Thanos stood at the edge of The Infinity.
With his hands clasped behind his back as he thought to himself. A brooding Titan it would appear for all eternity. A villain whose greatest foe was non other than himself. The truth, the contradiction, it ate away at his core.
“What has brought you here to see me, my former ward?”
“I knew it was you.”
“That is a fact that must remain between us,” Thanos warned.
“After all this time, and no word? Was this another scheme for Death, Thanos?”
“Would you have sought words with me, Gamora? And while I am here now by my mistress’ side, it was not my end goal.”
“Were you attempting to collect the gems again?”
“The gems are no longer a concern of mine, and they are far out of my reach.”
“Why do it, then? Why save the world, and have no one know it? Why not be the hero?”
“Would you believe me a hero?” A pause. A laugh. “Your silence is answer enough.”
“Will you at least tell me why?”
“Do you truly want that answer?”
“Then look into The Infinity Well, and see for yourself. I'm afraid my story begins a little over four and a half years prior to our current standstill.”
Gamora, much to her chagrin, moved to stand by her former mentor. Theirs was an uneasy relationship; tattered and torn over the years. With much interest reflected in her eyes, Gamora peered down as Thanos stirred the mystic waters to life. Standing at the edge of space, and on the whim of death did little to comfort her. Death being the opposite of Eternity, an abstract construct, comprised all of reality.
The kingdom that belonged to Death was as secluded as Death itself. A vast darkness with stars too far away to long for. The white stones that stood tangible were mockable if not for what they contained within its enclosure. Gamora did not understand, nor would she ever, Thanos’ obsession with the entity, but she understood its purpose, as bleak as it was. For a corridor that stretched on everlasting, Gamora couldn’t help but to feel confined.
“Tell me what it is you seek.”
“I seek to know how the universe almost ceased to be.”
There was something not quite right, Tony noted as he sat within the Avengers Mansion, holed up in his study, drinking stale coffee as his newspaper sat untouched. The peace that settled over his being was admirable, but it wasn't his life. When Jarvis rounded the corner with Reed Richards behind him, Tony breathed a sigh of relief; he almost thought it was going to be a good day. The bundle Richards' brought in; however, warranted much duress. Whoever they were, it wasn't good.
“I have news to share with you,” Richards said, face grim.
“You know me, always willing to listen, so don't hold out on my account,” Tony said, words meant to sound bored, but the conviction just wasn't present in the delivery. Tony could only see a portion of the infant’s face as it was nestled in a collapsible stroller on the other side of his desk, fast asleep with a white beanie covering dark, curly hair and a green throw to keep him or her warm. There was no information for his mind to process, no new missing children reports; no alien babies found in a field in the middle of nowhere Kansas.
“I will, as soon as our missing companion arrives,” Richards said, feet planted to the ground as he stood beside the stroller.
Jarvis moved into the room, stepping aside to allow Steve into the room. “Master Rogers has arrived.”
“Oh, this can only be horrible.”
Steve stood close enough to Richards to get a decent view of the baby, thumb in its mouth as it slept without a care in the world. Steve peered down at the infant with a frown, and Tony knew then that something was amiss. Steve didn't frown at children. Before Tony could comment on the matter, Steve peered up at him with an indiscernible expression, and asked, “Is she yours, Tony?”
Tony was a lot of things, but a father was not one of them.
“Yes,” Richards informed them both, bending down to pick her up, careful not to disturb her too greatly. Tony wondered how Steve knew it was a girl, not being sure himself.
Tony's body stilled, back straightening in his chair as he blinked once and then again more slowly. There was a lot of information somewhere, but he simply could not grasp his current predicament. Jarvis, while shocked, acted with his normal civility as he offered to relieve Richards of the girl. Richards handed over the small infant, no older than eight months, as he moved to sit in the chair to Tony's left; the right soon occupied by Steve. For a long time silence reigned supreme, only a sigh or a whimper to remind him that there was a child, supposedly his child, held in Jarvis’ arms.
Jarvis, with his face stern and posture cautious, handed the baby over to his employer.
And while Tony succeeded in not dropping her head first onto the floor, he did succeed in waking her. That was a curious blue laid out in the irises of her gaze, tears brimming as her chin trembled. “Those aren't my eyes,” he said, stretching his arms outward as the infant continued to wail.
“That's where Steve figures into the equation,” Richards said, informing Tony that the girl was, in fact, a baby and not an explosive device. Tony handed her over to Steve without a second thought. Steve was hesitant at first, but after a few adjustments, seemed to warm up to her, curiosity mounted across his features.
“What does this have to do with me?” Steve asked, voice neutral.
Tony frowned, looking down at the child resting in Steve's embrace. Something clicked in place for him; something his brain registered before his mouth. “Who is this? Who am I looking at?” he asked, mind playing a series of impossibilities.
“Sarah Maria Stark-Rogers, the daughter of Natasha Stark and Steven Rogers.”
Tony blinked once, then again more slowly, lips pursed as he thought on the matter.
“What?” Steve questioned, face void of any composure.
“I'm a woman?”
“You've been worse.”
“What is she doing here?” Steve pressed on, a sudden shift in posture. A curious look in his eyes as he marveled at the girl in his arms.
“That's what I've come here to discuss with the both of you,” Richards said, declining the muffins Jarvis offered to him with a wave of his hand.
“I just knew I wasn't going to like this,” Tony said, fingers rubbing at his temples. A sudden bout of regret moved into the pit of his stomach; he should have just accepted his nice, peaceful morning.
“Earth-3490 is where Sarah comes from. There, the Civil war was brought to a close when Natasha Stark and Steven Rogers married. The Superhuman Registration Act was passed with a vote, and the Steven Rogers of Earth-3490 oversaw the initiative there. Their world; however, is coming to an end. A very quick one, at that.”
Tony watched with much interest as Steve's eyes hardened; and his head throbbed painfully, but he couldn't understand for what reason. Richards paused, no doubt waiting for Steve's anger to boil over; he didn't have to wait long. “How is that possible? How could I have let that happen?” he asked.
“Compromise, Steve. You and the Tony of that universe were not so quick to act on your anger. Natasha sought you out, and vice versa. And the truth of the matter is, Steve, this isn’t about you; it’s about them and the choices they have had to make. Shall I continue?” he asked.
“Knock yourself out,” Tony said nonchalantly, though he was unnerved. With everything going on, why not add more to his plate?
“Natasha knew of me, and she reached out. I am a lot of things, but of all of them, I am most proud to be a father. Who was I refuse her?”
“Is their situation really that hopeless, Reed?” Steve asked, anger simmering into a brand of determination only he could muster.
“The Thanos of their universe has dove into insanity. The denial of Death's affections has sent him into a mad spiral. Instead of attempting to rule the universe, he seeks only to destroy it, and move on.”
“And no one, no one can stop him?”
“The gems have fallen into his possession, Steve. The Adam Warlock of their universe, like ours, is presumed dead.”
“So, with all of their collective resources, they sent her here? Do they know what it's like here? What we're like?” Tony asked, the truth of their situation coming to fruition.
“Natasha sought out every available option she had. This was the best possible outcome, the best hope for their daughter.”
“And you're just going to drop her here at our doorstep?”
“I'm giving you both the opportunity to get to know her, and make a decision. Together, I believe we can make the right choice.”
There was more conversation that followed, but Tony was hardly aware. As a matter of fact, he was fascinated, and more than a little disturbed, by the small girl that slumbered on soundlessly. Tony studied her, tried to digest what it was she meant to him. Finally, Reed Richards departed, but not before leaving word that Sue would be by later to bring so-called “necessities.” Tony was at an impasse.
A shower was needed in order for him to clear his head. When he retired to his room to accomplish this, he wasn’t surprised that Steve had followed him. A cold shower did nothing to quell the tension mounting in his stomach, chest tight with fear. One look in the mirror, and Tony was certain it wasn’t meant to be, he couldn’t, shouldn’t, be in charge of anyone’s child, even if it was his own. With a muffled groan, he brushed his teeth, misery at the thought of what this all meant mounting high.
“Where's Jarvis?” he asked, towel drying his hair as his feet padded across his bedroom floor. Steve looked up at him briefly before turning his attention back to the baby nestled in his arms. Tony was just grateful he had taken off his shoes before settling on his bed.
“Running errands,” Steve said, baby in tow as she continued to sleep with fits of movement and small whimpers. He looked at peace for someone in his position, blonde hair parted to the left. Tony’s chest clenched, head throbbing again as he thought of Steve, and what was it with him again? There was mixed emotions when it came to Steve, there always had been, but more so now than ever.
“We keeping this quiet?”
“I don't know.”
“What do you mean you don't know?” Tony asked, voice low as not to wake the girl.
Steve appeared in bad spirits, expression somber. Tony's chest ached, and as he tapped it, he thought to have a consultation with Reed when the time was available. “She's beautiful.”
“She's not ours.”
Tony thumped his head back against his headboard as he let out a sigh. “I knew you were going to say that, Steve. I was hoping you wouldn't, but I knew you would. You just can't help yourself, can you?”
“It's the right thing to do, Tony.”
“Is it, Steve? Think about it, okay? Thanos, you remember him, right? The big purple guy who decapitated me, placed Cyclops' head in an invisible box, suffocating him to death. Oh, that's right, he also broke your shield, killed you with one silly slap to the face, and decapitated me! If they have no shot at defending themselves, Steve, then what makes you think we do?”
“We've got to try.”
“And what happens if we go and get ourselves killed? What happens to her?”
“Her name's Sarah, Tony. Stop trying to distance yourself.”
Tony laughed when he so desperately wanted to cry. “Isn't that what you're trying to do here, Cap? Solve their problem, bring their girl home, and we won't ever have to acknowledge what's happened here again, right?”
“That's not what I mean to do, and you know it! I've had nothing but loss since I've risen from the ice, Tony. There’s no easy solutions here.”
“My whole life has been nothing but loss, Steve. I think I can understand, but a kid? She would be our kid, not just yours.”
“You would actually want to raise her? You could commit to that?”
“I don't see why not; she's mine.”
“Except she's not, and we're going around in circles here. She's not ours, and this isn't her universe,” Steve said.
“If we die, she won't have anyone.”
“Then we don't die. We go in, we see what we can do, and if we can't do anything, Tony, then we leave.”
“And how do you suppose we go about this little endeavor? Richards made it fairly clear that he wouldn't help us with something like that. You know, something about collateral damage, and such. As far as he's concerned, she stays here.”
“And, why not?”
“If Reed’s on the same thought pattern as I am, it has everything to do with a cross-reaction, for a medical term it conveys quite nicely to our possible situation. You see, cross-reactivity is the reaction between an antibody and an antigen that differs from the immunogen. A natural occurring antigen can be a mixture of various things, and not always good; pathogens, toxins, proteins, and pollen. If we’re, and by ‘we’re’ I mean universe, not immunized to the infection, then we become infected. Get it?”
“If you won’t help me, Tony, I’ll find someone who will.”
“Did you even listen to a word I said? No, of course not. God, this kid...”
“Sarah,” Steve corrected, and Tony closed his eyes in order to compose himself.
“You realize she has both our mother's names, right?”
“That wasn't lost on me, no.”
“How unimaginative. You know, it's a good thing she's going to be good looking, it'll make up for our- <i>their</i>- lack of creativity.”
“How do you know she's going to be good looking? She's only a few months old.”
“I'm her father, or mother. How, exactly, we're going to explain that part of this little story is beyond me.”
“We might not have to.”
“Are you really that confident, or just stupid? Because, and I'm saying this with as much love as I can muster here, it sounds stupid.”
“I'm honestly not that confident, Tony, but that's never stopped us before. It's never stopped us from trying.”
“Don't start on that Avengers speech, Cap, I've heard it all before. Hell, I've said it all before. In case you've forgotten, I am a founding member of this team.”
“How could I forget when you're always reminding me?”
“What's our plan on getting there?” Tony asked, moving the subject back on track. Tony smoothed his fingers over the top of Sarah's head, gentle not to tangle the loose curls of her black hair. She freaked him out, but there was an undercurrent somewhere below the surface, urging him to try.
“The Baxter Building isn't always occupied. I figure we set up a diversion, and while they're busy, but not in danger, we move in. You know Reed's technology better than anyone but the man himself. We know what universe we're looking for, we just need to find it.”
“Who, in their right mind, would be willing to help us?”
“I can only think of one person who's been in this situation enough times to give us some insight.”
“No! No way! Are you crazy? You must be crazy. Those weren't time bullets that struck you, but crazy bullets!”
“Peter, stop climbing up and down my wall, and stop shouting! We're not asking you to come with us, we're asking you what to expect.”
“Death,” Peter chirped. “Cosmic, big mambo-jumbo death! Like going in through your mind to explode you from the inside out sort of death!”
Peter may not have been their best bet, Tony thought, regret building as they stood in the hallway of the mansion. The more distance they kept from the others the better, and the area surrounding Tony’s quarters were practically vacant, save a few ghosts. Peter’s arms were crossed, face troubled; his dealings with cosmic entities had never been pleasant. The floorboard creaked, causing alarm to flare up within Tony, a sigh of relief summoning through his lips as he realized it was Peter’s pacing which caused it. This would not end well, he knew.
Tony narrowed his eyes at Steve, telling him with a look that he was right, and that Steve was wrong. Steve didn't appear deterred; however, and took on his 'Son, I'm Captain America' approach. Tony waited to see how that would play out when a small whimper fumbled its way through his bedroom door. Peter had a bad habit of being oblivious to most things, but he knew a cry when he heard one. “Is that a baby?”
Tony exhaled. “Jarvis, our cover's blown, you can come out now.”
Jarvis opened the door, Sarah squirming around in his arms. “I don't believe she's taking well to the formula I acquired,” he announced as Sarah took to tugging on his bowtie. She was surprisingly, and not so surprisingly, strong.
“Maybe she's lactose intolerant?” Steve asked, and at Tony's unimpressed look, added, “What? It happens. I was lactose intolerant as a baby.”
“Yes, but you weren't a perfect, specially enhanced infant either. She has your genes, Steve, she's immune to that sort of stuff.”
“Well, then, maybe she's restless. If she has my strength, who's to say she doesn't have your intellectual capabilities?”
“That's the smartest thing you've said all morning. Jarvis, we should implement something to keep her mentally stimulated. What did I used to do as a child?”
“Dismantle and rebuild handguns, sir. Though, you were five at the time, and I wouldn't recommend it.”
“Whose baby is this, exactly?” Peter asked, interrupting Steve and Tony's conversation.
“Ours,” Tony admitted, indicating between he and Steve.
Peter didn't say anything, both of his hands moving over his mouth as his head tilted to the side in a manner that could only be described as painful. “You're not kidding, are you?” he asked, words muffled.
“Do we look like we're kidding?”
“Who's the mom and who's the dad? Or was it some sort of evil, secret, underground clone thing? I've heard it happened once with another superhero, but he's not that popular around here, and his kid was almost fully grown when he came out! Superlad, or something.”
“It doesn't matter.”
“I knew it!” Peter exclaimed, causing Sarah's face to contort in displeasure.
“Would you stop that? The tiny human doesn't like loud noises,” Tony said, taking Sarah into his arms as he tried to piece together how to hold her.
“Are you willing to help us, Peter, or not?”
Peter shrugged. “I'm not sure what I can do, but okay. Just your friendly, apparently suicidal, neighborhood Spider-Man.”
Three days came and went before the two would get their opportunity, and in that time, Tony had to come to the conclusion that this entire ordeal was madness, complete and utter madness. “Cap, come take a look at this!” Clint called out, and as Steve gave Tony the signal, Tony bit his lip. No time like the present to die, he figured.
“It's showtime, Jarvis,” he said, punching in a code only he, Steve, and his loyal butler knew. “If we don't make it back, it's been fun.”
“I have no doubt you'll return, sir, and who knows, maybe for the better.”
“I wouldn't get ahead of myself, old friend. Let me go see this “grand” plan Spider-Man worked up for us first. We may need Noh-Varr on this. If this fails, Kree technology may be needed.”
The news reporter that appeared on the television was new, and more than a little frightened as he stood in front of the Baxter Building. “Breaking News: Reports of an early disturbance appears to be non other than Spider-Man under some sort of influence, causing a disturbance at the home of the Fantastic Four. With the Invisible Woman nowhere to be found, Mr. Fantastic and The Thing have been left to deal with the media anointed menace all on their own.”
“You call me a menace? I'll show you a menace!” Peter roared, succeeding in ripping tears in his costume before webbing the camera lens.
“Should we do something?” Jessica asked, mouth agape.
“If he is under some sort of spell, or hallucinogenic, who is to say there is not more under the same influence?”
“Vision's right,” Steve agreed. “Avengers assemble.”
The Taskmaster would have made more of an effort, Tony chastised. If Peter thought Luke was going to go easy on him, he was surely, painfully mistaken. Spider-Man had served his purpose, though, so there was that. Their presence wouldn't be missed in such mass confusion, but just in case, Tony let out a small Doombot he had acquired loose in Central Park. The Doombot had been rendered harmless, but that was something they didn't need to know.
“What, my first day off in nearly a month, and this shit happens? When I get my hands around that scrawny, little spider neck of his--”
“Luke, stop it. If anyone’s going to wrap their hands around Peter’s neck, it’s going to be me.”
“And people wonder why I love this woman.”
Jess stopped, spinning around to confront her husband. “Who wonders why you love me?”
Luke held up his hands. “No one, no one. Love you.”
“Are you ready?”
“Yeah, let's go before someone sees us.”
“You sure you can break into this thing? It looks pretty sturdy,” Steve said, studying the metal enclosure below ground level.There were cables miles long, interconnecting and knotted. A biometric identification system he had to hack into, information relaying to the main security control center. Thankfully, Steve had disarmed the cameras as they had come across them, sheild slicing through them with ease.
“Are you going to really insult my intelligence, right now? In case you forgot, this was your little idea.”
Steve didn't say anything further which, on his part, was for the best. In fact, he wouldn't be surprised if Steve was afraid to. There had been this immense pressure building between them, as of late, fueled by their most recent blowup. While Tony had thrown away his sobriety in a last-ditch effort to save the Earth, Steve had picked up the mantle of Captain America after Barnes had been lost to them. Needless to say, things were tense.
Add a kid to the mixture, and what were you bound to get? Disaster.
“Damn it, Richards, always adding on to this little beauty, aren't you? Skinny, little, paranoid freak.”
“You're one to talk, Shellhead.”
“At least my paranoia is handled with finesse. This is just absurd.”
“You're a walking disaster.”
“You know, I had a lady friend of mine say the same thing not too long ago.”
Tony snorted, working with minimal light. Reed Richards planned for any and all scenarios his quick adapting, fast processing mind could come up with. In light of Reed’s paranoia, both warranted and unwarranted, the weakest part of the Baxter Building just so happened to be located within the vast sewer systems of New York City. The minimal lighting was an annoyance, but nothing was as distracting as Steve shaking his head every few seconds, hand over his nose and mouth. “It's horrible,” he said.
Tony gave a chuckle, knocking on his helmet. “Filter.”
“If you had just used the armor I had made for you...”
Fifteen minutes later, and they were in.
“Depressing. That took much longer than it should have,” he said, casting Steve a sideways glance.
“Only you would be disappointed with that number.”
“Zzzzt. Iron Lamb, Captain Horseshoe, this is the Spider-Leg. We've been compromised. Zzzzt. I repeat: We have been compromised! Mr. Frowning is on the move!”
“Who gave him permission to use code names?”
“It doesn't matter, Tony. Reed's on his way. We need to move, and fast.”
There were some subtle, albeit high tech changes to the layout of Richards design, but Tony still had some conscious memory of the layout, having helped Reed a time or two on various projects concerning the Baxter Building,and a fast adapting mind to help him out. “Extremis is connecting with Reed's system now, but I doubt we'll have more than a couple of seconds before it recognizes its being infiltrated, ” Tony said, staring down at a small, portable controller with a lot of buttons and no instructions hooked up to an even larger system.
“Just do it quickly, Reed's coming for us.”
“I'm afraid he's already here,” Richards said, startling them with his otherwise silent entrance.
“Oh, you’re alone, how sweet.”
“Actually, Ben’s about five seconds behind me.”
“Yeah, okay. Sorry about this, Reed.”
And Tony was, he needed Reed on his side now more than ever, but there was no going back at this point.
“Tony, you're not—!”
Reed's arm shot out, quick as he went for Tony's arm. Tony used a small repulsor blast to render Reed's elastic limb useless.
“Okay, which one of you shysters is attemptin' to break into our house, huh? Ben hollered, large frame barely fitting through the door.
Steve hit Ben's with a direct shot to the head before reclaiming his shield. “Now!” he ordered, and with a calculated guess, and a dash of luck, the two were gone before Reed and Ben could come at them again.
Traveling between universes was unlike anything Tony had ever experienced; it was neither good nor bad, but it made his heart race and his head light. The suit provided a bit of a buffer, but the whirling, rushing sound was audible; close. There was nothing to be seen, eclipsed in total darkness, it was like falling through a never ending aperture, and at any moment, something could reach out and grab you. When he closed his eyes, he could see spots, gray little blobs that seemed to follow him; mocking him. The feeling of not being in control was overwhelming, but soon it was over.
Apparently, transferring from one universe to another came with a few side effects; the main of those being a headache to rival the worst of hangovers and a severe case of nausea. The suit kept Tony as well adjusted as one could expect, but Steve was not so fortunate. Tony knelt beside him as Steve coughed and dry heaved; on his hands and knees amidst the ruins of a city. According to Richards' device, they stood amongst what used to be the Baxter Building.
“There. There,” Tony said, patting Steve on the back. “You remember the Four Freedoms Plaza the Fantastic Four used during the Infinity Wars?”
“Before Sue and Reed were married?”
“The one that was obliterated by Richard’s double?”
“Yes, I remember.”
“This looks exactly like what happened to that, except everywhere.”
With Tony's help, Steve stood to his feet and looked around. There wasn't a person in sight, but that was expected. Thick clouds of smoke swirled through the orange glow of the atmosphere, indicating a recent stream of attacks. There was nothing but devastation in every crack and crevice.
“You want to see if their mansion's still standing?” Tony asked.
“Seems to be our only option.”
“Should we stay on ground, or try to take it to the air?”
“Either option's risky, but flying's faster.”
“Then it's settled,” Tony said as Steve placed a boot over his, shield secure at his side as Tony hooked an arm around his waist.
Tony flew as fast and as accurately as he could, touching down upon upturned earth and scorched grass.There was hardly anything left of the city, buildings collapsed, garbage on fire. There was no vibrancy, no life. New York was known as the city of lights, the lights of Broadway welcoming visitors, but there was nothing now but darkness. As soon as his feet had touched down upon gravel and cracked foundation he aimed to get a look around, but before he could scan the area; however, they were surrounded. “Do you think we have company, Steve?” he asked.
“I think we might.”
“List who the hell you are, and do it fast,” came a computerized voice. With both of their hands up, Steve and Tony turned around. Tony’s head cocked to the side as he studied a mirror image of his armor. The height was off by a couple of inches, though, and a few modifications had been made to the chest plate. Overall, an impressive display of technology.
“I'm Tony Stark of Earth-616. The less attractive man beside me is Steve Rogers...of the same universe. We're here to help, I guess.”
“You should not be here,” Natasha said, voice raised as her face was now exposed. Natasha’s face was softer than Tony’s own; chin round, forehead high, eyebrows arched but not as abundant as his. She had higher cheekbones, a thinner nose, but their overall similarities were quite remarkable.
“Jessica, allow them in. All of you, with the exception of Nikolai, fan out. Reconvene in oh, four hundred hours,” Steve ordered, except it wasn't his Steve. And from the looks of it, this Steve appeared injured, left arm held in a sling.
“Who the hell is Nikolai?” Tony asked, shoulder-to-shoulder with Steve as a tall, lean man with short red hair and blue eyes approached them.
“Natalia?” Steve asked as Tony studied the man in more detail. Tight black suit, two .22’s suited with silencers; it was Romanov all right.
“My name is Nikolai, and I don't have time for your confusion. I need you in the mansion before another assault comes our way.”
Tony and Steve shared a look between themselves. “After you,” Tony said with a wave of his hand. Steve frowned, but proceeded after the man.
Nikolai directed them around the side of the mansion, using the tradesman's entrance instead of the main door. The mansion itself was standing by a hair, reinforced steel providing it an extra layer of protection, but not for long. The patio was demolished, gardens dead and bare. The cemetery for their fallen comrades were no more, stones and pieces of bark marking various gravesites. Tony thought briefly about Jarvis as they came to rest in the living room, Natasha looked less than pleased to see them.
That didn't deter Steve from offering her his hand. “We sent our daughter to you less than four days ago, and your next move is to pop up in our universe? Are you stupid?” Natasha asked,face livid, jaw clenched as she pressed her finger into the center of his chest, jabing.
“I would just like to take this opportunity to point out that this wasn't my idea, and that Nikolai over there makes a very attractive man.”
Steven laughed as Steve scowled, causing Tony much confusion. “That's not really surprising, is it?” Steven questioned as he winked in Tony's direction.
“Did you just wink at me?” Tony asked, head turning to look at Steve; his Steve. “He just winked at me.”
“Is your Captain America incapable of winking, or something?” Natasha asked, a clear sign of amusement to her features. Nikolai smiled also, but it appeared more demented than friendly.
Steve's eyes locked with his own, a weary expression to his face. “I'm not sure,” Tony said, never having thought about it before. The four carried on in similar fashion except Nikolai who left in intervals of thirty minutes with little talking in between. “Where does he keep disappearing to?” Tony asked, curiosity getting the better of him.
Where there was nothing but a wall in their Mansion there was a large metal door with both iris and fingerprint scanners. “It leads to the floor beneath ground level. It’s where we’ve been keeping our monitoring systems since everything else has gone off line. You’ll see, by the time it gets dark out here, there’s nothing lighting New York, or the world for that matter, unless it’s on fire,” Natasha said, handing a bottle of water to Steven as she sat on the sofa. Natasha’s black hair was styled into a short bob, fringe frayed above her brow, sweat causing the ends to curl upward, blue eyes softening as her Steve smiled in thanks.
“Is it really that bad?” Steve asked, the only one standing within the living room. There wasn’t much difference in physical appearance between Steve and his counterpart, but their mannerisms and general ability to relax were a far cry from similar.
“For the end of the world? I wouldn’t know,” Natasha said, one leg crossed over the other. The gray tank top she wore shifted over, and Tony took no note of an arc reactor.
“You don’t even have a scar,” Tony said, not meaning to make that observation out loud as his fingers slid down his chestplate, hand resting where his own arc reactor sat.
“Why would I? I’ve never had heart surgery.”
“I don’t know. I guess because of the reason I became Iron Man. I was personally overseeing a field test for one of my weapons when we were attacked by a group of terrorists. A land mine went off, and a piece of shrapnel lodged its way into my heart. I forged the armor to keep myself alive.” Tony raised his shirt, exposing his chest to drive the explanation home. Natasha didn’t look bothered by the sight.
“I was in Somalia for a conference, when a roadside bomb exploded. Our convoy flipped four times. I don’t have an arc reactor, Mr. Stark, but I do have something else,” she said, moving to her feet as she turned around. When she lifted her shirt, there were surgical scars from the top of her back, center of her trapezius, down to the mid of her back. “T5 to T7, for your viewing pleasure.Those scars are all that I have left. When our convoy stopped it was upside down, and on fire,” she added, tone light, flippant almost, but Tony could hear the slight edge, the pain that layered underneath such memories. “Out of the seven of us, only three survived, and out of the three of us, only one person was able to help me. My spinal cord had been damaged, and I was paralyzed from the waist down.”
“Who helped you?” Tony asked, the question important to him.
Natasha smiled, eyes dimmed somewhat. “Doctor Yinsen,” she said. “Before she was killed in another attack. I made the armor so that the implants I installed in my back would stimulate my spinal cord. I could walk again, but when I removed it, I was back in a wheelchair. I stopped taking the damn thing off...I lost myself in it, but I was able to help people.”
“How are you walking now?” Steve asked.
“A take on the Marvel Soldier serum, except it acted more like a virus than a serum. And, instead of using the superpower qualities, I altered it to interact directly with machines and my own armor. The healing factor repaired the damage to my spinal cord, and here I am among you.”
“That’s not what it’s called here, but by the control you have over your armor, I gather it’s the same thing.”
“Cap,” Nikolai said, walking through the door as it sealed closed behind him.
“Yes?” Steve and Steven turned their heads to face Nikolai in unison.
Nikolai shook his head. “Our Cap, I mean.”
“Yes, Nik, what have you got?”
“They’re close by, communication was faulty, but I don’t think they’re all coming back.”
Steven pulled his cowl back on, Steve doing the same as both Tony and Natasha activated their armor. “Who?” Natasha asked as they headed for the main doors. When night had finally descended, Steven had given the command to shut down the automatic generators.
“Hawkeye and Hill, Cap.”
Natasha kept a stoic face, but Steven’s eyes rimmed red. “This isn’t our future,” he said, looking at Steve. “Do you understand? This is our end.”
“So many of us have perished,” Natasha said. “After Thor left to gather help from Asgard and never came back we’ve been dropping like flies.”
“If you think we’re heartless,” Nikolai said, looking bereaved rather than vengeful. “We are not. There are simply no more tears left to cry.”
Steve clasped Steven’s shoulder, their faces identical down to the crease in between their brow. “And yet you still fight.”
“What does that matter?” Natasha asked, anger brimming. “What does it matter, really? We fought until the end. Who’s going to commemorate us when there’s no one left behind to remember?”
Steven moved towards her, cradling her cheek as he looked into her eyes, they were filled with nothing but love for her. “Natasha, we’ve talked about this. If you want to go, then go. I’m not asking you to stay.”
“Don’t be stupid,” she said, taking Steven’s hand in hers. “I could never leave you. And I’m sorry for going off on you, Steve. That was uncalled for.” She turned her head in Steve’s direction, nodding as Steve smiled sympathetically in her wake; he knew war.
Steve knew what it felt like to lose people, within a blink of an eye; he knew how it felt to be helpless with no choice but to march on. When you were the person people looked to for support and guidance, or when you were the last person they saw as they drew their last breath; he knew. “No, it wasn’t.”
“Yes, it was,” Natasha said. “I was wrong. You can tell our daughter that. The sacrifice we made for her.”
Steve paused, turning to Tony for insight he didn’t have. After a moment, he turned his attention back to Natasha and Steven. “I will,” he said.
“They’re here,” Nikolai said, with night vision goggles clutched in his hands. Natasha gave the signal to Steven to turn the generators back on.
There was no celebration for the heroes who returned, most of whom were gravely injured. Jessica Drew had a hole through her shoulder, blood seeping through the tattered cloth pressed over the wound. Peter's mask had been blown off, shrapnel lodged in his left cheek, neck and shoulder. Daisy had a piece of pipe broken off in her leg, half conscious in Luke’s arms. Matt Murdoch half carried, half dragged Danny Rand, who had a gaping wound in his left side, hands held over the wound, though it didn’t do much good as the blood continued to coat the white of his hands, his hands looking as though they were made of blood.
Through gritted teeth, Jessica confirmed their two losses. “What happened?” Steven asked.
“The disease is spreading, it’s...it’s out of control. Whatever Thanos released, whatever else he’s created to watch us suffer...there’s no stopping it. When we embarked on a refugee camp, we saw them...gorging on those who had died or had been killed. We’re not sure what happened first, but one of them was infected. They were all infected with something, Steve, it was awful. They got the drop on Clint and Maria before we moved in, it was already too late for them,” Carol’s voice hitched, tears running unchecked down her cheeks. “We had, I had to...to incinerate them...all of them to stop it from spreading.”
Natasha ordered those who weren’t weakened to care for those who were. “Follow me,” she said, pointing at Tony alone. Tony went with her, glancing back at Steve who looked grim, before he helped to care for the wounded.
The rest of the mansion appeared an exact replica of his own, Tony noticed as they moved further within the connecting corridors, with the exception of that door and a color here or there. He felt a sense of dèjà vu at being thrust upon this venture. Natasha lead him to the library, not bothering to close the door. For the first time, Tony let his sense of empathy to guide what he said next; what he meant. “I'm sorry this is happening to you.”
“There’s really no need to be,” she said, now composed as she looked him straight in the eye. “I want you to take what’s happening to us, and make sure it doesn’t happen to you. We didn’t have a heads up on this, okay? You do.”
“What makes you certain what’s happening to your universe will happen to ours?”
“Do you have a Thanos?”
“I think, if the multiverse theory is to be believed, that every universe that has some variation of intelligent life form, save a few that have imploded on themselves, has a Thanos, even if it’s a huge, purple fish with a Napoleon complex in a small pond.”
“You have the gems- the Infinity gems in your universe?”
“Yes,” Tony said, mood grim as he remembered the Avengers last dealings with the Infinity gems and the rift it had caused between him and Steve.
“The Noh-Varr of our universe would have been a great ally if he hadn’t turned out to be a traitor. I trust your Noh-Varr is of a different breed by the look on your face?”
“He’s an ally, and a trusted one. He helped us a lot when Steve came back, and he’s picked up the mantle of Protector.”
“Good. Hopefully it remains that way. Each of those universes runs the risk of coming to our end. I spoke with the Reed Richards of your universe, and I know you had a Civil War just as we did, but our ending was very different, and that’s what I’m trying to tell you. It doesn’t matter what happens when it starts, Tony, it’s how it ends that matters. I need your universe to survive.”
“Okay, one: I don’t even remember most of what happened during that - time. Two: how do you expect me to do that with little to no information, and a less than comfortable- not to mention <i>death inducing</i>- take on cosmic problems?” Tony didn’t want to talk about it, had been thankful that most of his memories of that time had been wiped away. And now, it would appear, he would have to confront the issue, make amends, or worse, remember.
“This,” Natasha said, ejecting a chip she had stored in the chestplate of her armor, holding it up in the palm of her gauntlet for him to see. “It has everything I could gather.”
Tony paused, shocked as he stared down at the chip no bigger than the tip of his index finger.“Why didn’t you give this to Reed?”
Natasha laughed, the edge of it sarcastic. “I did, but I knew he wouldn’t give it to you. Reed’s an intelligent man, and I bet he believes if anyone could or should change the future, it would be him. And who knows, maybe he can, but I know who I am, and I know if I had the information I have now that I might have been able to find something of use,” she said.
Tony scrubbed his face with his hand, a sigh relaying his frustration. “If there was ever a good time to have a drink, I think this would be it,” he said.
Natasha snorted. “That, I understand,” her eyes softened. “If you’re going to raise my daughter as your own; however, that’s not an option.”
“You’re pretty messed up about not being able to see her again, aren’t you?”
Natasha's chin stiffened, jaw set. She was in pain, that much was clear. “I never dreamed of settling down; wasn't in my master plan of getting plastered and saving the universe,” she said with a huff of laughter. “I'd known Steven for years, but never had any intention of acting on my desire for him. Funny what people will do in times of war, isn't it?”
Tony looked down and away at that. “Yeah,” he said.
“I never thought in a million years we'd ever get together, and what do you know? We did. The pregnancy came as a surprise, but we rolled with it. And now look, the world's coming to an end. Talk about bad timing.”
“If you're anything like me, there's only ever bad timing.”
Half smiling, Natasha patted his cheek. “Did your mother ever stroke her fingers through your hair to comfort you?” she asked.
“When I was little, all of the time.”
“Me, too,” a sweet smile bestowed upon her lips. “I’m not worried. I know you’ll take care of my Sarah.”
Tony felt his chest compress, a nervous zeal bordering on panic.“You have my word that I’ll try.”
“That’s all I’m asking,” she said, shoulders back as she set things into motion. “Well, let’s go see what the others are up to.” Instead of mournful, her bearing spoke of determination, acceptance as she held her head high, willing to take on anything that came her way.
“Your Steve seems to be a lot happier than my Steve, given the circumstances,” Tony said as the two carried on down the hall.
“Why do you think that is?”
A resonating blast silenced Tony's answer. There was a loud ringing in his ears as he endeavored to sit up. Tony fought to regain his senses, hands scrambling to remove the piece of foundation weighing on top of him. Humanoid life forms detected in the radius of 100 feet. Scanning...
“Armor,” Tony said. “Armor, damn you!” All systems online.
“Steve Rogers' location.” Please hold.
“No! Steve Rogers' location.” Please hold.
“You tell me—”
Tony breathed a sigh of relief; heart slowing. “Rearrange seventy-eight percent to power shields. We're going to need all the help we can get.”
The piece of infrastructure that was crushing him was removed; Steve's distinctive blue eyes scanning for any obvious signs of damage. “Tony, are you okay?” he asked, helping the other man up. Steven Rogers. Identity: Confirmed.
“I...don't know. We were talking, and what the hell was that?”
“It's bad, Tony. He's here.”
Tony's chest compressed as he doubled forward. Steve stood him up straight, concern clear to see on his face. Steve's cowl was tattered and torn in places, lip bloodied. “Are you okay?” they asked in unison.
Energy fluctuation detected.
“We need to get out of here, Steve. We need to find Steve and Natasha, and we—”
A shrill sound pierced through their ears, bringing both men to their knees. An eruption of searing light, bright and disorienting, as though bolts of lightning were striking down all at once emphasized their encroaching damnation. Tony scrambled along the ground, frantically searching for the portable device that allowed them to drift through universes unchecked, but he only found its remains. A high gust of wind knocked them over, vortex appearing in the distance as Thanos the Titan stood among Earth. Tony held onto Steve, and Steve used his shield to protect them both from the large chunks of debris that whirled all around them.
“I'm sorry,” Steve said. “I'm sorry for dragging you into this, but we‘re not standing down.”
Tony's eyes cut across to what used to be the mansion’s kitchen, there was nothing left. There was so much loss, but Steven and Natasha remained. The couple stood fighting for everything they had left; each other. “We have Sarah to think about,” he said, moving back to his feet as he gripped Steve’s bicep.
“We have no way back, Tony.”
“That doesn’t mean we just rush him,” Tony said, thinking quicker than he ever had in his life. “We need to find cover. If we can buy some more time, we can figure something out. I can fix this, Steve! I can fix it.” Steve looked caught between wanting to escape, and his natural inclination to fight. “We can’t help anyone if we’re dead.”
Steve grimaced, left foot stepping forward and towards the ensuing battle before stepping back.“Okay,” he said.
Another flash of light tore across the sky, lavender in color, and Tony saw a figure his eyes hadn't held in years. “Thanos, this has gone on far too long,” a deep voice hummed.
“And it is you, Adam Warlock, who has come to see me off?”
Tony took the momentary distraction as a welcome sign to move, and fast. Steve was close behind him as the two worked their way through debris. “What are you looking for?” Steve asked, shouting over the roaring thunder.
“The door! The one Nikolai was going in and out of, we need it.” The left wing of the Mansion was the only piece of it left standing. “We’ll use your fingerprints and eyeballs to do the scan.”
“That’s no good.”
“What do you mean that’s no good, that’s perfect?”
“I mean the scanner’s broken, the door’s sealed off!”
Tony looked at it, reinforced to withstand anything. “She built it, right? If she built it, that means I built it, and if I built, I can sure as hell break it,” he said, dropping to his knees. “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, catch a tiger by its toe, if he hollers let him go, eeny, meeny, miny, moe.”
“What are you doing?”
“This is the same door I have for the projects, complete or otherwise, that I don’t want anyone to see. Same door, different purpose here. There’s three keyholes at the bottom that only she, me, I, whatever, have to open this incase the scanners were rendered offline or broken, this is the latter. I can’t decide which one she would use because I can’t remember which one I chose...I’m missing that piece of my memory, so this is the best I can do!”
“What happens if you select the wrong one?”
“The wrong one? We’ve survived one explosion, I don’t know about three. I’m not a doctor, but I wouldn’t recommend it. I made it so well that I can’t even detect where explosives might be located. Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, catch a tiger by its toe, if it hollers let it go, eeny meeny, miny, moe,” Tony half sing songed, eliminating the left keyhole and the right, leaving only the center. “You might want to put that shield of yours up,” he said, key sliding out from his index finger.With his breath coming out in short, nervous puffs, he turned the key clockwise and then counterclockwise, letting out a content little sigh as the door churned and then slid open.
“What are we looking for?” Steve asked.
“Natasha contacted Richards somehow, and it has to be down here.”
“You said the doors were used for a different purpose,” Steve said as they moved down metal steps, two by two.
“And they are. That’s why there has to be a second door. A second door that only she had authorization for,” Tony said, relieved when the predicted door appeared. Tony retracted the armor around his face, leaning forward as the scanner flashed red across his eyes. “We’re in.”
“Tony do you have a teleportation device?”
“No. I mean, I did, but after what happened with that pocket universe...I didn’t even want to mess with it anymore, so I didn’t. The project was never complete. I don’t know if Natasha completed hers, or if she only built a device that would allow her not only to view other universes, but to contact them directly. If she has one, we use it. If she doesn’t have one, we contact Reed to get us out of here.”
The ground above them began to shake again. “If we survive that long,” Steve said.
“Yes. If we survive that long,” Tony said, looking for something, anything out of the ordinary. “This. This has to be it,” he said, finding what appeared to be a small suitcase. When he pressed the clasps on either side of it, watching as it opened and revealed a small monitor. “It’s old.”
“At least ten years. She probably never planned to use it, but it has to work.” Tony flipped the power switch, watching as the screen lit up. A series of numbers popped up, a numeric code for the program and how it worked. Tony followed the instructions, an inkling suspicion he had done something like this before, but couldn’t quite remember it. “We’re online.”
“Can you reach Reed?” he asked.
“I’m trying.” A vast number of universes, and he had to find theirs. To an ordinary person, the series of patterns would look like an intricate array of snowflakes; hundreds and thousands of little snowflakes, but to Tony it was a radical way of organizing various worlds, connecting similar Earths to each other. “I know you're there...come on, come on,” he whispered, scrolling through the information as the walls shook, plaster knocked loose from the ceiling.There had to be a faster way to operate, they were running out of time. “I’ve got it! It’s scanning for Richards connector.”
“We connect to Reed, and then what? I thought we stole his teleportation device?”
“Correction: We stole one of his teleportation devices. I hacked into the main control center, rewrote the programming key so he couldn’t tag along.”
“Tony! Where are you? What are you doing?” Reed asked, brows knitted together as his lips thinned with obvious disapproval.
“We need you to teleport us out, Richards. We’re under attack, and there’s not a minute to waste. The series of numbers I used are 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, 377, 610, 987. The second is ‘Reed I think this is a bad idea’ written in numbers as well. Put a rush on it.”
A quick flash of light emerged from the corner of the diminutive sized safe room. Reed ushering them along, redirecting the portable device for Earth-616. Tony didn’t remember anything after that.
“Sarah!” he exclaimed, panic all consuming as he shot up, heart in his throat as he looked around with wide eyes, clutching at whatever he could get his hands on.
“Tony, you must relax. Your body has been through much trauma,” Strange said, hand placed upon Tony's shoulder as he sat up.
“Where is she? Natasha?” he asked, all sense of reality thrown upside down. His head hurt, and his mouth was dry.
“The child is all right, Tony. She's at the mansion in Jarvis' care, exactly where you left her before you and Steve made the substantial error of leaving.”
“I'm right here, Tony,” he said, face battered and bruised. Steve's costume was replaced with clean white tee shirt, and a pair of jeans, and he limped, favouring his left side.
“You look terrible,” Tony said, pushing himself up and off of the sofa. A funny notion considering Tony, himself, was dressed in a silk robe of foreign design, and was also battered.
“I looked worse.”
“You both should count yourselves lucky to be alive,” Richards said, appearing through the doorway. He did not look pleased.
“I can't do this right now, Reed. I need to get back to the mansion. I need to make sure everything’s all right.”
“Not until I explain to you the severity of the situation you two have placed us all in.”
“He didn't do anything, Reed. I did,” Steve said, placing his body in front of Tony as though to shield him.
“That may be, but you both should know. Your reckless travel through the multiverse has opened a gateway unto our own. A trail of breadcrumbs, so to speak. Earth-3490 may no longer exist, but Thanos does, and so does the Infinity Gauntlet. Our world, our universe, is now a prime target for that Titan’s rage.”
“If you had just given us the information Natasha had given you, we wouldn’t have. Well, I wouldn’t have. Did you really think we wouldn’t, though, Reed? You drop a baby on us, tell us a whole universe is going to be destroyed, hold information back from us, and thought we wouldn’t do something to try and change that?”
“I would have shared my findings, eventually.”
“Enough,” Strange said, coming between the two, arms held out in warning for them to conduct themselves in a proper manner. “I've been in contact with every psychic still known to us, and together, we have woven a spell, essentially cloaking us from Thanos' eye, but it will not hold forever, and we must prepare for that day.”
“What about the Thanos of our universe?”
“Lost to us, as is Adam Warlock. Without their aid: Eternity, Infinity, and the Tribunal are unavailable to us.”
“Galactus, Doom, the gods of old, they've always stepped in when things of this nature have come up. Where are they now? The freakin’ Watcher, where is he on top of his little Moon?”
“Galactus and Doom will be of little help to us, their collective powers and conniving ways can do nothing against the Gauntlet. After the death of Ares, the gods of yore do not look upon us with good favor. And we both know that the Watcher cannot intervene, he can only record what happens to us. The time he did interfere, we all paid greatly, whether the rest of the world knows it or not.”
“It's their universe, too,” Tony reasoned, the whole ordeal was absurd.
“Earth will not be a priority of theirs.”
“As long as I can wield the mystic forces to my whim, I will protect this universe, and all who reside in it. It is all I can offer you in the way of peace.”
The transit back to the mansion was an uneasy and one, Ben having offered them a ride home. “You knows, I don’t minds ya crackin’ me one upside the head, Captain, but ya could’ve given me a little bit of warning.”
Steve faced forward, acknowledging Ben as he steered the Fantasticar over the skies of New York. “Sorry, old friend. It was nothing personal. If you’d like, I could take you out to Sizzler for a steak.”
“You really know how to woo a guy, huh?”
There was nothing that could distract Tony from thinking about Natasha, or the last words she had said to him. A number of inquiries greeted them upon arrival, but Tony ignored them all. Jarvis looked to him with heavy, sad eyes as he allowed him entrance into his office that had served as Sarah's temporary home. With her in his arms, Tony peered out the second story window, remembering the grief and the anger Natasha had went through, knowing that she would never be able to see or hold her daughter again, but she was also brave in that she fought even though she was afraid, even though she knew she was going to die in the end.
“I made your mom a promise, kid, and I'm going to keep it. No matter what, I'm going to keep it,” he said, voice low as though to keep it confidential between the two of them.
“I shouldn't have taken us there,” Steve said, stepping into the room to meet him half way. “I made a mistake, and I'm sorry. I nearly got us killed, and you were right, there was nothing we could have done up against that type of raw power.”
Tony stilled for a moment, shifting Sarah so that she rested more to his left. Tony wasn't often told he was right, about anything, but this left something hollow in its wake. “I don't think it was a mistake, Steve, and I don't think you believe it was either.”
“It wasn't. We went in, and we tried. Did we win? No, but don't stand there and tell me that you think we would've been better off doing nothing. We lost, it happens. We barely made it out, but we did, and now we move on.”
“You sound different,” Steve said, staring at him.
“You sound like an adult, Tony. More than that, though, you almost sound like a parent. Natasha—”
“Said everything I needed to hear, and then some. What about your flirty counterpart? Did he give you some peace of mind before it all went to hell?”
“I guess you could say he told me what I needed to know, but not what I wanted to hear.”
“Jarvis said he was going to have this office remodeled starting tomorrow. He’s already made the calls. I figure it's the closest to my bedroom, which I guess I'll have to start using, and it's large enough to fit eight babies let alone one; it'll be perfect for her...baby proof it, and paint it colors kids like. Until the tower's back in one piece, made of steel, dipped in whammy magic, and reinforced. I mean, right now, this is the safest place for her. We have the Assembly room in case of emergencies, Jarvis is back in action, and no one gets in or out without us knowing.”
“You're serious about this, aren't you?” Steve asked, bandaged hands smoothing over the baby blanket draped over Sarah's shoulders.
“I made a promise, Steve, and I'm not going back on it. No matter what anyone says, I can raise her.”
“I don't doubt that, Tony.”
Tony took a deep breath, and tried to remember what he told a group of strangers not too long ago. “I'm going to need help, Steve. I'm asking you for your help,” he said, chest aching like it did.
“We're in this together. I'm not going anywhere, Shellhead. No matter what you do,” Steve said as Tony handed Sarah over to him. Out of the two of them, Steve appeared the least apprehensive.
“I need you to look after her for a little while. There's some business I need to tend to; urgent business. I'll be back before seven, but if you need to go before then, tell Jarvis, and he'll take care of everything.”
Steve approached Tony,face welcoming, but body closed off. “Tony, you said you needed my help, and I offered it willingly. You don't have to lie to me about where you're going,” he said.
“Steve, a very lovely escort and I—”
“I can't joke about my own alcoholism, Steve?”
“Only when you stop beating yourself up over it.”
“I know you. I know you want me to confide in you, but I can't do it. Not yet. It's easier for me to stand in front of a room full of people I don't know, and tell them every sordid detail, but not you,” Tony said, amazed by similarities not only in the color of Steve's and Sarah's eyes, but in the shape of them as well. “I don't want to disappoint you, Cap.”
“You could never—”
“I could, and I know I have,” Tony said, lowering his voice as Sarah squirmed and whimpered. “I’ll be back.”
Following the meeting’s close, Tony liked to walk home in an attempt to help clear his head. Without Happy around, he didn’t like being driven around if he had any say in the matter. Tomorrow, they would introduce Sarah to the superhero community; there wasn't much choice in the matter now. Their reactions would be diverse, concerns palpable, but he would reassure them that she was under his protection, and more importantly, that he could care for her. Tomorrow, he would start on a plan of defense. A day would not go by where Tony wasn't fearful of an oncoming cosmic attack.
In all honesty, Tony had a Plan B should the day ever arrive, and while he hoped to never have to instill it, it was there. After passing through the security systems set in place, Tony made his way up the second set of stairs separate to the grand staircase the other Avengers used. Upon opening his bedroom door, he was surprised to see Steve spread out across his bed, sleeping with Sarah laid out across his chest. Steve was still dressed in jeans and a tee shirt, shoes chucked off to the side. Tony didn‘t know what to think as he removed his clothing, piece by piece.
Tony was unaware of how long he stood there, simply looking at her, watching as she moved in her sleep, and he felt startled when she began to whimper, chest sputtering as she began to cry, calming down after a moment or two with Tony rubbing her back. There was a moment of realization, that this little girl, only six months old, was real, and more than that, in his care. Tony rubbed her back in circles, hoping it would comfort her, give her a sense of connection. Tony touched her hand, her small fingers wrapping around his pinky, it caused Tony to laugh, a real, honest joy in his heart. With renewed confidence, he leaned over, placing a kiss to her hand before pulling away.
There were spare blankets and pillows in the linen closet, and Tony took the whole set, proceeding to throw them to the floor. In dire situations, he had slept in far worse conditions. With that task completed, Tony moved back to where Steve and Sarah slept, leaning down he trailed his thumb across Sarah’s cheek one last time. She was dressed warmly in a knit cap and thin blanket. Steve’s face still held a series of small cuts and bruises, his right eye blackened.
“I’m not keeping my pants on for you,” he said, whispering as he moved to lie down on the floor.
There were a lot of reasons why he wouldn’t make a good father, Tony thought, dwelling on his lack of expertise in the science of parenting. That thought lead to thoughts about the mansion, and what it meant to him. A good number of the other rooms were occupied, and the ones that were vacant, were haunted with memories of his childhood; places he had no intentions of visiting. There were memories of his father distancing himself, immersing himself in his work much like Tony did now. There were memories of his mother attempting to shield him from his father’s alcoholism, eerie nights when he could hear her sobbing.
There was a sick sadness in the pit of his stomach when he remembered all the times his father told him he lacked direction, that he would spoil his intelligence on less productive things. The sadness morphed to bitterness as he acknowledge that, in many ways, he was like his father. Tony placed his arm over his face, shielding his eyes as he thought. If he could do what his father could not, then maybe this kid would have a chance. A feeling within him swelled in his chest, telling him that he wasn’t his father, that he could do better, be better. Instead of focusing on all the horrible things that had occurred, he could focus on creating and cultivating happier memories.
A part of him was unsettled by that notion; a part of him was always unsettled, but more so by his relation to his parents, and what they had meant to him.
What if he wasn’t fit to do this job? A predestined mess of unloving, unwelcoming genes. As Tony wrestled with the sheets that tangled at his feet, and turned over onto his side, he pushed those thoughts from within his head. Natasha had told him that he could do this, even if he thought he couldn’t. Taking a dead woman’s word was all he had to hold onto, pillow wedged between his head and his arm as he drifted off to sleep.
Tony rolled over onto his stomach, eyes slanted open as the Sun peered in through his bedroom window, and he noticed he was no longer on the floor, but in his bed. In a state of confusion, he sat up, aware that it was morning and he was alone. He put on a pair of sweatpants, forgoing a shirt as he made his way down stairs, and towards the kitchen where the smell of coffee and baked goods seduced his waking stomach. Tony took one step into the kitchen before turning right back around, back pressed against the wall. “Oh, hell,” he muttered. Everyone, including Steve and Sarah, was in there.
Tony took a few, short panicked breaths as he looked over to the side. “They know you’re here,” Steve said, Sarah on his hip as he stepped into the hallway. “It’s not that bad, believe it or not. I covered all the bases so you wouldn’t have to.”
Steve looked sincere and calm, and so Tony took his word for it. Luke handed him a cup of coffee as everyone cheered, an odd smile to his face. “Congrats, man. I never saw this comin’, but she’s a cute kid.”
Tony took the cup. “Thanks. I think.”
Cup of coffee in hand, Tony dropped into a seat at the table. Through bleary eyes, he saw Sarah, squirming and gurgling in Steve’s hands, screeching complete and utter nonsense as her head moved from side to side. “Gah, gah, gah, gah.”
“May I?” Luke jerked his head towards Sarah, and Steve handed her to Luke without a word. “Aww, yes, who’s this girl? The one with Uncle Luke?” Luke swept her up, held her above him, making little engine noises. Sarah began to laugh from deep within her belly, cheeks red as she laughed louder and harder.
“Stop hogging all her attention. You have your own baby!” That was Carol, flying overhead and snatching Sarah from Luke’s grasp.
Sarah stared up at Carol with wide eyes, fear morphing to utter joy as she rocked back and forth in her arms, fingers stretched out in front of her. “Bahbahbah,” she screamed, giggling until she started to cough, Carol patting her on the back.
“All right, that’s enough,” Steve said, hands pistoned on his hips. “Bring her here.”
Tony sat there, the sound of Sarah’s laughter, the warmth of his friends in the kitchen. Taking a sip of coffee, he attempted to distract himself from the happy-go-lucky scene in front of him. Though his throat tightened, and he tried to cough discreetly in the back of his hand. Tried being the key word.
Tony raised his eyes to Steve, forcing the words from his throat as he said. “I just realized- she’s my responsibility now. It’s my job to make sure she’s okay.”
“I realized that last night before I fell asleep. Sorry about that, by the way. I didn’t mean to. I mean, you could have just kicked me out.”
“You looked comfortable. Also, your face made me feel bad, you should do something about that,” he said, and Steve laughed. Sarah sat on his lap, fingers in her mouth. Tony thought about germs, and how they multiplied by the second.
“I’ve had worse, and it’s not as painful today as it was yesterday,” Steve said, lip less swollen. Tony, without thinking, reached over to trace along the bruised expanse of Steve’s right eye. It had been a close call, that much was true. Steve didn’t object to his exploration, but Tony became aware of his actions, and removed his hand.
“What does she think about all of this?” Tony asked, nodding his head in Sharon’s direction. She wore a white blouse, boots making her appear taller as she conversed with Maria, blonde hair pulled back into a neat bun.
“She doesn’t know what to think.”
“Can you blame her?”
“No, but it’s different now. This changes everything, Tony. Our whole lives.”
“Trust me, I know.”
Their conversation was interrupted as Jarvis announced the arrival of Reed, Sue and their two children. “We’ve brought gifts,” Sue announced, and she wasn’t kidding. It was, what she called, “essential baby gear.” From thermometers to baby carriers, it was all there. “I had to drag Reed from his latest project, but we’re here.”
Franklin pouted, holding Valeria’s hand at his mother’s urging. “I’d rather be shooting Uncle Ben with lasers,” he said.
Sue frowned down at him. “Not when the lasers you’re using are real, Franklin.”
There were diaper carries, clothes, two strollers, a container filled with toys, bathing supplies, instructional videos, throws, pillows, bottles, pacifiers, nail clippers, mittens, lullaby mp3s, rattles, diaper rash cream, wash cloths, crib padding, and more. Tony was impressed that Reed could carry it all, arms expanded. Sharon helped to separate the items, distant as Jessica attempted to engage her in conversation.
“I don’t think they’ll be needing this, right?” Peter asked, holding a breast pump up to his chest with a tilt of his head for all to see. Tony lost what little appetite he might have had while Steve looked quite tickled by the whole display.
“I would love to have kids, you know, if it weren’t for the fact I’m so dysfunctional,” Jessica said, hunched over the counter top as she twirled her black hair around her finger, watching as Jessica Jones attempted to get a fussy Danielle to eat, the one year old spitting out the cereal her mother begged her to keep down. “And selfish. I would buy the kid a pack of skittles, and wonder why I didn‘t get any.”
“Don’t forget how obsessed you are with your own hair,” Clint grinned.
“As far as I can remember, you’re pretty obsessed with her hair, too,” Carol said.
“Then you have a terrible memory. I’ve never said a thing about her hair.” Clint leaned back against the wall, smirk on his face as he and Carol continued their debate.
“Yes, but what is the human child’s mind capable of at this stage in your slow moving development?” Noh-Varr asked, looking to Peter for answers.
“You’re asking me? I don‘t even know what my brain‘s capable of right now!”
“What the hell was that noise?” Jessica Jones asked, startled as she looked around. There was a faint rumbling coming from the other side of the mansion, just above them, power drills sounding off every five minutes or so.
“I’ve got people remodeling the mansion,” Tony said, frowning as Sarah began to cry, pulling at her ears. “She really doesn’t like loud noises.”
“Acute sense of hearing,” Steve said, face sullen as he tried to comfort her, placing her on his lap as he began to bounce his knee, smoothing her hair with his fingers while swaddling her. “It’s not something you ever really get used to.”
There was something just below the surface there, but Tony refrained from reaching for it. All side effects were not positive ones, and that was something Tony understood all too well. A time would come where they would need to discuss such things, but that time wasn’t now, and Tony needed a distraction from the chaos that raged around him. “Let’s go out. I’ll get changed, brush my teeth maybe, and we’ll go somewhere. I know the noise is bothering the both of you, so I’m not taking no for an answer.”
Steve smiled, the quirk of his lips intriguing to Tony. “Just tell me when.”
“I don’t understand why I’m the one wearing this thing.” Tony readjusted the straps to the baby carrier he wore, Sarah kicking and squirming as she meant to capture the birds that flocked above them in the trees; voice carrying a tune all her own as the sun spread its warmth on a Saturday afternoon.
“I told you, it doesn’t fit me. I can’t move my arms, and it won’t buckle,” Steve said, walking alongside Tony as they wandered through Central Park, seeking some form of solitude.
“Baby carrier of death is what it should be called.”
“You make it sound much worse than it is, Tony.”
“You’re not the one wearing it, you have no say.”
“I was thinking,” Steve said. “You’ve invested a lot of money into rebuilding the tower and reinforcing the mansion. I know things at Stark Resilient aren’t exactly great, but I’ve got a little bit of change saved up—”
“Stop. We’re not having this conversation. I’m not taking your money, and I’ve got things under control.” The white button up he wore did nothing to sabotage the heat, sweat water running down his chin as Sarah clutched at the plastic bottle in his hand.
“She’s my kid, too. And I can sure as hell provide for her.”
“That’s not what I’m trying to say, Steve.” Tony wiped the perspiration collected at his brow with the back of his hand, sunglasses polarizing Steve’s image as the other man stood with his arms crossed. “God, why is it so hot?” he asked, distracted for all of five seconds when he turned to carry on only to notice that Steve was no longer there.
A thin, pale man with beady brown eyes and balding gray hair cowered with his camera clutched in his abnormally large hands. The cheap mustard-colored tweed suit he wore did him no favors as Steve wagged his finger in what Tony could only presume was a stern talking down to. With one hand on his hip, and the other fixing the protective sun hat atop Sarah’s head, he smiled at the curious onlookers as they jogged through, minutes ticking by. When he saw no end in sight, Tony opted to look for a bench to pass the time. Another ten minutes, and he ran out of patience.
“Steve! I think he’s probably wet himself, job well done. Let’s go. I’m hungry.”
The man with beady eyes almost looked thankful as he hurried out of sight. Tony bounced his knee up and down, amused as Sarah clapped her hands together, content for the moment. Steve caught up to them, apologetic as Tony stood, and the two of them resumed their walk, though it was no longer a peaceful venture.
“Can you believe he had the nerve to try and sneak up on us like that?”
“As the man who has had various parts of his anatomy spread across the internet, yes.”
“I don’t like it.” Steve was flustered, cheeks red not from the heat, but from his own discomfort. Tony felt somewhat heinous for laughing at him, but not enough to actually stop.
“Get used to it. That’s the one you caught, imagine the others you didn’t. That guy was old school, you should see what those other creeps use nowadays.” Sarah squirmed in his arms again, temperamental as she spat out her pacifier. “That’s the third one today!”
“I have another one in the car.”
“You know, I don’t like the idea of my rolls-royce becoming a daycare.”
Steve shook his head, laughing. “Get used to it,” he said. Steve checked to make sure Sarah was okay, making funny faces and playing with her feet, little toes curling in her sandals as she giggled in delight. It was amazing how he could look attractive while simultaneously mimicking a dodo bird.
“I hope you know you’re buying lunch now.”
Tony marveled at the car seat placed in the center of the back seat with a critical eye, making sure it was up to his standards as Steve buckled Sarah in. “You mind grabbing her formula from the cooler?” he asked, and it took a moment for Tony to respond, immersed in the scene laid out before him.
“I’ll get it.” Tony opened the trunk, rummaging through the bottles of water to find one of Sarah’s bottles. A moment of hesitation washed over him as he decided whether or not he wanted to try and feed her, deciding at the last moment he would let Steve handle it. And while Steve said nothing on the matter, it didn’t stop Tony from judging himself as he veered out into traffic, catching a glimpse of the rose-cheeked infant and her favorite stuffed hare. She was cute, he would give her that. There were; however, larger problems at hand.
“What are your thoughts on a minivan?”
“I don’t even want to know what that word means, Steve.”
After lunch, the three returned to the Mansion where Tony proceeded to his workshop, leaving specific orders not to be disturbed. A dull ache started at the base of his head; Natasha’s findings and general estimations sprawled out upon multiple touch screens. “A state of disorder.” Tony stared at the scribbled mess in the corner of one of the documents, brow wrinkled as he read over the algorithm she had used. After a moment, it dawned on him.
Tony shook his head, going over the schematics for a fourth and fifth time, taking a step back to get a better look at the whiteboard in front of him. “No, not chaos. Chaos theory.” The equations were simple, but the outcomes were anything but. A pattern, but in what? There was no good in a random outcome, but chaos wasn’t random, and that’s what she had meant. Her calculations showed an energy perturbation produced by a trap in the band diagram of a semiconductor. The upper diagram plotted the usual vision of a trap with a single level Et inside the semiconductor band gap. This represented only the electronic energy of the perturbation, but that got Tony nowhere. That was until he looked at the bottom diagram at the complete energy representation of the perturbation; electronic 1 vibrational energy as a function of the conﬁguration coordinate. EB and S\v where the capture activation energy and semi-Franck-Condon energy shift provided.
“What would be insignificant?” he asked out loud, fingers threaded through his hair as he racked his brain for an idea. “Sensitive to initial conditions.” About a third cup of coffee in, and he was no closer to reaching an answer.
Thanos retaining the Infinity Gems was not random, nor was it disorganized. The results were left to interpretation, but there was an igniting incident she wanted him to find. A fractal in a series of broken ends; the process expiring before re-emerging stronger than before. Tony’s eyes watered, mouth dry as his vision began to blur and then run. A yawn prompted him to seek something of sustenance, tank top, hands and chin all stained with ink, the result of him chewing through his pen.
The so-called butterfly effect was not a favored theory with him. In fact, Tony had spent most of his academic life ignoring the theory altogether. The nuisance it caused him now that the fate of the universe rested upon it was vexing. The thought was put on hold as he climbed upstairs to the kitchen, body pressed against the door as he paused, head cocked to the side as an argument brewed between Steve and someone else. There was no way to bypass them, so Tony meant to wait them out.
“I just don’t understand, Sharon.”
Well, that solved one question.
“Steve, you haven’t been home in nearly a week!”
“You don’t think I know that? Sharon, there’s serious trouble brewing, and limited time to try and stop it. I watched as an entire universe was destroyed, and the only thing I could do was promise the father of that baby that I would do everything in my power to protect her.”
“She’s not your daughter, Steve.”
“Then whose daughter is she, then? Her parents are dead. She doesn’t have anyone else. I don’t know, Sharon, we never really discussed it, but I never thought you’d be so hostile to the idea.”
“Hostile? I’m being hostile?”
The hitch in her voice confused Tony, the idea that this much conflict could be incited by an infant was a troubling one. “An insignificant event,” he muttered, all of the sudden, moving back to his workshop with a renewed vigor.
Steve would be fine, he concluded, he and Sharon would reach a solution, and the world would still be intact. There wasn’t anything he could do to halt their conflict, but with any luck, and a long discussion with Reed followed by an extreme adrenaline high, he would be able to solve this. Natasha intended for him to decipher this equation, and damn it, he was going to do just that. A seemingly insignificant event that lead to a series of much larger events. A universe ended; a child saved.
“What does a series of chaotic loops bring?” A stress ball in one hand, and a recorder in the other, Tony recorded his thoughts. “Order to an otherwise chaotic system. Chaos does not mean random...just chaotic.” The black, green and red dry erase marker scribbled across the board did nothing to enlighten him.
Tony slumped back in his rolling chair, swiveling as he continued to think out loud. “What the hell does that even mean?” he asked, throwing the ball in his hand, and knocking down a container filled with pens and pencils.
Cursing, Tony placed the spilled utensils back into their case. “The duality of chaos is order; the duality of quantum-mechanics is the ability to be regarded as both a wave and a particle,” Tony said, spilling the utensils all over again. “Oh, Natasha, you smart, well dressed, angel.”
There was an answer just on the horizon, he knew. He could feel it as he split his attention between the whiteboard, splotched and ruined papers, and the touch screens on either side of him. “The horizon. The event horizon. The point of no return. The point at which the gravitational pull becomes so great that escape is impossible. I don’t need to find the loop, I need to create one,” he said, pressing the call button.
“Yes, Master Stark, what can I do for you?”
Tony rubbed at his weary eyes, scratching at his stubbled cheek. “Jarvis, get me a black hole! There’s work to do.”
“Very well, then. If that’s all, might I interest you in some lunch?”
“There’s no time. Get me Reed Richards, and Dr. Strange. And keep the coffee brewing.”
The last thing Tony had remembered before waking up, cheek plastered against his workbench as he wiped the drool from both his mouth and his blueprints, was resting his eyes for a brief moment. When he sat up, he noticed there was an old, green checkered throw wrapped around his shoulders and a pack of breath mints next to where his head had been. A glance down at his watch, Tony was startled to realize he had slept for over two and a half hours. A shower would reboot his system, and so he set out to wake up; a serious matter of universe or no universe at hand. Tony took no mind of Carol as he hurried past her, blanket still shrouded around his shoulders as he did so.
The sound of splashing water caught his attention as he entered his bedroom, moving towards the master bath. Steve sat in the jacuzzi, clad in floral patterned swim trunks two sizes too big for him, with Sarah in his lap as he bathed her. Their eyes met, and Tony grinned as he began to crack up at the sight in front of him. There was something so absurd to his sleep deprived brain about Captain America sitting in a jacuzzi, playing caretaker. Steve didn’t appear to be affronted by his reaction, not in the least.
“You look terrible,” he said, lathering a small portion of baby soap in his hands before washing Sarah’s little arms and legs. The girl twisted and turned, attempting to wiggle her way out of Steve’s grasp, smacking her lips together as she took in her immediate surroundings, taking comfort in Steve’s soothing voice as he cooed and awed over her.
“I’ll have you know, I’ve been saving the world.”
“Are you sure? When I went down there, you were sleeping on the job.”
“Thought that was you.”
“Oh, really, how’s that?”
“Your mothering instinct knows no bounds.”
Steve shrugged. “I’m not a science guy, Tony. If there’s nothing for me to hit or maneuver, I don’t know what to do. I figure doing what I can until I get the opportunity to get my hands on something, or give out orders, is best,” he said, motioning for Tony to hand him a towel.
“Well, I think I might be onto something. I don’t know just yet, but I’m close.” Steve ordered him to take Sarah while he dried off and changed, entrusting her care to him. With trembling hands, he towel-dried the small girl off, wrapping her in the aquamarine terrycloth robe and nestling her close to his chest to keep her warm. She grabbed at his facial hair, front teeth on full display as she laughed at him, dimpled cheeks heartening.
“Gah, gah, gah.” She rumbled, laughing as she spoke to him.
“We’re not going to let what happened to them happen to us.”
“No. I know,” Tony said, pretending he hadn’t caught a glimpse of Steve’s butt through the doorway. “I just, time’s a factor.” Steve pulled a tee shirt over his head, gray not being his usual color, though it brought out the blue of his eyes. “Where are your clothes?”
“Still at my apartment.”
“Whose shirt is that?”
“You’re, like, two seconds away from popping out of it. What would Bruce think if you started taking his schtick?”
“Says the man with ink smeared all over him.” Steve motioned for Sarah, taking the baby into his arms as she tired herself out.
“That’s just part of my genius,” Tony said, pulling a fresh towel from within the linen closet. A moment past where Steve was preoccupied with dressing Sarah. The white, ruffled tiered top with black polka dots and matching pants was no doubt Jones’ doing, style similar to that of Danni’s everyday dress. “I haven’t heard any loud noises so I’m guessing her room’s ready.”
“It is. You should check it out when you have a moment, Jarvis made sure everything was done properly.”
“I’ll be out in a minute, but I need both Reed and Strange on this.” The shower took a few moments to heat up, and during that time, Tony surveyed the arc reactor planted in his chest. Without it, he wouldn’t be able to perform the simplest of functions, including blinking and breathing.
“Are you okay?” asked Steve, Sarah in his arms, a red headband pushing the soft, black curls of her hair away from her face.
“Um, yeah. Yeah, I’m just trying to remember what I need to do today.” There was more than that, but Tony couldn’t remember. A connection was attempting to fall into place, a correspondence between Natasha and Steven, and Steve. A connection that tried to kick into gear whenever Sarah focused in on him, dimpled cheeks greeting him as she beamed brightly.
“Brushing your teeth would probably be a good start. And I’ll grab some baby oil and a pumice stone for the ink on your face.”
Tony muttered his thanks as Steve shut the door behind him. The headache was gone, but not forgotten. The glass panel of the door was coated in steam as he slid it open, stepping inside. The tension was mounting, but he was close. The connection he was lacking was sure to be residing somewhere else, he simply needed to find it.
‘Pumice, what an awful word,’ he thought, lips pulled in a tight lined as he scrubbed his hands over his abdomen.
A knock came to the door while he was brushing his teeth. “What?” Tony asked, spitting out the toothpaste in his mouth.
“Reed’s at Strange’s house, he’s calling us in.”
Tony rinsed his mouth out, tossing his toothbrush aside. “I’ll be right out,” he said, choosing to forgo shaving for the time being. Jarvis was kind enough to leave his clothes laid out on the bed when he was ready. There were times when a pair of light grey pinstriped dress pants, a cabernet dotted striped dress shirt, and a light grey tailored vest would have boosted his confidence, but there was no solace in the unknown. When he was dressed and out his bedroom door, he allowed his curiosity to get the better of him.
“I imagine you’ll be taking the royce again, sir?” Jarvis held Harriet, Sarah’s stuffed hare, in his hands as he tidied up in between resetting the musical mobile resting above her crib. The entire room was fitted to match a teddy bear theme, from the crib padding to the hamper in the far corner; shades set in chocolate, toffee, and ginger. Tony was impressed.
“Yes. We’ll be back later, Jarvis. If she gets cranky, her green and purple pacifier is in the diaper bag.”
“Anything else, sir?”
Tony sighed in a defeated manner, moving across the bedroom until he stood in front of Sarah’s crib, staring curiously at the way she pulled herself up against the bars and into a sitting position. Tony patted the top of her head, taking Harriet, Sarah’s favorite stuffed hare as Jarvis handed it to him, placing it in the crib. “You behave,” he said, retracting his hand and smoothing it down the front of his vest. “And, Jarvis.”
“If you could make arrangements to get Steve’s belongings, too. The man’s been borrowing clothes too big or and too small for the past four days now. If you can’t get them, buy the basics.”
“I’ll do what I can, sir.”
Tony placed his hands in his pockets, ignoring the small grin plastered on his butler’s face as he moved to meet Steve down in the foyer. Steve looked tired, Tony noticed, and while he wasn’t, in any way, qualified to give advice, he could listen, and recommend, off the top of his head, at least five renowned mental health care professionals. “You want to talk about it?” Or not.
“I...you know, it’s complicated.”
“Gotcha. Well, let’s go see what the good doctor has for us.”
The asymmetrical exterior of Strange’s home with its steeply pitched roof, pointed arches, decorated stonework, oriel windows, turret tower, and weathervane prevailed the thespian fashion of the quintessential Gothic Victorian house; it freaked Tony out. Sorcerers had a flair for the dramatic; no exceptions were made as he regarded the heavy metal hinges draped upon the door. The two exchanged a glance, each wordlessly daring the the other to knock; eventually Steve caved in. Wong, Strange’s manservant, friend and sometimes sidekick, welcomed them in. The staircase in any Gothic Revival home was an important feature; tower housing a spiral staircase, light filtering in through lancet windows.
“Dr. Strange will be waiting for you in the library.”
“Thank you, Wong.”
The stained-glass windows painted soft hues of red, gold, blue and green across the oak panelling of the walls, shadows misting a sordid tale of the coat-of-arms of Stephen Stranger’s past. Tony’s Armani dress shoes clicked softly; Steve’s brown cap toed oxford’s didn’t make a sound. “Oh, come on. You have to admit this house is creepy.”
“I, uh, definitely wouldn’t have given up the mansion for this after waking up.”
“Which time?” Tony noticed as Steve’s shoulders tensed. A pang hit him hard in the chest; what for, he didn’t know.
“I guess both.”
The large, square bay windows with heraldic shields of the drawing room indicated that they were close to reaching their destination. Strange’s library was revered as a Gothic sanctuary, with oak-panelled bookcases, leather-upholstered seating, and a great array of books with leather bindings. Strange sat at the central table, Reed to his right. The mood conveyed by this style of decor was no doubt scholarly, but also quiet and grave in manner. Still, Tony thought, it was an improvement over the entrance hall.
“Glad you could make it,” Strange said, one leg crossed over the other, hands folded neatly over his knee. “I trust the child is doing well.”
“As well as a displaced six month old can be,” said Tony, taking a seat across from Reed.
“She’s, uh, learned how to sit up on her own now.” Steve chose to sit to Tony’s left, manner formal and business-like.
“That’s all good to hear, but I believe we have business to discuss, gentlemen.” Reed produced his findings, both paper and electronic. The schematics scrawled in chicken-scratched handwriting was difficult, but not impossible, to read. Tony looked over one of the equations, connecting the mathematical statement relating to the chaos theory.
Tony paused, scowling as he read and then reread the notation Reed had written in red ink at the far right corner. “What is this?” he asked, making eye contact with the fellow scientist. “You think we’re the ‘insignificant’ event?”
“It’s the only thing that made a lick of sense, Tony. Please try to understand.”
The agony casted behind his lids returned tenfold as he clutched his head, brain endeavoring to reboot itself. There was something there, just beneath the surface, attempting to thrust itself upward. Steve placed a hand upon his shoulder as Strange retrieved a glass of water. While Reed studied him, a curious expression painting his face. Tony knew better than to expect anything else from him.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” asked Steve, ignoring the almost impatient looks from the rooms other two occupants.
“I’m fine. Reed, continue.”
Reed nodded, thoughtful. “Like I mentioned before, it’s the only figure that made sense when I added in all the other, known variables. When the Civil War divided us, it united them. Where there was death, there was life. The child is the main component, but the event propelling this into motion is the duality of your lives.”
Tony rubbed at his chin, the gears in his brain turning. “The insignificant event isn’t Sarah being dropped at our doorstep, it’s the fact Natasha knew we would crossover.”
“...she planned this?” Steve asked, puzzled.
“I believe so, and so the only question left to answer is: What do we plan to do about it?”
“That’s simple,” Tony said, playing his hand. “We develop a black hole centered with a wormhole, we bend space-time, we send him through another dimension. I think, with all us covering various bases, we can stop Thanos before he starts.”
“What would my part in all of this entail?”
“That’s a good question, Strange, and I’m glad you asked. We need, first and foremost, a wormhole that doesn’t just lead to anywhere.”
“You think I can help with that?”
“What, with your abilities? If I remember correctly, that Stranger, the scientist and surveyor to end-all-be-all, considered you a cosmic entity. And I’m sure, with all that you do, magic and whatnot, that a loop will be of little consequence.”
“Your intentions are to trap Thanos within a black hole?”
“That’s the general plan, yeah. There will be no telling Monday from Thursday, forces of the curvature of spacetime will stretch and compress him over and over again until, by something of its own doing and not his, the universe ceases to be, and then he’ll just be trapped in an empty, dark space. To say I like my plan, is to be gracious.”
“And what is the second task you wish me to complete?”
“That’s the tricky part,” Tony said, sitting up straight in his chair. “We need the Thanos of this universe to help us stop the, you know, other universe version of himself.”
“You mean to chain Thanos with his own counterpart?”
“No. No, I mean to distract the evil...er one long enough to detonate our very own, homegrown, organic black hole. Two birds, one stone.”
“How do you plan to escape this man-made black hole?” Reed asked, interjecting himself back into the conversation. Steve appeared content to allow them to talk amongst themselves for the time being.
“That is where this beauty comes into play,” Tony said, removing a small device that hovered over the center of the table, a hologram of an aerodynamic spacecraft taking form in 3D. “Antimatter would produce enough energy to shake us free.”
“Who might ‘us’ be?”
“Did I forget to mention that I’m going to need Sue onboard? Well, I will. She can give us the concealment we’ll need, hence the name, Invisible Woman.”
“I don’t like the idea of my wife being involved in this.”
“And I don’t think your wife happens to like the idea of her family and friends in trouble when there’s something she can do to help.” Sue appeared within the doorway, high heels clacking against the floor as her black dress swayed to and fro.
“Sue, it’s good to see you,” Steve said as she hugged him from behind.
“You, too. How’s Sarah?”
“Good as could be expected.”
“And what would you expect me to do, Tony?”
“I think we both know what you’ve been planning since this started.”
Reed nodded, giving Tony kudos where they were due. “Yes, the nullifier.”
Sue’s hair was braided back into a spiral across her shoulder, blue eyes clear as she stood beside her husband. “How do we expect to lure Thanos here?” she asked, arms crossed. Determination suited her well, Tony thought.
“We don’t,” Strange said.
Tony shrugged. “We can’t. To expect no casualties would be consequential. Those who remain here will be ready when the time comes. It’ll be up to Steve, and the others, to control the chaos and handle the masses as it unfolds.”
Steve took a sip of water, no doubt glad to have his area of expertise covered. “Thor is already up to date on the matter. If Thanos comes through, the Asgardians will be the first to know. I’ve got flyers dispatched to foreign territories that have little or no known heroes. I have the celestials orbiting around Earth and her Moon, keeping tabs,” he said. “As far as the city goes, I have the heavy hitters providing back up to those on rescue and recovery missions. The rest is up to you. I mean, the worst that could have happened before has happened. We stop it now.”
The second to last sentence sent an overwhelming sensation coursing through Tony, somewhere caught between dread and anger. A memory, vague though it was, rose to the surface. Tony began to tremble, spilling his water as he fought to catch his breath. Tony could smell it, the familiar stench of death as it clung to his eyelids; the copper tinge of blood, he could taste it. And there, murdered, laid Steve, face turned away from him as though he was disgusted at the very sight of him. With fear mounting, Tony stood, hurrying out of the room even as his name was called in a worried manner.
Tony found himself on the veranda, stomach churning endlessly as he sat upon the old, chipped swing set, hands pricked with splintered wood. And though he knew Steve was alive and well, the vivid detail of the scene in his head was too real to be a fabrication of his mind. The feel of dry, cold, pale blue cracked lips under his fingertips was tangible. The porcine door groaned as it opened, Steve emerging on the other side.
Tony looked down and away, refusing to look at him. “You don’t have to say anything,” Steve said, taking a seat.
“I don’t,” Tony said, stopping mid-sentence as the words threatened to consume him. “I’m glad to have you on my side again, Steve. That’s all.”
Steve motioned for Tony to look at him, hand upon his shoulder. Tony didn’t resist, embracing the physical contact as his chest continued to ache. The heat of the day still lingered even as the sun dropped low in the sky. The heat of Steve’s hand; however, warm and viable, was a welcomed reminder of what was once lost. “God, it’s hot outside.” Steve chuckled, the sound rumbling through the expanse of his chest. Tony didn’t want to let go.
“I bet the vest isn’t helping,” Steve said, lips ghosting across his ear as he pulled away.
“I could outline your abs right now in crayon, stop. God, you’ve got, like, sixty years on Clint, and you can still out bench, outrun, and outfight most people his age.”
Steve laughed again, cheeks red as he wiped a stray tear from his eye. With a pat on the knee, he stood up, offering Tony his hand. Tony took it, the effortlessness it took for Steve to shift him one way or another would never cease to be astonishing to him. “I think Reed wants to stick his hands all over the spacecraft idea.” Steve held the door open for him, keeping a companionable silence as Tony thought.
“I am not letting him have my shuttle,” he said, finally.
The afternoon had dwindled to evening, and yet, the torrid heat still lingered. The group parted, but not before Sue had handed them a business card with the name and number of a discreet, trusted pediatrician. Steve thanked her on their way out, Levi’s riding low on his hips, without a belt. “We should probably stop by my apartment,” he said as he opened the passenger side door.
“You want to?”
“I’ve just about lost my pants three times already.” The elastic band of Steve’s white and blue angled striped boxer briefs peeked out underneath Clint’s shirt; Tony tried not to stare too blatantly as Steve maneuvered his hips up, fingers hooking through the belt loops of his jeans as he hoisted them up.
“Yeah, sure. Brooklyn it is, then.” Tony’s mouth went dry, thoughts diverted towards the idea that physical attraction didn’t equate love. “You owe me dinner for this six o’clock traffic, though.”
Steve leaned back in his seat, arms folded over his eyes; no doubt preparing for what was to come. Sharon had never truly forgiven Tony for what she perceived as his wrong doing, but had never been as hostile as she was as of late. Steve was quiet, though, when it came to keeping his relationship problems tightly under wraps. The sick feeling he had experienced prior returned full force, a nagging feeling tugging in the pit of his stomach. Tony gripped the steering wheel, foot tapping the break as another vehicle cut him off.
“Nice going, friend, you’ve officially moved up one space. Made it really far, huh?”
“I am nice,” Tony said, teeth gritted. “If I wasn’t nice, he’d have his bumper blown clean off.”
Steve huffed a short laugh, blue eyes peering up at him through the bend of his arm. “Slow and steady wins the race.”
“You don’t actually believe that, do you?”
“No,” Steve said, chest rising and falling with a gentle ease. “But I would like to get there alive.”
Tony glared at him sideways, but said nothing. A touch of sadness lined his heart. “It’s times like this that I miss Happy the most.” He could feel a flush rise to his cheeks, tears lining his eyes.
Steve laid his hand upon Tony’s thigh, silent for the duration of the drive. Tony parallel parked in one of the two spaces left on the block. “I’ll be back,” he said with a quick wave of his hand.
“I can see your butt, Captain!”
Steve glowered at him before pulling up his pants, smiling in embarrassment at the small older woman as he held the door open for her. Tony chuckled, smiled dwindling on his lips as he came to a sudden, obvious realization. “Oh, shit,” he said, mortified.
There was no time for this, he thought, they had a universe to save, a promise to uphold, and his brain simply felt scattered. The anxiety reached zenith levels of disaster when a whirling crash startled him out of his seat. “What the hell was that?” he asked, voice raised as Steve opened the passenger side door, tossing a lone gym bag into the back.
“The laptop I bought for you?”
“The laptop I bought for her?”
“Why’d she do that?”
“She was aiming for my head.”
“I grabbed some stuff, but she told me Jarvis had already been by.” Steve’s elbow was propped up against the armrest, chin in the palm of his hand as he stared out the window. Tony felt awkward.
“That was, uh, nice of him?”
“You sent him, didn’t you?”
“I did.” Steve looked at him, expression perplexed as he looked down and away. There wasn’t much Tony could offer in the ways of comfort, but he was well equipped in the ways of distraction and avoidance. “You feel like a mini marathon?” he asked.
“Yeah. I mean, I’ll be starting on the craft tomorrow, and you’ll be moving the contingency plans into place so why not, right?”
“What do you have in mind?”
“You’ll just have to wait and see, Cap.”
“Just get us there alive, and I will.”
Tony smirked, distraction accomplished. The mansion appeared in the distance, and Tony made a sharp left on 70th street, taking the private access road. A content, almost happy feeling came over him at the thought of seeing Sarah after a time apart, and that terrified him. Tony pulled up to the driveway, keen to the fact that most vehicles were absent.
“Wonder where they’re at.”
“Hopefully out somewhere having a life,” Tony said, placing his keys in the orange and peach swirl bowl set on the counter. Steve laughed, smile broad. “Let’s go see how the kid’s doing.”
“Our kid,” Steve said, falling in behind him as they climbed the steps.
“Let’s go see our kid.”
“Don’t push it.”
Tony watched Steve closely, noting that he looked worried when he thought he wasn’t being watched. Tony knew how much he cared for Sharon, but he also knew how clueless Steve could be when it came to other peoples problems. Tony knew because he suffered from the same problem, more out of general self-absorption than than cluelessness, though. In all fairness, saving the world occupied most of their attention and time.Steve gave a small nod of his head as he said, “I’ll be all right.” Tony hoped that was true.
The two made their way through the old prototype display area, Sarah’s night light shifting from blue to green, and purple to pink. Jarvis sat in the mahogany stained rocking chair, careening Sarah as he willed her to sleep in peace. Steve went to say something, but Tony was quick to press a finger to his lips, urging him to keep quiet as he moved forward. Steve’s frown softened significantly at the sight of her, and Tony knew he was forgiven.
“Good evening, Master Stark, Master Rogers. I trust your meeting went well,” Jarvis said, moving to his feet with the utmost care.
“Better than expected, Jarvis,” Tony said as Jarvis handed the baby over to Steve. The purple safari printed one piece was, for a lack of a better, less embarrassing word, adorable. The discontent and frustration that had been stitched across Steve’s features had drained away completely, affection and cheerfulness left behind in its wake. “Where is everyone?”
“I’m afraid they’re out for the evening, sir. If I heard Mister Clint correctly, they went out for supper, and Vision has retired early.”
“We used to have movie nights, you still on?”
“Yeah, sure, I guess” Steve said, holding Sarah so that her chest was pressed against his, and her head rested upon his shoulder. “You want to hold her?”
“I...uh, I don’t want to wake her up. Clumsy hands, you know?”
“Tomorrow, then.” Steve placed Sarah into her crib, gentle in his actions.
“Jarvis, if anything, we’ll be down in the theater room.”
“Very well, sir. I will keep an ear out for monitors in case the she stirs.”
“Thank you, Jarvis.”
“Oh, Master Rogers,” he said, voice soft as he followed after them. “Your belongings are in your old room for you.”
“Thank you, Jarvis.”
“Absolutely no problem, sir.”
After Jarvis left down stairs, Tony looked to Steve with an uncertain expression. “I’m just...it’s new for me.”
“I know, Tony. I’m not expecting a miracle. You’ll do it when you’re ready.”
Tony shook his head. “Okay. Well, I’m going to go get changed, meet you down there.”
“You still haven’t told me what movies you’ve got planned for us,” Steve said, arms crossed.He was awkward, Tony could see it, feel it as he felt it himself.
“And I’m not going to until we get down there.” Tony kept his tone light, chin upturned as he willed himself to be at ease.
“A slice of pizza says I get there first.”
Tony smirked. “You’re on,” he said, shaking Steve’s hand. “Prepare to make a trip to Chicago, Captain. They have the best deep dish this side of the Atlantic.”
The two took off in opposite directions. Tony stripped down to his briefs in a hurry, pulling on a pair of sweatpants before heading out the door towards the elevator; it was no secret that they were both highly competitive. Confident, he about dropped the three cases held in his hand at the sight of Steve lounging around on the couch in a pair of navy blue slub shorts. Tony cursed low, he was out of breath, and all for naught. Steve grinned, smug in his victory.
“You shop at the Gap.”
“Yes. Yes, I do.”
“And you still owe me a slice of pizza.”
“Yeah, well, we’ll save the universe, and then I’ll get you your slice of pizza.”
“Sounds good. Are you going to tell me what movies you got, or what?”
Tony raised his hand, shaking the items as he showed them off. “For your viewing pleasure I present to you the 1931 rendition of Frankenstein, directed by James Whale; starring Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, and John Boles. Of course, following that classic is the Bride of Frankenstein, circa 1935, also directed by James Whale. And,” he said, pausing for effect. “For the ending feature, we have the 1933 horror classic Mystery of the Wax Museum, directed by Mike Curtiz; starring Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, and Glenda Farrell.”
Steve rubbed at his chin as Tony took a seat beside him, eyes reminiscent. “I was eleven the first time I saw the Mystery of the Wax Museum,” he said, chest rumbling as he laughed. “I cried.”
“Oh, poor, Steve.” Tony propped his feet up over his lap. “You want me to hold your hand?”
Steve looked dubiously at him, but said nothing more as Jarvis brought them a tray containing a bowl of buttered popcorn, and two glass bottles of coke, lids already popped off. “Jarvis, what would I do without you?”
“Die of malnutrition, I suspect,” Jarvis said, setting the tray down before bidding them farewell.
The opening scene appeared in black and white, a body buried soon unearthed. These films, as old as they were, were still some of Tony’s favorites. And though it was hard to remember how old Steve actually was, when he talked about opening night, or how movie tickets cost thirty-five cents was a startling reminder. Tony laid back against the armrest, pushing at Steve’s thigh with the heel of his foot. Steve threw a piece of popcorn at him, hitting him in the center of his forehead.
“That’s what everyone tells me.”
“You’re going to miss the part where Frankenstein raises his monster.”
“I’m still mourning my deep dish pizza, deal with it.”
Tony was well prepared to pester Steve until he taped his mouth shut, or worse, threw him into the decontamination room when the elevator doors opened, and a troubled looking Jarvis appeared. Steve sat up as Tony removed his feet from his lap, unease in the pit of his stomach.
“Ms. Carter is here, and wishes to speak to you about an urgent matter.”
Tony turned the movie off just as Frankenstein’s monster rose from the dead, groaning and screaming as Frankenstein realized the monumental mistake he had made; the horror he had created.
Steve nodded, face a mixture of fear, guilt and concern as he got to his feet, and followed Jarvis out of the room. With no inkling of what to do, Tony retired upstairs as well, heading towards the kitchen for something to eat. Steve had mentioned something was off with Sharon, that she wasn't okay, and that he was clueless as to why, but it was none of Tony's business, so he attempted to put it out of his mind. Opening the fridge, he surveyed his options before settling on a cup of Greek yogurt. As he moved towards the silverware drawer; however, he caught a glimpse of Steve and Sharon from the bay window as they stood in the garden.
The Sphere shaped light fixtures lit their path, though they didn’t go far. The soft white hues revealed the back of Sharon’s red tee shirt, and enhanced the tan of Steve’s arms and chest. Steve appeared calm at first, arms down by his sides, but Sharon never stayed still for long. Steve’s head followed in each direction, mouth closed as Sharon continued to pace, never really looking at him. Whatever was wrong, it was tearing her apart inside.
Steve's hands were outstretched, mouth moving as Sharon pushed him away. She stood with one hand across her stomach, the other held over her face as she cried, mumbling something as she awaited Steve's reaction. Steve dropped his arms, grief stricken as he tilted his head up, eyes towards the sky, throat tight as he began to cry. Sharon grabbed his hand in both of hers, lips moving rapidly as her chest rose and fell in rapid succession. She kissed the knuckles of his fingers, leaning away from Steve as she did so.
Steve's face was still visible, Sharon having turned to the right where her face was distorted from the lack of light. There was disbelief, Steve's hands covering his eyes as his shoulders slumped forward and his knees gave out. Sharon followed him to the ground, comforting him as her blonde hair stood out like a halo in the darkness. She wrapped her arms around him, running her hand up and down his arm. Tony held his breath, he knew something was wrong, but not what. Sharon pulled away, holding Steve's hands in her own as he continued to shake.
“I don't believe this moment is for you,” Jarvis scolded, emerging from the stairwell.
Tony turned his back to the devastating sight, cup in hand as he messed with the foil lid, avoiding his butler’s gaze. “I—It wasn't my intention.”
“Young Sarah is asleep, though, it took some effort. She isn't as verbal as she should be at this age, as you were, and I think it would be best to consult a professional on the matter. She laughs, and she cries, but never loudly. Children, even as young as she is, can still be traumatized.”
“You sound exceptionally close to her, Jarvis.”
“I believe I am, and I would, with all due respect, like to gather your thoughts on the girl. After all, she is to be in your charge.”
With a sigh, Tony headed towards the staircase, mood grave. “She's a means to an end, old friend. She's the promise I made to a dead woman to keep, and she's partly the reason we're in this mess. That's where I stand right now.” Tony turned to look at Jarvis, dismayed but not surprised to see his disappointment.
“I'm sorry you feel that way, sir,” he answered, folding a dishcloth in his hands before hanging it on the towel rack over the stove. “She's quite something, I think.”
“I'm retiring to bed, Jarvis, make sure I'm not disturbed.”
Four hours later, and still Tony couldn’t sleep. Frustrated, he meant to get an early start on his project, mind racing as he scrambled to put his pants back on. As he moved out the door; however, he heard what sounded to be movement coming from inside Sarah’s room. Curious, he entered, amazed to see Sarah standing up in her crib, dancing almost as she bounced up and down, making small noises of displeasure. Tony fought the urge to go fetch Jarvis, and instead approached the girl who had noticed his presence.
Tony remembered something Luke had showed him, placing Sarah tummy side down along the length of his forearm, with her head resting in his open hand and her legs straddling his arm. Tony brought his arm close to his body for security, and then gently began to pat her back. “Hope you don’t mind a hairy chest,” he said, moving around the room in slow, small circles. “I’ve been thinking about getting it waxed, you know.”
Sarah gurgled, drooling on Tony’s arm as he decided to sit, having found a collection of short stories Jarvis had left behind. “Maybe you’d like a story? Say no if you have any objections,” he said, watching as she squirmed around in his lap. “I’m glad to see that. Isaac Asimov is one of my favorites, too.”
Tony thumbed through the pocket-sized book, falling on an all too familiar page. “This story’s called ‘The Ugly Little Boy,’ and it’s good, you’ll like it. Who knows, maybe your mom read it to you.”
Tony began to read, checking periodically to make sure Sarah was okay before continuing. “The boy was crying. Not shrieking in fear or anger; not yelling or screaming. It was crying softly, and the cry was the heartbroken sobbing of a lonely, lonely child. For the first time, Miss Fellowes thought with a pang: Poor thing! Of course, it was a child; what did the shape of his head matter? It was a child that had been orphaned as no child had been orphaned before. Not only its mother and father were gone, but all its species. Snatched callously out of time, it was now the only creature of its kind in the world. The last. The only,” he read, emotions running high. He was able to connect with the story in a way he had never before.
When Tony had first read the short story, he had been a teenager at the time, and had identified with Timmie, the so-called ape-boy. A time where he felt alone, trapped within the prison that was his parent’s home; parents who rarely had the time or the patience to deal with him. With grim eyes, he stared down at the baby sleeping in his arms, feeling a different connection with a story he had read hundreds, if not thousands of times before. In his heart, he felt what Miss Fellowes must have felt before she yanked the cord that would ensure that she would always be Timmie’s mother. Tony watched her, studied her face, and was torn between needing her to solve a crisis and wanting her in his life as more than a key.
There was heartache there as he thought about Natasha, and the choices she had been forced to make. And while he couldn't fully understand all that it must have took, he was beginning to, and that was frightening. “You're certainly the last of your universe, but you're far from alone. Where I lack, there are others who will make up for me. I promise,” he said, maneuvering his way to her crib. “Jarvis says you're too quiet, is that so? Is it because you miss your mom and dad? I didn't know them very long, but they were good people.” With the utmost care, he laid her down to sleep, trembling just so.
“I think, maybe you just miss your mom. Steve's an exact replica of your dad, I should know, but me...I'm nothing like her, am I? There were so many options,” he said, fingers gripping the edge of her crib until his knuckles whitened. “I don't understand why she entrusted you to me. I don't get it. I don't.”
Tony picked up the book once again, resuming his spot on the rocking chair, beginning the story anew even as his voice cracked at sore spots. In the course of reading, he had failed to notice the added company of Steve, not until he had made himself known. Tony didn’t know what to say, and so he didn’t speak; not until Steve spoke first. “How long have you been in here?” he asked, his face held the weight of a man in mourning, but he was durable.
Tony looked at the clock mounted on the wall adjacent from him, performing a quick calculation in his head, he said, “About forty, forty-five minutes. I couldn’t sleep, and she was fussy.”
“You got her to go back to sleep, though.” Steve seemed distraught. Tony couldn’t see his face as he leaned over her crib, but he could see as his fingers carefully smoothed along her hair. “She’s so beautiful,” he said as his shoulders giving way.
Tony thought on that for a moment. “She’s got good genes.” There was a shift in the air; there was something bound to boil over. Steve hadn’t sought him out after his breakdown with Sharon, and there was little to go on.
Tony moved to his feet, unsure what was happening, he placed his hand upon Steve’s shoulder, feeling the tremors that shook his body, and the tears that rimmed his eyes . Steve's chest heaved, a sob caught in the mid of his throat as he raked his fingers through his hair. “I—
I didn't know.”
“Know what?” he asked as Steve blinked rapidly, wiping his face with the back of his hand, nose and cheeks red as he swallowed hard.
“Sharon, when she was...when she was held captive, they tortured her.” Steve turned his head downward, chin-to-chest as he made a fist, anger flaring. “They wanted to use her.”
Tony placed his hands on either side of Steve's shoulders, forcing him to look at him. “What did they want from her?” Steve's eyes were bloodshot, face flushed.
“She had what the Red Skull wanted,” he said, bottom lip raw from biting it. “She was pregnant with my child.”
Tony took a step back as he shook his head in disbelief. “Why? Why would they do that?” he asked, voice strained as he attempted to keep quiet. “Why would they do that to her?” A knot formed in the pit of his stomach, still dazed from what Steve had just told him. Sharon meant everything to Steve, and he had let her down. With all the suffering the Civil War had caused, all the guilt that still occupied his heart, this was just another one of his failures; another person Tony had allowed to get hurt.
Steve took a shaky breath in, body still tense and trembling. “The Red Skull wanted to transfer his consciousness into the baby once it was born, but his daughter...she attacked her. She nearly beat her to death, but Sharon survived.”
Tony felt sick to his stomach as it all sank in. “She lost the baby.”
“I don’t know what to do. I don’t know if there’s anything I can do.” Steve took a step back, from Tony and from Sarah, his back pressed against the wall as though to protect himself. “I don't understand. I don't understand why everything had to happen to us. I don't understand why I was shot while they got married. I don't understand why they got to have a child while I lost mine.”
“Is it something I did?” he asked, arms stretched out, palms up, inner turmoil spilling forth.
Tony felt awkward as he scrambled for something to say. “No, Steve. A—An action in one universe affects all other universes in one way or another. I know that's not enough...I know that's not, not fair.”
“She's pushing me away. She says I'm different now.”
When Steve looked up at him, Tony could see the red outlining his eyes, the way his shoulders slumped down and forward, and how every time he swallowed, his throat would constrict; he could see just how broken he was as the night light morphed from yellow to green, and from green to red; casting half his face in shadow. Without thinking, Tony took three steps forward, embracing Steve as he wrapped his arms around him, placing his chin upon Steve's shoulder. Tony's heart swelled in his chest at the thought of how crushed Steve was, sensation too much as he smoothed his fingers through Steve's hair, trying to make it hurt less; trying to dull the pain even a little. Steve's fingers dug into his back, face nestled into the crook of his neck as their chests pressed together. Tony groaned, helpless and desperate, as the tip of Steve's nose brushed along his stubble-laced cheek, air shifting to something dense and hot, intent changed as Steve brought his right hand up to cup the back of Tony's neck as he angled his face to brush his mouth against Tony's.
Tony held onto the back of Steve's biceps as he deepened the kiss, somewhat stunned as reacting on pure instinct and desire. Steve's hands were everywhere at once; sliding over his chest, gripping his shoulder blades, tracing the muscles along his back. Tony gripped either the side of Steve's face, kissing him until he was rendered breathless. Steve took back control, fingers bruising Tony's hips as their legs intertwined, feet tripping over one another as they moved forward then back. A hundred thoughts ran through his mind, all of them centered around Steve, and this.
All the air was forced from Tony's lungs as Steve flipped them around, pinning him up against the wall as he pressed his mouth harder against his, sucking on his bottom lip as Tony scrambled to reciprocate, fingers raking up Steve's sides. Steve slid his knee in between Tony's legs, thigh brushing up against his interested cock as Steve pinned him back, hands stroking over Tony's face and neck, teeth biting his bottom lip. Steve smelled like a mixture of cinnamon spice and fresh cut grass, mouth tasting of sweet butter and salt from the popcorn they had shared prior as his hands moved lower, gripping Tony's hips as he nipped and sucked at the junction of his neck and shoulder, leaving bruises in his wake.
There was no gentleness to be found in the way Steve pressed their chests together, hips grinding against his as he pinned Tony's wrist above his head, nose brushing against his ear as he kissed along the side of his jaw, moving downward. Tony could feel nothing but the press of Steve's chest against his, fingers curling under the band of his sweatpants as Tony moaned, moving his hips forward as his free hand explored the skin of Steve’s back, shoulders and neck.
Tony tugged on Steve's hair, drawing his attention upward as he cupped him behind the nape of his neck, holding him still as he let his mouth hover a mere inch away from his. Steve closed his eyes as Tony slid his tongue along his bottom lip, tasting and soothing the sensitive flesh as he slid his hand down across his back, caressing the back of his thigh as Steve pressed him back against the wall, placing hot, open mouthed kisses along his neck as he ground against him, arousal prominent through the thin shorts he wore. Tony slid his hand up, grabbing the taut muscle of Steve's ass as he thrust up against him, creating a torturous sort of friction between them. Steve slid his hand up along Tony's chest, settling it loosely around the curve of his neck, controlling the direction of his head as he stole a chaste kiss to his open mouth, aiming lower as he nibbled just below his ear, sucking the flesh there before assuaging it with his tongue.
Steve's hands were in his hair, fingers pulling and tugging as both men were consumed by each other, each breath labored, tongues sliding against each other as Tony slid a portion of Steve's shorts down. A soft, heated moan fled his lips as Steve grabbed his hand, guiding it lower until he was able to touch him, palming his cock as he rutted against him; his own need bleeding through. Tony cursed, voice raspy and lustful as Steve's lips covered his, all consuming and hot as he took his cock in hand, palming him as he slid his thumb sliding across the tip as Tony cried out, sound swallowed whole by Steve who was unrelenting in the way he pushed and pulled, taking over all sense Tony might have had. This was it, Tony thought, this was it.
Steve continued to drive his hips forward, hot and heavy in his hand, as he worked to push him over the edge. Steve choked back a moan, forehead leaning against Tony's shoulder as his hips began to thrust forward, teeth latching onto Tony's neck as he forced their groins closer together, skin against skin as they lost themselves within each other. Tony immersed himself in the sound, sight, touch, smell and taste of him; craving more as Steve turned him away from the wall, dragging him to the floor as Tony tried to steady himself, knocking over toys and spare sheets in his wake. With the taste of him still fresh on his tongue, and the thick carpet burning against his skin, Tony placed his knees on either side of Steve's hips, the blunt of his nails raking down his back as Steve nuzzled his cheek, kissing him languidly as he took both of their cocks in hand, rocking their hips together. “God,” he groaned, moving impatiently to remove his pants completely.
A raucous cry pierced their ears, sending Tony out of his lust-filled daze as Steve pulled back and away from him, hands raking over his face as he came back to his senses.
Tony attempted to sit up, leaning his back against the wall when that plan failed, legs shaking as his breath coming in short, painful pants. He leaned his head back with a thud, eyes closed as he went over all that had transpired. There was his hand on Steve's dick, Steve's hand on his, stroking him with a fast, desperate rhythm; kissing and touching everywhere. The guilt hit afterward, watching as Steve bent over to pick up the stuffed bear he had knocked over, studying it with mixed emotions as he set it down on the dresser. There was Steve, heartbroken and grief-stricken, and he used that as an excuse to go ahead and take what he wanted, even if, somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew it was wrong.
The regret, and guilt for enjoying what had transpired just moments prior, made him feel physically ill as he forced the next words out of his mouth: “Sharon needs time. Whatever she needs, you’ll be there, and whatever I can do, I’ll do.”
The word “engineering” derived from the Latin root ingeniere, meaning to design or to devise, which also formed the basis of the word “ingenious.” Those meanings, Tony thought, were quite appropriate summaries of the traits of a good engineer. Too bad he was functioning at less than two percent, and his simulations rendered from yesterday were margining some significant errors. This fact, he decided, may or may not have been attributed to the fact he had made out with Steve nine hours prior. “Yeah, I’m going to need the android’s help on this,” he said, pressing the button to the intercom.
“Vision, I changed my mind, old friend.”
“I’ll be there momentarily.”
A decent engineer used mathematics, scientific principles, and computer simulations as tools to create faster, more accurate, and more economical designs. The design, manufacture, and assembly of a spacecraft this size and its final integration into a launch vehicle was a lengthy process, lasting anywhere from five to ten years. Unfortunately, Tony had to operate under the impression that Thanos would be crashing through their universe at any moment. Tony stared at the empty, open space around him, sighing at the sheer size of it all. A mental checklist was
stored in the recesses of his mind.
Tony looked at one of the ten screens centered around him. There was news of earthquakes all over the globe: Prince William Sound, Alaska; Valdivia, Chile; Michoacan, Mexico; and Tangshan, China. And while these areas were known for historical earthquakes, some recent, it did not provide an answer as to why all of them suffered earthquakes within minutes of each other. No, Tony knew better than that. The news was in overdrive as a new, terrible event took precedent over other tragedies of equal destruction. No, this was not the earth revolting, nor was it the hand of God.
On another series of screens there were reports of Corpus Christi, Texas; Miami, Florida; Guayama, Puerto Rico; Charleston, South Carolina; and La Pesca, Mexico were all hit by category four hurricanes. St. Louis, Missouri; Windsor, Ontario; Birmingham, Alabama; San Justo; Argentina; Hainichen,Germany; Monville, France; and Portsmouth, England having all experienced tornadoes ranging from F2's to F5's respectively.
“The Baltic States: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have all been ravaged by an unknown disease. The symptoms include: weakness, fever and chills, abdominal pain, bleeding from the mouth, nose, or under the skin, shock and gangrene in extremities, most commonly the fingers, toes, or nose. There were no known cases anywhere outside of these three countries until four days ago when the first outbreak emerged from Sydney, New South Wales; and Melbourne, Victoria” said one news broadcaster, fear evident in the way his voice shook.
No, this was not the hand of God. This was the cause of a large, ugly and purple goldfish with a serious Napoleon complex, and they were running out of time. Steve had ordered the flyers and heavy hitters to go where they could, help but not intervene. People were scared, and when people were scared, things got ugly, and fast. Tony couldn’t afford that to happen, not when he needed to work, to finish this.
The launch sequence alone would entail high levels of vibration, associated with both the noise field and structural vibration, modest-to-high levels of acceleration during ascent, mechanical shock due to pyrotechnic device operation and stage separation, a thermal environment that differs from both laboratory and space environments, and for most launch vehicles, a rapidly declining ambient pressure. “Jesus, launch acceleration has to be at least, at least 9.5km/s.” In other words, really hot and really fast. Tony went through the various making points, correcting errors as needed.
“How much does Sue weigh? I guess we could use the application of external forces for the radiation pressure, and aerodynamic forces...” Tony was engrossed with the expanded screen before him, so much so that he was only faintly aware of the automatic doors sliding open. “Oh, good. Vision, you can take a look at the thrust chambers I selected for the chemical rocket design pattern. I mean, liquid over solid propellant devices seem obvious, but a second opinion couldn’t hurt, and I’m not calling Richards.”
Tony frowned at the sound of tapping. With a turn of his head, he could see the cause of such a disturbance. “Oh, you’re not Vision,” he said.
“I go to Washington for one week. One week, Tony, and this is what I come back to.”
“I tried to prepare you...”
Pepper did not look impressed. “You’re a terrible human being,” she said, hugging him. “And you smell.”
“I’ve been saving the universe, sort of. And what do you mean I smell? I’ve been using baby shampoo ever since Steve’s taken over my bathroom.”
Pepper tilted his head up, corner of her mouth curled into a smirk. “You need to shave.”
Tony grinned. “You don’t like the Grizzly Adams look?”
“No, but Steve might.”
Tony puckered his lips together. “Don’t.”
“At the moment.”
“What have you been up to without me, Potts?”
“Saving your butt, per usual.” She stood with her arms crossed, head tilted to the side with her hair pulled back. The camel melange cape shift dress she wore brought out the golden highlights in her auburn hair, black suede pumps elongating her naturally pale legs. “Stark Resilient is networking at high capacity, and profits are on the rise.”
“Seen Rhodey by chance?”
“What about the other redheaded minx?”
“She’s harder to come by,” Pepper said, face turned downward as sadness lingered in her eyes.
“She’s in a relationship, Tony.”
“If we were in a relationship with everyone we kissed and slept with, Pep...well, there would be a lot of anniversaries to remember now, wouldn’t there?”
“I suppose so,” Pepper said, taking a seat on Tony’s lap, arms entwined around his neck. “After Happy...it’s been hard, but with Natasha, I don’t know...I can’t help wanting something more, knowing I’ll never get it.”
“No. I get it. If it helps, she makes a handsome man in an alternate universe.”
“So I’ve heard. This thing, whatever it is, it’s serious, isn’t it?”
“Afraid so, Miss Potts.”
“And that baby is really the daughter of...of you and Steve?”
“Well, to some extent. Sarah Maria Stark-Rogers is the daughter of Natasha Stark and Steven Rogers. Different universe...and all that fun stuff.”
“That’s something. Oh, but she’s so beautiful.”
The doors slid open, and both Pepper and Tony watched as Vision emerged. Pepper stood up, hugging the android as she bid him a good afternoon. “We’re taking Sarah shopping, be back later,” she said, waving her goodbyes.
“Steve and I.”
“Be careful what you say.”
Pepper looked confused. “Why?” she asked.
Tony sighed, standing as he displayed the propellant feed system and storage tanks he had designed to Vision who appeared willing to help. “He got some bad news last night...so, uh, just be...sensitive, I guess.”
“I’ll keep it friendly.”
“Pinky swear,” she said, curving her pinky finger up in the air for him to see as she moved towards the elevator doors.
“Should I pinky swear as well?” Vision asked.
“Sure, why not?”
“So, you intend your propulsion system to include two valves, one for fuel and the other for oxygen?”
“Yep, that’s the plan.”
“And the two will coincide together?”
Tony nodded, tapping the screen as his finger trailed along the print. “See, we have the turbopumps here, starter here, the exhaust releases here, while the gas generator frames downward, connecting the combustor to the nozzle.”
“Noh-Varr is in Kree territory now, am I correct?”
“The last transmission he sent said yes.”
“And the frame will be able to withstand that type of energy?”
“In small quantities, yes. The SSME-combustion chamber pressure is three hundred PSIA. The high pressure turbine driven by high temperatures pre-combustor should be able to accommodate nicely.”
“Yes, but in order to maximize the payload fraction, it is advantageous to increase the vehicle thrust-to-weight ratio--to reduce the gravity loss--provided the gain in mass ration are not offset by increases in propulsion system mass.”
“Well, I’ll be damned.” Tony cursed under his breath as he deleted two days worth of data.
“Oh, Tony,” came Jessica’s voice, drawing his attention towards the intercom to his right as Jessica’s face became clear on the screen. Vision continued to go over his calculations.
“What is it, Drew?” he asked, noticing that Carol stood behind her, snickering as the other woman pushed her away, laughing.
“You might want to take a look at the news.”
Jessica’s nose scrunched up as Carol beat her to the punch. “The worst kind,” she said as both women beckoned with the crook of their fingers for him to come upstairs. “It’ll help if you have company for this.”
“I doubt that greatly. I’ll be back in a moment, Vis.”
“Your absence poses no issues.”
“Of course it doesn’t.”
“This better be important,” he said, noticing that the living room was near full capacity.
Steve stood at the other side of the room, Pepper next to him with Sarah positioned on her hip. Steve did not look happy, nor did she. Tony remained where he was, next to the couch, Jessica Jones smiling sympathetically in his wake before turning her attention back towards the television. Entertainment Tonight lit up the screen, Nancy O’Dell reporting that known billionaire, Tony Stark, had been spotted around New York parading with a mysterious baby, believed to be his daughter. Tony’s jaw came unhinged.
“Isn’t that fucked up?” Luke said, elbows resting against his knees.
“Oprah’s pawing at the chance to get an exclusive interview,” Pepper said, bending down to place a rambunctious Sarah on the floor, watching her closely. “What do you want to do?”
“I’m not flying out to Chicago.”
“She’s willing to fly here.”
“Are you okay with this?” he asked, looking to Steve for answers.
Steve looked anywhere but at him. “You’re a well known figure, Tony. You said so yourself.”
“No. No, I think we should talk about this.”
“I think that’s our cue to leave guys,” Carol said, patting Peter on the shoulder as most everyone moved out. Luke picked up Sarah with the promise of food to eat.
“You’ve been working all day, you’re tired...”
“So let me get you that slice of pizza.”
“It’s not that far.”
“Then we’ll walk.”
“Luke and Jess have her, and Jarvis has them.”
“Yeah, okay. Just give me a few.”
After a few, painfully awkward moments of silence, Tony spoke first. “I don’t even like Oprah.”
“There’s nothing wrong with Oprah, Tony.” Steve was defensive, Tony noticed with a cheshire grin, thinking it perversely funny that Steve would like such things.
“There’s everything wrong with me giving an interview to a woman with a target audience of other women well past menopause. I won’t do it.”
“No television. No, I’ll give an interview to a magazine...GQ would be more than happy to have me back, and I can say what I have to say, snap a few photos, and be done with it.”
“What’s the difference between you giving an interview to a magazine and you giving an interview to, let’s say, Oprah?”
“The difference is simple: I don’t have to hear my voice or see my face on television, what’s written is written, and that’s the end of it. No fake smiling, no stupid, half-hearted chuckle with an annoying host who’s trying to fulfill their own dreams via sucking out your life force. I hate looking like I care, Steve. I hate it.”
“I think I understand now.”
“I still like Oprah, though.”
“You’ll see through her one day, I promise.”
“Thanks for the pizza.”
There was a distinct ringing in her ears, and a tightness in her chest. The armor was useless now, rendered so by Thanos in his villainous rage, stored in her aching bones. There were still slight tremors, rippling through the ground, under what remained of the mansion. She shook as the lightning and thunder grew further and further away, shrouding the entire universe in darkness. Steven laid underneath her, dead now, his cowl ripped off; tattered and torn on the cold, hard ground. The blood was minute, trickling from his ears, nose, and mouth.
No life forms found in general vicinity...
Oxygen less than seven percent...
There was no one left, no one but her, and she knew she didn't have long to live, Thanos robbing them of their last shred of hope; their oxygen. The end for them was now, and no one had turned to run, no one had tried to hide. The heroes of this universe had fought until their dying breath, and Natasha knew she could die a proud warrior. After all, that's what she had wanted most out of life since childhood, to be a warrior, a hero to those who did not have the means to help themselves. She had met, and cared for, some of the best people, and she was proud to count them amongst friends now that their time had come.
Natasha wiped his face, sullied with a deep cut to his right cheek, with a shredded piece of his costume, trying with everything she had to keep his image clear so that she could remember it as it was before. Natasha bowed her head, sobs racking throughout her entire being as she realized she was all alone in a world now void. She screamed, devastated as she felt Steven's skin cooling under her touch, a deep gash along his cheek. She cried so loud, and yet no one heard her. There was no feeling in her legs, paralyzed from the waist down she laid on a hard piece debris, using what little strength she had to pull Steven's head upon her chest. With a small hitch in her voice, the last sob fled her heart, and the last tear slid down her cheek. The quiet was too loud, too frightening as she began to hum softly to herself, bloodied fingers stroking Steven's hair.
The air was stilted, sky completely black as she held still, thinking of her life, as short as it had been, and feeling thankful for what she had when she had it. She closed her eyes, remembering her life before all of this; a happier time. A sunny afternoon spent locked away in her workshop, grueling work interrupted by Steven who carried their four month old in his arms, smile soft, eyes filled with pride at the life they had created together. “You need a break,” he had said, gray tee shirt stained with formula; it didn't take much to convince her.
Natasha sat on a chair in the kitchen, holding Sarah on her lap as she squirmed and bounced, grabbing her mother's nose as she laughed and giggled, amused by the snorting sounds Natasha made just to hear her laugh. The smell of pancakes, eggs and bacon prevalent as Sarah tugged on her hair, drawing her attention away from her adoring husband, the only person who could catch her and make her his, the only person she had chose to spend her life with. The sun, she remembered it so clearly, as it poured in through the open bay windows, a warm, gentle breeze caressing her skin as she laughed and nuzzled Sarah's nose with her own. She pinched her cheeks in between her fingers, kissing each dimple twice and then three times for good measure. Sarah grabbed a hold of her white tee shirt, gnawing on the cotton fabric as Natasha bounced her knee up and down.
Natasha tickled Sarah's belly, legs and arms, laughing as Steve placed two glasses of orange juice onto the table. With his hand upon her shoulder, he placed a kiss to Natasha's cheek, threading his fingers through her dark hair as he kissed her softly on the lips; he’d always kissed her softly. “Food's ready.” Natasha smiled, the corner of her mouth curved as her smile morphed into a smirk.
Natasha stood up, Sarah cradled in her arms.“I've got something better in mind,” she said, free hand gripping the back of Steven's head as she captured his mouth, tugging his bottom lip in between her teeth.
“Breakfast can wait.”
Natasha's eyes snapped open, air thinning as it became harder and harder to breathe. She looked down, Steven's face turned towards her, so serene...so peaceful looking. She placed her open palm on his head, telling him that she would be there shortly; that they would be together again in a place that couldn't harm them. A place where they could raise their family like they wanted to, and fall asleep in bed together, arms and legs tangled as one. “We'll do it, Steve.”
Again her eyes fluttered shut, mind taking her to the day she was married. There was a public ceremony, a declaration of peace between two opposing sides; an end to a war. Natasha and Steve had been committed in their superhero costumes, a veil added to her armor for effect. There were hundreds, maybe thousands who witnessed that monumental kiss, but they didn't see all. When Steve and Natasha had been proclaimed man and wife, it had been a small ceremony in the gardens outside the mansion.
The wind was strong, Fall making its presence known as she walked down the makeshift aisle, golden spheres lighting her way. The sun was setting, but the lingering light fell upon them like a welcoming glow of arms. The black, mermaid gown she wore had a deep v-line and an open back as she chose to display her scars; a sacred part of who she was as she continued to walk down, heels digging into the earth with each step. Steve looked charming in his black Radnor tuxedo with its single-breasted, two button style.
Though, what really stood out to Natasha about Steve, was how elated he looked to see her, like she was the only person in the entire world.
Their first kiss as husband and wife was viewed by few. A close net of heroes they counted among friends. A few tears were shed, and a lot of wine was consumed, and Steve held her up as they clung together on the dance floor, murmuring words of love and affection. Natasha had raised her head from his shoulder, gazing into his eyes as she pressed a kiss to his warm cheek, telling him she couldn't wait until they grew old together. A month later, she learned that she was pregnant.
Again her eyes opened, lungs feeling as though they were being squeezed as she wheezed and she coughed, trying to call out, to reach her daughter. “Sarah...,” she murmured, still running her fingers through Steven's hair. “My Sarah.”
Oxygen less than four percent...
In anguish, she sat up, body battered and bloodied as she held Steven in her lap, fresh tears fell from her chin down to his pale face; he was so cold. She watched as time and space, matter and gravity morphed and bended, breaking. She hoped, with the last thread of faith she had, that Tony would be able to feel the urgency she felt. “I need you to hear me. Thanos...Thanos is done here, and he's...he's coming for you.”
Oxygen less than two percent...
The last face she would ever see was his, dead in her arms, dirty and broken. “I've given...you everything.” She began to cough violently as an all encompassing shudder drained her completely.
Oxygen less than two percent...
You need to be prepared...
Oxygen less than one percent...
Error: Oxygen not detected...
The Curious Tale of Anthony Stark
Adventurer, inventor, industrialist, superhero, heart breaker of every man, woman and child: ladies and gentlemen, I would like to introduce to you a man you may be familiar with, but a man you may not know
By Thomas Suárez
Tony Stark and I meet up at the DuMont Restaurant in Brooklyn off of Union Avenue; he's there five minutes before I am, sitting outside on one of the many benches holed up against a brick wall, talking on the phone. “Sorry, I was making sure my girl got home all right,” he said, pocketing his phone in his jeans, and my ears perk up. Girl?
I couldn't help but notice he was dressed down in a black tee shirt and a pair of jeans. When asked he told me he had just finished a photoshoot for our magazine. I then asked him if he remembered the last interview we did. He said, “Of course, of course. We were at a restaurant in Manhattan, discussing the new name for Stark Resilient. I was an hour and a half late, I remember that.”
I asked him if he recalled what his position had been on children. The corner of his eyes crinkled, perfectly white teeth showing as he said, with a wave of his hand, “Of course, of course. I said I didn't have time for them.” There's an easiness about him that wasn't present prior to our second interview.
I asked him about her, with all the stories guessing as to where she came from: foreign adoption, local adoption, alien dropping down to earth, mother dropping her baby on Avengers doorstep, I had to know. I watched, and was amazed, as his smile grew wider. “What can I say? I’ve read all the stories, and they’re all pretty ridiculous. She's my daughter, that's who she is. When her mother, a very important woman by the name of Natasha, was killed in a car accident, I took her daughter in. Sarah has become a part of my life, but I try my best to keep her out of the spotlight. That’s no place for children,” he said as he pulled a strand of long, blonde hair from my jacket. I told him that I have a daughter of my own, seven years old, and she never lets me leave unless I give her a hug goodbye. “That's sweet.”
The sun is pouring down on us, weather extremely hot for this time of the year, and Tony takes a long draw of his soda to try and quench his thirst. I ask him if he had heard the news, that an unknown disease had been rampaging its way through the west of Europe. I mentioned how frightened people were, some attempting to flee their homelands to escape being infected, many not realizing that they were, in fact, already infected. Worst still, the people who aren’t infected are being contained within their respective countries. The smile faded away from his face, concern echoing in the way he readjusted himself; one leg over the other. “I have. I know scientists all over the world are scrambling to find a cure. I don’t approve of the tactics those leaders are taking, but it’s not uncommon in times of mass hysteria. ” I asked if he was concerned about the random explosions all over South East Asia, watching as the crease in his brow indented further. “Of course I'm concerned. I've heard. I know that no one's sure who's behind the bombings, but we're distributing as much aid as we possibly can to the people affected by such a tragedy. I know our own military is doing its best, caring for the wounded and those without shelter and fresh drinking water, and that includes War Machine.”
I proceeded to knock over the water I had ordered, spilling it on both of our feet. Tony laughed, telling me not to sweat the small stuff. I asked if he had started taking it easy now that he was a father. “No, not really. I think I worry more, to be honest. I think I worry more, but about different things. I worry what formula and baby food to buy, I worry about what car seat is the safest. I look at germs in a completely different light now. Like, Steve will have her on his lap, and she has her fingers crammed in her mouth, and I'm just freaking out. I'm like, 'Do you realize what you can pick up from a counter? Do you?' And, of course she doesn't. She's seven months old.” I couldn't help but to zone in on the obvious.
“You mean Steve Rogers, Steve? Captain America, Steve Rogers?” I grew up listening to stories of how great this man was, watching him in action since he came back. Tony adjusted his collar a little, but didn't seem too bothered by my enthusiastic questioning. In fact, he appeared nostalgic in his response. “Yes, that Steve. I'm thankful to have him, and some of the other Avengers, around to help me raise her,” he said, thoughtful.
A month prior, he and Steve had been pictured together in Central Park. A disgruntled photographer had reported to the local news that Captain Rogers had taken his camera, deleted all of the photos he had taken of him and Mr. Stark with Sarah, and had sent him on his way, costing him his shot. This apparently didn't bother him, and so I asked, “What's Steve's role in caring for her?” Tony leaned back, demeanor stiff as he thought a moment, and then asked: “Do you know who introduced me to this restaurant?”
I told him no, I didn't. To that, he said: “Steve brought me here a couple of years back. I told him I wouldn't like it, but I did, and we still come here when we're in Brooklyn. We're completely predictable, too. I always order the DuMont burger with everything on it, and a side of garlic fries. Steve always gets the buffalo chicken sandwich with a side of onion rings. It's what we do when we have the time.” With a chuckle, he apologized, telling me he had gotten sidetracked. I told him that if he overlooked the wet socks he now wore, that I could overlook him getting off track. “What was the question again?” he asked.
I repeated it. “Oh, yeah,” he said. “Steve. Steve is, well, involved like any good friend would be. He keeps me from leaving her on top of the car, and stuff like that.” The look on my face must have amused him because he laughed at me, patting me on the shoulder. “Take that how you want. I don't know how else to explain it.”
I couldn’t help but to ask about the Superhero Registration Act, and the Civil War that had transpired as a result, placing Iron Man and Captain America on opposing sides, resulting in much bloodshed, human and superhuman alike, and ultimately the death of Captain America himself. “I...that was a bad time, the absolute worst. We, I...lost sight of what was important. And that was helping people.”
I asked him about the treatment of metahumans during his time in office. Tony’s face fell somewhat, brows furrowed as he seemed to try and remember what it was we were discussing, palms smoothing down the front of his jeans. “People are people, superpowered or not. They have families, and jobs, and pay taxes like everyone else. And as American Citizens, they have the right to privacy. It was a bad time...for everyone.”
I asked about Unit 42, and how it made life for heroes like Luke Cage, Sam Wilson, and even Steve Rogers difficult, and downright dangerous. Tony tapped the side of his soda can, face void of any expression as he went to open his mouth, closing it again. The twinkle so often present in the corner of his eye, and the crook of his mouth dulled as he finally said, “You know what, I was wrong. I was wrong about a lot of things; still am. You know, they were put through a lot. Families separated, children placed into hiding. Constantly on the run. Unit 42 was, it wasn’t a good idea. That’s a terrible apology, I know, but it’s the best I’ve got. ”
I went on to ask how he and Steve had been able to repair their tattered relationship. Before he answered, Tony asked if I wanted to share the garlic fries he had ordered. I laughed, telling him I had been so nervous before our interview that I was too afraid to eat. Before he answered my question, he politely ordered another round of garlic fries for me. “I mean...it wasn’t easy, and it’s still not easy. I’m not going to mince words with you, Tommy, there are a lot of things we still don’t agree on, and things we still argue over, but...for it to go the way it went before...it’s, it’s not worth it. And I treasure him, and our relationship, much more than that.”
We spent the next fifteen minutes discussing various things, from politics to what type of bird was nestled in the tree adjacent from us. I noticed as his phone rang, and he dismissed the number. “Work,” he said. The second time it rang during our interview, he excused himself so that he could answer it. When he came back, I asked if everything was all right. “It was Steve, wondering if I would bring him home a buffalo chicken sandwich. Here I was, thinking something terrible had happened to Sarah, and it's him wanting me to bring him back something to eat.”
We joked about that for some time. I knew he didn't have much free time, having patented a new invention, and so, when he looked down at his watch and frowned, I knew our time was up. “Well, old friend, I'll have to call it an evening.” I shook his hand as he both stood up. I was the first to hail a cab; of course Anthony Stark doesn't hail cabs, but it was refreshing to see a man of his status remain inside to order that buffalo chicken sandwich for Captain America, himself.
I went home that evening thinking I should have asked him more questions about his new daughter, and what that meant for him. I went home that evening, and I kissed my wife goodnight, and checked in on my own daughter. I leaned forward, pressed a kiss to her forehead, and thought about the remarks he had made about his own child. “Da,” seemed a reasonable summary for what constitutes a part of the hero we know as Iron Man.
The Curious tale of Anthony Stark isn't that he's an adventurer, inventor, industrialist, or even a superhero; it's the fact that he's all these things plus a doting, slightly neurotic father.
There was an odd feeling tingling in the pit of Tony’s stomach as he exited the limo, thanking Charlie, the driver before he entered the mansion through the side entrance. The same funny feeling he felt whenever he was in Dr. Strange’s house, or near the man. The first to spot him in the kitchen was Steve, eyes looking past him as Reed and Strange skipped their hellos, and went straight to the point. “We’ve found him,” Strange said, face grave as he stood, Reed following.
“Well don’t keep me guessing, you know I’m not very good at it.” Tony opened the refrigerator door, grabbing a bottle of water.
“Tony, now is not the time. I have located Thanos with Adam Warlock’s help, and if we are to have any chance at saving our universe, we need to confront him now.”
“Tell me how it goes.”
“You’re coming with us,Tony,” Reed said, suited in his white and black getup. “The three of us will confront him together.”
“Because that’s gone so well for us before, right?”
Steve frowned as Tony tossed him his food. “Why are you being so difficult?” he asked, thanking him in the next breath.
“I’m not. I’m not. I’m just, I thought this was a great idea at first, but Thanos is...well, Thanos. If we tell him our situation, what’s to stop him from teaming up with this other Thanos?”
Strange shook his head in disbelief. “It was you who came up with the idea,” he said, crossing his arms as he walked about in a half circle.
“No, I know. And I’m going, I’m going. I’m just not looking forward to it, you know?”
“None of us are,” Reed said, messing around with a square-like device. “We’ll do what we must.” Tony snatched the item out of Reed’s hand before he could stop him. “Be careful with that!”
“Is this what I think it is?” he asked, looking through the clear hole set in the top.
“Yes, it’s complete. How’s the spacecraft coming along?”
“All I need is antimatter, which Noh-Varr is working on as we speak, and we’re set to go.”
Steve slapped Tony’s hand away as he reached for another onion ring. “Are you leaving now?” he asked, taking a bite out of his sandwich.
Strange gave a quick nod. “Yes, the sooner the better.”
Tony gave a soft sigh of defeat as his armor formed around him. “Then let’s get the show on the road, then. I didn’t need to sleep this week anyway.” With a nagging feeling, Tony turned towards Steve, thankful he couldn’t see him as he said, “Make sure you say goodbye for me, will you?”
“I will, and you’re coming back, so stop worrying.”
“I’m not worrying.”
“You really are.”
“Maybe a little but, come on, Thanos.”
Reed cocked his head to the side as Strange stood perfectly still, hands glowing a light blue. Steve took three steps back as Tony moved forward, standing in a circle with the two of them as Dr. Strange began to chant. “Now let the rising tide of power / From birth of stars to final doom / Reveal the place, the form, the hour / Where light's salvation forth may bloom / Where seen and unseen twine and blend -- And darkness end!” Tony had less than a second to think he should have asked where they were going.
A whirling sound punctured the armor, filling his ears with a shrill amount of wind. There were flashes of red as his scanners alerted him to improbable, impossible danger. There were numerous stars, draped across a black background, spheres of multiple blues and greens draping around them. The armor stressed under an immense amount of pressure, and his chest squeezed tight as he gritted his teeth. Tony would give anything to make it stop, or at least, have it make sense.
A roller coaster effect took over, a warping of limbs and conscious mind; he didn't like it. Dr. Strange remained unfazed as Tony and Reed struggled to find their footing, no easy feat considering there was no ground to stand upon. What could have only been a few moments felt like eternity, a warping of what was perceived as real in one realm and overturning all laws of physics. A sudden halt jolted them from their cycle of mystic traveling, leaving them worse for wear. Through and through, it wasn't as terrible as Tony had imagined it would be.
“The magic and the universe hopping, not great for the stomach, huh? I’m regretting those stolen onion rings.”
A low, evil chuckle sounded, and as Tony turned around, he could see the large, purple beast. It took him a minute to remind himself that this Thanos was not the one who had murdered Natasha, and her universe. This wasn’t the Thanos who had left Sarah an orphan, but he was close enough. “The man of iron finds this amusing?” he asked, mouth pulled into a menacing grin.
This Thanos was adorned in blue and gold to the other’s chosen green and gold. Their differences were subtle, eyes white instead of black, jaw square instead of pointed. Their smugness the same, but this Thanos appeared, at best, withdrawn from all life, and not intent on ending it. He appeared sad, almost. A shell of what he and the others had faced years prior.
Adam stood beside him, dwarfed in comparison to his size. The purple lake stretched on for quite some length behind them; Tony took note of Gamora as she kept distance between herself and Thanos. The snow capped mountains kept their distance, no wind, no other sign of life near or far except for them. Soulworld was as safe a place as any for a meeting such as this. At least, the only casualties if things were to go awry were limited to them, and them only.
To say he wasn't frightened would be a complete lie, and if asked later, he wouldn't deny it, but there was something about clear and present danger that made him jump into another mode opposite to what he was feeling. Tony would like to think of it as courage, but knew that most, if not always, it was out of fear that made him as arrogant as he appeared. The armor helped as well, filtering his shaking voice, and hiding his eyes that shifted anywhere and everywhere that wasn't in Thanos' direction. “I do, actually. With all our collective resources, and you were hiding in some little hole, playing intergalactic farmer. I’m pretty sure they’ve based a computer game after you.”
The grin fell from Thanos as he hollered in anger. “You fool!” Thanos was, by far, the most powerful Titanian Eternal. His massive, heavy body born with the capacity to synthesize cosmic energy for his own personal use. A daunting figure, capable of mass destruction.
“Thanos, control yourself,” came Adam’s voice as he placed himself in front of the Titan, Gamora beside him.
“You, too,” Reed said, as he and Strange stood in front of him. Soulworld looked as it had the last time Tony had the misfortune of seeing it. The pink sky, white glaciers, rolling hills of green, and purple lakes just wasn’t his cup of tea.
“You want something of me, Strange? Speak now before I turn my back on your useless, pitiful sorrows.”
Strange held his tongue, collecting himself before he said,“The universe is in danger.”
Thanos’ ears perked up at that notion, his attention solely devoted on Strange. “How so?” he asked, arms crossed as he looked down upon them with a heavy eye.
“Earth-3490 was destroyed by the Thanos of that universe, and we have reason to believe he has every intent of destroying this universe next.”
“Is that so?”
“You know we would not be here if it were not.”
“And how do you expect me to help you?”
Tony rolled his eyes. “You use your condescending tone against his condescending tone in an epic battle of condescension until one or both of your heads explode from sanctimonious indignation.”
“We have a plan, if you’re willing to listen,” Reed said, glaring at Tony who remained motionless.
“And why would I want to help you?” Thanos asked, mood shifting from superior to rebuffed. Adam eyed him with a weary expression.
“Because this universe is not only our universe, it’s yours as well, or have you forgotten that lost within this world?”
“I have forgotten nothing, Reed Richards. What makes you think I would not like to see this Thanos destroy this universe as well?”
“Simple,” Tony said with a wave of his hand. “You wouldn’t be the one doing it, and we all know how you feel about sharing.”
Strange shook his head as Thanos charged. “Now let the rising tide of power / From birth of stars to final doom / Reveal the place, the form, the hour / Where light's salvation forth may bloom / Where seen and unseen twine and blend -- And darkness end!” The end of his spell brought them all back, safe and unharmed. “I sincerely hope that works, Tony.”
Jarvis stood, hand over his heart as a tray of milk and cookies laid splattered on the floor. “Oh, I do believe I’ve suffered a heart attack,” he said, leaning on the kitchen counter for support.
“Jarvis, I did not mean to startle you,” Strange said, rushing to his aid.
“No, no. It’s quite all right. I should be accustomed to such things.”
“This day has been odd, I’m heading back to the Baxter Building to make sure the universe is intact. If anything of importance happens, contact me. If not, don’t,” Reed said, heading towards the foyer as he stopped and turned around. “And Tony, that stunt of yours better have worked.”
Reed brushed past a confused Steve, Sarah pulling and stretching the skin of his face. “What stunt?” he asked as she pulled his bottom lip down, giggling at him.
“Thanos’ biggest enemy is himself...I just used that to our advantage.”
Strange helped Jarvis to sit upright in a chair next to the window, opening it to allow the fresh air in. “You may have very well caused our doom.”
“You mean you pissed him off?” Steve asked as Tony took Sarah from his grasp.
“Language,” he said with mock outrage, ignoring everyone as he took Sarah to find Noh-Varr. “Where’s the alien from the far away galaxy and the android whose insides look like spaghetti when you crack him open?”
“Okay, that’s a gross image. Vision is helping victims in St. Louis, and Noh-Varr hasn’t been out of the aircraft storage room for hours,” Jessica Jones announced, Danni walking unsteadily as she tried to move faster, screaming, “Mommy! Mommy!” as Jess tried to catch her.
“Alrighty, then.” Tony looked at Sarah, watching as he watched Danni and Jess, and stretched her arms and whimpered, but ultimately didn’t make much noise. This made Tony sad for reasons he didn’t quite understand, knowing she wasn’t as vocal as she should be. “You...I’ll give you back to Steve for the time being. You don’t like loud noises, and that’s all Noh-Varr knows how to make.
“You can give her to me.” Jess was out of breath, purple shirt splattered in green paint. Danni hopping around the living room.
“You’re stepping in what I hope is chocolate pudding.”
Jess looked down, hair in her face. “Shit!”
“That’s what I thought.” Tony headed back towards the kitchen where he had last seen Steve before turning right back around. “We’ll put earbuds in, okay?” Sharon was in the kitchen, Nick Fury and Dum Dum right behind her, so it must have been important if those two were willing to come out of the shadows where they dwell to the land of the living.
The elevator doors shut, and Tony let out a sigh of relief, heart hammering within his chest. “Say something, it’ll make you feel better,” he said, poking Sarah’s nose as she stared up at him, eyes wide and awe-inspiring. “Come on, anything. You can say whatever you want. You can order a gin and tonic, and I, as your dutiful caretaker, will be okay with that.” Sarah said nothing. “White Russian, maybe? No, Romanov wouldn’t approve.”
The elevator stopped, and the doors opened, allowing Tony to come face-to-face with his almost completed spacecraft. “Will you take a look at this?” he asked, circling around the massive craft, titanium and vibranium securing the outer layers. “You want to go inside?”
Noh-Varr said nothing to him other than he had the antimatter and would be implementing it as soon as the combustion chambers were formatted. Tony opened the latch, climbing inside with Sarah in tow. The craft was equipped with three seats, with Tony’s centered in the front where he could pilot as well as control the spacecraft. “I kept it pretty simple, kid. If I had more time, I would’ve added all the bells and whistles, but it’ll do.” Sarah looked up and down, side to side as she mashed the buttons in front of her.
“You want to pilot it with me?” he asked, taking her small hands in his own and setting them on either side of the control column. “You’re a natural, you know?” Sarah sat in his lap, laughing ecstatically as Tony made funny noises, moving the controls left and right, right and left.
“Oh, no! Mayday! Mayday! We’re going down!” he shouted, making distressed noises much to Sarah’s amusement. “Pull up! Pull up!”
Tony froze as Nick came into view. “Crash, we’re dead.”
“We’re havin’ a meetin’ an’ your presence is required, your majesty.”
“Well, since you asked so nicely, I guess I’ll come down.”
Noh-Varr ignored them as they exited the room to the elevator. Tony thought Nick would be crass with him, but remained quiet as Sarah pointed at him and screamed. If he were to be honest with himself, and not that he often was, that made him a little proud. In the kitchen, Steve, Sharon, Dum Dum, Natasha, Maria, Jessica Jones, Danni, Sam, Pepper, and Strange either sat or stood around waiting for him. “Did I miss something?”
“We have trouble,” Natasha said, arms crossed as she sat beside Maria, doing her best to ignore Pepper.
“You mean natural disasters and the new bubonic plague aren’t trouble enough?”
“That so-called plague has reached Russia, this thing’s on a whole new scale now,” Maria explained, right eye blackened. Tony felt ill, recalling what had happened to her and Clint’s counterparts. “We’re stretched as thin as we can go, but there’s more now.”
“The random explosions are moving through North and South Africa, T’Challa and Ororo are doing their best, but it’s not enough. They need help, too. And I’m going, first thing tomorrow,” Pepper said, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear as she stood beside Steve and Jess.
Natasha slammed her fist on the table’s surface. “No.”
“The Rescue armor is meant for exactly that, rescuing. I can’t do that sitting down.”
“And what happens if a random explosion takes you out?” Natasha asked, jaw stiff, but her eyes gave her away.
“The same thing that happens to you if you catch the plague.”
“That’s enough,” Sharon said, standing in the center of the chaos as she propelled herself forward and away from the wall. “Until whatever is supposed to come actually comes, we do what we have to, understood? We’ve got people deployed all over the world and at home. I need to know who you’re with, and where you plan to be stationed.”
Maria frowned. “Hill: Sydney, New South Wales.”
“Falcon: Miami, Florida.”
“Fury: Valdivia, Los Ríos Region”
“Dugan: Windsor, Ontario”
Jess looked down at Danni, kissing her forehead. “Power Woman: Tangshan, Hebei.”
“Jess.” Steve reached out, but Jess simply shook her head.
“Luke’s doing what he can in Charleston with Danny and Misty. I’ll call Doreen. It’ll be fine.”
“Carter: Novosibirsk, Novosibirsk Oblast.”
“Captain America: New York City, New York.”
“Rescue: Udu, Delta State.”
Natasha shook her head, dissatisfied with the entire situation. “Black Widow: Udu, Delta State.” As Pepper glared at her, Natasha brushed her off. “You’re stupid if you think I’m going to just let you wander around Nigeria all by yourself with no backup.”
“Dr. Stephen Strange: Astral Plane.”
The last to answer was Tony, himself. “Iron Man: Space, I guess.”
“That took too goddamn long,” Nick said as he and Dum Dum moved out, telling Sharon to do what she came to do, and be done with it.
Sharon stood in front of Steve, staring up at him intently as she asked, “Can we talk somewhere private?” Steve said something as the two headed for the patio outside; Tony too distracted to notice.
Tony was confused, and unsettled by all that had transpired. No matter how hard he was working, it didn’t seem fast enough. “Jarvis,” he said, looking at him as he emerged from the pantry.
“When the time comes, I trust you to make sure all the children, as well as yourself, are barricaded in the Assembly Room, understood?”
“Of course,” Jarvis said, keeping a stoic face.
Sarah squirmed, pushed, and hit him as she began to cry. Tony didn’t understand what was wrong with her until Jarvis had mentioned it was well past lunch time. Unsure, he sat Sarah in her high chair, placing the bib Jarvis handed to him around her neck as he sat back and watched. “How do bananas sound?” he asked, pouring the baby food from jar to bowl, using a clean spoon meant specifically for her.
“I’m afraid she’s not much of a conversationalist, sir.”
Tony sighed. “You will be one day, won’t you?” Sarah banged her hands on the tray, squirming around in her harness. “Okay, okay.” Jarvis watched as Tony’s hand shook, bringing the yellow plastic spoon to her mouth.
“You should be familiar with this, sir. She has your mouth, after all.” Amusement echoed in every word.
Tony tried again to get Sarah to open her mouth, frustrated at the lack of help he was receiving. “Jarvis, you’re fired for the next ten minutes.”
Jarvis held up his hands, turning to walk away as he said, “Very well, sir. I’ll retire to my quarters and wallow in the fact I no longer have an occupation. Or, I might sort those jars of homemade strawberry jam you’re so fond of, but whatever will I do?”
“I swear, if you eat this once, I’ll buy you a jet,” he said, greeted with banana smeared across his face. “Two jets?” After five minutes, he gave up and handed her the bowl, watching, with great amusement, as she lifted it to her mouth, moving it around as she made humming sounds.
“Congratulations, you’ve succeeded in turning your once white onesie into a yellow one.” The wet wash cloth Jarvis had left behind for him came in handy, he thought, washing her face off as she continued to make odd sounds and shift around restlessly. “It’s a harness. Trust me, you’re not getting out of there until I’m done.”
“You’ve grown fond of her,” came Dr. Strange’s voice, causing Tony to rear back in fright.
“I thought you left.”
“No. I had to speak with Agent Fury, not that he’ll listen to me.”
“Nick Fury only listens to Nick Fury, and sometimes he doesn’t even do that.”
“You care for her, don’t you?”
Tony continued to clean off Sarah’s fingers, hands and arms. “Yeah, I guess. I’m not un...fond of her, or anything.”
“Do you believe hitting Thanos' weaker points will sway him to our side of things?”
Tony cocked his head to the side, urging Sarah to eat. “I think so. I don't think he'll do anything for us, but I do think he'll do anything for self preservation.”
“I see. I've heard about the interview you did, concerning the current speculation. I hope that you and Steve have found equal footing on the matter.”
Tony turned his attention back towards him, lips protruding as he thought. “I think so. Maybe. Why?”
“Hm, amusing. You should ask Steve about it.”
Sarah threw the bowl at Tony, effectively diverting his attention away from strange. “Why should I do that?” When he received no answer, he asked again. “Strange?” He turned around, noticing he was no longer present. “I hate that. I hate magic. I hate him.”
“Hate who?” Steve asked as he emerged from the patio. Sharon having gone with Fury and Dum Dum.
“Strange and his disappearing acts.”
“What’s all over her?”
“Bananas. I don’t know how much she’s wearing versus what’s in her stomach, but she’s stopped punching me, so I think the small human’s satisfied.”
“You’re mad that a baby punched you?”
“She has very tiny, very strong fist.”
There was a moment of awkward silence between them, eyes diverted anywhere but at each other. “We need to talk,” they said in unison, breaking some of the tension.
Steve laughed, hand rubbing behind his neck in a circle.“You want to go somewhere private?” he asked.
“Yeah, sure. Jarvis, you’re rehired, ” Tony called out, drawing Jarvis’ attention away from the pantry.
“Oh, goodness. Thank you, sir, I thought I would go absolutely deranged those five and a half minutes I was without employment. My life lacked direction, I do think.” Sarah made grabby hands at him as he undid the harness attached to the high chair, taking her in his arms as he whisked her away for a proper bath.
Steve laughed as they headed up the stairs.
“I need a new butler.”
“No one, and I mean no one, would ever take that job offer.”
“You act like I’m impossible,” he said, shutting the door to his bedroom. “I’m not impossible.” His room was simple, but futuristic; a black-brown malm framed bed pushed back against a well lit wall, papers and electronic devices scattered all around. A testament to his investment in work-related projects.
Steve gave a sincere smile, as he leaned against the bedroom door.The solid oak door was one of the few mainstays leftover from his father's vision of what a grand sized home should convey. “You are impossible.”
Tony restrained himself as the desire to run away became extremely high. “What did you need to tell me?”
Steve’s eyes crystal clear as he stared him. “I'm going to stand against Thanos, Tony,” he said, finally.
“You, what? From the ground, you mean?”
Steve sighed.“You think this plan of yours is going to work?”
Tony thought about Sarah, and all that she had lost. “It's going to have to.”
“All right,” he said, looking down at his feet before looking up again. “I...uh, Sharon broke up with me. She said I wasn’t the only one who changed, and I agreed.”
Tony nodded, absorbing that information. “You okay?” he asked, relieved when Steve nodded. Tony noticed how close they were, the gray bands extending outside his pupils in the irises of his eyes. Steve’s lips were smoother than they appeared, a faint taste of mint from the chapstick he used. Steve was better appreciated when there was more than enough lighting to make out each and every detail; he was also distracting. Steve appeared calm, face smooth, no lines or creases visible as the fear clamoring in the pit of Tony’s stomach finally settled. “So, what did Steven tell you, exactly?”
Steve’s face reddened. “That’s not important,” he said. “It's been solved.”
Tony raised a brow. “Solved?” he asked, grinning at the absurdity of it all as Steve balled his fist into the fabric of his shirt, pulling him forward.
“Solved,” he said, leaning his head forward and to the right, pressing his lips softly against Tony’s as he closed his eyes, sighing in relief as he reciprocated. Tony pushed forward, the tip of his tongue tracing over Steve’s bottom lip as he raked his fingers up over Steve’s sides, a rush of heat engulfing them both as Tony's thoughts ran amok.
Steve's cheeks were tinged red, pupils dilated as Tony's brain caught up. This wasn't a desperate bid to rid of anger and grief, this was real and his, and great, he thought as Steve removed his shirt. The lack of skin against skin wasn't nearly as pressing as Tony's desire to capture that full mouth again. Free of his shirt, Steve took over, biting and sucking everywhere his mouth could situate itself. A press of hips against hips had Tony stumbling forward, attempting to capture all sensation Steve had to offer.
Steve ran his fingers through Tony’s hair, tongue moving against his. Steve’s back slammed into the door as Tony slid his hand up underneath his shirt, all former resolve washed away now that he knew for sure. Tony groaned as Steve yanked at his hair, sound muffled as he sucked the skin just below the hollow of his throat. “Thanks again for lunch,” Steve said, moving Tony back towards the bed at the same time he worked to remove his shirt.
“Shut up, shut up.” Their fingers twined together as Steve pinned him to the mattress below. The feeling of Steve's lips pressed against the skin of his neck, and the feel of his hand bruising his right hip left nothing but an aching desire for more. More as he raised up, Steve undoing the button of his jeans, hoisting them down around his hips as Tony struggled to return the favor, all the while keeping their mouths occupied. More, his mind cried out, as his hand slid along the front of Steve's briefs, palming his cock as if it was the only thing in the world he wanted to do.
Overall, a sense of relief prevailed as Steve licked and nipped at his bottom lip, tracing over the contours of his neck and chest, panting as they were forced to pull away, all but devoured in lust.
The warmth of the sun faded and disappeared as Tony rolled them over, thighs straddling either side of Steve's waist, the feeling of him enveloping him; Steve's hips grinding up as Tony ground down, palms on either side of his head, teeth capturing his bottom lip. Steve's hands were all over him, tracing the muscles of his back, thighs and buttocks, hands slipping further down, squeezing when a sudden, powerful bolt of lightning tore across the sky, thunder roaring just behind it. Tony looked up away from Steve's face, eyes widening as the abrupt change in weather became apparent to him. “Oh, no. No, no.”
Tony fled from his bedroom, adjusting himself as he redid his pants, Steve right behind him as they hurried down stairs. Thor and Sif standing strong and proud within the dinning hall. “The time of warning comes, our foe hath risen, scorching a path through heaven in his wake.”
Steve took a deep breath, collecting himself. “Thor, are you sure?”
Sif squared her shoulders, winged helmet framing her face as her sword stood ready to strike. “The fate of the universe is in thy hands. Thou must not falter in battle, so battle forth.”
Sam met them inside, gliding in through the open doors. “Cap, Cap! There’s explosions going off Upstate. Miami’s gone, all underwater, I’m all yours. Redwing's tearing through the city, I've got eyes everywhere, and it's a disaster. Where do you want me?”
“Clint, Wanda and Pietro are Upstate, help them.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m holding down the fort here.”
“You can’t,” Tony said. “Not by yourself.”
“Don’t worry, Princess, Uncle Ben’s right on time,” Ben said, both Franklin and Val in each arm, Sue and Reed right behind him as they entered in through the foyer.
“Where’s Sarah and Danni?” Sue asked, worried as she placed a kiss upon each of her children’s foreheads.
“I’ve got them right here,” Doreen said, both babies on either side of her hips.
“And I’m right behind her, sir,” Jarvis said, shotgun in hand. “I don’t know what I’ll do with rubber bullets, but I imagine it will make me feel less useless.”
Tony activated his armor, as Steve changed into his costume, meeting everyone back in the hall. “Noh-Varr’s right behind me,” he said, placing a kiss to Sarah’s forehead.
“We’re needed, Tony,” Reed said, patting Franklin on the head as he hugged Valeria. “We don’t have much time.”
“They would not kill him. She would do anything to prevent it. Anything.”
Sue looked at him with concern. “What?”
“It’s a story. A story I read to her,” Tony said, pinching Sarah’s dimpled cheeks in between his fingers, kissing each one as he retracted the armor from around his face. “The craft’s ready to go, we just need to get to the hangar.”
“It’ll be odd not having you by my side,” Steve said to Tony as Thor and Sif moved out. Doreen, Jarvis, Franklin, Valeria, Danni and Sarah held in the Assembly Room.
“Don’t break the shield this time.” Steve gave a small nod, cowl covering most of his features, but not his eyes, and that was important to Tony for some reason. The others filed out, each heading to their specific destinations as panic filled the pit of Tony's stomach again.The room was vacant, just the two of them as Tony tried to take everything in before they were forced apart. “Steven said something important. I want to know what it was.”
“Don't make me beg, Steve. Please.”
Thunder shook the ground beneath their feet, the same desperate feeling rushing through the mansion as it had during their time with Natasha and Steven. Steve's eyes softened. “He told me I couldn't afford to be a coward,” he said, arms falling to his sides. “That love wasn't a compromise, but a force that couldn't be broken.”
“It was a lot to take in. He basically told me I died a senseless death, and not to make the same mistake twice.”
“You're not going to die today,” he said as Steve dragged him forward, giving him a short, hard kiss before they went their separate ways. “Save me dinner.”
The spacecraft was sleek, titanium and vibrainum protecting the outer surface as the antimatter propelled the engines. Tony's stomach churned, he would have preferred to jet off on his own, but he needed Sue's invisibility if this mission was going to be even half successful. So he placed himself in charge of manning the craft he had created. “Okay, are we ready for take off?” he asked as he climbed inside, strapping himself in.
“How will we know Thanos’ location?” Sue asked, hair pulled back as she settled in beside him.
“This little beauty is designed to follow disturbances within the cosmos. Or, if you’d prefer, when big ugly rips a hole, this thing will see it.”
“That’s all I wanted to know.”
“Good. Ignition, engage.” The armor was connected to the craft, responding to his vocal instructions. “Thrusters, full force.” Tony gave a small nod, watching as the metal enclosure slid open, ramp awaiting them as they began take off. “All systems go.”
All and all, it took about eight minutes from liftoff into orbit. The last four minutes were god awful, chest compressing, feeling like his weight increased three times in mass. Two hundred and sixty miles just to orbit Earth, and they still had a distance before they would reach their destination. The increased speed was due to Noh-Varr, working on their side, for the fate of the universe,using advanced Kree technology to propel them further in less time. A deep pain settled in his chest, it was hard to take a breath, but breathing was the least of Tony's concerns.
“You know what’s funny? How many times have we gone into space? I take off in my armor with no problem. I take off on a plane, I’m happy as can be. Spacecraft, rocket, roller coasters? Makes me want to puke and piss myself all at the same time.”
“Tony, that’s disgusting.”
“I know, right? That’s why I added...”
In less than a half hour, and they were passing Neptune's orbit, temperature dropping as the thrusters flared, antimatter kicking in to provide them the strength they needed. Of course, they were not alone in this battle. There were alarms blaring every couple of minutes, cosmic energy flaring from various entities who realized, and feared, what was coming for them.
“What’s that?” Sue asked as a flash of light blinded them. They had just entered the Kuiper Belt, comets coming at them in clusters.
“Sue, I’m going to need those powers of yours now. I think we’ve found him.” The Kuiper belt contained over two hundred million comets, the cosmic entities; however, the first casualties not contained to Earth, was a new sight.
Sue’s eyes widened, jaw unhinged as she unbuckled herself, moving on unsteady feet as she concentrated with all her might. “Oh, God. Pluto’s gone!”
“That planet can’t catch a break, can it? Don’t think about that now, though. We have to stay focused,” Tony said, filter not giving away the quiver in his voice.
“I hope Reed’s found that Nullifier.”
“Unfortunately, knowing my husband, it might take a while. Unlike you, he doesn’t take many risks.”
“I don’t take risks!”
“Your whole life’s been one big risk, Tony.”
“Doesn’t mean I like to take them, Sue. They’re options.”
“They’re our only option right now, so prepare to get up close and personal, he’s using Thor as a rag doll, and Sif can’t keep him off of him for very long without getting her, and Loki, killed.”
“Odin refuses to fight for this Universe anymore, and Thor’s the only leader the Asgardian’s have. He goes, they all do.”
“Is injured, and the Warrior’s Three are missing.”
“Well, let’s get started, then.”
“That’s what I like to hear.”
A war waged on in the cosmos, entities hidden within the seams of the universe emerging with all their power and mystic might to try and destroy the being who threatened their life source. The Tribunal warred first, head of vengeance turned towards Thnos, as he used his control over the Multiverse to try and disengage Thanos’ use of the Infinity gems, but Thanos of Earth-3490 knew, and was a step ahead. Sparks flew as comets flared, striking in each and every direction. Tony dodged what he could, zoning in on Thanos before shooting three rays into his back, causing the Titan to throw himself back, rage provoked as he clambered to find them. Sue hissed as Tony barely dodged a bolt of pure energy, striving to keep them hidden. “Come on, Reed.”
The feeling of being helpless, there’s nothing worse. Sam was doing the best he could, given the situation, working his way through Syracuse as the sun began to fade, putting out fires, flying people out of harms way, tending to the injured, but it simply wasn’t enough. Wanda was doing her best in Rochester, Clint trudging through what was left of Ithaca. Sam wasn’t comfortable with the kids being left on their own in Albany, Buffalo and Elmira, Pietro racing in between all three with Tommy. Syracuse was in shambles, the University being one of the last structures remaining.
When asked what to do by a family of three, Sam took a deep, collected breath, trying to think, to stay alert. “Keep to the ground,” he said, digging through the debris of a dinner that had collapsed not ten minutes prior. The ground was better than taking a chance, too many people were dying, being crushed to death; if they were that lucky.
“There’s blasts coming through the forest!” one woman hollered, shirt tattered and torn. She hadn’t left Sam’s side since he got there. “There’s people there, crushed under trees. They thought they’d be safe there.”
“I’ve got eyes on them now, Dr. Palmer, do what you can here.” The dirt and grime layered her blonde hair with gray streaks, palms black as she called out for any and all survivors.
The noise, loud, shrieking almost as it pounded against his ear drums, disorienting him as he tried to keep from losing everything completely. The air was dense, clouded with smoke, and hot. His mouth was so dry, arms covered in ash, but with no other option, he kept on. The further time seemed to slip away, the more frequent the blasts took place; close, closer still as he kept himself above ground. No man, woman, nor child could find a safe place to hide.
Sam listened in, calling for Wanda and Pietro to respond. “I’m here, Sam, what is it you need?” Wanda asked, two explosions going off on her end as she hollered for people to follow her, to stay within the dome-like structure she had crafted, purple hue visible for miles.
“Just checking in Wanda, how are the boys?”
“Last I checked, Tommy was with Pietro, Billy in Albany, and Teddy held up in Elmira. The farming communities are suffering heavy damages, barns, silos, all their livestock.”
“Keep doing what you’re doing, and for god's sake, Wanda, keep in touch.”
“You have my word, Sam.”
“Pietro, come in.”
The comm crackled, and screeched.“No time, Falcon. I’m alive, and I’m busy,” Pietro said, voice almost too fast to register
“Keep it that way.”
Sam swooped down, dodging fallen trees and charred branches. “Clint, are you there?”
“I’m here, birdman, shooting my way through. What do you need?”
“No word from, Steve?” Silence reigned. Sam’s gut churned as he captured a young, frightened boy in his arms, his greens eyes full of shock and fear.
“There’s nothing from no one down there...Steve included.”
Clouds cast a gray shadow, bright flashes of lightning followed by roaring thunder. Sam tucked his chin down towards his chest, cradling the boy as he went limp in his arms, blood coating his hands. A tear fell from his eye, and he hoped, and he prayed that somewhere up there, beyond his reach, that they could sense their pain, and more than that, their urgency. “Get it together, man.”
Time and reality morphed and stretched to Thano's will, sending all within reach into different recesses of space, disorienting most who battled him. Thor's Helmet was an emission nebula in the constellation of Canis Major. Over fifteen thousand light-years away and thirty light-years in size; absolutely amazing, Tony thought. The systems built into his armor were blaring red, reading multiple malfunctions, craft getting caught in the cusp, jolting both him and Sue forward and back. The Wolf-Rayet star was extremely hot, thought to be in a pre-supernova stage, heat emitting hues of white, red and dark shades of purple. Sue looked on, studying Thanos as they attempted to predict his next movement, and attempt to put a stop to it. A flash of light, green and blue in color, blinded them momentarily. The cluster of stars waxed and waned as Adam Warlock and Gamora emerged, each attempting to close in on Thanos from either side. Adam being able to travel faster than light got an upper hand no one else had, harvesting cosmic energy into live projections, launching one after another in rapid succession. “Tony!” Sue screamed as they watched, helpless, as Thanos and Adam fought, Thanos incinerating him within a blink of an eye.
Gamora’s face twisted in agony, her entire childhood spent as weapon for Thanos's use, body enhanced to move faster, stronger as she used her dagger, thought to be of her fallen race, to drive through the side of his neck, enraging him as he bashed the side of her head with his large hand, turning to grab her by the throat, strangling her as she kicked back, removing her blade before stabbing him again. Tony was amazed that both could sustain so much, but he knew Gamora's hatred for her former mentor, and her love for Adam, and was not surprised. “Now, now!” Sue ordered, and Tony did as told, aiming at Thanos’ head as he released his death grip. The next blast Thanos sent was far too fast for them to dodge, hitting them with what felt like a bolt of lighting. Tony’s hard work was lost in less than a second, spacecraft destroyed as he shielded Sue, and Sue shielded him. Susan created an air bubble, allowing herself to breathe as she created a force field around herself. A sense of relief washed over him that she was okay, his suit reading the situation in a stream of words he could hardly digest. His thoughts were frantic, never stopping as he moved in close, Thanos distracted by the swarm that had rained down upon him. Tony used the uni-beam projector embedded in the armors chestplate, allowing him full range of all electromagnetic energy. Death, what a funny notion when it was staring you right in the face.
Novosibirsk, Novosibirsk Oblast: 19:00
A large body fell on top of her, a man reduced to a frightened shadow of his former self. Sharon tossed him off of her, gun holstered as she got back to her feet, working with Bucky to bar the large wooden doors to the only church left untouched and untainted. “[I need you all to remain calm! I need the men to bar the windows, and the women and children to make two separate lines to be seen by the doctors. ]” There were less than sixty people, the rest of the city consumed by the dying, infectiously diseased.
“You know what’s going to have to be done if any of them show symptoms.” Sharon looked at him with nothing but discontent. She knew what her job was, there was no room for sympathy. Unfortunately, that extended to the twenty or so children, ages ranging anywhere from fifteen to five months old.
“Don’t make me shoot you, too.”
“They’re coming in larger numbers now.”
“They’re desperate for help, not zombies. You know whatever we do, we’re taking the lives of conscious human beings, Bucky; do it with respect.”
“We can use the birch trees to make a fire. It won’t stop them all, but it’ll keep them clear from the front entrance.”
“And what if it spreads in here, huh? You’ve got a contingency plan for that?”
“It’s a church, they have to have some sort of reservoir around here for emergencies. Do they keep holy water in large supply?”
“Gather the birch trees, and I’ll find something to light it with.”
A loud scream ripped through the pew as a brick shattered through the window. Sharon whipped around, gun in hand as the infected began trying to crawl their way through. She unloaded four rounds before Bucky was able to contain the outbreak, one of the men, with blood seeping out of his eyes, nose and mouth had bit him before Sharon could put a bullet in the center of his head. “Are you okay?” she asked.
“Fine,” he said. “He bit my prosthetic.”
“[He’s been bit! He’s been bit! Kill him, kill him!]” an elderly man shouted, attempting to stab him with a sharpened stick before Sharon disarmed him, nearly snapping his wrist in the process.
“[He’s no threat to you!]”
The crowd roared, believing her to have taken sides. “[Enough!]” They fell silent as Bucky ripped the sleeve over his arm, removing the fake limb to silence any further suspicion. Sharon wiped the sweat that pooled at her brow, she hadn’t slept in over thirty-six hours, and there seemed no end in sight. A young doctor of about thirty waved her over, glasses sloping down her nose.
“I speak a bit English,” she said, face flushed. “I don’t want her mama to hear, you understand?” Sharon looked past her, taking in a small girl no older than six. “There’s blood in here.” The doctor trailed her hand over her throat.
Sharon’s eyes welled. “[Thank you,]” she said, patting the woman on her shoulder.
“I know not what to say to her.”
“[You don’t have to say anything. I’ll take care of it, but I need you to keep quiet. Please.]”
“[Yes, of course.]”
Sharon made a motion with her head that Bucky followed instinctively. Nestled in the corner, she explained, “That little girl is infected. I need you to take her mother aside, and keep her calm.”
“Are you sure you don’t want me to handle the girl?”
“I’ve got this.” Sharon brushed a stray hair behind her ear, bun falling loose in all the chaos. She pointed to the teddy bear the little girl held protectively in her arms. “[What’s his name?]”
“[That’s a really nice name, sweetheart. And what’s your name?]”
“[That’s a very beautiful name, too. Do you mind coming with me, Roza? You can bring Bolik along if you’d like.]”
“[Is my mama allowed to come?]”
“[Unfortunately, my friend has to speak with her alone.]”
“[Okay, as long as Bolik comes with.]”
The doctor looked torn, eyes welling as she fought to keep a calm facade. Sharon gave her a sympathetic nod, taking Roza’s hand in hers as she headed towards the back staircase. She led her up to the bell tower, legs trembling.
Roza stopped at the last step, staring up at her with wide hazel-green eyes. “[I’m going to die, aren’t I?]” she asked, tears streaming down her face as blood began to pour from her nose. “[I know I am. I look like my papa did, all pale. I have spots, too,]” she said, pulling down her socks to reveal black sores around her ankles. “[I’m going to die.]”
Sharon knew she shouldn’t have, but she embraced her, holding her as she shook and cried. The bell tower was partially opened, wind blistering cold as snow appeared layer by layer out of the blue. The sky was a misty gray, nothing to be seen past their own state of agony. She sat down, ordering the girl to rest her head upon her lap. She held the needle in her hand, she knew it would be a painless death, but couldn’t see through her own pain to do it.
“[I always wanted a little girl,]” she said, patting Roza’s hair. “[When I got a little older, it’s what I wanted.]” She had lost her child, had it taken away from her, and now she was in a position in which she would have to do the same.
Roza began to weep again, shoulders trembling as Sharon slammed her head back against the brick wall, a lump forming in her throat as she looked to the sky. “Come on, Tony. Please. Please don’t make me do this.”
“I need your universe to survive.” He heard her voice call out to him. “This,” Natasha said, ejecting a chip she had stored in the chestplate of her armor, holding it up in the palm of her gauntlet for him to see. “It has everything I could gather.”
Thanos from Earth-3490 seemed deranged, incapable of words as his rage boiled over, unequaled mass commanding the entire universe as he charged forward at the other Thanos and the two clashed, sending a tsunami-like wave rippling through the cosmos, as energy charged and ignited. This was what Natasha had meant, had tried to explain to him. Thanos' pure chaos met his counterparts organized discord in an explosive battle of synchronized madness, prompting a disorganized cataclysm in a controlled cluster of stars and debris. When the two Titans clashed, forearm to forearm, another wave struck, more powerful than the first, sending all around them, including Tony himself, deeper into the recesses of space. Sue emerged, blood almost violet in color seeped and floated from her chest as she pressed two gloved hands over it. Tony rushed towards her side as fast as his armor would allow, reaching for her arm as Galactus emerged, broken pieces of recently consumed worlds whirling around him as the Silver Surfer and Reed held their positions beside him.
“You impotent fool.”
“That’s right ugly,” Tony muttered. “Get really, really angry for me.”
Thanos from Earth-3490 seemed deranged, incapable of words as his rage boiled over, charging at the other Thanos as two Titans clashed. This was what Natasha had meant. Thanos’ pure chaos met his counterparts organized discord, prompting disorganized cataclysm in a controlled cluster of groupings. When the two Titans clashed, a crushing wave struck them all, sending them further into the cold depths of space. Sue reemerged, pain palpable as she held her chest, struck by something sharp. Tony moved towards her as fast as he could, reaching for her hand as Galactus emerged, the Silver Surfer and Reed with him.
Galactus, as massive as he was, was dwarfed by the confrontation at hand. The groves in his face enhanced in a manner Tony had seen before, watching as he attempted to manipulate Thanos' mind, but there was nothing there left to manipulate; no soul, no memories. A stunning notion that not even the physical, metamorphosed embodiment of a cosmos could stop Thanos within his tracks. The only thing that could stop Thanos was himself, and now that everything was set in place, that seemed somehow possible. The fighting stopped, everyone held back as they awaited their last chance. “The time has come,” Dr. Strange called out. “This ends here.”
Reed had talked about Thanos taking the nullifier to destroy the other version of himself. In retrospect, Tony believed this was due because Reed thought Thanos of their universe would also destroy himself in the process, but when he wrapped his entire body around Earth-3490 Thanos, and tossed the nullifier to the other, more competent Thanos, Tony didn't, couldn't understand. “Reed!” Sue screamed, so loud knowing now what her husband intended that her voice crackled over his comm. Tony held her as Dr. Strange's aura shifted from green to blue, hands held at shoulders length as his mouth began to move. “By the light -- By the Truth -- By Sangreal and sword and Pendragon's Fire -- By Defender's might and Dragon Circle's destiny -- Behold thy bane!”
Pressure increasing thirty percent... Oxygen depleting forty percent.... Warning: Oxygen below thirty percent...
“‘Tasha, keep them from the river!” Pepper shouted into her comm, soaring down as she snatched an elderly woman up into the air, another series of blasts spreading through a village on the outskirts of Nigeria.
“Easier said than done when they’re trying to shoot you!”
“Why? We’re here to help?”
“Did I mention where I was about six months ago?”
“You had a mission here?” Pepper asked, setting Natasha down in the middle of a rice field. So far, she had moved over a hundred people to this one region, low and flat enough to keep them safe, for the moment. There was no rhyme or reason to the explosions, but they seemed to occur in places with tall structures.
“Sort of. Look, I’ve got four banana boats heading your way. I need you to swoop down, and grab as many people as you can, so I can free up space, and go back.”
“You need to trade places with me. I can fly across the river, you’re taking too much of a risk going back and forth.”
“Don’t even start.”
“You have guns, I have armor. Guess which one flies faster.”
“Just get here, Potts.”
“On my way, dear.”
Pepper lifted all four boats, using the electromagnetic field generators in her armor to suspend and tow two boats at a time as she placed them in the rice field, relieved to see at least some families were reunited. She headed back towards the river bank, intent on flying Natasha back to the fields when another series of blasts nearly knocked her out of the air. There was no source of the blast, no way to pinpoint their locations until it was too late, buildings destroyed, large chunks of rock and cement falling all around. When her vision cleared, she was mortified to see the speed boat Natasha had been on blown to pieces. “Natasha!” She fought the urge to vomit, diving forward as the smoke began to clear.
She was floating face down, left side riddled with burns and shrapnel. Pepper screamed, unaware she was even capable as she picked her up, rolling her over so that she wasn't face down in the water. “Wake up, wake up.” Pepper, with no other choice but to move her, laid her upon the murky ground, brushing Natasha’s hair out of her face. Natasha groaned, coughing up water and blood as she held out her hand, Pepper taking it into her own. “I’m taking you to Wakanda, T’Challa and Storm, they can help you.”
“I’m not leaving here,” Natasha said as she attempted to sit up.
“You don’t understand.” Pepper started, then stopped. “Natasha, your leg.”
Natasha frowned, looking down her chin trembled as she shook. “Oh, Christ.”
“Wakanda has advanced technology, Natasha. We need to see, we need to see if they can save it.”
“You can’t leave these people, Pepper.”
Pepper cradled Natasha’s cheek in her hand, bringing their foreheads together as she retracted the face guard of her armor. “I can’t leave you either. Please, just this once, don’t push me away. You need help, and I can help you.”
Natasha’s eyes were a piercing blue, a deep gash across her forehead as she began to shake. The shock had worn off by now, she was feeling everything, including the mangled mess of flesh and bone where her limb used to be. Pepper bit her lip, sobs building in her chest as she used a torn strip of Natasha's costume to tie around her thigh, just above the knee. “I won’t push you away, Pepper. I need you,” she said, blinking rapidly as her chest rose and fell faster.
“Okay, okay. I’m going to move you now. Is there, do you have any thing?”
“Syrette in my front right pouch. Morphine.”
“I’ll take care of you. I promise,” Pepper said as she wiped at her cheeks, feeling like an idiot, feeling weak at not being able to filter her emotions. Her heart hammered in her chest, dazed and shocked as she tried to ease her racing heart; Natasha was gravely injured, and she needed her. Pepper unzipped the front of Natasha’s costume, grabbing the fullest part of her stomach before injecting her. She used twice as much as she would for a woman of Natasha’s size, her resistance to potent drugs remarkable.
“You never let me down, Potts, you know that?”
Pepper picked Natasha up, careful as she tucked one arm under her thigh, the other cradling her back as Natasha laid her head upon her shoulder, the sky littered with nothing but smoke and flashes as lights as more blasts reigned down upon them. “Please, Tony. We can’t take much more.”
The world came to a halt, and then, just like that, came to a start again. When he next opened his eyes, he was staring up at a darkened sky, but one that still existed. He choked and coughed, but sat up, dazed and confused, but happy to be alive.
Life forms detected in the vicinity of ten feet...scanning.
“Oh, Jesus,” he said, looking down at his left arm, crushed within the twisted armor. The pain was intense as he ordered systems to distribute an anesthetic to that part of his body, as well as vicodin to take off the edge. With what little strength he had, he stood up, scanning for anyone he might happen upon.
She was sat up against a cracked and broken piece of wall, hand over her chest as she leaned back. “I’m okay,” she whispered. “I think Dr. Strange pulled us all out.”
“I think he pulled most of us out.” She didn’t cry, eyes staring past him.
“Let’s get you some help.”
“Where are we?” she asked as Tony stood her up, she noticed his arm, but said nothing. “It looks like the lower east side, but I’m not sure.”
“Yeah, it looks like it’s been cleared out.”
“Do you think he sent us here on purpose?”
“He had to use a lot of energy, he might have had no control over where we all went. Honestly, I’m surprised we wound up as close as we did.”
“We need help. Can you fly, Tony?”
Tony commanded his propellers to start. “Yeah, I think so. Just lean to the right.” Sue wrapped her arm around Tony’s neck, the other held over her chest as Tony secured his arm around her waist. The position was as uncomfortable as it was painful for the both of them, shooting through Soho when Sue spotted Ben down at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, helping the injured that poured in through the doors.
“Ben!” Sue hollered, relieved to see him unharmed.
“Sweet, Aunt Petunia! You made it! I thought I lost all of ya!” Ben went to embrace them both, holding back as he realized they were both hurt. “Oh, no.”
When he asked about Reed, Sue began to weep silently. Ben, as gentle as his large stature could manage, stroked her hair, whispering words of comfort. “Where is everyone?” Tony asked, gritting his teeth as he heard something pop.
Ben’s face fell. “I lost communication with everyone four hours inta the blastin’.”
“How long has it been?” Sue asked, sitting down upon the concrete steps.
“Two days?” Tony shouted, rearing back as another wave of agony hit.
“I’ve been stayin’ round here, diggin’ people out, tryin’ to find medical staff ta help.”
Without warning, Tony took off, searching high and low for anyone and everyone. Eventually, he came upon Sam digging through the remains of a local supermarket. “Sam,” he called out, touching down beside him. “Sam, where’s Steve?”
Sam shook his head. “I’ve got eyes all over, Tony. There’s been no sight of him.”
Tony inhaled, scanning the area around them to ease the ever mounting anxiety. “How are you holding up, Sam?” he asked, taking in his face, streaked with dirt and sweat, costume torn and stained with blood and grime, but his eyes were still alert, strong as he kept working.
“Honestly, not good, but I’ve got Clint and Wanda helping me. We’re all looking for him, Tony, but maybe with the extra help, you’ll bring our man home?” The hope in his voice wasn’t missed by Tony, but neither commented on it.
“You don’t need me here?”
“We’ve got it.”
“Doreen, Jarvis, and the kids are safe and sound. The mansion was left in one piece.”
The pain intensified, but Tony wasn’t about to give up. Wanda was in Time Square, Clint somewhere in Queens. With everything he knew about Steve, Tony made the decision, against Sam’s better judgement, to go over Brooklyn. Tony cursed, taking in what was left of Union Avenue. His heart sunk, DuMont in shambles as he searched for survivors. He had already tore apart Steve’s old apartment, but nothing there but an old frightened couple who were thankful for his help.
“Cap,” he called out, using his right arm to dig through brick and stone. He felt foolish, what would Steve have been doing here? Unless he was trying to help someone, and got hurt in the process. “Cap, please! If you can hear me!”
“Mister!” came a young woman’s voice, muffled as she coughed. “Mister, we’re under here!”
Tony didn’t think about it, presumed she meant another civilian, but that wasn’t the case. Under two tons of debris, there was a pocket, and within that pocket, there was a woman, about twenty or so, cradling Steve’s head in her lap, using her sweater to cover his face. “We’ve been down here for a long time, he was trying to help me, but the ceiling came down, and a chunk of it hit him on the head.”
“It’s okay. What’s your name?”
“Okay, Ayan, I’m going to get you out now, but I’m going to need your help.”
“Whatever you need me to do.”
“I’m going to need you to help me lift him, can you do that?”
“I’m an olympic weightlifter, so yeah, I think I can. A bit, but he’s a lot heavier than he looks.”
“You don’t have to tell me twice,” Tony said, lending her a hand. “I need a special suit just to get him from place to place.”
“What happened to your arm?” she asked, the light Tony used bringing his injury to light.
“I had a bit of an accident up in space.” Tony leant down, revealing his face as he placed his ear above Steve’s mouth and nose, listening for any sign of life. A small move of air bristled across his cheek, and Tony sighed a sigh of relief; he was still alive. “Okay, I need you to, when I get him up, position him to my right side. Once he’s secured you’re going to settle in on my left--”
“But your arm.”
“We don’t have much choice.”
“Why don’t I hold onto your hip, then?”
“That takes a lot of strength.”
“I had a building collapse on me, I’m not stuck in the highest tower of a spooky castle. You’re hurt, and I’m not going to injure you more.”
Tony stared down at her, her hazel eyes bright and darkly rimmed. “Yes, ma’am.”
Her plan went well, and it spared Tony any further damage. “Ayan, is there anyplace I can take you?”
“Honestly,” she said staring back at him, wiping her forehead as her eyes turned to pure gold. “I wanted to make sure he got out okay. My powers are limited with no sunlight, I was weakened. I’m going to check on my family, like I suspect you’ll check on yours.” Her black, tightly curled hair turned a bright yellow, black rings forming around her arms. “Take care,” she said before dissipating into thin air.
“She’s a mutant,” came Steve’s voice, weak and dehydrated.
“One that could’ve left you high and dry.”
“She wouldn’t. She helped me when I was supposed to be helping her.”
Tony gave a short laugh. “I hope she sticks around. We may be able to use her.” Tony sat down on a bench severed in half. Just the other day, or what felt like the other day, he had been sitting on the same bench, talking with Tom about his new family. “Are you okay?”
“I was waiting for my ribs to heal, kept going in and out, but Ayan healed what she could.” Steve laid on his lap, cowl tattered and torn, hanging off of his face in pieces. “How’s, Sarah?”
“And the others?”
“Looking for you.”
“Reed and Sue?”
“Sue’s with Ben.”
Steve didn’t say anything, just turned his head so that he could rest it upon Tony’s shoulder. “You need your arm looked at.” The concern in his voice was palpable, and Tony hissed, finally registering the extent of the damage. “The only good thing is, is that I don't have to see it.” “How bad is it?” “Honestly? I'll be surprised if it's salvageable.” “Tony...”
“Just let me be happy that you’re still alive for a few minutes, okay?”
Steve looked up at him, a deep gash slowly healing on the right side of his face. “Yeah, okay.”
A knock came to the door as Tony sat up in bed, grimacing as he tried to determine his range of motion for the day; it wasn’t much. “Yeah,” he called out, rubbing at his tired eyes, eleven months and he had come far, but not far enough.
A grin spread across his features at the sight of Steve with Sarah in one arm, and a breakfast tray in the other. “Guess who decided it was time to eat?”
“Well, it’s been a year since she dropped in, I guess she gets to run things for the day.” Tony had settled into the idea of taking care of her, fulfilling the role of father after the loss of her parent’s was determined permanent; something Tony swore he could feel the instant it happened. While he felt as though he had failed them, he had kept his true promise, and that was making sure that Sarah had a home to grow up in.
Steve stood Sarah onto the bed, watching as she walked towards Tony, pouncing on him. “Not too hard, kiddo, that still hurts.” Steve was a bit more complicated, there was a lot more to work out there, but they were slowly coming into their own, making strides now that they weren’t afraid to take small steps.
“Da,” she said, smashing his cheeks together in between her hands. “Da, time to eat. Time to eat, da.” The urgency in her voice was heartening, his little ape-girl, he called her, much to Steve’s dismay. Still, he read her the story of Ms. Fellowes, and The Ugly Little Boy almost every night.
“Yes, yes, da will eat. What’s on the menu this morning?”
Steve plopped down beside him, nearly knocking over the two glasses of orange juice as he did so. “Eggs, bacon, and pancakes for us, and cheerios for the little bit gnawing on your nose.”
Tony watched as Steve moved Sarah to sit down, placing a napkin over her lap.“Did ‘Tasha make it out of surgery all right?” he asked, picking up a fork.
“Third time’s a charm, apparently. From what Pepper said, her leg looks a lot better. She’s able to walk now.”
“That’s good. Eleven months, and I’m still trying to get this thing to work properly. It’s like trying to rewrite an entire program from scratch, but instead of an outdated computer, it’s my own arm.” The limb was still intact, metal plates and a variety of screws held it together. The scars stretched from the top of his shoulder down to his wrists, reminding him every day what they had all been through.
“You’ve got a lot of people helping you work on it, though.”
“Between Rand, Noh-Varr, Vision and Richards, I think it’ll happen...sooner or later.”
Steve leaned his shoulder against Tony’s, head leaned back as Sarah ate happily, singing made up songs in between each bite. “You’d think Reed would want to take it easy.”
“What was seven months for us was only a minute to him. He’s going on as if everything's normal. I can’t blame him.”
“That’s the thing, though,” Steve said, handing another napkin to Sarah as she wiped her own face with mixed results. “Nothing’s normal. People who were dead or dying sprung back to life, that’s not normal. People buried their loved ones, and then had to unbury them. Thousands of cities are still in ruin. It’s just...not the same.”
Sarah tossed the napkin back at Steve, laughing when he caught it single handed; everything with that child was a test. “Pop, finished. Here.” The light poured in through the open window, breeze ruffling the drawn back curtains.
“You’re finished, huh?” Steve asked, picking her up at he placed kisses all over her face. “I don’t know I still taste honey nut cheerios.” Sarah laughed, kicking her legs up and down as her bun came undone, curls running amuck atop her head.
Tony raised a finger, coughing as he cleared his throat, having laughed too hard. “But that’s the thing; it’s still here. Everything’s still here. Unfortunately, the same thing can’t be said for Earth-3490, but without their aid, without Natasha’s help, we wouldn’t have the new challenges we face now because we wouldn’t have anything at all.”
Steve smiled, leaning over as he placed a soft kiss to the corner of his mouth. “You’re right.”
Sarah reached over, taking the fork out of Tony’s hand as she paired it with her spoon, bending them together. “Mine.”
Steve laughed. “Yes, yours.”
Tony veered the conversation back on track. “Of course I’m right. I’m me.”
Gamora stepped back and away from the Infinity Well, mind processing the information it had been handed. “You deceived the Thanos of Earth-3490,” she said, arms wrapped around herself.
“By the time I met him, he was a raging beast, hardly capable of speech.”
“You allowed him to believe you were on his side. You knew full well what Stark had planned.”
“I did,” Thanos said. “I knew his actions before even he did. In theory, it worked without such messy repercussions. I contacted Adam Warlock, and we waited. We knew a paradox would be composed, but not the end result.”
“Adam knew he would be killed.”
“But he knew you would be there to save me...”
“How were you able to escape the black hole, Thanos? Who saved you?”
“My mistress took me by the hand.”
“A child, really?”
“All of this was paved by the love of a child.”
“Something you couldn't possibly understand.”
Thanos looked to Gamora who caught his gaze. “On the contrary: Something I understand all too well,” he said, a turn to his lips.