Tony Stark knew that the truth would come out. It was inevitable, from day one. The web of lies that the Illuminati threaded was starting to break down. That’s what was happening. The beginning of the end. And at that very moment, Steve staring at him, not sure how to even confront him, made his chest feel heavy. He knew that he lied to him, that he betrayed him, that he lost every single right in the world to call him his friend. The right that he earned back after the war. Having Steve as a friend was an honour, and right now, after so long, after realising that what he did was wrong, that it would only make things even worse, it hurt. Hell, he would rather have another round with his greatest foes rather than sit there with Steve looking at him like that.
“You lied to me.” Steve simply said, his voice abnormally calm, haunting even. “Avengers world? Us building this world from scratch? Together? While you… you were destroying another world behind my back?”
“Steve… I had to, we had no choice, we could either save ourselves or have both our worlds disappearing, we couldn't-“
“You couldn't what? Find a way to stop this? No, you and the rest, you took the easy way out, as always.” His tone was still calm, but Tony could tell that this was going to change.
“There was no other way, Steve-“
“You committed a genocide, Anthony. You killed off an entire planet, an entire world. Thousands of innocents, millions, billions… All dead. Just because you couldn't wait, you convinced yourselves that you were the true saviours. I tried to stop you, and what did you do? You took me out. Just like you did to those innocent souls.”
His fists were clenched up, his expression nothing but dead serious. He was furious, Tony could tell that he was piecing everything together; the nightmares that he had been having for months, Tony’s shady behaviour, the rest of the Illuminati avoiding him. It was making sense to him, and the engineer just knew it; Steve wouldn't forgive him, he was the one who made the final call, who gave Strange the order to do it, just because they knew, everyone knew that him and Steve were the closest. The worlds were colliding again, and at that very moment, it seemed that those lies, those deaths, everything was for nothing. Their world was threatened again and to think that the choices they've made didn't save them at all made him sick. It was a repeat from when he was in Paris a few years back, he felt like throwing up, but he had to appear recollected in front of Steve.
“You erased my memories… All of you, you gave the final call… Didn't you? You’re not any better than the tyrants we’re fighting against, not better at all. I had only one condition; to be present, to watch over those meetings, but you just had to get rid of me, haven’t you? All those promises, everything that you told me about is fighting together, united against the common threat… All those were lies… Isn't that right, brother?”
“No!”, Tony shouted. He couldn't accept that, he was trying for so long to make things right, and just when he thought that he found a way to keep everyone happy, the incursions resumed, the truth was out at last. Steve knew about the mindwipe, about the genocide, about him betraying him, and he knew that the betrayal was what hurt him the most.
“I trusted you once, Anthony, I really did. I thought that you changed, after the War, I thought that you would anything, anything in your power to make things right, to avoid casualties at all cost. But no, you killed off more people than that Registration Act of yours ever did. You… all of you… Murderers… We could have saved them, both them and ourselves! Look around you now, Tony! Is this the Avengers World that we were building together? Is it?!”
“I'm…”, Tony whispered. What was he supposed to say? That he was sorry? Did he honestly hoped that an apology would solve everything?
“You’re sorry? Save your breath, Stark. I'm going out to save what’s left of this world before it’s too late.”
And just like that, the man in the star spangled uniform turned around, reacting so fast when he felt an armoured hand on his shoulder, slapping it away with disgust.
“We’re done.”, he simply replied to him; he was lost, he truly felt so confused, so angry, so disappointed. Tony should have meant nothing to him, especially after this. He was truly done.
The billionaire in the black and golden suit stared at the man’s tensed figure as the doors shut behind him.
He had to do it now. Alone. He had to fix the mess that he got everyone in. He had to apologise, save the world, save everyone, and if had to take drastic measures to achieve that, so be it.
The sky was falling down. Dark clouds were surrounding him, he felt the burn of a thousand suns scorching his skin, even through the heavy suit of armour that always protected him; hiding in his suit, that’s what he always did, but this was about to change. It had to change.
No, the sky wasn't falling down. He was falling, everything seemed to move in such a slow pace. Is that how people felt when they died? Were they also thinking of their best friend in their last moments, trying so desperately to remember their smile, anything but the look of disappointment and betrayal that they last showed him when they parted ways?
Tony Stark was dying.
He stopped another incursion, but that would cost him more than he could ever imagine, his own life. Maybe that would make some people happy after all, maybe Steve would remember him as a hero. A crooked smile appeared on his face as his closed his eyes. A hero. Something that he could never call himself, no matter how many times he sacrificed everything for the sake of others. Even now, he was being selfish. Paying the ultimate price to prove to Steve that he wasn't the man who he thought he was.
There was a light welcoming him. The light in the end of the tunnel. How cheesy and clichéd. Nothing seemed to be unique for him any more.
And just like that, he was gone.
It had already been a week since they buried him. He was buried next to Maria and Howard, in the family grave. The funeral was broadcasted everywhere, Tony really got a funeral of a hero. No mention of the Illuminati fiasco, even though the looks that T’Challa, Reed Richards and Stephen Strange exchanged with Steve Rogers did raise a lot of questions. Not that Steve seemed inclined to answer any questions that Carol or Bucky asked him. He wasn't going to taint the man’s memory like that, not when he watched his coffin being placed sit feet under.
Tony was gone.
The Captain was breaking down, little by little. It didn't show, but anyone who was friends with him for years could tell. The time he spent in Dimension Z, the loss of Ian and Sharon was still terrorising him. Tony has been his backbone, his rudder. Building this new, Avengers World was what kept his sane, and to realise that all this was a lie hurt more than anything else. And right now, the one man that lied to him was dead, gone forever, because of him. Another person that lost his life because of him. He had more blood in his hands than he could ever want to imagine, and no matter how hard he scrubbed his hands clean, they would only get redder.
He said his final goodbyes when the funeral crowd was disbanded. Standing in front of the grave, with Tony’s name carved on the marbled stone, he was at loss of words. How many times had he been in that situation? He hated it, he absolutely despised it, after so long, he found it impossible to say anything more to the loved ones that disappeared from his life. Even after all this, Tony was still someone very important to him. That’s why he was so upset, disappointed, scared. Right now, he didn't even know how to feel. Fists clenching, his lowered his head.
“It wasn't supposed to be like this…”, he simply said, walking away.
Receiving a call from Reed Richards was the last thing that Steve would wish for. The relation between him and the remaining Illuminati was tensed, but he avoided the conflict so far, as Tony’s memory was respected.
“Captain, there is something that you need to see right away.”, the man’s voice wad heard when Steve finally answered his phone.
“And why should I do that, Richards?”, Steve asked coldly, getting out of bed, drenched in sweat. Nobody was meant to know that he would wake up screaming from the vivid nightmares, from seeing Tony’s face over and over again, blood covering most of his once alive body, his suit of armour completely ruined.
“Trust me.”, the man demanded in a calm voice.
“Trust you?”, Steve asked with a dark laugh. “Do I even need to carry on talking?”
“I know that you can’t trust us willingly now, Captain Rogers. But I'm asking you to put everything at side for now and come at the Baxter Building. There is someone that you need to see.”
Steve’s eyes narrowed. “I’ll be on my way.”, he replied, hanging up on him. Of course he couldn't trust the Illuminati, but Reed’s words sure worried him. The fact that he called him before anyone else also raised an alarm; it really was an important matter that he needed to deal with.
He found Reed waiting in his lab, pacing around nervously. Steve wasn't good dealing with those scientist minds and he hated the way some of them would look down to him, forgetting that he was just as smart. The man had horrible black circles under his eyes, which instinctively cause Steve to rub his own eyes; he knew that it was pointless, his own black circles and slightly red eyes were too obvious.
With his shield strapped on his back and wearing his uniform, he showed Reed that he was there for business; he wanted to get straight to the point and get out of there as soon as possible.
“So? What’s wrong, Doctor?”, he asked in his authoritative voice, arms crossed.
“This morning, I noticed some strange readings on my dimensional scanner. I keep that working at all times, we can never be too safe with dimension hoppers these days”, Reed started to explain, talking way too fast. “At first I thought that we had another common visitor, or that some of our allies decided to use another portal, other than the ones I can provide you with. As soon as I got to the coordinates, I knew that I was right. We did have a visitor from an alternate dimension, but…”
“But what?”, Steve asked him, not giving Reed any time to spare.
“But… he wasn't… you need to see this with your own eyes.”
Reed walked over to one of the numerous panels in his lab, pressing a couple of buttons and stepping at the side as soon as a metal door slid open, a large surgical table with a white blanket covering what it seemed to be a human figure.
“I want you to keep your calm… I’m still trying to figure out what happened here…”, Reed warned Steve as the blond walked closer to the table.
Steve could feel his stomach tied in knots, an ominous feeling taking over him; whatever was hiding under that blanket, it sure wasn't good. Taking a deep breath, he lifted the sheets, eyes widening in shock and disbelief.
Under the blanket, there was… Tony. Tony Stark was right there, battered up, bruised, beaten up bloody. His eyes were glassy, the once bright blue colour faded away.
“Is this… some kind of sick joke…?”, Steve asked between gritted teeth, feeling so close to throwing up, swallowing down heavy.
“This isn't Tony. At least not the Tony that we…knew. He came through a portal, he must belong in a different dimension, but I don’t know why he appeared here from all places.”, Reed explained, shiftily looking behind him, at another door.
“What? What is it now?”, Steve growled, trying his hardest not to look back at Tony laying dead on the cold, metal table.
“Nothing. I just figured out that you wanted to know first, while I'm trying to work this out…”
“That’s not it. There’s something else too, something that you won’t tell me.”, Steve said calmly for now, finally facing the corpse and sighing, placing his fingers over his eyes and shutting them. It wasn't just a way to pay his respects; he couldn't handle another moment of watching Tony in that state.
“There’s nothing else to see here, Captain. I’ll get back to work to make sure that-“
His words were cut short as soon as he was pushed against the wall by Steve, a dark shadow tainting the soldier’s eyes.
“You’re lying to me again, Richards! Just for once in your life, be honest! Tony died because of all this dishonesty and distrust, and now this happens? And you refuse to just spill out the truth?!”, he shouted. He couldn't be calm any more, not when the body of his friend that he buried not even a week ago was laying there in the same room as him, along with a man responsible for his death just as much as he was.
Reed coughed, raising his hands in the air. “There’s something…more! I’ll show you, just let me go!”, he replied, not wanting to fight Steve back; it would only put him in a worse situation than he already was, and with what he was about to show Steve, he doubted that the Captain would keep his calm.
Steve lowered him down on the floor, not realising that he really did lift him up while he was forcing him to talk. “Very well. Go ahead.”, he nodded, fixing his uniform. Losing his calm was something that happened when he couldn't afford to wait or play nice, and to have the Illuminati lying to him again wasn't something that he would tolerate, when such matters of importance were on stake.
“I've been working on this day and night for the last couple of days, trying to find out what happened to them…”, Reed said as he rubbed his shoulder, walking over to the other door and sliding it open with the press of another couple of buttons.
“Them…?”, Steve asked, resisting the urge to gasp loudly when he was faced with yet another horrific sight, straight out of a sick and twisted horror movie.
He wasn't just facing one body, he was facing at least five of them, all resting on tables, all of them battered up and covered in dried blood. The nearest body of Tony Stark had a large bullet wound on the centre of his forehead, another one had red marks all around his neck.
Steve wasn't angry. In fact, he wasn't sure what he was feeling. Shocked, confused, scared, guilty. Every corpse that was staring at him was a grave reminder of what he did; he killed Tony Stark. Of course others would insist that it wasn't his fault, that Tony chose to risk his life and stop the impending incursion, but if Steve didn't push him to do it, he would still be alive. It was messed up to think like that, he knew it, of course he was angry and betrayed that his best friend lied behind his back and used him, erasing his memories, what he held close to him, but now he was gone.
“Steve? Are you okay?”
Reed’s voice was heard in the distance and made Steve snap out of his thoughts. The sight in front of him was unbearable and took its toll on him, even Reed could tell.
“Of course not, Reed.”, Steve replied, shaking his head. His voice was eerie calm, haunting even. He was devastated, he had no idea why all this was happening and it shook him, finally realising how much Tony’s loss shook him. “How can I be… when all this is happening?”, he continued, gesturing at the numerous bodies around the room, not even looking at them now.
Even someone like Reed, so focused to his work and not the greatest when it came to social skills, realised how stupid that question was.
“Of course… I'm sorry, that was highly inappropriate of me to ask…”, he apologised, rubbing his forehead.
The Captain didn't reply; he was lost in his thoughts, and besides, what else was there to say?
“However… there was another incident… I've managed to record this, and I’d rather have you watch the footage first before… I show you what really is going on.”
Steve nodded blankly; he was tired already, exhausted after seeing corpses of his best friend, and all this secrecy between him and Reed, the slow revealing process of more events was tiring him. What else could be there to shake him even more?
Reed walked outside the makeshift morgue, and Steve stopped holding his breath as soon as the door was shut behind them.
The soldier’s tired eyes turned to the screen, the scientist stepping outside to let him watch. The footage seemed normal, he could only see the morning sky, but all of the sudden, the screen started flickering, a bright light emerging from the clouds, an armoured figure which seemed to be on fire falling down the sky in great speed.
“Is that… an Iron Man suit…?”, Steve asked, eyes focused on the screen.
“Yes… that’s how I've found the rest of them… They just… fell from the sky. If there is a rift there, it’s gone. It would appear then disappear in seconds after it spat out whoever passed through with it.”
“I've seen enough, Reed.”, Steve replied as he turned his head away; that was exactly how Tony initially fell; he watched him falling from the sky, and by the time that he crashed on the ground, he was gone. To see his death replaying over and over again would do no good to him.
“You have to listen, Steve-“
“Save your breath. Find out what happened and the Avengers will deal with it.”
“But Steve, this one is alive.”
Steve was clenching up his fists up to his face to prevent himself from showing any further signs of emotion, eyes widening in shock as soon as he heard the words that came out of Reed’s mouth. Tony was alive. A different Tony, maybe, but he was alive.
“He’s alive and well. Healthy, so signs of cancer, chronic heart diseases, nothing. I patched him up after his fall, but he’s the only Tony that turned out to be alive, out of every body that came out of those rifts.”
“What did he say? What happened to him?”, Steve asked, his attention back to Reed.
“Well… he’s not exactly cooperating… I had to force him to follow me and let me take care of those injuries, and trust me, it wasn't pretty.”
“He’s here? Now?”, Steve demanded to know, looking around.
“Be careful with him, Steve. He might look like Tony a bit and share his name… but they’re not the same person.”, Reed replied as he gestured to Steve to follow him through a number of doors, a see through window cell separating them from who it seemed to be…Tony.
The man before them was shorter than Tony; he did look slightly older, his dark brown hair having very faint grey lines, as well as his trademark beard. What Steve noticed though, was that he lacked Tony’s warm, blue eyes; this Tony had large, brown eyes, and he surely didn't look happy.
“Can he see us?”, Steve asked, leaning closer to Reed.
“Yes, but he can’t hear us, at least not now.”, Reed nodded.
The stranger seemed to be eyeing Steve, almost like he recognised him, which did attract Steve’s interest more. Maybe they did know each other in whatever universe he came from, which would make their communication easier.
“Make sure that he can hear us.”
Reed nodded, walking close to the wall and focusing on his panel.
“Can you hear me? This is Captain Steve Rogers speaking.”, he spoke, loud and clear.
“High tech prison cells, I'm impressed”, Tony snorted from the other side of the glass.
He sure didn't sound a lot like Tony either. That was unsettling.
“Who are you? Name report and universe of origin?”
“You know who I am, come on… Is this some kind of joke the Avengers are pulling on me? It’s really lame, by the way, come on Capsicle, drop the tough guy act.”
“What…?”, Steve muttered as he turned to Reed for answers.
“Earth 199999. That’s where he came from.”
Steve nodded; nobody he knew was as well informed about the different universes that existed as well as Reed did.
“If this isn't a joke… then you must be one of those shapeshifter guys. Yes, that must be it…”, Tony mumbled as he leaned against the glass.
“You mean the Skrulls?”, Steve asked, turning his attention back to him.
“They have names now? I don’t know, but whatever anyone is paying you to keep me here, I'm going to pay you double to let me go. I go back to New York and promise not to go all Iron Man on you for doing this to me. I've been kidnapped before, I'm not doing this again, it’s boring and repetitive.”
“What is he talking about…”, Steve asked out loud.
“You can at least pretend that I'm here, you know. Now just let me go, and nobody gets harmed.”
“I don’t think that you understand what is going on here…”
“You’re located on Earth 616. This isn't your universe, you somehow ended up dimension hopping. What was the last thing that you remember doing?”, Reed interfered.
“Not going through a loop hole, that’s for sure. And I have nothing else to say until you let me go.”
“We need to run some tests on you, you might be on grave danger, you don’t-“
“Save your breath, Blondie. I'm not going to sit around and be your lab rat, that’s your job”, Tony said, pointing at Steve.
Steve’s eyebrow twitched; he was trying to act calm but Reed was right; this Tony wasn't cooperating or understood how dangerous and important the situation that he found himself into was.
“Watch your mouth, soldier. We can do this the easy way or the hard way. You’ll sit down and let Reed here run the tests. Then we’ll figure out what happened and how he can prevent more… of you… ending up here. Cooperate and you’ll return home soon, all right?”
“You just expect me to sit here? Are you nuts? Let me go!”, Tony protested, hitting the glass but not really achieving anything.
Steve held his breath as he gestured to Reed to shut down the communicator, to which Tony responded by slamming his fist against the glass again.
“I’m already scanning them for anything I can get my hands on. He won’t tell me how he got here or what was the last thing he remembers. I surely don’t like his attitude, he’s even more annoying than-“, Reed stopped as soon as he saw the way Steve was looking at him. “Sorry.”
“We need him here.”
“Don’t you think that this feels like… a kidnapping…?”, he asked.
“We’ll do what we must to ensure that nobody else will die in any other universe.”, Steve replied, fists clenched, staring at Tony through the glass. “And if he doesn't listen, we’ll use force, again and again.” Tony’s words echoed in his mind, about what he would do whatever it takes to save their Earth from the incursions. He shook that thought as far away as he could. “This isn't about asking nicely for his consent, Reed. This is about saving his life, in every universe out there.”
Reed nodded slowly, turning his eyes on the screen again, but not before noticing that Tony eyed Steve when he had his back turned to him. He seemed to know who Steve was, but he couldn't identify what their relationship was; they could be mortal enemies for all he knew.
“Run the tests, keep me updated”, Steve finally decided, but before he could even leave the room, a voice was heard coming from the panel that Reed was staring at.
“Greetings, low rate human beings…”
The voice surely made Reed uncomfortable, but Steve narrowed his eyes, approaching with caution. He recognised that voice, but he couldn't remember where he heard it before, and the video was too dark, most likely on purpose.
“I see that you've already figured out what is happening… or think that you did…!”
A dark chuckle. That didn't make them feel any more at ease.
“Really, Captain? Reed Richards? None of you recognise me? I expected more of a warm welcome, I'm so disappointed…”
A flash of purple and green.
“Kang…”, Steve gritted his teeth. This was a threat that he didn't see coming, that was for sure.
“How was the funeral? Should I send you a couple more bodies over?”
“Enough! What’s going on, Kang? Why is this happening?!”, Steve snapped.
Tony’s cocky smile from earlier was gone, behind his glass prison. Something was wrong, he could tell, but he couldn't hear anything, even though the change in Steve’s expression and posture left little to his imagination.
“You let Tony Stark die so easily, before his time, do you realise what a big favour you've done to me?”, Kang laughed again.
Reed was quiet, taking in every little clue that they might have gotten, even though in typical super villain logic, he was sure that Kang would reveal his oh so great master plan soon enough.
“Tony Stark is dead… We assembled again, the Council of Kang, we figured out how much this helps us, how it works perfectly for our next strike. You tried to get rid of me, so I'm returning the favour, starting with your leaders. Iron Man is gone, in every universe, we’re dealing with him, one by one. And as soon as we’re done with them… Tony Stark will be erased from existence… Do you want to know how that will affect each one of you? Think back, how did Tony Stark affect your life? That will be…gone!”, he snapped his fingers. “Just like that!”
“Shut your mouth!”, Steve yelled, feeling his fingernails digging into his skin, clenching his fists so hard, even through the red, thick gloves.
“How does it feel, Captain? To know that you’re the cause of all this? I would love to take credit for myself, but I have to share it with you… He could have been alive, you know. I've seen it happening. But no, the two of you had to have this in a different way… I’m not complaining.”
The Captain was shaking with anger, walking over to the panel and punching it, even though the voice continued to talk.
“Don’t try washing your hands from this blood, Captain. And I’ll be looking forward to our meeting soon enough.”
Reed was speechless, the only sound that was still audible in the room was Steve’s heavy panting. He probably broke a finger or two, not that it mattered, the serum would heal them soon enough. It was kind of a curse, to be unable to punish himself completely, to see your body taking every hit and healing itself, with no scars or wounds to remind him of his actions and their consequences. But just for once, the corpses in the room next door were a constant reminder of his failure, and upon hearing Kang’s words, he realised just how much bigger that was. So much bigger than the argument between him and Tony, with their personal feelings getting in the way.
“We need him.”, Reed finally said, looking at Tony behind the glass, who seemed so silent and holding himself back. “If Kang attacks us, we still need Iron Man. He might not be Tony, but he’s… a Tony. And I’m sure that I can work with him-“
“I’ll talk to him.”
Steve’s voice was slightly shaky.
“Let him out of there.”
“Are you sure…?”
“Yes. And leave us alone.”
Reed hesitated for a moment, but nodded and did as he was told; arguing with Cap after the intense talk with Kang wasn’t something that he wanted go through. Besides, Steve and Tony were the leaders of the Avengers, if they were to face Kang soon, they had to work together again, which seemed impossible now.
The glass wall lowered and Reed gave them a last look before the door slid shut behind them.
“What the hell was that about?”, Tony demanded to know, still standing on the same spot that he was, before the wall lowered.
“That was Kang the Conqueror. Do you know him?”
“Can’t say I do. You didn't seem happy to see him though. Well, this has been great, but I really need to get going now.”
“You’re not going anywhere.”, Steve replied, standing in front of him and blocking the exit.
“Of course I am. I'm going home, away from this lunatic world.”
“Didn't you hear me? You’re staying here. He’s going to kill you.”
“And I'm sure that he’ll try. I can save my own skin. And I've got Rhodey on my back. Not to mention the Avengers.”
“I'm not letting you go.”, Steve repeated himself.
“So you’re keeping me here against my will? I knew that you were kidnapping me! Aren't you supposed to be Captain America or whatever? Where’s my right to be free? You’re keeping me here confined and away from my own world, my people!”, Tony replied, his own voice rising.
“I'm not going to lose you again! I've lost so many of you, I'm not letting it happen again!”, Steve growled, grabbing Tony’s arm to prevent him from moving away.
Tony almost jumped back; he hated being touched, it reminded him of how others, even Steve in his own universe grabbed him to force him to listen to them. Bad memories, memories of his torture in the caves, of Stane touching him with those hands, of people who wanted nothing but hurt him. This Steve was no different. With his tall and stronger posture, he seemed more willing to strangle him if he had to than the Steve from back home.
“I'm not yours to lose! You hear me?! I'm not your Tony or whatever! I don’t know what happened and I don’t care, I'm not him! Just let me go!”, Tony yelled, slapping Steve’s hand away.
“I'm not letting you die, dammit!”, Steve snapped, breathing out heavily. “You don’t get it, you don’t get this at all! If you die, everyone else dies with you!”
“What do you mean? Don’t give me that ‘chose one’ clichéd talks now, I'm not buying it.”, Tony replied, backing away from Steve.
“You’re my responsibility, you’re here now and I’ll work this out.”
“No! I don’t care what happened to the Tony here, but I'm not going to sit down and accept to be treated like this!”
“He’s dead.”, Steve cut Tony’s sentence. “Tony died… trying to save us… after I've told him what he did wrong.”
Tony’s chest felt heavy; this might not have been him, but to think that he died in this universe really was a shock. “And why should I trust you then? If you got him killed, you’ll do the same to me, won’t you? I can look after my own self just fine!”
This wasn't what he wanted to hear; his failures, his inability to save Tony, to hear that their argument was the reason why all this was happening was killing him, little by little.
“God, I need a drink…”, Tony huffed, rubbing his forehead tiredly.
“No. You’re a recovering alcoholic.”, Steve growled; he would never forget his talk with Tony, watching him being so desperate for a sip from his bottle on the floor, unconscious when he busted into his hotel room in flames to rescue him.
“Stop pretending that you know me! I'm not the person that you knew, all right? I'm different, and I owe nothing to you!”
Their voices were raising, this was getting nowhere, it was just another argument that none of them could win, but Tony was right in Steve’s mind, even though he would hate to admit that. Maybe in a sick twisted way, saving this Tony would make up for being responsible for every other Tony’s death. Not, it wasn't right, saving one soul while sacrificing many shouldn't be a solution, that was exactly what he preached to Tony and the Illuminati, and right now, he was becoming just like them, proving them right.
“You don’t understand anything, you don’t get the bigger picture, you’re only fighting for yourself right now, aren't you? We’re keeping you here because you’re important, because we’re the only people who can protect you!”
“Yeah, I've seen that. You’re messed up, all of you”, Tony hissed, hating the fact that he didn't have his armour to protect him right now; it was probably still in shard somewhere in the background, locked away from him. Being a common prisoner to those doppelgangers was something that he wouldn't tolerate in the slightest.
“You better get used to staying here. You’re not going anywhere until we figure out what is happening.”, Steve finally replied. He would hate to keep someone under custody like that, like a common criminal, but Tony wasn't making this easy for him in the slightest, not cooperating. Not to mention that every time that he looked at him, he was reminded of his Tony, his death, his last argument with him.
Turning his back to him, he headed outside the room, locking it behind him. He had to do this, Tony forced his hand, it was for his own good, he kept repeating to himself. He avoided looking at the anger in Tony’s eyes; it was better to be hated by him rather than seeing another corpse join the ones already in the morgue. It was time for him to pay a price; to be hated by someone who he loved… did he really think of that? That he loved Tony…? He shook his head again. This wasn’t the time to question his possible feelings for someone who wasn't even alive any more; he really had to stop doing that, it would hurt less more, but it seemed that he never, ever learnt.
It had been almost a month now since Tony Stark disappeared from the face of Earth. Rhodey and Pepper called on the Avengers for help; with S.H.I.E.L.D disbanded, they didn't know who else to contact. They both tried their hardest to figure out what happened, but it was almost like Tony really just… vaporised, just ceased existing. No signs of struggle anywhere that he may had been, no notes, no indication on where he could be.
The top floor of the Avengers Tower was occupied by Captain America, Bruce Banner, Thor, and even Black Widow and Hawkeye dropped in to help. Maria Hill offered her services just as much as everyone else, and Rhodey was spending all his time trying to locate his best friend.
“Nothing?”, Bruce asked as he looked up from his screen as soon as Steve and Thor walked inside, back from yet another scouting mission at the other side of the country.
Steve shook his head as he took a seat, rubbing his temples. This was the first time that they assembled ever since the incident in New York, and it was all because Tony Stark disappeared. Straight away, they all feared for the worst; just over a year ago, Tony has suffered a heavy attack from AIM and the Mandarin, but the thought that after that, he was going to be safe. Clearly, they were wrong.
“Did you find anything?”, he asked the scientist who in his own turn, shook his head. “Where on Earth is he…”
“I have no idea… but he better explain this when we find him.”, Rhodey replied. “Making us chase after him all across the country, we’re even going global and still nothing.”
“What about space? He could be there, right?”, Clint asked.
“We can’t exclude that… can we?”, Steve asked Bruce.
“No, I don’t think so. I'm pretty sure that we all expect anything from that guy…”
The blond sighed and stood up again, leaning his head against the cold window. He was still on Bucky’s trail, and right now, Tony was gone too. They might not have been in the closest terms, but they parted ways as friends, as allies. And that meant that he wasn't going to leave a fellow soldier behind, no matter what, not after he witnessed how far he could get, risking his life for the greatest good, just like he did with that plane decades ago.
“Where are you, Stark…”, he sighed to himself, staring outside the window.
Tony had lost count of the weeks he spent in that strange, new universe. He was starting to fall apart, but tried his hardest not to let it show. He really did feel like a prisoner, like he was back in that cave, kept there against his will because others wanted to use him. This was no different, apparently he was needed for a reason that was beyond his understanding, or, safer to say, beyond on what they would let him know.
He didn't really talk to Steve, he could have sworn that the Captain was avoiding him, for one reason or another, but he didn't know why. Maybe the things that he said shook him more than the blond would let him know, but Tony was truly struggling to keep his sanity as the person that kept him company most of the days was this Reed Richards. Apparently they were close in this universe, but sometimes, the way he spoke about that other Tony, about the things that they did together really troubled him. He might have been morally ambiguous in the past, but he wouldn't never cross lines that his self in that universe apparently did.
His beard was getting bushier, his eyes seemed to have lost that spark that they once had, and when the door slid open that day, he didn't expect Steve to walk inside.
“I want to show you something.”, he said as he helped Tony stand up from the floor.
“I was in the middle of something very important…”, Tony muttered, not remembering how long it had been since he stepped outside that lab room. Calling his Steve a lab rat before seemed so much harsher now that he had been on the other side of the insult.
“You have the right to know… what really is going on here.”, Steve huffed. He was thinking about it for weeks; they were getting nowhere with Reed, and it seemed that the only logical solution was to fill Tony in and prepare him to fight by their side whenever Kang would invade again.
Tony shrugged as they walked through a number of automatic doors, nearly bumping into Steve when he stopped walking. “I need you to…stay calm. It will be shocking… trust me…”, he warned him, eyeing the smaller man and handing him a jacket. “The temperature is really low in there, so you might as well as keep yourself warm…”
The door slid open and the cold breeze that blew on his face truly made Tony think that he was walking inside a freezer. “What…?”, he asked, eyes fixed on the tables and the sheets that covered something under each one of them.
“Before Reed found you… he found different version of you from other universes.”, Steve started, giving him some time to process. “According to him, they all fell from the sky, just like you did, but…”, he stopped, lifting the sheets of one of the closest tables. “…not all of them were lucky… in fact, you were the only one who was left alive… and we still don’t know why.”, he explained.
Tony’s eyes widened, his breath cut short. He was staring at an almost perfect copy of himself, eyes shut, skin at its palest. Looking around, he almost tripped on his way to the nearest bin, falling on his knees and throwing up with a series of loud noises.
Steve felt his own chest getting heavy, kneeling down next to Tony and offering him a napkin. “You had to see it…”
Tony was trembling when he wiped his mouth clean; his stomach was tied in knots, his heart wanted to jump out of his chest, he wanted to close his eyes and think that all this was part of a gruesome nightmare. And so he did, pinching his arm, but upon realising that all this was real, he almost threw up again. “All of them… are dead…?”, he asked in a low, barely audible voice.
“Yes… you’re the only survivor… do you understand why we want you here…? Safe? They all seem to have passed whatever portal is sending them to my universe dead… so there is a huge chance that sending you home before settling this will… kill you.”, Steve said as he gently helped him up, his most caring side rushing to show once he saw Tony being so shaken and distressed, just like he expected.
Tony nodded and stood up, legs shaking, taking another look at the corpse on the table. It was so surreal; the man had his ebony hair and beard styled differently, and they did share some differences when it came to their facial structure, but that was him, he was sure of it.
“How do you feel…?”, Steve asked him as he examined him carefully, ready to take an action if he had to interfere in any way.
“I'm… great…!”, Tony smiled, and he wondered why he even bothered reacting that way when his fear was so visible on the way he reacted to this shocking revelation.
“Come on now…”, Steve sighed, throwing the sheets over the body in front of them and leading Tony out of the morgue. Instinctively, he placed his arm around Tony’s shoulder to help him keep his balance and calm him down, even a tiny bit, even though he knew that there was no way he could just calm down a man who just saw himself dead.
Tony’s first instinct was to try and shove Steve away, but for whatever reason took over him, he didn't do it. Maybe it was the fact that he yearned at least some human contact after being confined for so long, and that scared him. Having another human body against him felt so warm, so reassuring, even in the strange mess that he found himself into at that moment.
“So… how did this happen…?”, he asked as soon as Steve helped him sit down again, facing away from those ominous doors.
“You said that you don’t know who Kang the Conqueror is, correct?”, Steve asked him, rubbing his back up and down to calm him down, taking his hand away as soon as he realised that he was probably invading Tony’s personal space, especially since their last meeting involved them screaming in each other’s faces.
Tony shook his head as he breathed in and out, trying to recollect himself and not to show how shaken he truly was after the sights that he had just witnessed.
“His name is Nathaniel Richards. He caused us so much trouble in the past; being able to travel through time and taking anyone he wishes with him can be catastrophic. We ended up in so many different timelines trying to fight our way back to our own when he faced him before. He joined the Council of Kangs after a couple of times that we defeated him; they have more power when they’re together, and we can clearly witness this right now…”
“Why now? Why…this?”, Tony asked.
Steve took a deep breath. “Because of…me… you and me… I mean, my Tony, we had a huge argument. He erased my memories so I couldn't stop him and the rest of his other team from destroying an Earth to save our own. The secret was out, I got angry, I yelled, we fought, I told him that I'm over him… He took it to himself to fix this, to prove me wrong and…”, he trailed off.
“He sacrificed himself to save the rest of you and prove you wrong?”, Tony asked; this sounded like something he would do, which made him shrug slightly.
“I don’t want to think that he did it because of me.”, Steve rushed to reply, voice slightly raised. “He shouldn't have done it because of me…!”
“I don’t think that he did it because of you. He wanted to fix all this and he took responsibility for his actions.”
“Which is what I'm doing right now too. If I helped him take responsibility in such a messed up way that lead to his death… I'm taking full responsibility of stopping Kang and getting you back home safe and sound.”
Tony flinched once more; he didn't know how he was supposed to react, what he was supposed to say in response to that. That he was thankful? That he was going to help the Avengers of this dimension? That he was going to give his own life if he had to? He wasn't sure about anything.
The Captain did feel like an idiot; he was shouting and insulting Tony and right now he was promising him that he was going to help him until the end of the line. It was the right thing to do, right? Maybe Tony would forgive him if he swallowed down his pride and put everything at side to save everyone. This was about every Tony’s life out there, and he couldn't help but think that different version of his own self were out there, mourning the loss of Tony, looking for him.
He wasn't going to give up, he was going to fight until the end to make things right.
“I'm letting you out of here.”
A couple of days later, Tony was staying in the Avengers Tower, exploring, trying to learn as much as he could about his counterpart. Not only he found out that Thor, Clint, Natasha and Bruce were so different from his friends back home, but he learnt that the Avengers were a much bigger team here than the one they had back home, it almost felt like a huge family. The Avengers, however, seemed to be wary of him, only one of them, a young superhero named Peter Parker seemed to be more willing and accepting, actually sitting down and chatting with him, listening to what he had to say.
He even stepped down to the workshop, inspecting all the suits that were left idle; he was scared to tinker with him out of respect, but Steve prompted him to go ahead and try them out. After all, he had to be ready to use them if Kang set an attack on them.
“How do you find them?”, Steve asked as he joined him in the workshop, not really keen on leaving Tony unsupervised for so long.
“We’re pretty much the same person… so very similar designs and concepts, I need to make some alternations, and I'm not too keen on the black and yellow pattern… but I can pilot those suits, no problem. I've built about… 42 of them back home.”, Tony nodded as he turned to look at the blond.
He looked healthier than he did locked up in Reed’s lab, that was for sure, but he didn't feel at ease. There was no reason for him to feel that way, he wanted to go home and he was stuck in a situation where anything could go wrong in a matter of seconds. In fact, nobody promised him that Kang couldn't end up in his own world, threatening his own team of Avengers and leaving him no world to return to after this was over.
“You really had free time on your hands, didn't you?”, Steve asked as he sat down, looking at Tony.
Tony raised his shoulders. “So did your Tony. He needs to evolve constantly, to create something better, to make sure that he can face any threat that the universe will throw at him, he’s a futurist-“, he trailed off, realising that this was pointless; Tony was dead, he surely didn't see this coming, did he?
The silence was slightly awkward, and it was Steve who decided to break it.
“So… how is your Steve?”, he asked him, crossing his arms.
“We… haven’t talked much.”, Tony admitted. “My dad helped run the experiment that made him Cap back in the 40’s… I've only met him almost… two years ago? Loki invaded Earth with an army of aliens, Nick Fury got a couple of us together to stop him. We didn't exactly hit it off, I'm sure that you can agree…”
“Not really… Tony and the rest of the Avengers were the ones that found me in the ice. He took me in straight away, helped me get back on my feet, and offered me a home… I'm… forever grateful for that…”, Steve trailed of, remembering the day like it was yesterday.
“Well, in our case… we did argue and exchanged some… not so kind words. But he’s a good leader. He might be stubborn and hard to deal with, but he’s a good, decent guy. I haven’t seen him in so long, but he shook hands and parted ways in good terms.”, he nodded.
“I wish things were as simple between him and me…”, Steve sighed. That might have been a lie; even after the war, after they decided to let that behind them and move on, he was grateful for everything that they went through. It made them stronger, it made their relationship stronger and… it lead to this mess. Maybe some things needed to be changed after all. “Like I said… Tony was always there for me when I woke up. I didn't know that he was Iron Man at first, we had the warmest heart to heart talks when I was training Tony Stark… That fella risked his life for me so many times, and I gladly did the same… there was a huge fight a few years ago, Tony rooted for the Registration Act and I was against it… things got messy and bloody really soon, I was gone for so long, and Tony… Tony erased his own memories of the event to prevent someone from obtaining vital information that he withheld. Again… that guy was lucky to escape death for so long, and now…”
He didn't want to keep on talking, he didn't want to admit that he spent days, weeks dreaming that this was yet another one of his nightmares, that Tony, in reality, was alive and well, that he never betrayed him. He would really give up so much to go back to when things were simpler between the two of them.
“Do you love him?”, Tony asked him, head tilted.
“What…? He was my friend… he-“, Steve replied, startled with the sudden question.
“That’s now what I meant but… I feel that you do.”, the engineer continued. “You and him… you've got a long history, I can see that… and I can say for sure that… he did feel the same way…”
He didn't know why he was so sure of what he was saying, or why he was even still talking, he just… knew that he was right.
Steve swallowed down, thinking for a moment and just standing up. “Are you free tomorrow? There’s someone that I want you to meet.”
“Uh, sure. Where else could I go?”, Tony asked, an eyebrow raising. Steve chose not to respond to his comment, that sure meant a lot more than the blond could comprehend, and Tony was sure that he realised that too.
Steve nodded to him and stood there for a moment before rushing outside, Tony’s question echoing in his head.
“Do you love him?”
Steve was waiting for Tony the next day bright and early; this was something that he wanted to do for a while, but didn't have the heart to do. Maybe he was scared of doing it alone, but opening up to this Tony did help him a lot. In a strange way, it felt like communicating with his Tony, and the visit that he was about to make was so important, especially after their talk the previous day.
“So, who is this mysterious man that I need to meet?”, Tony asked him as soon as he stepped inside the kitchen; it was so strange, he was working on modifying his Tower to accommodate the Avengers if he had to, and to see that this was really the case in this universe, really urged him to put his plan in motion.
Steve gave him a smile, but it wasn't happy in the slightest. A sad smile. That was exactly what Tony needed, but he didn't seem to get anything more these days. “You’ll see.”
By the time that they've reached the graveyard, Tony was starting to figure out where Steve was taking him. Somehow, the thought of seeing his own grave seemed scarier than seeing the body of someone who looked so identical to him. He shrugged in his seat and looked outside the window, really making Steve rethink his decision to take Tony with him. This had to be done, he had to see it with his own eyes.
They walked in silence through the graveyard; it was a quiet Sunday morning, nobody else seemed to be around, visiting their loved ones. Still, Tony wore his sunglasses and cap lowered, hiding himself; someone who looked almost identical to Tony Stark standing in front of his grave would raise suspicions to say the least.
The big, marbled tombstone had his name on it: Anthony Edward Stark. It felt so surreal, so scary, it made Tony to almost want to run away from the sight of it.
“I only came here once, you know.”, Steve broke the silence, his eyes fixed on the tombstone and the flowers around it, refusing to look up. “During the funeral… I couldn't say anything to him when we were left alone…”
Tony examined him; was he breaking down in front of him? Was he about to do so? He wasn't sure, but something told him that Steve needed to hear him.
“And I just knew that… this wasn't worth it, it wasn't supposed to end like this… he wasn't supposed to die from something like this…”
“I understand him, you know.”, Tony spoke calmly. “Why he did this… you couldn't handle the thought that you of all people was done with him… that he lost your trust, that he was dead and gone in your eyes, that he betrayed you. He was strong, you know, I know he was. But every man reaches a breaking point and I'm confident that you were his…”, he said as he knelt down to face the tombstone properly. “He felt that he disappointed you, over and over again… He’s probably at ease now… knowing that he sacrificed his life for a good cause and restored himself in your eyes.”
“No…no… but that’s not what I wanted…”, Steve shook his head, fists clenching. “I didn't want him to die because of me… because he was tired of being a disappointment to me… that’s a lie, he really wasn't that.”
“I'm not saying that what he thought was right… he didn't seem to be in a good mindset and acted in a really brash and quick way; he did however stop that incursion that you mentioned… and saved all of you for now. This wasn't your fault, Steve, he didn't do this to guilt trip you, he’s not like that, I know that I'm not, and I'm sure that he would agree.”
He sounded confident, he had to, but it was true; he felt like an outsider, but learning more about the relationship between and Steve and Tony in that universe he was just convinced that the two of them just… belonged together in a strange, not explainable way. They had such history together and more ties to link them than he could ever possibly imagine. He would love to see them together, he would love to meet his counterpart but in this messed up situation that he found himself tangled in, he was the survivor.
“You need to come in terms with this… he didn't die because of you, Steve… he took responsibility of his actions-“
“Because I was the one to drive him to do so!”, Steve cut him, shaking his head.
“You reacted like a normal human being, Steve, stop beating yourself around for it. I know that you’re a super soldier and all, but before you give me a lecture about how you’re supposed to remain a soldier at all times, soldier on and all that… I'm asking you to stop and just think as a normal human being for once. Yes, you can afford to do that. You failed before, yes, but holding on those memories will get you nowhere. You need to accept that Tony gave his life for something bigger if you’re going to lead us against Kang.”
Giving pep talks wasn't his forte, in fact, he never thought that he would give one, but there he was, standing in front of his own grave giving a pep talk, heart to heart, to Captain America of all people.
“You really think that? That he didn't do this for me…?”
“He might be self-destructive, but killing himself to prove you wrong? That’s just childish.”
Steve stayed quiet; he still had his doubts, but to hear Tony saying those words really did help him. Turning around, he wrapped his arms around Tony for a moment, in which the shorter man responded with an awkward pat on the back.
“Thank you…”, he muttered and he truly meant it.
Days passed and Tony seemed to fully comprehend how everything worked around this strange new universe. He wore the Iron Man suit, he went out on patrol with Steve, he was confident that in case of an attack, he was capable of fighting efficiently. That and the fact that he was receiving lessons from the master of combat himself, Captain America.
But it still didn't feel right; Steve knew that keeping Tony there would only hurt him more when it would be time for him to go. He wasn't a replacement, not in the slightest, but it sure was a good way to try and accept Tony’s death and move on, especially since he could actually talk to Tony and hear his opinion in so many things. Next thing he knew, Tony would develop Stockholm Syndrome, and that was something that Steve wanted to avoid; he wasn't going to keep Tony there against his will more than he deemed necessary, but they didn't seem to get nowhere. Kang was nowhere to be found, they didn't receive another message from him nor they've witnessed another sudden appearance of Tony from yet another universe, which was good news. However, Tony was separated from his friends and family, his team was out there looking for him and they couldn't contact them in case that would have more consequences.
“What’s up?”, Tony asked, causing Steve to snap out of thoughts.
“Huh…? Oh, nothing.”, Steve rushed to reply.
The Avengers just finished putting away the Wrecking Crew for yet another time; some criminals just never learnt their lesson, Spider-Man was so kind to remind them.
“You know… we should get you back home”, he blurted out before he could stop himself.
Tony’s helmet lifted up, eyes widened in surprise. “Where did that come from…? We’re not done with Kang yet, I can’t go, remember?”
“I know but… they’re looking for you. Your team, your friends. There’s no point keeping you here… and I'm sure that they can protect you just as much as we can, right?”, Steve asked as he took off his cowl, running his fingers through his hair.
“We both know that it’s not as simple-“
“I just want you to go back to him, okay?”, Steve stopped him. “That other me that is out there, looking for you. I've had the time of my life with Tony… and now I'm keeping you away, I'm depriving your friendship from someone else out there, and that someone is me.”
Tony walked over, placing an armoured hand on Steve’s shoulder. “We’re taking down Kang and then I'm going home. Trust me, I'm enough for all of you, no need to fight over me”, he tried to joke around.
Steve opened his mouth to reply, but a loud, zapping noise caused him to pull down his cowl and cover Tony with his shield instinctively.
“So, you’re still alive, huh? And here I was getting excited that you were gone”, a familiar voice was heard in the distance.
“Avengers Assemble!”, Steve cried out, everyone gathering around him and Tony, their weapons and fists lifted up to face off the imminent threat.
“I need to say, I was waiting for this moment… It’s been far too long, after all.”
The figure dressed in purple and green was now facing them, having appeared through what it seemed a portal, holding a large gun at his hand, a wide spread grin all across his face.
“So, this is the guy?”, Tony asked, faceplate sliding again to protect his face. “Seriously?”
Kang raised his hands in the air. “Not what you expected, Iron Man? Maybe I should persuade you even further.”
His threats were cut short when Steve’s vibranium shield hit his suit of armour, sending him a few metres back.
“Don’t you dare touch him.”, Steve growled.
The rest of the Avengers launched forward for an attack; Thor swung his hammer, Carol flew towards, his fists already lit up, the Hulk ran towards Kang and jumped on him.
“Fools!”, Kang cried out, protecting himself with a force field, with the Hulk frantically smashing it. “Soon all of you shall be erased! One by one, I’ll get rid of you!”
“How do you get rid of this guy?”, Tony asked as he waited for Steve’s instructions, who pressed his finger against his ear.
“Reed says that we need to push him back through the portal where he came from. He’s scanning it right now, we’ll need to make sure that he goes through at the right time!”, Steve informed him.
“So, we keep him busy for now?”
“Got it!”, Tony nodded, firing his repulsors against the force field that seemed to protect Kang, avoiding the rays shooting from his gun.
Locking Kang out of their universe and timeline seemed to be the perfect solution to their problems at that very moment, and Steve didn’t hesitate to give direct orders to the rest of the Avengers to push Kang to his limits.
“Don’t let him catch his breath, keep on hitting! His shield is down, aim for the armour! Get rid of the gun!”
Every hit counted, and soon they managed to push him closer to the gapping portal. “What about now?!”, Steve asked Reed.
“Wait for it…”
“Cap…?”, Tony called, holding back from shooting the super villain right into the centre of the hole. “Now..?”.
“Not yet!”, Steve called.
“If you defeat me, you’ll never see him again!”, Kang chuckled maniacally.
“He’s bluffing!”, Tony called.
“Captain America… what will you have left? Nothing at all, everything that you love is taken away from you, you’re sealing your own fate!”
Steve’s chest felt heavy, but whenever Kang was bluffing or not, this had to be done.
“Now!”, Reed called over the intercom, and with Steve’s call, the combined, synchronised attack of the Avengers threw Kang deep into his own portal, disappearing with him.
There was silence, Tony could hear the Avengers sighing in relief, smiling to Steve once he flew next to him.
“We did it! He’s gone for good, right?”
“No… not really, until the next time he figures out how to get here… Tony… you’re… fading away…”, Steve gasped, trying to hold on the man’s arms.
Tony looked down in distress. “I'm… going home…?”, he asked to which Steve nodded. “This is a goodbye then…”
“I don’t like goodbyes…”, Steve whispered as he hugged him close, and this time around, Tony didn't pull away or didn't react to it; he wrapped his own arms around Steve and smiled to him.
“Your Steve better takes good care of you now… or else I'm hopping over to have a word with him.”
Tony chuckled. “He will, I'm sure of it. You… be careful, all right? You’re a good guy, Steve. You really do deserve happiness in the end. And you’ll get it.”
His voice was heard in the distance now, and Steve slowly pulled away from the other man, watching him dissolve into the air.
Just like that, Tony Stark was gone yet again.
When Tony opened his eyes, he noticed that all the windows were open. Huge pet peeve, he hated to wake up when the sun was bright outside; it made him feel like he wasted all his day doing nothing while- his eyes widened even further. He was back. Yes, that was his own bedroom, his own paintings on the walls, his own expensive, linen bed sheets, his own Steve sitting on the chair opposite him flicking through a sketchbook. His Steve…?
“Rogers…?”, he asked as he sat up. He felt so tensed up, like he had been exercising for a whole day and he just realised how tired he really was.
“Easy there, Stark.”, Steve replied as he let his book at side and helped Tony sit up properly in his bed.
“What happened… How did I…?”
“You fell from the sky. Where on Earth have you been?”, Steve asked, making sure that Tony didn't have any further injuries. “Pepper and Rhodey are downstairs, they’re getting some coffee, I offered to stay here in case you would wake up. You gave everyone a good scare, you know, you've been gone for over a month.”
“Dimension travel, that’s a thing apparently. Earth 616, we might want to write that down. I've met… another you. He was a bit taller and more built…”
“Another me…?”, Steve blinked.
“I've met the Avengers there… speaking of the Avengers… I'm speeding up the work on the Tower, the top floor can be our… headquarters. Also, we’ll need a battle cry… how about Avengers Assemble?”
“You come back from whenever you were for a whole month and starting talking about leading and organising the Avengers?”
“Yes? Now, the other you had proper wings sticking out of his helmet back in the day, I think that you should follow his example.”
“You know, I had those for a while when I started performing back in the day. Didn't last long…”, Steve scratched his head.
“I still think that you should bring those back, they’re a good look…”
“So what, you can call me Winghead or something?”, Steve laughed. “If that’s the case, I’ll have to call you Shellhead in return.”
Tony’s smile was so wide as he tried to contain his excitement.
The Avengers were assembling again, but this time around, they would do things their way. Him and Steve would co-lead the team, and something told him that he was going to enjoy this new partnership.
Tony Stark was gone.
Steve was staring blankly at the spot where Tony was standing in just a second ago.
“Steve…?”, Carol asked, trying to get him back to the Tower, bit Steve didn’t even move.
“Leave him some space…”, Jessica whispered to her as he gently pulled her away from the blond who seemed so lost.
Yes, he was right, Tony was gone, for good this time. He was right, this was feeling harder than he thought he would; he really got used to having that alternative version of Tony there with him, and even though it might not have been his Tony, he was already a good friend. Another friend who was gone.
With the corner of his eye, he noticed a figure walking slowly in the distance. His shield was on his hand, ready to strike if that turned out to be Kang again or some of his low class goons. And yet, as the figure started to approach him, the possibilities of it being hostile were dropped down to zero. His lips were apart, his eyes were warm and his heart was beating so fast that he could have sworn that it could jump out of his chest any moment now.
It didn't matter any more, he was going heading towards the figure, and just like that, he knew that it belonged to only one person.
He wasn't gone after all.
They were home, and everything was going to be just fine.