Thor fell to his knees.
Steve felt their already tenuous hold on victory slip. Swatted away like a fly, he lay curled on his side, momentarily stunned and unable to locate the rest of his team. His line of sight consisted of Thanos and of Thor kneeling before him. The same Thor who had averted the enslavement of a universe not even a month ago, when he had ripped through a Builder's chest and turned the tides in an unwinnable war, was defenseless now, helm torn away and Mjolnir wrenched out of his grasp.
Thanos raised his fists, which were encased in a blinding light, and threw his head back with a great roar. The earth shuddered beneath him. Mingled with the fearsome sight was an unmistakable finality. The Avengers had traversed vast star systems to fight through countless devastating battles for naught. The universe had won, but Earth lost.
The treacherous thought compelled Steve to move, cursing himself. It couldn't be over, not after everything they'd done, everything they'd gone through and fought for. He wouldn't have lasted a week on this team if he ever believed there existed an end with defeat. Gravel dug into the skin exposed by the tears in his uniform as he pushed himself to hands and knees, forcing himself to focus on the feel of dirt beneath his fingers. He took a deep, shuddering breath. Peak human meant peak instincts, and willpower alone wouldn't be enough to fully shake off the natural, paralyzing terror that came with facing down the harbinger of Death. Not now, when just getting to his feet felt like a distant improbability.
Shield. He needed his shield first, and after that, to rouse his team to aid Thor. Tony had said he and the others would come after they neutralized the threat in Wakanda. It was his word that Steve placed his trust, and their future, in. Only an inkling of a chance existed here with a small strike team, so what they would do was stall long enough for their knights in black and gold armor would come charging in. To set the stage for their upset, what they needed was...Time – they needed time, Steve repeated to himself like a mantra as he scoured the field.
His shield was propped against an outcropping of rock a dozen feet away, its surface turned away from him. Steve ignored his body's protests as he half-staggered, half-crawled toward it. With the shield, he could enter the fray again. With his team, they would win back Earth. Steve was faintly aware of a sickening crunch behind him, then the sound of something crashing to the ground.
When he reached the shield, gripping its edge and tugging, there was a clang as something tumbled out of it onto the dirt below. It glowed, was Steve's first thought. Glowed orange, and before the meaning of that dawned on him, Steve was scrabbling furiously for it. His hand brushed over the smooth surface of the stone, and a terrible, immense force, almost beyond comprehension, surged through him, robbing him of breath. Whatever he had felt against the Builders, against even Death itself, was dwarfed by the gravity of what lay inches before him.
Steve closed the Time Gem within his grasp.
The first impossible thought that crossed his mind was how familiar the gem felt, fitted in his palm. People told him Captain America meant something larger than life, a fact he was keenly mindful of, but the sheer scope of an Infinity Gem was beyond idolatry. He would have remembered holding one before. And he certainly would not have felt hollow, like this overwhelming power was only a mere echo of what could have been. Nevertheless, the weight of the stone calmed him. Time slowed, the raging battle in the ruins of a barren city left forgotten.
The gem made Steve promises. He could prevent the Builders from reaching this universe. Stop the war with the X-Men. Defeat the Serpent before it unleashed planet-wide panic. Expose the Skrull invasion before it began. He could go back and save hundreds at Stamford before everything was destroyed from the inside-out. The gem tempted him with the fates of billions, and the faces of Ian and Sharon rose to the surface of its whispered images. His stomach twisted.
No. All I want is the future.
A pale woman with snow-white hair; no color in her face save for a trace of orange in her eyes and black in her lips, which curved upwards. Sam and Izzy curled on a couch in the tower, him asleep on her shoulder, and when she noticed Steve she rolled her eyes before raising a finger to her lips. Blinking blood out of his eyes, feet shuffling across a bare desert, not allowing himself to look down at the limp body cradled in his arms that weighed down an entire world.
Steve tore himself from the visions, seeing nothing but white. He raised the gem, and its light pierced through the blindness. It shone, Steve blinked, and if time had slowed before, then now it came to a halt. The wind howled around Steve's ears as he rose to his feet.
Nearby, Bruce sat, knees pulled to his chest, head buried in his hands. Thor stood by him, staring in the distance with an intensity in his expression Steve rarely saw outside of the most fateful of battles. Steve looked around then up, and saw Hyperion and Carol had recovered as well, both flying around unencumbered. Steve took the image in as his mind and vision cleared, before lowering his gaze to what they circled above.
Thanos was frozen in place, arms raised and face contorted, caught in the middle of a shout. One of his Cull Obsidian – Steve ran through the files in his head – Proxima Midnight held her scepter out, her eyes wide with shock.
“Steve,” Thor had ended up beside him, and his voice was grave and pitched in a low whisper, “they are not dead, but stopped in time. Do you know what caused this?” Judging by his considering gaze, Steve's involvement in the matter would not come as a surprise.
The Time Gem was still gripped in his hand. Steve held his fist out and paused for a second before opening his palm. If Thor was shocked, he let no sign of it show past a slight tightening around his eyes.
“It appeared out of nowhere, and we needed it to win.” Steve made a point of glancing over to the middle of the field to Thanos and Midnight. “Looks like it answered my wish.”
Thor had followed his gaze to the two. “The gems should not be used lightly,” he said carefully. “But I understand your judgment. Defeat was not a possibility we could entertain.” Despite those words, when he turned back toward Steve, his expression had grown troubled. “However, I was under the impression this is an impossibility, after Tony willed the gems out of existence.”
“He...did do that.”
A dark look crossed Thor's face. “Once, I would have taken any of his words to heart with surety, but now – with this.” His expression grew sharp. “I have faith in his abilities, and the gauntlet grants all-encompassing power. Rather than him failing in his promise and duty, I fear there is a chance our friend is hiding secrets from us.” Again, he left unsaid. Steve saw it anyway, in the steel of his eyes and the set of his jaw.
“So you're saying he didn't actually destroy them. He just told us he did.” Steve frowned, but matched Thor's gaze evenly as he pocketed the gem with less than steady fingers.
Thor's suspicions weren't entirely unfounded, but Tony was the one Steve had created this new iteration of Avengers with. The team that had just succeeded in saving the universe, and Earth by proxy, due in part to Tony's exhaustive planning granting them the infrastructure they needed to deal with this level of threat. But the last time they had been partners in this sense, leading a team together, they had still – Steve shook his head emphatically. Tony was Tony, and that was all Steve needed to clear his name.
“I'm no expert on the Infinity Gems, but I gather the Time Gem is the kind to show up in unexpected situations.” Unexpected, but necessary; no matter how many angles Steve approached the scenario from, on their own, victory had been a deus ex machina away. Ironically, an Infinity Gem appearing out of nowhere was possibly the most fitting example of that. “Futurist or not, no one could have predicted this happening. We can't do anything right now but take this gift horse at face value. I'll talk to Tony. I'll ask him what he knows, what could have gone wrong back then.”
Thor took a moment before nodding but didn't seem assuaged. He stared at his hand, instead, clenching and unclenching it. “Friend, I apologize, both for casting doubt on our friend, and for making you suspect him. I was overcome with dark thoughts, but it was not related to Tony. I will confess to you what it is that truly ails me.” Thor's shoulders slumped. “I had been defeated. I regret that. But, more than the pain of loss, is that even though I stand next to you now, I cannot comprehend how or why I am able to do so.”
In his mind, Steve heard again the sickening crunch, and the realization of what must have happened made him suppress an involuntary flinch. Altering the past was dangerous, of course; he'd had the sentiment repeated to him a countless amount of times, and even his instinct recoiled at the idea. But, with Thor standing next to him alive and well, Steve found he couldn't regret his unconscious decision.
“Steve. Thor. Bruce.” Carol's voice led Steve back to the situation at hand. She grunted as she landed next to them and ran a hand through her hair, making it stick on end. She scowled. “Hyperion just found – you're going to want to see this.”
Bruce stirred and got to his feet unsteadily. Carol led them across the empty field and behind a jutting of rock. There, a corpse lay sprawled on the ground. The man's skin was purple and knobbly, and his lifeless eyes had once been a dull yellow. In his chest, where his heart would be, was a gaping hole.
Steve knelt to get a closer look. “So Thanos got what he wanted in the end.” He didn't bother to suppress the resentment in his tone. Apparently, even being frozen in time couldn't prevent the Mad Titan from achieving his goals.
“Damn it!” Carol kicked at a clod of dirt.
“I would make an objection.” Hyperion hovered next to them, arms crossed over his chest. “The way he was killed – even if this is the outcome he desired, this was not Thanos's doing.”
“Hyperion, you said there were five life readings earlier.” Bruce averted his eyes from the corpse. “Two stopped, one vaporized, and one – ” he motioned with a jerk of his head at the body, “but the last one...”
“Had to be in a position to stab the son in the back.” Steve, having finished his examination of the body, swiped a hand over its face to close its eyes. The wound told the entire story, of the murder at least; the son had been impaled from the back by someone who had known exactly where to strike to kill with a single, swift blow. He probably hadn't even realized what had happened before his heart had been pierced through.
“And the bastard high-tailed it off afterward,” Carol added grimly. “It doesn't look like the only factions in play here were Earth versus Thanos.”
“Hail!” Steve turned to Thor, who had raised Mjolnir and the glint of sunlight off the uru metal made Steve blink the glare away. But he quickly saw it wasn't to the gathered group Thor had addressed his call.
Steve squinted up into the sun. Something rapidly approached them, and the closer it came, the more distinctly human-shaped its outline became. A smile tugged at the corner of Steve's lips. They had won back the universe and their home, but it hadn't truly felt like their victory up until now.
Iron Man landed with a small hop to steady himself. When he straightened, he first looked between the gathered Avengers, then to the son's corpse, and finally to the petrified statues. “What, you didn't save anything for me?” The modulated filter couldn't hide the teasing lilt of his voice, but neither did it obscure the bafflement.
“Figured we could afford to take on some extra chores,” Steve replied.
“Way to make a guy feel inadequate.” Tony still sounded a bit dazed. “Supposed to keep an eye out for Earth, make sure no intergalactic megalomaniacs with the bite to back up their bark do something like, say, take over the planet while the real heroes go off to war.” He gestured around them. “And then they finish my job for me anyway.”
Carol patted Tony on the arm. “Don't take it personally.”
“I thought you were supposed to be bringing an army with you,” said Bruce with a pointed raise of an eyebrow.
Tony turned and looked back over his shoulder, not replying for a long moment. “The others were...held up. There are a lot of places that people need to be at right now. I was the one who could make it here first. But more importantly,” he cast his gaze back over them, “what happened? Even with all the heavy hitters in this crowd, I don't think your power sets can do,” he gestured toward Thanos and Midnight, “anything bordering on this.”
Steve had said he would talk to Tony, but he realized he hadn't thought over the specifics of actually telling him. How would Tony react when he saw the gem? Could Thor's doubts be proven? Steve trusted Tony with his life, but their own lives weren't the most important part of this business. It didn't help that at the moment, Tony could have donned the maniacal expression of a supervillain and they would be none the wiser. (Not that Steve thought that was possible to begin with. Besides, they had been doing this for so long that most of them had learned only to show the emotions they wanted to.)
“It was the son,” Thor interrupted, calling everyone's attention to him. “The others were incapacitated at the time, but I watched it happen with my own eyes. The son used his powers to do what he did to Thanos, then was killed in turn. By who, I do not know; they fled after committing the crime.”
“It's a pity that someone who used such great power for good met their end through such cowardly means,” Hyperion noted with a hint of remorse.
Meanwhile, Bruce's face twisted in disgust. “So when he'd lived out his usefulness, they threw him out like trash?”
Thor didn't meet Steve's eyes, so he couldn't express his unspoken gratitude to the man for easing the imminent conversation he needed to have.
Tony was...sometimes, Steve never knew how Tony would make him react. Even in front of people Steve was supposed to lead, Tony could make him forget everything else and lose his composure. Steve could scream at him, unable to register anything past the blood boiling in his blood and the red searing his vision. Or he could embrace him, wanting to clasp the other man's body against his, reluctant to ever let go. There was never a proper time to not be absolutely certain he could remain in control, but now was especially inadvisable.
“Sorry to say, but this is no time for feeling bad.” Tony's clipped voice pulled Steve out of his thoughts. “I wish I didn't have to say that to everyone here of all people, when there should have been a welcoming parade waiting with bated breath on your return. But as you can see, we haven't exactly been lying back and sipping drinks all this while.” He nodded at Thanos and Midnight. “First things, first – I actually have the resources and manpower to take care of what happens to these two. If I couldn't finish up the job, might as handle clean-up.”
Tony's dry, detached words managed to shake all of them out of their respective brooding.
“As long as they don't end up as the centerpiece in the Tower, they're all yours,” Carol said.
“Everyone agreed?” Tony didn't wait for a response before he continued, “Then I have to make a few calls first.” He seemed distracted. “If you'll let me – ” He hurried off to the side, but Steve was right on his heels.
“I know you ended up not needing anyone,” Tony told him shortly when they were a distance away from the others, “but...I'm sorry I couldn't make it here sooner. No offense, but you all look pretty banged up.” He shrugged a little. “Managed to stopped the threat in Wakanda, though.”
“Of course you did,” Steve said, watching him, and he could feel of the weight of the gem in his pocket. “But first, Tony, you need to know,” he took a breath to prepare himself, “Thor didn't exactly tell the truth back there.”
Tony stared at him, and with the blank faceplate it threw Steve off in a way it shouldn't have; he suddenly found himself missing Tony's older armor designs, the ones with the eyeholes. “Thor?” Tony said with warranted incredulity. “Huh. How do you reckon that?”
“Because I know what really stopped Thanos.” As he said it, Steve reached into his pocket, and wondered if he should have told Tony to raise the faceplate so he could see his expression. It shouldn't matter how Tony reacted, Steve told himself, but part of him knew that answers would be written on Tony's face that could never be wrung from him otherwise. Steve opened his fist and, as if on cue, the gem pulsed and floated up above his palm.
Tony was very quiet. Steve's skin prickled. Turned out that the protracted silence unsettled him more than any other response would have. “Why are you showing this to me?” Tony finally asked, voice carefully blank even through the metallic voice modifiers.
“You were the last one who had it,” Steve said. “Remember? You willed the Infinity Gauntlet away.”
“...Supposedly. Yet here's the Time Gem, come back to play.” Tony looked down and sighed. Tony's almost shell-shocked reaction eased the clench of Steve's chest; the gem's appearance had clearly been unexpected for him as well. “Why did you keep the others out of the loop?”
“I can't give them all the information if I don't know it myself.” With an upward jerk of his hand, Steve caught the floating gem. “I'm glad the gem showed up when it did, but it brings up too many questions I need answered.”
Tony fell silent again. When he spoke, it was with a tone of defeat. “I don't know what to tell you, Steve. Maybe I just wasn't good enough to do anything with the Gauntlet.”
“I don't think so,” Steve said, and Tony's head snapped up. “When you have it, the power of the universe is at your fingertips. You can do anything. Be anyone. It's something you could lose yourself in. Even if you don't think you can do it now, you could have done it back then.”
“...And how do you know that?” Tony asked, and Steve paused. How did he know? He had never worn the gauntlet before, yet there was such conviction behind his words.
“I don't know,” he finally admitted with some difficulty. “It makes sense to me.” The words rang false to his own ears.
“Regardless of what happened, and how, that gem saved your lives.” Tony nodded. “If that's the price I pay for screwing up, I'm more than happy to accept it.” He paused with some hesitation, then reached out with his hand. “It's my responsibility, though, for not properly dealing with the gem earlier. You don't need to worry about this either. I'll take care of it.”
Steve glanced between Tony's armored gauntlet and the gem in his own hand, then closed his fist. “I don't think that's a good idea.”
“What's that?” Steve could feel Tony intently watching him. “You don't trust me?”
“It's not that I don't trust you. You know, you don't have to take everything on. Just securing Thanos and Midnight would keep your hands tied for now.”
“Oh.” Steve saw Tony carefully considering his words. “You don't think I can handle this, do you?” The disdain in his voice caught Steve off-guard. When Tony truly felt that way he could turn on the lights, smiles and eyes at a blinding thousand watts – this was Tony Stark, after all. This thinly-veiled contempt was too open, too obvious, and Tony continued, “after everything I've done, is that really – ”
“That's not what I said,” Steve interrupted, and because it seemed like Tony wasn't going to stop, “and speaking of, weren't you the one talking about how you screwed up?” He regretted the words the instant they left his mouth. They were verbatim to Tony's, but his mouth tasted dry and bitter; Tony was one of the most capable people Steve knew, and he would put so many more things in his hands more important than an Infinity Gem.
“What about Reed, then?” Tony asked abruptly, changing tactics. “He's more familiar with the universe than almost anyone we know. He can't be a bad person to go to about this. Or, if you want to look into its magical properties, you could contact Stephen Strange.”
“We'll see,” said Steve. “The gem came to me, so I'll take responsibility for ensuring it's kept safe.”
“Yeah,” Tony tried saying lightly, but Steve could hear how he forced the nonchalance, “no good will come out of not storing that thing properly. It's practically a weapon of mass destruction, and someone has to tell you, Steve, but that's not your area of expertise. If not me, I really recommend you go to Reed or Stephen. It's in everyone's best interests. Unless...you're not going power-hungry on me, are you?” Tony laughed, strained.
“You've figured me out,” Steve made himself joke along, “with this, I can hunt down all the other gems and take over the universe.”
“The other – ” Tony paused, and the air grew tense between them. “I mean, of course you would say that when the evidence of where that path leads is standing a mere twenty feet away.” He gestured his gauntlet at Thanos like he was about to fire off a repulsor blast.
“You don't think I'm more capable than Thanos?” Steve asked with mock hurt, before growing serious. “You don't need to handle everything, Tony. Let me take care of this instead. If something comes up, I'll go to you.” He attempted a teasing smile. “Don't tell me you're not trusting your leader to make the right calls.”
“Of course I trust you,” Tony said the words slowly, like he needed to spell it out, and Steve knew he had been pushed too far if he had fallen back on patronizing. “But speaking of calls, you did interrupt me in the middle of making some, so if you'll let me get back to that.” Tony turned away from him and raised two fingers to the side of the helmet, effectively shutting him out.
Steve pocketed the gem and took a step back, still facing Tony's back. He couldn't hear anything of the calls being made.
More than a dismissal, Tony had just shown him the cold shoulder. Steve couldn't even remember the last time Tony had cut him off like that; he was especially open nowadays, after they spent so much time together on the restructuring of the team.
They had won. Earth was theirs again, but as he watched Tony and with the gem weighing on him, Steve wondered if that didn't mean the same thing as Earth being his again.
Steve turned the stone in his palm over. With its pale orange hue, it could have been passed off for some cheap souvenir, if it wasn't also the weightiest object he'd ever held. Tony was right. The first thing Steve had decided was that no one should have this in their possession, but he had no idea where to even begin.
Tony had Avengers Tower, not to mention billions to spend on security. Reed had the Baxter Building and the dozens of dimensions it led to. Stephen had the Sanctum Sanctorum and every realm accessible from there. Steve didn't even have his apartment anymore.
“Mr. Richards will see you now, Captain.” In front of him, the elevator doors opened with a low hum.
“Thank you, HERBIE,” Steve said, speaking to the ceiling. He wouldn't have bothered in the Tower, but as the Fantastic Four were in the habit of naming their building AIs, it would only be polite. When he stepped inside, a button lit up on the panel without prompting – presumably the one leading to Reed's lab. The elevator started to rise.
Steve had no reliable method of contacting Stephen, which came as no surprise, as no one else did, either. (Wong didn't count.) So Steve had chosen to speak to Reed about what to do with the gem instead. Someone with Reed's knowledge of the universe would certainly give sound advice from an objective view point, even if Steve might not be able to follow most of it. Usually, Sue was able to help with that bit, but Steve was reluctant about telling too many people about the gem's reappearance. The Builders, no matter how alien they had been, were sentient beings, with thoughts, feelings, and goals. The gem had as much, or perhaps even more, potential to destroy than the Builders had, yet it wasn't even the size of Steve's thumb. How did you even begin to formulate a strategy against that?
He could have spoken to Tony about it. It was even what he said he would do. At the very least, he could have told Tony where he was going and why. Asking Reed or Stephen for their input had been Tony's idea, after all.
If Steve could be completely honest with himself, part of it came from a place of pettiness. It was a bit insulting that Tony's first reaction to Steve having the gem was to imply Steve's lack of competency, try to take it from him, and when told no, use the silent treatment like he was a kindergartener. It wasn't like Tony would have done things much differently than Steve did, by choosing to consult Reed. Tony was master of whatever he built, or whatever he could build, but he had the sense to know that poking the Time Gem to understand its properties would be mind-numbingly idiotic, not to mention nothing short of calamitous.
The idea made Steve's thoughts darken, but maybe there was something Tony wasn't telling him. It might not have even occurred to him if Thor hadn't mentioned it. He and Tony had worked so well, fit together so easily ever since Tony had woken Steve up that night and shared his plans for team expansion with him. There were few Steve would rather have by his side for...anything, not just the Avengers.
But the moment Steve showed the gem to Tony, he had tried to get it away from Steve. His blunt insistence then, even taking jabs at Steve's lack of expertise, was evident of that; Tony normally only told him things like that in jest. Steve needed to find out why Tony needed it away from him, and why Tony had dodged the question of how the Time Gem had even been there to begin with.
When Tony had wielded the Gauntlet, the universe had remained intact. Unchanged. Which meant his friend hadn't become power-hungry, and for an instant, Steve wished that the Soul Gem had appeared instead, just so that he could know what was going on in Tony's mind. It wasn't a new sentiment. Tony's unwillingness stung a little, and Steve wasn't thin-skinned. But it stood to reason; they were in this together, and if Tony truly needed his help, he would stand with him.
The elevator doors slid open with a pleasant ding. Since this was Reed's lab, the sound was probably for his benefit, to announce visitors, though it didn't seem to make a difference in this case. Steve blinked to adjust to the abrupt darkness, a startling contrast with the well-lit foyer and the bright mid-day sun outside. Reed was hunched over a desk and didn't show any sign of noticing Steve's arrival, the only light source in the room a glaring lamp set beside him. There were pages upon pages of what appeared to be schematics neatly stacked and rolled on the table's surface. Maybe it was because he had just been thinking about him, but Steve's first thought was that the sight was at odds with Tony's workstation, where bits and pieces of half-finished projects and scribbles of planned ones were always scattered all over the top and would even spill over the sides.
Even when Steve had made his way over to stand next to him, Reed didn't greet him. Steve couldn't tell if it was because he really didn't notice him or simply didn't believe it necessary. Steve cleared his throat, and Reed looked up and raised both eyebrows. So it was the former, and Steve was once again reminded of the other compulsive super-genius in his life.
“Steve,” Reed said, “I have to say you took me off guard with this visit. I assumed you would be occupied with debriefings, clean-up, paperwork, et cetera. But I'm glad to have you,” he added as an afterthought.
“We all have our hands full,” Steve said, nodding at the elaborate plans on the table. “What are you working on?” he asked, opting for small talk first. Even if they didn't maintain the same organizational tendencies, maybe Reed enjoyed sharing about his projects as much as Tony did. He shouldn't spring the Time Gem on Reed so quickly, though Steve doubted Reed was the type to particularly care. No, that wasn't fair; anyone who knew what an Infinity Gem was would abandon all else when presented with one. There was only one person dodging the subject here, and Steve shunted the thought aside.
“Oh, this – ” Reed hesitated. “Just a pet project of mine.” He avoided Steve's eyes as he rolled up the pages and pushed them to the corner, before evidently changing his mind and stretching his arms to deposit them on another desk altogether.
Steve suppressed a frown at Reed's reticence and scanned the desk for anything else to mention. “Your workstation's well-organized,” he finally mentioned lamely. “Tony's desk at the tower is a mess,” he added. “He's always tinkering with something or another.”
Reed brought his hand up to his chin with a thoughtful hum. “It's logical. Tony has the mind of an engineer, so he prefers application. If he runs into any shortcomings in his projects, he would choose to overcome it through trial-and-error, tweaking and re-tweaking. On the other hand, I prefer to perfect the theory behind my projects before executing them. Both valid approaches.” He leaned back in his chair, pressing his hands together. “But enough with stalling. Truth be told Steve, I'm very curious why you came here, especially on your own. If it's Avengers business, usually Tony is the one who contacts me.”
“This doesn't have anything to do with Tony.” Steve paused. It annoyed him how he couldn't say that for certain. “Did anyone tell you how we stopped Thanos?”
Reed straightened in his chair. “Yes, Tony did. His son, Thane, stopped him. A sort of living death.” He frowned. “I understand why Thanos was so intent on eliminating him; that much power would naturally be seen as a threat.” Then he shook his head with a small sigh. “But the son was killed by a third party, who fled afterward.”
So Tony hadn't told Reed everything, even though he had been the one who suggested Steve go to him in the first place. If Steve were less tenacious, he would have long given up understanding Tony as a futile endeavor. “You have half of it.” Steve reached into his pocket and closed his fingers around the gem deposited there.
“I have an eidetic memory,” Reed said a bit shortly.
Steve's lips quirked. “I don't doubt that. Sorry to tell you this, but information has been withheld from you.”
In a single, smooth motion, Steve pulled out the gem and opened his palm. The stone floated up, its glow entrancing, and he took too long to tear his gaze from it to observe Reed's reaction.
Steve could count on his fingers the number of times he had seen Reed Richards rendered speechless. With this, another finger was added. Reed's eyes bulged out of his face and his mouth hung agape; Steve had the fleeting thought he might have even stopped breathing. It could have been comical, if Steve hadn't been holding a stone with the potential to twist the universe inside-out with naught required but the user's will.
When Reed did eventually move, it was to knead at the side of his forehead with the tips of his fingers. He exhaled slowly. “Where did you find an Infinity Gem, Steve? Or, judging from its light, would when be the more appropriate question?”
“It appeared in front of me when we were fighting Thanos.”
“And that's how he came to be frozen,” Reed finished. Steve could see sweat beading on his forehead. “As you can imagine, the nature of the Time Gem means it appears at the most unexpected times. Though I suppose you can speak of it from experience at this point.” He stared at the gem like he was drinking in the sight. Steve had seen Reed show wonder and appreciation before, but nothing like this. In that expression lurked something like need, or desperation.
“Unexpected, but not unwanted,” Steve said. “It saved us. If we had been unable to stop Thanos there, it would have made our entire fight pointless.”
“There were many times the gem could have of use, but you're right.” Reed sounded like he was making a reluctant admission. “I'm glad it came to you, Steve. For your sake and for Earth's.”
Steve closed his fingers over the gem. “But now that it's over, I don't know what's next. I'm not one for superstition, but I can't shake the feeling that there's more to the gem appearing when it did.”
“You're saying that it has a greater purpose to serve than stopping Thanos.” Reed nodded slowly. “After your time in space, you would understand that, though we call it home and as such it is very dear to us, the Earth is infinitesimally tiny in the scope of a universe. Why would the gem appear to save this planet, and not another? I am one of the most qualified to say that, though it has its own brand of order, the universe works in strange ways. But that answer doesn't satisfy me, either. To put it simply, I concur with your conclusion.”
“That's why I'm here,” Steve said. “I knew when I used it to stop Thanos, that this power wasn't meant to be wielded by me. By anyone. You, or maybe Stephen Strange, are more knowledgeable than I am, more equipped to understand what to do with the gem to ensure that.”
“So you want to pass off the responsibility of the gem to me,” Reed finished.
“What?” Steve recoiled. “No.”
Reed jerked with shock, and that was another expression he rarely saw on the other's face.
“I don't intend to make you deal with this,” Steve said. “I just want your advice on how to store it.”
“Store it?” Reed breathed out with a small shudder. “I can help you with that as well, Steve. As you remember, I was a part of the group who protected the gems when they still existed.” He eyed Steve's fist. “A disproven statement, now. Anyway, any pocket dimensions I can reach are open to you.”
“I was thinking,” Steve phrased it carefully, “that I would prefer to hold onto it myself.”
Reed's eyebrows knitted together. “Might I ask why?”
Reed wasn't the type of person who would accept 'intuition' as an answer. But Steve couldn't think of another way to explain it, nor was he willing to hedge his response to make it more palatable. The reason sounded flimsy even to himself: that ever since he first held the gem, the power to change the universe resting in his palm of his hand, he knew he shouldn't be parted from it. Maybe this is how power-hungry villains felt, but the off-hand thought didn't lessen Steve's conviction. Letting someone else come into possession of the gem wasn't an option. Perhaps the gem had granted him clairvoyance when it saved his life.
“It's much more logical for me to keep it, Steve.” Reed interlaced his fingers together. “I'm more familiar with the cosmic scope the gem belongs to. The Fantastic Four have an unfortunately regular track record with Galactus. I have built a bridge that observes the entire multiverse. There exists a portal to the Negative Zone in this very building.”
Steve still thought the FF were out of their minds with that last one. “You have a good point, Reed. But I'm not going to stand down on this.”
Reed didn't meet his eyes. “Let me call Stephen, then, to join us,” he said. “There are properties of the Infinity Gems that cannot be fully explained through scientific theory alone.”
“Stephen? Stephen Strange?” Steve blurted. “You can do that? Contact him right away?”
“...We have our methods. The good Doctor was also a part of our group, before we...disbanded.” With those words, Reed angled his left palm toward himself and brushed his thumb over it. A red light lit up, and the glow reflected off Reed's eyes, angling the shadows under his eyes. Reed couldn't be getting much sleep, Steve noted, with bags like those, but that was how they all were, lately.
Why are your immediate communication channels still established if the group dissolved almost a year ago, Steve thought, but held his tongue.
Minutes passed in silence, and not the companionable sort. The air hung still and cloying, and it clung to his body, lethargy sinking into his limbs. On the other hand, always cool, collected Reed was unnerved – setting his elbow on and off the desk, running a hand through his hair, glancing around furtively.
“He knows he has to come as soon as humanly possible when we contact each other,” Reed broke the silence with a mutter, “or faster.” His fingers tapped a rhythm out against the edge of the table.
There were dozens of questions clamoring at at the back of Steve's mind, and he finally settled on one. “Reed,” Steve said, “why didn't you ask me how it's possible the gems came back into existence after Tony wished them away?”
Reed didn't reply, eyes fixed at a spot just past Steve's shoulder. When his gaze snapped back to Steve's, there was a deep weariness etched in it. “Because that part didn't surprise me,” he said. “I'm sorry, Steve.”
His body's alarms spiked, not from Reed's words, but what they signaled: the presence that flashed into existence behind him. When Steve whirled around, his vision was shot in a haze of blood red. His hearing ebbed in and out, his limbs turned to stone, and his eyelids drooped uncontrollably. He forced himself to blink, and saw the blurred outline of a tall being, its proportions too wrong to be a person.
Steve's knees buckled as energy channeled (out of?) him, and he dropped to his knees, his world growing dark at the edges –
“He knows he has to come as soon as humanly possible when we contact each other,” Reed broke the silence with a mutter, “or faster.” His fingers tapped a rhythm out against the edge of the table.
“What?” Steve said, and Reed peered at him.
“Stephen,” Reed said, “shouldn't be late.”
Stephen? The outline of the man took shape in Steve's mind, and the irregularity of the shadow formed into a cloak. Stephen Strange had just been here, and more pressingly, had knocked Steve unconscious. But that couldn't be the case, not when Steve was safely standing next to Reed.
A telepath with their illusions, was Steve's first thought as he blinked blankly at the other man. But, the Baxter Building must have countless safeguards against anything that compromising, not to mention the strictest of security measures to prevent anyone, especially superpowered anyones, from entering without notice – a school for children was housed here. And as far as Steve was aware, no one who lived here had that level of power.
Steve clenched his fist, and felt the Time Gem dig into the skin of his palm. He was sweating behind his ears, and he badly wanted to remove his cowl. He tensed, ready to spring as he turned around.
Stephen Strange stood there, halfway translucent, his hands glowing. When Steve met his eyes, Stephen's mouth dropped and the image blinked back into reality.
“What are – ”
“I have him!” Arms wrapped around Steve's chest, and when Steve reached to pry them off, they constricted around him even more, like he was helpless prey already caught. “Now, Stephen!”
“I'm sorry, Captain,” and Stephen used the same tired, empty voice he had just heard coming from the man behind him, currently attempting to contain him in a death grip. “We have no other choice. You were never here. You will remember none of this.”
Steve kicked, and the limbs around him tightened, attempting to squeeze the resistance out of him. A stab of pain pierced his forehead, and he could see red wisps escaping from it. The more Steve resisted, the sharper the pain grew. If he let go, it wouldn't hurt anymore, and the idea of giving into that, being so weak, made him grit his teeth, thrash against the restraints harder.
He felt Reed's arm wrap around his neck, and it brought his head up so that he stared at the blank ceiling above them. He twisted, trying to throw his body back, catch his captor off guard, and heard a small, short cry. A hand smothered his mouth, and Steve grunted as fingers pinched his nose together.
Steve needed to breathe, and a strangled, hoarse noise escaped his throat as he forced his mouth open against the hand that clamped it shut, intending to gnash his teeth together. The hand pushed his head back further, baring his vulnerable neck.
“Damn it, Stephen! I can't hold him for much longer!”
“Even now, he resists me!” The pain flared white-hot and unshed tears stung at the corner of Steve's eyes. The agony was ear-splitting. As his eyes rolled back into his head, all Steve could think about was how, this time, his world grew white around the edges rather than black.
“He knows he has to come as soon as humanly possible when we contact each other,” Reed broke the silence with a mutter, “or faster.” His fingers tapped a rhythm out against the edge of the table.
Steve gasped for breath.
“Steve? Are you all right?”
Steve put a hand against his chest and it slowly dawned on him that nothing trapped him. He slid his hand to his forehead and inhaled harshly. Oxygen was sweet and heaven, and his head swam with the clarity of the world.
“Steve?” Reed reached out with his hand, and Steve shot out his own to knock it away. Reed stumbled backwards with the force of the blow, missing his seat and tipping it over after him, collapsing unceremoniously on the ground beneath it.
“Stand back!” Steve barked. He brought his elbow up and jammed it as hard as possible against the man standing behind him, the impact blasting against his chest. Steve heard a pitiful mewl and when he whirled around, Stephen was clutching at his heart, body curled over. A weak but accurate hit to the solar plexus made one feel like the air had been punched out of them; Stephen must have felt like his insides had been blown out of him.
Captain America never ran away. Steve Rogers didn't fight a friend in cold blood. Neither ever felt like their entire world was falling apart at the seams, their mind racing through all the information presented once, twice, thrice over, and failing to process it each and every time.
The elevator doors opened smoothly in front of him when he jammed his finger against the button. Steve all but crashed inside, slamming his palm on the panel for the ground floor. When the doors slid shut, Reed shouting and Stephen still huddled over, Steve backed up against the wall, leaned his head back, and slid down to the floor, boneless.
He assessed himself first. His gasps were shallow and butterfly-light. His limbs were stretched tight, his chest clenched into itself and his stomach caught in an ice-cold grip. But none of his bodily reactions came from exertion, so he forced himself to calm down, take deep breaths. Steve wasn't the type to choose flight over fight, but he had made the right choice; he couldn't even predict what he would have done if he had not retreated, not when his body was in this state. Fighting for his life often put others at more risk than Steve himself.
By the time Steve had the wherewithal to turn his attention to his surroundings, the lights shut off and the elevator stopped with a jerk. He had expected that. This was Reed's building, so advanced it was a being all its own, and Steve didn't even know a tenth of what it was capable of. At this point, even breaking out of the elevator would be a moot point; if Reed didn't manage to track his every moment on the surveillance systems, the Eye of Agamotto saw all.
The Time Gem was still clenched in his hand. When he let go, it hovered an inch above his palm, and its light pulsed. It was active, of course it was, just having been used twice in the past five minutes. Did it count as time if it was repeated? Was it repeated, or was it simply another branch from another universe? Did the actions made in another time-slash-universe matter in this one? Steve's head throbbed.
Reed and Stephen wanted the gem, that much was plain. They wanted it enough to knock him out and – Stephen said he would forget everything. They wanted it enough to wipe his mind. Their ruthlessness proved that, but the resignation behind their actions raised another question. That wasn't a hunger for power, which any Infinity Gem was a constant allure for. It wouldn't have made sense, anyway, not with so much else in arm's reach for those two if they wanted to become two of the most dangerous men on Earth.
No; Steve had seen that look in both their eyes before. Those had been men driven to the bitter end, soldiers trapped in a corner with nothing between them and life but a civilian whose only wrongdoing was being born on the wrong side of a border.
Steve was not particularly close to either, but regardless, Reed and Stephen were stalwart allies, not to mention two of the most accomplished men he knew in the business. Yet they had betrayed his trust. He should have felt hurt, like a knife twisting in his gut, and boiling anger (how the other man refused to listen to reason, why such a good person was so blind to what was right). But now, hunched in a stopped elevator, the only light the glow of the stone in front of him, the only emotion Steve could muster up was bafflement.
Everything was incomprehensible, and there was no escape from here that also included the answers Steve needed. What he wanted was for Reed and Stephen to explain themselves, what the hell warranted the gem so badly that they would choose to ambush him and wipe his mind of it. After he knew the answer, then the indignation and the condemnation would come, like they were supposed to.
When he used the gem for the third time, Steve considered what made this betrayal so different from the last.
“No, he doesn't.”
Reed's gaze shot to him. “You don't want him to come?”
“No.” Steve's control slipped, and his voice came out harsher than he wanted, and he could tell by how Reed hesitated. “He doesn't have to come because he is standing right behind me. Don't try it, Stephen!” he snapped, and now he could felt it, how the person behind him tensed. “I won't let you erase these memories again!”
He had seen Reed Richards shocked far too many times in a lifetime today. Reed raised his hand and Steve bristled, willing to repeat this all over again if he had to, but all he did was motion to the person behind him.
Steve stepped to the side and turned so that both Stephen and Reed were in his line of view. The two of them watched him, none of them willing to break the silence, make the first move.
“Explain yourself,” Steve finally said. “I want to know why you need this gem so badly that you would ambush me.” His fingers tightened their grip around the gem.
Stephen and Reed exchanged a glance. Reed shook his head, but Stephen sighed, shook his head in turn, and looked toward Steve.
“It would be much easier if you handed it over, Steve,” Stephen said. “This is...we are involved in a situation beyond every threat we've ever faced. Of course, between the three of us, that is a staggeringly portentous claim.”
“If it's that severe, then I have to wonder why I'm not in it too.”
“You were there last time,” Reed told Stephen. “I wouldn't recommend this course of action.”
“We cannot take it from him by force. You realize what has to be happening, don't you? He must have experienced this already, then used the gem. He knew what we meant to do before it even happened.”
Reed's face was pinched. “Of course I do. But, there's no chance he would cooperate with us, not after what happened – ”
“He has to! The fate of the universe hinges on it.” Steve was bone-tired of threats to the universe. Strange looked at him, and his expression was distant, as if he wasn't looking at Steve, but at something that lay beyond him. “That, in your hand, Captain, is the answer we have been looking for. It will save – everything.”
“I told you to explain.” Steve hated feeling like this, like there was a misstep somewhere, that he stood lost and alone while everyone else harmonized, worked together seamlessly like the most tightly-knit unit.
Stephen nodded as if he had come to a decision. “I don't need to,” he said. Reed looked grim, but turned around and didn't interrupt Stephen as he raised his arms, beginning a silent chant. “Forgive me, Captain, for what you are to remember.”
There was a splash of red, and Steve's mind burst. Steve could see the outline of Stephen and Reed's bodies on the other side of the wall of blood, but it wasn't all he saw.
The other Illuminati had already taken their own gems. There was one left, and Steve reached for the Time Gem.
A world devoid of color, save for the crimson Earth in the sky, and the glow of the gems that each of them held.
You cannot make an idea real if you don't first believe in it.
The Infinity Gauntlet, the entire universe centered on his right hand, and while the rest of his body strained and threatened to pop with the crushing effort, the other planet was nothing against the palm of his hand.
He pushed it too hard, Steve felt it, when the give of the other Earth gave way and he blindly followed through with the motion. The sky itself retaliated, snapping back and blasting the Gauntlet, shattering the gems in one fell swoop.
Namor punched him, and Steve deserved it, deserved the eruption of pain that came through the fist of the mutant endowed with super-strength, his mind blank with the catastrophe he had wrought.
Damn it, Steve. Why do you always have to be this way? I'm sorry. I'll find some way to make this right.
The image, the exact one he had seen in too many dreams to count. The blankness of his mind shutting off, magic rewriting neurons, closing off every possible connection to the word incursion, and all Steve could see, all that he strained his focus on, was Reed, Namor, Black Bolt, T'Challa, staring down at him. He had urged them to believe in themselves and what they could accomplish, to not to lose faith in the cause, but in those eyes, hope no longer remained.
Steve wrenched his eyes open to wake from the nightmare. A cold sweat had broken out over his entire body, and he wasn't in the Tower in his bed. As his eyes adjusted to the dim light, Steve felt hollow and numb, standing in the middle of Reed's lab.
“You did it.” Steve stared at his hands, and they were trembling. “You did it, didn't you? You, you – ”
Billions of lives flashed before him. He had just fought in an intergalactic war, one that had also claimed billions, but Steve found he had no comprehension of just what that meant.
“It was necessary.” Reed's voice was flat, and a second later he buried his face in a hand.
“We make no excuses for our actions,” Stephen said quietly. “They are beyond forgiveness, or even acceptance. You don't need to tell us. We recognize that whatever it is that drives you to be who you are has long been lost to us.”
“How many!?” Steve's voice came out as a near-shout; he didn't think he could force the words out of his constricting throat otherwise. “How many incursions!?”
“Five,” said Reed.
Five. That was three past the Infinity Gauntlet. Three incursions to prevent – no, not prevent. Of course they had jumped to the one solution, the only convenient, simple, wrong choice. They hadn't stopped anything. They had massacred, and horror curled in the pit of Steve's gut.
“The first one after you – when we arrived, Galactus was already there, and there was no one left to save. The next was already gone, razed by mapmakers who feed on Earths. They benefit from the incursions, as they offer a vehicle to spread across the multiverse. The last one, the Builders destroyed.”
“What?” Steve said sharply.
“An Aleph approached us in the incursion space,” Reed said, “and then they took us to their base in the other universe.” Stephen coughed and shifted, looking distinctly uncomfortable.
“They had nothing to negotiate with. No, they weren't interested in the first place.” Reed shook his head. “Their choice had been made, they just wanted to inform us of it.”
Steve furrowed his eyebrows. “An Aleph?” The Builders were multiversal beings, Steve knew that, but to have been on Earth –
The Builders they had fought against – the reason the Avengers had flown out to space was because they were on a trajectory toward Earth. The nexus of the incursion points. Everything of the past few months, of the war, clicked together with terrible clarity. They had fought thinking they had won back their universe, but this...this was just the beginning, Steve realized. If there were others, who knew what Earth meant, then their war would never stop. The sudden weight of it threatened to crush Steve.
“The rate of death in the universe is cascading, Steve. The Builders have decided the solution is to eliminate all axis points of contact between the universes.”
Steve let out a shuddering breath. “You're saying not just our Earth, but all the Earths – ”
“We cannot continue this discussion here,” Stephen interrupted. “We cannot forget we now have a weapon at our disposal, and no time to waste in retrodding discussions we have already had.” He lifted up his palm, a red light shining in the center, and a matching one lit up in turn in Reed's hand. “We adjourn in Necropolis.”
Steve strained to keep his eyes open while Stephen brought them to Necropolis, the rainbow streams swirling around them like a tornado, but still couldn't pinpoint the precise moment of change – when the sleek, precise lines of the Baxter Building shifted to masoned rock, surfaces worn away by the passage of time. It was much like trying to find exactly when day blinked to night, and the aptness of the analogy wasn't lost on Steve.
“Steve?” Hank muttered with faint shock.
T'Challa and Hank McCoy were already in the meeting room, left hands raised – presumably in greeting, but the action also displayed the red light embedded into their palms. Reed and Stephen raised their hands in turn. Steve clenched his own into fists at his side.
A flash of blue erupted, and someone emerged from the light. Steve suppressed a slight gasp at the sight of Black Bolt turning toward them. The Inhuman king had come back from the dead before, but this was unexpec – Steve's lips tightened. He should have figured. It was easier to work in secrecy (to commit murder), when people believed you were dead. Fury would be applauding at the gambit, wherever he was. The Inhuman empire was in disarray, too – maybe the other Illuminati hadn't followed his example and faked their deaths as well because it was more convenient to carry out their plans with the influence they still held.
“What is the meaning of this?” T'Challa didn't even look at Steve as he spoke, but Steve knew what he referred to. Black Bolt, though, did look at him, but his face didn't even so much as twitch.
“There's been a....I suppose you could call it a game-changer.” Stephen quirked his lips with wry amusement. “The holder of the Time Gem has returned to us.”
When T'Challa looked at Steve, it was not as equals, as fellow heroes (heroes? The idea was the first thing to make Steve want to laugh since arriving at the Baxter Building), but with the scrutiny of royalty. Steve met his gaze without hesitation and opened his hand. Steve caught T'Challa's barely restrained flinch at the sight of the Time Gem. Black Bolt took a step forward, before jerking back.
“Oh my heavens.” Hank was less reluctant to show his reactions, but his voice still came out in a low whisper.
“I need to get the others,” Stephen said. “Even the swiftest Quinjet isn't enough; we must make haste.” Stephen swept his cloak aside and vanished in a blaze of rainbow colors.
“I'm going to speak with Black Swan,” Reed announced, already stepping away. “This is unprecedented, and I will need all the information to study, all the hypotheticals to analyze.”
“I should go with you,” Hank offered, a little too eagerly. “I was just with her, and she might be more comfortable and willing to speak in my presence.” He hurried off behind Reed, stealing a glance back over his shoulder.
Then it was just Steve, T'Challa and Black Bolt, standing by the meeting table. This was where Steve had learned of the incursions, and where the Illuminati had betrayed what was right when they condemned countless lives because they weren't as equal, as important, as those they deemed worthy to save. City of the dead had never been a more befitting title.
Black Bolt took a seat, leaned back, and closed his eyes. Steve watched him, but he made no other move. He must have entered his mind space, Steve realized, the commonality of telepaths. Unlike Hank who had to physically flee, Black Bolt could just cut off communication with the outside world.
Which left him and T'Challa. Steve didn't want to see anyone, much less any of the Illuminati, one-on-one at the moment, but he also hadn't wanted to know that people he trusted and respected had turned out to be just the opposite. Steve glared at T'Challa, and hoped that he would realize the gravity of what he had wrought, and be cowed by the judgment. “We were brothers,” was all he said. His fingernails and the Time Gem dug painfully into his palms as he clenched his fists.
T'Challa remained unfazed. “Brothers we may have been,” he turned away, tearing the tension of the moment away before striding off, “but you forget that, before I am a brother, I am a king.”
Steve remained with no one to – he didn't even know what he intended to do, anymore. In the momentary silence, his skin prickled, something close to fury boiling just below its surface.
There was a harsh bark of laughter when Stephen reappeared, but it didn't come from the Sorceror Supreme. Stephen disappeared as quickly as he had come, while Namor stretched his limbs. When he met Steve's eye, he didn't hesitate before striding up into his space and peering at him. Steve automatically shoved him back with a hand. Namor staggered back, almost losing his balance, and a small part of Steve wished he had pushed with both hands. To some disappointment, Namor found his footing and reared up, standing tall and haughty.
“You should punch me instead, Steve,” Namor smirked, taunting. “Then use your little gem. I wouldn't even remember it. Like it never happened.” He snapped his fingers. “It would be an effective anger management device. Perhaps you'd let a friend borrow it, sometime?”
“Namor, don't test me,” Steve growled. He was on the brink of – something, but he wouldn't allow himself to fall into it. His body wasn't his at the moment, simultaneously numbed and heated by the revelation of the incursions. At the back of his mind, he still wished this was an especially elaborate dream, but his nightmares were always personal. Bucky, the war, the ice. Lately, his dreams were filled with a more recent war. Sharon. Ian. No, Steve's subconscious had never conjured up a fantasy of universes colliding, of Great Destroyers and red Earths and the reality of killing billions with a press of a button.
“He says that like he means it. Oh, but maybe he does; he is the one who would choose to sacrifice his friends when it came down to it.” Namor circled around him, and Steve glared out of him from the corner of his eye. “So it's true,” he said, stopping next to Steve's left, where his hand gripped the Time Gem. “It saved you from being crushed by Thanos, but it couldn't show up in time to save Atlantis.” He spat the word time out like it was particularly loathsome. “Well, that's it, then – even cosmic beings prefer America and their precious poster child!”
Atlantis had been the only location devastated by Thanos's forces, Steve felt a pang of guilt – not for Namor, who not only was willing to kill billions, but had the power to do so, but for the innocent lives destroyed. The unjustness of it made his chest clench. Always, his entire life there had always been so many others, yet every time, they were lost and Steve was saved.
“I wish Atlantis had been spared.” Namor flinched at Steve's admission, turned his back on him, and made his way over to the table.
“Words are of no use to me or my people.”
Steve gazed at the back of Namor's head, and tried to keep his mind blank, not think about what standing here meant. He was expected to work with these people, having been invited to their clandestine meeting. He should have refused on principle, yet here he was. He hadn't even resisted.
He squeezed the Time Gem in his hand, and told himself that with the fate of the universe at his fingertips, there was no time for conflict. Afterward, he could afford to cut all ties with these men – but right now, he had to swallow past the bitterness in his mouth and ignore the ice settled in his gut.
There was one member of the Illuminati left. Steve closed his eyes, trapping the hurt and betrayal into a corner of his thoughts he couldn't reach. It was a coping method he had used before, and that remembrance broke his attempts at reigning in his emotions.
Tony had been the one who had slung an arm around his shoulder, brought him into his lab, and showed the design for the new Avengers team to him with a proud flourish. Tony had stood by his side; no, not just that – he had led him, at times, when they had recruited their new members, sharing a small, secret smile with Steve with every person who accepted their offer. It was Tony who Steve had went to when he couldn't sleep, woken up from yet another nightmare, and hadn't Steve joked once about the nostalgia of getting to relive their early days in the Mansion, then? Except this time, Steve had been content, even as hazy, leftover images of what he now knew were the Illuminati flashed through his mind, because at least now when he found Tony awake in the middle of the night, there were no more secrets between them. They could speak to each other as just Steve and Tony, and not as Steve and Iron Man.
But Steve had been wrong. Tony wouldn't, couldn't be honest with him. It was pathologically impossible for Tony to return the trust that Steve had placed in him. Well, of course, considering he was willing to blow up an Earth as a means to an end. Steve should have realized. It had been beyond mere idiocy to trust Tony again, to think they could ever be open with each other, and stupid, stupid, Steve wouldn't make that mistake again. Something inside of Steve crumbled, and he responded by grinding his foot into the rock floor, teeth gritted so hard his jaw ached.
When Stephen and Tony appeared in a flash of light seconds later, Tony stepped haltingly toward him.
“Steve – ” Even through the voice filters, his voice sounded pitiful. Broken. He deserved it.
Steve didn't bother responding. He walked to the table, pulled out a chair and sat down, pointedly not looking at Tony. Not that it mattered, because Tony hadn't even made the effort to lift up the faceplate for his apology. How had he managed to believe Tony could ever be sincere?
Reed and Hank filed back into the room – judging from the stormy expression on Reed's face and the agitated one on Hank's, Black Swan hadn't offered much in the way of explanation. From what Steve remembered of her, she might even think it was an atrocity that the Time Gem, and with it, the opportunity to reassemble the Infinity Gauntlet, had reappeared. For her, it would just be one less Earth to be claimed by Rabum Alal. T'Challa joined them soon afterward, and as they all took a seat around the table, there wasn't one person Steve could bring himself to look at.
“We already know,” Reed laid his hands flat on the tabletop, “why we are here, and why Steve has rejoined us. The Time Gem has reappeared.” Reed motioned toward Steve, and after a considerable pause, Steve released his grip and allowed the Time Gem to float above his hand.
“How did this come about?” T'Challa asked. “And why?”
“Why? Who cares why?” Namor drawled, but he stared with the gem with a piercing intensity. “It's here now, so let's make use of it before we end up killing each other for it.”
“No one is killing each other.” Steve closed his hand over the gem again. “I can't answer any of your questions, other than that it appeared in front of me in our battle versus Thanos.”
Namor turned his sharp gaze to Tony. “You told us his son was the one who stopped him,” he accused.
“I told you what I told you,” Tony said simply, and apparently Tony even lied to the people who he was supposed to fight toward the end of the universe with.
“While we're having this charming Q&A session, I have a question of my own,” Hank interrupted. “Steve came to Reed with the Time Gem, asking for help. We all remember,” he glanced meaningfully at Steve with the last word, “what happened the last time we were gathered here with him. I'm sorry, Steve, I do value you greatly, but it was very short-sighted for Reed and Stephen not to wallop you on the spot and steal the Gem. I'm curious why we're not doing it now, myself.”
Steve was angry, of course he was, but he forced a taunting grin to slide over his face regardless, just for show. “Really? Then try it,” he said, “take me out, right now, and steal the gem from me.”
Silence fell over the table as everyone watched him.
“We did try, supposedly.” Stephen clasped his fingers together and rested his face on them. “Steve knew exactly what Reed and I were about to do. If our plan worked, the only one who could tell you is him. There was nothing for us to do other than remove the lock on his memory and bring him here, as the sole holder of the Time Gem, and thus in possession of power far greater than ours combined.”
“You used the Time Gem to stop them!” Namor sounded like he could have howled with laughter. “I had the Power, and I never used it, not even when Atlantis was embroiled in war!”
The gem had activated, but not through Steve's intention, and Steve was able to make the retort before he caught himself. No, it was more prudent that the Illuminati believe that Steve was willing to use an Infinity Gem against them. He couldn't appear weak – not in front of these people, where even Hank wouldn't hesitate to attack him for the gem. If people didn't take him seriously, then his influence, already of little significance to this group, would be in tatters. Steve didn't want to be respected by anyone – even if they were a former friend, ally, brother – who could kill an entire world, but he needed to be.
“If Steve is fine with using the Time Gem,” Tony spoke quietly, “then the simplest solution is to simply – ”
“Go back in time to when I broke the gauntlet the first time around,” Steve finished.
“The simplest, but potentially the most catastrophic,” said Reed. “Everything that we've done from the point the gems broke was predicated on the fact that we had no other way to stop an incursion.”
“It would be utter foolishness to undo it,” Hank agreed. “The consequences are unimaginable.”
Unimaginable. Killing billions of people in one fell swoop in cold blood is what Steve would call unimaginable.
“It would be our last resort. If the Time Gem is here at this present moment, it's possible that the other gems still exist,” Stephen said. “The gems call to each other. If we're unwilling to look to the past, known locations of the other gems, then we should look toward the future.”
“That would still require time travel,” T'Challa said.
“It's the Time Gem, T'Challa, I think time traveling is the point,” Namor retorted. T'Challa shot him an acrimonious glare, and Steve could see the tension in his body, like he could have struck Namor at that very moment. Steve knew relations between their nations had been tumultuous, to say the least, and then Atlantis had been destroyed while Wakanda stood. That was the nature of this group, though. No matter the personal feud between any of them, they gathered to handle “higher”, “greater” causes, supposedly for the sake of protecting Earth, but all Steve saw was men wanting to run the world. And now he could count himself amongst their number, and that made him shudder.
“No, I think Stephen has a point,” Hank raised his hand. “It's...less dangerous, to bring people from the past to the future, than the other way around.” He shifted in his seat and coughed unconvincingly. “Of course, you'll still have to bring it back, but I will be the first to say I would rather we ruin our hypothetical future than not have one at all. It's worth a shot, at the very least.”
“Do we truly believe that?” T'Challa interrupted. “Time travel could unravel everything, make it all for naught, for the sake of what is a one-time affair. The Infinity Gauntlet is a temporary solution. We were all there, we saw what happened. The Time Gem could disappear again as well, putting us back where we started. Not to mention, even if we gather the gems, they won't solve the problem of the incursions.”
No one responded, spoke up against him for several long moments, like – like they were considering his words seriously, and suddenly outrage threatened to strangle Steve.
“What the hell is wrong with you people!?” Steve stood and slammed his fists on the table. “You did not just tell us – you did not just sit there and say that the chance to save billions of lives is not worth the effort.” He had the urge to spit on the table to wash the disgust from his mouth, as futile an effort as it would have been. “I'm appalled, I'm revolted, but more than that, I'm disappointed beyond all belief. I thought I knew you people. I thought that we had once fought side-by-side for the sake of good. But I know now I was wrong. Blind. I see now that all you fought for were your own damned selves, your own right, the power to make choices for others that you should not be allowed to nor entrusted with.” The Time Gem started glowing, and Steve allowed it past the gaps in his fingers and it floated above the surface of the table. “Well, I won't let you make this one for me. None of you have to do anything. I hold the gem, I have the power to change this, and I refuse,” he jabbed his finger at the group, “to blindly follow whatever you want me to do. I will go, and damn you all,” his shoulders sank then, and he glared at each of them in turn, voice turned to stone, “I will do to you what I did to Thanos if you try to stop me.”
No one met his eyes. No one moved. Steve dug his fingers into the table, and wished he had nails to run down the surface, to make it screech. His ears rang with the raw silence.
“Steve's right,” Reed finally said. His voice was pitched low, but in a way, it was even louder than Steve's earlier shouts. “We have...gone too far. I am ashamed of myself. I've been so caught up in protecting our Earth, that I forget that not only do we have a responsibility to our own world, but all of them.”
“If we can save another Earth alongside ours, even just once, then our efforts would have been worth it.” Hank bowed his head. Black Bolt's eyes were closed, but he nodded slowly.
T'Challa was muttering under his breath, hands clasped before him, but Steve's enhanced hearing could make out his words regardless – Goddess forgive me, for I have forgotten your will. I have sinned and lost my way. I return to you now, a broken spirit begging your mercy, yet only worthy of your wrath and divine judgment.
“Saving another Earth is more than what this useless bunch has managed to do so far,” Namor mumbled, his tone clearly including himself in that statement.
Steve didn't look at Tony.
Stephen met his eyes when he looked at him, and his eyes blazed with intensity. “Steve, to use the Gem to look for the others, you're going to have to – ”
“I have more experience with the gem than you do, Strange,” Steve said icily. Stephen rested his forehead on his hands and sighed almost imperceptibly.
“Just probe, Steve. Don't reach out too far,” he said, “lest you lose yourself.”
Steve didn't bother correcting him. The Time Gem knew Steve's will, would follow his wishes. There was no chance of him losing control of it, or of himself. Without another word, Steve gripped the gem and closed his eyes.
Cold hit him like a shockwave. It was colder than the ice had been, both times, and Steve would have shuddered but at the moment had no body to do it for him. So the cold wrapped around his mind, instead, and it had always been Steve's will, and later his body, that was strong, but his mind? His mind was defenseless, and so it bit at him, relentless, and lodged itself in him, crept into every crevice of him so it felt like he could never free himself.
But he could, something told him distantly. It was cold because he was alone, and he'd distracted himself, ignored how close he was to freezing from sheer solitude by surrounding himself with people he thought would keep him warm. But he knew now, didn't he, it whispered to him, that people were weak, that's why someone like him had the strength to protect them. But they were weak, so they would leave him, be stolen away from him, or worst, betray the trust he had placed in their hands.
But there were things that couldn't, wouldn't do that to him. If Steve could only just find them...
Show me the other gems. Find me their warmth, Steve told the Time Gem.
The Time Gem searched for Steve, searched with Steve, and the certainty of the entirety of time washed over him, enveloping him and surging through him. He forgot anger, hurt, pain and only craved discovery. He peered into a time when Earth no longer existed, not even as a concept, and the name of the Avengers was something further away than even the edge of the universe, in a time when there was no longer language. And perhaps that was too far, so he scoured a time before that, when empires still rose and fell and he saw war after war after war, the endless bloodshed of mortal life, as he peered at nearer futures. Still it was not enough, so Steve looked to the end of their Earth, at the end of its natural lifespan, but humanity did not grieve for their lost home, for they had taken to the stars many millenia prior to the death of its sun. The assurance was fading, and even in tomorrow's tomorrow and tomorrow, five hours from now, two minutes, Steve realized with increasing dread that he had once again distracted himself from the cold.
The panic slowly closing him in its grip made him look back, to that fateful day in the snowy mountains of Pakistan, when everything had truly started to die. And further back, and Tony was the one to hold the Gauntlet this time, but the Gauntlet was...Steve clawed back further, to Thanos and his Infinity Gauntlet, and when he had offered half of the universe to his beloved Lady Death. Back and back he went, to the beginning of the universe, and trying to force himself past the bang that started all things made pain flare up, a searing, white-hot agony that crashed into cold metallic death and Steve wanted to scream until he died.
“Steve! Fuck! Steve!” The voice was high and desperate, but all Steve could register was the faint warmth behind those pleas. “Stephen, what the hell is happening to him!?” Someone shook him, and Steve's entire being jarred, and his brain jostled and snapped back into place with the movement.
Brain. He had a brain, he had a body again. Before he even realized where he was or what had happened, he was staring up into Tony's wide, blue eyes, and he couldn't tell who the wheezing pants he heard were coming from.
“They're not there,” Steve gasped. “The other Infinity Gems. The past, present, and future. They're gone.”
“Tell me the meaning of this.”
Black Swan's eyes narrowed. “I have already spoken to your Richards.” She scoffed. “The stones! Pah! I told him all they would buy him is time, and that has run out. The power of one mere universe cannot stand before the might of Rabum Alal.”
“It did once, and it will again,” Steve growled, and even that strained his throat.
His voice was shot to hell. The sides of his hands were an angry pink, from how many times he had slammed his fists on the table. The past few hours had been a blur, full of endless shouting, accusations, and argument after circular argument. Every so often, someone would stop to ask Steve what he truly saw, how positive was he, had he missed something, and every single time Steve had to force himself to repeat himself calmly, that he had searched the entire time stream, he had seen the birth and death of the people in the room and everyone they knew, and still the other gems had been nowhere to be found. Once, Reed had turned to him:
“Steve, not that I do not trust you, but if you maybe could try again – ”
“No.” Steve turned to Tony, whose arms were crossed and the helmet was faced toward the floor. “You all saw what happened to him. He looked about two seconds from having a full-blown seizure and shorting out on us.”
“I wouldn't have thought lives, much less mine, meant anything to you.” Steve hadn't intended for the words to leave his mouth, but he found he didn't much care. Tony had flinched, the movement visible even in the armor. It was unfair of him; he knew that Tony did care for him as a friend. But emotions alone didn't build a relationship, and Tony had broken every other part of theirs.
The rest of the table still looked ready to ask Steve to try again, but the subject was dropped for that moment. Not that it did much good for the rest of the proceedings. By the sixth time Hank had suggested Steve hadn't been fully cognizant when using the Time Gem, Steve, it's impossible because the gems had all existed before, in their memories. I learned today that memories don't mean much, Steve had said, and then, unable to take it anymore, had turned on his heel and stormed off.
Well, no, he had excused himself, then left without another word. Going down the floors in castle had seemed a good choice, until he had come face-to-face with Thanos and Proxima Midnight. So that was what Tony had meant by “taking care of it,” and Steve shouldn't have felt a twang of bitterness and irritation at just another thing Tony had hidden from him.
Seeing their statues towering over him made Steve grip the Time Gem a little harder. It hadn't left his hand ever since the Baxter Building, and the sweat had long cooled and clung to his skin and the leather of his glove.
They had all of time on their side. How could that still not be enough?
Steve hadn't intended to run into Black Swan (and Terrax, but the herald's eyes were closed and his chin bowed to his chest, and it didn't matter what he overheard anyway). An interrogation was the last thing Steve wanted to do at the moment. But Black Swan was someone who didn't care what happened to the world, had no investment in saving Earth, and at the moment, the respite felt like a liberation.
“If the Time Gem exists, the others have to, as well,” Steve told Black Swan.
“And you come to ask me why you cannot find them.” Black Swan studied him and her face twisted before her eyes snapped to the side. “Hmph. I see now. The gem despised nam-us, so of course it desperately clings to ti. Then it poses no threat to the Great Destroyer's reckoning, the coward it is.” Her shoulders fell. She gazed in the distance, although Steve suspected she wasn't looking at whatever was physically present. “The wheel will catch anything that runs.”
“I know you can speak so I can understand you.”
Black Swan gritted her teeth at him and looked like she had fangs. “You are life, yet you shield your eyes from death. Fool. Life without death is a cancer, with no reprieve from the agony. Life lives to die, and you would deny them their right – no, their ana, their nam-ku-zu. You are the one that Rabum Alal would despise most.”
“Your Rabum Alal has done nothing but destroy countless lives for no reason.”
“Lives! They were already rotting corpses, trapped in a curse of mobility. Such an existence cannot be saved, only ended, and Rabum Alal would bless us with it.” She sneered. “One such as you would not understand. The Great Destroyer is not great because he is powerful, but great because he is right. There is nothing that inspires more awe than a life that stands side-by-side with death. But you would not know that anymore, would you, Steve Rogers?”
Steve revealed the Time Gem to her, and its orange glow refracted across her holding cell. “I never have, and I never will,” he said with utter conviction.
“Sarru.” Black Swan smiled – a pale woman with snow-white hair; no color in her face save for a trace of orange in her eyes and the black of her lips – “If you have ever felt so betrayed that the anguish threatened to rip apart your being from your soul, then you know. That is what it means, to have life without death to save it from itself.”
She had said a lot, much more than Steve had expected her to, and none of it was useful. Apparently she had been helpful to the others, but that most likely extended only to her experience with committing genocide, which was probably the knowledge that the Illuminati had been interested in anyway.
As if sensing his displeasure, Black Swan tilted her head. Her smile showed teeth this time. “The ina abanayyartu cannot exist outside of their native universe. If you would find them to delay your inevitable fate, I suggest you search in the places you cannot look.”
Pointless. “I'm done here,” Steve said, turning around. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled as he exposed his back to her, though she was safely inside her cell, which had built by some of the people most qualified to do so.
“Tell whoever comes down here next to bring more of your french fries.”
Steve ignored her, and as he left, Black Swan called out once more.
“Wardum ana simtim alaku. Ana simtim alaku, ti.”
Steve recognized this balcony. It was the same place he had spoken to T'Challa, before Stephen had erased his memories. Back then, he had thought it was peaceful, but a sense of foreboding lingered over it now, trapped in its cracks and seeped into the stone. Steve didn't believe in superstition, but he wondered if he could have found a different place to have his thoughts to himself as he placed his hands against the rock railing. The sky had turned dark, and stars twinkled above him, same as they did every other night, if clearer here than in the city. Steve wondered how he could sleep tonight, let alone ever, with the imminence of the incursions hanging over him. At least he couldn't have nightmares more – no, they had just become reality.
He should have followed his instinct and found another place, he realized, as he picked up the sound of metal boots stepping behind him to come to a pause.
Not this time. Tony always came to him after their fights, to beg forgiveness and talk about how important Steve was to him, how he couldn't imagine living without his friendship. If he thought that way, then why did this keep on happening, again and again? If he cared so much, why did he keep insisting on tearing them apart? Why did Tony only care about Steve's feelings when Steve was angry, with complete justification, at him?
They hadn't even had their argument, but they didn't need to, for Steve to know what this was. “Enough,” he said.
“Steve – ” Tony's voice wasn't filtered, so he had raised his faceplate. Steve's grip on the railing tightened.
“I have nothing to say to you.” He was angry. He had to be angry, but it didn't mean he couldn't be tired of it. He had battled for days straight before, yet had never felt so whittled away and worn-down since he had went to the Baxter Building, which had been only scant hours ago but felt like a lifetime.
Tony tried again. “There was no other choice,” he implored.
“There was no choice, period!” Steve's voice raised, still hoarse from earlier, and he had let himself be pulled into arguing yet again; that was Tony's true talent, after all. He spun around, and saw Tony's helmet was removed and tucked under his arm. He ripped his cowl back then, to be face-to-face with Tony for this confrontation, for that is what this had become. “When your options include blowing up another planet, there is no choice to make!”
“That's not something you can say.” Tony's eyes were bright, and his voice shook. “You can't say there's nothing to do, because you have to do something. You can't just look away when two universes are about to be destroyed.”
“I wasn't telling us to look away!” Steve shouted. “I was telling us to find something else, one that didn't require sacrificing billions of lives!”
“What something else? In that room were some of the smartest people in the world, and we – the Infinity Gauntlet was gone. We had nothing.”
“But you would.”
“You're the only one who doesn't have to worry about ever failing, aren't you?” Tony, damn him, laughed, shaking his head. “If the entire world looked to you and asked you to save them, you could look them right back in the eye and say, without a doubt, 'I will'.”
“I wouldn't say that.”
“I would say, 'we will'.”
Tony tensed and his eyes flickered down. “Damn you, Steve,” he said quietly, but he might have gone into hysterics then; Steve saw it in his eyes and the uncontrollable twitch of his lips. “In that room were some of the smartest people in the world,” Tony repeated, voice carefully controlled, “and none of them would have believed you.”
“That's rich, coming from you. None of them should believe you, either, considering you lied to them about the Time Gem.”
Tony gritted his teeth. “I – I knew what they would do to you if they knew. If it was just me, then somewhere in the Tower – ”
“And just leave me to believe I'd misplaced the Time Gem, right? Make me believe that it could have fallen into the hands of a super villain, that it would all be on my carelessness. No,” Steve's grin was bitter, “what am I saying? You'd just ask Stephen to modify the previous spell a bit so I would have no memory of it.”
Tony didn't reply, and Steve wasn't sure how that should make him feel.
“It doesn't matter, anyway. I would believe in what I said, because I know it's right,” Steve said.
Steve knew that most everyone else in that room, including the man standing in front of him, could easily overpower him. Outsmart him. He hadn't been there because he was a genius or because he had powers or influence that could make people tremble. What did that mean, then, that some of the most brilliant men Steve knew had made an unforgivable choice? They had failed themselves when left with nothing else.
So what Steve could do that the rest of them couldn't was to believe. To know. There were paths you never took, no matter what, morals you couldn't compromise. If Steve could waver too, be swayed just like anyone else and become less than what he was meant to be, who was he anymore? What was Captain America, then, without his ideals to stand with?
Tony buried his face in his hand, and didn't say anything. When he did, his voice was barely a mutter, barely audible even with Steve's enhanced hearing.
“Do you still believe that?”
“We're still standing here. I have the Time Gem, and we will find the other gems.”
“The Time Gem that showed up after three incursions had to be dealt without it!” Tony shot off. “And the other gems, that oh, shattered when you broke the Infinity Gauntlet and, according to you, are just playing hide-and-seek with us! What you hold isn't hope, Steve. They're delusions.”
Tony's blatant scorn stirred the anger inside of him again, and Steve jabbed a finger at Tony. “Don't say it like you were helpless! You knew the Time Gem was still around! You know it only disappeared! You could have searched for it before it showed up in front of me!”
“You make it sound so easy.” Tony kneaded his forehead. “Even if the other gems still even exist, we had no way of finding them. We tried everything. Me, Reed, McCoy, T'Challa with science, Stephen with magic, Namor and Black Bolt with who knows what.”
“Apparently not hard enough,” Steve spat, “considering all the doomsday devices you built in the meantime.” Tony flinched, shrinking down on himself, before rearing up again.
“And what would you have us do instead? Go on a wild goose chase, hoping against all odds we'd just stumble upon the other ones, which may or may not exist, somewhere in the whole damn universe, when we knew that the incursions would come no matter what we did!? It's not just Earth, you know. If we had allowed the incursion to occur, both universes would have been destroyed. Universes, Steve. I would hope your romp in space taught you something about the size of the place. Are your ideals that sacred that you would be willing to offer up billions upon billions of lives for them?”
The mockery in Tony's voice, the way he formed the words ideals, made Steve see red. He snapped. “Morals are not something to uphold!” he shouted. “They're something to live by! But you wouldn't know that, would you?” He huffed harshly. “You don't let anything lead you but your own rules. You even agreed to erase my memories because I wouldn't follow them. But I'm one of the lucky ones, aren't I? At least I didn't pay the price with my own life.”
Did the other Earths have Avengers? Did they have people to protect them from the countless threats they faced, who would lay their lives on their line without a second thought? If the other Earths had Avengers, had they turned away from their final, unspeakable resort and took the high road, trying to find another way? And the reward for those people and their bravery, their goodness had been...
Steve wanted to throw up.
“I can't believe we were on a team together,” he said, deathly quiet, and Tony couldn't even look at him. “After we find the other gems, you're off.”
“...Okay.” The meekness in Tony's tone should also have filled Steve with some sort of perverse satisfaction, because finally something he had said got through to him (had hurt him), but all it did was add a painful twist to his anger.
Steve couldn't deal with this more. He moved to go back inside – even the ceaseless shouting in the meeting room was preferable to this heavy, choking silence that words couldn't pierce through anymore.
“Steve, please...if our friendship means nothing to you now, you'll ignore me and continue to walk back in.”
Steve stopped, hating himself every second for it.
“Steve.” Tony's voice was small. “I knew this – us – was coming for a long time. There...in my head, I knew it was impossible, but I explained myself to you over and over again, trying to get you to see. I can't remember any of the lines I thought of anymore, all the things I would have said, except this.” When he looked up at Steve, his blue eyes looked like they were made of iron. “Death is the one place I can't let the people I care about go. Not when I have the power to stop them.”
Something stirred in Steve at those words. It wasn't sentiment – he didn't have that anymore, not for Tony, he lied to himself – but –
– search in places you cannot look –
He realized, moments later, that he had turned to gape at Tony, and he nearly unclenched his fist and let the Time Gem drop from his hand as everything clicked in place.
“I know where the rest of the Infinity Gems are,” Steve said.
Tony's head snapped up, and his eyes widened. “How? What? Where? Where can we find them?” he asked in a stumbling rush.
Not where, Steve thought faintly. Who.
“We have to find Death.”