The sky was red.
That was just about all Steve really saw. A red sky the color of blood, and, coming ever closer, the looming specter of the other Earth that would spell their doom.
He didn’t really hear the screaming and panicking of the people around him. That had been tuned out half an hour into the fighting against the heroes of that other world. Heroes who were just desperate as they were and actually in possession of an Infinity Gauntlet that hadn’t shattered. Heroes with an Iron Man and a Captain America working side by side as if nothing had ever come between them.
The Iron Man’s suit was painted red and gold, familiar colors that blended in with the red sky above them. It was a stark contrast to the bright silver of Tony’s – Stark’s – new suit. Steve almost preferred the old suit to that of Stark’s new one, even though the red color reminded him of the death looming over them all.
Steve liked to think of himself as an optimist. He always tried to see a solution, a way out of the worst situations. But, try as he might, he couldn’t think of an escape for this.
Communication lines were down, and he hadn’t heard anything but the sounds of his team fighting for what seemed like an age. There was no sign of the Illuminati beyond Stark, and he wasn’t pulling out a destructive weapon like Steve would have expected him to.
Maybe the other team had something already planted on Steve’s Earth. Maybe they were buying time until it could be activated.
Steve didn’t know, and it didn’t seem likely that he would find out. He’d been shot a few minutes ago, the firepower ripping right through his suit and tearing a hole through him. He couldn’t stop the bleeding, and he didn’t really care enough to try, all his energy leaking out through the hole in his abdomen.
Repulsor fire sounded above him, and Steve could see Stark’s flashy new suit veering away from the other Iron Man, outpacing the other relatively easily. He closed his eyes to the sight, but the red light of the sky seeped in through his eyelids, painting his whole world red.
It hadn’t been supposed to end this way. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. They should have found a way out – found a way to stop the incursions and save the world. Even the Avengers World that Tony – Stark, damn it – had helped put together hadn’t been enough. Not the way it should have been.
They had always been missing a crucial piece.
Heaving in a painful breath, Steve slumped against the side of a building, feeling the warmth of his blood seep through his gloves.
This shouldn’t have happened. It shouldn’t have.
And Steve didn’t know where it had gone so wrong. Why Stark had betrayed his trust and wiped his memories, destroying whole worlds because he couldn’t look for an alternative. Why Stark had lied to his face for months, pretending everything was fine when things were falling to pieces around them.
He tasted blood on his tongue, heard a furious scream from someone he didn’t recognize.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
All he wanted was to make it right. Fix it.
Because that was what they did.
Breathing, Steve opened his eyes, saw the chilling sight of the other Earth swallowing up the red sky, and closed them again.
There was an orange glow behind his eyelids, a familiar, eerie orange that Steve had seen several times before.
But that wasn’t possible, because they’d all been destroyed. He’d destroyed them trying to push back another universe.
The orange glow faded slightly, washing out to the regular black of his eyelids.
It wasn’t red.
Eyes snapping open, Steve looked up at a bedroom ceiling he hadn’t seen in a long time. Jolting upright, Steve’s eyes went to the window, but there were only the lights of the city. There was no screaming, and if he craned his ears, he could hear cars.
Like it had been before the incursions.
Which made no sense, because there had been no sign of it becoming peaceful anytime soon given the end of the world had been nigh.
Heaving a stressed groan, Steve rubbed his face, trying to think. That orange glow he’d seen before waking had been the time gem, but that didn’t make any sense. The Infinity Gems were gone – destroyed. Steve had seen it happen with his own eyes – had caused their destruction – however inadvertently it had been.
Or had that all been a dream? Everything that happened? Stark erasing his memories? Universes threatening to wipe each other out?
He had been in the middle of a battlefield scant minutes ago, bleeding out and the sounds of fighting in his ears. The sky had been blood red, and Steve clearly remembered an enormous Earth looming over them all, about to collide with their own and wipe two universes out of existence. It seemed too real to be a dream.
Everything was fine here.
Pinching himself just to be sure, Steve went over to the window, needing to see. When he opened the curtains, all he saw was the night sky, shrouded in the hazy light that was New York’s light pollution. The view was dizzying, exactly the one he remembered from Stark’s tower.
It must have been a dream. There was no other explanation for it, because anything else was so outlandish as to be improbable, given that the Infinity Gems had been destroyed. Supposedly.
If that had been a dream, then they were still around.
Sinking down to sit on his bed, Steve considered the possibilities. He wasn’t psychic, but that didn’t rule out the possibility of that having been a clairvoyant dream – something that would happen if he didn’t change things.
But where was he? When?
Steve couldn’t remember, and he should be able to if that had been a dream. A very realistic and long dream.
Exhaling slowly, Steve ran a hand over his face. He was a tactician; he could figure this out. He could plan what his next move should be.
First, he had to gather information. He couldn’t do anything without knowing when he was and who was around.
That he was in Stark’s tower meant that the mansion had been destroyed.
The actual event had been so long ago that Steve barely even felt a pang about the event. Times had been simpler then – happier – but still not perfect.
No, even then Stark had been disinclined to listen to Steve, going off on his own and even going so far as to incapacitate Steve during that one time with his armors.
Forcefully relaxing his jaw, Steve took a deep breath, refocusing on the task at hand. That was the past, and he couldn’t do anything about it.
But…he was in the past now, wasn’t he? If that hadn’t been a dream.
Which he still wasn’t sure about. It had felt so damn real, but traveling back in time was ridiculous.
Utterly. Even with the help of the time gem, because time simply wasn’t that flexible. Steve had been through enough to know that. Even if the future was fluid, the past wasn’t. Not like that.
Shaking his head, Steve turned his back to the window. He needed to get out of this room, see what was what, and figure out what his next move should be.
If it had been a dream…
Steve resolved to cross that bridge when he came to it.
The lights of the hallways were dim as Steve walked through them, taking the familiar path to the kitchen with soft steps. It was the middle of the night, but sleepless nights were nothing new to him. Every Avenger struggled with nightmares or insomnia.
And if so many soft-spoken conversations and gentle, friendly touches had happened in the dark of night, when such things could be better forgotten and brushed aside in the light of day, Steve refused to think of them. Because the man who had been the other half of those conversations didn’t deserve to be remembered like that.
Not after everything he had done.
Of course, as Steve’s luck would have it, he saw the other man’s familiar figure in the kitchen, lurking by the coffee machine. It took him a moment to register it, and only a moment because it had been so long since he had seen Stark in anything other than a suit, but he would still recognize that figure anywhere.
He wasn’t ready for this. Rage still kindled in Steve’s chest when he saw Stark, and while he would like nothing more than to spit vitriol at him, this wasn’t the time for that.
Steve half-turned, about to leave, but then Stark saw him, glancing over his shoulder. Freezing in place, Steve saw a small smile pull at Stark’s lips, genuine and real like nothing else Steve had seen in so long. The last smile he had seen Stark wear was mocking and cruel, nothing like the man he had grown to know.
But then he hadn’t known Stark, Steve reminded himself. He never had. Because the man Steve had grown to know and cherish as a dear friend would never have wiped his mind and lied to his face about it while building devastating bombs.
“Cap.” Stark’s tone was gentle, fond, and Steve’s traitorous heart trembled in chest to hear it. “Can’t sleep?”
It took Steve a few seconds to respond in a carefully neutral voice. “Something like that.”
“We all have those nights,” Stark continued, turning his head back to the coffee machine and hiding that smile in the shadows. Steve breathed a little easier now, only for his breath to freeze again as Stark added, “Coffee?” He tilted his head back to Steve, smiling lopsidedly as he held up a familiar mug.
It was the one Steve tended to drink out of.
How many times had he used that mug while drinking something together with Tony in the middle of the night?
“Steve?” Stark was frowning now, concern written all over his face. “Are you all right?”
Finding his voice, Steve answered tightly, “I’m fine. I – I have something I need to do.” And, with only a small smidgen of guilt, Steve slipped away, leaving Stark alone in the dark kitchen and his false promises of friendship and warmth.
Through sheer luck and no small amount of skill, Steve managed to avoid running into anyone else and possibly risk worrying them with his bewilderment. He did have a run-in with Jarvis, but all the man did was nod amiably at Steve and continue about his way, carefully carrying a potted plant.
Once he retreated to his room, Steve took out a sheet of paper and a pencil and began jotting down everything he had noticed and what he could remember of the unusually realistic dream he’d had.
It was a lot more than what he would have expected of a dream, especially since so much of it was still so vividly clear in his head. It was a point towards none of it having been a dream to begin with, but Steve wasn’t holding out hope for unexpected time travel until something definite happened.
The date on his phone claimed he was several years in the past, and it was a year that he vividly remembered. If only because things had shattered irreparably between him and Tony during this time.
Drawing a circle around the date, Steve tapped the lead of the pencil against the paper, wondering if he was missing anything. It had been that orange glow that was doubtlessly the cause of this, because everything had been red. Not orange.
Reaching up to pinch the bridge of his nose, Steve wondered what would change if it was true that the time gem had been involved. The Infinity Gems didn’t come without a catch, even if they were all-powerful and some of the oldest forces in the universe.
But he wasn’t sure that the time gem had been involved. It was a guess at best.
Really, he should go back to bed and see if he woke up here or in that world he’d left behind. If it was still there. It was possible that this was a hallucination concocted by his dying mind.
Which felt pretty damn real. Steve pinched himself one more time out of habit, lips twitching in a small smile when nothing changed.
Folding up the sheet of paper he’d written on, Steve looked out the window.
If this was fake – a dream – then chances were that something was out of the ordinary somewhere. He should go outside, see what he could find out.
Steve told himself he wasn’t avoiding Stark. It wasn’t avoiding if he had things to do.
There was nothing suspicious about New York City beyond it being New York City and Steve stopping a regular mugging before it got too far. Spider-Man swung over his head at one point, and Steve spent maybe a minute too long staring after him and marveling at the normalcy of it.
It had been quite a long time since he’d seen Peter Parker just being Spider-Man, taking care of the citizens of New York.
Everything else was also entirely normal, and Steve could scarcely believe it. He could still remember the sky being blood red, people screaming, and the sounds of desperate fighting. The most vivid sound was still the repulsor fire, even though that had only been a small part of the battle.
Rubbing the side of his head, Steve refocused on the present. He couldn’t afford to lose it in a flashback here in public. It was one thing to lose it in his room, but he couldn’t do it out here. It would definitely let everyone know something was up.
It wasn’t like he was fine. There was entire sense of everything being wrong, and his skin kept prickling uncomfortably now that he was out in the open. Being out in the open hadn’t exactly been the safest place for a while, and Steve wasn’t inclined to let his guard down anytime soon.
He had no idea when the hammer would fall, but chances were that it would be sometime soon. That was just his luck.
Mouth thinning, Steve began the trek back to the tower, hoping that he wouldn’t run into Stark again. Once was more than enough, and he couldn’t be sure of his reaction to Stark trying to be friendly with him.
Not after what he had seen Stark do to countless civilians. Not after what Stark had done to him.
Shoulders tightening, Steve grit his jaw, shoving his hands into his pockets. He could never forget that. Never forget the utter betrayal and anger that had suffused him after he remembered what Stark had done to him.
Even now it threatened to make him see red and lose it.
So, no, he couldn’t see Stark right now.
Maybe the tower wasn’t even the best place for him right now. Stopping at an intersection, Steve considered other places he could possibly spend the night without it seeming too out of character.
He wasn’t too sure where Bucky was at this point, and while Peter had his own place, Steve had never actually dropped by with the intention of spending the night. While MJ would have let him do so without blinking an eye, Peter would likely ask him just why he wanted to spend the night in a “shady apartment when you have a cool place with Tony.”
Besides…Steve wasn’t a coward.
He could handle being around Stark for as long as it took him to figure this out.
The next two days, Steve managed to maneuver his routine around Stark’s, mainly by working out in the gym or checking up on the other Avengers in residence. Jarvis occasionally gave him a curious eye when running into Steve in the kitchen at odd hours, but thankfully he didn’t say anything beyond drawing Steve into idle chatter about current news and how the Avengers were faring.
Steve hadn’t made any progress on figuring out what was going on. He couldn’t yet decide whether this was a hallucination or real and what that dream – future – had been.
In the end, the matter was taken out of his hands by an anonymous tip about a meeting.
After, Steve couldn’t quite say what had transpired between leaving the site and heading back to the tower to debrief. All he knew was that everything he’d tried – any hope he’d had at changing the outcome of Stamford – had utterly failed because he’d been too slow. Too slow, too stupid, and too incapable of thinking outside the box.
If this had happened to Stark, then he would’ve known from the get-go what was happening. That he was in the past and that he could change the future.
But not Steve. No. He was too slow. It was no wonder that Stark had deemed him a liability and had his mind wiped.
What could he do when it came to the world’s best minds?
Setting his shield down, Steve sat heavily in his armchair, tugging his cowl off and running a hand through his hair, pulling sharply at the strands.
Stamford had happened again. This was…this was SHRA all over.
Steve hadn’t known last time that SHRA had been the endgame for the government, but he knew now. That the fight at Stamford had happened exactly how he remembered it in the dream, down to the last detail and the anonymous tip at the beginning, meant that his dream hadn’t really been one after all.
It had all happened, and now Steve was about to relive it all again.
Or maybe he could fix it. Maybe he could stop it before it got so bad.
There were so many things he could stop if he played his cards right.
But only if he managed to get through this alive. Dying hadn’t been fun last time, and he had no intention of dying again and being dragged through time as a ghost.
Which all meant he needed to do something.
It all came back to Stark again, didn’t it?
Try as he might, Steve couldn’t think of a way to resolve this without talking to him. It was possible that he could try and talk Stark around to his way, cut off all the fighting before it started.
It wasn’t something Steve could see working, not with how obstinate Stark had been last time. Not with his memories of what Stark had turned into.
But…that wasn’t Stark now. He hadn’t seen Stark smile like that at him in so long. Free of guilt, free of dark memories, and free of the strain their relationship had been under since their civil war. His eyes had been clear and human, not the Extremis-blue that they had been the last time Steve had seen under the mask.
This was Stark as Steve wanted to remember him. This was the Stark he had befriended and fought so hard to help. This was the Stark that had made it so extraordinarily difficult for Steve to fight against him.
Steve could try it now. Could try to change the course of history. With Stark on his side, they could do it.
They could take down SHRA and prepare for the eventual battle ahead of them.
Clenching his gloved hands into fists, Steve took a fortifying breath.
Decision made, Steve sought out Stark, knowing exactly where he would be found. After such a horrific fight, Stark would take refuge in his workshop, the one place where he was truly in his element.
Hesitating slightly in front of the doors, Steve bit the inside of his cheek and punched in the code that he still remembered after all this time. Stark hadn’t locked it, so they slid open without a sound, letting Steve into the familiar space.
It was quiet, empty of the noise that usually filled it as Stark worked. Stark was standing in front of red and gold suit he had been wearing earlier, head buried in his hands. The yellow undersuit covered his body, the one that left nothing to the imagination.
A few seconds later, Steve realized his eyes had gone wandering and he jerked them back to the back of Stark’s head, mentally scolding himself. He couldn’t afford such a distraction.
“Are you going to keep standing there?” Stark murmured a minute later, startling Steve out of the silence he had fallen into. “Grab a seat, Cap.” He turned his head, giving Steve a pained smile that disappeared as quickly as it had appeared.
Steve didn’t take a seat, but he did step closer to Stark, taking a breath. Then, he said in a low voice, “We need to talk.”
Sighing, Stark turned fully to Steve, looking exhausted. “I’m not really in the mood to rehash what just happened. I thought it was pretty self-explanatory.”
Steve’s jaw tightened, fury rising in him despite his prior promise to himself that he would keep calm. He couldn’t lose it here, but he was so…
How could Stark keep quiet on what he knew would happen now?
“We need to talk about—” Steve’s voice dried up in this throat, the words cutting off with no warning.
“Steve?” Stark sounded concerned.
But Steve wasn’t looking at him. All his attention was on the spectral apparition that had appeared behind Stark. It was Stark – not the Tony Stark from now, but Stark – in his flashy silver suit and blue eyes that were too electric to be human. He looked horrible, blood, both dry and fresh, covering his skin and matting his hair to his scalp; there were dark shadows under his eyes, and his suit looked dented and dinged up to hell.
“Steve?” the Stark who wasn’t a ghostly apparition asked again, mouth twisting in concern. “Do you…” He huffed, the sound containing no amusement. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
The spectral Stark – the one Steve remembered from the future – grinned at Steve, the sight grisly. “Yeah, Steve,” he drawled, fingers tapping against the shiny metal of his armor.
Forcing himself to take a deep breath and pull his eyes away from the sight of the Stark that he had left behind in the future, Steve looked at the current Stark, blue eyes soft and skin glowing with life. He looked worried for Steve, eyes crinkled in concern. The only smiles Steve had seen from him were gentle and real, nothing like the macabre grin the ghostly Stark was sporting.
“It’s nothing,” Steve managed, keeping his eyes off the ghostly Stark. But he couldn’t blot out the cruel laugh, not without covering his ears.
“Go on and lie,” the ghostly Stark said, drifting behind the other one and looking Steve in the eye. “Lie to his face. Tell him everything’s fine, when you’re really planning on pulling his world down around his ears.” His lips pulled into a mocking sneer.
That wasn’t true. It wasn’t true at all.
All Steve wanted was to stop Stark. Stop him and make him realize that what he was doing with SHRA was wrong. Get Stark on his side so that they could work together and fix this.
“Okay.” Stark clearly looked unconvinced at Steve’s feeble attempt at lying, but thankfully let it pass. “What did you want to talk about?”
SHRA, Steve wanted to say, but didn’t.
Why didn’t you trust me? he wanted to ask, but didn’t.
How could you betray me? was definitely not something he would ever say, even though it was something that he had continually wondered after remembering that Stark had condoned his mind wipe – had agreed with destroying whole worlds instead of pursuing a moral solution.
“What we need to do now,” Steve said instead, looking down at his hands. It was better than looking at Stark and seeing the ghostly version of him behind his frame, sneering at Steve over Stark’s shoulders. “After what just happened.”
“Ah.” Stark’s voice was low, and despite himself, Steve looked up to see him folding in on himself. “What about it?”
“What about it?” Steve burst out before he could stop, his voice sharper than he’d intended. Stark flinched back, eyes wide in shock. “Are you going to lie to my face about this? Again?”
“Are you going to punch him in the face, too?” the ghostly Stark asked mockingly, stepping around his present self and coming closer to Steve, who couldn’t move away. “You should, you know.” The corner of his mouth was curled in a smirk. “He’s been sitting on this for a long time.”
Steve remembered a talk he and Tony had in the ruins of the mansion – a talk that had come to blows because it had been too late. Tony had tried then to convince Steve that the government had been going to implement Project Wideawake, even though it was morally reprehensible and no one would have stood for it.
“Lie to you about what?” Stark sounded bewildered, but there was a faint flash of guilt that Steve didn’t miss, not with how attuned he was to Stark’s body language.
“The Superhuman Registration Act,” Steve snapped, watching with vindictive satisfaction as Stark blanched. “Unmasking superheroes and putting their identities out there for all to see. Invading privacy and stopping them from doing their jobs.”
“How did you—?” Stark broke off, apparently realizing that it was the wrong question to ask.
“I know,” Steve said before Stark could continue lying or making excuses. “Were you ever going to tell me?” He already knew the answer, but he wanted to hear Stark say it. Here where Steve could ascertain whether it was a fool’s dream or even possible to work together.
Wetting his lips, Stark held Steve’s eyes, not looking away. “You’re already more reasonable than I expected you’d be after hearing about it.”
“That wasn’t an answer.”
Grimacing, Stark ran a hand through his hair, leaving it sticking up in all directions.
“You really like torturing yourself, don’t you?” the ghostly Stark said acerbically, sitting on a table, arms folded across his chest. “Go on and ask what you already know the answer to.”
Ignoring the hallucination, Steve kept his focus on Stark, who looked torn.
“I wanted to,” Stark said eventually.
It was more of an answer Steve had expected. “How long did you know?”
This time the response was so quiet that Steve almost missed it. “It was always coming.”
It was the same answer Stark had given him before when he’d gone on that spiel about seeing the future and knowing this was inevitable, that this was necessary. “So you’ve always known.”
“The future can’t change,” the ghostly Stark remarked, eyes cool. “No matter what you try.”
Steve bit back the instinctive “Watch me” that sprang to his lips, forcing himself to focus only on the Stark in front of him. The one that wasn’t covered in blood and a hallucination brought on by Steve’s mind.
“They already tried this before,” Stark said. “The Mutant Registration Act was a precursor to this. It was going to happen again, one way or another. After everything that’s happened…” The smile that appeared looked so painful Steve wanted to wince. “This was just the last straw.” Looking off to the side, Stark’s voice dropped again as he said, “I was at D.C. not long ago to see what I could do to head it off. After this…I suppose I’ll need to go there again.” The grimace on his face said exactly what he thought of that.
Blinking, Steve reran that through his head. “What?”
“Surprised?” the ghostly Stark mocked. “What – did you think I wanted a fight? Get off your high horse, Rogers.”
“It’s never going to work,” Stark said, meeting Steve’s eyes again. “That much power in their hands…it’d be catastrophic, Steve. Don’t get me wrong. We do need to be held accountable for our actions, but not like that.”
Steve remembered Stark being so uncompromising, so steadfast in his belief that he was right. It was difficult to believe that Stark was actually telling him the truth.
But Steve knew how Stark looked when he lied, and Stark looked nothing but painfully earnest, which was a change from how he had looked in the months Steve remembered from the future.
It was easy enough to remember, what with that Stark sitting on a table in plain view, that superior smirk on his face, eyes glinting eerily.
“I wouldn’t have thought you’d say that,” Steve said finally.
“I didn’t want to keep it from you,” Stark started.
“But you did,” Steve interrupted him. “You should’ve come to me with this before—”
“And have you brush me off?” Stark’s nostrils flared. “I had no proof. Just suspicions, math, and dumped files. Have you heard of Project Wideawake?”
Steve’s heart skipped a beat at the name. “I might have.”
“Then you know what they’re considering with this bill,” Stark said.
“The public wouldn’t let that stand—”
“The public is terrified of us.” Stark inhaled sharply. “Fear tends to let a lot of things slide.”
“But you’d know nothing of fear, would you?” the ghostly Stark mocked. “Captain America, the man without fear and the man without reason. Are you even listening to him, Rogers? Or are you too mired in your own self-righteousness to understand?”
Steve glared at the ghostly Stark before he could stop himself. He barely noticed Stark’s flinch at the vicious glare, his attention on the ghostly Stark’s gleeful smirk before he fizzled into nothingness, leaving nothing but empty space where he had been sitting.
“Steve?” Stark sounded tentative.
Heaving in an upset breath, Steve looked back at Stark, swallowing down the anger bubbling in him. It wasn’t this Stark he was angry at, and he had no idea what had happened to the other Stark, or why he had even shown up to begin with.
He wasn’t prone to hallucinations, not like Stark.
It took Steve a few too seconds too long to remember what Stark had last said. “Fear makes us do a lot of things,” he said finally, “but the one thing we can’t let it do is compromise our values.”
Stark didn’t meet Steve’s eyes, shoulders tight. “I hope you’re right” he said wearily. “I really hope you are.”
Taking a breath, Steve forced himself to reach out and touch Stark on the shoulder like he would have if they were still friends. At the touch of fingers on his shoulder, Stark looked up, faintly bewildered and slightly…hopeful?
“We can do this,” Steve promised, because he wouldn’t let this happen again. He wouldn’t let it fall apart like it had last time.
“Well, if Captain America says we can, I suppose it’s true.” Stark grinned, looking at Steve with such trust and fondness that it took his breath away.
Not saying anything, Steve managed a smile, nodding once. He would damn well make sure it happened, no matter what Stark tried.
It wasn’t until Steve was back in his room that he allowed himself to panic, wondering just what the hell had happened. He had seen…another Stark. The one who liked to call himself “superior.” But it wasn’t the Stark he had seen last.
That Stark had been in a shiny suit and firing repulsor blast after blast at the other Iron Man.
This Stark had been bleeding and banged up nine ways to hell. It was difficult to believe considering the way Extremis now healed all his wounds.
Steve wasn’t prone to hallucinations, but the fact that he’d seen that Stark was no point in his favor. But then…wouldn’t he have seen Stark the way he remembered him? Pristine and unblemished?
Not…like the Stark who was now in his room, lying on his bed with an eyebrow raised mockingly at Steve.
“Surprised to see me?” Stark drawled, heedless of the way a trail of blood slid down his temple. “Sorry to say I’m not going anywhere anytime soon.”
Steve pressed back against the door, throat dry. He managed to croak out, “You’re not real.”
“Aren’t I?” Stark made a show of looking down on himself. “I seem pretty real.”
“I’m imagining you,” Steve said, closing his eyes and blocking out the sight of that Stark – bruised and battered – lying on his bed. “You’re not here, and this isn’t happening.”
Stark’s voice was suddenly all too close, and Steve flinched away. “Isn’t it?” His tone was mockingly cruel. “Isn’t this what you wanted? A way to change things? Change the future?”
“Maybe this is real, but you’re not.”
“No, you don’t want me to be real. There’s a difference.” Stark’s lips curled in amusement. “But I am. And you can see me. Seems like poetic justice, don’t you think?”
Steve met Stark’s eyes, the other only inches from his face. “I don’t.”
Stark’s hand slammed into the wall by Steve’s head, but while the sound was loud, there was no hole from the impact. “You left me there in that place!” he shouted. “You swanned off and left!”
“You think I intended to?” Steve shouted back, shoving Stark away from him. He was surprised when it worked, Stark stumbling back. “I didn’t mean to leave, but if I had, I would have left you there gladly.”
Stark’s lips thinned. “I don’t doubt that. You talk big, Rogers, but you don’t stick to your guns.”
Steve growled at him. “I don’t? What about you?”
“Of all things I do, I always keep my promises,” Stark said. “You just don’t listen. You never do. But you better listen to me now: Whatever you do – whatever path you take – it won’t matter. Because the outcome will be the same. You can’t change the future.”
Then, with a disgusted curl of his lips, Stark faded from view, leaving nothing but empty space where he had been standing.
It took a few seconds before Steve realized he was shaking, his muscles trembling from shock and horror. Sliding down the wall to sit heavily on the floor, Steve buried his face in his hands, struggling to regain his wits from what had just happened.
It wasn’t – shouldn’t be possible. But this was the time gem, an Infinity Gem, and nothing was impossible when it came to those.
Even changing the future.
Stark had to be wrong about that. Steve could change this. He could fix things. He could do this.
The future wasn’t set in stone. His last trip with the time gem had proved that well enough.
No matter what Stark had told him, Steve would move on. It was the only thing he could do at this point.
The image of Stark’s bloody face streaked through his mind, and Steve dug the heels of his palms into his eyes.
He wouldn’t let that happen.
Over the next day, Steve kept a close eye on Stark, making sure that he wouldn’t just up and leave to “take care” of SHRA like he had the last time. So when Stark readied himself to go to Washington D.C. to attend the meetings there, Steve invited himself along, not even waiting for Stark to ask.
Like he would have anyway.
“You know that just staring disapprovingly at them isn’t going to change their minds, right?” Stark asked, shooting Steve a sidelong glance as they boarded his jet.
“It’s not like it matters,” Steve said, fingers tightening on the straps of the canvas bag he had his shield in. “It’s just talks right now.”
“They’ve already made up their minds,” Stark said. “Stamford pretty much settled it for them. I don’t think there’s anything we can do to change that. I did try to head it off before, but I suppose that wasn’t convincing enough.”
There was something about the way Stark said it that set off alarm bells in Steve’s mind. “You…hired Titanium Man to attack you?” he asked incredulously.
Stark didn’t look at Steve, eyes on the runway outside the window. “I might have,” he admitted a few seconds later.
“On what planet did you think that was a good idea?” Steve struggled to keep his ire out of his tone, but he wasn’t sure he succeeded, since Stark eyed him warily.
“It worked,” Stark said defensively. “At least until Nitro and the New Warriors decided to have it out.”
Steve supposed he shouldn’t even be surprised anymore at the lengths Stark would go to. “I still can’t believe you hired a supervillain to attack you on the steps of the U.S. government.”
“It sounds so bad when you put it like that.”
“That’s because it was a terrible idea.”
Folding his arms across his chest, Stark raised an eyebrow at Steve, eerily reminding him of the other Stark, but this was simply sardonic, not mocking or cruel. “What’s done is done, Cap. Titanium Man did his job, and now we have to do ours.” He sounded weary. “This isn’t going to be easy.” There was something bleak in his eyes, something that reminded Steve of how he had looked in the months that Steve hadn’t remembered anything of incursions and betrayal.
“You’re not doing this alone,” Steve said, stiffening when a low, skeptical laugh reached his ears. He kept his emotions off his face through sheer will. “We’ll figure this out together, so don’t go off hiring another supervillain to do something even crazier.”
“That’d never work now,” Stark said, sounding affronted. “The whole point of it was to show that putting a leash on superheroes is a terrible idea. That we can do our job without supervision. But with the Warriors and Nitro, that show was for nothing.”
Swallowing, Steve stared at Stark, who sounded so reasonable. “You know,” he started, chest tight, “I thought you’d be all for this. Registration. Superheroes being held accountable,” he half-quoted, remembering Stark’s words from before.
“Don’t get me wrong.” Stark’s eyes were dark. “We do need something to hold us accountable for our actions, for when we’re out of control. But there’s no accounting for how far the government will go with this. I support the idea of registration – making sure that there are consequences for actions – but this is a step too far in the wrong direction.”
“Did you think I sold you out at the first opportunity I could?” the other Stark’s voice said from behind Steve. “I suppose you would like to believe that.”
His hands curling into fists on his knees, Steve kept his breathing even, fighting against the urge to turn around and hiss at the other Stark to shut up. Judging from the small chuckle the other Stark gave, he probably knew what Steve wanted to say.
Had he read Stark wrong all this time? He couldn’t remember Stark ever being this reasonable. There had only been the sense of betrayal when he’d realized that Stark was on the other side, and that no amount of fighting would knock sense into his head.
But Stark had supported SHRA. Steve hadn’t made that up. Stark had sold himself out to the other side, become Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., and he’d hunted down everyone on Steve’s side, throwing them in the Negative Zone.
That had all happened.
“I know that look,” Stark said, jolting Steve back to attention. “Please don’t punch anything in the cabin.”
Looking at Stark in front of him, dressed in a slim-fitting black suit and his hair absolutely immaculate, young and relatively unburdened by everything that would happen, Steve reminded himself that it hadn’t happened yet. He was already changing things, just by being here on this trip.
“Scrap whatever self-sacrificing plan you’re considering,” Steve said instead, standing. “We’ll do this some other way.”
As Steve went off to the bathroom, determinedly not looking at the other Stark, he ignored the way Stark called after him, “A vague plan. I like it, Cap. Can I have some specifics?”
Shutting the bathroom door, Steve turned on the water, wetting his face. He felt the jet jolting as it started gearing up for takeoff and knew he should probably head back to his seat, but he couldn’t face Stark just now.
“You do know I can just go through doors, right?” Stark’s voice said sardonically.
Startling, Steve’s eyes flew up to meet the other Stark’s eyes in the mirror. The other Stark looked rather furious, eyes flaring angrily.
Breathing in deeply through his nose, Steve gripped the counter with both hands. “Will you just leave me alone?”
“The way you left me, you mean?” Stark’s lips curled. “No, I don’t think so.”
Conscious of the fact that the real Stark would easily be able to pick out his raised voice, Steve made an effort to keep his words quiet. “You think this is fun?”
“Fun? Oh no. It’s a riot, Rogers.” Stark leaned back, arms folded across his chest. “I get to see you reevaluate everything you thought you believed, and years too late to do a damn thing about it.”
Turning, Steve fixed Stark with a glare. “I can change things.”
“You still think you can, do you?” Stark snorted, meeting Steve’s glare head on. “I’m still here, aren’t I? You’ve not changed a thing, Rogers. Whatever you do will just lead you down the same path.”
“It’s not going to happen.”
“Because you care that much?” Stark sneered. “You don’t. You care more about preserving your own scruples than doing what we were supposed to do.”
“Experiment on people? Forcefully inject them with a dangerous virus?”
“Protect them,” Stark hissed furiously, his eyes darkening to a normal blue. “Which has always been our job, Rogers. We were the Avengers, Earth’s first line of defense. And sometimes that means making the hard choices, which you weren’t prepared to do.”
“There are some lines that shouldn’t be crossed,” Steve said in a fierce whisper. “Destroying billions of lives is one.”
“Would you suffer the death of two universes and the loss of an inestimable number of lives because you can’t make the hard choice?” Stark’s nostrils flared. “You’re impossible, Rogers.”
Steve’s eyes narrowed, fury and hurt burning in his chest. “Is that why you erased my mind? Because you couldn’t deal with a little arguing? Couldn’t deal with someone disagreeing with you?”
Stark went white, the color of the blood on his face a stark contrast, and his eyes brightened to that unnatural electrical blue. “You forget, Steve,” he said, very quietly, “I wasn’t the only one there.” And, without another word, Stark disappeared, robbing Steve of the opportunity of anything he could have said to that.
Not that he had any idea what he would have said.
The jet bounced slightly, hitting turbulence, and Steve reached out instinctively to brace himself, reminded that he needed to get out of the bathroom lest the real Stark come check on him.
Taking in a shaky breath, Steve unlocked the bathroom door and readied himself to see the actual Stark that wasn’t a product of his mind.
He had some thinking to do.
“Well,” Stark said that evening, “that didn’t go quite as badly as I’d anticipated.”
Steve didn’t say anything beyond a low grunt of acknowledgement, sitting down on the armchair by the window and staring out at the lights of the nation’s capital.
“Very eloquent,” Stark said wryly, tugging his tie off with one hand.
Looking back at Stark, Steve remembered the people protesting, holding signs proclaiming hatred against mutants, hatred against superhumans, and expressing support for SHRA. The people they had talked to had been harried and stressed, and Steve hadn’t gotten the impression that anyone had even listened.
“What were you expecting?” he asked instead.
“To be arrested and conveniently disappear off the face of the planet.” Stark shrugged in response to Steve’s face. “Given the current climate, it was plausible.”
Shaking his head, Steve didn’t answer to that. He hadn’t ever thought that would be a possibility, but Stark was sometimes too paranoid for his own good. “It had to have helped that we were both there and speaking against the act.”
Not replying, Stark shrugged again, mouth twisting wryly. “In the end, it’s up to the public. The government will do what the public demands, and we’re supposed to serve the public’s needs.”
“We’re supposed to protect them,” Steve disagreed. “We can’t do that if we’re leashed.”
Stark’s lips thinned. “I’m not going to argue with you on this.”
“Because you don’t agree?” Steve asked, a hint of sharpness entering his tone.
“I do agree.” There was a bite of anger in Stark’s voice, the first Steve had heard from this one. “But railing against injustice and setting the government on our tails is not going to help. It’s just going to prove their point. If we can’t solve this diplomatically, we’ll have to come up with another way to alleviate the fallout of the act. We can’t risk them approving something like Wideawake.”
“They would never,” Steve objected.
“Wouldn’t they? They’ve done Sentinels before. This is just a step up from that.”
Steve stared at Stark, taking in his steady stance and serious face, heads held stiffly at his sides. He was still in the black suit, not the red and gold armor that he had been wearing nonstop during the fight last time. It was only now that Steve could really appreciate how much body language that armor had hidden.
Stark was being honest right now. There was no doubt about that. There wasn’t a hint of untruthfulness to him, and Steve had gone over Stark’s body language enough since remembering the mind-wipe to know his tells. There were none now.
That Stark believed the government could do this – could treat them like animals without provocation – it made Steve hurt.
“We’re people, too,” Steve said finally, voice soft.
Stark’s eyes softened, his posture relaxing. “I know. We need to make them see that.”
“So we keep doing what we’re doing,” Steve said. “We can make them see it.”
Instead of smiling the way Steve had expected him to, Stark looked away, mouth pinched. “We…have to consider the possibility that we might not be able to make them see it. In that case, we’ll need a contingency plan.”
Stark didn’t need to say it, but Steve instantly knew to what he was referring to. The type of contingency plan Stark would resort to and the methods he would have to employ to follow it. “You are not running off and compromising, Stark,” Steve snapped viciously, the vehemence of the words sending Stark flinching back. “The moment you compromise, you sink to their level, and they’re wrong. We stand our ground, and we wait for them to move.”
Stark stared at him, eyes dark. “We might not have a choice,” he said quietly.
“You always have a choice.” Steve met his gaze head on, determined to make Stark see this. He couldn’t let him run off and do something like the Negative Zone and cloning Thor again. Thor would come back eventually – Steve knew that much – but cloning him? It was still something Steve hadn’t forgiven Stark for. “And you’re not going to sink to their level and do things their way.”
“Are you suggesting we engage them in a game of chicken?” Stark asked incredulously. “Let’s see who moves first? That’s never going to work. This is politics, Cap—”
“It’s our lives, not politics,” Steve bit out. “Compromising’s never going to work, and I’m not going to sell my soul to the devil just for a chance at lessening the fallout. We need to get rid of it, not allow them to pass it.”
“Then what’s your plan?” Stark folded his arms, jaw tight. “I’ve yet to hear you suggest anything that’ll help us aside from engaging the government of the United States in a giant game of chicken.”
Steve stepped closer, hesitating momentarily when he saw a minute flinch from Stark. He reached forward, touching Stark’s shoulder like he would have at one point in the past. “We’ll do this together, Tony. We’re a team. That means whatever plan we come up with, we do it together. We can do— “ Steve stopped, feeling the echoes of other words he had once spoken in a dark room to Stark and several other men. Hadn’t he proposed working together then? But he’d had that thrown back in his face.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the ghostly Stark flicker into view, an implacable expression on his face as he observed the two of them.
“We can do anything, you mean?” Stark finished his broken off sentence, the corner of his mouth twitching into a small smile.
Steve swallowed, letting his hand drop. There was an indiscernible flicker of emotion on Stark’s face before it disappeared, replaced with his usual expression. “Exactly,” he murmured, mouth dry.
The ghostly Stark snorted loudly; Steve deliberately didn’t turn to see what was on his face.
“As nice as the sentiment is,” Stark continued, running a hand down the side of his jacket, “that still doesn’t give us a plan.”
“Oh, he doesn’t have one,” the other Stark said conversationally, acerbic. “That’s just the way he rolls.”
What Steve had done last time hadn’t worked at all; the only reason SHRA had fallen by the wayside in the end was because of the Skrull invasion, and Steve couldn’t exactly hinge anything on that.
They had to do this together. Fighting would do nothing but utterly break things and put them on the same path as before. And with the stark reminder of the ghostly Stark standing only feet away, Steve couldn’t let that happen. He wouldn’t let their future be destroyed because they couldn’t figure this out.
Stark had tried to control SHRA from the inside last time. Steve had understood that much after it was all over and he’d returned to the world of the living. Steve had tried to do the same from the outside, but it hadn’t worked, largely because neither side had trusted the other.
Steve still didn’t trust Stark to do the right thing, but he had to keep reminding himself that this Stark was different. He wasn’t the same Stark that was dogging his steps as a ghost. This Stark hadn’t yet made the decision to wipe Steve’s mind.
Maybe they could do it if they knew what they were planning.
“We do have an option we haven’t considered yet,” Steve said finally, meeting Stark’s eyes again.
Stark raised his eyebrows. “Oh?”
“I know they’re scared at the moment.” Steve ran a hand through his hair, thinking. “But that doesn’t mean they’d accept something like SHRA if they really knew what it was going to do.”
Stark was silent for a moment. Then, he said quietly, disbelieving, “Are you seriously suggesting what I’m thinking you are?”
Meeting Stark’s eyes, Steve let himself smile, feeling a thrill run through him at having a partner who knew him so well at his back again. It was only temporary, but it was good enough for now. “Yes. I am.”
“I thought this was exactly what you were saying we shouldn’t do,” Stark said. “Because then we’d also be evil bastards.”
“I don’t want you to do it alone,” Steve corrected. “You won’t be alone. Or I’ll do it.”
“Ah, no.” Stark shook his head. “Steve, you’re my best friend, but even I know you’re awful at subterfuge.”
“I am not,” Steve objected.
“Dressing up as a woman and hoping for the best is not going to cut it this time,” Stark said. “Besides…the team trusts you more than me. They’ll follow your lead – not mine. What do you think will happen if you start supporting SHRA?”
Half of the superhero community would split off and join him, Steve knew. Just like Stark had people on his side who would stick by him through the worst.
“Besides,” Stark went on, “you don’t have the pull on Capitol Hill that I do. Logistically, I’m the better choice for this. But I won’t be alone. Right?” he added pointedly.
“You won’t.” Steve didn’t even think before making that promise. Stark had screwed it up last time because he’d gone it alone without telling anyone what he was planning. He had lost Peter’s trust as a result and completely infuriated Steve with his inability to listen.
He had thought it was all Extremis’s fault, but it had just been Tony being Tony.
If – no, when they could pull this off, then they would have run SHRA into the ground by revealing what the government had planned.
“This could really work,” Stark said after a moment, echoing Steve’s hopeful thought. “I…” He cracked a smile, which was painful to see with its genuine honesty and hope. “I’m really glad we’re together on this, Steve.”
It wasn’t even a lie this time when Steve answered, “So am I.”
When he finally looked at where the other Stark had been, he was gone.
The skies were red and there was screaming. He looked up at the sky, at the looming Earth filling up the whole of the expanse, and saw a silver suit be struck down by a red and gold one. It streaked through the air, punching a hole through a building.
Steve inhaled acrid smoke, tasted blood on his tongue, and kept his eyes open as he watched an Iron Man and Captain America come together to retreat, partners trusting in each other’s every move.
His eyes closed to a reverberating explosion that shook his bones—
Jolting awake, Steve’s eyes snapped open to a dark room, his blankets strewn about him and cold sweat sticking to his skin. It took him a few seconds to realize that the sound of harsh panting in the room was coming from him, that his chest hurt because he couldn’t get in enough oxygen, that he had tears on his face because Tony—
Steve covered his face with a shaky hand, wiping away the tears. He focused on breathing steadily, on the darkness behind his eyelids, and the soft mattress under his body.
Once he’d calmed down, Steve opened his eyes, only to startle when he saw the other Stark standing at the foot of his bed, his too-blue eyes seeming to glow slightly in the dark. His face was set in an unhappy mask, one Steve had seen a few too many times in recent months.
Steve didn’t say anything, not wanting to start another conversation with snide, ugly remarks from someone who shouldn’t have ever followed him to the past.
“The world didn’t end in fire or ice,” Stark started finally, face inscrutable, “but it was loud. You saw it.”
The image of a silver suit hitting a building and never coming out streaked through Steve’s mind, and he held back a shudder.
Stark didn’t wait for him to answer. “It’s all gone now. And it will always be gone. You failed them. And now you’re doing it again.” His mouth thinned. “Why him?”
Sitting up, Steve let the covers rest over his legs. The position reminded him of another time Tony had come into his bedroom after a nightmare, expressing warm concern and pulling Steve into his workshop to show him something marvelous.
That it had all turned out to be a lie in the end only made the memory hurt worse.
“What do you mean?”
The corner of Stark’s mouth twisted downward. “Why would you listen to him? The naïve, idiotic fool? You never listened to me, so why the hell would you listen to that weakling?”
Steve blinked, taken aback at the vehemence in Stark’s voice, which was for once not directed towards Steve. “You were him at one point,” he said slowly, not quite sure what this Stark was getting at. “What’s your problem?”
Stark’s eyes flared. “My problem is that you shut me down every time I tried to speak with you, every time I tried to reason with you, and yet here you are, working alongside an idiot just like it’s the good old days. You refused to work with me, but you’ll make an exception for him?”
“Tony isn’t an idiot,” Steve snapped unthinkingly. “He cares too much and doesn’t think things through the way he should, but he’s no fool. His heart’s in the right place.”
“Oh, is it?” Stark’s voice lilted sardonically. “The man that singlehandedly tore the superhero community apart? The man that started a secret organization behind your back? The man that wiped your mind? That man? Are you speaking about the same one?” His frame vibrated with barely contained fury.
Steve’s throat worked, but he could find nothing to say, his heart beating frantically in his chest at the memories Stark brought up. It was all true. Both Starks were the same man, albeit at different points in time. That Steve had changed a little bit in this time didn’t change the fact that Stark would have done all those things.
When it became clear Steve would say nothing, Stark continued softly, “I thought so. You’re using him.” His smile twisted, turning ugly. “He’s so naïve, isn’t he? So trusting, so foolish… He has no idea what you’re planning for him, that you’d sooner stab him in the back than make sure he comes out of this alive.”
“You’re wrong.” The words were no more than a whisper, a faint sense of panic and horror rushing through Steve.
“Am I?” Stark tilted his head, eyes pinning Steve in place. “You’re a strong man, Rogers, and you didn’t hold back on that punch.” He craned his head back, and for a second a dark, bloody bruise blossomed across his face before it disappeared, leaving behind blood-stained skin. “The only reason you didn’t kill me then was because your teammates were there.”
Steve stared at him in barely restrained horror, hands clutching the blankets tightly. “I – no—”
“Yes.” Stark’s expression didn’t waver. “Don’t deny it, Captain. You would have killed me without a second thought. I suppose it was pretty damn convenient that you had an Infinity Gem in your pocket. Tell me…where did you go?”
Remembering that rough trip to the future, the people he had seen and the things he’d learned, Steve closed his eyes, wishing he could draw the blankets up closer without seeming weak to the one person he couldn’t afford to. “Does it even matter?”
It was a few seconds before Stark responded, and the words were quiet. “No, I suppose it doesn’t. Not anymore. Not with our world gone.”
“That’s not going to happen this time,” Steve said fiercely.
The look Stark gave him was filled with nothing but disgust, and something else that Steve didn’t recognize lurking behind his eyes. “An empty promise coming from a man who’s made too many of them.”
“You said you keep your promises,” Steve said, throwing Stark’s own words back in his face. “I keep mine, too.”
“Oh, Captain…” Stark’s smile was dark. “Maybe once I would have believed you, but I’m no longer that idealistic, naïve fool you have in your pocket. The look on his face when he finds out…”
Stark disappeared before Steve could say anything else, leaving him staring at the opposite wall, dry sweat on his skin and his skin prickling with discomfort and lingering adrenaline.
The worst part…
The worst part was that Steve could perfectly picture that look Stark was talking about.
He’d seen that face in the ruined mansion when Tony had finally realized it was too late.
Stepping into Baxter Building was an effort in will not letting his emotions show on his face. Not for the first time, Steve doubted his decision to come with Stark here, but just like the previous times, he quickly shored himself up by reminding himself that this was part of the job. He had to make sure things went right this time.
Richards made a lot of questionable decisions, but no one could deny that he was one of the world’s top geniuses.
“They consulted him last time they considered a similar act, asking about the long-term feasibility of it,” Stark had told Steve on the drive
“They didn’t listen,” Steve had said.
“To be fair, most of what Reed says can be slightly difficult to understand without several degrees,” Stark had pointed out. “But, yes, they didn’t listen. Otherwise they wouldn’t be considering passing this.”
Now they were standing in Richards’s lab, surrounded by various machines, and Richards had stretched himself out in several different directions.
“Afternoon, Reed,” Stark called, getting Richards’s attention.
Richards turned his head 180 degrees, eyes widening when he saw the two of them. “Ah, Tony – Steve.” He quickly adjusted himself to human proportions. “What brings you here?”
“I think you know,” Stark said, a dry smile flashing across his face. “Steve and I had an idea.”
“You talked with him about it?” Richards sounded surprised, shooting Steve a surreptitious glance. “I thought you said it wasn’t a good idea.”
Steve’s lips pinched at the hint that Richards had known about Stark’s decision not to tell him about SHRA, and that they had actually discussed it.
“He found out about it,” Stark admitted, glancing askance at Steve. “It’ll be better this way.”
“We can hope,” Richards said sardonically. “What’s this idea you two came up with?”
“We need evidence,” Steve said evenly. “Something to show what they’re really planning.”
“And you want to go public with that? Would that even work?”
When Stark didn’t say anything, Steve spoke again, shooting the other an irritated glance. “I believe in the public. If they see this, they have to make the right decision.”
“There’s no ‘have to,’” Richards said doubtfully. “They might brush it off as forgery, a fake that’s meant to incriminate the government.”
“Which is where I come in,” Stark said. “Papers released from outside the government is one thing, but if something’s released from the source? That’s pretty difficult to brush away.”
“So you’re planning on breaking in.”
“Lying,” Stark said, unabashed. “Misdirection. Just long enough so that I can get what we need.”
Looking away, Richards ran a hand through his hair, rubbing the back of his head. “If this succeeds, the fallout will be massive. And we’ll have to deal with that.”
“It will succeed,” Steve said determinedly. “Whatever comes, we’ll handle it like we always do.”
“Maybe with a little more subtlety,” Stark said, amused. “I don’t think that our usual method of going in with our weapons ready is going to cut it.”
“Well, if you think it’s best, Captain,” Richards said, inclining his head. “But why come to me?”
“We’re not going to do this alone,” Steve said. “It’s best we’re prepared for what will happen, and that means letting other superheroes know.”
Richards raised his eyebrows. “I’m sure you’ve heard the saying that too many cooks spoil the soup. If this reaches the wrong ears…”
“Are you saying we can’t trust you, Reed?” Stark waved a dismissive hand. “It’s you, and you can bring in the rest of your team on this. We’ll talk it over with the Avengers. It’s not going to go beyond that.”
The core group of Avengers could be trusted, including those that weren’t technically on the team but were on reserve. The majority of them had secret identities that had to be protected, and he knew that they would be concerned about SHRA and its implications. Peter had been on Stark’s side last time, but only because Stark had kept him in the dark on what his plans actually were.
Then there was Carol, and Steve didn’t know why Carol had been on Stark’s side. It couldn’t just have been their friendship, as there were others on the team Stark had been close to, and they hadn’t sided with him.
“If you think that’s best.” Richards still sounded doubtful, but at least he hadn’t argued with them.
“I really think this’ll work, Reed.” Stark’s voice was soft, hopeful. It was something Steve hadn’t heard in so long that it made him start to hear it now, at the beginning of what had instigated their worst fight in his past.
Richards looked rather sharply at Stark, surprise written all over his face. It took him a moment to respond, and when he did, it sounded similarly hopeful. “Well…we can hope.”
Even though it shouldn’t surprise him, it still did that it hadn’t been Steve’s reassurance that comforted Richards, but rather Stark’s. Richards and Stark were both in the Illuminati, and they were both absolute geniuses in their own fields.
He supposed the knowledge that two of the world’s smartest men were working with him should comfort him, but it was a cold comfort at best. He could still remember seeing both of them standing in a dark room, at the other side of a stone table, while Stark gave the order to wipe Steve’s mind.
Steve could trust Stark, but only to a certain extent. He had to remember that.
“He has no idea what you’re planning for him, that you’d sooner stab him in the back than make sure he comes out of this alive.”
Taking a careful breath, Steve promised himself that no matter what, this wouldn’t end the same way it had last time.
When they told the Avengers what was going on with SHRA and what they had come up with to stop it from passing, Steve felt a bit like melting into the ground from the incredulous stares everyone was shooting them.
“I’m sorry,” Peter said, sitting on a wall. “I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that they want us to give up our secret identities and put our names on a big, shiny list that they want to hold onto. Doesn’t that scream ‘big, bad idea’ to anyone up there?”
“I’m sure it does,” Stark said. “But it’s a bit drowned out by the overpowering fear that we’re all likely to lose it and cause another Stamford.” The words were clipped.
“Don’t even joke,” Luke said tightly.
“It’s not funny.” Stark’s answer was flat. “This is a very real problem we’re facing, and it’s not going to go away if we just stick our heads in the sand.”
“That’s not even an option,” Carol said, her entire bearing tense. “But, Tony, this plan…it’s risky. And that’s if you can pull it off. There’s no telling what they’ll do if they catch you.”
“Oh, I know what they’ll do if they catch me.” Stark smiled wryly. “But I’ve got all of you, don’t I?”
“Yes,” Steve said before anyone else could. “We’ve got your back, Tony.”
“What about the X-Men?” Jan asked, leaning forward over the table. “Are they getting involved in this?”
“We called,” Stark said, “but they’ve got their own issues to deal with.”
“I’d have thought they’d be a bit more concerned about something like this,” Jan said, eyebrows raised.
“I’m sure it concerns them. Beyond the fact that most of them are normal humans now,” Stark said. “It doesn’t matter,” he continued when it seemed that a few would scold him for again making light of the mutant community’s plight. “We have this handled.” A nervous smile flashed across his face before disappearing.
Steve recognized the tics as Stark being nervous and wanting to hide it, though it didn’t seem anyone else had noticed. Carol was eyeing him worriedly, as was Jan.
“I think that covers everything.” Stark shot Steve a glance, just to confirm. When Steve nodded slightly, he moved to make a gesture that signaled they could leave if they wanted.
No one did, but Carol and Jan did swarm Stark and usher him out, both apparently intent on talking with him. Hank followed after, looking rather nervous.
Everyone else stayed in the room, eyes on Steve.
“Are you sure this plan is going to work?” Luke asked, arms folded across his chest. “It seems awfully risky.”
“It was my idea,” Steve said, the corner of his mouth ticking up in response to their surprised and skeptical faces. “It was. Tony had a different plan in mind, but this’ll work better.”
“There are a lot of ways this can go wrong,” Peter said, twitching nervously. “I mean, really. Are we prepared?”
“We will be,” Steve said firmly. “We’ve got this.”
Shoulders squared, feet planted on the floor, and arms crossed over his chest, Steve knew he looked reassuring and commanding. It was a trick his older teammates knew well, but the newer ones weren’t as familiar with it, making it all the simpler to use without stifled snickers coming from Jan or Stark.
“Steve, we good for lunch?” Stark asked, poking his head into the room, only to blink slowly upon seeing Steve’s stance. “Ah, you know…I’m just going to leave you to it.”
“I’ll watch!” Jan said brightly, hovering around Steve’s head before buzzing off to sit on Peter’s shoulder.
“No, I’m done,” Steve said hastily, letting his arms fall to his sides. “We can go.” He hadn’t even agreed to lunch, but he didn’t have anything else to do. It might not be the best idea to sit across from Stark for a prolonged period of time, but it was something they had done all the time before.
When things were still good.
Swallowing, Steve managed to smile at Stark.
“Enjoy your date, boys,” Carol teased, leaning against the doorframe. She waved them off as they left, giving Stark a nod.
Before Steve wouldn’t have thought twice about the comment, since their team had always made jokes of the sort, but given his strained relationship with Stark, he couldn’t help but wonder just how they had fallen into this habit of always going out to eat together. It had just started one day, and they had never stopped.
He could still list off Tony’s favorite coffee order, the dish he always ordered at their joint, and the fine cuisine he didn’t like but had to eat nonetheless at fancy events.
“You don’t have to eat with me if you don’t want to,” Stark said, carefully not meeting Steve’s eyes. “I’m not going to hold you hostage.” He smiled casually, the gesture not reaching his eyes.
Steve looked away, unable to stomach the sight. “It’s okay,” he said, bumping shoulders with Stark. “I want to.”
Something in Stark’s frame relaxed and his hand brushed over Steve’s arm. “Okay. Great.” The smile that pulled at his lips now was real, and Steve spent a few seconds too long staring, cataloguing it for later.
There was a mission to focus on. He couldn’t get lost in old hopes, because this was when it had all fallen apart.
When Stark actually managed to succeed to convince the people on Capitol Hill that he was on their side, Steve almost didn’t notice that the plan had been put into motion. The signs that were there were easily missed if one didn’t pay attention. Stark was out of the tower more often than inside, and he couldn’t be found in his workshop.
He also began to look notably more harried and worried, shooting Steve strained smiles whenever their paths crossed. The few times they did speak, Stark reassured Steve that things were going as well as could be expected, and he still had to break his way into the relevant areas.
“I’d use Extremis if I could, but that’s not going to work for this,” Stark had told Steve one evening, grimacing. “It’s best if no one suspects who let the documents leak, and a sudden information leak over the Internet from a source no one can identify isn’t going to look good. If I can release it using the government’s ID, then it’ll look more credible.”
Despite Steve’s doubts, Stark had been nothing but absolutely trustworthy, giving him periodic updates when he could and briefing him on the government’s plans and that Maria Hill had contacted him about enforcing SHRA even though it wasn’t even law.
“I said I’d think about it,” Stark had said, rubbing his forehead. “But that it wasn’t legal to start. She suggested I ask you for help.”
“Did you tell her what the likelihood of that is?” Steve had asked, unable to stop the fury from bubbling up at the memory of what Hill had pulled last time.
“I considered it,” Stark had said, “but I figured it might not do to get on the bad side of the deputy director of S.H.I.E.L.D. at the moment.”
In the past few weeks, though, Steve hadn’t seen a peep of the Stark from the future. He wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or concerned about this, because he hadn’t yet decided if the other Stark was really a sick manifestation of his subconscious or an actual hitchhiker that had followed him into the past.
Even if this whole thing was a hallucination, it wasn’t like Steve could just curl up in his bedroom and hide. That wasn’t him, and the time gem’s involvement meant that it was actually real. The other Stark was just an unfortunate side effect that Steve hoped wouldn’t appear again.
And as more time passed without a sign of the other Stark, and no fighting had broken out and no one was a fugitive, Steve began to think that this could work, like Stark had said. This was already so different from what he remembered that there was no chance of going back.
Per a silent agreement, none of them had gone out to publicly take care of any threats. Instead, they had done so carefully and as discreetly as possible, needing to send the message that they could manage themselves without government oversight.
“That worked, didn’t it?” Peter had asked Steve anxiously after one such fight with absolutely no property damage for a change. “I didn’t even fall through any windows this time!”
“It definitely worked,” Steve had reassured him, watching the unfortunate wannabe villain be carted off.
“Oh, good,” Peter had sighed. “I can’t afford another pay cut.”
“You don’t get paid,” Jan had pointed out when Steve refrained.
Everything else aside, things were quiet. Discussions on SHRA were still continuing on Capitol Hill, things having stalled with whatever Stark was doing. Since while he claimed to be on their side, he wasn’t actually doing anything to speed the bill along. Steve knew from experience that if Stark were really serious, SHRA would already be all but law.
When it eventually all came to a head, Steve was almost surprised at how anticlimactic it was.
“It’s going to happen soon,” Stark said, sprawled on his couch in the living room. “I’ve just about set everything up.” He rubbed his face before running his hand through his hair, sticking it up on all ends. He looked exhausted.
“Have you been sleeping?” Steve asked before he could stop himself, concern coloring his tone.
“Yes,” Stark said, shooting Steve a wry grin. “But maybe not as much as I should.”
“I can tell,” Jan said, coming to sit by Stark’s feet. “Scoot over.”
“It’s not that bad,” Stark said defensively.
“Oh, I know,” Jan said, grinning. “I’ve seen you on your bad hair days.”
“Make that mustache days,” Carol said. “Don’t forget the mustaches. Half the time I expected him to break out that evil villain cackle.”
“Hey.” Stark looked affronted.
“Don’t worry,” Jan assured him, patting his knee. “We still love you. I’ve seen Steve sketching even your more questionable fashion choices over the years.”
Though embarrassed, Steve purposefully didn’t look away as Stark’s eyes darted over to him, so he couldn’t miss the small flush painting Stark’s cheeks.
“It’s nothing,” Steve said a moment later, unconsciously wetting his dry lips. “I draw everyone.” Or he had. A long time ago.
“You don’t draw me as much as you draw Tony,” Jan disagreed, not looking at all insulted. “And I know it’s not because he’s prettier. But it’s okay, Steve,” she assured him. “We all have favorites.”
Now Steve dropped his eyes, unable to meet Stark’s. He still had the sketchbooks, many of them filled after he had woken up from the ice, found by Stark, Jan, and Thor. He’d drawn everything back then, but Iron Man had featured heavily in them, as he had been fascinated and intrigued by the armor and the man piloting it.
He hadn’t stopped, always drawing the newest iteration of every armor, but somewhere along the line, he had also started drawing the man inside the suit. Now…he couldn’t even look at the sketchbooks he had, too disgusted with himself, at how naïve he had been.
Steve couldn’t even remember the last time he had picked up a pencil to draw. It had definitely been before the incursions.
“I can’t be that photogenic,” Stark said, his tone neutral.
Steve took a few seconds too long to respond, thinking that someone else would jump in. When it became clear that he was expected to say something, he cleared his throat. “You are,” he said, entirely truthfully. Even at his worst, Stark had always looked impeccably polished in photos. There had only been one time in his life that that hadn’t been true, and it wasn’t a time Steve liked to think of.
There was a polite cough from the other end of the room, and Steve realized belatedly that their little conversation had drawn the attention of everyone in the living room. He gave them all an unimpressed look, raising his eyebrows in a silent dare.
After another beat, they turned back to each other to resume their conversations, though Steve saw Vision watching him speculatively, a considering look in his eyes.
Deliberately turning away, Steve looked down at his hands, listening to Stark start talking to Jan and Carol, mentioning various bits and pieces of his position on Capitol Hill and what he was doing.
Once this was over, once he was sure that SHRA was averted, he could see about pulling away from Stark, putting some distance between them. Setting up a team on the west coast wasn’t a bad idea; it had worked out well enough for Luke.
When Steve woke up the next morning, the headlines splashed across the newspapers all screamed some variant of SHRA ACTUALLY SUPERHUMAN EXPERIMENTAL ACT, with numerous subtitles declaring about whether it was legal or illegal, and with the actual articles arguing vehemently for one point or the other.
Not surprisingly, the conservative news organizations were favoring the argument that all superhumans weren’t human, and thus couldn’t be subject to the same moral principles. Logically speaking then, experimenting on them wasn’t even that bad.
The liberal news organizations slammed the conservative arguments and practically all but castrated the government for even considering such actions.
But one thing that the two sides agreed on was the question as to who the brave soul had been that had dared to release the information in such a way that it couldn’t be ignored. After all, once something was on the Internet, it never went away.
“That shouldn’t have been so difficult,” Peter said, chomping down on an obscenely sugary cereal and reading the Daily Bugle, which was the only newspaper that wasn’t covering the file dump but rather damning Spider-Man to hell. Some days Steve really wondered on what planet J. Jonah Jameson lived on that he could be so oblivious to most everything else going on in the world.
“You weren’t the one having to endear yourself to people who’d rather see you dead than alive,” Stark said, who had been walking around with a rather pinched expression from the moment Steve had seen him that morning. “And now they actually want me dead.”
“Have they been sending you threatening emails? Or letters? Like, are they saying ‘You’re dead meat, Stark’?”
“More like voicemails,” Stark said, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Very politely phrased voicemails asking what – if anything – I might have had to do with this affair, seeing as how I was unusually interested in the previous drafts of SHRA and I’m also best friends with Captain America.”
Right. Steve had forgotten that with Extremis, Stark didn’t have a phone on him. He could just receive and send out calls mentally.
He must be regretting that now.
“They won’t actually do anything,” Steve said, drawing Stark’s attention.
“Won’t they?” Stark’s smile was weary. “I suppose we’ll see.”
Steve almost said that Stark shouldn’t be so insanely paranoid, but he knew that would be an impossible feat for Stark at the moment, given that he’d had his guard up constantly for the last couple weeks.
“But is it over?” Peter asked, looking up from the Daily Bugle.
“Not quite.” Stark downed a large gulp from his coffee. “Let’s just see what the public has to say about this.”
“Okay,” Peter said. “So I’m screwed.”
“You’ll be fine,” Steve assured him.
“Oh, I’m sure,” Peter said, finishing his cereal. “Just as soon as Jameson gives up the ghost and declares Spider-Man a national hero.” Putting his bowl in the sink, Peter left the kitchen.
“As always,” Stark said, sitting across from Steve, “your optimism is invigorating.” He didn’t look very invigorated.
“I try,” Steve answered. “You could stand to look a little happier. You just pulled off hacking into the government.”
“That was the easy part,” Stark said immodestly. “The harder part was making it look like I wasn’t there at all. But I’d say I pulled that off.” A small smile flashed across his face. “They don’t have any proof.”
“But they suspect you,” Steve said.
“Of course they suspect me. They haven’t forgotten I wasn’t on board initially, and now a few weeks after I do get on board, this happens? They’re not stupid.” Stark considered that dubious claim. “In some ways,” he amended.
“Should we have waited longer?”
“Any longer, and I’d be obliged to pull you in and register you,” Stark pointed out. “Or so I was told.”
Steve couldn’t help but stiffen, remembering how well that had worked last time. “Would you have tried?”
Stark hummed thoughtfully. “Maybe…after leaving a convenient message lying around that no one could miss. After all, I can’t bring in someone who isn’t there…” The corner of his mouth lifted up in a small smile. “Luckily, that’s not something I’ll have to consider. The cat’s out of the bag, and I’m not going back anytime soon.”
Steve forced his shoulders to relax, even with the memories of Stark’s forces hunting him down lurking at the back of his mind. That wasn’t going to happen this time, not in the least because their secrets were out there now. There was no chance of the government being able to pull something like that again.
“Which is a good thing,” Steve managed to say instead, forcing a small smile to his face.
Stark smiled back, seeming genuinely relaxed for the first time since he’d gone to Capitol Hill. “A very good thing,” he agreed cheerfully. “But our work’s not done yet.”
Steve nodded, mind turning to what else needed to be done to head off the future events he remembered.
No, while he might have averted a civil war now, that didn’t mean he could rest yet.
Later that day, once the initial storm over the revelation of SHRA and what it had truly promised for the superhuman population subsided slightly, Steve retreated to his room to try and figure out what his next move should be.
It was all well and good to celebrate what had just happened – as most of his teammates were doing at the moment – but he still had a future to save.
Pulling out the sheet of paper he had used during his first days here, Steve looked at what he had written down. Most of what he remembered of the war was obsolete now, as that would never come to happen. Or if it did…it wouldn’t be the same.
But there was no chance of it happening now. He and Stark had seen to that.
Slowly scratching out the passages relating to the war, Steve almost broke the pencil when a sudden voice next to his ear had him startling.
Dropping the pencil, Steve made to turn around, but the presence of the other Tony standing right behind him stopped him. After so long of not seeing him, Steve had hoped… “Didn’t you ask that question before?”
“You didn’t answer me before,” the other Stark said, and the heavy weight of his presence lightened as he moved away. His voice was an angry sneer as he bit out, “Why him?”
Steve turned to face him, unsurprised to find Stark’s face set in a mask of fury and…desperation? Some of his anger faded at the sight, unaccustomed as he was to seeing it on this Stark. He had never before seen desperation on this Stark, only anger, arrogance, and pride.
“I’m not sure what you’re getting at,” Steve said eventually, slowly standing.
Stark’s eyes narrowed. “Aren’t you? How much clearer do I have to be, Rogers?”
As much as he hated to admit it, Steve wasn’t sure what this Stark was getting at. He didn’t know why this Stark was caught in a half-life, while his past self was alive and well. He didn’t know why he wasn’t in a similar condition, instead of having been given this second chance.
In an eye-blink, Stark was in Steve’s space, pressing him up against the desk. “Why would you work with him?” he demanded angrily. “You never bothered to listen to me, but you listened to him? The naïve, indecisive fool?”
“I didn’t listen to him,” Steve burst out, pushing him away with a rough hand to his chest. “If I had, we’d be in the same mess as before. He listened to me and we worked something out. Which you didn’t bother to do.”
“Didn’t I?” Stark’s fingers gripped hold of Steve’s arm tightly, the only sign of his presence an intense pressure. “Didn’t I, Rogers? I may not remember anymore, but I do know myself, and I know you now. Can you look at yourself in the mirror and tell yourself honestly that there was never a point where I didn’t try to work with you? Where you didn’t throw that offer back in my face because you were too stubborn?”
A hand stretched out between them, trusting in its offer of a truce.
A pleading face in a ruined mansion, a last, futile attempt at fixing what was already broken.
An emotionless, empty mask between metal bars, silence its only answer in response to the question just asked.
“You never asked.” Steve swallowed thickly when he heard how hoarse his voice was. “You kept it from me.”
“And when you found out, you never listened,” Stark said tonelessly, his hand falling back to his side. “Not once.”
And what would that have led to? Steve surged forward against Stark, gripping hold of his arms. “So you could bring me over to your side? So I could sell my own soul along with yours? I don’t think so.”
“Do you think I didn’t want an alternative solution?” Stark snapped back. “I still have my notes, Rogers. I would have given anything to work with you, but you didn’t listen. And yet you were willing to work with him.”
It wasn’t like Steve had had a choice. Given one, he wouldn’t have chosen to rely on Stark like that. But he hadn’t had a different option. Otherwise Stark would have done exactly what he’d done before.
“I didn’t have a choice,” Steve said, satisfaction burning darkly inside him at the look on Stark’s face. “Do you think I wanted to? I can’t trust you.”
“He can’t trust you either,” Stark said tightly. “Did you ever think of it like that? That he can’t trust you either – doubting all his decisions the way you are. What happened to putting it all behind us? What happened to being a team—”
“You know what happened!” Steve heaved in a harsh breath, fingers curling tightly into fists. Punching him – punching anything – would do no good. “Or have you also forgotten about what you did?”
Stark didn’t flinch backwards the way Steve expected him to. “It wasn’t just me.” His jaw tightened, and he looked at Steve with two feverishly unnaturally blue eyes. “You forget that. Yet you continue to blame me.”
Heart pounding in his ears, Steve remembered that dark room. Remembered a familiar and well-loved voice giving the order. There had been other men there, too.
But Tony had given the order. He’d given the green light for Strange to do it.
And he had lied to Steve for months afterward, saying nothing about what had happened.
“You were there,” Steve managed, fury thickening his voice. “And you didn’t stop them. You told them to do it.”
“You would have killed us all for a simple hope.” Stark’s voice was distant; he didn’t seem to see Steve’s anger. “You didn’t trust us, so we couldn’t trust you.” The unnatural light in his eyes dimmed as they focused on Steve, holding his gaze. “You think I wanted that? But you – you refused to listen. Again,” he hissed. “And now you are listening, but it’s too late – it’s far too late for that to help.”
“I’m changing things,” Steve said furiously. “I’ve already changed things.”
“And how wonderful it must be for you,” Stark sneered. “And him. Because you didn’t turn your back on him. Not yet anyhow. Are you going to break it lightly to him when you do? Or is it going to be quick?”
That Stark even thought Steve would do that… “I’m not you.”
“No, your weakness is proof enough of that.” Stark’s nostrils flared, the unnatural blue hue flickering faintly in his eyes, only to be replaced by that same desperation Steve had seen before. “What do you have against me, Rogers? You forgave the others well enough, but me?”
Taken aback at the abrupt change in tone, Steve couldn’t keep the confusion out of his voice. “What do you mean?”
“I wanted it to work,” Stark continued, not answering Steve’s question. “I wanted you to be safe. But I never get what I want, do I?” His eyes scanned Steve’s figure, something else flickering across his eyes that Steve didn’t quite recognize.
“You’re not making sense,” Steve said sharply.
“Aren’t I?” Stark’s lips curled. “Why hold me to different standards than the rest of your friends, Captain? Have you realized yet that I wasn’t the only one there?”
“What’s the point? It’s over! It’s not going to happen!”
“Isn’t it?” Stark tilted his head. “I’m still here. You haven’t changed anything, except maybe your own guilty conscience.”
“There’s no war,” Steve hissed, stepping closer to him. “That’s not going to happen. And neither is anything else if I have anything to say about it!”
Stark’s smile was pitying. “Are you going to break him, too?”
The words and their hidden implications had Steve staggering back. “What – Tony—” But he was speaking to empty air.
Cursing under his breath, Steve kicked the wall in a fit of pique, only to regret it when the wall dented and his toes bruised.
What the hell did Stark think – going off like that?
Of course Steve knew he hadn’t been the only one in the room! Stark didn’t have the magic to wipe someone’s mind, and he wasn’t the only member of the Illuminati.
“What do you have against me, Rogers? You forgave the others well enough, but me?”
Hesitating, Steve pressed his fingers to his temples. He hadn’t forgiven Stark yet. He hadn’t really forgiven the others either, but he wasn’t so – so angry either.
For some reason, what Stark had done had wounded him deeper than what the others had. Yes, they had all been friends and colleagues, but he and Tony had had something different.
Or so Steve had thought.
“Are you going to break him, too?”
Steve had never broken anyone. Or anything.
The only one who had broken anything was Stark.
“I need a vacation,” Stark said, sighing, flopping down on the couch next to Steve. He threw his head back against the leather, closing his eyes.
This was a bad idea, Steve knew. He shouldn’t be around Stark now, but he could only avoid the other man for so long. As it was, it had been two days since he’d seen the other Stark, and he’d spent most of yesterday outside the tower and promptly regretted it when reporters tailed him everywhere, shouting his ears off with questions.
Still, he couldn’t help but notice how drawn Stark’s face looked, as if he wasn’t getting enough sleep.
The words were out before Steve could stop them, and he reached out to touch Stark’s arm unthinkingly. “Have you been sleeping?”
“Pull a few all-nighters in a row two times and people start to think you can’t take care of yourself,” Stark grumbled, cracking an eye open to give Steve a tired grin. “I’ve been getting my Zs, Cap.”
Realizing that he still had his hand on Stark’s arm, Steve pulled it away, fingers curling in. “As long as you’re taking care of yourself,” he said gruffly, turning away.
The response was quiet. “I am.”
Nodding jerkily, Steve refocused on the book he was reading. It was one that he had started last time, and he’d never actually been able to finish it.
After another few minutes’ silence, Stark spoke again, quietly disbelieving. “I still can’t believe it actually worked. I mean, I hoped it would, but that it actually did?”
Steve shot him a glance. “What happened to waiting and seeing what’ll happen?”
“I’ve been keeping an eye on the proceedings on Capitol Hill,” Stark admitted. “Public backlash has already forced the Senate to back down on considering the bill, and the House isn’t far behind.” He smirked. “They’re too busy scrambling to protect their reputations to bother about us.”
The smirk slipped away to be replaced by a grimace. “I’ve been keeping out of my email and voicemail. Pepper’s been a real help with weeding out the junk.”
Only Tony would call death threats “junk.”
“Don’t let her do all of it,” Steve said after a moment, rather appalled to realize that he was thinking fondly of Stark. Even with the turmoil of the last two days, that didn’t excuse the lapse.
“Peter’s been helping,” Stark said. “I’ve caught him snickering and taking notes.”
Steve made a private note to be there for the next fight Spider-Man had, if only to see the look on the villain’s face when Spider-Man delivered a horrendous death threat and webbed him up.
“I know,” Stark sighed, evidently reading Steve’s thoughts on his face. “I’ve already made plans.”
Mentally reshuffling his plans to be there for the second fight Spider-Man had, Steve felt slightly guilty for going to such extremes to avoid Stark like this. But he…just couldn’t.
It didn’t matter that Stark had only borne part of the responsibility for hiding the incursions from Steve. It didn’t take away the fact that he had done it.
Steve had trusted him, and Stark had still gone along with the plan and wiped Steve’s mind. Wasn’t their friendship worth anything? Steve wasn’t as close to any of the other Illuminati, and he had hoped that he would at least be able to persuade Tony that blowing up other Earths wasn’t a viable solution.
But Tony had…Stark had wiped his mind. Had been the one to give the green light for it.
It still hurt Steve to think of it, because he hadn’t thought Tony would ever be capable of doing something like that. And then to pretend to still be his friend while going behind his back and building devastating weapons…
“I’m so glad we worked something out,” Stark’s quiet voice broke Steve out of his thoughts, and he realized that he was gripping the book too tightly to be good for its pages.
Glancing to the side, he saw that Stark had a faint smile on his face as he looked at Steve, his eyes bright and soft. “Yeah.”
“I would’ve hated to work against you,” Stark continued, fingers tapping nervously against his thigh. “To be honest…I didn’t even know if I should tell you.”
Steve couldn’t stop the bitterness from entering his tone as he said, “I know.”
Stark’s head tilted slightly. “But you found out, and…your reaction wasn’t what I expected,” he admitted. “I was expecting you to be a lot angrier.”
“I considered it,” Steve said honestly, slipping a bookmark between the pages and closing it, “but anger wasn’t going to get us anywhere. We had to work together.”
“And I’m grateful for that.” Stark looked away briefly, running a hand through his hair. “This was the best solution I could’ve hoped for.” His eyes flickered back to Steve, a faint, sad smile pulling at his lips. “My other scenarios didn’t play out as well.”
Mouth dry, Steve dropped his eyes. Had Stark guessed what would happen last time as well? Had he known that Steve would so vehemently oppose SHRA?
Had he calculated Steve’s death?
Again, Stark’s voice jolted Steve back into the present. “Is there something wrong?”
“What?” Surprised, Steve blinked at Stark. “No.”
Stark didn’t look convinced. “It’s just…you haven’t seemed all that happy about this working out.”
“I am,” Steve assured him quickly. “I just have a lot on my mind.”
Pursing his lips, Stark’s eyes narrowed slightly, scrutinizing Steve too closely for comfort. “Maybe I’m just being full of myself, but have I done something wrong? You keep looking at me like I’ve killed your dog. Or cat.”
Steve had an internal moment of panic that Stark had noticed, before promptly kicking himself because of course Stark had noticed something was wrong. They knew each other too well to deceive each other for long.
Stark had managed it for only so long in the future.
“It’s nothing,” Steve managed, thumb rubbing in circles over the book cover. “I’ve – I’ve got a lot on my mind. There’s a lot that needs to get done.”
Shaking his head, Stark insisted, “That’s not it. C’mon, Winghead.”
Steve’s chest ached at the familiar and beloved nickname. “I—” Looking at Stark’s hopeful and trusting face, the words stuck in his throat.
I’m from the future where you wiped my mind and betrayed me and the world came to an end because we couldn’t do anything.
You betrayed me and I can’t trust you anymore.
I’m still so angry at you that I can’t think straight.
I wish I could hate you, but I can’t – I never could, God¸Tony—
Inhaling sharply, Steve abruptly stood up, fingers tightening on the book he was still holding. “I have to go.”
And he left before Stark could say anything, heart beating a panicked rhythm in his chest while his brain whirled in bewildered circles.
He hated Tony, didn’t he? He couldn’t stand to be around him, couldn’t bear to see his face, couldn’t handle hearing his voice and the excuses he came up with.
Anything and everything they’d had was gone, destroyed by Stark when he’d wiped Steve’s memories and gone behind his back. Steve shouldn’t even concern himself with Stark like this anymore.
But then why did it hurt so much? He couldn’t get past this sense of utter betrayal. Because – damn it – he had trusted in him to do the right thing. And Tony had gone and ground that trust like it was nothing beneath his feet.
More than anything, Steve desperately wanted answers, but the other Stark was nothing more than a ghost, and he wasn’t even Tony anymore, his mind twisted as it was.
“Steve! Steve, come on…” A hand latched onto Steve’s arm, pulling him to a stop. Stark turned him around, desperate. “Steve—”
“Why did you do it?” Steve burst out, unable to hold it inside any longer. “I trusted you, damn it. I said we would work something out – find an alternate solution – but you didn’t listen. How could you do that?”
Stark’s hand dropped, his eyes wide in shock and confusion. “I don’t—”
With a surge of horror, Steve realized what he had just done. “I have to go,” he repeated more urgently, this time running.
But before he could close the door to his room, Stark managed to slip in after him, jaw set determinedly.
“Get out,” Steve snapped, trying to push him out.
Stark pushed back and stepped to the side, putting the wall to his back. “You’ve not been acting right for weeks,” he said insistently. “Either tell me what’s going on now, or I assemble the others and we find out the hard way.”
Hesitating, his hand on the wall by Stark’s shoulder, Steve realized that Stark was utterly serious.
He’d already messed up by revealing too much to Stark; he couldn’t afford to let more people know, not with shape-shifting aliens in their future.
Stark didn’t say anything else, his eyes not moving from Steve’s.
Finally, Steve took a breath, dropping his hand from the wall. “It’s nothing,” he said, forcing a casual shrug. “It’s just been stressful dealing with everything.”
Utterly skeptical, Stark raised an eyebrow, folding his arms across his chest. “It started before that. Come on, Steve.” His voice turned pleading. “You can trust me.”
The words were out before Steve could stop them. “No, I can’t.”
Stark looked like someone had hit him, breath shuddering. “I don’t—” He swallowed visibly, his chin tilting up as he met Steve’s eyes. “What did I do?”
Jerking away from Stark, Steve closed the door, looking at the other side of the room. “Nothing.”
“It’s obviously not nothing,” Stark said skeptically.
Breath coming fast, Steve curled in on himself, eyes squeezed shut. It was already too late…
“You said I did something,” Stark continued, voice soft. Steve heard him move slightly closer. “What did I do? I’ll fix it.”
A shaky laugh escaped him. “You can’t fix this. It’s already broken.”
“I fix things,” Stark said evenly, unwavering. He was pleading again, and a feather light fingers touched his arm. “Steve…”
“How can you fix it when you were the one to break it?” Steve snapped, jerking away from Stark’s touch. He ignored the other’s hurt face. “I thought you’d learned from the last time, but no, you had to do it again. When has keeping secrets ever worked for you, Stark?”
Stark looked bewildered and hurt. “I—”
“You were going to keep the act from me. You were going to lie to my face and go behind my back and work with them. You would’ve sold us all out because you were unwilling to fight.”
Stark’s face was white. “Is that what you think? That I – I wanted to do that?”
Steve held his eyes. “You didn’t make me think any differently.”
Shaking his head, Stark ran a hand over his head, clutching his hair briefly. “I told you, Steve. Not wanting to fight was never part of it. I didn’t…” He looked agonized. “I didn’t want to tell you because of what you might have had to do. It was one thing for me to do it, but you? I wanted…” He shook his head again. “I wanted at least one of us to be able to look in the mirror when it was all over. But that never happened. We were able to work out a different solution.”
“This time.” The words were a whisper, but Stark heard them nonetheless.
“You…” Stark’s eyes widened. “You’re from the future?”
Clenching his jaw, Steve squared his shoulders. “The world ended, and it was because of you.”
“Us, Captain,” the other Stark drawled from where he was leaning against the wall, watching the entire scene with an air of lazy amusement. “Decided to have it out, did we?”
Opting to ignore the other Stark, Steve focused on the one in front of him. “It ended,” he repeated when Stark didn’t say anything. “And I was brought back.”
“Why would I…” Stark was pale, and he shook his head in disbelief. “I don’t… That doesn’t make any sense.”
“There were incursions,” Steve said. “Universes were colliding into each other, and the Earths were in the middle. Contact meant annihilation of both universes. You – the Illuminati…you all decided the better solution was to destroy the other Earth. I disagreed. You wiped my mind.” His teeth ground together briefly at the memory, no longer clouded by dreams. “And in the end, it all failed. The world ended, and there was nothing we could do.”
“Nothing you chose to do,” the other Stark said, sneering.
“I don’t believe that,” Stark said, desperate. “We must have tried something. We wouldn’t have just let that happen – we’re Avengers—”
“It’s not like that mattered to you!” Steve snapped, shutting him up. “You wiped my mind without thinking twice and lied to my face for months! And all the while you were building weapons to destroy entire planets and laughing about stupid old me behind my back because I was just so gullible and naïve to think that I could ever trust you.”
“You think I don’t remember now? You said ‘Wipe him,’ and then you never said a word until I finally remembered.” Steve’s breath hitched in his chest, anger and pain and hurt all tied together in a knot so intertwined that he could barely tell them apart. “I trusted you.”
Stark’s eyes were wide, his black hair a shock against his ashen skin; he looked horrified. “Steve…”
“How can I trust you now?” Steve’s hands curled into fists. “Tell me – how?”
“I…” Stark swallowed, taking in a shaky breath. He raised a hand, almost as if wanting to touch, and then seemed to reconsider, the hand falling. “I would have been…” He swallowed again, starting over. “I must have been desperate. Because I – I wouldn’t have done that unless there was a reason. There must have been one.” It was almost a question, and not one Steve would answer. “Steve, I…I only ever wanted to protect you. Call me stupid”—he laughed breathlessly—“but I can’t help it.”
Steve snorted. “You have a funny way of showing it.”
“I know,” Stark said, his hands fluttering anxiously before he put them in his pockets. “It’s…” He didn’t continue, eyes dropping to the floor. “You have no reason to trust me,” he whispered finally, shoulders slumping.
The Stark from the future was behind his present self, a smug, superior look on his face. He raised his eyebrows when he caught Steve’s eye, the corner of his mouth lifting in a pleased smirk.
“The look on his face when he finds out…”
Steve was seeing it now – that look the other Stark had mentioned. And it wasn’t… He didn’t like it.
This Stark was different from the other Stark, not just because he was alive. He was…genuine. He cared.
How many times had he ached to have an explanation for Tony’s actions during the war? How many times had he wanted to know why, only to shove the want back because it was utterly hopeless? Because Tony was no longer the man he had befriended and grown to – to—
This Tony was who Steve remembered, and he was the friend that Steve had desperately missed ever since the war.
“You forget, Steve, I wasn’t the only one there.”
“You forgave the others well enough, but me?”
It was the other Stark’s words echoing through his mind that had Steve braving the fall because he was just. So. Tired.
“I want to,” Steve said softly, the words out before he could rethink them.
Stark’s eyes flew up, startled hope written all over his features.
Steve’s heart skipped a beat at the sight, and he just had to ask, “But I can’t understand why you did such a thing. Why you would betray me like that if you really just wanted to protect me. Because what you did – that wasn’t protection, Stark. Tony.” He took a breath, chest aching. “I don’t understand why you betrayed me like that.”
Stark didn’t seem to breathe for the space of several minutes, his eyes wide. He looked rather terrified, like he was about to confess to something that could break him.
“He…” Stark’s voice broke on the word, and he stopped, clearing his throat. “I don’t know what he was thinking,” he tried again, voice steadier this time, “but I know myself.” He looked fiercely determined, as if about to take a deadly plunge. It was a look Steve knew well. “And he probably never told you.”
Steve barely noticed the other Stark vanishing, all of his attention on the one talking to him right now. “Told me what?”
“It’s no excuse for my actions – what he did to you,” Stark said, giving him a lopsided smile that was all the more painful for how genuine it was. “But I understand what it drives a man to do. I told myself that everything I’d have to do here was worth it if it meant your hands were clean.”
Steve’s breath stuck in his throat at the familiar words, at the almost-answer reverberating back to him through time.
“But it wasn’t if it means losing you,” Stark continued. He stopped speaking for a moment, breath coming too fast. His hands were white where he had them clenched next to his sides.
Steve blinked at him, scarcely able to believe what he was hearing. “What are you saying?”
Stark looked at him helplessly. “I need to – I want to protect you because you’re my friend. No,” he corrected himself immediately, frustrated. “I…” He shook his head, not meeting Steve’s eyes.
“Tony.” Steve took a step forward, going to touch him reassuringly.
At his touch, Tony met his eyes, fear and hope almost indistinguishable from one another. “Steve…you’re my best friend, and I’ve never wanted to lose this. You’re the best thing that’s happened to me, and I’m terrified that I’ll mess it up and you’ll realize what a cock-up I really am.” His smile was bleak. “It looks like I’ve ended up doing that anyway. So if it can’t be fixed, I don’t have anything to lose telling you this.”
The confession was quiet, but Steve heard it loud and clear all the same. There was no way he could ever mishear those words. “I love you.”
But that couldn’t be right.
Tony had – he’d never once shown any sign of that. He was affectionate, but he was affectionate with everyone.
They were friends – had always been friends – and it was a friendship that Steve treasured dearly because it was Tony, and he had always understood Steve and helped him out. But Tony was like that with everyone, friendly and helpful and—
Men like Tony didn’t fall in love with men like Steve; it was always the other way round.
Tony’s smile was sad as he took Steve’s hand off his arm. “I’ll give you some privacy, Steve.”
Steve didn’t stop him leaving, too bewildered by the unexpected confession to do much more than rethink everything in his life.
Legs just a bit too unsteady, Steve went to his bed, sitting down heavily on the soft mattress.
None of this made any sense.
“It’s not fair.”
The other Stark’s voice broke Steve out of his thoughts, his head jerking up to see him standing before him, trembling slightly.
“All this time,” the other Stark continued, hands curling into fists, “and he gets to tell you? And you just accepted that? What makes him so different?!” The last words were a scream.
Steve inhaled shakily, half-standing. “Tony—”
“Don’t Tony me!” he sneered, shaking more noticeably. “I tried – I tried so hard – and it’s him? You couldn’t figure it out earlier? You couldn’t work with me before? Why”—his voice broke, and he looked dangerously near to tears, something Steve hadn’t thought possible with this version of Tony—“is it him?”
“I didn’t want to do it,” Stark continued wretchedly. “I didn’t. But you wouldn’t listen, and I couldn’t have two universes die because you couldn’t trust us – couldn’t trust me.” There wasn’t a hint of Extremis-blue in his eyes now. “Everything I did just made it worse, and in the end it wasn’t—” His breath hitched on a sob. “You left me alone,” he whispered, eyes haunted. “You left me alone there.”
“Tony.” Steve lunged forward to do something – anything – but the other one was already gone.
And this time, some sense inside Steve told him, he wouldn’t be coming back.
The sky wasn’t red anymore, swallowed up by the other universe’s Earth as it was. It was getting dark, but Steve knew where he was going.
There was no more pain from his wound, although his limbs still protested at the abuse he’d put them through. But it wasn’t time to rest yet.
Picking his way through the rubble and holes in the street left by the battle, Steve finally entered the building he had seen Tony crash into and never leave.
In a distant life, he remembered seeking out Tony and wanting to talk, but being told by Carol that he had gone off to take care of some business and would be back later. That wouldn’t happen here, not just because Carol was most likely dead.
Finding the stairs, Steve hauled himself up, counting the floors until he reached the one where Tony would be. It was easy enough finding him from there. He was motionless, eyes closed and face streaked with blood and grime. There was a wound in his head that was still bleeding, along with cuts and gashes that seemed to be just scabbing over thanks to Extremis.
Steve ignored it all, coming to kneel by his side, his breath leaving him in an exhausted huff. “Tony…” His voice was old, almost unrecognizable to his ears.
There was no response.
Just as Steve started to despair, to think that he had been too late, there was a small movement. Tony’s eyelids flickered.
Leaning forward, Steve pressed his hand to the reactor, his palm covering the blue glow that had always been a sign of Tony’s life. “Tony.” He couldn’t stop the relief from suffusing his tone.
“Steve…” The word was barely distinguishable, but there was no hiding the bewilderment.
“I’m here, Tony, I’m here.” Steve clutched at Tony’s limp hand, feeling a faint, almost imperceptible squeeze.
Blinking slowly, Tony’s lips parted on an exhale. His eyes were a normal blue, the blue that Steve had missed for so long since the Red Skull had wrought his damage. “You left…”
“I won’t leave you alone,” Steve promised.
Sighing, Tony’s eyes drifted shut again. “You already have.”
“This isn’t going to happen.” Steve’s fingers tightened in Tony’s, making up for the strength Tony didn’t have. “We’ll figure something out. We always do.”
Eyes fluttering open, a faint smile crossed Tony’s face. “I wish I could believe you,” he whispered, the words escaping on an exhale.
Steve closed his eyes, remembering another’s words. “I love you, too, you know,” he said, thumb stroking over Tony’s knuckles. “I just…never said. Why would you think of me like that?”
There was disbelief and hope and loss in Tony’s eyes as he looked back at Steve. The floor rumbled beneath them, the earth shaking several floors below them. Steve didn’t have to look out the hole in the wall to know what he would see.
“Stay?” Tony’s eyes were wide.
Leaning down to press his lips to Tony’s forehead, Steve whispered, “Always.”
The sound was so loud Steve couldn’t hear it, but his eardrums ruptured with the vibrations. But he didn’t care; his attention was on Tony, and it was Tony’s face that he saw last when everything fell to pieces.
There were tears on his face when he woke.
Taking a moment to reorient himself in the dark bedroom, Steve wiped his face dry, breath shuddering his chest.
That had been Tony in the end. And now he was…
He wouldn’t be seeing him again.
But there was still a Tony who was alive – who he could see. And he had to do that now, with the other Tony’s death lingering behind his eyelids.
Tony should be in bed now, and Steve had no qualms about going into his bedroom. He was unsurprised to find Tony awake but sleepy when he entered, having evidently just woken himself up.
“Steve?” Tony shook himself awake, eyes becoming alert. He shifted until he was sitting on the bed, his feet touching the floor. “Are you—”
“I want to try again,” Steve cut him off, not looking away from his face. “I was so angry for so long, and I’m just tired of it. I miss you, Tony. I’ve missed you for months.” He swallowed, mouth dry, wishing for some water. “I was so angry with you,” he continued in a whisper, “because I just couldn’t accept the fact that you’d done that to me. We’d been friends for so long…
“I’m still angry,” he said. It was then that he noticed the resigned and hopeless look on Tony’s face and realized he was going about this all wrong. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to try again.”
“You can still trust me after what I did?” Tony asked, body tense. It was as if he was waiting for a blow.
A blow that wouldn’t come. Steve was done with venting his anger.
“I want to,” Steve said, taking a step closer. “It wasn’t just you, you know. I didn’t listen – I was too stubborn. That won’t happen this time.”
“You’re sure about that?”
“There’s so much in front of us,” Steve said, so close now that he could touch Tony’s cheek, and he did, reveling in the feel of warm skin under his fingers; Tony turned his face slightly into the touch. “And I know – the one thing I’m sure of – is that I want you at my side.”
“I’m – I’m not half as good at anything as I am when I’m doing it next to you,” Tony said, echoing words spoken in another future. “And that’s the truth.” Huffing out a disbelieving laugh, he stood, pressing into Steve’s space.
“That’s my line,” Steve told him, half-smiling as he leaned in, nose brushing against Tony’s.
It was instinctual – as easy as breathing – to tilt his head just an inch and lean in just a bit more until their lips were touching in an achingly soft kiss.
The image of Tony in a dented silver suit faded behind Steve’s eyelids to be replaced by the one standing in front of him, clutching at him as if he would disappear.
But Steve wasn’t going to.
Whatever happened, they would face the future together.
Just like it should be.