The screens cast a sickly light over Steve's rosy pallor, doing nothing to flatter him. He looked washed out, tired. Tony's eyes traced the circles high on Steve's cheeks, the sunken lines falling around his lips, ones that swooped up under his ears. He looked worse to Tony than how Steve Rogers should look, but somehow he still managed to never look bad. Tony knew his own olive skin probably looked a sickly yellow-green in the artificial late night light. Always worse than Steve, when in the same situation. That was the great tragedy that was Tony Stark.
“What do you think?” Tony asked. Unable to help himself, he reached out to clasp Steve's shoulder. Steve didn't shy away from the touch, just nodded with his eyes fixed on the screen.
“It's right,” Steve confirmed. “This is the roster.”
“For now,” Tony reminded him. He kneaded Steve's shoulder beneath his hand. “Remember, this isn't just a list. It's a starting point. It's a machine, not a document. This is the seed to get bigger. The root system.”
Steve smiled warmly over at him. “You're mixing your metaphors. And confusing them.”
Steve's skin was so warm under Tony's hand. Still felt sleep-warm, like a lover's stomach in the morning, all that heat trapped between two people under the covers. Sunlight inside them spilling over your palm, matching the dawn spilling over the horizon.
Tony shrugged. “I'm no writer. Save the creative arts for those more suited to it.”
Steve nodded at the monitors in front of them. “This? This is pretty creative. In the original sense of the word. You've created something great here, Tony. Something enduring.”
“We both have,” Tony told him. Steve's smile was rough, but genuine. Tony rubbed Steve's shoulder longer, capturing the sun-like warmth in his palm.
The apartment was quiet when Tony let himself in. He tossed his keys in the bowl Steve kept at the front—adorable—and called out “Steve?” just to check. Nothing. Tony nodded to himself and tugged off his glasses as he stepped further inside.
Humming nervously to himself, Tony peered through the darkened rooms, the switched off TV, the quiet radio. He ducked his head into Steve's bedroom. The bed was made, corners tight. Tony nodded to himself and backed out of the room. The door to Steve's art studio was closed. Odd for him, since Steve never kept a door closed out of paranoia. Didn't want to leave a space for someone to hide behind. Reaching out with his hand that still gripped the sunglasses, Tony nudged the door open and peered inside. His eyes took a moment to adjust to the darkness before he could make out the dim forms of canvases, paints, easels. Tony squinted to make out the paintings. Some older paintings of the Avengers, abandoned... before. But more predominately, portraits of Ian. Over and over again, a thousand different ways, different places. All alien to Tony, but familiar enough from Steve's half-explanations and SHIELD file.
The front door clicked open behind him. Tony shut the door on Steve's studio and strode away quickly. Before he was back in the living room, Steve was calling out: “Tony? You here?”
“Just me, Captain Handsome,” Tony reassured him with a cheeky grin. Steve smiled as Tony came into his view. Tony wondered if the smile looked a little dimmer than usual. If it had faded at all compared to how he smiled at him before Steve's time off-Earth. Off-Dimension.
Steve headed into his kitchen, tugging a jug of milk and carton of eggs out of his fridge. “You want anything?” he asked as he fired up his stove.
Tony shook his head as he leaned against the doorjamb. “Nope. Just you.”
Steve laughed into his frying pan as he buttered it up. “Just me, huh?”
“I've got tickets. Some new exhibit at MOMA. Some corporate thing, or charity thing, or something. Either way, I could use the company. You mind?”
“Of course I don't mind,” Steve replied, smiling softly.
Tony nodded. “Good. That's good. Great. Friday night. I'll pick you up at seven.”
“I'll make sure I look presentable,” Steve promised.
Tony knocked gently on the doorjamb as he took his leave. He backed out so he could watch Steve preparing his scrambled eggs until Tony's feet carried him out of his eyeline.
The earth trembled one last time beneath their feet before finally going still. Tony clung to Steve a second longer, holding him upright with one tightly-fisted gauntlet buried in Steve's scale mail. After a long breath of waiting, watching, Steve tugged away. Tony let him.
“I think that's it,” Steve told Tony. “I think Carol must have taken him down.”
Tony peered over the edge of the parking garage they were standing on top of, jet boots ready to flare up at the first sign of the AIM creation bursting back to life, or the concrete structure beneath their feet finally succumbing to the beating it had just undergone. There, on the ground a few stories down, Carol was crouched victoriously on top of the villainous monster, fists glowing in preparation for another attack. As Tony watched, Thor flew down to join her, kicking at the monster's arm. It stayed down.
Stepping back from the ledge, Tony turned to Steve with a crooked smile. “Looks down to me,” he confirmed.
Steve sighed with relief. Tugging his helmet off, he ran a hand through damp hair. Droplets of sweat flicked off, glistening in the late-afternoon sun. “Good. Now we can worry about containment and clean-up.”
“Hey, here's a thought,” Tony hummed, “how's about after you do enough good to satisfy your do-gooder chip in your head, we go and get some dinner? My treat.”
Steve snorted at the last bit. “I should hope so.”
Tony clutched a hand to his arc reactor. “Oh, ouch, Steve. Ouch. I'm hurt, I really am. Here I am, thinking we've been friends for over a decade, and it turns out you only love me for my money.”
Steve laughed and stepped closer, shaking his head. He thumped a heavy hand down on Tony's shoulder, though he barely felt the weight through his armor. “Well. The money helps.” Tony gasped. Before he could get righteously offended, Steve laughed and steamrolled ahead: “But it's not enough. Guess I must love you for some other reason. Can't imagine what, though.”
“It's my good looks!” Tony quipped. “Has to be.”
They started a slow decent down the parking garage, opting to walk rather than fly. They'd done enough desperate flying today to earn themselves the luxury of a walk.
Steve hummed, unconvinced. “I have plenty of good-looking friends. Waist-deep in handsome men and women.”
Tony blew a raspberry at Steve. “Listen to this. Shallow Steve Rogers, who would have thought?”
Steve knocked his shoulder into Tony's. “I've got an artists' eye for beauty. That's not shallow. Plato wouldn't think so.”
Tony snorted and bit back a retort about the sorts of people Plato found beautiful.
They were just under the roof of the parking garage now, out of the glaring sun and into the cool shadows of the penultimate story of the structure, when Steve slowed to a stop. Tony followed his lead, cocking his head in question. Steve was smiling crookedly at him.
“I know I don't tell you as much as I should. Guess maybe it's an old-timer thing: stoic silent type, and all. But you're a good man, Tony. You work hard at being a good man. You make the world a better place. Superheroing, inventing, donating... you're a good man in a heck of a lot of ways. More than even me. You use everything you have to make sure right wins out in the end. That's why I love you, and why I'm proud to call you my friend.”
Tony squirmed under the seriousness of Steve's gaze. Awkwardly he jerked a hand out and punched Steve lightly in the shoulder. His armor sounded almost creaky in the cavernous walls of the parking garage. “Aw, shucks, Steve. Trying to make a guy blush, here. Save that sweet talk for after the dinner, maybe I'll let you have 'dessert.'”
Steve rolled his eyes and resumed walking. Tony kept pace with him. “Yeah, yeah. I get it: enough with the sappy stuff. But it needs to be said, once in a while. You deserve to hear it.”
“Yeah, well. Right back at you, and all that jazz,” Tony mumbled. He ducked his head away from Steve, glad the darkness of the parking garage would hide the tears in his eyes. “Back at you, times a hundred. Times a... a Captain America. Largest unit of goodness there is.”
“I'm just saying: go on a couple of dates, one-time things, see who there is to see, get yourself out there again-”
“I'm not ready for something like that, Sam. Not yet.”
Tony slowed to a stop in the hallway outside the kitchen, Sam and Steve's voices arresting his steps. He waited, eyes tracking around the Tower hallway, hoping no one would turn a corner and catch him eavesdropping.
“I'm not saying find a girl to marry, Steve. I'm saying go on a couple first dates. Nothing serious. Just to remind yourself that there's some nice women out there. Sharon, God love her, was one of a kind. But there's other one-of-a-kinds out there, Steve. Different ones.”
“It's not even that, Sam. You know it's not just that.”
“Well maybe don't date a woman with a kid right now, Steve. What do you want me to say?”
“To stop pressuring me!”
Tony winced. Steve didn't yell. What the hell was going on with him? Besides the obvious.
Apparently Sam was just as shocked as Tony, because when he spoke again after a long pause, his tone was gentler. “Hey, hey. Sorry. It was just a suggestion. Don't have to listen to me.”
Steve sighed. “I'm sorry, Sam. I didn't mean to snap. I just...”
A pregnant pause. Tony curled his hand into a fist to keep from drumming his fingers against the wall or his thigh. It was a wonder Steve hadn't realized he was out here already. “Is something up? Something else?”
“No, no. Nothing's wrong.”
“...But is something up?”
Steve sighed, again.
“Is... someone else... pressuring you?”
“No, no. He's not-”
“I'm just not ready-”
“Tony's just... being himself. Affectionate, you know. Laying it on thick since I got back. He doesn't even realize he's doing it, probably-”
Tony's heart thudded in his chest. All the blood rushed to his ears and he felt lightheaded enough that he had to lean against the wall for support.
“-he's just trying to help. And he's Tony, so his version of helping is...”
“Enthusiastic,” Steve corrected with a small laugh. “I just... Sometimes it feels like dating. And sometimes I feel like I can't catch my breath, because it's so much like that. Like we're a couple. I know it's just how he is. His way of showing me I'm loved. That he cares. But sometimes I feel like it's more, and I worry that he wants this to be something I... I worry he wants something from me I just can't give. Not now.”
“Uh.... this is all... pretty much news to me. Not sure exactly what to react to first...”
Steve continued like he hadn't heard Sam. “Of course I love him. And throwing myself back into Avengers work, with him at my side—reforming the team, bigger and better than before... that's good for me. That feels right. He feels right, at my side. But with all the time we've been spending together for the Avengers, and how much he's been taking care of me during my downtime since Z... it's too much, too soon. Maybe... maybe. But not now.”
A longer pause this time. Tony thought he could pick up the sound of Sam scrubbing his hands over his short hair. Finally Sam sighed and said: “So your idea of 'not being ready to date seriously again' is 'because I'm already in a relationship with the one person I've known longer than anyone else'?”
Steve laughed without any mirth. “Guess that's the short of it.”
Tony tiptoed away from the kitchen, down the hall and into a side room. Then he made sure to stamp his feet on the way back, announcing his presence to Steve's supersoldier hearing. He pretended not to notice how watery Steve's smile for him was.
Tony ran his hand over the cold monitors, covered in layers of dust. Stark Resilient headquarters: Chicago chapter. The halls were cold. The wind howled outside, skies grey and darkening by the minute. Tony pulled his blue hoodie tighter around him, hands tucked up in his sleeves, sleeves shoved into the pocket in the front. Frigid blue eyes traced over the silent halls.
“Alone again,” Tony whispered. The soft susurrus of sound echoed through the mostly-silent halls.
“Why am I not surprised..”
“You need to get back to the world.” Arno's voice felt too loud in the hollow halls of Stark Resilient's labs. Tony lowered the volume on his computer speaker. His rolling chair rocked as he leaned back against it, arms wrapped tight around his chest.
“World's doing fine without me,” Tony commented, face turned away from his screens.
Arno's sigh was staticy. “Listen, Tony. As smart as I am, I'm smart enough to know we can't solve this without you. We need every mind we have on this.”
“Has Steve asked me back?”
A long pause. On the monitor, Arno glanced over his shoulder, like there was someone there to consult. There wasn't.
“I don't know why your decision would depend on-”
“Steve still doesn't want me,” Tony told Arno, “because the only solutions I can come up with all end in destruction and death. Because I'm a weapons manufacturer, Arno. I'm a Merchant of Death. I trade in arms and doomsday devices. I count lives and play it by the numbers. Steve's... Steve's your Alexander the Great. He's the one who will cut the Gordian knot and set us all free with the power of love and teamwork. That's not me. I look at this problem and all I can think of is how to blow up my way out of it.”
“Seems to me like a sword is a weapon,” Arno pointed out. “And a rocket launcher would break the Gordian knot just as effectively as it.”
“Shut up, baby brother,” Tony snapped. Arno laughed humorlessly.
“You need to come back. Whether or not Rogers wants you here, you need to be here.”
“The reasons Steve doesn't want me there are the exact reasons I have removed myself from the situation.”
Tony growled. “I'm willing to kill trillions of people, billions of people on millions of Earths, just to save ourselves. And yeah, it's morally abhorrent. But even worse? It's reactionary. I'm out of ideas, brother. I'm tapped dry. You set your big brain to it. All I see when I close my eyes are Dyson Spheres and that poor Starbrand and all the different ways I could blow up a planet. Do you know how many ways there are to blow up a planet? Because I've thought of fifty-seven. Fifty-seven world killers in a month. Just from me. God knows how many Reed's come up with. Or Maximus. Or T'Challa. And those fifty-seven are only the viable ones I've come up with. The ones I can make right now, or close to it. That's what I contribute to the problem, Arno. Fifty-seven world killers.”
Tony's finger hovered over the disconnect button on his keypad. Staring down at the dusty interface, Tony finally concluded: “Our world is better off without the kind of help I can offer. And Steve's the only one smart enough to see it.”
Tony jabbed his finger down, and his lab went dark once more.
“He's not letting us do anything effective!” Arno was practically howling in Tony's ear. Tony hummed, eyes trained on a single screen and not on his brother. There was a man and woman on the screen: the man was Steve, easily recognizable, even though this was a different universe. The woman had been less familiar, at first. But then, slowly, features registered: the tilt of her chin, the shape of her eyes, the movements of her hands. And then an incursion event had happened, and she had kissed her husband goodbye and suited up, and Tony had suddenly realized who he was looking at.
“Every solution we bring to him, he vetoes. Every way out, every genius plan I can come up with, he strikes down with that simple-minded ethics of his. Hasn't he ever evolved past Kant?! Does he even know who Kant is? Or his ethical code more mired in his Catholicism; you know, it reeks of it-”
“I'm never taking you to the movies with me,” Tony commented idly. They had beaten back the incursion. Them—the other thems. This universe designated three-four-nine-zero. The Iron Woman and Captain America, husband and wife darling superheroic team, had beaten back an incursion. Four times, now. Four times, and not one time had they destroyed another world that was populated. But four times, they had used four different methods. And they looked like they might be running short on options.
“Are you watching a movie? While the world is ending around you? While Steve Rogers remains intractable on how we can save ourselves? Do you know Reed Richards had to go behind his back for the last incursion? Otherwise we'd all be dead right now, because Rogers can't entertain any options that aren't his own. We're all going to die. We're all going to die, when plenty of us have solutions, but Rogers doesn't think they're good enough for his guilty conscious.”
Subtly Tony flicked his fingers to lower the volume on the call he had open with Arno. The other universe, the universe with the female-him, played across his screen in real time. He wondered if Reed knew about this universe. If Reed had found it yet.
He wondered when they'd have to fight this universe. Wondered if he would. Could.
Arno grew tired of complaining about Steve after a while, and Tony let him go, off to do his good work, fight the good fight. Tony laid his head on his arms and watched him/herself cuddle up with Steve Rogers on a couch, a day well-saved.
“We're dead in a day, Anthony. Maybe two.”
Tony hummed as he tapped at his keypad, finally getting the third monitor online. There it was. There was the universe he was looking for.
“Did you hear me? Steve won't let us-”
“Heard you, plastic fantastic,” Tony replied. There was another one, somewhere. His algorithm had said four, last night. It had more already, but he could get the fourth online now. He just had to navigate all the junk data it spat out to find... oh. Okay, there. Four two nine zero zero zero one. And... there. On his monitors, now. That was all four from the night before.
Tony scanned the monitors. Four worlds where some form of Avengers analogues had beaten back the incursions. Four worlds where they were doing something other than blasting their way to victory. Four worlds where they'd found an out, a way around... for a while, at least.
Reed's voice pestered at the edge of Tony's attention as he raked his eyes back and forth across the monitors, searching for some hint, some clue. “What have you got that we don't?” he asked the screens.
“Tony? What does who have?”
“Gotta call you back, Reed. Go save the world.”
“I can't! Not with Steve-”
Tony disconnected the call with Reed. He was on the verge of a revelation. He could feel it niggling in the back of his skull. Feel the weight of his mind coming to bear on this problem, sure on steady footing. He just needed to think harder, focus more. Gather more data.
The four two nine zero zero zero one world was different. He wasn't there, not immediately recognizable, at least. And Steve wasn't, either. Tony watched, eyes sharp. There was a big, hopeful blonde, and a more mopey brunette. It wasn't much to go on, but on a hunch Tony focused his lens on them. They were heroes, at least: even if they weren’t Tony and Steve, observing them could be useful.
They didn't bear their names, those two men: Wayne and Zoran. But they felt like Tony and Steve. Tony couldn't explain exactly how. Maybe it was the way Zoran tugged on his armor, or how the steadfast leadership sat on Wayne's shoulders, but something felt familiar to Tony. Something felt right.
Now to dig through the universes the algorithm had found today. Easier to spot amidst the data, now that Tony was getting a sense of what he was looking for. World after world appeared on his screens, universes upon universes. As he worked, his mind registered the details of the world, narcissisticly searching for himself each time. There he was, with feathers, but still mostly himself. Steve was there too, just as feathered as Tony. In another world, Tony recognized himself by spotting Steve first. Steve was bringing in a breakfast tray to a dim bedroom. Tony was inside, propped up in bed, obviously injured. Steve pressed a kiss to his forehead as he set the tray gently over his hips.
Tony jerked backwards from the monitors, jolted out of the near-trance he had fallen into, absorbed in lines of code and pages of mathematics. It made sense, it wasn't unexpected. There would be worlds where this would be the case. There was a world where Victor von Doom was sticking it to Reed Richards. There'd be worlds where he and Steve... There was already a world like that, after all. The one where he was a woman, and they were married. In this one they just happened to be two men-
Tony blinked, and looked between his universes again. His mouth fell open.
Six worlds were up there now. His algorithm was already flashing at him that it'd found more. Tony swallowed thickly.
“Son of a bitch.”
Steve stood with his arms crossed, back straight, jaw clenched. It felt like he was going into a fight, or about to be interrogated. Reality pretty much lined up with that gut feeling.
“Just... Listen to me, Steve,” Tony was begging him.
“I'm here,” Steve grunted. “You've got my attention. For a moment.”
“I'm going to show you something. And... I'll explain after. Okay? Just: look.”
Tony tapped something on a computer keyboard, and the monitors behind him lit up. Steve scanned the screens, absorbing the information Tony was showing him. There were different worlds scattered across the screen, different lives and different... hims. Steve stepped closer to the monitors, curious in spite of himself. For once, he was looking at universes that weren't about to collide with his own, or in the middle of colliding with his own. For once he had a moment to look, and see.
One world in particular caught Steve's attention. A sob escaped his throat before he could stop it. “Ian?”
There, on the screen up and to his right: Ian was in his arms, in Steve Rogers' arms. Some other Steve Rogers, because it wasn’t him, it wasn't his universe. It was someone else's.
But it looked like him. Out of all the universes he could see, this one looked most like his own. Except he had Ian, had the little twelve year old boy wrapped up tight in his arms, safe in Avengers Tower. And there was Tony, alongside them, now. Steve was passing Ian into Tony's chest, and Ian was going happily, arms wrapped tight around Tony's neck. The Steve in that universe then pressed a gentle kiss to Tony's lips. His eyes were soft and loving as he pulled back, stroking Ian's hair. Tony looked at him like he was his whole world.
Steve didn't know if he should look away or keep watching—which would be more painful, which would be more kind. Tears ran openly down his cheeks as he watched the universe, the one that wasn't his. The one where Tony hadn't betrayed Steve, where Steve hadn't fought tooth and nail against Tony after he found out. A universe where Tony and Steve had stuck by each other through it all, fought to find a new solution. Tony, and Steve... and Ian.
“Steve?” Tony whispered.
Steve tore his eyes away from the screens, wiping them on his sleeve. “What, Tony? What... What is this? Why are you showing this to me?”
Tony licked his lips, shoulders hunched. He looked terrible: eyes shadowed, cheeks unshaven, white undershirt stained with sweat around his neck and under his arms. But he was still Iron Man. He was still an Avenger: expulsion from the team notwithstanding. He could still lift his chin and clench his jaw and tell Steve what he needed to tell him: “I figured it out. How to stop the incursions. You were... not wrong.”
Steve barked out a laugh. “'Not wrong.' That's what you're going to give me? 'Not wrong'?”
Tony grinned, a little ghost of a thing. “Yeah. 'Not wrong'. Because you weren't right, either. But neither was I. We... Well. Look.”
Steve clenched his teeth as his eyes skittered over the universe with Ian in it. The three of them were milling around in the kitchen together. PB&J sandwiches.
“Look at all of them, Steve. What do you see?”
Steve forced himself to look at the other universes. There, one where Tony was a woman and he and Steve sat together grinning on a couch. There, a universe where they were barley recognizable, going by different names like Wayne and Zoran. But they were together, incursions beaten back and defeated. Another universe, where they were both women, this time. Again they were together. Again they had stopped the incursions. Another universe, Steve and Tony, standing tall and proud despite injuries and prosthetics covering their bodies. Incursions defeated.
“I already knew we were in a million different universes,” Steve whispered. “What am I supposed to see?”
Tony took a step closer to Steve. It wasn't an unwelcome movement, though Tony hesitated like he thought it might be. “These are the worlds where we won. The universes where we stopped the incursions. What do you see?”
“I don't...” Steve's head spun, his feet stumbled, trying to take it all in. Steve and Tony, in this universe, skin covered in feathers. Steve and Tony, in that universe, asleep on a couch together. Steve and Tony, in this universe, working on something that looked like a rocket ship. Steve and Tony, in that universe, eating noodles together. Steve and Tony, in that universe, a baby wrapped up in their arms. Steve and Tony, in this universe, laughing in the oval office together. Steve and Tony, in that universe, riding hover boards through Central Park. Steve and Tony, in this universe, shaking hands with a man in a desert. Steve and Tony, in that universe, sitting in the cockpit of a zeppelin. Steve and Tony, in this universe, old men together. Steve and Tony, in that universe, with glowing prosthetic eyes. Steve and Tony, in this universe, wings curled up behind their backs. Steve and Tony, in that universe, feet up on the coffee table. Steve and Tony, Steve and Tony, Steve and Tony...
“I don't understand,” Steve finally replied. His head was reeling. Too much information for him to take in, to make sense of. That's what Tony- Well. That's what Tony was good at. That's the sort of task Steve would always delegate to him. Back when he was an Avenger. Back when they were on the same team.
“We're together,” Tony explained.
Steve frowned. Turned to look at Tony—his Tony—for the first real time since he'd arrived. “What?”
Tony broke eye contact with Steve, turning his gaze on the screens. He nodded at them. “I figured it out. Sorted through the data. The common thread, in every universe where we solved the incursions: it's not a common solution. Not even close. There's hundreds of solutions. But the common factor is that we found it. Together.”
“The Avengers?” Steve asked, still not understanding. Not wanting to understand.
Tony's eyes flickered back to Steve's. “You and me. We're the only two that need to stay the same. You and me. It has to be the two of us.”
Slowly Steve turned away from the screens. He dragged his feet over to the couch Tony kept in his lab, collapsing down onto it once he reached it. His eyes ran over the screens, checking for a single exception to Tony's ridiculous rule. There wasn't one.
“It can't be us,” Steve explained. “We're...”
“Too different?” Tony asked with a crooked smile. “Too opposed?”
“We're the same,” Steve insisted. “Through it all, we're both heroes, Tony. No matter how much I hate your actions, no matter how betrayed I feel. I don't hate you. I know you did those things because you thought they were right. You were wrong...” Steve leveled Tony with a look, who looked straight back at Steve, too tired to be ashamed. Steve sighed and continued: “...But I know you thought you were doing what was right.”
“It's you and me,” Tony insisted again. Slowly he walked over to the couch, sitting on arm furthest away from Steve. “It's always you and me. Every universe that we save, every universe that figured out a solution: it was because you and me worked together and found the solution.”
Steve's eyes raked over the screens, scanning, scanning, scanning.
“Are we together?”
Tony deliberately misunderstood. “Every one of the universes, we worked together-”
“Are we together?” Steve asked again, looking at Tony. “In all of them?”
Tony hesitated. He had run the data. Steve knew he had.
“Eighty percent of the time,” Tony finally admitted. “From what Arno and I could tell. Some universes humans don't have sexual reproduction anymore, some universes you or I or both are asexual or aromantic, some universes are just too different to understand with a cursory look, but... from what we could tell, the universes where we could be together, we are.”
Steve laughed softly. His eyes drifted closed. “Jan always said it would come down to this,” he huffed.
Slowly he opened his eyes. “Fuck or die.”
Tony laughed, sharp and bright. “Steve, no. This is not fuck or die. This is team-up-or-die. This is make-up-or-die. This is not-”
Reaching out, Steve grabbed Tony's wrist, arresting it mid-gesticulation. Tony went completely still, like a rabbit in the shadow of a hawk. Or maybe an eagle. Firmly Steve pulled Tony to him, down onto the couch. Down onto Steve.
“Let's say it is,” Steve murmured. Then he kissed Tony. And all the other worlds fell away. For a moment, at least.
Hours later, Steve pressed a kiss to Tony's temple as he stroked a hand up and down Tony's bare back. Tony was breathing heavily into Steve's neck, loose-limbed and half-asleep.
“Tony,” Steve murmured. Tony didn't move, just kept drifting contentedly on Steve's chest. Steve laid his hand flat against the small of Tony's back, shaking him gently. “Tony,” he whispered again into Tony's hair. “We should get up.”
Tony stirred that time, but only to rub his nose against Steve's neck. “No,” he grumbled.
Steve rubbed the small of Tony's back more firmly. “I don't think the universe is just going to save itself.”
Groaning, Tony sat up and stretched. Steve's eyes followed his chest hair down the firm planes of his stomach, between the bones of his hips. Honeymoon stage. Everything about Tony now was new, bright, beautiful. Fresh and good.
Tony peered down at Steve from beneath dark eyelashes. “Isn't that the rules of fuck-or-die? We fucked, ergo, world saved.”
Steve's hands drifted over Tony's hips, smoothing away the protruding bones (he hadn't been eating, since his exile), rubbing away any hurt he might have caused. “I think we still have to actually come to a solution,” Steve pointed out.
Tony grinned, sharp and lewd, and Steve knew he was going to say something blue. “What, you don't think that sex was world-rocking enough to unmoor us from the incursions? Maybe we should try again...”
“Intercourse doesn't mean we're together,” Steve pointed out, mostly to himself.
Tony pulled back, sharp and hurt. “Oh. Hey, you know: my bad. Shouldn't have assumed it'd happen again-”
Steve shook his head, reaching up to stroke Tony's face. He tugged him in for a kiss, soft and sweet. Something that couldn't be mistaken for anything other than loving. When he broke the kiss, his hands stayed on Tony's jaw, keeping him close. “I mean: we're not done yet,” Steve explained. “I'm sure there are worlds where we had sex but didn't solve the incursions. Like you said: there were worlds where we didn't have sex, but we were together. Sex isn't the whole of it. We need to be together on this, Tony. One hundred percent.”
Tony sighed and pressed his forehead to Steve's. They breathed each other's air for a long moment. “Okay.” Tony nodded his forehead against Steve's. “Okay. I'm with you. One hundred percent.”
“I'm with you,” Steve said back. It felt like a promise. Or a proposal.
Leaning back, Tony drummed his fingers on Steve's chest. “So? What's the plan?”
“Full disclosure,” Steve replied immediately. “I need to know what you know.”
Tony rolled off Steve, searching around for his pants on the floor. “Fine. But I need to know what you know,” Tony shot back.
Rolling up onto his elbow, Steve scanned the ground. His pants had managed to make it halfway across the lab, to the monitors of the other universes Tony had set up. Steve frowned at his pants, wondering if he should bother getting them. Eventually, he would probably need to. He watched Tony tug his own grungy jeans on. They needed a wash. Everything about Tony needed a wash. “I don't have anything,” Steve told him.
Tony snorted. “Bullshit. Come on, full disclosure. We have to do this together, or nothing will work.”
Steve watched Tony rummage around for a moment more in silence. Then he said: “I knew you wiped me.”
Tony went perfectly still. Until he turned and looked back at Steve, face gone white. “What?”
Steve pushed himself up on the couch until he was sitting, forearms draped over his knees. He looked at Tony, voice steady. “I knew. Before I told you. Before it all... came out. I knew.”
Stumbling over his own legs, Tony sat down, hard, on the cold floor of his lab. “You knew?”
Scrubbing his face in his hands, Steve sighed. “I knew... something. I knew you were keeping secrets. I knew you had done something to keep me from knowing it. I knew the dreams were about that—T'Challa, Namor, Black Bolt, Reed. You weren't in the dreams, I couldn't see your face, but I knew you were a part of it. You're always a part of those men and their schemes. And I must have been, too. I didn't know about the incursions.” Steve watched Tony. Watched him tremble with this new knowledge. “I knew it was going to be over, soon. I knew I would find out, that whatever secret you were keeping would see the light of day. I knew there would come a point, soon, when there'd be no more pretending.”
“Why didn't you confront me?” Tony asked. Begged.
“Because I'm selfish,” Steve admitted. He wiped one big hand over his face. “Because I wanted to have a little bit of time with you. A week, a month, of peace. Because I spent twelve years in Z, only to come back to this. Because I was sick of being uncompromising. Because I was sick of losing everyone, every time. I was too tired. Too tired to lose you. Again.”
Tony's head hung low, tears tracking down his cheeks. “I did that to you.”
Sighing, Steve heaved himself off the couch. Settling down on the floor in front of Tony, Steve took his hands and covered them with his own. “You know what I think that wall of universes is telling us?” Steve asked him. Leaning forward conspiratorially, Steve whispered: “I think we did it to each other.”
Tony sobbed. Tony also laughed. Steve laughed with him, knocked their foreheads together.
“I think, if the constant is that we're together, then there's nothing one of us could do to the other without it being mutual,” Steve continued. “You push, I push back. You pull one way, I pull the other. If it was just one of us, we'd never find ourselves in as big a mess as we always do. We always end up occupying the same space, in the end.”
Tony's head snapped up. “Wait.” His blue eyes, bloodshot with tears and lack of sleep, were brighter than Steve had ever seen them. “Say that last part again.”
Steve frowned. “'We always occupy the same space in the end?'”
“Yeah, that part...” Tony trailed off, thinking. Then he jerked Steve's hands to his mouth, kissing them each once. “You gave me an idea.” Post-coital sluggishness gone in an instant, Tony darted to his feet and raced, bare-footed, across his lab.
Steve rose more slowly, hands on his hips. “Wait. Really? Just like that?”
“Yup!” Tony called from some remote corner.
Steve looked around skeptically. Then he realized it was pretty drafty in Tony's lab. So he set about picking up his pants and getting redressed.
Tugging on his shirt as he walked, Steve found Tony at work in front of a computer console, typing furiously. His teeth chewed at his lips as he thought, eyes darting every which way across a dozen monitors. Glancing at the screens, Steve sighed. It was all gibberish to him.
“Full disclosure,” Steve reminded Tony. To belay the warning in his tone, Steve pressed his chin to Tony's bare shoulder and kissed his neck. Tony leaned back into Steve automatically. Like they'd being doing this for years. They had, really: millions of years. Millions of ways. Just not in this universe.
“Right, right. Full disclosure. Uh... Oh...” Hesitating, Tony glanced back at Steve. He winced exaggeratedly. “Uh... okay, so: secret time.” Steve lifted his chin from Tony's shoulder and frowned. “Yeah, so. That Iron Woman from the future? That might have been my granddaughter. And she might have known about the incursions. And the Illuminati. And she gave me something. A weapon she said would help me in the days to come. I didn't know what she meant at the time, or what good it would do. But now...”
“It's not, though!” Tony's hands flew over his keypad.
After a moment, an familiar image appeared on the screen in front of Steve. It was “the Rogue planet. The one we stopped.”
“Didn't stop. Not exactly,” Tony explained. “You ever heard the old physics rule, 'two things can never occupy the same place at the same time?'”
“Sure,” Steve nodded.
“Well... looks like physics needs an update. Because that's not entirely true.”
The image on the screen changed, from two worlds on a collision course to... two worlds having collided. Except there were no explosions, no horrifying destruction. The two worlds were just like Tony said: somehow occupying the same place at the same time. The image on the screen achieved this by going through a slow loop of varying opacity levels. Steve couldn't even begin to wrap his brain around how this would work in the real world.
“I was making it into a weapon. Harnessing energy from the fuck-the-Pauli-exclusion-principle planet we've got attached to us. Charging Earth up like a Death Star.”
Steve ground his teeth and waited. Tony was admitting to this because it wasn't his plan anymore. It couldn't be.
Sure enough, Tony grinned sharp and fast as he flicked a hand against the keypad, changing the screens. “But you don't want me to make weapons. You won't let me destroy the other worlds. So I won't. I'll do something better.”
A multiverse appeared on the screens. Slowly, one by one, the Earths collapsed on top of each other. Steve flinched.
“Isn't that what Reed showed us in the first place? I can't...” Steve rubbed his temple with one hand. “I can't remember, exactly. Everything's still hazy. But this looks like the problem, Tony. Not the solution.”
Tony cocked his head at Steve, smiling slowly. “Yeah. I guess it does. That's the beauty of it. My granddaughter, she gave me this and told me it was a weapon. Probably because she knew I wouldn't look at it twice if it wasn't. But you... It can't be a weapon, if I'm going to solve it for you. You won't let it be one. So I took a third look at it. And I realized it's not.”
“Tony...” Steve sighed.
Nodding to himself, Tony tapped against his keypad so the screen changed again. This time the Earths were expanded out, but mapped to the same point in space. “My granddaughter gave us the ability to lock a planet in the same space as ours. This generates a huge amount of energy, but that's not even the point. That's a side effect. I thought it was the intended effect, that it was the important part. But it's not. The fact that right now, two planets are occupying the same place at the same time: that's the important part. I can't believe I didn't see it before, but: there you have it.”
Steve frowned at the Earths on the monitor, all collapsing onto one Earth, the opacity levels tuned differently so you could see them stacked on top of each other. “The incursions are caused by Earths trying to occupy the same space and destroying each other...” he repeated slowly, “but your granddaughter gave you a way of letting that happen... without the destruction.”
Unable to help himself, Steve threw a hand out at the monitor. “You had this and your first thought was 'I'm going to turn this into a bomb'?!”
Tony winced. “She... said it was a weapon-”
“Everything looks like a nail when you've got a hammer, Tony. And when you're you and not Thor, everything looks like a weapon when you're an arms dealer!” Steve spat out.
An actual, full-body flinch pulled Tony away from Steve, putting feet between them. Steve took a breath and stepped back himself, adding more space to the gap. They were far from two Earths, trying to occupy the same space. They were two stars, doomed to collapse in on each other, forming a supermassive black hole that sucked in everything around them, consumed it all.
Except they weren't. Except they weren't. Turning away from Tony's multitude of Earths, Steve looked back at the monitors that showed all the other thems: the other Earths where they lived. Where they succeeded. His eyes traced over every form Tony ever took, and the way he was right there beside him.
Jaw clenched, Steve turned back to Tony. Reaching out, he grabbed hold of him by his low-slung jeans, tugging him closer. Closed the gap. “I'm sorry,” Steve apologized when they were inches apart. “I'm sorry. I didn't see it either. And I didn't give you the opportunity to give this to me, so we could figure out a better way. I was so obstinate I wouldn't let anything near me that had even in the whiff of a weapon. If you had shown this to me last week, three days ago, I would have said no. Outright, and without further examination.”
Tony smiled crookedly. “Both of us, right? Both wrong, without each other. It's got to be both.”
Steve's hand slipped around Tony's back, pressing their waists together. His other hand came up to stroke at Tony's hair. “Two people, one idea.”
“Occupying in the same space,” Tony agreed.
Steve closed the last bit of distance between them, kissing Tony with his eyes shut. They had this. They had each other, and they had this: this solution. Two people, occupying one space. They could do this together.