“I’m sorry, Tony.”
Tony leaned back on the sofa, stared into the bottom of his empty glass, and then looked back at her face, drawn, on the holoscreen.
“Don’t be, Pep,” he said, and forced a smile. She winced. “It was gonna happen sooner or later, right?”
He slapped his knee as he got up from the sofa, walking across the room to refill his glass. “You know what?” Vodka. It was definitely a vodka day. “Buy yourself a new dress on the company card. Go, get, like, a facial or something. Enjoy yourself. I hope your, uh, your--”
And that was when his tongue stopped forming words, when his throat started to feel strangled.
“Date, Tony,” Pepper said, with a bittersweet smile that put his stomach in knots.
He turned away from the holoscreen so she couldn’t see his face. “Right,” he said, waving his fingers. He downed the vodka soda in one gulp, grimacing at the sting of too much alcohol on his tongue. “Right, right,” he said. “That...thing. I hope it goes well.”
Pepper was quiet, so quiet for so long that Tony thought they might have gotten disconnected. He turned around to see her biting her lip, misty-eyed. “Thank you,” she said, nodding tightly. “I hope so, too. I--”
“--Telling you to override his commands, FRIDAY,” Steve said in a soft but urgent tone, still as poised as ever as he walked into the room backward, as if he were talking to someone in the hall. “It’s an emergency--”
Steve shut his mouth, looking a little abashed as he saw the expression on Pepper’s face and the empty glass in Tony’s hand. “Sorry,” he muttered, the commanding air draining out of him, his shoulders sagging. “I’ll--”
“No, you said it was an emergency,” Tony replied, setting his glass down, half-grateful for an excuse to cut off that painful conversation. “You know what, Pep? Have fun tonight; call me in the morning. I wanna hear all about this hunky dreamboat asshole.”
“He's not a-- Okay,” she agreed. “Hi, Steve. Bye, Steve.” She had that pained look on her face, the one she’d been wearing every time she saw one of the Avengers, the one she’d worn when she’d realized that Tony couldn’t leave the Avengers, even after he’d tried putting distance between them. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Tony. Love you.”
“Love you, too, Angelcake,” Tony replied, as the holoscreen faded out.
Steve was looking at his feet, at the wall, at anything but Tony. “I didn’t mean to interrupt,” he apologized, kicking at one shoe with the other. “Is everything--”
“No, everything’s terrible, but it’s not the first time, and I doubt it’s the last,” Tony replied. He raised his glass, as if to toast, realized it was empty, and went to fill it again. “No need to be sorry. You want one of--”
Steve raised an eyebrow, as if he hadn’t expected the offer of a drink. “Is that vodka?” he asked.
“Technically, it came out of my industrial ethanol plant, but hey, you can’t tell the difference,” Tony said. “You want one or not, Captain Teetotaler?”
Tony smiled as Steve’s eyebrow twitched-- one thing he’d learned in their short residence together was that Steve would not back down from a challenge if he saw one, even a tiny one, even a tease.
“Lay it on me,” Steve answered, holding out a hand. “It’s not like it can do anything.”
When they were both furnished with drinks, Tony gave Steve a pointed look as he clinked their glasses together. “What was so urgent, Cap?”
Steve took a sip of the vodka, then wiped a hand over his mouth. Tony could tell from the reaction that he didn’t care for it, but Steve kept sipping it politely.
“Vision says his system’s picking up something funny,” Steve answered. “You mind coming down to give it a look?”
“Funny, how?” Tony asked. “I take it we don’t mean, like, Saturday-Night-Live-used-to-be-funny funny?”
Steve gave him a blank look. “You don’t honestly think I’m going to believe that show used to be funny, do you, Stark?”
“It was,” Tony insisted, as he started for his private elevator to the laboratory floor of the compound, Steve following just behind. “Come on, Nat thought it was funny when they lampooned her.”
“Is this like the time you tried to convince me that the kid from Jurassic Park grew up to be the lady from Legally Blonde, or the time you--”
“You need to learn to take a joke, Steve,” Tony intoned, dead serious, as he gave the other man a pat on the shoulder.
“Look, Stark,” Steve answered, giving Tony a very tired look. They both stepped on the elevator, and the doors slid shut. “I promise I’ll learn to take a joke when you learn how to deliver one.”
“Ouch!” Tony answered, slapping a hand to his heart as if he’d been wounded. “Killer. I’m…” He panted, heavily. “Not...long...for this---”
His dramatic expiration was interrupted by the ding of the elevator bell. Tony straightened up and stopped dying.
Steve, who had been staring at the glowing display numbers on the elevator wall and not paying any attention to Tony’s speedy and tragic decline, strode out of the elevator with that smooth, long-legged Captain America walk that he seemed to revert to whenever something was important, even if he was wearing khakis and a tee shirt, like he was now.
A tee shirt, Tony noticed, as he followed Steve out of the room, that looked like it was about three sizes too small. Tony mentally chastised himself as he realized that he was staring at the muscles rippling along the contours of Steve’s shoulders. He couldn’t decide whether someone really needed to teach the kid how to dress properly, or if someone was doing the world a favor by letting Steve utterly fail at his sartorial choices.
“Tony!” called a familiar voice-- a familiar voice that Tony hadn’t expected to hear.
“Rhodey?” Tony asked, grinning at the appearance of his old friend. Rhodey bounded forward, gave Tony a big bear hug, the kind that tugged him up off his feet, before depositing him on the ground. “What the hell are you--”
“Some kind of weird signal,” Rhodey answered. He nodded to the War Machine armor sitting in pieces on a chair. “It’s messing with the suit’s controls; we’re getting interference on all frequencies.”
“Huh,” Tony said, scratching his head He stepped over to the suit, picking up the helmet and peering inside. “You shouldn’t be--” he sighed, and patted the gunmetal-grey finish. “I’m so glad you’re rid of that shitty paint job.”
“I agree,” Steve said, his voice bone dry. “Terrible color scheme. Only a real sap would wear that.”
“Cap, have you--” Tony started, before he saw the broad smirk on Steve’s face. “Right. You were already crazy.”
Steve only grinned and shook his head.
“The point being,” Wanda interrupted, turning away from her own workstation in a swivel chair. “We’re getting interference everywhere. It’s thick, like molasses; I can sense it on everything.”
“It’s interrupting my signals, too,” added Vision. He hovered by the enormous holoscreen on the north wall, shaking his head before he floated over to the rest of the group. “Extraordinarily irritating. And the readings are, ah--” Vision raised a hair, projecting images directly to the holoscreen. “Let me illustrate.”
“What are we looking at?” Steve asked warily, as bright waves of light undulated across the screen.
“It’s the same frequency our friendly neighborhood Tesseract was transmitting,” Tony said, looking to Vision for confirmation. “But it-- can’t be, right?”
“I contacted Asgard already; Thor assures me it’s well-protected,” said Natasha, from her seat atop a table.
“Could there be more of them?” Steve asked warily. “That’s hardly reassuring.”
“No,” answered Vision. “Each of the six stones has a different property; their radiation measures at different frequencies.”
“The wave patterns have been getting more intense over the past hour,” Wanda put in. “It started as a little...buzzing sensation. Now it’s like a swarm of bees.”
“Which is what happened last time,” Natasha observed warily. “Dammit. Clint would know more about it-- he was there when Loki activated the Tesseract, but he’s out of reach.”
“Is he home?” Steve asked. “We could--”
“He took the kids to Adventureland,” Natasha replied. “We are not interrupting.”
“Last time, we had the Cube,” Steve said, considering. Tony watched the way Steve tensed at the mere discussion of the cube, the way his back and arms went rigid, his mouth went tight. “This time, there’s another source. Which means we don’t know where--”
Steve was interrupted by a shrill, piercing sound that tore through the air, high and deafening. There was a ripple in the atmosphere, just by the wide windows that overlooked the grassy lawn and granite hills of Erie County. The air wavered, like steam rising from hot asphalt. In a blink, Tony and Rhodey called for their armor, eyes peeled on the disturbance.
“FRIDAY,” Tony instructed as he raised a gauntlet, aiming at the windows, which was quickly forming into a strange, yellow glow. “Seal the lab off. Evacuate the rest of the building. Now.”
Natasha had dropped from the table, reaching for her guns.
Steve...stood fast, the closest to the glow, shield held firmly on one arm. “Cap,” Tony said, as the glowing light expanded into a bright, burst. “Cap, get down.”
Steve glared back at Tony. “If whatever this is can scramble the armor’s signals--”
“Signals are fine,” Tony answered, and he stepped forward, up closer to Steve, who, apart from his shield, was inadequately dressed for anything even remotely similar to the Tesseract. Very inadequately. “I’ll tell you if I need help.”
There was another burst of light, this one harsh and blinding, and when Tony blinked away the afterimage, a swirling, man-sized vortex had appeared in his window.
And a man stood in front of it, leering. His skin was blue, glossy; his clothing was green and violet, made of flowing silk, and--
“Who the hell are you supposed to be?” Steve demanded.
The blue-faced man smiled. It was an ugly smile, thin and stretched and accompanied by narrowed eyes. “You don’t know me?” he asked.
“Hell of a way to make an entrance at the wrong address,” Rhodey chimed in.
“Sorry, buddy,” said Tony. “We’ve never seen you before in our lives. At least, I haven’t. You know this guy, Steve-o?”
The man laughed, tipping his head back, cackling, like some absurd comic book villain, and Tony felt a chill go up his back, a sinking sense of realization, even as the stranger opened his mouth.
“You will, after this day,” said the man. “For I am--”
Tony swallowed. His throat was dry. “Kang the Conqueror,” he said. The name came out like a rasp, and Tony shivered.
Now Kang showed his teeth, a bright, predatory grin spreading across his face. “You do know me,” he observed.
“Stark,” said Steve. “You-- what the hell is--”
“You’re from a comic book,” Tony said, shaking his head. “You’re not--”
“Real?” asked Kang, his lips twitching with amusement. “Oh, I beg to differ. I am very much real, Mr. Stark.”
“He’s a fucking universe-hopping time-traveler,” Tony said. “From the comics I read as a kid.” He turned to Steve. “You fought him,” he explained, shrugging.
Steve shook his head, eyes fixed on Kang. “No,” he replied. “No, I most definitely did no--”
It all happened so fast. Kang aimed a weapon-- a gun made of coiled metal, sparking with golden energy, at Steve. Steve gritted his teeth, squared his jaw, and charged forward, shield first, as always, even without his uniform.
“Steve, don’t--” Tony started to say, just as Kang grinned wolfishly and pulled the trigger.
Tony dove forward, aiming a repulsor at the gun as he threw an elbow at Steve. Steve was larger, square and solid, and even in the suit, tackling him was a feat, but all Tony needed to do was shove him out of the line fire, and--
“NO!” shouted Kang, and in that moment, Tony saw the look of horror on the blue man’s face.
The beam crackled as it hit Tony’s suit, but the armor seemed to disperse most of the electrical charge that came from a gun. Still, it seemed to enclose him in golden light, drag him forward into the vortex, which was shrinking rapidly.
“You idiot,” Kang snapped, in a voice that sounded oddly familiar, though Tony couldn’t quite place it. He fought against the force tugging him forward, but it paralyzed his limbs, froze him, until he couldn’t move.
Rhodey lunged for Kang, lifting the man with a single gauntlet, as Steve threw himself at Tony, moving to wrap his arms around the suit, but when he made contact, there was a blast, loud and violent.The force threw Steve off of him, and tossed Tony back even more violently into the swirling vortex behind him.
A table crashed, and Tony heard a volley of gunfire-- Natasha, he assumed.
It was the last thought he had before everything went black.
Tony came to, his entire body sore and burning, his head pounding. A brilliant white light shone in his eyes where the faceplate had been torn from the armor. He flinched, and blinked, and realized it was the sun. The ground beneath him was soft, yielding. He lay a hand down against it.
"Shit," he muttered. "Sand."
“FRIDAY?” he said, wincing as he pushed himself to his feet, the armor clanking as sand streamed out of the seams in the metal plates. “FRIDAY, can you get a read on--”
“I’m afraid I can’t get a read on anything, Mister Stark,” FRIDAY apologized. “Satellite reception is dead.”
“Try the back--”
“As is the backup,” replied FRIDAY. “And there is absolutely no wifi in the immediate vicinity. Suit functionality is down to twenty percent, and the reactor--”
Tony looked down at the breastplate of the suit. The cozy glow of the reactor was dark. He gave it a tap, just to make sure. No luck.
Tony sighed, shielding his eyes from the glaring sun as he scanned the horizon. Sand dunes. Nothing but sand dunes.
“This is gonna be fun,” Tony replied. “ He was growing warmer by the minute, inside the suit, and without any idea when or how he’d be able to recharge the suit’s power, he hardly wanted to risk turning on the cooling system. “Do we have any water on board?”
“Just what’s in the filtration unit,” FRIDAY replied.
“Fantastic,” said Tony. “Pee soup it is,then.” Tony started peeling the suit off, piece by piece. He ejected the container carrying filtered water from its cartridge, and stuffed it in the waistband of his pants. “FRIDAY?”
“Don’t tell Pep I’m drinking pee water.”
“Considering that the filtration system’s water purity rates as more suitable for human consumption than what comes out of her home taps--”
Tony sighed and shook his head. “I have no idea how I’m gonna carry this.”
“May I suggest--” FRIDAY began, but another sound cut him off. At least, Tony thought he heard another sound. It was far-off, unintelligible, but it sounded like someone shouting.
"FRIDAY, you see somebody?" Tony asked, turning in a circle.
“There's a small dust cloud at nine o’clock,” replied FRIDAY. Tony turned to his left, squinting to see the dust cloud on the horizon.
He heard another noise-- it was a shout, most definitely a shout, and he waved his hands in the air-- then, after a moment’s thought, picked up the chestplate of the armor and reflected the sun off the smooth, shining surface, directing the beams toward the dust cloud.
There was more shouting, and a few moments later, a figure resolved, a man on a chestnut-colored horse, riding toward him, dressed all in pale blue-grey, something glinting off its chest in the sunlight.
Tony put the chestplate down, started waving both arms in the air. “Hey!” he shouted. “Hey, I’m over here!”
“Coming to you!” answered the man, and the horse sped up.
“Whoa!” the man cried, as they approached, and his horse came to a halt, and the man dropped from his saddle.
He gave the horse a pat and offered it a drink from a leather skin, as he stepped forward with a stride that Tony would have recognized anywhere.
But everything else was wrong. This man was at least a decade older, his skin tanned and stubbly, his hair long enough to curl at the ends over his collar. And he was wearing cowboy boots. With spurs.
“Are you--” the man began, and then stopped, staring at him, his eyes squinting as if he were terribly confused.
“Stark?” he asked, lifting off his hat to run a hand through his hair. “Are you al-- What are you--” His blue eyes scanned Tony’s body, from head to toe,with a sort of discrimination, an air of concern, a possessiveness Tony didn’t expect. It set him on edge, a little. “--wearing?”
Tony met Steve’s gaze as he stepped closer, then lowered his eyes, landing on the sheriff’s star pinned to his vest.
“That’s what I was about to ask you.”
Steve looked down at his clothing, frowned, and straightened his shiny brass Union Army belt buckle before looking back at Tony. "Same thing I was wearing this morning," he answered. "But you..."
He gestured at Tony's jeans and tee shirt, his beat up sneakers. "Your shirt's very tight."
Tony frowned. "You're one to talk, Captain Pectorals." He tugged at his shirt. "It's...fitted. Not tight."
Steve, meanwhile, was shaking his head in confusion. "What the Sam Hill is a pectoral?"
Tony snorted and stepped up to Steve, poking him in the chest. "That," he said, and then looked down at his finger. "That's a pectoral." He shook his finger out as if it were catching, blew on it as if he'd been burned, and shot Steve an amused look.
Steve coughed, staring at Tony with a confused look. "What are you--"
"Scientific curiosity, buddy," Tony explained with a shrug. "Don't flatter yourself. You got any idea what the hell just happened? You're a heck of a lot older than you were...ten minutes ago."
"You're a heck of a lot older than you were ten minutes ago," Steve echoed back, brow furrowed. There was an Old-Westy twang to his speech, instead of the usual not-quite-hidden Brooklyn accent.
Tony rubbed at his eyes. "Not unless somebody's been Photoshopping me. Listen, Steve, the getup's got something to do with Kang, doesn't it? What the hell happened after I--"
"After you what? What the heck--" Steve asked, waving a hand at the suit, still sprawled in the sand like a dejected space-age carapace. "--is that there thing?"
"Ah--" Tony looked back at the suit, rubbed his face.
"This another on of your contraptions?" Steve asked, dropping to one knee to peer at the pieces. "Is this a man?"
"Sort...of..." Tony answered. He watched Steve's shoulders strain the fabric of his tailored vest and wondered if he could get this Steve to advise his own Steve on wardrobe choices. At least this one knew how to dress.
Steve flicked at the helmet. "Is this a...steel man?"
"Ah." So close, Tony thought. So close, and yet so far. "It's technically a titanium-gold alloy man."
Steve sat down in the sand, holding the helmet up, turning it around in a circle. "You made this, didn't you?" he asked, with a low whistle. "This your secret project you've been working on?"
That did it. "Steve," Tony said. "Who am I? I mean, who are we? What do we do?"
"Is this a trick question?" Steve asked. You're Tony Stark, town blacksmith and general miscreant--"
"Ooh, miscreant, I like that," Tony replied, even as he winced at Steve's answer. "Steve, you ever seen anything weird around town?"
"Anything weird that didn't start and end with you, Stark?" Steve asked.
“Ha, ha, very ha,” Tony replied, arching an eyebrow. “Weird, like, blue-skinned time travelers weird.”
Steve raised an eyebrow. “You been in May Parker’s hooch again, Stark?”
“Leaving aside for a second that I don’t know who that is,” Tony replied. “If I tell you that I’m here from the year twenty-fourteen, are you going to tell me I’m drunk again?”
“Twenty…” Steve’s eyes went squinty, and he rubbed at his jaw. “You aged well, Stark.”
“I mean, I don’t think I’m your Stark,” Tony replied. “I think I’m in, uh, the wrong plane of existence. The past, maybe. I would think maybe you’re mistaking me for my great-great grandfather or something, only I’m pretty sure my grandparents were Russian-Jewish immigrants and definitely weren’t ever in the middle of a desert.”
Steve looked over his shoulder. “The desert...now that you mention it, the desert’s been goin’ on a little longer than it ought.”
“Yeah, that doesn’t sound too great, pardner,” Tony replied, trying to get into the spirit of things. “You...know how to get out of it?”
“Yeah,” Steve answered, looking over his shoulder. “I was out chasin’ some of Fisk’s gang, and I ran into Mayor Timely, of all the folks, out in his coach, and what do you know, I got turned around, but I reckon I can tell by the sun. Town’s back that-a-way, ‘bout half-a-day’s ride.” He poked a thumb in that general direction. “I could take you.”
Tony looked from Steve to the horse to the suit. “I don’t suppose there’s any way to--”
Steve crossed his arms over his chest and gave Tony a very dry look. “Bucky can carry the two of us just fine, but I ain’t saddlin’ him with--”
Tony almost choked with laughter. “Bucky?” he asked. “Your horse is named Bucky?”
“He don’t actually buck,” Steve replied. “In case you were afraid of that.”
Tony hid his smile behind his hand. “No, no problem, Steve.” He picked up the helmet and activated the GPS chip in the suit. He started covering it with sand, and hoped-- hoped he’d be able to dig it out later.
“And here’s another thing,” Steve said, sounding irritable. “Where do you think you get off callin’ me Steve like we’re fri--”
Tony, nearly finished brushing a layer of sand over the suit, paused, and looked up, his knees aching from the give of the sand beneath them.
Steve had stopped, and was looking back at him with a hard expression, his mouth half-open. “You know me,” he observed.
“Well, yeah,” Tony replied.
“I’ve got a Tony Stark back in town,” Steve said, slowly. He took his hat off, combed his hair back with a hand. “You’ve got a Steve Rogers wherever you’re from, don’t you?”
Tony grinned, pushed himself to his feet, brushed the sand off on his jeans. “You got it, Cap.”
“Cap?” Steve looked quizzically at him. “And we’re friends,” he deduced. “I mean, you’re friends. You and...my double?”
“I wouldn’t call it friends-friends,” Tony replied, scooping up the helmet once again. “We work together.”
Tony sized up Bucky. Bucky whuffed at Tony and did not appear impressed.
You...ever ridden a horse before, Stark?” Steve asked.
“Sure, lots of times,” Tony replied, recalling that fateful day when he’d thought a horseback ride on the beach sounded romantic and had ended up getting a hoof to the face.
“I’m goin’ to take that as a ‘no,’ Steve decided, and, taking hold of Bucky’s reins, made a stirrup with his hands. “Here, pop that helmet of yours in that saddlebag, and up we go.”
Riding on a horse, Tony found, was far less terrifying when it was a big, solid creature like Bucky-the-Horse, and when he was ensconced firmly between Steve Rogers’ thighs, with an arm around his middle for extra stability.
He tried not to think too much about the fact that he was, well, ensconced firmly between Steve Rogers’ thighs, because thinking about that made his head hurt. His attempts at small talk fell flat, since apparently, wherever they were, they didn’t have local sports yet, and the weather didn’t even change enough to talk about that.
“What, uh, what year is it here?” Tony asked Steve.
“What’s--you said twenty-fourteen, didn’t you?” Steve asked. “What’s that like?”
“Like?” Tony asked. “It’s, uh...normal. I don’t-- you know, I can’t even give you stock tips because neither Apple nor Google is gonna happen in your lifetime. Shit, when the hell did Xerox happen?” he mused. “Disney...I have no idea when Disney went public…”
“You’re speakin’ a foreign language again,” Steve replied. “You...what do you do, if you ain’t a blacksmith?”
“Uh,” Tony hesitated. “I’m like a blacksmith,” he explained. “I make armor.” He waved the helmet back at Steve. “Like this guy.”
Steve snorted. “You sure you’re from the future?” he asked. “Last I heard, the days of knights were over.”
The sun had set by the time the dark silhouettes of a few short buildings appeared on the horizon.
“That your town?” Tony asked. His backside was beginning to ache from all the time on horseback; he’d never imagined sitting could be so painful.
“Yeah, I reckon,” Steve replied, but his expression darkened as his eyes scanned the horizon. “Only--”
“What is it?”
Steve pointed up, past the town, to a tall, dark tower that rose from the hills in the distance. “I don’t recollect ever seein’ that before,” he admitted. “That’s up where the Mayor’s hunting lodge oughtta be. Maybe it’s the Railroad, or the oil company, or--”
He stopped, reined in Bucky, suddenly, so the horse whinnied in complaint.
“What’s the matter, Ste--”
And Tony saw the shadowed figure lying in the sand. In the dim twilight, it was hard to make out that a man was there at all, but there he was.
He didn’t seem to be moving. Steve hopped down from Bucky, and gestured for Tony to follow.
Tony made the jump, and only wobbled a little on his landing. SIlently, he mused over the fact that all the fitness training he’d done the past few years had actually paid off for something other than flying around in a metal suit.
“So you--” Tony started, before he realized that Steve was standing over the body, stock-still, eyes wide, and mouth agape.
Steve dropped to one knee, carefully brushing the sand away from the man’s face. He looked up at Tony, shaking his head; fear gleaming in his eyes.
“It’s me,” he said, his voice quiet.
Tony strode through the sand; it was difficult to walk, his shoes kicked up dust clouds every time he moved a foot. He stopped and crouched beside Steve, looking at the young man lying in the sand before them.
The man lying in the sand was, unmistakably, a spitting image of the man kneeling beside him-- a spitting image, but more squarely built, with a broader chest, blockier shoulders, thicker legs. He was younger-- younger, even, than Steve was back home, somewhere in his late twenties at the most. His hair was trimmed short, in a regulation military buzz cut, and he was wearing...well, something that sort of resembled Captain America’s uniform.
“Why am I wearing so many pouches?” Steve asked.
Cowboy Steve, Tony corrected mentally. Now he had two Steves. Cowboy Steve and--
The unconscious Steve was no longer unconscious. Instead, he was up like a shot, eyes fierce and nostrils flaring, a gun with the barrel flush against Cowboy Steve’s forehead.
“The hell am I, soldier?” the new Steve demanded.
Angry Steve, Tony decided, as Cowboy Steve backed away slightly, raising his hands in the air.
“Now, look here, kid, we don’t want any trouble, but this here’s my territory, and you’re--”
“Who the fuck are you calling a kid?” Angry Steve snapped. He snarled and flipped his gun back into its holster, right next to the grenade.
Great, Tony thought. Angry Steve had grenades, just what they all needed.
“Steve?” Tony said, gently. He realized that somehow, he’d stuck his own hands up in the air, without realizing it. “Steve, it’s, uh...okay?”
It was definitely not okay.
Angry Steve blinked and looked up. “Tony?” he asked. “Tony, what the hell’s going on? Why are you so old? Did it--did it work?”
“Tell me what ‘it’ is and I’ll tell you if it worked,” Tony answered.
“Galactus,” Angry Steve said.
Now that his attention was off Cowboy Steve, Cowboy Steve had, wisely, backed away completely and gone to calm Bucky before Angry Steve frightened the horse too much.
“Gala--” It took Tony a second to place the name. “Oh, shit,” he said. “You mean the two-eyed-two-horned-flying-purple-planet eater?”
He rubbed a hand over the scruff of his beard, remembering the villain from the same comics as Kang. “Steve,” he said. “You wanna tell me about Galactus?”
“You know we were trying to kill the fucking planet-eating sonofabitch,” Steve answered. He was slowly calming, his face losing some of the redness of his rage, but there was something too rigid, too hard, too grim about this Steve. “What happened to New Jersey?”
“Okay,” Tony said. “Okay--” He peered at all the weapons strapped to this Steve’s belt and vest. “I didn’t know,” he admitted. “I think you, uh, know a different Tony.”
Angry Steve wasn’t really angry anymore, maybe Grim Steve was better, but then, if Tony changed his name every time Steve changed his mood, that would get confusing. Tony decided he’d better stick with ‘angry.’
Angry Steve squinted at Tony, uncomprehending, shaking his head. “You’re Tony Stark,” he said.
He stopped speaking, and his eyes fixed on something just behind Tony. Tony glanced over his shoulder, and realized that Cowboy Steve had turned back toward them.
Cowboy Steve approached slowly, with the air of someone who didn’t want a gun held to his head again. He smiled, a little uneasily, and thrust a hand out. “Sheriff Steven Grant Rogers, pleased to make your acquaintance, Kid.”
This time, Angry Steve didn’t object to being called ‘Kid.’ He was too busy trying to pick his jaw up off the floor. He shook Cowboy Steve’s hand with his own big, beefy fingers, shaking his head as in disbelief.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” Tony said. “But I don’t think any of us are in the right place.”
Angry Steve’s jaw went tight. “No,” he said gruffly. “That can’t happen. I have-- there’s too much to--”
Tony chuckled. “Yeah, well, I’m sure you can file a complaint with some cosmic entity, but I think it already did.”
“No,” Angry Steve repeated, and he stamped a boot down, firmly, in the sand. For a moment, Tony thought it was almost childish, and this Steve looked so young, and the buzz cut didn’t help matters. “I already did this,” said Angry Steve. “I did this; I shouldn’t have come back the first time, and now--”
"Well, shit," Tony said, a little louder than he'd meant, and when he looked at Angry Steve again, he realized that, buried in all that anger, was intense, exquisite sadness. He could see it in the way he breathed, a little more haltingly than he should have, in the way his lower lip curled like a distressed child's. And he suddenly felt an overwhelming surge of protectiveness; he wanted to wrap this Steve up in a blanket, stroke his back, ply him with hot chocolate until everything was better, but all he did was wince while Angry Steve stared at him with dead eyes.
And then he wondered if the Steve he’d left at home ever felt this way.
He swallowed, his throat tight. "Okay," he said to Angry Steve. "I'll fix it. You know that's what I do, right? I fix things; I can fix things."
Angry Steve just gave him a dark look, grunted, shoved his hands in the pockets of his trousers, which looked a lot more like standard military issue fatigues that had been dyed blue than Steve's new uniform. "Yeah, well, let's see where the fuck we are and what the fuck is going on before we make any grandiose promises," he said.
Tony sighed and rubbed his forehead, and caught a sympathetic look from Cowboy Steve, who sidled up to him and gave him a slap on the shoulder.
"Well, you're more'n welcome on back in town with us, pal," Cowboy Steve offered. "Hell, we look enough alike, I'll just tell 'em all you're my kin."
Angry Steve gave Cowboy Steve a dubious look, then shrugged. "Better than my other options, he admitted.
“We’ll help you get back,” Tony said softly, and, he hoped, reassuringly. “Promise.”
Now, with three of them, in the dark, without the sun beating down on them, the two Steves walked, Cowboy Steve taking Bucky's lead.
"Get on the horse, Tony," Angry Steve insisted. At least this Steve was as insufferable as the Steve he'd left at home; it was a little more familiar territory.
"I'm fine walking," Tony had answered. In truth, he wasn't crazy about the idea of trying to ride the horse alone.
"You're old," Angry Steve snapped. "I don't want you to injure yourself."
"I'm forty-four!" Tony objected in disbelief. "You're ninety-seven! Get on the horse, before you break a hip, Rip Van Winkle."
Angry Steve's face screwed up, and he glared daggers at Tony. "Get on the horse."
Cowboy Steve sighed. "Look, Stark, it ain't like Bucky minds."
Angry Steve's gaze swung to Cowboy Steve. "Bucky?" He asked. "Bucky's here?"
Tony almost choked.
"He's standin' right in front of you, partner," Cowboy Steve said.
Angry Steve took a step back, squinting. "I don't see--"
Tony could see this going nowhere good. "Bucky's a, uh, friend of his," he said to Cowboy Steve.
Cowboy Steve patted Bucky's flank. "Bucky's a friend of mi--"
"A human friend," Tony added hastily.
He was about to explain when he realized he wasn't even sure if this Steve's Bucky was a human friend. He could have been a computer friend or a gerbil friend or a--
"The horse?" Angry Steve asked. "You named the horse Bucky?"
He didn't really sound angry so much as confounded.
Bucky, meanwhile, was looking around with his ears pricked, not sure whom he should be paying attention to while everyone was saying his name.
"He was a mighty rambunctious colt," Cowboy Steve explained. "But he's mellowed out in his old age."
Angry Steve's face darkened, and he looked down. "Yeah," he agreed. "I coulda told you that. Get on the fucking horse, Tony."
Tony sighed, and finally relented, though he was convinced the beast was going to throw him off first chance it got.
The closer they got to town, the more of a tumbledown hellhole it showed itself to be-- behind high, wooden fences, Tony could only see a few structures tall enough to peek out.
"I don't suppose you have wifi in there," Tony said, warily.
"Why what?" Cowboy Steve asked.
"Because he can't go more than thirty seconds without checking his phone," Angry Steve teased. He seemed to be in rather better humor now, the way he shot Tony a broad grin, and Tony felt a little badly about his mental nickname. "You got a, uh...telegraph?"
"Not here in Timely," Steve admitted, "since Fisk's gang of ne'er-do-wells cut the wire, but you can go the next township over, you need to get a message out."
"Oh, I can fix your cable," Tony said, feeling suddenly more cheerful now that he was certain he had a use. “You just show me--”
"Hey!" Came a shout from behind them. "Hello over there!"
The voice was unmistakable. "Oh, God," Tony muttered. "Not another--"
"Steve," Tony said, forcing a smile as he turned on the horse. The other Steves, on the ground, turned too.
For a moment, relief washed over Tony, because this must be his Steve-- right age, right build, right handsome face-- and Tony chastised himself silently for thinking it, even as he admired the line of Steve's jaw, the quiver of his lower lip. But then he realized the hair was wrong-- too long, too neatly combed, the way Steve used to wear his hair when he'd only just come out of the ice, prim and old-fashioned. He was wearing jeans, though, and a tee shirt, and looked utterly normal apart from that.
"You know me?" The new Steve asked, sounding relieved before he looked at Tony's companions. He blinked, frowned, took a step back.
"You..." Tony was surprised by the response; he'd assumed Steve would recognize him as a matter of course. "You don't know me?"
The new Steve shook his head. "Never seen you before in my life...though, uh..."
He looked back and forth from Steve to Steve. "Your companions--"
"I seem to be collecting Steve Rog...uh..." Tony frowned, scratched his head. "Steve Rogerses? Rogers? How do you pluralize that shit, anyway?"
"Captains?" Angry Steve suggested.
"I'm not a Captain," said Cowboy Steve. "I'm a sheriff."
"Anyway, would it be Captain Americas or Captains America?" Tony asked. "I feel like Captains America is more accurate, otherwise it sounds like we're talking about one guy and a lot of continents instead of a lot of guys and, uh--"
The new Steve rolled his eyes. "You sound just like my wife," he informed Tony.
Tony and the other Steves all nearly did a spit-take, in unison. "You're married?" they all asked, simultaneously.
Angry Steve looked slightly traumatized. Tony chuckled.
"Yes?" New Steve replied, frowning. "You're-- not?"
"Jesus, no," said Angry Steve.
Cowboy Steve tugged at the rim of his hat. "Confirmed bachelor, here," he added.
Tony couldn't help humming a bar of "I've Got Spurs That Jingle-Jangle." The new Steve smirked at him, almost fondly, and whistled the next line.
At least nicknames were easy, Tony thought, as he mentally dubbed this Steve 'Married Steve.'
Angry Steve, though, was regarding Married Steve with suspicion, enough suspicion that it gave Tony pause: was it that unbelievable that Steve would be married?
"Who the hell are you married to, then?" asked Angry Steve. "It can't be Jan. Or--"
"I bet it's Nat," Tony said, sticking his thumbs through his back belt-loops. "The two of them are thick as thieves these days; if--"
Angry Steve's face went carefully blank. "We are definitely not from the same place," he said.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Tony asked. "Come on, New Steve," he cajoled. "It's Natasha, isn't it?"
Married Steve looked terribly amused. "Is it that obvious?"
"I'd be careful with that one, if I were you," Angry Steve said cautiously.
Married Steve gave Angry Steve a dry look. "You think I don't know my own wife's reputation?"
"I'm just saying, she screwed over Tony here pretty ba--"
"She might've screwed over your Tony," Tony said with a shrug. "My Nat, we're pals. Hasn't stopped her from lying to me, but it's all for a good cause." He watched the way Angry Steve and Married Steve were eyeing each other warily, and cleared his throat.
He thrust a hand out at Married Steve, as much to defuse the situation as to make an introduction. "Name's Tony, by the way. We're, uh..."
Friends seemed an exaggeration. "Teammates, where I'm from."
"That so?" Married Steve asked.
"Same in my world," Angry Steve put in. "He's one of the best."
Tony glanced at Angry Steve, and saw the younger man looking back, sidelong, almost shy.
"Uh, anyway, there's a town up ahead. Sheriff Steve here says it's his town. There must be somebody there who can help."
"You think...everyone's here?" Married Steve asked. He looked toward the town. "When Hank escaped from prison, he--"
"Hank?" Tony asked. "Who the hell is--"
Angry Steve's eyes narrowed. "That wife-beating bastard's alive?" He asked. "At least someone had the balls to put him behind bars where he--"
"I...don't know about wife-beating," Married Steve replied, looking confused. "He was in prison for building a killer robot. Anyway, he came after me, not Tasha. And he somehow attracted Kang the--"
Tony frowned. "Kang came after my Steve--"
He suddenly felt three pairs of eyes on him, thoughtful and bright. "I mean, uh-- the Steve from my universe, you know, he's not--"
"Well, we know that," said Angry Steve, rolling his eyes. "I'd like to think I have better fucking judgment than that."
Cowboy Steve, on the other hand, pursed his lips, and said, "Huh."
"Sorry," Married Steve said. "But you're not as cute as my wife."
Angry Steve muttered something under his breath about Married Steve's wife.
"So you reckon this Kang fella meant to snatch your Steve?" Cowboy Steve said, not even hesitating on the 'your,' "but he got you instead?"
"Yeah," Tony said, thinking back. "Bum deal, right?"
Cowboy Steve grinned, easily. "You ain't that bad, partner," he answered. "Give yourself some more credit. But I still ain’t sure why he’d dump all y’all here. Anyway, it’s gettin dark, and with Fisk’s boys on the prowl, we'd best be getting on to town. You comin'?" He asked Married Steve.
Married Steve shrugged. "It seems the best option." He pointed toward town. "Let's go."
The gates to town-- high, wooden gates that reminded Tony of a big version of the play fort at Disney World-- burst open as they approached, and a lone figure-- a tall, blonde woman,thick-waisted and broad shouldered like a Valkyrie, her long hair whipping in the wind, shouldering an enormous shotgun.
Bucky halted in midstep.
The woman pointed the gun at them.
“Oh, thank God,” murmured Tony, very relieved to see another non-Steve human.
The woman lowered the gun, eyes on Tony. “How did you get here?” she asked, squinting at him.
“Uh…” Tony looked to the Steves for advice. They shrugged, nearly in unison. “Same way as everyone else, I….think? Kang the Conqueror--”
“Kang?” the woman asked warily. “You, too? He took…” She looked around the circle. “But that doesn’t make sense.”
Meanwhile, Angry Steve had stepped toward the woman. “The name’s Steve Rogers,” Angry Steve said.
“I know,” answered the woman. “And that’s Tony Stark.” She nodded at Tony. “And I want to know how he got here.”
“Like I said, Kang--” Tony replied again, before Married Steve cut him off. He was staring at Tony, mouth opened slightly with an expression of surprise.
“You’re Tony Stark?” he asked.
“Well, yeah,” Tony said. “Why?”
“You--” Married Steve shook his head. “You should be smarter than this. We don’t even know who this woman is,” he replied, giving her a cautious look. “You might try introducing yourself first, Ma’am.”
The woman gave Married Steve an incredulous look, squaring her already-square jaw. “My name is Edna,” she answered.
“Oh, thank God,” Tony said. This time he said it out loud.
Edna gave him an irritable look. “Edna Rogers,” she said, hefting the shotgun.
Cowboy Steve burst out laughing, smacking his knee. The other two Steves just stared, wide-eyed.
Tony choked at the same time he realized that his eyes had settled on her breasts, and he tore them away, hastily.
“Well, fuck,” he said. “You’re Girl Steve.”
Edna propped her free hand on her hip. “I’m thirty-one; you wouldn’t call them boys, so don’t you call me a girl. Maybe they’re all Man Ednas.”
“I am not an Edna,” snapped Angry Steve.
“I could be an Edna,” said Cowboy Steve, though Tony was pretty sure he only said it to get Angry Steve’s goat.
“You could be chopped meat, is what you could be,” Edna said, tossing her head. “The League’s on the prowl. You want in before they find you?” She asked, pointing her chin at the gate.
“League?” Married Steve asked. “The League of Hate? The Sapien League? The League of--”
“Evil Steves,” Edna said, rolling her eyes as if she shouldn’t have to explain this.
“The what?” Angry Steve demanded.
“That’s not--” Tony waved his hands in exasperation. “Steve can’t be evil. He’s got, like, a rich creamy sweet candy cent--”
All the Steves were giving him that look again.
“It’s a metaphor,” Tony muttered, trying to ignore the heat beneath his cheeks.
Edna didn’t look amused. “The League is real. And deadly. We nearly lost four Steves this week. Do you want in, or not?”
“Yeah,” said Married Steve. “Yeah, we do.”
Tony dismounted and let Cowboy Steve lead Bucky into town. The street they entered on was eerie--it appeared like an honest-to-goodness WIld West town from a movie, with swinging saloon doors and porches and dirt and tumbleweeds and everything, but beyond the first turn onto the main street, it changed again, into a more modern-looking, neat little city, a perfect American Rockwellian small town, with cobbled streets and glass streetlamps, neon signs, blue mailboxes, and shining red fire hydrants.
Cowboy Steve went dead silent.
“You all right?” Tony asked.
A man looked up at them as they passed. He squinted, tucked his hands into his overalls, nodded and put a finger to the bring of his blue baseball cap, the one with an A emblazoned on its front.
“I reckon so,” Cowboy Steve said, rubbing at his forehead. He took down the saddlebag that held Tony’s helmet and the reactor, handing it over to Tony, who slung it over his shoulder. “It’s just--- I ain’t seen nothing like this before.”
Another Steve. Tony nodded back.
“Welcome to the future,” said Angry Steve. “It happens. You get used to it.”
The next man who passed was wearing denim jeans, a blue tee shirt with a white star in the center, his blond hair spiky and poking in all directions. He gave Tony a double-take as he passed, then sped up, heading further into the town.
It didn’t take Tony long to realize that every single last one of the people in the town was Steve Rogers.
There were old Steves and young Steves, tall Steves, and, well, no short Steves, just taller Steves, with the exception of a couple child Steves and a couple diminutive Steves who looked like they’d never undergone Project Rebirth. There were a few Lady Steves, here and there, though they were significantly outnumbered by the men. And all of them looked at him: some with curiosity, some with concern, some with wonder, some with confusion. Steve’s face-- every Steve’s face-- wore emotions so plainly that Tony could read them all.
“Is there anyone in this town who isn’t Steve Rogers?” Tony asked.
“Mew?” said a red tabby cat with little white ears that looked like wings attached to his head.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” said Tony.
“He’s technically Steve Mouser,” said Edna.
Steve Mouser purred and rubbed himself up against Tony’s leg contentedly.
Tony dropped to one knee. “Who the hell named him that?” he asked.
“It’s on his tag,” said Edna.
Sure enough, Tony found a little star-shaped tag on Steve Mouser’s collar. It said:
Also Answers to “Captain Americat”
Shots Updated 07/04
“I hate cats,” Tony said.
“Mew?” said Steve Mouser.
Tony sighed, and lifted the cat up into his arms, where it curled up comfortably.
“I reckon he likes you,” said Cowboy Steve.
“Shut up,” said Tony. Married Steve was frowning, his eyes on the cat.
“Mew,” Steve Mouser said, as he batted at Tony’s beard.
“Tony Stark?” Married Steve asked Tony again, as he had outside. “Your name’s Stark? I got that right? Do you have any siblings?”
But it was hardly the time for a private conversation. The Steves of the town had started to notice that the was someone who was decidedly not Steve walking around, and they’d all stopped what they were doing and meandering over, milling around in a circle, eyes expectant, like they were waiting for a show.
“Tony?” one of them asked. “Tony Stark-- how did you--?”
“Breach the most sacred inner sanctum of the Holy Temple of Steves?” Tony asked with a cheery grin, one hand stroking the cat’s fur absently, its tail switching where it dangled.
“There hasn’t been a single other person in this town since--” said another Steve.
“Shellhead!” called another, waving a hand, a big grin plastered on his face.
“What did you just call me?” Tony asked, perplexed.
There were too many Steves, all at once. Tony was going to have to work on his nicknaming conventions, or otherwise start giving them serial numbers.
“Since what?” asked Married Steve. “This is-- how long have you all been like this?”
A Steve with a scar down his face and a close-cropped haircut, bare-chested and wearing loose pants, sandals, and bits and pieces of gladiatorial armor, stepped forward.
Roman Steve, Tony decided.
“He got here first,” said Roman Steve, pointing at a--
Oh, God, Tony thought. This was-- it was precious, just precious: a gorilla Steve.
Gorilla Steve was a huge, breathtaking ape, and he scratched at his head before stepping forward, offering Tony a short-fingered, brown-black palm. “Mr. Stark,” he said, nodding. “It's a real pleasure to meet you in hairless form."
Tony freed a hand from Steve Mouser in order to shake Gorilla Steve’s hand.
"Hair--ah," Tony replied. "Same to you, although, uh, reverse it. Hairy form? Primate form? Is there a polite way to--"
Gorilla Steve just laughed, a booming gorilla laugh that erupted into squawks. "I have no idea," he answered. "I never knew you hairless types existed until I was separated from the Apevengers-"
The Ape-- oh.
Tony nodded and tried not to laugh, mostly because he'd seen 'Congo.' He rubbed his chin. "So, uh...your team," he replied. "Were you the only one targeted?"
"Kang the Capuchin lured me into a swirling vortex," Gorilla Steve explained. "You-- well, the Iron Mandril--"
"--Tried to stop me," Gorilla Steve continued. "But it was too late."
"So we've got a pattern?" Tony asked. "How many of you saw Kang? How many came through a vortex?"
Nearly all the Steves raised their hands.
"We've been through this ourselves," one of the Steves said. This one had long, flowing blond locks that tumbled over his shoulders, a blue tunic belted at the waist, and enough leg showing that Tony couldn't help but wonder if there was anything under the tunic. "Some of us did battle with Kang. Nearly all of us passed through a vortex, or passed through something else where a vortex would be hidden."
"Like Galactus' mouth," Angry Steve observed grimly.
"Exactly," replied another Steve, a Steve wearing an American flag-print bandanna and a motorcycle jacket, like someone had tried to combine Captain America with the 1990s Superboy. "The others don't remember how they got here--"
Tony looked to Cowboy Steve. "That's me," Cowboy Steve admitted.
"So it's a plot to, what?" Angry Steve asked. "Collect every Steve Rogers from every, uh, alternate dimension?"
"It sure seems that way," said a Steve who couldn't be more than fourteen, with floppy golden hair falling in his freckled face and braces on his teeth.
Tony found himself thinking that Steve had been an adorable kid. Then he realized he'd never really thought about Steve being a kid before--after all, in spite of Steve being a good fifteen years younger, he was Howard's contemporary, he was a living legend, established in Tony's head as a fixed point, not unlike the axis of the earth.
And here he was, a kid. But this kid was tall, bulky, looked like he'd already gone through Project Rebirth, or maybe his childhood story was different to begin with, maybe he had never been asthmatic, had been an athlete all his life.
Tony suddenly wondered about his Steve, what he'd been like as a child. His mother had died when Steve was young-- around the same age Tony had been when he lost his parents, hadn't she?
"But," said Kid Steve. "Why? Why would he just want us? The Avengers can function just as well without me--"
"It could be personal,” said one of the Steves.
“If it’s personal, we’re hardly Kang’s first target,” replied another. “He’d more likely go after Richards, or Pym, or Wanda, or-- Stark, here.”
“Could be he’s thrown in with the Skull," said a third. "Or his minions."
"The Red Skull?" Tony asked. "In my world, he died." A chill ran up his spine. "At least, I think he did."
"He's alive and well in my world,” said a different Steve. “But why wouldn't he kill us? Why trap us all here in one place?"
There was an older Steve, who had been watching the conversation with a frown all this time, his brow creased and furrowed. His hair was white, sparse; he was wearing a uniform not unlike the one Steve had worn to run stealth missions with SHIELD. He ran his tongue along his teeth, then put a hand up, as if asking permission to speak.
“It doesn’t make sense,” he said, finally. “He--he doesn’t want us. Not me, anyway.”
“What do you mean?” Angry Steve asked.
“He tried to strike a bargain with me. I refused. I wouldn’t think he’d try again.”
“You? Refuse to bargain? Well, there’s a shocker,” Tony said cheerily.
“You-- Stark--” Old Steve said, liquid blue eyes peering at Tony with a sort of...pain, Tony thought. Could that be right? “You threw yourself in the line of fire?”
“Well, if you want to call a magical golden wormhole fire,” Tony replied, gesturing with his hands to describe the shape of the vortex. “Uh, yeah, Old Spice, I guess I did.”
Old Steve raised an eyebrow at the nickname, and Tony realized he’d actually called him that out loud.
Old Steve looked to the rest of the group. The corners of his mouth turned down, sad, almost anguished; Tony found himself wondering why. He supposed for Steve to be so old-- well, he’d already hypothesized that Steve wouldn’t age at a normal rate, would he? So here-- this Steve-- for him to look seventy, eighty years old-- Maybe Tony was dead and gone. Maybe they were all dead and gone. He opened his mouth to ask, but for once realized that maybe it wasn’t the most tactful thing he could do, and decided against it. Still, he felt sorry for the man.
“But you’re the only one,” Old Steve said, after a moment. “Of all these-- we have to assume all of us, we’re all from different universes. But so far, you’re the only one to have foiled the plot.”
“Sorry?” Tony asked. “I mean, I hate to crash your Cap-party, and all, but--”
“You’re friends,” Old Steve observed. “Close friends?”
“Ahh…” Tony grimaced, hooked his thumbs through his belt loops. “Friends might be an overstatement. Actually, we’ve only just kinda recently gotten to the point where we can spend more than ten, twenty minutes in the same room together.”
Old Steve blinked, a strange expression coming over his face. “I would have thought-- for you to sacrifice yourself--”
“Eh,” Tony replied, waving a hand dismissively. “It happens. We’re teammates. He’ll have to do my chores for a week when I get back. Not, uh, that I have any? Maybe I’ll make some up just to see the look on his face, tell him he’s got to clean out the Augean Stables or something.”
Old Steve’s brow furrowed. “You’re not friends...but you’re the only person who successfully prevented…”
“I don’t know if I’d say I successfully prevented anything,” Tony pointed out. “Seeing as somebody still passed through the vortex. And it’s not exactly like I planned it; I just figured the suit could take the blow better than-- Why?” he asked. “Are you-- uh, were you friends?”
“We--” Suddenly, Old Steve’s expression went tight, his mouth forming a thin line. “I don’t think it’s possible,” he answered, shaking his head. “We’re too dissimilar. I doubt you’ll find any--”
“We’re friends,” said one of the Steves, a little shyly.
Married Steve raised his hand. “Yeah, uh, beg to differ,” he replied. “But we’re married.”
The room went silent. Old Steve went as white as if he’d seen a ghost.
Married Steve frowned, looked at Tony. “I...think?”
Tony stood there with his mouth gaping like a fish for a moment, before he snapped it shut. “I thought you said you didn’t know me,” he said, rubbing at his neck as he felt heat creeping up under his collar.
“Because there’s no Tony Stark where I’m from,” said Married Steve.
"You said you were married to Natasha."
Married Steve nodded. "Natasha Stark. Famed billionaire inventor? The Iron Woman? My wife.”
He pulled a brown leather wallet out of his pocket, flipped it open, held out a picture of a woman, about thirty, with black, wavy hair and bright blue eyes, a toothy grin-- and a nose that was unmistakably the Stark nose. She was wearing armor-- Iron Man armor, the helmet tucked under one arm, rainbow-sprinkle ice cream cone in the other hand, the rubble of a disaster area smouldering in the background. The only thing left standing was a pristine, untouched white ice cream truck.
Tony’s eyebrows shot up. “I’m hot,” he observed. “I mean, I already knew I-- uh. I--”
He stared blankly at Married Steve as Married Steve smirked and snapped his wallet shut. "You're damn right you are."
“Don’t give him any ideas,” said Angry Steve. “That guy would probably fuck himself in an instant.”
“Wouldn’t you?” Tony asked, before realizing what he’d just said.
“I--” Angry Steve turned bright red. “Do you mean fuck you or fuck me?”
“There are children present,” said another Steve.
“Jesus Christ, I’m not a child,” said Kid Steve. “And even if I were, who hasn’t heard Tony Stark drop a few f-bombs before?”
Tony gestured at the crowd of Steves, a little awkwardly. “I…”
Angry Steve was watching him a little too intensely, he thought. Tony rubbed at his neck again and tried not to look below anyone else’s neck, without much success.
“SO,” Tony said, clearing his throat.
But Old Steve had sidled over to Married Steve. “You’re married?” he asked curiously. “To-- to--?”
“Yeah,” said Married Steve, and he passed Old Steve the wallet.
Old Steve took it, opened it, frowned at the picture, but the look on his face was thoughtful, considering, and he tapped at the photo before handing it back. “Happy?” he asked Married Steve as Married Steve transferred the wallet back to his pocket.
“Yeah,” Married Steve repeated, with a small smile. “Of course I am. I married the love of my life.”
“This is all great,” said Edna. “But what we really need to--”
She never finished her sentence. There was a loud explosion, and the sky flashed orange.
“It’s the League!” shouted a Steve who appeared to be a cyborg, with a half-metal body and a glowing red eye. He reached for his gun.
A noxious scent, like burning chemicals, wafted through the air as the various Steves refocused on the immediate threat. Tony nearly forgot himself in amusement for a moment as he saw the number of Steves who carried shields, all of them bracing the weapons on their arms in such a similar manner. Others carried no shield, some had clearly been lifted when they weren’t in uniform, others had guns-- one, Tony noticed, with a snort, carried Mjolnir. But all those shields, all those stars, all those stripes moving in unison-- Tony very nearly laughed aloud.
“What do they want?” Tony asked the nearest Steve, reaching for his arm to get his attention.
This Steve was haggard-looking-- enough like the Steve he knew, maybe a little older, but his hair hadn't been cut in a while, there were hollows under his eyes, beneath his cheekbones.
The haggard-looking Steve drew in a breath, like he'd been surprised. "Tony-" he said, and swallowed, taking a step back. "I--I thought-- Tom--"
It took Tony a moment to realize this Steve was in a shapeless, khaki jumpsuit, a number printed on a patch on his chest: a prison uniform.
Now Tony stepped back. "You okay, Steve?" He asked.
But there was no time. The Gorilla Steve approached them both. "Fall in, Soldier," he said to Prisoner Steve, a kindness in his round, primate eyes, the same kindness Tony recalled seeing in Steve when he spoke to civilians in distress. "We have work to do."
"You," Angry Steve said, putting his hand on Tony's shoulder. "Stay with me. You'll be safe."
Tony ran a hand through his hair, frowning. "I can handle myself, bud," he said "it's not like I've never fought a supervillain before."
"Tony--" Angry Steve snapped. "This isn't the time--"
Tony rolled his eyes. "Ooh, how gallant," he retorted in a singsong. "Are you going to hold the door for me, Captain Chivalry?"
"He's right." Gorilla Steve looked him over, a thoughtful expression on his face. "As long as you are in this weaker, hairless form--"
"Pardon?" Tony asked.
"I only mean we are going up against a team of supersoldiers like myself," Gorilla Steve answered. "And as you have no armor, you need protection."
"I have armor," Tony answered. "I buried it, in the desert. Didn't have a power source to charge it."
Angry Steve raised an eyebrow. "Yeah, that’s real useful at the moment."
Tony would have recognized Steve's dry sarcasm anywhere. He grinned. "Okay, Pal," he said cheerfully. "But I'm not damsel in distressing it up. I get to help."
Angry Steve rolled his eyes. "Fine," he said. "No fireman carry. I get it."
There was another loud explosion.
"Reckon you could tell us what the League of Evil Steves wants?" Cowboy Steve asked.
"Honestly?" asked Kid Steve as he rushed between Gorilla Steve and Married Steve. "I think they just like to fuck with us."
"Children Presen-" the Uptight Steve began to say again, before he realized that the child was the one swearing.
“The last time they were here,” Edna said, producing a small, triangular blue disk, which she flipped between her fingers. “They were after this.”
Tony tried to reach for the disk, but Steve Mouser bit his finger, seemingly annoyed with Tony’s stubborn insistence on not being a perfectly stationary bed.
Tony sucked on his finger for a moment, then lowered the cat. “Sorry, Toonces,” he said, scritching the cat behind the ears one more time for good measure. “I’ve gotta see what the lady wants.”
He pushed himself back to his feet, and held a hand out. Edna dropped the disk into his palm. It was the shape of a guitar pick, but a little larger.
“You know what’s on this?” he asked.
She shook her head. “No idea,” she said. “But...I’ve got to arm the battlements.” She hefted her shotgun back onto her shoulder. “You--” She flashed Tony a grin. “I’m pretty sure you of all people can find a way to read it.”
And then she was off, long golden locks whipping in the wind behind her, as the sound of gunfire rang out.
Angry Steve gave Tony a tired look. “I’m gonna find somebody else to take babysitting duty,” he said, crossing his arms. “I should be up there.”
“Yeah, I’m sure thrilled to spend time with you, too, Little Miss Sunshine,” said Tony. He watched the Steves all run to their posts: they worked with precision, like a well-oiled machine, where each one of them seemed to know their place. “Look, I think the other hundred-and-one dalmatians have this under control. You’re not part of their system yet.”
Angry Steve rolled his eyes. “I’m not so brainless I couldn’t figure it out. I was President of the United States, for fuck’s sake.”
“Ha,” said Tony. “Please, and who tells shit jokes? That’s not even funny, Steve.” He held up the disk. “You wanna see what’s on this thing?”
Angry Steve looked even more irritable, if possible. “Is it that unbelievable?” he asked. “You got a way to read it?”
Tony flashed Angry Steve a grin. “No, Sir, President Cap,” he replied. “Yes, Sir, President Cap. You heard the lady, President Cap. If anyone can find a way to read it…”
He twirled the disk in his fingers. Without knowing what it would do, he didn’t want to use his reactor for this. “Let’s see where we can find a hookup."
The closest electrical source was the soda fountain on the corner: the big neon sign outside advertising Captain Cola was a dead giveaway. Tony walked inside, dropped his saddlebag on one of the high, swiveling stools at the counter, and hoisted himself into the other.
The place was empty, the interior lights all extinguished, and, Tony realized after a moment, the cash register was one of those old-fangled manual ones-- no electricity, no computer there.
"Anything I can do?" Angry Steve asked, as he looked around. The place was done up in a stars-and-stripes theme, the walls decorated with wartime-era Captain America posters encouraging people to grow victory gardens and collect scrap for the boys in Germany and Japan. Angry Steve's shoulders were tense; he looked visibly uncomfortable.
"Yeah, see if you can find me a toolbox," Tony replied, as his eyes landed on the jukebox. That would do. "And, uh, do you know how to make a milkshake?"
Angry Steve's cheeks went a little pink. "Milkshake?"
"Yeah. Make two. Chocolate. With chocolate ice cream if they have it, not just chocolate syrup; I hate when they--"
"I can't believe--" Angry Steve started to say, and then he sighed. "Right. Chocolate milkshakes."
Tony settled himself on the floor and pushed the jukebox away from the wall, exposing the back panel. He poked through the wiring, peeled back the casing on a few, and plugged the wires from the jukebox directly into the back panel of his helmet.
“Hey, FRIDAY?” Tony asked, as the lights in the helmet illuminated.
“Yes, Mister Stark?” FRIDAY asked.
“I need you to interface with the data on this disk,” he said. “I have no idea what’s on it. I don’t want you to blitz your brains out if I hook it up, yeah?”
“I’ll partition a drive immediately,” Friday assured him. “Run it throught the optical sensor in your eyesocket, and I’ll do the rest.”
Tony popped the disk into place. “You got it, lady,” he said.
The helmet began to whir, softly. “Hmm,” FRIDAY said. “I’m sorry, but there’s...a temporal anomaly; the disk is timestamped with a date that’s conflicting with my system.”
Tony grimaced. “Think you can fix it?”
“I’m afraid my algorithms aren’t sophisticated enough yet,” FRIDAY said, apologetically. “But I know who can.”
Tony went still; his throat went dry. “Okay,” he said, after a moment’s hesitation. “Do it.”
“System installing, Mister Stark,” said FRIDAY.
“You-- you still with me?” Tony asked.
“Absolutely,” FRIDAY replied. “Five, four, three, two, and…”
“Sir?” said an unmistakable voice. Tony winced, first, at the sound of it, bit his lip.
“Hey, Tony, you okay?” asked Angry Steve, glancing up from the whirling blender.
“I’m-- yeah.” Tony straightened up, at attention. “JARVIS, you in there?”
“In a manner of speaking, Sir,” said JARVIS.
“It’s--” Tony rubbed at his eyes as they pricked with tears. “Good to hear your voice.”
Angry Steve tilted his head toward Tony. “You have a robot JARVIS?” he asked.
“Yeah, why?” Tony asked.
“Captain Rogers!” JARVIS observed. “Pleased to, er, make your acquaintance?”
“Hey, there, Robot Butler,” Angry Steve said cheerfully, as he hopped over the counter, two tall metal cups full of frothy ice cream and milk in his hands. He handed one to Tony and crouched down beside him.
“J,” Tony said, as he slurped the milkshake-- which was better than he’d expected. “I need you to work with FRIDAY; she’s got a disk she’s having a problem with. FRIDAY, you still with us.”
“Right here, Mister Stark,” FRIDAY answered.
“I’ll be more than happy to, Sir,” said JARVIS.
“Isn’t it kind of morbid, calling everything after your dead butler?” Angry Steve asked.
“Everything?” Tony asked. “J’s just his namesake; it’s not like I just call anybody that.”
“You--” Angry Steve frowned. “Never mind.”
“Sir, the disk contains what appears to be another artificial--” JARVIS began, but at that very moment, an explosion rocked the building, knocking the diner counter clear to the floor.
Angry Steve leapt to action, covering Tony with his body, while Tony, in turn, snaked his arms protectively around the helmet.
“I’ve got you,” he murmured to the helmet. To the programs installed in the helmet.
“Come on,” Angry Steve hissed in his ear, the heat from his breath uncomfortably warm on Tony’s cheek. “We’ve got to move. Shit.”
Dark silhouettes appeared in the rising smoke, and as they moved forward, Tony could make out a disconcerting number of tiny wings on cowls and an even more disconcerting number of glowing eyes.
Angry Steve drew his gun with one hand as he kept his other arm around Tony. “Sorry,” he murmured. “I’m gonna take back that promise about damsel-in-distressing it.”
And with that, Tony found himself hauled over Angry Steve’s shoulder as Angry Steve hurtled toward the long row of glass windows that lined the front of the restaurant.
“I CAN WALK!” Tony shouted.
“Yeah, but you can’t--” Angry Steve shot the window, the glass fracturing into a spiderweb, before he threw himself headfirst through the glass-- and Tony found himself arcing through midair in a rain of tiny crystalline shards.
They hit the cobblestones, rolling across the street, which was now a veritable war zone.
"You in one piece?" Angry Steve asked, hauling Tony up to sit.
"Yeah, I--" There were Steves battling Steves everywhere he looked-- or, well, what he assumed were Steves. The Evil Steves were all monstrous: cyborg Steves, zombie Steves, vampire Steves, werewolf Steves. There was a Steve with sharp teeth and a serrated shield's edge that looked like the blade of a table saw.
He took a breath, hugged the helmet a little bit tighter. "You okay, J?" He asked.
"Operational, Sir," JARVIS answered. "Though your helmet might be of more use on your head."
Tony snorted. “That’s it, J, thanks for your service, but I’ll be uninstalling you and going back to FRI--”
“Oh, I agree with Mister Jarvis,” said FRIDAY.
“Quite right,” said JARVIS. “The risk of cranial injury--”
"Thanks for the advice, kids," Tony interrupted, tucking the helmet under his arm. "You get anything off that disk?"
"No, Sir," said JARVIS. "But we'll keep working on it."
"Just don't run down your power," Tony warned. "You've got what you've got."
"I hardly think after the number of years I've spent telling you that, Sir--" JARVIS retorted.
“Gents,” said a Steve, wearing a large shoulder guard, who stooped down to offer Tony a hand up. “You two--”
“We’re fine,” said Angry Steve, standing and brushing himself off.
“Good,” said Shoulder Guard Steve. He slung an arm around Tony’s shoulders, shooting him a grin that was-- was it almost a leer? Tony wondered. “Come with me; there’s a better--”
“STARK!” shouted Edna.
Angry Steve whirled, and Tony twisted around even in Shoulder Guard Steve’s tight grip.
Edna brought her gun up and fired, once, directly at Shoulder Guard Steve, who raised his shield to catch the shot.
“What the hell is--” Tony shouted.
“He’s one of them!” Edna yelled back, aiming and firing another shot. “Get--”
Angry Steve pulled out his own gun and fired at Shoulder Guard Steve from behind, but just as he did, he was tackled by a lurching, rotting form in a Captain America uniform, with red eyesockets and a sepulchral stench .
The Undead Steve opened his yellowing maw, shoving Angry Steve’s head down against the pavement, and Shoulder Guard Steve took the opportunity to snatch Tony back up, off the ground. Tony jabbed back with his elbow-- by now, he’d become quite proficient in basic hand-to-hand combat, but Steve Rogers was easily twice his size and he didn’t even want to calculate how much stronger, even though he was pretty sure it was about four hundred and twenty-six percent, now that he thought about it.
Shoulder Guard Steve wrenched his entire body until he cried out in anguish, and his vision began to flicker, white flashing before his eyes. But just as Undead Steve was about to sink his gory maw into Angry Steve's neck, his head exploded, rotting gore splashing across the cobblestones, spilling over Angry Steve, who growled and punched the now-headless corpse in the groin before pushing it off him.
Angry Steve squared off to face Shoulder Guard Steve, even as Edna aimed her rifle again.
But Shoulder Guard Steve's eyes glinted, icy and brilliant, and he pressed the cold barrel of a gun to Tony's temple.
He directed his leer at Edna, then at Angry Steve. "Come any closer and--"
"You're bluffing," Edna replied, and, as if in challenge, she took a step closer.
Shoulder Guard Steve slammed the butt of the gun down against Tony's head, and everything went black.
When Tony came to, he was lying on a cold, hard floor. Light filtered through prison bars, leaving shadowed stripes on the concrete.
His head ached like hell. He groaned as he pushed himself up.
“He’s waking up,” whispered a voice. “Get him something to drink.”
“Yeah, okay,” someone whispered back.
Tony felt around for the helmet.
Fuck. No helmet.
He pushed himself up and turned in the direction of the voices. There was Angry Steve, looking worse for wear, a bruised eye and a swollen, split lip, hovering just over him with-- something that looked like concern in his eyes. He was sitting, tailor-style, on the floor, feet tucked beneath him, his weapons and not a few of his pouches taken away.
“Hey, Steve-O,” Tony said blearily. “What happened.”
“Well, they knocked you out,” Angry Steve replied, scratching at the knee of his pants. “So I decided there really wasn’t much to do short of charging Captain Hydra--”
“Captain who?” Tony asked.
“Captain Hydra,” answered another Steve, who knelt down beside him with a paper cup of water. This Steve was dressed in khakis and a pink dress shirt, both smudged and stained, as if he’d been in the cell for a long time. “He’s from a universe where Steve Rogers became the head of Hydra, apparently. Mean bastard, if I ever met one.”
He handed Tony the cup. The water was tepid, but better than nothing, and Tony gulped it down.
“And you?” Tony asked the new Steve. “What’s your story? What are you doing in jail?”
The new Steve gave him a bashful look. “I don’t really have a story,” he admitted. “There’s just me. Are you--” He looked Tony over, his blue eyes glinting admiringly. “Are you really Tony Stark?” he asked. “The billionaire playboy? Are you--” He looked over at Angry Steve. “Steve here says you’re friends.”
Tony hesitated, then looked over at Angry Steve, who was watching him with what almost seemed to be an expectant look.
“Yeah,” Tony answered, swallowing. “We’re friends.”
Something in Angry Steve's shoulders relaxed, and he gave Tony a considering look. There was a question in his eyes, one that wasn't marked with suspicion.
Pink Shirt Steve’s mouth fell open. “Wow,” he said. “Well, wonders never cease. Can I--” he looked away, his cheeks pinking, before he made eye contact again. “Can I just say that I don’t care what the tabloids say, that I’ve always been a big fan, of, uh, of yours.”
Tony was startled enough that he leaned back away from Pink Shirt Steve, just a little, resting on his hands. "You have?" He asked. "God, I wish the Steve I know could hear all this love."
Pink Shirt Steve's face darkened to a rosy color that matched his shirt. "I--". He swallowed. "Well, I'm honored to be in the same room with you. Er. Cell," he added, glancing around.
Tony chuckled. "Captain America is honored to be in prison with me," he said cheerily. "Well, that's something."
"I'm not--" Pink Shirt Steve stammered. "I haven't been Captain America since the war." He grimaced, biting down on his lip. "No real need for it, you know? I-- I was real shocked when I wound up here and found out it's different in other places."
"So..." Tony frowned. "Why not? I mean, the world can always use a Captain America."
Pink Shirt Steve looked from Tony to Angry Steve, a longing sort of expression ghosting across his face for no more than a moment. "These guys are Captain America," he said. "Not me. There-- there are no wars to fight, where I come from. I've been out of the hero game almost my whole adult life."
"There's world peace?" Tony asked, and it was only after he said it that he was a little ashamed by the incredulity in his voice.
Pink Shirt Steve blinked. "Well, yeah," he answered. "Thanks to, well, thanks to you."
Tony sucked in a breath. His jaw twitched. "Thanks to..."
He trailed off, tugging at his ear, sheepish.
"Well, yeah, since Stark Industries eliminated the need for fossil fuel and managed to transform irrigation and agriculture, there isn't that much to fight about, so..."
Tony blinked. "I...I did all that?"
“Not...well, the Silver Surfer was the one who eradicated the evil we already had, but you-- you certainly helped keep things moving in the right direction.” Pink Shirt Steve was looking at him with the light of admiration shining in his eyes. "It was one of the expeditions you funded to reverse global warming that found me frozen in ice, and I..."
He smiled softly, then looked away, down the the floor.
"Shit," Tony said, a lump forming in his throat. The look on Pink Shirt Steve's face, both shy and adoring at the same time, he knew that look., he...
But in that Steve's world, he'd been a better person, he'd been worthy of that admiration. He--
"There wasn't any war," Tony realized. "So SI had to come up with a different line of work. I never had to get kidnapped. There wasn’t any business. So at some point, I took the company in a different direction, and-- Fuck," he said, his spirits sinking like a stone. "There’s no Iron Man, is there?”
“No what?” Pink Shirt Steve asked, giving Tony a quizzical look.
“Iron Man,” Tony repeated. “Only the grea-- no, never mind,” he said, pursing his lips. “You-- in your world, you say I did good?”
Pink Shirt Steve grinned. “Yeah,” he answered, nodding. “You, uh...I’d ask for your autograph if I had something for you to sign.”
Tony shrugged. “Eh, I’m used to signing boobs most of the time, anyway.” He ignored the bright flush of Pink Shirt Steve’s cheeks. “So, if you’re not Captain America, what are you? President of the United Sta--”
“I was President of the United States,” said Angry Steve. “But you didn’t seem to believe me.”
“That’s because you’re a cheeky bastard, Steve,” Tony said to Angry Steve.
Pink Shirt Steve, though, was staring at Angry Steve. “President?” he asked, his eyes wide with disbelief. “I-- I actually could be President?”
“So, not President, then,” Tony observed.
“No,” Pink Shirt Steve answered, running his hands through his hair. “I’m, uh. I’m a graphic designer for the Daily Bugle.”
“A what?” asked Angry Steve. “That’s about the pussiest job I’ve ever--”
“Yeah, well,” Tony said, feeling his own shoulders hitch up as he saw the wince on Pink Shirt Steve’s face. “It’s what my Steve wanted to be when he grew up, so it can’t be that bad.”
He shot Pink Shirt Steve a small smile, just as footsteps-- heavy, booted footsteps-- sounded in the hall.
Three more Steves appeared at the door-- one of them was the Steve from the attack, Captain Hydra, or whatever they’d called him, or at least, Tony though it was. It was hard to tell, when their appearances and their costumes were so similar.
"You," said Captain Hydra Steve, pointing at Angry Steve, and then at Pink Shirt Steve. "You're coming with us."
"The hell I am!" Angry Steve retorted, as Pink Shirt Steve straightened his collar and stood up, compliantly.
"Steve," said Pink Shirt Steve. "Choose your battles. This isn't one of them."
"The hell it isn't," snapped Angry Steve, as the two Steves who flanked Captain Hydra stepped into the cell. He put up his fists. One of the Steves aimed a gun at him.
"Steve, you might want to rethink--" Pink Shirt Steve said, his voice wavering nervously.
Angry Steve punched Gun-Toting Evil Steve in the face. The gun went off, shattering a hole in the plaster ceiling, dust sputtering to the floor.
Angry Steve took the opportunity to kick Gun-Toting Evil Steve's feet out from under him, though the Second Evil Thug Steve leapt at him from behind, tackling him to the ground.
Pink Shirt Steve threw his hands in the air, a look of panic on his face.
Tony felt like-- well, he felt like Pink Shirt Steve. That feeling never went away, even when he'd fought aliens and gods.
What had changed was his reaction. He looked around the bare cell-- there wasn't much in it, some blankets, a latrine bucket, a stool. The stool, as he'd expected, was bolted to the ground.
He sucked on his breath and reached for the latrine bucket. It stank to high heaven. A little part of him was relieved that Steve-shit smelled as bad as normal shit, and it wasn't full of sparkly stars or something, but the rest of him-- the majority, really-- retched.
"Sorry, Angry Steve," he murmured, wincing as the two Evil Thug Steves hammered at Angry Steve's prone form with their fists. "You'll thank me later."
He wailed one of the Evil Steves in the back of the head with the bucket of shit.
The man cried out.
The contents of the bucket splattered everywhere as the Evil Steve fell to his knees.
Pink Shirt Steve-- whose shirt was really not as pink as it had been a few moments ago, backed toward the wall in terror as the tide of the fight turned: Angry Steve grinned at Tony as he kneed the second Evil Steve hard, in the nose, blood spraying everywhere. Tony, who knew he really couldn't compete against a Steve in a fair fight, kept smacking his Evil Steve with the bucket, over and over again.
But then Captain Hydra's hands were on Pink Shirt Steve, clutching at his neck. Pink Shirt Steve gasped and choked, and flailed.
"Gentlemen, this is going nowhere," said Captain Hydra, as he aimed a gun at Pink Shirt Steve's head.
Pink Shirt Steve started, yelping.
“Stop this at once,” Captain Hydra said, and he forced Pink Shirt Steve back, hard. "Or he dies."
Tony dropped the bucket. The Evil Steve on the floor got to his feet, snarling, and snapped a pair of cuffs around Tony's wrists. His eyes narrowed, glinting with threat. "I'll get you for that, later," he whispered, his tone cool and sinister.
Tony shivered; there was something…perverse, really, about hearing such a chilling voice, such venom, coming from Steve’s lips-- because they were still Steve’s lips, full and pink and--
“Shit,” Tony mumbled, a knot in his chest.
“Get off him,” Angry Steve demanded, taking a step forward, toward Captain Hydra and Pink Shirt Steve. “Can’t you see he’s not one of us? He’s a fucking civilian, and you’re putting him in harm’s way.”
But Tony sucked in a breath, as Captain Hydra chuckled at Angry Steve, his laugh low and throaty and threatening. “Come on, Steve,” he said, looking at Pink Shirt Steve’s panicked face. “You’re okay. You’ll be okay. You’re still Captain America.”
“No, I’m not,” Pink Shirt Steve said, his voice trembling. “I’m not like the rest of them.”
“Fine,” Tony said, rolling his eyes. “You’ve got the potential to be.”
Angry Steve’s nostrils were flaring, but he stood, silent and still, fists balled so tightly his knuckles were white, shaking his head. Tony could see the tension in his body, could see the effort it took to keep his rage at bay with every ripple of his muscles.
But Pink Shirt Steve was staring at Tony, and his panting breaths slowly slowed, his mouth open in wonderment. He gave Tony a tiny nod, and then, squaring his jaw with newfound resolve, he grabbed at Captain Hydra’s gun and twisted the barrel ceilingward.
The gun went off, Captain Hydra shouted-- and again, the bullet struck the ceiling, but this time, as the plaster fell, something trembled, and rattled, and suddenly there was a loud, resounding crack.
And the ceiling collapsed. Tony coughed as he dove out of the way, dust filling his lungs-- but he wasn’t fast enough, and a big chunk of ceiling struck him in the back, pinning him to the floor.
“Tony!” Angry Steve yelled, from where he had dragged Pink Shirt Steve toward the door. “Tony, where are--”
“GO!” Tony yelled. “Get the hell out of here! I’ll-- you go far enough, they’ve got no way of telling you’re not one of them. I’ll trip you up!”
“But--” Angry Steve started.
Tony tried to head the debris off himself, but it was too heavy. He knew he’d slow them down if they stopped to free him. And the Evil Steves had his helmet, as far as he knew-- and JARVIS, and FRIDAY, and that disk, and without knowing what was on the disk, he didn’t want to give it up for lost. “Just go! I’ll figure something out. I always do!”
Angry Steve gritted his teeth, then shook his head. “Fuck you, Stark,” he replied, and took off.
Tony groaned and tried again to push the chunk of concrete off of himself-- it didn’t feel as if anything was broken, but he was certainly bruised, he’d hit his head again, and he was pinned at an odd angle.
A volley of gunfire sounded down the hall. He coughed again, straining to see through the clouds of dust, as a hand-- a big, gloved hand-- reached for his.
His head swam, he clutched at the fingers like they were a life preserver.
“Don’t worry,” said a voice that was unmistakably Stevelike, though Tony couldn’t quite tell which Steve it was. “I’ve got you. We-- we’ll get you out of here.”
“Steve?” Tony rasped. His vision we getting blurrier by the moment, and he fought to keep his eyes open. “Which Ste--”
Whichever Steve it was, he heaved at the concrete until Tony was free, cradling him in both arms like a child.
“You’re okay,” Steve said. “I’m getting you out of here.”
“Is this heaven?” Tony asked, as sunlight shone like a halo through Steve’s golden hair.
Steve chuckled. “No,” he replied. “Thank god.”
And as Tony collapsed tiredly against Steve’s chest, the last thing he remembered was a warm, light touch to his forehead that might have been a kiss.
When he came to this time, he was in a room with...well, three Steves. They were all dressed in street clothes-- blessedly normal street clothes, no funny costumes, no Wild West gear, just...jeans, khakis, tee shirts, button-downs.
He was determining, from looking at them, that he was going to have to teach a lot of Steves how to dress.
“Tony?” one of them asked, as his eyelids fluttered open. “Tony, Tony, are you awake?”
He was fairly certain that none of these were Steves he’d met before-- for one, none of them was swearing a blue streak, talking with a drawl, or meowing.
“Yeah, I--” He was sore, bruised; he’d been patched up in places. There was a wide bandage over his ribs on the right side. “Ouch...yeah. Where am I?”
“Safe,” said one of the Steves. Tony blinked, and looked around the room. He was on a proper bed; there was a desk, and a chair. The room was crisp, clean, painted white. Absolutely ordinary. It smelled a little bit like fabric softener and lemon soap. It certainly seemed safe.
Tony pushed himself up. “How did I get here? Are-- one of you got me out of the prison?”
The Steve in the plaid shirt raised his hand. “That was me,” he said. “We stormed the League’s base when we heard they’ve captured you.”
Where’s-- uh...where are the other Steves?”
The Three Steves looked between themselves, frowning for a moment, before the Steve in the sweater shrugged. “Outside,” he said. Tony
The closest Steve, the one in the tee shirt, gave him a small smile, and patted his shoulder. “You’ll see them again. We’re here to take care of you.”
He looked at Tony intently, and Tony found himself melting into Steve’s gaze in spite of himself.
And then he realized that Steve-- whichever Steve this was-- wasn’t breaking eye contact.
And his hand was still on Tony’s shoulder.
“Steve?” he asked, weakly, though the bottom fell out of his voice. His muscles went tense; his heart began to patter faster than it had been.
He squirmed where he sat.
“I was worried about you,” said Steve Number One (My God, Tony thought, am I reduced to numbered Steves now?). He reached a thumb up, brushed it against Tony’s cheek. “I thought something might…”
“We all did,” said Steve Number Two. Tony felt another hand on his knee, and he clenched up, instinctively. Somewhere, a tiny bit of Tony’s brain saw the humor in this, chuckled darkly at how very jealous Howard would be, if he knew, but right now, in the present, the sensation was intense, and he couldn’t remember the last time anyone had looked at him like that…
Let alone three people.
Let alone three people who all happened to be Captain Fucking America.
His head spun, warm and dizzy, as one of the Steves slid a finger up behind his ear, then down, tracing the length of his neck, huge, surprisingly soft fingertips down his spine.
“Uh…” One of the Steves’ hands groped along Tony’s thigh, and it was making it difficult for Tony to concentrate as he tried to speak. “Are...I’m guessing we’re all married in your, uh, worlds? Or something?”
The third Steve kissed Tony’s temple, with all the gentleness of a mother kissing a child, and Tony gasped.
There was a hand in the back pocket of his jeans, another hand sliding beneath the sleeve of his tee shirt, and he was just about convinced this had to be a dream when one of them-- he thought it was Steve Number One, but there were too many hands, too many mouths-- one of them gave him an amused look. “Wouldn’t that be nice?” he asked.
Steve Number One pressed a hand to Tony’s chest, palm over his heart, right over where the arc reactor used to sit. “I’ve just wanted this for a very long time.”
“We all have,” said Steve Number Two. Tony had given up keeping the Steves straight this time; he was just numbering them in the order they spoke.
“I’m, ah…” It was hard to think. There were teeth on his earlobe, tickling and teasing and making him groan, breathless. “Very…” He swallowed. “Flattered. But uh...shouldn’t…”
There was a knee between his thighs. Fingers combing up through his hair. He let out a strangled, guttural noise in spite of himself. “Oh, God,” he moaned. “I...Steve...uh…Steves? I need to find my helmet.”
He hated himself for saying it.
But the Steves didn’t retreat. “We have it,” one of them said, and hands on his shoulders pushed him down, back against the bed.
He couldn’t help himself; he groped upward, caught at a handful of tee shirt, twisted his fingers into the fabric, pushed his hand up against those perfectly sculpted muscles.
Well. This was going to be weird when he got home. If he got home.
“You do?” he asked. “Can uh, can I--”
“Tony,” one of the Steves purred. “Can’t it wait?”
"It's safe," said another of the Steves. At least Tony thought it was another of the Steves. It was hard to tell in the mess of limbs and lips. "It'll be fine."
And then the was a tongue in his mouth, and teeth on his shoulder, fingers on the zipper of his jeans. His eyelids fluttered, and he lay back, losing himself in the sensation-- too much sensation, almost too much-- and for a fleeting moment he wondered what his Steve would be like. Certainly not this forward, he decided, not this confident, but supposing he knew how to use his mouth, his fingers, for more than fighting...
"Did you figure out how to crack the disk?" One of the Steves asked.
"What?" Tony asked hoarsely. Leave it to Steve-- any Steve-- to mix business and pleasure. "The what?"
"The disk," said a different Steve. There was a tongue in Tony's ear, fingers gliding over his underwear, stroking at his aching erection. “The one you couldn’t crack; were you able to get the information from it?”
“Y--” Tony groaned. “No,” he remembered. No, he hadn’t. “I--Steve, hate to, uh-- my head’s not really--”
His arms were pinned down against the bed, and he almost didn't notice the click, the cold metal of the cuffs as they snapped around his wrists.
A chill spike of shock jolted through Tony’s body, and he tried to bolt upright, but with his hands cuffed to the bed at this angle, he could only get about halfway there.
“What the fuck?!” Tony yelped.
“We need you to crack the disk,” said one of the Steves.
Tony shuddered, as all three Steves moved back, away from him.
Tony felt both the cold tremble of fear and the warm flush of embarrassment rise through him all at once, his cheeks hot and red even as the hair on his arms stood up.
“You were trying to seduce me!” he realized, jiggling the chains at his sides. “You--” He looked down at himself, at his pants tossed to the floor, while he sat on the bed in his tee shirt and underwear. “You-- I can’t believe this,” he sputtered.
One of the Steves produced the disk from a pocket. “We were hoping to get the information without having to harm you,” he admitted.
“What were you going to do, get me to spill by sucking my cock?!” Tony demanded, then realized exactly how that sounded. “Uh.”
The Steves shared an amused glance. “We have it on good authority that you’re more...free with information when you’re...compromised,” one of them said.
Tony groaned. “Pepper,” he muttered.
“Pepper?” asked one of the Steves. “You’re sleeping with your secretary?”
“I thought she was married,” said another Steve.
“But her husband died,” said the third.
“Not where I’m--” the second Steve began, but the Steve holding the disk put his finger to his lips, and the other two Steves quieted.
“We think,” the first Steve said, flipping the disk between his fingers. “That this dish holds the key to getting us home."
"Sending us all back to our own worlds," Said the second Steve.
Tony raised an eyebrow. "Huh," he said. "How do you figure?"
“It fell,” said the first Steve. “It fell from the sky. And everyone else seems to want it.”
Tony groaned. He very nearly smacked his forehead, but he could only lift his wrist about two inches off the bed. “Great. Your grasp of the scientific method is impeccable.”
“What do you need to crack the disk?” said the first Steve.
“I need my wrists,” Tony said. “Wrists, and my helmet.”
“Done,” replied the same Steve.
“Yeah, I’m not so sure--” Tony gave the three Steves a skeptical look. “Do I need to ask you if you’re a good Steve or a bad Steve? Because I know you’re not from fucking Kansas.”
All three of the Steves grinned and shared a glance.
“Yeah, yeah, I get it,” said Tony. “You understood that reference.”
“What?” asked one of the Steves.
“Never mind,” Tony replied. “Just...who the fuck am I working for?”
“Neither,” admitted the first Steve. “We’re on our own.”
“We quit,” said the second Steve, running his fingers through his hair.
“I was an Evil Steve,” said the third. “These two were good guys.”
“The moral certainty of those bastards gets a little tiring,” the second Steve said. “Fucking sanctimonious pricks.”
The third Steve chuckled. “At least they’re not steepling thier fingers and monologuing all the time.”
“So you’re…” Tony frowned. “You’re Morally Ambiguous Steves?”
“Something like that,” said the first Steve, as he unlocked Tony’s handcuffs.
“I didn’t know such a thing existed,” Tony admitted. He rubbed his wrists where the metal had chafed them.
“Then you understand about the sanctimonious prick bit,” the second Steve said cheerily.
Tony rolled his eyes, and held out his hand. “Disk,” he said. “Am I right in guessing I’m imprisoned?”
The first Steve shrugged apologetically. “We just don’t want to be trapped here if one of the other groups finds the way out first. You do understand.”
“Yeah, well, get me the helmet and I’ll figure it out,” Tony answered.
As the three Steves filed out of the room, Tony looked at the big, deadbolt locks on the door and wondered how long it would take to pick them.
“We should have fucked him first,” he overheard one of the Steves mutter to the others.
“You realize that now,” Tony snapped back irritably.
It was followed by what he thought was a murmur of agreement.
One of the Steves brought back the helmet, and Tony heaved out a sigh of relief to have it back in his hands.
“Hey, kids,” he murmured, stroking the smooth gloss of the chrome finish affectionately.
He looked up at the Steve. “I need quiet,” he said.
The Steve nodded. “Sure, Tony,” he answered.
The minute the door snapped shut, the helmet lit up, as if his AIs had been waiting until they were alone.
“Hello, Sir,” said JARVIS. “It’s good to have you back.”
“Yeah,” Tony said. He sucked in a breath, and, a bit absently, gave the helmet a hug. “Same here. You got anything on that disk?”
“Are you really going to help those creeps out?” asked FRIDAY. “I don’t like them.”
“Nor do I,” JARVIS added.
“Whoever those creeps are,” Tony replied. “They obviously don’t remember what happens when somebody imprisons me and tries to force me to mess around with stolen tech.”
Tony took the disk and slid it into back into the helmet’s input. "What have we got?"
"As we speculated before, Sir," JARVIS replied. "It's some kind of intelligent system. There seems to be a switch, but the switch requires an encryption key, and--"
"Okay, pal," Tony said.
Tony slid on the helmet. "Fire up the monitors."
The code from the disk swam, white type over a black background, in front of Tony's eyes.
"It seems to be a manually-created key," JARVIS said.
FRIDAY let out a whistle. "And a long one, too.”
“Fourteen characters long,” added JARVIS. “If it were electronically-generated, I might have a better chance of duplicating the generation process, but... Human beings have decidedly unmathematical brains, and this might be tough to crack by simply generating random strings. I think there's a faster way."
"Yeah?" Tony asked. "Okay, J, shoot."
"The file's encryption was written by Anthony E. Stark."
"What?" Tony asked.
"You wrote this program, Sir," JARVIS answered.
"Or, well, another version of you did it,” suggested FRIDAY. “Perhaps the Tony Stark from one of these other worlds?"
"So you're saying I chose the key?" Tony asked. "So I should be able to guess what it is?"
"Precisely, Sir." said JARVIS.
“I hope so,” added FRIDAY. “Or we’re going to be here all night.”
"Well,” said Tony, “from everything I'm hearing, it doesn't exactly sound like all the variations of me have had the exact same life experiences, so it might be tough to--"
He suddenly felt a bit warm. "Try EAEMA QAAYI IQEA.”
"But Sir--" JARVIS began
Tony gritted his teeth. "I know," he said.
"That's a Vigenere cipher, isn't it, Sir ?" FRIDAY asked.
“It is indeed,” answered JARVIS.
“C,” started FRIDAY. “A--”
Tony gritted his teeth. "We all know what it resolves to, we don’t have to confirm it."
"Very well, Sir," JARVIS said, and Tony was sure there was a little creeping amusement in his robotic voice. "Initiating decryption sequence in five, four, three, two, one--"
There was a flash of light, and a noise like a staticky pop. Then, suddenly, resolving like a holographic image before his eyes stood--
This Steve seemed very young, lithe, athletic, with a narrower build than some of the others. His suit was made from high-tech body armor-- the kind of thing Tony was still working on developing. Tony had to be careful not to drool looking at it.
"Tony?" He asked, squinting at Tony beneath his cowl. "Where--" He spun around the room. "Where are the boys?"
"What boys?" Tony asked.
"Hikaru!" Steve called. "Akira!"
"What--" then Tony swore. "No, Steve, there's been a-- uh. Your boys aren't here. I'm not-- uh, not your Tony. I...decrypted you off a disk."
"Of course you did," Steve agreed. "What do you mean, not..."
He gave Tony a grave look. "Has your data been corrupted, Tony?"
"My what?" Tony asked. "No, no, look Steve, there was some kind of-- Steve-reaping. You know who Kang the Conqueror is?”
“Blue guy?” Disk Steve asked. “Time traveler?”
“Yeah. He’s been cracking the interdimensional walls open and pulling Steves out, and dropping them here.”
Steve-- Disk Steve, Tony thought-- frowned, his eyebrows sinking low. "I've been stolen?"
"Stole-- yeah," Tony answered.
"And you had nothing to do with this?" Disk Steve asked.
"Of course not," Tony answered. "I have enough trouble with one Steve Rogers, what would I do with two...let alone a whole menagerie? Ha, menagesteve?"
Once it was out of his mouth, he realized just how much it sounded like ménage à Steve, and given recent events....
Steve raised an eyebrow. "Well, considering your last brilliant idea got us all trapped on glorified flash drives--"
"What?" Tony asked. "I did what?"
"You and your research partner designed these disks," Steve answered. "Meant to imprison villains too powerful to be held by conventional methods."
"That's a brilliant idea!" Tony exclaimed. "I'd love to see the schematics."
"Brilliant," Disk Steve agreed, "until the villains imprisoned us on them."
Tony hissed as if he'd been burned. "Oooh," he agreed. "Fair point. But no, I've got nothing to do with this. I don't think I do, anyway."
Disk Steve raised an eyebrow. "That's reassuring," he replied dryly. "So where are we now?" He put a hand on the doorknob. When the door didn't open, he jiggled at the knob. "Are we locked in?" He asked.
"Yeah, uh." Tony slid his fingers through his hair, pacing the floor. "Long story short, there's three factions of Steves. Good Steves, Bad Steves--"
"And Dorothy Gale from Kansas?"
"Ha," Tony remarked. "That’s not actually the first time I’ve heard that joke today. Hardly. Morally Ambiguous Steves."
"That's a...categorization?" Disk Steve asked. "Doesn't that cover everyone?"
"It's a labeling system, really," Tony answered. "There are apparently a few Steves who split off from the, uh, the caucus. And kidnapped me. And..." He shrugged.
"So I guess the next step is to bust out, huh?" asked Disk Steve. He rested an elbow against the door for a moment, eyeing from the top to the bottom, as if he were sizing it up.
Tony knew the look on Steve's face. He picked up his helmet just in time to see the door splinter outward.
"Come on," said Disk Steve. "I don't have much time."
Disk Steve grabbed for Tony's hand, caught him tightly at the wrist, and pulled him through the wreckage of the door.
They were in a hallway on a landing, with a set of wide windows looking out over a lake. There was a bright sun overhead-- afternoon, by the look of it. Tony bit his lip. He’d been imprisoned since the night before, in one place or another.
"Where the hell are we?" Tony asked.
"I've got as good a guess as you,' Disk Steve replied.
“There wasn’t any lake in Steve-ville,” Tony said. “Steve-ville, Rogerstown? Capchester?”
Disk Steve gave him a placating look and started down the stairs.
But as his foot hit the staircase, the three Morally Ambiguous Steves came racing up.
“What the hell?!” the first one demanded.
“There’s another--” started the second.
“Tony!?” shouted the third. He narrowed his eyes at Disk Steve. “Where did you come from.
“On second thought,” Disk Steve said dryly, tugging Tony in the other direction.
The window was coming up at them fast.
“Oh,” said Tony. “Oh, oh no.”
Disk Steve rammed his shield into the window, and it shattered with a resounding, satisfying smash just before Tony found himself careening out of it.
“Is this your solution to everything?” Tony tried to yell at Disk Steve over the shrieking sound of the air as they fell, clutching his helmet hard to his chest.
Disk Steve curled his arm around Tony’s waist and adjusted their angle until the shield was aimed at the lake. It broke the surface tension of the water with a loud splash, and a moment later, Tony found himself plummeting through the murky water of the lake, seaweed tickling at his toes, water seeping into his ears.
Disk Steve tugged him upward before he could regain his own composure, and the two of them bobbed in the surface of the lake as the Morally Ambiguous Steves watched from the window, staring out at them with what Tony suspected was a mixture of irritation and amusement.
“Where’s the disk?!” one of the Morally Ambiguous Steves shouted.
“HE’S HERE!” Tony shouted back, pointing at Disk Steve. “He’s your fucking disk, assholes!”
The Morally Ambiguous Steves shared a glance with each other, a matching, inscrutable expression on their faces.
It was in that moment that Tony realized that it was actually becoming pretty scrutable to him. “Shit,” he muttered at Disk Steve. “Swim. Fast. Now.”
Disk Steve barely glanced at him before obeying, keeping one hand on Tony as he made broad strokes toward the opposite shore.
They heard three distinct splashes not too far behind them.
“Christ,” said Tony. “We can’t outswim them. They’re all you, and you’re carrying me. We’re screw--”
But his summation was cut off by the deafening noise of something that sounded like--
An Iron Man suit.
That was definitely an Iron Man suit, but it was painted brightly like an American flag, a star in the middle of the breastplate, encompassing the arc reactor.
"RHODEY?!" Tony exclaimed in surprise. He waved a hand. "What the hell--"
The suit swooped downward, lifting both Tony and Disk Steve out of the water.
The paint job on the armor was different from the old Iron Patriot armor back home, so Tony supposed this was some other Rhodey from some other universe. Some sad, despairing universe where War Machine’s armor was still ugly. Still-
"Rhodey," Tony said, panting with relief, the water streaming off him. "Jesus, I'm glad to see you."
The faceplate flipped up.
It wasn't Rhodey.
"We're gonna get you back home, Tony," said Iron Steve, gripping Tony tightly around the waist. "And you, ah, Steve."
"Nice duds," Tony said, admiring the construction of the suit. In spite of the tacky paint job, the build was exceptional. He assumed it was the work of one of his counterparts. He would have to get a closer look when he wasn't in midair.
"That's quite the compliment, coming from the guy who made them," Iron Steve said cheerily.
Tony slid his free arm around Steve's metal waist. It rested there, forearm against hip; the metal warm to the touch in the sun.
Iron Steve turned his attention to Disk Steve. "How about you?" He asked. "You doing okay?"
"Yeah," said Disk Steve. "Listen, I've got about twenty minutes till I go poof."
"Poof?" Tony asked.
It occurred to him as he let his body sag, finally able to rest for a moment as they sped across the lake, cheek falling against Iron Steve's shoulder, that this must be what Steve felt like, what it was like to be lifted and flown through the air without the armor’s protection. The wind beat at his face, whistled over his ears, chilled his soaking clothing, and he found himself pressed up harder against the armor without thinking.
"Yeah, 'poof,' said Disk Steve. "I can only stay off the disk for so long before it recalls me. I run out of batteries," he explained with a halfhearted smile. "Wouldn't stay on the damn disk if I had a choice."
"You think maybe you can..." Iron Steve started. "Take a look at that, maybe, Tony?"
“Yeah,” Tony said, frowning at Disk Steve. “I mean, you said I-- a version of me built the tech, right? I’ve gotta be able to figure out how to reverse engineer it.”
DIsk Steve gave him a grateful look. “Thanks,” he answered.
Tony was still damp when Iron Steve deposited him in the town square. They had flown past the lake, over the hills and that menacing-looking tower, above a wooded area that had slowly changed into scrub, and then dry grass, and finally desert. Disk Steve had, true to his word, returned to his tiny, blue plastic home, and Tony had kept him securely inside the Iron Man helmet he was still hugging to his chest.
“Tony!” Angry Steve called, as he jogged across the square to greet him. Angry Steve was even more worse for wear; he had one arm in a sling, to go along with the black eye and split lip from before, but he was wearing clean clothes: a pair of cargo pants with enough pockets to make up for the lack of pouches, and a tee shirt tight enough to rival Steve-Back-Home’s. Tony tried not to stare for about five seconds before giving up all hope and letting his eyes wander along those sculpted arms, across his enormous pectorals, down the curved line of his narrowing waist...
Iron Steve, meanwhile, removed his helmet, looking Tony up and down from top to bottom, an amused expression on his face.
"What?" Tony asked, as he pocketed Disk Steve with a pat.
Iron Steve shrugged. "Nothing."
Angry Steve caught up to them, more quickly than Tony anticipated, but that was par for the course for Steve. His eyes were bright, his cheeks were pink. "Tony," he repeated.
"Steve?" Tony replied.
Angry Steve grinned and ran a hand through his hair. "Tony."
Iron Steve cleared his throat. "Not that this isn't a fascinating conversation," he said. "But I'm going to go let the elders know we're back and report on your findings in regard to the disk."
"What?" Angry Steve asked. "You cracked the disk?"
"Yeah," Tony answered. He nodded, watching Iron Steve clomp away out of the corner of his eye. Iron Steve glanced back, smiled again, shook his head, and kept going.
"And?" Angry Steve asked. "What did you--"
"Steve," said Tony. "It's another Steve, Steve."
Angry Steve's eyebrows dipped down, his mouth puckered up, and he tipped his head to one side.
“That’s a lot of Steves,” said Angry Steve.
“Well, it’s just one mo--” Tony began, before he realized that Angry Steve was commenting on the sentence he’d just managed to spit out. “Oh, uh, yeah,” Tony said. “Sorry. It’s-- there’s a Steve. Living on the disk. He’s, like, been transformed into data.” Tony patted his pocket. “I’m gonna try to fix him.”
Steve looked down, at where Tony’s hand lay over his jeans pocket, then swallowed hard, and tore his eyes away, his ears going red, his eyes focusing on-- what, on Tony’s beard? They looked like they were on Tony’s beard. Definitely not on his eyes.
“Steve?” Tony asked. But he knew that look, he’d seen it on his Steve’s face, even if it had never been directed at him before. That look meant I’m thinking something I shouldn’t be.
Steve didn’t answer. Instead, he clapped his hands to his own elbows, and finally met Tony’s gaze. “We’d better get you cleaned up,” he said. “You’re a mess.”
Tony looked down at his still-damp, muddy, clothes. He took a whiff: they smelled like lake water. “Yeah,” he agreed. “Okay, we’ll do that.”
They’d been assigned to a house, Tony learned. All those neat little rowhouses on the main street were home to groups of four Steves, in the order of arrival, with the exception, of course, of this house, which had been designated for three Steves and one Tony.
“It’s all furnished,” Tony said, as Angry Steve led him through the living room. It looked like something out of a catalogue, all perfectly arranged, flowers in vases and candy in candy dishes. He took a handful of red hots and popped them in his mouth as they started up the stairs.
As the sugar and cinnamon melted over his tongue, he realized he was ravenous. His stomach lurched, empty and suddenly gripped with pangs.
“Tony?” asked Angry Steve. “You don’t look too good.”
Tony clutched at the banister, wobbling where he stood. "I'm pretty sure the last time I ate was when you made me that milkshake."
"Oh," Steve said. "You know that was almost twenty-four hours ago now."
"Yeah, I gathered," Tony said.
Angry Steve rolled his eyes, and caught Tony by the upper arm. “Up,” he said.
Angry Steve guided Tony into a bedroom. It was small, and quaint, and looked like something from a nineteen-fifties television set: flowered wallpaper, crown molding, a wooden bedframe-- a twin bed. Tony hadn’t slept in a twin bed since college.
There was an embroidered sampler on the wall, the only decoration. It said, “Energy and persistence conquer all things,” and was signed, “Benjamin Franklin.”
“There’s--” Angry Steve dropped Tony’s arm, seeming suddenly flustered as he rummaged through drawers. “Sorry. All the clothes are--”
Angry Steve pulled out an extremely large, blue shirt.
“Steve-sized,” Tony said cheerily.
Angry Steve shrugged, and looked down at the shirt. “Everything was just...here,” he explained. “Waiting for us.”
“It’s Steve-colored, too,” Tony added, and he held a hand out for the shirt.
“The, uh, the pants are going to be huge on you,” Angry Steve said apologetically.
Tony grinned as he grabbed the shirt, and started peeling off the one he was wearing-- god, but it stank, he realized. His stomach lurched again.
He flashed Angry Steve a grin. “That’s all right,” he answered, watching as Steve stared, cheeks red, at Tony’s chest. He held the blue shirt up, to shoulder height, as if he were checking the fit-- which was something between nightshirt and mumu compared to Tony. “Everyone knows I’m an exhibitionist.”
He lowered it again, glancing at Angry Steve to see his reaction.
Angry Steve’s cheeks turned red. He glanced away. “There’s socks and underwear and whatever else you need in the drawer,” he said, in a half-mumbled tone, as if he had marbles in his mouth.
“”We could just declare a pants-free day,” Tony suggested. “So I wouldn’t feel like the odd man out.”
Angry Steve tensed. “I’ll get you something to eat,” he said, hastily, and turned for the door, not making eye contact again.
Tony sighed as he realized he’d gone too far that time, and he tugged on the oversized blue shirt. It was soft, stretchy, stronger than the thinness of the fabric seemed to indicate, and he tested it between his fingers, impressed.
He rummaged in the drawers, found too-large boxer shorts and too-large jeans, and a belt, that was also too large, but he decided it had to be better than nothing.
Tony was just trying to figure out a way to tie the several excess inches of belt into place when there was a timid knock at the door.
“Steve?” Tony asked.
“It’s me,” said Steve’s voice.
“Come on in,” Tony answered.
The door opened, slowly, creaking noisily, as another Steve-- definitely not Angry Steve, his expression was too timid for that-- stepped into the room.
Hand still on the doorknob, this Steve didn’t say anything, but hesitated, wavering, in the doorway, one foot in the room, one still in the hall.
His hair was longer, neatly combed, worn the way Steve had worn his hair when they’d first met; he was wearing a starched, collared blue shirt, sleeves rolled to the elbows, neatly pressed khaki slacks.
And he dropped his hands to his sides and stared at Tony with haunted eyes.
“Steve?” Tony asked.
He was fairly certain he hadn’t seen this Steve before-- he seemed to be about thirty, maybe a little older, but tired, a slouch to his shoulders and a slope to his neck he’d never seen from Steve before.
“Tony,” Steve said. His voice was barely audible. And that was when Tony realized that there were tears in Steve’s eyes.
“You okay there, buddy?” he asked, hesitantly. “You--”
Steve gaped, mouth open, shaking his head, and then flung himself at Tony, big arms wrapped around him in a bear hug.
“Don’t leave,” Steve said hoarsely. “Don’t do that to me again.”
Tony pulled back in surprise, accidentally backing into the dresser, which hit the wall with a thud. “Do-- Steve, Steviecakes, I don’t know--”
“You died,” Steve answered, his voice cracking. He gripped Tony’s arms in his hands, over and over, as if he were feeling them to see if they were real. “You died on me; you weren’t supposed to--”
And Tony went cold. The sight of Steve, dying, bloodied and broken, his shield smashed, was still too close to the surface, still palpable and real even knowing it had been a fantasy.
His hands trembled. "Steve," he said, his voice coming out paper-thin. "I'm not--I didn't die."
He knew what he meant to say, that he wasn't the man who had died, that he was a different Tony, that he couldn't replace whatever this Steve had lost, but all he felt was that hollowness of failure, that impotence that hit him like a brick to the chest, and the chilling realization that that must be what this Steve was feeling.
Before he knew what he was doing, his arms were wrapped tightly around the other man, and Steve was sobbing, his huge chest shaking, his head bent, his forehead dipping to bump against Tony's own, his fingers digging painfully into Tony's ribcage.
"What were you thinking" Steve murmured harshly into his ear. "Injecting yourself with a- a- a virus? An untested virus?"
"A wha--" Tony started, but the question had left his mouth before he realized he already knew.
"Extremis," Tony whispered.
"You knew it could kill you," Steve admonished, his voice shaking. "Doctor Hansen showed me the trials, she said she tried to convince you not to--"
Steve's hands were twined in the fabric of Tony's too-large shirt; he was inhaling Tony's hair, hot breath exhaling soft against Tony's brow.
And Tony shuddered, the image of a bullet piercing Maya's skin, of Maya gasping, of Maya on the floor in a pool of her own blood, all flashing before his eyes, and his throat closed up and he pulled away, the space suddenly too small, too constricted.
He had to duck out of Steve's grasp, beneath his massive arm, twist past him, step into the center of the room where there was more air, where Steve wasn't so close.
"Tony?" Steve asked as he circled back around, keeping at arm's breadth. "Are you--"
"Fine," Tony said, squeezing his eyes shut as he practiced breathing like it was a skill he had to relearn. He pressed a finger to the bridge of his nose. "I'm fine, it's just a panic attack."
"Since when do you have panic at--"
"Since I flew into a wormhole with a nuke and almost died in space," Tony answered. "They were getting better, but then this kid rearranged my neural pathways and it got..."
Steve's hand slid over the small of his back, and it felt comforting, not crowding. "I need you back," he said quietly. "The...the Feds are trying to...force us to hand over our identities. I tried to make a case against it; I did my best, but I'm not you, Tony; I'm not--"
"Hand over our..." Tony frowned. "But everyone knows who we..."
Steve shook his head. "Not where I'm from. There are too many...Tony, too many people who'd be in danger. People with wives and husbands and kids and parents and friends and coworkers. People whose entire lives could be destroyed, if..."
Tony licked his lips. "I suppose, knowing you, you're not willing to compromise." He took a breath. "What's Barton's take on--"
"Barton?" asked Steve, his face taking on a pinched look. "Clint's gone, Tony."
He knew-- Tony knew it wasn't his Clint, but it still felt like a punch to his gut. "Laura and the kids are-- are they okay--"
"Who?" Steve asked, looking perplexed.
"Clint's wife and kids, are they-- they're alright, are they--" he watched the growing expression of disbelief on Steve's face.
"Jesus," said Tony. "I don't know if that means they don't exist, or he never told you."
Steve shook his head. "Clint would tell me if he had a family," he answered. "I'm sure of it. Frankly, I'm not sure we could trust him with a dog, but..."
Steve shrugged. " I've got Reed and Sue and Luke and Jessica, if we're talking folks with kids I can trust, but--"
"I have no idea who any of those people are," Tony admitted, letting out a breath.
Steve shook his head, and Tony could feel Steve's finger rubbing circles, nervously, at the base of Tony's spine.
"It's okay," said Steve. And then Steve swallowed and shrugged, despondently, glancing away. "I mean, it's not okay, it's not, it's--There was an accident. A bad one, Tony. Took out a small city. They want us to-- they’re calling for blood; they’ve unleashed Sentinels-- Peter-- Peter’s--"
His voice cracked. Steve seemed helpless, more helpless than Tony had ever expected Steve to be, his shoulders stooping so he seemed smaller, and he grimaced and swallowed like a man who was trying to keep himself from crying.
"Steve," Tony whispered. He managed a weak pat to Steve's shoulder, but Steve leaned forward, as if he'd lost his balance at the touch.
"I don't know how to do it without you," Steve murmured. "I need you; I need--"
His bright blue eyes, shining with tears, met Tony's.
"You're the one I trust," Steve said. Suddenly, the back of his hand stroked Tony's cheek; Tony felt the knobs of Steve's knuckles press lightly against his skin.
"You tell me when you think I'm being too stubborn; you won't let me get away with--"
The bend of Steve's pinky caught at the crease of Tony's lips.
Tony's breath caught; he wasn't certain if that had been deliberate.
It only took a moment for Steve to confirm, for him to run his thumb over Tony's chin.
"I don't-- I never said--" Steve stammered, and then his mouth was too close, his breath was too warm, and Tony's heart was beating like hummingbird's wings.
Tony's lips parted, but for once, he was speechless.
"I can't do it," Steve murmured, breathless. "I can't live without you."
Steve's lips were warm and soft on Tony's, full and supple, and he kissed reverently, with yearning, tugging Tony in close when Tony didn't back away, when he found himself catching his fingers in Steve's hair.
And then there was a bang, and something clattered to the floor, and Steve was being hauled across the room and shoved into the nearest wall with such force that Tony could hear the plaster inside the wall crumbling and clattering down.
"--The fuck you think this is?!" Angry Steve landed a hard right hook to the other Steve's jaw, and his head flung back, smacking the wall again.
Tony realized he hadn't given this Steve a nickname. He went through the possibilities in his head, but Grieving Steve, although it contained a nice rhyme, was a little morbid, as was Mourning Steve, and Sad Steve made him sound pathetic.
Lonely Steve, Tony decided, as his initial instinct to back away was overcome, and he shoved himself into the Steve pile, grabbing on to Angry Steve's shirt, pressing a hand to Lonely Steve's chest, putting his own body physically between them so Angry Steve couldn't punch again without going through him.
There was a plastic plate with the remains of what looked like it had been a sandwich scattered on the floor in the doorway.
Lonely Steve broke away, sucking in a deep breath as he looked between Angry Steve and Tony with wide eyes, flush cheeks, and parted, swollen lips as he put a hand to his chest, trying to catch his breath. There was a welt rising, red and furious, on his jawline. "I-- oh, God, what did I just--"
“And you’re just going to stand there protecting him?!” Angry Steve growled at Tony. “After everything--”
Tony swore under his breath. “Are you jealous?” he asked. He realized it probably wasn’t the kind of thing he should say, especially if Angry Steve really was jealous, but--
“Fuck off,” Angry Steve snarled, kicking at the now-forlorn, mustard-smeared sandwich roll.
Lonely Steve, meanwhile, looked around the room, flustered, snatching his hands away to tug uncomfortably at his own fingertips. "I'm sorry; I'm not-- I don't--"
“He’s not yours,” Angry Steve snapped. “You couldn’t even keep yours alive, and you’re going to take--”
Tony almost choked. “Kid,” he said to Angry Steve. “I hate to bring this up at such a, err, tense moment, but I’m not yours, either.”
Angry Steve's hands clenched into fists. "Fuck you, Stark," he growled. "Fuck you and whatever fucking universe you came from; I hope it explodes into a million pieces."
"Yeah, you're not helping your argument," Tony replied. "I'm not sure what your argument is, but the universe is so infinitely large that a million pieces wouldn't do that much damage."
“I’m interrupting something,” Lonely Steve said, rubbing at his hands, looking for all the world as if he were desperately trying to regain composure. “I didn’t realize I was interrupt--”
“How are you supposed to be the one interrupting when he’s the one who walked in?” Tony asked. “God, Steve, you can’t just defer to everybod--”
“Walked in on you two sucking each other’s faces off,” Angry Steve pointed out. “Because I fixed you a fucking sandwich like an idiot.”
Tony ran a hand over his face. “You have really got to chill out, Angry Ste--”
And he realized he’d said it out loud. “Er. Steve.”
Angry Steve winced, and he looked away, his face pinched. “I’m not cleaning that up,” he said, pointing to the sandwich on the floor as he stalked out of the room.
“Steve, wait--” Tony implored, starting after Angry Steve. His hand was on the doorframe when he stopped himself, turning to look back at Lonely Steve.
Lonely Steve was chewing his lip, thoughtfully.
“Sorry,” Tony said, raising his hands helplessly. “I shouldn’t’ve-- you were upset, you--”
Lonely Steve shrugged, pulled his arms up to his chest, capped his elbows with his palms. “It wasn’t you,” he replied. “It was what I wanted.” He was still staring at the doorway, as if he could still see Angry Steve standing there.
“Did you see that?” Lonely Steve asked.
“See what?” Tony replied. “The kid with the wholly inappropriate crush who is way too young for me to even consider--”
Lonely Steve raised an eyebrow. “Don’t bullshit me, Tony,” he said. “I know how you act when you’re considering something. You’re considering it.”
“Well, fuck.” Tony rubbed the back of his neck. “You know me way better than Steve back home does. That’s a-- a little eerie.”
“You know what he is, don’t you?” Lonely Steve asked.
“What do you mean, ‘what he is?’” Tony replied. He found himself staring down the empty hall, now, too, and he shuddered, and shook his head.
“That’s what happens,” said Lonely Steve. “In worlds where we don’t have each other.”
He said it so seriously, without a hint of humor, and Tony nearly choked. “What?”
“I said before, I needed you,” said Lonely Steve. He seemed to have his composure back, he was speaking in a matter-of-fact tone, no hint of the previous tears. “You talk to enough of the guys-- you know, the different iterations of this same man, of me, and you start to see a difference. You and I, we balance each other, we temper each other, we--”
Lonely Steve shrugged. "It's what I'm afraid of," he admitted. "Being lost without you."
"But he knows me," Tony pointed out, then cleared his throat. "Uh. I mean. He knows a Tony. Not me-me."
"But they're not friends," Lonely Steve pointed out. "Not the way you and I--"
"Look," Tony interjected. He felt badly interrupting this outpouring of emotion, but something about Steve, Steve talking about him like he was the only thing in the world, left him uneasy in a way that simultaneously gave him butterflies and a sharp twist of apprehension, both in the pit of his stomach. "Steve. In my world, you didn’t even show up until I was forty-two. Granted,” he said, shooting the other man a lopsided smile. “I was a giant fuckup, so you may have a point. But you don’t seem like a fuckup. You’ll do okay.”
“I don’t know,” Lonely Steve said, raking his teeth across his lower lip. “I’d like to believe you, but...there isn’t a day that goes by...where I don’t regret something I said, or...or didn’t say. Where something doesn’t remind me of you--”
“Of him,” Tony corrected, and he saw Lonely Steve flinch.
“Yeah,” Lonely Steve said, looking down at the floor.
"I lost JARVIS," Tony said.
Lonely Steve's eyes met Tony’s again. "Jar-- your butler?"
“My AI,” Tony replied. “My-- the computer, that ran my armor and my house and, well…” He scratched at his beard. “He took care of me. And I didn’t protect him as well as I should. And I feel like shit about it sometimes. I mean, he’s-- he’s an AI, I can bring him back online when I need him, I have backups, but I didn’t do everything I could--”
“You’re trying to make me feel better,” Lonely Steve said, in a matter-of-fact tone that was neither here nor there, not grateful, not accusatory. He was simply stating fact, and Tony shrugged his admission.
“I’m just saying,” Tony replied. “I know what it’s like, to lose somebody who’s as close as you-- as it sounds like you were.”
Something twinged in his chest, and Tony found himself feeling a sudden, guilty resentment-- alive or dead, he’d never be that close to Steve, not back home. He didn’t know why it bothered him; he had other people, but something about it gnawed at him. But he pushed on. “And it...you know, I’m not going to say the trite, cliche thing. It doesn’t get better. But you make other friends. And damn, if everything you’re saying is true, if the rest of the world is out to get people like us--” Tony sucked in a breath. “They tried it once, back home. My Steve stopped them. You can do it, too. There are a hell of a lot of people who are going to need you.”
Lonely Steve gave Tony a halfhearted, close-lipped smile. “You tryin’ to let me down easy, Stark?” he asked, his eyes bright-- not with tears, this time, but with light that made them dance.
“You don’t look too upset about it,” Tony pointed out.
“I’m not,” Lonely Steve replied, and shrugged. “You know how every once in a while you meet somebody you just want to be near so much that you don't want to screw it up? So you never try to see what it could be?"
Tony chuckled, a little halfheartedly, and thought of Pepper. "Nah, because I usually just go ahead and screw it up," he admitted. "Steve Rogers, do I detect...cowardice? From Captain America?"
"I've got to be scared of something," Lonely Steve retorted, with a wry smile that reminded Tony so much of his own Steve back home that it sent a shiver through him. "But at least I know now that if I had tried, it probably wouldn't have fucked anything up."
Tony coughed and looked Lonely Steve in the eye. "You think you could fuck anything up with that mouth?" he asked. He smirked, knowing he shouldn't, knowing he was talking to a man who'd lost something he couldn't quite fathom.
But Lonely Steve smirked back, and in that look, the crooked mouth and devilish eyes that he knew were meant for someone else, Tony was struck with the faintest glimpse into what those two people might have had. There was understanding, kinship, the sort of thing he found with Rhodey or Pepper, but never Steve. And there was something electric behind it, something that make the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end, and--
“I sure hope I can fuck something up with this mouth,” Lonely Steve said slyly.
Tony coughed into his hand. “Where the hell did you learn to talk like that?” he asked.
“Probably from listening to you,” Lonely Steve retorted, arching an eyebrow. “Go on.” He nodded, toward the door.
Tony looked back at the door and squinted. “Go...on...where?” he asked.
Lonely Steve dropped to one knee, carefully picking up the remains of the sandwich. “Go talk to the kid.”
“I don’t--” Tony started, hesitantly.
“Yeah, you do,” said Lonely Steve. He got back to his feet, the disassembled sandwich ingredients on the plate, and started back for the door, shooting a pointed look over his shoulder at Tony.
Tony checked the bedrooms before he went downstairs: they were all identical, all decorated with little embroidered samplers of quotes by Benjamin Franklin.
He was in a room that was obviously in use, a set of striped pajamas folded neatly atop the bed, with a sampler that said “Anger is never without a reason, but seldom with a good one,” when he started to feel woozy and lightheaded. He still hadn’t eaten.
So Tony made his way downstairs and took a few wrong turns before he found the kitchen.
so he grabbed a handful of trail mix from a container on the shelf and a bottle-- a glass bottle-- of Coke.
He wrapped the hem of his too-large shirt around the bottletop, but the cap wouldn’t budge.
“Fuck,” he said, bringing it up to eye level. “It’s not a twist-off?”
The lid on the Coke was a for-real, old-fashioned bottle cap. “Fuck you, Steves,” he said. “What do you do, open these with your perfect teeth?”
He opened a drawer, rummaging inside. “Bottle opener, bottle opener…” he muttered to himself as his fingers passed over the silverware.
Suddenly, the bottle opener prodded at his hand.
“Hey!” said a tiny voice. “Big guy! You looking for this?”
“I--” Tony gripped the bottle opener, squinting at the drawer. “Yes, thank you--uh--”
A tiny blue thing hopped onto the counter. “Steve,” said the blue thing. It was boxy, rectangular, with a cylindrical yellow head.
“Steve,” Tony echoed.
“Now, could you quiet down out there?” Lego Steve asked irritably. “Some of us were taking a nap.”
“Sure, uh, sorry--Steve?”
Tony turned, toward the kitchen window, looked out into the yard, and saw Angry Steve...throwing punches at a tall, thick-trunked oak tree.
He winced with every hit, and the tree shuddered, but a huge living oak seemed to be a worthy opponent to Captain America, and it stayed upright.
Gingerly, Tony made his way to the door, lifted the latch, and stepped into the yard. It was a perfect, suburban idyll, the kind of yard Tony had seen on television shows-- small, neatly-mowed, encircled by a white fence bordered with flowers.
Tony walked up to Angry Steve without speaking, and Angry Steve was so absorbed in throwing punches that he didn’t notice Tony’s approach.
“I had a nightmare,” Tony said, and cleared his throat.
Angry Steve jerked back, whirled around, looked at Tony with a pale face and a grimace. He rubbed at his knuckles. Tony looked down at them; they were bloody, battered.
“You need a band-aid?” Tony asked.
Angry Steve shrugged. “Enhanced healing,” he replied dully. “I’ll be fine. What the hell did you say?”
“I asked if you needed a ban--”
“About the nightmare,” Angry Steve interrupted. “I don’t know what you want from me, Stark.”
“I didn’t want anything from you,” Tony answered, holding his hands up helplessly. “I just want to fix Disk Steve and go home.”
“So you just walk around proclaiming your nightmares to anybody you happen to run into?” Angry Steve asked. “Is that how you get people to stick their tongues down your throat?”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake, Steve,” Tony replied. “He was sad. He wasn’t sensible. Why? You want to stick your tongue down my throat?”
“I already told you to fuck off, Stark,” said Angry Steve, his eyes narrowing.
Tony shrugged, circled Angry Steve like a cat, and leaned back against the same big oak tree that Steve had been throwing his fists at. “I had a nightmare,” he repeated.
“Oh, come on,” Angry Steve groaned, stalking forward, toward Tony, rolling his eyes, and he lifted a hand, drew it back, as if he were considering the possibility of punching Tony.
“You died,” Tony continued, crossing his arms over his chest.
Angry Steve stopped where he stood, dropped his hand to his side. “What?”
“In my nightmare,” Tony replied. He reached up, rubbing at his beard. “You all died. Everyone died, Steve.”
Tony felt a tightness in his back and shoulders, a twitch, the fear that came with the memories of that vision resurging. “I flew through a wormhole with a nuclear weapon that was pointed at Manhattan.”
“Who the fuck would point a nucle--”
“Don’t ask,” Tony replied. “Point is, I planned on dying. I expected to die, but I was okay with it, because I thought everybody else would live if I just--”
Angry Steve’s shoulders slumped, his grimace turned into a full-fledged frown, and he shook his head. “Would you just shut up?” he asked. “I know what you’re trying to do, I know--”
“You thought you were going to die,” Tony said. He shook his head. “It’s okay, Steve.”
Angry Steve winced, and he squeezed his eyes shut, tightly, pinching the bridge of his nose. But he didn’t cry; Tony watched his jaw working, clenching and relaxing, before he looked back up. “Twice,” he answered. “It happened twice, Tony. I rode a fucking bomb into the sunset and got frozen in ice for fifty years, and now--now--”
He swallowed hard, but he still didn’t cry.
Tony bit the inside of his lip, as the realization struck, the connection he’d never quite made before. “And you’re the only one left. But you saved everybody, Steve.”
“I thought I would die,” Angry Steve snapped. “I was supposed to die.”
“Die a hero, right?” Tony asked. “Give yourself up for the cause?”
“I didn’t belong there,” Steve answered. He shrugged, then tugged his arms to his chest. “I never fit. If somebody was gonna go--”
He bit his lip. “And I don’t even know what good I did,” he said. “I was just trying to buy them time…”
Angry Steve looked up, his eyes meeting Tony’s, and his brow creased sharply. “Buy you time.”
Tony raked a hand through his hair. “Well, you know how I ended up here.”
“Yeah,” Angry Steve said, swallowing.
“You know what I did?” Tony asked. “When I got scared I couldn’t save my friends? I built a robot that tried to extinguish mankind.”
“You what?” Angry Steve asked. “Why the hell would you--”
“We killed it, but it wasn’t my finest moment,” Tony admitted. “I’m technically supposed to be on a break now? I’m not very good at breaks.”
“Big fucking surprise, Stark,” said Angry Steve. He dropped down to the lawn and sat, leaning back on his hands, running his fingers through the grass.
Tony slid down the length of the tree trunk, until he was sitting at its base. He pulled out the disk that housed Disk Steve and played with it, twirling it between his fingers. “I get the sense you’re not, either.”
Angry Steve looked up at him. “Why the hell do you care?”
“You wanna tell me what was going on upstairs?” Tony asked.
Angry Steve grimaced. “Like I said, I flew into the mouth of a fucking celestial being to try to give you time.”
“That wasn’t me,” Tony pointed out. “I jumped into a vortex to--” He shrugged, and gave Angry Steve a lopsided smile. “I don’t know what, exactly. But I saw you dead once, and I wasn’t going to--”
“I know,” Angry Steve said quietly. He poked at the grass. “He thinks I’m dead, doesn’t he?”
“Stark. Tony. Back where I’m from. He thinks I’m dead...assuming, assuming he didn’t bite it.”
Tony held his hands up, helplessly. “Well, you did fly into the mouth of a fucking celestial being.”
Angry Steve twitched. “It’s gonna be like Bucky and Gail all over again, isn’t it?”
“Bucky and who?” Tony asked.
“My best friend and my--” Steve shrugged. “They thought I was dead. They got married. And I can’t even blame him, because he was taking care of her for-- for--”
But he never finished his sentence, even though Tony was pretty sure he knew how it ended, and Tony’s mind was already racing. There was a sharp whistle in the air, and Angry Steve yelled and leapt, clapping himself bodily over Tony, only moments before the roof to the house took a hit, exploded into a ball of flames, throwing splinters and cinders, shards of glass and bits of broken concrete down in a rain over them.
“FUCK!” Angry Steve shouted. “I’ve gotta get back in--” He hauled himself to his feet, looking Tony over with a sharp eye, even as Tony saw the places where Angry Steve had been cut by glass, where something had left an ugly burn mark across his neck.
“You’re not hurt, are you?” Angry Steve asked.
Tony pushed himself to his feet. “Nah,” he assured him. “Really fucking wish I had a suit about now, th--”
Another blast shattered the fence, and Angry Steve forced himself bodily between the blast and Tony.
“You have got to stop that,” Tony said, as Angry Steve pulled a splinter of wood out of his shoulder.
“Healing factor,” Angry Steve answered.
“You don’t have any fucking protec--” Tony began, as something a familar, disklike object whirled through the air, red and white and blue and spinning.
Angry Steve caught the shield, and drew out a starred-and-striped shirt from where it had been tucked between the straps of the shield’s harness. He tugged it over his now-ragged tee shirt. He raised a hand, waving it at the smoking remains of the house.
Lonely Steve-- Tony had to assume it was Lonely Steve-- had emerged from the wreckage, in full uniform, and once Angry Steve had pulled his on, he tossed him a gun.
Tony tilted his head to one side, inspecting it thoughtfully. Scale mail. Captain America had scale mail. He wasn’t sure what to make of that.
Angry Steve caught the gun, and then looked to Tony, and finally pressed the gun into his hands. “You know how to use this?”
“Depends on your definition of ‘use,’ Tony replied, as he jumped at the sound of another blast, further afield. “But yeah. Rhodey taught me.”
An high-pitched shriek like an air raid siren sounded, ringing harshly in Tony’s ears as Lonely Steve jogged up to them.
“ATTENTION ALL STEVES,” said a voice over the loudspeaker. “ATTENTION ALL STEVES; PLEASE MAKE YOUR WAY TO YOUR ASSIGNED DEFENSIVE POSITIONS.”
“What do I do?” Tony asked.
“We’ll get you somewhere safe,” said Angry Steve, and he reached for Tony’s shoulder.
Lonely Steve, though, shot Tony a sly smile, and held out Tony’s helmet. “What you do best.”
Tony reached for the helmet with both hands, shaking his head, and looked down at the eyes in the faceplate. “I hate to point out the obvious, but I don’t have a--”
Lonely Steve put two fingers in his mouth and whistled. It was a long, shrill whistle, like he was calling a cab.
And as another explosion rocked a nearby building, as the ground shook beneath their feet, a suit of armor shot up, blasting out of the flames, painted in red and blue, not the gaudy stars and stripes of Iron Patriot or the man Tony had called Iron Steve, but matching Iron Man’s paint job plate for plate.
The suit landed nearby, and Tony looked it up and down. It was advanced beyond anything he’d built, the sort of thing that would have taken him a good five more years of development, and he let out a lot whistle. “Did I-- I mean, did he build this?” he asked, as he reached out, ran a hand along the armor’s smooth, unpitted finish, admiringly. The armor responded to his touch, turning toward him, recognizing his biometrics instantly.
“Yeah,” Lonely Steve said. “In case anything ever happened to him. And I guess something did, so…”
Tony grinned in spite of himself. “Come on, baby,” he said to the armor. “This is gonna be fun.”
The armor didn’t quite fit, as body-conforming as it was: it had clearly been made for a much larger man. But as the last plate clicked into place, and Tony replaced the helmet with his own, he felt as if he were home.
The displays inside his helmet lit up. “Good afternoon, Mister Stark,” FRIDAY said cheerfully. “I see we’re working with some upgrades.”
“Yeah, we are,” Tony answered. “You can interface with all this fancy-shmancy stuff?”
“I can get the young lady hooked up to the appropriate nodes,” JARVIS assured him.
“Good. Let’s chat on the way,” he said, checking the responsivity of his gauntlets: lightning-quick.
“I’m ready to go, boys,” he said to the two Steves.
The ground shook again, and he lifted off-- the jets in his boots propelling him upward so smoothly that it took him a moment to realize he was airborne. He hovered, a few inches off the ground, and looked back at his companions.
“Thanks,” he said to Lonely Steve.
“Thank yourself,” Lonely Steve retorted affectionately, and he tossed Tony a salute as he started off. “I’m gonna get to my post.”
Tony turned to Angry Steve. “Chin up,” he said, seeing the forlorn look on Angry Steve’s face.
Angry Steve looked down at his new suit. “This piece of shit doesn’t have half enough pouches,” he said irritably.
“It’s got the only one that matters,” piped up a tiny voice, as Lego Steve poked his head out from Angry Steve’s holster. He was slightly singed, covered in soot, and one of his arm sockets was a little bit melted, but Tony felt a giddy sense of relief to see him.
“Tell you what,” Tony replied, as another explosion nearly knocked Angry Steve off his feet. Tony caught him by the arm and lifted him off the ground, and it took Angry Steve a moment to regain composure. Awkwardly, uncertainly, Angry Steve wrapped his arms around Tony’s waist. “We’ll get through this, and then I’ll make sure you get some more pouches.”
Tony pulled them both up into the air, over the treeline, where they could see the enormous stars-and-stripes-emblazoned dirigible that was bombing the town.
“Fucking Evil Steves,” Angry Steve muttered.
“You think we can take ‘em out?” Tony asked.
“What, you and me?” Angry Steve asked. He looked back at the dirigible.
“Yeah, I drop you off on that baby, you work the inside, I work the exterior,” Tony suggested. “It’s a fucking balloon.”
Angry Steve grinned back at him. “Hell yeah, we can.”
“Right, I’ll get you over to the gondola; I want you to neutralize as many of those explosives as you--”
“Why don’t I just detonate them?” Angry Steve asked.
“Because you’re going to be on the fucking dirigible with them, meathead,” Tony replied. “Neutralize them and come up with a way to signal. I’ll deflate the balloon.”
“Got it,” Angry Steve said. Then he craned his neck to turn and look at Tony.
“What?” Tony asked. “What is it?”
“This is the part where if this were a movie, we’d kiss,” said Angry Steve. “You know, before we both go risking our lives.”
“Sorry, kid,” said Tony. “But as much as I’d like to, you’re gonna really have to catch me off guard for that to happen.”
He felt like a little bit like a dirty old man for even considering taking initiative himself, but he wouldn’t exactly complain if Angry Steve tried anything of his own volition.
But he flew toward the dirigible.
“But you would like it?” Angry Steve asked.
“I could drop you right now,” Tony reminded him.
Angry Steve snorted and readied his shield as they drew closer to the dirigible. “Yeah, you know that’s not gonna do anything to me?”
“Go kill some evil doppelgangers, babycakes,” said Tony.
Angry Steve let go of Tony’s waist and slipped onto the roof of the gondola. When his feet were firmly planted, he caught at Tony’s arm. “Stark?” he said, looking up at Tony inquisitively.
“What?” Tony asked.
“I can’t hear you,” Angry Steve said, squinting at him..
Tony popped up his faceplate. “What?” he repeated, squinting back.
Angry Steve tugged Tony down and kissed him, catching at the back of Tony’s neck to pull him in. His lips were warm, rough, and he pressed them roughly to Tony’s mouth, with little finesse, his unshaven skin bristly against Tony’s cheek.
Tony sputtered as Angry Steve let him go, and gave him a triumphant look. “Catch you off guard?” he asked.
“Smartass,” Tony replied. He rubbed a metallic thumb over Angry Steve’s cheek, and kissed him back, briefly, before he dropped his faceplate back into position and took off.
“Oh for gosh sakes” Lego Steve cried from the holster. “Get a room, you two.”
Well, if anything, after all the events of the past day and a half, Tony hardly felt unattractive.
He soared up, over the dirigible, hoping to keep out of sight, trying to get a vantage point of the town through the trees. Another red, white, and blue streak whizzed down to meet him-- the Iron Steve from before.
“Which Steve are you?” Iron Steve asked.
Tony popped his faceplate. “I’m not a Steve at all,” he replied.
“Dorothy Gale from Kansas?” asked Iron Steve.
“Jesus, what is it with you guys and that movie?” Tony asked, but he grinned and lowered the plate again. “How’s it going, Iron Steve?”
“Just fine, Iron Tony,” Iron Steve answered cheerily.
Tony began to explain the plan to Iron Steve when a single Evil Steve was thrown from the gondola of the dirigible.
“Fuck,” Tony said, as he watched that man, with Steve’s face and Steve’s eyes and Steve’s voice plummet downward.
The armor was flying toward the Evil Steve before Tony knew he’d made the decision, and then his arms were around the other man, and the Evil Steve stared at him in surprise. He was pale, so pale, and there was a ruddy scar encircling his throat.
“You okay, Steve?” Tony asked.
The Evil Steve gave him an incredulous look and shook his head, as Tony steadied them both in midair. “I’m going to rip your throat out,” said the Evil Steve, and he bared his teeth-- fangs-- like a dog.
“Yeaaah, I don’t think those can bite through metal, Stevie-boy,” Tony informed him. “Look, I’ve got to keep your asshole friends from killing my not-quite-asshole friends, so I’m gonna have to drop you, but see if you can find an orthodontist Steve around here because you need some pretty serious dental work.”
The Evil Steve frowned, his brow creasing. “Dental w--”
Tony punched him in the mouth. Hard. His head was thrown back, his eyes wide with the shock of the impact.
“Sorry, Steve,” he said, as the Evil Steve’s mouth filled with blood. “But I can’t let you maul anybody.” He lowered the Evil Steve to the ground, popping up his faceplate as the other man stumbled back when his feet hit the sidewalk.
The Evil Steve had his hand to his mouth, catching the blood as he hacked up a broken tooth. “Ddd--ddd--dowy?” he managed, stepping back from Tony.
Tony grinned. “You were expecting another Steve?” he asked cheerfully, before jetting back up toward the dirigible.
“DOWY!” the Evil Steve on the ground shouted, urgently, waving his bloody hands in the air.
But Tony didn’t look back; he zoomed upward just as an enormous shell zipped out of the dirigible, pointing toward the main intersection of town.
“Fuck,” Tony growled, “fuck, fuck, fuck--” He bolted for the bomb, strapping his arms around it as he tried to redirect it upward, out of the atmosphere.
Just as he watched the bomb shoot upward like a rocket, out of sight among the clouds, he heard another loud explosion behind him.
He went cold before he turned; when he did, he saw what he’d feared: the dirigible incinerated, the charred debris of the gondola and the cage plummeting downward.
“STEVE!” Tony screamed. “FRIDAY, find Steve.”
“I’m sorry, Mister Stark; I’m locating two hundred and fifteen Steves within a ten-mile radius of--”
“Angry Steve!” Tony snapped, as he darted in and out among the crashing hunks of burning trash. “I need Angry Steve! He’s like...twenty-seven, big, sulky! And probably somewhere in this mess! He has a sprained wrist and a Lego in his pocket!”
“Hmm--” FRIDAY murmured for a moment. “Yes! Locking on target now!”
His displays lit up, a blue marker where the blue streak that was Angry Steve was falling through the air. Tony zipped toward him, catching him by the arms. The explosion had blackened the scale mail covering his upper half and burned off part of his cowl. He was limp, heavy in Tony’s arms; his eyes were shut.
“Steve,” Tony implored. “Fuck, Steve, come on, you’ve gotta wake up; you’ve gotta--”
It was only when he looked down, scanning the ground for a place to land, that he saw the chaos in the main square of town: the Evil Steves had used the dirigible as a distraction and broken through the gates, swarming in with guns and tanks and more firepower than even a town full of Steve Rogers could withstand.
Tony cringed, his chest feeling oddly empty, and he flew with Angry Steve to what had been a backyard, behind the burnt out shell of a house. He lay him gingerly on the ground, and the sight of him there, bloodied and burned, make Tony’s breath come up short, his eyes sting, his hands shake.
He tugged away what remained of the cowl, and pressed a gauntlet to Angry Steve’s pulse point, just below his jawline. “FRIDAY, I need vi--”
“Alive,” FRIDAY supplied. “Pulse is slow but steady; he’s breathing. Moderate injuries detected, but nothing life-threatening. Brainwave patterns suggest the subject may be concussed.”
“Steve,” Tony urged plaintively. He pulled off a gauntlet, slid his fingers into Angry Steve’s and gave his hand a quick squeeze. “Come on, buddy, wake up. Wake--”
He sucked in a deep breath. “Oh, fuck it,” he said, and kissed Angry Steve on the mouth. Gently, though his pulse raced so fast it felt like his heart might leap out of his chest.
Angry Steve didn’t wake up. Of course he didn’t wake up. “What the fuck did you think this was, Snow White?” Tony asked himself, shaking his head. “Good job, now you’re a creeper.”
But Steve was still out, and the town was still burning, and Tony could hear shouts and screams and artillery and explosions all around them, could feel the vibrations of the battle beneath him. So Tony did the only other thing he could think of, and smacked Angry Steve hard across the cheek with the back of his hand.
There was an audible thwack that made Tony wince, and then Angry Steve’s eyes fluttered.
“Tony?” he mumbled, before his eyes were entirely open.
“Of course that worked,” Tony muttered. “Steve, come on, I need you to--”
But as Angry Steve’s eyes opened, he didn’t smile. Instead, all the color drained from his face and he leapt, unsteadily, to his feet, shoving Tony out of the way, just in time to take a bullet to the shoulder that knocked him back onto the ground.
“Fuck,” Angry Steve groaned.
Tony, meanwhile, hopped back up, whirling toward the source of the shot. “You do realize,” he growled at Angry Steve, “that I am fully protected by a metal suit?”
“Your hand isn’t!” Angry Steve snapped back, pushing himself back to his feet. “Your entire forearm is expo--”
Tony flicked his fingers, calling the gauntlet back to his wrist. “Metal. Suit.”
And then he looked forward, and found himself surrounded by a circle of Evil Steves, Captain Hydra at the center.
He blasted the nearest with his repulsor, and the Evil Steve was launched into the air, flying backward into an azalea shrub. Two of the Evil Steves fired back, bullets pinging off the armor, pitting the beautiful paint job, before Captain Hydra lifted a hand.
“Hold your fire,” said Captain Hydra. “We need this one alive. Take that one.” He pointed at Angry Steve, who pulled his service revolver out of his belt.
“I told you this thing didn’t have enough fucking pouches,” Angry Steve said. “No fucking grenades when you need one.”
One of the Evil Steves leveled a harpoon gun at his head.
“WHY THE FUCK DO YOU HAVE A HARPOON?!” Angry Steve demanded, looking forlornly at his own tiny gun.
Tony looked from the harpoon gun to the prosthetic leg and the eyepatch. “Pretty sure that’s Moby Dick Steve, Steve,” he replied. He grinned at Moby Steve.
Moby Steve snarled back. "Arrr, it be Dread Pirate Rogers t'ye."
“You can say the ‘dick’ part again,” Angry Steve retorted.
But Tony looked back to Captain Hydra. “I’ll go with you,” he said. “Just let him go; he’s not gonna--”
“The hell I’m ‘not gonna’ whatever you said I was ‘not gonna’--” Steve interrupted, but he was interrupted in turn as a repulsor blast from above knocked the harpoon gun out of Moby Dick Steve’s arms. Iron Steve descended, hovering just above the ground, repulsors out and ready to fire again.
At that very moment, a lasso fell over Captain Hydra’s head, tightening around his torso to pull his arms down against his body. Cowboy Steve tugged back, and Captain Hydra fell backward onto the ground.
Captain Hydra snarled. “Kill them!” he ordered. “Just-- kill them all!”
The ring of Evil Steves raised their weapons, and as the first shot went off, Tony heard a voice scream.
It was a familiar voice, too familiar, one he felt like he’d heard every day of his life, but it wasn’t Steve’s. It was masculine, but higher-pitched, the voice of a man who wasn’t six-two and covered in muscles. It was at once plaintive and outraged, and it rang out like it was played over a loudspeaker, echoing off the few remaining buildings.
There was a loud shriek, and suddenly, without warning, Steve Mouser leapt into Tony’s arms.
Tony’s entire body tensed. In the next moment, he realized he couldn’t move; he was frozen in place, paralyzed, and he went cold with panic, but nothing-- nothing moved. He couldn’t fire a repulsor, he couldn’t step forward, couldn’t shield Angry Steve, couldn’t even move his lips to speak. The cat, in his arms, was still as stone.
But then the silence came, and he realized, eyes unable to look anywhere but straight ahead, where they had been fixed as Captain Hydra had shouted out his orders, that no one was moving. Everything was completely still.
And then he felt warm, as a soft, golden glow began to envelop them all.
“Mister Stark?” FRIDAY said into his ear, and it was such a relief, a relief to hear her voice and know she was working, in spite of everything else. “I’m picking up readings...the same readings we were getting in New York just before...”
He could feel his lips trying to move as a single thought ran through his head.
He heard the whirr of a motor, and a chair-- a chair propelled by what looked like the same jet propulsion technology as Tony’s own boots-- lowered itself to the ground, in the midst of the circle.
Kang pushed himself out of the chair, gun mounted on one shoulder, anger in his eyes, his blue skin shiny and mottled.
“I’m going to lift the paralysis field,” he snapped. “And so help me god, if any of you try to kill each other, I’ll send you right back where you came from.”
“Kang!” Tony’s mouth opened belatedly, the words he couldn’t form before blurting from his lips.
Steve Mouser hissed.
And the Evil Steves opened fire, in spite of Kang’s warning.
Kang raised his gun.
There was a huge, blinding blast, and three of the Evil Steves vanished from site.
Tony stumbled back from the light, holding a hand to his eyes, even with the helmet on.
Another Evil Steve fired. He, too, dematerialized before their eyes.
“You know what?” said Kang. “Let me just--”
Tony started at Kang’s speech, this time. He’d lost the formality of his language; he didn’t quite sound like the man who had accosted him back in the lab. Tony was pondering this so deeply that he was taken aback as Kang’s gun let off another blast.
When the light dissipated, the Evil Steves were gone.
“What the hell?” Angry Steve demanded, lurching toward Kang. “That’s what they all want. They’re killers, and you’re giving them what they--”
Kang’s floating chair turned toward Angry Steve. “What they think they want, you mean.”
The Good Steves-- that is, the Steves who had lived in the now-wrecked town-- were slowly making their way to the scene, encircling Tony, and Angry Steve, and Kang from the other side. Tony could hear them murmuring in confusion, and he stepped, slowly, to take his place by Cowboy Steve and Edna, who was picking dried blood out of her hair.
"What the sam-hill is that?" Cowboy Steve asked.
"Definitely not a Steve," Edna replied.
"Pretty sure he's responsible for collecting all of us," Tony replied, scritching Steve Mouser behind the ears. "I mean, you. I was a mistake."
Another Steve approached Kang, hands up, free of weapons. "You can send us home?" He asked.
Kang's blue brow creased, sticky and beaded with sweat. "No," he said shortly. "You don't under--"
"I understand just fine," said the Steve in the overalls, who wasn't so delicate in his approach. He stalked up to Kang, snatched him up by the front of his shirt, and ripped him out of the floating chair. “And you’re gonna send every one of us home or--”
“IF I SEND YOU HOME, YOU’LL DIE!” Kang shouted, his face contorting with distress.
There was a hitch, a break, a crack in his voice, just at the end, just when he said ‘die,’ that made Tony’s heart lurch.
“FRIDAY,” Tony murmured. “FRIDAY, run back that audio.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Angry Steve demanded, stepping up to Farmer Steve, hands on his hips as he glared at Kang.
Kang’s shout replayed in Tony’s ears.
“IF I SEND YOU HOME, YOU’LL DIE.”
“Again, FRIDAY,” Tony instructed, his breath coming shallow now. “Just the ‘die.’”
“The universes-- all our universes--” Kang said, in a wavering tone. “They’re dying. They--”
“DIE!” repeated in Tony’s ears.
“So you kidnapped us?!” another Steve demanded, stepping up alongside Angry Steve. Tony saw the glint of a wedding band on his finger-- Married Steve. “You took us away from our friends and our families, and--”
“Why the fucking hell would you do that?!” Angry Steve demanded, his face going red.
“Because I’m trying to save your lives,” Kang answered hotly, his jaw set at an angle that was, now, all too familiar to Tony, one he’d seen so many times in passing, one--
“You’re not Kang,” said Old Steve. His own tone was quiet, almost sad, compared the the anger of the other Steves.
“He could be Kang from a universe where Kang’s-- I don’t know,” said another Steve. “Good?”
“No,” said Old Steve. “He’s not Kang. I knew he couldn’t be Kang...”
“Mrowl,” said Steve Mouser.
“Who the hell is he, then?” asked Angry Steve.
“FRIDAY,” Tony said. “Ready the frequency to debilitate a photostatic veil?”
“Ready, Mister Stark,” FRIDAY chirped, as Tony stepped up to Kang and set his hand against Kang’s shoulder.
There was a sparking sound, and a screech, and Kang was, for a moment, replaced with static.
“It’s me,” said Tony, just as the static lifted, and another Tony sat in the floating chair.
Tony stared up at his doppelganger, questioning. The other man was younger--and, he hated to admit, prettier, miles prettier, taller, more fit. His face was terrifyingly familiar, apart from the clear blue eyes that stared down, meeting Tony’s brown ones.
“It’s another Tony?” Angry Steve asked. “How--”
But Old Steve’s face was granite, sharp and severe, and he shook his head with a derisive curl to his lip. “How could you do this?” he demanded, his voice so calm it seemed chilling.
The blue-eyed Tony held his hands up. “Do-- Steve, I’m saving your life. And all-- all of you.”
Old Steve’s nostrils flared. “Send me home.”
“Steve--” Blue-Eyed Tony implored.
“Now.” said Old Steve.
“Does anyone here wanna explain what’s going on?” Tony asked. “No?”
“No,” snapped Blue-Eyed Tony. “You asked me what my plan was, you asked me for my contingency, you beat me bloody twice for keeping things from you. Sorry, Steve, I’ve done it again.”
Old Steve punched Blue-Eyed Tony in the nose.
Blue-Eyed Tony flew backward, but even as he did, an armor so perfect, so sleek-- organic, even-- slid over his skin. He landed with a clang on his back, and the faceplate of his armor slid away.
Tony stepped toward him, marveling at the suit, struck with both awe and fear in the face of this version of himself.
And Blue-Eyed Tony grinned, a stunning, shining, white-toothed movie star grin, and his eyes twinkled.
“Oops,” said Blue-Eyed Tony, and he picked himself back up to his feet, dusted himself off. “Good to see you, too.”
Old Steve crossed his arms over his chest, looked impassively at Blue-Eyed Tony, and then turned to Actual Tony. Tony was allowed to call himself that in his head, wasn’t he? As long as he didn’t slip and say it out loud, this time, he decided.
“Our worlds are under threat,” Old Steve said. “Mister Stark’s actions in the name of saving ours have been unconscionable.”
“Bullshit,” said Blue-Eyed Tony. “I’m the only one of any of you with anything like a real conscience. Just because you don’t like what has to be done--”
Steve Mouser hissed again, his hair standing on end.
“You want to be a coward and save your own skin, fine,” Old Steve growled. “But me? I’m going down with the ship, so to speak.”
Blue-Eyed Tony laughed, tipping his head back, cackling, uncontrollably-- the way Tony knew he only laughed when he was trying to hide something, when he was really in pain.
“You don’t--” Blue-Eyed Tony shook his head. “You don’t get it, do you?” he asked. “I’m not staying. I’m going back, and I’ll be damned if I don’t find a way to fix this. You? You stay.”
Blue-Eyed Tony’s expression was strained, his eyes glistening. “You stay safe till I can fix this.”
“They’ll know,” said Old Steve. “They knew where I was going. They’ll put two and two together. When I don’t come back.”
“You died,” Blue-Eyed Tony said, impassively, crossing his arms over his chest. “You died courageously, as the world burned around us. I took everyone here out of their timelines at just the right moment, just when someone might think they’d died, just so no one would know. I’m not letting it happen, Steve. You don’t--”
And his voice hitched again, no matter how poised he looked on the outside. “You don’t die on me again.”
Old Steve froze in place, looking like he’d been hit. “What?” he whispered.
Blue-Eyed Tony shook his head. “You live. You have to live. I can’t lose you again.” He bit his lip, then looked out at the sea of Steves. “I can’t lose any of you, do you understand?”
Angry Steve stepped back next to Tony, gave him a questioning look.
Tony shrugged, helplessly, and pet Steve Mouser. “I don’t know any more than you do,” he said quietly. “But if it were me--” His vision swam with images of Steve dying, all over again, and he shuddered. “Yeah,” he said. “I’d do the same thing.”
“I’m going back with you,” said a voice from the crowd. Blue-Eyed Tony looked up, and Lonely Steve stepped forward.
“What?” asked Blue-Eyed Tony.
“You said it’s all our universes,” said Lonely Steve. “So let’s save them all.”
“It doesn’t work like that!” answered Blue-Eyed Tony. “Some of them are already gone. We’re-- they’re colliding with each other, we can’t save them--”
“When the fuck,” asked Angry Steve. “Has Tony Stark ever said ‘can’t?’ I already died to save my world twice. If you’re telling me it’s in danger again, hell-- I’ll do it five more times, even. Besides,” he added, shooting a small smile at Tony before he looked back at Blue-Eyed Tony. “I got somebody I need to see about a thing.”
“None--” Blue-Eyed Tony’s voice broke again. “None of you are going anywhere. I need you to be safe. Do you know how hard it was to--”
“I don’t give a damn what you need,” said Married Steve. “I need to be with my wife.”
“Your wife?” Blue-Eyed Tony asked.
“You, you idiot!” Married Steve bellowed. “I’m married to your goddamn counterpart; you’ve taken all of us away from your counterparts. Did it ever occur to you in a million years that if you wanted to protect us so bad, we might want to do the same?”
But Blue-Eyed Tony wasn’t looking at Married Steve. His eyes were locked on Old Steve. “You don’t understa--”
“Maybe they don’t,” said Tony. “But I do.”
Blue-Eyed Tony sucked in a deep breath. “You were never supposed to be here.”
Tony shrugged. “Oops?” He stepped closer, cautiously, still stroking the cat. “But I am. And it’s not-- look, if there’s one lesson I’ve learned, it’s that we don’t get to make these decisions for people. You try to keep people safe without their permission, you end up hurting somebody. We have to--”
“I need to prove to him,” said Blue-Eyed Tony, an urgent desperation in his voice. “I need to prove I’m--”
Steve Mouser hissed again.
“Then let him go,” Tony answered. He gave Steve Mouser one more scritch.
"Distraction," he whispered to the cat, and then dropped the cat.
Steve Mouser leapt at Blue-Eyed Tony’s face, baring his claws, and in that instant, Tony wrenched the gun from his arms, and turned it on his doppelganger.
“That’s it,” said Tony. “I’m sending everybody home.”
Blue-Eyed Tony hissed at the clawmarks down his cheek, and held his palm up against them, even as Steve Mouser preened, sitting on his haunches on the ground. “If you send them home, they’ll die.”
“Maybe,” said Tony. “And maybe so will we. But it’ll be their choice.”
Blue-Eyed Tony shook his head, stepping back, looking impossibly sad. “You don’t know what it was like, to be left alone, to--”
“Yeah, I kinda do,” Tony replied, nodding at the circle of Steves. “You leave them here, they will, too. And I wouldn’t wish that feeling on any of them.”
He held up the gun. “We’re going home,” he announced. “Who’s first?”
Angry Steve, Lonely Steve, Blue-Eyed Tony, and Old Steve waited until the last. Tony nodded to Old Steve and Blue-Eyed Tony. “You next.”
“I’m last,” said Blue-Eyed Tony. “I need to take the gun with me.”
“Bullshit,” said Angry Steve. “You haven’t earned enough trust to keep the gun. I say it stays with Tony. Uh--” He pointed, with his elbow, at Tony. “That Tony.”
“He has a point,” said Old Steve.
“You can trust me,” Blue-Eyed Tony implored.
“No,” said Old Steve. “I can’t.”
Blue-Eyed Tony shrank away a little, glancing down. “Please,” he implored. “It might be the last goddamn night of our lives, just-- give me a chance?”
Old Steve shook his head. “No more chances, Tony. You run over all the chances you get.”
Blue-Eyed Tony winced. “But we were married,” he said. “In that other world. I didn’t think we could-- there has to be some way, some way we can--”
“I’m not going to listen any--” Old Steve said gruffly.
And Blue-Eyed Tony bit his lip, and drew in a deep breath. “What if I listen?”
“What?” asked Old Steve.
“What if I listen? To you?”
Old Steve watched him for a very long time, and then gave a curt nod. “Maybe,” he answered quietly. “Maybe then.”
Blue-Eyed Tony held out a hand to Old Steve. “Ready?”
Old Steve looked at the hand as if it might leap out and bite him, but then, after another moment, he took it, tentatively. “Ready as I’ll ever be,” he said, with a shake of his head. “I don’t know how the hell I’m going to explain this to the others.”
Old Steve nodded to Tony, and tossed him a little salute. Tony aimed the gun, and shot, and the two men disappeared, vanishing in silhouette, into the bright light before them.
Tony shivered, swallowed, and looked to Angry Steve. “You next,” he said.
“I--” Angry Steve started, stepping forward.
Tony raised an eyebrow in warning. “No kissing.”
“”Fuck you, Stark,” said Angry Steve.
“Oh, come on,” said Tony, jostling Angry Steve with his elbow. “You’ve got your own back there waiting for you.”
“Maybe,” Angry Steve said. “If our world hasn’t been devoured, or blown to smithereens.”
Tony offered him a small smile. “You want a hug?”
Angry Steve snorted, and rolled his eyes. And then, after a moment, rubbed at his forearms, and looked sheepishly away. “Maybe,” he answered.
Angry Steve was so huge next to Tony that Tony was completely lost in the enormous bear hug he received. He gave Angry Steve a playful punch, and stepped back.
“Bye, Kid,” he said, raising the gun.
“Don’t call me Kid,” Angry Steve answered, but he was smiling as he said it.
Tony shut his eyes as he pulled the trigger; he couldn’t quite bring himself to watch him go.
When he opened his eyes, Lonely Steve was the only Steve left.
“All right,” said Tony. “It’s just you and me. I--”
“Thanks,” said Lonely Steve. “I mean...for everything.”
Tony tipped his head to one side. “You know why I saved you for last, yeah?”
“Yeah,” said Lonely Steve, and he held out his hands. “Somebody has to send you home.”
“And I saw that other version of me,” Tony admitted. “I don’t think I should trust myself with the gun.”
“I don’t know if I should trust myself with the gun,” Lonely Steve replied, but he took it from Tony nonetheless. “I’m not enough steps removed from where he is. I could see myself doing the same thing in desperation.”
Lonely Steve weighed the gun in his hands, holding it reverently. “He could have saved everyone,” he said, shaking his head. “Moved everyone from his world, if it was in danger, but instead--”
“Yeah,” Tony said. “I know. I don’t know how those two got that way, but goddamn, I hope they work their shit out.”
Lonely Steve smiled at that. “It would be nice if someone did.”
He pointed the gun at Tony, and pulled the trigger.
Tony landed with a thud, face down, hands pressed against the cold tile floor of the lab. The helmet clinked as it hit the floor beside him.
"I've got to...like, install a heating system in the floor," he muttered, pushing himself up.
It was dark-- nighttime, and Tony wondered how long he’d been gone. The lights were off; there were no sounds.
Well. There was one sound.
Someone was snoring.
Tony pushed himself up, squinting in the dim light until he found the source of the snores. He stepped over to the chair at his own workstation, hesitating to wake the sleeping figure.
“Steve?” he murmured. “Hey, Steve, buddy.”
Steve blinked awake, always a light sleeper, and shook the sleep from his eyes. He looked up, and his mouth fell open.
“Tony?” he whispered, still quiet, as if he might wake someone up, even though they were the only two there.
“Yeah, Steve,” said Tony. “Yeah, it’s--”
Steve shot up from his seat and embraced him, tightly, and Tony stepped back, surprised.
“Sorry,” said Steve. “Sor--”
“No,” Tony replied, and he hugged Steve back. ‘Don’t be.”
And when Steve didn’t let him go, he stayed very still. “I thought you were--” Steve started.
Tony nodded. “I know,” he said. “I know what that’s like. What are you--” He glanced around the dark room. “Doing down here?”
“Well,” said Steve, “I’d said ‘I couldn’t sleep,’ but I obviously fell asleep, so let’s just say--”
“You missed me?” Tony asked, with a lopsided grin.
Steve snorted. “Don’t push your luck.”
Tony laughed, and shook his head, and wavered a little where he stood, and all of a sudden he remembered that he still hadn’t eaten.
“Hey,” he said to Steve. “Hey, how do you feel about dinner?”
“Dinner?” Steve asked, looking a little perplexed. “It’s...generally a meal I enjoy?”
“I mean getting dinner. Right now.”
“Tony,” said Steve. “I hate to break it to you, but it’s two in the morning.”
“Didn’t you have all-night diners in the forties?” Tony asked.
Steve rolled his eyes. “We had all-night everything, and furthermore, may I remind you that I’ve been here for three years now. I am aware of the concept.”
“Good,” Tony said. “Get your jacket.”
Steve paused for a moment, tilting his head, as if considering. “Fine,” he said. “You just-- fine…” He started toward the door.
Tony waited until Steve was halfway out before he turned and shouted after him.
“Your nice jacket! It’s a date!”
The door swung shut behind Steve. Tony crossed his arms and watched the door for a count of three, four, five…
And it opened again. Steve poked his head in, with the wide eyes of a deer caught in headlights. “A wh--” he started, but then he looked tentatively at Tony, and the corners of his eyes softened, and he cut himself off. “Nice jacket,” he echoed, his voice sounding uncharacteristically meek. “Got it.”
And then the door shut again. Tony felt his cheeks go warm, rubbed a hand over his face, and looked down at the floor, entirely too pleased with himself.
He sucked in a deep breath, and slid his hands into his pockets.
One of them hit something small, flexible, triangular and plastic, not unlike a guitar pick.
“Shit,” Tony murmured, as he closed his hand around the disk.