"Do you trust him?" Sam had asked the night before, and Steve had just shrugged. He hadn't had a good answer then, and he didn't have one now.
He couldn't trust To—Stark; that was the first problem. He couldn't. Not after what Tony had done to him, to the world. His intentions—jails were full of people with good intentions ending in blood.
The next problem, well—he had to trust Tony now. To trust that Tony's solution would work, that he wasn't just screwing them over, again.
The last problem was very simple.
Steve wanted to trust Tony. He wanted to trust that the last months meant something—more than a lie, more than just making Steve feel safe, the better to use him.
He wasn't sure he was even still angry about that, and that was bad. As long as he was furious, he could work. He could be in the same room with Tony. If the anger was gone now, the things to follow were betrayal, sadness, heartbreak.
Those, he couldn't deal with.
I don't trust Tony Stark, he told himself. He didn't. It was easier not to. He believed that Tony would do what had to be done, and that Doctor Richards would oversee it. Trust didn't factor into that.
(The truth was worse; the truth was that he trusted Tony, because he wanted to, because not doing so hurt too much, because Tony had asked for his help, and Steve had waited for him to do so for months.
He trusted Tony, because after all this time, he still loved him, and didn't that make Steve, the perfect strategist, the biggest idiot there was?)
Steve shook his head. None of that mattered right now.
Richards, McCoy and Tony were assembling the device. Sue was with them, keeping parts of it in her forcefields. She at least understood what they were trying to do.
Steve didn't have any hope of that. Of course Tony had laughed at him, what else could Steve expect?
Steve turned around, surprised. He hadn't heard anyone approaching. It was Carol.
"Nothing, you just didn't seem quite here." She looked worried.
"I'm fine," he barked.
(Tony lied and lied and lied, and Steve was in too many pieces to ever be fine again.)
"They're almost ready," Carol commented. "Hell if I know what they're doing, but I saw the final schematics."
She was right, Steve realised. The device, the multi-dimensional bridge, looked almost like it was supposed to.
He sucked in a sharp breath as the sky turned red.
It was part of the plan, he knew that much, but to see it working . . .
Another Earth loomed in the sky.
"We're ready!" Tony called.
"Well," Richards spoke up. "A few shields are missing, but we won't make it in time. That was just for data analysis though. We're ready to stop the incursion."
"Stop all incursions," Tony corrected.
They had to believe it'd work, because they'd have nothing left otherwise.
Steve approached the device. The shards of the Infinity Gems were collected there. Tony had explained that pushing them into the void between the universes should work to snap everything back in place.
And now they had the incursion, they had the shards, and they had the device, holding the walls between the universes apart. Steve looked through it and saw the vague shapes of a forest.
"Careful," Sue said. "It really is a portal."
Tony wasn't looking at him. His eyes were on the shards. His voice sounded clear.
Now just to take them to the other side, and close the walls forever. They'll be safe. It'll be worth it. I've checked the calculations; the incursions won't repeat.
Steve woke up from—whatever that was—in time to see Tony take the shards from Reed and step through the portal.
Steve didn't think. He ran, pushed everyone out of his way. He wasn't even sure if anyone tried to stop him. He jumped through the portal, and as he flew through it, he saw the shards flow around him.
He understood that he was in the void Tony had mentioned, and that the walls were closing.
He couldn't move here. He couldn't do anything.
He watched as the window into the world ahead got smaller and smaller.
Tony's all alone there, Steve thought. And he intends to stay there, forever.
That gave him strength. He moved through the void, and he wasn't sure how, but he reached the other world before it snapped shut.
He fell through the portal, into the forest.
He wasn't sure how long it'd been when he opened his eyes. He wasn't really sure if he'd ever closed them.
The air tasted weird sharp; and maybe it was the certainty that he wasn't on his home world anymore, or maybe he'd never have mistaken it for his.
He got up slowly. He expected to feel dizzy, but nothing happened.
He looked around, and next to him, Tony was kneeling, pushing himself up.
Steve wanted to reach out and help him. He didn't, too afraid of rejection. There was only so much he could handle.
Tony straightened, finally, and raised a hand to his temples, as if he had a headache. His eyes were screwed shut.
"Was this your genius plan, Stark?" Steve asked.
Tony opened his eyes wide and stumbled back. "Steve?" He furrowed his eyebrows. "Did you jump after me? Do you even know what this means? Did you even stop to think—"
"Oh, because no one but you ever does!" Steve yelled. He knew Tony had laughed, he knew, but— "You don't have to—" he stopped himself.
They looked at each other in charged silence, both of them breathing too fast.
"We're on a different world," Steve said finally. Facts, he needed facts, he couldn't deal with Tony if he didn't know anything.
(He couldn't deal with Tony anyway.)
"Yes," Tony replied.
"You knew you were going to end up here."
"We can't go back."
"You planned this—for yourself at least."
"Do you know which world it is?"
Steve felt as if Tony hit him. "You planned to spend the rest of your life somewhere else, away—" from me "—from everything, and you didn't even check?"
"No," Tony said. He had his hands in his jeans pockets and he was rocking on the balls of his feet. He met Steve's gaze dead on. "Just one question, Steve, let me—because none of what you said were questions, not really, so—why did you follow me?"
At that, Steve fell silent. The weird taste in the air was unnerving him. Tony was unnerving him.
And he didn't really know the answer.
Tony had looked at the Gems, and then—Steve had just heard his voice. But he hadn't spoken.
"I don't know," he admitted.
Tony shook his head. "Don't give me that shit," he said. "We're stuck here together, and you shouldn't be here, you should've stayed and helped them rebuild, you should've led them!"
It was always about keeping you safe, and you had to go and jump here after me; was it to kill me, do you hate me that much?
Steve recoiled. He had a theory—but it was impossible, and it wasn't as if Tony would really think anything like what Steve had just heard, and—
How could Tony think Steve would ever hate him? He wished he could; it would be so much easier than loving him still.
Steve's eyes shot to Tony when he heard a loud gasp, and Tony stumbled back, didn't notice a root, and fell down without any attempt to catch himself, his hands pressed to his temples.
"I have a feeling," Steve said, "that you now know just how I learnt about your plans." He wondered at how he managed to sound so calm, considering—he would not think about it, he would not.
Tony's eyes were screwed shut. He looked as if he was in pain.
Steve should check if he was all right—but he was scared, scared of hearing more, scared of Tony seeing something he was not supposed to see (something else).
"You need to go," Tony said.
"What? We don't know what's here, we shouldn't separate—"
"No," Tony cut in. "But for now. Just. Go take a short walk through the forest, anything; I'll be here in fifteen minutes, I promise."
Maybe they should get away from each other now. Steve wanted to think, and he couldn't do that if he kept hearing Tony's thoughts instead. He guessed it was the same for Tony.
"Okay," he said, and turned away. He wasn't sure it any distance would help—but it'd be better if he didn't have to look at Tony, if he could just sit down and stop worrying about showing weakness.
(As if it mattered, if Tony could hear that.)
He willed himself not to think about anything as he went. He passed trees—familiar ones, oaks and ashes, an occasional pine, and a small stream. He stopped after it. He wasn't far, it was mostly the trees obscuring the view creating the illusion of distance. He could go back quickly, but for now, he could finally think.
It wasn't as helpful as he hoped it would be.
He'd spent months trying to make any kind of sense of his feelings for Tony and he failed. He couldn't do that now.
He'd been so sure Tony hated him, that Tony never cared; all of his actions supported that. But now—now Steve was lost. He didn't know what to think. Should he trust the few sentences he heard from Tony's thoughts?
He didn't know. He couldn't strategise if he had no data.
The one thing he did know was this: even though Tony had said there was no way back, it couldn't be true. Tony was a genius, and who knew who they could meet in this strange new world. They would get back, so that was what they should work on.
Steve had lost his world already. He would not lose it again.
(But Tony was with him now; it wasn't as if he left everything behind if he had the one person that mattered the most with him.
He wondered if it would make any difference.)
He took in a deep breath. They should find other people here, learn something about this place, and work to get back. They shouldn't operate under the assumption it wasn't possible. They'd cross that bridge when—if—they reached it; not on Tony's word.
Steve tried to push his thoughts away again as he made his way back. It wasn't as if he heard every thought Tony had. He had no idea how it worked; why it worked at all. He didn't really know what it actually was.
He wasn't going to start guessing now, just in case, not to trigger it again.
He focused on the nature again—he saw some berries, but he knew better than to trust they were edible. A few roots raising over the ground. Birds were singing up in the trees. It was just this unnatural air that made him realise he wasn't home with his every step.
Tony was already back—or maybe he hadn't left at all, it was hard to tell. He hunched on a large rock, his fingers pressed into his temples.
He straightened up when Steve got closer. "So," he said, his fingers digging into his tights now. "Mind Gem, I'd guess. Funny thing that it chose us. Or maybe it paired everyone there? It's a tricky thing."
Figures Tony would focus on how.
"Could be also Soul Gem," Tony mused, "but I really hope it isn't. Or maybe we'd spent too much time with Xavier all these years ago."
"Jokes? Now?" Steve asked.
Tony flashed him a grin. "You got a better idea?"
Steve shrugged. Neither of them had any good idea, that was the problem. Was the effect constant? Would it fade in time? Would it fade if they were separated? Questions, no answers.
"I think we should try to get back to our world," Steve said.
"Did you miss that part where I said it wasn't possible? Because it still isn't." Tony crossed his arms in front of himself. It looked weirdly defensive, out of place on an always self-assured Tony Stark.
"And you're omniscient enough to say that with absolute certainty while in a forest," Steve growled. "You have no idea where we are. We have to find the population here, we have to find out if it is possible to get back, and there's no point in debating what if it isn't until we learn for sure it's not."
"Ah, so living on false hope is so much better," Tony said sharply.
Something in Steve grew cold. "You forced me to do that, Stark."
And he still wasn't sure if a part of him wasn't grateful. He'd been happy in these few months while Tony had tried to keep everything a secret.
But it wasn't worth the pain of finding out. Nothing was.
"I'm sorry," Tony muttered, and Steve's eyes widened. He'd expected him to argue, to yell, to blame Steve, not—apologise. Had he heard Steve's thoughts again? But why would he care, anyway?
"I don't know if there are any people here," Tony said, as if nothing had just happened. "And if they are, they might not speak English, or the few languages we know between us."
Steve frowned. Tony spoke at least seven—and even on Earth there were hundreds of different languages, and it was their Earth he was thinking about.
"Hell," Tony continued. "They might not even be human. It is an Earth, sure, but it is an Earth in a different universe. It might be younger than ours. It might be older. The trees look familiar, sure, so what? Maybe this oak is actually poisonous." His voice was quiet. He seemed resigned. Steve looked, really looked at him for the first time in—months, probably. Tony's goatee was neatly cut, but it was the only thing about him that looked right. His hair was too long. The plain black t-shirt he was wearing hung on him, as if it was two sizes too big. He had dark circles under his eyes, and his skin was white as paper, as if the only light he'd been seeing lately came from a computer screen.
He looked so tired he might as well have been sick. Would Steve even know?
He had lied to Steve, but it was to give him hope. Steve thought he should return the favour.
"Or it might be an Earth exactly like ours."
Tony looked at him at that. He smiled sadly. "And that would be good, Steve?"
Another one of you I hurt. Another me who couldn't do what he had to.
Steve rubbed at his forehead. He couldn't talk to Tony like that. It was—Tony hadn't been honest in ages, but hearing him laid bare like that . . . Steve couldn't deal with that.
It was different, to know that Tony lied, than to know exactly how much was a lie.
Maybe not everything, maybe even nothing that really mattered; and didn't it make things worse, that Tony cared and still had done what he had?
"We can agree on one thing," Tony spoke up. "We should set off and try to find some civilisation."
"Was that your genius plan? Lock yourself in a random world and what, walk?"
"I didn't plan on being locked here with you," Tony said. "That changes things."
How, Steve wanted to ask and didn't, because the answer clearly was—now Tony had to survive.
"Do you have any weapons on you?" Steve asked.
Tony shook his head mutely.
Steve felt his temper flare again. "You planned this, and you didn't even take your armour?!"
"It wasn't important," Tony stated matter-of-factly. "And back to your question, you don't have your shield."
Steve acutely felt that. He regretted having put it down next to the computers. The shield had always been a familiar item in every new situation; a comfort where there was none.
"We're unarmed and defenceless," Steve summed up. This didn't look good.
Tony laughed. "I wouldn't call us that."
For a moment, it was like it used to be, like it should be—Tony joking, easy closeness between them; not the terrible betrayal and wounds that wouldn't ever quite heal, Tony's quiet guilt and Steve's anger.
There was nothing to it, though. The sun was still high; they should leave now. They had nothing else to do here—not even a hint of the portal was left.
"I passed a stream earlier," Steve remembered. "We should follow it. It should lead us out of the forest, and water is important."
Tony nodded. "Lead on?" he asked.
Since when did Tony care for his opinion, Steve thought, turning back. By Tony's sharp intake of breath Steve heard, Tony'd heard that thought, but at this point Steve wasn't sure he cared.
Tony'd heard the most important thing of all, after all, and hadn't even reacted. What else could he learn?
"Do you think that's drinkable?" Tony asked, pointing at the stream.
Steve shrugged. He had no idea, but it was their best chance at getting water. And . . . He squinted, tried to see through the stream. "I think there are fish there," he said.
"Oh, good," Tony said. "So not only can it be poisonous, we might also have murderous fish with us. Nice."
He knelt down anyway, put his hands under the water. After a moment, he made them into a cup and raised to his lips. Steve watched him drink, his throat moving as he swallowed.
"Well, I'm not dead," Tony said when he got up.
Maybe you wished I were.
Steve shook his head angrily. To cover his annoyance, he too knelt and drank a bit. The water was icy cold, but fresh. Only now did he realise how much he needed it.
"Let's go," he said finally.
They'd been walking for four hours by the time the sun started to come down. Steve stopped. They kept their pace steady, but not fast; they shouldn't tire themselves out. Apparently they could agree on the basics still.
The stream wound through the forest, eventually becoming a small river, and they followed it all the way.
"We should rest," Steve said. "There's no point in going forward when it's dark."
"I can start the fire," Tony said. “We should take turns sleeping. But we don't have any weapons.”
"Are you telling me Tony Stark can't build anything in a forest?"
Tony glared. "About as much as you can, super soldier."
A movement caught Steve's eye in the river. Fish, and more than he'd noticed earlier in the stream. "Start on that fire," he ordered. "I'll catch some fish."
It sounded surreal, as if they had gone camping, and weren't stranded God knew where because of Tony's genius plan.
Tony turned to look, and raised his eyebrows. “The other way round,” he said. “I can make a primitive fish trap.”
Steve hesitated, then nodded. It was probably the best plan of action. He looked around for brushwood, vaguely aware of Tony gathering long sticks to build his trap.
He started the fire quickly enough, and then waited for Tony to finish catching fish.
Steve sighed. They were eating in silence, and he was torn between wishing for things to go back to normal, and the hurt that never disappeared.
He bit into his fish. It tasted plain with not even salt to it, but it was still food, and it mattered.
He remembered waking up and realising everything was a lie and his eyes burned. How could he talk to Tony after that? He used Steve, he'd admitted as much, and now Steve didn't even know if it was true, or if it was a lie designed specifically to hurt him, and he never wanted to hear Tony's thoughts, he never wanted to find more lies between them.
Wakandan wine smelled sharp in the air. He wanted to drink it. He never wanted to drink it. Steve remembered. Tony had never wanted him to; Tony had waited for him to do it. The punch to his jaw hadn't hurt enough for what he'd done. Nothing would be enough to atone. He pushed the bottle away. It fell to the ground and broke, and the scent became almost unbearable.
Steve remembered, but Tony still couldn't give up, still had to do everything to keep him safe.
It might be easier now that Steve hated him.
Steve clenched his hand into a fist. Tony didn't get to feel sorry for himself. Everything he'd done, he'd done knowing his situation. Knowing the consequences. And he still went through with it.
Steve hadn't had that luxury.
Tony didn't have to lie to him. Why did he? Why hadn't he trusted Steve? Why did he choose the Illuminati over their friendship . . . ? Steve had trusted him . . .
He'd thought the anger was gone, but it was far from it.
He finished his fish in a few quick bites. "Take the first watch," he barked at Tony. "Wake me up in four hours."
Tony probably needed sleep more than he did—and Steve intended to let him sleep for more than four hours, when they changed—but right now, in this minute, he needed a break. He deserved it.
Steve didn't wait for Tony's answer. He doubted any was coming anyway. He lay down. The ground was cold and hard. He didn't have anything to cover himself with, but he'd slept in worse conditions during the war. At least time he didn't have to worry about bombs dropping down on him.
He rested his head on his arm, closed his eyes and was asleep in a second.
Tony finished his supper slowly. The fish tasted frankly terrible, but he couldn't focus on it if he tried. They couldn't be picky here anyway.
He glanced at Steve, fast asleep on the other side of the fire. Tony wasn't sure why he'd decided to sleep so suddenly—he'd probably have stormed off if that was an option. Was it something else he'd heard in Tony's mind? Maybe he just thought about what Tony had done to him. Tony couldn't blame him for that.
He hadn't wanted to end up here with Steve. He didn't want to be here with him. It almost made the whole plan not worth it, and it had to be. Losing his world was a small price to pay, and he deserved nothing less anyway. But Steve? Steve shouldn't be here.
He got up, walked the few metres to the river and washed his hands. The water was icy cold, but it was refreshing. He'd had a steady, if not very strong, headache ever since they arrived here. He was willing to blame the Mind Gem for it; magic lay even worse with him since Extremis, tech never mixing with it well, worse so when his whole body got turned into a computer, and he'd really like to remember what he'd done to himself then. He returned to their makeshift camp and sat down again, pressed his cool fingers into his eyelids. His plan had been so easy just a few hours ago, and now he had to make sure Steve survived—and to figure out the new mental connection between them.
Dealing with it today . . .
He'd known he hurt Steve, but not how much. He never wanted this. Never.
And—what he'd glimpsed in Steve's thoughts . . . It was impossible, it was wrong; Steve couldn't love him. Not now. Maybe the Gem showed them what they wanted to hear instead, except Tony had dreamt about it for years, and had destroyed all these dreams with one short sentence, do it, Stephen.
He didn't deserve Steve, and Steve deserved so much better. Why had he followed Tony through the portal?
Maybe it was the Reality Gem messing with him, presenting him his own personal vision of hell. There's Steve, just an arm's reach away—and he'll never want . . . anything to do with Tony ever again.
Tony didn't know what to think. At least before, he'd been certain Steve hated him. Now he was just lost.
In his peripheral vision, Tony noticed Steve moving in his sleep. He shook his head to clear his thoughts and got up. Steve was clearly having a nightmare, and Tony couldn't just let him suffer like that.
He didn't expect to get hit by an image, so powerful it took the breath from his lungs.
He was lying on the ground. There were people around him. Geniuses, and yet, no one could find a solution. His friends, and yet, they all hurt him so.
He couldn't see Tony. Of course he couldn't see Tony. Tony didn't even care to come and gloat now.
"You want to know how much Stark laughed?" one of them asked.
He didn't need to hear the answer. He already knew it. What was he, a relic of the past century, doing with a futurist anyway? He'd been stupid to believe it could've ended any other way but this.
Tony was shaking. He couldn't get his bearings. Was—was that Steve's nightmare? Why would he dream of that? Why not—Tony would understood if it was the moment Stephen wiped this mind. But this? Something that never happened? A terrible thought occurred to him. Was Steve afraid of it? Of Tony laughing? Did he really believe this dream? Tony would never laugh at Steve . . .
Tony knew he'd done what he had to do. There was no other way, not at that moment. And yet . . . What if he'd missed something? What if he could have saved them both?
He shook his head. No point in dwelling on it. Down this road lay only madness, he knew it.
But Steve's nightmare—what was Tony supposed to do now?
He forced himself to calm his breathing. He listened closely, but he could only hear steady breathing from Steve now. He was still fast asleep.
Tony didn't try to wake him up.
He stared at this hands. He wasn't supposed to see that. It was such an obvious thing, too; telepathy 101: don't read your friends' minds. But he couldn't help it—it seemed neither of them could. Tony still had no idea how it worked. It'd be easier if he could think about anything but Steve, but with Steve in such close proximity, that was virtually impossible. He could see all the mistakes he'd ever made, all over again.
Why couldn't he ever get anything right?
The fire was still going, Tony had built it to last, but it was getting chilly anyway. He should've brought his armour. That way, he'd be able to keep Steve safe now. But he hadn't counted on surviving past closing the portal.
For a long time, he just watched the fire going up and the slithers of smoke escaping from it. It was captivating, in a way, an elemental force trapped like that.
He shook himself. He couldn't doze off. He owed it to Steve. His head still hurt and he hadn't slept in days, but he'd gone on longer without sleep. Steve was more important.
Tony curled his arms around him, and forced himself to stay awake. He thought about building an armour out of wood, the impossible calculations for that. Paper. He thought of the armour he'd built just to fight Magneto, without a single magnetic substance in it. He thought of his next armour, the plans he'd had to put away forever. He hadn't expected he'd get to use it, and now he didn't have any tools for it, but that could change. He'd liked the Bleeding Edge armour, but it had had its disadvantages. Sometimes an armour connected to his biology was more of a problem than any help. If he could fix that and kept its transformative abilities . . .
The next time he looked over to check up on Steve, he had to blink a few times. It was no longer dark. The sky was a pink-ish blue. Sunrise.
Good. Steve had needed rest.
Tony stood up, suppressed a yawn, and walked over to Steve. He was actually surprised Steve had slept so long—but maybe he'd been more tired than he'd let on. Tony looked at him for a moment. He should wake him up, they should keep going, but he was sure his touch wouldn't be welcome.
"Steve?" he called, and cursed himself. He didn't have the right to use his name, as if they were friends. But before Tony could correct himself, Steve sat up. His eyes were wide open already. He scanned the camp and then got up.
"It's morning," he said.
Tony nodded. Since when was Steve one for stating the obvious?
"You were supposed to wake me up after four hours," Steve said.
Tony looked away. He'd wanted to, but—Steve's nightmare shook him to his depth, and then he hadn't wanted to disturb him while it seemed like he was actually resting. And Tony was used to pulling all-nighters anyway, so it wasn't an issue . . .
"It will be an issue when you pass out from sheer exhaustion," Steve said very slowly. "Look at yourself, you're the very definition of sleep deprivation!"
"Because you obviously care about that," Tony snapped. "I can walk. That's all that matters."
"No, I don't think you can." Steve crossed his arms in front of him. "You're jittery, you're speaking way too fast—you haven't even noticed it. Maybe you don't even feel tired at this point, but that doesn't mean your body's not exhausted."
"And the point of this lecture is?" Tony straightened up, tried to appear in control.
"The point is, Stark, you need to sleep or else you'll be a burden."
Tony stumbled back. He'd spent years as the only human on a team with superpowered heroes, just a man in the armour, trying not to be a burden to them. He wouldn't pull Steve down with him here.
Burden? Iron Man was always the best of us.
Tony looked up at Steve, eyes wide in shock, and Steve just shook his head. "Don't."
They had to fix this, they had to learn how to function with that—connection between them. But now was not a good time. Was there a good time? It wasn't as if things would get magically better between them. He hated magic anyway. He wouldn't—
Tony shook himself. Steve might've been right. He wasn't in any state to keep going. He was full of a manic energy, and his thoughts were just jumping around, never arriving at anywhere helpful.
He should sleep. But this way, they were going to lose half of the day.
"I told you to wake me up, Stark," Steve reminded him, and how much of Tony's thoughts was he hearing now?
Not important, Tony told himself.
"Okay," he said. "You're right, did you want to hear that? I'm going to sleep now."
He curled himself up on the spot of grass, away from the fire. It was getting warmer again. He could feel the touch of sun on his face.
He was wide awake, and only now he realised how really fucking tired he was. He tried to empty his mind of every thought, but he couldn't fall asleep. He tapped at the RT, as if to check if it was still there—he wouldn't be breathing if it wasn't, but it was more comfort than anything else. It was flat and warm to the touch, keeping him safe in another universe. A piece of home, now that Steve no longer was.
He looked almost peaceful. Steve should've made him sleep first the last night; he had needed it way more. But he'd been angry, and this was too much like caring, and he couldn't look at Tony and not remember—
You used me, and he had to swallow back tears.
Yes. And I'd do it again.
He couldn't describe the pain.
Tony sat up, gasping, his hand at his forehead. His dreams—
They weren't dreams, he understood that much. They were Steve's memories.
He took a few breaths to steady himself, then he looked around. Steve was standing halfway between Tony and the fire, as if he was frozen in place, as if he couldn't make himself come closer, as if he couldn't stay away.
"I'm fine," Tony said. "What time is it?"
"You've slept for about five hours," Steve said. "I'm taking the first watch tonight. Are you okay to keep moving?"
If only because he wasn't really able to sleep more right now. And they had to keep going, anyway, they had to figure out if there was a way they could leave this world.
His t-shirt was getting sticky. He should've bathed in the stream, but now that they agreed to move on, he didn't want to suggest waiting more again. He wasn't really looking forward to submerging himself in the cold water, either. At least he had normal clothes—Steve was in his Captain America uniform.
Tony stretched himself to get rid of the last of the fuzzy sleepiness. "Okay, let's go."
Steve started walking without a word. Tony followed him. It was strange to walk together in silence like that, but what was there to talk about? They had only recently agreed to work together, because they'd had to save the world. They had succeeded. Presumably, at least. This world was still in one piece, so they had to assume their own was too. There was no fixing what had gone wrong between them. Hey, Steve, nice trees they have here wouldn't cut it.
"I wouldn't call them nice," Steve said.
Tony rolled his eyes. "I hate this telepathy thingy." But better Steve heard that than something else. Could they work on it? Severe the bond, or at least make it less random?
The few glimpses into Steve's thoughts Tony got were just painful. He wasn't sure he wanted to actually work on it. It was better not to talk and focus on anything else. The forest was kind of a new experience for Tony. Fighting villains hiding in the trees, sure, he had experience with that. Actually trekking through one, armourless, as if he was backpacking or something? Nope.
He probably wouldn't enjoy a trip like that anyway. He'd miss his workshop and coffee machine. He missed his armour now.
The trees started thinning out, revealing glimpses of open fields. They were probably reaching the edge of the forest, then. Soon they'd be out in the open, where anyone looking for enemies on the ground could find them. But Tony hadn't heard any planes or drones here. In fact, he hadn't seen anything suggesting there was any kind of a civilisation here, but he pushed that thought far away. It occurred to him there wasn't really any reason to think they were being hunted. It'd been his reality for months now, back in their world, but not any longer.
"We should still follow the river,” Steve said. “We'll want the water, and we don't have any way to carry it.”
"Yeah, I agree," Tony said.
He wanted to talk to Steve, not just exchange dry information.
Steve suddenly stopped and turned to face Tony. "Talk?" he asked, his voice tight. "Now you want to talk?"
"We tried to talk to you," Tony said, because he wasn't going to pretend he didn't know what Steve was getting at. "You wouldn't listen, you never listen!"
"Yes, because you're so good at that yourself!"
Tony looking up at him, his face bloody and broken. A quiet whisper, "finish it, Steve", and Steve had never hated himself more.
Tony, locked in his armour as if he'd forgotten he was human, and Steve thought he might hate him now. "Tell me, Director Stark, was it worth it?!"
Tony reeled back. He didn't remember the war—he'd read everything there was to read, he'd seen the pictures and he'd watched the videos, and none of it prepared him to see his own face, when he'd looked at Steve, to hear himself asking for death. It's not even—he couldn't say he was surprised at himself. But the way the war ended, after that . . .
Steve was dead, and it was his fault, and Steve was dead, and he couldn't fix it, he could never fix it, what was he still doing here?
Steve's body was on the table, and Tony had to explain but couldn't, and Steve wouldn't hear it anyway, but it wasn't worth it, it wasn't, it wasn't . . .
Tony's knees hit the ground. He thought he was shaking. The blood on the shield, Steve's still body, the despair and—
It wasn't worth it.
Someone was shaking him by his arms. He blinked a few times and realised he'd started crying. Then he recognized Steve.
"You said you forgot that!"
He had, he wiped his brain, he wiped his brain so Osborn wouldn't get his hands on the database, he knew he had—he couldn't keep remembering how it felt to see Steve cold and unmoving and dead, and nothing was worth it, nothing would ever be worth it; the one thing that he couldn't live with happened and what good was he for if he didn't stop it, it wasn't worth it, god but it wasn't.
He could live with Steve hating him, as long as he was still alive, he'd always known that.
Steve's hands were still on his arms, and Tony grabbed at him blindly, to make sure he was there, to distinguish between memories he shouldn't have and the reality, to know that Steve was here and it wasn't a hallucination, because . . . "It wasn't worth it," he sobbed, and he half-expected Steve to push him away.
His mind was reeling, and there was more—he knew everything that had happened, but he didn't remember it, not personally; and now he understood how it felt when Sal died and Maya left and what it was like to pull the plug on Happy, and oh god Sue stopped him from drinking, but—
It was too much.
He fell forward into darkness.
Steve caught Tony as he fell, more out of habit than anything else. He wasn't sure what to think, what to feel. He had no idea what was true anymore. Did Tony lie even about his memories of the war? Had everything been always a lie between them?
Steve shook his head.
First things first.
Tony was unconscious. Steve's arm was the only thing keeping him up.
They were alone in this alien world, and they needed each other.
He had to make sure Tony was safe. He focused on that. He put him gently down on the ground. Tony didn't even stir. Steve leant over him to check his breathing, and put two fingers to his wrist. Everything was in norm. The RT still shone steadily.
So it was—whatever the Infinity Gems were doing to their minds.
Tony whimpered. Steve turned to him, shook him by his arms.
He was fine, Steve told himself. He wasn't falling into a coma. He wasnt't hurt. He lost consciousness. That . . . happened. Sometimes. Tony was fine.
Steve told himself firmly he didn't care, but he needed Tony to get back to their world. They should work together for that.
But could they?
Whatever had just happened to Tony—he started babbling apologies, Steve saw his memories of breaking down over Steve's body, and it didn't make any sense, none of this made any sense.
Tony shouldn't have these memories. Had he only said he'd lost them so Steve would forgive him easily?
No, Steve knew Tony wouldn't have done that—but then, did he even know Tony at all? Tony'd been lying to him for months and Steve hadn't noticed. Steve had thought they were friends, and Tony had betrayed him in every way that mattered.
He was so lost now. Tony had always been his constant. Steve didn't know what to do now. He didn't know how to live without him, not really.
The palpable grief, the—heartbreak—he'd felt in Tony's memories. No one could lie about that, and . . . It was Steve's death that had reduced Tony to that sobbing wreck of a man? Steve had heard many opinions on Tony's stint as the Director of SHIELD, and a lot of them boiled down to "if he was trying to get himself killed, then it was the perfect strategy".
He'd been completely broken by Steve's death, and now Steve had felt exactly how much.
He was still shaky—and these weren't even his feelings.
He looked at Tony. He was lying, completely still. There were still tears on his face.
A terrible idea dawned on Steve. What if Tony hadn't lied? What if he had forgotten the war, just like he said? Steve couldn't blame him if he just didn't want to remember it. He'd been be furious that Tony got to forget, and Steve didn't.
But if Tony had really wiped his brain clear—he said it was the Mind Gem's doing, the telepathy between them. What if the Mind Gem found these memories in answer to Steve's own?
What if Tony had just seen all of that for the first time?
Steve almost felt sorry for him. It was under a layer of almost palpable anger, though, because if only Tony hadn't been always lying, they wouldn't have ended up here.
If Steve mattered to Tony so much, why didn't Tony just talk to him? Why?
He forced himself to sit down with Tony still in sight. He had to make sure he was physically fine. But . . .
He was so confused. He hated feeling like that. He was Captain America; wasn't he supposed to always know what was right?
Tony was always confusing him. Why couldn't Steve ever just leave?
At least as long as Tony was unconscious, Steve's thoughts were his and his alone.
Maybe it would be easier if they actually talked. But that would require Tony to be honest, and he had some issues with that.
He used Steve once. Who's to say he wouldn't try it again?
Steve clenched his fists. It hurt, not trusting Tony. But what else could he do these days? It was Tony's fault they were here in the first place. If only he'd been honest about his plan, but no, he always knew best.
Steve had been over this so many times, and thinking about it didn't help him at all.
It was getting dark. Steve hadn't noticed that. He sighed. They hadn't gotten far today. He should set up a camp. That way he could focus on something else.
He checked up on Tony again. No change. He was starting to get worried, but he pushed the fear down deep. Tony would be fine, if very cold. They needed fire, and something to eat.
Steve started a fire easily enough. They'd passed a fallen tree not long ago and he now broke off branches for the fire.
They hadn't seen big animals in the forest—which was a good thing—but it also meant they could eat either fish or the berries Steve had noticed earlier, and he really didn't want to try strange berries from a world he didn't know anything about.
He set up Tony's fish trap again. He checked up on Tony—still out of it—and waited a bit to see if the trap worked.
There were some fish caught in the net net. He killed two, leaving the other there to use for breakfast. He put them over the fire, hesitated, and washed his hands in the cold fresh water before going to check up on Tony again.
This time, he touched him. He pressed his hand to Tony's cheek, the way he'd have tried to wake him up when they had still been friends.
Tony sat up immediately, looking around with wild eyes.
He focused on Steve after a few moments, and then just stared at him. It was almost unnerving.
"I made dinner," Steve said.
"You're here," Tony said in a quiet voice. He reached out, and Steve didn't take his hand back, let Tony tangle their fingers together. "You're really back." He was still almost whispering.
An image flashed in Steve's mind, almost too quick to understand—but he'd managed to see his bloody shield.
He knelt down next to Tony. "I'm here," he said, almost gently. "Alive. The Civil War ended years ago, Tony."
Tony stared at their hands. "I got you killed," he said in a shaking voice. "It was—" He stared at Steve, his eyes clear. "It wasn't worth it. Anything, but that. You have to believe me."
Steve nodded. He wasn't sure why this had become so important to Tony, but . . .
Tony laughed, as if he was going mad. "Why is it important?" His grip on Steve's hand was painful. "Steve, you died. I'd done everything to save you—and you were gone. It wasn't worth it."
As long as you were alive, I—I could've gone through with it. But you died, and nothing, nothing was worth it. You died and it was my fault and—
Steve reeled back. When their hands stopped touching, he stopped hearing Tony's thoughts, but he knew it wasn't always that easy, and what he'd heard was enough.
Tony was shaking, but he was staring at Steve, as if he couldn't bear to look away.
"You really didn't remember it," Steve said.
"I told you that," Tony answered quietly. He seemed to be more here than moments ago. "I wiped my brain. To stop Osborn."
To stop remembering, Steve thought, and Tony's eyes widened before he nodded, sadly.
"So what . . ."
"I don't know, Mind Gem doesn't care about rm -rf file permissions?" Tony put his face in his hands. "Sorry. I—sorry."
"What for?" Steve asked.
Tony pressed his fingers into his eyelids. "No idea," he whispered.
Steve's head hurt. It took him a moment to understand that it was in fact Tony's headache, and he was only feeling a shadow of it.
He wanted to reach out and touch him, but it felt too much like forgiveness.
"Don't worry," Tony whispered. "I know I don't deserve that."
Steve didn't have any answer to that.
Tony winced, but he got up, walked closer to the fire. "Can I . . . ?"
"Go ahead," Steve said, and definitely did not wonder if Tony just asked if he could eat.
Tony poked at the fish, but it wasn't too hot, so he tore off a part and bit it.
Steve blinked a few times. He could've guessed that much—but he knew how the fish tasted, even though he hadn't bitten into his own yet. He wondered if that two went both ways, but he wasn't going to ask now. He didn't want to talk about that bond. Maybe if he tried to ignore it, it'd disappear.
Because that ever worked.
"We really have to make some progress tomorrow," Tony said quietly, almost apologetically. "It's my fault we—well. I'll be fine tomorrow."
No he wouldn't be, if what Steve's felt in his mind was any inclination. And neither would Steve.
But they had to find something. They couldn't live on fish forever.
"Go to sleep, Tony," Steve said. "Actually—I haven't seen anything dangerous here. We can both catch a few hours."
It was risky, it wasn't what he'd normally do—but these weren't normal circumstances. Who's to say they wouldn't start to feel each other's exhaustion? They needed to be at their best.
"I didn't—you weren't supposed to be here."
"You said that already."
"If I'd told you the full plan—would you have stayed?"
Steve looked up at Tony, but Tony was facing the other direction. He carefully bit into the fish again, as if he was trying to keep his mind blank.
"You're thinking it was a spur of the moment decision," Steve said, "and that if I had actually thought, I'd have let you go."
Tony just nodded.
How could Tony even ask that? How could he think Steve would let anyone, much less Tony, do that? Even to save the world . . .
"See, Steve," and Tony was staring straight at him now, "this is our main difference. There's nothing I won't do to save the world."
"There is," Steve whispered, even before he realised just how he knew that.
They stood on another planet. Earth-20051? Earth-3490? Earth-199999? It didn't matter.
Tony couldn't press the button, couldn't pull the metaphorical trigger; couldn't sacrifice a world to save his own.
Later, he sat down alone in the house in Hamptons he hated, but the open bar there had some advantages. He set up a row of shot glasses, methodically, and carefully filled them.
He stopped before he reached the end and stared at the bottle. "No. You won't defeat me."
The clock in his hand was almost down to zero, and he pressed his gauntlet into his head, repulsor charged and ready.
"That's what made you come for help to me," Steve realised with horror. And then it hit him, his blood rushing in his ears, because . . . "You wiped my mind so I wouldn't stop you from doing just that, and you weren't even sure you could go through with it?!"
"Shouldn't you be happy?" Tony asked quietly.
"Then what was it for, Tony?! Why did you do that to me?!"
It's not personal flew through Tony's mind, almost too quick for Steve to understand. "You know it's personal!" he yelled. The headache grew worse.
"I didn't want—I didn't know if I could do it, that's true," Tony finally let out. "But I knew that sooner or later, I would learn the answer, and either way, it would kill me. And—I didn't want to make you face the same question." There were tears on Tony's face now. Or maybe it was Steve's.
"So it was an attempt at protecting me." Steve wasn't sure just how he found the strength to talk. "You—you destroyed us, and you're saying it was the better option."
He heard Tony's thoughts again, rapidly quick, too quick to really understand, too many, and not all of them about the incursions—but all of them about Steve.
It wasn't just me; you wouldn't talk to any of us, it was important that we had the options.
But even if—if I made you stay, if I could have done that; you would face that choice and I didn't want you to.
Steve shook his head. "You don't get to decide that for me," he spit out.
"I knew you'd hate me," Tony said, "but you'd be also alive. It was worth it."
Steve wanted to punch something.
"It was never your decision," he repeated. "We could've worked on it together."
Like we were supposed to; isn't that what loving someone meant?
"Love, huh," Tony said aloud, and Steve stared at him in shock, because he couldn't . . . "You still say that?"
"I didn't say anything, Stark," Steve snapped, and this wasn't good, this was all wrong, he couldn't be with Tony—of course, but, he couldn't just be near Tony, either, and it hurt too much, and . . .
"You came here," Tony said, clearly pronouncing each word, "and now we have to survive."
Yes. That's what Steve should focus on. They should both sleep, because it's not as if anything worse can happen to them that hasn't happened already, and they can set off again in the morning.
Steve didn't look at Tony at all as he went to the river, washed his hands and face, and returned to their make-shift camp. He didn't say anything as he lay down and closed his eyes. His head hurt constantly, but he was a soldier. He slept.
Steve woke up. It was already warm and the sun was up. He frowned. He never slept that long. Sure, he'd been tired, mostly emotionally, but it still wasn't normal for him. And why hadn't Tony tried to wake him up?
For a moment, Steve worried Tony had decided to leave on his own. Who knew what other genius ideas he could come up with? Even though it was obvious to both of them that they really needed to stay together here.
Then Steve noticed Tony was curled in on himself, still asleep on the other side of the camp.
Steve set about preparing breakfast from the fish he'd caught last night before trying to wake Tony.
Tony tried to roll away from him, definitely more asleep than conscious.
"Tony," Steve said quietly. "You really have to get up."
"Early," Tony muttered, putting his hand over his eyes. "Coffee."
"There's no coffee here."
At that, Tony opened his eyes in horror—and then he just deflated. "Sorry. Yeah. Getting up now."
“I fried some more fish. Eat.”
He knew Tony skipped breakfasts even on good days.
It almost sounds like he cares. But he has to, you have to stay together here. Don't give yourself hope, Stark.
Steve held his breath for a moment. Tony was standing up and not looking at his face. Good. Better he didn't notice Steve'd heard that.
In a few minutes, they were ready to hit the road again.
The landscape changed. They kept close to the river, but they left the forest far behind. The flowery meadows had an almost intoxicating smell. It made Steve almost dizzy, helped him not think.
The sky remained bright blue; there were no clouds in sight—and still no planes. No birds, either, though there were bees buzzing over the flowers. Steve couldn't guess what they could meet in this world.
"We haven't seen anything human-made yet," Tony said at some point, and Steve nodded grimly.
They were just going forward, with no idea of direction. He knew large parts of Earth were uninhabited, but what if this whole planet was empty?
"They could've learnt about the incursion and evacuated," Tony said, "but still, something would be left."
There wasn't anything. Not a single knocked down sign or abandoned structure.
They kept going, but they were both worried.
There was nothing but more meadows on the horizon.
"We should've tried to build a raft," Tony muttered.
It was a sound idea, and Steve should've thought about that before. There were almost no trees here, just a few definitely too small to be of any use of them.
"We could go back," Steve offered, but he was hesitating. They'd move quicker, that was for sure, but it would be another day wasted, and all the trees looked—old, old and strong; it wouldn't be easy to fall them.
"Well, you're super strong," Tony said.
Steve had almost stopped reacting to Tony replying to his thoughts.
"Also, there's a nice tree. Huh. Wait a bit," Tony said, and turned to the centre of the meadow. Steve couldn't recognise what kind the tree Tony pointed at was, but just like all the rest, it looked young and short.
He watched Tony walk quickly to the tree and kneel next to it. He couldn't see exactly what Tony was doing, and a thought occurred to him that he could try to use that new telepathy between them, but he didn't want to force it. He wasn't sure what would happen, and he wanted it gone. It only made things worse for them.
Then Tony was walking back, a curious expression on his face. He held two objects in his hands. Fruit maybe?
"These look like apples," he said, offering one to Steve.
"And?" Steve took it without really thinking.
"Take a look."
It took him a second to understand. They looked—artificial. Ideally circular, not a single blemish on them. They were red, but it was one stable colour, not a single change in shades. Like a ball drawn with a marker.
"What does it mean?" he asked.
"I've no idea," Tony admitted freely. "It could mean a million things. But I have no idea which possibility would be more probable than others."
"But it's not natural."
"It wouldn't be natural on our world, no," Tony agreed. "Here?" He shrugged. "Going by what we've seen so far, yeah, that doesn't fit, but it's not like we've seen a lot of this planet either. You wouldn't think Mount Everest was possible if you only saw the Sahara."
He smelt the apple. "It even smells perfectly apple-like. Like a perfume." And then, before Steve could react, Tony bit into it, chewed and swallowed. He smiled with delight. "And it tastes wonderful."
"So what you're saying is," Steve said, "it's the perfect poison?"
"So is the water and the fish, Steve," Tony said. "Everything here could be poisonous."
"But not everything looks like that." The apple he was still holding was almost unnerving him. It was too perfect. Tony looked fine—Steve didn't want to, but he could feel how good it was to taste something different than the fish, how the juice was refreshing—but there was no telling what effect it could have on him. Steve wasn't going to try it, and he was annoyed that Tony just did.
"GMO, maybe," Tony said. "Ours haven't reached that stage, that's for sure."
Steve shuddered at the thought. "So? Do you want to keep following the river and see if there's more stuff that looks engineered?"
Tony hesitated. He wasn't too keen on going back either. Steve sighed as he realised why he knew that. "Let's walk till sunset," Tony said. "If there's nothing out there, we'll go back to build a raft."
That left a few hours of walking still. Steve nodded. He started walking again, the sun hot on his back.
Talking about a raft brought back a whole different set of memories, because he couldn't help but think of the Raft and the Avengers that assembled there. He'd been so happy when Tony had arrived at the prison, when the new team had come together. He'd missed Tony like air in the months after the Avengers disassembled, and then everything had started to feel right again. He'd thought his life could never be complete without Tony—he still thought that, stupidly.
Steve got shaken out of his thoughts when he heard Tony, and then pain erupted in his left ankle. He stumbled, but he managed to keep his balance. Tony was on the ground, his hand on his ankle, wincing. He must've tripped.
Steve carefully sat down next to him. He knew his own ankle was okay. It was like with the headache yesterday. It wasn't his pain he was feeling.
"What happened?" he asked.
"I got—distracted." Tony rolled up his trousers' leg.
Distracted. Or I heard you thinking, more likely.
Steve moved closer. He stilled Tony's hands, pulled off his shoe for him, didn't think of how natural it was to want to take care of him. Tony's ankle was rapidly swelling.
"Fuck," Tony said again.
Steve knew it hurt, he could feel it all too well. He touched Tony's ankle as delicately as he could, and Tony hissed.
"It's sprained," Steve said.
"Yes, I wouldn't have noticed," Tony snapped. "I'll be fine, just—" He stared at his leg angrily. He tried to get up, and Steve grabbed him by his shoulders and held him down. It was refreshing in a way, to be annoyed about Tony hurting himself and not Steve—at least not on purpose.
"Are you really trying to walk on it? Aren't you supposed to be a genius?" He had known how bad Tony was at downplaying his injuries, but now that he could feel it, he thought he'd underestimated Tony in the past. As it was, he really wasn't looking forward to walking himself.
"Oh." Tony frowned. "I didn't realise you could feel—sorry."
"If I knew telepathy was all it took to keep you in bed to recuperate, I'd have tried this years ago," Steve said, and they both froze.
Trapped with Tony in this world, it was so easy to forget what happened, to forget how much even looking at him had hurt. It was easy to go back to what they used to be—and then, in a split second, he'd remember, and it was that much worse, to grasp at what he'd had and would never have again. Tony had used him and would do it again, he'd admitted as much, and he lied and lied and lied; Steve couldn't forget that, no matter how much he wanted to.
I never wanted this, please believe me, I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry—I know you hate me and I deserve it but god I don't want to see you hurt—SteveSteveSteve
Steve dug his nails into his hand, pain jolting him out of Tony's head, and he couldn't begin to untangle that mess of thoughts and—guilt?
And I'd do it again, Tony had said in his lab, not an ounce of guilt in his stance. Which face should Steve trust? And did it even matter, if Tony felt guilty? He'd known what he was doing when he wiped Steve's mind, and thinking about that still hurt.
"I'm sorry," Tony whispered, and it sounded like he'd said that before.
"Right," Steve said aloud, and he didn't look at Tony, his gaze furiously fixed on his ankle, red and swollen now. "Let's get this cooled." This was important; here and now, they could deal with their issues when they got home (or ignore them forever).
Steve stood up and then pulled Tony to his feet, and he could almost feel how Tony worked to keep his head clear of any thoughts, how he focused on the pain just to keep himself grounded. It'd be easier to carry him the few metres to the river bank, but Steve knew how Tony would react to it—don't you dare—so he helped him walk, and Tony put his weight on him and limped over the grass. It took them a few minutes to cover the short distance. The grass was slippery, but Steve doubted they'd go any faster on a steady ground. They wouldn't be able to keep moving like this.
Tony sat down, carefully, and pulled his trouser leg as high as he could before putting his feet in the water. Steve felt relief immediately flowing through his thoughts, as cold water flowed over Tony's ankle—
Steve hissed. It wasn't quite ice, but it was running fast and it was cold, and he never liked that feeling. It was fine when he drank the water, but this was different, and he hadn't been ready for this sensation.
"Sorry," Tony said in a small voice, and only then did Steve realise Tony moved to take his leg out of the water—apparently because Steve didn't like to be reminded of the ice.
"Tony," Steve said. "Don't be dumb."
Tony looked at him dubiously, but he kept his leg underwater. After a moment, he leant back and lay down, his uninjured leg bent at his knee and firmly on the bank. Looking at him, Steve could think he was just relaxing in the sun—but Tony's face was tight, and the water helped, but they couldn't stay there forever, and they didn't have any painkillers.
Tony was thinking about maths. Fast Fourier Transformation equations flashed in Steve's mind. Was it what he did when he wanted to take his mind off something? Recite equations?
"Not any equations," Tony let out. "Those are useful in the suit." A flash of pride as he thought about the armour.
He shouldn't be here, he was getting confused; he wasn't sure anymore which emotions were his and which were Tony's. He needed to get away, and—concentrate, he had to concentrate.
First things first. "We don't have bandages," Steve said. They didn't have anything. "But we need to compress your ankle."
"My sock should be fine for that," Tony said. "I'll tie it around a few times—"
"You won't do anything." Tony was in pain, and Steve knew his way around injuries too.
He looked around. The meadows didn't change; why would they? It was still the same landscape—repetitive, if pretty.
"I knew something bothered me here," Tony muttered. "But—the forest was normal, I think. We have to keep going."
"You can't walk now," Steve stated. Tony didn't even argue that. "We're gonna need a raft after all."
"Yeah." Tony sighed. "Okay, I've kept my leg here long enough, it actually is cold—" He finished abruptly, as if there was something else he wanted to say. Stupid, don't ask him for help, you don't deserve—
"You're injured, Tony, damn it," Steve snapped. "What, do you think of me that lowly that I'd refuse to help you?"
I don't deserve your help, Steve heard again in Tony's head, but Tony didn't actually say anything. Steve sighed.
He offered Tony a hand up, and immediately supported his weight when Tony stood on his uninjured leg. They needed to put a compress on his ankle, yeah, but it was better if they got further from the river. Water could be treacherous.
Walking so closely with Tony, Steve tried to distract himself again. He thought of his paintings, of how it felt to touch the brush to the canvas for the first time. How it was to choose colours and make them work together. How it was to see the painting come to life under his hands. He loved painting.
He always wanted to paint Tony—and he had, many times—but he wanted to ask him to pose, and that was . . . Tony was a busy man, Steve had always known he wouldn't have time for him, so he never asked.
Tony whimpered, and even though Steve was supporting him, he faltered and almost fell again.
Steve cursed. "Don't argue," he warned, and then he lifted Tony up, because it was easier than trying to walk with him. This time, he took Tony's method of distraction. He focused on the pain, let it overflow his mind to the point where he just couldn't think about anything else. It hurt, it really hurt, and he had to remind himself it wasn't actually his own injury, that he could walk just fine. He focused on each step, until he reached the mostly dry grass. He went a few metres further, all the time trying not to jostle Tony too much, and the pain helped him keep his thoughts just to that.
Finally, he put Tony down as gently as he could, and then he sat down next to him. He had to massage his own ankle briefly, to make sure it was all right. The phantom pain didn't quite disappear.
"Sorry," Tony said again, and Steve just shook his head.
"Keep your feet up," he reminded Tony, and then got up again to collect Tony's shoe and sock they'd left where Tony had fallen.
He could still feel the pain. It was better than feeling anything else.
By the time he was back, Tony's leg had dried in the sun and wind, and it didn't look good. Steve hoped it would heal on its own without any permanent damage. He couldn't do more than compress it here, aside from making sure Tony didn't try to walk.
"This will hurt," he said.
Tony chuckled grimly. "That's new?"
They were sorely in need of new clothes, but Tony was right: his sock would do. It was good quality, of course, and Steve had to apply some strength to rip it so it formed a longer band. He wrapped it around Tony's ankle, not too tight, just enough to stabilise it a bit.
"Thanks," Tony said quietly. He was still wincing a bit.
"We will need a raft now," Steve repeated.
"I don't think we should separate," Steve said slowly. "We don't know what's here."
"But it'll take us ages to reach the forest together," Tony said. "I don't want to waste any more time because of my own clumsiness."
"Don't," Tony asked. He looked tired.
Steve hated seeing him like that. Every single time Tony had landed himself in a hospital—and he'd done that a lot—was hard. He could never get used to seeing Tony hurt. He hated waiting for information and wondering if Tony would make it. It was always nerve-racking. And it always made him wonder if he should have said anything before it was too late—but then Tony pulled through, every time, and it didn't matter.
Tony whimpered. "It would be better if you went alone," Tony sounded like he was begging. "We both need some time," he let out.
Steve hated this telepathy thing between them. He wanted his head to be his alone again.
"Do you think it'll help with—this bond?" Steve asked.
"There's no guarantee the bond will lessen over distance," Tony admitted. "But . . . "
"But it might," Steve finished, and he definitely hoped it would. Suddenly the idea of being away from Tony for a while was more than a litle tempting.
He tried to think about something else, anything else after that.
"Just—go build us a raft. Quickly."
Why didn't you ever say anything?! was in Tony's mind, loud and clear. Steve shut his eyes tight.
He still didn't like the idea of leaving Tony alone, but he would be much faster on his own. If he ran, he'd reach the forest in an hour, without really getting tired. He wasn't sure how long building the raft would take.
"Steve. How much longer do you think we can be in this close proximity?"
That was true. Hearing Tony's thoughts was—exhaustive at best. And they hadn't seen any animals, fish aside, so... Tony would be safe. He could limp to the river if need be.
That decided it, really. They really needed a break from each other.
"Okay." Steve hesitated. "Be safe."
Even as he was saying it, he thought of when Tony wished him that, before the war with Thanos, and how everything had been all right back then, how he'd wanted to kiss Tony but said goodbye instead; how everything was based on a lie.
Tony pressed the base of his hand against his eyes.
Steve turned away and left without looking back.
He tried to run, but he learnt pretty quickly it was impossible. It wasn't his injury, but his brain still thought it was his leg hurting, and it took conscious effort to make every step, to put his foot down every time. Maybe he'd made it worse when he focused on Tony's pain so much when he carried him. Maybe it would be bad anyway. He had no way of knowing, so he decided not to dwell on it, and just try to move on.
He hoped it'd lessen the further away from Tony he was, but it didn't seem to be the case. Still—he could see Tony quite well if he turned back; maybe it just wasn't far enough yet. Tony would know how far wireless links usually stretched. And then he'd say he hated magic.
Steve kept walking, wincing with every step. At least his head was quiet.
He sighed and sat down. He had to get back to Tony as soon as possible, yes, but he needed a moment just for himself, and walking wasn't working anyway. He knew these were just excuses, but he was so tired.
Thinking about Tony still hurt. He thought it might never stop. The incursions, wiping his memories—Steve still didn't, couldn't understand; the betrayal was still so very fresh, a wound that didn't even have time to heal.
But when he was with Tony, their thoughts and feelings mixed together—it was easier to fall on his instincts, and those were still—protect Tony. Keep him safe. Trust him. He's your friend.
But he wasn't, and it hurt to be reminded of that every single time, like a million of needless pressed into his heart.
They had to get through this together, Steve told himself for the umpteenth time. He needed to get his shit together.
He was scared he couldn't. If only this fucking damned bond were gone—everything would be better. Steve could pretend then. They both could. But with their thoughts laid bare like that . . . Steve didn't know when it'd happen; when one of them would break, but he was certain they were going there way too fast, rolling down the hill to disaster.
He needed his space to sort through all the feelings Tony still caused in him, not random thoughts just sticking knives into what already hurt.
His leg still hurt, but his head was quiet for the time being. This was good. He got up, and walked faster this time. He was getting closer to the forest; he could almost feel the cool air on his face.
And then he realised he couldn't take a step more.
It was like—like something was holding him back. He reached behind him, ran a hand down his back—stupid, he knew there wasn't anything tangible there—tried again. Not a single step.
He backed off, still looking at the forest. He squinted, trying to see any kind of a barrier, a flickering, different shade, but there was nothing. What was going on? He moved forward again—until he couldn't. He tried to turn left, but he couldn't do that either. Frustrated, he kicked in front of himself, and his foot met with something hard that pushed him back. He fell down, breathing heavily. He realised his ankle didn't hurt anymore. Was it connected?
Steve turned back to look down over the meadows. He was trying not to do that, not to think about Tony, but now he had no choice. He had to see what was going on with—
There was something that looked just like the Quinjet—though not their Quinjet, there were differences Steve couldn't immediately point out, but he knew they were there—next to where Tony should be. For a moment, he couldn't see Tony and all, and adrenaline rushed to his head. Then he noticed Tony, just under the Quinjet, unsteadily standing on his legs. Steve thought he was trying to fight someone—
He ran back along his path as fast as he could. The pain returned to his ankle, but he didn't care; he jumped over a boulder and kept running. He saw Tony fall to the ground, and he screamed desperately, "Tony!"
"No!" Tony yelled. The tall people in the suits of armour didn't seem to notice. Who were they? Not important, not now, not when just thinking it hurt. "No, you can't!"
He tried to get up but he couldn't; he must've harmed his ankle worse than he'd thought. His head hurt so much, and they were still trying to pull him to their Quinjet, and it felt like they were ripping the heart straight from his chest, and everything was bright sharp pain.
He still tried to fight, tried to get a look at them, but he couldn't concentrate—it hurt, everything hurt—he couldn't do anything, his whole body was in pain and he couldn't move, and Steve, where was Steve, did something happen to him? It was Tony's fault, please let Steve be safe—it hurt—
The stream of thoughts stopped, and Steve took in a breath as if he'd been drowning. He got up on shaking legs—he didn't remember falling—in time to see the Quinjet leaving.
He tried to run down to where Tony had been just seconds ago, but he couldn't. He tried to turn, but he couldn't do that either. It was like a forcefield was closing him in, and his ankle was fine, but everything else hurt, and he realised this was exactly what Tony had been just feeling—pain everywhere, he had to fight—it hurt—he couldn't do anything—white hot pain—he thought he was screaming—he somehow managed to take another step, but—Tony wasn't there—Tony—pain—
Steve passed out.
Tony slowly came to.
He didn't open his eyes. Something was wrong, what . . .
It took him a moment to realise that what felt wrong was that he wasn't in any pain. His ankle felt fine. His head was—
His head was his, so what happened to Steve?
He sat up, tried to get up, but then someone immediately pushed him back down.
"Well, that's what I remember about Tony," they chuckled. "Never could keep him in bed." The voice was familiar, the look was familiar, but Tony refused to believe what he saw.
Instead, he looked around, raising himself on his elbows. He was in a white chamber. It didn't look like any hospital he knew, but he could recognise one. The walls seemed to have a kind of insulation. He wasn't sure what it was supposed to protect—him from the outside, or just the other way round.
"Tony," the person said again, and Tony sighed. He faced her.
She looked, she spoke just like Carol Danvers. She had short blonde hair and incredibly blue eyes he remembered. She didn't seem a day older than the Carol he left in his own world, but there was something almost ageless about her, some wisdom or history in her eyes, in the way she held herself. She had on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt; and there was something wrong about her clothes too, but he couldn't pinpoint what.
"Hi, Carol," he said, fake-cheerfully.
She gave him a smile for that. "Where are you from?" she asked, so they weren't going to beat around the bush. Good. He wasn't in mood for that.
"Not here. Does it matter?"
"I'd say all multidimensional travel matters these days, don't you agree?" She was still smiling, but he knew it was an interrogation.
"Depends on where you're getting your news from," he said.
"You, right now." Her voice was calm, collected. Tony wasn't sure if it was a threat.
"Tony Stark, Earth 616," he said after a while.
She nodded. "Carol Danvers"—a moment of hesitation before she continued—"Earth 1963."
He didn't have any idea what kind of a world it was, but he was also reasonably sure she didn't know his home Earth, either.
He tried to sit up again and this time she let him. He felt better facing her on equal level.
"I came here on accident," he offered.
"Isn't that what everyone says?" she asked lightly.
"Come on, Carol, you know me," he pleaded.
She shook her head. "I knew a you. A long time ago. And don't get me wrong—he was a hero. One of the best men I've ever known. One of the best friends I've had, too. But no matter how similar you might seem—you're not him."
A long time ago. Her clothes were wrong, too smooth, too planned. They should seem normal to him, which was probably the point. The ideal apple. Even the suits of the people who took him here.
Carol had asked him, once, if she would get old. He couldn't give her an answer then. He guessed he could, now, if he ever saw her again.
"What year is it?" he asked.
She looked surprised for a moment, and then she laughed. "You really were a genius. I almost forgot."
"I suppose I owe you that now," she said. "And you're a futurist, right; you should love it. Welcome to the thirtieth century, Tony Stark."
A thousand years.
Somehow, he'd expected—less. Not a full millenium.
Did it even matter? It wasn't his world. But he used to live here.
This left one question, the one he wasn't sure if he should ask. He didn't know if he could trust her. But . . . It was too important.
"Steve?" She frowned. "You—damn it!"
Which meant they didn't get him. Tony wasn't sure if it was good or bad news. She didn't seem hostile—but she didn't really seem friendly, either.
"We don't like multiverse visitors," she explained. "We've lost too much, even without the incursions to consider."
"Those are fixed," Tony said.
She looked at him, calculating. He wasn't used to Carol acting like that. This was a Carol who was clearly a leader. A Carol who had her people to consider first . . . Maybe she was just like his Carol after all, he thought, except she wasn't his. It would be different if he were her Tony, he knew that—but he wasn't him either. They were both just a strangers with a familiar face to each other. "Your work?"
"Thank you." She tapped her fingers on her knee. "The forest you were in—well, we haven't touched that one in a long time. We've made sure there's nothing dangerous there, and then Franklin hooked up the teleport field—if someone arrives with an external universe signature, they arrive there."
Interesting idea, Tony thought. If they could monitor it on their world like that . . .
"They can go back, if they so wish," Carol said. "The forest has some defensive capabilities, but it's not there to harm anyone; it's mostly natural."
"The meadow," Tony understood.
"No one forced you to eat that apple, did they?" she asked.
No, but it was so perfect, he hadn't been able to resist it. Tony felt sick. So it was his fault they were found? He should've listened to Steve.
"Don't worry," Carol said. "It's designed that way. Normal human won't be able not to taste it. I imagine Steve refused it."
"What did you do to me?" he asked, voice cold in anger.
"Nothing," she said.
"And the true version?" He raised his eyebrows.
She shrugged. "Some scans. No changes. Although I have to say, the Tony I knew wasn't that opposed to tech body modifications."
"Consensual, maybe," Tony answered coldly. He wasn't sure he believed her.
"No changes," she repeated. "But we knew someone registering as Tony Stark appeared there."
He remembered the Quinjet. Suits of armour. Not much more. He thought he'd tried to fight them, but he'd had a sprained ankle, and—
"Do you always take people in against their will?" he asked, annoyed.
"Are you sure you have the right to ask that?" she shot back.
"I'm not your Tony," he reminded her.
"No," she agreed. "But I have a feeling you were very much alike."
He stared at her.
"Okay," she said. "I'm sorry. The team we sent had one job. Thinking isn't their strongest suit, you might say."
"That's bad AI. I'd have expected better from this time," he said.
She shook her head. "No. Artificial intelligence research has been illegal for centuries now. Rebuilding your world after one Ultron disaster too many will do that." She sounded like it was normal.
He didn't believe no one programmed AI in secret anyway, but this wasn't the place for this discussion. Artificial intelligence could be a terrific force—both for good and evil. He didn't think he'd stop trying, but he also agreed that Ultron was a disaster—in every universe.
"You healed me," he changed the topic.
"You did mess your leg up," she said. "Your century's tech would leave you limping."
He winced. "Thanks," he said. "So, Steve?"
"He's the one you were telepathically bonded to?" she asked.
"How do you know that?" He immediately turned defensive.
"We have telepaths here, Tony," she said. "And you were unconscious for a long time. It helped when we put you here—the walls are screened against telepathy. I wouldn't recommend walking out."
"So I'm in a cell, then," he said flatly.
"The door is open," Carol said. "But you'll pass out before you make it two steps out of here, and it won't be pleasant." She sighed. When she looked at him this time, there was something warm in her expression. "Look, Tony—I don't believe you mean us any harm. But not everyone agrees with me. Even if you really solved the incursions—it's too soon to trust any visitors from other worlds. And Steve isn't here."
"He doesn't have a telepathy-free room to wake up in." Tony looked at her, and didn't even try to hide his worry. It was his fault Steve ended up in this world in the first place. He should've kept him safe. Why couldn't he ever do that?
She nodded grimly.
"Can't you send someone to collect him too?" he asked.
"We don't know where he is," Carol said. "There's tech and magic mixed in that meadow, Tony. You ate the apple, so we found you, but him . . ."
"He'll wake up if I go there." How long has Tony been here anyway? She said it'd taken a while . . .
"You won't be going back," she snapped. "Not any time soon, anyway."
"I can't leave him!" Why didn't she get it? It was Steve.
"Do you think I like it?" she asked. She seemed tired all of a sudden. "You—your counterparts were both my friends. I owed them a lot. But it's not just me here, and it's not like it used to be; the Avengers aren't a law onto themselves."
There should be responsibility, he thought. But . . . He had to save Steve. This one time, he wouldn't fail.
"There are people who don't live in the city," Carol continued. "They might've found him."
"And they'll do what?" he asked sharply. The thought of Steve, unconscious and helpless, being found by some strangers didn't sit well with him.
He hadn't noticed it earlier, too busy revelling in how his thoughts belonged only to him once again, but there was something empty in his mind. Some part that had already gotten used to Steve being always there; in some way that extended beyond hearing his surface thoughts. It made everything that much worse, upping his worry even more. He'd never forgive himself if Steve got hurt here.
"Tell us about it, if they're any smart," she said.
"But they haven't yet." He looked at her. "How long have I been here?"
"Three days," she answered quietly.
Three days. That's—Steve could survive that long without food, probably, the serum keeping him alive, but . . .
Tony dug his nails into his thigh. Wouldn't he feel it if something happened to Steve? Even when away? Xavier had said intense emotions could strengthen telepathy. Tony would feel it, right. So Steve was all right. He had to be.
Tony knew he was grasping at straws, but he couldn't despair. He had to keep a cool head. He had to find a way to get back to Steve.
"Some of them wouldn't tell us." She hesitated. "We're not at war with any of them, nothing quite that serious, but—you know politics."
"Would any of them harm him?"
She shook her head, once. "I don't think so."
He'd like a statement with more certainty to it.
"Will you help me?" he asked.
She looked at him silently for a long while. "I have to go," she said. "I'll ask some questions, Tony, because I want to trust you. And I'll come back. Don't try to leave."
He huffed a laugh. "Will you at least get me a tablet?"
She smiled at that. "A tablet. You're cute."
And then she left, and he was left alone in the white room with just his thoughts for company.
That was the problem, wasn't it. Just his.
Steve had a headache.
He groaned. He was used to the pain of injuries, but he hadn't suffered headaches since the serum. Now there was a sharp pinpoint of pain behind his eyes, and he thought it'd be better to drift back to sleep. Tony would—
He sat up. The pain in his skull flared at that, but he ignored it and looked around. He was in a small room that looked like something Tony liked to design, straight from the future. There was an oval window, but he couldn't see through it from his position. He opted not to stand up yet. The thing . . . floating in the corner could've been a wardrobe, but also could have been ten other things. There was a lit panel in the wall—he thought maybe that was the door.
He was alone, and there wasn't any indication that someone else had been in the room with him; just the single bed.
Where was Tony?
Steve raised a hand to his forehead. It felt weird not to feel Tony in his mind—he jolted when his fingers touched cold metal. He carefully touched around and understood there was a thin band around his head. It was very light, and he wasn't sure if it was actually touching him—he didn't really feel it on his head.
He hesitated for a split moment, and took it off.
The headache grew impossibly stronger.
He passed out.
He woke up again. The headache had lessened, but it was still an alien sensation. He opened his eyes.
There was someone next to his bed, playing with a glowing orb. It wasn't anyone Steve knew. He looked about twenty, with short brown hair and sharp cheekbones. He seemed to be absolutely focused on the orb, but he moved to look at Steve after a few seconds.
"Ah," he said. "This time, don't take it off."
"What is it?" Steve asked.
"It dampens telepathy," the man explained. "You seem to be bonded to someone. Haven't you heard not to get too far away from your mate?"
Steve blinked. Bonded? Mate? What?
After a few seconds, the guy laughed. It didn't sound malicious. "Sorry, forgot. You must be from centuries ago."
Steve froze. Centuries ago? That couldn't happen. Not again. He didn't lose his life again, not again—once was too much already; he couldn't deal with losing Sam, and Carol, and Tony (he'd lost him already). What was going on? He was Captain America, he should be brave, but he was afraid to ask the question.
"Hey, what's the problem?" the man asked, not unkindly. "You're fine, we won't harm you, I promise."
There was something in the sound of his voice that relaxed Steve. "How long," he let out. "How long was I out?"
The man shrugged. "I don't know. A few days?"
A few days? Then . . . "But you said—centuries?"
"Oh." He frowned. He seemed upset. "I'm sorry. Let's get this straight. You're Steve Rogers, Captain America."
Steve nodded. There was no point in trying to lie about his identity; everyone knew his face anyway.
"And since our Cap died—centuries ago, in fact—you're can't be from this universe. I assumed your world was a few hundreds years behind us." He hesitated. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to suggest that—you lost time again."
Steve felt suddenly embarrassed at his reaction. Why couldn't he keep himself together? Just for a while longer?
(Because Tony wasn't there, and Steve was worried, a treacherous voice in his head answered.)
"Okay," Steve said. "Thank you." His mind was still reeling. What was going on? Who was this guy? He said he wouldn't hurt Steve and Steve believed him, but—why? More importantly, where was Tony?
"Who are you?" Steve asked.
The man seemed amused. "Nate Barnes, nice to meet you," he said with a grin. "And yeah, Bucky was my great ... a few more great grandfather."
Ah, Steve thought. So that's why he trusted him instinctively. There was no reason to and he knew it—relatives connected by blood betrayed each other all the time—but . . . Bu—Nate wasn't lying, Steve felt sure of that.
"So how did you get here?" Nate asked.
Steve winced at the memory. "It was an accident. I was stopping Tony from—what?"
Nate was grinning in delight. Now he shook his head. "Oh, nothing, nothing! It's just—you guys are legends here. You started the Avengers World! It's practically myths. And here you are, and talking about Tony Stark like that—it's just awesome."
"We're not yours Steve and Tony," Steve snapped. "And we—we definitely won't be anyone's myths."
"Whoa, I can see some issues there," Nate said placatingly. "Anyway, back to Tony—then he's your mate, right? That makes sense."
"He's not my mate," Steve said through gritted teeth.
"Well," Nate said, "you two are telepathically bonded. Know a different word for that?"
Steve glared at him.
"Exactly." Nate turned toward the lit up rectangle. "Now come, let's show you the house. We can talk about Tony later."
"Tony's important," Steve said before he could stop himself.
Nate turned back to him. "Oh yeah, I can see that," he said, amused. "And the myths didn't lie, either. Although they're hardly myths if Carol Stark-Rogers is flying in her suit somewhere."
Steve was trying to get his head around what Nate was babbling about, but at that he just stopped.
He was in the future, and he was separated with Tony. He had to focus on that. The rest—the rest he could remember and process later.
He followed Nate through what indeed turned out to be a door and then down—quite literally. An invisible platform brought them lower, and Steve tried not to look at what looked like nothing under his feet. He gladly stepped off it to the floor that felt weirdly warm under his feet.
Nate was explaining everything as they went. "Here's the cooking space." He pointed at a flat white surface. Steve guessed everything would appear as needed. Tony kept talking about houses like this. "Marie is out now, you'll meet her later. Entertainment here—" an empty oval room with glowing walls "—and the garden."
They finally stepped outside. Steve inhaled. The air was finally fresh, but it still didn't feel like at home. Why would it?
It was a sunny day. There were no clouds. A few plants grew in the garden; some colourful flowers Steve couldn't recognize. There was a dome in the distance, and Steve guessed it was another house.
"Can we sit here?" he asked. He felt better here than inside, surrounded by technology he couldn't understand. Tony would love it, he thought.
Nate sat on the ground in lieu of an answer and Steve joined him. As he did so, he noticed his ankle felt perfectly fine. He couldn't hear Tony because of the band, but . . .
"What happened to Tony?" he asked again.
Nate shrugged. "We've only found you. I'm guessing he was taken to the city."
Because that didn't sound ominous at all.
"The city?" Steve asked to clarify.
"Iron Metropolitan," Nate said. Steve glared at him. "No, seriously. Tony's work in the future. Everyone says that's what he always dreamt of."
"He—" Steve hesitated. Tony did want that, and he didn't. It was more complicated than that, Steve knew it. "It's complicated," he said at last.
"Everything is," Nate said. "But you knew—know him well."
Steve grew annoyed. "I told you. I'm not your Steve Rogers."
"Sorry," Nate said. "I didn't know him, I've only heard the stories—but you seem similar. And it's hard to distinguish."
"It's okay," Steve said. Nate didn't mean anything bad by the comparison. Steve was just annoyed at every reminder of his relationship with Tony, whatever this relationship was.
But now, more than anything, he was worried. Was Tony even alive? Would Steve be, if Tony died?
"Telepathic bonds," Steve said. Nate just looked at him questioningly. "You seem to have more experience."
"Oh, no." Nate winced. "Not personal. But more telepaths are born these days, and sometimes they bond. The first thing they learn is not to leave each other. I imagine it must be pretty annoying."
Steve thought back to Tony disappearing in the Quinjet, to the pain he felt.
"So . . . I blacked out because Tony's too far away?"
"Okay. I have to find him, then."
"Yeah, that won't be easy. He must be in the city. Uh—Carol Danvers is one of the leaders, but . . ."
"Apparently her powers gave her immortality as well," Nate said. "Look, I'm closer to them than most, thanks to my bloodline, but still—we can't just get you in there."
"I'm not asking you to." Steve looked at him seriously. "Yes, I need your help. Some information. Maybe some supplies, if you can afford to share it with me. But I'm not asking you to do anything dangerous, or illegal." A thought occurred to him. "Is it, though? Can I even be here?"
"Oh, yeah." Nate waved his hand like it was a ridiculous question. "We don't live in the city, and it's fine." He laughed. "It's not some dystopian world, Steve. They don't force us to do anything. But there are checks, and there are rules on who can get in there—we've had bad experiences with visitors from other universes. I could go, no problem, but you?"
Steve nodded. That made sense. But he needed a plan, and he was pretty sure he needed to get into this city. "I have to find Tony," he said.
"Yeah, I got that," Nate snarked. "So, here's the thing—I trust you. Yes, I know you all of five minutes, but I really doubt you're an evil version of the Cap we had. Same goes for your Tony, right?"
Steve bit on his lip. He wanted to reply, because the only thing Nate needed to know was that Tony indeed wasn't an evil villain, except—
Except he was. He had planned how to destroy another planet. And he hadn't been able to do that in the end, but that didn't mean everything he'd done was magically okay. He had wiped Steve's mind, so he wouldn't stop him. He had done it because he wanted to save the world—and if his words were to be trusted, to save Steve—but did it even matter? Heroes didn't do that. Villains did.
And yet, Steve couldn't call Tony a villain. It tasted bad in his mouth. Everything Tony had ever done, he'd done believing he was creating a better future. And sure, Steve was pretty sure same could be said of Doom—but at the bottom of it all, Tony was a good man.
That's why Steve loved him.
That's why the betrayal hurt so much.
He took a deep breath, looked at Nate again. "Right," he said.
"That took you a long time to answer," Nate said carefully.
"He's a good man," Steve said. "Our—personal issues notwithstanding."
Nate raised his eyebrows, but didn't comment. It was a good thing; Steve wasn't sure he could deal with more personal questions.
"Okay, so your Tony is a good guy," Nate repeated. "Then I'm sure Carol's going to meet him. And—she's a bit scary, to be honest. She has lived for a long time. But you were friends. Well. Your alternative selves." He paused for a moment more. "I wouldn't worry too much," he said. "They shouldn't harm him." Another pause. "But you are bonded. And you shouldn't stay away from each other for too long."
"Or . . .?" Steve asked.
Nate shrugged. "You have a headache now, don't you."
Steve just nodded. "What now?"
"Now we wait for Marie. Then we can plan something."
Steve hated waiting.
Tony stayed on the bed for about fifteen minutes after Carol had left. He wanted to trust her, and she certainly was very similar to her counterpart in Tony's world. He didn't doubt she was a hero. But—they weren't friends, not with each other, and they were both aware of that.
What she said made sense, and was probably even the truth—but she might've hidden something useful for him, and not for the city she protected.
He had a headache, but he barely even noticed it anymore. He'd been going on too little sleep and food for months; he'd never felt fully okay. It wasn't important.
First things first. He went to the door. It was just a light panel in the wall. He pressed his palm to it, like Carol earlier.
The letters flashed over his palmprint for a few seconds before disappearing. Interesting, he thought. So the him from this world had a hand in building whatever place Tony was in, and the systems remembered it after a thousand years.
He stepped out, one hand securely on the doorway, and suddenly, he couldn't move at all. The pain in his body was too much. He couldn't think. There was something wrong with his head.
Steve would be better than this ran through his mind, and by some great extension of will, Tony turned himself miniscully, just enough that when his legs gave out and he finally did fall down, he landed in the chamber he'd just left, not out in the corridor.
He curled in on himself, shivering all over. Pain slowly disappeared from his body, leaving just his gnawing headache. He managed to steady his breath.
So Carol hadn't been joking about that.
He couldn't leave this shielded room—or at least, not without any smaller telepathy dampener. He thought about Magneto's helmet and winced. He didn't like the idea of wearing something like that, but if that's what it took to save Steve . . .
They were in the thirtieth century, he reminded himself. They must've developed something better than that helmet by now. He privately thought that even in his world, there must've been alternatives, and there was something deeply wrong with Magneto's fashion taste.
The building said he had full access. He could work with that.
He carefully stood up. He didn't get suddenly dizzy, so he walked to the door again, making sure to stay firmly inside. He pressed his hand to the panel.
How could he communicate with it?
"Show me current news," he said.
voice commands not necessary showed on the panel, again, before headlines streamed through it.
Future Foundation accused of helping an AI
Carol Stark-Rogers to inherit Iron Metropolitan
Frost Institute warns about a growth of dormant telepath abilities
Glimpses of history: Avengers World—how did Captain America and Iron Man's marriage influence the idea?
Tony stumbled back.
New headlines stopped appearing, but these four glowed on the wall.
Carol Stark-Rogers? Captain America and Iron Man's marriage?
As soon as he thought about it, more information appeared on the wall.
Captain America (1918-2050), or Steve Rogers, and Iron Man (1980-2050), Tony Stark, the founders of
"Enough!" Tony yelled.
voice commands not necessary
He sat on the floor and tried to calm himself down. Just because this world's Tony got everything he dreamt about . . . It didn't mean anything.
Unwanted, memories of the war crept up on him. They'd fit right in with all the rest of his memories when he'd regained them here—and he hated telepathy so much—so he'd been doing his best to just ignore them. To ignore how it felt to live without Steve. To ignore the despair and terrific emptiness, the sorrow that couldn't be explained, as he sobbed over Steve's body.
He thought—he was glad he'd made himself forget. He wasn't sure what would've happened if he faced the incursions, remembering that.
He loved Steve.
It was a simple if painful fact of his life—until he remembered what happened when Steve died.
And this alternate him married his Steve . . . ?
He must've been so much better than Tony. Tony stared at the wall, and tried not to think.
He didn't have that luxury, he realised. He had to plan. He had to learn more about this world, and he had to get Steve. Even if Carol could and would help him, he couldn't just rely on her.
If the building recognised him, Tony was sure as hell going to use it.
He didn't stand up. This time, he touched his palm to the floor. He concentrated. History, he thought. He needed some background first.
Information started appearing on the wall—in his thoughts. It wasn't like seeing Steve's thoughts, more the way operating the Bleeding Edge armour felt. The way Extremis felt. He wondered how that corresponded to their ban on AI, and information on that appeared in his head, just like that. It was fascinating, an external neural interface, the things he could do with that--
No, he had to focus on what was important.
"I hadn't foreseen that," Carol said, jolting him out of his headspace. Lines of data vanished from the walls, from his head.
"I built it," Tony said.
"As you saw," Carol said. She had on a suit now, red and blue with the Kree star in the middle. The material flickered, like it could be anything else at will. No more anachronistic jeans made from materials that really weren't available in the twenty-first century. "Learn anything interesting?"
He had, and a lot, but . . . "Your Tony," he said. "Your Steve. They were married."
She stared at him. "That's what—oh." She looked like she pitied him.
So apparently she also knew him too well. He rubbed his eyes. "He hates me."
"I doubt any Steve Rogers is capable of hating his Tony Stark," Carol said quietly. "They fought, Tony. They fought a war that almost killed them. It took them a long time to learn that they could compromise, that working together was worth it." She sighed. "You love him. You got bonded somehow. Do you think he—"
"He hates me," Tony repeated. "And he's not here. I have to find him."
"Can you even hear yourself?" she asked, but she sounded kind. "Give yourself a chance."
Steve's thoughts had been a tangled mess Tony didn't want to understand. The glimpses he'd had were enough; to know what he could have, to know he never would, now.
He'd never wanted to hurt Steve like that. He had no idea what he would've done if he had known what he knew now about Steve. If he had remembered the war when the world was ending.
I used you, and I'd do it again, he'd said, when even doing it once had almost killed him.
He wasn't sure he could go on like that.
"What I got from here," Tony said, "was that I didn't build just this building. This city, the whole system was started by me. Root access."
"The Maker," Carol said like a quote. "Yes. But I know what you're thinking, and you can't hack your way through everything."
"I just need to get out, Carol," he asked.
"Let's say you do. Okay; let's even say you can do it on your own. You probably can, actually, you're still the smartest man I know." She tilted her head. "What then?"
What was she getting at? He had to find Steve, and . . . "Fuck," he said.
"You never used to lose sight of your goal like that," she said, "unless it was Steve who was involved."
"I can't leave him here," Tony protested.
"And I'm not telling you to," she snapped. "But this is not your world, Tony Stark, and you can't hack the scientists at Baxter Building."
"Reed's baby is still here?" he almost smiled. "Okay. What do you suggests?"
"You've learnt about our defences, I take it?" she asked.
The forest and the meadows for the travellers who arrived; the lake and the mountain for those who wished to leave. It sounded like a fairytale.
"The mountains won't recognize you like this city does, Tony," she said.
And even if they did, it was just a portal, and Tony didn't know if there physically was a way back to their world. She was right: he couldn't get this information himself.
"So will you help me?" he asked, staring at the ideally white floor.
"Are you still asking me that?" she asked back, and he saw his Carol in her more clearly than ever.
"I fixed the incursions," he said.
"Yes. I've told our scientists to check on it already."
"There was a price."
"There always is. What are you getting at?"
"Interdimensional travel should be impossible," Tony said. "But—well, you have more knowledge of it. And you clearly found a way to merge tech and magic, much as it pains me. Maybe it's not as impossible as I feared."
Carol nodded. "Promise me you won't leave until I make sure about the incursions."
He hesitated. Could he trust her?
He looked at her for a long while, measuring what he knew about her. She ran the security of the city. She cared for it. She was still Carol; she'd do anything for her friends.
She considered him her friend, in a way.
"I won't leave," he said. "But—be quick. We don't know where Steve is."
"I'll be back tomorrow," she said. "I know you'll want to do more research, but get some rest too."
"Sure," he said, with absolutely no intention of that. The look she gave him clearly said she knew that.
She left him again, and he touched the floor and immersed himself in the data once more.
Some of what became obvious to him when he was connected, became lost when he stopped the connection—but the information he found stayed. A part of him wanted to read how the interface he was using worked so that he'd remember it, a part of him wanted more time to read all about the technology of the future.
There was so much knowledge just at his fingertips, and he wasn't sure where to start.
Marie wasn't a great-grandchild of anyone he knew, as far as Steve could tell. She certainly didn't introduce herself like Nate had.
She'd smiled at Steve, kissed Nate on the cheek, and stood in front of Steve, studying him curiously. He'd felt like an exhibit in a museum.
"Interesting," she'd finally said, and extended her hand to him. "Marie. And I know who you are."
They were sat around a table now—if the floating disk could be called that—eating dinner. Steve hated waiting even longer, but he was hungry.
"I am a telepath," Marie said, biting into something violet. "It's a lot more common these days. Don't worry, your thoughts are safe from me."
Steve considered that. She didn't give him a reason not to trust her yet, quite the contrary. But he liked having his head just for himself. Did she just mean the band he was wearing? Possibly. That calmed him down a bit.
Steve looked between her and Nate curiously. It wasn't any of his business to ask, so he just nodded, but . . . He'd spent not even three days with someone who could read his mind and he was going crazy already.
"I don't mind," Nate said. "And yes, I know you weren't going to ask. I don't know the circumstances behind your bond, and my situation is different than that, but I really don't mind. I trust her."
Steve felt a surge of annoyance. As if it was as simple as that. Trust—
Trust was what he'd lost, what he'd longed for. He realised his reaction was mostly envy and he felt angry at himself instead.
He wanted to trust Tony again so much.
"That's—that's really nice," he said after a while. "You seem happy."
He hoped his Bucky would find that, and then he almost shook himself. Nate wasn't Bucky; wasn't even really similar, the colour of his eyes and timbre of his voice aside.
"We are," Maria replied simply. "Now eat something. Telepathy can be exhaustive, especially if you're not naturally talented."
He obediently put some of the violet stuff on his plate. It looked like some kind of a paste, but when he tasted it, it didn't resemble anything he knew at all. It was sweet, with a bitter touch, and left a strong aftertaste in his mouth.
He thought back to the forest and the meadow. Everything there had looked familiar; everything but that apple Tony had bitten into without thinking. Had it all been carefully planned?
"I work in the city," Maria said. "Nate creates some pretty things—he's good at—how would you explain it? Weaving magic into circuits? They're not that keen on wizards in there; the Sorcerer Supreme lives miles away. Anyway, we trade with the city. It's a good symbiosis."
"So you can get in there," Steve said.
"Nate already told you that." Marie sighed, but she didn't sound impatient. "It's really not that easy. There are factions, and security, and—" She stopped herself. "Tony must be there. They'll be more wary of him than we are of you. And I know you're going to hate it, but the only thing you can do is to wait. I'll try to contact someone—but it'll take time."
Steve stared at his plate. She was reasonable. He knew that. Even if he got to the city, then what? How could he find Tony in a futuristic metropolis?
Tony probably could. He was a genius, after all. He thought about a world like this every day. Why had he ever needed Steve? It was so obvious, in hindsight, that this was the only way it could've ended. Tony must've laughed—
Steve shook his head. He'd been thinking about that in spirals. He'd heard Tony's thoughts on it. Why did he keep coming back to it? It only hurt.
"Okay," Marie said, very quietly, setting down her fork. "I'm going to assume something now."
He almost stood up in surprise. He'd forgotten he wasn't alone there.
"This bond was your first experience with telepathy," she said, "and you have no control over it. You've learnt some things about Tony."
He wondered if she'd been honest when she'd said she couldn't read his mind—but he suspected this was really easy enough to guess, especially if she'd had her own similar experience.
"Yes," he admitted.
"You've learnt some things that don't fit in with what you knew, because it's never as easy as that," she continued. "And now you're cut off from that connection—and you keep going back to your old thought patterns, and being jolted out of them when you remember this new data." She didn't wait for him to confirm this time. "And then—then you're annoyed, because you already knew that; why can't you remember it?"
"How do you know all of that?"
"I'm a telepath," she reminded him. "I'm also a teacher. Look, Steve—I could help you with it, but I won't offer, because I know you won't agree. It's in your face. You don't want anyone else in your mind, and I understand that. The thing is—your brain processes what you've felt telepathically in a different way than just things you learn. It's better if the bond isn't severed like that. You—well, you might be confused for a while."
"Severed?" he asked sharply, and he hadn't really heard what she'd said after that.
She frowned. "Oh? Not like that," she went on quickly. "No. Separated. It didn't disappear; it'll return when you're both close enough."
"Can it be severed?" he asked, and he wasn't sure which answer he hoped for.
She shrugged. "Depends. Each bond is different, but most are consensual. Yours . . . doesn't sound like it is."
He shook his head. "It's—it doesn't really happen in my world."
She nodded. "I can't help you with that then. I'm sorry."
"Thank you anyway," he said.
"Hey," Nate spoke up. "You don't find Captain America in need of help every day." He grew serious. "You needed help. It's not a problem for us, really. Now eat some more."
Steve smiled. They were good people. He was lucky he met them.
He hoped Tony was equally lucky.
Steve was lying on the meadow. His hair looked like pure gold in the sun. His eyes were closed.
As Tony watched, he changed.
He grew paler. Thinner. He was so still, unmoving.
There was a swirl of wind, and then there was nothing left but bones.
He sat up, a scream on his lips.
Steve's okay, he told himself firmly. He's okay and probably annoyed at Tony, and he's okay okay okay—
This was why he didn't want to sleep. Nightmares happened more often than not.
Steve has to be okay.
A bloody shield lying on Steve's body flashed behind Tony's eyelids again. Steve's face as he said, I remember.
He's okay, Tony thought again, almost hysterically. It was a stupid nightmare, certainly not a reason to panic, what the hell was wrong with him?
His head hurt, and he missed Steve like breathing.
The door opened. He turned in its direction too quickly, pulled a muscle in his neck and winced.
"Oh." Carol stepped inside. "You actually slept. Sorry. Didn't mean to wake you."
"You didn't," he said, massaging his neck. He hated the pins and needles feeling.
"Here, let me," she said, and before he could ask, she was beside him, her hands on his shoulders, pressing in just the right way.
The pain lessened almost immediately. He let his head fall down. "Thank you," he muttered. It felt so good. The remnants of the nightmare disappeared.
"You always liked this," she chuckled.
That was true. "My Carol hasn't discovered that yet," he said.
"Poor you," she commented.
He'd wanted to ask about Steve, but . . . "How do you deal with it?" he asked quietly.
Her hands didn't slow, but she took a moment to answer. "I could pretend I don't understand," she said, halfway between sad and amused. "I was tempted, but. It's you, and it isn't, of course, but I do trust you."
That was more than he had expected.
"I was never sure what the Kree genes did to me. My powers changed so much; you probably know the history."
"The early parts," he joked. She swatted him gently in the arm.
"For a while, I just thought I was getting older very slowly. It's not that unusual, is it? So was Steve."
Tony frowned. That was something to remember.
"But I never changed. And—you two died in an accident; the way superheroes are prone to. Someone had to keep the Avengers together. I had a purpose. Jess—" she hesitated. "No. It's enough to say, I always had a purpose. And after a while . . . It stopped being weird, unnatural; you could say I got used to it." She huffed a laugh. "If nothing else, I've gotten a lot of new planes to test-pilot."
"Figures you'd like that," Tony said.
He felt her shrug, and then her hands were gone. "But that's enough talking," she said. "Your Steve."
He turned around. "Have you heard anything?"
"Not about him," she said, and he hung his head. For a moment, he'd hoped.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I got the answers from our scientists though. You were right, and you weren't."
He winced. "That's mystic shit I don't expect from you, you know."
She playfully punched him in the arm. "Play nice. You can't get to Earth-616 from here. You have to find a point in between. Maybe more than one, even—our universes are too far apart to jump straight between them. And you didn't quite close the door, but you made it much smaller."
That made sense, he supposed. In some places, the borders between universes were really thin. Even Reed's portals worked better in Wakanda than in New York. It was easier to get to the similar words; that's why they so often met alternate versions of themselves. If this world was so far ahead in the timeline, travelling here had to take more effort.
"So it'll work," he said. He was relieved. He could get Steve home after all.
As soon as he found him.
"It'll work," she confirmed. "Now bad news."
"I am not the sole power in this city," she said. "I wouldn't want to be. Normally it's not an issue."
"I know you," she said and shrugged. "Not everyone does. Not everyone believes you're up to anything good."
"If I wanted to destroy something . . ."
"You already would have, yes. Or maybe you're playing a long game."
These weren't unreasonable worries, logically speaking, but he was annoyed, because this one time he was completely honest. "I'm really not," he said tiredly.
"Yeah, I'm not the one you need to convince."
"So far, you're safe here. And I can get you out of the city quickly. But after that, you're on your own. I'm too easily tracked these days."
He could ask her to leave now. But he could also wait another day, trusting her words when she said he was safe, and see if any news of Steve appeared. It would be so much easier if he knew where to go—
But if he was considered a threat, then what about Steve, who, from the city's point of view, eluded their security?
"Steve isn't safe," he said aloud.
"We don't know that."
"No." He shook his head. "Whoever opposes you—they must know I wasn't alone, right, so where is the other spy?"
She looked grim. "Okay."
"When can we leave?"
"Give me an hour," she said. She got up. "Maybe less. I need to find a few things for you—things that won't trigger a million alarms."
"I can hack—"
"Yes, but if you're running, wouldn't it be easier if you didn't have to?"
And he didn't know what state Steve would be in. It'd be the best to have equipment he doesn't have to worry about. She was right.
"Okay," he said.
Tony stood up. Adrenaline was running through his veins already. Finally he had something to do, because as much as research was fascinating, he hadn't been able to do anything that would help him find Steve, not really.
Now it was on him, and he wouldn't fail.
Steve woke up and struck out before he could think. Someone blocked his fist with a hiss.
"Wow, you are strong," Nate said.
"What are you doing?" Steve asked. He sat up. Nate was next to his bed.
"You have to go," Nate said. "Marie's heard—your Tony is leaving the city. There are people who don't want visitors."
Steve was out of the bed in the next second. "Where is he going?"
Probably to find him, really; but did he know where Steve was?
"There are a few ways out," Nate said. "If he has any sense, he'll take the north one."
"And where are we?"
"A day's walk from there," Nate said.
"He's going to try to find me," Steve said. If Tony had any idea where to look, it'd be simple, but Steve couldn't assume that. He'd try to go from where he left the city to that meadow. Steve had to meet him half way.
"They're going to try and find you," Nate said quietly. "It's not as easy as you might suspect, but they have drones searching for you already. You should be safe outside of the city—but try to avoid the other villages too. There's not many of them, and most are to the south, anyway."
Steve was reminded he hadn't seen a single plane on the way here. There was the quinjet that had taken Tony, but . . .
“Can't they track me?”
“We don't really have time for a history lesson right now,” Nate sighed. “You'll be safe out of the city and there's a reason for that. Trust me."
He was nothing but helpful to him. Steve nodded. "Thank you."
"I can't give you any useful tech; that can get tracked. The band on your head is fine. Don't take it off. Marie packed you another one for Tony, just in case. You have some food and a change of clothes there. You might have to reach mountains."
"Nate," Steve said softly. "You don't have to do this."
Nate stared at him. "But I can," he said. "Look—yes, it's true, I took you in my house because you are Steve Rogers. But you're nice, and you're obviously worried about Tony, and I want to help you. I didn't have to do any of this, you know. So don't tell me that now, because I've made my decisions already. I know helping you is the right thing. And Marie agrees." He looked at Steve, fierce.
"Being right—that's not always easy," Steve warned him.
"Yes, grandpa," Nate rolled his eyes. "Come on. Get dressed, go downstairs, we'll tell you the way."
Marie was in the kitchen. She held a small backpack. She raised it when Steve approached her. "This should last you for a few weeks," she said.
Weeks? It was a small pack; barely bigger than a purse.
"It's bigger on the inside," she explained.
"Tony would love this," Steve laughed before he even realised what he was going to say.
Since when did he care about what Stark liked?
Marie touched his eyebrow. "You're hurt," she said. "I can see that. But you miss him. So is it worth it, pushing him away because he hurt you?"
It wasn't worth it, Tony's words.
He shook his head. "Thanks, Marie. But Stark—Tony's my problem."
"Come on, then," Nate said. They walked with Steve a few hundred metres to the right.
"You have to go straight from here. Turn right after you pass the city. Don't come closer. You'll see what I mean."
“I don't even see it,” Steve said.
“You will,” Marie reassured him. “It's hard to describe. The landscape will change.”
Steve turned to them. "Thank you. I mean it."
"Our pleasure. Good luck, Cap!" Nate called. Marie smiled and waved at him.
Steve set off.
Just a few steps forward, he got suddenly cold. He stopped, looked up, saw just milky-white.
"Huh," he said.
He took another step forward, and the sensation disappeared. He looked back, to see Nate and Marie one last time—and they weren’t' there. It was just an orchard. Nothing else. He couldn't see their house anymore, and he still couldn't see this famed city.
He turned to where he was supposed to go and found himself in a forest. It must've been artificial, but it looked just like the ones Steve was used to, so it was easy enough.
A few more steps forward, and he turned around again, just to check—and yes, he was right. Forest, for as long as he could see.
Turn right after the city.
How would he recognise that turn?
He kept walking, hoping it'd become obvious. He was well-rested, and he was better prepared for a long walk now than when he'd arrived here with Tony. He had time; the question was—did Tony?
He went as fast as he could without actually tiring himself out. He wasn't sure how long he walked. The trees were all similar.
He thought he'd been walking for a few hours when he decided to take a break and eat something.
His thoughts went to, of course, Tony. Would he find the right way? What if someone chased him? Tony was very capable, but Steve had never liked the thought of him being alone, out of his armour.
It was almost eerily quiet. There was no wind. If he stopped breathing, there wouldn't be any sounds in this forest.
Suddenly he wanted to get out of there quite fast.
He forced himself not to run—Nate said nothing in the forest would harm him—but he picked up his speed. And then, finally, he saw a meadow.
It wasn't the one Tony'd been taken from—here, there were mostly tulips, and he almost felt bad for walking through them. They grew in clumps for as far as he could see, all the way to the horizon.
The landscape will change. Was this what Marie meant?
Steve turned right.
"Put this on," Carol said, throwing a pair of trousers and a shirt at him. "Not an old-fashioned model, but you should feel okay in them, and they are durable."
Tony nodded, stripped without even thinking. Not that there was really much chance of privacy here anyway. Carol didn't comment, so he put on the clothes she'd brought for him.
"Now this." She was giving him what looked like a metal headband. He looked at her dubiously. "Damn, Tony, I thought we established we could trust each other. It's a telepathy dampener. Would you rather like Magneto's?"
He took the band and set it on his forehead. As soon as he stopped touching it, he could've forgotten it was really on his head. It was so light.
"Try not to play with it too much," Carol teased. “It only works if it's actually on your head.” She grew serious. "I can't give you more, but I can get you to the forest. Nothing there will harm you, and you can eat everything. Be wary of meadows, and perfect fruits. Go straight. Turn left when things change. Don't ask; you'll see."
"Okay." He'd done more with less information. "How do we get out of here?"
"Do you have a fear of heights, Iron Man?" she asked, and okay, now Tony knew.
"Hold on tight," she added, and then before he could protest, she picked him up. Okay. His dignity had suffered worse. Then Carol blasted his window, and they were flying through it, and down, fast; not as fast as he could go in the suit, which meant not half as fast as she could go—but he was just a normal human here, without his armour. She must've been aware of that. There was an explosion behind them Tony didn't quite see, but Carol turned and dove further, and then jumped up in a series of lighting fast turns.
She blasted something else that Tony didn't see, the rush of air forcing him to close his eyes.
Her hair was messed up, and she was glowing with power. She was also smiling, truly smiling, and she looked the happiest he'd seen her. "I love this," she confessed. “I've missed this.”
"Won't you have problems?"
"Oh, Tony." She smiled. "I can deal with problems. Now go. Remember my instructions?"
He stepped to her and he couldn't help it; he hugged her good bye. "Thank you," he said.
"For you? Always."
Tony turned away and stepped into the forest. For less than a second, there was tingling in his skin, the kind he associated with energy barriers, and, actually—he turned to look at the city one last time, just to check. It was gone. The forest was all around him.
Oh, so that's how it works, he thought. Circular teleportation fields. Smart. But smells like magic.
He remembered Carol's instructions. Straight first.
He tried to move quickly. He wanted to get as far away from the city as it was possible. He may have built it originally, but it if the headlines were anything to go by, it had evolved way past that original design. He didn't like some of what he'd seen in the archives, or the implication of Carol's nerves before they left his cell of a room. He didn't want to think about what could make Captain Marvel nervous.
He got tired of keeping up his speed pretty soon and cursed. His legs were aching, he was short of breath. He knew he needed a break.
He should've known better than to push himself. Steve would've known better. Maybe he was here, maybe Tony could pull off that headband and check . . .
No. He couldn't risk it. If he passed out here, there was no guarantee he'd be able to get the band on again or find Steve at all.
He spotted a stream, and he made himself keep walking long enough to reach it and drink a bit. It was as cold as he remembered. He didn't want to take a break so soon, but he sat on the bank and rested for a few minutes. Then he continued his travelling, much slower, trying not to exhaust himself this time.
Steve knew his way around the forest. Tony was only practised at getting through the urban jungle.
Still, Carol had said nothing would harm him. He kept going.
He kept going until it got dark, and he thought he really should rest.
He looked around for a while, but in the shadows he really wouldn't be able to find a better place to stop. At least he remembered where the stream was. He drank some water again, and then moved away from the bank, lay down, and slept.
Steve was going through a forest. He was so good at it, just like Tony had suspected.
He never once hesitated, instinctively knew which turn to take. He kept going for hours. He'd be out of it much quicker than Tony, which was probably a good thing. The further from the city, the better.
Steve reached the edge of the trees and stood in the meadow. He was safe.
He wanted to take a step more—and a tree branch shot out from the forest, grabbed him. He tried to fight, but he was nothing against its strength.
There was the disgusting sound of ribs breaking, and —
Tony sat up, breathing too fast. What . . . ? It must have been a nightmare, but it felt so real . . . In sudden panic, he reached for his headband. It was still securely fastened and hadn't moved. It wasn't a glimpse of what happened to Steve. Just a stupid nightmare, again.
His muscles were hurting from the position he'd slept in, but he ignored it. He had to find Steve. There was already enough light for him to start moving again, which was great, because he sure as hell wasn't going back to sleep. He drank more water, found blackberries that didn't look too perfect, and ate a few. Then he kept going. He couldn't go too fast. He didn't want to get tired and he kept his eyes firmly on the ground, trying to avoid any roots he might trip over.
A few hours in, he saw a meadow. He wanted to run, but he forced himself to go slowly. It wasn't far. Carol told him to turn when things changed; it must've been it.
When he finally reached it, he wasn't too surprised that it stretched to the horizon. He turned left, and hesitated, the nightmare still fresh in his mind.
But Carol had promised. Nothing would harm them.
He took a deep breath, stepped onto the meadow, and turned left. He didn't look back; he just kept going forward, fast, to get as far away from the forest as possible.
Nothing tried to stop him, and he finally slowed his steps.
He wasn't sure how long it'd been when he saw someone approaching and his heart sped up.
He knew it was Steve. Who else could it be?
He didn't think. Steve started to run, and so Tony went faster too. He pushed off the stupid band. He wouldn't need it anymore. Steve was right there—
Finally, and he seems unharmed, finallyfinallyfinally—what is he doing, he doesn't know how close we have to be for it to work—nonono I'm not worried, I—he hurt me, he used me, why is it so easy to forget for a moment, why can't I forget forever, why does it still hurt, why did he hurt me?
Tony was dizzy, Steve's emotions too much for him; he was so happy to see him all right, unharmed, he'd been so worried—but what, did he expect everything to be fixed between them? He knew that wouldn't happen, that wouldn't ever happen. He loved Steve and he'd still hurt him. How could he hope Steve could move on from that betrayal? Tony knew he'd done a good job of breaking them both.
Steve's steps slowed down until he was just walking, very slowly, staring at Tony.
"You're all right," Tony breathed shakily, though he supposed Steve got that from his mind as well.
"You're fine," Steve said, and only then pulled off his own band. "You don't look . . ."
He'd had it on while Tony didn't, Tony realised. He hadn't heard—anything. And it was a good thing. Tony was so stupid to hope for anything. He knew Steve would never forgive him. He knew he didn't deserve forgiveness. That's all that mattered. That, and keeping Steve safe.
They just looked at each other for a long moment.
Tony didn't know which one of them moved first, but suddenly they were kissing, and Steve's hand was on his cheek, surprisingly soft, and Steve's tongue was in his mouth, and Tony's goatee rubbed Steve, but he didn't mind, and how did Tony know that, and oh my god he wasn't sure which one of them put a hand in whose pants, or if it even mattered, but it felt so good, he moaned into the kiss, and Tony had dreamt of that for years, and so had Steve, and it wasn't supposed to be like that, except it was perfect, and they managed to get out of their clothes, neither of them sure how. Steve fell to the soft grass first, and pulled Tony down, and then it was just them again, touching each other and palming each other's cocks, and Tony closed his hand over Steve's cock and moaned at the pleasure, and Steve bit his collarbone and was sucking on it now, and yes, perfect, Tony flicked his hand again and came as he felt the wild wave of Steve's pleasure, and the pinpoint of pain on his clavicle was perfect.
Later, they moved away from each other. Tony didn't make any effort to cover himself—but he didn't look at Steve.
What—what had they just done? He wasn't sure what happened, and yes, he had dreamt of it, but—
"We should just wear the headbands," he offered in a weak voice. He thought of the emptiness in his head when Steve hadn't been there.
"No," Steve replied immediately. "We—we should get cleaned up."
So they weren't going to talk about it. Good. Tony definitely wouldn't argue with that.
The stream wasn't far away. They gathered their clothes and walked there. Tony still carefully avoided looking in Steve's direction. He'd always known he was beautiful, but . . .
Don't think about him, he told himself firmly.
Stepping into the ice cold water helped, and he washed himself in a few efficient movements.
Steve hesitated; Tony wondered if it was the temperature of the water that stopped him. His body had gotten used to it; it wasn't as biting cold as previously.
"Can you feel it?" Tony asked quietly. If he could help Steve deal with the cold . . .
"Thank you," Steve replied equally quietly. He washed himself even quicker, and then he was out of the water. Tony followed slower.
"I have a change of clothes for us both," Steve said. "But uh, no towels."
They'd be dry in no time at all, in the sun and the wind.
"Thanks," Tony said. He wanted to ask where Steve had been, but this probably wasn't the time.
Because it was better to stand there in the awkward silence, he scolded himself.
"I met a guy named Nate," Steve said. "And yes, yes, I heard that in your mind. Sorry. I don't know."
Tony did not think about anything at all. "Nate?" he asked.
"Nate Barnes," Steve explained. "Yeah. That Barnes. He's not really anything like Bucky, but he's a good man. He had a partner; Marie, telepath. They helped me a lot."
Tony nodded. He was so glad Steve ended up with nice people.
"There's a thing they gave me," Steve continued. "A backpack. Bigger on the inside."
For a moment, Tony thought he misheard, and then he laughed with delight. "Really?"
Steve threw the backpack at him, and Tony caught it on instinct.
A memory appeared in his mind; Steve thinking Tony would like it, Steve scolding himself for it—
You miss him. So is it worth it, pushing him away because he hurt you?
(It's never worth it; but it has to be)
Tony took a shaky step back. He risked a look at Steve. He covered his face in his hands.
"I'm sorry," Tony said.
"I know," Steve repeated. "I can't—I want to—I'm sorry."
"I know," Tony answered. "I don't expect you to."
They'd heard it all before—as thoughts or memories. Tony thought that actually saying it out loud was better—because then, they meant it.
He was almost dry. He put on the clothes Steve offered him, and then silently accepted a bottle of water.
They had to move on.
Steve laughed hysterically next to him. "Yeah."
They'd been walking for an hour when it occurred to Steve that he had no idea where they were headed. He just kind of . . . assumed Tony knew that; a quiet certainty so strong it hadn't even occurred to him to ask.
"Oh," Tony said. "Sorry. I thought you read that in my mind."
Steve refused to think about how answering unsaid questions was becoming almost natural to them. "Well then?"
"This Earth is—weird. We're not in some remote location, there just aren't many people left. And they don't like visitors."
"I wouldn't have noticed that," Steve commented. "What does that have to do with us leaving?"
"They blocked all kind of interdimensional travel here. It's a good defensive measure if you have enemies who can teleport, I'll give them that. But we have to reach another spot where a portal can be opened."
Steve saw an image then—more of a feeling, maybe. A database in his mind as well as on the wall in front of him; more data than he could imagine at his disposal. For a moment, he wasn't sure what to check first, then he thought getting out should be his priority—
"They let you in their—I'm guessing it wasn't internet anymore."
Tony chuckled. "No. But the other me built that city."
Steve glanced sideways at him. "Did you have similar plans in our world?"
Tony's ideas could be wonderful. They could also be terrible. Steve hadn't been in the city, but what he'd heard about it . . .
"Let me clarify," Tony said, his voice curt. "The other us."
Steve regretted not having asked Marie about blocking telepathy. He emphatically did not want to put the headband back on, he wasn't even going to consider it—but it would be nice to have a way of controlling this.
He quickened his pace a bit.
The sun was getting low. They'd been walking for hours. Steve was doing his best trying not to think about Tony, to spare them both that.
Tony followed him, equally quiet. He stayed away from any trees they passed. Steve had wanted to ask, but he'd stopped himself every time. He wasn't sure how to talk to Tony now.
“I met Carol,” Tony said quietly. “Carol Danvers. She doesn't age, did you know that?”
Steve's step faltered. He—he worried about himself, sometimes, because he still wasn't sure if the serum affected him that way. To hear that Carol didn't age . . . Steve didn't want it for himself. He doubted she was any different.
“She seemed fine,” Tony continued. “But—I can't really imagine that, and I'm the futurist here.”
For Tony, it was more of a theoretical idea. For Steve, it was a probable reality. He could imagine it, and he didn't like it. "The other me," he mumbled. He wasn't sure he wanted to ask.
"Both of us died, together, centuries ago," Tony answered. "I don't know how—I can only hope they were saving the world." Tony hesitated, and Steve looked at him. What else was there to say?
"Carol said—Carol said the other you didn't age either," Tony let out finally. "But—I'm not sure they were really able to check. He died young. So... It's not a certainty, Steve."
Because of course Tony knew Steve was afraid of it, of living though all of his friends dying, until he'd himself in a world he didn't recognise once again.
Superheroes died young. Maybe that was why. Maybe he—
"Don't," Tony asked quietly. He must've heard it. Steve wasn't sure he cared. He definitely wasn't sure why Tony did.
"Damn it, Steve, you can't—"
"Can't what?" Steve snapped. "Last I checked, it wasn't me who tried to crawl into a bottle and drown there!"
"Yeah." Tony smiled. His eyes looked empty. "And wouldn't it be better for us both if I had managed that?"
Steve felt as if Tony hit him.
"What, is that news for you?" Tony almost laughed this time. "Did you think I was ever fighting for my own survival?"
It—it wasn't news, not exactly, Steve realised. Tony's preferred method of solving problems often put him in danger, as if he didn't matter. Steve had yelled at him about it time and again.
And that didn't touch on what he'd seen in Tony's memories; a charged gauntlet pressed to his head. His own memories, Tony lying still, not even trying to protect himself, underneath him as Steve raised his shield above him, ready to strike.
"Why?" Tony screamed. He sounded hysterical. "I asked you to finish it! Why didn't you?! Why?!"
"Why, Steve?" Tony whispered, sounding broken. "You died. And it was my fault. Wouldn't it be better if I'd never stopped drinking?"
Steve grabbed him by his arms. "Shut up!"
Tony looked straight at him. "Why? Don't you like hearing the truth? You were so angry that I'd been lying!"
He could feel what Tony was trying to do, he could feel Tony trying to push Steve away, he was in his head and he finally understood what all that act, I'd do it all again, was for.
He knew the reasons, but it didn't hurt any less.
And . . .
"It's not even the truth," Steve whispered. A world without Tony scarcely bore thinking about. He hang his head low. "How would a world without you be a better place?"
"I wouldn't have hurt you," Tony whispered. "I wouldn't have to avoid the mirror every day. To face all my mistakes. And there's always more, and then—the incursions happened, and I thought I could make that right, but I never can, can I?!"
He was trembling.
Steve—Steve had never realised how deep this death wish of Tony's went.
"All that anger," Steve said. "All that sorrow, and all that hurt—it's worth it, Tony. It's worth it if you're still there."
"You don't know what you're saying," Tony spat out.
"No?" Steve challenged. "Then why are you still here? You asked me to kill you. I could've done it. I was angry, and you wouldn't listen, and I felt like you betrayed us—you asked me to kill you, and I felt disgusted at myself that you thought it possible."
A part of him couldn't believe he'd said it—but this was the truth. And it was possible—certain—that Tony needed to hear it.
“You're a good man,” Tony let out shakily. “It has nothing to do with me.”
"You hurt me," Steve repeated. "And you've seen exactly how much. But I'll take that hurt and more if it means you're here."
Tony was crying now, and Steve's heart broke at the sight. He wanted—he needed to see him smile again.
There had been a time he wanted him to hurt like he hurt Steve. It was gone now, even if Steve wasn't sure when it happened.
"I just want it all to stop," Tony let out through his sobs, and Steve suddenly understood, in perfect clarity, as if someone put a knife between his ribs—that he might've thought he hated Tony Stark, but he could never hate Tony more than Tony himself did.
"I want you to stay," he said with all the intensity he could muster, because it was the truth. He pulled Tony in an embrace, and held him close, and then he cried when he heard Tony's thoughts again.
It was dark when Tony stepped away. Steve didn't let him go. He grabbed him by his hand and held him close.
"We can't walk further now," Steve said.
Tony shrugged, not facing him.
You're pathetic, Stark. And now he knows.
Steve shook his head, but Tony didn't even notice.
"Tony," Steve repeated. "Let's just—go to sleep."
Another day lost because of you, Stark.
"Tony," Steve tried again. "I'm not—it's not a problem. We aren't on a deadline, all right."
He still couldn't say he didn't blame Tony.
He hoped he could, one day.
"You'd be better off without me," Tony said.
"Left in the ice?" Steve asked.
Tony was silent.
"Sleep, Tony," Steve said. "We'll go further tomorrow."
There were sleeping bags in the backpack Marie had given him. Tony would probably take the whole pack apart for science as soon as they were home.
Steve very deliberately laid the sleeping bags out next to each other. He wanted to be close to Tony. He couldn't explain why.
(Because he was scared Tony would leave; because he missed him, because he was tired of avoiding him.)
Tony slid into one of them without any complaints, and Steve slipped into the other. He was reasonably sure he'd wake up if Tony tried to get up.
Steve woke up first. He carefully untangled himself from the sleeping bag and prepared breakfast. Tubes of paste of exotic tastes reminded him of what the astronauts who weren't lucky enough to be Tony Stark ate.
He watched Tony sleep. Dried tears were still visible on his face. He'd probably hate Steve when he woke up.
Steve sighed. How had they gotten there?
He looked around. Still the same, expansive meadow. Nothing had changed overnight. There was nothing to do but wake Tony.
Steve knelt next to him. "Tony?"
There was no reaction. Tony hated mornings. Steve touched his arm. He expected Tony to hide deeper in the sleeping bag, not to wake up as if someone poured cold water on him.
"What?" Tony asked. He was so close. A part of Steve's brain wanted to kiss him. They'd had sex hours ago, but it was still such an unexpected thought he staggered backwards and hoped Tony wasn't listening to his confused thoughts.
"It's morning, is all," Steve said. "I didn't mean to scare you."
He needed to think—but not when they could hear each other's thoughts.
Tony gave him a long look, but didn't say anything.
Steve handed him the food tube, and once Tony ate, they set off again.
This time, they didn't talk at all.
Tony forced himself to focus on the flowers they were passing. Poppies, violets, some stray tulips; a lot he couldn't name. Steve would probably know more names.
Tony wasn't going to ask. And he definitely wasn't going to think about the last night. He didn't get it. Steve should just leave already. Or maybe . . .
"I should tell you how to turn on the portal," Tony said.
Steve turned to him and blinked. "Why?"
Tony shuffled, uncomfortably. "So you'd know?"
"It's enough for me that you know it," Steve said, frowning. He turned away and continued his trek.
Tony looked ahead of them. The mountains were getting closer—
He was pretty sure he hadn't seen them just a few metres before.
"Steve," he called again. "Can you see the mountains?"
"What moun—" Steve stopped mid-sentence. "Yeah. We're close, right?"
"A few hours at most," Tony confirmed.
And then they could go back to their world—or well, a world in between, hopefully a bit more pleasant. Maybe one they could contact Reed from, at the very least. Steve had disappeared along with Tony; the Illuminati and the Avengers should be looking for them. The world needed Captain America.
"The world needs Iron Man," Steve said.
"Fuck," Tony said. There were moments the telepathy was almost natural, even helpful—and then there were moments like this, when it surprised him all over again.
He thought about putting the headband back on, but . . . He remembered the emptiness in his head without Steve, and he knew he'd never do that willingly.
Fucking Mind Gem, or whatever it was that caused this.
Steve stopped suddenly and Tony almost ran into his back. He stood next to him. "What —"
There was a feeling like a barrier again, and then they were in the mountains. It was still sunny and warm; not a hint of snow—good, Steve wouldn't like that—but the flowers were gone. The ground was stony, but the slope didn't look too difficult. Tony turned back, saw a clear line between the stones and the flowers
"That first forest," Tony said. "The transition was more natural."
Steve tilted his head like he was thinking. "It might've been natural," he said. "The forest was just the door."
Tony shrugged. "Possible." Or it had something to do with magic.
"Do you want to stop for now?" Steve asked.
Tony considered it. They'd been walking for a few hours. He could do more, but he learnt his lesson about forcing himself to keep moving when he didn't have to.
"Yeah," he said. "A short break. How many of those tubes do you have?"
"Enough," Steve said, digging into the backpack. Tony couldn't wait to get his hands on it in his lab. He just hoped it was more tech than magic.
Steve passed him a tube and Tony opened it. This time it tasted like strawberries and he smiled as he chewed it. It was a good idea for quick rations—though it wasn't like they didn't have it on their own Earth, Tony thought. Just—less tasty. And not in what looked like a bag of infinity.
He was almost sure it was magical. Damn.
"Did Tony Stark find a magical object he didn't hate?" Steve teased.
Tony glared. "Wait till it tries to kill us." He considered Steve. "And if you quote Clarke again . . ."
Steve laughed. "But he is right, you know."
Tony regretted not having real strawberries. That way, he would be able to throw one at Steve.
"What a formidable threat," Steve laughed again, and he sounded relaxed and happy.
Tony squeezed the tube too hard and the paste got all over his hand.
"High tech beyond the futurist," Steve commented, and he still was smiling.
Tony had missed this so much.
He also didn't deserve to see it one bit. And to cause it? What was wrong with Steve? Had he forgotten what Tony had done to him?
The smile disappeared off Steve's face, slowly.
Tony had never hated himself more than in this moment.
"I'll never forget, probably," Steve said.
"No," Steve interrupted him. "Let me say it. And for god's sake, Tony, just once in your life, listen."
"I'll never forget it," Steve repeated. "I don't need you reminding me, I assure you. But—and I thought this was obvious here—I like you, Tony. I never stopped. I care about you. I—we were separated, and I thought I wanted that, but what I want is to spend time with you. Like we used to. To move past—all that." He closed his eyes, exhaled. Tony wasn't getting anything from him telepathically now and thought it was for the best. "I still can't say I don't blame you."
"It was my fault." Tony couldn't pretend otherwise. "Okay, Steve? It was my fault. Of course you blame me."
"Tony," Steve said heavily. "Let me finish." He waited a moment. Tony kept quiet. "It wasn't just your fault. But I blame you. I wish I didn't. More important is—have I forgiven you? I—I don't know."
Tony didn't deserve forgiveness.
Steve laughed. It was bitter this time. "Yeah, you sure as hell haven't forgiven yourself. I want to see where this, us, goes when I'm not angry at you all the time."
"How can you—"
"Tony." Steve sounded tired. "Let me try. Don't sabotage it because you're feeling guilty."
Tony looked down. Was that what he'd been doing? To a degree, probably. But Steve deserved so much better than Tony; why couldn't he get it?
"I don't want better," Steve said. "Why can't you get that?"
Because Tony had gotten Steve killed once. Because he'd wiped Steve's mind. Because he'd stabbed Steve in the back when it was convenient; and how had Steve ever forgiven him that?
Steve was too good for Tony. That Tony loved him mattered very little.
He stood up. "We should get going," he said.
Steve just nodded.
The wind got colder, but Tony could only feel it on his face. The clothes which kept him cool in the sun, now kept him warm. It was a soft mesh; another thing he should look into. His undersuit served similar purpose, but it wasn't this good.
Tony preferred walking through the meadow to trekking over rocks like this. At least the meadow had been flat, even if it did have the fruity traps. He was still annoyed at that.
"Fruity traps?" Steve asked, and Tony winced.
"Okay, so you might've been right in not eating that apple," he said. "In my defence, Carol said they were designed to lure in innocent humans like me."
"You didn't need much convincing," Steve pointed out, but there was no malice in his tone. He was softly teasing. Like he meant what he'd said about Tony, like he really cared. But Tony couldn't hope that was possible.
They saw it a few hours later, when the sun was going down: a few pillars raising from the ground ahead of them.
"Well, if I ever saw a place that screams I am the portal you are looking for," Tony commented.
"We should stop for the night soon," Steve said dubiously. "I'm not sure we can reach it before it gets dark. And you'll need light to operate it, right?"
Tony looked at the pillars with longing. He wanted to finally reach them, to have a confirmation that yes; they were going to get out of here.
But Steve had a point. And maybe sleeping in the shadow of the monuments wasn't what Tony really dreamt of.
"Okay," he said. "You're right."
"Don't worry," Steve said. "I'm sure this is it."
Tony nodded. He knew it had to be, he just—he really wanted to get Steve out of this world. He was never supposed to be here in the first place.
"Yeah, somehow I don't regret that," Steve said. If Tony had disappeared forever, I'd never have forgiven myself. I'm so glad I'm here.
Tony almost missed the bottle Steve threw to him. He caught it with a little fumbling and drank; the cold water not really helping him make any sense of his thoughts.
He was tired.
Getting to sleep next to Tony when a part of him wanted to sleep with Tony was . . . strange. Steve wasn't ready to go there; maybe he never would be. He couldn't really explain that tumble in the grass earlier—except he'd wanted it so much at the time.
He shook his head. He couldn't think about it with Tony just a few feet away.
Tony already pulled out their bags and set them on the ground—close, like the last time.
"Tomorrow we'll be out of here," he promised, crawled into his bag and turned to his side.
Steve wanted to go before that whole mess had even started. But that was impossible.
He got into his own bag, closed his eyes.
He could fall asleep anywhere, and yet, he lay awake for hours now. He thought about Tony—but that wasn't anything new. Even when the world was ending, all he could think of was Tony.
They were both just stupid and stubborn. Steve wasn't sure if he wasn't grateful for this telepathy between them.
That was when he saw something. He was halfway up to his feet before he realised it wasn't what he was seeing—it was Tony's dream.
Steve's body was still; terribly still and cold on the metal slab. Tony had put him there. It was all his fault.
There was a question that still needed answers, but he couldn't speak.
It wasn't worth it ran through his mind, again and again, as he fell down sobbing.
Steve sat up. "It's your fault," he said.
Next to Steve, Tony jolted awake, and the vision disappeared. Before he could think, Steve knelt at Tony's side.
Tony's eyes were wild and full of fear.
"It was not your fault," Steve said, hoping to get to him. "Okay? You didn't kill me. You never killed me."
You only asked me to kill you, Steve thought.
Tony was shaking in his arms. "But I did," he said.
"Red Skull killed me—and he didn't even kill me; it was a time-displacing bullet," Steve said, and while thinking about that hurt, it wasn't important now. Calming Tony down was.
"What? Read his mind? Tony," Steve leant until their foreheads touched. "It wasn't your fault."
"Okay." It was as if he just wanted Steve to leave him alone. And—Steve didn't want to do that, but he understood the impulse. He moved away. Tony exhaled quietly. "I woke you up." Not a question.
"You didn't, actually," Steve said. He shrugged. "I couldn't sleep. It happens."
He looked at the sky. Constellations he didn't know, colourful stars—artificial satellites? It was still dark; not a hint of sun.
An idea occurred to him. "Can I . . . ?" he asked.
Steve moved closer to him, and then pulled Tony in a loose embrace. Tony seemed tense, but didn't protest.
Steve wasn't sure what he wanted to do. He just—he wanted to be closer to Tony.
He didn't intend for them to fall asleep like that, but that's what happened.
He woke up pleasantly warm. It took him a moment to understand that it was because Tony was asleep on top of him. He was heavy, comfortingly so, and Steve didn't really want to move. He could wake up like this every morning for the rest of his life.
This thought scared him, and so he, still gently, pushed Tony off him. "You were heavy," he grumbled as an explanation.
"There goes your superstrength," Tony muttered, still half asleep. Then his eyes widened, and he moved as far from Steve as he could, still tangled in his sleeping bag. "Sorry," he said, looking at the ground.
"It's fine, Tony," Steve said. He was tired. The cuddling had been his idea; why couldn't Tony understand Steve didn't hate him?
Tony stared at him. "How can you not?" he asked, and then he shook his head quickly. "No. We have to get out of here. I've had enough of this world."
It was a lousy attempt to steer the conversation away, but Steve let him have that. They could talk later. They would.
He nodded. "Okay. You're right. Let's get going."
They ate their nutritional portions, drank water, and started going again.
The pillars seemed to haunt them. The wind wasn't helping. It was cloudy, and Steve hoped it wouldn't rain.
Silence stretched between them once again, but Steve could hear the murmur of Tony's thoughts, interdimensional equations and power requirements and integrals counted over the universe signature. He didn't even try to understand it.
They reached the pillars quickly—Steve was sure they'd been walking for less than two hours.
They wouldn't have made it the previous day, it'd been a good decision to stay and sleep lower, where the wind hadn't been so cutting.
The ground here was flat, made entirely out of some dark stone. There were three tall columns, leaning towards each other in arcs. There was a platform in the point just under where they'd meet, if they were longer.
Tony's first step, from the mountain path onto the platform, was careful. Steve watched him closely, but it didn't seem like anything happened.
"It's safe," Tony confirmed, and then he almost ran to centre of the platform.
Steve shook his head with amusement. Of course he had to get his hands on what probably was new tech as soon as possible. It was a wonder he'd agreed to sleep last night.
Fascinating. Reed would love it. What is this—possibly there's some Kree tech? That could be useful for the armour . . . Kree and Skrull? Weird. They're ahead of Earth-tech though. Power source?
Steve shook his head, trying to block it out. Tony's thoughts were giving him headache—but even so, he had to admit it was a fascinating experience to really listen to them. He'd gotten glimpses of Tony's mind at work earlier, of course; before this whole mess had ever happened, when he'd sit in Tony's lab and watch him work on three different projects at once and still make a logical conversation with Steve. Steve would say it was almost magical to watch him, but he knew how Tony would react to that.
He didn't try to approach the platform. If Tony needed his help, he'd ask for it, but Steve doubted he would. This was his playground. Steve wouldn't be able to help.
He thought that exclusion should hurt, but Tony went to him when he needed martial arts training. When he wanted to discuss strategies. Tony listened to his advice. He—he valued Steve's opinion.
"Wasn't that obvious?"
Steve looked up. Tony was facing him now, his back to the platform. He looked surprised.
"What did you think all these years? That I'm bored, talking to you? That I—"
The old nightmare resurfaced in Steve's memories, and if he judged Tony's expression correctly, also in his.
"Steve," Tony said gently. "I would never laugh at you. You—you're so much more than I could ever dream to be." His voice was sincere.
Steve fixed his eyes on the monument behind Tony. He wasn't sure he believed him, but . . . "Okay," he said, like it wasn't that important. "Thank you."
"Are you going to be okay?" Tony asked.
"Get us out of here, Avenger," Steve replied.
Tony flashed him a smile and leant over the panel again. He started touching it—seemingly randomly; probably not—and it lit up. Steve felt energy gather in the air . . . and disappear.
Tony punched the stone next to the panel. "Dammit!"
Unused in ages, this bloody world; power source gave up?
"Okay, power source," Steve said, trying to understand Tony's trail of thoughts. "Do we have anything we could use in place of it?"
Tony looked around. It's not safe—should get the job done long enough to get Steve to the other side though. "We have the RT," he said and hesitated, as if he might say more.
For a moment there, Steve hoped he wouldn't lie.
"It's safe," Tony said. "You'd have to go before me—I would hold the portal open. But it's safe."
"That's a lot of reassurances for a lie," Steve snapped.
"I can hear your thoughts, will you ever stop lying to me?!" Steve yelled.
Tony took a step back. "It's—"
"It's what, Tony? Not a lie? Because I'm telling you, you can't very well lie to me right now. And you're still trying."
Tony hang his head low. "It would work," he whispered. "I'm sure of that. It would let you pass through this portal safely. You'd be safe. That's what counts to me."
Steve's body still on the slab, and his shield covered in blood.
"I'm alive," Steve growled. "And I won't let you kill yourself for me. For anything."
"It's my decision," Tony said. "You're worth it."
"I'd rather stay here," Steve stared at him. "And I'll repeat that—I don't want to go back if the price is your life."
Tony was silent. I'm not important.
"You are important!" Steve was so tired. Hadn't they been over this before? "You're important to me, and to countless other people in our world—Tony, what do you think Rhodey would do to me if I came back without you?"
You'd all be better off without me. But he still didn't say that out loud.
Steve deflated. "Just trust me on that," he asked. "Please." He hesitated. "You couldn't live with yourself after my . . . death. Why do you think it'd be any different for me?"
He could hear the mess of Tony's thoughts; every one of them coming down to "but I'm Tony Stark; why would anyone care".
"I care," Steve said. "I do."
"Why are you still here?" Tony asked, because they both knew it went beyond we're trapped in one universe together.
"I care," Steve repeated, and he could feel the moment Tony believed him.
He turned back to the console. "Okay. Okay." He put his hands to his temples. "Another way then."
He turned around, his eyes moving as he scanned the platform.
There must be something, he was thinking, Stark, you're a genius, find something.
"We will find something," Steve said. Their eyes met for a second, and then Tony nodded.
Steve started walking around the edges of the platform. When was the last time someone had used it? There must've been something left . . .
Smooth stone, all around; not even cracks in it.
It was big, bigger than it seemed. It took him a few minutes to reach the first monument. He touched it—
He jumped back.
A black robot emerged from the stone. Steve raised his hands to the defensive position. The robot took an unsteady step—and fell down, as if out of power. Was it an old defensive measure? Or was the robot designed to help?
"Tony?" Steve called, but Tony was already running to him.
"Yeah, this might help," he said. He smiled, almost surprised. "Thank you."
Steve wanted to move it closer to the platform for Tony to use.
"Wait," Tony barked. "Let me check it's really safe."
He knelt over it, felt around it's neck and used his nail to open a panel. Steve guessed there were basics of building robots everyone had to follow.
"Not really," Tony said. "But most of the tech in this universe was originally mine."
He pulled out a pair of cables and nodded. "Out of power," he said. "Safe."
Steve frowned. "Don't we—"
"Need it as a power source? Nah. I can rig it. What I need are some parts. I guess there should be a robot for every pillar, if this one won't be enough . . ."
Together, they pulled the robot closer to the platform. It was heavier than Steve had expected.
Tony knelt next to it again. "A screwdriver would be nice," he muttered, "but when you don't have what you want . . . " He broke off a long, thin panel of the robot's leg.
He was full of that manic energy Steve associate with him working on a problem. It was good to see him like that and Steve realised, not even that surprised, that he'd missed it. A lot.
In the past year, Tony had been working a lot—but he'd been always tired, pale, almost as if working had been a chore. Now that Steve knew why, it was all so obvious. Tony hadn't enjoyed working on weapons again.
There wasn't much he could do while Tony was in his science frenzy. He idly walked up to another pillar and touched it. He could get more parts ready in case Tony needed them.
Another robot appeared, much like the first. It stood in front of Steve, not moving, not attacking; just still. Steve reached out and pushed it, and it fell to the ground.
He pulled it near the first one.
Tony straightened up from the robot's parts—some time later. Steve had lost track.
"Fuck," he said.
"What's the matter?"
If only we had the shield, Tony was thinking. Anything, to channel it . . .
Steve reached into his backpack to pull out one of the telepathy-blocking bands. "That could do? It is some weird metal."
Tony's eyes snapped to it. A grin broke out on his face. "Should be fine,” he said. “Show me.”
Steve passed him the band, and Tony checked it over. “Yes, perfect.”
He leant over the parts again, and lifted two thin cables. “Give me a hand,” he said, but he didn't have to; Steve saw in his head clearly what he was supposed to do.
He lifted the band and Tony connected the cables to it. Steve got up and pulled Tony to his feet. They grinned at each other.
Will it work, Steve wanted to ask, but he could hear Tony's it'll work clearly.
Tony moved to the console, and Steve realised he hadn't let his hand go yet. He did now, and watched as Tony typed on the pad; apparently understanding what to do.
The energy cracked in the air again. The monuments moved towards each other. Tony turned back to Steve and extended his hand towards him. Steve grabbed him tight.
The wind picked up.
There was a loud sound when the three vertices touched, and then a crack formed in the air over them, glaring with colour.
The crack grew until it reached the ground, and wide enough to let them pass side by side.
"With you, Captain Rogers," Tony said.
Steve had no idea what kind of a world they would find themselves in in a few seconds.
He went with Tony with no questions.
It was different to the trip to the world they were leaving now.
They were together now, their hands in each other's, their fingers tangled together in a firm clasp. There weren't any shards floating in the air.
And they could actually move.
It was just a few steps, and then they stepped out into a blinding sun.