“Tony, you need to eat something,” Steve sighed as he watched Tony tinker at his holographic interface with some strange machine. The man had been working on it furiously for weeks, barely coming up for air, and Steve had decided enough was enough.
Tony made some sort of vague sound in response.
Steve just walked over to Tony and spun the man around, ripping him away from the console, “Ow,” Tony grumbled, wincing at the strength in Steve’s grip. Steve quickly removed his hand from Tony’s shoulder, “Rude.” Tony blinked, “What’s up, buttercup?”
Steve rolled his eyes, “Food, Tony. You need to eat. What is this thing, anyway?”
Tony snorted, “It’s for a bet with Reed Richards. I made mine to make sure his doesn’t blow up the known universe. Or at least Earth. You know how these things are. And, no. I do not need to eat, thank you very much. That’s what my lovely smoothies are for.”
Steve stared Tony down, “You can’t just survive off of goop and coffee, Tony. It’s not healthy.”
Tony rolled his eyes, “Whatever you say, spangles,” Tony muttered before turning back to his work.
Steve sighed again before heading out of the workshop and up the stairs. He was going to make sure Tony ate something and was healthy if it killed him. Steve quickly entered the kitchen and snagged some ingredients. He would just make something simple, something that even Tony would probably be able to just scarf down without worrying too much about its component parts. That in mind, Steve boiled a pot of pasta and warmed up some simple marinara sauce, plating everything when he had finished.
Steve brought it down to the workshop, punching in his access code before entering, only to find Tony almost waist deep inside the machine. Tony was bent over at the middle, wiggling around in the machine. It painted a hilarious picture to Steve, with Tony practically presenting himself as he worked in the innards of whatever it was that Tony was tinkering with. Steve quietly set the plate on the workbench, far enough away from Tony’s work that nothing was liable to get messed by pasta sauce, but close enough that Tony wouldn’t be able to ignore it.
Steve smiled, though, as a thought struck him. It would be a great way for Steve to get back at Tony for the water balloon stunt that he had pulled this morning. Steve really did have to intervene before Tony and Clint’s prank war escalated any further. But that was for later. Sneaking up on Tony as quietly as he was able, Steve pinched Tony’s behind.
Steve barely contained his snort of laughter when Tony practically shot upwards, a loud bang resounding from in the machine followed by some colorful cursing before Tony finally managed to extricate himself from the bowels of his machine. Tony turned to look at Steve, glaring, “Fucking ow,” Tony’s glare was undercut by the fact he was rubbing his head, “That was very un-American, Rogers. I am disappointed in you.”
Steve smirked, “Oh, golly. I feel so bad, Mr. Stark, don’t be mad.” Steve put on his best USO smile, “But I got you some food to make up for it.”
Tony rolled his eyes, “Food again? Rogers, I told you, I’m fine. You don’t need to be a mother hen or a papa bear or whatever else. I’m a grown ass man.”
Steve just crossed his arms, “Eat.”
Tony threw his hands up in the air, pulled up a chair near the pasta and started eating, “Food good. Tony eat. Rogers Happy.”
Steve glared, “What was that supposed to be?”
Tony looked up at Steve innocently, “I was just trying to talk in your native language of Cro-Magnon, meathead dialect.”
Steve clenched his hands at his sides and reminded himself that Tony was only trying to get a rise out of him. If Steve took the bait, he would only be succeeding. Steve had already won, at this point, by getting the inventor to eat. That was all. He just needed to keep an eye on Tony and make sure that the other man didn’t do something stupid again.
Steve strode over to the couch that he had commandeered in Tony’s workshop for when he wanted to keep an eye on his teammate and pulled out a sketchbook. Every time Tony made to resume work on his machine without finishing his food, Steve coughed and gave his teammate a pointed stare, after which Tony sulked back and resumed eating. Eventually, Tony finished his food and dove back into the machine with abandon.
Not fifteen minutes later, alarms started blaring everywhere. Steve shot up, running to stand next to Tony, who was standing himself, his fingers dancing over the holographic interface in front of him, eyes darting between different pieces of information that Steve didn’t know how to make sense of.
“What’s going on?” Steve asked quickly.
Tony frowned at the readings in front of him, his look quickly turning into something horrified, which only served to send Steve’s tension rocketing skywards, “Richards, that idiot. His machine’s activating.” Tony’s hands were a flurry of activity before Tony’s own machine started to power up, white light arcing from pieces of the casing.
“Did you do that?” Steve asked.
Tony frowned, “No. The machine seems to have activated because of Richards’s.”
Steve wanted to run up and grab his shield, but he knew this was a science problem, “Can you shut–” Steve was cut off as a bolt of light from the machine struck him square in the chest. He heard Tony talking, but that didn’t seem to matter at the moment. He could see everything. The room, and everything in it, and everything outside of it, seemed to crystalize in front of Steve for an all too fleeting moment.
“Steve!” Tony’s voice rocked Steve out of his stupor. He looked up to see Tony turning towards him. He tried to ask what was wrong, but felt oddly numb and disconnected after his brief stupor. Then, Tony was running towards him full tilt, pushing him away farther than Steve would have rightly expected Tony would be capable of.
And then the machine seemed to explode, sending out a violent pulse of white-blue light, though the machine itself seemed unharmed. The pulse, though, caught Tony, and sent him flying past Steve to impact the wall. Steve, who had been sent stumbling to the floor by Tony, crawled towards the other man, who was lying worryingly still.
“Tony!” Steve shouted. The other man didn’t move.
Steve scrambled as fast as his body would move, dragging himself with his arms until he was hovering over Tony’s prone form, supporting himself with his forearms, “Tony, can you hear me?” Steve asked again. There was a high pitch whine starting up from the machine, and Steve was worried it was going to explode again.
Tony’s eyes fluttered open, and he gave Steve a grim smile, his lips flecked with blood, “Hey, Cap.” Tony coughed after he managed to get the words out, the hacking giving way to a wet choking noise that Steve knew meant fluid in the other man’s lungs.
“JARVIS!” Steve shouted, he didn’t know of anyone else who would be able to help them. Tony didn’t have much time left.
“No use, Cap,” Tony’s words were garbled and wet sounding, and Steve’s pulse raced faster at the sound, “the explosion probably blew out everything in the lab. He can’t hear you.”
“Don’t try to talk, Tony,” Steve said, feeling stronger now. Tony had pushed him out of the way of that explosion, sacrificing himself for Steve. Steve felt something heavy in his gut as he tried to push himself up and grab at Tony. He wouldn’t let Tony die. He couldn’t.
“Sorry, Steve,” Tony said, smiling. It was the most real smile that Steve had ever seen on Tony’s face. A second later, Tony let out a long wet sounding breath and stared up at the ceiling with sightless eyes.
And then Steve was blinded by a piercing white light.
Steve shot up in his bed, waking with a gasp. His breathing slowed as he took in his surroundings. He was in his room in Avenger’s Tower. It had been a dream. A nightmare, more like. Steve quickly calmed himself and swung his feet over his bed and levered himself onto his feet, shaking off the last vertigo from his dream.
He opened the door to ensuite bathroom. And then stopped as a water balloon fell on his head, leaving his hair and shirt sopping wet. Steve took a moment to breathe, overcome by the sensation of déjà vu. It had just been a nightmare, Steve reminded himself as he went through his morning ablutions. Steve reminded himself of the same as he went about his day, eating breakfast, working out at the gym, worrying about Bruce going to his conference in San Francisco with Sam as backup, and Natasha, Clint, and Bucky on their operation in Russia.
Steve decided to check in on Tony. If he knew the man, and he did, after months of working with him, the inventor hadn’t come up for air or food or drink all day, just surviving off of that good he got Dummy to make for him and coffee. Steve shook the chill out of his spine at the familiar sense of déjà vu the thought brought and headed into the workshop, JARVIS opening the door for him without the need for his passcode. Steve stood stock still as he looked to see what Tony was working on. The Machine. The same Machine that had wounded Steve and had killed Tony.
Steve stepped out of the workshop, Tony none the wiser as to his presence, and braced himself with one hand against the wall as he struggled to get a hold of himself. After a moment and a couple of calming breaths, Steve knew what he had to do. If history decided to play out the same way as his nightmare, then he just wouldn’t let things happen the same way. Steve marched into the room and bodily picked up Tony, who was still working at his holographic interface.
“What the fresh hell?” Tony shouted as Steve tossed him over his shoulder.
Steve ignored the curses and imprecations that Tony hurled at him as JARVIS obligingly opened the door to the workshop and the elevator, even sending the elevator to the common floor before Steve could be bothered to push the button. Tony had stopped pounding at Steve with his fists and his words, and was strangely compliant as Steve dropped him down onto a chair in the kitchen none too gently.
“Ow.” Tony said as he rubbed his behind, “Rude.” And Steve fought away a wave of chills. “That was very un-America, Rogers. I am disappointed in you.” Tony kept babbling about liberty and freedom and self-determination, but Rogers tuned him out, still hung up on the too familiar words.
Steve shook himself, “You need to eat, Tony.”
Tony rolled his eyes, but staid where Steve had put him, apparently not too offended at Steve’s actions or his purpose. Steve was grateful that something was going his way for now. He kept an eye on Tony, who was still tinkering with the interface on the table that the team used for briefings, as he cooked. Tony looked fine. There were no signs at all that Tony remembered any of the things that Steve did. It wasn’t until he started stirring the sauce that Steve realized what he had been doing. He had made Tony pasta with marinara sauce.
Steve swallowed down the bile in his throat as he plated the pasta and covered it in sauce. Placing the food in front of Tony. He started into it with a fervor that belied the version of Tony in Steve’s nightmare about Tony’s ability to subsist off of coffee and goop. Steve started to relax, content to watch Tony eat and ponder as to what had happened to make him dream such an iron clad version of the future.
And then the alarms started blaring, JARVIS calling Tony to his workshop.
Tony bolted and headed straight for the elevator, Steve a step too far behind him. The elevator doors slammed shut in his face. Steve pounded at the elevator call button until he was sure he had broken it. By the time he had made his way to the workshop and the door had slid open to receive him, a familiar and ominous humming was in the air. Steve stepped through the door just in time to see Tony blasted backwards by an explosion of blinding blue-white light.
Steve ran over to Tony, lifting the broken man in his arms. If he could get him to a hospital, maybe it wouldn’t turn out like his nightmare. Maybe he could save Tony this time. But as he lifted Tony, the man let out a sound of pain, and Steve stood stock still, Tony bundled in his arms, “Steve?” Tony asked, eyes fluttering open. Tony smiled warmly at the sight of Steve.
“You’ll be fine, Tony. I’ll get help, you’ll be fine.” Steve said, willing Tony to believe him. Willing it to be true.
Tony just smiled, “It’s alright Steve.” And then Tony reached up to brush Steve’s face, his fingertips ghosting across Steve’s cheek before his hand fell. Tony let out one last gurgling breath as Steve curled around Tony’s form. White light pierced the darkness of Steve’s closed eyes.
And then he woke up with a gasp.
Steve made his way straight for Tony’s workshop. This had to be about the Machine that Tony was working on. Or it was Reed Richards. While Steve certainly didn’t hate the man, meeting him had given the entire team a newfound appreciation for Tony’s brand of confidence and competence. Reed Richards was certainly a genius. But he was also an airhead and caused just as many problems as he fixed.
Steve would get to the bottom of that later, however, after he was sure that Tony was secure and no longer in danger. The images of Tony’s fresh corpse were burned into Steve’s mind. Both images, actually, now that Steve realized that the first time wasn’t a dream. Steve shivered as he entered the elevator. He wouldn’t let it happen again. He would save Tony this time.
Steve strode into Tony’s workshop and halted again, no longer bothering to notice that JARVIS seemed to have given him carte blanche to Tony’s sanctum sanctorum. Tony’s face was buried in his arms, sleeping and surrounded by empty bottles. Tony did drink, yes, but so did Natasha and Clint. Tony hadn’t had problems with controlling his intake since the Mandarin incident.
Steve walked over to Tony carefully, avoiding the broken glass on the floor and the various bottles strewn in his path. “Tony,” Steve whispered gently as he shook his teammate’s shoulder.
Tony woke with a start, jumping up and eyeing his surroundings blearily, “Wha? Who?” Then he saw Steve standing over him, “Shit.”
“Tony, what’s wrong?” Steve asked quietly. Maybe Tony was remembering, too. Maybe that was why he was drinking. Maybe he could help Steve find a way to solve this problem so that Tony wouldn’t have to die. Again.
Tony blinked at Steve for a moment, “I’m far too hung-over and not nearly drunk enough to have this conversation.”
“Please, Tony,” Steve implored, willing Tony to listen to him. “This could be important.”
Tony frowned. His eyes locked with Steve’s for a long moment before the inventor finally acquiesced, “Fine.” Tony bit the word out, “Pepper left me. A month ago.” A dozen moments crowded Steve’s thoughts. Pepper leaving for a business trip about a month ago, but never coming back. Tony being increasingly snappish. Tony’s workshop binges increasing in frequency and duration. Tony avoiding team bonding moments like movie night. All of them made a sudden and horrible sense. How could Steve and the others have just let Tony deal with something like that on his own? For a whole month?
“I’m sorry,” Steve said, pulling Tony into a hug. Tony didn’t resist, but he didn’t return the gesture.
Instead, the other man snorted, “I don’t need your pity, Rogers. And I don’t want it. I think we’ve established by now that I’m an asshole that probably doesn’t deserve it either.”
Steve pulled back to look at Tony, “Tony, no, I don’t–”
Tony pushed Steve away, “Save it, Steve. I want to be alone, now, thanks.”
Steve let Tony extricate himself from Steve’s grasp, “But, Tony, I need to tell you something, this is important.” Steve tried again, willing Tony to believe him.
“Save it, Rogers. Get out.” Tony growled out, his hangover seeming to make him more irritable than normal.
“But–” Steve was cut off by an empty bottle flying towards his head.
Tony turned towards his Machine, effectively ignoring Steve. Steve didn’t want to physically remove Tony, as it would likely be counterproductive, but he was loath to just give up. Steve decided to leave and give Tony the time he needed to cool down.
As Steve was leaving, he caught the tail end of Tony’s muttering, “Huh. I got more done last time than I thought. I should engineer drunk more often.”
Steve grimaced as he exited the workshop. He probably hadn’t handled that as well as he should have. Now, Tony had no idea the danger he was in. Steve resolved to give his teammate the time he needed to cool down before he tried to get through to him. Tony had saved him, that first time, pushing him out of the way of the shockwave that had taken Tony’s life. And Steve would be damned if he wasn’t going to make sure Tony got out of whatever this was intact.
But he didn’t.
And Steve yelled out his frustration as Tony died in his arms. Again.
And white light enveloped him.
Steve woke shouting.
This time, Steve tried a different approach, and actually managed to get Tony’s help on the problem. He convinced Tony what was happening. Tony, knowing his Machine and knowing Richards, had understood and told Steve what he needed to know and how to help.
Steve tried to save Tony this time.
But Tony died in his arms as both of them are surrounded by light. Again.
Steve woke. He marveled, absently, that every time he has been in a loop he woke up feeling refreshed and ready for a new day. He had watched Tony die in his arms ten times now. Those ten times had been good for something, though. Tony has made progress on the Machine, which Steve now realized was retaining the changes along with Steve retaining memories. Eventually, Tony might finish the Machine and find a way to end the loops, a way where Tony ended up alive.
But Steve wanted a break.
This time, Steve got out of bed, dodged the water balloon, cleaned up, and headed down to Tony’s workshop.
This time, he kissed Tony just as the other man woke.
It took Steve these ten loops to find out why his heart felt like it was breaking every time he had watched Tony die. There had been an inkling, of course, when Tony had confessed to him that he had broken up with Pepper over a month ago and Steve had felt some sort of dark satisfaction that he had quickly buried. He should have realized when he stopped to admire Tony’s assets every time the man presented himself so easily to Steve when he was waist deep in the Machine.
Steve, however, managed to bungle things, and Tony locked him out of the workshop. Steve pounded on the door, imploring JARVIS to let him in, begging Tony to let him in. JARVIS finally let him in when the alarms went off. Steve begged Tony to leave with him, even as the Machine powered up.
Tony saved him again.
Steve leant down to kiss Tony again as the white light enveloped them. Tony tasted of Steve’s tears and Tony’s blood and just a hint of something metallic and fruity.
Steve woke with the taste of Tony’s lips on his.
Steve decided to go about it better.
Steve and Tony spent the rest of the day holed up in Steve’s suite until the alarms went off.
As Steve cradled a broken Tony in his arms, Tony reached up to kiss Steve before he drifted off into death. And Tony died. Again.
Steve wept as white light envelops them.
Steve woke with the taste of Tony’s lips on his.
This time, Steve and Tony spent the rest of the day holed up in Tony’s suite until the alarms went off.
And Tony died. Again.
Steve woke with the taste of Tony’s blood on his lips.
This time, Steve and Tony spent the rest of the day holed up in Tony’s workshop.
And Tony died. Again.
Steve woke up broken.
They go on a date.
And Tony died. Again.
Steve stopped keeping track of the number of loops he goes through.
This time, Steve had decided to take Tony somewhere else. He has successfully managed to convince Tony to turn Malibu into a love nest. They were getting into the car and were about to drive off, but the garage refused to open.
“Hey, J, is there a problem?” Tony asked JARVIS.
“Yes, sir, it seems as though Dummy has gone rather wild with the fire extinguisher.” JARVIS’s voice sounded contrite as Tony cursed, telling Steve he would only be a second.
Tony went into the elevator, and Steve glanced nervously at the clock.
The alarms went off.
Steve bolted from the car to go to the workshop, but the elevator doors remained shut.
“JARVIS, let me go to the workshop.” Steve was practically growling.
“I’m sorry, Captain, I’m afraid I can’t do that.” JARVIS’s voice was steel covered in British propriety. Steve could have almost laughed if the situation weren’t what it was. Tony had shown him 2001: A Space Odyssey during one of the loops while they had been on a date.
“I’m not in the mood for jokes, JARVIS,” and there was something ugly in Steve’s voice, but he didn’t care. He needed to get to Tony. He couldn’t let Tony die this time. Yet. Again. They would have the next loop, Steve thought in some dark place. Steve would get to do it all over again, get to watch Tony fall for him all over again, that place told him. He quashed the thoughts.
“I am afraid I am not joking, Captain.” JARVIS said, resolute.
It suddenly clicked for Steve. A dozen moments of JARVIS doing things that had helped Steve along, that had made things easier for him. Opening doors without pass codes. Recipes for pasta brought up that much quicker. Ingredients Steve had needed ready to go. Notes and messages to convince Tony of the reality of the situation, or, when Steve had needed a break, to convince Tony that Steve loved him and that they should go off and be happy. “You knew.” Steve spat out, venom in his voice.
“During the first instance of the phenomenon I attempted to use Sir’s device to deactivate Dr. Richards’s machine. Upon my failure and the timeline resetting itself, I discovered data in the machine that allowed me to reconstruct my memories of the previous timeline. Since the initial occurrence, I began storing data in the machine and I have tried, as you have, Captain, to resolve the situation.” JARVIS said instead of replying.
“Then why are you letting Tony die,” Steve snarled. He turned to take the stairs, now, running up them as fast as he can to get to Tony’s workshop. He was running out of time. He had to save Tony.
“My primary function is to ensure Sir’s well-being.” JARVIS’s voice was brittle. “In order to ensure Sir survives, he must complete the machine. After that, one last reset will eliminate the temporal flux.”
Steve realized, as he finally reached the floor with Tony’s workshop that maybe something had broken in JARVIS, too. Maybe watching his creator, friend, and reason for existence die over and over and over again had done something to the AI. JARVIS opened the workshop for Steve, just in time to watch the explosion knock Tony backwards and into a wall. Steve cradled Tony, kissing the man he loved, will always love, as Tony died. Again.
There was a flash of white light.
The next loop, Steve worked with JARVIS.
And Tony died. Again.
There was a flash of white light.
At some point they tried to go to the Baxter building and keep Richards from activating the device.
Tony and Richards argued while the device activated spontaneously.
Tony pushed him out of the room, wearing the Iron Man armor.
Steve came back inside, only to see the light at the center of the armor die. Steve cradled the armor to his chest as Tony died. Again.
There was a flash of white light.
Steve didn’t know how many times he had looped through time, how many times he had tried to save Tony, failing each time, but he knew it didn’t matter anymore, because the Machine was fixed. Steve rushed through his loop routine. He knew it would be the last time he would have to dodge the water balloon.
Eventually, Steve came to stand in front of the workshop, JARVIS opening the door for him. Steve drank in the sight of Tony looking bewildered. Tony was staring at the completed Machine. Steve paused for a brief moment to chuckle to himself at Tony’s bewildered expression before entering the lab.
Tony turned and blinked as Steve entered, his brow furrowed, “Hey, Cap, what are you–” Steve silenced Tony with a kiss.
Tony backed away, eyes wide, “I don’t,” Steve kissed him again.
And then Tony kissed back.
“I love you,” Steve whispered into Tony’s lips as they separated for a brief moment. Tony made a strangled noise before Steve kissed him again.
Days went by. Days that had an end and had a beginning. And Tony and Steve went on dates and Steve took things slow, because they both had time, all the time they could ever want or need. And they kissed again, and again, and again.
Until, eventually, Tony whispered the words back to Steve, “I love you, too.”
Again and again.