“They want to kill billions of people, Tony,” Steve said, not looking at him. Tony touched his arm, but Steve shrugged his hand off.
Tony sighed and put his hands on the rail next to Steve instead. “I know,” he said.
“We can't let them,” Steve said forcefully.
“You won't change their minds,” Tony stated matter-of-factly. He shook his head when Steve opened his mouth. “No, listen to me. You won't. They're committed. They think it's the only way. They won't agree with you.”
Steve's knuckles went white when he gripped the rail tighter. “You can't know that,” he said.
Tony shrugged. “I do.”
Tony looked over the dead landscape of Necropolis. “Because I agree with them,” he admitted.
“Tony,” Steve said, like a warning.
“I do,” Tony repeated. “But I also know we won't change your mind.”
“Someone has to give,” Steve noted.
“And it won't be them,” Tony said darkly. “Look, Steve – I don't want to fight with you.” He took a deep breath. “I know them. I know Reed and Stephen better than you do, and as for the rest, well, Steve, you only ever want to see the good in people.”
“Well?” Steve asked. “You want to say something, do it.”
“I know them, okay.”
“You're repeating yourself, Tony,” Steve said. He looked at Tony very seriously, evaluating him as if he wasn't sure he was still talking to a friend.
Tony had seen Steve looking at him like that before, in the pictures he'd seen from the Civil War.
He shook his head, pushing the thoughts away. He looked over his shoulder. They were still alone, but he wasn't sure how long that would last. “Aren't you wondering why all of them but us are inside now?” he asked quietly.
“Perhaps I have a bit more trust in people than you, Tony,” Steve said.
“But you won't trust me now,” Tony noticed carefully.
“You just said you'd kill another planet.” Steve turned to Tony, his eyes dark.
“To save you, I would,” Tony said. “But first, I'd do everything to find another way.”
“After I destroyed the Gauntlet,” Steve said.
“You didn't –”
Steve didn't let him finish. “I did,” he said. “You know how it feels to hold the Gauntlet, Tony.”
Tony thought back to the day he'd used it, to the infinite power, infinite knowledge, infinite possibilities. The Gems had felt alive, and a part of him had wondered if he could have gotten lost in them.
“I felt them die,” Steve said. “Don't tell me it's not my fault.”
“You couldn't have –”
“I should have!” Steve yelled. “But they shattered.” He was breathing heavily. “They shattered, and now you're contemplating destroying whole worlds.”
“And you're planning how to stop me already,” Tony snapped. “Is that so much better than what I'm doing?”
“If going back to making weapons is that easy for you –”
For a moment, Tony was sure he'd heard him wrong. Then he shook his head. “No,” Tony said. “No. We're not talking about that. I wish you'd trust me, but if that's how you are –” He stopped himself. He couldn't stay here with Steve now. He couldn't. It was too much, they were both lashing out, Steve –
Tony turned and left.
He passed T'Challa on the way inside. He might have heard the end of their argument.
Just as well. If Steve was going to be that unreasonable . . . they'd have to find another way.
Everyone but T'Challa and Steve was inside the big, dark chamber they'd first met in. No one was meeting his eyes.
“Well?” Tony said.
“He won't change his mind,” Reed said.
Tony almost laughed. “And it took all of you geniuses to figure that out,” he said. “It's Steve.”
“We can't have him interfering with us,” Stephen said. Tony noticed his fingers were raised a bit as if ready to cast a spell.
He knew he'd have to be careful. “Can we stop him?”
“He doesn't have to remember,” Reed said, gesturing at Stephen.
Tony had thought he was ready for almost anything, but he took an involuntary step back all the same.
He'd come back here knowing they'd ask him to betray Steve somehow, but this –
He wasn't sure if he could go with it.
Stephen was watching him carefully and Tony suddenly knew that if he said no it would be both him and Steve with missing memories in a few minutes.
He looked down. “Will it work?” he asked quietly.
“I'm a good sorcerer, Tony,” Stephen said, finally relaxing his hand.
He couldn't look Steve in the eyes, but it didn't matter. Steve wasn't looking at him either.
He talked as if he still believed he could reach them, as if he hadn't understood a word Tony had told him on the balcony – but of course he hadn't. Captain America was one stubborn bastard.
Tony still hoped he'd change his mind.
He'd hoped up till Steve finally looked at him, his voice cutting. “Isn't that right, dear?”
Tony couldn't breathe.
“Do it, Stephen,” he let out.
He knew that Steve's face in that moment would haunt his nightmares for months.
Tony usually loved putting Steve to bed.
It didn't happen often, because Steve tended to go to sleep at a reasonable hour every day, but sometimes Tony was there to tuck him in or for a round of goodnight sex.
Now he wanted to cry.
He wanted to lie next to Steve and watch him, to make sure he was all right, but he was too anxious to stay. He carefully covered Steve, made sure he wouldn't be cold, and then went to his lab. There were things he had to work on.
He could start with an apology for a sin already forgotten.
Tony woke Steve up and immediately took a step back before Steve could even reach up for a kiss. He wouldn't want to kiss him now, if he knew. And Tony . . .
“Sorry,” he said. “For waking you up. I couldn't sleep.”
“It's okay,” Steve said. “I'm grateful.” He stretched, then rubbed at his eyes.
“Bad dreams?” Tony asked carefully, avoiding Steve's eyes.
“Something like that,” Steve said.
“Come on,” Tony said. “I have an idea I want to share.”
Steve had said, weeks ago, that they needed to go bigger. He'd been right, like he often was. Tony led Steve to his workshop, to where the schematics for the Avengers World were ready on the computers, and watched Steve as he scrolled through them. The sheer joy and excitement over what was just an idea at the moment lit up his face.
“It's great, Tony,” he said.
Tony forced himself to stay away from Steve, lest he reached out to touch him; he told himself watching him smile was enough.
Steve was eating fried eggs.
Tony ruffled his hair as he passed him and froze a step later.
He had to tell him, but –
He was so afraid of what Steve would do.
He hid in his lab again. Avengers World was the perfect excuse. Even if Steve came down to him, they'd focus just on work.
Tony woke up in his lab, his face pressed against a keyboard. He glanced at the screen, but it was dark. He sighed. He knew he had to tell Steve. He'd known it since he nodded in Wakanda in response to Stephen.
He just wasn't sure how to go about it.
He wished Steve had trusted him, but he hadn't really ever since the war that Tony didn't remember.
Tony had to tell him.
He went up. Steve should be back from his run by now; it was probably past breakfast already. Sure enough, Tony found him in their room reading a book. He looked up when he heard Tony and smiled.
“We have to talk,” Tony said without preamble.
Steve's smile slowly vanished. “What's wrong?” he asked.
Tony bit at his lip. “There's something I have to tell you.”
Tony should have done this the moment Steve had woken up after Stephen had cast his spell.
“We went to Wakanda two days ago,” Tony said.
Steve frowned. “No, we –”
“We did, and you don't remember it,” Tony continued. “You don't remember it, because Stephen Strange wiped your memories of it.”
All of a sudden, Steve tensed visibly. He raised his hand to his head as if it hurt. Belatedly, Tony wondered if Stephen hadn't put in any fail-safe, if he could physically hurt Steve by telling him this.
“Tony?” Steve asked, sounding lost.
Tony told him about the incursions. About the Gauntlet breaking. About trying to discuss other solutions. About the Illuminati deciding they couldn't work with Steve.
He told him he could see why they did that.
“And you let them,” Steve whispered when Tony was finally done.
Tony looked down. “They would have wiped my memories too,” he said.
“How do you –”
“I know,” Tony cut in, remembering the spell ready on Stephen's fingers. “Just trust me.”
“Trust you?” Steve asked. “After you –”
“I'm telling you now.” Tony was on the verge of yelling. Why couldn't Steve get it? “I tried to warn you; you didn't trust me then, you thought there was discussing with them, but there's not, Steve.”
Steve shook his head slowly. “But you agree with them,” he said, and he sounded wrecked.
“I don't,” Tony said very quietly. “I do think we should keep all the options on the table. But I can't fight against you. I'm a futurist. I solve problems. But I can't do it without you, not now, not when so much is at stake. I need you on my side.” He felt exhausted. He wanted to sit down or lean on something, but he had to make Steve understand first.
“You thought –” Steve stopped. “I – Tony. I need a moment.”
“Please,” Steve said.
“You can't – you can't let them know,” Tony pleaded.
“I won't,” Steve said, and maybe he said it just to make him leave, but Tony believed him. For now.
He went to his lab again. His legs gave up when he just got inside, and he fell to his knees, shaking. He didn't know what he would do if Steve didn't agree to work with him. If he decided to wage a war on the Illuminati and let everyone know, if he just told Tony he wanted nothing to do with him anymore.
Tony loved him. He'd understand if Steve wanted to break up with him, but he still needed to work on this problem with him. He was always best when next to Steve.
The computer screen across the room displayed the Avengers World logo, and Tony wanted to break it.
He wasn't sure how much time had passed when Steve let himself into the workshop and sat down next to him, his hand on Tony's knee.
“A part of me hates that they thought there would be no discussion with me,” Steve said quietly. “A part of me hates that I didn't let you get through to me.”
“You're stubborn,” Tony said quietly, not sure where Steve was going.
Steve nodded. “Perhaps a bit too much,” he said. “I – I can't agree with you.”
Tony closed his eyes, but Steve tightened his grip on Tony's knee as if to show he wasn't leaving.
“But you're right,” Steve said, and Tony was sure he misheard him. “We have to work together.”
“So . . . what are you going to do?” Tony asked quietly.
Steve looked him in the eye. “You're right,” he repeated. “After what they'd done, I can't let them know. I can understand why you don't want everyone to know either. So I guess, Tony, it's the two of us.”
Tony started smiling. “Easy then,” he said, and for a second he believed it.
Steve smiled back. “I should have trusted you. I will try now,” he promised.
Tony reached out his hand like a question, and Steve took it.
Tony woke up. Next to him, Steve was sitting, gasping, his hand touching his forehead in an all too familiar gesture.
Tony wanted to comfort him, but he wasn't sure if it would be welcome. Even after he'd told Steve everything . . . he had first agreed to doing this to him. He'd had no other choice, but it was hard to remember when Steve couldn't sleep through the night.
He pushed his doubts aside, sat up, and embraced Steve loosely. Steve leant his forehead against Tony's shoulder. “It's the same dream,” Steve said. “Or is it a memory?”
“I'm sorry,” Tony said.
“I – I'm glad you told me,” Steve said.
Tony tensed. He wasn't sure if he could've lied to Steve about it. If he could've kept kissing him and remembering what Steve didn't. If he could've kept it up. He wasn't even sure if, if it came to it, he could really destroy another planet.
“The dreams . . . at least I know what they are,” Steve said. “I'd go insane trying to figure them out otherwise.”
Tony wanted to believe there wasn't a version of him that would do it to Steve.
“And . . . God, Tony,” Steve whispered against his skin. “I was so angry at you when you told me. I'm so happy you trusted me enough after I gave you no reason to.”
Tony started shaking his head.
“Thank you, Tony,” Steve said. “I'm – I don't know if I could deal with it if you didn't. If I just remembered in a few years.” He sounded terrified at the thought, and his hand dug into Tony's back.
“I'd never,” Tony said, suddenly very sure this was true. “I'd never do that to you, Steve.”
They sat down to plan the following day, both of them more focused, determined to make it work.
Tony put his hand under a scanner and showed the screen to Steve. “There's a chip in my hand,” he said. “Stephen took yours out.”
He noticed Steve closing his fist instinctively.
“It's a communication device,” he explained. “An incursion timer. A teleport.”
“You're quite well organised already,” Steve noticed, his expression unreadable. Tony touched his arm, half-expecting Steve to push him away like he had in Wakanda, but Steve didn't now.
“Let me get you up to date on everything else,” Tony said quietly.
He tried to take his hand back at some point, but Steve caught it and tangled their fingers together.
“What are you going to do?” he asked. “They want you to build weapons.”
Tony gripped his hand even tighter before answering. “And I will.”
“Tony . . .”
“You said you'd trust me,” Tony reminded him.
Steve exhaled, then nodded. “Okay. Tell me.”
“I will, because you're right; they want me to.” He looked away. “They're not bad people, Steve. Just desperate.”
“They wiped –” Steve stopped himself. Tony was grateful.
“I'll build them,” Tony said. “But there's no way really to test if the bombs work without setting them off, and no one wants to do that.” He hesitated. “I'll give you the activation codes. Just you.”
Steve nodded after a moment. “What can I do?”
“Plan,” Tony said. “That's what you're best at. Strategize. Think of what we missed. There must be a way.”
“I'm not a genius like you,” Steve said quietly. “Maybe that's why – you didn't need me there.”
Tony touched his hand to Steve's cheek, forcing him to look at him. “No,” he said. “No. If genius were what's needed, we'd have solved it already between Reed and me. We need something else. That's your job.”
Steve didn't look convinced, but he didn't argue. “What if an incursion happens?”
“We pray the other world's Avengers have all their Infinity Gems collected,” Tony said darkly.
He trusted Steve. He trusted that Steve trusted him. But he wouldn't swear that he wouldn't blow the other planet up if it came down to it.
Steve hating him was better than Steve dead.
He got the idea when sunlight woke him one day.
“I could use the sun,” he said before he even sat up.
“You what,” Steve said from across the room. Tony lifted himself on his elbows and looked at Steve who froze in the middle of pulling his t-shirt down.
“Reed asked about the blueprints for my bombs,” Tony said quietly. “I don't have them yet. I don't want to have them.”
Steve finished putting his t-shirt on and stepped towards Tony to sit on the edge of the bed. “And the sun?”
“We could use its energy,” Tony said. “It could generate the perfect shield for Earth.”
“Or destroy it,” Steve said. It wasn't a question.
“It'll take months to build, but I'll be doing something – something they can't question, and something that isn't meant only for destruction,” Tony said. He rubbed at his forehead. “I wonder . . . Could it save us from an incursion . . . At full force, maybe?”
Maybe wasn't enough, he knew.
“I trust you, Tony,” Steve said quietly. “Do you think it's a good idea?”
Tony bit at his lip. “It's that or me actually preparing the bombs, and . . .”
“Do it then,” Steve said. “Harness the sun.”
He looked down at Tony's hand. Tony followed Steve's eyes to see his hand shine bright red.
“I guess we decided on it in time then,” he sighed, getting up.
There wasn't a countdown over his hand, so it was just a meeting, but all the same, he got armoured up and went.
“You took your sweet time,” Namor snarled.
Tony ignored him. “What's going on?”
“We're trying to reverse engineer Black Swan's bomb,” T'Challa said. “We don't know when the next incursion will come, but we have to be ready.”
Tony nodded. “My solution is a bit more long-term, I'm afraid.”
“You said you'd build bombs. Are you that out of shape, Stark?” Namor asked.
Tony exhaled. “Bombs are so last century,” he said.
Reed frowned. “What are you planning?”
“A Dyson sphere – an incomplete one, of course; we can't make a full one for our sun. But even a small percentage of its power . . .”
Reed looked thoughtful. “It could be the ultimate weapon,” he said.
“Or a shield,” Tony said.
“That'll be hard to accomplish,” Reed said. “Building it so you could generate a forcefield of solar power . . .”
“I'm not building weapons just because it's easier,” Tony snapped. “If this shield works, we'll be safe.”
“Of course,” Reed nodded. “Yes. It might work. Stephen? Any plans?”
“There are powers you're better off not knowing about,” Stephen answered. He looked tired. They all did.
“That's it for the progress report then?” Tony asked. “You know, we could just do it by mail.”
“Tony,” Beast said.
He rolled his eyes. “Do you want to remind me how hopeless it all is?” he asked. “See you later, guys.”
“What about the Avengers?” Steve asked that evening.
“I thought we were going to assemble a new team,” Tony replied.
“You know what I meant,” Steve said.
Tony stopped tweaking the gauntlet and rolled his chair 180 degrees to face Steve. “This new team. I planned it like a machine. A machine to protect our world . . . from any threat.”
“Somehow, I don't think you're going to say yes,” Steve noted.
“I'm not,” Tony agreed. “I don't think we should tell them. I don't think we should tell anyone now.”
“If other planets hear about it, they'll attack us,” Steve said. “It's obvious. But the Avengers, Tony?”
“Look, I love Carol, but how can she help?” Tony asked. She couldn't. None of them could. Reed, T'Challa, and Hank McCoy knew anyway. Who else could help? Who else deserved to have this burden over them when Tony saw no hope? No one.
“What about Bruce?” Steve asked.
“Do you really want to be the one to tell the Hulk about incursions?” Tony raised an eyebrow. “But more than that . . . do you really think he'll agree with your option here?”
Steve looked down. Tony knew he was disappointed in the Illuminati, in what went past the obvious feeling of betrayal. Steve wanted to see the best in people and was very sharply taught he shouldn't like he'd never been before.
Tony hated himself for his part in that.
“So we assemble the team,” Steve said, “and hope that they'll be ready?”
“They will be,” Tony said with conviction. “If the time comes . . . they'll be the Avengers.”
Steve smiled a bit. “Who do we start with?”
“I said I love Carol,” Tony drawled.
“Say it one more time, and I'll be jealous,” Steve commented, trying to joke to make it all seem normal.
But it wasn't, was it? Tony looked down at his right hand. The light was off. At the moment.
“The Dyson sphere will be ready in a few months,” Tony said.
“That's a long time,” Reed noted.
Tony shrugged. “I can't build it any faster. We have to keep it down, and . . .” He trailed off.
“I've heard you're starting a new team,” Reed said out of the blue.
Tony wasn't sure if it was accusation or compassion in Reed's voice. Either way, there wasn't anything Tony could say without lying. But he thought back to the one long day when he wondered how to tell Steve, and . . . if he were still lying now . . . “What do you want me to say?” he snapped. “I'm – I'm lying to him every day, and – imagine if it were Sue,” he said.
Reed went ashen, and a part of Tony thought he shouldn't have said that. But as much as Reed was his friend, if he knew that Tony had told Steve everything, then both of them would end up with their memories wiped. And Tony had back-ups and safety measures prepared should it happen, but he was going to do his best so he didn't have to use them.
Their hands shone bright red then, and they looked at each other in silence for a second before going to the room all the Illuminati met in.
“We're not ready,” Beast said what they were all thinking.
“Then we have to improvise,” Tony said. “Stephen, take us to the incursion field.”
Stephen raised his arms.
The next moment, they were standing in New York looking up at another Earth, the sky red.
Around them, people were panicking. Some were taking pictures. Tony connected to Steve through his helmet. “You're seeing it, right?”
“Do you have any way of stopping it?” Steve asked.
Tony sighed. “No. And I mean it literally. They're reverse engineering the bombs, but they're not ready yet.”
He wished they were. He was happy they weren't.
“That's something,” Steve said.
Tony wanted to tell him again that his morals didn't mean anything if all of them died, but . . . right now, there was no other choice. Right now, he knew they were going to die in eight hours, and he didn't want to argue with Steve.
“We have to go there,” Reed said.
“Do you think there might be something we could do from there?” Tony asked, switching to external speakers for a moment.
“See if no one is planning to blow up our Earth at the very least,” T'Challa said.
“Okay then,” Tony said, and then switched back to his private channel to Steve. “Sorry for the delay. We're going to the other planet. You're on crowd control here, but . . . just make it look like I called the Avengers.”
Next to him, Stephen was starting another teleporting spell.
“You think that matters now?” Steve asked.
“If we survive, it will,” Tony said.
“Okay,” Steve said. He paused for a moment. “Be safe, Tony.”
Their connection cut.
Tony and the Illuminati stood on another Earth.
So did Galactus.
Steve embraced him as soon as Tony's armour disassembled. Tony sagged against him, exhausted with it all. Steve didn't ask any questions, but Tony knew he had to be burning with them. “Galactus,” he forced himself to say.
“He attacked the other Earth?”
Tony started to shake. “We wanted to stop him. God knows why; he was doing our job for us, right? But we wanted to stop him anyway, and we were too late.”
“You wanted to help because you're a hero,” Steve answered as though he hadn't heard the plural when Tony spoke.
“He destroyed it,” Tony whispered. “We caught his herald, but . . .”
But it didn't change the fact that Tony had just witnessed a planet – and not just any planet, Earth – dying.
He was so relieved that he didn't have to kill it, but so ashamed of feeling that way. He hadn't even had any means of destroying the other Earth, but its death let them live just like when Black Swan had destroyed the first Earth that came into incursion with theirs.
How many billion people had died already so they could survive?
“It wasn't your fault,” Steve whispered into his ear.
“I should have found a way,” Tony said.
“I shouldn't have broken the Gems.”
“Don't,” Tony said. Steve shook his head, but he didn't stop holding Tony close. Tony was so very grateful to him.
Tony stood in Necropolis the next day. They had to discuss the previous incursion. They had to find a way.
Black Swan was laughing at them. “Heroic men,” she said. “You had your work cut for you, and yet you're unhappy.”
Tony pointed at her. “What is she doing here?”
“She knows more than us,” Reed pointed out.
Tony was aware of this fact. He also hated it. He needed more variables, he needed to learn more, he needed to be working; he was a futurist, it was his fucking job to foresee the future –
Their hands shone red.
“Well, fuck,” Tony said.
“I have a prototype of the bomb ready,” T'Challa said. “I finished it last night. Based on Black Swan's bomb.”
Tony found that he couldn't breathe. What would Steve say about him now?
“Let's go then,” he said aloud.
“Not so fast,” Reed said. “It's in Latveria.”
“Doom's not an idiot,” Tony said quietly.
“We'll have to make sure he doesn't learn the truth,” Stephen said. “We should go.”
Tony found Steve in the gym going through his acrobatic routine. It was a sight to behold, but Tony couldn't focus on it now.
“Got a moment?” he asked quietly, sitting down against the wall.
Steve landed perfectly after a jump and straightened himself. He was shirtless, sweat glittering on his chest. He opened his mouth as if to ask something, took one look at Tony and jogged to him instead, kneeling down next to him. “What's wrong?”
“We blew up a planet,” Tony let out. He didn't look at Steve, not wanting to see the disgust on his face. “There weren't any people on it. It was dead already. Map makers . . . or whatever they're called . . .”
Steve touched his arm gently. “So no one died?”
“I'm sorry I didn't call you,” Tony said. “It all happened so fast. It wasn't a normal incursion.”
“So they're normal now?” Steve asked drily.
“The sky was blue. Not . . . not natural blue, but . . . it was weird. Black Swan said it was unnatural for an incursion. Said it was the map makers, destroying planets, marking the next one. So we had to blow up the other Earth . . . They'd gone through it. There was just decay left. No one alive. Not even plants. God, Steve.” Tony took a deep breath. “We had to blow it up, or they would have managed to mark our planet too.”
“So you succeeded,” Steve said.
“Seems so.” Tony shrugged. He looked at Steve now. “T'Challa reverse engineered Black Swan's device.”
Steve looked at the wall next to Tony's head. “We're running out of time,” he said.
Tony couldn't help it. He laughed, almost in hysterics.
They'd been running out of time ever since T'Challa first called them to Wakanda weeks ago.
Tony didn't sleep a lot. He couldn't build the Dyson sphere any faster – he had the best Shi'ar contractors on it anyway – but he could try to think of other ways to stop the incursions.
Except well, he couldn't.
Reed knew more about the multiverse than him, but none of their the long conversations helped. Tony was an engineer, and he had to admit his speciality was weapons no matter how much he hated it. He could think of a million ways to blow up a planet.
He couldn't think of any that would stop two planets from colliding like that, through an incursion. There were options . . . the Dyson sphere shield, of course, but Tony wasn't sure it would work like he hoped it would. He thought of temporally displacing Earth, moving it out of sync with the rest of their universe, but they couldn't generate a time field strong enough. The Time Gem could, probably, but the Time Gem was lost.
He tried to scan for it – he had its energy scan recorded – but of course, it didn't bring up anything. It could have been back in time before Earth even existed or long after it was gone. They didn't have the means to look for it.
He heard the door to his lab opening.
“You should sleep,” Steve said.
“I can't,” Tony said. “I don't have any viable solution, I have to find something . . .”
“You can't find a way if you can't think from exhaustion,” Steve said. “You haven't slept for two days. Come to bed.”
Tony thought back to his latest idea. “I have to ask you a question,” he said, ignoring Steve's last sentence.
“The Infinity Gems,” Tony started. Steve tensed visibly. “Do you remember anything from when they shattered?”
Steve looked as if he were in pain. “I don't remember using them,” he said. “I have the dreams . . . I can see figures standing over me. The Illuminati. But . . . nothing about the Gems.”
Tony sighed. There went that idea. Steve still looked uncomfortable though, so Tony stepped to him and embraced him. “Don't worry about it,” he said.
Steve laughed hollowly. “How?”
Tony didn't know the answer.
“Will you come upstairs?” Steve asked again.
“I have to work,” Tony said.
“You looked through everything already,” Steve said quietly. “Come to bed.”
Tony angrily looked at his computer. It didn't hold any answers. He might as well go with Steve.
He took a shower and then didn't bother with pyjamas. He climbed into their bed naked, kissing Steve. He wasn't sure what he'd do without him.
Steve rolled over him and pushed him down. “Stop thinking,” he said and bit at Tony's lower lip. “Just now. For a moment. Let yourself relax.”
How could Tony think of relaxing now, really?
Steve held Tony's wrists to the mattress over Tony's head with one hand.
“Tell me if you want me to let go,” he whispered, and Tony tried to struggle, but Steve's grip was strong, and –
He wouldn't let go if Tony didn't want him to. He'd keep Tony down. Safe.
Steve got him ready and pliant, and Tony, who always multitasked, didn't even think about the incursions. Steve slowly started moving in him as he kissed his skin, his left hand never leaving Tony's wrists.
Tony bit on Steve's shoulder when he came and then slowly drifted to sleep.
He woke up with Steve curled around him, slowly stroking Tony's arm.
“Morning,” Steve said.
Tony grinned at him lazily. “That was good,” he said.
“I told you you should come to bed more often,” Steve said, sounding very pleased with himself.
Tony thought of what was keeping him up and sighed. “I can't.”
Steve kissed him on the cheek. “I was thinking,” he said. “Maybe we need a wider look on this. We're acting . . . local.”
Tony frowned. “We can't let –” That wasn't what Steve was suggesting, Tony realised. “I could go into space. Quill even asked me to.”
Steve took Tony's hand. “I don't want you to go,” he admitted. “But you're going crazy here. Maybe it would be good for you.”
Tony looked at the ceiling. It was tempting. Of course it was. But it also meant leaving Steve alone here, and . . . “What about the rest of the Illuminati?” he asked quietly.
“Is there anything you can do here?” Steve asked seriously in reply.
Tony didn't like to admit that there wasn't, but . . . “No,” he said.
“There you are.”
“So you're throwing me away,” Tony said.
Steve kissed him. “Don't be silly.”
Tony sighed. “We should repeat last night,” he suggested. “And then I'll start getting ready.”
Steve moved closer to him. “Call me,” he said.
“Hey,” Tony said. “This isn't goodbye yet. And it's your idea in the first place.”
“I know,” Steve sighed. “I know.”
Tony kissed him.
Tony was working on finishing designing his new armour – one that wouldn't need too many repairs in space, hopefully, one that could stand other atmospheres and different gravity forces, one that would safely bring him home, hopefully with a solution to save it too.
He went back to red and gold. There was something reassuring in the colours he'd used for such a long time. He liked his current armour, but for this trip he thought he wanted something familiar.
There would be two separate RT power generators hidden in the armour that would last decades at the very least. Tony was still trying to figure out how communication would work. He wasn't sure he'd be able to contact Earth once he was out of the satellite range if he didn't connect to some alien network. He realised that it wasn't something he should focus on as much as life support, but he didn't want to spend who knew how long of a time without talking to Steve at all.
And he had to have a way to contact Earth; he had to know about any incursions that happened. Would the communicator in his hand work at such a long distance? Probably not.
Someone kissed the top of his head, and Tony realised he was so deep in his thoughts that he hadn't heard Steve entering his lab.
“Mmm, hello,” he said, leaning back in his chair to look at Steve upside down.
Steve put his hands on Tony's arms. “Working?”
“Finishing projects,” Tony said.
Steve looked at his screen, reaching out his hand as if to touch it. “May I?”
Tony shrugged and gave him the stylus. The file he had open now was just the graphic design.
“It's nice,” Steve said. “But . . .” He sketched a sun over where the RT would be hidden by the armour. “I want you to have something from me there,” he said. “And you are my sun, Tony.”
Tony blinked. He hadn't expected –
He stood up and wound his arms around Steve tightly, not wanting to let go.
He had to go, and he was a bit excited for it as well . . . but he also wanted to stay here with Steve forever.
“So, I'm going to space,” Tony said.
Around the table, the Illuminati looked at him, the amount of shock varying from face to face.
“Ditching the ship, Stark?” Namor asked.
“Are you sure now is the time to . . .” Reed started saying.
“We don't have the technology to stop the incursions,” Tony said matter-of-factly, ignoring Namor. “I know I won't find a way by sitting in my lab and staring at the wall.”
Reed nodded. “Makes sense, Tony.”
“You have to be careful,” Stephen said. “You can't let anyone know what's going on.”
Tony raised an eyebrow. “And here I planned the whole campaign already. 'Come visit Earth! Alternate universe planet might hit it at any moment! Once-in-a-lifetime chance! Book your trip through Stark Travels!'”
“I'm glad one of us is enjoying himself,” Stephen commented.
“Try to make sure Earth's still here when I get back,” Tony said.
The official story was that he needed vacation, something far away from all his worries on Earth. Tony wished it were true. He hated lying to his friends, but lately he did little else. But he didn't have a choice.
Around him, a goodbye party was going quite well. There was a lot of people. All of the Avengers. Other friends too. They seemed to be having a good time. Peter sat on the wall in his costume, talking to Johnny Storm. Jessica was laughing at something Natasha said. Clint was standing with Thor and Hyperion. Jan was talking to Steve. Tony smiled at the sight.
Pepper was there too, looking amazing in a green dress. She came to him. “Don't stay too long,” she said.
“Hey,” Tony said. “We talked about it.”
“I know,” she said. “It's still weird. Holidays in space.”
“I might bring back ideas for Resilient,” Tony reminded her playfully. Or how to save the universe, he didn't add. What would she say if she knew?
“Yeah, quote work as your excuse,” she laughed. “Carol and Rhodey are coming over here.”
Tony smiled as Rhodey passed him a glass of apple cider. “I know you'll love it there,” Rhodey said. “Futurist in space.”
Rhodey had a point, Tony thought. If only he knew the true reason Tony was going.
“Have fun among the stars, Tony,” Carol said.
“I'd promise to send you a post card, but I'm not sure there's a post office in space.”
“Looking to start a new company already?” she asked with a raised eyebrow.
“You know me, always planning,” he said.
“Come back soon,” she said. “I'll miss you.”
“We all will, Tones,” Rhodey added.
Tony would miss them too. He could only hope there wouldn't be an incursion when he was be in space, too far away to even try to help. He hoped they would be all right. That when he came back, they'd be waiting for him, smiling like they were now.
Tony put his hand on Carol's arm and squeezed. “You know I couldn't stay away too long.”
She laughed, her eyes going to Steve on the other side of the room. “Yeah. I guess.”
He almost asked her to take care of Steve, but Steve was a grown man who didn't need a babysitter. It was just . . . Tony didn't know how long he would be gone – it could be weeks or months – and he couldn't remember spending a longer period of time without Steve in years.
“Go to him.” She nudged him. “Everyone will understand.” Pepper and Rhodey nodded, and both of them were smiling at him too.
Tony had been telling himself all afternoon not to do that, to be a good host and say goodbye to everyone – but they were right.
And he wanted to be with Steve.
He smiled and nodded, and crossed the room to stand behind Steve, embracing him around the waist and putting his chin on Steve's shoulder. “Hi, Winghead.”
Steve turned his head enough to kiss the corner of Tony's mouth.
“Hi,” he said.
“Sure,” Jan said. “Notice Steve and the rest of the world doesn't exist.”
Tony grinned at her apologetically. “Can you blame me?”
“Not really,” she said.
“I feel like ditching my goodbye party,” Tony admitted.
“Do you want to be alone?” Steve asked. “Or . . .”
Jan rolled her eyes even as Tony said, “Don't be dumb.” He let Steve go for a moment, stepping to Jan and hugging her tight. “Keep Earth safe,” he told her, and she laughed.
“Have fun there,” she said.
Tony grabbed Steve by his hand and led him away.
He was leaving the next day. He wanted to spend the last night with Steve.
Steve kissed him for the last time before Tony flipped his faceplate down.
“Take care,” he said.
“Be safe, Tony,” Steve answered.
Tony turned his jet boots on and flew away before he could change his mind.
Space was awesome. Beautiful and scary. Inspiring and terrifying. Tony loved it.
He was happy the Guardians of the Galaxy welcomed him on board so easily and trusted him like a friend, but he couldn't stop wondering what they'd say if they heard the true reason he was there.
They were good hosts. Tony wished he could be there under different circumstances.
Their ship shook suddenly, snapping him out of his thoughts. Peter swore, running to the controls. “The Badoon!” he called.
“I hate those guys,” Tony said. “Where do you want me?”
He was already in the armour; he could go out before the rest of them suited up. Peter looked at him. “How good is that armour?”
“Good,” Tony said.
“Try and stop them from firing at us. The shields are good, bot not that good. We'll join you in a second.”
Tony nodded and ran to the airlock. Moments later, he flew around the ship and ended up straight in front of a Badoon destroyer. He powered up his shields and tried to localise the weapons on it. He found one on the lower left side, aimed his repulsors, and fired. With grim satisfaction, he watched it power down.
Then, just as skilled soldiers started to jump out of the destroyer and attack him, the Guardians were at his side.
Gamora threw herself ahead, taking out someone with each hit. Drax, with none of her grace but with lethal force, wasn't far ahead. Rocket sat on Groot's arm and was firing at the ship, trying to aim at the weapons systems just like Tony was.
Peter followed Drax and Gamora. “Don't fire at us,” he called, laughter in his voice.
“I can't speak for Rocket,” Tony answered. Another gun, on the top of the ship. It seemed like there was a weapon hidden behind every plate of it.
“Tony,” Peter said on the comms. “Can you localise their energy source?”
“On it,” Tony said. He knew how Badoon ships were built. He shouldn't even have to get inside, just . . . He switched on stealth shields, rerouted more power to his boots, and flew to the ship, trying to get under it. There was a perfectly circular shape there. Tony put his hands on it and used the repulsors with full power.
“Well,” he said. “Their emergency systems should work for a few minutes, but then we're in for a nice explosion.”
“Everyone, get back to the ship,” Peter called.
Tony did just that, grinning. The fight was small, over as quickly as it had begun, and nothing out of the ordinary for the Guardians, but Tony couldn't remember the last time things had been this easy. It felt good to actually accomplish something, to succeed without any casualties. It had been a long time sine he felt like that.
Tony broke the third day. “Hey, Peter,” he said. “Do you have any way of contacting Earth?”
“Missing home?” Peter asked, but he gestured at Tony to follow him.
“Something like that,” Tony admitted. He wanted to talk to Steve.
Peter blinked. “Ah. Who's the lucky person?”
“Am I that obvious?” Tony sighed.
“Just a bit,” Peter said. “So?”
“Steve,” Tony said.
“Captain America?” Peter asked with a grin. “Pretty sure the eight-year-old me is jealous.”
“As he should be,” Tony laughed. Steve was the best thing that had ever happened to him.
Peter opened the door to a room where, as it turned out, the rest of the Guardians were playing . . . Tony would say poker, but it probably wasn't.
“Rocky,” Peter said. “Can you set up Tony with an Earth communicator?”
“As soon as I win this game,” Rocket said.
“What is it?” Tony asked.
“Poker,” Gamora said. “It's easy. It's –”
Tony couldn't help but laugh.
“It's not one of the many things Earth lacks,” Peter explained, looking amused too.
“I am Groot,” Groot said.
Rocket stared at him. “Of course I'd win.”
“Is that a challenge?” Tony asked. “But communicator first.”
“Wow, you are homesick,” Rocket said.
Tony pulled himself a chair and sat next to them, observing the game.
Tony closed the door to his room and almost vibrated with excitement as he set up the device Rocket had given him.
The room was small, a normal thing on a ship, even a space one. There was enough space for a cot and a small desk though, and that was where Tony put the receiver.
He connected his armour to it and sent in the general Avengers password. It wouldn't give anyone access to anything important if someone hacked his security.
A few moments passed, and then a pink hologram of Steve showed up over Tony's desk. Tony broke into a brilliant grin. “Hi, lover,” he said.
“Tony!” Steve beamed at him.
“So my armour can't connect to you directly . . . yet . . . but I met the Guardians of the Galaxy again and they helped me out,” Tony explained.
“That's great.” Steve was still smiling. “I can see you on the screen. You're all pink.”
“So are you,” Tony told him, and then he got serious. “How are things?”
“All right as far as I can tell,” Steve said. “On your end?”
Tony shook his head. “I just got here. We got stopped by some Badoon ship, but now we're on the way to a planet that might have either a science library or a market that's interesting to me.”
Steve frowned. “Stopped,” he repeated, worry clear in his voice.
Tony waved his hand. “I'm fine. Not a scratch.”
“You can see me, can't you?” Tony asked.
“You're good at hiding your injuries,” Steve reminded him quietly.
“I'm fine. Promise,” Tony said.
Steve nodded. “Be careful.”
“I am,” Tony said. “I want to come back to you, you know.”
“I hope so,” Steve answered. “Can I call you with this?”
“Not exactly. Think of it as a landline. If I'm on the ship, sure, but . . .” Tony trailed off. “I'm going to work on it though.”
“Do that,” Steve said. He yawned, covering his mouth, and smiled, a bit embarrassed. “It's late,” he explained.
“Oh,” Tony said. “Sorry. Go back to sleep. I'll keep you updated.”
“Thanks,” Steve said. “Good night.”
Tony realised he was still smiling. It'd been just a few days, but he missed Steve a lot. It was different from business trips; on those, he knew exactly when he'd be back, and also that if need be, he could return earlier.
Here, he was well and truly away.
A week later, they stopped on Aquarius Two. Contrary to the name, the planet was dry like a desert. According to Peter, the inhabitants didn't need water, as they received their nutrients from the radiation of the two twin suns they orbited around. Tony knew Hank Pym would be fascinated. They didn't look humanoid; they were short and Tony thought they resembled jellyfish a bit.
“I know what you're thinking,” Peter said. “It was pretty much my first thought too, but it's rude.”
“Look who's talking,” Tony said.
The gravity was weaker than on Earth, so the aliens – or, well, natives here – moved without any difficulties. It looked almost as if they were flowing through the air.
“Why are we here?” Tony asked.
Peter shrugged. “I though you'd like to see something different,” he said.
And Tony did. He really did. But he wasn't here on holiday, not really, and as much as he enjoyed himself, he felt guilty for enjoying every minute he didn't spend looking for a solution.
“Come on,” Peter said. “Be a tourist.”
Tony smiled despite his thoughts. The suit protected him from the radiation, and he looked around. The sky was violet. There were no plants around them, but things that looked like stony forms. He wasn't sure what they were made of, but they looked a bit like modern art sculptures. Steve would like it.
Rocket had landed them just outside of a town, and Tony could see low, circular buildings that seemed like they were glowing. Their arrival hadn't caused any disturbances; the aliens must have been used to guests from other planets.
The rest of the team had stayed inside, and Tony gathered they didn't really like the weird climate here.
“We wouldn't survive five seconds out of these suits,” Peter said.
“Makes it more interesting, doesn't it?” Tony asked.
From afar, Tony saw a small alien, probably a kid, falling to the ground. A bigger one helped it stand up.
This here, this was also what Tony was trying to save.
Tony thought he needed libraries more than black markets on forgotten planets, but this one sure was interesting.
He did glance in the direction of the weaponry section that Drax and Gamora had gone to instantly, but then decided against following. He was here to look for other solutions. If need be, he could build a bomb on his own just fine.
He needed shields or forcefield generators, something to give him ideas. A “fix your broken Infinity Stones” set would have been ideal, but he doubted he could find that anywhere.
He went around the market, but there was nothing that caught his eye. Oh, some things were more than amazing, of course – children toys relying on anti-gravitational devices, spheres in which lightning was caught, frozen forever – but Tony wasn't there to wander around for his own amusement.
“What do you want to find?”
Tony had almost jumped before he realised it was Peter. “Nothing in particular,” he lied.
“Yeah, sure,” Peter snorted. “You don't have to tell me, but I might be able to help.”
Tony shook his head. “Any libraries in space?”
Peter shrugged. “A lot. Most of them really secret. There's Knowhere though . . . It's a scientific observatory. I haven't visited for some time.”
Tony looked around them. He doubted he'd find what he needed here. “Can we go?”
“Why do you think I told you about it?” Peter said. “But knowing Drax and Gamora, they won't finish here any time soon. You might as well take a look around.”
Tony sighed. He hated wasting time. He hated the reason he was here.
He thought that, maybe, in the future, if they solved the incursions – maybe he could come back with Steve.
It was a nice thought.
Something caught his eye. It was a sphere like the one with lightning in it, but instead it held a flower. It grew slowly, blooming, before its leaves and petals fell and it grew again, and again, and again. The flower was blue, the leaves red. Tony thought it was perfect.
“Well,” he said to Peter. “You might be right.”
He pointed at the flower and went towards it.
“Didn't take you for a romantic,” Peter said.
Tony shrugged. “Steve still pretends red, white, and blue aren't his favourite colours,” he said. Steve had always claimed red and gold were, but recently he changed his answer to black and gold, and it was sweet, but Tony was still going to get this flower for him.
The seller was a tall, green-skinned woman. “Hello,” Tony said.
Next to him, Peter laughed. He said something Tony didn't understand, gesturing at the flower.
“Their race doesn't like universal translators,” he explained to Tony quietly.
Tony sometimes missed places where everyone spoke English.
Peter helped him finish the transaction, and Tony carefully lifted the orb. It was light, but it seemed strong. He'd scan it later to see what exactly was going on. His armour had already shown him that it wasn't a clever hologram.
He walked around the market with Peter, this time really letting himself look, not just for what he could use to stop the incursions. There were so many different things to look at that he felt dizzy. He couldn't even start to guess what the majority of them were.
There were alien flowers, food, a device Peter identified for him as a camera that looked like a stainless steel tetrahedron. Tony saw a pair of red Converse sneakers and shook his head at it.
“No roller skates,” he said.
“I'm beginning to think you're obsessed,” Peter said.
“Nonsense,” Tony said.
Around them, aliens of all shape and size were talking in a hundred different languages, probably arguing prices or exclaiming in wonder. Tony's translator couldn't keep up with the crowd, so he switched it off. He saw blue-skinned kids with wings leaning over tables with sweets – “lethal for humans,” Peter said as soon as he noticed where Tony was looking – and a man with eight arms juggling with numerous balls that seemed to be made of glass.
Everything was loud, colourful, and alive.
There were no nights or days on a spaceship, but Tony still thought it was night when he lay down to sleep.
The hum of the ship's systems surrounded him, and as he lay on the narrow cot, he couldn't help but think that he missed Steve. A lot. He wanted to touch him, hug him, keep him close. Feel another body next to his, the warmth of Steve.
It had been a few weeks.
There were five other people on the ship, and yet Tony felt so damn lonely. He missed home.
Visiting alien bars wasn't high on Tony's list of priorities, but he knew that when you were on a team, you had to make sacrifices.
And it wasn't as if he were having a bad time either. He felt like he was in a Star Wars scene, like Han Solo might be hiding behind some table. Rocket and Drax were gambling, Groot standing next to them with the infinite patience of, well, a tree. Gamora shared drinks with a beautiful woman.
Peter was next to Tony, sipping a significantly more alcoholic drink than Tony's own.
“It's Rocket's favourite place,” he said.
Tony looked to where it seemed like Rocket was winning another round of roulette. “I can see why.”
The music was loud in the background. It seemed strange to Tony's ears, and he suspected the instruments didn't exist on Earth. It was lively though, and he thought he'd like to dance if Steve were here. But Steve, of course, was back on Earth. Tony sighed and drank more of the alien juice Peter had ordered for him. It tasted a bit like mango, but more sour. He liked it.
The bartender had four tentacles for arms and was unsurprisingly agile. Tony watched as he prepared drinks for a group of aliens in environmental suits. Tony wasn't sure how they were going to drink them.
“Not everyone likes Earth-like atmosphere?” Tony asked.
Peter glanced at them and nodded. “They like sulfur in what they're breathing in.”
Tony winced. “We are not going to their planet,” he said.
Peter laughed. “Agreed.”
Tony didn't like bars, but he had a lot of fun all the same.
“So, we're in Knowhere,” Peter said. “Mantis should be able to help.”
“Mantis?” Tony smiled. “The once-an-Avenger Mantis?” He hadn't seen her in ages.
“I sometimes think the Avengers are that big club everyone belongs to but me,” Peter joked.
“You could join us,” Tony said, laughing.
“Nah, I like space,” Peter said. “You're not going to stay here either, after all.”
“No,” Tony agreed. “I'm not.”
Not even if he didn't have to return to Earth because of the incursions. He enjoyed it here, but it wasn't home.
“Okay then,” Peter said. “Knowhere.”
He opened the hatch and stepped out first, Tony and the rest of the team behind him.
Tony saw him take a step back when Mantis threw herself at him. They hugged, and then Tony flipped his faceplate up and smiled at her.
“Space is serving you well.”
“Tony,” she said, stepping away from Peter. She looked serious. “You won't find what you're looking for here.”
“What?” He suddenly regretted lifting his faceplate.
“But you will find it,” she said. Then she frowned. “And you should go home now, Avenger.”
Tony looked at Peter.
“We'll drop you off,” Rocket said. “Come on guys, let's go back on ship.”
Peter nodded. Tony stayed outside for a few seconds longer, looking at Mantis. “You can't –”
“I won't,” she said.
Tony went back to the ship.
He called Steve that night again.
“I'm coming back,” he said.
There was hope on Steve's face. “Did you –”
“No.” Tony shook his head. “I – I met Mantis.” He could see that Steve wanted to ask what happened, and he hurriedly continued. “She said I wouldn't find the solution out here and that I should go back home.”
“And it's her, so you listened,” Steve finished. He bit at his lip. “Anything else?”
“She did say I would find the way . . . but I'm less inclined to hope here.”
“You're the one who's always so optimistic about the future, Tony,” Steve said. “Don't lose hope now.”
“How can't I?” Tony asked quietly. He raised his hand to stop Steve from answering. “I should be back in a couple of days.”
“I'll be waiting,” Steve promised.
“Love ya,” Tony said and disconnected.
“Thank you, guys,” Tony said, when they were circling Earth's orbit.
“No problem,” Peter said.
“Want me to land, or . . . ?” Rocket asked.
“I'm good,” Tony said. “Thanks again.”
He went around and shook everyone's hand. Drax's handshake made his armour creak. Gamora smiled at him.
Peter held his hand for a while longer. “If you need us –”
Tony didn't let Peter finish. “I know.”
He approached the door. “Bye, guys.”
Rocket opened it for him. Tony stepped out into space.
Steve stood on the roof of the Avengers Tower. Tony spotted him from a few hundred metres above, a blue figure.
He landed, and he hadn't even managed to take his helmet off before Steve wrapped his arms around him and lifted him off the ground as if the armour didn't weigh anything.
“That's hot,” Tony said.
Steve pressed a kiss to his faceplate. “Take it off.”
“I was trying to,” Tony said. Steve let him go just long enough for Tony to pull his helmet off. It fell to the ground as Steve embraced Tony again, going on the tips of his toes to kiss him. Tony returned the kiss and god, he'd missed him.
Steve's lips were warm and perfect, and he had one hand in Tony's hair, the other on his arm to steady himself. He didn't need to; Tony had both his armoured arms around Steve and was holding him up. It was always so different when he was in the armour, stronger and taller than Steve was. It was different, and sometimes Tony liked it, but now he just wanted to feel Steve pressed against his body without the armour separating them.
“You're not allowed to leave for so long again,” Steve whispered against his mouth.
“Hey, it was your idea,” Tony reminded him before kissing him again and again. It'd been almost two months. Why had he stayed that long?
“It was a stupid idea,” Steve said later, breathlessly. “Don't listen to me anymore.”
“I'll remind you about that when you tell me to work less,” Tony said with a laugh.
“Let's go inside,” Steve said.
“Now that,” Tony quickly kissed him again, “is a wonderful idea.”
“Wait,” Tony said, when Steve was stripping him out of the armour. “Wait.”
Steve actually glared at him.
Tony smiled with affection and reached into one of the hidden compartments of his suit. He took out the flower orb he'd bought for Steve.
“A souvenir?” he offered.
Steve took it carefully. A small smile appeared on his lips as he watched the flower change. “This is beautiful,” he said, amazed.
“And your favourite colours too,” Tony said with a grin.
Steve shook his head with laughter. “Thank you,” he said, and then leant in and kissed Tony. “Can we continue?”
“Oh god, yes.”
Tony woke up with his face pressed into Steve's neck, Steve's arm behind him. He was draped over Steve, and he thought he should roll over, but Steve was embracing him tight enough that he couldn't move. Tony pressed a kiss to the spot between Steve's neck and shoulder and bit him gently.
No matter how much he might want to stay with Steve, he couldn't.
Steve moved underneath him, and Tony knew from experience how easy it usually was to wake him – and yet he always fought to stay asleep when he was near Tony. The trust always made his throat tight.
“Steve,” he whispered. “Hey, Steve.”
Steve stirred. “Sleep,” he mumbled.
“I can't,” Tony said. “You know I have to go meet with . . . the rest. There's nothing I can tell them, but maybe they can tell me something.”
Steve's eyes shot open at that. “I don't want to let you go,” he said, but he opened his arms.
Tony sat up. He put his hand over Steve's chest. “I'll be back soon,” he said.
“You said that last time,” Steve pouted.
“Well, I'm not going into space now,” Tony smiled.
Steve didn't look convinced. “Go back to sleep,” Tony told him. “You won't even notice I'm gone.”
“I always notice,” Steve said, but he was drifting off already. The flower in the sphere was on his night table, forever changing.
Tony watched him with a fond smile for a moment before he went to take a shower – and he'd missed his bathroom too; small spaceship showers just didn't cut it – before going to his lab to armour up.
Then he activated the button that would take him to Necropolis. He hated the dark chamber they always met in, memories of Steve falling to the ground there fresh in his mind.
He wasn't the first to arrive; T'Challa and Namor were already there. Seconds after Tony, Reed showed up. Black Bolt was next, shortly followed by Hank. Stephen only teleported in when they had all sat down already.
“I have nothing,” Tony said because everyone was looking at him. “There wasn't anything we could've used in places I was able to reach, and I couldn't exactly have asked around.”
Reed nodded sadly. “I expected it,” he admitted. “There hasn't been another incursion yet.”
Tony sighed with relief.
“So we assembled for nothing,” Namor said.
“Clearly,” T'Challa agreed drily. “What now?”
An alarm sounded in Tony's armour. The Avengers comms. “A moment,” he said out loud, before he listened to the report and swore.
He extended his arm and activated the holoscreen in his wrist panel because he couldn't quite process it yet.
There were spaceships over New York. Hostile spaceships.
There were also records of it happening worldwide.
“An invasion is just what we need,” he finally said.
Tony wanted to scream.
“I have to go,” Steve said.
“No,” Tony said. “No.”
In the pale morning light coming through the windows, Steve looked like he was from another world, his light skin almost glowing.
He also looked stubborn.
“I'll take you to space if you want to later, but God, Steve, let me go instead.” Tony had a suit of armour. He had more protection . . . and he was disposable.
Steve couldn't go fight a war in space. He just couldn't.
Steve took his face in both hands and looked at him seriously. “Someone needs to protect Earth,” he said. “And right now, I trust no one else more to do that.”
“So what,” Tony said, and he didn't care if he sounded hysterical. “You'll just go out there to die?”
“I should be offended at your lack of belief in me,” Steve said.
“Steve.” Tony grabbed Steve's arm and held it tight.
“It's our business,” Steve said. “It's the Avengers' responsibility. You need to stay on Earth because there are other dangers it might face, and I can't stop them. I can't help here. What I can do is plan. I'm a strategist. I can fight.”
Tony shook his head. “I didn't come back just to lose you,” he said.
“You're not losing me,” Steve said patiently. “We fight against something every other day, how is this different?”
Tony stared at him. “You did not seriously ask me that.”
Usually, Steve was right next to him. Tony could protect him. Even if he couldn't . . . Earth was safe. If Steve's cowl got ripped, nothing much would happen.
Space was beautiful. It was also lethal.
He didn't want Steve to go.
So what if it was the logical choice? Tony didn't want it to happen.
Steve leant down and kissed him slowly. “I will go,” he said. “I will come back.” Another kiss. “And you will keep Earth safe for me.”
Tony didn't look at him as he said, “Yes.”
“Good,” Steve said. “Good.”
“If you die,” Tony said, pretending his voice wasn't shaking, “I'll never forgive you.”
“Well, I can't have that,” Steve said.
Tony stepped closer to him, pressing their bodies together. Looking at Steve right now felt too much like remembering him for when he'd be . . .
“You have to come back,” Tony said.
“I promised already,” Steve reminded him, his hands running up and down Tony's back.
They were in the hangar, everyone but Tony getting ready to leave.
Tony didn't know why this was happening.
Steve stood in front of him, all ready to go to space to fight a war that seemed un-winnable – and of course, it was Steve, so they would win, they had to, but –
Tony wouldn't be able to help him.
He embraced Steve and kissed him one last time. “Hope for the best, Tony,” Steve said. “Plan for the worst.”
Tony nodded. He closed his faceplate. “Be safe, Steve,” he said.
Steve smiled at that, his face full of affection. “I will be.”
Tony watched him climb into a space-ready Quinjet, next to Carol, who gave him a thumbs-up.
A few moments of preparation, a loud sound, and they were gone, flying up.
Tony turned away. He had a city to protect, and then a world.
Tony operated the Avengers Tower battle station with Reed without a second of rest. They made a good team, used to working together in the lab, but both of them were getting tired.
It'd been hours.
The rest of the Fantastic Four was out in the city, fighting Thanos's forces more directly. Tony coordinated with Luke to see what his Mighty Avengers were doing. Rhodey was giving him updates from the military side of things.
It was starting to look good.
“Get some sleep, Reed,” he said. “I can do it on my own now.” It wouldn't do to have both of them exhausted to the point of collapse in a few more hours, but Tony himself wasn't ready to sleep yet.
Not when Steve was out in space, and Tony had no idea if he was all right.
It proved how tired Reed was that he didn't even argue. “I'll change with you when I get back,” he said.
“Guest rooms are on the sixtieth floor,” Tony said, though Reed must have known that already.
“Good luck, Tony,” Reed said.
Tony focused back on fighting. It was easy, to coordinate the systems, to use automatic targeting and just pick up enemy aims. Tony wanted to be out there, to rip through the aliens with his repulsors instead, but he couldn't. Someone had to use the battle stations, and as he had built them, he was the one best suited for the job.
It didn't mean he was happy about it.
When New York was safe, and they learnt that Atlantis was destroyed, they didn't quite know what to do next. There were too many points of conflict; they needed to plan and delegate tasks – their hands shone red.
“Good timing,” Tony said. He hadn't heard from Steve in three days. He needed something, anything to distract him. He'd take an incursion over worrying when – if – Steve would come back.
They all went to Australia, to the incursion field, and looked up.
“Maybe Thanos will mistake it for our Earth,” Tony said and he wasn't sure if he hoped it would be the case. He remembered what he had promised Steve and felt lost.
“And maybe the incursions will just end on their own,” T'Challa said. “We can't –”
A figure appeared next to them. An aleph. Tony prepared his repulsors, but it all happened too quickly.
It turned out that they finally met someone who thought blowing up their own Earth would keep them safe.
Thanos' armies were still on Earth, and Tony finally felt like he had done something, fighting them on the battlefield without hiding behind walls and computer systems. He hadn't really slept in days, just lain in his bed unrestfully for a few hours, thinking of Steve.
Having things to hit was actually helpful for once.
He was in Wakanda, protecting both T'Challa's people and Necropolis's secrets. Next to him were Reed and Stephen, with T'Challa preparing his bombs to use on a smaller scale.
Tony let himself focus on the physical aspect of the fight. Fire, dodge, fly up; fire, jump, aim again –
He didn't think about Steve, at all.
When they were done and Natasha called from the Peak to send him coordinates, he was afraid to go to Orollan, but only for a moment.
Thanos stood there, frozen mid-air, but it didn't matter to Tony at the moment.
Steve was unconscious on the ground.
More accurately, Tony hoped he was just unconscious. He stood over him and, with relief, noticed that Steve was moving already. “Wake up, Steve,” he said. He was proud of how his voice didn't shake.
Steve cracked his eyes open and looked up at Tony. He seemed lost, as if he wasn't quite sure where he was or what had really happened.
“Bad dream?” Tony asked.
“That depends . . . What kind of a world am I waking up to?” Steve asked.
Tony offered him his hand and pulled him to his feet. “Ours,” he said and didn't let him go.
Tony convinced himself that Steve really was back and alive late at night, kissing every inch of his skin, touching every new scar, licking every shadow.
Steve came apart under him, and Tony couldn't breathe due to the relief that Steve was back with him.
Steve grabbed his hand later and squeezed. “I promised I'd be back,” he said.
Yes, he had. But he still had been gone for over a week, fighting a war as far from Tony as he could possibly get. Tony had spent every second worrying about him, thinking it might be Steve's last.
He was back now. Tony had to focus on that.
“I know,” Tony said. “I missed you.”
“I know,” Steve said. “Me too.”
Tony kissed him, slowly licking at his lips. “You're not allowed to leave ever again,” he whispered.
Steve laughed under him, but he slid his arms around Tony and held him close. “Not without you,” he said. Tony took a shaky breath, then nodded. He moved down Steve's chest until he could press his ear to where Steve's heart beat steadily. He listened, and the steady rhythm calmed him down.
Tony woke up when someone kissed him. He opened his eyes to see Steve leaning over him and smiled. Tony hadn't even tried to sleep in their bed alone when Steve had been in space, but now everything was all right again. The light didn't hurt him; it was probably cloudy outside, and Tony didn't mind one bit.
“Morning,” Steve said.
“Morning.” Tony sighed. He was comfortable, and he was happy Steve was next to him, but . . . “There was an incursion,” he said.
Steve tensed. “And?”
“The Builders of that universe showed up,” Tony said. “They took us on their ship – and then destroyed that planet.”
He wasn't sure if there were still people on it. He remembered being held in an invisible forcefield, being forced to watch an Earth burn.
He wondered how many times it would happen again.
Steve moved to his side, looking at Tony. “Are you okay?”
Tony wasn't, but he had to be. “You're here,” he managed. “That makes it all right.”
“I was serious, Tony.”
Tony sighed. “I don't know if that Earth was still inhabited. And does it matter? Maybe the map makers killed everyone there too. And the Earth that Galactus destroyed . . . Those are three planets I didn't manage to save.”
Three planets whose deaths meant they could live.
Steve ran his fingers down Tony's arm, grounding him. “None of those were your fault.”
Tony still didn't know what he'd do if he actually had to choose.
“I'm a superhero, allegedly. I'm supposed to be saving people,” he said quietly.
“You kept Earth safe,” Steve said. “That's what counts.”
“The Dyson sphere should be ready in two weeks,” Tony said. “I don't know what we'll do if another incursion happens. We both know the sure way to keep our Earth safe, but . . .”
“We can't do that,” Steve said.
Tony couldn't answer.
There was no point in talking about it, but the fact remained that he and Steve didn't agree and would never agree on what the acceptable price was.
Steve came down to Tony's workshop the following day.
“I've never asked you how you liked space,” Tony asked. It'd been a sleepless night spent on calculations and ideas that would never work. He was so tired of trying to solve a problem that didn't have a solution. He turned in his chair to see Steve sitting down on one of the work benches. It was dark, just the computer screens lighting the room, but Tony could still see a small smile on Steve's face.
“Amazing,” Steve said. “I'd love to see it without a war going on,” he added after a moment.
Tony nodded. “It is something,” he said. “I wish we could go . . . when this is all over . . .” If it'll ever be, he thought.
“I'd like that,” Steve said. “All those people we saved, Tony. I want to see how they are when they're safe.”
“Carol said you were pretty amazing,” Tony said.
Steve shrugged. “We have experience fighting stronger enemies,” he said. “The team was fantastic. You're right. They're ready for anything.”
Tony blinked. “Not that,” he said.
“I'm wondering,” Steve said. He raised his hand when Tony opened his mouth to speak. “I'm not saying we should tell them now. But if the time comes when we have to . . . they're ready.”
“Good,” Tony said. “Let's hope we won't have to put that to the test.”
“Let's,” Steve agreed.
There were worlds where he died on his knees, the planet he was supposed to protect burning.
There were worlds where he gave up everything to protect Earth and failed.
There were worlds where he gave up everything to protect Earth and succeeded to so far, but he couldn't honestly say if it was worth it.
There were worlds where he fought Steve.
There were worlds where Steve killed him.
Then there were worlds where he was working with Steve.
There were worlds where Steve died in his arms, but their world was safe (for now, Tony thought).
There were worlds where he was happy with Steve and they didn't face incursions yet.
There were worlds where Steve helped him build weapons.
There were worlds where they were married and had kids and stood together against everything.
There were worlds where they died together.
There were no worlds that held any solution.
Tony held Steve tightly at night. They were wrapped in blankets, but Tony still couldn't stop shivering.
“I saw so many different versions of us,” he said. “Through the Bridge. We can look into the multiverse, but there are no answers, and there are worlds where we die, but there are also worlds where we fight each other . . .” He trailed off. He couldn't think of the scenes he saw again.
(Steve punching him in his lab. Tony attacking him on an incursion field. Repulsors aimed at the white star and the shield hitting the armour.)
“That's not us,” Steve said, but his voice was shaking. “That's – that will never be us, do you hear me, Tony?”
“It was us,” Tony whispered helplessly. “I don't remember it, but it was us.”
“I'm sorry,” Steve said. “I'm sorry, I'm sorry, Tony, we've all made mistakes, that will never be us again.”
Tony wanted to believe him so much.
Tony's hand was shining bright red. Seven hours, 59 minutes, 45 seconds. Less. Always less. They didn't have time.
“The Dyson sphere is almost ready,” he said to Steve. “It should work. If it's not active in four hours, you know the codes.”
Steve tangled their fingers together, his palm hiding the alarm in Tony's. He pulled him close, kissing his forehead. “I believe in you,” he said.
“That makes one of us,” Tony said darkly. “I have to go.”
He kissed Steve and activated the teleport.