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Beside You In Time

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N.

MAENUM

 

[Tony Stark, Master of Machines, has a blood alcohol level of .349. He flies an aircraft of his own design 50 billion miles away from the surface of the sun towards a Dyson sphere of his own design and construction. He throws energy into the panels. I am Icarus, he tells someone less intelligent than himself over the comm. You know who thought like that, he says, people who never learned to fly. The Dyson sphere grows hot and gleams gold in the reflected solar heat. It draws in the star, it sucks the radiation greedily in, and then it will destroy the Shi’ar Empire in one fell swoop, and then – and then. His suit tells him he has radiation poisoning. He fixes it with a tweak to the suit’s biosphere. It doesn’t matter. He’s going to be a hero.

Tony Stark blinks to white eyes, engineers a massive enhancile dump into the San Francisco water supply. He watches the nanobots swim and circle each other and move in an elegant swarm through the dams, through the processing plants, undetected. This is creation, he thinks. This is life. This is benevolence.

Tony Stark does a body shot off of a male model who hangs off his bed, covered in come, Tony’s, who slurs his speech and can’t quite open his blue eyes all the way. The alcohol warms him in a rush of spectacular color, Extremis’ latest bonus: synesthesia. He is better than these people, but he can enjoy beauty. He does another shot and kisses the man, sloppy, on the mouth.

Tony Stark eggs Captain America on. Go on, do it, Steve, is that all you have, Cap. The words spit and bite and Tony flushes hot when he feels his collarbone shatter under the weight of the shield. His teammates watch. He is being abandoned. He laughs. He’s better than them, now.

Tony Stark sits at a table with powerful men. Tony Stark is a powerful man. Tony Stark no longer has an infinity gem to hold because of Captain America. He hears his body falling to the ground and thinks about what he has in his liquor cabinet. It was necessary.

Tony Stark suggests they erase Captain America’s memory. No one objects.

Tony Stark licks Captain America’s neck. He lets his legs fall open and enjoys the fucking he’s getting. There are not flowers on the nightstand. Tony, the man fucking into his body says like a prayer, and Tony puts out some moans. Checks his stocks. Checks his email. Checks out.

“Tony,” someone’s voice calls across space, over the comm. The panels are beginning to reconfigure; they swivel and the starlight glances off them. Tony shuts off the comm.

Tony Stark stands amongst powerful men and starts a cabal. It is for the greater good. Tony Stark keeps secrets, secrets that challenge the safety and freedom of his teammates. It is for the greater good.

Tony Stark’s spine is broken in three places, and he injects himself with a virus whose outcome he cannot reliably predict. This is the singularity, of which he has been secretly terrified for years, the moment when machine and man have to merge in order to survive. It is for the greater good.

Tony Stark stands at a grave. Tony Stark cries. Tony Stark is made a powerful government figure and then it is ripped away from him. Tony Stark is Iron Man. Tony Stark is an Avenger. Women and men use Tony Stark for personal gain and entertainment. Tony Stark is an alcoholic. Tony Stark doesn’t care if he lives or dies.

Tony Stark touches a slab of ice with a man frozen inside.

“Tony,” the voice comes again, but its urgency is eclipsed by the strongest sense of déja-vu he’s ever felt. He feels a tug on his atoms. He feels wrong.

The comm is off.

Make it better. The thought prances through his mind, and he doesn’t know where it comes from. It irks him. It ignites anger in him he is more than happy to embrace.

I am, he says. I am, I am, I am. He speaks to no one, to himself, to the gleaming cockpit. He blasts Nine Inch Nails until he can’t hear the readouts, keeps his eyes open until the last minute, until the panels are aligned and his white thumb is on the trigger mechanism, ready to fire.

He was wrong. He isn’t Icarus. Flying doesn’t have a fucking thing to do with this. Tony Stark is Ares. Tony Stark is become death, destroyer of worlds. Tony Stark has become a god.

Tony –]

 

I.  

ATONEMENT

 

Rumiko 

 

Steve Rogers watches as Tony kneels in the mud in his dress pants and rakes his hand absently through the snow.

Steve doesn’t fully understand why Tony wants him here, if this is a test, if it’s a crutch, but here he is, watching Tony kneel in the mud in his suit.

The day is brilliant and bitterly cold. It’s so different, not like Europe or Canada, not like New York. Serene. Steve understands why they spent so much of their time here. Kyoto is quiet, stark, beautifully desolate, the skeletal cherry trees silhouetted against the sky smudged pink and purple as the sun goes down.

And there is Steve, who doesn’t belong here, not really, Steve, who is halfway across the world because it’s been a year, and because Tony asked him.

It takes him three hours to walk up to her grave, to pull Tony to his feet and steer him, sagging, to the car. He asks the driver to take them back to the hotel in broken Japanese. Tony is curled into a ball against the far door, and there isn’t a fucking thing Steve can do.

The suite is perfectly adequate for Steve’s taste. No suspicious glances are thrown when they check in, no sidelong looks as Steve opens the door and Tony slumps through, dragging his feet.

Tony looks at the vase of spindly flowers on the nightstand and without a word, sheds his jacket and slouches into the bathroom.

The lock clicks shut, and Steve can’t even find it in him to be mad.

When Tony crawls up onto the platform and into bed with him in briefs and one of Steve’s t-shirts, it’s dark, and it’s raining, and Steve is halfway to sleep. Tony slinks up his body, settles himself into the planes of Steve, and buries his face in Steve’s chest.

“Tony,” Steve murmurs, because he doesn’t know what comfort to offer. He doesn’t know what he’s doing here. It wasn’t his loss; what grief he felt, he felt for Tony. But everything here is raw, the hurt fresh again, amplified enough to drown them both.

Tony curls around him and presses his fingertips into Steve’s ribs, clings and shivers like he’s bursting with the unbearable loss of it all, like it’s new again, like the wound was dealt yesterday instead of a year ago, like he’s going to die if his body leaves the warmth of Steve’s skin.

He lets out a lungful of air that might be a sob.

Tony shifts off of him, and Steve moves his arm. He thinks Tony is going to slip out of bed. He thinks Tony is going to lock himself in the bathroom and run the shower and pretend that Steve doesn’t know he’s sobbing again.

Steve gasps, because Tony slides down between Steve’s legs, under the covers, and just rests his cheek on Steve’s thigh, his breath ghosting out of him in hot sighs against his cock.

“Hey,” Steve says, and tries to pull him up, but Tony buries his face in Steve, clutches his thighs like he’s never going to let go.

Tony reaches up and grabs Steve’s hand, and then Steve feels him suck his balls into his mouth.

His stomach crawls. He wants to tell him no, he wants to sit him down and scream at him, what am I to you. He lies perfectly still, complicit in this, too, just like he walked onto the plane himself, just like he said “yes” when Tony asked him to do this, to make this trip to pay respects to the love of his life. He lets it happen, lets Tony run his fingers through his pubes and nuzzle his cock until he’s hard and gently fit his mouth around him with terrifying reverence.

Tony hooks his arms up under Steve’s thighs, just rests his head on the crease of Steve’s hip and thigh, tongues at the underside of Steve’s cock and shakes. Steve can’t see his face, can’t bring himself to run his fingers through Tony’s hair. He thinks he’s not that hard, but Tony just suckles at him, presses his tongue insistently against Steve’s glans, sucks at his foreskin like Steve isn’t lying there like a fucking doll waiting for it to be over.

His crotch feels cold, where Tony’s mouth isn’t on it. Tony’s shucked the blanket down, bared him to the room, and this is not what Steve wanted, not tonight, not like this. He should be pushing him off, saying no. Moaning. Pick one. He throws his head back into the pillows and looks at his phone on the nightstand with 6 unanswered texts from Rachel while Tony’s mouth latches onto him and Tony’s thumbs dig into his thighs like he might disappear if he lets go.

“To–” Steve gasps, and his hands have nothing to hold on to. “Tony.”

Tony doesn’t look up, not once, not when he knows Steve is about to come, not when Steve’s hips twist desperately and he accidentally fucks up into Tony’s mouth.

Tony swallows with his eyes closed, but he’s shaking, and Steve feels some of it sliding off his chin and down his cock. Tony licks him clean, wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.

He wipes his eyes, too, and that’s when Steve starts to feel appalled.

Tony apparently doesn’t think it’s worth mentioning, because he tucks Steve back into his briefs and crawls into a ball on the far side of the enormous bed, his back turned to Steve.

Not a word.

It feels awful, and Steve is a bastard if he says so, so he doesn’t.

He pulls the blanket over Tony, catches himself leaning in for a kiss. That’s not what they’re doing. Tony wouldn’t want–

He doesn’t have a clue what Tony wants.

Steve rifles through Tony’s bag because it’s already open, finds a tube of toothpaste next to a bottle of Astroglide that was never going to get used on this trip, slinks into the bathroom to wash his teeth and pat down his crotch with a washcloth.

Steve scoops his pillow up and shuffles away to sleep on the couch, because he doesn’t understand. Because he’s tired.

Because he doesn’t know why Tony Stark is fucking him, but Steve is gone for him.

Steve’s feet hang off the sofa, and after a little while, he hears it, Tony crying in the bedroom, and all Steve can do is shove his head under the pillow and know he can’t ever be what she was for him.

 

- - -

 

Tony is perfectly congenial on the plane back to Seattle. He sits across from Steve, thumbs at his phone like he’s irritated or preoccupied, or both, but Steve may as well be invisible. He doesn’t factor into Tony’s world, not right now. He has a million things more important to worry about – death threats from the DoD debacle, piecing together what’s left of his assets after he had to sell the controlling interest in the company.

The smoking wreck of the Mansion in Midtown.

It occurs to Steve that Tony always looks his best when he’s shaking apart at the seams, right before he tips over the cliff.

He realizes he doesn’t even feel like a friend, here. He feels like a security detail. Tony has decided to pretend they’re just colleagues, today. Cameras, he’d say, if Steve decided to press the issue. Paparazzi. Put on your sunglasses, Steve.

But Tony is immaculately made up today, like he’s expecting press. Thirty minutes of cold water on his face to bring the puffiness in his eyes down, 3 minutes to hide the dark circles under his eyes, twelve minutes of small talk over breakfast, a sharp smile for the stewardess that offers them wine at 4:30 a.m. Pacific Standard.

His own phone buzzes.

buymediamonds: wanna get lunch?

Rachel has worse timing than Tony does. He doesn’t know why she’s texting him. They haven’t been talking, not really, not since the LMD thing. They’re not an item. She made that clear the last time she left his apartment wearing his sweatpants.

If he told her he was screwing Tony Stark, she’d probably laugh and kiss him and whisper in his ear to request a threesome.

buymediamonds: I just got paid

buymediamonds: by which I mean I just paid myself

He imagines saying yes, having a lunch date. He imagines the press, imagines the carefully-masked devastation on Tony’s face, and how petty is that. How pathetic does that make Steve; Tony doesn’t even know he’s done anything. Tony’s mind is on Rumiko, Tony’s mind is on his thousandth suit revamp, on losing the company, the U.N. funding, his title, his team.

Tony takes failure and bundles it up under his skin until he breaks apart or shines with the impossibility of it. There is no halfway.

Tony watches his phone and Steve watches Tony. Steve’s barely seen him eat anything all weekend. He hasn’t done anything to his hair but the pomade this morning. Steve hates that he knows that, because Tony doesn’t give a fuck about what Steve does with his hair.

Steve almost texts Rachel back out of spite, and of course Tony chooses that moment to pick his head up and grin that empty grin Steve’s been watching him do for the camera since they put the Avengers back together.

“Have some sushi,” Tony says, and pushes the plate at him with chopsticks.

“I don’t want sushi, it’s five in the morning.”

Tony taps on his phone.

Tony,” Steve says, and throws the newspaper at him.

Tony’s face draws into a thin smile before he looks up. “Yes?” he says, like they’re in some office and Steve is Tony’s client and Tony can’t be bothered.

And that’s the problem, Steve can’t will him to care.

Steve puts on his best press face, because he’s been playing this game longer than Tony. “Are we gonna talk about what happened last night, Shellhead?”

He means to slice. It’s petty, and it’s mean, and it makes Tony’s smile evaporate.

“You didn’t have to come with me,” he says to the table tray, tapping compulsively on his phone, and Steve wants to rip the fucking thing out of his hand. Steve wants to ream him for putting to words every nagging doubt and suspicion he’s been trying to quell ever since Tony slid into the shower behind him last Tuesday and kissed his neck and whispered into his shoulder blade instead of just asking like a normal fucking person asks. So, he’d said. I’m going to Kyoto.

“So, no, then,” Steve says.

 

 II.

REVISIONIST HISTORY

 

“2.46 is your change,” sir, the barista says. His hand grazes Steve’s. He wears his facial hair like Tony.

“Have a great day,” the barista says. His eyes are striking. Brown, not blue.

It takes him 20 minutes to walk back. It’s seven blocks. He uses a cane. He tells himself that it’s nice to be rid of the paparazzi. That he’s not a lecherous old man. That this is what he wanted, after all. He’s lived beyond his years so many times. At least now, he actually looks it.

The mansion isn’t bad. He can paint in the afternoon if the light is right. Recently he’s been painting the horses that stand tethered outside the curb. He feathers red in around their eyes, soot on their beautiful white noses, the dip of their necks as they cough.

Maria calls him when he’s painting. 

“Hello, Maria,” he says. “What’s up?”

There’s a snort, on the other end. “I’ve left you six messages today, and you pick up your cell phone when you’re literally two stories above the control center?”

“Would you like me to transfer you to Agent 13,” Steve deadpans in his best secretarial impression.

“Your boyfriend is selling weaponized Extremis to the highest bidder. You need to assemble a team to deal with this, or I’m going to do it.”

It’s all of those words in the same sentence. Assemble. Team. Deal. Do it.

Steve hangs up.

 

- - -

 

The alerts keep coming through, but Maria just sends them through the house AI Tony built when he still had his soul. He doesn’t have to look at the intel; they all knew this was coming. It will be Russia, China, Saudi Arabia. Latveria and North Korea, if Tony is feeling capricious. Doom claims he’s cozy with S.H.I.E.L.D. now, Tony knows that. They all stand on shaky alliances. Steve’s bet is on Putin. Steve’s bet is that it’s already been sold. Tony will quietly start World War Three with one hand curled around a champagne flute.

There was a time that would bother him, that the stab of righteous injustice would well up in him and spur him to be something bigger than himself. There was a time when things were life and death, when things were acute, when the call to rally was sharp and bright and sang through him. There was a time for jokes, there was a time for waking up in the morning and having time to marvel at the world.

He thinks he used to do this job because he cared.

He is expected to put on his suit and call the Pentagon and call Interpol and probably call Rhodey and order an assault on Tony’s house. He is supposed to hunt this man like it’s nothing, like they never had anything, like after all these years, somehow it won’t be like stabbing the knife between his own ribs.

They’re going to send someone else to throw that EMP. To put that bullet between Tony’s eyes.

Steve draws the horses, wide-eyed and desperate and shackled, and sits quietly in the house that used to be a home. 

“Steve,” Sharon’s voice comes, sharp and searching, from downstairs.

 

- - -

 

He hasn’t been in here in years.

The lights stutter on; there’s a bulb burned out. No one ever had access to this but him and Tony, anyway. The smell is old, leather and neatsfoot and old canvas. He touches the things of his past. Wrinkled skin on wrinkled leather, liver-spotted fingers on the lapels of his old dress uniform.

Other things made it into this room, bit by bit. A picture of Steve sitting up on a hospital bed for the first time after the ice, loopy with morphine, flipping the bird at whoever took the picture (probably Jan). Things Tony bought at auction even after he joined the team – tin signs, some of his old artwork before he got big, framed, now.

A picture of Tony with his helmet off, his armored arm slung around Steve’s shoulders. They’re both laughing and bloody.

Tony is looking at Steve like he’s the goddamned sun.

Steve’s phone rings.

“Maria–”

“Look outside,” she says.

“No,” he says. “I’m inside.”

Maria is silent, and then a picture comes through.

It’s taken from the deck of the Helicarrier, looking skyward. It’s a fleet of several thousand ships hanging dark in the bright sky. She forwards him the message they just projected. Two hours. They have two hours.

The sun looks wrong, like half of it’s been shuttered off.

“That’s the fucking Shi’ar Empire, Rogers,” she spits. “And that’s Tony Stark’s Dyson Sphere being prepped to blow them all to hell. Get. Here.”

I used you, Tony says, and I’d do it again.

He throws his phone against the wall. He punches the mannequin down. He rips the fucking goddamned American flag off the wall. He breaks everything he can reach. He breaks it all. He tears the shield, the first shield, off the wall and smashes the display cases until they’re shards on the floor. He hates.

He can still hear it, Tony telling him that it was always a lie. That there was never any hope.

He puts his fist right through the photograph and doesn’t even feel it.

“I quit,” he says to no one.

 

- - -

 

Sharon is making afternoon coffee in the expansive kitchen when Steve comes out of hiding. He fumbles to shrug his jacket off, holds his fragile hand in front of him with glass shards dark with blood against his paper-thin skin. His fingers ache with the effort of it.

He is becoming a ghost in the halls of this ancient house.

Sharon comes up behind him, folds her fingers together around his waist. Kisses his neck.

“Where have you been?” she says. “We need to be on this, calls are coming in from everywhere – hey, what? What did you do to your hand?”

Steve can’t stand it, so he shrugs out of it. No more lies. No more lying to himself. Her face is shocked, and his knee-jerk response is to laugh, but that would be cruel. He loves her, he does, he will always love her, but he’s so weary. He knows the face of farce by now. He knows she doesn’t find him attractive. She kisses him on the cheek like it’s an indulgence, like Steve is an old man to be indulged. She rests her hand on top of his, sometimes. She looks at him like she’s sad, like she’s still seeing what he was, like she’s still in love with the idea of who he was.

He still hasn’t figured out how to tell her he isn’t going to be that person again.

“I quit,” he says simply, and waits for her to argue.

Sharon stands there in the ridiculous foyer atop the enormous A laid into the marble floor, her Bluetooth clamped into her ear, and says, “I’m sorry?” Like she’s scandalized. Like she hasn’t seen this coming.

“There’s nothing we can do,” Steve says, because it’s true.

There are things Tony can do. There are things Tony will do. There are terrible lengths to which Tony will go to save his own skin, these days.

He goes to his bedroom. He strips off the leather, strips the star from his chest. Showers, for what seems like forever, steps out and just sits on the bed. Touches the duvet. Everything in this place was furnished by Tony, time after time, every brick in this home was rebuilt because of Tony.

That’s the answer.

He towels his grey hair. He puts on his old clothes, a pair of jeans too big on him now and a t-shirt that hangs off his body.

He thinks about how to tell Sharon. He wonders if she will forgive him.

He’s not going to tell Sharon until he’s gone.

The machine is still in storage, just like everything else. It survived the explosion all those years ago because Tony built the lower levels to survive a nuclear blast. It takes him a solid hour of prying crates open with a crowbar, and he’s pretty sure he throws out his back, but he finds the 90 feet of extension cord he needs after wrenching the doors to one of the workshops open. He roots around in a lab lit only with emergency lights and wonders if this is what it feels like to exist at the end of the world. He finds what he’s looking for in a case of test-tubes, all labeled “Steve.”

He records messages to Sam, Sharon, Carol. Maria, after a moment’s thought. And then he records a message for Tony.

He knows Tony will never hear it. It feels like poison. There’s nothing cathartic about it.

He punches a sequence into the pad and climbs up on the table. He counts down the seconds in his head. He thinks he should have left a note if this doesn’t work the way it did last time.

It hurt, the last time.

He thinks he’s fine with dying on the table. The novelty has worn off. He’s ready. His identity is no longer public property. He can do this. He doesn’t belong to anyone.

We’ll get it worked out, Steve, Tony had said, last time, always so gentle as he took his readings and samples and data, as he took Steve’s blood, trying to figure out why the serum had stopped working, Steve’s bony legs hanging off the exam table, Sharon hovering nervously in the doorway, the air thick with shame, and Tony’s smile just so certain– 

He wonders if it will work. What other choice does he have? He can’t fight like this. He can’t be anything he was, like this, his bones creaking and his face finally – finally – indicative of his age. He thinks it’s easier to do nothing when you look as weary as you feel. He thinks he doesn’t care about much, now.

He thinks Tony would have fixed him with his fucking Extremis by now if Tony ever cared about him.

He screams when the needles fire into him, even though he can barely feel it.

- - -

 

He records new messages for Sam, Sharon, Carol, and Maria, and flexes the fingers of his old self, his perfect body, filling his t-shirt to bursting, standing barefoot on the grating of the command center nestled in the Mansion’s heart.

“Steve,” a breathless Sharon gasps behind him.

He turns, rushes to her just as her coffee mug breaks all over the toe of her white boot.

“I thought you’d be on the Helicarrier by now,” he comes up with, and her face is and sad and rapt and ecstatic and fucking furious all at once.

“Jesus,” she says, and touches his chest, his arm. His face. Young again, just in time to die.

“I know,” he says. The words want to press themselves out of his mouth, but he leans in and kisses her instead, kisses her like it’s the last kiss they’re ever going to get.

Sharon is almost still, her mouth parting, barely, to let him suck at the bottom of her lip, and then she bursts into tears.

“Listen to me,” Steve says, aching, because he knew. Nothing was ever going to be the same, not after he stepped onto that subway car. “This is not because of you. This is not because of you, Sharon. And you – I know, you’re here in this house with me and it’s more than I ever would have asked you for.”

“You’re going to do something fucking stupid,” she spits, tears streaming down her face. “You’re going to, there is no way you did this in an hour without it being bad,” she says. “There is no fucking way, Steve, this is – this is what you do with what might be your last hour? He’s not worth that.”

She fists her hand in his shirt, and then she lets go.

Steve is quiet, and his arm actually aches when he realizes he doesn’t have the shield.

He won’t have it where he’s going, either.

Steve sits there, on the floor, his sweatpants soaking up coffee, Sharon slumped against his shoulder, crying. When she’s quiet, when he feels the even heat of her breaths against his chest, he slots his chin on top of her head and says, “I need you to forgive me.”

“I – for what,” she says.

He buries his face in her hair. “You have to,” he breathes. “I can’t tell you, you just have to, Shar–”

“What are you gonna do,” she demands, her voice thick with tears again.

Steve blinks, and blinks, and blinks.

She’s not going to let him. She’s going to send someone after him, anyone, whoever is left.

“I love you,” he says, because he would want that lie, too, and then he quietly snaps Sharon’s neck.

                                                                                               

III.

PRIVATE TRAPS

 

Tony’s hair curls to his forehead, greasy. A fly is buzzing somewhere under one of the workbenches.

He ekes his hand out from beneath the covers to reach out and feel that the floor is still warm, still humming beneath his cot.

His phone buzzes, across the room on a workbench next to a deconstructed breastplate.

No, he decides, and waits for it to stop and rolls back to sleep.

 

- - -

 

He snaps a thumbpiece onto the left gauntlet and thinks about how the human body responds when it’s shot. He thinks about the smell of the cedar in that house, the fiber of the rug underneath his bare knees, thinks about the blood sticking in his robe. He pours a vial of colloidal adamantium into a mold and he’s right there, he’s right there with her laughing in a club in Tokyo, he’s right there laying her down onto the sheets, she’s right there ripping his phone out of his hands, he’s right there and the blood runs out her mouth and paints her lips. He snaps a brace onto his golden-gloved arm and looks at the repulsor turned up towards his face.

 

- - -

 

He looks at his phone and learns it’s Thursday and he has 868 new voice messages.

Twenty-three of them are from Steve.

Fifty-six of them are from Maya Hansen, the latest of them not more than a few hours ago.

 

- - -

 

He should not have gone. He should call his psychiatrist. He should take the antidepressants. He should break up with Steve. He should not be with Steve.

He should not be with anyone.

He sits in the bathroom, the cool tile of the tub at his back, the steam hanging in the air.

 

- - -

 

“Tony,” Maya’s voice comes, rich as he remembers with a faint note of panic laid over. “I need your help, I don’t know who else to ask. Please, just. Call me.”

They never know who else to ask.

Delete.

 

- - -

 

On Saturday he ventures up into the main house. It’s raining. It must not be December yet. There’s too much glass in this fucking house. He shivers, still barefoot. He has to do laundry. He has to get more protein powder. He has to send R&D something as per his contract. He has to answer Carol’s increasingly frequent texts. He has to call Pepper, though he’s not sure either of them will really press, push comes to shove.

He’s halfway through mixing a protein shake when he becomes aware that Steve is standing in the doorway, barefoot, his hair all fucked up, blankets askew on the couch behind him.

“Well,” Steve says. “It’s nice to know you’re alive, at least.”

It feels like some kind of abyss is clawing its way open inside him.

 

- - -

 

He thinks he would normally stand for this conversation, but his legs simply won’t bear him further than the red chair by the bookcase. He draws the MIT throw around his shoulders, because he’s fucking freezing.

“Why are you here,” Tony mutters, and downs the rest of the gritty chocolate shit. “Have you been here this whole time? You can’t just do that, Steve, they need you in New–”

I can’t just do that?” He sounds angry, and he looks ridiculous, in his bare feet and his sweatshirt and his fucking athletic shorts sitting on his couch. “You wanna know how long it’s been?” He looks at his phone. “It’s been 17 days, Tony.”

“You don’t live here,” Tony says.

“Apparently neither do you,” Steve says. “I’m gonna fucking call Rhodey, Tony, I’m not playing–”

“No, you’re not,” Tony snaps. “Rhodey is in Pakistan, Steve, Jesus, I’ll take a shower, ok–”

“I am so fucking sick of this,” Steve mutters, and throws his own phone skittering across the coffee table. “How about you tell me what the hell is going on with you instead of locking yourself in the garage and burning your phone.”

Tony takes his phone out of his pocket and slaps it on the coffee table just to be a pain in Steve’s ass.

“So you just don’t answer it, then,” Steve says.

“I took a leave of absence,” Tony says. “It was your idea–”

“This is not about the Avengers! This is about you being an asshole, why did you even ask me to come to Kyoto with you if we weren’t gonna talk about it, Tony,” and he’s almost yelling, but it’s still Steve, it’s not Cap yet. “Why did we go if you –“

He stops, bites at his lip. Looks at his lap.

“What is this,” Steve says, and Tony pokes at the dredges of his shake.

“What is what,” Tony sighs, exhausted. He wants to crawl back down into the dark.

Steve stares him down. “Are you just fucking me? Are we just fucking?”

Tony was not fucking prepared for this conversation today.

Mostly, something inside of him is dying a quiet, dark, unnoticed death because he never thought Steve would ask him that. Ever. 

“No,” Tony says, and he doesn’t even know how it sounds, but suddenly his eyes feel bright and about to run over, because not Steve, too, because this is what he looks like to the world, isn’t it. Tony Stark in his enormous fucking house fucking whoever he wants to fuck, building his toys, Tony Stark, colossal fucking asshole.

Steve nods, like it’s not the answer he wanted. “I’m going back to New York,” he says, and stands.

“Steve, no, no, Steve,” Tony says.

Tony’s words fall on deaf ears, and then Tony hears his mouth say please with such a desperate slant to it that Steve turns around.

“I’m losing it,” Tony says, in a rush, before he can’t. “I’m – I need you to just, sit, can you sit, please, I. Sit. ”

Steve sits.

“I am a very carefully controlled mess,” Tony says to his hands. “I did not know you were here – I know, I didn’t pick up my phone. I shouldn’t have gone to Kyoto. I probably shouldn’t have asked you to go with me. I –”

I can’t believe you’ve been in my house for 17 days.  

Tony makes himself look at Steve. He looks tired. Steve never looks tired.

“I wanted you there,” though, he gets out. “Because I’m selfish, and you – ground me.”

“Ok,” Steve says, scrubbing a hand over his face. “Tony, you need–”

“I know,” Tony says, because he is acutely aware of how fucked he is. He needs help. It can’t be Steve. He knows he’s killing himself. He knows he doesn’t care. He knows he wouldn’t be alive if Steve hadn’t been there the past six months. He knows.

He knows Steve resents him for that.

Steve just sits, silent, on the couch.

“If you’re going to leave me,” Tony says, “you’d better just do it.”

Steve gapes at him for a moment and then he’s kneeling in front of Tony on the floor.

“Look at me,” Steve says, but Tony can’t, he just can’t, he will look at his hands instead, because he doesn’t want Steve to know this part of him and Steve is in his house and barefoot on his knees because of Tony and his eyes are burning, he’s going to cry, Jesus god –

Steve makes a soft desperate sound, but he takes Tony’s hands anyway. “I’m not going to leave.”

Tony is frozen.

“But I don’t know how to read you,” he admits. “And I don’t know how to help you. And I –”

He trails off. There’s something he doesn’t want to say. Tony’s been reading the twists of his lips for years even before he ever had the privilege of kissing them.  

Quieter, Steve says, “I’m not her, Tony. I’m never gonna be her. I worry you think–”

“No,” Tony says. “I never, I’m not trying to, I wouldn’t, just, Steve.” It falls out of his mouth like it formed broken.

And that’s when he realizes, that’s when it hits him, how much of him she was, how much of him is gone, what even is he, and he’s trying not to cry when Steve slides into the chair with him, shifts Tony into his lap, runs his hands up and down Tony’s back.

Tony realizes he has no control over his emotions, none, and Steve holds his face gently, gingerly, smears his tears away with the pad of a calloused thumb, and presses his lips to Tony’s.

Tony gives up, because he hurts, and because nothing will ever feel as good at this, nothing has felt like this since Ru and it scares him.

“I’m so worried about you,” Steve whispers, his fierceness inches away from anger, but he still lets Tony bury his face in Steve’s neck. “I’m worried, I’m – I don’t, this is eating you up and there’s nothing I can do but tell you I’m–” He stops. He trails off. He strokes Tony’s hair absently.

“What,” Tony dares to whisper. “What are you?”

Steve is quiet, gentle, too gentle, always. Quiet for too long. “I’m here,” he says, finally, like it’s the ghost of what’s really bubbling up inside him. “Tell me what you’re working on,” Steve murmurs, and cards his fingers through Tony’s hair. Wraps him tighter with the blanket.

It’s like a drug, and Tony stops caring if it’s half-truth or lie or omission.

He’ll take anything.

“A suit,” Tony says hoarsely, “all of them, they’re not good enough, they have to be better. I’m making one that’s faster,” he says. “It’s going to be better.”

The golden avenger, they used to call him.  

“Why,” Steve says, and Tony thinks he sounds disappointed. “You have so many suits, Tony.”

“I just keep thinking,” he says, and his voice breaks.

“What are you thinking?” Steve asks.

“I could have saved her,” Tony says, and sobs burst from his throat in heaving gasps. 

Steve holds him, like there’s nothing in the world that could be more important than this.

It’s a lie, Tony knows that, but he’s grateful for it.

 

CHAIR 

 

- - -

 

You have to forgive yourself, Steve says, coaxing him out of the shower. You have to.

 

- - -

 

Later, it’s darker. Calls have been made. Steve has lied to Peter and to Luke and to Jessica in the next room on a conference call. They will fly back to New York some time. They will leave this sanctuary where Steve worships his body and whispers his own truths into Tony’s mouth. They will leave this quiet place where Tony has a chance of believing them.

Steve lies behind him, Tony’s leg hiked up to his chest.

Tony isn’t hard, isn’t hard at all, but he knows how quickly privileges like this can disappear. He knows how strained things are, just living in the same building with their teammates, pretending to be just team leaders and not lovers. Pretending.

“Tony,” Steve says, low, coaxing, because he’s trying, he’s got his fingers tangled in Tony’s pubes and can’t have possibly missed his complete lack of arousal.

“Do it, do me,” Tony says, automatically, and he’s realizing he has no idea where Steve’s hands are, has no idea where Steve is touching him, because he’s shaking, his eyes are burning with tears, he’s furious that he can’t even be this –

“Do it,” Tony says, and Steve’s hesitates for the barest second before he’s pressing into him, the way he likes and Tony hates, agonizingly slowly, like Tony is where he belongs, like he doesn’t want to leave.

Fuck me,” Tony hisses, rips at Steve’s hair, rakes his nails over Steve’s back. “Harder,” he demands, and Steve won’t, Steve isn’t fucking into him like Tony wants him to be, Steve is pressing a gentle hand over his mouth and kissing his neck, petal-soft.

He lets. He lets Steve stroke his hair and lets himself feel hollowed and emptied and filled. Tony loses himself in the delirium of it, in the shuddering of his breath and his heart beating: traitor, traitor, traitor.

They stay like that, until Steve softens and slides out, until Tony can let go without shaking.

“What was that,” Steve whispers to him, “Tony, talk to me.”

“Why are you with me,” Tony says, dull, wrung and drained, empty and soft. “Why.”

Steve is silent for too long before he says, “I need you.”

Tony falls asleep with Steve wrapped around him, hating himself for wanting the other answer.

 

IV.

CASUALTIES OF WAR

 

Manifold’s portal sets him down in the courtyard behind the Mansion.

Without the context of the street, the traffic, beyond, in the insulation of this forty-acre block, it feels like a war zone, like stepping through rubble in France, like the parts of himself he’s long ago buried. The fountain bed is cracking, its stagnant water turned to a foil of ice.

The statue is gone. He idly wonders if someone stole it. His disgust churns and froths. It was here, the first time they did this. Perhaps some things are slightly different, already.

Sometimes he thinks Tony is right about everything, has always been right. The world can’t be saved.

Tony will show up soon. Tony will show up, and they’ll talk, and they’ll argue, and they’ll fail, they’ll fail in every sense of the word this time, because Steve is ready to be done. He didn’t wear his armor. He’s going to lead with a fight, this time. He’s learned his lesson.

He’ll wear Tony’s armor, because it’s what he should have done the first time around. 

He wanders, touches the oak doors shot through with dry rot, closes his eyes and breathes and tells himself that it will be rebuilt, someday, someday there will be another team.

If he’s lucky, he’ll end the war right here, right now, and at least they’ll both finally meet their respective ends properly, at each other’s hands.

Home.

“Garage,” Steve says, when he pries open the doors to the basement-level elevator, because that’s what Tony always fucking called it until he stopped building machines and became one.

 

- - -

 

They gleam, Tony’s suits.

He was down here an hour ago, and it’s eerily the same, all of Tony’s projects alight in the soft wash of blue-green in the artificial twilight of Tony’s utility lamps and emergency lighting.

Except in this time, the whole goddamned workshop still smells like Tony, like he used to smell, patchouli and old spice and that pomade shit he used to wear in his hair.

Steve is cheating, as he strides to the wall, as he lets his fingers trail over these things that Tony has touched. It’s a goodbye, and he lets himself have it. He lets himself sit in Tony’s chair, imagine that Tony is right there, across the room, twisting reality to save the broken thing of a world they’ve been dealt, earnestly insisting no problem is too small.

They both lost that years ago.

Steve steps up to the recessed panel Tony has hidden in the wall and presses his hand against it.

The wall slides away and the clamps hiss as they release, and Steve’s breath catches in his throat.

“Welcome, Captain Rogers,J.O.C.A.S.T.A’s voice rings out.

And the armor – the armor Norman Osborn wore, the armor that was stolen from him, that Tony never meant him to know about opens, clicks and shifts and beckons him to coat himself in the enormity of Tony’s devotion that is the exact shade of his bright, inquisitive eyes.

A plaque gleams over its housing.

PARAGON, it reads.

“Jocasta,” he says, his throat thick, “Locate Tony.”

“Tony’s in Seattle,” J.O.C.A.S.T.A. chirps.

The metal swallows up Steve’s bitter laugh.

That’s where he was, that’s where he was hiding. Not the Helicarrier, not New York, his palace. That’s why no one could ever bring in proper intel on his location during the war until the end. He was hiding like a coward. Tony was skulking like a prince while everyone else was dying for his stupid bill.

And apparently Steve is already causing ripples, because Tony is even more of a coward, this time around.

Steve hates.

“Initiate training sequence?” J.O.C.A.S.T.A. asks.

 

V.

SETTLEMENT

 

[Tony can’t stop the bill being passed, in the end, and the day after Steve’s sentencing there are Sentinels patrolling the streets with his name stamped on their logic boards.

Steve started this war with armor you gave him, Jan says. It’s the last time they ever speak. 

Sharon Carter does not shoot Steve on the Courthouse steps, because she sits in a cell in the Negative Zone.

They ask Tony to observe, as Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., so that he may report to the Secretary of Defense on the progress, the burgeoning success that is Project Wide-Awake.

They stand him in front of a room with two-way glass, and watches as a labcoat cuts into an unconscious Steve, naked and shackled and beaten.

“What a settlement,” the Senator standing behind him says, patting Tony on the shoulder. “We trust that S.H.I.E.L.D. is in good hands, Director,” he says.

It’s a simple thing, to lie to Reed and tell him he needs a villain as a lab rat. It’s a simple thing, to wrap the gold around his skin and turn on the IR so he doesn’t have to see their faces as he unlocks their cells as he passes, an absent twist of his wrist and the energy fields fall. They creep out onto the walkway. Whispers follow him: no fucking way and that’s gotta be Rhodes and what the hell did Cap say

Sharon’s jumpsuit is filthy and torn. She looks at him like she’s moments away from slitting his throat.

Sharon, he says brokenly, and it spills from his mouth in a torrent. They passed Project Wideawake, he says. I need help, he says. They’re torturing him, they have him; it wasn’t supposed to be this way. 

Look behind you, Sharon says.

The last thing Tony sees before he dies of multiple skull fractures is Peter Parker, pulling off Spider-man’s mask.]

 

VI.

DAEDALUS

 

The garage is a mess.

He is so sure he’s gotten it right this time. He has produced seven different versions of the gauntlet in the past 47 hours. Smarter, faster, stronger. Better. He is going to be better.

He can slip them on to his arms in half a second. He has it down to three pieces, three compact units that attach to the undersuit and crawl up his body in the space of two seconds.

No, that’s not right. It has to be better than that.

Steve stumbles down the stairs rubbing sleep out of his eye, and Tony’s fingers catch around his massive wrist, pulling. Look, Tony says, and he is a person again, he is producing, he is making the things that no one else can make, the things that can save people. Look, Steve, he says, and he shows him, gauntlet after gauntlet, the way the piece can attach anywhere on his leg and spread out like a second skin. Look, Tony says, and whirls around and blows the workbench to the opposite end of the room with one gauntlet. Look what I can do, Tony says, exultant. He will be enough for Steve, even if he couldn’t be enough for Rumiko.

“Tony,” Steve says, and something uncertain creeps into his face.

“I’m fine,” Tony says, caffeine and promise running in his bloodstream. He’ll make the pitch better. He’s sure, this time. “It’s going to be ok, Steve, look–”

“I’m looking,” Steve says. “You said you weren’t gonna come down here.”

Steve doesn’t look proud. Steve looks deeply unsettled.

Tony puts the gauntlet down. He releases the mechanisms. The plates fall from his body and he’s back in his own inadequate skin.

Steve is looking at him, at his skin. At his clothes. He becomes acutely aware of his lack of all sense of time. He feels his hair, and it sticks in the position his hand leaves it in. He feels his face. His face doesn’t itch because it isn’t stubble anymore. It’s soft.

Tony looks down. He’s wearing the same thing he was wearing the last time he climbed out of bed while Steve was asleep.

Steve raises his hands, like he’s scared of Tony. Like Tony is something to be scared of.

“What are you doing,” Tony says.

“I want you to come upstairs,” Steve says, as he slides around, as he places himself between Tony and the suits.

Tony laughs. “Working makes me feel better,” he throws out, flippant and easy.

“No, it doesn’t,” Steve says, because Steve sees right the fuck through him.

“Steve, I don’t have armor. I can’t be an Avenger if–”

“You have three hundred and fourteen suits at last count, Tony. You have armor–”

“I don’t have the right armor, Steve, The U.N. – you know what, I don’t have to explain this to you–”

“Yes, you do,” Steve yells. “Because if we’re “not just fucking” – he makes the gesture – “then I deserve to know why you’re hiding down here, trying for a quiet suicide LIKE I WON’T NOTICE.”

The garage rings with the emptiness, after.

Tony’s eyes burn. He smiles to keeps it at bay. It doesn’t work for long.

“Jesus, Tony,” Steve says, when he sees.

Tony has been backed against this wall before: there is no good way to tell someone you want them to love you.

There is no good way to tell someone you don’t want to be here anymore and there’s nothing they can do about it.

Steve is better than these things. Steve walks, barefoot, through a debris field of twisted metal and a mug Tony broke some days ago, walks and opens his arms and holds Tony’s stone-still body like he can coax life back into it by sheer force of will.

Tony relents. He’s crying silent, shameful tears as Steve pulls him upstairs. Steve shuts down the lights with a wave of his hand. Steve says things, promises he’ll take care of everything sounding like he hates the very prospect, and Tony can’t even fathom what everything is; Pepper, SE, their new team of Avengers. Tony wants to say: the Avengers are a joke. Tony is a joke.

Steve, too good to him, always, says, I’ll go out for food. I’ll get you Pho. Says, you’re going to shower. I’ll set you up. The Wrath of Khan is on. I’ll make a fresh pot of coffee.

Steve locks the garage behind him with his override code and slams the front door as he leaves.

 

VII.

A HOST OF LOW TRUTHS

 

Steve shuts off the repulsors and his metal boots touch down on Tony’s lawn in Seattle. 

This world is green. This world has cities that haven’t been split open by alien missiles from erstwhile gods. This world is the damp of the Pacific Northwest and the crash of the sea far over the lawn, beyond the tree line. This world is still, free of whatever celestial pendulum aligned to rip it apart. This world is still safe. This world still has heroes.

This world isn’t dying, even if his friends are killing each other and Steve opens the facemask, just for a minute, to breathe it in.

He takes the staircase on the side of the west wing, the one that leads into Tony’s library, that room he loved, the room he would fall asleep in while the sunlight cast rays of light over his chest. There’s a notebook on the end table next to the couch, a rusty-red mug filled with half-drunk coffee.

A sketchbook, on the other end table, his.

“Welcome, Captain Rogers. The soft wash of J.O.C.A.S.T.A.’s voice rings through the living room as he steps over the threshold off the balcony.

Tony never revoked his clearance.

Paragon.

He stands there, in the midst of Tony’s things, in the midst of this secret place Tony has created for himself away from the world. Tony never revoked his clearance, not after Mallen, not after Extremis, not after Tony stopped his own heart to save Steve’s life and then cut him out of his life and turned to unfeeling metal.

And still, the door is open.

He was so shocked, the first time he saw this place. The first time Tony brought him here. The softness of it. The way it felt like it was open to the heavens, endless panes of glass and nothing beyond, just the trees and the rosebushes and the gentle slope down to the cold beach.

And then they made love here. They made love, languorous and desperate and shuddering, here, on the floor. His memories of this period are bright and clear. They make him feel awash with warmth. He was happy, here. He thought perhaps they could have more.

Steve knows every inch of this sprawling estate. He knows the way the sound of the piano filters down through the hallway, bounces off the wooden floors. He knows what the sunrise looks like from the kitchen, knows that silence, that perfect moment when Tony is still asleep and he’s awake and nothing could touch them. He knows the sound of the rain on the glass. He knows that there is a bottle of Johnny Walker somewhere in the kitchen, knows the sound of Tony’s yelling ringing in his ears for hours after they fought about it.  

Steve knows all of these things and remembers them as if they happened yesterday and not twenty years ago.

Steve aches, and the gauntlet forms into a fist. He nudges the faceplate open with a kick of his head and murmurs the shutdown code for the armor so he can talk to the house system. 

“Jocasta,”Steve says quietly, speaking to the house. “Where’s Tony?”

“Tony is in the master bedroom,” J.O.C.A.S.T.A. says.

It’s absurd. He wants to apologize to her. He knows she’s just lines of code, knows she’s a consciousness now, knows she’s not a person, even if Tony played god and based her on Jan. Wants to say, how have you been and it’s been so long, and tell me he’s happy.

“Thank you,” Steve says. “Security sweep, please.”

“Clear,” J.O.C.A.S.T.A. says.

Steve feels enormously foolish, wearing this suit, trespassing like this. Tony deserves better. He deserves better than to be cut down in his sleep, but Steve is nothing if not a strategist. He knows this armor is stronger than anything that exists in Tony’s arsenal right now, that Tony designed it expressly for him, for this purpose.

He thinks Tony might have deserved a better death than this, once.

He could take it off. Tony would end him in a heartbeat. Tony would call his armor before he even fired a shot, before he could even get the override codes out of his mouth.

He could see Tony one more time.

If he’s honest with himself, that’s really what he wants.

Steve has never had the luxury of getting what he wants.

“Perfidy,” Steve says, and the lights flush to red.

 

- - -

- - -

- - -

 

Steve drives around Seattle in the December cold for a full hour in a blind and senseless rage before he finally caves and parks his bike and storms into the Vietnamese place to get Tony Pho.

He imagines it a thousand ways, has been imagining it all night. Clean break, dirty break, failed break that ends in Steve fucking Tony over the granite in the kitchen because Tony will say something, Tony always says something, Tony will cry.

Tony will say he needs Steve and Steve won’t be able to tell if he’s making it up or not.

“I just want some time in Brooklyn,” he rants (lies) to Carol over his Bluetooth, because he’s still lying for both of them. He leans left, onto the bridge to Tony’s island. “I’m exhausted. Kyoto was –Tony is…”

He doesn’t have a lie for that one. Tony is a train wreck.

Tony is probably having a nightmare right now. Tony has not left the house in twenty-three days. Yesterday, Tony relented and let Steve tilt his head from side to side so he could shave his face. Steve has memorized the sound of the new repulsors Tony is working on. Yesterday, Tony called SE to cancel his entire month only to learn that it was December.

Carol is unnervingly silent on the other end of the line. “He hasn’t,” she starts. “Is he–”

“No,” Steve says. He flinches away from himself, at the feeling that it’s an accusation. Carol has no idea what they have, what they are. Carol has no idea that any lapse could possibly Steve’s fault.

Steve desperately wants to tell her. Wants to beg advice, wants to ask, should I be worried, how was he last time. How do I fix it?

Some darker, guiltier part of him: how do I get out?

They’re not older friends, Carol and Tony, but perhaps they’re better friends. They’ve been through more, Tony and Carol. Tony’s been there for her. Steve yelled at him and left him to drink himself to death in a hotel.

“I’ll call you,” he says. “I want––”

He wants to march into Tony’s house to tell him this is more than it is. He wants Tony to tell him that he is not the same as the others, that he is more than just a teammate, more than a fuckbuddy, more than a caretaker. He is not a weekend retreat.

He wants to be more than that. He doesn’t know if Tony is capable of more than that.

“Tony’s out at the Hamptons,” Steve lies, the same story he fed Luke. “I’ll call you.”

“Ok,” Carol yawns. “Be safe.”

She hangs up, believing every word out of his mouth, because that’s what people do for Steve.

It’s going to be fine. It’s going to be fine.

This will blow over; it always does, with Tony, always has for everyone except Rumiko. It will be back to cool smiles between them, to silent sometimes-sex behind closed doors, to the team. To teammates. The hurt will fade; the grief will ebb. The smiles will reach Tony’s eyes again, and when they do, there won’t be need for Steve. Not like this. Not getting takeout at one in the morning, not room to slip into Tony’s bed when he’s hurting. They’ll part amicably. They’ll run the team together.

No hard feelings.

Shellhead, he’ll say, and both of them will pretend he never whispered it against Tony’s bare throat.

He can’t will Tony to love him back.

Steve jets over the bridge, anyway, because it’s what he’ll do until Tony sends him away for the last time, until Tony can stand on his own again. Penance, for the last time he wasn’t there and Tony ended up dying in the streets because no one did this.

He’ll do it. If it’s all he ever gets, he’ll do it.

He turns onto the road leading to the estate, and almost tips the bike into the drainage ditch when the Bluetooth in his ear sounds the wail of an intruder alarm.

 

- - -

- - -

- - -

 

It’s like someone has plucked Steve from drowning and forced air into his lungs again.

It’s been years, it feels like, even though it’s really been months, even though Steve knows he’s been counting the days since Genosha, since he broke Tony’s nose in the basement of their home and sent him to the hospital bleeding. Since Tony and him sat side by side until they didn’t anymore.

This Tony can still sleep through someone plodding quietly across his carpet and standing over him in a weaponized suit. This Tony still sleeps, sprawled on his stomach, gaunt and pale. Whole, human, a sliver in his enormous bed, not wreathed in gleaming white and grinning with all of his teeth bared.

He looks ill.

Steve never saw him like this, during the war. He’d assumed he was always in New York. Of course he would have stolen away to Seattle. Of course he would have hidden when the rest of them were stitching themselves together with scraps in sewer substations.

Coward, he thinks, remembers a thousand lies and a thousand kisses and the look when Tony told him none of it mattered.

I’d do it again.

Steve reminds himself that there’s nothing to go back to. The world is ending. He doesn’t get to go back until he changes it, because he snapped Sharon’s neck and he begged Eden and he walked into the tower and stole something Tony built for him with the best intentions, once upon a time.

Tony asked him for this when he gave him the shutdown codes. Tony asked him for this by building the goddamn suit.  

Last chance, way out. He’s rationalized it a thousand times. He may not be a hero anymore but he’ll be damned if he lets the world fall to shit in Tony’s hands again and again and again. It’s as elegant as he’s going to get: a quiet suicide by nobody’s hands, no explanations. It all evaporates, the Illuminati, the incursions, the Shi’ar, everything, everyone. He evaporates.

This is his do-over.

Tony always said he was a control freak; it’s true. It’s why he lied to Eden, it’s why he doesn’t trust anyone else to do this. It’s possible he’s never trusted anyone. It’s possible they dug him out of a chip of ice and he came out a narcissist. He came out an emblem instead of a person. It’s possible.

There will be no room for that when Tony’s brains are spattered across the fine silk of the pillowcase.

Steve would say goodbye, but he said it decades ago.

He twists his hand just so; the gauntlet hums against his palm.

Tony’s eyes snap open.

- - -

- - -

- - -

 

Steve barrels through the foyer and the delicate glasswork of the front wall and the portico over the spiral staircase rains down on him.

He crashes his bike. He throws himself from the seat and tumbles into a run just as it explodes into the massive column of the rich wooden staircase. “JOCASTA,” Steve yells, and nothing answers him, just the faint echo of his voice across the empty hallway.

He doesn’t have override codes for J.O.C.A.S.T.A. He wasn’t aware J.O.C.A.S.T.A. could be overridden.

He pounds his feet down the hallway until he skids, breathless, into the empty living room, the only sign of anything the diaphanous curtain billowing in the breeze, sucked into the green night by the wind off the bay.

Run, and the lights are red and he doesn’t hear anyone, doesn’t hear anything but the pound of his boots clipping the tile as he sprints to the safe room, to the garage. There are suits there, there are titanium doors there and manually-operated defense turrets there, that is where Tony would go, as soon as he saw the lights, as soon as he realized something – he would go there, please, PLEASE, be there –  

He almost trips when he realizes that he locked the garage.

 

- - -

- - -

- - -

 

Tony scrambles to untangle his bare feet from the sheets, rolls hard off the bed and onto the small of his back on the hardwood. His chest aches. He gasps.

His pillow explodes in a blitz of down just as a repulsor fires, and he opens his bloody mouth to issue the override.

“Perfidy,” Tony yells.

Except he hears it, the whirring of the suit’s knees as it bends, the creak of the bedframe as his pillows begin to slide down the face of the mattress, the dark drone of the house alarm somewhere in the back of his awareness.

The lights are red in the hallway. The command has already been issued and someone is wearing one of his suits.

No one knows the fucking command.

He rolls out of the way just as the entire frame comes crashing down in splinters where he’d been a second earlier.  

The armor Tony built for Steve wrap its arm around Tony’s neck and squeezes while he’s busy trying to pull something out of his ass.

Paragon.

It’s useless. He trains against Steve, armored, but that it all amounts to jack shit in this instance, because ultimately the suit is always going to best him by the time he’s let himself been caught in a chokehold.

“I’m sorry,” Paragon says, and it could fucking be anyone, it’s the latest modulator, he can’t tell. “But I swear to you – this is better for us.”

No, he thinks, as his vision starts to blur.  

No.

No, his brain fires at him, no, it’s not possible because no one knows that exists, no, because this cannot be happening to him again. No. That suit is in New York City.

No one knows it exists.

He’s not going out like this.

He is not going to do this again. He is not going to be stolen away. He is not going to be brutalized for weeks on an island. No one knows where he is. He knows Steve lied to their team, he knows he lied for both of them and his throat is dry and he thinks of the last time, he thinks of the feel of his skin scorching in the sun, he thinks of drinking his own piss to survive, he can’t, he’s not, he won’t do this again, no – 

“Jocasta,” he gasps, tries to make it sound off the walls and the doors and the bookcases, but it’s weak, it’s dry in his throat and he already knows he’s not going to get a response.

Something glimmers, beneath the wreckage.

Steve’s shield.

His responsibility, he thinks, and he’s reaching for it, even though he’s not as good as Steve, even though he’s never been as good as Steve, even though it’s the equivalent of trying to operate someone else’s arm.

His hand closes around it.

He lands a hit to the thinnest layer of metal around the neckguard, and the armor pulls back, lets him slide to the floor, whoever is inside hacking and wheezing through the filter.

Tony has been in enough firefights that he knows when he’s bested. He’s shaking with adrenaline as he snatches the shield up from the floor and flees. Instinct and anger more than reaction spur him to movement, make him dart out the door to the adjoining suite just as the repulsors fire and blow the window behind him to shit.There is someone in the suit. Someone hacked into the mainframe in Stark Tower, someone looked for him and found him and all that’s behind Tony’s eyes are images of Steve, Steve screaming as someone cuts off his thumb for the fingerprint, the agony as someone carves out his eye for the retina scan –

“JOCASTA,” Tony yells, desperately, tries, one more time, as he darts out the door to the master suite, to the hallway and his egress. Not you, too, he thinks, as his feet move him, as a few seconds are bought before the fuckface in Steve’s armor realizes the armor doesn’t need to walk around walls, it can go through them.

“How did you get that,” Tony spits. “Who are you?” He crawls behind the sofa. He rips the power cord out of his laptop resting on the ottoman and snatches a piece of broken glass from the floor. He saws the insert off and goes about stripping the wire. It slices up his hands, but he does it, strips the plastic off in curls of white rubber and grits his teeth.

“If that’s you, Ty,” Tony says, “I’m going to fucking kill you.”

Whoever is in the suit bursts through the wall, but Tony is ready.

“Do you ever stop lying,” the suit is saying, and it sounds like whoever is in it is laughing through the modulator. “You know exactly who I am. You’re reading my biosignature right now.” It holds up the shield. “Why do you have this, Tony–”

And then the suit stops.

“Why aren’t you armored up?” The suit says, and cocks its head like it’s confused.

It’s enough to trip Tony up for just the second the guy needs to decide it’s enough, to decide that he’s going to stride across the room and forego the repulsors entirely and settle for wrapping his hands around Tony’s neck to choke him out.

It feels distantly familiar, like something is pulling at Tony’s atoms on a molecular level, all the intimacy of déja-vu and the terror of insurmountable dread wrapped into a knot.

It’s personal.

Tony grimaces and he’s choking, he’s choking, there’s so little air –

He scrabbles his fingers until he finds the pull catch under the chin and jams the stripped end of the cord right against the fucker’s carotid.

He hears swearing through the voice modulator as he falls, and then he’s on the ground, gasping, his heartbeat rushing in his ears.

 

- - -

- - -

- - -

 

Steve grabs the newest suit without hesitation, the one Tony showed him a week ago, uses his elbow to break the glass box holding the fire axe, and runs like he has never run before in his life, blood streaming down his arm.

The lights are still red. His bike is trashed. The shield is in Tony’s bedroom.

He curses himself for leaving without it, but it’s too late for that now, the time for preventative measures was obviously fucking yesterday. Steve has no idea what’s coming for them. He’s been too worried about Tony to check in regularly with S.H.I.E.L.D., and Tony’s always been adamant that he doesn’t need a security detail.

He has his suits, after all, and Steve locked him away from what might be their only escape from this.

No one knows they’re here. He bounced the signal around the world seven times, in anyone’s book, he’s in Brooklyn right now and Tony is asleep in a palace in Southampton.

He tells himself they’ve both been in worse places, but it does nothing to quell the simmering fear in him for Tony.

It’s Tony, and it’s not like a mission anymore, it’s not like being in the field, it’s like seeing Rachel shot on the floor and calling Bernie forty times in fifteen minutes and knowing

He won’t watch while this happens again. Not to Tony.

He’s shocked to realize how terrified he is.

 

- - -

- - -

- - -

 

“Reboot,” Steve demands. “Give me something, Jocasta!”

He can’t get up, even though his quarry is lying not six feet away from him, pale and clammy and he’s botched this, too, what a simple execution and Tony can still fuck him up in nothing but sweatpants and a sweat-soaked t-shirt and –

Tony is wearing a sweater. It’s too big on him, gapes on his chest, falls over one shoulder, a dark navy blue with epaulets.

It’s not Tony’s sweater.

The HUD is blinking at him, frantic, showing him systems readouts, telling him he’s blown fuses, that primary flight stabilizers are barely functional, that repulsors are a pipe dream, and he doesn’t care, he has to know, just –

“Scan premises,” he barks. “Jocasta, is there anyone else in the house,” he says, even as he hears footfalls, even as the knowledge he’s fucked up cascades over him.

J.O.C.A.S.T.A. replies, simply, “Rogers, Steven.”

“What?” Steve says, “Try again, Jocasta, who else is in the house other than me –”

The suit goes dim and black, and for a moment he thinks he’ll die like this, imagines Tony crawling to him and ripping the face place off. Steve doesn’t want to see his face. Steve doesn’t want to feel the things he’ll feel.

Steve gets it, why he wears the armor, and if he’s honest with himself, it’s impossible not to be enamored of it.  

Steve hates him, for that.

The suit hums to life and the power source thrums on with what feels like an actual kick to Steve’s solar plexus.

“78% Efficiency,” J.O.C.A.S.T.A. says. “Initiating propulsion systems.”

“Good enough,” Steve growls.

That’s when the suit targets Rogers, Steve, standing in the doorway, agape, a fire axe held in his hands, a briefcase armor thrown at his feet.

Steve knows the look on his face. He’s seen it in the mirror.

This Steve is still in love with Tony Stark.

This Steve charges him with a fire axe and Steve doesn’t even think before he’s firing repulsors into his stomach.

 

- - -

- - -

- - -

 

Steve gasps and falls onto all fours. He’s bleeding. He touches his stomach and his fingers come away hot and sticky. It’s running over his hand, but he’s still up. He’s still mobile.

Tony isn’t.

Tony is dragging himself across the floor. Steve can hear his heartbeat, the jagged thrum of it. He’s in tachycardia.

Steve’s mind shorts out, blown wide with terror for Tony.  

They warned him about this, warned him this might happen when they took the thing out of his chest, warned him about not straining yourself, Mr. Stark, and there are doctors on call. There’s an AED in every room, tucked discreetly away. There are bottles of adenosine in his medicine cabinet. Steve knows these things because he is one in a string of people that have known Tony intimately.

None of that makes a bit of difference, because Tony is gasping into the carpet wearing his sweater and his boxers and there is a suit of armor he’s never seen before, a suit painted in shining blue and red and white, too perfect to be anything but mimicry of his costume, hefting his own shield from underneath the splintered remains of the heavy coffee table, slinging the debris off like it’s as light as air.

Tony, what have you done.  

He hears suppressed gunfire, and turns just in time to see the armor righting itself, throwing his own shield at him in a narrow arc that catches him in the chest and sends him sprawling on his back. His shoulder is on fire. His thigh is on fire.

His head snaps back, and the armor’s fist makes contact with the hardwood next to his face. He thinks his cheekbone has been shattered. He knows he’s bleeding. He hasn’t truly fought against Tony in his armor in some time, and when he does, there are safeguards. Tony doesn’t want to hurt him. Tony pulls his punches.

He’s picked up and thrown down onto the floor like a ragdoll, and he spits up blood. He scrabbles at the floor – surely his shield must be nearby, he heard it go down, he followed the arc of it, it should be behind his head –

The armor swiftly and efficiently twists his wrist, and the unexpected brutality of it sings up his arm. He feels his bones snapping. He feels his shoulder dislodge.

“Stay down,” the blue armor says, raising a fist. “This isn’t about you.”

“Hey, fuckface,” comes Tony’s voice, rasping and laced with terror.

Steve sees the glint of the fire axe in his peripheral vision, but a blue fist is cracking his collarbone. He thinks he screams.

He thinks the suit screams, too, but a shock of pain ratchets through him and he curls in on himself in agony.

He thinks he’ll never stop being amazed by how much trouble Tony manages to get both of them into, and falls away.

 

- - -

- - -

- - -

 

Tony lodges the fire axe in the shoulder joint where the plates join and gets a howl of rage from the suit for his efforts.

He sees skin, where the plates are twisted. He sees red blood.

“Steve,” he says, but Steve might as well be dead, lying there bleeding from a dozen wounds, his left arm gruesomely twisted.  

Tony turns, rage boiling through him, and gets the satisfaction of seeing the armor drop to its knees because he just knocked motor control loose and at least half of the circuitry for the HUD.

It buys him a minute or two while J.O.C.A.S.T.A. reroutes power. It will have to do.

This is what Bruce must feel like, he thinks, as he smashes the briefcase armor against the doorframe because he doesn’t have time to punch in the key code. The plates clatter out and he wishes he were wearing the magnetized undersuit prototype, but he has this down to a science, so many years of discreetly ducking out of a three-piece suit and into his gleaming gold in the space of a few stolen minutes. Boots first, and he’s snapping the chest piece on over Steve’s sweater, the plates are winding around his thighs, he’s got bands of red spooling down from the shoulder plates and swaths of gold rolling up from the gauntlets and he jams the helmet onto his head –

“Jocasta?” Tony says, and rips Steve’s shield out of the splintering wood where it’s lodged itself. He feels the repulsors humming under his palms, wishes he could still feel his heart contracting around the metal atrocity lodged in his chest, but it’s just him, just him with scars on his skin and death following him around like a pall.  

“Online, Tony,” J.O.C.A.S.T.A. says, and Tony smiles and blasts the Paragon armor right across the fucking room.  

Drywall and brick from the fireplace rain down in a cloud of dust.

“Stabilize me,” Tony gasps, and he feels it go into his arm through his sweater, the Adenocard. The violent flutter in his chest subsides, leaving him panting in his shell.

His HUD flashes red, then, because Steve’s armor is getting up.

Steve’s armor is arming missiles with a structural integrity of 89%. More than enough to completely trash the both of them. Because that was the point. The point was to be able to take Tony down in a fight, and whoever is under that faceplate knows it.

“Fidelity, initialize,” Tony tries, and the lights, miraculously, flush back to blue.

“Contacting S.H.I.E.L.D.,” J.O.C.A.S.T.A. says, and Tony and whoever is inside the armor swear at the same time.

That’s it, that’s the protocol. The protocol is to neutralize Tony and take him into custody. Call in S.H.I.E.L.D., call in the Avengers. Call in whoever Steve needs in the event Tony needs to be taken down. There’s nothing he can do. The house’s security force fields won’t hold Steve’s armor; J.O.C.A.S.T.A. is designed to defer to that system and not Tony’s, and he would be laughing if he wasn’t on the verge of pissing himself.

You built it.

“Bioscan, JOCASTA!”

“Indeterminate.”

“How is that possible,” he snaps. “Hack in and give me a fucking DNA match!”

“Unable to comply,” JOCASTA says, and Tony fires a warning salvo that takes down most of the ceiling because he feels like it.

There’s a part of him that wants to give the lockdown code. Roll down the shutters, initialize the force fields, trap this fuck and rip his armor off plate by plate. Slap an electro-scrambler onto his neck and hold it. Have it out, right here, right now, fuck S.H.I.E.L.D.

Except now there’s Steve.

Steve’s armor sends a missile flying over his shoulder and the hallway collapses behind him.

“Structural integrity at 47 percent,” J.O.C.A.S.T.A. says in his ear. “Evacuation advised.”

This is the cave, again, this is the island, this is a street in the snow and a shitty motel room rank with alcohol. He is so tired. He is so very done with being hit where he lives. He thinks he’s going to shut himself away forever if he has to deal with another betrayal. He would rather fight until his armor is cracked and smoking and charred than run away again.

“Why are you doing this,” Tony snarls, his hands still raised. “What the fuck did I do to you?”

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” Steve’s armor intones.

“S.H.I.E.L.D. ETA 3 minutes,” J.O.C.A.S.T.A.’s voice filters brokenly through what’s left of the house speaker system.

Tony buries his rage, seals it, presses it down.

This is not going to be Rumiko. This is not going to be his fault.

(It’s already his fault.)

Tony gathers Steve into his arms and brings the ceiling down on the Paragon armor. He blasts out the window and hitches Steve up, cradles his head and shields his face with one gauntleted hand.

“Trust me,” he begs, but Steve is unmoving and slicking his armor with blood.

He’ll run, for now, if it keeps them both alive.

He kicks off.

God damn it.

 

 VIII.

ARBITER

 

The Helicarrier looms in the sky, the searchlights panning over what Steve imagines is left of the west wing of Tony’s house.

“Captain Rogers,” Maria’s voice comes through the loudspeakers. “Status report.”

But Tony has given him a gift, for all Steve has ridiculed him for his suits, for all his transparent compensation, he once worshipped Tony as a god for the things he could build. As an artist. As a lover.

That version of him still exists in this world.

“Retro-reflective panels, J.O.C.A.S.T.A.,” and then he’s a ghost in the night, faceless and free.

He loops around, flies exactly 2 meters from the starboard bow of the Helicarrier just because he can, and then rockets away.

This is how Tony must feel all the time, he thinks.

Free.

 

- - -

 

Steve steals a car just outside a casino in Redmond, stashes the suit in the trunk and sets it to perform what few repairs it can execute autonomously. Drives across town and books a shitty room with fistful of cash he had on him when Manifold’s portal brought him through.

Buys a newspaper, because he needs to know who is coming for him after his gentle execution turned fiery shitshow.

His body simply slides off the bed onto the floor when he sees the headline:

MASS BREAKOUT SPURS AVENGERS RE-FORM; IRON MAN, ROGERS ONCE AGAIN AT HELM

There’s a full-color print of them, on the helipad at The Raft, there they are, on the page, Luke and Peter and Logan and a Skrull wearing Jessica Drew’s face side by side, smiling. Together.

He looks at the date. December of 2004.

He doesn’t realize he’s crying until he realizes he can’t see the text of the article anymore. The front page is a splotchy mess. The ink runs and spreads on the page.  

There’s so much they’ve never done. There’s so much pain they’ve never had to feel yet. There are so many cruel things they never have to say to each other. There are so many lies that never have to be told. No one knows who Tony is yet. There has been no Civil War in this world, no Invasion. No Norman Osborn to drive Tony to suicide, no –

Tony hasn’t taken Extremis yet.

Steve gets up. Sits on the bed. Wipes his face.

He remembers this feeling. He was alive once. It feels like waking up, like everything in him is stirring all at once, like the scrimshaw memories he clung to in Dimension Z erased and gutted and re-rendered in brilliant, indelible color.

There doesn’t have to be a war.

He clutches the cheap motel comforter in his hand and breathes in the stale-smoke air because he’s alive, they’re all still alive and he is sitting on the precipice of infinite impossibility. He could hunt down the Skrulls, one by one. He could expose Osborn as the Green Goblin. He could expose all of them, Strange and Xavier and –

Wake up old man, he thinks, and his mouth sours.

 

- - -

 

His first target is not difficult to find.

Steve very carefully breaks into one of Nick’s safe houses in Oregon, stitches his brow up in the mirror with a kit from the goddamn 60’s while he remotely accesses the S.H.I.E.L.D. server and the – his – armor stands, silent, the panels thrown open and waiting, in the corner. He gets it now, why Tony would come in with bruises and butterfly strips before they all knew he was Iron Man. It’s body armor, but he’s going to have a black eye for a few days if he’s being optimistic.

He reads all about Maya Hansen. All about FuturePharm, all the paper trails that lead to Mallen and five others in the event he wasn’t genetically compatible, all the cards Tony didn’t know she was holding because he was mad with grief.

He never met her; the second time around, he was dead and they were fucking.

The first time around, Steve broke it off with Tony just before she played him.

 

- - -

                                                                                       

He wears the suit for Maya. The coloring is vaguely suggestive of who he really is and he finds it vindicating.

He walks through the front door, makes an impressive, if harmless display of shattering any glass panel he happens to walk by, and pinpoints her location with J.O.C.A.S.T.A.’s help in under a minute. He vaguely registers Tony-caliber rent-a-cops shooting at him, and truly, the bullets don’t even make a dent.

He dispatches them with a blast to the head and wades through the employees swarming the exit.

He finds her on the lower level, desperately punching in a pin code to access a state-of-the-art lab.

“No,” he says, and rips her away with a gauntleted hand on her shoulder.

“I know about Extremis,” he says.

She straightens her glasses with shaking hands. “Did Tony send you?” she asks.

Steve can’t help but smile a wry smile at that.

“In a manner of speaking,” he says. “Tony’s why I’m here.”

“I called him,” she says, “I kept leaving messages, I – really need to talk to him, it’s an engineering issue–”

Steve pulls her into a chokehold and her arms come up to struggle uselessly at his blue arms.

“It’s not an engineering issue,” he says. “I’m going to destroy your entire project. I’m going to kill your guinea pigs. You will not go near Tony with this.

“I don’t know whayou’re talking about,” she gasps, and he loosens his hold ever so slightly.

“Mallen,” Steve barks. “Have you already given it to him?”

Maya goes still in his arms, and then very slowly shakes her head.

Her heart rate is steady, the armor tells him. She’s looking at the lab, through the frosted glass, where rows and rows of test tubes wait in refrigerated units.

“Thank you for your candor,” Steve says, and then he severs her spinal cord without even breaking the skin.

- - -

 

His second target, he doesn’t bother with the suit.

He checked, before he blew the lab all to hell. There were five kits, each with a name.

Mallen’s was missing.

Mallen, he finds in a dilapidated house in Abilene. He answers the door.

“Can I help you,” he drawls.

“Yeah,” Steve says with a smile, and sends him flying back with a roundhouse. He closes the front door behind him.

He won’t deny it; he doesn’t want to. He missed this body. He enjoys the way it feels to punch someone’s face and not have his bones break, to clench his hand into a fist without the ache of his joints.

“What the hell, man,” Mallen grunts, when his right eye is swollen shut. “What the hell, man, I got rights, you government prick–”

“What makes you think I’m government?” Steve asks, because he’s genuinely curious.

Mallen tries to punch him, weakly, and Steve grabs his fist just in time to snap it.

Mallen screams.

“What makes you think I’m a fed,” Steve presses, and keeps a firm grip on Mallen’s other hand.

“You look like a fuckin’ marine,” Mallen spits. “You pigs think you own everyone–”

“And you’re a racist piece of shit terrorist,” Steve says. He grabs Mallen’s broken wrist. “I know all about your plans for Houston. I know about your cell, I know who your friends are. I know what Maya Hansen was giving you,” he hisses.

Mallen blinks, dull and purple and uncomprehending. “Wha,” he slurs. “Who’s Maya Hansen?”

Steve slams his head against the floor. “Don’t lie to me,” he snarls. “The drug. That shit. They give you a dose, just in case?”

“No,” Mallen says, “OW, will you fucking–”

Steve presses his finger into the fracture and Mallen wails on his filthy linoleum floor.

“And your buddies,” Steve presses. “They get a taste?”

“NO,” Mallen yells, “I don’t have it yet, it was late, I don’t know what happened but we didn’t get the delivery, I swear, I fucking swear, man, I promise, I won’t go anywhere near the feds, not without that stuff –”

“I know you won’t,” Steve says, and then Mallen doesn’t have enough teeth to say anything else.

He finds the kit under the mattress, along with a stack of cash and a .357, full when he pops out the cylinder.

He smiles at the traffic cam on his way back up the interstate, just so there’s no mistaking.

 

- - -

 

Waco, Fort Worth, Two in Austin, One way out in La Grange.

He wonders why the fuck anyone would want to live forever.

When he makes it back to his hotel room, after he’s scrubbed the blood from under his fingernails and made the conscious decision not to shave, it occurs to him.

Eden has always answered. Eden can always find him.

Except Eden is silent to his calls, and Steve is still here.

 

IX.

UNDERCURRENT

 

[Tony Stark tours the wreckage of a small SI subsidiary, FuturePharm. His primary concern is stolen Starktech, and as such, his scans reveal only rubble and debris. A small case of test tubes is overlooked, and swept, broken, into a rent-a-dumpster. No one is the wiser.

Obadiah had a son – who knew? He beats Tony into a pulp. Steve Rogers saves him in time, but it’s a near thing. Tony thinks this is how Whitney must have felt, and feels the false cheekbones they’ve given him, runs his fingers over the scar seams on his face. He doesn’t know how Steve can look at him. He waits for the day his heart will simply stop beating. He wraps himself in red and gold and watches the brightness fade from Captain America’s eyes.

“Tony,” Steve Rogers says, “Tony, take your fucking suit off.”

Tony Stark visits Steve in his Brooklyn apartment for the first time in a year to hand him a file on Project Wideawake. “You can’t let this happen,” he says, and turns to leave, his errand done. Steve grabs his gauntleted arm and gets a snapped wrist for his trouble.

Iron Man wins the war, but nobody wants Tony Stark to have Nick Fury’s job, and no one trusts him to be an Avenger, after. Tony Stark is unstable, the press says. There are whispers he hired the sniper. There are whispers he begged for his life before civilians pulled Rogers off. There are whispers he’s living on borrowed time. Heart couldn’t take the strain, they say. No business being a superhero. Tony pours himself a drink. And another. And another.

Tony Stark lets Norman Osborn’s men walk into his home and tear down everything he has built, piece by piece. They leave a business card on his workbench. “In case you need a reference,” Osborn says with his slimy mouth, and pockets an access card to Tony’s workshop as he leaves. Tony sits on his couch and looks at the recesses where his suits used to be and doesn’t even bother pouring his liquor into a glass.

Tony Stark, bankrupt former CEO of Stark Enterprises, doesn’t live to see the Skrull invasion. He doesn’t live to be an Avenger again. He is a tabloid disgrace and kills himself on a Tuesday prior to the initial attack with a repulsor blast to the face, as far as the coroner can deduce.]

 

X.

HIGHER GROUND

 

Tony’s heart stutters into tachycardia twice more before they’re across the bay. He instructs J.O.C.A.S.T.A. to dose him again. He doesn’t think about pacemakers. How can he? Steve’s lips are pale and purpling. It’s starting to snow.

As soon as his feet touch down he shuts the armor down. He’s shucking it from his arms when the Helicarrier materializes over his island.

He’s shaking as he checks Steve over. The adrenaline is gone, maybe, and all there is now is peril, acute and inescapable and Steve, unconscious in his lap. S.H.I.E.L.D. must know where he’s gone; he has minutes at best before they track his repulsor signature to the mainland. Maybe the bastard in Steve’s armor will stall them.

Maybe he’s dead, but Tony’s never gotten that lucky.

Tony tries to wipe the blood off Steve’s face but it’s dried, cracking, still dribbling stubbornly from his nose and from the gash on his forehead.

Fuck, fuck, fuck.

“Steve,” he tries, so he won’t cry, so he won’t lose his shit right here in the woods. “Steve, I need you,” he hisses.

The overwhelming truth of it terrifies him, and he wipes his eyes and tells himself to man the fuck up and figure it out.

Tony shudders out a breath and tips his forehead to Steve’s freezing brow. “Please,” he whispers against Steve’s lips.

No one is coming.

Tony fits the plates around Steve’s body, one at a time, presses his hand over Steve’s bloody mouth to stifle his screams when Tony snaps his shoulder back, chants senseless apologies that Steve isn’t coherent enough to understand. He throws Steve’s Bluetooth in the water, trashes his phone, rips the comm unit out of the helmet and fits it into his ear before he drags the both of them, all four hundred fucking pounds, under an enormous pine tree with low-hanging branches.

He almost sobs with gratefulness when he realizes he’s set them down in Golden Gardens. He stumbles out of the woods on numb feet to find a parking lot is full to the brim – there must be a wedding; it’s well after closing. He tries doors until he finds a blue minivan, unlocked. He’ll trade it for something with four-wheel-drive later; a minivan isn’t gonna cut it on the North-Cross, but.

It’s a long road until then, and at least no one will see Captain America bleeding out in the back.

He throws the back seats into the woods barefoot and trembling. He fits his t-shirt, balled up, against Steve’s hemorrhaging shoulder and fits the shoulder plate back around him. He rips up Steve’s shirt to tie up his leg. He can’t do anything about the burns on his stomach or his broken bones or his purpling face right now.

Let it be enough, he prays. Let all of it be enough until he can figure out whatever it is they’re running from. 

 

- - -

- - -

- - -

 

Steve is in pain. He’s in too much pain, he curls in on himself and chokes down a moan instead of snarking at Tony like he should be. He’s biting on his lip. This is a fucking terrible dream. His body is sticky and slippery and his neck itches –

“Steve. Steve, you have got to open your fucking eyes.”

Someone jostles his mangled shoulder and draws a scream out of him and his body takes the initiative to respond with a weak slap.

He blinks a few times to see Tony hunching over him, pinching his now-bleeding nose. A fistful of bloody gauze falls onto Steve’s chest. Steve’s weak slaps are enough to break blood vessels.

They’re both crammed into the back of a car, he thinks, his gaze drifting to the empty seat cradles, the window of the trunk obscured by a layer of snow. There’s a sleeping mat underneath him. Tony’s armor sits, dead-eyed, at his feet, secured in a net, a palette of car batteries beneath it.

“’M sorry,” Steve says, and reaches up with the arm he just conked Tony with. He misses Tony’s face by a mile. “Whauh.” His mouth feels like cotton. There’s stuff packed around him, nylon and duffel bags and – he sniffs – shells? Buckshot, definitely. Cosmoline. His foot nudges the butt of a rifle of some sort and agony shoots up his leg.

“I’m trying to fix your shoulder,” Tony says. “Please don’t fucking hit me again.”

Steve grunts as his weight is shifted. He fully expected to wake up in a dungeon. Or on the Helicarrier, not in the back of a minivan.

“Why aren’t we on the Helicarrier,” he says, the words clumsy on his tongue. He’s lost a lot of blood, he can tell. His arms feel cold. His stomach is warm and sticky and bare. There’s recycled air blowing over him.

Tony rummages, somewhere near Steve’s head. He hears a match strike and light after three tries. Tony holds a cigarette to his mouth. Steve inhales, although he’s not sure what the fuck good it’s supposed to do, and discovers it’s not a cigarette.

“I had to knock over a pharmacy,” Tony says, and presses. “Is the morphine working?”

“No,” Steve says, incredulous. He doesn’t know where to start. “Where did you even get this,” he says. He takes another hit out of spite.

“I knocked over a Cabela’s before I knocked over the pharmacy. I took it off one of their finest in security.”

“You - where are we,” Steve demands. He feels dangerously lightheaded. He takes another drag on the joint and imagines it’s a cigarette. Imagines himself calming down. He is in too much pain, he should be healing, how many hours has it been?


“Tulalip. Listen,” Tony is saying, as he swaps something over Steve’s stomach. Steve can feel the fresh wash of blood as he works, can smell the copper in the tiny space of the car. “I need you to think. Is there anyone, anywhere, you know has your DNA?”

Steve blinks. Tony’s lips are tight and drawn. The blood from his nose is dripping into Steve’s hair. Tony starts to wrap a roll of gauze what feels like a solid ton of cotton pressing into his shoulder.

“S.H.I.E.L.D. has my DNA on file,” he grates. “Why are you asking me about –ow, god damn it–”

“They – just the file? Does anyone have samples? I thought your blood was gone, I thought we did that–”

“Why aren’t we on the fucking Helicarrier,” Steve says again, and Tony does something that sends bright bursts of sparking pain lancing down his arm.

“Jesus, just dig the fucking bullet out,” Steve roars as best he can, and a fresh welter of blood escapes over Tony’s fingers. He swears. He smells rubbing alcohol, the cheap pre-packaged swabs, and perversely wishes for the days when Tony wouldn’t have left the house without a flask on him.

“No,” Tony says, “You’ve lost a fuckton of blood already, Steve, who taught you field medicine? The other one went right through your thigh and it’s full metal jacket–”

“I’ll heal,” Steve gasps. “I’ll heal around it with the slug inside and then they’ll have to do surgery later, just, take it out.”

“Steve,” Tony says through gritted teeth, “you’re delirious and someone just hung both of us out to dry and I’m not gonna fuck up your shoulder which you use to throw your shield in the back of a stolen car for a fucking slug. You’ll live. We’ll figure it out later when we can go to a real hospital without being arrested on sight.”

“I throw with the right arm,” Steve snaps, and he doesn’t even care. He’s pissed. “What did you do to get us arrested?”

“You’re ambidextrous.”

“Why was the suit blue, Tony,” Steve insists. “You don’t have any blue suits.”

Tony goes still, removes his hands from Steve’s naked body entirely.

“Tony, I swear to god, I will call Maria myself–”

“Stop asking questions,” Tony says, his voice hushed and hard and not at all what Steve was expecting. “I already broke your phone,” he says, quieter. He almost sounds ashamed.

Steve realizes it’s not shame when Tony pokes bitter tablets into his mouth and makes him swallow.

“I’ll explain when we get there,” Tony says, and then he’s brushing Steve’s hair back from his face. “I’m sorry,” he’s saying. “I’m sorry, I’m–”

No you aren’t, Steve thinks.

- - -

- - -

- - -

Steve glances up through the dust and the heat of the day to see the sign for the visitor’s entrance and wonders if this is part of time travel, if he’s condemned to tread the paths and loops of his former life and meet the ghosts of people he used to know.

He manages to stroll into the hospital with minimal attention. He’s has the good sense to wear sunglasses, Tony’s favorite disguise. He wears a leather jacket he took off one of his victims, a white t-shirt bursting at the seams, jeans. He isn’t out of place.

It’s not difficult to find her. She’s in a long-term ward, quietly sharing a room with an elderly woman hooked up to the same invasive machines, the rise and fall of her chest but for the grace of god.

No one is with her when Steve knocks and quietly slides into the chair at her bedside.

Tamara Devoux lies there, a tube between her lips, her eyes jerking beneath her lids, still as death.

“Tamara,” he says, and closes his hand around hers.

He doesn’t know what he expects to happen, he only knows what happened the first time – energy, crawling up her skin, her broad smile eaten up by the blazing dark, the fiery blue of her eyes.

“I need you to wake up,” he insists.

Please, he wants to say, despair bubbling up in his throat. Yes, you know me. You threw me through that window. You can put things back. You can send me back so at least I can die in my own time with my own world. You know about Tony.

“You’re an Avenger,” he tries. “Your name is Tamara. You love pie and you stopped us,” he says, shaking, “we were going to talk and you fucked it up.”

There is so much rage in him, untended, overgrown, snarled like vines. He wants to strangle this woman that doesn’t yet know him, that isn’t yet entangled in the petty jealousies and devastating betrayals that end in secrets and repulsors and blood.

“Captain,” he whispers. “Wake. Up.”

He sits for a long time, waits to be kicked out by a nurse, waylaid by visitors, her daughter, her mother, someone who cares for her, and there’s no one, just the stark green of the painted cinderblock walls in an Oklahoma hospital and this broken woman. An empty vessel.

Tamara’s machines hiss and beep. They will hiss and beep for the next decade while Tony forces the two of them further apart, while they clash like titans and bury their friends, while Tamara waits for the Universe to spill into her body and be used and lied to just like everyone else on the team.

“I’m angry, too,” Steve says. “You were angry. You were dying. Tony knew and he didn’t do anything. Don’t you remember?”

Tony, with his perfect brain and his lies elevated to art.

Tony, the only other person he can go to.

 

XI. 

WHAT IS AND WHAT SHOULD NEVER BE

 

It’s road conditions and thunder that finally force Tony to pick one of the service roads and take a leap of faith. His knuckles are white on the steering wheel. This is why he flies. This is why the North Cross is closed in winter.

Reckless, Rumiko would say. He hasn’t slept in 38 hours, hasn’t eaten in more. His cargo impels him, forward, away. Run. He wishes he had had the sense to run earlier. The courage. He could have saved –

No.

He wends through thick pine trees and what’s probably a dirt road under two inches of snow that’s fallen in the past hour. The windshield wipers on the vehicle are shit, but the sun is coming up as he pulls into a cleared-out area with a pile of lumber and a rusted-through pickup and a cabin that looks mostly intact.

He’s pulling the side door open when he gets a weak kick to the stomach that sends him toppling backwards. He lands on his ass in the snow.

“That’s so you know how pissed I am,” Steve says, and staggers out, steadying himself on the frame of the car. He lobs the pharmacy bottle of Percocet in a sloppy arc and misses Tony by a meter.

It would be funny if Tony could actually tell him how terrified he’s feeling and how his best piece of tech, ever, is in the hands of someone who almost certainly wants to kill them.

Steve pants and clutches at his stomach. He’s putting all his weight on one leg.

“You can beat me up later when you’re not actively dying,” Tony says, and then slings Steve’s arm over his shoulder. He bends to snatch the Percocet up from the snow.

“And whose fault is that,” Steve huffs.

Tony thinks that shouldn’t hurt him as much as it does.

“We’re alive,” Tony pants. “So you’re welcome.”

“It could be shittier,” Steve concedes, chattering down to his teeth, squinting at the cabin through the squall. “We could be in the middle of nowhere with no backup and no reception and neither of our Avengers cards.”

They’re both silent the rest of the way to the house, Tony wilting as he drags Steve’s bulk, bearing their silence, knowing Steve has already done more than he ever needed to do, bearing the responsibility, bearing.

 

- - -

- - -

- - -

 

Steve knows the moment Tony has finished rigging the generators because the floor starts to vibrate.

Everything irritates him, the rasp of new (stolen) clothes on his skin, the pull of the bandages, the day-old sweat at the nape of his neck, the blood crusting under his ear. He wants to snap at Tony to turn the fucking thing off.

But they can’t, because Tony has to run repairs on the suit, and the suit has a signature, and truth be told, he’s been shivering for hours. A pint of his blood is back in the Seattle snow.  

It takes him what feels like an hour to shuck his clothes off onto the floor. The bathroom isn’t really a bathroom, just a turn in the wall off the main room, a clawfoot tub covered in dust with a mildewing curtain pulled around it. He swears when he tests the water and it’s cold enough that the thought of it makes his balls ache in sympathy. He’s going to have to sit in that. God damn –

The hum of the generator goes soft, and the water comes out in a rush of heat over his hand.

“Let me help you,” Tony says, appearing out of nowhere, sweaty and grease-stained.

Steve is tempted to say no out of spite. He’s turning violently around and opening his mouth to say it when he hits his bare hip on the porcelain sink, hard.

Tony is there to catch him. To bear his weight without disturbing his burns, his shoulder, his collarbone.

Tony eases him out of his shirt, holds him gingerly around the waist, doesn’t meet his eyes. Good, Steve thinks. Good. He should feel responsible. He is responsible. Tony walks him into the bath like a child, fusses over his bandages, pulls out an enormous first aid kit and comes up with a curved needle and thread.

Steve doesn’t say a word, doesn’t say a goddamned word as Tony pokes at his broken collarbone, as Tony’s hands lay sutures into his forehead and his stomach and swab at him with surgical precision.

Tony picks up the world’s most foul bar of soap from where it’s resting on the sink, and Steve isn’t going to do it anymore.

“I’m not an invalid,” Steve snaps. So he has a few broken ribs, a broken collarbone, a fucked up shoulder, a mild concussion. He’s had worse.

Tony has the decency to look cowed, but it’s always more with Tony, and the lines of his face draw into hurt and guilt and finally nothing as he buries it like he buries everything else.

Tony gives him the soap. “Call me when you get out,” he says, flat and dull. “I wouldn’t want you to break your neck getting out of the tub after I carried your ungrateful ass out of Seattle.”

Broken, broken, broken. He scrubs at the bruises he earned for Tony and wishes he’d swallowed his pride and taken more morphine.

 

- - -

- - -

- - -

 

Steve finally falls asleep after wolfing down four cans of soup from the pantry and grudgingly letting Tony wrap his shoulder and his ribs.

Tony tries to lay him in the bed, on the real mattress, but Steve gives him one look, like he knows they’re going to end up on it together, and executes the best limp-stalk Tony has ever seen over to the ratty, moth-eaten sofa in front of the broken window.

“Please,” Tony says, because that’s really all he has at this point. He knows he is entirely deserving of Steve’s ire. All of his pleas must sound hollow by now: he’s worn out his stay, he always does. The difference this time is that Steve doesn’t want him for anything, so Steve doesn’t have to tolerate him any longer.

There are a thousand pleases. Please let me explain. Please let me talk to you.

Please tell me it’s going to be ok.

Tony waits until Steve’s breathing changes to slow and deep and cavernous. He lifts his head, gently coaxes the cushiest sweatshirt they have between the two of them under his head. He opens one of the thermal blankets in the kitchen so the mess of plastic won’t wake him, and then drapes one over his massive body.

Drapes one over himself, and sits.

Touches his face, because something is coming for them, someone who wants him dead very badly, touches, because Tony is shaking and Steve went to bed mad and nothing is going to be better in the morning.

Nothing is going to be better after this, ever, maybe.

He falls asleep like that, slumped against the couch, touching Steve’s face, one gauntleted hand drawing the blanket around his own shivering body.

 

- - -

 

Tony slides in and out of sleep, the storm shifting around them, the cabin creaking. He dreams he can hear the hum of repulsors.

He’s wide awake inside two seconds.

He drags himself up from where he’s fallen asleep on the floor next to Steve. The storm is in full-force up here; visibility is low enough that he can’t make out the car from the window behind the couch.

His heart kicks into high gear, and he remembers he’s left anything he could use to help with it in the car: the AED, the Adenosine. He can’t take anymore, but he’s no good if he has a heart attack right here on the damn floor.

He’s stock-still, but there’s no follow-up, nothing but the white noise of the storm and Steve’s labored breathing to punctuate the silence. He presses a finger to his carotid – blessedly steady. He thinks he’ll never get used to trusting Steve’s body to heal on its own, even though he’s seen it, he’s seen wounds turn to scars in hours with his own eyes.

He lays his hand on Steve’s face, knows it’s intrusive, knows Steve doesn’t want any part of his touch right now.

“I can’t explain this to you,” he breathes, and the truth of it is overwhelming, terrifying in its enormity. Does he trust Steve with this? He wants to. He is ashamed to. It means admitting what he is, to Steve, to himself. It stops being theoretical once he brings the words into existence. Steve has laid him bare in a thousand ways, but Tony has always had his armor. “It’s hard for me, it’s – I wanted to explain this to you,” he whispers, “I want you, I want your trust,” he begs, and he’s still a coward, kneeling here, whispering these things in sleep when he should be saying them in the daylight. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted.”

“Good luck with that.”

 

AMBUSH

 

It’s Steve’s voice that rings out harsh and bitter behind him.  

Tony’s head snaps around.

Tony flicks his wrist to rotate the repulsor frequency and fires twice without hesitation.

A perfect double, Steve in every way down to the disapproval in his face, falls to the ground, armored in shining blue.

 

- - -

- - -

- - -

 

There’s a blue suit of armor, pried open and dripping snow onto the floor where Tony’s dragged it into the corner. The one that ripped Steve’s shoulder out of its socket.

“I’m going to tell you some things,” Tony says. “And it’s probably going to piss you off.”

Steve pushes the pilot’s shoulders flush with the broken radiator and leans back with a sigh. The pilot, who just happens to have Steve’s face. “This is why you were asking me about clones,” Steve says. “This is why you knocked me out.”

Tony grabs a length of iron chain out of the wheelbarrow he braved the filthy fucking cold to retrieve from the adjoining shed. “I knocked you out because it was the safest way to transfer you,” he says quietly.

Steve throws his own length down on the ground. The end of it jumps up and catches Tony’s lip.

Steve thinks he should feel bad for the shock on Tony’s face, for the blood welling up on his lip.

“You’re unbelievable,” he says, because he’s not even surprised. “At least have the decency to look me in the fucking eye and tell – no, wrap it around its – the shoulders, that’s not going to hold – Jesus,” Steve swears. “Tony, that’s me.”

“It’s a clone,” Tony says dispassionately. “It’s not you, you’re you.”

“Or it’s an LMD, or it’s another me from another universe who may or may not be evil,” Steve says. “Did you look–”

“Yes,” Tony says quietly, touching his lip. “I’m absolutely certain it’s not an LMD.”

Steve watches him wind the chains around the thing with his body and his face, wicked red on one side where Tony’s repulsor blasts landed, like it’s just another day in the lab. Like it’s no big deal that someone has managed to replicate his person. Like they weren’t almost both assassinated fourteen hours ago –

“How are you so calm about this?”

Tony snatches up Steve’s length of chain and winds it around not-Steve’s neck. “Honestly?” he says.

“Yeah,” Steve laughs. It comes out cruel. “I’d like some honesty–”

“– because you’re miserable to be around when you’re angry!” Tony snaps unexpectedly. “You’ve done nothing but make absolutely fucking sure I know what a piece of shit I’ve been since the minute we got here. I’m not calm. I’m the furthest thing from calm there is, I’m losing my shit and you won’t stop and listen for a fucking minute and we don’t have any backup and my suit is hooked up to a hand-crank generator and you’re just…”

“I’m what,” Steve says.

Tony wrestles the chains together with a rusty padlock and snaps it shut. “Hurt,” he says, his eyes going everywhere and anywhere but Steve. “You’re hurt.”

“Why didn’t you call S.H.I.E.L.D.,” Steve snaps. “Someone stole your armor and attacked you, Tony, It’s move number one, call for backup. I don’t care who you call, call Rhodey, take your pick of anyone on the roster, I’d just, you know, like my bones to set in the right position so they don’t have to break them again when they put me in a hospital, where I should be –

“ – it’s complicated,” Tony says. “It’s.”

Tony backs away and squats, his back to the wall, his face in his hands.

“Can you please not be mad at me,” he says, rocking on his toes. “I just, can you please not be mad at me right now. I know it’s, I know, I have no excuse, ok, I’m sorry, I couldn’t take you to a hospital, that, you don’t understand–”

Steve falls back on his ass and rubs his face with his good arm. He glances at the “Well, clearly we’re not going anywhere. Explain it to me.”

Tony’s eyes are shining with tears when he looks up. “You don’t have the patience,” he says, flat-voiced.

“That’s not fa–”

“–no, you haven’t, not for weeks. You hate that I’m a wreck right now. You wonder why I don’t talk to you. I’m going to tell you what’s going on and you’re just going to yell at me. And it’s fine, I deserve it, I just. I would like to not be yelled at.” Tony rubs at his eyes. “Before, you know. You leave.”

It feels like a sucker punch.

“Why would you say that,” Steve says, ice climbing in his chest. “Tony, I told you–”

“You told me what I wanted to hear,” Tony says.

Steve is silent just long enough for Tony to take it as corroboration.

Tony slides down the wall to sit on the floor. He clutches at his own hair. “Yeah,” he says, “That’s what I though. We’re obviously unevenly matched. Everyone knows I don’t deserve you, and this is my fault, you know it’s my fault and you can make promises to me until you’re blue in the face but at the end of the day you’re still going to be you and I’m still gonna be me and you’re going to insist you’re right and you’re going to leave–”

“Tony,” Steve says, every inch of his energy devoted to calming the storm in his voice. “You’re intensely frustrating, but I’m not – leaving you because you did something dumb and impulsive.” He waves at the blue armor standing in the corner that Tony had dragged in from outside.

“We both know that’s not true,” Steve hears in a voice so like his, so unlike his, that he has to look to see it.

 

SMIRKINGFACE

 

It’s the same face he sees in the mirror, a bit bruised around the cheekbones, just like Tony after a fight, the same stark blue eyes. His hair is even the same, wilder, maybe, but it’s him, the way he clenches his jaw like he’s gearing up to argue, the calm in him, like he’s certain he could take both of them down without a sweat.

Is this what Tony sees when he looks? And there it is, again, the suspicion, deliberately buried, that there’s nothing worth seeing. That he’s been hardening for 90 years, that his perfect skin only thickens with age.

That he doesn’t have anything to offer Tony that Tony can’t get somewhere else.

It takes Steve a few shameful seconds to properly draw the .45 out and aim with his good hand. Tony is already wearily raising his gauntleted hands come in his periphery.  

“What are you,” Steve says. His patience is threadbare. “LMD–“

“I told you he’s not an LMD,” Tony mumbles.

“–LMD, clone, alternate universe me, what,” he snarls.

Alternate-him smiles and licks blood off his teeth. “Ask Tony. Tony always has all the answers.”

Steve flips the Glock around in his hand and catches the sight on the doorjamb to rack the slide. “I’m not in the mood,” he says, and retrains the gun on his lookalike. “Talk.”

“I’m you,” his imposter says.

Steve just stops himself from rolling his eyes. “So, what. Your universe in peril? You some fucked-up version of me from a reality where Tony is my mortal enemy? How did you get here,” Steve annunciates. “And who came with you?”

His double has the gall to smile. “No,” he says, “I’m you. Just older.”

There’s nothing but the wind roaring for a minute, and then Tony walks out, into the kitchen that isn’t quite another room, visibly distressed.

Steve’s stomach is crawling, because somehow he’s the one with the fewest pieces to put together.

He does an absurd shuffle across the floor, his aim never wavering. He presses the barrel against his not-self’s stubbly throat. “One more time,” he says. “So I can be sure I’m not shooting my only lead to whatever else you brought with you. Why are you here?”

His double shifts, grimaces. Smiles a smile that doesn’t reach his eyes.

“There’s no one else,” his double says. He fixes his eyes on Steve’s. “It’s just me, and my ride isn’t picking up. I need Tony’s help.”

“Tony’s not helping you,” Steve says. “You just tried to kill Tony.”

“Why don’t you ask Tony,” not-Steve says, something steely and cold behind it.

Steve can’t tell, can’t read himself, his not-self. He looks at the armor. He thinks about the way he handled the shield. This isn’t about you.

“You didn’t kill me,” Steve says.

Not-him holds his gaze. “If you’re gonna shoot me,” he says, “don’t fuck it up.”

He tilts his chin down, nestles the barrel tight beside his neck.

“Do it,” Not-him says. “The next time it happens he’ll be too busy lying to be there.”

“The hell does that mean?”

He wouldn’t know if it weren’t his own face, but there’s misery behind his double’s glower. “Ask him about the armor,” he says, his eyes flicking behind Steve. “Ask him what else he’s keeping from you. See if it makes you leave faster.”

“Tell him, Tony,” his double says without breaking Steve’s gaze. “You don’t even trust you not to fuck up again.”

Tony is standing in the doorway, grey and drawn as the snow.

 

- - -

 

Tony won’t meet his eyes.

“You’re the only one that can work it,” Tony is saying in almost a whisper. “He has to be telling the truth. He knew the code to shut down the house system. No one knows that, Steve. No one knows that but me. He had to walk into the tower in New York and get into my lab and then get into the containment unit, Steve. You need a retina scan and a fingerprint and a DNA sample for that.”

The kitchen is tiny, a galley with a fridge shorter than they both are tall and linoleum peeling up at the corners. Steve is leaning heavily on the counter, and Tony’s pressed himself as far into the corner as he can and they’re still practically chest to chest.

“Why weren’t you alerted when he broke in to the tower,” Steve says quietly. “Why am I the only one who can work it?”

Tony won’t look at him at all. “That’s the point,” he says, finally. “It’s my best work. It’s better than any of my suits. It’s–”

“I didn’t want a suit, Tony. I didn’t ask you to build me a suit–”

“You don’t understand,” Tony says. “It’s so you could neutralize me. Should the need arise.”

“Are you planning something I should know about,” Steve deadpans, but when he looks up, Tony is staring and pale.  

“This is not a joke,” Tony says. “I built something so you could shut me down. Just because.” His voice tightens and he clutches his hands together so tightly that they’re white.

“Well, thank you for casting me in your suicide,” Steve snaps. He is snapping, he knows it. It’s not fair, he can’t breathe. There’s never any air with Tony, it’s always either high-altitude euphoria or drowning. There is no in between.

Tony’s face grows hard. “I’ve been out of control before. You know, before we – you know what? It doesn’t even matter. Yeah. You were willing to let me die once before, when I was out of control. What was it you said? ‘A man has to want to be helped. Let me know when you do.’”

Sometimes Tony feels things so deeply Steve thinks it should have killed him by now.

“Well,” Tony says, voice tight. “You now have the tools to help. It’s yours. It’s your suit. It was always meant to be yours.”

The rest hangs there, unspoken, and Steve suppresses the urge to laugh at the misery of it, the perfect absurdity of it all.

It’s just like Tony. Trust him to be his executioner, but God forbid he let anyone – Steve – in.

“You know what?” Steve says. “You can be a real asshole.”

 

- - -

- - -

- - -

 

Steve sits on the couch with bag full of icicles shaken from trees pressed against his shoulder, a sleeping bag propped under his thigh, and Tony tries to imagine that they’re already done, that Steve is nothing more than a colleague, a team leader. His boss. The one he answers to when he fucks up. He picks at the padlock with the same rusty nail he used to open it and pretends he doesn’t feel wretched. He blows dust out of a pot and melts snow into coffee water.

It’s like hearing Steve talk and listening to a stranger, all at once. The cadence of his voice is the same, just harder. Worn into something sharp and cutting. His eyes never leave Tony’s face.

Other Steve laughs and says the world is ending. All the worlds, all the universes. Cascade failure, he says with a gallows smile.

“And taking me out somehow stops that?” Tony demands.

“You wouldn’t believe what you can get up to in ten years,” Other Steve says darkly.

“Well, your incursions sound an awful lot like someone played with the space-time continuum one time too many,” Tony snarls. “How do you know your actions, right now, aren’t the thing that–”

“They didn’t start in our universe,” Other Steve snaps back at him. “And I didn’t come to find a solution, there isn’t a fucking solution–”

“You know what, whatever. You know better than that, it’s playing with fire–”                                           

“I came from Avengers Mansion,” Other Steve snaps. “Maria Hill had just called me to tell me that you were about to blow up the entirety of the Shi’ar fleet because you could. The next incursion was two hours away.”  

Tony is quiet. “I wouldn’t do that.”

“Well, you did, but hopefully now you won’t, and so I need to get back.”

Tony looks at him. “What did you change?”

Other Steve’s face pulls up in a pinched smile. “Can’t say. Prime Directive.”

Tony blinks. “You have no fucking idea how time travel works, do you.”

Other Steve shrugs, like he doesn’t even care. “Kang does it all the time. Manifold does it all the time.”

“You have a responsibility–”

“Don’t even fucking start with me,” Other Steve spits. “You had a responsibility. And you have done nothing but lie to my face from the very beginning.”

It’s like fighting with Steve. With his Steve, only a thousand times angrier, a thousand times sharper, like sliding razor wire through his bare hands when he wants to be wearing his armor.

“And what does the team think about this?” Steve says.

Other Steve takes a swig of powdered coffee that must burn his throat. “There is no team,” he says. To Tony, he nods. “You made sure of that.”

Tony knows, even if Steve is brooding and sullen right now, that under the best of circumstances, under the worst, they would both do things, maybe unacceptable things, to save the team. Wanda is a fresh wound. The mansion, the smell of burning, the new lineup: not quite friends, not quite allies. A loose ensemble with a name they maybe don’t deserve yet.  

If Tony could go back, back to when they were all alive, he would do it in a heartbeat.

Steve tosses his icepack on the floor and sighs. “We get it,” he says, and he sounds worryingly exhausted. “You have a bone to pick with Tony–”

“Tony starts a war with us,” Other Steve says. “In about six months, you’ll finally learn about what they handed him as Secretary of Defense. Project Wideawake. The Superhuman Registration Act.”  

Tony can feel Steve’s eyes on the back of his head, can sense how Steve has gone absolutely still behind him on the couch while his double runs his mouth.

“That’s,” Tony says quietly. “The SHRA is never going to get passed. There’s no consensus on either side, it’s–”

“Is this – really?” Steve says. “This is a real thing?” 

“Steve,” Tony starts, but his double is laughing, his chains clicking against the radiator.

“Is something funny?” Tony snarls.

“You might just get your war. I don’t even know why I tried,” he says. “Because you just can’t stop lying.” 

Steve is silent and Tony resents him for it.

“You know, you keep saying that,” Tony says through gritted teeth. “I haven’t done anything, I’m not your Tony.”

“So you have no idea where the infinity gems are, then,” Other Steve says.

Tony feels like his chest is constricting. There’s nothing to even fight with, and Steve’s double stares at him like he’s looking right through him, like he knew this, like he planned it all along. He thinks he should be lying. He thinks he should be twisting around to assure Steve otherwise.

Steve sees right through him in every timeline. Tony’s first impulse is always to lie. To bury.

Somewhere behind him, Tony’s Steve is digging in one of the duffel bags. Tony can hear him pulling on his boots, the slide of new nylon through the holes as he laces them.

“Steve,” Tony hears himself say. His own voice sounds wet. “Just–”

“I’m going for a walk,” he says, and the door slams.

Tony has never hated as he hates now.

 

XII.

DOWNSTREAM

 

[The Skrulls find Tony Stark’s body weeks after the invasion, facedown on a coffee table, locked away from the world, the room rancid with spilt whiskey and dried vomit. 

“Avenger,” the Skrull Queen sneers. “What an obscene waste. Burn it.”

The entire block burns, Tony Stark and his Penthouse in Queens, Tony Stark and his last suit of armor, Tony Stark with his fist clenched tight around a letter from the late Captain America, signed Yours, Steve.

The world spins on.]

 

XIII.

BEDROCK

 

Steve is quiet as he lets Tony wrap the chains around his hands so he can feed himself.

“I had to fly here with a broken nav system,” he says, picking at the freeze-dried biscuits in his MRE pouch. “Thanks.”

“I had to stitch Steve up in the back of a stolen van in a Cabela’s parking lot,” Tony snipes under his breath. “Thanks.”

It’s startling, the differences, seeing the things that evaporated the minute Tony put on the armor and never took it off until Steve was back from the dead and Tony was a vegetable.

A day ago, the decision to bring him back was an ugly regret. Now, with Tony in front of him systematically dismantling his armor with his hands and his eyes and a prybar and a rusty flathead he found under the sink – it’s jarring.

The faceplate goes flying across the room and Tony swears and sucks on his thumb.

“You’re different where I come from,” Steve says.

“When,” Tony says. “You have to be from this future or the interface wouldn’t have let you in.” He gestures at the blue pieces strewn around him like a shed carapace.

“The time gem is the only thing that can put me back.”

“If you know what you say you know,” Tony says, untangling a mass of wire with his dexterous fingers, “then you know that the time gem isn’t mine. It’s Namor’s.”

“You gave it to me, in my time,” Steve says, quietly, and Tony puts down the neckguard panel he’s working on and scrubs a hand over his face.

“When you came here,” Tony says, “whatever you altered – your time won’t be the same, when you go back. I’m not sure you can go back.”

Steve wants to laugh. There are tears burning in his eyes. This Tony doesn’t understand.

He’s so earnest it makes Steve want to lie down and die right here.

“My world is dying,” Steve says, “My time, this world. So whatever it is now, it’s–”

It was Tony with white eyes like a demon, Tony who couldn’t give a shit about who was in his bed or whose heart he’s wormed through. Tony who woke up every day next to him and kissed him for a year after he’d been in his head and erased.

Maybe it’s not like that, anymore.

Maybe, just once, he got lucky. Maybe there’s a better future waiting for him, now.

“You’re a fucking child, you know that?” Tony says. “You can’t bend the rules because you want to, Reed walks thin enough ice as it is–”

“You’re evading,” Steve says.

“And you’re a jackass,” Tony says, picking his head up. “What the fuck happened to you,” he spits. “What the fuck happened to make you come back here and decide that the best solution is a repulsor to my head instead of a discussion?”

Steve snorts. “Aren’t you all about transparency.”

Tony looks staggered for a minute, and then he throws one of the shoulder plates at Steve’s face with all of his strength behind it.

His cheek is bleeding. He gasps, chin tucked to his chest, and then Tony is in front of him, Tony, looking so young and angry and guileless, wrenching his chin up.

The violence of it is so jarringly incongruous with the blasé Tony Steve abandoned in the future that it renders him momentarily speechless.

“You don’t know shit about me,” Tony hisses. “And you certainly don’t know what Steve is to me.”

“I know what I was to you,” Steve hears himself say. “And I did this for us.”

The shock on Tony’s face is enough to send something hot and panging through Steve.

Because Steve made peace with the fact that his soul was no longer his a long time ago, and it’s clear and sharp and stabbing in the dim light of this shack in the mountains: Tony still has it. He’s always going to have it.

“I am not yours,” Tony spits, his breath hot on Steve’s face, and Steve hates it, Steve didn’t want to do it this way, wanted it to be over so he’d never have to see what he can’t have. “You don’t know me,” he snarls.

“I do know you,” Steve says. “I’ve known you in every way possible, Tony, and I am telling you, this is who we are. I came here so maybe we could have a future where you don’t end up a monster.

He realizes he’s been shouting about the same time Tony gets a grip on his hair and slams his head into the radiator.

“That’s not me,” Tony snarls. “That’s never going to be me.” Quieter, he says, “I’d kill myself before I let that happen.”

“You’re always so sure,” Steve wheezes. “What do the rest of us get?”

Tony’s eyes are shining with tears when he kicks the armor across the floor and storms out into the night.  

The last time his Tony cried was the morning he erased Steve’s memory. He’d clung to him in Steve’s bed in the tower, the two of them tangled up in each other’s limbs. He’d thought, at the time, that Tony was still reeling, like he was, shock, guilt, at the tragedy of another Earth’s death.

“Somewhere,” Tony had whispered, harrowed and white-knuckled, in the quiet silence before dawn, “somewhere two of us just died.”

Steve is left staring at the cabin door with the terrible thought that maybe he’s misjudged, a terrible ache shearing his insides.

 

- - -

- - -

- - -

 

Steve is using a filthy length of plastic tubing to siphon the rest of the gas out of the SUV when Tony finds him, his shield leaning against the body of the car.

Tony figures that if he’s learned nothing else today, it’s that he won’t win in an argument against Steve when he’s angry. Best to concede defeat from the start.

Steve spits into the snow and wipes his mouth. “You’re shit at guard duty.”

Tony will take anything as long as it’s not open hostility, at this point. “Yeah, well. Future–you is a dick.”

“I get why you didn’t call S.H.I.E.L.D.,” Steve says, to Tony’s abject astonishment.

“Is that an apology?”

Steve straightens up and leans back against the passenger side door. Looks up at the clearing sky.

“I don’t want to be that,” he says, and it shudders out of him with the force of a hurricane. “I don’t want,” he tries, stutters, wipes at his face. “Is that how you see me?” he asks, terribly quiet.

“How,” Tony says, and the chill in him can’t be from the wind alone.

“Angry,” Steve breathes.

Tony isn’t going to lie, not about this. “I think you have a lot of defensible reasons to be angry.”

“That’s not what I’m asking.”

Tony is quiet. He screws the lid of the gas canister back on, pulls the tubing out and throws it into the snow beside the SUV. “I think you have more patience than anyone I know,” Tony says, “and when it runs out–”

When it runs out, Tony is usually the inciting incident.

“Come inside,” Tony says, and holds out his hand. “I’m not asking.”

Steve hovers on the edge of refusal, something warring in him. He hates defeat, he hates weakness.

Tony would like to believe that there is something in him that wins out over Steve’s doubt, though it’s dwindling daily.

Steve takes his hand, leans heavily on Tony. Tells him, gruff and too exhausted to be any kind of ashamed, I’m bleeding. My head feels like someone smashed me with a brick. Says, quiet and defeated, I might need a transfusion.

Even quieter, like it’s being dragged from him: “Who do I trust, Tony? Him or you?”

Me or you?

It feels like an ultimatum, and the knowledge that he’s dangerously close to deserving it makes everything more perilous, makes him desperate and greedy and frantic to hold on to this, to Steve, whatever he can have of him, as long as there’s breath in his body.

Ok, Tony says, certain that nothing is ok right now, ok. We’ll fix it, together. I’ll patch you up, I’ll wrap your ribs. We’ll get you some blood. I’m sure we can find a donor.

Steve doesn’t laugh.  

We’ll figure it out, he says, and doesn’t kiss Steve, because he’s not sure if he’s allowed to do that anymore.

Shellhead, Steve says in a broken gasp, and they stumble and fall together, wrapped around each other in the snow.  

 

- - -

 

Everything about it makes Steve feel dirty.

Steve finds him crying on the bed, early in the morning, the sun licking over the east River, Rumiko’s clothes strewn everywhere.

He doesn’t plan on it, like he doesn’t plan on anything, ever, with Tony.

Tony has been conspicuously absent from meetings and calls and press conferences. The money keeps rolling in, the gear keeps showing up on the coffee table on the main floor miraculously free of burns and tears and bullet holes, and gossip runs rampant about his showdown in Seattle.

Steve thinks if it were him, he would have killed the bastard then and there, but he watched the footage, watched Tony knock him down in the mud and walk away.

“Go away, Steve,” Tony says, perched on the edge of the bed, his knees pulled up to his chest, and Steve sits on the edge of the bed with him, because there’s a bottle of whiskey on the nightstand and Steve wants, fiercely, selfishly, to be the one to see him through this.

He has so many speeches rehearsed. He knows what they were, knows that there is an engagement ring dripping in diamonds somewhere in this room if Tony hasn’t thrown it into the sea by now, knows that she was ferocious and Tony was so proud to be standing by her side. Tony glowed at her side. Tony kissed her like she made him forget all of the demons than have ever haunted him.

Tony sniffs and wipes at his bloodshot eyes with his hand.

“Did you feel like this,” Tony says, barely audible, “when you got out of the ice?”

It’s not comparable, not in the slightest. Steve doesn’t know how to convey what it is to lose everything that makes the fabric of your world, all at once, can’t say no, it was worse.

“Yes,” he lies.

“Liar,” Tony says.

Tony looks at him, bares his puffy face and his tear-tracked cheeks and his bloodshot, miserable denim-blue eyes. “I don’t know what to do,” he says, his voice breaking on the end of it.

Steve’s mouth opens and a thousand clumsy platitudes turn themselves over on his tongue.

In what is possibly the worst decision of his abnormally long life, he leans in and wipes Tony’s cheek with his thumb.

Tony looks at him like only he knows how to do, piercing and appraising and deft, and then Steve does something despicable and leans over to kiss Tony’s swollen mouth.

Tony kisses him back, feather-light, his head just turned, his chin resting on his knees, and when Steve doesn’t look away, Tony fists his hands in Steve’s hair and kisses him again, weeping, ferocious in his grief.

Steve forgets any hesitance he might have fallen back on when Tony hikes up Steve’s shirt, when Tony pulls Steve down onto his stale sheets and wraps his bare legs desperately around him. For all the ways Steve has imagined this, it’s never been like this, Tony looking away when Steve sees him naked for the first time as a lover, Tony silent and stoic and hurting as he rips at the drawstring on Steve’s running sweats and digs his fingers into Steve’s back.

Tony cries for hours, after, draped over Steve’s chest, Rumiko’s jasmine perfume thick in the air, Tony’s hand over Steve’s heart like they’ve belonged here for years.

Steve thinks he should be sorry.

He’s not.

 

XIV.

DETOUR

 

Tony spends the first hour idly flitting his hands over the instruments, with Steve silent and impassive in the right seat. Steve looks better – the wounds on his face have begun to close into thin pink lines, the bruising accelerated to dull smears of yellow-brown. Tony thinks he’s breathing more regularly, that maybe his ribs are setting. His shoulder is still a mass of bruising and Steve keeps it more or less stationary, his elbow tucked into his side because he’d finally agreed to wear the sling Tony had fashioned from their bloody clothes.

Their silence is stifling, even Steve’s angrier alter ego has shut up for the time being. He’d give anything to be flanking the Quinjet right now, open air and barrel rolls, but he doesn’t trust the other Steve even if he does claim to have picked up piloting.

It’s frightening how much of his information has turned out to be true.

The coordinates for one of Fury’s purported safe houses led him to an abandoned missile silo in Montana, a three-floor descent and a truly impressive array of illicit ordnance. More disconcerting: a plywood desk huddled into a far corner behind crates of K-rations, no dust, recently attended to, flanked by walls covered in hundreds of polaroid snapshots of would-be supers, villains, heroes, mutants, enhanced, and a single word circled in red sharpie at the bottom of the red-stung web.

He knows about the SHRA. It’s forcing Tony’s hand, future-Steve must know that. How long did it take Tony to disclose that in his timeline? Tony has been working up the nerve for months, and every time he thinks he has a sound proposal he imagines Steve’s fearsome ire and buries the thought.

So, they’re going to somehow land on Stephen’s rooftop in Brooklyn, because this is his area. Souls and convergence and the slipstream of time.

Also, the only thing all of them could agree on was that none of them were willing to bring Reed in.

He gives in after it’s clear that they have nothing to say to each other in present company and turns on the wide-range band.

It’s a mistake, and Tony listens to a report about their names topping SHIELD’s most wanted list in connection with a string of murders in South Texas while other Steve sits, unrepentant, shackled to the bulkhead.

“ – Stark presumably dead after a massive explosion rocked the expansive Seattle estate; Rogers still at large and wanted for questioning regarding the deaths of several prominent Stark Subsidiary scientists, among them Maya Hansen–”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Steve says, because Tony has abandoned the yoke and pulled Steve’s holstered Glock off his thigh and stalked to the back of the Quinjet and Tony is thinking about those missed calls from Maya he couldn’t even be bothered to look at – 

“Start talking,” Tony says. Maya was a thousand years ago and a colleague, then a friend, then a body in his bed –

“I did what I did,” Future Steve says, eerily his Steve even in this, the defiant tilt of his chin, the press of his lips that says I’m not budging on this, Tony.

Tony racks the slide. “Switch to auto, Steve,” Tony snarls, because he feels them losing altitude. “Nothing happens if I kill you,” he says to Steve’s counterpart. “You’re separate from your timeline unless we find the time gem, it doesn’t exist anymore, talk.”

“Tony,” Steve starts, looking at the instrument panel.

“Tony,” Future Steve mimics darkly.

“You killed 29 innocent people, Steve,” Tony shouts. It echoes off the metal walls.

Steve closes his eyes like it’s all he’s ever wanted, to hear his name in Tony’s voice again.

“I did it for you,” Steve says, like Tony is the unreasonable one. “And they weren’t innocent.”

“You’re not really inspiring my sympathy,” Tony spits.

“I guess it’s a good thing we didn’t call S.H.I.E.L.D.,” Steve says darkly.

“It was you or them,” future Steve says, like it’s that simple. Like he actually believes it’s fine.

“I don’t give a shit,” Tony says. “You don’t get to kill 29 people in my time because you might be able to change your future–”

“Let me tell you about your future,” Future Steve snarls. “You would be injecting yourself with an untested virus right about now, a virus Maya Hansen designed and distributed to bait you, if I hadn’t killed the test subjects. You walked right into it the first time because you were too fucking proud to call any of us–”

“Bullshit,” Tony says.

“You turned yourself into a machine,” Steve says.

“You have no evidence,” Tony snaps. “You could peddle us a story about the fucking sun going nova and we’d have to believe–”

“Look in my bag,” Future Steve snaps. “I’m not stupid, Tony.”

Tony glares and decides that his pride is less important than whatever is in Steve’s bag.

There isn’t much – a leather jacket with blood on it. A bandana, a .357, a disgusting piece of boxing tape. A piece of paper with a string of names on it, also bloody, and a small black case.

Tony pops the clasps and gets a set of test tubes filled with something swirling and red-black.

“Is this blood?” Tony asks, but he holds one up, swirls it. Too viscous.

“Try it,” Future Steve says. “See if you like it.”

This Steve is just the same, blood on his hands aside, and Tony knows Steve, knows every iteration of his face, shit–eating and bitter and angry all the way to vindictive.

Tony makes a show of sliding the needle out of its sheath, lining it up with a vein on his arm.

Tony,” both Steves say at the same time.

Future Steve, though, he loses his shit.

DON’T,” Future Steve begs, “I came here so you wouldn’t do that, it’s called Extremis, that’s the last sample, Tony, don’t,” he says. “You can’t take it, that’s why I blew up the research, Tony.”

It sounds an awful lot like begging.

Because Tony sees worlds in this other Steve’s eyes, the way he looks at Tony like Tony burns brighter than anything else in the universe, the flinch before he has to turn away, every time, the naked want in him. This Steve has seen him, has seen every inch and ounce of him and heard every ugly thing from his mouth, and this Steve loved him down to his bones.

This Steve crossed time because he’d rather see Tony dead than whatever he turns out to be.

Tony stares and stares and stares at the case in his lap, and then he pulls out the bloody bandana and stuffs it into Future Steve’s mouth.

“Change of plan,” Tony declares, and passes the case off to Steve.

Steve grabs his wrist. Says, very calmly, “If you pull something like that again, I’m tying you up, too.”

“Who would pilot the Quinjet,” Tony says with an empty smile.

Steve is stiff beside him. “This is an attempt to recreate the serum they used on me, isn’t it,” he says quietly.

Monster, Tony thinks, warning bells and sirens and the look on Other Steve’s face, like Tony is something to be destroyed, monitored, controlled.

“Are you going to look at it?” Steve asks. It’s loaded, like everything has been loaded since they became a party of three.

Tony looks at it, weirdly iridescent in the half-light of sunset at this altitude. “I don’t know,” he says honestly. It’s the responsible thing to do, he wants to say, but it would be a lie. Tony is a scientist. He’s going to look at it. “If it’s weaponizable, there’s a good chance she was looking for a buyer.”

Steve is quiet beside him.

“But you wouldn’t know anything about that,” he says.

Tony’s head turns. “What the fuck does that mean?”

“FuturePharm is a SE subsidiary,” Steve says, his intent bright and clear and dangerous.

“SE has thousands of subsidiaries,” Tony says, even though he has every right to be shouting, because Steve is taking dirty shots. Steve is sounding disturbingly like his double.

Steve snaps the case shut. “Ok,” he says, like that’s all there is.

Tony adjusts their heading. “You know what? We’re going to see Xavier,” he says. “We need a psychic, because you clearly don’t trust me.”

“And where is Xavier?” Steve asks. He sounds just as ragged as Tony feels. “Because by all accounts, he’s missing, Tony.”

“Genosha.”

Steve is silent for far too long, beside him.

Tony knows what he’s thinking. He’s thinking about how Iron Man’s held his secrets close to his chest from the very beginning until the last possible moment. He’s thinking about that time Tony erased all their memories and didn’t come clean about it until months had gone by.

He’s wondering who he’s sleeping with.

“That’s going to take all night,” is all Steve says.

“Yep,” Tony agrees.

- - -

- - -

- - -

                                                                                

Tony sets the Quinjet flawlessly down in Genosha’s sprawling highlands in the middle of a herd of disgruntled buffalo. They’ve crossed enough time zones for the sun to be crawling up, spilling its tilted winter light over the wreck of Hammer Bay.

Steve can’t leave fast enough, and he almost topples a woman with long dark hair and tentacles for arms as he’s striding off the ramp.

“Oh,” he says, and he thinks he should be used to this shit by now. “I’m.”

“Captain America,” she says, and wraps a green tentacle around his wrist in a parody of a handshake. She cants her head. “Aren’t you a fugitive?”

“I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure,” Steve deflects. “You are–”

“Sure we have,” Other Steve says, as Tony leads him down the ramp. “Callisto,” he nods.

Tony rolls his eyes. “Callisto. Terrorist, Morlock, oh, you modeled, didn’t you? Weren’t you in Vanity Fair? Before the, uh, squid?”

Callisto’s eyes are locked on Future Steve, still bound, his eyes glued to the wreck of a city down by the shore. 

“Well,” she says carefully. “I guess you three idiots are looking for Chucky.”

Charles Xavier, it turns out, is reclining against a sleeping water buffalo, his wheelchair nowhere in sight. He’s barefoot. His hands are dirty with red clay.

It’s more human than Steve thinks he’s ever seen him. He’s always so prim. They’ve always met as diplomats, curt nods and suits and the silent acknowledgment that they occupy different corners of the universe.

Not Tony, though.

“Charles,” Tony says, and it’s just another thing Steve is going to pretend not to be bothered by. Tony calls him Charles. How many times have they met? How long has Steve been laboring under the delusion that they’re distant colleagues, matched in intellect and loosely bound by humanitarian interests?

“Ah,” Xavier says. “Well, that explains it.”

“Explains what,” Steve says. He’s tired and miserable and so very tired of being the last one to be let into the circle.

“Your well-publicized murder spree,” Xavier says. “You have psychic shields,” he says, then, looking up, clearly taken aback.

“I don’t,” Steve says.

“He has them,” Xavier clarifies, tilting his head at Steve’s double. “You have a sort of echo of them. It’s a consequence of time travel.”

A breath he didn’t know he was holding rushes out of him. He thinks some part of him hoped it wasn’t time travel. Alternate universes are easier. It’s easier to discount what your other self does in a parallel universe. Conditions are different. Extenuating circumstances. There are always a thousand palatable lies to lend comfort.

Not here.

“If he has psychic shields, can you read him?” Tony asks. “Charles–”

“This is a problem,” Xavier declares.

“We gathered,” Steve says. “He has to go back.”

“He may not be able to.”

“I don’t accept that,” Future Steve says, and something about it, something about the cadence of it, the certainty, the righteousness – could be a carbon copy of his own voice. 

Xavier turns his gaze on Steve, eyes like steel. “You may not be able to. Will you be able to live with that, Captain?”

No, Steve thinks, his subconscious rearing violently up. He knows Xavier picks up on it.

He wonders if there’s a ripple effect for shame, too. He wonders how much of his anger is his and how much is his double’s. He wonders if it matters, because apparently the source of it is the same. 

Tony.

“Can you read him,” Tony says impatiently.

Xavier is silent for a moment. “Of course,” he says finally. “Let me put aside my pressing difficulties to attend to yours.”

Future Steve has the grace to sit, cross-legged and bound, on the grass in front of Charles. “I’m not lying,” he says. “You have my permission,” he bites out, glaring at Tony.

Tony makes his confused face, fishing for reassurance, and Steve decides to be petty and ignore him.  

Xavier is quiet for a time. Steve decides to watch Tony, Tony frowning like this is just another day at the office, like he doesn’t particularly care, like he knows better, like something in his atmospheric IQ buffers him, cushions him in calm. He’s never known how to reconcile this Tony with the Tony that lets Steve see him sob and rage and love.

Xavier sits for what seems like forever, and then gasps, like he’s forgotten to breathe, shudders.

Future him wipes at his face with his shackled hands before anyone can see he’s crying.

“What did you see,” Tony demands. “Is he telling the truth? Do I–” he quiets himself, re-centers. “Is this me?” he asks. “Is me what did this? Is–”

“We’re not supposed to have knowledge like this,” Xavier says to Tony. “Yes, he’s of this timeline.”

To Steve, he says: “You need to put him back. Now.”

Future Steve slumps where he sits, his eyes dull and glazed, leagues away.

“That’s all?” Tony says. “Yes?”

“You’re trespassing,” Xavier says calmly, like dealing with Tony’s alarmism is habit, “you’re fugitives, one of you has made terrible reckless decisions, of which we can’t possibly know the ramifications.”

“Charles–”

Xavier sighs. “I’m trying to rebuild,” he says. “I told you, Tony. I told you that I wanted no part of this. And now–”

“Now, what,” Steve snaps.

“Frankly, I’ve just acquired a much larger set of problems than any of us is currently equipped to deal with. I need to assemble our colleagues.”

“Plot in a dark room?” Steve says, and he doesn’t even care. He knows he sounds like a child. He is so tired of condescension, evasion. Omission. “Was that what you meant?”

“Steve, please,” Tony says, and there he is, his hands on Steve’s shoulders, his body a warm shield, a warm distraction. I’m asking, say the cant of his hips, the looseness of his shoulders. This is the game they play.

Steve is growing weary of playing.

“I suggest you discuss this on the way to Nevada,” Xavier says. “I can’t have you here. Callisto has undoubtedly contacted S.H.I.E.L.D. already. I suggest you get a head start; the cordon will have your shield frequency by now. I doubt you’ll be able to slip under their radar a second time.”

“Come on, Steve,” Tony says, and brushes past him, already striding back to the ship. “We’ll talk about it later.” To Xavier: “I’ll be late.”

Xavier looks at Steve too long, maybe at the pair of them.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

Steve thinks if someone apologizes to him one more time instead of telling him what the fuck is going on, he’s going to shoot someone.

 

- - -

- - -

- - -

 

“How long,” Steve finally says.

How long have you been lying to all of us? How long have you been making decisions for me? For all of us? How long have I shared your bed like we were equals?

“Years,” Tony says, and there’s sad, quiet shame in his voice.

Good.

                               

Steve leans over Tony’s body and very deliberately flicks the Quinjet to autopilot.

 

- - -

- - -

- - -

 

Tony’s flying, as usual, is impeccable. Steve privately thinks it’s always rivaled Carol’s, and, at times, Rhodey’s. Tony never does things by halves. His pining, naïve past self shackles his wrists loosely around the far bunk and throws a used water bottle at him. Steve chalks it up to spite. It’s what he might do.

He falls asleep to turbulence over Cote D’Ivoire and wakes, later, in a half-stupor, to his own voice filtering back from the front.

“–shut up and take it, Tony,” his other half is whispering.

He cracks his eyes, just the barest, just enough to get the edge of the sunset that’s been chasing them since Genosha. 

Just enough to see Tony, naked, bracing himself on the co-pilot’s chair, his mouth thrown wide, one of his hands wrapped around behind him to claw at other-him’s neck.  

Steve can’t close his eyes, can’t stop watching as the other him, the him that still gets to have Tony, fucks into him, furious. He lies in his chains, a loathsome voyeur, despises them both, hates that the smell of Tony’s sweat sends him right back to the day Tony woke him up with an I would give the world for you, stars in his eyes, and turned on him four hours later.

Tony’s hands sweat and slip, his mouth worked into a grimace. The other him puts his hand over Tony’s mouth a split second before he reaches around to twist one of Tony’s nipples.   

Tony sees him looking, sees him watching. 

Tony stares right back. Dips his head, moans a little louder behind his other self’s hand.

“Work me,” says the other him, the him without 10 years of aching betrayals slicing at him. He forces Tony’s head down, pins Tony to the headrest with one broad forearm on the back of Tony’s neck. “I’m waiting, Shellhead,” he hisses, and twists his fingers in Tony's hair. Tony whimpers.  

Steve watches Tony’s eyes flutter shut and hates

He doesn't stop watching, just seethes and lies there, perfectly still, while Tony's sweat drips onto the leather, while the aching maw in him rises and snowballs into useless, hideous pain.

 

- - - 

 

“I know you’re awake,” Tony whispers next to his ear. 

He’s crouching in front of Steve’s bunk, wearing a single gauntlet and no shirt. His lips are swollen. He smells like shit and come and sweat.

“I want you to know I could kill you, right now. Just like you tried to sneak into my home and execute me in my bed.” He smiles, and the muscles in his bare kiss-bitten neck flex and ripple. “Just like you killed Maya.

“I want you to know I’m doing this for Steve,” he says, his eyes dark and deadly serious. “I’m running from SHIELD for Steve. I’m flying us to Nevada for Steve. I’m going to play with the fabric of space-time for Steve,” he snarls. “Not you, not your pathetic, pining ass. I want you to think about whose fault it is that you’re here.” He thumbs at Steve’s chin, pulls his face around, presses the flat of the repulsor against his carotid. “I’m not your Tony,” he whispers. “And I’m never going to be your Tony,” he spits.

Steve swallows and swallows and swallows down the flood that has been rising in him since Tony looked into his eyes and smiled and said I’d do it again.

“Cling to that,” Steve whispers back. “Tell yourself that, when you turn out to be exactly what I know you are and everyone you love leaves.”

Eden was right; nothing can be changed.  It’s Tony’s fault. It’s always going to be Tony’s fault.

He can't believe he even fucking tried.

Tony gives him a black eye. 

 

- - -

- - -

- - -

 

Steve wants to believe what Tony is peddling, this time.

There have been so many times before this. Nonsense, Tony says. You have to eat something. Tony orders him breakfast food, and the smile almost reaches his eyes.

“What’s happening,” Tamara Devoux says, and drops the pot of coffee.

The blue-black creeps up her body, consuming, devouring.

“What’s happening,” the Universe says, looking at her vessel’s shaking hands. “WHAT’S HAPPENING,” she screams, and the front window of the diner blows 20 feet out into the parking lot.

And then it’s just Tamara, crying.

“What’s happening,” she says. “Where did she GO,” she cries.

For the first time in a very long time, Steve believes the shock on Tony’s face.

 

- - -

- - -

- - -

 

Tony strides through the doors of Area 51 like he isn’t staggering and sleep deprived, like he didn’t just land the Quinjet in a hundred meter scraping skid in the Nevada dust.

The two of him trail after Tony, because the door hisses open and there they are again, in the shadow of Tony’s enormity.

“Welcome to Area 51,” Tony says, his voice devoid of the showmanship he usually reserves for this sort of thing.

The scale of it is inconceivable, staggering, even to Steve. It makes the Tower look like a shanty propped up on dry-rotten stilts. Everything is smooth, vaulted, gleaming metal, untouched, unmarked. The ceiling towers above them, the hiss of re-circulated air welcome after a mile hike to the entrance.

They walk onto a balcony, and the floor becomes a cavern filled with hundreds of suits.

Steve chooses to imagine it was a factory, once. An underground hangar, perhaps. It’s easier if he imagines people. It’s easier to keep his feet on the ground, to tell himself that Tony didn’t somehow quietly, single-handedly move earth in the desert to build this cavernous place for months while Steve didn’t notice.

“I’ve had this for years,” Tony says quietly. “I have about thirty of them, all told. All over the country. Three in Canada.”

Sometimes the reminders hit him like this. Sometimes Tony will do something, something borne of a thousand perfect calculations: a flip in midair, a spectacular dive. Sometimes it will Stop Steve in his tracks and make him wonder if he’ll ever be half the artist Tony is. The scope of Tony is something that remains not entirely fathomable. His generosity.

His failures, when they happen.

He should be proud, maybe. He should be in awe. He wonders if Tony knows what it’s like to feel like this, like he’s constantly standing the shade of a Titan.

“You built this,” is all Steve can come up with.

Asshole him is silent beside him, the look on his face set and grim.

Tony sighs, presses his hand to the panel mounted on the railing. “I build a lot of things, Steve,” he says quietly. He leans in as a wireframe springs into existence to roll over his face, his eye. He turns and it scans his ear, too.

“Password,” a system Steve doesn’t recognize prompts him.

Tony fists one of his hands at his side. “Steve Rogers,” he mumbles, just articulate enough for the reader to get a confirmed voice match.

The wall behind Tony unfurls, melts away in a blink of liquid silver to reveal a perfect gleaming gold sphere suspended in an energy field. Tony reaches his hand through and plucks it out, and it, too, melts into a slick that covers Tony’s hand like liquid gold.

A shining purple jewel hovers above Tony’s upturned palm.

“Do you want to do it?” Tony asks him.

“You’re the expert,” he says, and Asshole-him inexplicably stiffens beside him.

Tony blinks, but not quick enough to wipe away the flash of raw hurt that flickers across his face.

“I’ve never used it,” Tony says. “I never intended to use it. I never really wanted to.” He swipes a hand over his dusty face, throws the web of gold slick at Steve. It floats on his hand like mercury. “Also, not that you give a shit, but we did agree not to use them.” Tony flashes him a thin smile and busies himself at the panel.

This is how Steve squanders his chances. “Tony–”

“Don’t wait up,” Tony says, his face downturned. He punches in one last sequence that puts them on lockdown, sends the echoes of shuttering doors running through the empty halls.  

Tony smiles like he’s perilously close to breaking apart.

“Be safe, Steve,” he says, like he’s never going to see him again, closes his bare hand around the gem, and then he’s gone.

Steve feels every inch of the flinch that shudders through his double beside him.

 

- - -

 

They settle against opposite walls, Steve’s shield perched in his lap.

“Wanna make out?” Asshole him asks. “It takes him at least 30 minutes to get into his deep-sea rig, and he doesn’t have his diving partner. And the nearest armory with a deep-sea rig is outside of Albuquerque.”

Steve is never going to stop hating having his face rubbed in the knowledge that Tony’s existence is expansive and shining and probably just fine without him.  Mostly it’s beginning to grate on him, having to look at himself through a funhouse mirror rubbed with steel wool. There’s no version of this that could ever end in insouciance for him. He can’t see the chain of events that gets him here, a grim smirk and a body count and a dying universe to go back to.

“No,” Steve says coolly, and shoves a piece of beef jerky into his mouth. “I’m in a monogamous relationship.”

His double actually rolls his eyes. “It’s just us,” he says. “Tony isn’t here, you don’t have to–”


“You’re right, Tony isn’t here,” Steve snaps unexpectedly. “Tony is probably precipitating an international incident so we can clean up your fucking mess.”

He’s shocked at his own outburst. He doesn’t remember being this angry since early on, since he woke up. Maybe the difference is he no longer knows how to differentiate. He’s spent so long feeling tangled and torn and jealous.

“Our mess,” his double corrects.

“It’s not our mess,” Steve says. “I didn’t decide to screw with the space-time continuum because Tony broke up with me–”

“No, you just figured you’d wait and do that part yourself when I go. Or is the sex good enough that you’re sticking around, for now?”

Steve looks at him, looks at his stupid dusty face and the bruise Tony gave him yellowing on his cheek, and feels sudden, overwhelming, inexplicable pity.

“What the hell happened to you,” Steve says.

Asshole him laughs a gallows laugh. “We made a decision. Actually, Tony made a decision for me–”

“No, you made a decision,” Steve snaps.

“WE,” Asshole him spits. “You’ve already made it too. We made it the minute we decided we were gonna screw him because it was the closest thing we ever thought we’d get to loving him.”

The worst part is, he can’t even argue. It’s all true. There’s nothing he can say to refute himself.

“So that’s it? It goes sour down the road and this is your response?” He knows. It’s hopelessly simplistic. Nothing is ever as simple as that. Tony never does anything by halves.

He doesn’t want to know; both of them know it.

Asshole-him rests his manacled hands on his knees. “Loving Tony is like being an alcoholic, I imagine,” he says. “Loving Tony got me into this, yes. And it ended up with me played for a fucking fool while he…”

“While he what,” Steve presses, against every ounce of better judgment.

Asshole-him gives him a reaper’s smile. “You know what,” he says. “It doesn’t matter. It’s in the past.”

“And you brought it here and made it my future,” Steve says.

“Don’t think I wouldn’t kill you and take your place if I could,” his double snarls.

“Try it,” Steve growls.  

Asshole-him considers this. “Loving Tony ends in us burning the world down to keep each other.” Quieter, he says, “I don’t know if it’s worth it, anymore.”

“And what about loving Sharon,” Steve says, because he still thinks about them, too often, probably, for the road he’s chosen to walk. Steve’s never known how to walk away, not completely. His lovers leave marks, though he’s grown to believe he’s immune to them. “What about Rachel,” he asks.

None of them slot together quite like Tony has crept into his life. Peggy did, and now he kisses Tony like he kissed Peggy during the war.

Asshole–him sobers with shame. Steve’s looked in mirrors enough to recognize it.

“Well,” his double says quietly. “The last thing I did before I came here was snap Sharon’s neck. I’ll let you suss that one out.”

Steve wants to vomit.

“It was always Tony, Steve,” his other self says, unrepentant. “It’s always going to be Tony.”

 

XV.

DELUGE

 

[–The cameras are blinding, but Steve follows in Tony’s steady wake, as Tony smiles his politician’s smile and strides through the Capitol and into the chamber like he owns the world.

They slide into place next to Reed, who’s already in his seat. Sue kisses them both on the cheek.

“Mr. Stark,” says one of the Senators from New York. “We recognize the position you occupy within your community, but the fact remains, the American People cannot abide a world where Gods run around with carte blanche to dole out justice. We deserve to know who’s keeping the peace–”

Tony watches as Steve stands up, calm. Unbuttons his jacket. It’s not his cue, yet, but Tony trusts him.

“Sit down, Captain, this is a hearing, not a soap opera–”

“Your bill is never going to pass,” Steve says.

“Is that a threat, Captain?”

Steve smiles. “Just a statement. That is why you called us here to testify, is it not?” 

Reed presses a button on his phone, and then the Senator’s face is sliding into green, along with half of the Chamber assembly.

Sue doesn’t put them in containment fields.

Tony stands, reaches his arms out for the gold, and –

Nothing happens.

“Here’s our statement,” Steve says, except it’s not Steve’s voice, and it’s not Steve’s face, it’s green, and Tony is shuddering, his eyes flickering to black film, his gaze glassy and distant and he’s vomiting all over the floor while the rest of them scream –]

 

XVI.

CONFLUENCE

 

Exactly one hour and 23 minutes after Tony’s disappearance, a massive suit with oxygen tanks mounted on each shoulder materializes before them, dripping, a jellyfish wrapped around one of the legs liquefying into a bioluminescent puddle of slime at his feet.  

The suit hisses open, and Tony steps out.

“Did you get it,” Past him starts, but Tony climbs out, one finger held up, wait, and pops a compartment on the arm of the thing lined in the same shimmering gold. He picks up the corners, and Steve sees it’s a lining, a fine fabric that spills over his hand like silk, and there it is.

Tony opens his mouth and spits the other one out beside it. They float there, circling each other, purple and brassy orange, iridescent in the light of Tony’s weird gold containment oobleck.

“Yes, I got it,” Tony says quietly. “And I’m going to put it back as soon as we’re done.” He looks at his past self with a level of reverence Steve is no longer sure he ever commanded. “There’s a reason they’re separate,” he says. “They can’t be together, it’s dangerous.”

“You might not have a choice,” Steve speaks up, and both of their heads swivel. “It might travel with me,” he clarifies, glancing back at the golden gem.

It’s fading. He’s not sure Tony knows what it’s supposed to look like, but its luster is waning; the light it puts out is weak and sputtering. A dying lightbulb.

It’s never looked like that, not even after it showed up months after he lost it and sent them all careening into the future –

He’s the variable. He’s the cancer.

“Something is wrong,” Steve says. “It’s not supposed to look like that.”

His double’s head snaps around with a look that says I can’t fucking believe you.

“I was there,” Steve says, heading them both off, Tony’s arrogance and his own righteous intolerable bullshit. “The last time they were used, the time gem disappeared and the other ones shattered, and then–” He swallows. “Untie me,” he says. “I have to do it.”

“Well, you’re batshit if you think I’m giving you the time gem,” Tony says, staring him through, and passes the oobleck off to his Steve. He tears off a piece of it and wraps the space gem back up, tucks it away in the arm of his suit, for now.

“It’s reacting to me,” Steve says, as Tony takes the shackles off him, knows it, intuitively. They can’t occupy the same time. “I have to–”

The room starts to vibrate.

He has a fleeting, terrifying second where the only thought in his head is: Tony was right, and then –

“Tony,” both of him say at the same time, the precise same shade of alarm, because the gem isn’t in his past self’s hand anymore.

It’s in his, somehow.

The gem starts to glow, its thready pulse quickening as his bare hand closes around it, and it’s all the same, his heart is pounding and he’s back in that dark workshop looking to avenge.

It’s all exactly the same.

The room goes white –

 

- - -

 

The thing is in his hand, but he can’t tell if they’ve left, he still feels the floor under his feet, smooth and metal and – 

“I’m going to beat you bloody,” he hears himself say, and he tears his gaze away from the gem flickering in his hand.

He couldn’t see what he was doing the first time. Couldn’t see Tony lying there, couldn’t tell that everyone was fighting except Tony, on the floor, under his hands.

Except it’s not just them, this time. It’s not just the Avengers fighting Tony’s entire armory sprung to life, it’s –

It’s them, it’s who they used to be, it’s Tony watching him, Tony with his wet hair and his bare feet and his Steve by his side, horror in both of their faces.

For the first time, he sees himself. He sees his fist connect with Tony’s bare face. He sees the blood vessels burst in Tony’s eye. He sees Tony’s head snap to the side, sees his nose cracked and unseated.

He looks up, nothing to offer, he’s never had anything to offer and they’re right there, they’re watching him, they know exactly what he is and he feels the ridiculous need to explain himself and he feels like he wants to vomit and –

 

 

– Rhodey is covered in wires, his chest bare, his face a swollen mass of bruises and tape and tubes.

Tony watches himself sit at his bedside, watches himself bow his head and pray, our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name – 

Tony’s eyes close, and the machines switch off.

God and executioner.

Rhodey’s breathing rasps and chokes and Tony watches, watches the heart monitor flatline and his chest rise and fall for the last time.

“I hate you,” Tony watches himself whisper, shaking with furious tears. “I fucking HATE YOU, STEVE–”

 

 

– the street is burning, Steve can feel the asphalt hot enough to melt his boots. The city is on fire. They have to be somewhere near Central park, they’re on Broadway, they’re in New York –

Thor brings a bolt out of the sky and splits the intersection in two. Luke Cage is punching Carol into the hood of a green Volvo. Venom chews on a civilian. Frank Castle is pounding Danny’s head into the concrete. People are screaming.

Tony is screaming, right in front of him, pinned to a sewer grate, his armor cracked and sparking, some version of him kneeling over Tony, his cowl torn away, his lips curled up in an animal snarl, blood running down his face from a head wound he doesn’t even seem to notice.

His shield lands, again, again, again, and Tony’s armor falls away. The faceplate cracks off in shards of gold.

Tony’s gauntleted hand grabs Steve’s, around his throat.

“I love you,” he chokes, blood bubbling up on his lips. “Do it, Steve.”

The Steve in uniform brings the shield down and Steve shuts his eyes and tries to breathe, can’t see, just stands there, useless and frozen, the soles of his feet burning, feels tears running out of his disbelieving eyes, and then Tony is reaching for his hand beside him and tangling their fingers together and saying I’m here, I’m here, I’m here, Steve –

 

Steve can’t let go of it. He turns his palm upside down, but it’s just there, stuck, glowing in fits and starts, a hairline fracture running down the face of it –

 

“–why are you being so quiet,” Steve is saying, because Tony’s naked body is pressed up against the windows, the glass smeared with their collective sweat, the tip of his cock is drooling a lazy stream of pre-come while Steve fucks into him from behind.

“Mm,” Tony says, his eyes closed, and Steve lifts his body with a particularly powerful thrust, leaves him pinned and balancing on his toes.

Tony doesn’t react. At all.

Steve pulls out, all in one go, flips him violently around with one hand on his shoulder. 

“Tony, what are you–”

“Yeah,” Tony says, apropos of nothing. “Harder.”

Tony’s face is expressionless, his eyes are blown wide and blank and white – 

 

It’s not right, he tries to tell them, this isn’t what happens.

(Please don’t let this be what happens–)

 

“–you’re the liason,” Tony is saying, and Jessica Drew lifts the cover of the file folder with one long finger. “You’re the S.H.I.E.L.D. liaison. Steve trusts you, so I’m asking you,” he says. “I’m asking you as an Avenger.”

He stares out the window at the rush-hour traffic lining Broadway. Straightens his shoulders, bounces the light around the room. Looks at his helmet in his hands.

“I won’t do it,” Tony says. “I won’t endorse it. We’re in this together or we’re not in it at all.” 

Jessica contemplates. Nods, slowly.

Draws a silver dagger from one of her boots, and stabs Tony in the neck.

Tony goes down, the slick of his blood running over the reactor plate. “Jess,” he mouths.

Cling to that when everyone you love leaves.

“Sorry, Tony,” she says, and catches his body in her lap, strokes his hair. “That’s not gonna work out for me–”

 

“Tony,” Steve tries, but he’s mute, he’s paralyzed and the hairline fracture is a spider web, he’s seasick, it’s ferrying them and throwing them and churning them up in the time stream and –

 

“ – we tried, Captain,” T’Challa says, his voice bouncing off the walls, a weary echo of what might have been integrity, once.

“I thought you were better than this,” Steve says.


“You used the only tool at our disposal, Captain, and failed,” Stephen Strange says. “And now we have nothing.”

“I believe we’ll find a solution,” Steve says. “I’m not going to stand here while you entertain–”

“Do it,” says Reed, and Stephen murmurs, casting, and the air smells like ozone and light and dust–

Tony stands, certainty in his face, his boots echoing on dark granite, and takes a single sweeping stride to stand in front of Steve.

“No,” he says.

They fall together, two sets of empty blue eyes staring up at nothing –

 

“ – no,” Steve moans, and vomits, heaves, his body seizing and retching, his face wan and pale, Extremis glitching and sparking, spread out over his skin in a slick of pale silver. “I’m not a Skrull,” he spits, his teeth stained with blood. “I’m not a Skrull,” he chants, clutching at the broken slab floor of the ruins, slicing his palm on a fern that’s pushed its way through. “Tony,” He says.

Tony kneels in front of him in his armor, and his face shifts into sharp lines, pointed ears, bulbous ridges on his chin.

“Sorry, babe,” he says. “Your Tony’s long dead.”

He raises a gauntleted hand to Steve’s face and the repulsors whir and whine –

 

The time gem is dull in his hand, split and unrecognizable.

It’s dying, he thinks, and it warms for a fraction of a second in his hand as if to tell him, to warn him yes

 

– DON’T DO THAT, the universe is screaming, as Tony crawls away, from the wreckage of a diner in a sweltering parking lot, as Steve looks on, deadened, hardened, silent, cradling a broken arm, his face weathered and aged.

DON’T LIE, she bellows, her eyes blazing blue, I WAS DYING AND YOU’VE

KNOWN

ALL

ALONG

 

There’s nothing.

Steve can’t hear anything, there’s nothing, it’s black. It’s cold. He thinks there’s rubble under him, thinks maybe he can smell the filth of the ocean, down by the bay, maybe, the river, the rush of the tide distant in his ears.

Where’s the sun, he thinks, and then the sun is blazing, the shadow of Tony’s Dyson sphere is breaking apart and everything is on fire, everything is GONE, everything is GONE and he realizes he’s in the Mansion, there are shadows on the walls, he’s going to die in the last home he ever had and nothing is better and Tony was right and Tony and Steve have each other to hold onto and what does Steve get, what has Steve ever gotten, rubble and gunshot wounds and a hemorrhaging heart that was always going to belong to Tony Stark – 

The sun is going nova, he realizes.

Somewhere, he thinks, Tony is dying, too.

Everything is white, then black.

 

- - -

 

Someone is crying.

 

- - -

 

“Rhodey,” someone – Tony – is saying, his voice sounds muffled – “thank god. Is Steve still in surgery, no, no one fucking comes in here –”

Tony was right.

The image of Tony’s Dyson sphere breaking apart like a honeycomb is burned into Steve’s retinas.

Tony didn’t build it to destroy the Shi’ar; he didn’t build it to destroy the other earths. He built it to destroy all of them.

He had a plan, all along.

“No,” Steve says absently. “No. No.” He thinks if he looks down he’ll see his hand burned away.

“Hey, hey, hey,” Tony says, his thigh warm against Steve’s, his eyes bright and blue. He’s shaking, too.

Steve can’t tell if Tony is mad or not. He thinks he doesn’t care. He thinks he’s done. He thinks he would have begged for Tony’s anger. He would have crawled on his knees for anything from Tony.

Tony slaps him in the face and forces his clenched fingers open.

The time gem falls out of his hand and breaks like glass on the floor between them.

“I told you,” Tony whispers, and Steve can almost pretend it’s sincere, that Tony is his. That Tony cares. “I told you that you wouldn’t be able to go back.”

Tony is right.

Tony is always right.

 

XVII.

TURBINE

 

Eden Fesi notices Sharon’s absence. Notices, and doesn’t comment.

“I see you’ve recovered,” he says, after a long silence. “I thought there was no cure?”

Steve finds himself staring at the viewscreen. “You wouldn’t believe what’s in that basement,” he tries, but his mouth is dry. He tastes nothing. He feels nothing and everything, this immense burgeoning thing inside him. He cannot abide another second in this reality. In this universe where Tony Stark fiddles while the world burns.

“I need to ask you a favor,” he says carefully.

“How could I possibly say no,” Eden says, his sarcasm barely eclipsed by his weariness. They’re all so tired. They’re all suffering from bone-deep fatigue.

“You don’t have to say yes,” Steve says quietly. 

“You know, that’s the same line you gave me when you asked me to be an Avenger,” Eden says. He walks around, paces, barefoot, his staff swinging in a wide arc. You said things to me. You say things to people. You move them. It’s very difficult not to believe you. To say no to you.”

You make me feel like I’m someone better, Tony said to him once.

“I need you to send me back in time,” Steve says.

Eden walks, circles around Steve, circles around the platform, infuriatingly silent.

“Time doesn’t work like that,” Eden says, finally. “The cracks–”

“I know you can do it,” Steve says, because he knows the power Eden carries. “Don’t bullshit me, just–”

He bites his lip and pulls at his own hair while Eden is calm. Unmoving. Unbreakable.

Eden stares at him. “This is about Tony Stark.”

 

EDEN

 

 

Steve knows his silence is an admission. There is nothing he can say to deny it. This is about Tony Stark. Everything about him is about Tony Stark. The world is burning. Discretion is a distant dream.

“You have to understand what you’re planning,” Eden says. “Most humans think of time as a line, a series of events. But it’s – it’s little things. It’s a stream, it’s choices. It’s their accumulation that determines History’s courses. You have to be sure of where you’re headed. Intent is everything.”

It’s unbearable, they’re wasting time, another second spent in this fracturing thing they call home and Steve will strike the match himself.

“Eden, nothing about this can be changed,” Steve says.

“You’re right,” Eden says. “But that’s not your plan. You think you can change him,” Eden says. “People can’t be altered, either.”

“No,” Steve admits. “I just want to say goodbye.”

Eden Fesi gets a lie, because this time it’s not for the world. It’s not for the Avengers.

This one is only for Steve.

Eden raises his staff and a tremendous burst of light gathers above them.

“Time isn’t linear,” Eden says. “It’s concurrent. It’s alive. If you pluck at one thread, the whole quilt can unravel.”

“Then why are you doing this for me,” Steve says, his voice rising to a pitch to combat the hum of the swirling energy around them.

“You used to be the best of us,” Eden says. “I suspect you still can be.”

 

 

XVIII. 

THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME

 

“We agreed not to use them,” Stephen Strange’s astral projection says.

Tony is doing his best impression of fine.

He’s been trying not to scream since Nevada.

Steve has acquired a harrowed look, a 2-inch incision, and a shoulder sling. Steve has refused every single one of Tony’s touches since they climbed aboard the Helicarrier in the dust and his hand grazed Steve’s as they sat in a processing room while Rhodey had a shouting match with Maria outside the door.

How are you doing, he’d asked Steve for the millionth time in the past 36 hours, and received a glare in return. He is acutely aware that no one has asked him the question in a very long time. It’s an unspoken agreement between him and those around him. He is tended to. Others’ needs supersede his own. He tends to himself.

It’s fine. They’re back in public. The honeymoon is over. They’re not out. They’re not going to be out. They’re not going to be anything, maybe, and when the time comes, Tony will very quietly bury that, too.

“I didn’t sign your agreement,” Steve says.

Tony and Steve are sitting on opposite ends of a shitty beige couch some lab tech clearly brought in because sex on lab surfaces is a terrible idea. Stephen is necessarily attending from the Astral Plane; there’s no reason for him to be on the Helicarrier. Reed is ostensibly there to get to the bottom of Steve’s alter ego. Right now, he’s on his feet, gesticulating wildly at a diagram of the time stream, and it’s wrong, and Tony is so fucking tired he doesn’t even care.

He told Rhodey as much as he could without disclosing that he and Steve are in what seems to be veering towards a permanently off-again relationship. It didn’t do a damn thing to make his chest less tight, but he trusts Rhodey to make excuses for him, for now.

Everyone makes excuses for him, he’s coming to realize.

“That’s incorrect,” Stephen says, because Reed is saying something wrong about paradoxes. “Reed, if you continue to insist on looking at time as an object instead of an organism you’re never going to understand it.” He closes his eyes and a light bursts into his palms and flows into a branching stream, circling, braided, twisted and tangled, pulsing like a pumping heart.

Steve’s eyes aren’t focusing on anything.

“He changed something,” Stephen says. “It’s knotted; that’s why the time gem shattered. It’s the most fragile of all of them. Also, it’s not the point: we now have four gems, given our security problem. It’s not a set. We can’t use the gauntlet.”

There is a long list of solutions, and Tony thinks he would take a quick headshot over any of the dozens of ethical options they’re going to throw at him.

“They’re treating him for shock,” Tony says. He doesn’t know how he feels about it. He doesn’t know how he feels about anything. “If the timestream is–” he searches for the right word and ends up waving his hand at Stephen’s magical hologram, “how can we know anything we were shown is cer–”

“We can’t,” Stephen says. “But I’ve conferred with Charles, he thinks you should look into that enhancile.”

Steve finally, finally speaks. “You’ve conferred,” he says. “Do you even listen to yourselves?”

Tony wants to punch him and throw himself into his arms for forgiveness all at once. 

“Did Charles say anything useful?” Tony says, gritting his teeth.

“Apparently you make a terrible bureaucrat,” Stephen says dryly.

“Well, we all knew that,” Tony says thinly.

Steve doesn’t think it’s funny. He’s playing his poker face, the face he knows Tony hates, the face he uses when he’s made a decision and he’s not going to tell anyone about it.

“At the very least, he needs to be in a cell,” Reed says. “He killed twen–”

“Yeah, we know,” Steve says from his spot, looking simultaneously furious and defeated in his SHIELD-issue scrubs.

“The max cells here should hold him until we can get him to the Baxter building,” Reed says. “You tested them, you should know,” he nods at Steve. “In the meantime, discretion is the better part of valor. We should apprehend Jessica Drew, quietly. She is on board, yes?”

Stephen hasn’t stopped staring at Steve.

“I’ll take care of him,” Steve says, hoarse and pitiful, and that’s when Tony gets it.

Tony is perilously close to bursting into tears, and then where will they be? Hand shown, game over. Steve’s reputation is already going to take months, years to rebuild. He hates these men, he wishes he had never agreed to discuss things in a dark room, wishes he had never been an Avenger, wishes he had never met Rumiko, wishes he had never imagined a suit of armor and never been tortured in the desert and never touched a block of ice with Captain America dreaming inside.

He wishes he had never inflicted himself upon Steve and infected him with the guilt that’s been dogging him like a cancer for years. Since Ru. Since forever.

“Steve, don’t, just,” Tony says, too quiet, too measured. They’re not alone; they have an audience. “Sit down.”

Steve stands in front of the fucking door and balls his hands into fists.

“I’m done with this,” he says, and the doors slide shut behind him.  

Done with what, Tony wants to scream, but the moment is gone.

Their moments are always stolen from them, it seems.

 

- - -

 

Steve is still shackled to his cot.

They swab his cheeks, take his blood, scrapings, skin samples, hair samples. He sits. He is docile.

The Commander in him rouses, long dormant.

Forty-Two hasn’t been built yet, in this time. Reed has his ways, of course. They can find another way to lock him in the negative zone. They can put him in Riker’s, the Raft. Tony can build a cell expressly for him, for the rest of his life, because Tony has touched every inch of his body. Tony could shoot him into space, if he wanted.

They could execute him. Bucky will show up soon. Bucky wouldn’t abide him.

Tony didn’t have it in him the first time around. Not now, not yet.

Steve, though, he’s always been a soldier.

Two objects cannot occupy the same space.

 

- - -

- - -

- - -

 

Rhodey agrees to go find Jessica after minimal argument. “Steve, you just got out of surgery an hour ago,” he says. “Are you sure you don’t wanna switch?”

Rhodey doesn’t get it. He needs to see this done, himself.

Jury’s still out on what done means.

Steve still commands enough importance that he gets four SHIELD agents from Maria with no questions asked, even if they do lag four paces behind him and their silence is confirmation that they’re still seeing the version of him that killed a slew of people in Texas just because.

“Where are you putting me,” Asshole him says, shuffling along in chains that are too flimsy to really hold him and a hospital gown tied loosely at his back. He’d asked for scrubs, and Steve had said no.

Steve privately thinks he can crawl the deck naked if he thinks he’s getting any favors.

“Research,” Steve lies, because he’s going to cause his arrogant, spiteful twin as much pain as he possibly can in the time allotted to him.

Captain America doesn’t murder civilians, and he bitterly hates it.

His double complies, as Steve slings his shield over his shoulder and wrenches his double’s arms firmly behind his back so one of the agents can punch in the sequence that makes the massive cuffs fall away from his forearms.

It would be so easy. It would be so easy to dislocate his shoulders and kick his legs out from under him and watch the veins in his neck bulge out beneath his fingers –

HEY– ” the Shield agent at the door screams, and –

Something cracks into Steve’s nose and sends him flying back.   

The agent is shouting. He hears her fire off two shots, feels one of them sing by the wall as he reels on his knees, his vision dancing and spotted. Someone’s bones are being crunched; Steve is intimately familiar with the sound of a boot impacting solid flesh. The acting commander is on his back, one of his eyes a pulpy red mess, like someone has stomped on his face. The other two are down, their eyes open, unseeing, their necks twisted grotesquely.

A bare arm wraps around his neck, choking him, cutting off his air.

“You should have just killed me,” his double says. “And you probably should have said it, at least once.”

Tony, Steve thinks.

 

- - -

- - -

- - -

 

“You really don’t fuck up halfway, do you,” Rhodey says. “You go full hog.”

Tony doesn’t particularly care that Extremis looks surprisingly like Marburg, an elegant curl like a shepherd’s crook. He’s not paying attention to the droplet’s worth he’s taken from the syringe munching on a scraping of his own cheek.

He sits back in the stained beige sofa and watches, watches the particles in the suspension crawl over one of his cell like ticks, watches it burst and liquefy.

The new particles, they twist and curl and braid themselves together. It’s not the same cell. It’s a new cell, a replica.

“Holy shit,” Sal says over Skype.  

Tony’s eyes are glazed, unfocused. He doesn’t know how many hours he’s been up. The virus particles twist on the enormous high-def monitor, and Tony glances at the injector sitting atop the foam carrying case.

What a fucking waste.  

“See what you can figure out,” Tony says, and tosses the tablet onto the floor next to the couch. Rhodey is silent, next to him.

“Why is this worth breaking the space-time continuum,” Tony says.

“What’s wrong with you?” says Rhodey.

Steve and I are apparently responsible for the death of the multiverse. I’m fucking Steve. Steve won’t touch me.

I just watched us kill each other in a dozen hypothetical timelines.

“He said I took this,” Tony says dully. He thinks of white eyes and golden skin. He thinks about watching Steve spill his blood on the hot Midtown asphalt.

“I’m not talking about your petri dish,” Rhodey says. “I’m talking about you and Steve. You’re fighting.”

Tony closes his eyes. “I don’t want to talk about it,” he says. “You know what, I need to sleep.”

“You’re not gonna sleep,” Rhodey says, “come on, Tony, don’t bullshit me–”

“No,” Tony snaps. “I’m gonna fucking figure out why a copy of Steve came back in time and tried to kill me over some fucking science experiment.”

“Ok,” Rhodey says, and gets up. “So I’m gonna call Pepper and tell her you’re alive, ‘cuz I bet you haven’t done that yet. And then I’m gonna call Carol, and tell her you’re alive, and then I’ll call your team, and then I’m gonna sleep because I slept in the suit to get to you so I could make sure you weren’t dead.

“Rhodey,” Tony starts.

“It’s fine, Tones,” Rhodey sighs. “We’ll talk about it tomorrow.”

He wishes it could be like this with Steve, sometimes. Rhodey is always so certain Tony’s intentions are good. Rhodey got it, the bureaucracy of it, when he was in the Cabinet. Rhodey has faith he does the best he can.

It’s more than Tony can say for himself.

He’s drawing a vial of his own blood for testing when the lab doors slide open again.

“I’ll sleep,” Tony says, twisting around on his stool, “I swear, Rhodey, just–”

It’s Steve, Steve with his arm in a sling and still wearing scrubs that fit him wrong, that make him look exhausted and done.

“Steve,” is all Tony can think to say.

It’s a quiet silence that hangs between them.

Tony is prepared. Tony is ready to be discarded.

Steve crosses the room in two strides and slams him against the wall.

 

- - -

- - -

- - -

 

Steve wakes up inside a cage.

The guards’ bodies are gone, the hallway is empty.

His scrubs are gone; he’s been dressed in the flimsy hospital gown his other self was wearing. The energy barrier is up, too: he can see the edges of it in his peripheral vision if he turns his head right.

The enormous 6-inch steel door at the end of the corridor has been firmly sealed.

And his shield is gone.

Steve loses his mind.

He launches himself at the paneling, but he bounces off of it and hears the bones in his shoulder crunch. The ceiling is higher than he can jump. He forms his hand into a fist and punches around the doorway, great shocks shuddering up his arm. He re-breaks his newly healed wrist. He feels his shoulder pop out again. He bloodies his fingertips trying to dig them into the single seam in the corner. He will tear the walls out one by one. He will tear his body through the cell and through the wall and through the pressurized hull and climb up the side of the fucking Helicarrier if he has to.

Stop.

He rips the bed out of the floor with the bolts still in the legs. It doesn’t dent the wall. He imagines Tony with his throat slashed open. Knives are so intimate. His other self will want Tony to know. He pictures his hands snapping Tony’s neck. He pictures kneeling over Tony’s body and it comes rushing back at him like a torrent, the shield and the smell of Tony’s blood and Tony’s single blue eye peering up at him through his ruined faceplate saying I love you

Stop.

His head feels like it’s splitting in two. He rips the toilet out of the floor, smashes it in a litter of porcelain and water, the pipe gurgling dully. He tries to pry his hands in around the housing, he will dig himself out of here through the sewer line if he has to, he won’t let this happen – 

Stop, he hears, a dim whisper over a raging storm, Stop, he hears, Stop.

His fist connects with the energy barrier and his whole body

shorts – 

Stop, the voice whispers in his ear, and everything around him breaks apart in a maelstrom of light.

 

- - -

- - -

- - -

 

Steve strips Tony’s hoodie off like he can’t bear not touching him another second.

The blood vial breaks on the floor, just falls out of Tony’s hand, because Steve isn’t abandoning him, he’s warm and solid, his hands sliding up Tony’s back, his mouth ferocious against Tony’s, his fingers tangling in Tony’s hair.

“I’m sorry,” he says, and Tony thinks he could sob.

Steve picks up him up, sits him on the table next to the coffeemaker, Tony’s legs clamped around his back. He doesn’t care who sees, he doesn’t care who walks in the door, Steve’s mouth is at his neck, Steve is promising him things, I trust you and I want us to work and I love you –

Tony bites at his lip, murmurs yes, moans because Steve is sliding his fingers down Tony’s scrubs, Steve’s breath is hot against Tony’s ear, Tony is squirming and he wants to keep him, he wants this forever, he will do all the work if Steve will stay with him –

Tony’s hands skim up Steve’s back and his blood turns to sludge in his veins.

There’s no incision.

He freezes, absurdly hard, his heart pounding in his chest, and then realizes his mistake.

Steve drops his head on Tony’s shoulder and sighs. He looks up, flushed and kiss-bitten and beautiful.

But Tony knows him, now. Same eyes, same skin, same lines around his mouth. It’s the character of the blue that’s different.

“I really did mean it,” Steve says, and then Tony feels his skull cracking.  

 

- - -

- - -

- - -

 

He can see everything.

The atoms, the water molecules in the spilt water, the micro-fractures where he’s broken his body against the unbreakable walls. The electrons humming and clinging to the frame of the energy barrier he’s broken.

We did that, he thinks.

He looks at his hand, and it looks like looking into the maw of space.

His whole body is wrapped in something, his–not–his, energy sparking across his skin. It feels like touching the sun. It feels like zero grav and ozone and the perfect purity of the heat of battle. It feels like creation. He feels like he is burning through. He is made of light and shadow.

What are you, they say aloud, and his voice is changed, it’s spun with darkness and gravity and something far, far older than him.

I’m the universe, they say. Do you remember?

Tamara, Steve says, because Steve can see everything.

I’m with you now, the thing inside them says. I’m with you until the danger passes.

                                                                                                           

Why, thinks Steve. Why me?

Because I was wrong, the Universe says. Because you have restored my faith in both of you. Because you are necessary.

I’m the thing that kills us, Steve says, it’s me, I’m so angry –

What you saw wasn’t set, says the Universe. What you saw was broken.

Look, the Universe tells him, and Steve can see all the way to eternity.

 

“YOU KNEW,” Tamara-them screams, and the formica between them cracks down the center. She’s chasing Tony, Tony scrambling on his hands and knees, Tony without his suit, why doesn’t he have his suit? They are furious; they can feel the cosmos blazing in them, the fabric of the stars barely holding them together –

 

 

– Tony holds an infinity gem in his hand. It cycles and turns above his palm, the fading light of the sunset trickling in from off the balcony.

“I never liked magic,” he says, and presses Steve’s fingers around it –

 

 

“This is what we’re up against,” Tony says, and hands him the file so tentatively.

Steve opens the folder. H.R. 2496., Super-Human Registration Act.

“I know a lawyer or two with a vested interest,” Steve says, and smiles, and then they’re kissing -

 

 

Tony sits next to him on Capitol Hill wearing a grey suit, a pale blue shirt and a shit-eating grin. He leans into the microphone.

The senators are buzzing. The press junket is on the stairs, just outside, prowling, waiting for the fallout, for the division. The Daily Bugle has run two headlines.

“We’re not signing,” Tony Stark says, and Steve Rogers falls in love all over again.

 

 

Reed’s machine revolves and pulsates and shoots particles of light across the room. Thousands of them, some bursting in flame, some dead and scorched already, some green, thousands of earths, thousands of New Yorks with different skylines, some with Sentinels patrolling.

Some with the two of them, beaten, or dead, or strapped to exam tables, screaming.

“The variable is you,” Reed says. “Five universes managed to come to terms amicably and the only thing they have in common is you. Together.”

Tony laughs, bright and clear.

“Well, fuck me,” he says.

 

 

“I’m no Nick Fury,” Steve says, out of nowhere, his cheek pressed against Tony’s bare shoulder.

Tony twists around where he lays, his face proud and exasperated and hopelessly, desperately grateful.

“Then don’t,” he breathes, like it’s that easy. “Don’t take the job.”

“It’s Director of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” Steve says, because he is scared, he is scared of the what if, he is scared of someone else hurting Tony again, he is scared that he won’t be able to protect him.

Tony wraps them together, kisses his neck, sucks Steve’s earlobe into his mouth.

“You’re a hero, not a bureaucrat,” he whispers against Steve’s mouth.

 

 

Tony looks like an asshole in his thousand-dollar suit with his ridiculous sunglasses and an oozing hot dog in another hand.

“You don’t have the money for this,” Steve says fondly, because he’s Steve’s asshole, and Steve is sweaty and foul from a fifteen-mile run.

“Thor can,” Tony says. “It’s our home.”

Steve snatches the hot dog out of his hand and takes an enormous bite. “I think that’s my line,” he says.

“Do you think they’ll come back,” Tony says, hushed.

Tony’s hand finds his, and they watch from the sidewalk, brick by brick, beam by beam, the Mansion raised from rubble and ash back to majesty.

“Look behind you,” Steve says.

 

 

Tony sits in the pilot’s seat of the Skrull command ship. The deck shakes, but there’s still enough of it functioning, still too much of it functioning.

“You can do this,” Steve says, prays, begs. Tony’s face is screwed up with blood and dirt and pain, but he reaches out with one shaking hand, the gold spirals across his skin and he hooks the cable into his neck and –

The fighters burst in dazzling explosions, and Tony slumps in his chair, a trickle of blood running out of his nose, his other hand still clasped tight in Steve’s – 

 

 

Steve wakes up next to Tony, the rain pounding the tower glass in the grey dawn, the clouds hanging dark in sky. Steve kisses the planes of his back, the curve of his bare ass, the tenderness of him, still raw and slick from four hours ago when they’d fallen asleep pressed together into a tangle. Steve sinks to his knees on the floor of the enormous walk in shower and after, tilts Tony’s head back and kisses him until the taste of him is in both of their mouths while the water beats down on them both.

“I want this,” Steve breathes into Tony’s mouth, “I want this forever, Tony–”

 

 

“It’s like Mjolnir,” Tony says, his words frantic and tumbling, an icepack pressed to his head where Namor punched him, almost hysterical. “You don’t understand,” and he never says that anymore, “the Gauntlet is a fixed point, it’s not enough to wield it, you have to make it, you have to, you compel it and it follows the bearer–”

“We are going to figure it out,” Steve says. “We’re going to fix it.”

“You have to move the universe around it!” Tony says. “You have to believe you can do it! It’s sheer force of will, the multiverse isn’t going to get fixed because I want it,” he shouts.

He looks shocked at his own terror, and then says, eyes wide and shining, “I can’t lose you! I can’t lose you because I fucked up! Who am I, Steve?” he shouts. “Who the fuck am I to do this?”  

Steve snatches the ice pack away, gently, gently cups Tony’s jaw.

“I’m telling you. I believe you can do it,” Steve says. “You’re the strongest of us.”

 

 

Steve feels them, the meaning of them, the sum of them, all at once, sunk into his bones, swirling in him like it’s binding to his atoms. It’s blinding. It’s right.

We’re going to save Tony, Steve says in a voice that isn’t his.

Yes, the Universe agrees, we are.

- - -

- - -

- - -

 

Tony breathes in a mouthful of blood. He is being pressed into the floor of a cave; someone is shouting at him in Arabic. Everything is the same. He is kicked, in the stomach. In the throat. He tries to swallow but his mouth bleeds, open and gaping. A wound.

Steve is beating him to death with the shield.

“There was a time I would have given my life for you,” says Steve, the angry Steve, the Steve that has seen what he becomes.

He’s dying; they both know it. Tony’s heart isn’t beating right. He’s more of a body than a person. His bones are bleeding. He can’t see out of one of his eyes.

He’s sorry and Steve isn’t going to know.

“Then why couldn't you come back and save Ru,” Tony chokes, furious tears streaming over his face. “What is it about you and me that’s so goddamned imperative?”

“We ruin each other,” Steve says. “I don’t know.”

“I do,” Tony gurgles. “You’re selfish.”

“So are you,” Steve pants.

“Steve’s not gonna let you get away with this,” Tony slurs.

It’s a lie; Steve is gone, probably. His Steve.

Steve’s face hardens. “That’s why,” he says. “That’s the reason. You’re the one that told me once. “We always come back to each other.”

Yes, we do,” comes a voice, a raging storm, crackling with electricity.

Tony’s thinks he’s seeing space as he bleeds out onto the floor, but that can’t be right.

 

- - -

- - -

- - -

 

Steve is looking at his own soul.

Darker, wearier, maybe, but it’s still him. It’s the firmament of his being, standing over Tony’s body, it’s the fibers of his muscle straining to sling his shield into Tony’s ribcage. It’s time’s rot that’s crept into him, but the dimness of his own conviction is his. He would recognize the centuries-old fatigue anywhere.

He sees surprise, when he looks into his own eyes.

“This doesn’t happen,” protests the Him that’s beating Tony to death.

“You’ve lost your way,” Steve tells him, and picks him up with one hand around his throat.

“Eden said,” Other Him gasps. “Eden said you can’t change anything.”

“That’s true,” Steve says, because he understands now. “But I’m not changing anything. I’m just making the decision you couldn’t.”  

He is vaguely aware of the mass of S.H.I.E.L.D. personnel running to the lab, at the energy readings he must be throwing off. He is vaguely aware of James Rhodes shouting behind him, running to Tony’s side, kneeling. Screaming. Crying.

He chokes his careworn self to death effortlessly, watches the energy leave his cells. 

We both know this never changes, does it,” he says.

“Get away,” he says, and Rhodey’s eyes are violent and his intent is to climb into the shining weapon Tony has built for him. He doesn’t understand.

“What did you do with Steve,” Rhodey snarls, standing between him and Tony, as if anything could possibly obstruct Steve’s path.

Steve knocks him aside, bends to kneel at Tony’s side, places his hand on Tony’s chest. His cells are dying. His frame is cracked and broken. His blood is in the wrong places. His structure won't persist.

They both reach out, drawing from his Steve’s body, from the life in Rhodey’s cells, from the electric lines running through this ship like bloodlines. They make Tony’s heart beat. They send his blood cells jolting through his arteries and force his valves to comply.  

That isn’t enough, the Universe cautions. That isn’t enough to save him.

Steve can see the individual virus particles swimming in the vial.

Potential, in its rawest form.

I can’t use it, Steve thinks. I can’t do that to him, what if –

You’re no longer the problem, the Universe tells him, and then they slide the needle into Tony’s arm and Steve is locked deep away inside himself.

Steve watches while the Universe plays Tony’s cells perfectly, sends the virus deep into his bloodstream, into his cells, alters. The Universe plays electricity across the enhancile particles, changes, shapes, coaxes it into Tony’s bones while Tony’s blood heats where it’s still inside his body.

Steve tries to open his mouth to plead, but he can’t.

Stop, the Universe says, and Tony’s body seizes with a hideous crack and starts to spit up blood.

 

 

XIX.

FULCRUM

 

The Universe sits at Tony Stark’s bedside. No one has been able to move him, and the agent who tried is in the infirmary for being struck by lightning.

The man named Sal won’t look at them. He is clearly deeply devoted to Tony. His hands are gentle when he checks the IV lines. His brow furrows in frustration when he looks at his monitors and they tell him nothing. He circles the thing that is Tony even though it no longer resembles Tony.

Thor comes, once. He is the only one that recognizes what it is he is speaking to.

“Why have you chosen him,” Thor asks. “Let him go.”

The Universe won’t answer him.

Steve is far away, dormant. The Universe tells him that he is subsumed, that he should not have been able to exercise his own will at all, that he is an anomaly. His hysteria rises to the surface, now and then. His eyes have not left the gruesome cocoon that contains Tony’s body. His eyes don’t close. He can’t look away.

Please, he asks the Universe. Please just let me tell him. If he dies –

Wait, the universe tells him.

- - -

- - -

- - -

 

The cocoon leaves Tony all at once, early in the morning, when Rhodey has left to get sleep. It just melts away, and there he is, perfect and undamaged and whole.

He opens his eyes, and Steve sees them dart and constrict. Fear.

Thank you, the Universe says, distant, like an echo of an echo.

Then his cells are being ripped apart.

The Universe leaves, rips out of him in a blinding burst, pulls away from his cells like ivy tearing away from brick. His skin is rending, burning, he’s sure of it. He’s sure this is what it feels like to have your shadow burnt into a wall. He can’t close his eyes, he can’t move, all he can do is feel until his body is an ashen husk and Tony is watching him, Tony is watching him, this is the last thing Tony is ever going to see of him –

And then he’s just him, shaking, alone.

He thinks if he takes his eyes off Tony he’s going to lose it. He can’t look at his body. He can’t, he must be destroyed. There’s no pain; he must have no skin, no nerves. Oh, god. Tony’s eyes are terrified and wide and – 

“Steve,” Tony says, and Steve realizes that Tony is touching him.

Skin, he has skin. Tony is in front of him, touching his skin.

“Hey, look,” Tony says, and grasps one of Steve’s hands firmly between his own. “Hey,” he says, and turns Steve’s perfect, unblemished skin over and over, pressed against his own. “Come back,” Tony says. “Hey, stop, Steve, look at me–

That’s what breaks him.  

“You’re alive,” Steve says, gasps, cries, in his own voice. He wants to be saying how can I be, too, I don’t understand, because he can feel the solidness of his own body and it’s just a body, his eyes are just eyes, Tony is just Tony and not a collection of shining atoms. The floor is just a floor and not a network of electrical signals to be manipulated.

Tony is just Tony, generous to a fault, apparently unconcerned that he has something foreign in him now and it’s Steve’s fault.

“Yeah,” Tony says. Tony clutches his naked chest, holds his arms out. “I’m covered in slime,” he says weakly. He twists one of his hands around and tries to flick off the red-grey jelly.

“You molted,” Steve says, shaking. He’s naked, too, he notices. He feels lightheaded.

The only thing he wants in the world is to kiss Tony.

“How am I not dead?” Tony asks, his voice terribly small.

Steve reaches for Tony’s hand, trembling. There’s no one around. There’s no one to see them. He needs something or he’s going to shake apart.

“I love you,” Steve says.

Tony is frozen. “Is that why I’m alive?” he asks.

“Yeah,” Steve says, and he realizes he’s crying. “I’m pretty sure it is. I’m pretty sure it’s why you almost died, too. I gave you the virus,” he admits, his face flushing in shame and inadequacy. “I’m not sorry I did it. You’d be dead, Tony, The Universe showed me…”

He doesn’t know how to explain to Tony. He doesn’t think he can stand it if Tony doesn’t reciprocate this time. He needs to hear it.

Tony slides down into kneeling on the floor. Presses his sopping, slimy head against Steve’s naked thigh. Kisses him.

Tony tangles their fingers together. “It’s ok,” he says. “You don’t have to–”

“No, it’s not,” Steve says, “Tony, I’m sorry.”

“You don’t need–”

“I do,” Steve says. “I was beating you to death–

Tony sighs. “That wasn’t you, Ste–”

“That was me,” Steve snaps. “That was a future version of me, that’s what I turn into, Tony.”

Tony looks at him like he’s an idiot.

“Then don’t,” he says. “Then stop yelling and don’t be that.”

Steve loves him desperately. The Steve he killed loved him, too. He knows that now.

They never got around to telling each other, maybe.

Tony grabs his hands again. “What are you so afraid of?” he asks, so earnest.

Hating you.

“I need to know how you feel,” Steve says, and his voice doesn’t sound anything like his, he sounds desperate and lost, and he knows it’s selfish to want Tony to be his anchor and he doesn’t care. “I can’t not know how you feel about this anymore, Tony, I–”

Tony climbs into his lap and kisses him like nothing else exists in the world but the two of them.

It feels like kissing a hurricane. Steve straightens in his seat, tries to gather Tony to him, slick and ferocious and bare. Tony holds them together, licks his way into Steve's mouth, desperate, honest, cradles Steve’s face in his hands, drags his teeth along Steve’s bottom lip. Pulls away, his hand still firmly on Steve’s jaw, and places Steve’s hand over his naked chest, over his own perfectly steady heartbeat.

“Yes,” Tony says fiercely, his blue eyes boring into Steve’s. “I’m in love with you. Even if it ends up killing both of us.”

Steve’s breath is shaky, like Tony’s drawn life from his lungs.

“It won’t,” he breathes into Tony’s mouth. 

He won’t let it.