"I don't have time for this, Tony."
That was true. As head of national security, Steve had a lot to deal with. There was cleaning up Norman Osborn's mess, consulting with the President, organizing three separate Avengers teams, and trying to maintain some semblance of a relationship with Sharon on top of it all.
But Tony had assumed Steve would make time because he always did before. No matter how bad the world got, no matter how many threats they had to deal with, they always found time to talk to each other. It didn't always end well, but they tried. They tried during the armor wars. They tried during his alcoholism.
"Steve. Please." Tony spoke with more than a hint of desperation. "You're national security guy now. I need your help."
"Five minutes. I've got Thor telling me the Phoenix is returning to Earth, so this had better be important."
"Well it's not that important," Tony said, "but the thing is... I'm in trouble."
"What did you do?" Steve asked.
That hurt. Tony thought about a time when Steve would have asked him "what's wrong?" or "trouble with who?" But those days were over. Steve automatically assumed that he had done something wrong, and the worst part was that he was right.
"It was during..." Tony trailed off. Most people referred to it as the Superhuman Civil War, or just the Superhuman War. Tony hated to say either of those things. So did Steve.
"Okay," Steve said. "What did you do?"
"You remember how initially I tried to oppose registration? I mean before Stamford and all that..."
"Yeah." Steve spoke quickly. This was a bit of a sore spot.
"I may have hired Titanium Man to attack Congress."
There was no expression of disbelief on Steve's part, and Tony knew exactly how low his best friend's opinion of him had fallen. It was actually painful.
"Why?" Steve asked.
"Well, Spider-Man saved the day there. The idea was... if registration passed, there would be too much red tape. Nobody would have gotten there on time to save the day. They'd see why they needed us acting of our own accord."
"You're an idiot, Tony."
"I know that." Nobody held a lower opinion of him than Tony himself did. "I wasn't thinking right. My body was still adapting to Extremis. But now somebody is blackmailing me with the information."
"Blackmailing you to do what?"
"Oddly enough, they want me to stop talking to you. They want us to not be friends."
"I know," Tony said, "mission already accomplished. I have no idea who this person is or why they'd make that demand."
"What do you want me to do, Tony?"
"You've got a lot of resources I don't have access to anymore. I want your help figuring this out. I want to go underground and get off the radar."
"That's going to be hard since you are the radar," Steve said sarcastically.
"Help me or don't," Tony said.
"I'll help you," Steve answered. In spite of everything, it was never a question.
Before he could finish that thought, there was an explosion that shook the building and left everything in the room destroyed. Everything but Tony and Steve.
Steve woke up with a strong headache and a slight ringing sound in his ears. His muscles—strong as they were—ached in reaction to having been tossed around in the explosion. He was facing a wall, and when he turned around to get his bearings he was facing a sprightly Tony Stark sitting in a chair eating a cheeseburger. The surroundings were unfamiliar: a small apartment with no décor but a basic living room set and dining table.
"You feel okay?" Tony asked.
Steve noticed that Tony didn't seem to be worried at all. This was totally, completely against his obsessive nature. It dawned on him, and he sat up to confront the other man.
"Did you just fake your death?" Steve asked.
"I kind of did," Tony said.
"Did you just fake my death too?"
"Damn it, Tony."
Steve searched for the words he wanted. He actually had a pretty good idea which words he wanted, but he searched for ones that would be less insulting. He had been trying to patch things up with Tony and he still wanted to, no matter how difficult that was proving to be.
"You can't just..." Steve sighed. "This is the sort of thing that keeps getting you in trouble."
"I know, okay? The thing is, I knew you wouldn't agree to this, but I think the person threatening me works for S.H.I.E.L.D."
"What makes you think that?"
"He showed up on top of my building in a quinjet wearing a S.H.I.E.L.D uniform. That good enough for you?"
"Not necessarily." Steve could think of at least ten other possibilities. So could Tony.
"Well, here's the thing. I think S.H.I.E.L.D itself might be doing this. The organization." He was sounding paranoid again.
"Tony, I think I would know if—"
"Would you? Really?" Tony asked. "Officially they don't even exist right now. You and I both know they do, and nobody's had a good grasp on them since Fury disappeared."
"Why are you so worried?" Steve asked. "If this story gets out, you'll deal with it. Worse things have happened... like when everyone thought you killed that ambassador."
"There's something you're not telling me."
"There's a lot I'm not telling you. I just need you to trust me."
Steve's stare let Tony know that wasn't going to happen. "I need you to tell me," he said softly.
"Okay. S.H.I.E.L.D has a lot of information on me. I'd rather none of it get out. There's also the tiny detail that... whoever this is... he threatened to kill you."
"Somebody threatened to kill me if you didn't cut contact, and your first thought is that S.H.I.E.L.D is working against you?"
"I know it sounds..."
"It sounds insane, Tony."
"I know that! I know. Seriously. I can't tell you the one thing that brings it together. I just can't. I know it's confusing, and I know I've given you no reason to, but I need you to trust me on this."
The worry in his voice made Tony sound more like his usual self, and Steve knew that he was telling the truth—at least, what he believed was the truth. Given that this was Tony Stark, that could be a very dangerous thing.
The world once again mourned the death of Captain America. Coverage of Tony Stark's death, on the other hand, recounted far more controversies than accomplishments. The two men watched this macabre footage in relative silence until Steve noticed the defeated expression on Tony's face.
"I don't think it's fair," Steve said.
"I've made my share of mistakes that they won't talk about."
"Yeah, well... that's what happens when you're Captain America."
"What's the plan then, Tony?"
"I, uh, honestly don't have one." Tony scratched his head. "Mostly I was thinking I'd get you out of harm's way."
"I can take care of myself."
"I know you can. That's not... I just needed to make sure. I already lost you once." Tony's voice, as much as he willed it not to, cracked slightly at the end of that sentence.
"I'll call in a favor," Steve said, "that is, if you don't mind another dead man on your team."
"Bucky," Steve answered.
"So I'm not the only one keeping secrets—"
"Don't. You keep scanning and see if you can find any information on S.H.I.E.L.D's whereabouts."
That's what Tony did, but there was nothing to be found. Wherever S.H.I.E.L.D was, whoever was in charge... they were off the grid entirely. After two days of fruitless search, Bucky stopped by.
"You know you shouldn't fake your death," he said.
"...Yeah." Tony said.
"Did you find anything?" Steve asked.
"You have to let me tell Sharon," Bucky said, changing the subject.
Steve was pensive.
"She was a S.H.I.E.L.D agent," Tony said.
"I can't, Bucky," Steve said, "but please tell me you found something."
"I did." Bucky set a laptop down on the dining room table. "This belonged to Nick Fury."
"How did you get your hands on it?" Tony asked.
"Does it matter?" Bucky and secrets went together exceptionally well. He turned to Steve. "You know how to get ahold of me if you need anything else."
The drop point. "Yeah," Steve said.
Tony had cracked the encryption on the laptop within the hour, and he hogged it in a way that made Steve uncomfortable. When he asked if Tony wanted to take a break for a while, Tony pulled the laptop closer. So Steve tried a different strategy.
"Can you go get some food?" Steve asked.
"Again? You do it."
"I'm recognizable." Steve had dyed his hair brown, but it hadn't made much of a difference. Tony, on the other hand, had shaven his signature goatee and gone blonde. Sometimes Steve almost forgot who he was looking at.
"Fine," Tony said, "but don't touch anything."
No sooner than he left the room, Steve grabbed the laptop and began searching through its files. He figured he had maybe fifteen minutes before Tony came back with shawarma, and he wanted to make his search count. He found the folder containing information on Tony, but something told him to pass it over. Tony was obsessed with the idea that someone at S.H.I.E.L.D was going to kill Steve, so Steve made the judgment call that there might be useful information in his own files.
Most of the files contained expected information: project rebirth, his testimony about the SHRA following his resurrection, and so on. But there was one thing that stood out: surveillance footage marked with the date of the day after Steve's death. Surveillance of what?
He pressed play, and then he was looking at an overhead view of his own corpse, his shield lying atop his still chest. He hadn't actually died, of course. People don't return from death, and Steve had actually been trapped in the space time continuum. He didn't really understand it, to be honest. He also didn't understand why Nick Fury would have kept footage of his body lying on a table, that is until he saw Tony walk into the room in his armor. He sat down next to Steve's body, took his helmet off and placed it in his lap, then began speaking. When he started talking about King Arthur and Doctor Doom, Steve almost stopped the footage. He had no desire to see more of Tony's crazy ramblings; he was on the receiving end of enough of those on an almost daily basis.
He felt compelled to keep watching until he saw Tony begin to cry. The tears were subtle at first, and Tony's voice was only slightly unsteady as he spoke. "The good news is...through all of this... I never took a drink! And if I didn’t drink during this I’m probably never going to. So there’s that..."
Then the tears began to flow steadily, and Steve felt dirty. He shouldn't have been watching this, but his curiosity wouldn't let him turn it off. He told himself he'd forgiven Tony, but some small part of him wanted to see the other man hurting over what he'd done. And Tony did hurt as he spoke. "To do what I needed to do to win this quickly, I knew that meant you and I would probably never speak again... or be friends again...or partners again. I told myself I was okay with it because I knew I was right and I knew it was saving lives."
Tony's voice became louder and more broken. "It was! It was the right thing to do! And I was willing to get in bed with people we despise to get this done. And I knew the world favors the underdog and I would be the bad guy. I knew this and I said I was okay with it. And...and even though I said... Even though I said I was willing to go all the way with it... I wasn’t. And... and I know this because the worst has happened. The thing I can’t live with...has happened..."
Steve began to feel sick at how hard Tony had taken his death and guilty for how stern he'd been with him lately. On the screen, Tony's voice continued. "...And for all our back and forth and all the things we’ve said and done to each other... For all the hard questions I’ve had to ask, and terrible lies I’ve had to tell... There’s one thing that I’ll never be able to tell anyone now. Not my friends or my co-workers or my President...The one thing! The one thing I should have told you, but now I can’t..."
What was it? Was he going to say the war wasn't worth it? Apologize for taking the side he did? On screen, Tony paused a moment. He set down the helmet he had held in his hands thus far, and leaned in closer to Steve's lifeless face. Then something unexpected happened. Tony collapsed sobbing onto Steve's shield and muttered the words "I love you."
"... More than anything... I love you, Steve... I'm so sorry."
Steve closed the window, slammed the laptop shut and practically jumped away from it. He had to have misheard. Tony couldn't have meant that he loved Steve more than... no, not in a romantic way. Or could he? When Tony returned with the food, Steve avoided making eye contact.
"What did you do?" Tony asked.
"You look guilty." Tony spoke between bites. "What did you do?"
"Nothing," Steve said.
"You were on the laptop."
"No... I wasn't." Steve was a horrible liar because he so rarely lied. For this, though, he felt compelled to.
"I'm scanning it right now, Steve. Someone was on it while I was gone, so unless there's a ghost in here, you've been snooping and—"
He couldn't do it. He couldn't keep it up. Steve set his sandwich down and spoke hesitantly. "Are you in love with me?"
Tony fell silent as he realized what Steve had seen. He stood up and walked away from the table. There was no point in denying it, but he sure as hell wasn't going to say anything further. He grabbed the laptop and his shawarma and walked toward the bedroom, shutting the door behind him. "I have work to do," he said.
Tony didn't leave the room for hours, so Steve settled in to sleep on the couch. It was a one bedroom apartment and though they had awkwardly shared the king sized bed the last two nights, that was no longer an option. Sleeping at all wasn't really an option, and Steve found himself lying on his back with his palm on his forehead wondering how this could have happened. How could a man like Tony Stark—who had innumerable women at his disposal—fall in love with a man, let alone a man who rarely agreed with him and had in fact waged a war against him?
What made matters worse was that Steve honestly didn't know what to say, or what to feel. Tony had always been his closest friend and the one man who thought of him as something more than Captain America. Now he thought of him as something more still. Was this new, or had Tony been hiding it for years? Steve wasn't upset, but he was very confused, and he knew Tony would give him no answers. Not until he was ready.
Tony apprehensively walked out of the bedroom, the laptop still in his hands. "That was rude. You can have the bed. I won't be sleeping anyway."
Steve sat up. "Tony..."
"Steve. Don't." He paused. "Take the bed or don't, but I'm not discussing my feelings f... with you."
He almost said "for." Steve was floored. "I think you need to," he said. Tony had been holding them in for at least a year.
"Don't," Tony repeated.
Steve stood up and walked toward the other man. "I mean it. You've been holding whatever this is in for a long time now. If you can say it to my dead body, you can say it now."
"You already know what I said. There is nothing else to say to you. Whoever's threatening me has this footage. They know, and they threatened to kill you because they know. I'm not going to let that happen."
Steve had moved in uncomfortably close at this point, and his face was inches from Tony's as he spoke in anger. "You were just going to string me along and not tell me any of this and I want to know—"
"What? Why wouldn't I tell you?" Tony spoke in a tone of complete disbelief. Disbelief that Steve could wonder why he would be dishonest about this. "Why would I embarrass myself?"
"Embarrass yourself? There's nothing embarrassing about—"
"Yes there is. Let's be honest here. I know you'll never feel the way I do, so I'm choosing to ignore it."
Steve was quickly becoming annoyed. "Right. That's the healthy thing to do," he said. Tony hiding what was going on inside his head had gotten them into more than enough trouble over the years.
"What do you want me to do, Steve?"
"I want you to talk to me, like we used to."
"I'm talking to you right now!" Tony said.
"You're not. Not really. You're being defensive again."
"Fine. I'll go on the offensive instead," Tony said stubbornly.
He grabbed Steve by the arms and pulled him in for the most uncomfortable kiss of either of their lives. When Tony pressed their lips together, Steve flinched and tightened his mouth. In an effort to further demonstrate his point, Tony forced his tongue into the narrow gap. Steve recoiled, pressed his arms hard against Tony's chest and pushed the man away from him.
Steve crossed his arms in discomfort and averted Tony's gaze.
"See?" Tony asked. "This would never work."
"I only wanted to know why," Steve said.
"Why do I love you?"
"Oh, that's a comfortable conversation to have."
"Tony. Please." When Steve spoke, he knew his gentle tone would elicit an answer. It did.
Tony sat down at the dining table. He sank into the chair with his arms folded across his lap in defeat. "You were dead," he said, "and I realized I couldn't do it. I couldn't go on without you."
"But you did. You were fine."
"I was not fine. I sank myself so far into my work that I did nothing else because... if I stopped thinking about work, I would think about you. And when I thought about you, I wanted to die."
"Tony..." Steve couldn't think of anything else to say.
"I realized how important you are to me. How you're always honest. How you keep me human. How..." He exhaled sharply. "...How goddamn beautiful you are." Then Tony realized what he had just said aloud. "Fuck."
"It's okay," Steve said, "I'm... flattered." Regardless of how flustered he was, that wasn't entirely a lie. A lot of people loved Captain America. Very few knew Steve Rogers well enough to love him. It was nice in a way, but Steve had never considered Tony to be anything more than a friend, and he still wasn't sure how Tony had made that leap.
Steve's charm made Tony feel the need to be honest. "In a way," he said, "it was better when you were gone." His eyes had turned red and wet. "I could at least pretend that we would be friends again if you came back. Now—"
"We're still friends," Steve said.
Tony let out a bitter laugh. "Yeah. We're really close. That's why I forced you undercover with me. That's why you snuck onto that laptop."
"Please. Spare me. The last time you and I were anything close to functional was—"
Tony actually couldn't think of a time their relationship was functional, but before he could try the apartment window was smashed in. Tony instinctively drew out his armor and moved in front of Steve, who gave him a look of slight contempt mixed with newfound understanding. He certainly didn't need to be helped, but he knew that Tony needed to help him.
The cause of the window's destruction appeared to be an Iron Man suit, and a quick check using Extremis confirmed Tony's suspicion. Someone had gotten their hands on his armor, and he was furious.
"How did you get that?!" he demanded.
"It doesn't matter. I need you to move out of the way so I can kill Captain America."
"Um, no." Tony said bluntly. "Who are you and how did you know we weren't dead?"
"I can't tell you that, but the world will end and everyone in it will die if Captain America lives."
"I've heard enough of this," Tony said.
"Tony..." Steve interrupted, then turned to the armored man. "How? How can I possibly cause the end of the world? If you tell me, I can avoid doing whatever it is."
"Trust me," the armor said, "you can't."
"Tell me," Steve said.
The armored man felt compelled to explain, which Tony found suspicious. He also found the fact that the Iron Man armor the man wore was a design Tony had never used. This was someone smart enough to not only use but to redesign his technology. But only someone who had been exposed to Extremis or a similar nanovirus could operate the armor these days.
"Oh, shit." Tony said, interrupting the beginning of the other man's speech. "You're me."
The armored man sighed. "Yeah."
"Why do you want to kill me?" Steve asked.
Future Tony removed his helmet. His hair was grey and his face was scarred many times over. He looked sincerely into Steve's blue eyes. "I don't. Believe me, this is the last thing I want to do."
"But?" Steve asked.
"But I can't stop you from—"
"From dating me."
Present Tony laughed. "You're kidding, right? We just went over this and there's no way in hell Steve would ever..."
"Yes he will," his future self replied, "and your...our relationship destroys the world as you know it."
"So I won't." Steve spoke with confidence. "Trust me, that's not going to be difficult."
"I wish that were true." Future Tony pointed a glove at Steve's face and prepared to fire. He used his own Extremis to hold the present Tony still.
"Wait!" Tony said. "Kill me instead."
"I would love to," his future self replied, "but I can't. I need you to trust me. Steve's going to be dead in three years anyway if I don't kill him now. I need to do it before he falls in love with us."
Moments before the future Tony could fire, a bullet pierced his head from behind. Nick Fury was standing on the hood of a flying S.H.I.E.L.D car at the window. In the driver's seat was Sharon Carter, who was visibly angry.
"What are you idiots doing?" Nick asked.
Tony looked down at the body of his future self. He was still alive, somehow. Nick hopped into the apartment and asked Steve for a hand getting the body into the backseat of the car. Steve obliged, and within the hour they were all standing in a briefing room in an underground bunker that acted as Nick Fury's new secret base. Sharon stood by the door, her arms crossed.
"What the hell made you think faking your deaths was a good idea?" Nick asked.
"I didn't," Steve said in a low tone. On the inside he was still somewhat shaken by what had just happened. The thought that he could be responsible for the end of the world was bad enough without adding the notion that he would fall in love with Tony. That was just perplexing.
"It was all me," Tony said, "I did it because one of your men threatened me."
"No shit." Nick was irritated. "I sent an agent to get you before your insane future self could."
"You knew about him?" Steve asked.
"Yeah." He turned to Tony. "If you would just listen once in a while—"
"Sorry. I don't do well with vague threats to my friends."
"What does he want?" Steve asked.
"Exactly what he told you. He thinks the world's going to end and it'll be your fault..."
"I don't understand."
"Welcome to the club. From what I gather, you two fall in love and that starts a chain reaction. We'll see what more we can find out when he wakes up."
"You shot him... me... in the head," Tony said.
"Yeah, with a virus. All I did was disable his Extremis, which in turn makes his armor useless."
Tony was startled. "You can do that?"
"Yeah. I called in a favor with Dr. Maya Hansen while you were busy arresting everyone."
"This is all nonsense," Steve said, looking directly at Sharon, "Tony and I aren't gay. We're not going to fall in love. He's probably from another dimension or something."
Tony shot a pained glare at Steve's attempt to protect his secret. "I'm analyzing his armor. It's from this timestream."
"And I'd like to point out that Stark already has the hots for you," Nick said without batting his eye.
Sharon finally broke her silence. "We've been tracking this for years. Ever since future Stark came to S.H.I.E.L.D and told us to keep you two separated. The SHRA did a good enough job of that, but now he's back. It must not have changed the outcome, so he's ready to take a more drastic measure."
"Change the outcome?" Steve asked. "You don't believe this, do you?"
"I didn't before... Can I talk to you in private?"
Steve stepped outside into the hallway with Sharon.
"Don't ever do that again." Sharon had already watched Steve die once, and she had been the one to shoot him. She had spent the last three days sick at the thought that it had happened again.
"I didn't," Steve said, "and I wanted to tell you but Tony—"
"Well, I'm glad his opinion means so much to you."
"Sharon?" Steve put a hand on her shoulder. "What's wrong?"
"I don't know. I thought it was crazy, but then I saw that footage and Tony—"
"I saw it too," Steve said, "but that's him. Not me." He pulled Sharon toward him and kissed her, then pulled back and looked into her eyes. "I love you."
Back inside the room, the older Tony had finally woken up and began speaking to his younger self and Nick.
"I thought things would play out differently," he said.
"So you've done something before," Nick said.
Future Tony turned to his younger self. "I convinced you to support registration. Last time around you and Steve fought on the same side. He died, came back, and you got together."
"Convince? You convinced me? What did you do?"
"I doesn't matter."
As he said that, Steve and Sharon re-entered the room.
"Whatever it was, I think it worked," Tony said, "since now we don't get along at all."
Future Tony stared at Steve for a moment. "It didn't work. If it had worked, I wouldn't be here."
"I still don't get why you're here. Or why you're convinced you have to kill Cap," Nick said.
The future Tony spoke. "I've done the math. I have gone back and changed every variable but this one. We date. He dies. Then you abandon Iron Man and your company. There's a takeover by Justin Hammer working with the Mandarin, and before you know it ninety percent of the world's population is wiped out by a nanovirus. The last ten percent gets taken down by Ultron."
"You're crazy," Tony said.
"Yeah? Well I'm crazy."
"Please listen to me. I've tried everything. When I kill Hammer, someone else takes over. When I try to stop you from quitting, nothing changes. Every time I try to stop Steve from dying, he does. Somehow he always does."
"Have you considered that maybe you can't change the future?" Steve asked.
"You can always change the future," Tony snapped. He turned to his future self. "You just haven't tried hard enough." He then faced Nick. "What are we going to do with him?"
"I have tried everything!" Future Tony interrupted. He stood up and confronted his younger self. "I am you. I am as recklessly, hopelessly in love with Steve as you are. I know what you dream about." The younger man's eyes were fixed open. His lip quivered slightly. Everyone else in the room averted their eyes in discomfort. Steve was clearly the most uncomfortable as he took a seat and pressed his palm against his forehead, shielding his eyes.
"So who kills him?" Tony asked. "Who kills Steve?"
"It's different every time. It's been Red Skull. It's been Mandarin. It's been Batroc the Leaper."
Tony stifled a laugh. "Seriously?"
"I don't see how this is funny."
"It's not." Tony smiled. "What's funny is that you haven't figured it out by now. Maybe you're too old or grief-stricken or whatever..."
"You keep changing things and it doesn't alter the future at all? Self, you are looking at a time—"
The older Tony had a realization. "Kang."
"You've been played, Self."
"Stop calling me that."
"What's the end game?" Steve interrupted.
"Well, you must have pissed him off," Tony said to his older self.
"How would I have done that? I was working with him to stop Ultron from destroying what was left of the planet. Which, by the way, leads me to believe it's not Kang. Why would he want to destroy the planet after he just saved it?"
"He doesn't," Tony said, "I don't think. I honestly think he's just fucking with you."
Steve looked at the young Tony. "Or sending you a message," he said.
"I'll save you idiots the trouble of thinking since you're obviously not good at it." Kang. Out of nowhere he was standing directly behind Steve and Sharon.
"What are you trying to do here?" Steve asked.
Steve turned around and demanded answers in a way that—so help him—Tony found unbelievably sexy. His future self scanned Tony's face knowingly, flustering the younger man and causing him to shift his focus away from Steve and on to Kang.
"I've been trying to get you to realize that you two can't be together. It is imperative in stopping Ultron."
"And you want to stop Ultron why?" Sharon asked.
"Because he can't conquer the world if there's nothing left of it," the older Tony said.
"What do I do?" Steve demanded. "What do I do that helps Ultron?"
"It's nothing you do," Kang said, "but what you do not."
"Meaning what exactly?"
"You're so preoccupied with your relationship that you miss a critical chance to stop Ultron."
"There is no relationship." Steve was obviously becoming frustrated. "And you know what? I'm going to stop Ultron right now and put an end to this."
"Steve, we don't even—" Tony started. He sighed as Steve walked out of the room.
Steve was about to leave Fury's compound when a heavy hand grabbed him by the shoulder.
"Bucky." Steve turned around.
"Can we talk?"
"I was gonna say 'about you going on a crusade to find a killer robot who's supposed to be dead' but I'll settle for 'you and Tony.'"
"Damn it. There isn't a 'me and Tony' and I'm tired of everyone saying there is."
"Isn't there?" Bucky asked pointedly.
"You're trying to find Ultron! Obviously you believe these guys are from the future. Why wouldn't everything they're saying be true?" He paused. "I mean... Isn't there a reason you two are still friends in spite of everything you've done to each other?"
"No more reason than I have for being friends with anyone else."
"Then why have you been avoiding being alone with him since Fury dragged you here?"
"Why are you doing this?" Steve asked.
"Because I'm your friend. You're not thinking straight, and you're going to go get yourself killed." He paused and looked Steve directly in the eyes. "You wanna stop Ultron? Fine. But you take the guy with the master's in engineering who wears robotic armor inside his goddamned skin."
"You're right." He was, of course. Steve knew it, and he knew he would have to have another uncomfortable conversation with Tony, the man who said earlier that he wanted to die when Steve was gone.
He didn't confront Tony in person. Instead, he used his comm link to ask Iron Man to join him in a quinjet. That request had been first met with a sarcastic "I don't need a jet to fly, Steve" and eventually a reluctant agreement. Steve piloted the vehicle out of the compound while Tony sat awkwardly next to him in his full armor.
"Remind me to ask Fury how he kept all this stuff while I was Director of S.H.I.E.L.D," Tony said.
"Tony," Steve said, "I want you to know—"
"Oh, Christ," Tony said. Steve could swear he saw Tony's eyes roll through the helmet. "We're going to visit Hank, right?"
"Let's just do that."
They flew in silence until they arrived in Los Angeles at the Avengers Academy where Hank Pym had been for several months. He greeted them when they landed and led them toward his private office.
"I can't say I'm upset to see you two, but if it's about joining the Avengers again I'm going to have to decline."
"It's not," Steve said.
Hank's face turned serious. "Then what's wrong?"
"Ultron," Tony answered, "he's supposed to be dead. You're not working on building another one are you?"
"Of course not... But he's not dead."
"We destroyed him with a virus when he took over my armor," Tony said.
"Yeah, we did. Unfortunately he can keep his consciousness alive without a body. And he can use human beings as hosts now."
"So we're looking at an Ultron who could be anyone," Steve said.
"Ultron's really the gift that keeps on giving, Hank," Tony said.
Steve admonished him. "Don't." Hank Pym had enough problems without being reminded of his mistakes.
"What brought this up?" Hank asked.
"I got a tip from my future self," Tony said.
"So it's serious." Hank paused in thought. "I'll see what I can do to track him and let you guys know. In the meantime, take this." He handed Steve a small gun.
"What is it?"
"Something I've been working on for a while now. If I'm right, it will destroy Ultron's consciousness once and for all. It will also destroy the host, so you'd better be one hundred percent sure when you use it."
"Thanks," Steve said.
As they left the office, Tony turned to Steve. "Why do you do that?"
"What?" Steve asked.
"When you're with everyone else it's 'let's all be respectful' and when you're with me it's 'damn it, Tony, what did you do this time?'"
"Do you really think that?" Steve asked. "Because everyone else thinks I go too easy on you."
"You just..." He sighed. "You get under my skin. You prod me to talk when I don't want to. You—"
"You wanna know how I developed feelings for you? Because you treat me differently than everyone else. You don't put on that Captain America act."
"It's not an act, and the reason I treat you differently is that you treat me differently. It's pretty simple."
"How do I—"
"Really, Tony? You want to know how you treat me differently? Tell me: if Thor died, would you say you wished you were dead too?"
"No, I wouldn't. You know why?" Tony stepped in close to Steve's face. "Because I'm in love with you."
Steve felt the warmth of Tony's breath on his face and something—some feeling—made him tremble. It wasn't love, he didn't think so, but Tony had stirred something inside of him. He silently put a hand on the side of Tony's face. Their eyes met and held for what seemed an eternity. Tony felt himself moving his lips toward Steve's. The motion was entirely involuntary, but was interrupted by Steve's voice.
"You mean a lot to me, Tony. I'm... sorry if I upset you." And with that, they were separated.
"I almost kissed Tony." Back at Fury's compound, Steve spoke in the closest thing to a panicked tone he could muster.
"That was fast," Bucky replied.
"Why aren't you surprised?"
"Why would I be? The sexual tension between you two... Well, you could start a war over it. The better question is why you're so freaked out."
"Because I don't want to die. If Kang and Tony are right about this, they're probably right about Ultron and they're probably right that I'm going to die."
"You really think it makes a difference who you sleep with?"
"They seem to think it does."
"Steve... You should have died in 1944. You should have died when Sharon shot you. If anyone can defy death, it's you."
"I shouldn't have mentioned it," Steve said, "I just need to go."
Within the hour, Steve was inside of Sharon, feeling guiltier with every thrust. It was amazing, really, the amount of guilt he was capable of feeling for something he had thought about but not done. Tony Stark had gotten to his head. When Steve came he thought about Tony's naked body and how perfect it was every time he had seen it in the showers. He began to understand how Tony could develop feelings for him so suddenly. Mostly he felt guilt. Sharon Carter was a good woman. She didn't deserve this.
On the other side of the compound, Tony was convinced that he was crazy. He spoke to his future self.
"I swear I felt something," he said, "like Steve was going to kiss me."
"That's unfortunate," his future self replied, "because without Extremis I can't get back to the future. And that means I'm going to have to kill your boyfriend three years ahead of schedule."
"What? I thought we agreed that—"
When his future self backhanded him in the face, the force was hundreds of times stronger than Tony had ever been or would ever be. Before he blacked out, he realized that his future self had been taken by Ultron. He wanted to warn Steve, but everything was gone...
Sharon knew something was wrong, and she knew Steve was too honest to not admit to it. The problem was that she didn't want to know. She had a sneaking suspicion it involved a certain genius billionaire, and that wasn't an issue she wanted to confront if she could help it. So she didn't say a word.
Fury called everyone in to his war room. Steve and Sharon were the last to arrive and when they did, Steve immediately noticed that Tony wasn't there.
"We have a big fucking problem," he said.
"What happened?" Steve asked.
"Stark is dead." Sharon glanced at an openly horrified Steve. There was an immediate sinking feeling in his stomach. Then Nick continued. "The future one. Our Stark is missing and, I believe, possessed by Ultron."
"How?" Bucky asked.
"We've scanned this guy before, but we didn't have a way to detect that he was Ultron. We brought Pym in and he confirmed."
"So you think he jumped from that body into our Tony?" Steve asked.
"I have the weapon Hank gave us to stop Ultron," Steve said.
"Well, great," Bucky said.
"It would kill Tony."
"Not so great, then."
Steve turned to Nick. "Get Hank. See if there's another way." Then he walked toward the door.
"What are you going to do?" Sharon asked.
"I'm going to find Tony."
"That's a bad idea," Nick said.
"You're not going to stop him," Bucky said to Nick as Steve left the room.
Before the Superhuman Civil War, Tony had given Steve access to his armor. The idea was that, if Tony ever went out of control, someone would be able to take him down. He never rescinded Steve's access—not even through the worst of the fighting—so Steve was able to easily track him down using a Stark Industries laptop. Ultron either didn't know about this or didn't care because he knew Steve couldn't defeat him. He laughed when Steve appeared on the rooftop of the Baxter building to confront him.
"Really? You?" Ultron teased.
"Yeah. Me." Steve said.
"I suppose you want me to give this body back."
"Why would I do that when it gives me access to every satellite in your world?"
"Because I have the one weapon that can kill you," Steve answered, flashing the gun at Ultron. "Doctor Pym invented it to get rid of you for good."
"My father—" Ultron paused. "You want to make a trade?"
"Yes. You leave him, I give you the gun."
"I suppose I could inhabit one of his armors instead."
"Is that a yes?"
Tony's body fell to the ground in a heap, and it occurred to Steve that he should have asked Ultron to make sure Tony was alive. Steve knelt down and found that Tony wasn't breathing. He didn't hesitate; he began chest compressions immediately. "Come on, Tony," he murmured. There was no response. He pinched Tony's nose shut and breathed, then began pressing on his chest again. "Tony." Steve was not the kind of person to experience panic, but he was close to it after another set of breathing failed to change anything. "Tony!" More compressions. No result.
A tear rolled down Steve's cheek. "Damn it." He understood. He understood what had happened when Tony thought he was dead because it was happening to him now. He nearly collapsed atop the body, leaned in and looked at Tony's face up close. It was beautiful. "Tony..."
Suddenly there was a sound—a sharp burst of air—and Tony's eyes were filled with life again. He looked up and saw the look on Steve's face. "Who died?" he asked.
"Tony." Steve's voice betrayed his excitement.
"I'm not an expert, but don't think CPR is performed lying on top of someone staring at their face."
Steve pressed his lips against Tony's. There was kissing—long, drugging kissing—and unlike in the nondescript apartment the day before, it was wonderful. After what had to have been at least twenty minutes, Tony pulled away and sat up.
"How did you get Ultron to leave me?"
"I traded Hank's gun for you."
"What? Are you insane?"
Steve smiled. "He has another one."
On the way back to Fury's compound, Tony asked a lot of questions. He was a scientist; he couldn't help it.
"What if Hank didn't have another gun?" he asked.
"We'd have found another way," Steve said.
"After how many people died?"
"Tony. Don't." Steve didn't have a good answer for that question.
"Are we a thing now? Is this a thing?"
"I... I think so."
"What are you going to tell Sharon?"
"I don't know."
"Tony!" Steve blurted.
"You are exhausting."
Back in Fury's briefing room, Hank Pym had joined Nick, Bucky, and Sharon. They were all seated when Tony and Steve walked in.
"So you two did it," Fury said. They exchanged a curious glance. "How?"
"I exchanged Hank's gun for Tony's body," Steve said.
"Why would you—" Bucky started.
"He has another one."
"I never told you that," Hank said.
"I had faith in you," Steve answered. "Now all we have to do is find Ultron."
"It shouldn't be too difficult since he's piggybacking on my technology," Tony said.
It wasn't, and within hours Hank Pym did the satisfying deed himself with the others backing him up. It was almost too easy, and Steve was sure that everyone felt that way. Ultron would probably be back, but for now it didn't matter. When everyone returned to Fury's base, Sharon stopped him in the hallway.
"So Ultron's whole thing was to come back and try to trick you two into not dating because the two of you together stop him."
"And barring that, kill me," Steve said.
"Well neither of you are dead and Ultron's stopped." She paused. "Did he fail at his mission?"
Steve was uncomfortable, but honest. "Tony and I kissed."
Sharon sighed. "I knew this would happen."
"Sharon, I'm sorry."
"Don't be. I've known this was coming since I saw Tony's confession."
How did everyone else see this coming but Steve? He joined Tony in one of Fury's spare quarters. Following the showdown with Ultron, Tony had colored his hair back to its normal black. The facial hair would take a week or two to grow back into form, but he was already looking more handsome as he sat on a loveseat.
"We should probably come out," Tony said.
Steve was flustered. "What?"
"As alive, I mean."
"You should have seen the look on your face," Tony laughed.
Steve changed the subject and took a seat next to Tony. "So, Kang—"
"Kang's a dick." Tony spoke with confidence. "Ultron's devastation would have been advantageous to him somehow. So he played us."
"You really think all this is over?"
"None of this is ever over." Tony's world-weariness was concerning.
Steve pondered that for a moment, then spoke. "I think I understand you now."
"I guarantee you that's not true."
"I mean why you've been acting the way you have. Being frustrated, secretive..." Tony cringed as Steve spoke. "I saw it in myself when you were compromised. The truth is... I would have made that deal whether Hank had another weapon or not. Even with everything that's happened in the last few days. Even thinking I could have caused the end of the world. I would have done it." Steve hesitated. "I would have done it for you."
"I'm glad you didn't have to."
Steve rested his head on Tony's shoulder and they sat for hours.