For one night in Madripoor, it's like Tony Stark has stepped back in time. The illegal weapons expo, held in Hightown's largest and most grandiose conference center, is packed with so many faces from international most wanted lists that Tony could earn himself a favor from nearly every country in the U.N., if not for Madripoor's non-extradition laws. Tony raises more than a few eyebrows with his mere presence at the event, even as he goes about rubbing elbows with arms dealers like he still belongs among them. It will probably be his last time in such circles, at any rate; smuggling Captain America into the party is a great way to ensure that Tony never gets invited back.
Going on an op with Steve Rogers is one way for Tony to keep life interesting, at least. He's there to watch Steve's back, and helps to take Steve's mark, Kashmir Vennema, into custody, along with Batroc the Leaper and his gang. The part where the Bleeding Edge nearly melted permanently out of his pores thanks to a high-tech virus was a little less fun, but Tony still gives the evening at least an eight out of ten on the fun scale.
"So, I guess date night has been cut short," Tony says, standing on the sidelines with Steve as the authorities clear out their suspects.
Steve shifts his weight from one foot to the other, looking admittedly a bit shifty beneath his cowl. "We could still get dinner?" he suggests. It sounds too much like a question for Tony to buy it.
"I know you're itching to follow your next lead," Tony says, trying not to smile too much when Steve looks relieved. Tony knows what it's like; he's a busy man who has dated enough busy people that he understands how hard it can be to make room for personal time. He would be a hypocrite if he complained about some perception of Steve neglecting him.
"Are you sure?"
Tony lifts his faceplate and leans in to give Steve a kiss, once he's sure all prying eyes have moved on or are otherwise suitably distracted. "Go," he says. "I'll mop up here and be on standby if you need me."
Madriporean peacekeeping is an odd beast, with the authorities of the largely corrupt nation content to overlook things until they become an inconvenience or a burden. The attention drawn to the conference is certainly something they would like to prevent becoming any kind of international incident, so it's little surprise when they begin to evacuate the premises.
Tony recalls the nearly drained armor once Steve is gone, and ignores the sick twist in his stomach as it sinks back into his bones. Back down to his regular civilian appearance, Tony has an easy enough time blending in with the flow of people out of the building. He has a lead of his own that he wants to follow, and with the failure of all tech in the area thanks to the virus Vennema unleashed, it seems like a good time.
The lead that Tony picked up at the conference does not disappoint: he uncovers an entire cache of harvested and probably stolen tech being stored in Kashmir Vennema's name. The curious thing about her is that she never used any covers or aliases (unless the Kashmir Vennema identity itself is one), making it a relatively simple matter to track down her holdings in the city. Getting everything out of Madripoor is another matter, but Tony calls in a few favors and eventually has the lot shipped back to New York, along with himself.
The handful of pieces that ultimately take up a corner of his lab space are Tony's first priority. The stasis pods were a lucky find, lucky for their inhabitants, at least, after Madripoor's tech failure that evening. Each of the units has a built in power supply, but those didn't make much difference against a complete shutdown of their systems; fortunately, Tony was able to get them up and running again on the way back from Madripoor.
Tony understands suspended animation - as much as one of his caliber of genius can understand a highly experimental science outside of his own field - so it's not the stasis units themselves that bother him, so much as their contents. Each one holds an Avenger suspended in unconsciousness, and Tony would be worried about having a kidnapping incident on their hands, except that he can verify that all four of the people represented are, in fact, accounted for.
The sleeping Thor, Bruce Banner, Steve Rogers, and Tony Stark, are doppelgangers.
Dealing with cross-universal alternates is not the strangest thing to ever happen to Tony; the first time or two, it ranked fairly high, sure, but this many times down the road, he has a hard time even giving it much placement on his list. The fact that they've been suspended unconscious in stasis pods, however, is new, and certainly lends a creepy science fiction element to the situation.
Tony sets a battery of scans to run, and reluctantly opens a secure channel to Steve's comms. "Cap? No rush, but as soon as you get back, I think you're going to want to see this."
Hours pass while Tony runs tests on the pods and sorts through the rest of Kashmir Vennema's stash. Much of the tech proves to be scrap, at least to someone like Tony. He has most of it packed up for SHIELD to either use or dispose of, by the time the sound of a keypad beeping sounds outside the lab.
The doors slide open a moment later, admitting Steve into the room. He is still dressed from his mission, cowl hanging down behind his neck; it reminds Tony that he has an idea for a helmet to provide a greater layer of protection to the uniform, but for the time being he basks simply in the wash of relief he feels at seeing Steve in one piece again. Captain America out in the field without Iron Man to watch his back, well ... it just gives Tony an awkward sense of foreboding to think of it.
"Hey, Cap," Tony greets.
"Tony," Steve says. "You wanted to see me?" He stops short as his gaze slides to the left and comes to rest on the group of pods, which have been arranged in a neat row. "Ah. I think I see why."
Tony walks up beside Steve and gazes at the subject in the closest pod: Tony's doppelganger, floating in some green goo, looking bizarrely out of place without his armor on. "Yeah."
Steve's expression goes pinched for a moment. "Where did you get these ... them?"
"I did a little poking around Madripoor after you left," Tony admits. "Found a warehouse, where Vennema had all kinds of tech stored. Ingoing and outgoing. She had a lot in there: A.I.M. gear, Hydra stuff, even a few pieces built on old Stark International patents. You should be relieved we took her down before she got a chance to move it all."
"And these?" Steve wonders.
"At first, I thought they were just some of Machinesmith's androids," Tony answers. "But they're flesh and blood and ... all non-invasive tests indicate, us. Except not."
"Clones?" Steve asks.
Tony shakes his head. "Alternates. They've got the traces of radiation from life spent under a different sun than our own. That was my first test after I discovered they were human. Or, in other-Thor's case, Asgardian."
Steve sets down his shield, letting it rest against the nearest counter - reminding Tony he also has plans for a uniform station for Steve, down here in his workshop - and steps closer to the pods. The glow of them reflects a distorted green off his face, like he might be on the other side of the glass; the thought doesn't sit well with Tony.
"What do you think she wanted with them?"
Tony shrugs, walking up to stand at Steve's side again. "Could be she wanted to sell their DNA, but she wouldn't need to keep them alive for that. On the other hand, well ... speaking hypothetically here as a villain, you could do a lot with the right mind control device and a superhero under your control. Especially one like the Hulk, there."
Steve's expression shifts to one of obvious disgust. He turns deliberately away from the tanks, to face Tony fully. "We need to send them home."
"I've been working on it," Tony answers. "I've got Reed on board, he can help them make the jump, but we need to know where they're going, first."
"Then we wake one of them up," Steve says. "Assuming they came from the same place."
"They did." Tony gestures up at the Iron Man pod. "I was thinking of reviving myself."
Steve raises an eyebrow. "Why you and not me? I mean ..."
"I know what you mean," Tony says. "Anyway, I think I'm statistically less likely to get punched in the face by waking up my alternate rather than yours."
Steve opens his mouth to argue, takes one look at Tony's expression - maybe remembering what happened when Steve first woke in the Avengers' presence, so many years ago - and simply responds, "I see your point."
"Plus," Tony adds, "I think this unit is malfunctioning. The tech is unfamiliar to me, but the readings coming off it are inconsistent with the other three. It must have shorted out in the tech outage. At least, I hope this is the one that's busted and not the rest, because I'm not sure I could deal with some other universe's Thor freaking out and frying the Tower."
"Let's hope it doesn't come to that." Steve gestures at the tank. "Do you need some help?"
Tony smiles, pleasantly surprised by the offer. "If you think this makes up for abandoning date night ..."
"I don't," Steve answers quickly. "I thought that might come when the food I ordered gets here. We do have a little while before he wakes up, right?"
"We should." Tony drags over a stepladder and climbs up the first two steps, to get a better look at the control panel on top of the tank. Then he pauses, laughing softly to himself. "You know, I didn't think you'd take me at my word on that."
Steve cocks his head to the side, putting a hand out to rest on the small of Tony's back. "What?"
"Date night," Tony says. "Madripoor wasn't exactly ..."
"You helped me with an important mission," Steve says. "I couldn't have done it without you."
"Still," Tony insists. "That was work."
"And I take my work very seriously." Steve's hand drifts a little further south than is strictly necessary for this pretense of helping steady Tony on the ladder. The ladder where Tony happens to be standing all of a foot and a half off the floor.
Tony looks over his shoulder at Steve, raising an eyebrow.
Steve looks right back, the picture of innocence. "Yes, Tony?"
Tony shakes his head, laughing again as he turns back to his work. "I suppose after all these years, I should've known that mutually kicking Batroc the Leaper's ass would turn into a form of foreplay for us."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Steve says, his expression inscrutable.
Tony snorts, allowing Steve his delusion. "Okay, soldier. Wanna lend me a hand? Assuming you can get it off my ass long enough."
"I've got two hands." Steve grins up at him, obviously in a good mood. Those are rarer and rarer these days, with what Steve has been through lately, and Tony is grateful for it, though he isn't certain whether he's the cause, or if a successful mission can take the credit.
"Hand me that cable over there?" Tony asks, gesturing to the console he was working at earlier.
Steve moves away and returns with the cable, which Tony accepts and plugs into a port on the top of the pod. Tony spends another few moments studying the control panel, where a small screen displays vital signs and other encrypted readings he can't be quite sure of. The touchpad to the side of the screen is unresponsive when Tony pokes at it with his index finger.
"It might take me a few minutes to break the encryption," Tony admits.
"If you're okay here," Steve says, "I'll go pick up the food order and come back. I could stand a shower, anyway."
Tony glances down, letting his eyes roam from the scuffed red toes of Steve's boots, up to the star on his chest. "I'm sorry I'll have to miss that."
"Maybe later, I'll help you degrease from the workshop," Steve suggests.
"I'm holding you to that." Tony steps down from the ladder, and turns to face Steve.
Steve moves in close, an arm slipping around Tony's waist as he leans in for a brief kiss. "I'll be back in a little while," he says. Then he pauses, eyes drifting to the pod. "Should I get a room prepared for our guest?"
"I don't know," Tony says. "I should probably keep him down here under observation. What if he turns out to be from a universe where we're evil?"
Steve pulls a face. "Let's not go getting ahead of ourselves."
Tony shrugs. "I'm just being realistic, Cap."
"Hmm." Steve still looks skeptical, but that doesn't stop him from kissing Tony again. "Okay, be careful. Try not to wake him up until I get back?"
"Promise not to get mad at me if that doesn't work out?"
"Okay," Tony says. "I'll try."
Tony watches Steve go - always a view not to be missed - then turns his attention back to the tank. Within half an hour, he has the other Tony in the process of coming out of stasis, settled onto a lab table, mostly cleaned of the weird gel and wired up to machines to monitor his vital signs, a mask over his face to provide oxygen since he seems to be breathing well enough on his own.
It isn't the first time Tony has seen what appears to be himself, but it's a strange sight just the same. The other Tony is a little different, hair a bit longer and goatee trimmed slightly off from his own, but his eyes are still blue, and his chest RT seems to function on similar technology, the light throbbing bare in the dimness of the workshop. Tony counts it lucky that neither of them were caught up in Madripoor's tech failure in that sense.
Tony is so preoccupied with his work that he doesn't notice Steve returning until the smell of food - the strong aroma of garlic and tang of tomatoes - hits his nostrils. He turns and sees Steve at one of the emptier workbenches, setting out Italian takeout, frankly monstrous pieces of lasagna and a heap of breadsticks. He's even brought a bottle of sparkling water in lieu of wine, the glasses he pours looking adorably out of place with disposable containers and flatware.
Steve has dressed down to jeans and a t-shirt, and the clothes hug his body in all the right ways; Tony can't help staring, slightly open-mouthed, as Steve walks over to him. It takes him a second to notice the small bundle of clothes Steve is holding.
"I brought something for him to wear," Steve says, glancing past Tony to the ... other Tony.
Tony decides he needs to come up with something better to call his alternate, as awkward as that is.
"You're so thoughtful," Tony says, accepting the clothes. He sets them on the foot of the lab table for later, and turns to offer Steve a kiss. "He's coming out of it into a normal sleep, but I think we have time for dinner before he wakes up."
Steve nods, and puts a hand at the small of Tony's back, guiding him over to the makeshift dining table. Tony settles in on one side, Steve on the other, and they begin to tuck into their food.
"So," Tony says, around a bite of wonderfully cheesy pasta. "Are you allowed to tell me how the rest of your mission went?"
Steve smiles. "It was fine. I know there's more to this whole Kashmir Vennema thing, but I have to do some more digging. In the meantime, I thought it was foolish to stay out in the field with no information, when I could be here with you."
Tony laughs softly when Steve's socked foot actually teases at the inside of his ankle. "You're in a good mood," he says.
"Why wouldn't I be?" Steve wonders happily. "I'm here with you, there's no immediate crisis to worry about ..."
"Aside from the guy over there who's going to wake up soon," Tony points out, glancing over his shoulder to the slab where his alternate is still out cold.
"That will be a little while yet," Steve says.
"Not long enough for us to have any fun."
Steve shrugs. "I'm having fun, whether I get to touch you or not."
Tony smiles at that, and allows himself to relax a little while he and Steve finish their meal. They're down to the last breadstick by the time the monitoring equipment begins to beep and, a few yards away, Tony's alternate groans.
Tony gets to his feet, Steve right behind him, and reaches the lab table in enough time to stop his doppelganger from heaving himself right onto the floor.
"Easy," Tony says, while Steve moves to the opposite side of the table and places his hands on the other Tony's shoulders.
Other-Tony - Tony has really got to start thinking of him as Stark, or something - squints in confusion up at Tony, but as soon as he turns his head and sees Steve, his heart rate calms and he relaxes back against the table.
"Well," Tony says. "That's a good sign, at least."
Steve nods. "Yeah."
Through their multiversal adventures, the other iterations of Steve Rogers and Tony Stark they have seen or heard about have not always been on good terms with each other. Then again, in their own universe, Steve and Tony are not always friends (or more).
Stark is more at ease now, but he still reaches up and begins to paw at the oxygen mask. Tony checks a few readings, then moves to help him with it. Seeing Tony just confuses Stark again, though, and the man spends a long moment glancing between Tony and Steve.
"What the hell is going on?" Stark asks gradually, his voice raspy with disuse. "I feel like I've got a hangover the size of -" He pauses, his eyes widening in alarm.
Another thing they have in common, then, Tony thinks with a sigh.
"You've been kidnapped," Steve says, in a soft, soothing tone. "Brought from your world to our own. We found you and are working to get you home."
Stark's expression turns disappointed. "Steve? You're not -"
"No." Steve shakes his head, giving Stark's shoulder a comforting squeeze before Steve takes his hands back to himself.
Tony glances back to one of his monitors, feeling oddly uncomfortable watching a man who might as well be his clone, interacting with his ... interacting with Steve.
"The scans look good," Tony says after a moment. "So, first order of business, if you feel up to it, I'd like to ask you a few questions."
"I -" Stark falters. "Yeah, I guess." He pushes himself up on his elbows, and Steve slides an arm behind Stark's shoulders to help him sit up the rest of the way.
"Tony, maybe we should let him get settled in a little first," Steve says, apparently more conscientious of Stark's nudity beneath the thin sheet Tony draped over him earlier than either of the Tonys are.
Tony sighs. "Right, sorry." He gestures to the bundle of clothes sitting on the end of the lab table. "Steve brought you some clothes. There's a shower, if you want to clean up a little. Are you hungry?"
For all the fact that Stark probably also shares the similarity of being a genius with Tony, he seems to need a moment to digest all their sudden hospitality. "Yes," he says at last, using Steve's assistance in swinging his legs off the table. "A shower sounds fabulous, I'm sticky in places ... well."
Tony snorts softly. "I cleaned you up as best I could, with the exception of places."
Stark is a little shaky on his feet, but manages to make it to the lab shower - usually reserved for chemical incidents - with Steve's help. While Steve lingers with Stark, Tony calls to the kitchen for food, and has an unappetizingly bland meal of chicken broth and crackers waiting by the time they are done.
Steve makes coffee, then they all settle together around the workbench Tony and Steve had dinner at earlier, while Stark picks at the food. He still looks pale and a little listless, but much more alert than he had just a few minutes ago.
"So," Tony says. "Mind if I just call you 'Stark'? Kind of weird to think of you as Tony since, well, that's me."
"I prefer Anthony, actually."
Stark - Anthony - peers at him questioningly. "Dad doesn't call you Anthony?"
"Howard's still alive in your world?" Tony blurts, before he can stop himself.
The look Anthony gives him is definitely strange, now. "No," he says. "Not since I was very young. Maybe you would think of Dad as ... Jarvis?"
Tony shares a glance with Steve, then looks back to Anthony. "Edwin Jarvis?"
"He's our butler," Tony says weakly.
"He was ours, too," Anthony answers. "But he raised me after my parents died, so ..."
"I guess it's not hard for me to think of Jarvis as a father figure, either," Tony admits. He shakes his head, and Steve reaches for his hand under the table, squeezing it lightly in reassurance. "Sorry. If I keep getting hung up on all the differences, we'll never get you home."
"I understand," Anthony says. He glances around the lab, before offering Tony a small smile. "It's weird, how many things are the same, how many are similar but slightly off. I'm sure some are just entirely different."
"You're still a superhero?" Tony wonders, needing to know that much, at least.
Anthony nods. "Iron Man," he answers, and looks at Steve. "You're still Captain America?"
"I am," Steve says.
"That's a little different, then," Anthony says. "In my world, Steve goes by Commander Rogers these days."
"Steve had a brief stint with that," Tony says. "It was bizarre, but the uniform was hot."
"Ahh, isn't it, though." Anthony sighs, something wistful in the sound.
Steve shifts on the stool next to Tony's, but that is his only sign of discomfort. Tony changes the subject just the same, unsure whether Steve wants to air their business to this other universe's Iron Man.
"What's the last thing you remember, before waking up here?" Tony asks, sliding over a tablet so that he can take notes.
Anthony makes a face, thinking. "Not a lot, to be honest. My last clear memory is the Avengers being called out."
"The Avengers," Tony says. "Iron Man, Cap - Commander Rogers, Thor, and a Banner who hadn't Hulked out yet?"
Anthony blinks. "Yes."
"It sounds like the abduction happened during the battle," Steve offers, while Tony makes a note.
Anthony's face goes pale, and he shifts in his seat, looking around. "The others -"
"They're here, and they're fine," Tony says. "Still in stasis. We woke you up because your unit was malfunctioning."
"I ... um, thank you."
"Of course," Steve says. He's much better at handling Anthony than Tony is, maybe thanks to years of experience in dealing with Tony himself. "We'd like your help in getting you home, but we understand if you need to take some time to get your bearings."
Anthony hesitates; Tony knows the look on his face, the one that says Anthony doesn't want to admit to weakness. "No, it's - I'm fine, I can work."
Steve shoots a glance at Tony, but nods before getting to his feet. "Alright. I'm going to get a guest room prepared for you, anyway. It'll be there when you're ready to use it."
"Thank you," Anthony says.
Tony isn't sure what to do with this strangely demure version of himself, and even less so after Steve leans down - clearly not thinking, or simply unconcerned with their privacy in front of this alternate who won't be hanging around - and kisses Tony on the cheek. Anthony's eyes widen and he quickly looks away.
"I'm going to check on the team while I'm up," Steve says. "Let me know if you make any breakthroughs."
"Will do." Tony nods, and listens for the sound of the elevator departing before he meets Anthony's eyes again. Anthony looks about to burst with curiosity, but he doesn't ask, so Tony doesn't offer.
"Should we get started?" Anthony says instead, and Tony's estimation of the man rises a few notches in response.
A few different things become clear to Tony over the next few hours that he spends with his alternate. Anthony shares some of the same major life events with Tony, like the circumstances that led to the creation of the Iron Man, the founding of the Avengers, the struggle with alcoholism, the constant fighting to keep control of his own company.
In other ways, though, Anthony seems softer, almost younger, even though he and Tony are of an age. The earlier death of Howard seems to have something to do with that, though in touching on the big subjects in their game of differences with each other, Tony also learns that the war sparked by the Superhuman Registration Act played out differently in Anthony's world. He and his Steve fought, but they reached a compromise before things went too far. Steve never died, he just received a promotion. Anthony never became Director of SHIELD, never was disgraced by Norman Osborn, and consequently, never lost his memories. The Skrull invasion was over almost before it began, thanks to a united front of superheroes to bring it down.
It's like a big game of what ifs. Tony knows Reed would be fascinated. Reed is fascinated, much later, when they bring him into a conference call, enough to keep them on the line for hours, until Ben finally interrupts in the background, come on Sue's behalf to call Reed away.
By the time the call disconnects, it's late, and Tony is yawning, the fact that he hasn't had a good night's sleep since before Madripoor finally catching up to him. He checks for Anthony, and finds the man has wandered off into the corner, where the other tanks - the other Avengers - are standing.
The way Anthony stares up at the other Steve just ... twists something in Tony's chest. Anthony has his hand pressed against the glass, a longing expression on his face that Tony imagines he wouldn't be wearing if he knew he was being watched.
Tony clears his throat and makes his footsteps louder than necessary to announce his presence. Anthony drops his hand from the tank like he's been burned, and abruptly turns to Tony.
"Sorry, I -"
"It's okay," Tony says. He wonders if he should ask whether Anthony wants to talk about it, but Tony really should avoid getting any more tangled in the lives of their alternates than he already is. "But, look, I'm beat. I'm gonna head up to bed. Come on, I'll show you to your room."
Steve came down at some point while they were on the call with Reed, not disturbing them, but leaving coffee and a note letting Tony know which room he had prepped for Anthony. Not many of the Avengers share each floor, and Tony's personal space takes up so much of his floor that it has quarters only for himself, Steve, and a couple of spare rooms that are occasionally taken up by Rhodey or a few interim team members who do not live in the tower but sometimes need a place to crash.
Steve has assigned Anthony to one of those very rooms, the one least often used, and closest to Tony's bedroom. It makes sense, in case Anthony needs anything ... or tries to go snooping around.
"Here you go," Tony says, opening the door into the room. It is neat and clean, the freshly made bed obviously Steve's doing, judging from the fact it looks like you could bounce a quarter off it. "I'm just down the hall on the right, if you need anything. You've got your own bathroom through that door, and there's a kitchen just back the way we came in. Steve or I will come by in the morning to show you down to the communal floor for breakfast."
"Thank you," Anthony says, stepping into the room. He looks lost as he sits down on the edge of the bed, beside another neat stack of clothes that was probably left by Steve, pajamas this time. "Good night."
"'Night." Tony closes the door behind him, but doesn't bother locking it. A lock won't hold even another universe's Tony Stark, and the tower's security system will alert Tony if Anthony goes snooping, at any rate.
The last of Tony's caffeine buzz has worn off by the time he makes it to his bedroom, and his limbs are sluggish as he peels out of his clothes and goes to flop into bed. It isn't until Tony lands - getting a firm forearm right across his ribcage - that he realizes Steve has decided to sleep in his room tonight. That shouldn't be a surprise, given Steve has slept in his room most nights recently, but it still never ceases to amaze Tony.
"Ow," Steve says, voice muffled into the pillows, and he can't possibly have been injured by Tony's weight falling on his arm, he's just letting Tony know that he happens to be awake.
Tony wishes desperately that he were conscious enough to take advantage of that fact. "Sorry."
Steve pulls his arm from beneath Tony and raises the covers, waiting until Tony has situated himself beneath them to roll over and press himself right against Tony's back. Steve winds his arm around Tony's waist, and nuzzles at the back of Tony's neck. It feels fantastic.
"Did you have any luck?" Steve asks softly.
"Not tonight," Tony says. "Reed got some information from - Anthony - and I'm sure he'll be working on it."
"Hmm." Steve kisses Tony behind his ear, near his hairline. "What do you make of him?"
"Anthony?" Tony asks. "I don't think we have anything to worry about from him by way of trouble, if that's what you mean."
"That, and curious about your impression of him," Steve says. "It's strange, being in the room with two of you."
Tony laughs softly. "The fact that your mind didn't automatically go somewhere dirty with that shows you are a far better man than me, Steve."
Steve is quiet for a beat, his hand roaming down Tony's stomach. "Well," he says at last. "I didn't say that."
"I'm really sorry I'm too tired to have you elaborate on that further," Tony admits around a yawn.
Steve laughs, his breath a warm gust of air over Tony's skin. "Remind me tomorrow."
Tony thinks he tells Steve that he'll hold him to that, but he isn't sure he actually gets the words out before drifting off.
The next morning, Tony wakes up to find Steve and Anthony in the small kitchen on their floor, Steve making pancakes for breakfast. Tony makes a bee-line for the coffee pot, joining Anthony at the breakfast bar just as Steve begins to set out the plates. Anthony looks better today, less morose and verging on cheerful in Steve's company, freshly showered and dressed once again in a set of clothes Tony recognizes as his own. Yesterday's downer attitude may well have been the result of post-stasis sickness, and undoubtedly a night of real sleep has done wonders for Anthony.
"So," Anthony asks, once he's popped the last bite of syrupy pancakes into his mouth. "What's on the agenda for today?"
"I had a message from Reed when I woke up," Tony answers. "He probably roamed back into the lab after we hung up with him last night."
"Sounds about right," Anthony says.
"He was hoping you might go to the Baxter Building for some scans," Tony says. "I'm going to stay here to coordinate on our end, so if Steve isn't busy today ..."
"I'd be happy to show Anthony over there," Steve says, smiling. "It's a nice day, we could even walk."
"Is it a good idea for me to be seen in public here?" Anthony wonders.
Tony shrugs. "As long as I don't show my face so that it looks like I'm in two places at once, I think we're safe."
"I'm sure you could use some fresh air and sunshine after all that time cooped up in stasis, anyway," Steve says. He's usually of the opinion that most of the scientists in his life could use more fresh air and sunshine, so this recommendation isn't terribly surprising.
"Go for lunch on your way back, if Reed doesn't keep you too long," Tony suggests. "Steve, you should take Anthony to that sandwich shop you like between here and the Baxter Building."
"I don't think that place exists in my world," Anthony admits.
"It's the best," Steve says. "We'll bring it back and have lunch together."
"Just get me my usual," Tony says. He slings back the rest of his coffee, then gets up to refill his mug.
Steve passes him on the way to the sink with a stack of dirty dishes, and pauses to kiss Tony on the cheek. Understanding now that Steve clearly just doesn't mind these displays in front of Anthony, Tony turns his head for a quick peck on the lips, then heads for the elevator.
He entirely misses the longing look that Anthony throws their way.
With Anthony present at the Baxter Building, and Tony working in his own shop, they reach a breakthrough with Reed by lunch, just as Tony suspected they would. It will take another day or two for them to fabricate and test the technology needed to implement their plan to send Anthony home, but it can be done.
Reed is even able to provide a glimpse for Anthony to his own universe, ensuring that all is well, and they slip a message through to the other Avengers. It turns out that the four Avengers have been gone only a few weeks, and while the remaining heroes in their world have certainly been worried about their absence, they have been handling things capably enough.
Anthony seems to be breathing much easier by the time he and Steve return with lunch.
"I got you a number sixteen," Steve says, setting the paper-wrapped sandwich in front of Tony. He seems amused as he turns around and hands another to Anthony. "And your number sixteen."
"So we got the same sandwich order," Tony says, pulling a face.
"What?" Steve asks, all false innocence. "I didn't say anything."
"You didn't have to," Anthony says. He plops onto a stool next to Tony's, eagerly unwrapping his sandwich. "Besides, I can tell you what I'd be thinking, if you showed up in my universe."
"Two Steves," Tony says, glazing over a little.
Steve glances between the two of them and their no doubt identical expressions. "Who says I'm not thinking that already?"
Surprised by the mixture of bluntness and slyness from Steve, Tony glances at Anthony.
"Admittedly," Anthony says, "I've never slept with Steve." He looks over at the stasis pods in the corner, something guilty but thankfully brief flickering over his face. "Not that I haven't thought about it."
This is the thing that Tony has been itching to ask about, of course, but it seemed rude to be the first one to bring it up before now. "So you two aren't ..."
Anthony smiles, a bit ruefully. "No. There's always been something there, but we sort of kept just ... missing each other, I suppose you might say."
"I think we know a thing or two about that," Steve says. He leans a bit closer to Tony, taking Tony's hand in his own and squeezing lightly.
"Who knows," Tony says. "It could still happen. It took us a while."
Anthony shakes his head, his smile dimming. "No," he says. "I don't think it could."
Tony shares a look with Steve, but Steve doesn't seem to want to press the issue any more than Tony does, and there's a sort of finality to Anthony's tone that defies argument.
That night, Tony has a lot of questions and things that he wants to discuss privately with Steve, none of which seem as important once their clothes begin to come off. Steve presses Tony down to the bed and kisses him, hands roaming over Tony's body in gentle but confident touches. Steve's lips are soft as he kisses around the edge of the chest RT, his face bathed in the pale light of its glow.
It has been days since they were last able to find time for this kind of intimacy, and Tony very much wants to lose himself in it, but his mind keeps drifting back to the things that are sticking in his brain, until the words just sort of slip out: "Why wouldn't I even try to get with you in another universe?"
Steve pauses, lifting his head to level Tony with a look. "Really, Tony?"
"I'm sorry, I know it's not the time," Tony groans, dropping his head back to the pillows.
Steve sighs, resting his chin against Tony's chest as he looks up at him. "No, it's fine. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't curious, too."
"It's stupid," Tony says, reaching down to card his fingers through Steve's hair. "Just ... it's taken us so long to get here that the thought of a world where we're not together upsets me. Which isn't logical, I know. There are infinite possibilities, after all."
Catching the hand that Tony has in his hair, Steve brings it to his lips and presses a kiss to Tony's knuckles. "We're together here."
"I know." Tony smiles down at Steve, and tries to let go of his worries relating to Anthony. "Steve, I -"
"Hold that thought," Steve says, oblivious to what Tony was about to say, as someone knocks on the door. He rolls out of bed and hops into his pants, stepping over to the door.
Frustrated, Tony sits up and pulls the covers over his lap, not wanting to be caught in a completely compromising position should one of their teammates be on the other side of the door. But it's just Anthony, and he looks embarrassed as soon as he takes in Steve's shirtless state and glances past him to see Tony in the bed.
"Sorry," Anthony says. "I'll just -"
"No, it's alright," Steve says. "Did you need something?"
Anthony runs a hand through his hair, ruffling it from its already messy state into something even more disheveled. "No, I was just having trouble sleeping. I should've realized you two would be, um - in the middle of something. Sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt, I'm - I'm gonna go."
"Wait," Tony says, the words surprising him even as they leave his mouth.
Steve turns, looking over his shoulder at Tony, eyebrows raised significantly. Tony just gives the tiniest of nods, meeting Steve's eyes with determination. With that, an unspoken agreement passes between them, and Steve turns back to the door.
"Why don't you come in?" Steve asks.
Anthony stares back at them, confusion in his expression as he looks first at Steve, then past him at Tony. "You mean ..."
"Yes," Tony answers.
"This isn't some kind of charity thing, right?"
It isn't exactly what Tony expected. He shakes his head, leaning forward to meet Anthony's gaze. "I'm sure any number of people would say it's me finally coming to the realization that the perfect person for me is, well, me," he says. "But that's not it. I like you, Steve likes you. Why not have some fun?"
Steve smiles, in that soft and reassuring way he has, and places a hand on Anthony's shoulder. "It's just an offer. No pressure, no strings attached, if you're interested."
Anthony pauses for another moment, then he laughs, sounding more like Tony than he has at any instance since his arrival. "If there's one thing I'm pretty sure Tony and I have in common," he says, stepping through the door, "it's that neither of us would pass up the opportunity to sleep with ourselves." He pauses, looking at Steve. "Especially with you in the middle."
"I don't know," Tony says, grinning as he straightens to his knees in bed, letting the covers slip away. "I was sort of hoping you'd be the one taking that role, here."
Steve closes the door, and moves to join them at the bed as he offers, "Let us take care of you."
Anthony takes a deep breath, and nods on the exhale. "Okay."
Steve closes the distance between Anthony and himself, and leans down, brushing his lips against Anthony's in a soft kiss. Tony spends a moment simply watching; there's something sweet about the way Steve handles a lover, and Tony has certainly experienced it himself, but it's another thing entirely to be on the outside looking in, even if he technically isn't outside the experience.
Tony eases himself closer to the edge of the bed, and he reaches out, stroking his hands down Anthony's sides, rumpling his borrowed clothes. Steve takes a step forward and Anthony a step back, and finally they're close enough for Tony to press himself against Anthony's back. He tips his head down and kisses Anthony's neck, his hands roaming further down to hook in the waistband of his pajama bottoms. They're easy enough to slide down, and Tony is pleased to find that, much like himself, his alternate doesn't wear anything under them.
Anthony steps out of the sleep pants and sits down on the edge of the bed under the guidance of Steve's urging hands. Tony settles in behind him, watching with almost as much fascination as Anthony does when Steve sinks down to his knees in front of them; Steve is showing off a little, Tony can tell, but he enjoys the show too much to call him on it.
Tony can imagine the softness of Steve's lips, the warm wetness of his tongue, as Steve takes Anthony into his mouth, and judging from the way Anthony's entire body jumps beneath Tony's touch, it seems safe to assume he's enjoying it just as much as Tony normally does.
This is almost certainly where Steve was headed earlier with Tony, before they got interrupted, but Tony isn't jealous; he's wasted a lot of his time being jealous over one lover of Steve's or another through the years, wanting what they had, and it's the benevolence that comes with being confident over his own place in Steve's life that allows Tony to keep such an open mind now. It helps, too, that Tony likes Anthony - and that has nothing to do with ego, because the two of them seem different enough in practice, even if they have been cut from similar cloth.
Tony leans around and kisses Anthony, and he doesn't want to be a distraction, but he's got curiosity of his own that he wants to satisfy. Anthony is a good kisser, but - and there is ego talking here - Tony wouldn't have assumed otherwise. When Anthony moans into the kiss and arches back against Tony, Tony breaks away gradually to glance down at Steve, whose blond head bobs steadily, rhythmically, between Anthony's thighs. Tony guides Anthony's hands to Steve's hair, watches while his alternate's fingers card through the thick, bright strands and set the perfection of Steve's usual hairstyle all awry.
"That's it," Tony murmurs in soft encouragement. "Pull a little, he likes that."
Anthony groans, tipping his head back against Tony's shoulder as he tugs on Steve's hair. Steve responds to the rougher handling with a moan, and picks up the pace, drawing a surprised sound out of Anthony. Only when the noises Anthony is making get higher pitched, more desperate, does Steve pull off, experience with Tony telling him - correctly - that his efforts are bringing things a little too close to a conclusion.
Anthony breathes out something close to a whine, and Steve straightens to kiss him, an obvious apology in the way he does it. Tony moves back when Steve gets up and bodily lifts Anthony further back onto the bed; Steve follows closely after, settling between Anthony's thighs as he kisses him again. When they break the kiss, both of them look at Tony in question, but Tony just gives an offhanded wave before crawling over to rummage in the bedside table drawer.
"I want to watch you, at least for now," Tony says, tossing the lube in Steve's direction.
Steve catches it deftly, and smiles at Tony before turning his attention back to Anthony. "Is this okay?" he asks.
"Oh, yeah," Anthony assures. He actually has a flush on his cheeks, which Tony finds endearing, while simultaneously certain he isn't, himself, capable of anything of the sort.
Tony sits back on his heels, watching as Steve carefully slicks his fingers and uses them to work Anthony open, a digit at a time in a gradual stretch that Tony knows well from his own experiences. Tony interferes only once, to help Steve roll on the condom, then he settles in and watches again as Steve begins to slide inside. Steve doesn't stop until his hips are flush against Anthony's ass, a goal aided by the way Anthony presses back against him.
Tony watches raptly as Steve picks up a slow rhythm, rocking into Anthony, fucking him slowly. "This feels ... weirdly narcissistic," he admits. "How turned on I am."
Anthony tips his head back and smiles up at Tony, slow and seductive around a soft moan that Steve drags out of him, and God does Tony know that expression from having worn it enough times on his own face. "Then why don't you come here and join in?"
Finally moving at that urging, Tony shifts closer and lets Anthony reach up and grab his hip, drawing him in. Tony moans quietly as his cock slides past his alternate's lips, into the hot wetness of his mouth and over his tongue, and fuck, Tony has always thought he must give an excellent blow job but there's no way like feeling it to understand just how good it actually is.
Anthony goes at it with enthusiasm, licking and sucking and going slack when he needs to, letting Tony thrust into his mouth, relaxing his throat until Tony can just fuck right into him, and the rhythm of Steve's hips helps, the way he moves with Anthony bringing them all rhythmically closer together. Steve leans over Anthony, and he's got Anthony's legs nearly pushed up against his chest, bending him between them, as Steve winds his hand around the back of Tony's neck and catches Tony's mouth with his own for a kiss. Tony cups Steve's cheek in his hand and returns the kiss, messy and dirty and intense, and he never thought he would want to share Steve with anyone, but this is ... amazing, actually, the intensity of it.
Beneath them, between them, Anthony moans, and Steve and Tony break away from the kiss, looking down to find his attention focused on them both. Anthony makes a soft, needy sound when Tony pulls away from him, but Tony silences the noise by stooping down for a soft kiss.
"Look at the mess we're in," Tony says, laughing at them all as he pulls away. "Steve still has his pants on."
Anthony shifts, looking down as if he hadn't noticed before. "Huh. We should do something about that."
"You could have said something sooner," Steve complains, but he doesn't sound nearly as petulant as he is clearly trying for. He pulls out and gets to his feet, peeling the rest of the way out of his trousers and kicking them aside. "There. Is that better?"
"Much," Tony agrees, taking a moment to enjoy the view, like always.
Anthony sits up, ruffling his hair as he tugs off his shirt, and he and Tony put their heads together for a quiet conference as Steve settles onto the edge of the bed again. Steve eyes them warily, and with good cause - Tony moves in close, distracting Steve with a kiss, while Anthony pushes Steve onto his back on the bed and settles astride his thighs.
Naturally, though, Steve isn't going to protest this turn of events; he just laughs softly when Tony breaks away from the kiss. "I was wondering how long it would take for you two to get pushy," he says.
"Pushy?" Tony asks, raising his eyebrows. "Steve, we're hurt."
Steve offers Tony an unimpressed look and opens his mouth, undoubtedly to say something stubborn in response, but only a gasp comes out as Anthony positions himself and sinks down onto Steve's cock. It's excellent timing, really, Tony has to give his alternate that much; it's a tactic that Tony himself should probably put to use more often.
Anthony settles in, knees either side of Steve's hips, taking a moment to adjust before he gives a slow, experimental roll of his hips, and Tony has to pause again in distraction, just looking at the sight they present - just thinking about how he and Steve look like this every time they make love, and it's almost too intimate for Tony, seeing the expression on Anthony's face and knowing he often wears something that raw and open on his own.
Tony leans in and kisses Steve again, briefly this time, then offers a kiss to Anthony before shifting away to find the bottle of lube that has been nearly lost in the rumpled covers.
"Oh," Steve says, when the first of Tony's fingers eases into Anthony and adds pressure against Steve's cock. "That is - are we -"
"Mmhm," Anthony answers. He stills his hips and pitches forward, leaning onto Steve's chest in a deliberate pose that would be almost casual, if not for the circumstances. "That alright with you?"
Steve moans, tipping his head back against the pillows as Tony adds a second finger. "Yes."
Tony is too absorbed in his intense concentration on the moment to add much to their conversation. When Anthony begins to squirm with impatience, though, Tony finally pulls back to prep himself, rolling on a condom and adding what is probably an obscene amount of lube, but he wants to make sure everything goes smoothly - literally and figuratively.
Once he settles in behind Anthony, Tony moves slowly in pressing inside, and it isn't hard to take his time; it's an amazingly tight fit, Anthony stretching around him while at the same time Steve's cock is hard against Tony's own. Steve feels more tense than either Anthony or Tony, his thighs rigid with the effort of not moving, and once Tony finally has his hips flush against Anthony's ass, they're all breathing hard from the intensity of it all.
"Wow," Tony says around a gasp, taking a moment to adjust.
"Never done this before?" Steve asks, and his voice sounds just as strained.
"Not from this end of it, no," Tony says, grinning back at Steve.
"Of course you'd like to be the one in the middle," Anthony says. His face is flushed, skin damp with perspiration, but he pushes himself up just a little, getting the leverage to push back onto Steve and Tony.
"I do have to admit I'm a little jealous," Tony admits.
Anthony rolls his eyes. "Stop talking and move."
"I'm so pushy," Tony says, trying to sound affronted even as he gives in to the demand and rocks his hips forward.
"That's what I've been - oh, God - telling you," Steve says. There isn't much Steve can do except for remaining still and letting Tony set the pace, but he does so beautifully, blond hair sticking up in disarray and cheeks red with effort.
It's amazing and it's almost too much, Tony could swear he's hallucinating this incredibly hot scenario where he gets to help Steve fuck himself, but there's no denying how grounded in reality they really are once Steve comes, his hips jerking upward as he loses his battle with holding still. Tony and Anthony are the ones who pause, then, easing down to slowly work Steve through his orgasm.
"That is so gorgeous it's unfair," Anthony says after a beat, fascinated as he watches Steve.
"I know, he's got the best expressions," Tony says. "And makes the best sounds, when you can get him to stop being stoic."
"You," Steve interrupts, "are a menace. Stop ruining our beautiful moment."
"Did I mention he's really sappy?" Tony adds, sotto voce.
Anthony snickers, but they take pity on Steve and cease the running commentary at least long enough for Anthony to lift off Steve, though he settles back onto Tony without moving any further.
"You do want to watch, don't you?" he asks Steve.
Steve nods without finding words, mouth slightly agape and eyes wide as he looks up at them. Tony has a large enough ego to know that he and Anthony have to present quite the picture - after all, as he noted earlier, Tony knows how he would feel if he could watch two Steves going at it.
This time, though, Tony settles back onto his heels and pulls Anthony into his lap, and once they've found something close to a rhythm, Steve reaches up and circles a large hand around Anthony's cock, stroking him in time.
Anthony tips his head back against Tony's shoulder when he comes, pulsing out over Steve's chest and hand, and the way he clenches around Tony is enough to take Tony along for the ride in relatively short order. Tony's hips falter and he hauls Anthony back, getting as deep inside as Tony can go as he comes long and hard, muffling any noises he might make against the skin of Anthony's shoulder.
It takes a long moment for them to get sorted out again, untangled and cleaned up as well as can be expected, and piled into bed in some semblance of order. Whether Anthony will stay the night with them isn't even a question; Steve and Tony just fold him up under the covers with themselves, and they all drift to an exhausted and satisfied sleep.
Tony wakes the next morning with pleasantly sore muscles and the distinct memory of the night before right at the forefront of his mind. He raises his head to find himself weighed down by Steve's arm draped over his waist, and Anthony spooned up against Steve's back. For once, Steve doesn't wake as soon as Tony shows signs of it, but Anthony is awake already. Tony risks waking Steve in order to lean across the space for a kiss.
"Morning," Tony says, very softly.
"Morning." Anthony has a smile on his face that, given it's a face very similar to his own, Tony can readily identify as smug, especially combined with the sex-rumpled hair.
"Last night was ..."
Tony pauses, wanting to wait and hear what Anthony has to say about it, independent of any urging, but as the pause lingers, he wonders quietly, "Having second thoughts?"
Anthony shakes his head, laughing softly. "No. It's a little late for that, isn't it?"
Tony glances down at Steve, who's still snoring quietly between them. "Yeah, I guess so."
"I was going to say it was intense," Anthony says. "And amazing."
Tony grins, relief sweeping through him as the tension he didn't know he was feeling ebbs. "Yeah? Want to do it again?"
"Right now?" Anthony asks, raising his eyebrows.
Tony tips his head down and presses a kiss to Steve's hair. "Mmhm."
"I'd say you know me well," Anthony admits, "but at this point your intuition is just cheating."
Choosing not to be offended by way of ignoring that remark, Tony slides beneath the covers again and shifts close to kiss Steve. He keeps it light at first, but Steve slowly wakes from the attention, returning the kiss in a much lazier way than he typically does anything. Tony loves waking Steve up like this for that very reason, though this morning he resists Steve's typical attempts to roll him back into the pillows.
"Good morning," Tony says when he breaks away from the kiss.
"Mm, morning," Steve says. He glances over his shoulder and smiles when he sees Anthony, and he makes a point of tugging him down for a kiss, too.
While they're preoccupied with each other, Tony grabs the lube and a condom from the bedside table, before settling back to his previous position, content to simply watch until Steve finally pulls away from his kisses with Anthony.
"We didn't want to get started without you," Tony says, pitching his voice low as he slips his hand down to tease slicked fingers along Steve's cleft.
Steve moans softly, shifts back into the touch a little, opening up sweetly for Tony as Tony's fingers begin to press inside him. "Is that so?"
"I'm greedy," Tony adds. "I'd really, really like to watch him fuck you." He flicks a glance up to Anthony, and smiles. "You want to know what it's like, don't you?"
Anthony looks down at Steve, catching sight of the desire in Steve's expression, then he looks back to Tony and nods. "As much as I enjoyed being in the middle last night ..."
Watching Anthony, spooned up against Steve's back, fucking Steve slowly and lazily, perfectly in tune with the languid feeling of the early morning, is even better than Tony would have imagined. He stays on his side in front of Steve, bracketing him in, offering soft kisses and watching the play of expressions over Steve's face.
Gradually, Tony moves closer and presses himself against Steve's front, wraps his lube-slick hand around their cocks and rocks his hips gently with the motion of Steve and Anthony moving together, stroking in counter-rhythm. Steve comes first, quietly undone between them, burying his face in the crook of Tony's neck, and Tony gently works Steve down from it before concentrating on himself.
In the wake of his second orgasm in not so many hours, Tony feels ridiculously boneless and even less like getting out of bed than he had before suggesting a round of sleepy morning sex. Anthony seems similarly lazy, smooshed up against Steve's back, and for once, even Steve is content to get in a few hours more sleep.
Somehow, they manage to make it out of bed by late morning, where Tony finds several missed calls from Reed. He tries not to look too guilty when he calls back, even if Anthony snickeringly teases from the background that Reed is too dense to notice that Tony totally has sex hair, anyway.
For the next couple of days, they fall into a pattern that might be a little too comfortable for an outside observer to grasp. Anthony spends less of his downtime brooding in the presence of his Steve, and much more being distracted by Steve and Tony in their bed (and, on one memorable occasion, the kitchen ... they just didn't make it as far as the bedroom).
Reed comes over to help set up the equipment once it's finished fabricating, and when they've completed the last test necessary to be confident that Anthony will, indeed, get back to his universe in one piece, they assemble in the workshop to arrange the transport. Tony feels almost sentimental over the prospect of saying goodbye.
"Well," Anthony says, obviously trying to lighten the mood. "I hope no supervillains try to attack the second we get home, because I'm way too sore to fight them off."
Tony laughs softly, appreciating the effort, even if he still feels unusually sorry to see his alternate go. They wait until they're all on the other side of the portal, where Reed can't watch, to exchange quick farewell kisses (Tony's is definitely dirty, though; he can't resist slipping in a bit of tongue). They get the stasis pods situated, then assemble to say their goodbyes when the alarms in his parallel workshop begin to sound. The other Avengers will be on their way, and Steve and Tony shouldn't linger any longer.
"Be sure to keep in touch," Tony says. "You have the specifications to contact us."
"Come for a visit any time," Steve adds.
Anthony smiles at them both. "Thank you," he says. "For the hospitality - and the amazing sex. I'll see you later."
That seems like a better place to leave it than a real 'goodbye,' so Tony steals one last kiss before turning back toward the portal with Steve. Just as they're about to return home, though, Steve hesitates.
"What is it?" Tony asks softly.
"Go ahead without me," Steve says. "I'll be along in a second."
Tony is reluctant to leave Steve behind, but the gateway is stable and he trusts Steve's judgment, so he just nods and squeezes Steve's hand before stepping through the portal alone.
Steve returns five minutes - or maybe even fewer - after Tony, but he stubbornly declines to comment on his reasons for lingering behind.
It isn't until a few weeks later, while Steve is taking some downtime after yet another encounter with another Kashmir Vennema (and of course it turns out that there are dozens of her scattered across universes), that Tony finds out the truth.
They're down in the workshop, Tony tinkering on a project and Steve cleaning and repairing his gear, when they receive a message of the cross-universal variety. It turns out to be something as mundane as an email, from one firstname.lastname@example.org, with a single line of text in the body:
Next time, let's make it a foursome.