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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.)