Maybe it was simpler, much, much simpler, maybe it was just he didn’t like that it felt like he had no choice. A man should have a choice; but Hill was looking at him like the future of the Avengers depended on how shapely his calves were and Rhodey was grinding his teeth with the presumption that Steve didn’t care about Tony fucking Stark. There was no choice. There was no right and no wrong. (But maybe there was, maybe it was the choice to uncurl the anger in his chest, to lay on the wire, to let the whole fucking world crawl across his back. Maybe the anger was selfish, maybe it was only his pride that was screaming in outrage. That was a funny feeling; pride was. Erskine had told him about compassion and strength and weak men but he hadn’t considered what pride felt like when you were being asked to set it aside.)

“Do you enjoy making a fool of yourself?” he asked.

Rhodey shook his head. “No. I don’t.” (Nobody did, maybe.) “But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t when the moment calls for it. It doesn’t mean I wouldn’t if I thought it would help. Come on, Steve,” was not the tone of a friend, “aren’t you all about sacrifice?”

“This isn’t the same.”

Hill cleared her throat. “This would help,” she repeated. “We stand a good chance of success even if you can’t—”

Won’t,” Rhodey corrected.

“—do this.” Hill turned her head just enough to frown at Rhodey before she continued on, “but our chances are much better if you can. It would be ten minutes at the most, the girls do the song, you do your bit, they dance, you pick up something heavy.”

It was simple; it was easy. But he could feel his feet digging into the ground, he could feel his back stiffening against the hands trying to push him forward. He could feel every muscle in the whole of his body working against the inevitable. “I don’t understand how it’s going to help,” because he didn’t. Because once he’d put his faith in the hands of men who made him a god-damn monkey when he’d been promised a place in the war. Steve had made his own way, he’d proved he was worth the men that died to make him, and now they were looking at him like it was nothing-at-all to give all that up.

Put on the suit, sing the song, it’s not so hard. (It wasn’t. He remembered the words.) Steve sighed, “but if its going to help. I’ll do whatever.”

B SIDE

The only thing worse than a hangover was the nightmare that preceded it. Jerking awake was worse when your head was throbbing and your mouth tasted like a cat took a shit in it. (Not that he’d ever eaten cat shit, just that it must taste bad and his mouth tasted bad.) Tony woke up in the bed (her) husband had stripped clean the day before, covered with a fresh blanket. There was a little tumbler sitting on a sheet of paper on the bedside table. He picked up the glass and sniffed it. The paper said: hair of the dog.

He sipped the liquor and rubbed his fingers through his dirty hair. His whole body was aching and he mumbled something like, “I’m too fucking old for this,” as if it would matter if he just said it enough times. So, he’d said it a few days ago when he was convincing himself that a drink was a bad idea, he’d said it the night before as he opened cabinet after cabinet in search for the sweet amber oblivion and he said it now with a hangover that made even his hair follicles hurt.

Age had no impact on addiction and Tony Stark was smart enough to know that.

There was Tylenol in the medicine cabinet and a hot shower. He grabbed a late breakfast in the communal kitchen. He sat at the table while he read over his copies of Jane’s reports. Her work was masterful, but it still reached the same conclusion as his: there was no explanation for what had happened, and no way to undo it.

Maybe he was halfway to wondering if he could locate any more liquor (if Natasha had tossed it all now that she knew he had the nose of an airport drug dog) when Hill found him. She was carrying a leather-bound portfolio (maybe a tablet cover), looking at the nametag he’d clipped to his T-shirt with some faint amusement. “Mr. Rogers,” she said by way of greeting. It wasn’t half as amusing as it seemed to be to her. “If you have a moment, we would appreciate you joining us.”

“Is this in my official capacity as consultant?” He glanced at his watch, “it’s not consulting hours.”

Hill’s strained smile forgave him for his poor attempt at a joke. “If you have the time,” she repeated.

The last meeting had striven for professionalism but this one took place in lounge chairs. Natasha was wearing day-off clothes, a loose shirt and a pair of jeans. Bruce was clinging solidly to shabby-chic, wearing clothes that always looked ever so slightly dusty. Clint had the look of a man who had barely remembered to make an appearance.

Rhodey smiled at him when he walked in. Sam (Steve’s friend Sam, one of the newest members of the Avengers), looked at him with no expectation of recognizing what he was seeing. But that, at least, was refreshing in its own way. “Good morning Tony,” one (or two, or all) said.

“Morning,” Tony said. There were limited seats but plenty of space next to Natasha on the little couch. He invited himself to sit there, close enough he could whisper, “what did you do with the liquor?”

“I poured it down the drain,” Natasha whispered back. She didn’t look at him, or move a single muscle of her face not necessary for forming words. There was no satisfaction in her tone. “You can’t instruct Jarvis not to hold it against her. If you could, she’d cheat.”

Hill was standing, explaining the situation on the ground in Sokovia. NATO had managed to clean up the mess, there were criminal charges being filed against the prisoners that had survived the original assault on the castle. Men in lab coats were reviewing the data they’d pulled off the computers, were looking over the experiments that were being run, “obviously we couldn’t share the scepter with them,” Hill said. “If it’s half as powerful as Thor says it is, it would have been safe in human hands. It appears to give off a malignant energy of its own. One of the researchers said after reviewing Dr. List’s notes that it appears the Scepter has a will of its own. It appears to want something.”

Clint looked over at him, a quick flick of the eyes and then back forward again but Bruce was rubbing one of his fists into the palm of his other hand as he considered that. He was unassuming (and dusty), always polite and inoffensive when he said things like, “you have experience with the Scepter,” at Tony. “Did you get the same impression?”

Yes. Hindsight being 20/20 as it was, the could say with absolute authority, that the Scepter wanted something. It wanted a vessel to live in, a body to inhabit. It had made an attempt at finding a place in Ultron but it had ended up as Vision. Vision was alright, but Tony wasn’t so-sure it was a very-good-idea to hand over super-cosmic-being-making formulas to people that might never have to see the damned thing again. “Yes,” he said.

“Do you know what it wants?” Natasha asked.

“No,” was true when you considered that not even Vision, who was made of the Mind Stone trapped in Loki’s Scepter knew what it wanted or what it was. “We interacted with the Scepter differently where I’m from—I’d rather not go into details. What you did was smarter.”

That was enough to shift the conversation back to what was found in the castle. (Surprise, surprise, Hydra was stealing Chitauri equipment and Stark tech. They had catalogued the whole castle full of stolen goods and Hill showed the list as a quick scroll through pages-and-pages-and-pages of items. When they’d exhausted every topic, but the important one Hill said, “as of right now, we have been unable to locate the Maximoff twins. We have agents on the ground but with their unique abilities it has been somewhat more difficult to pin down an exact location.”

“The Maximoff twins,” Sam said, “they’re the ones that took out Steve? The ones that,” he raised a hand and wiggled is fingers at his own head to indicate Wanda’s ability.

“Yes,” Hill said. “That was,” she hit a button on her remote and brought up the picture of Wanda on the screen at the head of the room. “Wanda Maximoff. She and her brother Pietro,” not worth a photograph, “were orphaned when they were eleven. She has taken part in several organized protests against the ongoing occupation by outside forces and the political turmoil at the national level. We believe she was recruited by Hydra under the pretense of being able to use their powers to help protect their country.”

“What about her,” Clint asked. He pointed (an arrow shaft? A drumstick? A long straw, it was hard to tell with Clint) at the screen. “You said we were smarter about the scepter, you’ve been through all this with Wanda, if you could change what happened what would you do?”

It wasn’t what he would have done, it was what he would not have done. Still, Tony was saying, “she’s just a kid,” exactly how Steve had explained it to him. “She thinks that she’s doing something necessary, something good for her country. She thinks the men we arrested are her allies and that makes the Avengers, the men who attacked her castle, the enemies. She won’t hesitate to use her power against you. But,” he shrugged, “she can be recruited.”

“How did you convince her you weren’t an enemy?” Rhodey asked.

He hadn’t; she took a peek inside the mind of a planet killer and it scared her. Tony said, “I wouldn’t recommend following our lead in that area. Wanda can be reasoned with, but she is powerful and she should be treated with caution.”

Natasha was nodding, “thank you, Tony.” That was as good as good bye Tony. His Mother and Father had taught him all about overstaying his welcome (Howard was reliable at reminding Tony when he wasn’t wanted). So he nodded his head back and motioned toward the door.

“I’ll be in the lab,” sounded like something he would do. Everyone nodded and thanked him and watched him go. When the door was closed, he couldn’t hear them but he could feel the way they must have looked at one another, whispering their soft concerns back-and-forth. With nothing to drink, and nothing better to do, he went to the lab. It flickered to full life when he walked in, and Jarvis piped up to say:

“Good afternoon, sir.”

“Jarvis,” he said as he pulled the desk chair away from his desk. “When was my last drink?”

“Approximately twelve hours ago, sir,” Jarvis said.

“I told you not to count that one.”

“Sorry sir,” was not even a little convincing. “Would you like to review the current alcohol rehabilitation programs available, sir?”

Tony laughed, leaned back into the chair and rubbed his face with both his hands. (He thought: look at what she’d built. Look at what she’d done. Look at how far she’d gotten when she decided enough-was-enough and there was nothing in the bottom of a bottle but emptiness.) He said, “not right now.” But, “remind me. Tomorrow. Remind me every day.”

“Yes, sir.”

B SIDE

“Come on, walk it off,” Steve said when he stuttered out of a good run to a jog to a walk in the space of two or three feet. He didn’t stop entirely because that sort of thing was bad for your body. (Or, he was told it was.) Since he couldn’t stop and Sam wasn’t moving, that left him doing a circle while Sam leaned forward with his hands gripping his knees.

“You walk it off,” Sam retorted so fast he couldn’t even have had time to think about what he meant to say. No, he straightened up and let out a breath, his face was shiny from the sweat and his shirt was sticking to his chest. His legs didn’t seem to want to cooperate as he took a single step forward to match the one that Steve took backward. “So, this is what you do with your time now? Call your friends, see how many times you can run circles around them before they collapse?”

“No,” Steve said, “that would be insensitive. I only run laps around you, Sam.” He waved his hand back and forth between them, “it’s our thing. Our special thing.”

Sam was walking forward now, moving half speed with every step, he pulled his shirt up to wipe his face before he spoke again, “that’s very romantic of you, Steve. I appreciate that, thank you.”

“Only for you, Sam,” Steve assured him.

Sam was nodding along to the sound of the words, crooking his mouth up into almost a smile. Steve had called him (since he was in town) and he had asked him to meet for a run (since nobody else would humor him on the account). He hadn’t meant to get so far ahead, so many times, but every time he slowed down he could feel the nightmare moving under his skin. “That’s how you’re going to play this?”

“Play what?” He had to look over his shoulder to make sure he wasn’t going to walk into anything.

“Play what?” Sam repeated. He stopped again, arms crossed over his chest, giving Steve the look that meant they’d reached the point in the banter where one of them would have to start being serious. “You know we have to talk about this.”

“I don’t think we do.” Steve stopped anyway, hands on his hips, feeling the supremely satisfying burn of well worked muscles with a little bit of a late spring breeze cooling the sweat on his forehead. “I don’t think there’s anything we can accomplish by talking about it.”

“Sometimes it’s not about accomplishing anything.”

“Sam.” He didn’t need another friend looking at him like a terminal case. He didn’t need another person giving him slow hugs and reassuring promises about how his wife would find her way back. He didn’t need someone asking him what he was going to do about the Tony he had instead. He just needed someone that didn’t care, someone that wasn’t waiting for him to fall apart at the seams. “Come on. It’s me. I’m fine.”

Sam waved his finger in the air, “that,” he said to accentuate the point, “that is exactly what you always say and I’m no mathematician, man, but even I know the percentage of the time it’s the truth is pretty small. Come on, who can you talk to if you can’t talk to your best friend?”

“I didn’t plan on talking to anyone.” He heaved a sigh, “so they had a meeting this morning?”

“No, no, no don’t do that,” Sam said.

“You wanted to talk, I’m trying to talk.”

“I can’t talk about Avengers business with you, Steve. You know the rules—you helped write the rules. Why?” Sam threw his arms up, “I don’t know, because I’ve never met any combination of people on the planet that cares less about rules.”

That wasn’t true; Tony liked rules. At very least, Tony liked the structure that the pretense of rules provided. She liked how everything could be shifted and assigned when there were rules and procedures and protocols in place. Check-and-double-check kept the Avengers running smoothly and when she needed someone that wasn’t as bothered by the pretense of deniability she stepped back and waved her hand to let him take the lead.

That was where those titles came from, the team leader who deflected the blame, who cited rules at senate hearings, the one that shook hands with Queens and Kings and Presidents and the field leader that did what was necessary when it was necessary.

“Well I don’t have anything to talk about,” Steve said.

“What are you going to do about this Tony?” Sam asked. “Are we considering you married to this man? He is her?”

Steve ran his hand through his hair, and resisted the urge to pull some of it out. “As far as I’m concerned he is the same and I am married to him. What would you like to talk about?” He expected a variety of colorful remarks to follow it up because the others could see disaster when they looked at this Tony, but Sam always sided with humor in tough spots.

“When are you taking him back to Malibu?” Sam asked. “You’re out, he’s out and this place—it’s not doing him any good. I’m tired and I just looked at him for ten minutes. I’m exhausted.”

Steve let his head hang. “I can’t make him do anything.”

“You could ask him,” Sam countered. But he relented with, “so you think she’d be mad if you had sex with him? I mean, wasn’t she encouraging you to sleep with other people? Something about experiences?”

“You think that would help anything?”

Sam shrugged. “I don’t know. I can’t imagine it would hurt.” But before Steve could think he was serious Sam was putting a hand up to stop him, “I don’t mean it. You can’t sleep with the guy, she would kill you. Unless you recorded,” Sam winked at him. “I bet she’d like that.”

“I’m leaving,” Steve said. He even turned around and started walking away because there were things he was willing to make light of and there were things he wasn’t. (And ten days ago, when he had a wife and a team, he would have let the joke play it out, would have let Sam set him up with a line up of potential sex tape partners and go through the process of selecting the right one. But now, there was no humor in the situation. Just another reminder that he might never see her again.)

“Come on,” Sam called. He jogged to catch up. “I just mean to say, I’m here for you. And, do what you’ve got to do. Get better—but, if he comes by, maybe ask Tony if he wants to stay with you. If he wants to go to Malibu, get some sun, take a nap. He looks like shit.”

“Yeah, I know,” Steve said. “Not sure he wants anything to do with me, Sam. I can’t force him to.”

“We getting lunch?”

“It’s three in the afternoon.”

“Late lunch,” Sam amended and when that didn’t make Steve agree immediately, “early dinner? Come on, I’m hungry. You know what’s in the fridges at the tower. I need real food.”

“Fine, but we talk about sports. Movies I need to watch—music that you think I still need to listen to.” That never failed (and didn’t seem to fail this time) to set Sam off on a rant about how he was the only authority on the things that Steve missed. He was full of information about the soul and the spirit of the years that Steve had lost. What Sam valued wasn’t always what Steve preferred but the passion was what mattered. Sam loved what he loved without limit; everyone needed to have that passion, to feel that fire, and when Steve couldn’t bring himself to feel anything, he started this very-same-fight.

A SIDE

Sokovia had beautiful countryside. Tony had seen it from satellite images when they were planning the assault on the castle. It hadn’t been important at the time, whether or not Sokovia was aesthetically pleasing and it wasn’t important now, except that she was in a car, travelling a long road, taking in the simple beauty of the trees. Now she had the time, and the solitude, and the complete lack of purpose, to lean her forehead against the glass and watch the trees pass her by.

Things like this, moments lost in transit, moments when the world slowed and everything came into a crystalline focus, she always thought of Yinsen. She thought of his steady hands, and his quiet. She thought of his face when he said, this is an important week for you. Yinsen was the first point in the timeline of her map that had slowed down. Life had stuttered to a shocking halt in that cave, with certain death always a breath or two away, every minute was a small eternity. Yinsen would have liked these trees, he would have liked this space, he would have liked his family to see this, he would have liked all of them to be alive. But things did not always go as one planned.

The long road let out into a disaster area. Temporary buildings littered the roadside, jammed into place wherever there was a few inches of space. Banners announced each building’s purpose from clinics to charities giving out toothbrushes, the world that had been endless a mile ago was narrowed to a funnel. The road was slim, clogged with trucks trying to maneuver around the uneven pavement. In the distance was the sound of honking, the wailing noise of people trying to get out.

“I’ll walk,” Tony said. She leaned forward far enough to offer the driver a tip.

“It is still miles,” the man said, “are you sure?”

Tony nodded. She picked the bag up off the seat. (She’d thought about bringing the suit, about how heavy and how obvious it would be to carry with her. She’d left it in a Stark office in Berlin, tucked into a corner closet with a note that said it should not be tampered with. The travel distance wasn’t ideal, but many things were not ideal.

She passed a woman with a white mask that called out in alarm. She was speaking French, frenzied and impatient as she waved a mask at her face. Tony knew enough about French to get the point: the air wasn’t safe to breath.

(Exploding a city in the atmosphere would have that effect on the surrounding area.) Tony took the mask to calm the woman and let her fix on her face. She accepted a pair of a gloves that were thrust at her as well and nodded along to the importance of hygiene and skin care. They were volunteers, heading into a disaster area, and like Mothers on a crashing plane, they had to put their own welfare first.

The trucks that were blocking the road were loaded with necessities like water, soap, food in tin boxes. She walked past a station that was sorting trash bags full of clothes, tumbling out T-shirts donated by concerned housewives in Alabama. The ground on either side of the road was soft and muddy, it stuck to her shoes as she walked—on and on, forward.

It was over a mile, past a hundred volunteers milling around buildings, organizing supplies that were being prepared, skimming just along the edge of the road clogged with vehicles trying to get into the city, before she found the cars trying to get out. The traffic was so bad the cars had given up hope of moving.

She walked past a Mother sitting on the hood of the car, holding a sleeping baby against her chest. A man (her husband, her brother, her father—who knew) was frowning at the tires of his car, at the road, at the trucks that were moving as slow as sloths, creeping forward. The noise was deafening, it vibrated through her body, and the ground and filled the soggy, dirty air.

The closer she got to the city, the dustier the air got. It was like a sand storm, a constant rain of dirt that blew with every motion. It was covering the cars, the trucks, the people that were standing on the road. There were children sitting together, drawing in the fine film of filth covering their family’s car.

There was no sense of time, or distance, between the last proper road into the city (from the west) and the edge of the safe zone. She had no access, and no real desire to fight the security guard that stood inside the orange-and-black barrier shaking his head when she walked up. It was easier to go up than forward so she back tracked to the trees, found one she could climb. She hung her bag on a low branch and worked her way up until she could see it.

It wasn’t that she hadn’t seen the crater, it wasn’t that she didn’t know all the specifics—the width, the depth, the sheer impossible size of it. But there was a difference between knowing the measurements and witnessing it in real life.

The difference was a skip in her heart, was the sudden realization of how terribly small she really was. Because there were cars and trees and half of houses that had collapsed into the crater. They looked small, as tiny as a child’s toy buried in the backyard. She could see where mudslides had caved in the edges of the crater, where rain had formed pools, where holes were forming beneath the surface.

This is what they’d done. The Avengers that pretended to be heroes in this stupid world. (This is what Tony thought he’d done all by himself; this was the result and realization of his fear. This is what Steven was ignoring, safe and comfortable in his brand-new Avenger’s compound. It was what he was letting men with stupid faces and no education lay at Tony’s feet.)

Look at this, look at what they had done.

What did Steve say? (Acts of Gods and men in churches; there’s no going back, there’s only going forward.)

Tony wiped the tears off her face, she climbed back down and she went back into what was left of the half-crumbling city. There were no lights in the buildings outside the disaster zone, as far as she could see, there were no lights. A man in a uniform was shouting through a bullhorn, reminding everyone of the curfew in a few hours, advising everyone to finish their business and return to safety.

The volunteers were passing out bags of food, candles, baby supplies. They were wearing white masks and gloves, handing things to families in plain clothes. Tony spread her fingers across the mask on her face. (Always put your oxygen on before helping others.) She pulled it off and balled it up.

“Excuse me,” she said to the man with the bullhorn, “where is the power plant?”

The man laughed, “you are lost,” he said. He pointed across the crater, through the trees, toward the distant flicker of car lights on the single road that fed into the city. “Very lost,” he said.

“Are there generators?”

“What group are you from?” the man asked. “I will tell you how to get back to them. They have generators if you need to charge your phone,” his words were dripping sarcasm. He looked at her with a shake of his head. “Which group?”

Tony ran her tongue across her lips, tasted the fine dust that filled the air. “I’m alone.”

“Then you are stupid,” the man said. But he didn’t hold it against her. He gave her an address and a name and pointed her in the direction of a woman that would let her sleep in her spare room. (She uses it for quilts, the man told her.) “No problem,” he said when she thanked him, “you won’t be here long.” And he didn’t seem to hold that against her either. He had more important things to do, like scream reminders about the curfew into the bullhorn.

Tony found the house as the sky went dark, she knocked with the slip of paper clutched in her hand and waited until the door was pulled open. A woman with gray hair looked her over with a curious tilt of her head. “Anna?” she asked, “I—the man with the bullhorn,” who hadn’t given her his name, “said you might let me sleep in your spare room.”

Anna looked her over, “are you coming to make trouble?”

“No,” Tony said. “I’m coming to help.”

That made Anna laugh, she opened the door and waved her arm inward. “If you can find somewhere, you can sleep there.” Inside was filled with people, more people than it seemed like there was space to accommodate. The taste of the air was sweat and dirt, made more unnerving by how quiet it was.

“Thank you,” Tony said. She found a space through a doorway that seemed free. It was just a little stretch of wall under a cracked window. Anna followed her, pulled a quilt off a small stack and offered it to her.

“You won’t stay long,” Anna assured her. Then she nodded to herself and went back to the room of more familiar faces. Tony held the quilt on her lap with her back against the wall and her eyes closed.

The quiet was deafening, but it was good to think in, good to sort through what she’d seen, good to figure out where to start.

A SIDE

Women did not confound him. Despite the ongoing joke, Steve had successfully met and had conversations with a variety of attractive women. He’d gone to war, he’d faced an invasion of aliens, he’d been frozen alive for seventy years, a pretty woman in a pencil skirt did not intimidate him in any significant way.

(And honestly, if a beautiful woman in a form hugging outfit were his true Achilles heel, Natasha would have been far more effective at manipulating him than she already thought she was.)

And unlike what some thought of him (Natasha, Tony, probably Sam) he didn’t live an entirely chaste existence, never once having a single sexual thought. There was just a time and a place for one to have sexual thoughts and walking into a meeting room to greet Pepper Potts (wearing a pencil skirt) was not the appropriate time or place to think about such things. Steve thought that made him a gentleman; anyone who watched him speak to a woman thought it made him a terminal virgin. “Pepper,” he said, “how are you?”

Despite her connection to Tony, they hadn’t ever had much of an excuse to talk. Certainly they’d never spoken privately and never while the only person that connected their lives was displaced into another universe. Pepper smiled like a defense mechanism, it was automatic, and she said, “I’m fine, thank you for asking. How are you? How’s the,” her arm lifted slightly away from her side to indicate she was going to say, “arm?”

“Fully healed,” he assured her.

“Good,” Pepper’s hands were holding themselves, resting lightly against her body as she looked steadily at his eyebrows. “She said it would heal. I told her that wasn’t the point. You wouldn’t think that you would ever have to explain that you shouldn’t break someone’s arm just because you can to a grown woman but,” she shrugged, “Tony.”

Steve nodded. “Rhodey said that you needed to talk to me about—” In fact, Rhodey had not said that she needed to talk to him. Friday had given him the message as sent by Rhodey and it had not included a topic.

“Yes,” Pepper smoothed her hands across her skirt. “I thought as the leader of the Avengers that you should know—and you know, that even if it doesn’t seem like, Tony trusts you? Our Tony, I mean. If he didn’t trust you he wouldn’t have given you,” she raised a hand to encompass the building, or maybe the Avengers, or maybe all of it. “He can be difficult, but I truly believe, in my heart, that he really means well.”

“I’m sure he does,” Steve agreed.

Pepper paused, she shifted her weight just a bit. Her posture sharpened to a point and her smile went a bit wooden on the edges. While nothing outwardly changed about her face, her entire expression seemed to become a mask. “Good.” (But her tone seemed to think it was not.) “Tony values your friendship. He wouldn’t like me mentioning it, but this,” she did motion that time, “isn’t easy. When I say that he puts his trust in you I mean that he has wagered his entire fortune on the Avengers and given you control of them without ever telling you what is at stake. While it may seem like Tony does not care about anything to you, or that his wealth and influence is inexhaustible, but you would be wrong.”

“I appreciate the trust that—”

Pepper didn’t roll her eyes, she didn’t interrupt him, she just smiled at him with her hands clasped together and her back straight. She let him say what he needed to say and when he was finished (he puts in me), she said, “I’m glad to hear that. I expect that the next time I watch the news, I’ll see something besides Tony’s name being thrown about by complete hacks in ugly suit jackets.”

“We’re developing a plan,” Steve assured her.

“Excellent.”

Funny how chastised he felt. Funny how he’d never once seen Pepper upset, never once seen her anything but sweet and doting. Funny how he’d never once thought what any woman that was willing to be in a relationship with Tony must be like. And now he was standing here feeling perfectly inadequate, waiting to see if she had any other suggestions to make. “If—”

“Ms. Stark has left,” Pepper said. It was only amazing how the tone remained the same, as if she could come and imply that he didn’t deserve the trust he was given (the cost of which he still didn’t know) and in the same breath admit that the Tony who didn’t belong here was not where she said she would be.

“Where is she?” Steve asked.

“Sokovia.”

(There it was again, that old sensation of wanting to put his fist through a wall.) “Why is she in Sokovia?”

Pepper didn’t shrug but she didn’t know either. If she had a reason, she didn’t believe it. But she said, “Ms. Stark wants to help the people of Sokovia and since she isn’t able to be helpful here,” (which was not Steve’s fault no matter how Pepper looked at him), “she went there. She took one of Tony’s new gauntlets, so we’ll know where she’s at as long as she’s wearing it.”

“Great,” Steve said. “Anything else?”

“I believe she took the Mark 42 armor with her, I cannot track that.” Pepper did not like that (neither did Steve), her stiff posture and her perfect mask stuttered. “I thought you should know, in case the Iron Man suit shows up in Sokovia. To the best of my knowledge, she doesn’t intend to use it.”

(No, she’d just built it, and given him specifications he couldn’t understand, she’d packed it up and she’d taken it on a plane, but she wasn’t going to use it.) Steve nodded his head, “thank you, Pepper.”

Pepper nodded. She leaned to the side to pick up the bag she’d brought and slid it up onto her shoulder.

“Do you trust her?” Steve asked.

Pepper fidgeted with the strap of her bag, ran her finger across the zipper and considered the question before she looked up at him again. “I trust her to do what she believes is the right thing, the way I’m trusting you to do what you believe is the right thing.” Then she smiled at him and raised to her hand to point out to the hallway, “I’ll show myself out.”

Steve nodded and let her go around him. He stood in the conference room thinking about how funny that word trust was, and how right had never felt more subjective to him in that moment. He thought about finding Rhodey, about telling him what his best friend was doing (and where) and it was a petty little warmth in his chest for a moment before he sighed.

There was no option but trusting Tony to do the right thing. (And he didn’t like it, and that didn’t matter.)

B SIDE

Steve was sober when he finally made it back to the apartment. Steve was always sober, but had worked off the laughs that Sam had wrung out of him over dinner. He’d walked when he should have gotten a cab; and he’d walked off all the good energy. It was getting dark by the time he got home, dim on the front steps when he came to a slow stop not so far from where Tony Stark (himself, the one and only of two) was sitting.

“I got your address from Natasha,” Tony said.

That did sound like something Natasha would do. It sounded exactly like her handiwork, always pulling the strings behind the scenes and acting surprised when she got found out. Steve pointed up toward his apartment, “want to come up?”

Tony wasn’t hugging his body but he wasn’t not doing it either. Folded in like he was, he looked small. “I messed up,” was not the answer that Steve was looking for. “I ruined her record. It’s my fault for not thinking it through—I just, I never really thought about not drinking. I never thought I had a problem with it. Maybe I don’t,” (Steve wasn’t trying to be judgmental but from his outside view of the situation, Tony did have a problem.) “But I think, I should quit and then I think, I don’t have to. That’s a problem, isn’t it?”

This felt like the sort of conversation that might take a while, so he invited himself to sit next to Tony on the step. It was close enough to share the warmth of their bodies almost touching but just far enough away their elbows weren’t touching. “It could be,” he said. “Do you want to quit?”

“I want to want to,” Tony glanced sideways at him. He looked indecisive about what he meant to say, and it was surprising to both of him when he said, “can I stay here tonight?”

“Yeah,” Steve said. “Of course you can.”

“Thanks,” Tony looked out at the street, rubbing his fingers up and down his elbow absent-mindedly. There was no movement toward standing, no immediate follow up to take this conversation from the very public place to a more private one.

Steve looked at the steps, at the crack in the bottom one, at the little weeds that were trying to grow up in the space. It would have been foolish to assume the Avengers would continue indefinitely without change. Tony had been the first to point out that half the members were only as-needed and at the core, it was him-and-her. She was in her forties (she was fond of reminding him) and still spry (so she said) but injury or age would sooner-or-later require her to step away. It would get them all in the end and she’d built her tower, she’d built the Avengers, she’d built the complex web of companies that funded their empire to outlive her. She had anticipated the moment when she would step away, there were protocols to cover retirement.

He should take Tony back to Malibu, away from the noise. He should take him back to the house that she’d built even when everyone said she couldn’t, to the simplicity of life away from the Avengers. The man needed space and sleep and safety. There was none of that here.

“We should probably go in,” Tony said. “Pepper would yell at us if they got pictures of us out here.”

(They probably already had gotten pictures. But that wasn’t important.) Steve nodded. “Yeah, sure. It’s just a small apartment but you’re welcome to stay. I don’t have any food, so we’ll have to order in when you get hungry.”

Tony got to his feet, waited for Steve to get the door open, waited to be invited in. He said, “thanks,” again when they were inside, on the stairs. It felt like there was something he wasn’t saying, like he hadn’t figured out exactly what he it was himself.

(Maybe it was only loneliness, maybe it was looking for a friend in a strange place, maybe it was ‘everything happened for a reason’ and Steve had one chance not to fuck this up.)

Chapter Text

A SIDE

A man with a seamstress tape measure and a slight tremor in his left hand was waiting for Steve in one of the conference rooms. He had taken the liberty of bringing along blue swatches for Hill to approve.

“I loved Captain America as a child,” the man said. (Steve tried not to be judgmental, but the man looked old enough to have been alive at the same time Steve was punching Nazi’s the first go around.) “I almost had a complete set of trading cards.”

“I know the bright blue is more authentic,” Hill was saying to the straight up-and-down man with glasses perched on his nose. He was carrying a three-inch binder that qualified him to be an expert in everything even peripherally related to Captain America. Up-to-and including Steve’s uniform.

“It’s not only more authentic it is identical to the original USO costume,” the man added.

The man with the measuring tape was adjusting the way Steve held out his arms at his side here-and-there, making mumbling sounds as he recorded the numbers he found. Steve was patient standing with his arms straight out at his sides like a scarecrow. “Tony has to have these measurements,” Steve said.

“I’m sure he does,” Hill responded. She was talking directly to the fabric swatches, grimacing at the bright blue (which was very nearly identical to the original USO costume). “I’m also sure that I’m not allowed to access that information.” She looked up at him, “I’m sure he has a much more efficient way to get new measurements but you’re an old-fashioned guy. I thought you’d appreciate the personal touch.”

Oh yes, Steve appreciated the man with the wrinkled fingertips muttering things to himself as he took his time running the measuring tape along every inch of Steve’s body he thought the could. It may have been necessary (or it may not have been). He knew nothing about making clothes and even less about how his suits were made exactly. His input on the matter had only ever been to offer suggestions about how he’d like to improve the armor aspects or provide a better range of motion. (And maybe, just maybe, if they could make the suit less of a great blue eyesore.) “Yeah, thanks,” he said. He crooked a finger to point at the fabric options, “do we really need to recreate the original suit?”

“We wouldn’t have to if someone hadn’t destroyed it,” the man with the binder said. He sounded rather snooty for a man who had not (as far as Steve could tell) invaded an enemy country. No, the man didn’t care about the prisoners of war that Steve had rescued but that the USO suit had been (purposefully) accidentally destroyed in the process. Howard had done a great job using the inspiration into a suit that was slightly better at protecting a man but that god-awful cotton onesie hadn’t survived. “It has to be this one,” the man said.

“So, it doesn’t matter that I have to wear it?” Steve asked.

Hill shook her head, “it doesn’t matter at all,” she picked up the worst option out of all of them and handed it to the man with the binder as if she was loathed to agree before she stacked the remaining swatches into the box she’d dumped them out of. “With that body? It doesn’t matter what we put on it, you’ll still look good. We need nostalgia to work in our favor.”

“Is this necessary?” he nodded his head down at the man who was stooping in front of him, muttering appreciative things about his waist.

“I’m sure he’s nearly finished,” Hill said. She crossed her arms over her chest and leaned back against the table. “You can go,” she said to the binder man. He took his dismissal without grace, huffing as he went, and that left them alone with the old man with a hand tremor investigating Steve’s body. “Is there something you want to tell me about Tony?”

Only that she had decided to invite herself to Sokovia. Only that he didn’t have a single idea what she planned there—what she hoped to accomplish. (He’d been up half the night, trying to figure out how she benefited from this.) “Is there something you already know about Tony that you’d like to tell me?”

Hill’s smile didn’t slip a second. She just met his eyes, arms over her chest, daring him to prove anything. “I’m busy, Steve. I don’t have time to keep track of your team.”

“I’m sure,” because they both knew that Hill knew exactly where Tony was. They both knew that whatever was left of SHIELD was involved with Sokovia, keeping an eye on early developments. Somewhere, an intrepid agent with an internet connection was copying Hill on every bit of gossip there was to hear. Steve would have bet his life on it. “Make sure you tell me if something worth my attention comes up.”

The man with the tape measure was checking his inseam with far too much precision. Hill was trying not to look so outwardly amused and managing only to keep from outright laughing at him. “I think that’s enough,” she said.

“It’s been an honor,” the man said. He shook Steve’s hand and gathered his things. “I’ll start working on it as soon as I get the specifics.”

Hill walked him to the door of the conference room before she handed him off to the man with the binder and when they were both walking away talking about their ideas and visions, Hill closed the door and turned to look at him. “She’s helping to clear roads in Sokovia.” That wasn’t what he expected. “Most exits from what remains of the city were blocked by debris. They’ve managed to fully clear a single path, but that means everyone trying to get out and everyone trying to get in are travelling the same route. That leads to a great deal of gridlock as you can imagine. It’s impossible to land a plane or a helicopter close enough to deliver supplies by any means except truck.”

“Is she using the suit?” Steve asked.

“From what I was told, she’s using her hands.” Maria had one hand on her hip and the other hanging at her side. Just for a minute, if that long, for a fraction of a moment, she looked as if she felt sorry for him. As if they had reached a point of balance in their relationship where she had been forced to acknowledge that no amount of effort would ever render them equals and he would always be lagging. The look didn’t last, it was wiped away and replaced with simple efficiency.

“Tony’s moving debris by hand?” (The absurdity wasn’t that Tony couldn’t because of course he could but that he would. Sokovia hadn’t met Tony’s minimum quality standards before they’d accidentally created a crater in the center of the city. Now that it was ground zero of a(n un)natural disaster there was even less reason to think the man (or woman in this case) would let herself be anywhere near it much less that she’d actively participate in filthy manual labor.

“That’s what the reports say,” Hill agreed. “It’s not that insane.”

“I didn’t think Tony liked to get,” (physical wasn’t quite the right word. Sweaty wasn’t either, they’d all seen Tony get out of the suit with his temporary clothes salt-glued to his skin from the fight. He wasn’t afraid of his own blood either judging by how often he showed up with injuries.) “Dirty.”

“Maybe not.” It wasn’t worth debating. “I’m finished with what I need for the day. I’ll keep you posted on any new developments.” That was a polite way of telling him to get lost and Steve took the exit she provided.

B SIDE

Five days into a new reality of nightly nightmares and one week after he woke up next to a husband where he’d been used to a wife, Steve was exhausted in a way that was starting to bend reality. Standing in front of the fridge with one hand on the door and the other resting on his hip, he couldn’t figure out if the food had been there the day before or if someone had bothered to break into his apartment to restock the fridge. He’d opened ever cabinet in the kitchen and found it the same, filled with food—overfull with food even. (If such a thing existed.)

Getting angry over someone caring enough to bring him food seemed stupid but there he was digging his fingers into the smooth, cool metal of his fridge door thinking unkind things about whoever had the audacity to do anything of the sort. Because the food-was-there and if it was there then he had no reason not to eat it.

Steve did not specialize in anger. In fact, the last time he thought he might have finally got a handle on it (back when he was fresh out of the ice, back when he was working his way through the cosmic unfairness that had brought him to this time-and-place) his growing attempts had been easily bested by three words.

So, you’re him? was the very first thing Tony had ever said to him, back when she showed up in a nice suit and heels. Back when they were strangers in a windowless conference room at SHIELD headquarters, when Tony was nothing but fury-and-rage with dark circles under her eyes and pink knuckles. Tony looked at him with forty-one years of finely crafted anger, but it hadn’t been meant for him. That anger had Howard’s signature on it, but anger was notoriously difficult to aim with efficiency and Tony didn’t (seem to) mind much at all who got hurt as long as she had the chance to air her grievances.

Tony curated anger like a fine art collection, packing it in crates and storing it until a need arose. When she pried the box open again, the anger was still there and all the more breath-taking after an absence.

Steve was an amateur at anger; like a toddler smacking pans around on the stove.

Tony was drawn in by the noise, rubbing his tired face with his palms, wearing no shoes or socks and sweats he’d borrowed the night before. They were just slightly too long, dragging at his heels while he walked and yawned. “Are the pans heavy?”

“No,” Steve said. He slammed the oven door after he slid the tray of biscuits in and Tony winced at the noise. Saying something like: I didn’t mean to wake you seemed insincere (and God knows one should never offer a polite nicety in the direction of a Stark). “How’d you sleep?”

“Awfully,” Tony said. He had the look of a man leaning on something while standing straight up. “You?”

The thing he missed, more than the others, was how his wife listened even when all he had to say was that he was tired, even when he had nothing to say. She listened and she wrapped all the words he said up in her head and she kept them safe. Sam might have listened, and Natasha could keep a secret, but it was different. There were motives and motivations to consider. Steve wanted to pour his nightmares out, to explain exactly how he hadn’t slept well at all and why but he just shrugged. “I’ve slept better.”

Tony nodded, “I’m going to make coffee—maybe, do you have a coffee maker?”

The were quiet strangers in a small room, going through the motions of finishing breakfast and setting the table. Tony sipped his coffee and Steve tried to convince himself to eat (and hungry as he was, it shouldn’t have been difficult).

“I’m,” Tony started (abruptly, after staring at his coffee for a good two minutes of time, not once looking up or sideways, as if he had uncovered a crucial truth to the universe in the bottom of his mug), “not very good at,” he drew a circle with his hand to indicate the whole table, “awkward situations.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” Steve assured him. He stabbed an egg (that he made and wanted to eat and couldn’t seem to convince his arm to transport to his face), “you’re pretty good at making them more awkward.”

Tony snorted. His lips curled up into something approximating a genuine smile. Rather than say anything immediately he took another sip of the coffee and set the cup down. He leaned back in his seat, with one leg out from under the table (as if he were at all times prepared to escape). “You tell me your nightmare I tell you mine?”

“I murder my wife in a bathtub,” Steve said.

“I crawl over the corpses of our friends to watch you die,” Tony agreed.

“Me?” Steve repeated, “you don’t like me.”

Tony shrugged. “I didn’t put it,” his finger drifted close to but didn’t touch his temple, “I guess we come across as friendlier than we are. I’m good at that, public relations—shaking hands, smiling for cameras, convincing people to do things they don’t want to do.”

Steve gave up trying to force himself to eat the egg and picked up a biscuit instead. They were easy to pull to pieces, to dab in the yolk and eat without all the complications of a fork. He even managed to pull it to pieces before he stalled out. “We should go back to Malibu,” was everything he’d thought over last night when he was trying to fall asleep, listening to Tony doing the same in an adjacent room.

“Should we?” Tony said.

“We’re not doing any good here,” Steve said. He meant to say, there was nothing for them to accomplish here what with how they were men riddled with nightmares, excluded from being members of the Avengers and presently being as helpful as a head cold but Tony snorted, shook his head, with his mouth pulling up into a grimace. “Tony, I didn’t mean—”

“No, it’s fine Cap.”

“I only mean that we can’t help them—neither of us are members of the Avengers and—”

“I thought I was being helpful,” Tony suggested. “For obvious reasons,” (that weren’t, despite what Tony felt about it, obvious to anyone), “there are certain things I can’t say. Sure, why not, let’s go to Malibu.”

“I’m sure you’re being helpfu—”

Tony was chuckling to himself, shaking his head as he kicked his chair back, “she’s good,” didn’t seem to follow any part of the conversation. “Every time,” his fist squeezed together and loosened up again, “every time I think it’s genuine—no, she’s good—she got to you. I didn’t think she could, I mean, my Steve, she’s got her arm so far up his ass he’s basically a disobedient hand puppet, but I expected—I don’t know why.”

“You mean Natasha?” Steve asked.

“No, another voluptuous redheaded spy that’s been following me around.”

“Tony—”

“Its my fault. Scorpions and frogs and all that.” Tony looked down at the table six steps away from it and seemed to recover just enough to say, “thank you for breakfast Steve. I have to go—be useless somewhere else.”

“Damn it,” Steve huffed. He stood up so fast the chair flew backward. His voice was like a foghorn exploded out of his chest. “Natasha didn’t tell me to take you back to Malibu!”

There was no need for Tony to say anything when his entire body exuded his complete and utter distrust of the statement.

“People are concerned for you, because they love,” not this man, not directly, but the person whose spot he’d taken over.

“Her?” Tony prompted.

“Yes,” Steve said. “There’s nothing for us here, Tony. They won’t let you become a member of the Avengers and I’m not saying that because I’m trying to start a fight or because—I don’t know, whatever you’re thinking. They won’t do it because of the rules she wrote. And you’re not happy.”

“You have no idea what I am,” Tony hissed back.

“Likewise.” That left them staring at one another, with their chests sticking out and the air as thick as stew. It felt (but shouldn’t have felt) like a battle, like they were armed and ready, like it was to-the-death and wasn’t that just stupid? Steve lifted his arms to show his hands, to give before it could get uglier. “I only meant, we both need the rest.”

But Tony wasn’t going to give, it was obvious even before he opened his mouth, even before he said, “I’m not tired, Cap. But you can go.” Then he walked away.

Steve hung his head, looked at the spread of food going cold, with his knuckles pushed against the table. He felt like (crying, maybe), he’d gone six rounds with an orangutan. He closed his eyes (he thought of her, of how she could fight-for-days over nothing, of how she would have shook her head at him, would have smiled, would have asked him if he could have fucked it up a bit better). “Fuck,” he sighed.

The sound of the front door slamming was the final punctuation of the argument.

A SIDE

The heart wants what the heart wants.

Bucky used to say that to him, in the dark part of winter when there was a bit of liquor on his breath. He said it with the full, warm bulk of his perfectly shaped body close enough to Steve’s skinny, imperfect one, that a fog developed between them. With his arm across Steve’s shoulders the words were as lascivious as wet dreams, always whispered in an undertone. Bucky said it about homely girls, or angry girls, or any girls as long as they were girls he wanted to get alone in a room with a closing door. Bucky said it to him sometimes (not often, but now and again, with one hand on Steve’s face and his elbow pressed against the wall just above’s Steve’s shoulder, just before they kissed in the privacy of someone’s bedroom.

Bucky’s heart was a strong and wandering thing. It never stuck around very long, but it was powerful when it wandered its way to you.

Steve hadn’t seen the schematics so there was no way to be sure, but he didn’t believe Vision even had a heart. The man was machine parts with a humanoid shell (or so Steve thought, and nobody had ever told him otherwise). Despite the lacking, Vision’s focus on Wanda looked like and felt like and seemed like it could only possibly be a matter of heart.

Here they were again, Wanda fidgeting with her fingers and Vision wearing a sweater vest (in June) standing three steps behind her to the left.

“You had something important that you needed to say?”

Wanda turned her head just far enough she could see Vision’s encouraging nod and then she looked back at him. “I did not get to bury my brother.” (Up to that moment, Steve had not thought to be too concerned with what had become of Pietro’s corpse.) Wanda straightened her back, “I would have liked to bury him beside our parents but the cemetery where they—”

“It was where the crater is now,” Steve said.

Wanda nodded. “Tony—” and she did not say that name easily, but like it stuck in her throat, “said that I could bury Pietro anywhere but there is nowhere in Sokovia to bury him that would have been familiar, there is nowhere that would have been home. I cremated my brother.”

Steve looked at Vision, at how he concentrated on Wanda so completely, as if he could will her the coolness of his own confidence and his childish lack of fear. When your lifetime was measured in days and weeks, you didn’t have the experience to understand fear.

“I am going back to Sokovia,” Wanda said. “I do want to be an Avenger. I do want to help the world with,” she raised her hands and let the energy flow red and shimmery between her fingers, “this. But, I have to finish what I thought I was starting. I have to help my country first.”

“And you’re,” Steve motioned at Vision.

“I am accompanying Ms. Maximoff.” (Yes, of course he was.) “I believe that we could assist the survivors in a meaningful way. It is human,” spoken like a machine and an old man, reading fortune cookie sayings like original thoughts, “to want to help, to want to ease suffering. Wanda and I are—unique. This uniqueness could benefit Sokovia significantly.”

(What was it that Rhodey had said a few days ago, something about, it’s not an arguable point something about only a monster would disagree, something about how convenient that was.) Steve’s fingers were digging into his hips, he could feel a great pit of anger opening in the base of his gut, the lingering blackness of days past, and here he was nodded his head, drawing breath in through his nose. “You have to do what you believe is best,” not because he believed it just then, but because he believed it most of the time. “When do you leave?”

Wanda looked back at Vision who narrowed his eyes at Steve, as if they had come prepared to fight and did not know how to proceed. “As soon as we are able,” sounded more like a question falling out of Wanda’s mouth than a statement. But Vision nodded. “I will come back,” was more confident.

Steve nodded. “I know,” but he didn’t.

“Captain,” Vision said from three steps behind. “I meant to inquire as where, exactly, Ms. Stark is in Sokovia.”

“I don’t know,” he said. “Pepper knows. I guess if someone thinks it’s important that I know they’ll tell me.” Steve looked at Wanda, “she’s not the same Tony.”

“I am not going for her,” Wanda assured him. (At least not only for her.) “Thank you, Steve. We should go—pack.” She went first, half watching him to be certain that he wasn’t going to call her back and ground her to her bedroom, but Vision stood a moment longer. He smiled when Wanda paused in the doorway and that was reassuring enough to allow her to leave.

“You don’t have a lot to pack?” Steve asked.

Vision’s smile was neither comforting or condescending. It was perfectly cordial. “I require very little.” It was easy to forget that Vision was capable of more than any of them had the time or energy to imagine. Not even the man (so to speak) himself knew what he was capable of, they all had only the barest idea of that potential. “You are a good man, Captain Rogers.”

(There was no response to that, none at all. Not even a humble denial seemed appropriate.)

“Many people say so. Even your enemies, even men who do not prefer your company, all say as much. You are a good man. I do not,” Vision paused to reconsider how he wanted to phrase his thought, “concern with myself with subjective ideas. I do not know if you are a good man, I only know that you are willing to sacrifice your own life and the lives the team that you lead to save non-combatants.”

“Innocent people,” Steve corrected.

“Innocence is a subjective idea,” Vision said. “Suppose one of those people was not innocent, suppose we saved a man who has murdered people? Suppose one of the people we protected goes on to become a criminal, suppose he or she makes the world worse for living in it? Were we correct to save them?” Vision didn’t pause long enough to hear an answer. “This is an unsolvable equation. We are not entirely human, you, Wanda and myself. I believe, because of this, wherever we go and whatever we do while we are here among the humans, we will always attract new enemies. Our power, our potential, is an affront to some and it is a challenge to others. And so, I believe, it is especially important that we are aware, at all times, of the possibility that we are the unwitting catalyst to disaster.”

“I think you’re giving us too much credit,” Steve said. “There’s been evil in the world longer than there’s been me, or you, or,” he pointed after Wanda. “Her.”

“Perhaps,” Vision agreed. “Consider Mr. Stark. He is undeniably human, but he is not average. His intelligence and determination have set him apart. In the brief time since he announced himself as Iron Man he has become a constant target for men who wish to test their strength, intelligence and endurance against his. To date, Mr. Stark has survived them all; but Mr. Stark,” (sounded very much like Jarvis), “is only human.”

“Mr. Stark isn’t here right now, it’s Ms. Stark at the moment.”

“His absence does not mean his enemies are not preparing themselves for the next attack, it only means that he is presently defenseless.” Vision seemed pleased about how he had guided the conversation to this point, “a good man would not leave a teammate defenseless.” (Yes, he seemed very, terribly pleased by this.) Vision nodded and turned to go, stopped only after he’d faced the door to look back over his shoulder, “I must pack,” and then he strode away.

Steve was smiling but it wasn’t funny. He was grinning at his feet, thinking nothing but unkind things, trying to sort out how he’d gotten here in this moment. (Sometimes it was a mystery and sometimes he thought he knew, sometimes he could almost pinpoint it to a single moment when Tony had smiled at him without arrogance and Steve hadn’t smiled back. He thought—it had started there, in the aftermath of a battle, and it had grown into this.)

B SIDE

“You’re still here?”

Happy looked up from the (un)comfortable chair he was lounging in. His fist was wrapped around the edge of a tablet he was reading with all the attention of an educated man (but knowing Happy it was Sunday paper comics or something like it). “Yes,” didn’t immediately lead into a stutter of protests and explanations. It was simply that, simply yes.

“Are you watching me?”

That made Happy look up again, made his whole face transform into a mask of confusion and sudden panic. He let the tablet fall into his lap, “do you need to be watched? Is that what I do where you’re from—because, I don’t—I mean I do not so much anymore because, well, Steve. I’m kind of obsolete standing next to the guy and after what happened to that one guy—remember him, what’s his name? Something Perry, maybe? I don’t remember. People don’t even generally try to—” Happy lifted his hand in a grabbing sort of motion.

“What is that? Is someone manhandling fruit? Squeezing a—” Oh.

Happy nodded solemnly.

“Who would be stupid enough?” Tony asked.

“Stupid Perry,” Happy reminded him. “They said the nerve damage isn’t permanent but, it’s been six months and the man still can’t close his right hand.”

“Steve did that?”

“What?” Happy asked. “No.” As if the idea were ludicrous (maybe it was if you hadn’t been there in the same six-foot space as Steve Rogers watching him use his shield to cut off something’s arm, if you hadn’t seen him throw a motorcycle at a group of men. Watch good old Captain America in action and suddenly the world was nothing but possibilities as to what the man would-could do). “She did. It never even went to court, because what are you going to do? Go before a judge, put your and on a Bible and swear the whole truth is you grabbed Iron Man by ass in front of her husband, Captain America?” Happy laughed to himself. “Stupid Perry.”

“Fun,” Tony said.

Happy shrugged, lifted the tablet back up and settled back into concentrate on it. He said, “do you need to be watched?” It was different this time, no tone that implied a dereliction of duty but the beginning of an idea that maybe-just-maybe Tony himself was untrustworthy. Or it could have been that he’d turned down Steve’s attempts to protect him but neither of them were complimentary ideas. Happy was suspicious when he looked him over this time.

“No.” Tony meant to go to the lab, to stare at the screen with the numbers or rifle through her open-projects to see what she was going to come up with next. (Maybe a football field, maybe Steve had a hankering to expand his sports portfolio.) But he was waylaid at the elevator by Natasha.

There was no soft footsteps and smiles. There was no backhanded softness to her face and body. Her hand slapped against the wall six inches short of the elevator, narrowly missing his face (he wasn’t certain that was on purpose) and that brought them into very close quarters with one another. He’d noticed it in his own world, how her cheeks never pinked up when she lied, how her face was always pale, always cool, always the same no matter what she was expressing. (Because she’d been raised to be this, because she’d seen things he couldn’t imagine and done things he couldn’t comprehend.) “I appreciate your faith in me, Mr. Stark,” she said to him with a smile on her petal pink lips. “It’s always nice to have a man who thinks so little of the people around him to think highly of you—and boy, I must be something where you’re from.”

“Is this really the righ—”

A passing office worker was staring at them so blatantly he almost walked into a wall. The elevator door opened with a happy ping behind Natasha and she grabbed him by the shirt front to drag him into it. The people how had been trying to exit parted around their bodies with scoffs and coughs and dirty looks. “Jarvis take us to the top,” Natasha said.

“I’m afraid I cannot—” (Any day now, hearing that voice was going to stop hurting.)

“Jarvis,” Tony added. “Listen to the lady.”

“I’m no lady,” Natasha said.

“You don’t need to tell me.” He flattened his shirt when she uncurled her fist from it and that left them regarding one another in a tiny box. “To what do I own the pleasure?”

“Is it so impossible for you to believe that we are concerned about you? That we want what is best for you? That we are capable of caring about you and what would be best for you?”

Yes. Experience had taught him that every man had an ulterior motive. (Except maybe Yinsen, or maybe Yinsen too. Maybe Yinsen was looking for a way out, a way to make a difference before he died or maybe he hadn’t been. Maybe the man was exactly what he seemed to be: a good man in a bad situation.) The elevator doors opened and Tony stepped to the side to motion her to go first. He followed her and that left them standing on an empty floor staring at one another. “Don’t do that,” he said.

“What?”

“This,” he motioned at her, at her anger and her words and the pretense of her caring. “I’m not her. We’re not the same, we don’t have the same experiences and just because you like her doesn’t mean you give a shit about me. Now,” he slid his hands into his pockets, “I’m stuck here for now. I can’t help that. But don’t waste your time on me. I’m a big boy.”

Natasha looked like she was going to punch him. (He had not, as of yet, been punched by Natasha and in the split second that he had to process the fear of it happening, he thought it was a good streak he had going, not getting punched by Natasha.) “You really can’t imagine it, can you?”

“Steve having an original thought?”

(There it was again, how Natasha was holding herself back. The split second of fear that she was going to hit him.) “That we care about you.”

Her.” That was the sticking point; Tony could tolerate a lot, but he didn’t see the point in tolerating the charity meant for someone else.

You,” Natasha snapped back. “We’re a team, and maybe you’re not her, but you are Tony Stark. And you’re a fucking mess. Go home, back to Malibu, take a nap, get a tan, get better.”

Tony didn’t have an answer to that; Natasha didn’t want one anyway. She hit the button of the elevator and excused herself without so much as another word. He was alone on the top floor, looking out through the windows at the world beyond. (Thinking not for the first, or second, or third time about those recommendations from the people that had jumped off the top of tall buildings without parachutes.)

There it was again, the feeling in the pit of his gut, the clench of his hands, the prickling sting in his eyes. He was dying for a drink, or an escape or relief. “Jarvis,” he said.

“Sir.”

“Remind me about rehab?”

“Would you like to review the current alcohol rehabilitation programs available, sir?”

Would he? (He wanted to want to. He did. Looking at her life, at the people that cared, he wanted to want to more than he had wanted most things in his life.)

B SIDE

It wasn’t that he hadn’t thought of it. In fact, since Tony didn’t seem to be able to believe anyone was capable of expressing genuine concern for his well-being, the only logical step would be to call Pepper. (And perhaps the only reason he hadn’t done so was the annoying little sting of jealous, a bit like a scraped knee, that this Tony who wasn’t even his Tony might prefer her to him. Steve would have worked around that, he would have done the right thing.)

Instead it was Pepper calling him, her voice sounded distracted but urgent through the phone, “we have to do something about Tony. I’ve been trying my best from here but I’ve run out of excuses and explanations, the press is going to take whatever rumor they can get and they’re going to run with it. Do you know how many appearances she’s missed? Fifteen. Six of them were significant enough that I had to promote an assistant to the job of deflecting phone calls and sending regrets. That’s insane.”

Steve was looking out the window in his bedroom, with his elbow against the wall, his hand smoothing down the hair at the nape of his neck, thinking that there were far worse things than having to answer the phone and apologize. (Maybe there wasn’t. He wouldn’t know, he didn’t get a lot of calls.) “What’s the rumor?”

“The only rumor it ever is. I would kill someone to get a cancer rumor or absconded on a love boat of ballerina’s rumor but no, I get the same rumor every time.”

Steve closed his eyes and sighed, “pregnancy?”

“If US Weekly were ever right about anything, you’d have sixteen babies by now.”

“We’ve only been married a year,” Steve said. He wasn’t entirely up to date on his basic reproductive knowledge, but he did know it took almost a full year to have just one baby. “What do you want me to do? Go on the news, tell them we sleep in separate twin beds?”

Pepper scoffed, “I think ever since the time they got the picture of the two of you making out shirtless on the yacht people are aware you’ve had sex, Steve. It’s hard to let go of the ninety-year-old virgin headline but we have to move on.”

It was important to remember that Pepper was not his friend. She was friendly with him because of proximity and necessity but they had not yet managed to become friends. Not the way he was friends with Sam, or Natasha, or even with Tony before he’d gone off and married her. “I wasn’t serious.”

“I know,” was a sigh. “I think it’s time we thought about a solution that buys us some time. We don’t know when she’ll be back, and we can’t keep letting the media make our excuses for us.” The pause was not necessarily an invitation for him to respond. (Talking to Pepper required more strategic thinking than infiltration.) “I am waiting for a suggestion.”

“This isn’t really my strong suit,” Steve said. “I just smile at the camera I’m pointed at, Pepper. Tony doesn’t even let me talk sometimes.” (That was in part because he never wanted to and in part because he just didn’t know what he was being asked.) “I thought you’d have suggestions.”

“She’s not my wife.”

Steve let his head fall forward so his forehead struck the wall with a dull thud. “You’re her friend. She trusts you to make these choices.”

Pepper sighed. “She wouldn’t like my suggestion and I don’t want to be the one to suggest it.” (Loyalty was funny in that way.) “In a way, the media running with the same story works best— Steve, I need you to promise me that you’ll convince her that I didn’t want to make this suggestion.”

“I’ll be sure it’s the first thing I say when I see her again,” Steve said. “What is it?”

“Miscarriage.” It was a single word like a guillotine blade, it brought an abrupt end to any good feelings. (He hadn’t even realized how good he was feeling until the resignation set in.) Pepper was quiet, barely breathing, and Steve tipped his head back and stood up straight.

To say that Tony would hate the story was an understatement for which there was no suitable comparison. It was almost a surprise that rage at the mere idea of it hadn’t forced her to materialize right in front of him. “They’d never let it go,” Steve said.

“Maybe not, but when she’s back we can spin it as a reason that you’re not trying for a baby. If we’re lucky, they’ll think it’s too tacky to ask about plans for a baby due to the trauma. I don’t like it,” Pepper said. “But it’ll explain everything we need explained: why she’s not showing up to meetings, why she wasn’t in Sokovia. It’ll buy us time for her to come home.”

Steve sighed. (Betrayal was a funny, funny thing.) He said, “we have to say something. She’ll hate this, but it gives her time. We have to give her time.”

“Yes, we do,” Pepper said. She sniffled and maybe it had been obvious before that moment that she was on the verge of tears or maybe it hadn’t been but the thickness of her voice was unmistakable. “How is Mr. Stark?”

“Oh,” Steve said. He looked over his shoulder at the slept-on-couch and the breakfast dishes in the sink. “You remember that in his world he’s dating the other you?”

“It’s hard to forget.”

“I need your help,” Steve said. “He needs your help.” And the whole story spilled out, everything from Natasha relaying how she found him drunk to how he’d come to be on Steve’s step to how every-single-Avenger (from Thor to Clint fucking Barton) had bothered to mention to him Tony needed to be taken care of. Steve tried to explain how he meant it like a warm blanket and a safe bed but how Tony had interpreted judgment and prejudice. At the end of a long speech, there was no sound on the other end, Steve said: “Pepper?”

“I’m making arrangements for the flight,” Pepper said. “I can only stay overnight.”

“Thank you,” Steve said.

Pepper just sighed. “Well, I would do it for her. I don’t see it like you do, I don’t see her in him the way you do. Sometimes, I think—sometimes, I see a glimpse of it. I’ll be there this evening.” Then she hung up muttering what she’d have to rearrange to herself.

A SIDE

Anna had given her a scarf to wear instead of a mask. It was thick, and it made her neck itch. The dirt, as fine as dust, got caked on it where she breathed in and it took on the smell of fresh-turned dirt. The smell became a taste, became a scratch in her throat.

(But she’d woken up in worse places.)

The part of the city that was left standing spread out away from the crater like a crescent, a half dozen ruined roads led out into the country side (or they had, before the debris falling from the sky had destroyed them). Tony found a handful of men with axes and shovels working to clear the least damaged of the roads.

“I’d like to help,” she said.

“Can you?” a man asked. Maybe he meant because she was shorter than him, or maybe because buried under her shirts, she did not seem impressive. Perhaps the man meant to imply that she didn’t sound local (as the others she spoke to said to her) or maybe it was good old fashion misogyny. It didn’t matter, he offered her the axe and pointed her to a tree they were cutting into sections to roll to either side. “You can bring us water when we are thirsty,” the man said when she didn’t immediately move to lift the axe she was holding.

The trees must have fallen with the initial earthquake, they had crushed a car beneath them—the shattered glass covered the road beneath the stripped clean branches. There was an overturned truck in the distance. The dirt was fine as white sand, it danced every time any person made any move. The sound of men working, was a dissonant, clawing kind of noise. The axes needed to be sharpened, the blades were dulled from too many days of the same. The wood already rolled to the edges of the road gave some idea of how long these men had been working.

Tony said, “I can do it,” when she wanted to tell him they were ineffective. When she wanted to tell them the importance of a sharp axe and the wasted labor of trying to chop a tree with a dull one. But they had come this far—working harder rather than smarter—and she couldn’t earn their trust or respect by telling them how to proceed. Instead she did her best with the axe, earning enough good will from the man that handed it to her to make him laugh behind the old T-shirt he had covering his mouth and nose. Every strike of the dull axe against the tree vibrated up her arms and into her shoulders. It made her fingers tingle. He took it from her when she lifted it again.

“You can go ahead, clear what you can carry.” He motioned forward. There were dozens of people picking broken branches and car doors and metal arms out of the debris. They were piling them by type to the side of the road.

It took her an hour to earn her first hello, offered to her by a man as thin as a sapling, who carried chunks of dirt as large as a Rottweiler as if they weighed nothing. He had a long pink scarf around his face to protect him from the dirt, and he grunted, “you’ll do,” to her as they dropped their burdens into the same ditch made by the trees tipping.

Two hours later, she was covered in sweat, struggling to breath through the mud that formed on the scarf with every muscle in her body singing in the divine, simple pleasure of exertion, and listening to a man with three shirts and no shoes tell a story. He was sitting on a fallen tree with his feet dangling, entertaining the company of workers.

“A blue car,” the man said. “I talked to the man that owned the house and he said they didn’t see where it fell from—everyone saw the floating city—but he said he had his family in the dining room at the time, so they didn’t see it fall, they just heard the noise it made.” None of the story was as amusing as the man was making it sound. “It’s lodged in the upstairs bedroom, right on the bed he used to sleep in with his wife—nobody was hurt!” That earned a couple of grumbles.

“How? How can nobody be hurt with a car falling into your house?”

“You’re not hurt,” did not answer the question as asked. “Now the homeowner’s got a problem because he can’t fix his roof with a car in it, but they can’t get a crane through to the house to pull it out. There’s also the problem of who the car belongs to. He said it’s got a busted headlight but all it’s tires are still inflated, and he’d hate to keep it if it belongs to someone, but his wife said if the car fell through their roof it should be theirs—”

Tony crouched next to the remains of one of the Ultron’s arms. The metal was dinged and dented from the battle, she ran her fingers down it, dug her fingernail in under a seam and tested to see how sturdy it was, the metal popped loose easily (being violently disassembled would do that). Inside, it’s body was only similar to the Iron Man armor because they were both made of metal and looked like men.

“That’s one of them,” Artur (the very skinny man) said.

“Where did they come from?” Tony asked.

Artur shrugged, “underground, I guess.”

Tony picked the arm up (and it wasn’t heavy, not at all). “What happens when we clear the road?”

“I guess we can leave then,” Artur said. “We’re collecting the bits like that up here.” He led her back toward the head of the road, where the men with the dull axes were working hard and showed her where they’d piled the machine parts in a trench they’d covered over with branches. “They offered us money for all the parts we could find. Only they haven’t come back yet, so don’t think you can make anything by stealing them.” Maybe he saw the shock on her face or maybe he was just the sort that assumed anyone was only out for themselves, but he didn’t look at the pile of parts they’d assembled with anything like recognition. (Oh, the things Tony could do with those pieces and bits and a few tools.) Artur looked at her hands (the blood on her raw palms, the dirt caked into the folds of her fingers) and said, “you should go take a break. Find someone to let you wash your hands. You’ve done enough today.”

Tony rubbed her hands against her jeans, “are you quitting?”

Artur shook his head.

Then she smiled at him, behind the scarf, and walked back to where she’d been working. He followed, at a distance, squinting at her (or the sun). He didn’t speak to her again, not even in passing, and she fell into the simplicity of picking up and putting down.

It was good, the predictable, repetitive monotony of motion. It gave her a break from thinking, it filled up her every minute with immediacy so that she had no time for anything else. It sustained her from morning to dusk, and the exhaustion carried her through the line for food and back to Anna’s house to wash her hands in bottled water. But it didn’t put her to sleep.

In the dark, she thought of how she’d gotten here, of the people in another world, of the Tony she had replaced and how he had gotten here. How the entire world had gotten here. It filled her with anger, and anger made it hard to sleep, but anger was better than the pit of darkness in the back of her head, that old familiar yawning void that beckoned her back every time she got away.

B SIDE

Tony had never wondered; he had always assumed. While he was charming and handsome, he was neither of those nearly as much as he was rich. He’d never been in the position to be judgmental about why women laughed at his jokes when it always (always) benefitted him in the end, but he’d always simply assumed that it had more to do with his bank account than his personality.

(Except, maybe, Pepper.)

But here he was, wearing a stupid T-shirt and a pair of jeans he hadn’t washed in two days, leaning his elbow on a tall table talking to Mare. (And Mare’s name was Mary, but it didn’t have a y and you wouldn’t believe how many times people said it wrong, oh you wouldn’t believe it.) “Is there a lot of money in engineering?”

Tony shrugged with a glass of scotch in his hand, smiling over the rim of it because in any other word he was rich-beyond-imagining (and a super hero too) but here he was just a man who might be lying and she was just a (beautiful) girl that might be willing to believe him. “Depends on what you plan on doing with the degree.”

“I can’t build anything,” Mare said promptly. “And you can just look at something, you can just figure out how it works?”

There was an answer to that question, a bit of showing off he could have done, but there was also the familiar sound of heel striking floor that made the hair on the back of his neck stand up at attention. It was as Pavlovian as dogs running to meet a bell, so that he was bracing for the impact even before a hand slid across his back and the soft press of Pepper’s body leaned in against his side. Her arm was slim, and frosty pale, extending across the table with her hand out as an offering to Mare. “Hello,” Pepper said, “I’m his girlfriend.”

“My girlfriend,” he parroted just before he straightened his back and moved his arm so it was looped around Pepper’s waist. Her smile was sharp as a knife, her extended arm pulled back without a friendly handshake.

Mare said, “oh,” as she picked up her drink with a sour frown at him. There were other fish in the sea and all that. (Just none of them nearly as interesting as Tony.)

Pepper had an uncanny ability to reinstate gravity (or morality, or order, or whatever it was that Pepper carried in her clutch) to a situation that had started to drift ever so slightly off-center. Physics and philosophy were no match for the tilt of her head, the lift of her eyebrows, the way her pink lips pressed into a flat line, almost like a pout, as she looked at him without saying a word and still asking what he thought he was doing with himself.

“Mare is an undergraduate,” Tony started.

“Oh?” Pepper said. “I would have guess freshman.”

“I’m sure she’ll find that complime—”

“In high school,” Pepper finished. She took the drink right out of his hand and handed it off to a waiter with a ‘can you please take this, thank you so much’ as sweet as honey. When she had disposed of the drink she turned her attention back to him.

“I don’t think she was that yo—”

“You’re forty-five.”

Tony sighed. He hadn’t chosen the bar for it’s demographic; or, he had but because he assumed that Steve would not look for him here. It wasn’t any sort of bar he’d ever purposefully gone to before. He was too young when he still at college, too out of touch with college life when he was finally old enough. It was a nice bar, in its own way, over run with young persons looking to find meaning in meaningless drinking. “You came a long way just to remind me I’m getting old,” he said. There was a bowl of peanuts on the table that he hadn’t considered eating before but now looked appetizing if for no other reason than it gave him something to do with his hands. “Who called you?”

“I called,” Pepper said. “You’re not old you’re just too old for her.”

“I have a young heart,” Tony said. He didn’t; between the shrapnel, the arc reactor and the surgery to remove both his heart had aged more than the rest of him. It was keeping up but it wasn’t young.

“Immature at heart,” Pepper corrected. “Not young. That girl could have been your daughter.”

“Not in this universe,” he said. He smiled, pulled his arm from around her body to put his elbow on the table and rested his chin in his hand. There was just enough alcohol in his system to enjoy how beautiful Pepper was when she was fed up with him. She was beautiful in every way, perfectly pretty no matter the circumstance, but her frustration at his antics had been one of his all-time favorite things. Nobody could get as exasperated at him as she could; nobody else had ever stuck around long enough to try. “I wasn’t going to have sex with her,” (unless she invited him to), “I’m married, and,” technically, “dating.”

“Not in this universe,” Pepper said. She smiled at him as she rested her hands on the table and shook her head. “Do you love her?” Pepper asked.

A waiter arrived, like an angel, with a fresh drink. Tony must have summoned the man with telepathy because he hadn’t even lifted a finger to order another. “Thank you,” he said (with too much sincerity) as he took the drink and lifted it to his mouth. He paused there, stared at Pepper’s unsmiling face just to be sure she wasn’t going to take it again, and then took a sip. “Come on,” he said. “Don’t look at me like that. I’m not disappointing you.”

“Was it convenient?” she asked.

“What?”

“Dating me? Was it just because it was convenient? Because I was close by? Because I needed a job and you needed someone with low enough self-worth to put up with your constant abuse?”

Tony choked on the drink he was trying to swallow, but he didn’t spit it all over her. (It was a near miss, however.) “I thought you were friends with her,” Tony said.

“I am.”

“That doesn’t soun—”

“I love her,” Pepper said. “She’s my friend. She’s like an atomic explosion, always on the verge of complete annihilation. I get paid to control the damage and it’s exhausting and I wouldn’t still be here if I didn’t love her more than I needed sleep. I stay because I know that even if she can’t always say it—I know that she loves me exactly the way I love her.”

Tony licked the scotch off his lips and set the glass down. The music (the setting, the universe) was all wrong for the tone of the conversation. Some poor asshole was being roped into what might be karaoke in a far corner while his semi-drunk friends cheered him on. “I love Pepper,” he said. (Just not, it felt like, how he should. Not enough, not well.)

“Steve loves his wife. When he looks at you, he sees her.”

“Well, at his advanced age, it can’t be a surprise that his eyesight is—”

“You’re being a dick,” Pepper said shortly. She lifted her hand to wave over a waiter and she ordered a martini, a vodka martini—extra dry with extra olives (at least three olives)—before she looked back at him without missing a beat.

“I don’t know that I like this side of you, Ms. Potts.”

“Well, things are different here,” she said. “You’re not required to like all sides of me, Mr. Stark. I’m entitled to have sides you don’t like, and to use them when the occasion calls for it.” Her lips curled up into something genuine, but her fingers flattened against the table again. “This isn’t pity, Tony. This is concern, this is what you do for the people you love—if you can’t understand that, if you really can’t, it doesn’t matter what you do because we’ll never be able to help you.”

The martini appeared with perfect timing, she tasted it and wrinkled her nose but thanked the waiter anyway. When they were alone, Tony turned his glass on the table top and looked at the young-and-reckless idiots making fools of themselves. “I don’t want to go back. I don’t have that anymore—I don’t have Malibu, I don’t have Jarvis, I don’t have any of it. All I have is—” (Empty rooms, and guilt, and nightmares.)

“Me,” Pepper said. “And I’m telling you, come home.”

(And oh God, how much those words hurt. How they took the breath right out of him.) Tony picked up his glass, “that’s a very direct sort of flirting, Ms. Potts.”

“Well, unlike some men, I know what I like and I know how to get it,” she answered. Her fingers curled around the stem of her glass and she pulled it back toward her. “How long did it take?” Before he could pretend not to understand, she added, “to convince me you were serious? It had to have taken a long time.”

Tony took a drink to that, “it wasn’t easy. I have a reputation.”

“I’m sure,” Pepper agreed. Her body leaned in against his, familiar enough that it tore through his defenses like they were nothing but damp tissue paper. “But, does your reputation include a semi-permanent installation of the Westboro Baptist Church members holding God hates Fags signs outside your office?”

“It does not,” Tony agreed.

“Does it include not one, not two, but five different lawsuits alleging you used your influence and charisma to make young girls into lesbian scientists?”

Tony snorted, “I collect paternity suits.” (Dozens of them, from women he might have slept with, all alleging the same claim. He had yet to turn up with a child, but he know enough about statistics to know it wasn’t impossible that there was one.) “Did any of those cases go to trial?”

“No,” Pepper said. Her arm around his shoulders tightened when she took a drink and loosened again, “when I finish this we’re leaving.”

“To get on a plane?”

“To get some sleep,” Pepper corrected, “we leave on the plane in the morning. I’ve booked a very nice hotel suite and I’m willing to let you sleep on the floor by my bed if you’re very good.” Her smile was fond, but the arm around his shoulders was possessive. Maybe to remind him he was taken or to advertise the fact to anyone that might have thought differently.

“That’s very generous of you,” he said.

“I’m very generous,” she agreed. “Finish your drink. The driver’s outside waiting.”

There was no telling how he felt about that; the presumption that he’d obey. On the one hand, he hated presumptions (and obeying) and on the other hand, it wasn’t so different than any other time she’d come to collect him from a bad idea. It wasn’t so different at all.

Chapter Text

B SIDE

One nightmare fed into another; the sleeping one a familiar old friend and the waking a bitter kind of taste on his tongue. It wasn’t the first (wasn’t the second, wasn’t the fortieth, and hopefully, would not be the last) time he had woken up Pepper when the nightmare reached its zenith. His grasping hands and his sudden start of wakefulness had the way of abruptly waking whoever happened to be nearby. (Nightmares were indiscriminate in that manner.) Pepper’s disgruntled objection to being rudely woken wasn’t new either.

Her sleep-rough voice, full of confusion, mumbling, “what?” at him as if he had intended to land an elbow into the soft part of her arm. “What’s wrong?” Her dainty fingertips were rubbing her eyes as she squinted at him.

No, that was all old hat (as they say) but how he’d gotten here to this hotel bed with his blue jeans still on, that was the new bit. Pepper had stood three feet to the left of him glaring daggers at aspiring bed partners and frowning over the drinks in his hand but she hadn’t ever been the one handing him glasses and inviting him over for cuddles.

Hangovers were shit; but Tony hadn’t (yet) woken up without his memories. They were all there banging around conspicuously with the remnants of a familiar nightmare. Tony shoved himself off the bed before she could get her soft grip on his arm.

“Tony?” was just as confused now as it had been a moment ago. “Where are you going? Come back.”

No-no-no-No, because this Pepper had ulterior motivations, the way all of them did, and that meant she was an unknown in a world that was full of self-proclaimed allies that were all dressed up like the people he knew in another world. (For that matter, how the fuck had he come to be in this situation, how had he gotten here? There was a brief tear in the fabric of reality and he’d slipped a bit too far to the right and fell into a bed that didn’t belong to him, sleeping next to a husband that wasn’t his and they were all assuming (but they didn’t know that she’d ended up where he came from). It wasn’t how had he gotten here, this universe and this location because he knew that he didn’t know, but how had he gotten here. How had he gotten just beyond the grip of warm blankets and the outstretched fingers of Pepper God-Damn Potts.

Tony,” she said. It was a Mother’s tone, not a lover’s, the exact sort of head-tilt that accompanied a stern rebuke. (But, Pepper wasn’t his lover here, wasn’t his girlfriend, wasn’t even his friend because she was, like they all were, loyal to the woman that Tony was not.) “Come back to bed.”

“Why are you here?” he asked. (After all this time, the too-fast, too-hard thud of his heart was almost a relief. Here he was, whole and still damaged, no better and no worse for the wear.) While he was waiting for a response, he was searching for his shoes, left somewhere between the bed and the door.

“I’m worried,” Pepper said. But she didn’t get up. She just crossed her legs under the blankets, let her hands fall into the little nest her bent knees made. Her hair was in rats’ nests but her face was perfectly placid, perfectly still. It was her argument face when she’d made up her mind long before she let him argue his side. (Her debate face, however, her debate face was beautiful.) “We’re all worried about you.”

Her,” Tony said.

Pepper’s lips flattened, behind her cheeks her teeth were pressed together as hard as she could manage. It took a beat, and a breath, and a quiet reminder to be civil, before she managed to say, “is it so unbelievable that people could be worried about you?”

“No,” (sometimes). “Is it so unbelievable that I have friends?”

“Yes,” Pepper said.

Tony found his shoes under a table and dragged them out with his feet. There was a chair to sit in, and his socks balled up inside of the shoes. “Honesty,” he said with his busy fingers pulling his socks on. “That’s not so hard is it? I’m sure that you love her, and I’m sure that you mean well but, this isn’t about me.” He stood up once his shoes were on, felt his hands gripping for a jacket he hadn’t worn and shrugged the words off.

“This is about you,” Pepper said. “We’re worried, we just want what’s best for—”

“Her,” he finished.

Pepper threw the blankets back off her legs and got to her feet. He was wearing the clothes he’d been abducted in, but she was dressed in sleep clothes, stalking across the space between them. Her bare feet were soundless, but the anger on her face was pink-spots on porcelain. “I don’t know how it is in your world b—”

“No,” Tony agreed, “you don’t know how it is. You’re guessing, you’re all guessing. You think I’m hiding some great tragedy, that I need to be taken home and put to bed. You have no idea what the world’s like where I’m from, what I’m like, what you’re like.”

“Then tell me,” Pepper snapped back. “Tell me how your world handles this—” her hand motioned at his whole body. “How they react to your reckless drinking, and moping, and instability.”

(And maybe that hurt because he’d been waiting to hear those words come out of her-but-not-her face for a very long time. Or maybe it hurt to be reduced to nothing by people who did a great deal of pretending to care. Or maybe it was only the nightmare and the hangover working together.) “You have no comparison, you can’t decide I’m unstable when you have no basis for what I am like when I’m stable.”

“Oh, we have a comparison.”

“For her,” he corrected. He spread his arms, “Admit it, admit that this isn’t about me, that this is about her. That you’re here because of her, not me. This isn’t about me. Come on,” he could feel the anger, like heat, radiating off her skin.

Pepper crossed her arms over her chest. “We’re concerned,” must have been the company line because she wasn’t giving. It was a surprise to her (not to him, he knew exactly how this was going to end) when he reached the door because her voice was slapped full of shock when he yanked the door open, “Tony!”

The hallway was quiet without her, he didn’t run but he didn’t exactly walk either.

A SIDE

For as long as she had known him (and she had known him a long time now) Happy Hogan had never mastered the art of looking inconspicuous. He had, at very least, manage to not look quite as out of place as the man who was wearing his face in this awful universe. There he was, lingering around the last turn before the debris littered road, with a bag slung over his shoulder and an (absolutely filthy) wheeled suitcase standing at attention at his side. He was dressed in casual clothes with boots and paper-thin white mask covering his mouth but there was no mistaking him.

Either he felt her stare or he recognized her face from pictures, (Happy was very good with faces), as soon as he looked at her he said, “Tony?”

It had never felt as much like a question as it did right then, with her body singing in yesterday’s exhaustion and her hands covered in splinters and little cuts. She’d been thinking about what could be made of those leftover Ultron bits, what the repurposed equipment could be used for, (and how she could retrieve it without arousing suspicion). “Happy.”

“You have the same eyes,” Happy announced. His posture relaxed just a bit, just enough that he wasn’t broadcasting his anxiety to everyone that walked past. “I brought,” he touched the bag, and the handle of the suitcase, “some things.”

“I didn’t need things.” She balled up her fists and slid them into her pockets.

Happy’s expression conveyed his disbelief in that statement so completely she couldn’t even pretend to misunderstand it. He dusted the comment off without so much as addressing it, and he reached into the bag to pull out a pair of work gloves. “He says his hands are important, he does a lot of precision work—little,” Happy’s fingers squished together, leaving only a sliver of space between them, “pieces and wires. A lot of wires.” Happy held the gloves out. “Circuits.”

Tony didn’t move to accept the gloves because taking them was giving herself an advantage that the others didn’t have. (At least not all of them.)

“Tiny screws,” Happy suggested. “Some stickers I think.”

No part of her wanted to smile at him, but it was tugging at her lips, “stickers?”

“Yeah,” Happy assured her, “he has one of those machines, the label makers, you know he has to have his name on everything.”

(She had noticed that. It was amazing that his underwear didn’t have the company logo on them.) Happy shook the gloves in the air and she reached out to grab them, so he would stop, and the people that were heading out to work had no reason to stop and stare are them. “And whose idea was this?” (It wasn’t Natasha’s, because unless things were very different in this world, sending Happy to keep an eye on her wouldn’t benefit anyone at all. Happy’s loyalty was simple, uncomplicated, and the world that was vast and messy to Natasha was small and clean for Happy.)

“Pepper,” Happy said.

“Pepper?”

“Yes,” Happy reached into his bag again and pulled out a second pair of gloves. “I’ve got a lot of these, Pepper said she’d send more through a charity front if you thought it would help.”

“I don’t need you here.” (Want was a bit more complicated; because she hadn’t wanted anyone here but the people that lived here. She had wanted the solitude and the silence that this place afforded her; just the sweat and the motion that worked off her anger to something more tolerable. But there was Happy, sweet, and uncomplicated Happy, looking at her in a way that telegraphed his every thought even before he got the words into his own throat.)

“Sorry, you’re not my boss anymore, Tony.”

“Who do you work for?”

“Pepper,” Happy said.

“Pepper works for me.”

Happy laughed at that. His smile took up his whole face as he pulled the gloves on. “Pepper doesn’t work for you, boss,” (the fond nickname was a direct rebuttal of his assertion he didn’t work for Tony), “she works at Stark Industries. She’s the boss. You’re,” he hesitated there, narrowed his eyes and tried to work out the words he wanted, “a shareholder.”

Tony rested her hands on her hips, “you’re not going, anywhere are you?”

“Not until she says.”

“Well, I guess we should get to work then.” She motioned him to follow after her. Happy shifted the bag on his shoulder and reached down to pull the rolling case after him. It was plain, black, made out of what looked a good deal like fabric but there was no mistaking the little blinking light just beneath the zipper pull. Whatever was contained inside was well protected, so she saw no reason not to motion to a patch of dirt off the side of the road, “just leave those things there.”

Happy laid the bag on top of the suitcase and fixed his mask as he looked out at the road. They’d managed to clear a two foot stretch of it of everything but the dirt and the leaves that had wilted off the fallen trees. A group of men were standing around a car, mumbling back and forth among themselves about how best to move it. It was only half a car, half crushed, with only one inflated tire and no steering wheel to speak of. They couldn’t get a tow truck out because the men at the front of the road hadn’t finished clearing the trees. “This is a mess.”

“Yeah,” Tony agreed.

“Are they using axes?”

“Yes.”

Happy was caught between being impressed and being horrified, and it settled like neutrality on his face. “Where do we start?” he asked.

Tony showed him where they threw the limbs, and where they threw the Ultron parts and where they stacked the twisted, broken metal. They started where she’d stopped the day before, working without talking through the morning.

A SIDE

Steve did not consider himself to suffer from vanity, but he could think of no other reason that he found himself in the weight room thinking distracted half-thoughts about how he was going to be zipped into some tight bright-blue outfit and put on TV. The circumference of his biceps wouldn’t affect his ability to lift a motorcycle; but there he was, nonetheless, thinking that his arms were looking a bit weaker this morning than they had the night before.

His thoughts went in circles, cut in half with zigzags that made all the edges sharp. There was a half-tender notion of how it was unfair (or was it) that heroes (that was, if he was considering himself a hero still), like Tony didn’t have to worry about what their arms looked like because nobody could see them anyway. In fact, they could have swapped out the Tony this world knew for a woman with pretty calves and nobody would have known the difference. But he was thinking of Wanda looking right up into his face, at how calm she was now that she’d made a choice.

No, he wasn’t, he was thinking about how Vision sounded-like Jarvis, but he followed Wanda around like a God-damn puppy, sick with love and corrupted with devotion for her. It was unfair that Vision was a newborn, that he should have been preoccupied with the process of learning how to live but there he was accompanying a woman he had (apparently) thrown his lot in with. (And maybe, Steve wanted to know why Wanda in equal measure with how had it been so easy? Because Steve was ninety-something (give or take 70 years) and he still hadn’t figured out how to love someone like that.)

So maybe he was thinking about how it was vain to worry about his arms, but he was lifting weights anyway. Or maybe he was thinking about how love was a great ideal and a silly process, or how he just hadn’t figured it out yet, or maybe he had loved Peggy with all that intensity, or maybe he hadn’t loved anyone in a way that mattered. For all he knew, he could have been Bucky with his wandering heart, full of momentary consuming passions.

Loving Peggy could have been (it hadn’t felt like it but it could have been) nothing more than a momentary passion, the natural consequence of a lifetime of nursing bruises and aching lungs, of carrying the weight of being underestimated and overlooked. Because Peggy had looked at him with something that wasn’t precisely obligatory kindness even before he’d been transformed. All their talk of dancing, of the right partners and waiting, was nothing more than talk. It had felt real, but who was he to say what was real when they’d never had the chance to make a real go of it?

(And who was he to say it wasn’t real, when he still thought of her with a twist in his gut.)

He was interrupted by a shadow and Colonel Rhodes coming to a brief stop just outside of reaching distance, looking exactly like a man that had already made up his mind about whatever he’d come to discuss. “Do you have a minute?”

(Steve had an infinity of minutes, a never-ending stretch of possible time. But that wasn’t what Rhodey mean to ask him.) “Depends on what you need.” Steve set the weight down and straightened up to face Rhodey.

“I’m not sure that allowing Wanda and Vision to leave the states is a good idea.”

That was hardly a surprise; the only thing Colonel Rhodes was sure about was (all of a sudden) that Steve was barely fit for his job. Steve wiped his face with the towel he’d brought and hung it over his shoulder. “Any particular reason?”

“Tony’s not here to make sure they get back in,” Rhodey said.

“I wasn’t aware Tony was the only reason they got here in the first place.” He hadn’t meant it to sound so full of disbelief, but the worlds puffed up with indignation as soon as they left his tongue, they filled up with hot air that boiled, bristled and popped. Of course, he didn’t know because Tony wouldn’t have told him, would have just assumed he didn’t care or he wouldn’t understand (or both, he wouldn’t care to understand). Whatever it took to get a recently created semi-person into the US required more intelligence than Steve had to understand.

Rhodey smiled with barely contained distaste, he said, “they don’t exactly grant visas to former international terrorists and men that are made of stolen metal, a shiny gem from another planet, and the leftovers of a computer program. Vision and Wanda have no legal right to be here, the only reason they are here is because of Tony and he’s not here to guarantee they can get back if they leave.”

(Vision didn’t need a visa, he needed a patent. Visas were for humans, not for things that had been made.)

“I could tell them,” he conceded, “I don’t think it would make a difference. They’ve decided this is something they have to do.”

“And that’s good enough for you?”

“It’s not for you?” Steve’s hands had found their way to resting on his hips while Rhodey’s arms were crossed over his chest, his face a growing dark cloud, making his forced smile drift downward at the edges. Any second now (very soon, one might say) he would be out-right frowning. “They’re doing what they feel like they’ve got to do.”

That one must have stumped Rhodey, it must have pushed his brain into a corner because he didn’t answer right away. No, he just stood and stared, as if he had never met anyone quite like Steve (and he shouldn’t have, because as near as he could tell he was one of a kind). “What happens if they can’t get back?”

“I guess we worry about that if it happens.” Steve sighed, “we don’t have Tony, but we have Hill and all of the people that work for her—if they can’t get Wanda and Vision back, if Wanda and Vision want to come back, then we’ll have to think of something. I don’t know what connections Tony has, but I do have some idea of what Maria Hill is capable of and this doesn’t feel like it’s beyond her ability.”

Rhodey was not happy.

“Not everything is about Tony,” Steve said. Because it wasn’t. Because this wasn’t; or it hadn’t been. (It was now, Steve wasn’t stupid enough to keep pretending otherwise. As soon as his name was spoken, the whole thing had become Only About Tony. Like everything else.) “Not everything is up to Tony to fix for us.” (A fact that Mr. Stark himself seemed incapable of grasping.)

Rhodey just shook his head, smiling like he was talking himself out of saying things he’d regret, just before he turned to the side, facing away from him, and said, “I’ve got,” (nothing at all), “work. Thank you for you time,” was spoken exactly like go fuck yourself.

B SIDE

Perhaps the only useful lesson he’d learned from Howard (beyond what exactly fondue was, and perhaps how not to treat women), was the practical application of learning people’s names. Howard was arrogant and buoyant and almost unlikeable, but despite those outright shortcomings he commanded respect because he was brilliant, and he had money. Respect could save you from repercussion most of the time, but it didn’t endear people to you. No, Howard got people to like him by treating them with warmth: greeting them by their name, asking after their family, offering a smile or a handshake when it was necessary.

Steve didn’t have the space to store every name of every person he’d ever met but, he’d managed to remember the important ones. The security guards in the lobby of the Avenger’s tower (as laughable as that notion was). He knew a selection of the women that got onto and off the elevator on the lower floors. He knew every member of Hill’s (frankly overwhelmingly) large staff.

The benefit to knowing just enough names to secure good favor was that he could redirect every conversation away from himself, or the Avengers. So, when he got on the elevator in the lobby to a handful of suspicious looks, he was able to smile and say, “Clara,” with enough authority to get a polite smile in return. “How are you?”

Clara worked on the fourth floor and she had two dogs (the size of small horses, she said) that she loved very much despite the shedding. She was friendly with small talk, always eager to share a story about her pets and that took up time in the elevator (if only for a minute) long enough for the stares to abate.

Upstairs, remembering everyone’s name didn’t save him from a single stare. The entire staff, half encased in cubicles, managed to stare at him with some degree of suspicion or interest. A few of them were trying not to notice him, as if they wanted to be spared an embarrassing moment of accidental eye contact. The only person that looked directly at him, that smiled and walked up to speak to him was Maria herself.

“You shouldn’t be here,” wasn’t (on the surface,) a very polite greeting but it was practically friendly coming from her.

“I have a room here,” he countered.

“Not on this floor.” She didn’t touch him, lean in or motion, but somehow, she managed to get him to walk next to her, away from the crowd of eyes and eyes that were waiting to learn some new gossip to share. When they were away (not far but just a bit) she said, “it may not be my place to say, but it might be in everyone’s best interest if you could keep your new husband away from the team.”

The request wasn’t as surprising as the fact that she was saying it. Steve sighed and made no attempt to hide it. “The team wil—”

“The team is fine,” Maria cut in.

Of course, they were. “What’s your opinion?”

“About this Tony?”

Steve nodded.

Maria was quiet a moment and then shrugged. “I’m not sure that I’m entitled to have an opinion. I don’t know anything about him. I do know what this team is like when it’s trying to protect its own, and in my professional opinion, they honestly have no idea if they think this new person is a friend or an enemy.”

“Thank you for telling me,” Steve said. And just to drag the conversation away from the pit it felt like it was falling into, he said, “what are we doing about—”

“Oh no,” Maria said. She raised her hands to motion him away, “go on, you know the rules. I learned my lesson about your innocent looking face. Go. Get out.”

Steve didn’t laugh but he smiled, and Maria smiled back just enough to let him know she didn’t really harbor any ill will toward him (just because of the time he’d talked her into giving him details on a mission he wasn’t allowed to go on, just because Tony had found out, just because she had forced every staff member to attend a series of educational lectures about the importance of protocol). He left her to her army of cubical workers and went to find Natasha.

B SIDE

There was no dissecting the interior workings of Happy Hogan’s mind. Tony had given up attempting to work out how information entered the man’s head and exited again, about what parts he retained and which parts he put emphasis on and what parts were deemed worthless. Happy had a unique method to his thinking, so there was no telling where he’d show up or what ideas he’d have when he arrived. Yet, there he was greeting the hostess of the family-owned diner Tony had found after an hour of walking, there he was assuring the woman that he was only meeting a friend and pointing out Tony sitting alone in a booth on a slow morning. Happy came over with a genial look on his face, ordered coffee and a cinnamon roll without looking at a menu before he sat down.

Tony was nursing his third cup of coffee, contemplating his poor breakfast choices, not feeling particularly charitable about anything. “Who sent you?”

Happy handed the bag across the table to him. It was light enough to be nothing but a few pairs of a clothes and a few handheld devices, maybe. “Nobody,” he said. (It was easy to tell when Happy was lying, because he had a face meant for many things but not for lying to his friends.) “I just thought you could use the company,” his shoulders lifted up and dropped.

“And you just happened to know where I am?”

“Pepper’s tracking your phone.”

Tony reached into his pocket and pulled it out, turned the phone over and over, pulled the back cover off to look at the insides. It wasn’t any phone that he had built, or designed, but some standard-issue sort of thing. He didn’t have tools, time or patience to bother with rendering it useless to Pepper while still being useful to him, so he pulled the battery out of the back and dropped it into a glass of ice water.

Happy’s eyebrows considered his actions petulant but he voiced no open disapproval. “I don’t have to stay if you don’t want me to,” was the nicest offer he’d gotten yet. “I just, I woke up this morning and I felt like I should be with her, you know? I can’t explain it. I felt like she needed me. That’s kind of stupid,” he interrupted himself to smile at the waitress, to flirt a bit, and thank her for the cinnamon roll and the coffee. When he was finished, he turned his plate aimlessly on the table as he said, “that’s stupid isn’t it? She hasn’t needed me in years. I’m Dum-E, I’m obsolete.”

“You’re not obsolete,” Tony said. “Neither is Dum-E.” He’d lost his whole fucking house, and everything he had thought was safe inside of it, and when he went picking through the wreckage, he had dug out Dum-E first.

“Thanks Tony. I appreciate that.” Happy didn’t believe him for a minute, but he was willing to accept it at face value. “Anyway, I had to get away from the tower. The air was getting thick.” He picked up a fork and poked the cinnamon roll as if checking to be sure it was really dead, and when he was satisfied he wasn’t eating a live animal he picked it up to take a bite.

Tony didn’t want to ask, and Happy wasn’t going to just say it. Oh no, he was perfectly content to allude to something and then to pretend as if it were nothing at all. Tony sipped his coffee, reminded himself not to fall for it, not to give in, but he was working out what exactly would make the air in the Avenger’s tower unbreathable and how it would relate to him and what could be done about it, no part of him wanted to say a damn word but he was blurting out, “something happen?”

“Hm?”

“At the tower.”

Happy wiped his mouth, mumbled something like, “oh,” in between the half-chewed food and paused long enough to finish chewing before he said, “Steve was shouting. He doesn’t raise his voice very often. Or ever. I didn’t hear all of it; he wasn’t happy.”

“About?” (Tony might have cracked a joke about the sort of thing that would upset old man Steve Rogers but occurred to him that he didn’t know what genuinely upset the man because he couldn’t swear he’d ever seen him entirely happy or entirely angry outside of a fist fight.)

“Oh,” was the first moment Happy realized he’d talked himself into a corner, his nervous smile and his twitchy fingers were all looking for a way out. “Well, I didn’t hear much.” (That meant he heard it all.) “I think he was just upset because everyone was— I mean, they’re just trying to do what she would want? But Steve is, Steve isn’t, it’s just that Steve is very protective of her? I didn’t even think they liked each other, you know? But, he doesn’t like it when people behave a certain way in her name, he says that it puts unfair blame on her, he says that people have to take the responsibility for their own choices, that Tony isn’t there to take the blame for them.”

(Well, wasn’t that a novel fucking idea.)

Happy looked uncomfortable, “he’s angry because of how they treated you. He really loves her, you know. Nobody can explain it, hell I was there when it was happening, and I can’t tell you how it happened, but he does. He loves her.”

“I’m not her,” Tony said.

“No,” Happy agreed. That was defeat, downcast eyes and fidgety fingers, that was anger and hurt and loss. It was not knowing how to go forward, an honest kind of helplessness and then Happy just shrugged it off. “But, you are kind of? You’re not her, but you’re someone’s Tony Stark. Tony’s my friend, she’s been my friend for a long time. I’ve been by her side through a lot, and I think that she’d want me to make sure you had a friend here. So, as your friend,” Happy said, “or potential friend,” an important distinction, “what would you like to do?”

“Excuse me?”

“You can do anything,” Happy said (somewhat optimistically, as if he’d already forgotten the fact that Tony did not belong here and could not currently return to his own home), “nobody here knows who you are. She can’t even buy groceries without someone trying to take her picture or get an autograph, or protesters. There’s always protesters somewhere.”

“I hadn’t considered that,” Tony conceded. The past several days had shown a noticeable absence of people spitting in his direction, anyone calling out how they loved him, or anyone trying to talk him into giving them a small loan of a million dollars. “What would a couple of single guys do with their day?”

“You’re not single,” Happy reminded him. There was an edge in his voice, a sternness that was a rebuke. Whether he meant because all Tony Starks belonged to Steve Rogers(es?) or he meant Tony was dating Pepper, it was important that Tony understood the wasn’t single. “Sports, I think,” Happy said.

“Sports?”

Happy nodded. He picked up his cinnamon roll again. He was smiling to himself as he did it, clearly amused by his own attempt at humor.

Tony snorted, he leaned back in his seat. “Sure,” he agreed. “Sports. You seem like a man who bowls. Let’s go bowling.”

Happy choked, coughed, took a drink, coughed more and with his face red and his voice wheezing said, “you’re going to bowl?” Tony nodded and Happy shrugged, “ok. Sure. Let’s go bowling.”

A SIDE

Wanda’s departure gathered very little fanfare; a company car took her to a company airport that took her home to Sokovia. There was no party to wish her well, no gathering of friends and team-mates to see her off. It was only Steve standing where he could see the car depart, and Sam who had come to wish them the best. (He was awkward in the way a man who knew very little about the people he was wishing good-bye to might be. Charming, efficient and ultimately hollow with his well-wishes and good-byes. If anything, his presence seemed to make both Wanda and Vision want to leave faster.)

“Captain Rogers,” was Vision’s final words to him, “I wish you success.” Whether he meant in making a team out of the scraps of his last one and a few new recruits that were polar opposites, or in pulling on his performing suit and lifting heavy things there was no telling. (Maybe he meant, in general, maybe he was only attempting to be polite.)

“Take care of her,” Steve had said in return. Not because Wanda wasn’t capable of taking care of herself, but because she needed someone to be on her side. (And, well, you couldn’t do better than a man worthy of lifting Mjolnir, even if he were a newborn.)

“Are we betting?” Natasha asked him. She always surprised him, just enough. He knew for sure that she wasn’t capable of appearing from thin air, but she moved so quietly that it felt that way.

“It might be bad taste to gamble over your team mates.”

Natasha shrugged. “You know she’s going to find Tony there.”

Yes, he did know that.

“Those are two women that I wouldn’t put in a room together, Steve. I’m surprised you told her that she could go.” Natasha didn’t touch him, but her body was leaning in a way that seemed to suggest that she was constantly reminding herself not to. They had touched plenty in the years since they started working (once, most memorably, she had kissed him to evade detection) but rarely outside of a mission.

“Why does everyone say that?” he turned so he was looking at her directly, instead of sideways. “None of us have to be here. Why would I stop her?”

Natasha scoffed. “Oh,” was amused, “I forgot that you think people are going to do the right thing just because it’s the right thing.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” No matter how hard he tried (and he didn’t, honestly, try very hard), he couldn’t figure out where Natasha’s allegiance lay exactly. He put his trust in her and (now and again) his life in her hands but that was all blind faith because he had no idea which way she’d go if it came right down to it. Men like him weren’t born with the same set of survival instincts.

“Nothing. I’m surprised you let her go.”

“How would I stop her?”

Natasha shrugged. “I think its already established that it’s difficult to stop her, but I didn’t think that you would have just let her walk out of the door? We barely know what she’s capable of, we barely know what she thinks is the right thing to do—”

Steve sighed, “she was a kid.”

That made Natasha roll her eyes, made her hands on her hips twitch and her face relax into an unreadable mask. All the people in the news that knew very little about what the Avengers were (really, beneath the glamour and the headlines), they all had their ideas about who was dangerous and why but none of them understood what this woman, right here, was truly capable of. Neither did Steve, right then. “That line is getting real old, Steve. She isn’t a child. She wasn’t one when she volunteered to be a human science experiment—you weren’t, she wasn’t. At some point it doesn’t matter how old you are, all that matters is what you’ve done.”

“I guess I’d rather believe people want to be good.”

“All people?”

“Yes, all people,” Steve said. He could feel the trap that he was walking into, caught up to what she was about to say seconds before she opened her mouth and he put his hands up to stall what she was going to say. “Not everything is about Tony. You want me to say it? Tony’s a great guy. Let’s give him another medal or a statue or an award because I love reading the paper and skipping the paragraph listing his achievements.”

Natasha’s eyebrows lifted up just slightly, the edges of her mouth quirked up. “I was going to say Hitler,” (there was no telling if that was true or not), “but maybe we should talk about why you immediate assu— Steve.”

He walked back toward the building, away from her and the conversation the empty driveway where Wanda and Vision had been but weren’t. Natasha’s hand slid around his arm and he shook her off without thinking about it. She didn’t try again, didn’t fall into step behind him, didn’t move at all but stood in place where he’d pushed her hands off.

“He is,” was her voice from a distance.

Steve’s hand was on the handle of the door, his body half turned to look back at her.

“We know who and what Tony is. He’s arrogant, he’s egocentric, he’s,” her arms lifted and dropped again, “but, when it matters, when people are in danger, when we need him, no matter what, he’s there. You don’t have to like him to believe he’s on our side.”

The door opened easily when he pulled on it (with too much force), “there’s a difference between on our side and good, Natasha. He’s always been on our side, that doesn’t mean he’s always been good.”

“Bucky killed Howard Stark,” Natasha said. Right out in the open, right in front of the grass, the sky, the bricks and God, she said it like she’d known it for years. As if she’d been burning up from the inside out (just like him, watching Tony with a burning coal in his gut, waiting and waiting for exactly the right time and the right tone to finally say something).

“That wasn’t him,” Steve countered. (It was important to remember that, to remember that Bucky was under-mind-control, that he wasn’t himself, that he didn’t-have-a-choice. It was important to remember that.) “That isn’t the same as what Tony—”

“Fifty bucks,” Natasha interrupted. “Fifty dollars that Wanda is going to find Tony, and this is going to end in a fight.” She even stepped forward enough to extend her hand where he could take it. She was perfectly patient, watching him work through it.

“I’m going to tell him about his parents,” Steve said instead. (Because he was, sooner or later, because he had to.) He looked at her hand, “I’m not taking that bet. Wanda went home to help.”

Natasha shrugged, she let her hand fall. “For everyone’s sake, I hope so.” (Because this Tony wasn’t their Tony and there was no telling what this woman would do in a fight. No telling at all.)

A SIDE

Artur lingered by the growing stack of machine bits. They weren’t all from Ultron, some of them were only metal that had been twisted out of recognizable shape. It didn’t seem to matter much to the people that were collecting them. The men and women that were dragging themselves back from a long day of trying to clear the road dropped what they’d found whether it was metal as big as pebbles or what must have been crushed robot heads, they carried it the whole length of the road, back into what remained of their town.

Happy was among them, somewhere back in the line, with sweat so thick on his body it had formed a paste with the dust that was kicked up by all the bodies moving around them. Tony had already dropped her pile in, had taken the gloves off and tucked them into her pocket. She was crouching at the edge of the pit, looking at what kind of raw materials she had to work with (thinking a great deal of pieces wasn’t worth much without a power source, and that was something she simply didn’t have presently).

Artur said, “you are somebody,” to her. He motioned his hand outward toward the world beyond the sound of the bullhorn and the call of the men who had been sent to remind them of curfew. “You don’t belong here.”

Tony ran her hands down the stiff, filthy thighs of her jeans as she stood, and shrugged, “we’re all somebody.”

That made the skinny man laugh, his lips parted just enough to show his teeth and he shook his head. “No.” It was a curious word, full of forgiveness for how she was stupid, and condemning for how she was pretending all at once. “Not how you are somebody,” he motioned back at Happy, at the bags that had been left by the roadside, blinking more noticeably in the dark, “he was sent here for you. If you and I were the same, I would have a man sent here to me.” Artur lifted his arm, spread it to indicate the empty space where no man had been sent to help (or guard) him.

“I didn’t—”

Artur shook his head, lifted his dirty palm up to stall her. “A lot of men have come to our city, good ones, bad ones,” he shrugged. “The good ones stay; the bad ones take what they want and go.” Then he glanced significantly downward into the pile. “We don’t care if you are somebody where you are from. We care what you are doing here.”

“I’m here to help,” Tony said.

“Then I’ll see you tomorrow.” He looked back at Happy again, made a soft face at him. “Maybe not him.”

“Happy’s stronger than you think,” Tony said. At very least, her Happy was stronger than he was given credit for. (Or, at very least, he didn’t quit. Even when maybe he should have.) “We’ll both see you tomorrow.”

Tony got both bags before Happy made it through the line to drop his metal parts. She was standing at the end of the road, tapping her fingertips on the top of the rolling suitcase (thinking what sort of things Pepper might have sent her) with the duffel bag hanging off her shoulder. Happy was exhausted, and filthy, and still he was offended that she’d retrieved the bags.

“I would have—”

“One of us regularly manipulates a two-hundred-pound metal suit, and one of us thinks being on a diet means only eating one dessert.” She smiled, and Happy frowned at her. “He would have thought it was funny,” because her Happy would have.

“Oh,” he agreed, “I see his standard for funny is lower than mine. I’ve got sophistication.” Even as he said it, he was taking the duffel off her shoulder and putting it over his. There was some side-eyeing directed at the rolling suitcase but either he didn’t feel like he’d win or he didn’t have the energy to try. “So,” he said, “this is Sokovia?”

“Yes,” Tony agreed. She motioned him toward the charity set up that provided food and baby wipes. (And if you were very lucky, sometimes they would let you use real water to wash your face and hands.) They joined the growing line, looking conspicuous and unwelcome among the men and women who had always lived here. “As it is now.”

“It’s dusty,” Happy said. His paper mask was hanging by a thread around his neck. His face was darkened by the dirt, lighter around his mouth and darker across his forehead. It was smeared here and there where his hands must have wiped at it. “I expected to see more,” he paused, worked out what he meant to say, “us?” must have meant Stark Industries.

Tony looked over her shoulder, down the streets that led to the massive crater, at the caution tape and the fences that kept men from getting too close. It seemed to her, that if Stark was involved in the disaster, they would have been involved with the crater. She shrugged, “as I understand it, he’s not too popular around here.”

“But if he can help—?”

That line of conversation wasn’t fit for the closeness of the line. Instead, she said, “how are you feeling? Good?”

“Tired. Exhausted.”

Tony smiled. The line lurched forward, she dragged the suitcase behind her. “Well, you can share my patch of floorboards as long as you don’t think it’s inappropriate.”

“Why would it be inappropriate?” Happy asked. He either didn’t care she was a woman (which was very different from her own) or it hadn’t occurred to him yet.

“I am a married woman.”

That made him laugh, made the people around them turn to look at him, made his whole face go red, he was saying sorry until everyone looked away and when they were almost not being watched, he said, “you’re married? I didn’t think that’s a thing that,” he motioned at her, “you did.” But also, “you’re not wearing a wedding ring.”

“Its on a necklace. I just wasn’t wearing it when,” she didn’t say I was suddenly transported across universes. “It’s on my dresser. But I am married.”

“Oh,” Happy said. “Would your—wi, hus—spouse mind if we shared a floorboard? You said floorboard? We’re sleeping on a floorboard?”

Tony snorted. “No, I don’t think he’d mind given the circumstances.”

“On the floor,” Happy whined. He followed the line and thanked the volunteers for the food when it was handed to him. They carried it back to the house Tony was staying in, and Happy smiled sweetly for Anna until she agreed he could stay. They wheeled the suitcase to the little stretch of wall that Tony had claimed and they ate in relative quiet. When the rest of the house got quiet (as people fell asleep), Happy leaned back against the wall and said, “this is bad, boss.”

“Yes, it is,” she agreed.

“I get the whole, be among the people, do good with hard work idea that you’re doing here but,” and a lot of emphasis was put on that but, “as honorable and good as that may be, and as strong as you are, you could do more. At least that’s what Pepper said. Tony’s—you’re a genius. So it doesn’t have to be, you know, the full suit,” Happy was whispering to her now, “but I’m sure you could think of something. Because this,” he motioned at his filthy arms, at the piles of people sleeping in one house, at the charities passing out plastic bags of food, at the road that was still not cleared even after all this time, “sucks.”

“This isn’t my world,” Tony said. “I don’t belong here, I can’t do anything that could—backfire on him.”

“The world thinks he’s locked in Steve Rogers' basement,” Happy said. “You can’t make it worse.”

Tony sighed. “The basement?”

“Or a nervous breakdown.” (That one, at least, wasn’t too far off.) “All anyone knows for sure is someone saw Ir—him go to the compound and nobody has seen or heard from him since.”

Tony stared at the suitcase, at that little blinking light that was inviting her to get into all kinds of trouble, and then sideways at Happy who was slowly wilting into the corner. “You’re really his friend?”

“Mmhmm,” Happy agreed.

“What would he do?”

Happy shrugged, “he wouldn’t be here,” was all mumbles, barely loud enough to be heard. “He would have, I don’t know, sent people. Put money into projects, hired people to build a power station or something. Maybe shown up in the middle of the night and cleared the road. I don’t know. He’s complicated.”

“But he wouldn’t have left it alone?”

Happy snorted, shifted so he was more horizontal than vertical. “Doesn’t sound like him, does it?” He was falling asleep faster than she could ask. There was no point in trying to keep him awake so she pulled the thin blanket over him. It was just here, sitting with her arms wrapped around her legs pulled up against her chest, looking at the blinking light on the suitcase. Thinking that she’d come here to put her strong back to work, that she hadn’t come here to be a savior but to get lost. (And thinking of Pepper, quietly packing the bag, and sending it along with Happy. Thinking of Pepper in the bathroom, looking her straight in the face, saying nobody has to tell me to protect Tony.)

B SIDE

Steve hadn’t intended to start a fight but here he was shouting, “It wasn’t your place!” Shouting was a funny practice; a strange sort of thing that always strove to be intimidating, to be impressive, to be scarier just by the virtue of volume but Steve had faced down plenty of villains that were just as threatening with a whisper as they were with a shout.

“My place?” Natasha repeated, “so I should have just let him keep drinking whatever he could find—he was drunk in the—”

“Yes!” Steve shouted. It came from the bottom of his gut, from so low in his body it didn’t even feel like it had come from him. There was a hole somewhere in him, a great black pit that had been ripped open. It could have been waking up to a stranger, or it could have been Wanda’s fingers in his head, or it could have just been his own ugly, dormant darkness. That same kind of thing that dragged Tony down on the bad days, that saw her in the lab looking over designs of things she’d never build, hugging her legs and hanging her head because the darkness had its own gravity. Things went down-and-down-and down into that darkness but they never got back up.

Natasha was shocked into silence.

Bruce inched into the room from the side, palms out in surrender, trying to impose a sense of consequence on the scene. People didn’t argue in front of Bruce, folks didn’t raise their voice in front of Bruce. It was important to be calm, to talk softly, to tread lightly because Bruce was a man with a bomb in his chest. “I heard shouting,” was not an accusation.

“Steve thinks we should let Tony do whatever he chooses.” Natasha shifted her weight so her arms were crossed over her chest and she was leaning away from him. Every part of her, the voice, the stance, the look, seemed to indicate that Bruce was meant to agree with her.

“Obviously, I didn’t say that,” Steve said.

“Only that we should let him get drunk wherever he wants. You know that Jarvis apparently can’t tell the difference between her and him, everything he does is on her record—and he can access everything she can. There’s a reason she quit drinking.”

Yes, there was, but it wasn’t the reason that Natasha thought it was. It felt like, it seemed like, the reason that this Tony did drink was the same reason his wife did not. “I’m saying that you shouldn’t have pushed.”

“I didn’t push,” Natasha snapped back.

“More like shoved,” Bruce said innocently from the side.

“You pushed,” Natasha countered. “You agree with me, you think he shouldn’t be here.”

Steve dug his fingers into his hips, drew a breath in and held it. (It was something that Tony hated, that she said was immature, that when he got angry he just held his breath, like a toddler. It drove her crazy and no amount of convincing her that he was just taking a minute to think of how to respond had ever made a difference. She believed what she believed, and what annoyed her annoyed her and that was how it was.)

“Tony wouldn’t want him—”

“Uh-oh,” Bruce whispered from the side.

“Tony’s not here,” Steve said. “And if she’s not here then nobody knows what she would do and since none of us know what she would do we are not going to assume and we aren’t going to do shitty things to people and say it’s what she would have wanted!” (There it was again, that shout, the black thing in his gut creeping upward toward his throat.)

“Guys,” Bruce said.

Natasha was clenching her jaw, staring at him with her stance matching his, looking like she was ready to go bare-knuckle brawl at any moment. They’d settled their difference with friendly matches in the ring more than once. But there was nothing friendly here. “This Tony doesn’t belong here,” Natasha said. Every word was an effort, every syllable striving for calm and barely managing it. “If I pushed too hard, or I pushed in the wrong way, it doesn’t change the fact that he can’t stay. We’re bad for him. He looks at us like—” Natasha couldn’t think of anything, just let the half-finished sentence hang. “This isn’t a good place for him.”

“He’s her, Nat. He is Tony.”

“Not ours,” wasn’t angry. It was hurt. “I can’t help him, he doesn’t trust me.”

Bruce inched forward again, “he doesn’t trust any of us.”

Steve closed his eyes, rubbed his fingers against his forehead, and sighed. “Why would he?” There was no answer to that, he just shook his head, “I shouldn’t be here. I’m—” (Furious.) It didn’t matter, he looked at Natasha and she nodded. It was easy with her, because she understood the things there weren’t words for, because the delicate balance of apology and forgiveness was seamless with her. They shouted, they fought, they showed up to fight on the same side regardless. “I’ll tell you if we go back to Malibu.”

“Send a text,” Bruce suggested. He smiled when he said it, and Natasha smiled along.

B SIDE

As it turned out, Tony did not enjoy bowling. The sport itself wasn’t necessarily not fun but the idea of wearing shoes that had been worn by countless unknown persons before him made his skin crawl. Happy had laughed at him for a solid five minutes, until tears were rolling down his face, and Tony had stayed only to shut him up.

Hours later, they were walking up a road that looked almost familiar, Tony had a bag of cooled down Burger King under one arm and Happy was slurping soda from a mostly empty cup. They had talked about every sort of sports Happy knew anything about, about the state of modern politics (Happy knew more than Tony would have given him credit for) and had meandered to a sort of halting point of love. “I’m just assuming that you’re the same as she is, that you’re just—” Happy stopped (again) and slurped his soda, “that women gravitate toward you naturally.” (Look at the man sparing his feelings.) “I’ve never been that good looking.”

“You’re a beautiful man,” Tony said.

Happy snorted. “I’m not.” But that didn’t seem to slow him down. “I just don’t know how to—I mean, this is, we shouldn’t. You’re dating Pepper right? This is inappropriate. I’m sorry.”

“Hey, hey,” Tony said. He put his hand on Happy’s arm to stop his forward motion and turn him, so they were looking at one another. “My Pepper is not your Pepper. Although,” and this was the important part, “sadly I can’t give you any advice on how to make a move on her. She made all the moves.” That wasn’t completely right. “Most of the moves. I have moves.”

“Yeah. Of course. You have a lot of moves.” Happy said. He didn’t drag his feet but kick at the pebbles on the sidewalk. He shrugged it off though. “Were you going to see Steve?”

“No,” Tony said. “Why?”

Happy had a naturally guilty face; regardless of the crime, he probably had done it. The fact that he always looked as if he were the one that took the last bagel meant it was impossible to know if he had actually, in fact, taken the last bagel. Just then, he glanced sideways toward the set of steps they had stopped in front of and lifted his elbow enough to point in its direction as he said, “because this is his apartment. And,” Happy pulled the bag of cheeseburgers he’d been carrying since the Burger King (about twenty minutes back now) out from under his arm to lift it up and shake it, “there’s still like ten of these left.”

“That’s like a snack for this guy,” Tony pointed his thumb at the steps. “And I was going to eat those.”

“You?”

“Yes, I was going to eat those, give me the bag. Happy, Happy, give me the—”

This was how he was found, with his hand reaching up into the air to grab the bag of cheeseburgers out of Happy’s upturned hand, him on his toes, Happy smirking to himself at what an advantage he had. Tony was forty-five (a sophisticated age), a genius, a billionaire and in general not the sort of guy who would get into a kindergarten scuffle with his friend over some food, but at that moment, when Steve stepped out of the front door of the apartment building, Tony was nothing but the guy grabbing Happy by the shirt to keep him from moving so he could get the bag.

“This isn’t what it looks like,” Tony said.

Steve’s hands were in his jean pockets. His expression was fluidly changing from fond to amused and lingered definitely on the side of a smirk forming on his face. “Looks like it might be,” he said.

Tony dropped down flat on his feet and straightened his own shirt. He’d lost his bag of burgers in the process of trying to get the second one and his bag of clothes was hanging off his neck rather than his shoulder. “I’m sure it’s not.”

Happy threw the bag up at Steve who pulled his hands out of his pockets with extreme leisure and caught it just before it landed on the steps. “Tony brought you a snack,” he said.

“You set me up,” Tony said, very quietly, just loudly enough that Happy could hear him and hear that he wasn’t happy about how this turned out.

Happy had no concept of a secret voice, so he used his body to create a quiet space between them where he could talk at normal volume. “I followed you. You came here, I just carried your bag.” He glanced sideways at Steve and then back at Tony. “It’s not my place, but— Give him a chance.” Then Happy patted him on the shoulder and walked away, as if he hadn’t committed high fraud, betrayal and treason all in one. As if he were right, as if Tony had been the one to turn this direction, to bring them here—as if—

“You don’t have to stay,” Steve said. He had done an excellent job pretending he wasn’t listening but it was hard to pretend you didn’t hear something when you were widely known to be perfect. “I can get you a car, a hotel—whatever you need.”

Tony didn’t like the height difference between them, how he had to crane his neck to look up three steps to Captain Perfect. He didn’t like the thought of hotel rooms, or the tower, or people with familiar faces that didn’t act like he expected. He didn’t like this place or the quiet that was festering as Steve looked at him.

“I’m sorry, Tony. I didn’t realize that— I thought Pepper—” Steve hung his head, and after a moment he looked up again. “I messed up,” summed up everything, apparently. “And they,” his hand lifted, presumably in the direction of the Avengers’ tower, “messed up. When I look at you—I know you’re not her, I know that, but you’re Tony and I think you’ll behave like her. That’s not fair. So, we can stay here or go to Malibu, or somewhere else. Not that you have to stay with me--”

God damn this stupid man, looking at him with that kind of sincerity, like he hadn’t slept in days, like he was missing part of his fucking body, like this was his last chance and he was trying so hard. Tony’s hand caught the strap of the bag across his chest and he shrugged. “Malibu is nice this time of year.”

“It is,” Steve said cautiously.

“I’m not good at this,” Tony said from the bottom of the steps. He could feel himself shrugging, “we don’t—you and I, we don’t really talk.”

“I can be quiet.” It was spoken with such complete honesty that it was almost heartbreaking.

Tony smiled (like a reflex, like he did any time he didn’t know how else to respond), “I think that’d be a step backward, Cap. So,” he moved to stand on the bottom step, “I’ll do my best to remember you’re not my Steve, you remind everyone I’m not your Tony.”

There was pink on his cheeks, an aw-shucks school boy shame to the way he smiled, “I think they know now.” But, he wasn’t going to elaborate about whatever he’d shouted at the people in the tower. (No, of course not, that wouldn’t be the right thing to do.) “I’m glad you came back,” Steve said.

Tony smiled. He thought he should have said something like, of course you are, or maybe, stop trying so hard, but he stood there, like an idiot, smiling and the only thing that he could get out of his mouth was, “are you kidding, your shower has the best water pressure in the city.”

“Thanks,” was Steve, not quite sure what to say, pulling the door open for him.

Chapter Text

A SIDE

There was blood on her hands, dripping off the curls of her fingers and landing in her lap, glistening in the light of the flashlight she had clenched between her teeth. The dirty, ripped flesh dragging repeatedly against the screwdriver she was clutching in her slick grip. Wires were puddled pink at her side, delicate laid across crinkly paper that she’d taken from the bags that Happy brought her.

Tony thought, maybe, she heard an echo of a different time and a different place. A sort of phantom of a man who just couldn’t help but rest his hands on his hips and hang his head when he walked face-first into a great display of hysteria. (And well, to Steve Rogers, a great deal of things looked like hysteria. Sanity was tricky like that, always looking like insanity to men who lacked empathy.) But that wasn’t fair because Steve didn’t lack empathy, he lacked imagination. Black was black and white was white.

Right now, (phantom) Steve Rogers was looking over her shoulder, at the blood soaking into her jeans sighing out something like, does it have to be like this.

The thing was, the thing was that she didn’t know anymore if it had to be. She had lost her grip on the difference between real necessity and the feeling of necessity. “I think so,” was mumbled around the flashlight. “You see the news today?” (This was her, on her ass on the damp ground, with blood on her hands, sorting through things that were kind of her property, talking to herself to hold off the blooming sense of panic that was spreading through her chest.) “I didn’t realize it was that fucking hard,” the flashlight fell out of her mouth and she clenched her teeth rather than scream. Her foot kicked the dirt and she closed her eyes a moment, “to say: It wasn’t Tony Stark. How is that difficult, I can do it. I can say it five times fast, I can say it in three languages, I could build a fucking robot with his face and put it on the news.”

The Steve that wasn’t there, the one that had slowly, but surely, become known as her Steve shrugged with his hands on his hips and his head hanging low. He was caught in a paradoxical despair because he didn’t agree with the words she was saying, and it didn’t matter as much as the fact that she was hurt.

They got themselves into that trap sometimes, fighting about what they were fighting about.

Tony opened her eyes and picked the flashlight up from where it had fallen. It tasted like fresh dirt and blood when she clenched her teeth around it again.

(Imaginary) Steve crouched at her back, hands reaching out but not touching, and he said, does it have to be this way or maybe he said you have nothing to prove here because the world was a simple place when you’d already proven everything you set out to prove.

And what must that have been like? For a skinny boy from Brooklyn begging for a chance to die in a war, to wake up in a different time and a different place where he was hailed as a hero. Captain fucking America was a six-foot blond with blue eyes and patriotism for days, the kind of guy that every woman wanted to sink her fingers into, the sort of man that men thought they wanted to be. (And most men, they defined Captain America by the circumference of his biceps and didn’t care much at all for the heart.) The good Captain could shoot the President in the face on national TV, and just as soon as the shock of graphic content passed, every man and every woman who considered themselves good Americans would believe their elected President was a traitor. (But he wouldn’t, and that’s what every good old-fashioned American knew. Captain America was an ideal bigger than a single man; incorruptible good.)

Except their incorruptible good was an angry little boy hiding out in a custom-made clubhouse, collecting the good will of people who didn’t know any better.

“Sir,” Friday chirped from the phone in the bag at Tony’s side. “Diagnostics on the Mark 42 are complete. All systems are operational, a flight path has been determined.”

“Thanks,” she said around the flashlight in her mouth. “What time is it?”

“Three-oh-six AM, sir.”

Tony dropped the screwdriver into the pile of salvaged bits and threw the rest back into the pit with the other parts. The crinkly paper stuck to her bleeding hands when she rolled it up and shoved it into her bag. She got back to her feet tucked the screwdriver into her back pocket. “We should sleep,” she said. (If they could.)

B SIDE

The noise was coming from the kitchen, a gentle scratching of plate on table or cup against counter. There was no light until Tony flipped the switch near the doorway, and he almost wished he hadn’t as soon as he did it.

Steve (his, at least) did not display a great range of feelings. Sometimes he managed exhaustion when the battle went on-and-on and the aftermath was a great lull of noise and motion. Sometimes, Steve managed to look inconvenienced by pain. It was just that, no matter how Tony searched through his memory, could he name any time he had seen the man look like this:

Holding a bottle of whiskey balanced against his thigh with a tumbler lifted to his lips, his hair in peaks and swirls from a failed attempt to sleep, his face with fading pink marks and his eyes hollowed out so there was nothing but dull darkness in them. Steve’s knuckles were recovering pressure marks and his whole body was a slant of hopeless aggression. There was no anger in, just the despair that came with the realization that there was nothing that could be done about it. “Want a drink?” Steve asked.

“I didn’t think you approved.”

Steve looked over at him with a sigh. “I met her after she gave up drinking. She wasn’t,” he pulled open the cabinet door and took out a second glass, set it down with more force than was warranted, “exactly succeeding at it when we met but she was trying,” he tipped the bottle to fill the cup, “I think she said it was what she imagined hell would feel like, always craving something she didn’t want to want,” he dropped the bottle on the counter and picked up the glass to hold it out toward Tony.

“Sounds familiar,” he agreed.

“I can’t get drunk,” Steve said when Tony took the glass. “I want to,” was an admission that felt too naked, too raw, to be shared among strangers like they were. “People did a story about her, they said she beat the alcoholism. Everyone thought it was a great piece, that it brought awareness to a problem that is used in film and TV but isn’t genuinely addressed. They thought it was good that we acknowledged women can suffer from alcoholism too—but she hated it. She said there was no beating it; that some choices haunt you until you die. The only way to beat the liquor,” he raised the bottle again, “would be to build a time machine and stop herself from ever drinking it to start.”

There was a tremor in his hand, a sort of pain that pinched in odd places on his fingers. Tony set the glass on the table without taking a drink of it. “I don’t consider myself an alcoholic,” he said.

Steve snorted, “I don’t consider myself a war-monger,” he swallowed the rest of the liquor in the glass without so much as a grimace, “but I just can’t walk past a fight.” He set the glass on the counter behind him, “sometimes we can’t see things about ourselves.”

“What prompted the,” Tony motioned at Steve, the bottle, the ugly fog of discontent around him. He was thinking pity party but he didn’t want to say it. (Wasn’t that funny, missing an opportunity to poke Steve Rogers in a soft spot.)

Steve closed his eyes, let his shoulders sag and if you looked very closely at his face you could see the pink around his eyes, see it blossom around the tip of his nose before it faded. There was an excess of dampness in his eyes, but it didn’t overflow, it just glistened to give life back to the deadness of his eyes. “We could have said it was cancer,” he said, “but we chose a miscarriage. That’s what we said she’s doing, she’s recovering from a miscarriage. We talked about having a baby—or trying—there’s increased risk the older you are, and considering her high risk lifestyle—but she said, we wouldn’t even adopt a dog because I didn’t want an animal we wouldn’t be around to take care of.” He shrugged, like anything he was mumbling made sense. “She hates the pregnancy rumors, she hates them. And we said miscarriage.”

There was no room for his opinion in this monologue, no space leftover for him to offer anything because it had nothing at all to do with him. He wasn’t Steve’s wife, and he wasn’t the Tony that hated rumors, and wasn’t the Tony that was missing (not from this world), but there he was saying, “I think she’d forgive you, Cap.”

Steve laughed then, like a man who couldn’t bring himself to cry, he laughed as his hand tightened around the neck of his liquor bottle and his body jolted from shock. It caught him in the gut and it tore through his whole body and he was shaking his head and screwing the cap back on the liquor. “Maybe,” he said after a beat, “but, I didn’t do what I promised. I didn’t protect her.” He shrugged again. “Maybe that’s one of those things you can’t see about yourself, where you’re going to fail. How much it’ll hurt.”

“You’re going to get her back,” Tony said. That was a funny thing to say; because he hadn’t been thinking about it at all. He hadn’t even been pretending to think about how to get back— (And not, necessarily, because there was no obvious signs as to how the switch had happened. Because he’d gotten caught up in himself, in this world, in the differences that made his whole body hurt.) –now here they were, Steve looking at him like he was going to have to pretend to believe him and Tony gritting his teeth together with a smile crossing his face. “That’s what they all say, isn’t it? She’ll figure it out, she always does. We’re not, exactly, the same person but we can figure it out, her and me.”

“She’s not looking for a way back,” Steve said.

No. She wasn’t. Now it was said, it was almost a relief, almost like letting out a breath you held too long. “I’ll start,” Tony said.

There it was, the classic Steve Rogers’ face of believing that you believed something he found unbelievable. “You don’t have—”

“Cap—” because he could not bear to hear about how he didn’t have to pretend or care or try one more fucking time.

“Make me feel better,” wasn’t the ending he saw coming.

“I want to,” surprised them both. “For her,” got tacked on too quickly. He nodded his head, and rubbed his palms together. The moment stretched and stretched until it reached a point of suffocation, Steve looking at him with something like hope and Tony trying to figure out how to get out without being discovered. “You got a TV? We could watch something since we’re not sleeping.”

“Yeah,” Steve agreed. “It’s 2015, of course I’ve got a TV.”

A SIDE

The morning, the proper morning, the after you’ve-had-some-sleep, the sun-is-up morning started with Happy’s hand gently shaking her by the shoulder, his rounded face looking confused as he balanced his weight on his knees and he asked, “what does that mean?”

“What?” Her watch (a very cleverly disguised bit of Stark tech) said it was only eight-oh-six in the morning. “What does what mean?” She lifted her hand to rub her face, forgetting that she had cuts and scabs and scrapes all over them, forgetting that Happy had brought her gloves to protect her very important hands.

“We have to find a way to sharpen the blades,” Happy repeated but he tacked on, “what happened to your hands?” It wasn’t the voice of a bodyguard or a best friend, but an aging mother hen clucking in despair over her disobedient little chicks. He didn’t touch her but hover like he wanted to grab her by the fingertips and demand she explain herself. That must have been before he saw the blood on her shirt and her jeans and dried on her wrists where it had dripped while she was working.

“The axes,” was easier to answer. Trying to explain anger to the people that lived in this world seemed like it would be a waste of time. She pushed herself up, so she was leaning back against the wall and cleared her throat, “breakfast?”

“We have to clean these.”

That had ended with them standing in line at the medical tents for an hour and a half, just long enough for Tony to start developing fantasies of an endless line of cups of coffee, all steaming and hot and ready for her. She was daydreaming about bacon and toast and Steve wearing nothing but his jeans while he made breakfast, clutching her depressing tasteless water bottle and her little plastic bag of what passed for breakfast in this desolate little hellhole.

(Every part of her wanted to ask the pink-faced volunteer handing out the sacks what they’d had to eat for breakfast that morning.)

“Well,” was the final verdict from a very skinny doctor with an undiscernible accent, faded scrubs and a white mask hanging at her neck instead of covering her mouth, “you don’t need stitches. Just as well, we couldn’t do them here anyway.” She clutched all her pockets, found nothing but lint and scraps of paper before rummaging through the plastic boxes they had stacked up on tables behind them. “How did you do this?”

“I’m helping to clear the road,” Tony said. (Happy crossed his arms over his chest and pouted, as grown men were wont to do when they didn’t get a chance to answer questions.)

“Not today.” It was a statement of fact; leaving no room for Tony to provide a more adequate excuse. But then the sour look on this woman’s face did not seem to be concerned with seeking excuses. “Nobody is clearing the road today.” She pointed a bit of gauze back toward the line they had been standing in. “Did you not see the crowd? It only happens when the vultures come for the scraps.”

“Vultures?” Tony asked. Not because she needed to know but because idle conversation was better than focusing on how mercilessly her hands were being scrubbed clean at the moment.

“The Americans,” the doctor said, “the ones that come for the scraps.”

Tony looked at Happy who was doing an Oscar worthy imitation of a man who cared very deeply about his fingernails. That was fine because here she was doing her damn best not to have a noticeable opinion about anything. Rather than ask anything else she just accepted the scolding for letting her hands go so long without being properly cleaned.

“You don’t want to lose these hands,” the doctor told her, “do not be stupid,” and then she sent them on their way.

Out again, on the clogged road of helpful volunteers and miserable, hopeless families attempting to flee the destroyed city (still waiting, it seemed, for the traffic to clear), Tony drew a breath in and let it out again. “Did you know?”

“I know it’s what usually happens,” Happy said. “He doesn’t like to leave bits laying around for anyone who takes an interest to see what they can make of the scraps. He says that’s reckless. He says it’s too dangerous.”

The uncleared road, when they reached it, had been blocked off by official looking men baring permits that gave them sole authority to remove hazardous debris from the hole the survivors had spent their time filling. They wore suits and gloves and hats that (miraculously) did not declare them employees of Stark Industries but that small omission didn’t make one bit of difference. She stood just outside the crowd of the people who could not work to clear the road, she listened to them grumble under their breath about the uselessness of rich-and-powerful men.

“There’s so many of them,” Tony said. “Why aren’t they clearing the road?”

“They aren’t allowed to.” Happy had the good grace to feign frustration when he said it, but it was, it seemed, business-as-usual. There was no anger in his body, none in his voice, none in his face. “I heard,” his mouth formed the word Pepper but his voice didn’t let it out, he said, “her talking about it. They had to haggle just to get the permit that allows them to collect the,” he motioned at the bits of tech being extracted from the pit.

“If they want it that bad, maybe they should do the work of clearing the fucking road,” Tony snapped. She was going to elbow her way to the front of the line but Happy’s hand caught her by the upper arm.

“Whoa,” was his hands putting themselves up in surrender just in time to keep himself from getting punched. There was red staining the white bandages on her hands (already) as she clenched her fists. “They can’t, okay? Its not that we don’t want to, it’s that we can’t. That’s politics, okay? That’s just how it works.”

(But she knew that; she knew it better than most. She ran an international vigilante response group and she did it with the implicit approval of every government that benefited from their actions. Between her and the staff—all those leftover bits of SHIELD—they had working relationship with half the god damn world. No, this wasn’t her forte, this wasn’t where she operated, in the dirt of a foreign country watching with helpless outrage at the utter waste.

No. This was what Steve did.)

“No wonder they hate us,” she whispered. Happy just sighed at her back.

B SIDE

“So,” Happy said at the terminal, looking out the big-glass-windows at Stark’s private jet. It had all the earmarks of overstated luxury but all the plush, oversized seating in the world wouldn’t have made the trip from New York to Malibu anymore pleasant for any of them. “Pepper’s angry.”

Steve nodded. It was his fault she was there at all. It was his fault the news broke late-last-night, through anonymous sources speaking anonymously, that Tony Stark had suffered a traumatic, life-threatening miscarriage and an official statement was due to make the rounds today asking for understanding and privacy in these difficult times. “I’ll say something to her,” he said.

“Probably not a great idea, Cap.” Happy was easy to underestimate, easy to forget to consider, but standing there a few feet to the left, looking out the window with all the anticipation of a man walking into his own gruesome murder scene, he understood more about what they were about to endure than anyone in this world. Happy had known Pepper for years; long before there was Steve, it had been Happy, and Pepper, and Rhodey. “I don’t think she knows why she’s angry yet.”

Steve sighed.

“I have this feeling,” Happy said. He tapped his hand against his chest, “right here. It hurts. I just woke up with it a few days ago— I don’t know why, but it feels like she needs me. I don’t even know where she is, so I guess I’ve got to,” he looked sideways at Tony slouching into one of the uncomfortable lounge chairs, half lost in a jacket he borrowed from Steve, with his bag at his feet. “I don’t know. Do whatever I can.”

“It’s the whatever I haven’t worked out yet,” Steve said. He didn’t have to look at Tony to know he was staring out the window, to see the sleeplessness that made his eyes dark, because he’d spent the night watching bullshit TV with him, watching him do his best. It was exhausting in its own way, to watch Tony doing his best. (His best impression of what he thought Steve needed, his best to appear healthy and happy and whole, his best at breathing.) “I keep thinking, wherever she is, she’s angry. She has to be angry— When Tony’s angry?”

(Things had a tendency of being irrevocably altered in the wake of Tony’s anger. It was like a great wave and it consumed everything it touched.)

“The one good thing,” Happy countered as if there was anything good to come of this conversation, “to come out of you marrying her is how it’s really focused her anger. Wherever she is, the only person that’s got to worry is you.”

“Thank you Happy,” wasn’t sincere, “that makes me feel better.”

Happy slapped him on the back. “Good. I mean—if it has to be anyone? You’re pretty good at taking a punch. And, between us, just from what I’ve heard,” (he stage whispered behind his cupped hand), “this other you sounds like a dick.”

Steve snorted. “But handsome.”

Happy shrugged, dragged a noise of consideration out long enough the joke was made and they were both smiling at it (and the questionable nature of Steve’s good looks) when Pepper walked up to them. The sound of her heels made Happy’s whole posture change and his pink-and-amused face went placid and serious just before she stopped at his side. With one hand on the long handle of her rolling suitcase and the other gripped around the spine of a tablet cover, she looked as if she was already tired of them.

“Are we ready?” she asked.

“Just waiting to be boarded,” Happy assured her.

Pepper looked over her shoulder at where Tony was sitting and sighed out through her nose, “how did you get him here?”

“He said he wanted to go,” Steve said.

Pepper hummed at that and then cleared her throat. “Well. It seems I wasn’t helpful at all.” Then she left to speak to the airport staff about getting on their plane. She was always smiling, always saying please and thank you with exactly the right sort of tone that conveyed she wasn’t asking and she would be obeyed.

“So angry,” Happy whispered.

“Yes, she is,” Steve agreed. He had made it a habit, after trial and error, to not make guesses about why the women that populated his life were angry. It was half the distance of his childhood seventy-some-odd-years ago, a set of memories comprised of a different time and a different outlook and half the simple fact that no matter how close his guess, it was never wanted. Pepper was angry and when she was ready she would tell him why or she wouldn’t.

Tony looked up from doing a great job of not paying attention to look at Pepper, and just for a second, if that long, the look that overcame his face was enough to stab Steve in the chest. He knew that feeling, that terrible longing for things that were gone, and the confusing, breath-stealing, hurtful feeling of looking at someone that was-and-was not the person you remembered they were.

“Right here,” Happy said again with his fingers tapping at his chest. “It hurts me right here.”

This was the part when Steve was supposed to promise that things would improve, that everything would turn out, that they would all be happy again. This was the exact moment that he was meant to say but the only words that he could think to offer was the nod of his head. He felt it too, just right there. “Come on,” he said, “I think the plane’s ready.”

A SIDE

It was not, as far as Steve was concerned, an ideal place to stage a meeting, but he knew very little about clandestine meetings to start with. Still, it didn’t feel private, or neutral when he found himself sitting in a corner booth at a local restaurant, looking over the top of the lunch menu while Pepper finished thanking the hostess that sat them.

Rhodey was wearing casual clothes like they were an official uniform, trying for and failing to maintain an air of civility. Even the seating seemed strategic. At least, from an outside of point of view, it must have seemed strategic. Very much the same way all those men that entered the elevator must have felt it was strategic. It was all arrogance gained from experience, but he was bold enough to think that nothing good had ever come from putting Steve in a corner. (But here he was, nonetheless, neatly sandwiched in a corner with Rhodey at one exit and Pepper at the other.) “They have good salads,” Rhodey said.

Pepper nodded.

It wasn’t the company that made it feel ridiculous but the pretense. Without the implied necessity of making a formality of trading information, they could have done this in a parking lot. They could have done this over the phone. Yet, here they were.

“Rhodey said you had information,” Steve said.

Pepper’s hands were resting on the table, folded lightly one over the other. Her smile was plastic, her back straight as a rod. (Wasn’t that fantastic? Wasn’t it a miracle, to see the loyalty that Tony had wrung out of his friends.) “I promised that I would update you if there was any unusual activity.”

“And?” Steve prompted.

“Last night,” Pepper said, her fingers curled into the menu, her fingernails caught on one stiff sheet of it as she searched for the precise phrasing she wanted to use, “a full flight diagnostic was run.”

“That’s not unusual activity,” Rhodey countered, “the suits are programmed to run self-diagnostics. The War Machine does the same thing.”

Steve snorted, he looked at the menu laying across the tablecloth and let his eyes close for a minute. (It made sense then, why they had asked him for a public meeting, on neutral territory. It made sense why they had put an empty chair between Pepper and him. Everything made sense to him, a perfectly surreal kind of sense. They were afraid of him, maybe not entirely, but just enough to warrant precautions.) “It wasn’t a routine diagnostic.”

“No,” Pepper agreed. “It has mapped a full flight plan and it has activated stand-by mode. It is,” she seemed reluctant to say, “just waiting.”

Steve nodded and Rhodey sat back in his chair with one hand on his lap and one fist half curled on the table top. He was searching through a cycle of excuses, looking for something that would explain what he was hearing. There was Pepper staring at him, waiting for him to find one that convinced her it was true.

“I sent Happy,” Pepper said. “He didn’t report anything back to me that would indicate there’s any intention to—”

“What is she doing there?” Steve asked.

“Helping to clear a road to allow the remainder of the trapped civilians to escape,” Pepper said. She smiled at the waiter when he arrived and assured him with absolute sincerity that they would need a few more minutes before they were ready to order.

“Then she must be thinking about—” Rhodey started.

“She cannot be seen using it,” Pepper cut in. That was absolute. “No photographs, no videos, no eye witness reports. Tony isn’t here. Without him, there is nobody to,” and she stopped there. Her hands relaxed again.

“We can’t assume the worst.”

“I’m not assuming the worst, I’m assuming the most likely—and I heard, is it true, I heard that Wanda and Vision are going to Sokovia to help? They’re going to be in the same city? That woman tried to kill Tony.” That was anger as raw and real as Steve had ever seen it, the sort of unchecked anger that came when you only found out the whole truth too late to help.

Rhodey’s jaw clenched and loosened but he didn’t waste any breath trying to tell Pepper that everything would be okay. Instead he looked at Steve, like he was expecting something he’d already decided he wasn’t going to get.

“Wanda went home to help the people of Sokovia,” Steve said. He could almost feel Rhodey rolling his eyes. He did glance at the man, who was still just waiting for nothing, “and unless someone told her there’s no reason that she would even know that Wanda was going to Sokovia. It wouldn’t have been the reason that she ran the diagnostic.”

“There is no reason,” Rhodey said. (Steve agreed, there was no reason to even have taken the Iron Man armor at all, but that’s what Tony had done. She’d built it and she packed it and she took it across the ocean just-in-case she needed it. That was the tricky thing about having weapons within reaching distance just in case because sooner or later you always found that just-in-case came to be just-this-once and that became it-was-necessary faster and faster every time.) “Except as a routine test.”

“You have the file,” Steve said. “Is it programmed to run a flight diagnostic on its own?”

“No, but Tony’s note said the propulsion system was buggy he was going to—”

Pepper looked down at the menu under hands, and the table fell quiet.

“Can you turn it off from here?” Steve asked.

“I can’t turn it off at all,” Pepper said. The strange thing was how her smile didn’t falter at all, not even for a moment. She looked at him without flinching when she said, “my interest is in protecting Tony, I will authorize anything you need if you will help me protect him.”

“Pepper,” Rhodey said.

“Tony trusts him,” she said across the table, “he gave him the Avengers, didn’t he? He wouldn’t do that if he didn’t trust that Steve Rogers would do the right thing.”

And that meant, at that moment, all that was left to be determined was what Steve Rogers thought was the right thing to do. Rhodey wasn’t going to be the one that told her, how he’d already figured out (what he thought he knew) about what priority Steve put on protecting Tony. No, Rhodey was going to keep his mouth shut so tight the muscle in his jaw was dancing. Rhodey wasn’t going to fight Pepper face-to-face, not with words or ideals or anything.

“If I go there,” Steve said, “it will be a fight. The only thing we do know for certain about her is that she doesn’t like me.”

“I know,” Pepper said, “that’s not what I want. At this point, I need to think about protecting his name, and his property more than I need to concern myself with her feelings.” But those words, as brave as they were, scraped out of Pepper’s throat. They didn’t come easy and they weren’t without injury. All the same, they were said and heard.

“I’ll show you what I found on the schematics,” Rhodey said. “I don’t like it. But if it becomes necessary, it would be better to disable the suit as quickly as possible with as little injury to the pilot as possible.”

“Were you ready to order?” the waiter asked.

Pepper picked up her menu without missing a beat, as if she had spent this whole time deciding what she meant to eat (as if she could eat, right now) and Rhodey did the same thing. It was only Steve, unclenching his hand from the edge of the menu he’d been holding, looking at where his fingers had left it misshapen, that had no idea at all what they even offered for lunch. He ordered the first thing right off the top (something with chicken) and apologized for the menu when he handed it over.

“Thank you,” Pepper said, without any irony, without any sarcasm.

Steve could only nod, and see how Rhodey frowned out of the corner of his eye. The rest of lunch was an exchange of pleasantries and bland small talk—the weather, sports, politics and good byes.

B SIDE

Malibu was, removed of all the circumstances, truly beautiful. A man could stand by the pool, with his hands resting on the rails separating him from an almost certainly lethal fall, and simply forget.

It was easy to forget when half the things he had to remember were ugly. (Like the sound his house made when it was hit by missiles, the sound of the structure cracking, the deep, unforgiving darkness of the water it had fallen into.) Maybe he’d had some idea of the sort of things he’d need to forget when he was a young man, full of cocky, youthful arrogance, when he’d stood on this cliff and he’d made his plans to build a house that couldn’t be built.

Or maybe it was assigning too much significance to impulse, too much forethought to what amounted to an act of petty spite.

It was nice to think some part of him had felt that something was coming. Some hindbrain part of that paid attention to the clues that, in hindsight, seemed so obvious it was a miracle he’d managed to be surprised. (Wasn’t that the hell of it, waking up alive after he’d talked Pepper through the steps of killing Obadiah, thinking that it should have been obvious that the man hated him?)

But feelings were funny things, like this unsettled sensation that was filling up his chest like bright-hot-lava. It filled in all the empty spaces between his ribs, it pooled in the center of his chest where the arc reactor was not anymore. It was only a certain amount of time until it drown him and it wasn’t (was not) coming from him. It was an echo, a borrowed feeling, an implied sensation of despair.

Tony had said, I’ll start, and that was funny because he hadn’t known then exactly what he meant. He still didn’t know because knowing was putting your hands on concrete fact, but he had an idea about a feeling that wasn’t growing out of his gut, but he could feel it all the same.

That anger, as hot as lava, and that despair (as sharp as broken glass) was her; the woman this picture-perfect world was aching for. Over there, in his sloppy, ugly world, she was six-steps from cracking apart at the joints.

A door opened behind him, and closed again, and a quiet shuffle of feet brought Happy just close enough to see out of his peripheral vision. One of his hands rested on the rail, he squinted out at the sun glittering on the water.

“I thought you were going home,” Tony said.

Happy shrugged, “I am. I just,” his hand lifted, waved in the air useless, trying and failing to convey a feeling that couldn’t be put into words.

“Happy,” he said. He turned just enough to look at the man, enough that one of his hands slid off the rail and hung at his side. “She’s angry.”

“Yeah,” Happy agreed.

There they were discussing hypotheticals like fact, both of them sharing a sensation that shouldn’t exist. Like this house shouldn’t exist, like Tony shouldn’t exist here. Accepted as fact, it was the first clue they’d found that might bring them closer to figuring out how this happened.

“She’s sad too,” Happy added. He shrugged that off, as if it were insignificant, as if this sort of hungry sadness in Tony’s gut was so easy to brush off. “Not that she’d admit it. Tony’s always angry, she knows how to be angry. She doesn’t know how to be sad.”

Tony looked back out at the water. “Maybe you should stay tonight.”

Happy nodded, didn’t speak, just looked out at the water. They took up space like that, letting the echoes of another world crackle in their chests. When it felt like the tide would drag them down, Happy snorted to himself, he said, “your Steve never met her,” as if he’d only just stumbled upon that, and his face flushed with amusement that made his eyes sparkle, “no I mean, he met you, but he never met her before? It took her six weeks to get him to hit her back when they sparred. He won’t hit a woman,” Happy said.

“And?”

Happy’s smile slipped, fell flat, “I guess it’s not funny.”

“What, Happy? What’s not funny?”

“She’s sad because she’s alone,” Happy explained, “she’s alone because he’s not there. Tony can’t—she doesn’t know how to be sad, she only knows how to be angry, and she when she’s angry she—”

Tony nodded before Happy could finish that thought, before he could say it outright, how this woman taking up his place in his world was going to find a way (come hell or high water) to vent her feelings on the man with the face of her husband. The thought wasn’t funny but it tickled him in a way, just about where he kept all his spite and all his meanness. Right about where the memory of Steve’s sour-and-disapproving face looking at him in the wake of Ultron’s unfortunate birth was kept. And he did smile then, “he’ll be fine,” Tony said, “Steve knows how to take a punch.”

Happy nodded at that. “He probably deserves one.” And his smile came back, all secret and mean-spirited.

A SIDE

Between the so-called neutral territory of a terrible lunch date and the assured security of the Avenger’s compound, Steve had simply run out of energy. He had found a quiet table outside a coffee shop that served crumbly scones and strong brew; he had ordered both and left them sitting on the table while his indecisive fingers turned a quarter over and over again.

(His mother called it fidgeting and she scolded him for it. So maybe he’d learned how to sit completely still, or maybe he’d lost the habit the way he’d lost his parents.)

The thing about Tony Stark, the most important thing, the only thing that anyone seemed to care about (anymore) was the gravitational pull of his charming smile. Even Steve, who was least likely of anyone, could admit that there were few things more likely to talk him right out of his intentions than Tony Stark with a smile on his face. (In a very, very small way it reminded him of Bucky who had a sweet smile and a wandering heart, who had wandered right into and right out of love with Steve. Because Bucky was dangerous with a smile on his face, always playing the part of a white knight riding into rescue damsels and skinny grown men who couldn’t defend themselves regardless of how hard they tried. Tony was like, immensely likeable, with unknowable morals and changeable intentions.) It didn’t matter to the (admittedly limited) people that loved Tony what he did, or what he could still do—of the danger caught in his charming smile or the devastation that his amazing intelligence was capable of—no. The people that loved Tony loved him unconditionally.

Not blindly, though. That was an important distinction that Steve hadn’t seen before. Pepper did not love Tony blindly; she loved him by choice. That choice was not without drawbacks or pain, or sacrifice. That choice was not without effort.

Here he was again, thinking that he was a ninety-year-old virgin hanging onto ideals of love he’d never truly managed to believe. Here he was thinking, he was better off alone, better off with nothing to hold him back. Here he was, seventy years after he convinced himself he was making a noble, necessary sacrifice, sitting by himself thinking about a long flight back to his most recent battlefield.

Love must have been that ugly thing that left him breathless and willing to die, staring the Winter Soldier in the face, thinking he was willing to take any consequence just for the chance to see recognition in his friend’s face one-more-time. Love must have been the selfish secret he kept. It was a choice, the way Pepper had made a choice, to love Bucky unconditionally. To love his wandering heart, to love his dangerous smile, to love him regardless of the lives he had taken. But his love was blind, and stupid, keeping secrets that weren’t his to keep; lying by saying nothing, and letting his whole gut fill up with acid every single time he saw Tony’s charming smile.

Steve was Captain America, the noble and brave, the greatest and best soldier in history—the face on the trading card, the ideal that men strived for, and just beneath that mask he was just an idiot that lied on exactly the right enlistment form.

There wasn’t much space between fact and fiction in Steve’s life, and that line started blurring if you looked at it too long. He was set to work it out for himself, with his fingers turning that quarter over and over again, but he was interrupted by a shadow falling across the table. He looked up at the unflinchingly eager face of a young woman clutching a badge in one hand. The name wasn’t decipherable with half the letters hidden by her fingers but the logo of the newspaper she worked for was clear enough.

“I’m just having,” he looked at his plate and the cup sitting next to it, long since having stopped steaming, “coffee.”

“I’m so sorry to interrupt you,” wasn’t sorry at all. It couldn’t even pretend to be sorry, “I couldn’t walk past you—not with everything that’s happened and now this unknown source claiming Tony Stark has been confined—could I get a quote from you?” She had what had to be a recording device in her other hand and she slowly invited herself to sit at his table. (He wondered exactly where this fell on the ethics scale for reporters, whether or not it was protocol or if protocol even existed for these kinds of situations.) “On the record,” she prompted.

“A quote about what?” Steve asked.

“The Tony Stark situation,” she said. “Where the Avengers are going now? How do you feel about what happened in Sokovia?”

The trouble was, people thought Steve was naive and trusting. They thought he believed the things that he was told, and that he walked into things shielded by his ignorance of the scary things that people hid behind their lies. If you heard that about yourself often enough, if you confused trustworthy with trusting and hopeful with naïve, you started to believe it. He could imagine Maria Hill running damage control, so angry she was foaming at the mouth, and the thought made him sit up straighter, made his mouth quirk up into a smile.

“I think Sokovia was a tragedy and I wish we could have done more than we were allowed to do in the aftermath. Our team is working with reputable charities to get supplies and assistance to where it’s most needed.” That sounded like something Maria would say, or something she’d write down for him to say. “The Avengers will do what we have done before, we will go where we are needed.” He flattened his hand across the quarter, pressed it into the table top. “Tony—”

“Stark,” she prompted.

“Tony Stark,” sounded like he was just conceding the point to her. It felt unnecessary to say; but she was delighted to hear it. “Continues to be one of our most trusted and valued members.”

“But is that true? We haven’t heard from him in weeks, and with all the rumors circulating about his involvement with creating Ultron—we would just expect to see a much more public response from Stark.”

Well there wouldn’t be one because Tony was trapped in an alternate world. Steve looked at her eager face, at the way the other patrons had gotten quiet, at how their heads were tilted to turn their ears toward him and he cleared his throat. “Tony is my friend,” sounded just like he meant it, “he was not responsible for Ultron,” wiped the smile right off the reporter’s face, “he’s not answering accusations because he’s busy, he’s working to find a way to make our world safer, to be able to answer threats like Ultron, and the Chitauri, and Hydra. That seems like a better use of his time and talent than trying to convince people of what they already know.”

“What do they already know?”

“The so-called experts on the news programs that say they have proof that Ultron was built by Tony Stark know as much about robots as I do, ma’am. Good luck on the story,” he smiled at her as he stood up and the quarter (warmed by his hand) slid off the table and hit the sidewalk.

“So, he’s really your friend?” she asked, half turned in the chair, trying to catch him before he got too far away.

“I trust Tony Stark with my life,” he answered, “and he’s never let me down.”

(It was easier than it looked, staring people straight in the face and telling them things they wanted to hear. Easier to stretch the truth than he expected.)

Chapter Text

Chapter 13

SIDE B

Three years, one month, and two days ago, a force much more formidable and more hostile than an army of aliens marched right into his apartment with all the presumption of welcome. Steve could remember it in fine details, the ache of his body and the throb of a headache that must have been one hell of a concussion. He had been clinging to sleep with his fingers and toes, trying to keep himself from waking up to the noise of the life trying to proceed as normal just beyond his window.

That was one thing that hadn’t changed between his childhood and this miserable modern time, people kept moving forward. They never stopped moving forward, never stopped striving to retain a sense of normalcy no matter irrevocably their lives had been changed.

Steve was wearing sweats and a shirt that stuck to the bloodspots from bandages he needed to change. Half-awake and not nearly prepared to defend himself, he suddenly found himself standing half-bent over, looking at the half-purpled face of Tony God-Damn Stark.

“We need to talk about the missile,” Tony said.

“The missile?” Steve folded one of his hands across the back of the couch that seemed sturdy, and stood closest and he leaned half his weight on it as casually as he could manage.

“Yes,” was sharp, her eyes focused on his shirt, on the bleed-through bits and then back up to his face as if she were embarrassed to have taken note of it, “the nuclear warhead that a counsel of jackasses decided to point at New York? I carried it,” her finger touched her chest before pointing upward, “through a hole in space—any of this,” was dripping sarcasm, “ring a bell?”

“Yes.”

“You work for these people,” she said. Her shoulders weren’t shrugging but they were suggesting a shrug with how her body moved. Steve couldn’t swear that he’d put too much thought into how she moved before that moment (outside the battlefield, that is) so he wasn’t prepared for how quickly she could move when she needed to. He wasn’t prepared for her to be so close he could smell her shampoo (something sweet, something soft) as her fingers coiled up in his shirt and mercilessly pulled it away from the wounds it was sticking to. “God damn it, Rogers,” she breathed in a gasp.

“It’s fine.”

Tony didn’t call him a liar out loud. She was kind enough to let the accusation sit right on her face where he could see it for himself. “Come on, lay down. Do you have a first aid kit?”

“I’m fine,” Steve repeated. But Tony was already working her way through cabinets and closets to find the first aid kit that he didn’t own. It was just as easy to lift an arm and point her toward the bathroom where he kept antiseptic, salve and bandages as it was to let her rifle through his entire apartment. He told himself it was only the path of least resistance to lay down, and that it was polite to let her do whatever she wanted. (Of course, back in those days, when Steve was still measuring his new life in weeks and months and not yet in years, he was under the impression that women were reliably irrational and must be indulged at times. Back then he still thought women like Peggy were exceptions and not the norm. He was stupid back in those days.) The couch was as comfortable as a pile of bricks.

“You’re no use to me dead,” Tony said when she was back, clutching the supplies against her chest. They whole lot was dropped on his coffee table before she pulled a pair of scissors out of her back pocket. His T-shirt split right down the middle before he even caught on that she was going to cut it. There weren’t many wounds on his torso but they were so ugly that it made it look worse than it was. “Has a medical professional looked at these?”

“I looked at them.”

“I didn’t know they gave out medical degrees at Auburndale Art School,” Tony quipped. Her fingers prodded at the wounds, pushing at the skin around them, her mouth pulled downward in a frown that didn’t change regardless of what she found. When she looked up at his face, her cheeks were vaguely pink. “Howard collected biographies about you. Not exactly inspired reading.”

“Collected?” Steve repeated. “There were enough written to warrant a collection?”

“I’ll show you sometime,” Tony said. It must have just been to distract him before she poured the antiseptic on the wounds. That was like a low fire, hot and smoldering. It wouldn’t have been if he’d done a better job of taking care of the wounds the night before but sleep had seemed (at that time) more important than bothering. (And how many lectures had he given out to the men under his command, about proper wound care and infection and death? Too many.)

“What about the missile?”

“You work for the assholes that launched it.”

“So do you.”

Tony snorted. She picked up a damp rag to (mercilessly) scrub the wound clean. It was pink with his fresh blood before she was satisfied. “I don’t work for them,” seemed to be ignoring the obvious fact that she did, in fact, work for SHIELD, “they don’t pay me,” was a quick smile, “I can walk away and there’s nothing they can do to stop me.”

“Are you?” He had to grit his teeth a minute, to close his eyes and concentrate on how perfectly small the discomfort of the aggravated wound really was. Maybe he might have had a better time remembering that he’d suffered worse if his whole body wasn’t screaming in perfect unison all about how abused it was. “Walking away?”

Tony sat back, let her arms rest on her knees, let her hands hang at her wrists. “I don’t trust SHIELD. I don’t trust Fury but even I,” her hand moved to gesture at her own body, “can’t ignore the obvious. The Avengers Initiative makes sense. I just don’t think we should be under the control of a counsel of morons that are comfortable with the sort of collateral damage detonating a nuclear warhead in a densely populated city entails.”

“I didn’t think you cared,” Steve said.

Tony laughed at that, nodding her head along with the idea until her frown became a smile (and he learned all about that smile, all about how dangerous it was, about her clenched teeth just behind it, he learned it later, but he didn’t know anything about it then). “I thought you did,” she said.

“I think wars should be fought by soldiers,” Steve agreed. “I don’t think civilians deserve to suffer.”

“Good,” was the sound of Tony picking up bandages, “so we’re in agreement. Obviously, I can get Bruce on my side. Natasha likes me well enough, but I think she likes you better. Clint will go anywhere she goes. So that just leaves Thor.”

“Leaves Thor for what?” Steve asked.

The sound of the tape being ripped away from the roll was a threat in the quiet. Steve was trying to keep up with a conversation that hadn’t even (to his knowledge) happened, and Tony was just mumbling, “hold that right there,” as if there was no need to discuss anything.

“Why do you need Bruce on your side?” His hand curled around Tony’s wrist as her thumbs were pushing the tape down on his skin and she looked up at his face. He could see it then, not much longer than a blink of an eye, the rage of anger that she hide behind her smile. Just for a second he thought he’d done far smarter things in life than grab Tony Stark by the wrist, but it was there-and-gone. His fist uncurled, he said, “I thought you were walking away.”

“I am,” she assured him. “I’m taking the Avengers with me.”

“Tony,” Steve whispered.

“It’s like this, Rogers. Either we’re going to stand by and pretend that the people we’re working with didn’t just try to blow up this city or we do something about it. I don’t know about you, but I’ve got enough blood on my hands.” Then she sighed, and she said, “I don’t need you, but I want you.”

She meant she wanted his legacy, his name, his face and his image. She wanted the nostalgia he brought with him, and the goodwill his star-spangled-suit won them in Washington. But just then, aching from a battle unlike any he’d faced before, he only heard that he was wanted, that he could be of use, that he could make the choice. It was more than he’d been offered since Erskine had walked into the exam room of the enlistment tent at the World Expo.

“Promise me we go where we’re needed, regardless of politics,” Steve said.

Tony smiled, all soft at the edges, like she was fond of how stupid he was. She said, “do I look like a woman who cares about rules?”

A SIDE

There wasn’t much grass left in Sokovia. There was dirt, and roads that were covered in dirt, and ground that had been grass once but were now buried in dirt. There were buildings that rose out of the ground like monsters, covered in dirt so thickly there was no telling from a casual glance where there had once been windows and doors.

Even the trees were covered in dust, the leaves coated so thickly that no amount of wind seemed capable of shaking them clean again. There were no birds—wasn’t that funny? How she’d just noticed it, how it didn’t occur to her until just-this-minute, standing on a patch of what could have been grass once, with her head tipped to look at the dusty brown leaves of the tree stretching valiantly toward the sun.

Time was relative here; there were no jobs to rush to. There was no traffic of people going to-and-fro. It moved in restless circles, little mobs of people moving from one charity vendor to another. The lingering survivors talking in daydream voices about the luxury of everyday events: a shower, a hot meal, a working light bulb. Desperate families had begged for extra provisions for the walk from the dirt clod of a city, out through the dusty forest and to the safety of real civilization beyond the blocked road.

But here.

Right here,

This place that might have been a park once,

Time was completely meaningless.

The vultures were still collecting their bits of machine parts, stowing them away in their boxes and cataloguing the debris piece-by-piece. A clutch of experts, a few aging men with clipboards, had erected a tent and sat like fat kings individually describing every piece by it’s weight, length, and color before labelling it and throwing it with the others.

“When I was a child,” that was the witch, the girl on the video that wiggled her pretty fingers and put nightmares into Tony’s head, “this was a park. I played here when I was a child, with my brother.”

Tony looked at her, at the intentional drabness of her clothes, and how her hands were tucked into her pockets, at how tears gathered just at the edge of her eyes and she looked at the ruins of her city like a child at a parent’s grave. (And this witch, this miserable girl, she had buried her parents and her brother already. She would know how it felt, to persist in the awful reality of living when you’d rather not.)

“You are helping to clear the road,” Wanda said.

“I was,” Tony assured her. “Before the morons came. Now none of us are clearing it.” She tipped her head back far enough to see Vision standing what must have seemed a respectable distance away, aiming for inconspicuous with a deep red face and a glowing yellow stone in his forehead. “Does Steven know you’re here?”

“Yes,” Wanda said. “This was my home.”

Happy was back, holding what passed for lunch in a disaster zone, looking pale under the ruddy-red of his flushed cheeks. His breath was labor from the jog that had brought him the distance between where he realized it was Wanda in the park and right here three steps to Tony’s left hand. “Hi,” he said with no friendliness.

(How simple, how uncomplicated it was to be Happy, to simply decide you were a match for any threat and act accordingly. Never mind neither of them were capable of defeating Wanda or Vision in a fair fight. Happy only needed to believe he wouldn’t be immediately defeated.)

“Mr. Hogan,” Vision said. He closed the gap between where he’d been standing and the growing cluster. Happy regarded him with hostility that confused Vision but his protective posture did nothing to de-escalate the situation.

Wanda was only looking at her, staring right at her without any hint of shame or embarrassment. It was unabashed curiosity, and just the barest grasp of self-control keeping her from rummaging through the interior of Tony’s skull. It would have been a simple matter of deciding to do it, and yet Wanda was keeping her hands at her sides and where they could be seen. “Why did you come here?”

“Where I’m from,” Tony said. “We don’t leave messes like this. There’s protocols, and procedures that are followed to make sure this,” she lifted a hand, motioned at the dirt in the air, “is taken care of. I came to help,” was simple enough.

I came because I couldn’t stay there. I came because I’m filling up with fire. I came because I had to move, to work, to do something with the anger that was growing-and-growing-and-growing faster than she could work it off.

No, all that was too much to say, when she’d come here to do exactly what she was doing. To help people that shouldn’t have been abandoned to live with the aftermath of a battle they hadn’t waged. (Wars should be fought by soldiers, as Steve would say.)

“Why did you come?” Tony asked.

Wanda looked sad, quiet, unsure of exactly how she’d found herself here. “This was my home. I became this,” her hands lifted, a brief flicker of pink wove in and out around her fingers, “to help my home, to protect it. I did neither.”

Happy shifted his weight, held out the bag of lunch. “There’s plenty of help needed here,” he said. “If that’s what you came to do.”

“Happy,” Tony said.

“I believe Mr. Hogan is correct,” Vision cut in. “Perhaps we should begin our time here by finding where we would be most helpful?”

Wanda was still looking at Tony (with that look, like she wanted to crack open Tony’s skull like an egg), but she nodded her head. “Yes,” was agreeing, “we should. We will see you?”

“On the road,” Tony assured her.

Happy was bristling with distaste, like a cat hissing at water, long after Wanda had walked away. “She’s unnerving,” he whispered, “it’s a feeling, right here,” he patted his stomach. “I can’t explain it.”

Tony didn’t have the patience to explain what that feeling was. That was the sensation prey felt in the presence of the predator that was going to eat it, the realization that it was unsafe, that it would be a meal soon. She didn’t say that, but rub her thumb against the tracker planted in her forearm. “She’s just a kid,” was exactly what Steven wanted the world to believe, “she thought she was doing the right thing.”

A SIDE

“You cannot go alone.”

The argument had gone stale but that didn’t mean that it was over. Steve dropped the bag he’d packed on the ground, considered if he wanted to bother with a suit or make do with just the shield. (For that matter, if he wanted to take the shield at all.)

“Apparently, he can,” Maria Hill said sourly. She was standing at attention, arms crossed over her chest and feet apart as she glared at him from outside the doorway.

“I told you that I was sorry,” Steve said (again).

Maria’s eyebrow indicated that she’d heard it, but she knew, like he knew, and Natasha who was rolling her eyes knew that he didn’t mean it. No, Steve wasn’t sorry in the least about talking to a reporter. He wasn’t sorry about the news report circulating the internet that he was best-friends-forever with Tony Stark.

Steve Rogers is Not a Robot Expert was a flashy headline in between a six dozen others that were fawning over how he was protecting his buddy. His friend. It was a little hard to stomach the headlines while he was picking out what sort of weapons he wanted to take with him to Sokovia.

“You’re not a match for her,” Natasha said. Her fingers were digging into her hips so hard her fingernails were white from the pressure.

“He would be if he’d hit her back,” Maria mumbled under her breath.

“I appreciate the concern—”

“This isn’t about you,” Natasha said. “Have you been paying attention to what’s happened? She created this entire situation! She’s the reason that Wanda and Vision are in Sokovia, why Rhodey doesn’t trust you, why Pepper just asked you to go fight her.”

“And you’re?” Steve asked. He picked the shield up and slid his arm through the straps. (There was a memory there, of her voice through the suit, the way the metallic fingers tightened against the shield and how she said nobody understand you like she did just before she snapped a bone in his arm.) “What? Angry that she beat you at your own game?”

“I don’t manipulate my own team.” Natasha put her hand up before anything could be said, “not like this. Not to fight. Fine,” both her palms were showing, her face was making a mask of honesty that didn’t quite sit straight, “I’ve made suggestions, I’ve nudged people into doing things they were going to do anyway but not this. She wants to fight you.”

But why was the thing he couldn’t figure out. Why did she hate him, why did she look at him like she was expecting to see anything else? Why did she smile at him like she knew things he didn’t even have the imagination to think up?

(Do you still believe in God, Steven?)

“You can’t go alone,” Natasha said (again).

Steve looked at Maria, “what did you say about the Avengers showing up in Sokovia right now?”

“Don’t bring me into this,” Maria said. But sixteen hours ago, she had been furious at him about speaking to reporters without witnesses, without guidance, without a script, and she’d been hissing mad about the idea of any-of-them, much less all-of-them showing their faces in Sokovia when the entire elaborate puppet show of proving the whole fucking thing wasn’t their fault was so precisely balanced it couldn’t stand any disruption without falling apart.

“You stood there and let her punch you in the face,” Natasha said.

“So that’s what this is about,” Steve asked, “you think she can beat me in a fight? You think Tony can beat me?”

“Our Tony?” Natasha snapped back (as sharp as a slap), “I don’t think he’d even try. This isn’t our Tony.”

“Natasha.” His head was filling up with noise and a dull ache at his temples. He closed his eyes for a second, long enough to tighten and loosen his grip on the shield and then he looked at her, at the angry pink spots on her cheeks and the defiant slant of her body, “I can handle myself in a fight. Rhodey told me how to disarm the suit. I’ll be fine.”

Just there, just for a second, was a look so similar to the way this new Tony looked at him. It was pity, and anger, and something almost like regret. Natasha just shook her head. “Fine,” was agreeing to disagree. She turned on her heels to leave.

Maria looked at him with uncomplicated disapproval. “Natasha’s right. You know that. This is what she wanted to happen.”

“Well,” Steve said as he ducked to pick his bag up, “I hate to get a reputation for disappointing a woman.”

Maria’s smile called him an idiot, but she managed not to say it out loud. “Be careful,” she said instead, “and when she hits you, hit her back? This isn’t the forties and she isn’t defenseless.”

“I know how to fight,” he said. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

That seemed to bring the greater conversation to a halt. Maria slid out of his way and motioned him onward toward the plane. It was small, unmarked, and piloted by Friday. One of the better things about Tony Stark, perhaps the most useful if not the most sane, was how prolific his creations truly were. Steve barely had the time to think of the need for something and Tony had already constructed exactly the solution. Like this, an unmarked plane requiring no pilot to carry him back to a country he definitely was not welcome in. Some quiet, and little, and hard to detect that give him a decent chance of succeeding.

There had been no reason to have this plane. (And Steve had said as much when Tony showed it to him, had pointed out it was barely big enough to fit enough of them to matter. But Tony had known, long before Steve, that sooner or later they’d need it.)

Inside was just big enough for a(n unnecessary) pilot’s seat and a single jump seat. Sam was already sitting there, legs sprawled out in the limited space with the Falcon suit tucked under his seat and a small carry-on bag hanging off his knee. “I know you meant to invite me,” he said.

“You knew that?” Steve repeated.

Sam looked up at him, smiling like a demon with the light of the smart phone illuminating his face. “Didn’t you?”

“Are you ready, Captain Rogers?” Friday asked.

Steve didn’t answer either of them before he stowed his bag and sat in the pilot’s seat. Even then, he took a moment to think-and-rethink this plan before he said, “yes,” like he meant it.

B SIDE

The bedroom was empty when Tony (fresh from a shower to rinse off last night’s nightmare) went past it. There wasn’t even any evidence that Steve had slept in it at all. That was a waste because he knew from experience there were few things in life as comfortable as the bed in the master bedroom. (At least, back when he could sleep soundly.) It shouldn’t have bothered him but he couldn’t help but think, he hadn’t seen the man since they arrived at the house yesterday.

Pepper didn’t even look up at him when Tony went through the living room toward the kitchen, or when he came back with a bagel, but she did look up when he came back up from the empty lab.

Her face was perfectly bland, a strained smile under pale eyebrows and pretty blue eyes as she rested one hand against the tablet in her lap. “Yes?”

“Just to be clear,” he said instead of asking where Steve was, “I didn’t do anything to you. I did not engineer this,” he waved his hand to indicate the world he was living in, “I did not try to manipulate you and pretend it was because I was concerned about you.”

Pepper picked the tablet up and leaned forward far enough to drop it on the glass table in front of her. Then she straightened her back and gently rested her palms on her thigh. “I wouldn’t dream of thinking you were capable of this,” she spun her finger in a circle to mimic the motion he’d made. “I didn’t pretend to be concerned about you. You have done nothing but cause me concern me since you arrived.”

“I appreciate that, Ms. Potts but I’m a grown man.”

“An alcoholic,” she said. “Insomniac,” two of her fingers lifted, “with nightmares,” another, “who apparently has no functional team in his world,” another finger, “obviously trying to cope with guilt over something he did recently,” she had to lift a finger of the opposite hand. “Should I continue?”

“I don’t remember you being this—”

“Honest?”

“That’s not the word I would have picked, no.” He considered the merits of defending himself, and the general usefulness of walking away. (But Tony Stark, well, he was never exactly known for walking away from a fight just because he couldn’t win it.)

“Maybe its because I never fell in love with you,” Pepper said.

Tony snorted, it bubbled up into a giggle, and he grit his teeth just before it could graduate into a laugh. “You’re kidding me, right?” He slid forward on his socked feet, pointed at the seat across from her without asking if he could sit and matched her upright posture with a careless sprawl of his own. “You’re so in love with her it hurts.” His smile was as vile and as mean as her words. “I don’t blame you. I’m lovable but it would never work out between us.” (Now that didn’t quite come out as he meant it to sound.)

Pepper looked at her fingertips, considered them and then looked back up at him, “you’re really insufferable.”

“I’ve heard that’s one of my better qualities, Ms. Potts.”

“Then I cannot imagine what your bad qualities must be,” she returned. The moment stretched, the tension twisted and then she looked sideways toward the kitchen, as if she expected someone to walk out of it (but there wasn’t anyone in it to care) before she looked right at his face. “I love her. I am not in love with her. How could I love a person who behaves so recklessly? Who puts themselves in the needless danger she does?”

“How could you love someone that didn’t?” Tony asked. That was the thing he’d always wondered, when Pepper found him the first time, when she swore she was quitting, that she couldn’t stand it, that she wouldn’t be part of it. How she could have tolerated everything he’d ever done, and she couldn’t tolerate this. “How could you love someone that didn’t care about what the weapons were doing in the world? I told myself I was making them for the right side—but that’s? That’s not a real thing, is it? Are we the right side? The people on the other side of the bombs don’t think we are. The civilians my weapons killed didn’t think it. Obadiah didn’t think we were. How could you love the person I was?”

Pepper’s cheeks were pink spotted, and her hands were flat against her thigh again. She was holding herself together with gritted teeth and a disapproving frown. “I don’t see it like that,” she said through a thick throat. “I see bullet holes in the armor. I see the bruises on her face. I see the newsreel of her falling out of the sky.”

“So, you loved me because I was safe,” he said, “and you can’t love me now because I’m not?”

“I can’t stand it,” Pepper said so quietly it was almost a whisper. “I can’t think of it. I can’t stomach it. I think of it and I think of how I’ll have to bury her next to her parents. I’ll have to live without her. I can’t stand that.”

Tony ran his hand across his brand-new jeans, picking at lint that didn’t exist. It wasn’t that he hadn’t considered it before; just that he hadn’t ever heard the words exactly like that. It was Pepper’s voice and Pepper’s face but it wasn’t Pepper. “Where’s Steve?”

Pepper snorted. “You never change,” was as exasperated as it was relieved. “Steve went for a run.”

“How long does that usually last for?”

“An hour,” she said.

“How long has he been gone?” Tony looked at his watch, (and how did it get to be ten AM already), and then at her.

“About four hours ago.” She picked the tablet up again and plucked a tissue out of her purse on the floor by her feet. She dabbed her eyes and tucked it away again. “You’re not wrong that I want to protect her,” she said. “You are wrong to think that I don’t care about you. I shouldn’t, and I’m not Steve, but I look at you and I see her a little. Just enough that I can’t help caring.” She sounded as if it were a hassle. “Happy obviously feels strongly.”

“Well, Happy,” Tony said.

Pepper smiled. “You look better.”

Better was relative. Better was electric heat in his chest that filled every part of his body with energy that he hadn’t felt in months. The heat was dim in the morning, it grew through the day until it was lava in-between his ribs, but right now, it was manageable. Right now he could do anything. “I’ll be in the lab,” he said.

“Of course,” Pepper agreed.

And there he stood, in the lab, looking at all the screens and the things he owned. He drew a breath in and let it out again. “Jarvis,” he said.

“Sir?”

“Let me know as soon as Steve gets back. Play something loud, Daddy’s got work to do.” And he smiled (because it was ridiculous but it still felt right). The music came through the speakers like a scream and he closed his eyes and thought, as loudly and as steadily as he could,

we have to get home.

A SIDE

The bandages on her fingers were as annoying as the heat of the day mixing with the dirt on the back of her neck. The sensation of being perpetually unclean reminded her of half-buried hellholes. (It reminded her of the men like slobbery dogs, waiting just beyond the door for the word from their master they could take anything they wanted from her.) Without a useful occupation, time dragged on-and-on.

And, truthfully, the only thing Tony Stark wasn’t good at was following rules. She managed to walk in a large enough circle that none of the unhurried assholes cataloguing their finds took note of her. She broke through the trees half-a-mile (or so) up the road, expecting to find nothing but debris and cracked concrete.

Wanda was standing there with her fingers coiled inward toward her palms, her arms raised up just high enough to give the impression of a man conducting a particularly lackluster orchestra. The noise of Tony’s boots had startled her; the bits of things that had been suspended in the air suddenly fell. Wanda’s shoes scraped across the ground and she straightened up to standing and her arms dropped as surely as the tree limbs that had been floating a moment ago. She was alone (but no less dangerous). “I was,” she started to say and then decided no explanation was really needed.

The trouble was, Tony was no good at not starting fights. She excelled at conflict. She was born with the troubling need to be smartest, and fastest, and best. (Maybe she wasn’t born with it, maybe it was another of those fun things that Howard gave her when she was a child.) There wasn’t much room for friendships when you were too busy making sure nobody could keep up with you. “Where’s the,” Tony lifted a hand toward her forehead, to indicate the yellow glowing stone, “whatever he calls himself.”

“Vision.” (That bit wasn’t important.) “I left him in town. Where is your man?”

“Not my man,” Tony said. “He’s looking for me, probably.” (There she was, hopelessly, hilariously outmatched by a girl half her age. There was no smarter at forty five than she was at forty four.) “So, you have to explain this to me, because I just don’t get it. Why do you hate him?”

Wanda let out a breath as if she’d been holding it all this time. As if she had any reason to think Tony was more of a threat than a buzzing bug that wouldn’t be squished. “His weapons killed my parents.”

“Your hometown’s a warzone. I doubt he was the only one making the weapons that destroyed it.” Tony’s hands were resting on her hips, her body was poised to evade an attack if necessary. “I don’t mean to sound callous. My parents were murdered. I had tea with the guy that killed them. Sometimes,” she shrugged, “I think about how good it would feel to crush his windpipe with my bare hands. I can’t and most of the time I don’t want to.”

“I was a child,” Wanda countered.

“You’re not now.”

“I don’t hate him now.” Every syllable bordered on believable. It was the kind of statement a man made when he wanted it to be true; as if he could bend reality to make it fit. (Just like Steve fucking Rogers, always warping the world into something nicer to look at.) “Are you what you say you are?”

“Yes.”

Wanda’s fingers twitched, the tips glowed pink like little lightning bugs. “You believe this is my fault?”

“I think you deserve your part of the blame,” Tony said, but she sighed and rubbed her face and tried because Steve was always whispering in her ear about how she could try. “I’m biased,” she said. That had been (but not her) in the center of angry faces laying blame and that had been Steve (but not her Steve) standing by and allowing it to happen. “Things aren’t like this in my world. I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting you where I’m from.” That didn’t satisfy Wanda’s curiosity. It didn’t help her work through whatever was making the frown on her face grown sharper. “I’m not here to help you.”

“Why are you here?”

“I have no fucking clue.”

That made Wanda smile, almost by surprise, and then it flattened out again. “Steve is my friend.” There was no telling if that was meant to be a threat. No telling by how Wanda stated it as an awkward fact. “Why do you hate him?”

(Tony didn’t hate Steve, she couldn’t imagine it, but it felt like she did. It felt like it right now, with a great yawning beast in her chest scratching and clawing to get out. It was a ruthless thing; the loneliness and the yearning to be where she belonged, to be where things made sense, to be back where she could love him.) “He didn’t protect his team. The Steve I know, he protects his team. The Steve you know? He doesn’t.”

Wanda considered that a moment and then, just when it seemed she wasn’t going to address it (or maybe that she’d settle for defending Steve for the sake of it) she said, “you do not seem like you need someone to protect her.”

“Everyone needs somewhere to feel safe.”

Happy broke through the trees behind her, puffing for breath and red in the face. “There you are,” was grasping at casual that it didn’t manage. “I’ve been looking,” he gasped, “for you everywhere.”

“We’re clearing the road,” Tony said. She looked back at Wanda who only just managed to nod.

B SIDE

The Diamond (always spoke with the appropriate capital letters) had seemed, at the time, like a waste. It wasn’t that Steve didn’t enjoy it; it wasn’t that he wasn’t excited about the possibility of it. It had always been simply that it made no sense, in the aftermath of New York, while the whole world was rearranging itself to make space for the reality of aliens and Norse gods come to real life, it seemed completely unnecessary.

Tony had given him half a dozen answers, everything from, I just need something to keep me busy so I can think to it’s team building, Rogers. If you build it, they will come and—all that.

It wasn’t until later, when they weren’t always awkwardly aware of where their elbows ended, when they weren’t trying so hard not to touch one another, when they stopped with the pretense of politeness that she’d finally said it, out right, exactly as it was.

Standing here, not even two feet from the home base with a baseball mitt in one hand, wearing sweatpants and a tight T-shirt, she had said: I built this for you. Because removed of every other motivation, or every other use, The Diamond had always, always been for Steve. The only thing that Tony couldn’t explain is why she’d pick a baseball diamond, why she’d put so much effort into it, why she’d cared to start at all.

“By all accounts,” was slipping out of his mouth in real time, as his fingers tightened around the bat she’d made for him, “it just doesn’t make sense.” The bat itself had taken her four weeks to finish; not because a baseball bat was overly complex but because she was never satisfied with the look and feel of it. The effort had been worth it in the end, the bat she created was twice as indestructible as the suit she wore into combat.

It shattered baseballs like they were made of confetti, left them as nothing more than ragged bits showered across the grass. Half The Diamond looked like a warzone with pulled red stitching and white bits; and there was catharsis in the delightful destruction of helpless things. The baseballs couldn’t feel, and didn’t care, wouldn’t be missed in this world. They were bought-and-paid for, loaded up to be pitched to him whenever he felt the need. The sound they made against the bat, just before the impact tore them to shreds wasn’t exactly human and there was relief to that.

Steve Rogers knew what human skulls sounded like when they met very hard surfaces. He knew which bones cracked and which ones shattered, and the symphony of different sounds that made. (He just hadn’t thought he knew the exact sound a throat made when you crushed it with your hands, but maybe he did. Maybe his nightmares were reinvented memories.)

Tony would have said, everybody needs an outlet. She was a firm believer in the healing power of transforming things. She made things out scraps of nothing. Steve made scraps out of things. But it was all transforming. you can’t outrun yourself, was what she said to him after dark, when they were still trying to be friends.

They knew that, the pair of them, no matter how long or hard or fast you ran, you couldn’t ever escape the things you carried on your back.

Across The Diamond, the pitching machine wound down to a stop; there were no more baseballs to destroy. Steve let the bat fall, kept one hand around the grip and lifted his free hand to push through his hair. The wind was warm but welcome as it went across his face.

Every good American boy loved baseball, and most of the good American boys could play it. Bucky had played baseball; Steve had watched from the side. Through no choice of his own, he had simply never managed to make it to the field. There hadn’t been enough time after Erskine died to take a swing at a baseball; but there had always been talk of what a fantastic publicity event it would be for Captain America to play a game.

Tony Stark had made the time, and the equipment, and the team. She’d stood not three free from home base with a mitt in one hand and her voice as soft as kitten fur, looking him straight in the face when she said, I made this for you, but never why.

Steve had been a challenge she’d undertaken once. An aggravation she’d deemed necessary. A team mate she wanted on her side when things were bad. But, on three feet from home base, she looked at him like he was nothing but a person. As if, to her surprise as much as his, he’d managed to overcome the obstacles and become real and valued. If Steve had been better, or more aware, or capable of it, he would have kissed her that night. He would have understood what she was saying when she said I made this for you, but he was young and stupid and new to this ugly modern world.

Steve stood at home base, feeling embarrassed by the offering, saying thank you.

It was possible (probable, even) that Steve had simply always been stupid. It became more likely every minute of the day; until it seemed like the only logical conclusion. Because he’d loved Peggy but he hadn’t tried. He’d loved Bucky but he never said it, at least not outright, not in the way that meant something, not in a way to stop Bucky from wandering from him to the next pretty thing his eyes laid eyes on.

Steve loved Tony, but he hadn’t protected her. He hadn’t held on tight enough.

B SIDE

The phantom feeling wasn’t constant. It seemed to come and go without warning, sneaking in like a high tide, swallowing up the sand so slowly that anybody could be forgiven for not recognizing they were about to drown. Tony didn’t notice when it started but the lack of it was so abrupt and so startling that it was impossible to notice.

“Jarvis.” It felt something like falling, only without motion, and he landed exactly where he sat with his head spinning all the while it stayed perfectly still. “Make a note of the time, and what I was just doing.”

“Where should I make a note sir?”

“Start a new project file.”

“What shall I call it, sir?”

Tony shoved his thumbs against the ridge of his eyebrow, tried to think about anything but how he felt alien in his own body. It was a tingly sensation at first, that settled into something like a low burn. (Not entirely physical, it felt quite a bit like the sudden realization that you were alone in the world. The breath-stealing sensation of isolation so overwhelming it was hard to think of proper words to use.) “Kansas,” he said.

“Of course, sir,” Jarvis agreed.

The music didn’t resume, the lab door opened behind him and Happy was there with a plate of sandwiches and a look of keen distress. “Everything okay?”

“Yeah.” (But it wasn’t, not really. He had lost her. Since he still couldn’t explain how he’d ever found her or why he had any reason to believe it was her that he could feel in his own body, there was no hope of figuring how to get her back.) “What’s this?”

“Tuna salad,” Happy said. He looked for anywhere to set it down, didn’t find anywhere and simply stood next to him holding the plate out like an offering. “So, what are you working on?”

The gauntlet that he’d left in his world, a perfectly concise bit of machinery that went entirely unnoticed by anyone that might have been looking. Tony leaned back into the chair and regarded the sandwiches (plain, soft white bread, overly moist tuna) and took one in the vain hope that it would get Happy to move a few feet back. “Nothing important,” he said. “Thanks.”

Happy didn’t move at all. Instead he hesitated, shifted around on his feet until he could see Tony better and then he resumed standing silently at his side. “It’s gone,” he said.

(Aside from the texture issues of the sandwich, it was actually fairly good.) “I know,” he tapped his chest, right where the arc reactor was still sitting in her chest, “I felt it.”

“What does that mean?” Happy asked.

Tony shrugged. “I don’t know—has Steve come back?”

“No.”

That meant the man had been gone for almost ten hours, out in the world carrying his nightmares around in his skull, acting as if nobody in the world cared where he went. Not that Tony cared specifically, and maybe less so now that he was all alone in his own body again. (Or maybe more, because it had been easy enough to get things done with her frustration burning in his chest, but the feeling faded and it left a dull spot. Now it was nothing but him, and his worry, and his fear.) “Does he do that? Disappear for hours without telling someone?”

“I think she usually knows where he is,” Happy said. “Not that she’s got a GPS on him.” Happy picked up one of the sandwiches, regarded it and then set it back down. “I don’t know what happened, I was making these and then it was just gone. What did we do that was different?”

“I don’t know,” Tony said. “I need more information, more data points, more— Where would he go?”

“Steve?”

Tony nodded.

Happy shrugged. “The Diamond? He goes up there sometimes, or there’s an Avenger’s office nearby. Sometimes he just runs.”

“Runs?”

“He likes running.”

Tony sighed. He leaned forward again and dropped the half of his sandwich he hadn’t eaten on the plate. “Thanks, Happy,” he said (again), but, “I’ve got to get back to this.”

Happy didn’t want to go but lingering was awkward enough that he didn’t want to do that either. He retreated up the stairs and the music came back on. Tony leaned his elbow against the edge of his desk and rested his chin in his hand. He tried to capture the exact feeling he’d tied to her, something like anger and loneliness, but even the memory of it was out of focus.

“Do you know where Steve is?” Tony asked. “Jarvis?”

“I do not, sir,” Jarvis assured him. “Would you like me to start monitoring social media and local news, sir?”

Yes. Yes, he would like that. Tony shook his head, “no. He knows where the house is. Tell me when he gets back.” It sounded like something he’d already said once (today) but it felt different this time. “Where was I?” he looked down at the half-finished design and picked up his pen again.

A SIDE

“Bathrooms,” Sam said (again). He had started the refrain two hours ago, when the trip that verged from long to unbearably long. It was verging into torture, cycling through an endless, quiet stream of nothing but the sound of their breathing. “For those of us that do not have superhuman bladders they’re important,” was another addendum to a one-sided conversation. “Do you pee? I was just assuming, I don’t actually know. I guess that’s not something you normally ask and I’ve never seen you—for that matter, how do you take a piss in that suit? Maybe you don’t.”

Steve had turned the pilot’s seat around hours ago, when looking out the windows at the nothing all around them had settled into his gut like an unending growl. It was easier to watch Sam—animated and amused by himself—holding a lecture about the lack of toilet facilities on the stealth jet. “It’s not easy,” he conceded.

“Some wet wipes,” Sam added, “the least he could have done is leave us some wet wipes? This is Stark, he just looks like the kind of guy that has a body guard carrying wet wipes with him all the time,” and this amused Sam all over again. He did a great show of wiping his hands with little wipes and daintily handing them off to whoever he imagined Tony’s bodyguard would be. “I heard a rumor he doesn’t like to be handed things? How does that work? Do they just set it on a table and he picks it up?”

“There’s probably wet wipes somewhere,” Steve said. For that matter if they pushed enough buttons they’d probably find a kitchen, a bathroom, and a sleeper sofa but it was a matter of knowing which buttons to push. They were just as likely to flip a switch that blew up the ship as not. (No, that was unkind. That wasn’t true. Tony would probably have labelled anything that would kill someone.)

Sam huffed. “I’m not looking.” He looked at his phone screen, sighed and set it back against his thigh. “So,” he said. “You’re best friends with Iron Man now?”

“I’ll throw you out of this plane,” Steve said.

“Come on, it’s me,” didn’t exactly invite any confidence after the forty-minute comedy act, ‘where’s the bathroom’. Sam shifted so he was sitting back in the creaking seat, leaned forward with his arms across his thighs and levelled him with a look that invited confessions. “I think it’s important to know the motivations of the guy I’m following into conflict. Are we going here to protect your friend?”

“There’s no other reason to go,” Steve said. “It’s not a conflict. It doesn’t have to be a conflict—she said she didn’t want to fight so we’ll go, we’ll tell her that she either has to leave or turn the suit off—”

“On the way back, we’ll stop at the North Pole and have hot chocolate with Santa Claus,” Sam suggested. His tone was light, but he wasn’t smiling, “I just think it’s important that everyone,” but he meant Steve, “understand that this isn’t the Tony Stark we know. This is a woman who introduced herself by attacking the compound. You can’t just stroll up to her and give her an ultimatum and expect her to take that well.”

To be fair, their Tony didn’t take ultimatums very well either. He had an odd way of removing the conditions of the original statement. It was as if he couldn’t concentrate on limited options when there were infinite possibilities. ‘Give us the suit or leave Sokovia?’ Tony would have simply laughed at them for an utter lack of imagination. “Well, if she doesn’t take it well, I seem to the only one she wants to hurt.”

Sam nodded. “I wonder what you did to her.”

“Nothing.”

“Not you you, but you from over there. I know you don’t have a lot of experience with this sort of thing, but women don’t generally get that angry at you unless you’ve done something.” Sam must have known that first hand, must have had scars to prove it from the way he said it, from how he leaned into the words. “I’m just saying, maybe we don’t walk up and offer a choice.”

There must have been a way to do it; if they had time and enough people to think it up. If they had the ability to infiltrate the city without being noticed. Last minute as it was, with limited resources and Steve’s limited imagination, it all came down to: “we don’t know what kind of weapons she has, Sam. We have to give her the chance to come peacefully because if we don’t—there’s no telling what she will do.”

Sam leaned back again. “Well,” acknowledged the uselessness of arguing, “just remember to duck when she tries to hit you.”

Chapter Text

SIDE A

Breakfast tasted like freeze dried grass lightly laid across a sampling of twig parts. The label wasn’t written in any language she could read so there was no telling what it actually was. Still, the practice of crunching it between her teeth mimicked the action of eating close enough that it made her stomach stop rumbling. Her daily bottle of water was sitting against the inside of her ankle, balanced on a little mound of dirt that had been blown up against her boot since she sat an hour ago to wait for the road crew to start assembling.

There was no reason to be up before dawn in this desolate little hellhole, but she had found herself too awake to sit still nonetheless. The charity lines started at six, Tony had stopped by the medical tent for new bandages and the breakfast line to retrieve her grassy twig bar. Then she’d sat, until her filthy clothes were coated in a new layer of dirt, and her hair was crusted with it. She sat and twisted her hands at the wrist, thinking about maybe really consider calling for the Mark 42.

It was a stupid, idle thought. Made up of stupid idle things. The suit wouldn’t help her; it wouldn’t help anyone here. It wouldn’t help the Tony who had to live here when she was through fucking around. (But still, covered in filth, left unfulfilled by the monotony of pointlessly slow work, she longed for the convenience and the efficiency of the suit.)

“How should I call you?” sounded like her favorite son. (No offense to Dum-E, not offense at all.) It wasn’t him, though. It was only his voice, employed by a thing of unknown potential, wearing a body that too many people had died to make. Vision wasn’t Jarvis, but he looked at Tony the way she thought Jarvis might have if he’d ever had a face. With detached curiosity, buffered and softened by a half-realized fondness. “That is,” Vision corrected, “what is your name?”

“Tony,” she said.

“It would be a fascinating study, to have the time to discuss what is the same and what is different between our worlds. You are unique,” Vision stuttered there, across how to address her. Tony was too familiar and Ms. Tony (undoubtedly) sounded silly to him. There was the matter of whatever remained of Jarvis looking at her and thinking of it’s father. Mr. Stark would have been familiar and welcome but not appropriate. “There are many things we could learn from one another.”

Tony gave up on the pretense of eating, folded the silver wrapper back over the what was left of the bar and tucked in into the front pocket of her jeans. “What can you do?” she asked. Her fingers touched the middle of her own forehead, “with this, what can you do?”

“I am not completely familiar with the extent of my abilities,” Vision said.

“We have to sharpen the axes,” Tony said.

Vision was momentarily stalled. He didn’t fidget, but stand perfectly still. It was inhuman, it was unnerving, how his not-at-all human eyes settled on her, and how he took his time about processing what she’d said. “I believe I can assist with that,” he said. “What shall I call you?”

“Tony,” she repeated.

“I do not believe that would be appropriate.”

“There’s nothing else.” Tony picked the water bottle up before she stood, shook the dust off it and motioned toward the road. The blunt axes had been left sticking out of the tree they were attempting to cleave into pieces. They were worth nothing, not even the effort required to pry them loose and take them home. “If you don’t like my name, make something up.”

Vision didn’t frown but nod, slightly, and relent. “Very well, Tony.” There was too much stress put into that last word, it dipped the sentence like a puddle. Vision turned with her. “How sharp would you like them to be?”

“Sharp enough to cut through the trees,” Tony said. “Is Wanda coming?”

“Yes.” Vision plucked the first axe out of the tree without effort, or even the pretense of effort. He was utterly guileless, completely without any hint of irony when he caught her rolling her eyes. “I am strong,” he said.

“I got that,” she motioned at the axe.

Vision didn’t smile precisely, but his lips quirked up at the edges. “You are not much like my memory of Mr. Stark,” he said. “I confess I am not certain how Captain Rogers is so certain that you are who you say you are.”

“Rogers was born with a trusting heart.” (And she wasn’t, and that was that.)

Vision was quiet a moment, holding an axe balanced right in front of his face so his eyes were staring across the blade to see her. He said only, “I see,” before he refocused on the axe. “This should not be difficult.”

(And weren’t those famous last words.)

SIDE A

It would have been a lie to say that Steve didn’t need sleep. The serum hadn’t made him immune to the normal conditions of living: he had to eat, and to sleep. Not sleeping left him feeling sluggish the same way it did with anyone (he guessed); his body simply kept going despite it.

Sam was sleeping off a long flight in the tent behind him. The sky had a murky quality to it, an almost foreboding grayness of incoming rain. Steve had traded the hope for and the pretense of sleep for the uneasiness of watching the sun sneak up behind the clouds. He was dressed in casual clothes, wearing what Tony had referred to as his ‘stealth underwear’ underneath. What it felt like was trying to squeeze his body into a pair of gloves a size too small, but what Tony said it was meant to do was keep all his internal organs on the inside. (He said other things too about impact and support and survival, but the gist was just the insides stay inside.) It was meant to make him less noticeable in unfriendly areas; sitting out in the middle of nowhere listening to nothing but the rustle of the breeze and the predictable cadence of Sam’s breathing, it was easy to forget he was in unfriendly territory.

Most things, Steve had learned, were easy to forget. Easy to forget his childhood, spent between one asthma attack and the next. Easy to forget the fights he lost because the streets where he’d spilt his blood didn’t look the same anymore. Easy to forget his Father, his Mother. It was easy to forget the man he was all set to settle for, the dreary, skinny, sick one that attended Aurburndale Art School. He had forgotten all that, how he’d convinced himself he could find a way to be happy with a simple job and an average wife. (Not that he’d had any hope of finding one, but he knew better now how hopeless he’d been then.)

The phone between his palms buzzed, and he swiped his thumb across the screen before he lifted it to his ear. “Any movement?” he asked.

Hill was all-authority and no fun, saying: “it just ran a full flight diagnostic. We have to get her away from what’s left of the city. Pepper has been in contact with Happy.”

“Can Happy get her away?”

“At this point, Happy is our only chance at getting her isolated. We just have to come up with a believable story, one that she’d believe long enough to follow him.” (There was more to it than that, surely.)

Steve sighed, “I can’t think of anything she’d believe.” But he could, if he sat still, he could think of plenty of things. Because Tony was curious above most things. He was always poking things, trying to figure out how to reduce them to pieces and then how to put them back together. “Happy can tell her he found something, a box, a suit—a piece of equipment. She’d probably come looking for it.”

Hill sighed. “That’s pretty simple, Cap.”

“Simple works,” he countered. “How long will it take the suit to reach her once she calls for it?”

“Our best guess is ten to fifteen minutes, that’s give or take ten minutes. Rhodey says that’s as accurate as you can get with untested equipment.” Hill went quiet.

Steve looked over his shoulder at the sound of Sam moving around in the tent.

“I’ll call you with coordinates and an approximate time to meet up with Happy. Protect your face,” she said, “it’s less than two weeks before the benefit broadcast.” Then she disconnected the call without so much as a good-bye.

B SIDE

“Sir.”

The mountain of bodies hadn’t ever talked to him before, not dead-Steve’s hand grabbed his arm, not until those words (on endless repeat): you did this. It hadn’t ever shifted, so the bodies slid and the phantom shape of an almost man sat up to look at him. The nightmare stopped, just briefly, as he tried to catch up with this new incarnation of the same old-same-old dream.

“Jarvis?” he said.

“Captain Rogers is approaching the garage, sir.”

And he was awake, pulling himself up to sitting with a too-fast drag of breath. The garage lights turned on with the motion, flooding the space with light as bright as sunshine, leaving him with spots dancing in his vision. “That’s unpleasant,” he announced to no one, and Jarvis, (apparently used to his nonsensical mutterings) didn’t deem it necessary to reply. “Where is he?”

The answer was the sound of the door opening and a quick stall to slow footsteps, Tony was still blinking blind spots out of his vision when the door closed, and Steve was standing there dressed to leave. For a fully-grown man, one that had taken on monsters and murderers and armies of enemies, he looked comically intimidated to have been discovered. “Did you sleep down here?”

“Nodded off,” Tony assured him. It certainly hadn’t been that he woke up three hours ago, feeling as if his insides were possessed by a foreign body, with the undeniable urge to charge into the master bedroom and demand that Steve—

What? That was the bit that he couldn’t figure out. He had no idea what he wanted from Steve. That had led him to the lab, that had meandered from his desk to the garage with the intent of catching the man before he could sneak away again. Here they were, looking at one another, gauging how important it was to call out the obvious lie.

Steve’s hand closed around the keys he was carrying. “How have you been?” was so painfully polite that the sound of it made his ears hurt.

“Great.” Tony shoved himself up to his feet. He tugged his T-shirt down and curled his toes in his socks (thinking he perhaps should have worn shoes to confront Steve) before he lifted his shoulders in a half shrug, “so you’re avoiding me.”

“I’m not—” Steve didn’t bother to finish the sentence. Instead he looked sideways at his getaway vehicles (a motorcycle, a truck, a few dozen cars it would be funny to watch him try to fit in). “It’s not you,” must have been closer to the truth.

If only there was a way to explain to the woman one universe away from them that it wasn’t her. (Something told Tony that it didn’t matter whether or not it was her, she’d take it personally regardless. It felt personal, even to him, who didn’t have any right to take things like being avoided personally.) “My mistake.”

Steve turned his head back, expression morphing into something that might have produced a heartfelt apology, except—

“I just thought, since you talked to Pepper yesterday, and you had a midnight snack with Happy that it must be.” He paused a beat, “me. That you were avoiding.” He lifted a hand, contemplated the idea and then shrugged it off. “Why would you avoid me? It’s the,” he touched his finger to his forehead and then dropped it away, “nightmares and the,” his fingers danced in the air, “universe switching that’s making me imagine things.”

Halfway through his monologue, Steve’s regretful posture mutated into the fed-up hands on the hips pose that Tony was familiar with. It settled into a cross-armed look of condescending silence that came across on this man’s face as something almost fond, as if he’d been on the opposite end of these sorts of conversations enough times that it didn’t even annoy him anymore. “Are you finished?”

“Are you going to lie to me again?”

“It’s not a lie,” Steve objected. “It’s not you. It’s,” (his wife), “I just need a little time. I’ve already put too much on you, I just need to get things straight in my head before I—” There was that helpless motion of his hand again, the trail off of his voice arriving at no conclusion.

Tony sighed. “It wouldn’t be the worst thing,” (hopefully), “if you were around.”

“Ok,” Steve said. His arms loosened, fell away from chest, and he sighed. “I’m going for a—run, and probably to The Diamond.”

“Don’t forget to eat,” Tony said. He dipped down to pick up the blanket he’d carried through the house with him. “I’m going back to a bed.”

A SIDE

There was a misconception, cultivated in press rooms, reprinted in newsprint, that Tony Stark had simply decided one day that she would be a hero. They pinpointed the moment that she’d flipped the switch from war-monger to superhero. One bland face after another asked her about the cave in Afghanistan, about how she had found the strength to survive, how she had become Iron Man. She’d always hated how simple they made it, how easy and careless the very idea seemed when they asked.

It wasn’t their fault; she’d been passing out the same answer about accountability and having her eyes opened since the first man with a tape recorder asked for her story. Tony perpetuated the myth that superheroes were doubtless, fearless beings, throwing their lives away for the betterment of the world. She left out of the dark bits, and the aching parts. She left out this:

The look on Wanda’s face, caught in the center of a circle of dust-covered faces. The uneasiness of her posture as her fingers curled and uncurled at the ends of her arms, she wasn’t brave and she wasn’t a hero standing there. These were the people that had grown up in her city, the ones that had been hurt by the same war that had hurt her, the ones that had their lives destroyed by the choices that she’d made.

Maybe Hydra had made promises about how they would empower her, how they would give her the strength and the opportunity to avenge her parents. Maybe their lies had been honey in Wanda’s ears, but the reality of that choice was this:

A broken road, a collection of survivors that simply couldn’t escape, and the guilt.

The newspapers and the magazines always asked her how she’d found the strength to survive. Tony had an honest face and a liar’s tongue, telling them everything they wanted to hear about courage and perseverance and nothing at all about Yinsen. Yinsen’s steady hands, and his uncomplicated honesty had saved her in a dark place. Survival had created the Mark 1 in the desert, but anger, at the needlessness of Yinsen’s death, at his acceptance of it, at his acceptance of the death of his family, at his hopeless courage had built the suit after.

The difference between heroism and superheros was a good PR firm.

Happy leaned in against Tony’s back, “isn’t she going to do something?”

Wanda looked across the crowd at her, right at her. This is what Wanda had been promised by Hydra, to be able to help her city and her people, but it wasn’t how she’d wanted or how she’d imagined. Still, she lifted her arms. The red gathered across her palms, wiggled and squirmed between her fingers. It spread, stretched and pooled under the debris. The road groaned, the metal and wood scraped and whined before it moved. It appeared to lurch, burdened by its own mass and width, it barely lifted far enough to be seen, but it moved to the side and fell into the grass. When it dropped, Wanda’s shoulders dropped with it, she gasped for breath.

There was no cheer, no scream, no clapping but a quiet that rippled through the crowd. One face turned to look at the next. The men with thick shoulders and freshly sharpened axes were looking at each other before they shrugged and nodded. The nod spread as quickly as the quiet, until they were all bobbing their heads along.

“How long can you do that?” Artur asked.

Wanda straightened her back. “As long as I need to.”

Vision was standing out like a great sore thumb, with his bright red face and his calmly folded hands simply observing the whole. He drew a few sideward glances and he smiled as understandingly as he could. “I will help.”

Wanda looked at him with unashamed gratitude. “Thank you,” she said. “I only want to help,” she said to the others.

“Good,” Artur announced. He said nothing else, but set about picking through the debris moved off the road to pull out the metal bits. “We’ll need the vulture’s money to repair the road.” That gathered others to the mission with renewed vigor.

A SIDE

The shield, Howard’s experimental shield, the rarest-metal-on-earth shield was leaning against the pilot’s seat in the plane. Steve had gone through the trouble of bringing it along, but he had not (yet) convinced himself that he should take it any further. No matter how long he stood still, no matter how long he looked at it, no matter how many times he reminded himself that taking the shield was good common sense, he couldn’t make his body move to pick it up.

It wasn’t the memory of her voice through a metal face, it wasn’t the continual echo of those words (do you still believe in God, Steven), it wasn’t the phantom sensation of a minor fracture that had all but completely healed before it had time to bother him. Steve had been thrown through walls, out of windows, across battlefields—he’d suffered worse injuries and worse embarrassments in his life than having the shield used as a weapon against him.

It wasn’t the ghost of Tony (hands on her hips, staring him down with an all-knowing smile) that stood between him and the shield.

He thought, and didn’t think, it must have been Howard. It must have been the man as Steve had known him, young and bright-eyed. The Howard that was cocky and full of life, with color in his cheeks and old-fashioned mischief caught in his shiny white teeth. That was the Howard that Steve imagined when he heard the name; not the old man that he’d seen in the pictures. He didn’t imagine Howard in somber colors, staring dully out of photographs, looking as if life had taken him and twisted him up until there was nothing recognizable left. But the young Howard who had dismissed the shield as nothing but a prototype, that Howard wouldn’t have bothered to stop him.

“You ok, Cap?”

Taking the shield was a choice; as deliberate as showing up to this fight wearing a flag on his chest would have been. There was a reason he hadn’t brought the uniform (and it wasn’t Natasha’s insistence about stealth and Hill’s unyielding orders that he couldn’t be discovered or Pepper’s quiet command that Iron Man not be photographed). The suit, and the shield, they belonged to Captain America and it wasn’t Cap that had been sent. (Or it was, but it didn’t feel like it was.) Captain America wore his suit into battle, and war, and to what he thought was his death. But this was none of those things.

“Steve,” Sam said.

“I’m fine,” Steve said. He looked down at the phone, at the coordinates that had just arrived and the time. Back across the Atlantic, Maria Hill must have felt it better and simpler to send him a text than making a phone call.

(Tony is my friend.) It shouldn’t have been so hard to say, to think, to make himself believe. It shouldn’t have made him feel like a liar—he’d been friendly with Tony (when the occasion called for it), or as friendly as anyone could be with Tony. The man wasn’t unlikeable; he was just exhausting. Tony was always in motion, moving forward even when the rest of them were standing still, always thinking and rethinking and double thinking until he’d arrived at conclusions to questions they hadn’t even had time to consider.

Of course there were other things in the universe, and of course, they should have an idea of how they planned to defend the planet. And of course, they should prepare for the sobering realization that they would not always be capable of defending Earth. (But together, but in a way they agreed on, taking the time to make sure everyone understood the details.)

“You mind saying that again,” Sam asked him. He finished tightening the straps that held his suit on. “But this time make it sound convincing?” He was close enough to see the screen on the phone, just before it went black.

“I’m fine,” Steve said. Just, maybe, he should have let Natasha come instead. He should have agreed when she reminded him how she was better trained and better equipped at infiltration and stealth than he was. At how she had no problem with drugging Tony before she could call the suit and how Natasha would have been done by now, back on her way to the States with an unconscious body in the narrow cargo area of the jet.

That must not have been any more convincing. “How are we doing this?”

“I’m going to ask her nicely,” he said. “If that doesn’t work, we’ll have to persuade her to do the right thing.”

Sam nodded along with the words: up, down, up, down. “And how long do we have before the suit goes from,” he motioned to his left side to indicate where it was now, “to?” his hands moved to the space between them.

“Ten to thirty minutes. Hill said they couldn’t give us any better answer. It hasn’t been tested—Rhodey looked at the blueprints, he said that she’d modified the propulsion system in a way he wasn’t familiar with. It’s not anything he’s seen Tony use before.”

“So, she’s, what? Smarter? Than our Tony?” Sam was frowning about that, “the guy’s already too smart.”

No. It wasn’t that. (All flaws aside, Tony was smart, and it was hard to imagine anyone that could claim to be smarter.) It was a ruthlessness in her smile that Steve wouldn’t have believed (for a half second) the Tony they knew could have manifested with his whole body. There was a familiar glint to the white of her teeth, gritted in open defiance. “Maybe she just thinks differently. We don’t know what Tony was thinking when he built the suit—I think we know what this one was thinking when she modified it.”

“Oh,” Sam said, “so we’re walking into this with our eyes open. We all know that she’s going to kick your ass. She built a whole suit just to do it and she put rockets in it.” Sam’s tone was light but he wasn’t smiling. He looked out through the trees, and kept his hands busy straightening the goggles before he put them on. “I think you should bring the shield, Cap.”

“I think that’d just piss her off, Sam.”

“We might be past that point. At least, if you have the shield, you can protect your face.” He clapped his hand on Steve’s shoulder in the way men did before battle, to indicate they wished you the best, and to agree without speaking, that the mission would probably fail.

B SIDE

You’re an idiot, was the very first thing Bucky had said to him. He’d been wearing a baseball cap, with scruffy cheeks and his face half hidden in careful shadows. They were strangers on a street together, Bucky managing only just anonymity to go unnoticed by folks who had moved on from the sensational story of Shield’s downfall. There were new assassins, new threats, and new problems to face. Nobody cared about an assassin who had been photographed last year, wearing all black with a silver arm, shooting explosives at cars in the middle of the day.

Steve was wearing every-day clothes, fighting off the sensation of desperation that was slowly filling up his body from his toes to this eyebrows. Yeah, well, he’d said back, I kind of always have been.

That made Bucky’s lips pull up on the side, made him lift his head and look sideways at him. It was just enough to see his face. God damn it, Steve. But more importantly, how did you find me?

That was the thing, Steve had looked in his spare time, after hours, never on the Avengers’ time. He’d gone searching through the news for sightings. He scoured tip lines for any indication that Bucky had been spotted but he’d always ended up with nothing. Not even Fury, the spy had been able to find any lead worthwhile enough to follow up. It was brewing itself up into a great lost cause, until Tony showed up at his door with a sheet of paper crushed in her fist to say:

So I found him. (And she'd had the choice to tell Steve or not. She could have done whatever she wanted to Bucky and Steve wouldn't ever have needed to know, but she hadn't. She come and she'd stood in his doorway and she'd handed him that slip of paper.)

On the side of a street, standing so close to Bucky he could smell the heat of his body, he couldn’t think of anything but how much he wanted to be able to save him. Let me help you, Buck.

You can’t help me, sounded just like a memory, like every split second before the big-tall boy punched the kid Steve had been right in his face. There was never a good reason for the fights Steve had gotten himself into as a child. That hadn’t stopped him, and the way Bucky looked at him with regret now wasn’t going to stop him.

“Nobody can,” Steve said, right out loud, right here in the dugout of The Diamond. He was rolling the ball between his palm and his thigh, leaning back against the faux plank boards that covered all the bits that had been built capable of absorbing lightning and (mostly) withstanding the sudden impact of a body thrown with too much enthusiasm against the side. His phone was sitting on the bench next to him, with the unnamed contact pulled up and waiting for him to work around to pressing the call button.

A year and six months ago, he’d stood next to Bucky and said, don’t make this a fight, and he’d known then (as sure as he knew now) that certain things had an inertia all their own. Certain actions only had one outcome, that people couldn’t change who they were, and that Bucky wasn’t going to go without fighting.

Bucky hadn’t looked away from him as he shifted his stance, as he planned exactly how he was going to escape. He was working out what he thought he knew about Steve and how to use that against him. That must have been why he didn’t see the woman walk up behind him, why he didn’t feel the danger at his back until the needle was plunged into his neck. It was why his eyes were wide with shock as his knees gave out and Steve caught his body as it fell, whispering something like, I’m sorry.

Natasha cocked an eyebrow up at him, flipped the syringe around so it was out of view and said, you have no survival instinct, Rogers.

He must not have, because Steve was back in Malibu a week later, standing in front of Tony doing her best impression of civility saying something stupid like, he’s my friend. I have to help him.

There were tears in her eyes but there was no pain in her voice. She said, yeah I know.

Steve didn’t tell her that he was sorry (but he was), he didn’t try to make it easier for her (because it never would be, because it was ugly, and complicated, and awful), but he said, I love you, because he did.

Yeah, she said, I know.

A SIDE

“This is good.” It was a strange thing for Happy to say. Strange to hear to the side of a disaster clean up, to be spoken by a man that was as red as a beet, covered with sweat so thick it had puddled into mud on his neck and all around his mouth. It was a punctuation to the sound of hopeful voices, a perfect addition to the almost laughs shared back and forth between the people carrying wreckage to the pit. “Isn’t it?”

Tony’s hands were burning, the bandages were soaked with blood all over again, there was mud in every dip and bend of her body. She was sixteen steps past exhausted and rendered delightfully, amazingly useless by Vision, Wanda and the survivors of the Sokovia disaster. “It’s very good.” It just didn’t feel good. There was no accomplishment for her, and that was selfish when she’d come here hoping to find a purpose at the expense of the suffering of others. It stayed though, right there in her chest, a crouching, selfish little beast that never slept.

Happy smiled at her like he understood. “Good for Wanda too,” he said.

Tony rubbed her arm across her forehead in an attempt to wipe away the mud and felt it smear instead. “When’s the last time you slept?”

“I slept last night.”

Tony snorted. “I meant well, you always start repeating yourself when you don’t sleep well—”

“I’m not repeating myself—”

“This is good? This is good for Wanda? Tell me how those are two separate statements?”

“This is good,” Happy repeated as he spread his arms around to indicate the debris cleared to the sides, and the people that were sorting it. “And this is good for Wanda,” he pointed up the road at where she was digging car parts out of the shattered road. Vision was pushing the chunks of pavement back into place, working to make the road as passable as possible. “Those are two different ideas—”

“I think you’re protesting too much for an innocen—”

“Tony,” was a whispered shout, cutting into what she was going to say. Happy’s hand curled around her wrist just above the glove she was wearing. “When’s the last time you slept?”

A few days, a couple of weeks, twelve days exactly. Since the night she’d fallen asleep with her husband and woken up alone in New York. Tony twisted her hand and pulled it free from his grasp. “I sleep fine.”

Happy looked like he wanted to shake her. It wasn’t the first time she’d seen that look cross his face, the edge of desperate just barely covered by the pretense of their employer-employee relationship. (Not that they’d done a very good job maintaining that over the years. Happy was doing all the work maintaining a professional boundary while following her around like a loyal bulldog, barking at anyone that got close enough to cause a problem.) It lingered, didn’t fade, but Happy wasn’t going to call her a liar. Instead, he said, “I was taking a moment,” (but not a break), “and I heard the guy, you know the one that comes from,” Happy pointed in the direction of where he thought the houses in the country were, “he was saying some kid was telling everyone they found a ul—you know who.”

“Voldemort?” Tony said.

Happy frowned at her.

“Fine,” she sighed, “so you overheard a guy talking about a kid who was telling someone that there’s hunks of metal in the forest?”

“I don’t appreciate the tone,” Happy said.

“There’s no tone.”

“There’s a tone,” Happy objected, “I thought you would be interested. I wasn’t going to tell you at first because I thought you’d do this, but then you look,” he looked directly at her face, “sad,” and then away, “so I thought you might want the distraction. That’s okay.”

Tony sighed, let her head fall back so the wind blew through her hair and across the tacky sweat on her throat. She closed her eyes, let the sensation of exhaustion roll through her whole body as Happy kept on and on talking without end, and then she tipped her head forward again, “fine,” she said, “we’ll go. If that’ll make you happy. If that will make you stop talking.”

“Don’t do me any favors,” Happy said back.

“Happy,” was as close to interested as she could fake, “please, lets go get lost in the forest together. It’ll be great.”

“I don’t appreciate being mocked,” Happy said, but he pulled his gloves off, “but, if you really want to go?”

She tugged her gloves off too, folded them over and shoved them into her back pocket. She ignored his outraged face looking at the bandages and the pink stains on her hands. “I really do, Happy. Come on.”

B SIDE

Tony woke up with the headache, as hot as sunburn, as tight as a vice. The nightmare was an unknowable thing on the other side of his consciousness. The details were foggy, half-remembered, getting easy to forget every second that he was awake.

What a bunch of seconds they were, a startled shout, the sound of Jarvis coming to life (a little lull in white noise and then the sudden appearance of a voice saying): “should I call for Ms. Potts, sir?”

Tony’s hands were in fists, clutching at the blankets he only half-remembered covering up with. The headache made it hard to keep his eyes open. He could hear a thunder of footfalls on steps, but he was too busy fighting to get his legs free from the blankets. “No, tell me where Steve is,” he said. There was sweat as thick as mayonnaise on his face, soaked into his shirt and slicking up the spaces between his fingers. “Jarvis.”

“I am scanning social media, sir.”

The door was pulled open in time with Tony getting one foot free from the blankets. He only barely managed to pull the other leg out before Happy was standing there all red in the face and saying, “it’s back. It’s bad.”

“It’s not great for me either,” Tony assured him. “What is bad? What kind of bad, I can’t—I can’t concentrate. I can’t think.” He couldn’t coordinate his limbs into a uniform motion. His arm was going left toward his phone and his hand was going south toward the rolled-up leg of his pants. One of his knees was trying to stand up while one of his ankles was remembering how to push his foot flat against the floor. Happy’s two great palms shoving down against his shoulders, pushing him back into place on the bed was the only thing that kept Tony from landing on his face on the floor.

Bad, bad.” Happy was a genius in a simpleton’s body, a philosopher in the flesh of a peon; a man of few (worthwhile) words, Happy never once failed to make his entire meaning known.

“Shit.” Tony let his head hang forward, pressed the heels of his hands against his temples and found it did nothing but make the tightness twist a bit more. His stomach was flip-flopping in his gut, churning up in a way he couldn’t swear it had bothered ever since he was new to the phenomenon of hangovers. “Let me,” he said, “let me—move your hands, let me think.”

“I don’t like this,” Happy said.

They had to find Steve. He had to find Steve.

“What’s going on?” Pepper demanded. She was standing on her toes, not wearing her heels, with her slim skirt pulled up her thighs so she could run up the stairs. Her hair was in disarray (and Pepper was never more beautiful or more dangerous than when her hair was in disarray). “What’s wrong with you?” Her hands were blessedly cool against his overheated face, her body was deceptively close, offering him a familiar comfort he couldn’t wrap his arms around. “Are you sick? I expect an answer.”

“It’s hard to explain,” Happy offered.

Tony groaned, got to his feet. That was a brand new sort of agony, the interior of his skull gave it’s best impression of a can-crushing machine. “Is there Tylenol in the bathroom?” There always had been before, it was just a matter of getting his eyes open long enough to find it. Or a matter of Pepper’s arm reaching around him to pluck the bottle out of the cabinet, a shake of pills being dispensed and the luke-warm water straight from the tap to help them go down. He rested his forehead against the edge of the table, breathed in and breathed out.

“You can feel the other universe?”

“I think,” Happy said. “This is bad,” was directed at Tony. “I don’t like it.”

Tony stood up straight, grabbed the bottom of his shirt and pulled it over his head. “Jarvis, where is he?”

“Who?” Pepper demanded.

“There is a ninety-five percent chance Captain Rogers is currently at The Diamond, sir.”

A fresh shirt felt lovely against his sticky skin, he kicked the sleeping pants off and found the jeans he’d been wearing yesterday. They slid on with little resistance, catching only around his thighs before he yanked them up. “Pepper,” he looked up at her, got his vision to focus long enough to see her shock, and her worry, and her anger, “I’ll explain when I get back. I have to go find Steve.”

“I’ll drive you,” Happy said.

No. “I got it,” Tony said. “I’ll call you. It’ll be fine. I just—” It was easier to leave that sentence unfinished, to go down toward the garage, and the cars, and therefore closer to Steve, than it was to stay and try to explain something he couldn’t exactly understand himself.

A SIDE

“Happy, there’s no harm in admitting that you don’t know where we’re going—the first step in solving a problem is admitting it exists.”

“It’s just a little farther, I heard him say the kids saw it in a copse of trees.”

“A copse?”

“Yeah, you know, a circle of trees?”

“Happy,” was the very last thing Tony said before she stepped around the last tree that stood between her and Steve. Her mouth was almost a smile, caught up in trying to convey exasperation and amusement. Her clothes were so thickly coated in dirt they had turned stiff and brown. She saw him immediately, and her hands formed into fists. “You son of a bitch.”

“I’m not here to fight,” Steve said. But he was here, in the middle of the woods, as far away from line of sight and sound as they could get. Here with nothing but a tight blue shirt and a pair of khakis. Here with his palms lifted up in surrendered before they could even start.

Tony looked sideways at Happy. He stepped backward, looked sorry and embarrassed. “It doesn’t have to be a fight,” he said, “nobody wants to fight you. It’s just time to go home.”

Rhodey couldn’t figure out, and Steve didn’t know, and Pepper couldn’t see on hours of videos from the lab, exactly what gesture called for the suit. There was no telling if the trackers in her arm had already called for it, if the system would relay the information to Pepper, to Hill, to him in time for him to prepare for it. He started counting the moment she saw his face, seconds to minutes.

“If you didn’t want a fight why did you lie to me?” she asked. Her arms lifted up to cross over her chest, she said, “tell me that, Hogan. Tell me why you brought me out to the middle of the forest if you didn’t want a fight—what,” she turned her head to look at him. “You’re too good to walk into Sokovia?”

“Come on, Tony,” he said. “How would that look? I can’t just show up here.”

Her hand motioned at his entire body, case-in-point to the opposite.

“I don’t want to fight you.”

“You keep saying that.”

“This isn’t about you. This is about Tony, about our Tony.” Steve paused, watched her face (counted ten-and-fifteen-and-twenty seconds away from an unknown total). “I can’t let you use the suit.”

Tony smiled, her head was shaking back-and-forth and back-and-forth. “You know, Rogers. I read the articles, about that interview you did at a coffee shop. I got to say, it made a good headline, it was exactly the kind of thing people like to read. It’s precisely the lie that the good people of America need someone to tell them, but you’re forgetting Rogers.” She stepped sideways, farther away from the tree, closer to him. There was nothing but space around her now. “I’m not him. And you're not nearly man enough to stop me.”

“I meant what I said,” Steve said.

Sam, in his ear, was whispering, “we’ve got confirmation, the suit is moving.

“You’re not his friend, Steven. You’d give up anything for your fucking friend. That’s funny, too, because if you weren’t a dick, if you’d ever asked, if you’d managed to think,” every word was venom, “he would have found Bucky for you. I found Bucky.”

Steve dropped his arms, looked over at Happy, “you should go,” he said. “I can take it from here.”

“How did you think this would go?” Tony was shrugging out of the long sleeve shirt. It dropped into the leaves like damp cardboard. Her arms were bare and dust covered, she pulled the cap off the arc reactor and threw it to the side.

“I thought it would go like this,” Steve agreed. Just, “it doesn’t have to. I’m not here for a fight. You keep saying that you want to protect him, that’s all I want. We just want to know that the suit isn’t going to be used, that we can trust you.” He flexed his hands into fists, “just, come back to New York with me, we’ll help you figure out how to get home. That’s what you want isn’t it?”

“You really are just like him,” She said. She lifted her right arm over her head, he almost heard the faint whistling sound just before the impact of metal on flesh. The gauntlet folded around her hand in slow motion; time simply stopped as the other pieces came. Her body rocked forward when they landed but she didn’t stop looking at him, right at him as the suit wrapped her up.

B SIDE

The baseball should have hit Tony. The only thing that kept it from (probably, or nearly) killing him was how it ripped apart at the stitches. It exploded like confetti less than a foot from Tony’s chest. That didn’t give him enough time to process that it hadn’t struck, that there was any sense of relief, just enough time to blurt out, “Tony!” It was enough time to throw the bat, to cross the space between them, to grab Tony by the arms.

Tony said, “calm down, Cap, I’m fine.”

A ball hit the cage behind home base with a crack loud enough to echo through the empty diamond. Steve should have let go but his fingers were confused about how nothing had happened, about how they had finally found their way to Tony and he was trying to talk them down. Another ball hit the cage.

“Maybe turn that off?” Tony suggested.

“Why are you here?” Steve turned his head to tell the machine to stop and it whirred to a stop. He managed to unclasp one hand before Tony stared down at the right hand that still hadn’t managed to let go. “You could have gotten hurt.”

“You said you weren’t hiding from me,” Tony said.

“I’m not.” It was true, depending on one’s perception of the truth. He wasn’t hiding from Tony; he just didn’t want to be at the same place Tony was at the moment. Possibly because of how embarrassing it was to have his hands refuse to follow directions.

Tony pushed against his wrist until he let go. “You regularly spend hours exploding baseballs?” Tony’s hands slid down into pockets, he kicked a scrap of the ball away from his foot and looked back up at him.

There wasn’t a lot about this man that was physically the same as the woman he married. Not identical, he had broader shoulders, thicker arms, slimmer hips—more facial hair, pinker lips, but the eyes were the same. They were exactly the same, the way they expressed amusement, the tilt of his face, always angling for condescension but almost always falling just short. Steve’s hands rested on his hips, “that’s why she built the place. Why are you here, Tony?”

“I don’t know,” Tony said. “I woke up—with this headache. The worst headache I’ve ever had. I scared Pepper—” his hand pulled free from his pocket to point back toward the house. “I broke the speed limit, I don’t know. I have no idea why I’m here.” He sighed. “Here doesn’t exist where I’m from.”

“The Diamond?” No. Not the diamond, not the literal diamond, but the idea of it. The closeness of space between them, the inexplicable desire to see one another. It didn’t exist where Tony was from because they weren’t even friends there. “Right,” Steve said.

“Probably my fault,” Tony said.

“Don’t do that.”

“What?”

“Pretend.”

Tony was quiet, hands in his pockets, standing still, just staring at him. “I wasn’t pretending, Steve. You hate me. That’s not fair,” he looked sideways, “hate would imply that you care, you couldn’t display your apathy toward me any clearer. I am there or not, it doesn’t matter to you. I’m an annoyance or a convenience, and some days probably both.” He shrugged, “I’ve given him reasons.”

Steve just didn’t have the patience. “Look,” (but they had to try, even when they’d rather not, they had to try), “I don’t know everything, but I do know Tony Stark and you’re annoying. You can be a real pain in my ass, but I’ve never hated you. If he does, or if he doesn’t care, it’s because he never took the time to try.”

“You don’t know me, Cap.”

“Fine.” There was no point in arguing unwinnable arguments, “but I know its his loss.”

His water was in the dugout, sitting next to the phone he still hadn’t managed to dial. He’d have to get the rake out of the little closet built into the end, clean up all the bits of the balls he’d destroyed before he left. He ducked down to pick up the water, and the phone, and closed his eyes at the sound of Tony following right behind him. “If I say I was avoiding you, would you go away?”

“I don’t think so.” Tony shrugged, "maybe. I don't know why I'm here."

Steve sighed, turned around and sat on the bench. It gave him a splendid view of Tony leaning against the doorway of the dugout. A perfect view of how uneasy the man was to be caught in close quarters with him. “What could you have done?”

“What?”

“What could you have done to him that he would hate you?”

Tony shrugged. “I make a lot of jokes about him.” He shifted his weight, so he was leaning against the opposite door jam, looked out at the field. “I may have said he was nothing without Erskine’s formula.”

Steve snorted, “you and seven thousand other people.”

“I cause problems,” Tony said.

Yes, well, they were champions of causing problems for one another. It wasn’t a matter of the problem causing but the problem resolving. He took a drink of the mid-day-warm-water, let it wash down his throat, and leaned his head back against the plank boards. “Big problems? Insurmountable problems?”

“Kind of big problems,” Tony said. He picked at the paint on the doorjamb, wiped it against his jeans. “Planet killing robot problems.”

Steve had forgotten about that. He looked over at Tony without moving, considered what he wanted to say. He didn’t know all the facts, but he knew Tony (even if she had taken on this new shape) well enough to know that she wouldn’t have purposefully created a planet killing robot. She wouldn’t have let it go either, it would have sat on her shoulders until she died, whispering into her ear every time she touched anything new.

(Remember what you did.)

“Not that kind of problem,” Steve said. He leaned forward, “I mean, my best friend killed your parents, but I still want to save him from himself kind of problems.” It wasn’t something they talked about very often, or at length. It came up after dark, when the world had settled into something almost ugly, and they were both beaten raw by the relentlessness of moving forward. They were at odds, her anger and her grief and his apologetic loyalty to Bucky. “I think if you can forgive that—”

My parents?” Tony said.

Steve looked up.

Tony was bristled up like an angry cat, eyes narrowed as he stared down at him. “Rogers, my parents died in a car wreck.” There was a question mark on the end of that statement, an implied tell me I’m right that was left hanging. “My parents died in a car wreck,” Tony repeated. “My parents—”

“Tony, I’m sorry.”

Died in a car wreck.”

Steve stood up, lifted his hands up in surrender, or in condolence, took a step forward as Tony took a step backward, up and out of the dugout. Tony was thinking, it was like a teleprompter of static crossing his face, a great wealth of half-realized things he’d seen and ignored. Steve had watched her work often enough he knew the face and he knew that there was nothing good at the end. “I didn’t know he didn’t tell you,” Steve said. “I’m sorry. I thought you would have known—you asked about Hydra and I assumed—”

“How?” Tony snapped.

“You don’t wan—”

“Don’t tell me what I want, Rogers!” Tony shouted at him. “Tell me how your best friend killed my parents.”

Steve had hardly made it through telling her the first time, barely managed to choke out the truth as fairly as he could. He’d barely made it through the guilt of it, and here he was again, squaring his shoulders up. “Howard was beaten to death, he died of massive bleeding in his brain. Your Mom,” Steve cleared his throat, “she was strangled. I’m sorry, Tony.”

“Son of a bitch,” Tony said. His hands were fists and Steve saw him move in plenty of time to avoid getting hit; he had enough time to duck and he didn’t. He stood still, he let Tony hit him, and he thought it was maybe worth something in the long run. Maybe since he couldn’t do it for her, because she hadn’t hit him or even tried.

A SIDE

There was a great deal of noise.

That was the thing that nobody understood about the suit, it was loud. Surrounding oneself with metal, gears and switches and circuits was deafening. The light from the heads-up display was blinding. The world was separated by a digital screen projected a few millimeters from the end of her nose.

Everything was immediate inside the suit.

The ricochet of bullets was deafening, the impact of them was breath-taking. The grind of Steven’s fingers trying to dig into the weak points at the joints of the suit was infuriating. Tony said,

“Friday, do something about Sam.”

“Sam!” Steve shouted. It was a strangled sound, all tight and red and wet. It must have been hard to shout with a knee on your chest. It must have been difficult to shout when you were flat on your back on the forest floor. It must have been. “Get back.”

The bullets were back, beating against her back. Tony shoved herself back to her feet. “Friday,” she said again. “I put darts in the suit for this reason.” She lifted her arm and the target program zeroed in on Sam swooping down out of the tree he’d been hiding in.

The dart hit, Sam said, “you bitch,” just before his body went limp and he landed face-first in the underbrush. Behind her, Steve was crawling back up to his feet, lifting his pink-bruised fists into the air with blood coming out of his fat lip, looking at her with his all-American-defiance. There was the boy that had lied his way straight into the army, who had disobeyed every order he didn’t agree with.

“You should have brought the shield, Steven.” She spread her arms, “I brought my suit.”

“Yeah, well,” Steve rubbed the blood off his face with the back of his hand, “this isn’t Captain America’s fight, is it?”

“I guess not,” Tony said. She hit him again and it felt good, like a bitter relief from the infinite shitstorm of this awful world. It felt right, it felt just. It felt a bit like coming home. Just enough, just close enough to count, enough to stop the static in her ears, enough to make the silence bearable again. “Come on, Steven,” she hissed. Her hand wrapped up in his shirt, dragged him back up to his unsteady feet.

There were his fists again, just as pink as before, smeared with his own blood. There was his stare, refusing to give in, refusing to fight back, just standing in place and letting the bullies hit him.

(Steve had told her that once, how he knew he wasn’t ever going to win a fight. How he’d walked face-first into every beating he’d ever taken, and he’d always known it was hopeless. It just didn’t matter much to Steve God-damn Rogers. It was the principle that mattered.)

His hands scratched at the elbow joint of her suit, digging weakly into the metal as his body wavered in place, barely managing to stay upright. His face was puffy, his eyes were bloody, he was frowning at her. “What,” he slurred, “get tired?”

“Oh, you stupid son of a bitch,” she gasped. Her hand uncurled from his shirt and he dropped. The suit dropped with him, falling back into pieces on the forest floor, she went with it, dropping to her knees to grab him by the face, “damn it, Steven.”

“Get away from him.”

Tony looked up at Natasha, at the blue-glow of the Black Window Bite. “He didn’t fight back,” she said. “I—”

“Take your hand off him,” Natasha said. Because the bites were picky about who they electrocuted. Tony’s fingers didn’t move from Steve’s face, his hand pushed against her stomach, trying and failing to shove her out of the way. Maybe she could have called the suit back to her, maybe it would have been quicker than the bite, but—

“He was supposed to fight back,” Tony said.

“You were supposed to come quietly,” Natasha said. She took another step forward, “you really going to make me do this?”

“Don’t forget Happy,” Tony said. She pulled her fingers off Steve’s face and there was only enough time to anticipate the bite before it hit. The pain was hot, metal and it swallowed her whole.

B SIDE

Tony didn’t want to stop and he didn’t want to continue. Somewhere in the center of the hurricane of things, he thought it was silly (really). His fists weren’t that impressive. Without the weight and the heft of the suit he wasn’t doing much more than annoying Steve, and to what end?

It was gut reaction, it was hurt, it was his Mother. It had always been his Mother, always been her voice and the soft touch of her hands. The way she kissed his temple when she thought he was sleeping. Her singing that had followed him from the beginning to the end.

But he didn’t remember it how he used to. He remembered remembering her voice. Because he’d lost her, because she’d followed his father into that car, because Howard hadn’t been smart enough or fast enough or alert enough to protect her. Tony had lost her because of a car accident, because of an act of God, because of just bad luck.

She had deserved better than Howard, better than Tony, better than to get lost the way she had—

No. No, she hadn’t been lost, she’d been taken. She’d been murdered. She’d died alone, and scared because Howard hadn’t protected her. (Because Tony hadn’t, because Tony was years and years away from being the sort of man that protected anyone but himself.)

“Tony,” Steve gasped between getting punched in the face (again) and reaching forward to grab him around the chest. Steve crushed him, held him still in the center of the rage of noise and things, the cacophony of little untruths, and lies, and the remembered memory of his Mother’s singing being slowly choked into silence. “I’m so sorry, Tony,” Steve said.

Steve’s clothes were loose enough to wind his hands into, his body was sturdy enough to lean into, big enough to press his face against, warm enough to find comfort in. Held too tightly to fight, Tony gave up. It took him like a tide.

Chapter Text

B SIDE

There must have been a period of time between The Diamond and here. Tony could remember it in bits and pieces. How Steve had been as immovable as a wall. The sound of the truck tires on the road and the vibration of the vehicle in motion passing through the window his head was leaning against.

Tony remembered the stillness of the house itself, as if it and all its inhabitants and all at once become aware of the need for mourning. Malibu had survived its share of setbacks, and shocks, and struggles. (It hadn’t survived the last one; but it hadn’t been built to survive war like that.) He’d almost died in this house (more than once) but it had never settled like this: like a sagging old man, sitting off-center to a funeral, contemplating how inevitably close death truly was.

Pepper must have evaporated and taken Happy along with her. (But how? He couldn’t tell. He didn’t remember Steve making phone calls.)

There had been food; tragedy demanded food. That was funny, or it would be sooner or later. It would be a tasty, useful treat to chew over next month or the one after: to know that Steve Rogers fell victim to the same stupid urge to provide food for the surviving relatives.

Rhodey had done it for days after Tony’s parents’ died. He’d shown up with every food he could think of, always pushing it within grabbing distance in case Tony ever found himself experiencing hunger. Obadiah had always shown up with a pizza or hamburgers, or anything that could be ordered and delivered hot. His dry palm slid across Tony’s drooping back as he whispered mozzarella-scented apologies into his ear. As he made promises about how he’d look after things, and he’d assured him that Howard was proud.

(Fuck Howard; a failure of a father and a husband. A great man that couldn’t protect his family.)

Steve made him pancakes, and he didn’t seem offended when Tony didn’t eat. He’d traded the hot food for a cold drink and—

What?

What had happened after that? The kitchen faded out and no memory took its place. No memory of how he’d come to be upstairs, how he’d crawled into this bed, how long he’d laid here. No memory of hours passed, the sky going dark, the gentle-predictable sound of breathing accompanying him.

“Is there a purpose to you sitting in here?” Tony asked.

Even in the perfect darkness of the room, Steve couldn’t hide. He shifted where he was sitting, back against the glass and hands in his lap. Tony imagined he was leaning his head back, imagined he was working through half-the-same things. Because this Steve cared. Because this one had known and he had told, and he hadn’t stood by a pile of logs, looking haughty and hard-headed, saying things like sometimes my team mates don’t tell me things.

“Honestly,” Steve said. “I don’t know.”

“How long are you going to sit there trying to figure it out?” Tony didn’t want to think of Steve, the other one, the one that belonged to him the way this one belonged to her. He didn’t want to think of Steve because he’d think of Steve’s best friend, the brain-washed assassin that had strangled his Mother.

And Tony didn’t want, not for a single fucking minute, to think of his Mother alone and scared—

(knowing she was going to die, and knowing no amount of struggle, no amount of crying, no amount of praying could save her.)

“As long as it takes, I guess,” Steve said. He shifted again, maybe stretched, maybe leaned, maybe sat up straighter. Then he was quiet, nothing more the sound of breath in a dark room.

A SIDE

The first sensation, filtered through a thick smog of near-consciousness, was the distinct feeling of having been displaced. Everything had shifted just slightly to one side. It went beyond how her shirt was pulled sharply across her chest, twisted up until the collar up felt like it was making a solid attempt to strangle her. It wasn’t limited to her bare feet, her inside out pockets, or the unyielding hardness of the floor beneath her face.

No, this feeling was everything: the taste of the air, the unfeeling cold tips of her fingers she meant to flex and couldn’t quite wake up enough to manage. It was primal, the feeling of having been picked up, manhandled and dropped into an unfamiliar cage. It was the sudden imposition of walls that created a small universe inside a larger one.

That was what the air tasted like, that’s what the shirt twisted around her neck felt like, that’s what the bubbled-up electrical burn on her shoulder hurt like: captivity.

Tony opened her eyes, but she didn’t need to bother to know what she’d find. The smoothness of four walls, left gray and bare by the men (or the suits, really) who had poured the concrete. The little red wink of a camera in the corner promising her that she was being observed, but not necessarily by the obvious camera pointed at her prone body. There was no surprise to finding that she’d been searched, that she’d been carried and dropped here.

Natasha had always been as fiercely loyal as the situation demanded. Back home, that meant the comforting knowledge that there was an intelligent, well-trained, readily capable and fully willing assassin that wouldn’t stop until she’d saved or avenged any member of the team. Back home, it meant that Tony never needed to worry too much about finding herself face-down in a jail cell because concrete walls were as thin as paper to Natasha god damn Romanoff.

Here, Natasha’s loyalty was cold. It was a door set so perfectly into the wall that Tony couldn’t definitely say it even existed. Here, it was the built-in bed that they’d dropped her just short of, the stack of blankets and a nice little pillow that was piled on top of a mattress that they couldn’t be bothered to lay her on.

Here, it was the clink of metal links pulled sharply when Tony sat up, when she tried to move her arms. The laugh wasn’t funny, but it burst out of her mouth regardless, crackling and popping across her tongue as her sore body sagged back. The arc reactor was glowing blue in the soupy gray light of the cell. “The cuffs are just petty,” she said.

Tony took a minute, let her head fall forward and just concentrated on breathing. Just concentrated on taking stock of the state of her body. With the exception of the burn from the black widow bite, the stiffness and the lingering pain from the convulsions it inevitably had caused, and the unpleasant taste in her mouth: there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with her.

“Ok,” she whispered to herself. The cuffs were tight on her wrists, but the links were long enough she could lift herself over her hands and pull her legs through so her arms were in front of her instead of behind. That took some of the pressure off her shoulders, let her fix her filthy shirt and lean back against the concrete bed.

Tony leaned her head back, closed her eyes, and took a few breaths to put off the slow-building panic in her chest. It vibrated in a funny way, off-set to the arc reactor flickering. She didn’t think about it often, but sometimes, that there was still a cluster of shrapnel in her chest just waiting for a good time to kill her. (Steve worried about it for her, constantly off-center to her, arguing about unnecessary risks. Oh boy, oh boy, Steve wasn’t going to like hearing about this.) When she did think about it, it became all she could think about. Every beat of her heart lasted an hour, every minute movement of her body was an earthquake, every flicker of the arc reactor was a sign of her imminent death.

With her eyes closed, she could be anywhere. She didn’t have to be here, with her sore legs crossed in front of her, with her lax, half-numb hands laying in her lap. She didn’t have to be sitting on this cold concrete, she didn’t have to be convincing herself this wasn’t how she died. She could be anywhere:

A beach.
A bed.
A blanket on a beach, listening to the waves rolling up the sand, absorbing the sun until her body felt warm and still. She could be listening to Steve read, listen to him repeating the lines he liked, again and again. The nearness of him was just far enough away she couldn’t touch, but she could hear, and she could feel, and she could be at peace.

With her eyes closed, she didn’t have to be here. Still, it could have been worse. Roles reversed, Tony walking up to find Natasha kneeling over Steve unconscious on the ground with blood slicked across the whole of his face—well, that would have ended very differently.

B SIDE

“Why?” Tony asked.

His voice came out of the darkness, as alert now as he’d been an hour ago the last time he’d spoken. The lights were turned off for the benefit of anonymity. The room was left dark to protect (someone, maybe Steve, maybe Tony, maybe each of them from the other). Steve could almost make out how his hand lifted up from where it had been resting on his chest, how it motioned fruitlessly in the air, “I mean, why did he kill them? Why then?”

This was hell far worse than a nightmare, far worse than waking up without his wife, far worse than waking up seventy years after he’d thought he’d died, worse than sitting at Peggy’s bedside, seeing recognition flicker and fade, watching the woman who had been strong, fearless, and unstoppable be lost inside her own body. Steve’s fingers were fiddling with his shoe laces, trying to find something to do to take the edge off the sensation of being smothered. “Things might not be the same in your universe, Tony.” But, “I’ll tell you everything I know, but—that doesn’t mean it’s what happened.”

“We went to the same boarding school. She has the same family photographs. We were kidnapped on exactly the same day, by exactly the same people, we were rescued on exactly the same day. We had sex with the same people, the same amount of times. Everything that happened in our lives before we said, I am Iron Man, is exactly the same except that I’m a man and she’s a woman.” And therefore, what had happened to Tony’s parents, having happened before the press conference, had to have happened exactly the same. “Did she know?”

“Yes,” Steve said.

“Because you told her.”

Steve sighed, rubbed his thumb against his eyebrow to try to soothe the ache away. It did nothing to help—his head didn’t hurt, it just remembered a very long time ago, how it felt to have headaches. “Yes,” he said.

Tony sighed. “Before she married you?”

“Yes.”

That made Tony laugh, bitter, quiet and breathy. It made his head rustle against the pillows, made his voice raw and rough, “why were they killed?”

“Howard was transporting super serum. The Winter Soldier was supposed to retrieve it.”

Tony sat up and the lights flickered on, growing in steady intensity until the whole room was ruthlessly illuminated, just so Steve could see this happen again. Just so he could watch Tony realize that his Mother should have been alive, that she had only died because of a stupid choice, because of a lack of forethought, because she was standing too close to something valuable enough to kill over. “The Winter Soldier,” Tony repeated.

“Yes.”

Tony looked up, eyes closed, and mouth closed. His cheeks were pink beneath the scruff, his eyes were wet where they were closed, and when he opened them again, he said, “does he remember them?”

Steve sighed, “yes.” There was more to say, about how it hadn’t really been Bucky. About how they had tortured him, programmed him, used him as their weapon and when he misbehaved they tortured him again. Steve had refined the Bucky Barnes defense, he could lay it out in ten minutes or less. But it was useless here, when the pain was raw like this.

Tony leaned back against the headboard. “What kind of magical penis do you have, Rogers? I’m not the marrying type, but— I wouldn’t have married you, not knowing you’re taking his side.”

“We actually hadn’t had sex yet when this happened,” he said.

Tony snorted, almost laughed, looked over at him with exhaustion making his whole body appear to struggle just to stay upright. “I just, really hate looking at your face sometimes.”

“She said the same thing.” In fact, she’d said it more than once, at least once a month, for quite a long time. At the end of it, when she’d talked him right out of his clothes, she had him wrapped up in her legs and arms and she’d kissed him just like an echo of those words, but she’d said, I didn’t want to love you. “I think it’s my chin.”

Tony laughed. “Could be,” he said.

“You should try to sleep,” Steve said.

“And you’re just going to sit there?”

Of course, he was. Just long enough to figure out how to fix what he’d done, just long enough for the stinging sensation of guilt to fade. Long enough he could be certain he hadn’t done too much harm. (Or maybe longer, he couldn’t tell exactly.) Steve nodded because there weren’t words to explain his intentions, and Tony nodded back before he laid back down.

A SIDE

Natasha had been kind enough to leave her clean clothes; she’d been shrewd enough to make sure they were a prisoner’s clothes. The room was chilly enough to make the long sleeve undershirt seem ideal, but Tony was still coated in dirt so thick it billowed off her clothes as dust when she walked. (You’d think, while they were going through the trouble of throwing her around, they might have accidentally knocked a bit of it loose. It would have been like beating a carpet to clean it.)

Time was an inconstant in a room with no clocks and no windows. It was an effective, somewhat over looked method of torture. (No matter how many times she looked at her wrist, no watch appeared.) Almost as effective as offering clothes that Tony didn’t want to put on over her filthy skin and leaving bottles of water that could have contained anything. Natasha was a genius, using the distrust between them like a weapon.

(And why shouldn’t she? Why shouldn’t she use every advantage she had against an unknown enemy. Because that’s what they were here. Tony had attacked, and Natasha had saved Steve. The line in the sand had never been more clear, and now she stood opposite a woman that she wouldn’t have liked to face off against under perfect circumstances.)

The door opened after ten or twenty or thirty or ninety minutes. It came loose with a great dissonant ringing of moving parts. All the noise of the world beyond flooded through, all at once: a great growling beast. It had a thousand heads, and each of them were screaming. She hadn’t realized before (that moment) how quiet the room she’d woken up was, how silent, how the loudest thing was her own breathing until suddenly it was boots on concrete and voices, and music and grinding gears and—

Natasha, standing there with one hand on the half-open door and the other resting on her hip. Her wrists were glowing blue like an echo of the electrical burn on Tony’s shoulder. “Come on,” Natasha said, “you need a shower.”

“As far as pick up lines, I’ve heard better.”

Natasha’s pretty lips parted to show her teeth. “I’m sure you have, Ms. Stark. If you don’t want to follow me to the showers, I’ll bring you a bucket and a bar of soap.”

Tony had questions. (About Happy, about Steve, about location, about intent, about many things.) She had no advantages, and nothing to gain by digging in now. Instead she shrugged her shoulders and picked up the clothes they’d left for her. “Lead the way,” she said.

The showers were a humiliating set up of white tile and shower heads. There were no visible cameras, but a desk, a chair and Natasha looking very bored as she took a seat. “The water’s hot,” she said as she crossed one leg over the other, looking decidedly disinterested in this aggressive invasion of privacy.

Tony dropped the clothes on the desk, and lifted her hands up so the links of the chain were pulled taut. She arched her eyebrow at Natasha without saying a word, concentrating fully on communicating, take these off as if they were equals and friends.

Natasha pulled a key out of what must have passed for a pocket in the Black Widow costume, wrapped her whole fist around the chain and pulled it down and forward so Tony’s leg hit the edge of the desk and she had to bend with the motion or fall over. Their faces were inches apart, close enough that Tony could smell Natasha’s conditioner still lingering in her hair. “You’ve got ten minutes.”

What felt like a thousand years ago, in a different world, Tony’s Mother had held her hand in a talon-tight grip on the side of roads. She’d curved her body around Tony in places with too many men moving too quickly around them. In a different world, when Tony was nothing but a pretty pawn in a greater game, Mother had never faltered in wrapping her up in warm arms. No danger had ever come close enough to Tony to make her feel (not even for a moment, not for one single moment) afraid.

Tony had taken away her own safety (or it felt that way, in all the years since, it felt like it all started) when she built the engine. The circuit board she’d built at four hadn’t been an astounding success, it had barely registered on the Howard Stark Scale of Success, but the engine had caught his attention. It had made him stop, and look and pay attention. Tony was vibrating with spite and pride, glowing over a job well done, and Mother had wrapped her worrying warm arms around her. She’d kissed her temple and she’d said: Be grateful for what you have. Be grateful, you won’t know how much it meant until it’s gone.

Tony hadn’t been grateful for anything most of her life, not her money, not her genius, not her success, not her fame, not her friends—and never, particularly, a shower curtain.

Still, the water was hot. She stripped off her shirt and the jeans she’d been wearing for far too long. They landed just outside the spray of the water with filthy thumps, spraying more dust and dirt in every direction. Her underwear and bra weren’t ideal showering attire, but they felt necessary nonetheless. “Was the bar of soap still an option?” Tony asked. She half-turned enough to see Natasha doing an Oscar-worthy performance of not paying any attention to her. “Or does that only come with a bucket?”

A drawer in the desk opened, Natasha rifled around the contents and pulled out a square of soap. She threw it across the room without getting up and went back to looking at her phone without pause.

The hot water made the wounds on her hands hurt, it opened them up, so the water ran pink and black down her body. Her skin felt raw, stretched and thin. It came clean by degrees, after she rinsed and scrubbed and rinsed and scrubbed again.

“Shampoo?” Tony asked. She turned her back to the shower head, let the water run through days worth of sweat, oil and dirt. Natasha pulled the drawer open again, rifled through it and produced a little bottle that she tossed over. This time, just for a second longer, she looked at Tony. It was there and gone again, over before it could be assessed.

“You’re a prisoner,” Natasha said when Tony was washing her hair for the second time.

“Gee. I thought this was a new hotel experience.”

That made Natasha sigh at her. “The last time you were a prisoner you said I couldn’t torture you because Steve wouldn’t allow it.”

Tony turned the nozzle on the shower off, shook the water out of her hair as her skin crawled with gooseflesh. The coolness of the open room was a stark, ugly contrast to the heat of the water. “I don’t prefer to participate in the foreplay portion of torture.” She walked over to the desk, dripping water like little lakes every step of the way. “But, if you need to talk for this to work for you, don’t let me stop you.” Tony reached for the clothes on the table top and Natasha’s hand snapped shut around her wrist.

They were as close as lovers, standing so close Natasha’s suit was leaving a physical impression on Tony’s body. It was heart-stopping, breath-stealing closeness. “But Steve’s not here,” Natasha whispered against the side of her face, “because of you.”

Tony tipped her head away from Natasha’s lips, kept her body loose and her voice light. “But here’s the thing, there’s only maybe four? Maybe five people left alive that know exactly what you’re capable of, Natasha. Now, Steven thinks he knows but he doesn’t really, does he? None of them know.” She relaxed into the anger vibrating off Natasha’s body, “but I do.”

“This isn’t your world,” Natasha said with a smile. “You have no idea what—”

“But I do,” Tony answered. “I know exactly what happens when you peel back this mask and you show them, show him what you are underneath.” She shrugged. “Can I get my clothes now?”

Natasha let go of her wrist. “You can get dressed in the room.”

They went back, through hallways echoing with noise coming from nowhere exactly, to the doorway that seemed to melt into the walls. Back to the room with no windows, no clock, no privacy and no safety. Natasha stood in the hallway outside, smiling with no vile glee, like a hostess at a fancy dinner place leading Tony to her seat.

“Drink the water,” Natasha said before the cranked shut.

Then it was only Tony, alone, dripping water on the floor. She pressed her back to the concrete (as cold as ice) and closed her eyes. Her knees didn’t give out but go weak, her body slid down and she covered her face with both hands. There was a shake in her muscles and the brief, awful stinging in her eyes.

(No. No. No.) Tony cleared her throat, “we’ve dealt with worse,” she said to nobody. “We can deal with this.”

B SIDE

Tony wasn’t sleeping; but he was hungry. He let that marinate in his empty gut, let it fester and bubble and boil until it was creeping up his esophagus like acid burn. A good son wouldn’t have managed to be hungry, a good son wouldn’t have been laying in the darkness, memorizing the sound of the best friend of his Mother’s killer breathing.

No. No, Bucky was Steve’s best friend, and Bucky was but was not the Winter Soldier, and it was the Winter Soldier that had killed Tony’s Mother. They were one in the same and completely different from each other.

“Come on,” Tony said into the darkness. He pulled himself up to sitting as the lights turned on all around him. Across the room, Steve fucking Rogers was looking as guilty as a little boy with a lapful of cookies, coiling his shoelaces around his fingertips. “I’ll make you an omelet or six, I can’t sleep anyway.”

They made quite a parade down the stairs. Tony leading the way as Steve tried to stay close but not intimately close, not comforting-my-wife close. (That was enough of a thought to give a man a migraine. How Steve looked like he wanted to wrap his whole body around Tony but he was holding it back, holding it inside. Still the muscles in his arm seemed quiver, always fighting to fulfill that impulse.) “You don’t ha— Ok, I’d love an omelet.” Steve sat, offered no assistance, just watched Tony pulling dishes out of familiar places.

“So,” Tony said with a carton of eggs in one hand, “how’d she take it?”

“I don’t know,” Steve said. It wasn’t evasion, it was honesty. Steve Rogers had a face for many things, but not one good enough to bother trying to lie. “I thought, I thought she’d react differently when I told her but she just—” Steve shrugged. “Natasha said I didn’t have to be the one to tell her, but I did. It had to be me, because it was Bucky, because if I didn’t… Because if it wasn’t me that told her, then she’d think I was hiding it.”

“Did you want to hide it?”

“Wouldn’t you?” Steve asked. “If I thought, if there had been any way that she never would have had to know? I wouldn’t have told her. But there wasn’t. Things like this? They always come out.”

Tony pulled a good pan out, set it on the stove, contemplated the ambitions assembly of ingredients waiting on the counter. Cooking was relaxing because it was a matter of putting the right things together in the right order. (And Tony was good at that, figuring out where exactly things went, and how exactly they worked together.) “It hasn’t come up where I’m from.”

“Then he’s a coward,” Steve said.

(Oh, that was funny. To think of Captain America being called a coward by anyone. To think how offended he’d be to hear it, how he’d defend himself, because Steve was reliable at not worrying too much about his own safety.) Tony smiled at the stove top, but he shrugged too. “Maybe he thinks he’s protecting someone.”

“Himself.”

Tony leaned against the counter, crossed his arms over his chest. His tongue was barely damp across his dry lips. “I’m not his number one fan,” Tony admitted, “but, shouldn’t you be defending him?”

“Do you want me to?” Steve asked.

“Do you want to?”

That made Steve leaned back into the seat. He was turning the idea over, fiddling with a bottle top that had been left sitting on the table, moving it between his fingers until he came up with the answer he was searching for. “I,” started and stopped, Steve frowned down at the bottle top. “I thought Bucky was dead. I saw him, alive, and I thought I would do anything to save him this time. I thought, nobody knows me the way Bucky does. Nobody ever cared about me like that,” Steve shrugged, dragged his eyes up from the bottle cap. “That’s just a feeling, I know there are people here,” his fingers touched the table, “right now that do their best to know me, that care about me. There’s people that’d give their lives for mine, people that follow me into any fight I pick. I love Bucky, I do. Choosing to tell her, was choosing to move on. I could have kept it a secret, protected myself and Bucky. But it wouldn’t have been about protecting her. Secrets like that are always about protecting yourself.”

It was unthinkable, the look of rubbed-raw agony on Steve’s face. The sheer force of will that kept the eye contact between them. The razor-sliced feeling of his throat when he finally looked away, down, at the pile of eggs and the assortment of good breakfast vegetables. “You really love her,” he looked up again.

“Yes,” Steve said.

He laughed, but it was a cough, a harsh sound to hold off other things, his hand across his mouth, his body sagging back against the counter as he tried to find stable footing. “I can’t even get the guy to give me the benefit of the doubt,” he said. No, no, he didn’t want to think about that. Not right now.

“We can be dicks,” Steve said, “we Steve Rogers. People always forget that. I’ve got two thirds of the planet convinced I’ve never spoken a swear word in my life. That I’ve never entertained a dirty thought. That I was born out of the womb of truth, justice and the American way. Truth is, I’m just trying to do my best.”

“Your best is still better than the average best.”

Steve snorted at that. “My best is an exaggeration that the men in the PR department get paid to sell. They put me up next to my fucking wife, they say, I bring out the best in her, they say I inspire her to greatness. That’s bullshit. Tony had greatness before I showed up. What they mean is, here’s a hero from a comic book, a relic from another time, here’s a guy we all agree is real swell. They think I spend my time telling her not to build bombs and kill people. They think I keep her under control. That’s because they’re afraid of her. Not because she’s intelligent, not because she’s capable, not because she’s strong but because she’s a woman that’s got ideas and she isn’t afraid of them. Hydra, Vanko—Aldrich Killian, they all came after her because they tried to make her scared, they tried to force her to take the blame for who they were, for how their life went, and she didn’t. Tony infuriates people because no matter how hard they hit her, she won’t stay down.”

It didn’t feel that way when the so-called super-villains started crawling out of the woodwork of his world. It felt like an endless parade of monsters he’d created, a non-stop assault of problems he should have been able to solve. There was a body count of innocent lives that was following him around, like a stack of stones on his shoulders, and no amount of his good intentions and no matter how many times he stood back up, those stones got no lighter. That body count got no smaller, no easier to bear. The guilt didn’t stop.

“I don’t know who I am in your world, but I do know that I’ve never been the man the newspapers say I am. I went to war because I didn’t want to die an irrelevant skinny sick man, settling for what he could get. I wanted to mean something to the world, I wanted to matter, I wanted to win for once.” Steve sighed.

That was too much. Too many words, too many things to sort out, Tony nodded along and cleared his throat, glanced back at the eggs, “so, what do you like in your omelet? Onion? Sausage, I’ve got cheese?”

“Whatever you make is good,” Steve said. “I’ll eat almost anything.”

Of course, he would. No matter what Steve said, he was annoying fucking perfect. Tony nodded and threw the onion at him. “Make yourself useful,” he said.

A SIDE

The new clothes felt nice. It was an easy thing to concentrate on: how overlooked a freshly laundered pair of pants really were. Even if they were these paper-thin hospital or prisoner scrub type of pants. They were nice against her clean skin. It was important to concentrate on that, how nice it felt, how pleasant being clean was.

Someone must have taught her that, to find something: anything, one little thing, in a great sea of bad and overwhelming things, to find that one little thing and think of it. Think of it as hard as you could, until it took over your face and your skin and your body, until it became a shell. Shells protected you, they gave you space to be alone no matter how full the room was. It gave you a place to think no matter what camera was pointed at you.

So, Tony marveled at the magnificence of clean cotton: laying loosely on her prisoner’s bed with her arms behind her head, her eyes half closed, and her legs crossed at the ankle. She was a picture of perfect arrogance: a woman that wouldn’t be intimidated.

Inside, her brain was filled with the sound of metal fists and nearly-human-skin. It was filling up with blood seeping (not pouring) out of fresh wounds, and split lips. It was the purple-pink pressure marks she’d left on Steven’s face. The way his feet scraped the ground as he staggered to his feet.

There must have been a moment, there had to have been at least once that he’d put his hands up, that he’d made the effort, that he’d even bothered to defend himself. In the beginning, when the suit was half-assembled and the anger was a fine-rolling boil. (At him, at the grandiosity of his presence, as if he had been summoned as the only man alive that could command her to behave. Or because he had wanted to come, because he had wanted to drag her back, or because he had never trusted her—it hadn’t mattered. It hadn’t mattered why Happy had brought her, only that he had, that he hadn’t trusted her, that all the time he’d spent by her side had been a lie, that Pepper’s promises of loving Tony had been a lie, that Steven had ever pretended to allow her any freedom—)

Steven had fought back.

He just hadn’t fought much, he hadn’t fought like it mattered. He’d stood, and he’d taken his beating because it wouldn’t really be Steven if he hadn’t.

It had taken weeks, like months, of effort to convince Steve to spar with her, to treat her like an equal. He had been insistent, and stubborn, and annoyed her every time she brought it up. They weren’t equals. He had superhuman advantages that she didn’t, he could heal faster and he could hit harder and he—

She’d made a suit just for kicking his ass, something light, durable, quick and shock-absorbing. The first time he’d hit her back like he meant it, it knocked her flat on her ass, and she was crowing with victory while he babbled his litany of apologies. She hit him back, mid-sorry, and that-had-been-that.

Steven should have fought back.

Maybe, or maybe she just should have noticed he didn’t. Maybe she should have stopped sooner. Maybe she should have listened to his front-facing palms and his condescending words, saying things like I don’t want to fight that meant things like but I know you’ll make this a fight anyway.

Maybe didn’t matter. Maybe didn’t get her out of here.

But the clothes were nice, and the pillow smelled clean, and she could wait just as long as they wanted her to wait.

B SIDE

All the old footage was grainy and dull. Time had faded the vibrancy of life until it was a collection of choppy images with visual static separating now-from-then. (People had a way of thinking of Steve like that, as a grainy image from a distant time. As if people were so different seventy years ago.) It wasn’t the quality of the film that made the old man in the video a stranger.

No, time had made Howard a stranger. It had taken all the vibrancy and possibility of his youth and turned it dust colored. It had quieted his voice to a somber tone, tempered his impetuosity to disapproval.

“I really,” Tony said from next to him. He was leaning into the seat of the Roadster, one of his hands casually looped over the wheel of the car, the other slippery-gripped around a glass of liquor Steve had retrieved from it’s hiding place. “Really hated my father.” There was no reason for the smile on his face then. “I was never good enough for him—I never could have been. Or maybe,” he didn’t look away from the screen, from his father slipping an arm around his wife. “It wasn’t me. Maybe he just couldn’t admit that he loved me. Or that he was proud. Or that I’d done something good.”

It wasn’t immediately clear if Steve was meant to say something. These sorts of conversations were landmines, and he hadn’t learned the safe places to put his feet down yet. So, he hummed a response to indicate he was listening, he watched Tony watching the screen.

“Did they meet before?”

“Who?”

“Bucky,” seethed anger, “and Howard.”

Steve took a sip of his own drink, (wished it was more effective than the brief tingle it managed) and nodded. “Yeah. They met. They weren’t friends, but they were friendly when they were around one another. Bucky’s like that, he could make anyone like him.”

Tony considered that, turned it over and over and then he hit a button on the controller laying on the seat by his thigh. The screen went dark and the room was silent. Tony took another drink and then one more. “How’d you get her to marry you, Rogers?”

That caught him in the ribs, like a laugh, a tickle he wasn’t prepared for. Steve snorted into the rim of his glass and spilt the liquor all over his hand. “There’s not many people in the world that think I had anything to say about it.”

“I’m not exactly the marrying type.” Tony was half-smirking, looking perfectly pleased with the wet spots on Steve’s lap (or maybe at his embarrassment). “I’m only barely managing to be the steady girlfriend type.”

“I wouldn’t exactly class myself as the marrying type either,” he put his hand up to stave off what was certain to be an outpouring of disbelief and sarcasm. “It was never a priority for me. Even when I thought, I really like this woman, and even when I thought, I really love her, I didn’t think we’d get married. Tony—you, I guess—just aren’t the sort of person you imagine getting married. I don’t know.”

“What type are we?”

(Steve had walked into that. Now he had to dance back out.) “Independent.”

Tony rolled his eyes.

“I think, marrying me gave her a shield that protects her from public opinion. There’s always going to be the sour faced women on the morning shows that call her names, and there’s always going to be the gossip rags that say she’s no good. There’s a real house wife of some city, that thinks Tony doesn’t deserve me because the only wifely duty she’d be good at is—it doesn’t bear repeating.” Although it had been repeated, over and over, when Tony heard it the first time. It had been a constant stream of anger going from their bedroom, to the office, to the battlefield until she’d exhausted herself. “But, they don’t say it to her face. They don’t bother her in interviews. They know I’m behind her and that protects her.”

“You really believe that’s why she married you?”

“No,” Steve said. “I think she married me because it was a really boring party, we had sex in an elevator, she lost her shoes in a fountain and we ended up singing karaoke with a bunch of college kids. I think she married me because she loves me. I just think, we stayed married, we are married because of the benefits.”

Tony made a face, took a sip of his drink and cleared his throat. “An elevator?”

“Yes.”

“A public elevator?”

“Yes.”

Tony took another sip and shrugged, “I don’t know why my Mother married my Father. I wished she hadn’t.”

“You wouldn’t be here if she hadn’t,” Steve said.

That made Tony shrug again, he picked up the remote and hit another button. It queued up a different video, another fabulously filmed scene of the Stark’s glamorous home. “She wouldn’t have been murdered either. That’s easier to live with isn’t it? If I was never born, I wouldn’t know any different. She could live, she could be alive right now.”

Things were never so simple. If this Tony had been his Tony, he would have hugged her. He would have kissed her forehead while she kept her back straight and her muscle stiff. He would have waited until her posture loosened, until she closed her eyes, until she let herself be comforted. But this wasn’t his Tony, and he didn’t know what to do. “She was a beautiful woman,” Steve offered.

Tony just nodded, “she was.”

A SIDE

All hospital rooms smelled the same: tile, filtered air, anti-septic. The sheets were cardboard under his hands, the mattress beneath him groaned and the frame itself creaked and squeaked when he moved. The sounds were familiar, filtering in through his overstuffed head. (That was swelling, probably, somewhere, the sensation of his body working overtime to cure a concussion.)

“Where are we?” he asked the world beyond his eyelids. All hospitals were the same hospital, and there was no telling which side of the ocean this one was on. He managed to peel his eyes open, just far enough to see Sam slouched into the chair by the bed, arms crossed, head tipped down, so his chin was against his chest. He was asleep, with his feet braced against the floor to keep him from falling out of the chair.

He was asleep sure, but asleep in different clothes than he’d had the day before and that meant he had time to recover from the dart, time to wake up and shake it off and change his clothes. That meant hours, or maybe it meant days. It meant time had passed.

Steve closed his eyes again, concentrated on breathing in and out, looking for the parts of his body that hurt. Besides his head, there was a matter of a split in his lip when he ran his tongue across it. There was pain in his fingertips when he pushed them against the sheet—

It was brighter the next time he opened his eyes, the chair by his bed was empty but the door was open. A TV set in the wall was playing the news on mute: a barrage of colors and a series of images that didn’t make sense without words. Steve shoved his palms against the bed to lift himself upright.

“You’re an idiot.” That was Natasha, just outside his field of vision: lounging in a corner by the window letting all the awful sunlight into the room. She moved, scraping a chair across the floor, dropping her heavy-soled shoes down against the floor and sliding up to her feet in the full Black Widow costume. It whispered when she moved, like a leather-skinned animal. “She was going to kill you.”

That was a funny thing to say. A funny thing to think of, that Tony was capable of anything like it. Or it wasn’t funny, it wasn’t a stretch, it wasn’t a leap at all, what with how he’d built Ultron, not with the body count Ultron had amassed in end. That wasn’t intentional, that wasn’t on purpose, that hadn’t been what Tony had wanted. Tony didn’t want to kill people. (Or did he, he might have, once, when he was still too new to heroics to know any better, when he was stuttering over an excuse at a news conference saying I am Iron Man.)

It wasn’t the same, not like the white-hot-rage on her face as the suit had spread across her body, covering her in a protective shell. It hid her face but it hadn’t managed to do much to hide that rage.

Steve was good at bringing that out in people. He’d stood opposite everyone from a first grade bully to Bucky his-best-friend, and one way or another, he had always managed to bring them to that same point. He’d always reduced them to animal anger.

Tony, this Tony, she’d meant to hit him. She’d meant to fight. She’d meant to make it hurt.

But Tony was Tony. “No, she didn’t,” Steve said.

“The coma she put you in says differently.” Natasha shook her head at him, at the situation, at the bruises still going yellow and green on his face. “Rogers.”

Steve was sore, and stiff, feeling a bit dried out. But he wasn’t dead. He could have been dead. That was the important bit, Tony-was-Tony and Tony didn’t kill anyone that he absolutely didn’t have to. He didn’t play, he didn’t drag it out, when he couldn’t subdue someone, when it came down to life or death, it was as quick as he could make it.

Tony-was-Tony, looking like a man who’d had his heart ripped out, trying to piece together how sometimes soldiers died, working through the reality of Coulson’s death, saying things like we’re not soldiers.

No, this Tony was furious, was seething in rage, but she hadn’t wanted to kill him. She’d introduced herself with a broken bone, with her voice modulated through the mouthpiece of the suit (do you believe in God, Steven) and she’d made a fantastic mess but, she hadn’t come to kill him then. She hadn’t been trying to kill him in that forest; she hadn’t ever been trying to kill him.

(What was it that Natasha had said to him? The only thing we do know is she is interested in you. That interest was aggressive anger, it was outrage, it was the suit she’d built to protect her. And it was her in the forest, hitting him every time he tried to get back to his feet, but it wasn’t lethal.)

“If Tony wanted me dead, I’d be dead,” he said. “Where is she?”

Natasha shifted her weight, rested her crossed arms against her chest and pressed her lips together.

“What did you do with her, Nat?”

“Your head’s not clear on this one,” was her answer. “We tried it your way; she attacked you. She can’t be trusted.”

No, maybe she couldn’t be. Maybe they did have to treat her like a threat, maybe they did need to keep her confined, in a cage, constantly monitored. Maybe it was best, but it didn’t feel right.

Because he’d heard her voice in the forest, he’d seen her face when she was on her knees with her hands on his face. He’d seen her in the last seconds before he blacked out, with all the anger peeled back and nothing but her fear and her loneliness showing. He’d heard her mounting a mediocre defense (he was supposed to fight back), and he’d felt her hand move off his face.

Tony could have killed him, and she could have put up a fight, and she could have done worse, but she hadn’t. She’d sat on her knees in the forest, stripped of all the anger, and she’d let herself be taken prisoner.

Remember Happy, she’d said.

It wasn’t an excuse, it didn’t fix anything, but it was something and Steve had made gut choices with less. “Where did you put her?” Steve asked again.

Natasha looked over her shoulder, out the door, at anything but him with her eyes rolling and her head shaking. She barely managed to say, “she’s in a cell in the basement. And she’s staying there, Rogers. We let her out, she calls the suit, there’s no telling what it’ll take to stop her. We let her out, she gets to Friday, there’s no telling what she can do.”

That much was true; there was no telling what she was capable of. There was no telling what she could do if she had all the motivation and resources to really start to cause trouble. “My head is clear on this,” he said. “We have to convince her to trust us.”

“Us?” Natasha repeated. “She attacked us.”

He sighed. “I’m not defending her.”

“You sound like you are.”

“Look,” Steve said. He turned so his legs were hanging off the side of the bed, so his hands were around the deflated edges of the mattress, so she was looking right at his face again. “She’s Tony. We know Tony, we know what Tony does when he doesn’t feel safe. He builds armies of Iron Man suits, he invites terrorists to his house—he builds Ultron. She’s dangerous because she’s not safe and she won’t stop until she feels safe.”

“She’s safe in a concrete room,” Natasha answered.

“She’s trapped.” Natasha understood that, but there were bruises on his face and mountains of evidence, and she wasn’t going to give up her case. She wasn’t going to listen to him when he could find a reason to sympathize with anyone. He’d invited Wanda because he’d remembered what it felt like to be desperate to make a difference, he’d defended Bucky because they grew up together, but even he never thought he’d ever be trying to talk Tony fucking Stark out of a taking the blame for something (s)he’d done. “I want to talk to her.”

“No.” But Natasha sighed. “Not now. You’ve been in a coma for two days, you need to finish recovering from the last time she beat your ass before you try again.” She hissed something quick and hard under her breath before she stepped away. “Until then, she stays where she is.” And, just as quick, “lay back down. I’ll send Sam in with something for you to eat.”