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Catch Me Through the Looking-Glass

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“Steve, Natasha and Clint have the last one. Get your sweet ass back here.” Tony's voice is crackly and faint within his ear, which means he's on the other side of the Incursion point. They've only been through two of these things so far, and Tony's still working out the bugs in the whole multidimensional comm unit thing. It's clearer than it was the last Steve heard it, though, which is not actually comforting.

Steve is just blinking the grit out of his eyes and taking in his surroundings; makeshift cell, not enough to hold him for long, in a windowless, concrete room, probably a basement. No hints on what kind of building he's in, or were that building might be located..

“How long?” Steve croaks, wondering what the fuck hit him. Not much can keep him down for long, these days, but that's in his world and this one, as far as he has been able to tell, runs on a completely different set of rules.

“T-minus one hour twenty-eight minutes,” Tony says as Steve hears boots stomping into the basement. “But they've got a big red button and I don't know how long we can hold them off and where the fuck are you?

Steve takes quick stock of the situation, even as the news sends his mind reeling. “How the hell did they get a bomb on our planet?”

He's a little battered around the edges, but there's nothing that's gonna slow him down much. His shield is just on the other side of the bars, thank God, and there's about ten thugs who just joined him in the basement but he's fought worse odds in tighter quarters. He'll have to fight his way through, but that doesn't worry him much.

“Slipped through while we were trying to find that damned thief,” Tony grits out. “Seriously, Steve, where are you?”

No, what he's really worried about is that he has no idea where he is or how long it will take to get him to the incursion point.

Panic claws at his throat and fills up his airways, psychosomatic ghosts of asthma attacks he hasn't experienced in years. He viciously shoves the sensations away, shoves away everything that's not the current mission: Get home.

“Honey, I'm gonna have to call you back,” He says to Tony, hoping none of his fear makes it into his voice. “I've got company.”

It takes five minutes to take out the guys in the basement, fifteen to find his way to the surface, and another ten to find suitable transportation (a motorcycle, but in that sleek, sporty style he hates). It takes another ten minutes for him to get his bearings, and that's when Steve begins to despair.

“Tony,” he says.

“Steve? Where the fuck are you? These creepy Illuminati guys are getting real jumpy and they think we're lying about having all the stones.”

Steve swallows. “Manhattan.”

There's a long pause.

“You are shitting me. God, Steve, this is not-- please tell me this is a joke, this is a really bad joke, baby, but I'll forgive you if you take it back right now.”

Steve is dodging and weaving through traffic and panicked citizens. The incursion is happening upstate but the city, oblivious to the looming threat of the end of the world, carries on as normal. “Normal” of course meaning bumper to bumper traffic and citizens who are not the least bit impressed with Steve's blind desperation to get where he needs to be.

No. No no no no. His mind screams in denial. He pushes the bike as fast as it will go, testing his reflexes to the limit to keep from crashing. Cars honk as he cuts them off and pedestrians curse at him for near misses as they cross the street but it doesn't matter. He'll never get there in time.

“I'm not, Tony, I'm not gonna make it. It's... fuck!” Steve shouts in alarm as a man runs out of nowhere from between two parked cars. He manages to swerve enough to keep from hitting him, but the turn is too sharp for the bike to handle and he ends up skidding across the pavement a few feet. He rolls to his feet and out of traffic, but abandons the bike where it lands. Stark is etched on the glass doors of the building in front of him.

He's out of time.

“No, Steve. No! No, they – they have quinjets here, they'll come pick you up and – ”

Steve doesn't speak until he's sure he can keep his voice steady. “You said they don't believe you have the Gauntlet.”

“Fucking – fuckers I fucking showed you they are right here,” He's not shouting at Steve, clearly. Or maybe he is, Steve doesn't know how the other him works in this reality. “This wouldn't have happened if you had just told-- Just go get him and we'll – what the fuck do you mean you can't take that chance, he is Captain fucking America.”

The skyscraper says STARK in huge letters down the side. It looks wrong, all wrong, and Steve closes his eyes.

(Stark Tower? That big ugly building in New York?)

“Close it,” Steve says, his voice cracking.

(That's a one-way trip...)

“Steve,” Tony gasps, voice thick. “No.

Steve's legs aren't very interested in holding him up anymore. He leans against the side of a parked care and feels his body slowly slide down until he's sitting on the sidewalk. All his strength is going into making his voice steady, into making the right decision, the only decision to make.. “We have to, Tony. Jane?”

“Yes Captain?” Jane's voice is breathy and wobbly, but determined.

“Do it. Now.

“Oh my god, oh my god, Steve, honey, no.”

“I'm sorry, Tony,” A few people are glancing curiously in his direction, but hardly anyone even bothers to look at him.

“I love you,” Tony says, desperately, and Steve closes his eyes in anguish. “I love you, and I will get you back. I will find you, do you hear me, Captain? I will find you.

“Okay, Tony,” Steve says, his voice flat and hopeless. “I love you.”

“I love you so fucking much, Steve, I can't believe I never told you. I will find you, I swear to God I will find--

Steve can't see the other Earth shrink as it's pushed farther and farther away, but he can hear Tony's voice steadily fade into static until, after a few moments, the comm unit is dead in his ear.

He thinks of Peggy, beautiful and fierce, listening to his voice cut out over a staticky radio and wonders if she felt at all like this, like the whole world is crumbling into dust and ash.

Steve thinks he should probably move. Go somewhere or do... something. He's having a lot of trouble figuring out what that might be. Maybe... the Avengers, he should find the Avengers. They were fighting with the Illuminati at the beginning, he remembers vaguely. Maybe they'll help.

Steve remains seated. The sky slowly darkens and the crowds ebb and flow and Steve stares straight ahead at nothing that exists in this world. He barely notices when people approach him. Nat would be disappointed.

“Son?” A man says, concerned. His voice is familiar. “Are you doing alright?”

Steve Rogers looks bleakly up into is own bright blue eyes. Oh good, he thinks vaguely, he won't have to go looking for the Avengers after all.

Captain America's eyes widen in shock. “Dear Lord.”

With effort, Steve drags himself to his feet. “So, uh,” he begins, his voice rough and raspy. He clears his throat and tries to summon a weak smile. “I think I missed my ride.”

Steve is cold. There is no reason he should be cold, the temperature in the penthouse (this penthouse, not the penthouse. Everything here is all wrong, all angles and sharpness with none of the graceful, swooping curves Tony prefers) is perfectly fine, he's the only one hunched over a steaming cup of coffee, trembling all over like he just came in from a blizzard. It's not really cold, he knows it's all in his head, and yet he just can't seem to stop shivering.

He feels all their eyes on him, and he's sure they can see his tremors. He keeps his gaze down in his mug and away from their sad, curious expressions. The kitchen is packed with strangers, people with unfamiliar faces who all call themselves Avengers. Steve almost thinks he could handle that, if it weren't for the familiar faces; Natasha and Clint and Thor. No Bruce, though. No Tony.

It doesn't matter, they're all strangers to him here. His friends, the people he's fought and bled for and with are worlds away and Steve is, once again, alone.

“He's so young,” he hears someone whisper. Steve doesn't look up but he wonders if the whisperer, who sounds very young himself, often forgets about Steve's enhanced hearing.

Everyone else in the room is dead quiet, watching him intently. The gathered heroes are all clearly nervous and uncertain and by the time Steve Rogers – the other one, the one who belongs here – stalks into the room it feels as though the tension could be cut with a knife. Rogers looks to be in his mid-or-late thirties, a good decade older than Steve's twenty-seven, although Steve's not entirely sure why he has that impression; he doesn't have age lines, his skin doesn't look particularly weathered and he isn't built much different than Steve himself is. Still, Steve looks at him and thinks o lder, definitely.

He also thinks weary. He thinks sad. Struggling.

“Well, that went well,” someone quips from across the room. Steve notes distantly that he's standing next to the young man who commented on Steve's youth. Rogers' expression tightens.

“Both worlds were saved without any loss of life,” he counters. “It could have gone far worse.”

“It may still, with the Illuminati still at large,” Thor points out. “It matters not if we know where and when these incursions occur, if they remain so successful at keeping us from them.”

“They won't be at large for long,” Rogers says, with grim promise. “I won't allow them to kill any more worlds.” Steve can feel his face go pale. Men who had already killed one world might just as easily kill another. He'd made the right decision then, not calling their bluff. A small comfort, but he clings to it.

“We would have had them today if it weren't for that damned thief,” a blond woman with short hair grumbles. “Who the hell was she?

“One of the newly awakened inhumans,” Rogers explains. “A jewel thief who gained the ability to teleport herself and other small objects – ”

“How fortunate for her,” another woman murmurs. She has dark hair and a red and yellow costume. Steve wonders briefly what an inhuman is, but doesn't care enough to ask.

“Indeed,” Captain Rogers continues. “Turns out she'd caught wind of this incursion business and found out about the Infinity Gems. Unfortunately,” his lips twist wryly, “her information was incomplete. She didn't know the Gems only work in their own universe.”

Natasha frowns. “How did she know where the incursion point was? Or even how to find it?”

Rogers looks grim and determined. Steve is impressed with how much presence this man has, even when he looks so run down. “We don't have that information yet. But we will.”

The blond woman sighs. “We need to talk about what information to give to the public. Keeping this quiet isn't an option anymore, and stumbling around trying to put out the fires of the well meaning is just going to distract us from the real problems. Like putting out the fires of the bad meaning, or worlds colliding and the end of all existence.”

“Yes thank you, Carol,” Captain Rogers says tightly. “Do you have any ideas on how to do that?”

“I'll talk it over with Natasha and Jess. We'll have a game plan for you tomorrow morning.”

“Make it the afternoon, you look like you need some sleep,” Rogers says and the woman nods, tired and stubborn. Steve doesn't know her from Eve but he's pretty sure she's not going to take his advice.

“What about the people who caught me?” Steve asks, ignoring how the rest of the room whirls their heads around to stare at him

Captain Rogers looks at him sympathetically. “We're not sure, but we think you got caught up in a plot to capture me, unrelated to the incursions. We're looking into the Red Skull and his usual associates, to start with.”

Steve's brow furrows and he feels a little sick. “The Red Skull? He's still alive?”

Rogers sighs. “Knocked him down a few times, but it never stuck.” He looks at Steve curiously. “How did you beat him?”

Steve's shivering comes back with a vengeance. “1945,” he says. “Just before I went in the... in the ice. He picked up the tessaract and just... disintegrated.” He shakes his head. “I've had plenty of trouble with Hydra since then,” understatement, “but I haven't seen anything more of Red Skull. Didn't even think he could come back from that.”

“Tessaract?”

Steve looks at him quizzically. “The Space Stone.”

Captain Rogers looks taken aback. “How did...?” He shakes his head. “Never mind. Conversation for another time. How are you holding up, son?”

Steve tries, and fails, to think of something remotely reassuring. In the end he just shakes his head and he looks down.

Rogers' eyes soften, and he comes over to put a hand on Steve's shoulder. Steve wonders distractedly if it should feel strange, being comforted by himself, but it doesn't. He just feels tired.

“I promise you, we will do our best to get you home,” he says sincerely. “It's just. We're spread a little thin right now, soldier.”

Steve nods. “Yeah. Yes, of course, I understand. Anything I can do to help.” He offers before he really thinks that they may not trust him to help. He doesn't really trust them either yet, he's just too weary to do much about that right now.

Rogers kindly just nods without a word, letting the comment pass, and says, “you're welcome to stay here, of course.”

It's nice of him to pretend Steve has any other option, when he's stranded on a strange world full of threats he's not aware of in a city that should be familiar, but isn't. Hell, he's already been captured once and he hasn't been here twenty-four hours.

“Yeah, I'd appreciate that. Thank you.” Steve summons a smile and hopes it doesn't look as resigned and worn down as he feels.

Rogers nods and squeezes his shoulder before pulling away. “Any other questions?”

Steve hesitates, because there's one face he hasn't seen in this room and he needs – he wants – he knows it won't be his Tony, of course. He knows that Tony in this world would be a stranger with a familiar name and face but...

“Is...” he begins hesitantly. “Is... Do you know a Tony Stark in this –?”

Steve watches his own face shut down so fast he blinks in surprise. The rest of the room, which had descended into quiet chatter once Rogers had made his announcements, grows deadly silent once more. Steve suddenly has the feeling that he just stepped on a massive landmine, and he's both reluctant and desperate to know why.

“Tony Stark is in custody,” Rogers says shortly. “He's not permitted visitors.” Steve can see Rogers' hands shaking and shies away from the look in his eyes. Something in his heart clenches, a hurt that is both sympathetic to the pain of this other self and which aches for this Tony he's never known. Not my Tony, he thinks to himself as he watches Steve Rogers storm out of the room. Not my world. No need to get worked up about it.

He looks at the rest of the gathered Avengers, who look uncomfortable and sad and angry by turns. He clears his throat, asks tentatively, “would anyone like to tell me what that was about?”

No one says anything. Not, Steve realizes, because they're trying to keep something from him. It just seems that no one can find the words.

Voice rough, Steve excuses himself and is shown to his guest room. He finds he's having trouble with the implication that Tony Stark is just not a good man in this universe. It's ridiculous; in the infinite multiverse, there are surely versions of Tony Stark that are twisted and villainous, just as there are certainly such warped versions of himself. It makes no sense, the way his mind rebels at the thought of how Tony – no, Stark, he is not his – may have earned his incarceration.

Nevertheless, it takes a long time for Steve to sleep.

“Hitting stuff” has been Steve's coping mechanism of choice since Project Rebirth, and while he'd like to think he's come a long way since trying to punch away his PTSD flashbacks after waking up from the ice, he's currently in a gym built for meta humans at four o'clock in the morning. He might be considering he hasn't come very far at all.

There's a punching bag set up in the corner. Presumably it's been reinforced for the Steve Rogers of this world, which probably means it's not going to fall apart satisfyingly like the heavy bags he'd chewed through after he first woke up. Steve carefully wraps his hands and sets himself up for steadily, methodically, testing the limits of that theory.

An hour later the bag shows no signs of giving out and Steve's mind is no calmer. His hands are beginning to ache, but that's not nearly enough to make him stop. He's beaten his hands bloody through the bandages before, even broke fingers once or twice, and they're always perfectly healed up an hour or two later as long as he tapes them up properly.

When Natasha walks in Steve looks up and smiles at her, easy and open, like any other day she joins him during an early morning workout.

“Up for a few rounds on the mats?” he asks without thinking, and then remembers himself when he sees her blink once, slowly, in surprise.

“Sure,” she says before he can take back the invite and apologize, and Steve's honestly relieved. Punching a bag for an hour is cathartic, maybe, but it doesn't take a lot of brain power and he really needs something to focus on, so he doesn't have to think so much.

He stretches along with her so he doesn't cool down too much as she warms up, and then they're on the mats. They start slowly, sizing each other up, aware that they're not actually fighting someone familiar, that they could be surprised.

A while back, before taking SHIELD down, Natasha and Steve's sparring sessions had been a spectacle. Agents in the gym would stop what they were doing to watch, and sometimes even come in from other parts of the building. Steve had the advantage of size and enhanced speed and strength, but Natasha was long practiced at using the strength of her opponents against them, and what she lagged him in speed (which wasn't much, considering) she made up for with the fact that she fought like she breathed; Steve started to learn how to fight at twenty-three, she'd started at eight. There was no comparison.

They dance around each other for a bit, light on their feet, tentative and smooth. It doesn't last for long though, and the pace picks up to breathtaking quickness and it's strange, fighting her, because it's so familiar, but there's something off. It's like painting with new brushes; the movements familiar but nothing behaves quite as he expects it too.

And then Steve isn't thinking about that anymore. He's not thinking about anything because she's fast, much faster than he anticipated, and he doesn't have room to think. He feels his mind quiet and expand, taking in all the details of her body language, acting and reacting quicker than thought. It's glorious, and Natasha's always been one of the few people who's been a challenge for him to spar but here he has to really push himself, he has to be so on the ball because she's so quick to take advantage of all his weaknesses.

They go a few rounds, and at the end of each one she brings him to the mat, hard. He's not upset about it, it doesn't even hurt that badly, and by the last time he's flat on his back staring at the ceiling he's laughing, light and easy. She looks at him with her head tipped slightly to the side, perplexed, and then breaks out a small smile.

“All right,” Steve pants. “Uncle, red, I'm done. You got me.”

Her grin widens as she comes to sit cross legged next to him. “That was strange. Good, but strange. You move differently than Cap. And I've never been able to take him down so many times in a row before.” Her voice is light, teasing, and the familiarity of it makes him grin.

“Yeah, well, he's older than me. Sort of.” Steve says. “And my Natasha isn't enhanced.”

Natasha blinks, surprised. “Huh. Really?”

“Really. Not that it stops her from kicking ass any.”

She does laugh outright at this. “I'd expect nothing else.”

There are calls to assemble, but it's made clear that Steve is not included in them. He's neither surprised nor insulted – he certainly wouldn't bring a stranger from an unknown alternate universe out into the field, the very idea is ludicrous – but Steve has never worn useless very well, and as each day crawls by with little activity and less hope of returning home the urge to claw off his own skin gets a little stronger.

Still, he keeps himself under control. If there's one thing Steve Rogers is, if there's one thing the serum made him be, it's adaptable. He saved the world ten days after being flung seventy years in the future, technology in general stopped flummoxing him a couple months after he woke up and if he still gets hung up on some pop culture references, well, that's only because there's so much pop culture to reference.

He's spent two years living and fighting and training and adjusting to the fact he can never go home. He's spent two years building a new home, forming new relationships with people who, while they obviously would never replace those he'd lost, have in their own ways come to mean as much to him. He's fallen in love, though that love is new and fragile and a little scary. And maybe he still mourns his old life, sometimes, and maybe he still struggles a little with culture shock and homesickness, but he's working on it. He's moving on.

Or at least, he was. Steve is... not confident he can move on, this time, if he has to.

He ends up spending a lot of time on the internet, on a tablet on loan from Carol Danvers. If he thought catching up after waking up from the ice was a strange experience, that is nothing compared to reading the history of this world. He apparently hadn't been the only meta human even back in the War, which is weird to think about but honestly the least surprising of anything he reads.

Fact is, this world is insane. The level and frequency of superpowered violence in New York alone is enough to make his head spin, and the headlines on any given news site look like something ripped from a science fiction paperback. For a while he wonders if he's trapped in some elaborate nightmare and just needs to wake up. Then he reads an article detailing a college student's experience with something similar and Steve has to put the tablet down and go punch things for a couple of hours.

He's sitting in the empty living room when he reads about Secretary Of State Tony Stark, drunk at a UN meeting, threatening the diplomat from Latveria. After watching that video, he resolves not to watch any more; the information itself is bad enough without being backed up by visuals, by the sight and sound of Tony swaggering and stumbling and humiliated.

He's been concentrating... a lot of his reading on this world's Tony Stark. And it's not as if he was expecting the media portrayal of Tony to be sunshine and roses in any world but this he was not expecting.

Thor walks in at that moment. “Captain,” he says lowly, “are you well?”

Steve looks up and summons a wry smile for him. “As well as can be expected.”

“Ah,” Thor says knowingly, joining Steve on the couch. “So, not very well then.”

Steve shakes his head. “No,” he says quietly, surprised by how easy the admission comes. “Not very well at all.”

Thor claps him on the shoulder and squeezes it supportively in a gesture so familiar Steve has to squeeze his eyes shut and turn his head away for a moment.

“I am sorry we cannot commit more resources to returning you to your home,” Thor says solemnly. “But things are... not as they should be, just now.” He looks strained, and worried, and deeply, deeply sad.

“No, I understand,” Steve reassures him. “This... with the incursions. It's huge. I wouldn't feel right, distracting people working on it just to try to get me home.”

“If there is anything that is within my power to do for you, Captain,” Thor says sincerely. “You have but to ask.”

Steve looks at him and summons a smile, the declaration warming him in a way little else has, since arriving here. “Thank you, Thor,” he says sincerely. “That really means a lot to me. I know I'm not the Steve Rogers you know--”

“Peace, Captain. You may not be of this world, but all can see that you are a noble and worthy hero.”

Steve's smile grows a little strained and he looks down at his clasped hands. It's never really sat right with him, being called a hero, but he's always figured it's a pretty rude thing to argue about. It's harder, this time, to shrug off the creeping sense of discomfort; he's never felt less like a hero than he has this past week.

They sit silently for a long while. It's unusual for Thor to be so still and so quiet for so long – or so Steve assumes, based on the Thor he knows – and Steve wonders if he knows what he's about to ask.

Well, he never got anywhere by avoiding asking hard questions. “So, Tony Stark,” he begins slowly, but Thor stops him with an upraised hand.

“I will answer any questions you are about to ask, Captain, but before you ask them, know that the answers will not be easy.”

Steve chuckles humorlessly. “Because everything else has been sunny days and strolls through the park,” he quips, but Thor just looks at him intently. Hurt and anger have joined the sadness in his expression and Steve struggles not to look away. Thor has always been by far the most expressive of them, but Steve has to know.

“What's going on with Tony Stark?”

Thor nods, closes his eyes for a moment, and leans back. His posture shifts to something Steve recognizes from when Thor tells stories. He sits back to listen.

“Anthony Edward Stark,” Thor begins, “is a great man, of that there is no doubt. But he has done terrible, terrible things. He has long been one of my dearest friends, and I hold on to the hope that he at least believes that he has done what he must, in the name of good,” he pauses, his expression distant and stormy. ”But that is by no means a certainty.”

Steve frowns, but listens intently. It is difficult to hear what Thor has to say about Tony, but he knew it would be. He was not prepared, however, for the heaviness of Thor's voice, the sting of betrayal deeply felt.

“In any event,” Thor continues, “he has done great things to protect the people of this planet, has made deep and noble sacrifices, saved countless lives, and has, also, hurt the people closest to him deeply.” Thor's face twists in a flash of pain and anger. “Some may say unforgivably.”

Steve sits, waits. When Thor doesn't say anything else, he asks. “What has he done?”

“He planned, with a few other powerful men, to destroy entire Earths and all who lived on them. When Steve Rogers objected, he erased all memory of the incursions and the secret council of the Illuminati from his mind.”

The bottom drops from Steve's stomach and he gapes for a moment. “What?” he chokes out, disbelieving. “What? How?” A terrible thought flashes through his mind, an image of an evil machine found in the depths of an abandoned bank vault. Surely not.

Thor sighs deeply, with all the force of his fatigue and heartbreak. “Perhaps I did not word that fairly. The decision was made by the entire group. We cannot know how willing or reluctant Tony was to pursue that course of action. We only know that it was his betrayal that harmed our Captain most deeply.”

Steve sets his jaw and narrows his eyes. “How,” he bites out. It's suddenly terribly, vitally important he knows the answer to that question.

Thor looks at him curiously. “I believe Doctor Strange wove a spell to take his memories. One night, the spell lifted and he remembered.”

Steve knows he shouldn't be relieved, but he can't help the way his whole body relaxes and his shoulders come down from around his ears. “Magic,” he says softly, a touch disbelievingly.

“Indeed,” Thor says slowly, but doesn't press anything. “After the destruction of the Infinity Gauntlet, he maintained that there was no need to contemplate mass murder, that there was a better way, so that no other Earths would have to die. The Illuminati apparently did not feel that they could afford dissenters among their number.”

Steve's mind is a whirl of confusion and emotion he cannot make sense of, just now, except – “The Infinity Stones can break?” he asks, his voice soft and strained and horrified. He'd known the stones were a stopgap, of course, a way to manage the symptoms until they figured out the cure, but this... Things may be worse than he thought.

And I can't even get home to warn them, he thinks, anguished and sick with worry. Thor just nods at him, his face sad and resigned. He doesn't seem to have anything more to say, and Steve is left with a lot to think about.

A thought emerges from the roiling broil of his mind: Which is worse – the fact that someday he might have to choose between saving another world or his own, or that this other version of himself is hero enough to not consider it an option?

Later that evening, Steve is somewhat surprised to hear a knock at his door. He hasn't exactly been keeping himself isolated from the rest of the Avengers, but they rarely seek him out.

“Hi,” Carol Danvers says brightly when he answers the door. “You busy?”

Steve flashes her a wry half grin. “Oh yeah, completely swamped. Can't you tell?” He motions around the completely empty guest bedroom he's taken residence in.

“Oh pardon me,” she says, eyes twinkling. “I didn't mean to interrupt your no-doubt very important business. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me.”

“No promises,” Steve quips, matching her smile. “So, did you need me for something, Captain Danvers?”

“Carol, please,” She laughs. “I'm here to extend an invitation. Some of us are watching a movie, and we feel bad for you being cooped up in the tower all the time – ” he sort of appreciates that she doesn't bring up how he's also trapped in an alternate universe “ – and I was wondering if you wanted to join us?”

It sounds nice. Well, actually, it mostly just sounds strange, but in a way that could be sort of nice, except –

“Isn't there kind of a crisis going on right now?” He tries to keep censure out of his voice, but he's never really been good at that and he's feeling it a little extra just now. He can understand not being able to devote resources to getting him home home, but...

Still, Carol doesn't seem offended – actually, she just laughs. “Oh, Steve, if we waited until there were no crises to take a little downtime, we'd all be dead of burnout by now.” She shakes her head a little

“It's not... It's not all of us. Mostly just those of us who aren't stuck in a lab all day or-” her lips press together and her eyes flick away from his. “Or something. Anyway, we've had a rough couple of weeks and there's nothing a lot of us can do right now so we're just going to take two hours to pretend the world's problems don't exist. You in?”

Steve smiles at her, and even he can tell it's a bit sad. “I'm in.”

They walk down together in surprisingly companionable silence, and Steve feels pretty calm until they get to the living room. Everyone goes silent as soon as they enter, staring at him, and Steve tries not too look as self-conscious as he feels.

“So, what are we watching?” he asks after a few beats of awkward silence.

“Pacific Rim,” Sam Guthrie, one of the Avengers Steve hadn't recognized, says apologetically. “But we can pick something else if--”

“No, I love that movie,” Steve says offhand, trying to figure out where he's going to sit. Natasha beckons him over and he smiles gratefully, going over to join her on the couch. Clint is sitting on her other side. He takes a moment to settle and allows himself to feel a little comforted by their presence.

That is, of course, when he notices everyone staring at him. “What?” he asks, a little defensive.

“It just... doesn't really seem like your kind of movie, I guess,” Clint says a little hesitantly.

Steve scowls. “Why, because I'm an old man from the 40's who can't handle special effects?”

“Pretty much that, yeah.”

Steve rolls his eyes. “That's ridiculous. Special effects in movies are incredible. I used to love going to the pictures as a kid, and the way they've evolved is nothing short of amazing. I'm not actually a fossil, you know.”

Carol laughs. “Oh no, you've ruffled baby Cap's feathers?”

Steve raises an eyebrow. “Baby Cap?”

“Sorry, Steve,” Natasha says, smiling a little. Her smiles are even smaller than in his world, he notes a little sadly. “You're just so young.”

“Oh just turn on the damn movie, will you.”

“Oh my god he cursed – ow, fuck, Nat, was that really necessary?” Natasha just gives Clint a look and he dodges another punch to the shoulder. “Yeah, yeah, okay, turning on the movie.”

Someone dims the lights and the movie begins and Steve, settling back into the couch, feels abruptly unbalanced. It's so familiar, sitting on a couch watching a movie with his teammates, that for long stretches of time he doesn't really think about where he is, how he got here, who these people actually are. But the truth itches at the back of his mind and he'll notice, suddenly, the unfamiliar shape of the room or the sudden movement of a stranger and he's jerked unpleasantly back to reality.

The worst part isn't the remembering; it's it's know that, even if only for a little bit, he had forgotten. He appreciates that the team here is trying to include him, make sure he doesn't feel isolated, but he desperately doesn't want to get used to life here. It feels too much like giving up.

Steve wakes abruptly from an uneasy sleep, drenched in cold sweat. Tony's voice echoes in his head, you're late, dry and raspy with age. He does his best to calm his panicked breathing as he tries to get his bearings. Since Project Rebirth, his dreams have gotten so vivid it often takes a few minutes to separate them from reality.

He didn't get stuck in the ice again. He didn't miss a date with Tony. The reality, though, isn't a whole lot better.

A quick glance at the clock tells him he's gotten two hours of sleep tonight, and he's not likely to get any more. He puts on a set of borrowed sweatpants and heads to the gym. It won't help him sleep, but laying in bed staring at the ceiling won't either.

A while back, before they started this strange, tentative thing they had, Tony would often meet him in the gym during late nights like this. He'd plead losing his sense of time in the lab, but Steve always suspected JARVIS alerted him to his late night visits.

Jarvis is apparently a human man, here, though Steve hasn't seen much of him at all. He finds himself missing the AI version terribly.

The gym is occupied by the time he gets there, and Steve has to laugh at his own predictability when he sees Rogers doing a complicated gymnastics and shadowboxing routine. He pauses at the doorway and watches his alternate self, not wanting to interrupt but unable to ignore his curiosity. Despite how little he wants to be here, he can't help but have an intense – almost scientific, Tony would be proud – curiosity about the similarities and differences between alternate universe versions. This version of himself moves in almost the exact same way as he does – it's a little disconcerting to watch, actually – but the way he fights seems to be only superficially similar; his movements are quick and agile and acrobatic, but it's clear to Steve that they came by their training in vastly different ways.

After a few minutes, Rogers registers Steve's presence and nods in greeting without really interrupting his routine. Steve takes this as his cue to enter and goes over to the reinforced punching bag, deciding he may as well continue his campaign to reduce the thing into a pile of abused cloth and sand. Even if he doesn't manage it, it's always good to have goals.

It only takes a few strikes at the bag for the obvious question to occur; I wonder what it would be like to fight myself? He pushes it away almost immediately because, well, he gets a little touchy when other people try to intrude on his gym time, so it makes sense that an alternate universe version of himself would feel the same.

Now that the idea is in his head, though, Steve can't shake it. Sparring with Natasha was weird, but it was also interesting in a way he wanted to pick apart and analyze. He's not exactly looking for reminders about where he is and how long he may end up staying here, but the idea of comparing fighting styles with other versions of himself and the people he knows itches at his mind in a way he suspects is similar to when Tony or Bruce or Jane lock themselves in the lab for days in pursuit of Science.

Coming to a decision, he stops his steady, brutal attack on the bag and clears his throat. “So –”

“– Do you want to go a few rounds?” They say at the same time and Steve grins, rueful and delighted, and the Captain mirrors the expression back at him.

“Yes, definitely,” says Steve, and Rogers grins and beckons him to the mats with a wave. They take places on opposite sides, and then Steve doesn't waste any time sizing his opponent up before going immediately to the offensive.

Fighting Steve Rogers is... it's really weird, is what it is. They don't fight the same, not exactly, but the way they think is scarily similar and he finds Rogers anticipating his movements no matter how he tries to keep from telegraphing them, no matter how many of Natasha and Clint's tricks he pulls.

Thing is, though, it goes both ways and Steve finds himself predicting blows and movements without really understanding how. It's a head trip, an intense head trip, but the match is amazing and he finds himself pushing, being pushed, farther than he has in a fight in a long time.

They only go for one round, but it goes on for a long time. In the end, experience wins out over youth and Steve finds himself flat on his back, looking up at his own grinning face, and laughing.

“I almost had you,” Steve says as Rogers helps him back up. “It was any man's game, you just got a lucky shot.”

Rogers chuckles. “Whatever you need to tell yourself, son.”

Steve grabs a water bottle and they sit together on a bench in companionable silence for a while. It's not long before Steve can feel the brief moments of levity drain out of him. It's disappointing but unsurprising; distractions never worked very long, for him.

“I can't decide which time is worse,” he says quietly, on impulse. “This time, or when I first woke up from the ice.”

Rogers gives him a look of deep sympathy and understanding. “How long ago was that?”

“Almost three years.”

He whistles softly. “Hell.”

“Yeah.” Steve leans forward, bowing his head and clasping his fingers together. “A year ago I would have said the first time. I would have given anything to go back to Peggy and Bucky.”

“What changed?”

Steve sighs deeply. “I found people. I didn't think I would, but I did. And Bucky, he...”

“Winter Soldier?”

“Yeah, here too?”

“Yeah. It's been rough on him but... having him here...” Rogers trails off, as if he feels ashamed by the comfort of his friend's presence, when it's the result of so much pain. Steve understands that feeling intimately.

“Tell me about it. He's still not doing too great, but he's getting better and... And I just... for the first time, I have reasons to stay in the present. And now...”

“And now you're here.”

“Yeah.” Steve falls silent once more, the enormity of his situation crashing down over him. There are an infinite number of worlds in the multiverse; how could he possibly pick out his one little rock from all of them? And even if he did – his mind shies away but he forces himself to drag out his hearts deepest fear, to look at it in the light – even if he did, there's no guarantee his Earth would still be there by the time he made it back. Tony, the team, everyone could be dead right now and I'd never even know. He's so caught up in his own head, he doesn't know what he's going to ask until it comes out of his mouth.

“I'd like to see Tony Stark.”

Rogers' face shuts down immediately. “No,” he snaps, eyes flashing.

Steve was expecting the rejection, but he's shocked at the vehemence of his denial. “I... please. Tony is important to me, in my world. I would like – ”

No,” Rogers says. His tone leaves no room for argument. Steve is pretty certain that most other people would be warned off, hearing that kind of command from Captain America, but Steve was a mouthy punk long before he gained a hundred pounds of muscle and the ability to punch through concrete and he's never learned how to back down.

“Look, Thor told me what happened, between the two of you –”

Rogers rounds on him, staring Steve straight in the eye. “Then you should know better than to even ask me that question. The answer is no. It will not change. This discussion is over.”

“I'm afraid I can't accept that, Captain,” Steve says formally, in the voice he uses when he's digging in his heels about something but wants to avoid pissing off the SO for the time being. “Like I said, Tony's important to me, and people seem to have a lot to say about him. I'd like to get his side.”

Rogers looks as if he'd very much like to punch Steve right about now. “His side?” He hisses, his body tensing with anger. “You tell me you heard what he did and you still look me in the eye and talk to me about his side?” Rogers looks like his anger is about to shake him apart. Steve just stares him down as serenely as possible.

“I just want to know,” he says softly. “Please.”

Rogers growls, he gets up and stalks over to where a writing pad and pen sit in a corner of the room. He writes something so viciously Steve is shocked he doesn't tear the paper, rips it from the pad, and practically throws it in Steve's hands.

“Be it on your head, then,” he grinds out, thrusting the paper at Steve. On it is information about where Tony is held and how to get to him. Steve memorizes the information before tearing the piece of paper into tiny pieces. It wouldn't do for it to get out.

“Thank you,” he says sincerely. He doesn't know how much this cost Rogers, but he has an idea.

“Don't thank me,” Rogers spits, gathering his things together. “But if you're that grateful, you can pay me back by taking my advice: Cut Tony Stark out of your life.” He faces Steve squarely, looking him dead in the eye. “You may think he cares about you. You may think he's the best friend you ever had, but it's all a lie. Every bit of it. He'll stab you in the back the moment it suits him. Save yourself that, and cut him loose. You'll be happier for it.”

Steve says nothing and Rogers doesn't wait around for an answer, just storms out of the room like a bat out of hell.

Steve sits in the empty gym for a very long time after that.

Tony Stark's cell is little more than a glorified basement. No high-tech security for Stark, Steve notes as he descends a darkened stairway. The most advanced piece of technology is a CCTV camera in the corner, and Steve would bet his shield that all wireless signals are blocked from entering or leaving the room.

It makes sense, he thinks through a haze of sadness and anger. There is no technology that Tony Stark cannot twist to his will, but stone and brick and steel? That will hold him just fine.

When Steve walks into the room, Tony's gaze is already on him. Steve watches flashes of emotion war across his face; hope and shuttered pain and unsteady confusion. It is so easy to forget, standing here in this darkened room, that this is not the man he loves, caged and despairing and alone.

“Steve?” Tony whispers, and the broken hope in his voice slices into Steve's chest. Tony's jaw clenches, as if he didn't mean to let the name slip.

“Sort of,” Steve says lowly, hoping his voice doesn't sound as low and raspy as it feels. “Not really.”

Tony's expression flickers, and then hardens. “Who are you?” he asks, his voice practically a growl.

“Steve Rogers,” Steve says with an ease and steadiness he doesn't feel, and then concedes “But not the one you know. They tell me I come from Earth-199999. Kind of a mouthful if you ask me.” He smiles ruefully. It is not returned.

“Why are you here?” Tony demands, challenging and overtly aggressive.

Steve pauses. He does not say, because I wanted to see you, or I miss you, though the sentiments are on the tip of his tongue. This is not his Tony, he reminds himself desperately, but that is so much harder to believe when the man is standing right in front of him aching and angry and hopeless for Steve's eyes to take in.

“Because I wanted to know why you did it,” he says finally, after too much time has gone by and Tony has turned suspicious and defensive under his gaze.

Tony smiles nastily. “Why I did it,” he says slowly, as if tasting the words. “I've done a lot of things, Captain. You're going to have to be more specific.”

“Wipe his memory,” Steve clarifies.

The grin widens, and it takes all of Steve's discipline not to shift uncomfortably. “Well, in point of fact, Rogers, I did nothing of the kind. Stephen Strange did that, with magic. More power to him, I say, I can't stand magic.”

Steve is calm and relentless in the face of his deflection. “But you pulled the trigger. So to speak.”

Tony laughs, ugly and dark. “Is that so? And who told you that?” He flaps a hand idly, as if waving away an answer to a question he meant to be rhetorical. “Never mind. That's an interesting way of putting it, but accurate enough, I suppose.” He shoots Steve a grin that would look natural with blood in his teeth.

“Why, then,” Steve presses. “What really happened?”

Tony's eyes narrow. “Why do you want to know so badly?” He counters. “Are you worried about betrayal at home? Trying to figure out if your own Iron Man is sneaking around behind your back, eh?”

“No,” Steve says, too quickly. “He wouldn't do that.”

Tony chuckles darkly. “Then he is a very different man than I,” he drawls.

Steve tries to hide his growing exasperation. “I'm just trying to see your side, Tony. Why did you do it? He was your friend and you betrayed him, but I don't think you're the kind of man to do that lightly. Not without good reason.”

“Good reason? Do you think any reason is good enough? Is there any explanation you would accept for what I've done?”

“But it wasn't just you, was it?” Steve says intensely. “There was a whole council, the Illuminati, but people seem to keep forgetting about that, when I can get them to talk about it.”

Tony scoffs. “They don't matter. You said it yourself; I pulled the trigger. It may as well have just been me.”

Steve huffs out a breath, growing frustrated. “Why then? Why did you do it?”

Steve can see the moment Tony's mask of bravado snaps; his fists clench, his body tenses all over, and he snarls. “I did it because you-- he is weak. Is that what you want to hear?” Steve opens his mouth to reply, but Tony doesn't wait for an answer. He is pacing like a caged lion, all that stillness shattered by his sharp, frenzied movements

“He's a weak idealistic fool who doesn't have the stomach to do what needs to be done and he would kill us all to save his own fucking soul,” he continues, breathing heavily like he's just run a mile. He stops suddenly in the middle of his cell and looks at Steve dead in the eyes; Steve is blown away by the depth of the anger in his eyes, all of it directed inward.

“Tony,” he whispers.

Don't look at me like that,” Tony snaps. “Like you understand, like you know me, like I'm something to be pitied. You're full of shit and he's full of shit and I'm not sorry. Do you hear me?” He's shouting at this point, his voice cracked and raw. “I'm not sorry! I would do it again! I would do it over and over again so don't you dare look at me like I'm anything but a monster!

He whirls around, his stooped back to Steve, and presses the heals of his hands into his eyes as he takes deep, shuddering breaths. Steve can feel something crack and break inside him, watching him, and he wants to gather this man who is so much like Tony, who is Tony but isn't, into of his arms and away from this place. He limits himself to merely stepping closer to the bars, close enough to touch them.

Silence resounds in the basement room, thick and oppressive. Steve waits a few minutes, to see if that's enough to draw Tony out again. When he says nothing, Steve speaks.

“When I first met Tony Stark on my world,” he says softly. “I told him that he'd better stop pretending to be a hero.” Tony darts a glance at him, pain writ clear on his features, but Steve just pushes on. “I told him he wasn't the kind of guy to make sacrifices. I may have – no I definitely implied that he would weasel out of any responsibility he had, if it suited him.”

Steve watches the words sink in for Tony, watches as he nods as if accepting them. Steve puts a hand on a bar of his cell and leans in, because for some reason he needs Tony to hear this.

“Not twelve hours later, he flew a nuclear warhead into a portal into another world, with no expectation that he would make it back.” Tony turns around, slowly, and Steve looks him straight in the eye. “I was wrong about him. I'd seen the press releases, the videos, I'd listened to other people's accounts of him and I judged who he was as a man based on that. I thought I knew who he was based on the masks he puts on for the world, and I was wrong.” He pauses to let that sink in for a moment. “People like to think Captain America is infallible but he's not. I'm not. I'm just a kid from Brooklyn, I make mistakes like everybody else. But I'd like to think I don't make the same ones twice. So please, tell me.”

Tony just stares back at him. Steve thinks he can see his hands shaking.

“Why?”

“Because I'm asking. And because--” Steve hesitates. “Because I think you want to tell me.”

Tony narrows his eyes at him. “Why would I want to tell you anything,” he challenges. Steve just kind of shrugs.

“I think this has been eating at you,” he says softly. “I think you want to tell someone and, well. I'm not exactly from around here. What does it matter what I know?”

Tony stares at the floor at his feet, and Steve boggles at how still he is. The Tony he knows is always moving, always fidgeting and tapping and fiddling with things, like he has too much energy to contain in his body. Steve wonders if this Tony is like that, if the things he's experienced have simply drained the life out of him.

“What do you know about the Civil War?” he says after a long while.

“Some,” Steve straightens and shoves his hands in his pockets. “Not much. The sociopolitical climate around meta humans is different here. Where I come from there are only a handful, and all of them besides me have cropped up recently. I had trouble following the thread of it all.”

“What about the Skrull Invasion?”

Steve presses his lips together ruefully. “That one was actually pretty easy to follow.”

“You know I wiped my mind after?” Tony taps distractedly at his chest, the first display of familiar body language Steve has seen from him, and it makes his chest ache.

“What? No,” Steve says, shocked. Tony flicks his fingers dismissively.

“To keep the SHRA list out of Osborn's hands, long story, not important. The important thing is...” He trails off staring into the middle distance and tapping a few more patterns on his chest before letting his arms hang down at his sides. “The point is, I woke up, after,” he whispers, “and my best friend wouldn't talk to me. Wouldn't even look at me. I didn't even know what had happened yet, I just knew that all of the sudden he hated me, and I didn't understand why.” He sounds so lost, his gaze is far away in another time and place entirely.

“I found out, later, about the war and the – the assassination and,” he waves a hand vaguely, “All of that. But the last thing I remembered was talking to him after break out at the Raft, about assembling a new Avengers team. It's stupid, everything was such a mess, but I was – ” his voice shakes “ – so happy.

“And then Steve...” he briefly presses his trembling lips together. “I tried to fix it, I thought I had, but it was never the same after. He didn't trust me anymore and I couldn't fix it because I didn't know why. Not really. And then this... this shit happened with the incursions and we realized we might have to murder billions to save trillions. To save worlds and...” Tony trails off, looking at him pleadingly.

“And he wouldn't,” Steve guesses.

“No, of course he wouldn't. He would never...” He trails off, starts pacing in his cell. He's restless and agitated and if Steve was worried about his previous stillness, this is a poor improvement. “We said... we said we couldn't afford to take any options off the table, that it was too big and he--” Tony laughs, harsh and unpleasant. “He said I know you people, you'll just keep destroying worlds because it's convenient.” He runs a hand through his hair, tugging on it, voice and expression anguished. “That's what he thinks of me now. Steve, he... He used to always believe in me, believe that I was good. That I was more than my past. He wouldn't ever let me put myself down, or-or-or stand for anyone else talking shit and -”

On impulse, Steve reaches through the bars to catch Tony's wrist in a gentle grasp as he walks by. Tony stops dead and stares at him, wide-eyed and shocked. Strange, his eyes are blue here, Steve thinks nonsensically. He can see the fine tremors across Tony's body, feel them through their small point of contact, and when Steve can see he's about to pull away he automatically tightens his grip, very slightly.

“Hey,” he whispers softly, and that's enough. Tony slumps, all the fight draining out of him, and leans hesitantly into Steve's space like he can't help himself but doesn't quite dare take the liberty. Steve steps forward, practically pressing himself against the bars and gently squeezes his wrist once more, encouraging. Tony falls the rest of the way.

“No one ever believed in me the way Steve believed in me,” Tony whispers thickly into his shoulder. “Now he thinks I'm just the worst sort of monster and, god help me, I proved him right. I was just... just so tired of fighting him all the time. I told myself we just couldn't afford it, that the last time he disagreed with me on something big he gathered an army and we couldn't afford another Civil War on top of everything else but really – ” His heavy breath stutters into sobs and Steve runs his hand up Tony's arm to cup the back of his neck, reaches his other hand through to rest on his waist, holding Tony as best he can as his shoulders shake with the force of his sudden tears.

“I just wanted my friend back. I didn't want to fight anymore, I just wanted my friend, I--”

“Shhhh,” Steve soothes, rubbing the back of his neck. “Shhh, it's okay, I've got you.” He feels a hand clutch the front of his shirt and he pulls Tony a little closer.

They stand just like that for a while, Tony trembling and Steve holding him through it. He knows... Intellectually Steve knows what this man did. He knows he isn't the man he loves. He knows Tony Stark has done terrible and unforgivable things in this world, and that he has by all accounts earned his place in this cell.

It's just that standing here, awkwardly holding him through cold metal bars as he cries in guilt and despair, Steve is having trouble holding on to why that matters.

“You should get away from him,” Tony whispers shakily.

“Who?” Steve asks, though he suspects he knows the answer.

“Stark. Of your world. If he's anything like me, you should get away from him.”

Steve closes his eyes and tips his head forward to rest on the bars. The ends of Tony's hair just barely brush his lips.

“Yeah, that's not gonna happen,” Steve whispers back.

Tony lifts his head to look Steve in the eye. “Don't be stupid. He's not worth it.”

A low, distressed sound escapes Steve's throat before he can stop it. He moves his hand to cup Tony's cheek as he returns his gaze with the same intensity. “I think I'll decide for myself what is and isn't worth it, if it's all the same.”

Tony leans into Steve's touch and his eyes flutter closed for the very briefest moment. “Are... are you two – ?”

“Yes,” Steve says, because he won't lie, but he regrets the grimace of pain that darts across Tony's features. He strokes his thumb to wipe away a few fresh tears.

“He'll destroy you,” Tony presses, his voice thin and desperate.

“You don't know that.”

“I do. I do. That's all we Starks are good for.”

“Now, that's just not true,” Steve says. “I don't care who believes it, or what mistakes you've made, it's not true. It never was, and it never will be.”

Tony closes his eyes and brings a trembling hand up to cover Steve's on his face. “You're a fool, Steve Rogers,” he whispers, pressing into the touch.

“Maybe,” Steve allows. “I never did learn when to back down.”

Tony doesn't say anything, just turns his head to press a lingering kiss into Steve's palm.

“Please go,” he pleads softly, dropping Steve's hand. “Don't come back. I can't – Please.”

“Okay,” Steve says, backing away. “Okay. Thank you.”

To say that Steve gets a little obsessed after that would be... something of an understatement. The Avengers get, if anything, more suspicious after his visit to Tony, though they are not unkind about it. The tower seems to get more empty more often as time goes on, and they aren't even telling him anything at this point. It is frustrating to the extreme and Steve is tempted to take the bit between his teeth and follow them out anyway – after all the incursions affect him and the people he cares about as well, even if he's separated from them right now – but he knows how disastrous it can be, introducing rogue elements into the field, and the Avengers need to be in top form now more than ever. He's not so reckless as to needlessly put other lives in danger.

He's not sure what can be gained from reading the recent history of a world that isn't his and that he won't remain in if he has any say in it, but he can't get himself to stop.

Steve doesn't visit Tony again; they both see someone else when they look at each other, seek something the other can't give, and Steve knows it's dangerous to indulge the kind of delusions it would be all to easy for them to fall into. He hates leaving Tony alone, and he's not altogether too surprised to find he's formed an attachment to this one personally, but he knows his presence can only do harm. To both of them.

So he reads.

Steve has questions. They're overwhelming, all-consuming, and no matter how hard he tries to tell himself that this is unhealthy, that this doesn't concern him and he needs to stop, he just can't shut them off. There's more to the story of Tony Stark here – his tearful confession in the cell proves it – but the more Steve reads the more he gets this itchy, naggy feeling that he's missing something vital. Tony's media presence can't be trusted, he knows that from experience, but that's all he has access to.

On several occasions Steve manages to convince himself to end this crusade to defend Tony Stark – because that's really what this is about, if he's going to be honest, he's digging for reasons to protect Tony and that is just not good for anyone's sanity – and he puts the tablet down to work out, or he watches a movie or plays some silly game. But those are all poor diversions at best and his forced idleness isn't doing him any favors. He always comes back to Tony, in the end.

What I really need, he thinks, is someone who was there. Someone who lived through the Civil War, who maybe has some insight in what was going on behind the public facade.

At first he thinks one of the Avengers – maybe Natasha, who's always been good at explaining social nuance to him – but he dismisses the idea almost immediately. The Avengers here are biased towards despising Tony Stark. He's not likely to get the information he seeks.

Because Steve is an honest man, he's not going to lie to himself and pretend he does not have his own biases.

In the end he contacts two reporters; a pair who were on the ground in New York during the Civil War and wrote intelligent, insightful articles from the beginning, even if they came at the issues from opposite directions. They're still in New York, at a relatively new paper called Frontline. He dashes off the emails and goes back to trying to pick apart the threads of superhero politics while he waits for a response.

After the meet is set up for lunch at a local cafe, Steve considers several plans for leaving the tower without letting on. In the end, he decides not to sneak around; he's not very good at being sneaky, when it comes right down to it, and if he tries he's just going to look suspicious. The Avengers of this world have assured him time and time again that he's not a prisoner, so he's going to put that theory to the test. Besides, he reasons, he's not even doing anything wrong.

Whatever makes you feel better, Stevie, he hears in Bucky's voice.

He's been here long enough for his small collection of borrowed clothing to include a hoodie and he 'borrows' a pair of sunglasses left sitting in the living room. He recalls with some amusement the ridiculous glasses Natasha made him wear when they were evading Hydra, and feels a wave of homesickness. He really is bad at this undercover nonsense, but fortunately for him he just needs to avoid being recognized by random strangers on the street, not highly trained operatives from a nefarious organization that has plagued him for nearly his entire adult life.

Either his disguise is adequate or New Yorkers are especially practiced at minding their own business, because Steve makes it to the small cafe without incident. He realized that he doesn't actually have his own money when he was planning this little day trip, so he's hoping he doesn't get kicked out before the reporters arrive.

He's in luck, apparently, because within five minutes the reporters, whose faces he recognizes from their online profiles, walk in. He waves them over and maybe his disguise is better than he thought because they're almost at the table before they stop dead and stare at him.

“C-Captain America?” The woman, Sally Floyd, exclaims at a whisper. Steve's eyes dart around to check if anyone heard. They didn't, so he grins up at her.

“Not exactly.” He says. He motions to the chairs in front of him. “Please, take a seat.”

“What do you mean 'not exactly'?” Floyd challenges, but she takes a seat and Ulrich takes the one next to her. He's no less suspicious, just quieter about it, and Steve bets his sharp gaze doesn't miss much.

“This is about the incursions, isn't it,” he says softly, not really a question.

“Sort of,” Steve says, and before he can elaborate Floyd jumps in.

“'Sort of'? 'Not exactly'? You planning on giving us a straight answer anytime soon or should I just leave now so we don't waste everyone's time?” She's tough, this one. Uncompromising and direct in a way that Steve is sure is an asset as an investigative reporter. He gets the feeling at least some of her aggression is a little personal, though.

“I'm from an alternate universe,” Steve says without any further deflection; he prefers the straightforward tact as well. “I got stuck on the wrong side during the last incursion.”

Their eyes widen into shock, then sympathy, then confusion. Steve thinks it's really a testament to how nuts this world is that they don't seem at all incredulous or skeptical.

“Then... why do you want to talk to us? Do you have more information about the incursions or--”

Steve shakes his head at her. “No, I don't really have much more than what the Avengers have already released to the public. They started for us recently and our scientists are only just beginning to gather information. I'm actually looking for information.”

The two reporters blink at him and share a confused look. “I – We don't have information that could get you home, you'd really be better off asking the Avengers about – ”

Steve cuts Ulrich off, shaking his head.

“No, that's not... The Avengers are doing their best, but they obviously have a lot on their plates right now. To tell the truth, I don't know when I'll be able to make it back home.” Steve has to fight to keep his voice steady and even. That hasn't been something he's admitted out loud yet, and he determinedly shoves away the voice in his head telling him that he will probably never make it back, that his world may be dead already. “I'm actually... looking for information about the Civil War.”

Floyd's eyebrows climb into her hair and Ulrich's eyes widen.

“And why – ? I'm sorry, Captain, but why the hell would you need to know about the Civil War?”

Steve gives Ulric a sheepish, self-depreciating grin that he knows makes people tend not to question his motives. “I'm... just curious, I suppose. I can't imagine anything like that happening in my world – not enough metahumans, for one – but when I make it back I'd like to make sure it doesn't.”

Ulrich looks skeptical, still, but Floyd looks like she's about three second from calling him on his bullshit; Steve's off on his estimation by about two.

“No,” she says, her gaze piercing and shrewd. “No, this isn't about learning current events from a brand new world. You're looking for something specific.”

Steve inclines his head in acknowledgment. “I'm looking for information about Tony Stark,” he says without preamble.

Silence descends onto the table, and both reporters just stare at him with eyebrows raised.

“That's... Interesting,” Ulrich says slowly.

Why?” Floyd asks. “I can't see how that would have any relevance to you.”

Steve shakes his head. “Call it idle curiosity, maybe. He's important to me, where I come from, and I don't know how long I'll be here. I just. I need to know. Please.”

“Why did you come to us?” Ulrich asks.

Steve shrugs. “Out of all the articles I read, the ones by you two were the most insightful, and you came down on either side of the issue – at least at first. I figured you were probably in it enough to have good information but not so close that you would be overly biased.”

They look at Steve for a moment, then each other, holding some sort of silent conversation he couldn't interpret. Finally, Floyd nods and reaches into her laptop case.

“What, you have it here?” Ulrich exclaims, incredulous. Floyd shrugs.

“I was toying with doing a piece on superhero leadership, and how part of the mess with dealing with the incursions might be tied back to fractures that haven't quite healed since the war. I was looking over my notes before I came here.”

Ulrich nods pensively as Floyd opens her laptop and apparently starts copying relevant info onto a flash drive. “That sounds good, you should write it.”

“The angle I take probably isn't going to be very popular.”

“Not important. Some things need to be said.

She holds the flash drive out to Steve but doesn't release it. “There are some things on here that you're probably not going to like, and there's some sensitive information that I'm not entirely sure I should let out into the world.” she warns.

“Then why are you giving it to me?” Steve asks.

She hums and begins packing her stuff. The two of them stand, but before they leave, she looks at him.

“You know, Captain.” she says to him pensively. “I've been reporting on superheroes for a long time. All of them would give their lives to keep people safe but Tony Stark... Tony Stark would give his soul. Not many people understand that, or what it means.”

Steve grips the flash drive in his hand. “No,” he says softly. “No they don't, do they?”

He watches them go, lost in thought for a few moments.

Just before he gets up to leave himself, Maria Hill slides into the recently vacated chair in front of him. Steve greets her with a surprised, pleased smile before he remembers to be suspicious – this is not the Maria he knows, she just has the same face, and Steve has no idea if she's actually a friendly. By the way she quirks an eyebrow at him in surprise, she caught the reaction and was not expecting it.

“So, SHIELD's having me followed,” Steve says dryly instead of addressing his slip. He'd honestly be more surprised if they weren't. It probably says something that the thought of Hydra maybe infiltrating SHIELD in this universe as just makes him feel weary and exhausted.

Maria eyes him shrewdly. “We've had problems with alternate universe versions of the Avengers in the recent past. I don't want to risk that becoming a problem again.”

Steve nods, because that makes sense, and Maria Hill's gaze sharpens into a Captain America Shouldn't Be look. It's a look Steve's become well acquainted with since emerging from the ice, for all it's variations; 'Captain America Shouldn't Be a Shell-Shocked Kid,' is one of them – though they call it PTSD now -- as well as 'Captain America Shouldn't Be a Sarcastic, Foul-Mouthed Jerk', which is completely ridiculous because he was a soldier in one of the ugliest wars in history, what else was he going to be? This one is a 'Captain America Shouldn't Be A Worn-Down, Fatalistic War Vet' look, and it makes him miss Sam with cutting, burning clarity. Sam had never expected him to be anything else, and had never made him feel like something was wrong with him because of it.

“And you're okay with that?” she presses pointedly, as if she was expecting a fight and is kind of disappointed not to be getting one.

Steve doesn't say does it matter? Because he's better than that, really. “That depends, has SHIELD been infiltrated by Hydra at the highest level ever since the War, or is it on the brink of murdering millions of civilians who might be a danger to their new world order at some point in the future?”

Maria blinks once, slowly. “Not that I know of,” she says.

Steve nods. “Well, okay then. You might want to look into that, when you have a chance. Just in case.”

“I'll keep that in mind.”

They sit in silence for a few beats, regarding each other warily. Maria looks good in this world, maybe a little harder. In his world they have a complicated, wary relationship that includes friendly affection and respect and not-quite-trust. He wonders if this Maria has that same mix of ruthless pragmatism and genuine desire to do good as the one he knows.

Steve asks the obvious question first, since he knows better than to play the waiting game with Maria Hill.

“So, why are you here?”

“You seem to be very interested in Tony Stark,” she says neutrally, in that not-a-question-but-it-definitely-is tone SHIELD agents in particular seem to love so much.

“I am,” he replies in a carefully measured I'm-not-going-to-answer-that-question-until-you-ask-it tone that he's developed specially for use on SHIELD agents when he's feeling particularly contrary. Maria's eyes narrow in annoyance.

Why?” She presses, obviously remembering that he is Captain America and therefore has no patience for beating around the bush. He and Captain Rogers are alike in a lot of ways, but especially this one.

Steve sighs heavily and leans back into his seat, because he's been asked this question a lot lately, admittedly with good reason. This isn't his world, the Tony Stark who lives here isn't the man he loves, and yet he's digging into his history with alarming obsession.

Steve, objectively, has no horse in this race; he doesn't belong to this plane of reality and he's only had one disastrous conversation with the man in question. He can see why people are a little baffled by how deeply he cares; he's a little surprised himself. But when it comes right down to explaining it, it's not that Steve doesn't know why he's so focused on Tony. It's just that he doesn't know where to start.

“We're close, on my world,” he begins, and then rolls his eyes at himself. “We're in love,” he clarifies, and tries and fails not to be darkly amused by the wide-eyed shock in Maria's eyes. “And I know they're not the same person, not really, but I spoke with him – the one from here – and I – ” he stops, not sure how to proceed.

“You want to help him,” she says.

Steve nods, and then shakes his head. “Maybe? I don't know. He did something terrible, unforgivable. If Tony did that to me I don't know if I –” He presses his lips together. “I don't know how I would react, but it wouldn't be good.”

Maria hums thoughtfully. “But?”

“But I just want to understand,” Steve says intensely. “I want to understand why. I can't imagine the Tony Stark I know doing something like that, but these incursions are so –” He pinches the bridge of his nose and squeezes his eyes shut. “We've had to make compromises. We've had to contemplate worse ones. Everything is desperate and terrible and hopeless and I. I've misjudged him before, unfairly, and I just...”

He trails off. Silence hangs heavily between them.

“You're compromised,” She says bluntly.

“Yes,” Steve says softly. “I know it's not my place to intervene, or to defend him or, or anything. But. I don't know when I'm going home. I don't...” his throat closes up and he has to force the words out. “I don't even know if I'm going home. And he's in so much pain, Maria,” He's surprised at the pleading tone his voice takes, surprised at the roughness of his voice.

“Everyone's in pain,” she says. “Everyone hurts. What makes him so special? He's not even yours.”

Steve nods. “Even if he's not mine, I'm not the kind of man who can watch his sweetheart hurt like that and not do anything about it.” He gives her a small shrug, and smiles tightly. That's all he's got, at the end of the day.

“No,” Maria says slowly, her gaze sharp. “No, you're really not, are you?” She nods to herself like she's made a decision and reaches into her pocket to bring out a second flash drive. She pushes it across the table with her fingertips and Steve looks at her quizzically.

“I am currently the only person who knows the contents of this video,” she says. “It's from right after Captain America's assassination, after the Civil War.”

Steve stares at her. “I don't understand.”

Maria shakes her head. “I've made a lot of mistakes,” she says, “but without a doubt my biggest one was pitting Captain America and Iron Man against each other. That wasn't my goal, but we're still suffering the consequences of that, even now. I'm not one for regret, Captain, but I clean up my messes.”

Steve looks at her skeptically. “And this will clear all that up?”

“No,” Maria says shortly. “No, it won't. Honestly, I don't know if it will even help, at this point. It might be too little, too late. But there are important things they've both forgotten. Maybe this will help them remember. Use your judgment.”

Maria gets up to leave, but Steve stops her. “You're doing this to help him. Why?”

She looks at him. “Does it matter?”

He thinks, does anything? But he's still better than that. “Yes.”

She shrugs offhandedly. “We worked together during his stint as Director. A lot of people didn't like the way he ran it, and he stepped on a lot of toes, but he was good at it despite himself. If it weren't for the War, and his... issues, well.” She shakes her head. “He understood what was important, if nothing else. I respected him and we... we grew close.”

Steve eyes her. “You slept with him.”

“Once. He doesn't remember it, or anything from when he was Director. He doesn't like me much, anymore, but he grew on me. Like a fungus.” She hesitates, like she's not sure she should reveal so much, and then pushes through anyway. “You said something about making compromises, Captain. Stark and I both have more experience making the hard choices than most people could ever understand. He doesn't have a lot of people in his corner, right now. I understand the feeling.”

Please hel p him, he hears under her words, because she can't. She doesn't have to ask twice.

“Take care, Captain.” she says, and then she's gone.

As soon as Steve gets back, he walks straight to his room, gripping the flash drive Maria gave him in a tight fist shoved deep in his pocket. He's not challenged on his way through the penthouse; it seems empty, and Steve wonders if there's a fight going on. Guiltily, he hopes there is, and the Avengers are too distracted to ask him where he's been today, or even to notice at all.

I haven't done anything wrong, he reminds himself, but still; hiding his actions has never sat well with him.

The video is poor quality, grainy in a way he's unused to seeing in the smooth digital cameras of this century. When he plays it, it opens to a rather disturbing view of his body laid out on a slab, his blood-splattered shield resting over his chest. Steve has to resist the sudden, overwhelming urge to throw the tablet across the room; the visceral wrongness of seeing himself – Captain Rogers, technically, but it looks like him – dead is hard to take, and he has to swallow down bile. Pull it together, soldier, you've seen worse.

Before he can debate with himself over whether the death he's seen in the war – the death he caused in the war – is that much worse than seeing his own, Tony Stark walks in, encased in the armor that Steve has come to associate with the tail end of this Tony's downward spiral.

And then he starts speaking, and Steve is riveted, hanging on to every word. This, this is a final goodbye, and Steve suddenly understands what Maria said, about forgetting important lessons. Neither of them know about this, he realizes, and when Tony begins crying on screen, Steve weeps along with him, and continues a long time after the video ends.

If he thought seeing himself prone and lifeless was bad, nothing at all could prepare him for the sight of Captain America, shield raised above Iron Man's head, poised to deliver the killing blow to his long time best friend.

After seeing Tony's confession, Steve caved to his curiosity and started watching other videos from the war. He's regretting it now, as he watches first responders, EMTs and firefighters and ordinary citizens, leap on the Captain's back and drag him away with a sick feeling in his stomach. The feeling does not dissipate as Steve Rogers tearfully turns himself in, and redoubles when the video cuts to a helicopter camera panning over the ruins of New York. The level of destruction is even worse than the Chitauri invasion, and these are all supposed to be the heroes.

Anger crystallizes hot and hard in his chest and he shoves the tablet away from him and strides out the door, not knowing what he's planning but knowing with complete certainty that he cannot, will not let this lie.

He can't decide if it's a good thing he finds Rogers so quickly or not, when the rage is still burning so fresh. It's almost certainly better that the kitchen is deserted, although part of Steve wishes viciously for an audience, both as a witness and to keep him from going too far. He and Rogers are so alike, and Steve has long been aware of his temper; now he knows with sick certainly the consequences when it gets out of hand.

Rogers looks up when he hears Steve enter the room and immediately shifts into a subtle defensive stance. Distantly, Steve recognizes it as one he himself uses when appeasement is his plan A, but plan B involves a whole hell of a lot of violence. He's not in the least appeased, he's so angry he's shaking and he doesn't even have a plan for why he's here, what he wants to do, he just knows that he cannot let this go.

Steve can almost see, if he closes his eyes, how Tony would look with his skull split open across the pavement. He can't stop thinking of Tony's blood splattering grotesquely over his shield, even though he knows he never did any such thing, never came even close, and that didn't even happen here.

“Everything all right, soldier?” Rogers asks lowly, like he's talking down a wild animal, and Steve snarls.

“Fuck you,” he spits. “Fuck you you fucking hypocrite-”

Rogers eyes narrow. “I don't know what you're talking about, but how about you calm down -”

Steve laughs, short and ugly and feral. “Yeah, because we're so good at calm.” he grits out viciously. He notices he's clenching and unclenching his fists, and forces himself to stop. He's not here to fight, he reminds himself. He's not entirely sure what he's here for, but it's not a fight.

“You want to tell me what this is about, soldier?”

“This? This is about you fighting a war in streets full of civilians. This is about how you weren't content to take down Iron Man, you had to try to split his skull open when he was lying beaten beneath you--”

Rogers draws himself up and glares at Steve, wound up and practically vibrating. “That was a long time ago, and you have no right –“

A long time ago?” Steve splutters incredulously. “That's what you have to say for yourself? That it's been a few years since first responders had to drag you off the broken, beaten body of your friend!?”

For a split second, Rogers' tenuous hold on his temper snaps and he slams his fist down on the countertop, cracking it. Who the fuck do you think you are,” his voice is barely above a whisper, eyes with rage that mirrors Steve's own. “You have no right to judge what happened, you weren't there.

“Oh I'm sorry, I didn't realize there was some sort of context that would justify executing a killing blow on a friend who was already down.”

“It was war, son-”

“Don't you fucking call me that!” Steve wants to hit him, he wants to hit him so badly. “You think I don't know war? I was in the war, just as much as you were! Whatever he is in this world, Tony Stark isn't Hydra, and he isn't the Red Skull. He's not a villain, you just didn't like his politics--”

“What does that have to do with anything,” Rogers spits out. “What right do you have, dredging up the past and throwing it in my face? This is not the Civil War, and this is not your world, and you need to walk away. Go and cool off and come back when you can focus on what is relevant.

“Yeah, because what happened then has nothing to do with why he's sitting in that cell.”

“You're damn right it doesn't!” Rogers shouts. “He lied to me! He wiped my memories and then looked me in the goddamn eyes, acted like he was my friend for weeks, and here you are defending him –”

“Well if you make a habit of beating him when you don't like what he has to say, maybe he made the right call!”

Rogers stops dead, staring at him incredulously. In the sudden quiet, Steve realizes they're getting an audience.

What did you just – ”

“The last time you took a moral stance against him,” Steve says, fierce and low, “You ripped this country apart. You raised an army against him, fought a war on American soil –

“Not sure if you know this, soldier, but it takes at least two sides to fight a war.”

Steve eyes him shrewdly, and takes a risk. He's not sure, but he thinks it's likely given the information he's found. “And he never gave you an out, never tried to stop it.”

Rogers looks stricken, and Steve knows he's on point. “I've done my reading, Captain. The last time you fought, the instability allowed a criminal to take control of this country. Tell me, what do you think would happen if there was a rift in the Avengers now?”

“And what if I let him!?” Rogers shouts. “What if I stood by and just let him, the lot of them, commit genocide in order to save our skins? Would that be any better?”

“Yes,” Steve says decisively, though the horror of the choice tears at him. “Because at least you wouldn't be his enemy. You could have figured it out together.”

“And you think giving in to that evil would be worth not being his enemy?” Rogers scoffs. “They wouldn't have figured anything out. I know those people. They would have taken the easy way out and kept on taking it. The only thing they would have figured out was how to make better weapons. Stark cut his teeth as the Merchant of Death. He's an arms dealer, through and through, and it was a mistake for me to think he could be anything else. I had to take a stand against them, to do what was right. And son, if you don't see that, you're not worthy of carrying that shield.”

Steve just stares at Rogers, holding himself up with righteous fury, accusing Tony Stark of taking the easy way out, as if Tony would ever be easy on himself, as if mass murder were easy.

(“They called me 'The greatest mass murderer in American history,” Tony whispered to him late one night, soon after Project Insight went up in flames. “I can't let them be right. I can't.”)

“You're a bully,” Steve whispers, but he knows Rogers still hears him. “You are a deluded, self-righteous bully and I hope to God I never become anything like you.”

Rogers just stares at him with wide eyes. The gathered Avengers look absolutely shocked.

Steve walks out.

--

The Church of the Holy Innocents isn't generally Steve's first choice – it's a little busy for his tastes and he generally prefers to take the trip to Brooklyn – but it's relatively close to the tower and he'd be hesitant to tackle the subway this late at night on his own world. He's almost at the church steps before he even thinks to wonder if it exists in this version of New York, but it's exactly where he expected it to be. It even looks the same, he notes with relief.

When he woke up from the ice, he'd started going to mass again for the same reasons he'd gone during the war; an anchor, a thread of consistency that kept his head on straight and his mind on the mission.

(The first mass he attended in 2012 had been something of an unpleasant shock, when it was in English, but he'd found to his relief that there are churches that still celebrate in Latin.)

His faith is a little more personal, nowadays, and he hasn't been to mass in a long while, but if there was ever a time he needed the comfort of consistency, it's now.

His ma had raised a good Catholic boy, and though it's been a long time – and a war, and a trip to the future – since he's thought of himself as such, he still feels a sense of peace drape across his shoulders as he strides down the aisle and takes a seat at a pew near the alter. The Church is deserted and he closes his eyes and pretends for a minute – just a minute – that he's back home, that he's here to get his head on after a fight with Tony, and that in a few minutes he'll get up and walk the streets he always does and go to the tower he'd once called ugly and ride a familiar elevator up to the familiar penthouse and have crazy, athletic make-up sex.

Not exactly the kind of thoughts to be having here, maybe, but it has been a long time since he's considered himself a good Catholic.

It's a dangerous fantasy, one he's been trying to avoid indulging in since he got here, just like he had when he first woke from the ice. It's just that he's so achingly, desperately homesick. It feels too much like safety, here, like familiar ground, that he can't quite help letting the fantasy spin out in his head even as he murmurs fervent, heartfelt prayers. He doesn't know if he's annoyed or relieved when someone sits next to him on the pew and shatters the illusion.

“How did you find me?” he says without looking up.

“I didn't even know you'd be here,” Rogers replies softly. “I just come here sometimes when I'm feeling...” He trails off.

“Yeah.” Steve knows exactly what he means.

“And for mass,” Rogers continues. “Though I prefer the one in Brooklyn, if I can make it.”

Steve quirks a small grin. “Doesn't sound right in English, does it?”

“Yeah,” Rogers says with a few huffs of breath that could be a laugh. “Call me old-fashioned.”

They sit in silence for a while. Steve wonders if he should feel angry, to have his solitude intruded on by this man he was screaming down not an hour ago. He had been so, so angry, but now he just feels tired. And a little ashamed, for letting his temper get the better of him

“He betrayed me,” Rogers says, barely above a whisper, interrupting his thoughts.

“Yeah,” Steve says slowly. “Seems like there was a lot of that going around.”

Rogers turns a glare on Steve. “And what, exactly, is that supposed to mean?” he challenges, voice tight and controlled.

Steve takes a deep breath. He doesn't want to start another fight, but he's never been good at backing down when he should. “It's supposed to mean that you've betrayed him too. Or was it another Captain America who disguised an EMP device with a friendly handshake.”

“Looks like you're hellbent on listing all my sins tonight,” Rogers growls.

Steve feels a little guilty; he has sins of his own after all, and Rogers doesn't have the advantage of being able to track down reporters to ferret them out. “I'm sorry, I'm not – that's not what I'm trying to do. It's just.” Steve hesitates. “He forgave you, for that.”

Rogers snorts disdainfully. “He doesn't even remember it.”

Steve looks at him thoughtfully. “Ever wonder why that is?”

Rogers isn't stupid, he knows exactly what Steve is getting at. It's no coincidence that the one gap in Tony Stark's memory after he was revived contained their worst fight and the memory of Rogers' death.

“He betrayed me,” Rogers whispers, not an angry declaration but a soft, sad statement of loss. “He took my memories, let them rummage around in my head and pull out what he didn't like. And after, he – I didn't even notice.” His voice trembles with disbelief. “He looked me straight in the eyes and acted like not a damn thing was wrong, like he hadn't... Like he hadn't been a part of a group of people who violated me. And do you know what the hell of it is?” He looks at Steve, stricken, stripped away of all rage to leave nothing but the pain underneath.

“What?” Steve asks softly.

“It was – we were better. We were closer than we've been in years. We built a team together, better than any team we've ever built. Maybe the best team in the world. And the way we worked together, it was just like old times, but more. We were working better than we ever have and I thought 'Finally. Finally we've put all that poison behind us. Finally, everything is as it – as it should be.'” Rogers' voice goes unsteady and he hangs his head, covering his eyes with one hand.

“It was all a lie,” he whispers. “All of it, all a lie.”

Steve doesn't have anything to say to that, and they sit in silence for a few moments. Ultimately, it's Rogers who breaks it.

“You've done a lot of defending Stark since you've gotten here. Tell me, if he had done something like this to you, on your world, would you be able to just let it go?”

Steve thinks about it, really thinks about it. He tries, for a moment, to imagine how he would feel, to discover that all the trust and love in his relationship with Tony was based on a lie. He can't. Simply trying makes him sick to his stomach. “No,” Steve admits. “No I don't think I would.”

“So how can you sit there and defend him to me?” Rogers says softly, but intensely, anger rushing back under the surface of his voice. “How can you sit there and pass judgment on me for not doing what you yourself just admitted you couldn't do?”

Steve looks down, away from Rogers' gaze, suddenly shamed. He can see the hypocrisy in his actions and regrets, a little, causing such a scene back at the tower. He's tempted, almost, to back down and apologize for what he's said, never mention Tony Stark in Captain America's presence for as long as he remains in this world.

But only almost, because he can remember with razor sharp clarity the look on Tony's face when he said Rogers used to believe in him. He can remember exactly the way his voice broke when he admitted to how desperately he'd just wanted his friend back, and it doesn't excuse what he's done. Nothing could excuse what he's done. But it makes Steve forgive him, a little, even though it's not his place. Even though it might make him a bit of a hypocrite.

So instead of agreement, instead of an apology, Steve looks back at Rogers and says, “because he needed you.”

“What,” Rogers says, without inflection, low and dangerous.

Steve pushes forward anyway, because it's suddenly bright, crystal clear why he's been pushing this so hard, why he's been so angry at this man, his other self, for what he's learned. “He'd just found out that reality was crumbling around your ears. Your stones had all shattered and he was staring down the barrel at an impossible choice, a choice that would either destroy everything and everyone he has ever loved, or his soul. Now, of course he would look for another way and of course he would work his fingers to the bone to come up with a solution, but Tony, he looks at all paths and plans for all outcomes. That's what he does, that's how he survives. So he was looking at the possibility that it would come down to it that there was no third choice, that there was no way to cut the wire, it was either his soul or his world and I will eat my shield if there was ever a moment he needed your lo– your trust and support more than he did at that moment.”

Rogers stares at him, mouth agape. “He needed my trust and support to commit mass murder! How could I everstand behind him while he killed a world? It was unacceptable, it will always be unacceptable, and I won't stand for it!”

“So you would let your world die? So you would let two universes full of worlds die?”

“Of course not. We would find another way.”

Steve looks at him and waits. Raises his eyebrows. Waits some more.

“What?” Rogers snaps. “You got anything to say to that?”

“No,” Steve says slowly, dragging out the syllable. “Just waiting for you to tell me what that third option is. Can't have too many options, with things this dire.”

Rogers grinds his teeth. “We would have figured something out.”

Steve purses his lips and bobs his head a little. “You would have figured something out. Sounds like a solid plan.”

“I don't think I like your tone, soldier.”

“I'll bet. Come on, you're smarter than that. You don't handle a crisis like this by hoping you figure out a way, you make a plan.”

“You think I don't know that?” Rogers hisses. His fists are clenched tightly on his thighs. “I'm the muscle, that's what I'm for. I hit a problem until it stops being a problem, or on a good day I tell other people how to hit it. This... damn, quantum physics, fabric of the multiverse nonsense. I'm too st– I can't solve it. It's not a part of my skillset.”

“You had scientists on that team. This is definitely a part of their skillset.”

Rogers snorts derisively. “They weren't going to solve anything. I knew they'd just build bigger and bigger bombs, if I let them,” he sighs bitterly. “And I was right.”

Steve lets that last comment slide, for now. “So you didn't trust them. You didn't trust your team.”

“Of course I didn't trust them!” Rogers throws his hands up a little, exasperated. “Haven't you been paying attention? How could I trust them after what they've done?”

“No, before that. You didn't trust them to do their jobs, and so they didn't trust you not to jeopardize the mission with your interference.” Steve takes a few deep breaths to try to keep his frustration in check. “We both know how quickly a team can fall apart in a crisis, without trust. It's a nightmare. But trusting your team means trusting your team, even when it's inconvenient or difficult.”

“I don't need some baby-faced naive boy telling me how to lead a team!” Rogers doesn't shout, out of respect for where they are, but his voice rings as if he did. Steve raises his hands in surrender and turns to face straight ahead, giving his counterpart space to get himself back under control.

“I'm not trying to undermine your authority,” Steve says calmly after giving Rogers a moment or two to calm down. “I'm not trying to second-guess your command decisions after the fact – ”

“Really? You could have fooled me.”

Steve ignores the interjection. “I'm just telling you how I see it. I know I'm young, but I'm not stupid. I'm a tactical expert; I've run more successful missions than almost any other military officer or SHIELD operative in history. I know completely, intimately, what I and anyone I bring into the field can do, because anything less means failure and failure is unacceptable. I also know that I'm still human, despite everything, and that I can make mistakes. Especially if I'm emotionally compromised.” He thinks, briefly, of that last painful fight with Bucky on the bridge of the helicarrier. It worked out, in the end, but it came so close to complete disaster.

“You're compromised,” Steve says gently. “I can see it, your whole team can probably see it. It's affecting your decisions and you can't afford that, not now.” Steve looks at him and pitches his voice low and calm. “You need to get your head on straight, soldier.”

Rogers slumps, hunches over and just sits with his face buried in one hand and says nothing for a long while. Steve figures he's said his piece and bows his head over his clasped hands and lets the silence of the church descend upon them. He doesn't pray, but he lets his mind float free, lets himself be soothed by the comfort and familiarity of the space.

“I don't know how,” Rogers whispers roughly a long time later. “How can I get my head on straight after... after everything?”

“I don't know,” Steve says honestly. “I'll let you know when I figure it out.”

Rogers snorts. “You seem to think you know everything else.

“I only pretend to know everything,” Steve says with a small smile at his private joke. Rogers looks at him curiously but doesn't press.

A few more beats of silence, and then, “he didn't need me.”

Steve looks over at him, startled. “What?”

“You said he needed me.” Rogers shakes his head. “He didn't need me. He had... Richards and McCoy and the rest of them. People who were... stronger than me, smarter than me. I was just in his way. That's why he wiped my mind: to cut the dead weight.”

Steve stares at him. “You... you can't seriously think that. Dear Lord,” he says almost to himself, shaking his head incredulously “I thought Tony and I were terrible with communication.”

Rogers glares at him. “And what the hell is that supposed to mean?”

Steve shakes his head. “It means that, whatever happened, whatever happens, you are one of the most important people in the world to him. I'm not excusing what they did to you, or that he was part of it, but it killed him to do it.”

“He's done a damn fine job of acting otherwise.”

“He always has been a good actor,” Steve agrees mildly. “You know, when I first met him – mine, I mean – I hated him on sight. SHIELD gave me all these videos and news reports of his fights, press releases, that sort of thing. The agent who gave them to me said I might have to work with him, so I should know what I was getting myself into.

“He just... he made me so angry. Here I was, fresh from the ice, I've lost everything to try to do the right thing, and there's this... this little glitterati schmuck playing at being a superhero to stroke his own ego. He did nothing but show off and drink and mess with girls and I just thought he was everything wrong with the country I woke up to.”

Steve is quiet for a few moments, looking at his clasped hands between his knees, and he lets the memories wash over him. He's still a little ashamed when he thinks about it, though Tony forgave him for it a long time ago. He expects better from himself.

“What changed your mind?”

“Later I found out that, in all the videos of him I saw, he was dying slowly and he knew it. I didn't know until after he nearly died saving the whole world. It wasn't until much later that he told me how he's still haunted by his family legacy of blood and death, and that how desperately he wanted to leave a legacy other than weapons and war profiteering, and how terrified he was that he was running out of time.”

“The Tony Starks we know are very different people, then.”

“I don't think that's true. The thing about Tony is, he needs to do something? He does it, no exceptions. He doesn't shy away from personal cost, and he certainly doesn't show what it cost him. He lived his entire life in the public eye, he knows how to hide how he's feeling.” He gives Rogers a significant look. “You should know, he did the same thing during the Civil War.”

Rogers looks at him, curious and a little angry. “I don't know what you're talking about.”

Steve shrugs. “Well, at first glance everything looked fine, didn't it? Everything was under control, everything was according to plan, butter wouldn't melt in his mouth. But did you notice how he stopped showing his face in public, after a while?” Steve watches understanding dawn across Rogers' face. “He always wore the suit. There's not even a single picture of him outside of the Iron Man suit until after the mess with Osborn.”

Emotion flashes over Rogers' face, too fast and complicated for Steve to follow, but he can make some guesses as to what they are.

“Since I got here, I haven't had a lot to do except read. This world is very different from mine in a lot of ways, but one thing that's the same is that Iron Man and Captain America are better together. Always.”

Rogers shakes his head. “You're crazy if you think we could ever go back to what we were, after this.”

“No, you can't ever go back,” Steve agrees. “But you have a choice, going forward. You can let him rot in that cell for the rest of his natural life, or you can move forward and build something new. If you really, truly believe he has nothing to give this world, if you really believe that having him back in the suit will do more harm than good, then yeah, you should go for that first option. But I believe he would do anything, anything to protect the people under his care, no matter the personal cost. I think he's proved that, and if you agree, well. Maybe you should consider option two.”

Rogers doesn't look at him, stays stony-faced and silent.

“I don't think I can move past this. I don't think I can go forward and ever trust that he's not off somewhere behind my back, laughing that he's duped me into supporting him once again.”

Steve presses his lips together and fights down a brief surge of anger. It's not helpful right now. Instead he reaches slowly into his inside jacket pocket and takes out the tablet he had been using for his research.

“I wasn't sure if I should show you this,” he says softly. “Because it's very private, and very personal. But... there are a lot of things, important things, that both of you have forgotten. And I don't think anyone can afford that, not anymore. Not the two of you, not the team, not the world.”

Rogers takes the tablet from him, looking at Steve curiously, but puts in the earbuds and watches the video that Maria gave him. Steve looks away politely, lost in his own thoughts, and doesn't acknowledge the shaking shoulders or the silent tears of the man next to him until the tablet reappears in his field of vision.

“Does that,” Steve says quietly, “look like a man who has ever laughed at you?”

The next week is... not better, really, but perhaps less tense. Captain Rogers is more at ease around Steve, and that trickles down to the rest of the team, who look more exhausted and worn-down as time goes on. Desperation is starting to win out over mistrust, and there is some talk among the Avengers about bringing Steve into the field. Everyone has a lot of reservations about the idea but, as Carol points out, they're stretched too thin to not be using all of their available resources, and the advantage of having two people with Captain America's skills and expertise is too good to pass up lightly.

Steve has been here a month, and in that time he hasn't done anything more useful than pick fights with himself and systematically demolish gym equipment, so part of him wants to beg for the chance to actually be able to go out and do something. But mostly, Steve is secretly dismayed; the idea of joining the team, becoming a part of the team here, makes it feel like admitting he won't ever make it back to the world he belongs in.

When, after the third or fourth time someone brings it up, Rogers nods wearily and says something about bringing Steve in on their next group training session, Steve smiles and nods and briskly promises to be there and feels like he's going to shatter into a million glass shards.

The serum made Captain America adaptable, so Steve will adapt. That's just how it's gonna be.

Even the serum has limits, though. He tries not to think about that.

One afternoon he's idly scrolling through the day's news articles and thinks of starting a new list. He feels suddenly old and run-down. Steve is so, desperately tired of moving on after his world ends. He's tired of picking up the pieces, of building something new only to have it crumble in his hands yet again. Some childish corner of his mind rebels and he wishes, for the first time in years, that they left him in the ice.

He squeezes his eyes shut, rubs them with one hand, and pushes all thought of defeat away. Decisively, he opens a note-taking app on his tablet and types Madripoor, Wakanda, Latveria.

He's halfway through AIM Island, his lips pressed together in a grim line, when the speakers in the living room thrum to life with a deep, driving bassline.

Steve and some of the Avengers look up, startled. When the first familiar chords play, the Avengers tense, bracing for a fight. Steve can understand why, the song does sound rather sinister, but his own heart leaps with cautious, uncertain joy.

I am Iron Man,” the speakers announce, and Steve could not help the laugh that bubbles out from his throat even if he cared to try.

“Attention Avengers,” comes Tony's voice, clear and authoritative over a background of Black Sabbath. The Avengers get even more tense and wary but Steve's grin threatens to split his face in two. He digs in his pocket for the comm Tony made; he'd taken to carrying with him as a talisman, a prayer answered by Tony's voice filtering directly into his ear. “I'm looking for someone. Hoping you could point me in the right direction.”

“Tony,” Steve breaths, ignoring the stares, ignoring everything and everyone around him except Tony. Tony.

“Hey baby.” He can hear the smile, the relief in the other man's voice. “You miss me?”

Steve closes his eyes. “God. God, Tony I – ” His throat closes with emotion and he has to work on keeping his breath even.

“I'm coming in on Stark Tower,” Tony says, his voice still coming through the speakers as well as the little comm unit. “The thing is – wow, it is absolutely bristling with weapons, how the hell did I get a permit for that? They gonna let me come in peace or am I gonna have to go in there and drag you out?” His voice is still cheerful, joking, but Steve can hear the steel in it. He's not bluffing.

Fortunately, there's no need for any of that. Without prompting, Natasha goes over to a console by the door, presses a few buttons, and nods at Steve.

“All clear,” Steve says, his body thrumming with excitement. “I'll meet you on the roof.”

“10-4 Capsicle. See you soon,” says Tony, and then his voice and the music cuts out.

Steve takes off at a run. The others follow, whether it's out of curiosity or to keep an eye on the otherworlders he doesn't care. He doesn't care about this last, hellish month and he doesn't care about their motivations or their suspicions. He doesn't care about anything, anything at all except that Tony is here, Tony found him, and he hadn't dared hope, had barely dared to dream.

Iron Man is just touching down as Steve reaches the roof. He doesn't slow his pace and has to skid to a halt to avoid crashing straight into the suit. He drinks in the sight in front of him, taking in red and silver interlocking plates of Tony's portable armor like the incredible work of art it is. He wraps a hand around each of Tony's armored wrists, desperate to touch. He's practically vibrating with the need for Tony to get out of the suit, to gather him in his arms and know that he's here, really here, but he forces himself to be patient; he can tell that Tony is using the armor systems to scan him, to check that Steve is real, and healthy.

“You all right, Steve?” Tony asks, faceplate finally flipping up so Steve can see his face (brown eyes, warm and kind and right). Steve immediately brings his hands up to cup either side of the helmet and brush Tony's bare cheeks with his thumbs. He feels ridiculously close to tears.

“Yeah,” he croaks out after a bit. “I'm all right now.”

“Good,” Tony says, eyes flicking all across Steve's face and body like, too, can barely believe he's there. “Good. That's – ” his eyes flick over Steve's shoulder and pause. “What's with the audience?”

Steve doesn't even bother to look back behind him, to see exactly who is there and the tone of their reactions. “Not important right now,” He says firmly. “Get out of that suit so I can greet you properly.”

Tony grins slyly at him. “Well, with an invitation like that...” The suit opens, whirring and clicking, small gears and panels sliding out of place until it's just Tony, in jeans and a t-shirt, standing in front of him. Steve doesn't hesitate a single moment before gathering him into his arms, burrowing a hand in his hair, and kissing him deeply.

“Ho-ly fuck,” Steve hears the shocked exclamation behind him. “I have so many questions rightnow.”

“I don't know, I think it kind of explains a lot.”

“You all should see your faces, it's priceless.” That's definitely Natasha, her voice smug.

“Oh fuck off, Nat, there's no way you could have seen this coming.”

“You have no idea what I'm capable of, Barton.”

“Guys? Am I really seeing what I think I'm seeing?”

“So, so many questions.”

Tony is laughing a little against his lips, and there's more chatter and shocked speculation, but Steve isn't listening; he's too distracted by the taste and warmth of Tony's mouth, the heat of his body pressed up against his, the flutter of his heartbeat against Steve's chest.

Real, he thinks nonsensically. Real, real, real, he's really here. He makes a small noise of protest when Tony breaks the kiss, which makes him grin.

“Steady on, Captain. Plenty of time to catch up later.” He looks over Steve's shoulders at the gathered Avengers. “Wow, this is almost as amusing as the first time we came out.”

“Mmhmm,” Steve agrees, and then pulls him in for another kiss.

This time they're interrupted by someone pointedly clearing their throat. Steve sighs, breaks the kiss, and turns to face a very unamused Captain America and a group of very shocked Avengers. He keeps an arm wrapped solidly around Tony's waist, unwilling to let him go.

“If you're quite finished, we have a lot to discuss,” Rogers grits out. Steve wonders if he ever manages to look that intimidating.

“Sure do,” says Tony, already half distracted, and snaps at his suit. “JARVIS hand me the thing, will you, I need the – aha, there it is.” The suit reaches into an inner compartment – the effect is both kind comedic and kind of creepy – and pulls out a small device. “Great now fold down until – unless?” He trails off in a question and looks at Steve, who mentally finishes for him: Unless this is hostile territory.

“We're fine here,” Steve says, with perhaps more confidence than he feels. He's not sure how the Avengers here will react to Tony, but he's confident in his own ability to protect him.

“Good, great, wonderful,” Tony says, focus shifting immediately on the device in his hands, trusting Steve to keep them safe. He looks tired. There are bags under his eyes that look like bruises and Steve can see the manic twitchiness that comes from too little sleep and too much coffee. He's focused, intense, and so gorgeous he takes Steve's breath away.

Tony is here. Tony is here, and he has a plan and they're going to get home and everything is going to be okay. He looks at the gathered Avengers, who seem at once curious and uncomfortable by his and Tony's open intimacy. Rogers looks at them with a shuttered, closed-off expression that Steve reads easily as pain.

Tony's not paying any attention to them, though. “Oh my god Jane Foster you brilliant, glowing star, you I – Steve, honey, don't take this the wrong way, but I want to have sex with her brain, just roll around in her head and bask in her genius and this is me we're talking about so you know – Okay I have the readings and I'm going to need access to other-me's lab – ”

Rogers cuts him off, quick and aggressive. “That is not going to be possible, Stark.”

Tony's attention snaps immediately to him. “Wow, there's a look I haven't seen in a while. It's like deja vu all over again. I gotta say Steve, I'm sorry, you're still my favorite, but he does the Captain America Is Disappointed In You face way better.”

Steve laughs and can see some of the younger Avengers stifling amusement themselves, but he sobers quickly at Rogers' expression.

“Look,” he pleads, “he's not a threat, he's not going to do anything except get us back home.” Steve pauses. “You are going to get us back home, right?”

Tony affects an exaggeratedly wounded look. “Of course I'm getting us home, getting us home is easy, getting me here was the hard part, but thanks to the ever lovely Dr. Foster – I mentioned she's great, right? I should make t-shirts, start a fan club – and of course the genius of yours truly I was able – you're shaking your head, why is he shaking his head, I though they weren't going to hold us hostage?”

“I know what Stark can get up to in his workshop and I'm not taking the risk.”

Tony's expression darkens as he prepares to dig his heels in for what promises to be a spectacular verbal battle. Steve's somewhat tempted to just set Tony loose, back him up and batter down Rogers' defenses until they can get in, but Tony looks exhausted and Steve is pretty sure he can convince Rogers in a more diplomatic manner, given some time. They have an understanding now, he's pretty sure and Steve's not feeling rushed; Tony is here with him, and they'll be home soon. He can wait until Tony gets some rest.

“When was the last time you slept?” Steve murmurs softly, squeezing Tony's waist and neatly diverting his attention. Tony looks at him, confused, his gaze a little blurry.

“Uh, thirty, maybe forty hours? Does it matter? We need to get home.”

“Do we have a strict evac window?”

Tony's lip twitches in amusement. “No, the hard part is done, now that we've found the right world and where you are in it. I just need to get back in touch with Jane and complete the bridge... There's no window, but I do need to check in with Jane and Bruce – ”

“Do you need the lab for that?”

Tony sighs explosively. “No, I can do that with this, I just... I'm anxious to get you home.”

“And I'm anxious to be there. And we will, but there's time to rest first.” Steve gathers Tony in his arms to whisper softly in his ear, low enough that he's pretty sure even Rogers won't hear from where he's standing. “Let me talk to him, okay? He's not unreasonable, it's just that things have been... difficult here.”

Tony slumps against him, letting him take his weight, and nods against his neck. “Yeah, okay. I guess I could use a nap.”

Steve smiles and kisses the top of his head before turning to Rogers. “Let's talk about this while he gets some rest, okay? He's been up for a while.” Rogers looks like he's sucking on a lemon but Steve pushes. “Please. We just want to get home.”

“Fine, we'll find him a room.”

“My room will be fine.”

Fine.”

Rogers stalks off and Tony, ridiculously, sticks his tongue out at him.

“Seriously?” Steve asks his eyebrow raised. He doesn't remove his arm as he leads Tony through the rooftop door and down the stairs.

“I am the height of maturity, that was absolutely called for,” Tony says, anticipating Steve's admonishment. Steve just chuckles and shakes his head and mouths an apology at the Avengers who had seen what happened. They look like they don't know whether to be amused or angry, which Steve supposes he can't fault them for.

“This way,” Steve says quietly, leading on to his room and Tony follows easily, still working on his small device. “How are things back home? How's Bucky?”

Tony pauses what he's doing, or maybe finishes, walking perfectly in step with Steve as he casts about for something to say. “Things are... rough,” he says finally. “We'll give you details when you get back.”

Steve frowns, but lets it go for now. “And Bucky?” He presses.

“Better. It was rough for a while there, with you gone, but he looked a lot better when I told him I was coming to get you. He and Clint have been bonding about the whole mindfucked super-sniper thing. It's kind of adorable, when it's not completely terrifying.

Steve laughs softly, choosing to be relived that Bucky seems better, instead of worried about how “rough” things were. “This is me,” he says when he reaches his room, and the door barely closes behind them before Tony presses up against Steve, wraps his arms around his neck, and practically melts against him.

“Mmm, missed you,” he murmurs, pressing soft kisses against Steve's neck. The gesture is sweet and chaste for all of a second before Tony starts using a little tongue and just a hint of teeth.

Steve laughs incredulously even as he grips Tony tighter and feels his body respond to his touches. “You cannot possibly be up for this right now.”

“Oh, Captain, you wound me. You think I've never topped off an all-day-all-night engineering binge with a good fuck or three? It's like you don't know me at all.” Tony's hands are running all over his body, carding through his hair and scratching down his sides and Steve, always on a bit of a hair trigger when it comes to sex, can feel his body flush with heat and want.

“I hate to tell you this Tony, but you're not in college anymore,” Steve says, though he smooths his hands down Tony's back to grab his ass and pull him closer. Tony moveslanguidly against him and lets out a soft sigh of encouragement.

“Dear God I hope not, I was a minor in college, Steve, my lord what are you thinking. More to the point, the last post engineering binge fuck was like, three months ago – you should remember, you were there – and that's not even mentioning, like, the entire half a year after the Battle. Trust me,” he says, his voice dipping sly and suggestive, “I am most definitely up for it.” He rolls his hips against Steve, pressing his hardening cock against Steve's hip to make a point, and Steve only had so much resistance in him to begin with.

“You make a compelling argument, Stark,” Steve says thoughtfully before he picks Tony up, whirls him around, and slams him against the wall next to his bedroom door. Tony lets out a startled, shaky moan, eyes half lidded, and wraps his legs around Steve's waist. “You've convinced me,” Steve murmurs against Tony's neck and then bites down hard, drawing a harsh, throaty groan.

“I'm very convincing. It's part of my charm.”

“Tony?” Steve says.

“Yes Steve?”

“Shut up.” Steve shuts him up, kissing him hot and slick and dirty

It's often like this between the two of them; rough and a little frantic, up against a wall because Tony likes to be manhandled and Steve takes guilty pleasure out of throwing his weight around. Steve runs his hands all over Tony's body, every inch he can reach, and just barely manages to restrain himself enough to pull Tony's shirt off instead of tearing it off his body. His own shirt comes off with a little more maneuvering and then Steve is pressing himself against hot bare skin with a low, grateful groan. Steve spares a thought that if someone is walking down the hall they are probably getting an earful, and he does not give a fuck.

Ah – fuck – Steve. Goddamn. Missed you, missed you so much,” Tony gasps between frantic, sloppy kisses, writhing in Steve's arms and pushing against his grip just to feel the resistance.

Steve doesn't even have any words, just groans and gasps against Tony's lips, his neck. He takes Tony's wrists, gathers them in on hand and traps them on the wall above Tony's head. Tony moans and tugs and grinds desperately against Steve, who groans and presses out just as needy. He needs more, they both need contact than their clothing is allowing them Steve unwilling to pull away for even a moment, not even to undress them the rest of the way. Soon, though, this frantic rutting against the bedroom wall is not going to be enough. It's not enough now but all he can do is unzip Tony's pants and free his straining cock as a sort of compromise.

Tony gasps and shudders as Steve wraps a hand around him, muttering half-coherent fragments of sentences like yes and Steve, god I and more, god such a tease, more. Tony never really stops talking during sex, not unless he has Steve's cock shoved down his throat, but the things he says do get less coherent, repetitive, and Steve loves the way he can tell exactly how wrecked Tony is, just by listening to his voice.

Steve deliberately slows down, running his hand loosely up and down Tony's cock and taking his time to wring low, gasping whining noises from Tony's throat. Tony thrusts and strains into his grip, desperate for more pressure, for a faster pace. Steve just takes his time, going as slowly as he pleases, smiling at the way Tony begs as he dissolves into a twitching, gasping wreck. Steve revels in it, this power he has over Tony's pleasure. He revels in his own strength, and in the feel of Tony solid and hot in his hands.

“Do you want to come?” Steve drawls into Tony's ear, after an exquisite few minutes of listing to him beg desperately, mindlessly.

To Steve's surprise, Tony shakes his head. “No,” he says on a low moan. “Want, want you to fuck me. Want to come on your cock.”

Steve groans as he crushes Tony against the wall in a bruising kiss. “I want to,” he says lowly, not pausing the slow, steady pull of his hand on Tony's cock. “I want to fuck you straight through this wall, I want to fuck you until you scream, but there's no lube in this room. I haven't exactly... needed to be prepared for anything.”

A delighted, lewd grin breaks across Tony's face. “Well, Captain, good thing one of us thinks ahead. Let me down, I have lube in my suitcase.”

Steve pauses, ignoring the small whine Tony lets out as his hand stills on his cock, and leans back to stare at him. “You brought lube.” he says flatly.

Tony blinks up at him, as if he asked an absurd question. “Yes?”

“You were on your way to rescue me from another dimension and, and you just thought to yourself 'You know what will really come in handy? Lube.” He shouldn't be surprised, this is Tony; irreverent and inappropriate and always prepared, but he is very, very surprised.

“Well, I was coming to see you – ”

Steve gives up and just dissolves into helpless laughter, leaning his forehead against Tony's shoulder as his whole body shakes with amusement.

“-- and clearly, given our situation, I was right. Which, really, is usually the case, why are you still laughing?”

“I cannot believe – just – your priorities.” He's still laughing into Tony's shoulder, and he wraps his arms around him and kisses his neck and he's just so grateful to have this wonderful, ridiculous man in his life.

Tony grins at him, a little filthy but mostly just amused. “I'm an engineer. I'm always prepared.”

“That's Boy Scouts.”

“That makes absolutely no sense, I've never been a boy scout.” Steve dissolves into fresh giggles and Tony pats him fondly on the shoulder. “Now let me down, soldier, so we can get this show on the road.”

Steve complies and shucks off his pants as he tries to get himself back under control. Tony walks to the suitcase armor and does something to flip open a small, built in compartment that contains, in addition to the lube, a large roll of cash, what look to be fake Ids, and other odds and ends that Steve doesn't identify before the compartment is shut.

Steve doesn't even wait for Tony to turn back to him, just presses himself up against Tony's back and wraps his hands around his hips.

“Look at that, you do come prepared,” he murmurs softly in Tony's ear as he mouths idly against it. Tony sucks in a shaky breath and presses himself against Steve as he hooks his thumbs in the waistband of Tony's pants and pulls them off, taking the underwear with them.

Then, before Tony can even track what's happening, he's pressed against the wall again with Steve's teeth against his throat and his hand once again wrapped around his cock.

“Slick my fingers up,” Steve orders roughly and Tony moans and obeys eagerly. Steve arranges them so that Tony has one leg wrapped around Steve's waist and the other hooked over his arm, leaving plenty of room for Steve to slide slick fingers against his hole.

Tony shudders and melts when Steve slides the first finger inside him, going limp and relaxed in his hold. His eyes flutter shut and he lets out soft, small contented sounds over huffs of breath, like this is all he's needed, Steve inside him this little bit, and everything else is just gravy.

It's not all he wants, of course, not even a little, but Steve takes his time anyway. He draws all the soft sounds of pleasure out of Tony that he can, until he's squirming and a little desperate, and only then adds another finger. Tony tips his head forward to rest on Steve's shoulder, like he needs to be closer, needs that extra contact.

He's not talking now, as Steve pushes his fingers in in a steady rhythm. The only sounds he makes are low, soft ah ah ahs as Steve moves inside him. When Steve hooks his fingers just right, Tony trembles, let's out a louder “Ah!” of pleasure and tries his best to grind down harder on Steve's fingers. It doesn't work particularly well – he doesn't have a lot of leverage, the way Steve is holding him – but Steve obliges him anyway, pulling out only to shove three fingers into him as deep as he can go.

Tony's resultant shout is all pleasure, but Steve notices a slight wince and withdraws his hand.

“Shhh,” Steve whispers against Tony's temple at the noticeable sound of protest. “Need more lube, and then I'll be right back in.” Tony obliges, squeezing more lube onto Steve's fingers, and then shudders and relaxes as Steve pushes back in.

The relaxation doesn't last long, as Steve knew it wouldn't. After a few moments of deliberate thrusting against his prostate Tony is a desperate, writhing mess, twisting his hips helplessly on Steve's fingers and letting out delicious, nonverbal pleas for more.

“Come on,” he begs, and his voice is a mess. “Come on Steve baby please, please baby, I'm ready.”

“Been ready,” Steve agrees easily, and doesn't pause, doesn't change a thing he's doing, just keeps his pace slow and steady. Tony groans and writhes and claws at Steve's back.

“Fuck...” Tony tips his head against the wall, arching his back. “Fuck, are you gonna make me beg? Come on, baby it's been so long. So long, need it, need you, come on please.”

“Hmm,” Steve hums and kisses his temple. “Well, since you asked so nicely.”

“Fucking right I did,” Tony grumbles.

Steve chuckles as he slicks himself up and pushes in, moaning softly against Tony's hair. Tony's breath grows shallow and quick and he clutches at Steve, trying to claw him in closer, deeper. It's fortunate for him that closer and deeper is exactly where Steve wants to be, because with the way Steve has him pressed against the wall, one leg still slung over an arm to press him open, Tony can't move Steve anywhere he hasn't decided to go.

All teasing is gone at this point of the game. Steve fucks into Tony with long, steady rolls of the hips, wringing deliciously blissed-out sounds from Tony's throat (Tony is always so shameless about the noise he makes. It makes Steve feel self-conscious and nervous and hot all at once). He's not quite rough, not yet, but there's a sort of restless desperation that's been swimming just under the surface, something that comes to the fore as Steve feels himself let go, let his body give and take all the pleasure it wants.

Thought I was trapped, thought I'd never see you, have you, have this ever again, thought I –

The thoughts flood in, overwhelming and unexpected, and Steve's breath catches on something that is not pleasure. He squeezes his eyes shut and presses his face into Tony's neck, wrapping his free arm around his waist and pulling him tight. He has to remind himself when Tony winces to be careful of his strength.

“Hey, Cap, you doing okay over there?” asks Tony, his voice wrecked with lust and tinged with concern. He pushes his hands through Steve's hair, tugging a little (it's grown out a bit), and Steve can't help but press desperately into the touch with a small, bitten off whimper.

“Hey, hey sweetheart it's okay,” Tony says soothingly. He runs his hands steadily through Steve's hair. “I got you. I got you baby, I'm right – ah! - here. I'm right here with you, you can let go. Fuck, fuck you feel so good, yeah, just let go, I can take it.”

Steve shudders and shifts, re-angling himself as he picks up his pace and drives long, fast thrusts into Tony. Tony lets out soft gasps and moans on the breaths he's not using to whisper filthy things into Steve's ear.

“Ah, god, yes Steve, so good, you feel so fucking good I can't stand it. Missed your cock, missed you filling me up. Feels like you're gonna fuck me straight through this wall and it's so fucking hot I can't, I can't...”

Steve moans and shudders and slows down abruptly, holding himself back from the edge.

“Hey, no, what? Why're you -” Tony stammers as Steve belatedly wraps a hand around Tony's cock, jacking him fast and hard and making him cut off his sentence with a startled moan.

“Close,” Steve grits out. “Wanna make you come on my cock, remember.”

“Yep, I did say that, sound plan. But hey, change of plans, I want to feel you come apart right now.”

“But-”

Now, Captain,” and that's it, that's enough to push Steve too close to the edge to turn back. He takes Tony's mouth in a punishing kiss and just, just cuts himself loose, fucks into Tony and swallows his moans until his whole body tenses and he cries out and trembles through his release.

Steve pants harshly as he thrusts through the aftershocks, then lets Tony down to stand on his own feet. Before he can move, Steve is on his knees, pressing Tony's hips against the wall and swallowing down his cock in one smooth motion.

Tony chokes out a surprised moan and buries his fingers back in Steve's hair. He doesn't try to thrust into Steve's mouth, doesn't even have to, just holds on as Steve sucks him off with ruthless efficiency. It doesn't take long at all before Tony is moaning, trembling and clenching and coming down Steve's throat.

Steve holds Tony in his mouth until he pushes him away, twitching and oversensitive, and then guides Tony down to sit with him on the floor. Steve can't help wrapping himself around him, clutching and needy and so, so grateful.

“Missed you,” he whispers quietly into Tony's hair.

“Missed you more.”

Steve chuckles. “Everything's gotta be a competition with you, huh?”

“Depends if I'm winning.”

Steve laughs again and squeezes him a little closer, closing his eyes against the tide of love and relief and gratitude.

“Hey,” Tony says idly. “Weren't you gonna put me to bed and try to convince our reluctant hosts to let us go home?”

“Yup,” Steve says, eyes still closed, and doesn't move to untangle himself from Tony.

Tony snorts with tired amusement and shifts to get more comfortable, ending up with his head resting against Steve's chest. They rest there a while, curled snugly on the floor with no desire to move or separate, too caught up in the feeling of being together after the threat of being separated forever.

He found me, Steve thinks with a thrill of happiness. He found me and everything will be okay. Everything else is just details. It's a comforting thought, if not strictly true, and Steve plans to hold on to it as long as he can through the dark times he knows will be ahead of them. Maybe dark times will always be ahead of them.

“Hey,” Steve whispers softly, “promise me something?”

Tony tenses a little in his arms, and shifts to look up at him. “Yeah Cap. Shoot.”

“Just...” Steve swallows, trying to find the right words. “Just if something happens, or seems like it's going to happen... Promise you'll tell me?”

Tony actually sits up now, so he can shift and look Steve in the eye. He's still wrapped loosely in Steve's arms, though, and he doesn't look upset. Just, focused. Concerned.

“Like what?” He says slowly.

Steve shakes his head and scrubs a hand over his face. “I don't know like, something big. Something important. Just promise you'll tell me, okay?”

“Of course I'll tell you.” Tony frowns. “Steve, what's this about?”

It feels like they're too far apart, all of the sudden, and Steve pulls Tony closer. “I don't want us to turn into them,” he says distantly. “Suspicious and bitter and tearing everything apart with our fights. I don't want you to ever feel like you can't come to me for something, I – ” Steve cuts himself off, aware that he's babbling and probably not making a whole lot of sense, and presses his face against Tony's hair.

“Hey, it's okay, we're okay,” Tony soothes, running his fingers gently through Steve's hair. “Fuck, Steve, what happened here?”

“I, just,” Steve says shakily after a brief, painful summary of what he's learned. “What if that's me? What if that's what I become? I've lead a rebellion, I've gotten people killed in the name of freedom. Where do I draw the line? What if I lose it and I,” he swallows, his throat tight, the image of his shield poised for a killing blow fresh and horribly detailed in his mind's eye.

“Fuck, Steve, no, listen to me.” Tony brushes his hands through Steve's hair and runs them down to cup his face. “Listen to me, Captain. That is not us. That will never be us. Just, come on, when was the last time I didn't tell you something to avoid an argument?”

Steve laughs a little, despite himself, but he hates what he's thinking. He hates what he has to ask.

“You didn't tell anyone when you were dying,” he says quietly, and regrets it immediately at the small look of hurt on Tony's face, the soft sound he makes at the back of his throat.

“That was – Steve I – ”

“I'm not... I'm not trying to accuse you of anything Tony, really. I'm just saying...” Steve sighs explosively, searching for the right words. “I'm saying you keep important things close, sometimes. And I understand why,” Steve stresses, heading off Tony's interjection. “I do, I really do. But Tony, god. They used to be best friends. For a decade. And that, if it happened to us I – I just want to make sure it doesn't happen to us.”

“If what happened, Steve?” Tony murmurs again, looking a little scared. “What happened here?”

Steve shakes his head and pulls Tony close, reminds himself to be careful of his strength as he squeezes Tony tightly against his chest. “God, its... It's such a fucking mess, Tony, I don't even know where to start.

Tony strokes a hand steadily over Steve's arm. “Start wherever you like,” he says, “I'm a genius, I'll catch up.”

Steve smiles at him, and kisses the top of his head. “Let's get settled on the bed, first. It's a long story.” Before Tony even has the chance to complain about having to move, Steve scoops him up and deposits him gently on the bed. It's a bit of a squeeze to fit the both of them – Tony's a lot shorter than Steve, but he's not small – but a squeeze suits Steve just fine, right now.

“I guess it started with a war here, among superheroes,” Steve begins once they've gotten settled. “It was over a law that required superhumans to register their powers and identities with the governement, and they ended up on opposite sides of the debate...”

It takes a while, but Steve relays the whole story, everything he's learned since getting trapped here. It doesn't seem as desperately sad as it has over the last month, not with Tony curled against him and listening intently.

“What would you do,” Tony asks quietly, a while after he finishes his story, “if it was us. If I did that to you.”

“You wouldn't,” Steve says immediately, tightening his grip on Tony.

“I know,” Tony says, voice low and serious in a way it almost never is. “But what if.”

Steve things to himself for a few long moments, then blows out a deep breath. “I don't know,” he says. “I'd like to think... but I just don't know. I can't even wrap my head around that kind of – ”

“Betrayal.” Tony's voice is curiously flat and toneless.

Steve swallows convulsively. “Yeah.”

Tony is uncharacteristically quiet. “I love you, Steve.”

Something in Steve's chest constricts, and he holds Tony closer. I love you too, he thinks, but what he says is “but?”

Tony sighs and grips Steve's hand tight. “But I can see why he did it, okay?” He rushes forward, a little defensive, as if trying to head off recriminations Steve wasn't planning on making. “I – I'm an engineer, that's what I do, I look at all possible outcomes and come up with the most efficient solutions and this... okay, this, I can see all the circumstances that would lead to me doing something like that, to you. And I can't say I would never do it and I can't say I'd never make that choice because I have responsibilities, okay, I have responsibilities that are bigger than you, and us, and – ”

“Shhhh,” Steve whispers, rubbing his thumb soothingly across Tony's hand as his rapid-fire babbling tips over into near-hysteria. “Shh, relax, it's okay.”

Steve doesn't know exactly how he feels. Disappointment, maybe, bitter disappointment that Tony can't tell him in no uncertain terms that he would never do something like that to him, that this would never happen to them. But maybe also gratitude, that Tony is still being honest with him, even if the truth is something he doesn't want to hear. Maybe that's the important part, that he appreciates the honesty without being angry when the truth isn't easy.

“I promise I will always listen to you, really listen,” Steve says lowly and intensely. “All I want is for you to promise you'll always come to me, when something big happens.”

Tony swallows and nods jerkily. “I can do that.”

Steve nods, presses his face in Tony's neck, and holds onto him tight.

“Then we'll be okay.”

It's not long before Tony is out for the count, done in by sleep deprivation and post-coital satisfaction. Steve leaves him sleeping peacefully in his bed, takes a few moments to make himself presentable, and strides purposefully into the common area.

The Avengers are already largely assembled, debating something furiously and quietly; Steve doesn't need super hearing to figure out what they're talking about. The way conversation drifts off as he enters the room is about as subtle as Thor's hammer.

“Good of you to join us,” Rogers snaps testily. He looks tense and irritable in a way he hasn't quite been since the church.

“Sorry,” Steve says, only meaning it a little. “I needed to talk to him a bit first.”

Carol snorts with amusement and rolls her eyes at him. “Oh right, of course. 'Talking.'”

Steve uncharacteristically has to resist the urge to stick his tongue out at her as he sits down at the table. Half the Avengers look uncomfortable, and the other half are trying to hide their laughter behind their hands.

“We haven't seen each other for a long time.” Steve says blandly. “We had a lot of catching up to do.” Several people laugh outright. Some still look uncomfortable, or conflicted. Rogers looks like he's barely keeping himself under control and Steve feels rather bad for him. Steve isn't quite sure of the exact nature of his feelings for the Tony Stark of this world, but whatever they are it must be hard for him to watch the two of them, their relationship whole and unbroken.

“We can be out of your hair just as soon as he wakes up,” Steve tells him quietly. “Just say the word.”

Everyone at the table immediately goes quiet. “I don't trust Stark in his workshop,” Rogers grits out.

“Well, it's not technically his workshop, and he's not the same Stark,” Steve says reasonably, burying his frustration deep under the surface. Rogers looks mulish.

“Look, the only other alternative is to keep us here. And please don't take this the wrong way, but the last time someone tried to keep Tony Stark where he didn't want to be, it didn't end well for them.”

Rogers stands up and draws himself to his full height. “Are you threatening - “

“I'm not threatening anyone,” Steve says mildly, looking up at Rogers. He cuts an impressive picture, certainly, but Steve is fearless as he always is when he knows exactly where he stands and what he needs to do. “All I want, all we want, is to go home. Our world is dealing with the incursions as well. They need us.”

Rogers still looks resistant, and Steve struggles a moment to keep a hold on his temper. He is so close to being able to go back home he can taste it, and Rogers' stubbornness is all that's stopping them, right now.

“Fine,” Rogers snaps, “but he is to be supervised the entire time he is down there. And he's not to speak with this Stark. I won't risk it.”

Steve, who has no desire to parade either Tony around like an animal at a zoo, has no problems with this last stipulation. “Deal.”

“Stark has fail-safes in his lab. Can yours bypass them without his help?” Natasha chimes in practically.

Steve can't help his fond smile. “Tony hasn't met an electronic he couldn't hack. I'm not sure if going up against himself will be a help or a hindrance, but if he can't we'll figure out a plan B.”

Rogers presses his lips together, looking like he's debating the wisdom of his decision.

“We can't keep them here, Steve,” Carol says softly. “It isn't right.”

After a moment, he nods curtly. “Alright, then. Thor, Widow, and I will be watching every step of the way.”

Steve nods easily and hopes Tony doesn't need privacy to do what he does, though he can't really see why he would. “Not a problem. I'll come get you when he wakes up.”

“See that you do.” Rogers says, and walks out. Steve feels a rush of relief and giddiness.

They're going home.

Getting into the lab is no problem. As soon as they walk up Rogers spits out his name and a rapid-fire series of numbers.

“Voiceprint recognized: Steve Rogers,” a computerized voice that sounds nothing like JARVIS intones. “Code: Accepted. Welcome back Captain Handsome; make yourself at home.”

The silence is deafening.

“It was... a joke,” Rogers explains thinly.

“Uh huh,” says Tony, stepping confidently into the lab. “And you're sure they weren't fucking?” he adds to Steve none too quietly.

“Tony,” Steve warns.

“I'm just saying, the whole jilted lover bit, it totally fits.”

“That's enough, Stark.” Rogers snaps, and Steve can see the way Tony tenses, the way he turns to stare down Rogers and takes a deep breath to unleash whatever vitriol and condemnation has been building in his head since he's arrived here. Steve recognizes the look from years ago, on the helicarrier, as Tony at his sharpest and most cruel.

“Tony,” Steve says softly, putting a hand on the small of his back. “Let's just get home.”

Tony wavers, looking like he's debating the merits of speaking his mind anyway, but ultimately allows himself to be soothed by Steve's touch. He looks up at Steve's questioning expression and rolls his eyes fondly.

“Quit pawing me, Rogers, I have work to do,” he says in a completely unconvincing show of grumpiness, and Steve smiles.

It takes about an hour of snarking and swearing at JARVIS (“My AI,” he said by way of explanation at their startled and confused looks. They didn't seem very reassured.) before Tony manages to gain access to the lab's systems.

Steve stands by him the whole time, leaning on the desk next to his work space. Not for protection – he doesn't really think these people will actually attack Tony – but just to be near him. Tony doesn't seem to mind, just works around him as easily as if he isn't there, except for the random moments he'll reach out and just touch. They're small, absentminded movements, but each one grounds and anchors Steve. It's almost like normal, spending time with Tony in the lab, though the lab is far different to what he's used to and he doesn't have his sketchpad.

“The security in this place is fucking ridiculous, who even made this,” Tony mutters angrily, messing with a snarl of code

“Technically, you did,” Steve replies with no small amount of amusement.

Thank you, Rogers, I know that, I was making a – oh you magnificent bastard, fuck you that was brilliant. Okay let me just--”

When Tony finally does crack the system open, he lets out a crow of victory and Steve smiles fondly as he visibly restrains himself to a few air punches in lieu of his usual full-on victory dance.

“Good morning, children!” he announces to the workshop at large as lights flick on and machinery hums to life. Humming to himself, he connects the small device he's kept with him since he got here to the computer and spends a few minutes cursing and typing furiously before an image large enough to take up several screens flickers to light. It shows a darkened room that Steve recognizes as Jane Foster's lab in the Tower.

“Jane! Jane are you there?” Tony calls.

“Jane?” Thor says softly, sounding puzzled. Steve flicks a glance at him and wonders idly what their relationship is on this world.

“Sir, Dr. Foster is currently asleep. I have alerted her to your presence and she will be down shortly,” JARVIS announces.

“Asleep? It's nearly one in the afternoon.” Tony says, puzzled.

“It is approximately three am in this universe. And might I remind you that you are not the only one who has not slept properly these past few weeks. She went to bed just after you called in to say you were safe.”

Jane is just as bad as the rest of the scientists on the team (the “Science Bros”, as Tony likes to call them) about her sleep patterns when there is science to do, but she's better than the rest at taking the downtime when it comes up.

“Tony!” Jane calls as she comes to sit in front of her own computer, looking sleep-mussed but alert. “Did you find-?”

“Hey, Jane,” Steve says softly in greeting, giving her a wave. He's missed her dearly.

“Hey Steve,” she says, relief written all across her features. “It's good to see you. We're going to get you back real soon, okay?”

Steve smiles at her, and looks over as Thor steps up to the monitors, looking intently at Jane

“Jane?” he says, looking at her. Jane looks back at him, a little startled, but smiles a little. “You are well.” It's not a question but a statement of soft disbelief.

“Yeah, Thor. I'm doing pretty well. Well, other than,” she flaps her hand vaguely, “everything. Yeah.” She smiles a little wider, and Steve can't help but feel a little warm at how the way Thor dotes on her appears to be multiversal.

“I am glad to hear it. Jane,” Thor looks a little sad. “The Jane Foster of this world is very ill. Breast cancer. It may be prudent to be on watch for this disease in your own world. These things are more easily fought when caught early.”

Jane's eyes widen. “I – yes. I'll be on the lookout for that. Thank you.”

Thor nods. “You are welcome,” he says, and steps back.

Tony steps back up, clapping his hands and rubbing his palms together. “Alrighty then. My Lady of Science, shall we proceed?”

“Sending you specs now,” Jane says crisply.

“Got 'em,” Tony says after a few moments and some lightning-quick typing. “I'll go try and track down everything we need. Steve, don't blow anything up. I'm watching you.”

Steve rolls his eyes. “Oh yes, I'm the one always blowing things up.” He shakes his head and looks at Jane as Tony heads off into the depths of the workshop. “How has it been over there?” he asks, taking in the dark circles under her eyes.

“Two incursions since you got stuck.” Jane says grimly. “And I don't know how long the stones are going to be a viable option.”

“Stones?” Natasha interjects. “You mean, the Infinity Gems? But you used the gauntlet during the incursion with us.”

Jane looks at her with confusion. “Yes, we've used the gauntlet for all of the incursions so far. Why, is that unusual?”

Natasha shakes her head. “Ours broke after the first one we used it for.”

Jane's eyes widen with alarm. “I didn't know they could break,” she says, looking grim and worried. “Damn,” she says, mostly to herself. “Damn, damn, damn, this is not good news.”

“Jane?” Steve asks, concerned. Before she can reply there's a crash somewhere deeper in the workshop. Everyone room turns to look in alarm, but Steve can't even see Tony, this place is so huge.

“I'm fine!” Tony calls out, and Steve sees a hand wave out from behind some machinary. Steve's tempted to go after him anyway but the look on Jane's face has him very concerned.

“The stones... They're – ” she huffs out a frustrated breath. “They're exhibiting signs of distress and alarm. Except, not exactly, of course, because they're inanimate objects and anthropromophizing them will only interject biases in observing their behavior, but that's what it feels like when I use them. Which, yes, I know, hardly scientific, but it's not as if anyone has every studied them to quantify their abilities and – ”

“Jane,” Steve interrupts her gently. She has the same tendency to go off on a tangent that Tony does, which he usually finds endearing, but right now he needs answers. “What's happening?”

Jane visibly collects herself and her thoughts. “There's something different, the last few times I've used them. They... I think they're being corrupted.”

Steve's eyes widen. “Corrupted?”

“Dr. Foster, you say you are the wielder of these stones?”

“Of course she is,” Tony chimes in, wandering back with an armful of wires and tools and bits and pieces of gadgets. “She's an astrophysicist. Who else would we have messing with powers that affect the very fabric of our cosmos to maintain the status quo of our reality. Why, who did you have use them?”

Natasha and Thor look uncomfortably at Rogers. Tony snorts out an incredulous noise, and Steve can't help but agree with him.

“What, him? No offense honeybunch, I have all the confidence in the world in your abilities, but what the fuck makes him qualified to use the stones?”

“None taken,” Steve says wryly, kind of wondering the same thing himself.

There's an awkward pause. Thor draws himself up, as if daring them to question his judgement. “Steve is the most noble and steadfast of our number – ”

Tony dares. “You chose him because of his heroism?” He exclaims, sounding if anything more incredulous. “I... wow, okay, you realize you don't live in a fairy tale, right?”

There are a few beats of silence.

“Tony, did you find what we need?” Jane asks rather loudly, as if desperate to break the tension in the room, and she's not even in it. Tony drags his focus back to the task on hand.

“Mostly, but it looks like we're going to have to machine a few things, and the bots other-me has are similar, but they have their own quirks that are going to take me a bit to figure out...”

The next few hours are a whirlwind of activity. Tony orders all of them around like his bots, getting all the parts together, yelling instructions as he's wiring or welding or inputting incomprehensible lines of code (Steve's learned a little coding, but he's not up to Natasha's level and whatever Tony is doing is far beyond him).

Tony and Rogers nearly come to blows several times, but Steve has gotten adept at running Tony interference, and he can recognize in himself the impulse to lash out when in pain. It's a tense twelve hours, and by the end of it he's exhausted and a little snappish himself. No one at any time had suggested a break; everyone was anxious for them to leave, not least of all Steve and Tony.

“There it is, our ticket home,” Tony says eventually, his voice soft with relief. Steve steps up behind him and wraps his arms around his waist and Tony nearly collapses against him.

“Why did you need a whole portal?” Natasha asks. “You didn't have one of these to get here.”

“This is more controlled. Safer for two people,” Jane chimes in absently, running diagnostics on her end. Steve looks at Tony with alarm.

“How dangerous was the other way?” he demands.

Tony flicks his fingers in a dismissive motion that Steve finds immediately suspicious. “Reasonably safe. Safe-ish. I'm fine now, what does it matter?”

“But Tony what if you--”

“But I didn't.” Tony interrupts. “I'm fine, I found you, and we're going home. What's there to talk about?”

Steve resists the urge to smack his head against a wall. “Let's just... we'll talk about it later.”

“As late as you want, big guy. Jane, you ready to fire this puppy up?”

“Yup, everything seems to be in order on my end.” She moves out of frame, ostensibly to the controls for her end of the portal. “On three.”

Tony pulls out of Steve's arms to go to the terminal.

“One,” he says.

“Two.”

Three!

Both of them activate their portal at the same time. There's a blinding flash of light and a strange, booming crackle and the next moment there's a clear view from the portal into Jane's lab.

“My god,” Steve says reverently. “You did it.”

“You doubted me?” Tony grins at him, but it's a little strained. His eyes keep flickering to wavy, blue-edged haze of the portal.

“Never for a moment,” Steve says, because he didn't, but there's a difference between the promise of a way home and the ticket home being right in front of him. A world of difference. He grins, giddy with relief, but Tony still looks tense and his breathing is suddenly deliberately, suspiciously even. “Tony?” he asks, worried.

“I'm good,” inhale, “I'm okay,” exhale, “It's just,” he flicks his fingers and grips tightly at Steve's arm. “Portals.”

Of course, Steve thinks. The portal is blue-tinged and slightly wavy, like looking through water, and it looks nearly identical to the one from New York on a much, much smaller scale. It's been a long time since Tony has had a panic attack, but he also hasn't had to face such a direct reminder before.

Steve touches his fingers under Tony's chin and turns his head so he's looking only at Steve, the portal completely out of his line of sight. “Breath with me?” he asks and Tony nods, clutching at Steve's arms, visibly fighting to keep the panic at bay. “Don't pay attention to them, just focus on me,” Steve says calmly when Tony's eyes flick self-consciously to the other people in the room and puts a steady hand on the back of Tony's neck. Tony closes his eyes and takes deep breaths along with Steve until he can feel him relax, just a little bit, and get back under control

A minute later Tony nods at Steve's soft “Okay?” and kisses him gently on the lips. Steve smiles at him and steps back a little. He can see Jane standing on the other side of the portal now, and she smiles and waves as he catches her eye.

He turns to look at the Avengers, who have helped him and sheltered him and put up with his sulks the whole time he has been here. They look tired, more tired than when he'd gotten here, but also pleased. Today has been a win. A tiny one, maybe, in the grand scheme of things, but there have been few enough of those lately.

“I – thank you,” Steve says sincerely, looking at each of them, these strangers with the faces of his friends. Well, not entirely strangers, he thinks as he looks at Rogers, a little off to the side. He still looks deeply, deeply unhappy and a little lost. On impulse, Steve strides across the room and pulls him into a tight hug.

Rogers makes a small sound of surprise, but returns the gesture with little resistance. “Think about what I said,” Steve whispers. “Be well.”

Rogers nods slowly and then pulls gently away. “You too.”

Steve smiles and then turns to Tony. “Well?” he says, knowing he's grinning a little cheekily. “What are we waiting for?”

Tony grins back at him and motions to the portal, where a smiling Jane is standing on the other side. “Age before beauty, buttercup.”

Steve laughs, takes his hand, and leads them both home.

Epilogue

Steve pauses at the door, wondering not for the first time if this is the right decision, or if he's dooming another world to death. If he's just opening himself up to more pain and more betrayal.

He remembers two men, tired and worried but bright and happy and shining when they looked at each other. He remembers how well they worked together, how easily they trusted one another, and how unashamed they were to show what they meant to each other.. Partners, in more ways than one. In every way that mattered.

Maybe...

But then, maybe not.

Still, Steve Rogers is many things, but he is not a coward.

He wrenches the door open and descends the stairwell for the first time since he put Tony, bruised and cowed, into his cell. He had been so full of righteous anger, but as he looks at the stark stone walls around him he feels perhaps a little guilty. He can't see himself doing anything differently, even now, but he can't escape the cruelty of leaving Tony alone, in this place.

His first look at Tony, his – no, not his, the one from this world – is like a kick in the gut. He thought it might be easier, having already seen the alternate version, but it isn't, not at all. Steve feels his breath catch in his throat, feels all the pain and betrayal and longing and loneliness he's felt from the moment he woke up, and remembered.

“I asked you not to come back,” Tony says quietly, without looking up at him.

“You didn't, actually.” Steve says. Casual, so casual. Not at all like he feels scrapped up from the inside. Not at all like he's questioning his sanity for coming here

Tony turns to look at him then, and his eyes widen. “Steve?” he whispers, and his voice breaks on his name.

“Yeah Tony,” Steve says tiredly. “It's me.”

Steve watches with fascination as Tony's expression hardens, as he tucks himself behind a mask of antagonism and bravado. He's seen it before, many times, and it's so obvious he can't believe how often he's been fooled by it.

“Why are you here?” Tony demands, something hard and harsh in his voice that wasn't there a moment ago. Steve tamps down a rush of anger, because Tony has no right to be speaking to him like –

Coping mechanism Steve reminds himself. Reminds himself that he's made a decision.

“The other one has gone home.” Steve says, ignoring the question. “I think he would have come to say goodbye, but he was respecting your wishes. He left you a note, though.” Steve walks forward and holds out the small envelope between the bars. He can't stop his hand from shaking, just a little bit.

Slowly, Tony walks forward to take it, standing as far back as he can from Steve, as if frightened of coming too close. It hurts, Steve realizes, to have Tony avoid him like this. To have him fear him. It hurts that he's given Tony so many good reasons to be fearful.

“He had a lot of opinions on how this world works,” Steve says dryly. Tony still hasn't spoken, but he nods, slowly. Steve still doesn't know what the other him said to Tony, but he bets it backs up his statement.

“I – ” Steve pauses, swallows, reminds himself yet again that he's made a choice, that there is no third option, here. “I miss you.”

Whatever Tony was expecting him to say, it clearly wasn't that. His eyes widen in shock and he takes a step back. “What – ?”

“I'm still angry with you,” Steve continues and feels that anger, always under the surface, simmering resentfully and just waiting to boil over. He thinks distantly that he's grateful he's not Bruce. He's felt so angry all the time, lately, and it's always out of his control. “I'm so, so fucking angry Tony, I can't--” He stops himself and presses a hand against his eyes, trying to hold himself together, trying not to break down because he's not stupid, he knows that underneath this protective layer of anger there is an ocean of hurt.

Tony's expression hardens once more. “Yeah, I picked up on that, Cap. Throwing me into a cell in the bowels of my own tower kind of clued me in.”

Steve ruthlessly reins back a flood of anger, keeps himself from giving into the urge to slam his fists against the bars. “Please stop. I'm trying--”

“Trying to what? To get me to beg for your forgiveness? To get me to apologize? Because I'm not, Steve, I'm not fucking sorry, I would do it again. I would do it again.” Tony is breathing heavily, his eyes wild as he stares at Steve, waiting for... something. Steve doesn't know what.

He closes his eyes. “It's not worth it,” he whispers.

Tony blinks at him. “What?”

Steve can't get the image out of his head, of Tony weeping over his corpse, of his confession alone in the dark, with no one to lean on. He can't get Franklin Richards' voice out of his head, asking him how will it feel to kill your own brothers.

He will kill Tony, in the end, if they keep going like this. Even if it's not by his own hand, he will kill Tony, and have nothing more to confess his sins to than a broken body on a slab. The thought makes his gut roil with nausea.

“It's not worth it,” Steve repeats, actually meeting Tony's eyes for the first time, his mind awash with emotion. “Where we're going, how we're getting there. You don't remember the war, Tony, but I do. Or, I thought I did, but I was blind, so blind to so many things and--” He breaks off, scrubs a hand across his face and is surprised to find his cheeks wet with tears.

“Steve. Steve I – Steve.” Tony whispers, sounding shocked, wrecked, earlier bravado gone as if it never was.

“Was it a lie?” Steve asks desperately, looking back at Tony. His voice is a mess, but he can't bring himself to care. “The Avengers World, the machine... did it. Did it mean anything?”

Tony's face crumples and he steps forward, reaching for Steve but snatching his hand back almost immediately. “I built it for you,” Tony confesses softly. “I meant that, I mean it, I really do. I built it for you because... because I – ” He stops himself, changing track. “It's working. Growing. That, with the Builder War, that was incredible. It's the best Avengers team in the world, and you're at the head of it. Building it with you, it was...” He trails off, eyes shimmering and clouded with his memories.

“It was the happiest time of my life,” Steve confesses. “Before... before I knew.”

Tony closes his eyes, his face tight with pain. “It wasn't... it wasn't for me, obviously because... because of everything but. After the break-out, when we were assembling the new Avengers, before everything?” He nods to himself. “Yeah. That was the happiest, for me.”

I made my choice, Steve thinks, but it's only now, looking at Tony, that he feels at all sure he's making the right one. “We're better together.”

Tony flinches. “Steve.”

“Look, I don't. I don't trust you. I don't know how I can after everything.” Steve takes a deep breath. “But I now I realize that me not trusting you? That's part of how we got here to begin with and,” Steve shakes his head and, on impulse, puts a hand through the bars, reaching out towards Tony.

“I don't know how to move forward from here,” Steve says urgently. “I don't know how to fix the incursions, I don't know how to let you in again but. But I want to try. I want to try.

Tony looks at his hand, looks at him, and gives him a trembling, watery smile.

“Me too,” he says, and clasps Steve's hand in his.