The morning after the Avengers defeated the Red Skull, and a week since the team reassembled, Steve walked into the kitchen of Avengers Tower and kissed Tony.
Tony made a small gasping sound before going shock still. After a distressingly one-sided moment, Steve cracked open an eye to check for his reaction and saw him pushing his mug away from the edge of the table. Then Tony parted his lips and began to kiss back with great fervor, and Steve smiled against his lips.
When they pulled apart after a lengthy, breathless session, the flush was high on Tony's cheeks. He looked like a goldfish, with his popped eyes and a mouth that opened and closed aimlessly. It was clear that articulation was beyond Tony's current mental capabilities, and Steve grinned and spoke.
Tony blinked owlishly, before spoiling the illusion by wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “Morning.” He looked around the kitchen, eyes lingering on the doorway and the windows, and when his calculating gaze made it back to Steve he held it firmly in place. Steve kept level under the scrutiny, and soon enough the tension left Tony's shoulders and he leaned back in his chair with a sigh. He licked his lips, and Steve followed the swipe of his tongue. “You're in a good mood.”
“Maybe,” Tony picked his mug up, “or he could be back up and running tomorrow. You know how these things go.”
“You would think blasting him full of missiles would have been enough to put him down for a few years at least.” Instead, it had been only a few short weeks later that Skull reemerged, having taken control of Sin's body and a Cosmic Cube and threatening mass genocide. Insane as it was, there were patterns to his logic.
The crisis had turned out well. Better than well, even. They expelled Skull's consciousness from the body using the Cube, and much to their surprise, Sin was left alive. She was a villain and their enemy, but senseless death would always carry a hollow victory. Sin was treated by SHIELD medical and now remained under their custody on the Helicarrier. Steve paused and found himself frowning.
“Cap?” Tony waved a hand in front of his face, and Steve snapped his attention to the present. “You were staring off into space there.”
Steve shook his head to clear his mind. There was nothing to remain dubious about; they had managed the best outcome, after all. He placed a hand on Tony's shoulder. “In any case, yesterday was a good start for us.”
“We're doing much better,” Tony agreed. “We had the team formed before the villains wreaked havoc this time.” His eyes twinkled at Steve as he smirked, and Steve felt himself returning the gesture.
“No better way to learn than through first-hand experience.” Steve moved his hand to Tony's neck, and tugged idly at a clump of hair. “Is anyone else up?” The team deserved some well-earned rest, but it was nearly 10 AM.
“I haven't seen them,” Tony said. “Which, now that you bring it up, is strange.” He took a sip of his drink, deep in thought.
A knock came at the window, and Steve exchanged a glance with Tony before turning to see Redwing peering at them through the panes. He strode to the sink in a few steps, leaned over, and pushed the window up.
“Hey boy,” Steve called. “Where's Sam?”
“I've never seen a bird up here,” Tony mused. Steve raised an eyebrow at him and he raised a hand in reply. “UV reflecting glass. We can't see it, but birds can, and the poor bastards don't end up crashing into every window in the building.”
“Redwing isn't an ordinary bird.” Steve held out a fist, and Redwing assessed the potential perch before climbing onto Steve's arm and folding down his wings. “Did Falcon send you?”
Redwing watched him long enough that even he began to feel uneasy. Then the bird puffed up and raised both his wings at an angle.
“He's – ” Steve was boggled. “Is that up? Did you mean up on the roof?”
“Why would he be up there?” Tony had ended up standing beside him. “If he wanted to talk to you, he couldn't have taken the elevator?”
“It's all right,” Steve said. Tony had a point, though. There were easier ways for Sam to get in touch with him than sending Redwing to fetch him. “If he wants to talk privately, I'll go.”
“If you say so,” Tony said doubtfully. He stared at Redwing, and the bird stared right back. Then, to Steve's, and Tony's too, judging from how his eyes widened, surprise, Redwing tilted his head toward Tony.
“Does he –“ Tony reached out with a hand, and Redwing shuffled on Steve's arm closer to him. “This is...cool,” Tony admitted as he began to stroke Redwing's head. Steve gaped at him. Maybe Sam was controlling Redwing at the moment, because he had never seen the bird act so friendly to anyone who wasn't Sam. But Sam didn't give Redwing commands unless it was necessary, preferring to respect his partner's autonomy, especially when there was no emergency at hand. Steve angled his arm up until the bird turned to look at him.
“Sam, if you can hear me, I'll be right up,” Steve told Redwing. The bird raised its wings at a forty-five degree angle again. Then, he puffed up his chest before lifting off and flying out of the window.
It took Steve just over a minute to reach the roof. When he did, it was void of life. Steve walked around the wide, open area. There weren't even any good hiding spots, if someone were trying to play a prank on him, but that would be more in Clint's domain than Sam's. He reached the edge and looked down over it, the streets below hundreds of feet away, and was struck by dizziness. It was normal, from so high up, Steve told himself as he backed away and focused his attention at the solid floor of the roof beneath him.
Slightly baffled, Steve waited around for a good ten minutes until he headed back downstairs, a sense of disquiet settling into his gut that he promptly quashed. He had just misunderstood Redwing, and Sam was elsewhere. He'd ask him later what he wanted to talk about.
Steve slid between the agent's legs, grabbing hold of an ankle to yank them down with him. He jumped up to slam the brunt of the shield against the head of the person aiming their gun at him, turned around, kicked over the agent he'd tripped, reached over, and knocked an open palm hard against their temple. The agent's limbs, trying to prop themselves back up, instantly gave out.
Steve spun, lifting his shield above his head.
“Why don't you hail this!?” A tiny figure flew between them and aimed a blast at Steve's assailant, square on the jaw. They stopped in their tracks before falling onto their back with a loud thud.
“Are you okay, Cap?” Jan turned in his direction and hovered next to him. Even in her diminutive form, he could see the sharp glint in her worried eyes.
“Thanks to you,” Steve said as he lowered the shield.
“Hah,” Jan's face broke into a smile, “well, I'm not one for modesty!” She circled once around Steve's head before taking off. “You're welcome!”
She seemed to be having fun. It wasn't such a bad stance to take when the most pressing item on the Avengers' agenda was mopping up HYDRA's mess.
We've received reports of HYDRA dealings. Cut a head off, and two more will take its place. Lucky lucky for us, they hold true to their word. Maria Hill sounded like she was holding back a deep sigh as she had sent the time and coordinates for a supply pick-up at a warehouse. But, when you dealt with world-ending threats on a regular basis, cleaning out terrorist cells, especially those of a splintered organization, was akin to a vacation. Hill wasn't the type of person to view things through rose-tinted glasses, though. It was probably a requirement for the Director of SHIELD position.
Steve surveyed the rest of the warehouse, and watched Luke shoulder tackle one HYDRA agent, spin, and clap his hands together on the head of another. The other Avengers had finished up their fights. Sam looked up at Redwing, who had flown toward Jan, lips barely moving – probably reassuring the bird that the tiny flying buzzing being was a friend. Tony floated in midair as well, watching them, and Steve couldn't tell his expression thanks to the faceplate, but he had a hunch the other man was also wearing an exasperated smile. On the ground, Bucky hefted his rifle, and Steve realized he hadn't heard the sound of gunshots the entire fight. Bucky ran his fingers through his hair, and when he noticed Steve watching him, he grinned boyishly and gave a thumbs up.
He spoke into his comm as he dragged the two people he had knocked out to a nearby pole. “Good work, everyone. Does anyone have something to tie these guys up?”
“I saw something over there,” Tony said, swooping down over to a corner of the room and emerging with a coil of rope. He flew over to Steve, letting the rope unwind beneath him, and severing it with a fine laser shot from his gauntlets.
“Figures the rest of us get the twenty unraveled feet of rope,” Bucky sighed melodramatically as he tugged at the length that lay across the floor. Tony tossed the rest of the coil to Steve.
“Thanks, Iron Man. Avengers, get everyone restrained before calling the all-clear.” Steve said. Tony was starting to make a turn. He was showing off, even, by rounding with a long, sweeping arc, when Steve knew how exactly how fast and well the armor handled changes in direction. Minimizing the effects of inertia was one of Tony's top priorities when it came to armor upgrades, and it showed. Steve watched him, and when Tony came up behind him Steve moved, snapping to attention and saluting. Tony's startled laughter crackled over the comm, and the sound warmed Steve from the inside-out.
He was still grinning as he began to tie his Hydra agents up. One of them lolled his head, mumbled something incoherent, and smacked his lips. Steve made sure to double check his binds. After making sure his own charges wouldn't be leaving the room unless they were under a personal SHIELD escort, Steve went to check on the others' progress.
“Falcon, I'll give you a hand,” he called to Sam as he knelt down next to him.
“Get this one for me, will you?” Sam gestured toward the rope laid out next to him, and an agent curled on their side next to that. The fabric of the agent's uniform at the shoulder was torn messily, ripped apart by Redwing's talons, though the wound didn't look deep. The bird had probably served as a distraction while Sam took the chance to knock the agent out.
Steve waited and watched as Sam tied his own agent up, but the other man made no move to start a conversation.
“Sam, you wanted to talk to me?” Steve finally asked.
Sam turned toward him, brows furrowed, and Steve immediately knew the answer. “Did I?”
“You sent Redwing for me in the tower.”
Sam stared at him for a long moment. “Redwing isn't a carrier pigeon.” He looked up toward the ceiling, where Redwing was circling around the room. “I wouldn't ask him to do something I could do myself.”
“He was there, though, this morning. Knocked on the kitchen window and perched on my arm. He also – “ Steve paused. “You didn't know about this?”
“Not at all. As far as I knew, Redwing was out this morning, probably hunting far from any kind of civilization.”
“Then I have to tell you this too.” Steve hesitated. If even he thought it was strange, then Sam would be outright flabbergasted. “He let Tony pet him. No, he made Tony pet him.”
“He what?” Sam stopped in the middle of tying a knot. “Why on earth would he do that?”
“I don't know,” Steve admitted. “That's why I assumed you wanted him to do it.”
“I didn't do anything like that.” Sam stood and stared up at his partner, quiet for a moment. “Can't believe it,” he muttered. “He's shut me out.”
“You can't talk to him?”
“Oh, sure I can. I know damn well he can hear me, but there's nothing coming from his end.”
Steve stood and put a hand on his friend's shoulder. “Sam, if Redwing has been compromised somehow...”
“I know.” Sam nodded. “I'll ask him when it's just the two of us. But, Redwing doesn't think like us, Cap. I say that we're talking to each other for simplicity's sake, but I can't actually wrangle a real explanation out of him. What we get from each other is more...how we're thinking or feeling at the moment. But if this is some villain's work, I'll figure this out, rest assured.”
“I didn't tell you this because it would affect you or Redwing's spot on the team,” Steve assured him. “I just thought you'd like to know.”
“Right.” Sam nodded and gave a perfunctory smile. “Thanks for looking out for us, Cap.” He reached out to Redwing.
Recognizing the dismissal when he heard it, Steve patted Sam on the shoulder one last time and walked away as Redwing settled on Sam's arm. Sam stroked his feathers, before leaning in and muttering something. Redwing preened.
“We're all clear!” Jan's voice rang over the comm.
“I'll tell SHIELD they can send their people in,” Steve replied, and did so, before he heard the armor next to him. Tony landed with a hop to steady himself next to Steve.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey yourself,” Steve said, walking close enough so he could bump Tony's shoulder. It wouldn't mean much to Tony, encased in metal, but that wasn't any reason to not do it if he felt like it.
“Look at us. No one's bruised or battered or bleeding. I won't have to take ten minutes tonight to brush my teeth because my shoulders ache too much.” Tony's happy sigh came out as distorted through the armor's voice filters. “I wouldn't mind having missions like this for the rest of my life.”
“A welcome invitation for catastrophe if I've ever heard any. Besides,” Steve added, “you'll get bored of this soon. You'll start begging Reed to annoy Galactus or try to incite the wrath of another civilization.”
“As long as it's not the Skrulls,” Tony said. “They're too easy to piss off. I would hope that I could at least be able convince the Kree or Shi'ar to hate our guts. And you're not the one who gets to chastise me, fellow adrenaline junkie. Speaking of adrenaline, did you catch the part where I said I'm not aching at all?”
“I did,” Steve said. “We'll have to test that tonight.” He hoped the cowl hid the flush on his face.
Tony laughed, which, Steve was starting to find, made the embarrassment worth it. “Said with a straight face, too! I'll make a scientist out of you yet. And don't worry; my schedule's cleared tomorrow morning.” Steve could hear the leer in his words.
“All right, break it up, you two, I'm getting sick.” Bucky sidled up between Steve and Tony and pushed them apart. Or attempted to, and Bucky huffed, gritted his teeth, and tried harder. Steve didn't budge against the pressure and he saw Tony do the same, and Bucky let out a strangled cry as he let go and threw his hands up.
“Damn it, stubborn as rocks isn't just a descriptor for your shining personalities...”
Steve felt pressure on his side again and he pushed back instinctively. But this time, no matter how much he resisted, the force succeeded in separating him from Tony. Its source, Luke, who had somehow ended up between them, nodded solemnly.
“Listen to the kid. Founders should set an example.” He broke character and grinned, then high-fived Bucky, who had ended up walking backwards in front of them.
“As another founding Avenger, I say don't listen to the newbies!” Jan had grown back to full size and ran up on the other side of Steve. “Don't stop!”
Steve looked back over his shoulder, and Redwing was still on Sam's arm. Sam was saying something to the bird, who perched at rapt attention. They seemed all right, too.
As the Avengers walked out past the SHIELD agents pouring into the warehouse, the prickly disquiet that had plagued Steve since earlier that morning on the roof faded away. He couldn't even remember the last time he'd been so easy and content with his life, and didn't bother trying to keep a proud smile off his face.
Like this, he felt like he could take on anything.
Steve nuzzled into Tony's shoulder as Tony arched against him.
“Steve,” Tony panted, “c'mon.” Steve curled their fingers together, digging his toes into Tony's bed for the momentum to slowly push in. For all of Tony's insistence, Steve wanted this to last. A ragged gasp escaped him as Tony let his displeasure at that sentiment be known, angling and shoving his hips to force Steve in deeper.
Tony grinned, clearly pleased with himself, and brought his hand around the back of Steve's neck to ease him down into a kiss. In the dizziness of the heated kiss, Steve forgot himself, forgot about slow and languid and buildup, and could only remember wanting more, more Tony and more searing heat. His body answered those desires for him, thrusting hard and fast into Tony.
Tony pulled back, groaning Steve's name. Steve ran his mouth, pressing quick kisses, over Tony's chin, the scratch of the goatee leaving his lips tingling.
“You're so difficult,” he panted, half into the side of Tony's neck and half into the bedsheets, as he willed his body to slow down.
A breathless chuckle, and he felt Tony's hand knead the back of his neck. “You're the one making this difficult by not fucking me through this bed.”
“Tony.” Tony acting so nonchalant and flippant in the middle of sex, while Steve was busy losing his mind over him, sparked something primal deep inside him (and he suspected Tony knew it would). He began to move in earnest, prompting grunts and groans and mumbled affirmations – jesus, yeah just like that, ah, Steve, Steve. Tony pushed back against Steve, meeting every thrust, and Steve wasn't going to last very long. Tony's hands ran down his body, and Steve felt his fingers stroke at the dip at the bottom of his back. In a desperate attempt to get closer to that touch, he slammed his hips in and got a soft, high whimper for his efforts.
It was too much yet not enough. Steve distracted himself by kissing and sucking at Tony's neck and the side of his face, the only part of the other man's body he could reach without slowing his rhythm. His urging finally dawned on Tony, who turned his head so Steve could get his blessed, damned kiss. The distraction worked in a way; Steve so caught up in the long, deep kisses that the unrelenting pressure in his groin ebbed. Instead, the pleasure spread through the length of his body.
It felt like only a few short moments later that Tony was gasping into his mouth, lips barely sliding back against Steve's. Steve wasn't sure if Tony had the wherewithal anymore to pull back for air, so he broke the kiss instead, moving his mouth to pant against Tony's cheek as he worked his hips and brought a hand down to wrap around Tony's cock. Tony's body jerked as he let out a soft whine and he looked at Steve, desperation evident in his eyes. Steve groaned and sucked wet kisses across Tony's cheek until he reached his mouth. The finesse of Tony's regular kissing was gone, only responding when Steve initiated – an answering flicker of tongue when Steve reached out with his own, his lips following in the motions of Steve's.
He was so focused on kissing Tony, not even able to do anything with his hand around Tony's cock other than holding it in place, that the tell-tale spike of pleasure took him by surprise. Steve only managed to break the kiss a few seconds and frantic thrusts before he came, pushing one last time into Tony, chasing the climax as waves of pleasure crashed over him. He heard a distant whimper, and didn't know where it came from.
When he came back to, realizing that somewhere along the way he had closed his eyes, Steve was made aware of Tony stroking a hand through his hair. He tilted his head for better access to the soothing caresses. He basked in the haze of afterglow and Tony's body heat for a few long moments, before he blanched. His fingers were clenched around Tony's cock; the whimper must have come from him.
He pulled out, rolled onto his side and let go, moving his hand lower to cup Tony's balls tenderly. “Sorry,” he whispered, and pressed soft kisses to the corner of Tony's mouth while moving his hand to stroke at the skin behind.
Tony didn't reply. His eyes were glazed over when Steve met his gaze, and Tony licked his lips and exhaled sharply. Steve's mouth went dry – it was rare, even during sex, that Tony became this dazed. Tony lifted his hips, telegraphing what exactly he wanted, and Steve couldn't even tell if he'd done the motion consciously. Steve whimpered before moving to close his hand around Tony again, watching for any signs of pain. Tony's eyelids fluttered and he pushed into the grip, but Steve laid a hand on his abdomen with his free hand to still his body, and took over control.
He knew Tony responded more to firm, slow strokes, but he also knew that all that mattered right now was getting Tony to come. He moved his hand quickly, making sure to rub his thumb over the slit of the head to smear precome over it and to add a twist of his wrist every time he reached the tip. Tony closed his eyes, breathing heavily with soft and mumbled groans interspersed. Steve sat up and moved his free hand to Tony's neck, rubbing his hand up and down the side. He was torn whether to look down at his hand around Tony's cock or at his face, not sure which one he wanted to see more when Tony came. He didn't have to choose when Tony moaned Steve's name, high and wavery, and Steve bit his lip at the flash of desire that shot through him. Tony's face tightened and slackened in that half second, mouth left hanging open, and Steve felt Tony's come cover his fingers, making the pumping slicker and easier. He didn't still his rhythm, wanting to draw out the orgasm as long as possible, and shifted his own position to dull the ache in his loins. He could tell the moment it was over, when the shivery tension left Tony's body and he sank into the bed with a sigh.
Steve gazed down at him, and deciding that Tony wouldn't care even if he did notice him leaving, got up to get a washcloth. When he emerged from the bathroom, relieved after checking and seeing he hadn't grown hard again, he saw Tony sprawled on the bed, the back of his hand covering his eyes. He moved over him and leaned over to wipe the come off of Tony's stomach, hesitated, then brought the washcloth down to clean off lower areas. They should probably use condoms to make cleanup easier, but whenever he suggested, Tony would shrug it off. It didn't help that he usually did so when they were in the middle of making out and already halfway into bed. Tony and lust wasn't the best combination for higher processes like thoughtfulness and restraint, and Steve's shoulders hunched with guilt. He was sure he would have been the type of person who could reign himself in, when they were together like this.
After Steve finished cleaning Tony off and sat down next to him on the bed, Tony shifted and winced. Steve cringed. “Tony?”
“You all right?”
“Perfect. Never been better,” Tony yawned.
“Sure about that?”
“Yes, I'm su-” Tony paused. “Well, it burns a little. Comes with the territory, and I will fight tooth and nail to hold claim to it.” He moved his hand off his face and grinned at Steve. “I'll have to sue. Most people who want to fuck you that actually stand a chance don't care much about pain, considering the business they got themselves in.”
“Tony,” Steve sighed. Tony making light out of everything, even their sex life, was par the course, but here too, it remained an effective method of stonewalling. “Sleeping with me isn't worth a lawsuit.”
“Of course it is. Oh, there's the patented Captain America stern look of disapproval-slash-disappointment,” Tony said, and reached out with his hand, but Steve grabbed it before it made contact with his face.
“I could have hurt you.” That whimper hadn't been one of pleasure. Maybe if he said things straight out, Tony would be forced to take his comments at face-value.
“Or you could have given me some of the best sex of my life.” Tony blinked up at him and smiled, the corners of his eyes crinkling. “Don't feel bad. It's really, really hot when you take control like that.”
Steve certainly had not felt “in control” during the sex. If he had been, they would still be in the middle of their love-making. He really had wanted to draw it out, savor the feeling of having Tony so intimate and close. If anyone, it had been Tony in charge there.
“You have so much trouble accepting other people are right sometimes.”
“Steve, stop trying to spread the guilt around.” Tony patted the bed next to him. “Do we have to do this? Let's just enjoy the afterglow.”
He wasn't saying that about the sex, Steve wanted to tell him. Tony not recognizing or willfully overlooking the flaws and shortcomings of his way of thinking was the basis for almost every single argument Steve could remember having with him.
Tony laid his hand on Steve's knee. “Steve?” he asked, softer, unsure.
Steve sighed, before covering Tony's hand with his own. Well, maintaining control over his life was important to Tony, even if it hurt him more than helped. Steve didn't approve of the extent Tony would go to for its sake or how it could lead him astray, but he also knew the drive and heart that drew him to the other man wouldn't always lead to results that lined up with his own beliefs. They could butt heads when Tony's decisions began to affect others, but this relationship was just between the two of them. If Tony trusted him, then he could trust him in return.
Steve smiled at Tony – reassuringly, he hoped.
“Give me a second? I'll be back,” he said, reaching for Tony's head to ruffle his hair. He leaned over the edge of the bed to pick up his boxers and stood to pull them on.
“Come back soon,” Tony called as Steve walked toward the door, and he raised a hand in reply.
He should have felt more self-conscious about leaving Tony's room half-naked in the middle of the night, but truth be told, he didn't really care. He and Tony were the open secret of the Avengers, and very few of the others had done more than tease and actually talked to him about their relationship. That list included the other founders (Jan had seemed happy with it, with Thor in similar spirits) and Sam and Bucky, of course, as well as Rhodes and Carol.
In the end, he didn't run into anyone as he walked through the hallways. Usually there was at least someone in the kitchen or the gym no matter the time of day, but there was no sign of life anywhere in the Tower he went. The feeling of unease from the roof, so easily forgotten when he was surrounded by the other Avengers, returned and settled in him.
Steve ended up in the living room, next to the floor-to-ceiling windows. Tony had told him they were tinted, but Steve always felt on display next to them, like people were just outside waiting to jump at any opportunity to gawk at his private life. Maybe that's why he found himself in front of them now, to feel the stiffness in his shoulders and neck at the sensation of being watched.
But tonight, the feeling wasn't there. It wasn't just the Tower; even the city seemed eerily quiet. Part of Steve knew that there was no way of evaluating that from so far up, but it made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. Maybe he should go back to Tony; brooding wouldn't help anything. Tony's warmth could ease some of the tension hanging over him, and even if it didn't, there was no one he would rather be next to in the middle of the night.
Despite those thoughts, Steve remained transfixed, looking out over a silent New York City.
Just after noon the next day, Steve caught Tony on his way to the elevator.
“Hey Cap,” Tony said, “walk me to my office?”
Steve had been on his way to the training room, but a detour couldn't hurt. He had spent most of the morning solitary anyway, in the library sketching in the corner, in the little alcove that got just the right lighting in the early hours. He had been working on a portrait of Wanda, Vision, and the twins for her birthday. He hoped she'd like it; she had always shown an appreciation for his art.
“I saw you at the team meeting this morning,” Steve said as they walked through the main floor of the penthouse suite, “designing the schematics of the Iron Man in your head.”
“Why, Cap, are you accusing me of not paying attention?” Tony batted his eyelashes. “I actually wasn't designing the armor in my head.” He laughed at Steve's expression. “Well, the armor you're thinking of, anyway. War Machine isn't Iron Man; you know that, because you've spent more than five minutes in Rhodey's company.”
“Speaking of War Machine, is he all right?” Steve asked, and the abruptness must have caught Tony off guard, because he frowned.
“As far as I know. Do you know something?”
“No,” Steve said, “that's good to hear.” He wasn't sure himself why he had the urge to inquire about Rhodes's well-being in the first place. He usually was up to date on everyone's statuses, whether they were on the active team roster or not, and as far as he knew, nothing particularly of note had occurred recently.
“But can you blame me for letting my mind wander?” Tony asked. “I saw the glazed look on your face when Freeman went on his anti-SHIELD rant.”
“That was hardly a rant,” Steve said mildly. “But, well, he's the type of person who likes transparency and a face to present to the public.”
Steve could understand the reasoning, and even the distrust for SHIELD's clandestine operation, but he had learned and accepted those necessities long ago. There were too many dangers and crises in the world, and too many of those with the potential to destroy countless lives. Part of Steve's oath to uphold his ideals and protect the people who needed it was to spare them from realizing just how many, and how often.
“Yet he works for DC...see, you're getting that look again.” Then Tony's face was right next to Steve's, and he peered at him closely. His eyes were very, very blue. They stared at each other for a few moments, until Tony pulled back and grinned. “Am I really so boring?”
Something in Steve's chest seized. It was hard to breathe, and it was like an echo of his old self, the one who always had to be careful with his body for fear of straining it.
“Yeah,” Steve said. "I mean, no." He placed his arm around Tony's shoulder and tugged. Tony leaned his head on Steve's shoulder, then turned it upward so he could start talking about the War Machine armor, going into detail about the upgrades, how he'd need to use the Iron Man as a prototype first, and Steve had a fleeting thought that maybe all he wanted from life was to listen to Tony Stark ramble. His chest was still tight, like it was being squeezed, and he felt too warm and jittery, like physically he wasn't here anymore.
“You all right?” Tony looked up at him. They had stopped walking. “You've been spacing out of it a lot lately. I mean, even when I am boring you, you usually at least grunt in response.”
“I'm fine,” Steve said, and it was true. It wasn't at all a bad feeling. This time, there was none of the helplessness or frustration or resentment toward his stick of his body, for all of his lightheadedness or how he found it hard to breathe. He should bask in it now since it would pass soon enough, the very first delirious high after the realization. “You're not boring me.”
Tony snorted. “Whatever you say.”
Steve let go of Tony's shoulder, and Tony stepped into the elevator, the doors having just opened. Steve stepped in after him, and listened to Tony talk rapturously about something technical that Steve couldn't even pretend to understand on the way down.
It didn't make sense; he'd already been in love with Tony, hadn't he? He couldn't even recall when it'd started, or when he realized, or even how it had felt at the beginning. But now, it was dizzy and raw and thrilling, like the flames had simmered inside him for as long as he could remember but had just now erupted, in this instant indistinguishable from any other. The intensity of it made him hyper-aware of everything Tony – the warmth he exuded, the way he buzzed with energy, eyes alight and hands moving, words coming out in a streaming rush that grew faster and faster. Everything was familiar, but brand new all at once. He'd grown accustomed to the easy, tight control over his own body and senses, and even just the slight easing of that pressure was disconcerting. But not bad, he thought again.
Yesterday night, he'd been thinking about how lonely everything seemed, but as they walked through the executive floor of Stark-Fujikawa to Tony's office, it was hard to imagine he'd entertained such a thought. Employees rushed around, making phone calls and rattling off reports, and the clack of keyboards was a constant, pleasant background noise that he had come to be a little fond of.
Peter popped his head out of his office to wave at them, and rolled his eyes when Tony ruffled his hair. With a baby on the way for him and MJ, he'd opted for the team reserve instead of the main roster. But, working for Tony's company and living in Avengers Tower meant there was never a shortage of him underfoot.
When they reached Tony's office and Steve looked out of the window, the bustling of the city below was also evident. New York was anything but quiet, as it should be, and he relaxed.
“I'll leave you to go work on that fetching figure of yours now,” Tony said from behind him. “By the way, are you free Friday night? There's this gala for this organization that gives engineering scholarships for kids from underprivileged countries. I have to go; Ho will be there.” Steve's head turned so fast it felt like whiplash, but Tony didn't stop talking. “I'll even let you drive since Happy's on vacation, so long as I pick the method of transport.”
Tony tilted his head and arched an eyebrow at him. “Yinsen? The guy who saved my life? The reason I'm standing here talking to you?” Tony frowned now – out of worry, Steve knew, but that only made the knot in his stomach tighten.
“I know who he is,” Steve replied automatically.
“Then why did you even as-”
“How is that possible?” He knew he was the one who spoke, but the voice that came out of his mouth didn't sound like his own. It was like he wasn't even in control of himself. He was starting to hate that feeling.
“By plane? It's a very important cause to him. So I offered him accommodations,” Tony glanced at his watch, “and by that, I mean airfare and a week-long stay at the Waldorf Astoria. He should be getting in tomorrow night.”
“Steve, are you sure you're all ri-”
“No. I know who Ho Yinsen is, and I know Ho Yinsen is dead,” Steve blurted, and he grabbed Tony's shoulders. “He was with you in Afghanistan. He helped you build the Iron Man armor to escape your captors, and then he died in the middle of your breakout.”
Tony gaped at him. “What?”
Tony had started to tremble a little, and that made Steve realize how tight his grip was, and how Tony wasn't the one with enhanced strength. He let go like he had been burned, and Tony remained rooted in place.
“Tony, why did we have to form a new Avengers team?”
“Because we...we overthrew Osborn.” Tony looked bewildered.
“And why did we have to overthrow him!?” Stunned shock had been replaced; panic was clawing at him, now. It was so unexpected and unfamiliar he was lashing out at Tony, and he hated how he couldn't even help himself.
“America was crazy enough to make him their top cop.” Tony's eyes widened and he shook his head. “But, that's your job, isn't it? Wait, no, it's not. You're Captain America, why would you be in charge of national security?” he trailed off, and his expression had grown clouded.
“Because...” It all clicked, then, and the panic was replaced with a hollow acceptance. “Because I'm not Captain America.”
“I'm Commander Rogers,” he continued, and he looked down at his hand, and saw that he was wearing new, fingerless gloves, “and I'm not even an Avenger.”
After a long moment of not being able to look anywhere besides the floor, he heard Tony's voice.
“Barnes is Captain America. Yinsen died over ten years ago.” Tony's voice was monotone. “Rhodey's more robot than human. Peter can't work for me when he can't trust me as far as he can throw me. Freeman died when Kang slaughtered DC.” Tony buried his face in his hands. “God, and Jan. Wanda. Happy.” Tony's voice cracked. “Rumiko.”
Steve closed his eyes and kneaded them with his hand. He focused on taking deep breaths, allowing a wave of emotion to crash over him with each inhale, and expelling it with each exhale. His other hand was trembling, and he curled it into a fist.
He barely registered hearing a sharp intake of breath, but the crash of something hitting the table snapped him out of his daze.
Steve couldn't get to him fast enough. Tony had toppled onto the desk, and was on the floor now, thrashing his legs, kneading and tugging at his shirt. He pressed and rolled his forehead against the ground, panting, and he screamed. Chills ran down Steve's spine and he grabbed Tony's shoulders. The screaming didn't stop.
Tony curled toward Steve and whimpered. Steve's fear spiked, because somehow he knew that the pain hadn't ebbed, and Tony had only stopped because screaming took too much effort. “Shit,” Tony moaned. He pressed his face into Steve's shoulder. Convulsions shook him, and Steve brushed the hair out of his eyes, running his thumb along the sweat-slicked forehead.
“Stay with me!” he told Tony, his voice rising. Tony's eyes were squeezed shut, and he bit down hard on Steve's shoulder, and Steve felt the skin there rupture. But, to his relief, Tony's shudders weakened as the pain in his own shoulder sharpened.
After a long moment, Tony's teeth digging deeper into the skin with every passing second, he pulled back with a sickening pop. He laid his cheek against Steve's shoulder and breathed harshly.
Tony sat upright, and Steve felt his blood grow cold at the sight of blood streaked across the side of his face, until he realized that it wasn't Tony's own blood. Tony brought his fingers up and started unbuttoning his shirt, his hands trembling almost uncontrollably. He'd reached a third down before he giggled, a little giddy and a little mad, and turned his face into Steve's chest, muffling the sound of his laughter.
In his chest was a...glowing circle. RT, Steve's mind supplied, and as if in response to the cool blue hue of the light, his own heart went cold. He rubbed circles into Tony's back, Tony's breath puffing against his chest, his body trembling minutely. After a long while, Steve trying to keep his own heart rate under control, Tony pulled back with a rasping breath, and his eyes had grown hard.
“So, someone's fucked with our minds.”
“Luckily,” and Steve couldn't resist a wry chuckle and a shake of his head, because there was nothing lucky about their situation, “I've been in this sort of situation before.” The most recent vivid memory he could recall was two days ago, and that was enough to tell him his answer. “We're trapped inside of the Cosmic Cube.”
“The Cosmic – Skull. Of course. I knew that day went too smoothly to be real.” Tony shifted in Steve's arms, and was silent for a long moment before speaking again. “Speaking of real, who else is the real thing?”
Steve swallowed. He stared, transfixed by the glow in Tony's chest.
“Never mind. That was a dumb question, and I don't want to hear you answer it.” Tony grunted. “I should have figured there's no one else to trust. Just you and me, then.” He squinted at Steve's body, then reached out and touched his fingers to the bleeding area. “Hey, your shoulder.”
“Don't worry about it. If it meant you didn't have to bite your own tongue in half, I'm glad for it.” To prove his point, Steve shrugged. It stung, but he made sure not to let any sign of it show.
Tony's lips tightened. “I shouldn't have done that.” He began to button his shirt back up, not meeting Steve's eyes. “Sorry you had to see that.”
That stung even more. Steve nearly shook him for that comment, but settled for framing Tony's face between his fingers and squeezing a little. “Tony. You were getting your chest carved out.” In the space of less than a minute, too; Steve couldn't even begin to imagine how painful that must have been. “I would hope you'd let me help you in that situation. As a teammate and as your friend.”
Tony sagged and rubbed his forehead with his hand, smearing the blood across it. “You couldn't have done anything for me there, Steve. You can't just bullhead your way past everything and assume you'll find a solution.”
“I'm not implying it was.” How could he? Watching Tony suffer and being unable to do anything – he wholly believed he would rather have lived through it himself, then to feel such utter helplessness. “But just because I couldn't do anything to help doesn't give me an excuse to be useless,” Steve said.
Tony's head jerked up. “Hey, I didn't mean to imply you were useless. You're,” he waved his hand around, “not like that. That's not how it works with you.”
Steve sighed. When Tony was closed off like this, even the most honest and direct statements would be twisted and taken the wrong way. “You're missing the point.” He rubbed Tony's face where the blood was already drying to clean it off. “I won't ever just stand by when I know there's something, anything I can do.” Even if it was as unhelpful as being used a a chew toy.
“To be fair, you won't do that even when there is nothing you can do,” Tony pointed out, and leaned his cheek into Steve's hand. “Hey, I like the new look.”
Steve didn't bother looking down at his outfit – it was his Commander one, he already knew – and gripped Tony's shoulder. “Tony.” Don't change the subject. You're so hard-headed, can't you just accept that just because other people want to help doesn't mean you've failed somehow? “We need to get out of here.”
“Yeah.” As long as their topic wasn't...whatever they had just been talking about, Tony was responsive. “We really do. Now that I notice how sappy this world is, it freaks me out. Maybe it's the uncanny valley effect.” Tony's face betrayed his true feelings.
“I don't think your loved ones being alive and well makes something sappy.” Steve ran a thumb across Tony's nose.
“You kissed me at the breakfast table. Our team teases us whenever we're in the same room as each other, and on that note, have way too much of a personal investment in our relationship. Animals love me! We're in the corniest romcom.” Tony rubbed his cheek against Steve's hand. “Not that any of that matters, because more importantly, something's going to happen to the real world while we're here. I can't put others in danger while hiding away in my Barbie Dream House.” He pulled back and sat on his haunches. “I've done that for most of my life already, Steve; the least I could do now is try to make up for it.”
You have, Steve wanted to tell him. “You're one of the best heroes I know, and I know quite a few,” he said instead.
Tony remained quiet. After a long moment, he stirred. “You're the one with prior experience dealing with this. When you found out you were trapped last time, what did you do?”
Leave it to Tony to pretend he hadn't heard what Steve said, but Steve didn't push it. “I jumped out.”
He didn't get flustered at Tony's pointed stare, although he felt the sudden urge to fidget. Tony jerked his chin toward the window. “You or me first?”
Tony laughed, but it sounded small and weak. “I've flown in the armor all around New York, and I didn't accidentally stumble on any rips in time space leading to the real world. I get the feeling that's not going to work this time around.”
“Skull probably knew better this time,” Steve said. “He wasn't expecting me to come back out of that Cube the last time.”
“You would think a guy would learn not to underestimate Captain America.”
“I don't want him to learn anything. Last time, I managed to escape from Hitler's safe-house,” Steve said. Tony raised an eyebrow at him, and he added quickly, “I thought it was the war, so I was trying to hunt him down.”
“Sometimes you really are as straightforward as you seem,” Tony said with a smile, actually amused this time. “So are you saying there's a special place we can escape from?”
“There has to be,” Steve said. It was too dangerous to completely seal something with such immense power. “We just don't know where it is.”
“It has to be important, somehow,” Tony mumbled. He tapped his finger against his head. “Like you and World War II. Is there anything we're trying to accomplish? That's less vague than 'don't let anyone destroy Earth'?”
“Skull wanted me to defeat Hitler last time, to serve his own goals,” Steve said. “But there's nothing like that for us here. He didn't even want us to realize we were trapped.” Like they were birds in a gilded cage.
“Like we're animals in a zoo,” Tony muttered. “Or circus animals.”
Tony's analogy was probably the more apt one, and – Steve sat up straight. “HYDRA.”
“Hydras aren't in zoos, Steve, they're not real. Probably. Hercules would know.”
Tony's gaze was piercing. “Pepper was right; I really must be rubbing off on you.”
Steve grabbed Tony by the shoulders. “Yesterday morning, when Redwing showed up.”
He saw Tony's eyes dawn with realization. “It was the damn HYDRA salute, wasn't it? Birdbrain was giving us a clue! The base it is, then?” He made to stand up, and promptly fell back down. Steve grabbed his arm.
“We don't have to go right this instant,” he said. Tony was in no condition to move; he must still be recovering from the...spontaneous mechanical heart implant.
“I'm fine,” Tony said hastily. “Just a dizzy spell from standing up too fast.”
“We're not going to do this too fast. If the end plan was to keep us here, then we can't just rush in head-first.” Steve understood where Tony was coming from, though, his own thoughts still recovering from their frenzied jumble. But he also had the presence of mind to know it wasn't any way to approach a fight, and that's what this would be.
“Way I see it, we'll just be getting out sooner than later.”
“I have faith in our ability to get out of here,” Steve said, “and that faith is partly based on our tactical planning.”
“That sounds like you doubting my ability to think on the job,” Tony retorted. He would think of it like that, because from the moment it was presented, any problem was tackled from every angle. There was little Tony disliked less than being idle, and nothing he hated more than feeling trapped.
Steve met Tony's gaze, and Tony hesitated, before nodding slowly and holding his fingers to his neck. He opened his mouth, then winced. “Damn it. I don't have Extremis anymore, either.” He stumbled over to his desk – so accustomed to Extremis he didn't even carry around a cell phone regularly anymore – and pressed a button on the intercom.
“Pepper, cancel my appointments for the rest of the day. I'll be in my lab.”
Steve stepped off Iron Man's boot and hefted his shield. Tony landed next to him and remained still, and Steve wondered what he was up to, until he heard Tony curse.
Tony walked over to the keypad at the door of the warehouse and pulled a wire out of the wrist of his armor.
“I'll get this,” he said with disdain. He left his gripes unsaid, but truthfully, Steve didn't feel too bad about Tony losing Extremis, even if it meant the horror of the other man having to manually interface with computers.
Steve nodded. “I'll get these guys,” he said, but was careful to keep Tony in his periphery vision as he hoisted the four unconscious SHIELD agents on duty against the wall of the building. He could have found something to restrain them with, but instead pulled out a tranquilizer and injected each of them. It should last for a few hours, and by that time, he and Tony would be gone. When this world and everyone in it would disappear because there was no longer a human consciousness to exist for. Steve put the syringe back in his pocket and avoided looking at the guards' faces. They weren't actually human, no matter how much they looked it, but the self-assurances did little to ease the dread. They had other lives to save, he told himself instead, and that was only slightly more effective.
Steve walked over to where Tony was still standing at the console. “Any progress?”
“The warehouse is unlocked,” Tony said, “and has been since within about fifteen seconds of me getting in the system. But...I found something else.”
“It's another lock.”
“Then it's worth looking into.”
“That's what I figured,” Tony looked up, “and there we go. I'm guessing you didn't hear anything click?”
“We're not in a spy thriller. Do a scan.”
“It warms the heart that you know enough about Hollywood to make fun of their cliches,” Tony said he stepped back a few feet. His helmet turned forty-five degrees. “Over there.”
'Over there' was an patch of wall, indistinguishable from any other. Innocuous enough, which meant something had to be hiding in plain sight, and Steve knelt down to pat down the concrete around it.
“If there's a hatch here, I'm not getting anything.” As he said it, his hand brushed across the floor and fell through the ground. Steve snapped his hand back and yanked the shield off his back. He held it in front of him, body tense and ready to spring into a fight.
Nothing jumped out, though. Where he had been kneeling a moment before was now a ramp leading underneath the building.
“Cloaking technology,” Tony breathed, and Steve was sure he wasn't just imagining the wonder in his voice. “How did the ground feel when you touched it? Could you notice?”
“It felt like concrete,” Steve said. “Let's focus.”
“Need to keep a cool head when we run head-first into the enemies' underground lair,” Tony said dryly.
“You were the one who wanted to get out of here as soon as possible.”
“That I do.” Tony floated a few inches off the ground. “It's too narrow for me to fly above you. I'll take point.”
They took it slowly through the underground passage, the incline steadily increasing until it flattened out a few hundred feet later and they saw what lay at the end. A metal door stood in front of them, at stark contrast to the rock that had lined most of the tunnel.
“If there was someone here, they would have ambushed us already,” Tony said as he pried away part of the panel on the wall and hooked himself up with the wire from his gauntlet again.
“Still could be a trap.”
“Not much of one if we knew about it beforehand.” The wire retracted into Tony's gauntlet as the door slid open.
The moment Steve walked in, the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. Tony, standing beside him, was dead-silent.
At the end of the room, the Cosmic Cube sat on a platform encased in a forcefield. The room was barren beside that, but –
“Steve, this place –“
“It has to be the work of the Cube.” This area, with the Cube's holding cell, and the polished floor, and the sleek, steel consoles lining the edges of the room, was the exact same place they had defeated Red Skull in just two days prior.
“Right. Well, I don't know about you, but I think the Cube waiting for us on a platter is a sign,” Tony said as he walked over to one of the machines. “Let's see what we've got her–oomph!“
“Tony!” Tony was lying on the floor. What type of hit would take him down like that in the armor? The answer came when gunshots rang out, and Steve held his shield up. When he looked over the edge of the shield, Bucky stood there, rifle pointed at them. But this wasn't the Bucky who had cajoled with him and Tony last night, the partner Steve had fought beside in the war. His face was older, and his eyes were cold and weary. The arm that hefted his rifle gleamed metal. No – this was the man who had once been the Winter Soldier, the KGB's greatest assassin for the greater part of a century.
Bucky caught the shield when it flew back toward him, and Steve was slightly grateful for the black of his Captain America uniform, so that the mirror-image wasn't too jarring. Floating next to him, Jan glared at them, and Sam and Luke flanked the two.
Steve edged next to Tony. “Are you hurt?”
“I'm good,” Tony grunted as he got on one knee. “Looks like things won't be that easy for us, after all.”
“That's to be expected,” Steve said as he helped him to his feet.
“You!” Jan shouted as she turned back to full size. Her voice was strained. “I didn't want to believe it, but –“ she shook her head, “you thought we wouldn't figure it out, eventually?”
Tony stepped forward. “What are you talking about?”
“She means how you played us for fools,” Luke said.
“You thought we wouldn't recognize an imposter when we saw one,” Sam added, and he sounded more disappointed than anything else.
“You're the ones calling us imposters?” Tony raised one of his gauntlets, and Steve held out an arm to stop him.
“I have to admit,” Bucky said, “I didn't think it of Cap. But you gave me a bad feeling from the start, Stark. And if Cap is so adamant on helping you, then it figures he's either a cohort or also a Skrull.”
“Skrulls!? You honestly think –“
“We're not Skrulls,” Steve told the Avengers.
“You're definitely not LMDs; we have countermeasures against those. An alternate universe, then.” Jan scowled. “Normally I wouldn't even bat an eye at that, but if you're planning to destroy the Cube to return home, then I won't allow it!” Her voice broke on the last word, and she blinked furiously.
“If you do it, this world will collapse,” Sam said, and for the first time since they had found out about this prison of a place, Steve wavered.
Tony scoffed. “What are you saying, this world isn't even re –“ Steve grabbed his arm.
“Tony,” he said quietly. “You don't have the right to say that to them.”
Tony didn't reply for a long moment. Then, he stepped back and looked at the floor, almost muttering. “If I can't say it to them, I can tell it to myself. I saw the recordings of her funeral, you know. Hank screamed at me. Blamed me for everything. I'm not going to forget that, and I'm sure as hell not going to acknowledge the reality of a world where that never happened.”
Steve wished he could see Tony's eyes, there, as he stared at the faceplate. He turned back toward the Avengers, lowering his shield, opening himself up for this one moment.
“Then,” Steve said, “here, it looks like we fight on different sides.”
He watched Jan, whose head hung low. Bucky shifted from one foot to the other. Luke uncrossed his arms. Sam lifted his hand, and Steve heard a flapping of wings from the corner of the room.
Jan looked back up, and her expression was set in grim determination, her eyes blazing.
Before Jan had finished changing size, a repulsor blast flashed by Steve's head and there was a loud squawk above their heads.
“Redwing!” Sam yelled as he ran to catch his falling partner, but Steve had already taken off in a dash toward him.
They had come to the grim realization, in Tony's lab at Avengers Tower, that there would be obstacles to their escape. So he and Tony had already prepared for this, planned their method of attack. But Steve had assumed they would be fighting mere copies of their friends, resembling them in appearance but not in spirit. Slamming sideways into Sam, and seeing him roll onto his shoulder, still spinning even as he jumped back on his feet, just like Steve had taught him (never stop moving, never give your enemy a still target) – even the way he left his side slightly open, an ingrained habit Steve had been trying to break him of, made cold shivers run up and down Steve's limbs.
Redwing had been the one to make him realize, too. And the reason they had run into a trap, too, but Steve knew there had to be more to it. They never would have ended up here in the first place without his help. Steve caught the bird and laid him on the ground. Sam glared at him.
Steve lifted his shield. He could have knocked Sam unconscious by just throwing it at him once he noticed him moving, but had chosen to run and ram him with his shoulder, instead. He shouldn't have done that; they didn't have the luxury of mercy, even for former allies, not outnumbered two to one, and he had just run away from being in a position to cover Tony.
Too late now, as Steve side-stepped a punch and snapped out with an left elbow of his own, just missing the chest but managing to knock Sam off balance. Steve followed the motion through with a sweep, but Sam pivoted back, stepping further back and positioning himself in a classic fighting stance. Steve saw his plan, and hesitated. From the sounds to their side, the sharp blasts of Tony's repulsors and the answering ring of Jan's tinny bio blasts, plus the crash of objects being thrown – that was probably Luke – the fight would not turn in their favor if he took Sam's bait and was drawn into a close quarters one-on-one. Their odds were bleak to begin with.
Steve brought his arm back to throw the shield, exposing himself, and Sam saw the opening and took it, leaping forward to Steve's right, a well-aimed chop disarming him in one strike. Steve was jarred for only an instant before he turned his entire body, grabbing Sam's arm and forcing its motion to follow through, jerking it down and flipping him over in one fluid motion. There was a loud crack and Sam was still, and the sound made Steve feel like his blood had been replaced with ice water, before Sam moved and opened his eyes.
“I don't get it. What's gotten into you?” he asked, but Steve had already pulled out the tranquilizer and stabbed it into Sam's arm, depressing the stopper and knocking him out almost instantaneously. There would be no reason to have to worry about any of the Avengers waking up, he told himself, just as he had told Tony. Tony had scoffed then, too. They could count their lucky stars Thor was off in Asgard, he had replied, as he had retrieved the syringes from Hank's floor in the Tower.
Thor wasn't here, but Luke was, Steve saw as he picked up his shield and turned to the rest of the fight. Jan was distracting Tony, flying circles around him and shooting blasts that were ultimately ineffective against the armor. But it was enough for Tony to lose his concentration and to try to maneuver out of her way as Luke hurled objects at him. As long as Tony stayed in the air out of Luke's reach, he would be fine, but they were...they were herding him into the corner, Steve realized as he took off in a run toward them.
Only to dive into a roll as gunshots rang above him. As he rolled to his feet, he cursed himself for not noticing the conspicuous absence. Bucky aimed again; this time, Steve deflected the shots off his shield.
“Cap, can't we just forget all of this?” Bucky called to him. He was standing on a crate, and Steve realized that the room had warped, part of it taking on the appearance and features of the warehouse from yesterday.
“Forget what? That Tony and I have decided to damn this world?” Steve said as he crouched down and edged toward Bucky. “You have every right to fight me.”
“And you have the right to fight, too. But, I meant if we could forget that this place isn't real. Is it that bad to live in a dream?”
Steve paused in his steps.
“No one else is all that different from what I can tell,” Bucky continued. “But me, I was. Different, I mean. Maybe it's because I can't exist in this world as Cap, when you never died in the first place. It did give me more perspective on this whole thing, though. Figured it out pretty quickly.”
“Then,” Steve said, bringing his shield closer to him, “if I haven't changed, either, you know my answer.”
“Fair enough,” Bucky said with a sad smile. “You were worth a shot.” He lifted his arm, and he wasn't even holding the shield. He had only shot with his gun to get Steve's attention too; ill-placed mercy for former allies must be a shared trait. Then Steve noticed what was in Bucky's hand – a small device with a button on the end, and Bucky held it up, clearly intending for him to see it. Steve understood immediately. Bucky had been absent from the fight up until now, and now, so that must be –
“Tony!” Steve yelled. Bucky hesitated. Steve had never wanted to fight against him again, even if this was just someone wearing his friend's mask, and he gritted his teeth. Sorry, he thought, as he hurled the shield. Bucky didn't even attempt a dodge, instead pressing the button with his thumb.
The charges in the room exploded. The shield hit Bucky right in the gut, knocking him off the crate and skidding his body across the floor.
Steve turned on his heel and sprinted.
The ceiling had caved in the corner where Jan and Luke had cornered Tony, and as if this world didn't make any less sense, the sky peeked in through the crumbling remains. Luke stood a few feet away from the debris, staring at it, watching for any signs of life, and Jan hovered above it. They had both clearly been in on the plan. Their actions had all been a distraction for Bucky to do his work, and Steve felt the knot in his stomach twist – he couldn't see the armor, and the pile of rubble wasn't shifting, and unless Tony himself initiated contact, there was no way to tell his status, not unless he used his own override code, and if it came to that then –
Goddammit, he's going to be hit with it too. It'll be – what am I kidding, it'll be fine, I'll lug him out with me if I have to. It'll be easier.
Steve stopped in his tracks. That was Tony, no doubt about it, but that had been straight in his mind – clearer than any communicator the Avengers had ever had. Hit with – hit with what? While he was trying to rationalize what happened, Jan's wings drooped, and she floated slowly down. Luke reached out his hand to catch her, and she curled up on his palm.
“Wasp?” Luke asked, and he turned toward Steve. “What did you do to her!?”
“I thought even fake-you wouldn't stoop to –“ Luke stormed toward him, but his feet gave out from under him. Before he hit the ground, Steve already laid flat on the floor, a hand shoved over his mouth and blocking the passage of air through his nose.
He could hold his breath for a long time, and it was an ability that had been tested more often that he liked to think about. But time passed by slowly, or maybe it was too quickly, when he had nothing to concentrate on but maintaining the stillness. His body was desperate to even quiver, but he couldn't expend that energy, either. Steve's thoughts had started swimming in and out by the time a metal hand rested on his shoulder. Steve jerked and punched the aggressor, but Tony knocked it away with a upright arm away from the body, just like Steve had taught him.
“Tony,” Steve gasped, and continued gasping, at a loss of words as he sucked in oxygen.
“How did you know to do that?” Tony crouched down and helped Steve to his feet. “There shouldn't have been any smell.” He looked over to the corner, and Steve followed his gaze.
Luke was curled up on the floor, his arm stretched out, and Jan lay in his open palm. He must have twisted as he fell, so that she wouldn't fall or be crushed by his weight. Her chest rose and fell, as did Luke's. Steve breathed out in relief, shuddering.
“Well, that worked,” Tony said, and Steve turned on him.
“You – you had knock-out gas and used it on our team!?”
“What –“ Tony was silent for a long moment. “It's sleeping gas, Steve.”
Steve gritted his teeth. “Gas that can put someone to sleep can also kill them.”
“I know that!” Tony snapped. “You'll notice that both of our teammates are sleeping, and one of them is about, oh, a hundred times the size of the other. I didn't use just any gas.”
“Stop that,” Steve spat, “the point isn't that that you didn't kill them –“
“Of course it is! I wouldn't use my own tech on my teammates if I thought it'd kill them.”
Steve bristled in shock. “You made this?”
“With the help of Hank and McCoy, yes! It's airborne nanotech that responds to the specific individual to induce sleep. We were thinking it could help the next time Ryker's has a breakout. I mean, it only happens every other week!”
“Never mind that!” Steve jabbed a finger at Tony. “You know who else uses gas on unknowing innocents?”
“Out of everything I've done, you're calling me a war criminal over this?” Tony sounded flabbergasted. “Can I mention our team, who are anything but innocent, blew up the ceiling, for chrissakes!” He gestured for emphasis. “Right on top of me!”
“I thought we were a team,” Steve countered. “Why didn't you tell me about this before pulling that stunt?”
Tony's next utterance was a cross between a groan and a growl. “Because I knew you wouldn't approve, and your approval is so important to me,” he said, “and I thought that it'd only be used in case of an emergency, in case we were losing and there was no other way out. Which is what was happening before I pulled 'that stunt'.”
“Everything's an emergency to you,” Steve muttered. How many times had he heard that from the other man? It was necessary. I couldn't let it happen. I did what I had to do. How many times had he seen Tony jump head-first in the line of fire, or make decisions for other people he shouldn't have? Tony was a good man, but his judgment – the one whose first instinct in a crisis was suicidal martyrdom – wasn't near as sound.
A good man, Steve reminded himself. He closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths. If he forgot that part, then everything he'd done for him up until now would have been pointless. “We have to stop. We're standing around and arguing after we agreed that getting back to the real world is a priority.”
Tony didn't say anything further, which he took as affirmation. Steve began to walk toward their teammates. Tony moved in the opposite direction, and together, they brought their teammates' sleeping forms back to Luke and Jan and laid them next to each other. Neither of them talked during it, or the way they intentionally laid down the Avengers in real sleeping positions – curled on their side or on their stomach – anything but side-by-side, flat on their backs.
Their team really would be left in a peaceful sleep after this was over.
“Any bright ideas?” Tony said quietly when they had finished and stood around the Cosmic Cube. It was still encased in a force field, and Steve threw a rock he had picked up from the debris pile. It bounced off.
“I'm going to wager brute force isn't going to work.” As he said it, Steve took his shield, having retrieved it from next to Bucky's body, swung back, and smashed the edge against the field. It bounced off hard, and Steve would have staggered back if Tony didn't catch him with the armor's hand on his back.
“Let me take a look at these,” Tony said, walking over to what was left of the consoles. But Bucky had set charges there, too, and Steve knew that the reason Tony wasn't already typing away at them was because he had already realized the futility.
Steve had the urge to punch the field, but resisted and instead dug the heels of his hands into his eyes.
“What the hell,” he heard Tony say, and his voice began to escalate. “There has to be a way out, there's no way they could seal the Cube up. It might not even possible. So why can't we find it? What are we doing wrong?”
Tony stormed back to Steve, and his faceplate wasn't even up, which confirmed Steve's hunch. When he worked hands-on with technology he preferred to looked at it straight on, or at the very most, with goggles on (to be closer, there's no reason anything should obscure my vision of it, he had rhapsodized once to Steve after a forty-eight hour period without sleep).
“We can't be trapped,” he declared. “There has to be a way out,” he repeated.
“We're prisoners,” Steve said, “so we need the key. We need to find where it is – ” Steve's heart skipped a beat. Tony went very still. “It's not where it is. It's who has it.”
“The jailer,” Tony said.
Steve lifted his head toward the ceiling.
“Skull! Skull, get down here!” he yelled, and Tony let out a bark of laughter, before echoing his shouts.
“Congratulations, we're officially going loopy,” Tony said, after they had shouted themselves hoarse. “We thought screaming at the person who trapped us in here would actually get us out.”
Steve crossed his arms, just so he couldn't punch into the force field surrounding the Cube hard enough to get knocked back ten feet.
“We're doing this wrong,” he said. “When I was in the Cube last time, I didn't get out by defeating Skull, even though he was the one who trapped me in there in the first place.”
“I know you didn't. You jumped out.” Steve could hear the air quotes in Tony's voice. He had the fleeting question if putting his fist in the faceplate would be cathartic enough to justify the pain.
“Why would the Cube just let me out?” Steve wondered aloud. He paused. The Cube.
He looked up again.
Nothing happened, and, even if it didn't make a difference, Steve had the urge to scream again.
“We're asking the Cube now? That might be even lower for me than begging God for a miracle – shit!”
A fog had appeared in front of them, and Steve took several steps back. Tony was by his side, moving with him his gauntlets raised. The fog took a distinct shape – a tall figure, and before their eyes, it materialized in front of them.
“You – Skull!?” Steve barked.
“I am the Cube,” the Cube, in the exact same guise as the Red Skull, with the knobbly, angry-red skin, hollowed eyes, and a look of utter disgust, tilted his head and Steve resisted the urge to shudder. “And while I may be God of this domain, I don't grant the worthless wishes of lesser beings.”
“Oh, that's just great, that you're actually an object with the cosmic power to alter reality, because you really do look just like the Red Skull,” Tony said. “Okay, Cube, we want out.”
“You are ants beneath my boot, your desires are – ”
“What did you just say?” the Cube spat.
“No, you wouldn't say that, because you answered Captain America's call.” Tony jerked his head toward Steve, but the Skull's eyes remained fixated on the Iron Man. “So you think we have something to offer you.”
“Tony, what are you – ?” What did he and Tony have, that could interest an entity so powerful it could even become sentient of its own will?
“Have you heard of bail?” Tony asked. The Cube's eyes narrowed.
“The intricacies of inferior beings are beneath me.”
“Well, then.” Steve could tell Tony was biting back a deprecating remark. “It's when someone who's currently in holding gets released, in exchange for a fee.” Steve noticed he didn't mention the part about the agreement to return for litigation.
The Cube's lip pulled back in a sneer. “You are attempting to bargain with me? What could you possibly have that would interest me?”
“Power,” Tony said automatically. “When you're that powerful, there's nothing to do but obtain more, right? The rich become richer. The poor become poorer. Because, in this case, at least, they're going to give up their money to the rich.”
The Cube laughed this time, and Steve gripped his shield more tightly. “I could crush you, erase every trace of you from reality in an instant, and you have something to offer me that could do more than that to your puny existences?”
“Yes. You're not the most powerful being in the Universe, Cube. But I can make you that. Have you ever heard of the Infinity Gauntlet?”
Steve's eyes widened as he stared at Tony. If he had to bluff to get them out of them, then why those? Infinity Gems weren't even in this universe anymore – how could Tony promise the Cube that? Something like the Cube would know that, and it might even kill Tony for his insolence, and then everything would be for naught.
But the Cube didn't look outraged, or even annoyed. Instead, it looked thoughtful, and it turned out that expression on the Red Skull's face, more than manic glee or homicidal rage, was the one that made Steve want to smash it in with his shield into it the most.
“I see I have your interest,” Tony said. “You can alter reality in here, but your influence on the outside world is limited. But it wouldn't be, anymore. I have it. The Reality Gem. And I even know who has the other gems, and I could tell them to you, if you let us escape.”
“How am I not certain you would lie to me?” the Cube snarled. “How would this benefit you or your species?”
“You called us ants earlier, right? If there was a way to describe humanity, it's that everyone thinks they're the queen of their own world.” Tony laughed, and Steve hoped the Cube didn't catch the strained note in his voice. “And how it helps me out? Just like ants, humans are social creatures. We need other people. I don't care how, but we can't live here all alone, with nothing but dress-up dolls that look like our real friends. We have to get out of here.”
The Cube stared at Tony for a long moment, and Steve shifted, ready to spring into action the moment the Cube refused.
“Very well?” Steve echoed as Tony replied “Yes?” in disbelief.
“There's been a passing entertainment in watching you flail around in here, much as watching an animal in its death throes. But, if I could reap more than just amusement from you, then I will see it done.”
The force field around the physical Cosmic Cube shuddered. Steve blinked, and was thrown back. He dragged his shield along the floor to slow his momentum, and the screech made his ears ring. He still heard the distant slam of something – Tony – hitting the wall. When he got onto his knees and looked at the Cube, the Skull-Cube had vanished. He ran over to Tony, crumpled next to the wall.
“Tony!” What happened? How much of that was the truth? “Are you all right?”
“We can talk about it when we get back,” Tony said abruptly when Steve shook his shoulder. “And of course I'm not letting that thing getting its paws anywhere near the stability of the universe. Did you see it? It might have walked and talked like a fascist Nazi bastard, but it was probably the inspiration for them rather than the other way around. We'll just stop it using the Gems.” Tony fell silent. “Yes, that part was real,” he said finally.
“Oh,” was all Steve could say, and he tried to sum up some emotion or reaction, and felt nothing but numbness at the revelation – all of them, that the Infinity Gems were back, or that Tony knew who had them, or that Tony had one.
Then they were around the Cube again, but this time, there was no field protecting it. Looking at it made him feel empty. So he looked sideways at Tony instead, and, in that moment, illuminated by the glow, the Iron Man looked uncanny. The hollowness Steve felt was pierced with a sharp ache, and he suddenly had the urge to see, to touch Tony.
“Tony.” He paused, uncertain of how to phrase his request. “I want to see your face, when we finish this,” he finally said. He couldn't see the expression Tony made, but the stillness of the armor was telling enough of Tony's confusion. The faceplate drew back into the helmet, and the helmet back into the armor, exposing Tony's face, then his head. Tony's expression was visible now – questioning and even a bit concerned, but despite that, a weight lifted off of Steve's chest, leaving him slightly breathless and jittery.
He turned to place his hand on the side of Tony's face, then leaned in and pressed a light kiss to his lips. He pulled back, and, seeing how Tony's expression had shifted from concerned, to baffled, then to worried, unable to help himself, brushed his mouth against Tony's again. When he moved away this time, he took a step so he wouldn't be tempted again.
“Are you...not mad at me?”
Steve turned, and swung his shield down at the Cube. One clean swipe, and it shattered into a thousand pieces. Only more proof it couldn't be the real thing. The Cube hadn't done anything other than glow, but with the loss of its power, even if it was fake, a dizziness and dread in the room he hadn't even realized was there had dissipated. In its place, a portal grew, large enough for them to step through.
“Huh. Well, that's it, then,” Steve heard from beside him. “Almost can't believe it. Uh, Steve? Are you – ”
“Yeah,” he said. “It's over.”
He already felt it. Something tugged at him, somewhere in his chest, away from the portal and their escape.
“...Let's go, then,” Tony said, still sounding confused. “A whole world's waiting for us. I know you must be rolling your eyes at the thought, but two founding members disappearing after we just managed to wrest our country back from a madman doesn't exactly inspire confidence.”
“About that, Tony.”
He had suspected it for a while now, ever since discovering the truth of this world, but the unrelenting pressure that rooted him to the spot only confirmed it.
“Hey, no take backs.” Tony tried smirking at him. “We're Avengers – we took up this mantle knowing what we would have to sacrifice. Though,” he cast his eyes down and shrugged, “there's nothing wrong with admitting I enjoyed this, is there? It'll be our own halcyon days. Let's just make sure to aim right for Skull's face when we get out. He'll never know what hit him. ”
“Tony,” Steve interrupted, and it must have been something in his tone of voice because Tony had opened his mouth, no doubt about to say something else, but shut it, watching him.
“Are you okay?” Tony asked abruptly. “You just dropped the thing, with the nanotech, and you didn't react to the Infinity Gems. You don't do that. Plus, you're looking at me weird.”
“Tony,” Steve said again, softer. “I can't.” He had to be conscious of his voice, try not to let it waver.
“I can't go home.”
It was surreal, thinking of something he'd never even known as home. He forced a smile at the irony of it. It didn't reassure Tony, who looked even more alarmed.
“Why are you saying that? You really aren't all right, then – ”
“I'm fine,” Steve lied. “It's not that I don't want to go, it's that it's not possible.”
“What the hell, Steve?” Tony furrowed his eyebrows and, after a moment, glared at him. “That's it, isn't it? You're just going to – if this is some big heroic sacrifice, then give it up. I'm not letting you be the one who stays behind.”
It wasn't the time to get angry at Tony's self-sacrificial tendencies, Steve knew, even as he felt a flash of indignation.
“Think about it, Tony. When the Red Skull used the Cosmic Cube, who else was there with you?”
“You were, of course,” Tony answered automatically. “We were fighting him together – you nearly had him. No, wait...you were wrestling with him, and I didn't want to fire my repulsor because I didn't want to hit you. Or,” Tony shook his head, “what? We smashed the Cube, didn't we? And its spirit thing let us leave. So there shouldn't be anything altering my mind anymore. My memories should be completely intact.”
“That's because the Cube's influence isn't completely gone.” There was just one last piece left. “Tony, I never came here,” Steve said, and Tony looked at him in shock. “The one who's been trapped in this world was only ever you.”
“What?” Tony's mouth hung open. “Wha – that's impossible! You're insane,” Tony protested, looking down, refusing to meet Steve's eyes. “You're –“ His eyes widened. When Steve looked down at himself, his torso and limbs had gone translucent. That didn't stop the feeling of dread sinking into his stomach.
He had seen soldiers back in the war deny that they'd lost a limb, swearing they still felt it. Phantom limb syndrome; he had looked it up, in the library at Avengers mansion, after waking up from the ice.
Except those weren't really his memories.
“You were the one who realized we were trapped.” Tony said, and his voice grew louder. “You helped with the escape! Why would you – how could you do that, if you're part of the Cube, if destroying you kills you too? Why wouldn't it make you its, its mind slave or something?” So it's impossible, was what he left unsaid, even if the evidence was staring both of them blank in the face.
“I didn't know I was part of it.” Steve paused, and thought about the loneliness and emptiness of this place when Tony wasn't around. “Well, no, I'm pretty sure I knew. I just didn't think about it. Will you believe me if I say I'm your version of Steve Rogers, and he would have helped you, even knowing everything?”
Tony's face looked like it was about to crumble. “Not so sure about that one, Cap.”
“I'm sure of it,” Steve said with complete conviction. “I know him.” He was him, in a way. Tony just hung his head, moving it back in forth in disbelief, and Steve would have grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him if he could.
“Even if he didn't feel like I do, he would have saved you,” Steve tried again, and Tony covered his mouth as he laughed. It wasn't the time for hysterical giggling fits, but Steve didn't interrupt him.
“I wasn't even considering that part.” Steve saw it; Tony reaching the conclusion that proved to him Steve's claims were true, but it was the wrong one.
“Tony,” Steve let his voice rise; he needed Tony to understand the gravity of what he had to tell him. “The Cosmic Cube had to mold me so that I would fit with your memories of Steve Rogers.” He smiled and hoped his wistfulness didn't shine through. “And it made me like this. That doesn't tell you anything?”
Tony didn't meet his eyes, and why had he never found a way to knock some sense into him? Even something as detached from humanity as was possible had reached the most logical conclusion – that Steve Rogers was in love with Tony Stark. He had never known a world without being with Tony, but Steve marveled at how, and why the other Steve had never acted on his feelings, denying both of them this...
Whatever his reasons, they weren't worth it.
“But that's not what matters right now,” Steve continued. “What's important is that you have to escape."
Steve saw the moment when Tony truly understood, when his heart caught up with his mind and what Steve was telling him. His face fell and the the cloudy doubt in his eyes cleared away, leaving nothing behind but empty steel. Tony smiled, small and unsure, and Steve's chest clenched.
“Only you, even if you are my fantasy dreamworld version, would do all of this,” Tony choked out.
“You should have made me nicer,” Steve said, trying to keep it light, but the words rang hollow to his ears.
“No.“ Tony shook his head. “Never. You should...always stay who you are. “ He chuckled. “Plus I never would have believed you were the real thing if you didn't yell at me every other time we talk.”
“I don't want to yell at you,” Steve chided gently. “You just make me.”
It was a good thing he'd kissed Tony before smashing the Cube. He didn't think it would be possible at this point. “Tony, you have to go.”
“Steve, I can't –“ Tony's eyes had gone wild, “I -”
“I'm still in your world,” Steve reminded him. “Just think of it...think of it as me waiting for you, on the other side.” Save those words for the person who really needs to hear them. He hoped Tony understood. “I'll always wait for you.”
Tony glanced between him and the portal and didn't move.
“I can't actually push you out,” Steve said, gesturing at himself. “If you won't leave, then I'll just be stuck like this, because you're the one who created me. So, I can't rest if you stay.” He knew what he said was cruel, but he also knew that Tony didn't want to accept that he couldn't save him, that there was nothing to save. “Go kick Skull's ass for me.”
Tony shook his head again, and in that instant, his helmet began to reform. He looked at Steve, and Steve watched his eyes disappear behind the faceplate as it closed over his face. Part of Steve wished he hadn't done that, and that he'd had the chance to see him until the very end.
Tony reached out toward him but aborted the motion, drawing back as if it pained him. Something sharp lodged itself in Steve's chest, and he breathed out, trying to convince himself he was relieved at what Tony had done. Tony turned away, and the armor lifted inches off the ground.
“Go, Avenger!” Steve shouted at him, and Tony flinched.
Then he was gone, through the portal, back to the real world. He hadn't even just walked out. He had flown through the portal, like the big showoff he was. No one but Steve had even been there to see him, and he couldn't help but smile fondly.
“Love you. Bye.”
He knew, and there was no room for doubt in Captain America's gut instinct, that with Iron Man back, they would be able to take down the Skull from the other side.
It was selfish, but he also knew, no matter how close or not Tony's Steve (he still couldn't think of it as himself) was to the true Steve, that these feelings were real. Not just for the other Steve, but for himself as well.
In his final moments, those assurances were enough to leave him at peace.
Tony looked out at the sunset on a balcony of the Tower, the wind whipping his tie back and his hair around.
After he emerged from the portal, not even a minute or so after he got sucked in, he had barreled into Skull, severing his connection with the Cube. He had held the Cube then, all of that power concentrated in the palm of his gauntlet, and forcibly removed Skull's mind from Sin's body. In the end, all that had been left behind was her corpse.
He had been bewildered when the other Avengers ran toward him, shouting and worried. Clint had demanded he put up his faceplate and checked his eyes, before pulling back, sighing, and declaring that he was so damn lucky he hadn't even gotten concussed. Thor had offered to fly him back to the Tower, and Spider-Woman asked his permission for her to use some of her pheromones to relax him. Tony had refused them both, and asked where Cap was. The wrong voice, too young, too rough, coming from someone in the wrong uniform (the flag didn't even have black in it) had replied.
Tony's heart skipped a beat as he was shaken out of his thoughts.
Steve leaned on the railing next to Tony. Tony could feel his eyes watching him, and he stared pointedly out at the horizon.
“Commander Rogers. Everything I know should be in the debriefing files.”
“I'm not here for that,” Steve said curtly. “I just didn't have time to get changed before I headed over here.”
“So,” Tony finally turned so that he faced Steve, “if that's not it, what are you here for, Rogers?”
Steve seemed to be fighting a scowl. “Don't be contrary. I just told you I'm here as Steve. And I heard what happened, and wanted to check up on you. As Tony, not as Iron Man.”
“Okay, Steve. I went through my medical checkup. That should be in the files as well.”
“I'm not talking about that.” Steve turned so he could lean over and rest his forearms on the railing. “I know what it's like,” he said. “Being trapped in one of those. You see things that, deep down, maybe you wanted to, but that you shouldn't have.”
Tony didn't answer, choosing instead to squint his eyes at the horizon. “I'm curious how that even happens for Capt-Commander Rogers,” he finally said.
“When someone says they're checking up on you, you're supposed to say 'I'm fine.'” Steve didn't react to the teasing – not in the mood for it, which, considering how standoffish Tony was acting, was to be expected. No, it wasn't even Tony's behavior. This was the new status quo for them, but that was fair enough. It was wishful thinking of the highest order to think things could even remotely return to norm- return to the way they were before.
“Bucky was there, and the rest of the Invaders,” Steve stated matter-of-factly.
“Your deepest desires aren't very transparent, are they?” Tony sighed affectedly, and that finally sparked a reaction from Steve, whose lips twitched.
“What about -” Before he even finished speaking, Tony regretted the words coming out of his mouth. He rubbed his hand at the back of his neck and suddenly felt like he could feel every nerve ending in his body, so wound up he had half a mind to jump off the balcony. The armor would save him mid-fall. “Me? Was I also in your little fantasy world?”
He watched out of the corner of his eye as the muscles in Steve's jaw worked. “No, I don't think so.”
“Well.” Forcing a joke past the tightening in his throat, Tony turned his gaze back to the horizon. “That's one way to bruise an ego.” The...other Steve had been convinced of how he felt, and Tony wasn't going to deny him the honesty of his feelings. Just, the insistence that it carried over here was absurd. The world in there was only ever his ideal. All that spending time there had proven to him was that it couldn't have been further from reality.
“The world I saw when I was trapped in there,” Steve continued as if he hadn't heard him, “was filled with everyone I'd ever lost. Everything I'd ever regretted. Doctor Erskine. Bucky. Ma.”
Tony put his forearms on the railing next to Steve's. Steve had been trapped years ago – they had their disagreements and arguments and butted heads, even back then, but there had been no rift between them like the gaping one that existed now. Now, if Steve got rid of him, Tony couldn't imagine him regretting cutting him out of his life.
Steve hadn't, though. He'd pressed Tony to join the Avengers again, and Tony still couldn't understand why.
“You could say it was like that for me, too,” Tony admitted.
A hand rested on his shoulder and squeezed.
“Well then, let's not add each other to the list of people we regret losing.”
Tony arched an eyebrow and tilted his head at Steve, studying him. He looked, and seemed, as stalwart as he ever was. “Sure about that, Steve? After everything that's happened?”
Steve leveled an even gaze back at him, clearly undaunted. “That makes me even more sure.” He shrugged. “I got Sharon and Bucky back, and now I have you too. I believed what you said to me back after Hela, and...it's the truth for me too. So, I'm staying right here. You're not going to run me off, Tony Stark.”
Tony wondered what would win in a battle of wills; Steve's stubbornness or his own inevitable fuck-ups. How very immovable object versus unstoppable force.
“I'd say I'd like to take you up on that bet, but then I'd probably be convicted of treason.”
Steve smiled. “If that's what it'll take for you to come for your senses, then fine.” He nudged his shoulder against Tony's. “I'll just have to wait for you, then.”
This was his cue to laugh, or smile back, but instead, Tony closed his eyes against the torrent of emotion at the familiar words. His heart thumped painfully, and the blood roared in his ears. He opened his eyes and slitted them against the sunset.
“You don't have to wait.” Despite his body's reaction, his mind was as clear and calm as he could ever remember it being.
“I'll be here, too.”