After Tony knocks on the door there's silence, and he'd say he has plenty of time to consider whether he should have done it, but he doesn't. There's no time for anything, anymore.
There's no noise from inside, no familiar voice calling out that it'll just be a second, and Tony waits half a minute before starting to turn away.
Then the door opens.
Tony's about to apologize for having the wrong address, because the man in front of him is old. He stoops as he stands; he looks as if he used to be tall but now he's shorter than Tony is. He's clearly a civilian, not that anyone at his age would be anything else; he's wearing a plaid shirt and corduroy pants. He's leaning on the doorframe, supporting himself with one thin, bony arm.
Okay, Tony thinks. So he moved and no one told me. It stings a little. Tony used to know information like that as a matter of course, but, well. He brought this on himself, didn't he?
Then the man in the doorway scowls at him, ice-blue eyes gone hard and piercing with anger, an all-too-familiar look of utter hatred, and Jesus fucking Christ.
"I could have done something," Tony says, helplessly. The last time Steve had lost the serum -- well, the last time it hadn't made him old like this, but this was clearly a new wrinkle -- anyway, the last time, Tony had been there for him and Tony had helped him and Tony had given him the serum back. He hates that he didn't know. He hates that Steve kept this from him. "If you'd told me, I could have done something."
It's not what he came here intending to say. He's not really sure what he intended to say.
Steve's still scowling. "Don't take this the wrong way, Stark," he says, in a quavering elderly voice, rasping with emotion, and wow, Steve using his last name should not hurt as much as it does, "but I wouldn't want help from you even if you were the last man on Earth."
"Just curious," Tony says, "but is there actually a right way to take that?" He smiles like he's not dying inside, because he's Tony Stark and he learned that lesson early, didn't he?
He'd been expecting Steve would punch him again, actually. He can feel himself tensing up. He remembers the last time he saw Steve, when the mindwipe disappeared, when the Time Gem returned. He remembers Steve looming over him. He remembers the way his head snapped back. He remembers the bright pain of Steve's fist against his face.
He thinks that now Steve would break his own hand if he tried.
Steve's eyes glimmer with rage. "I don't know what the hell you came here for, but you've seen me, and you've had your goddamn fun, so go away."
He says it like he thinks Tony's going to mock him. Like he thinks Tony laughs at him. Like he thinks Tony has laughed at him. Like Tony's ever, ever going to laugh at him.
And Steve steps back, behind the door, one hand on the door, starting to push the door shut--
"Wait," Tony says. "I need to talk to you."
The door stops moving. "Then leave me a message with SHIELD. They'll pass it on."
"It's urgent." There's silence. "You know I wouldn't be here if it weren't. There's no one else." Tony's voice shakes.
Maybe he was wrong to come here. He doesn't know what he expected. He knows he doesn't deserve mercy.
The sigh he hears is terribly, terribly weary. "Thirty seconds. Make it good."
Tony glances at the numbers ticking away in his palm, the countdown to the apocalypse, the fate of the universe shining in red fire. 0:58:43. 0:58:42. 0:58:41.
"The world's ending in an hour."
The door swings back open. Steve's still glaring at him, but he's still here, and Tony thinks that's their entire relationship in one sentence. "Maybe you should come inside."
Steve's apartment looks pretty much the same as it always does, with one exception; Tony has the vague sense that something's missing, until he realizes what he doesn't see: the shield. Steve's shield. It's gone.
Tony guesses Steve's not exactly up to being Captain America anymore.
But as Tony gets the door shut behind himself, Steve's got his phone out and he's scrolling through a list. Tony recognizes it: alert numbers for everyone who matters. All the organizations. All the teams. "I'm still not really clear why you picked me to share this news with," Steve says, mouth curled in distaste, "but I've got secure lines to SHIELD and the Avengers. Give me a sec and I'll patch everyone in."
Then Tony realizes that Steve doesn't get it. That Steve thinks he's here to save the world. That even now, even when Steve feels nothing for him other than the bitterest hatred, he's still going to stand up and do what he can, because it's the right thing to do, no matter how he feels about Tony.
Well, he always knew Steve was the best of all of them.
Tony takes three steps forward and covers the screen of Steve's phone with his hand. Their fingers are touching. "No. Don't."
"The world's ending," Steve says, incredulous, voice strident with confusion and anger, "and you don't want me to tell anyone?"
Tony shakes his head. "They can't do anything to stop it." That's not exactly true. He's going to tell Steve the truth. He owes him at least this much. "Well, okay, maybe they can," he says, amending his words, "but you don't want them to." He moves his hand away from Steve.
"It's an incursion," Tony says, and he watches Steve go pale. "And there are no solutions left, except the one that makes us monsters."
Steve is trembling ever so slightly. "So we die? You came to tell me that you've decided for the whole goddamn world -- for the whole universe -- and we're all dying in an hour? Is that it?"
"Make up your mind," Tony snaps at him, and God, he doesn't want to spend his last hour alive arguing with Steve. He doesn't want this. He never wanted this. "Because as I recall you objected to the other option."
"It wasn't an option," Steve snarls.
"It was," Tony says, and he meets Steve's gaze, unflinching. "It was, and it already happened."
That was eight hours ago. It's been a very long day.
Steve takes a step back from him. "You're telling me-- you're telling me that you really did it. You murdered a planet. An inhabited planet."
It wasn't him. He didn't pull the trigger. He'd refused, in the end. But he'd built the bombs, hadn't he? He was responsible. He is responsible.
"Yeah," Tony says. "Yeah, I did, but I can't-- we can't-- we're not doing it again."
He makes himself look at Steve, to watch his face fall into sadness and dismay. He deserves this.
"So you're letting the universe die?" Steve repeats. "That's it?"
Tony feels his own expression twist into something bleak and awful. "Two universes, actually."
"You're the smartest people on the planet," Steve says, anguished, "and you can't-- you're letting us die--"
"The only other choice is killing them." Tony steps in close. "Either it's a numbers game or it isn't. Either we make the conscious choice to destroy a world, or we don't. Either way someone dies. There are no other solutions. Life is not an option. Life was never on the table. Changing your mind, Steve? There are plenty of bombs left. Go ahead, take one--"
Steve's hands clench into fists.
This is where Steve would hit him.
"Or do you like the blood?" Tony asks, very softly. "Do you like it just fine when it's on someone else's hands? Is it all right if someone else sells their soul for you?" He laughs. "Sorry to disappoint you, but I have nothing else left of myself to give."
He feels hollow, like his heart's been carved out of him. In his mind, a world explodes over and over and over.
Mister smart person here thinks he's so very smart that he can outthink everything, taunts a dead hero from a dead Earth.
Yeah, well, look where that got him.
Steve just tilts his head at him. He regards him in silence for a few seconds. Sunlight filters through the window and casts his lined face into harsh relief.
"Why are you here, Tony?"
I'm afraid, Tony doesn't say.
I don't want to die alone, Tony doesn't say.
At the end of everything, I wanted to be at your side, Tony doesn't say.
"I thought you should know," Tony says. "I thought you'd want to know." He winces and parts with more of the truth. "I thought that maybe, once, you would have done the same for me." He steps back and shrugs. "So that's it. I'll let you-- I don't know, call whoever you actually want to be with."
He turns to leave--
--and Steve catches his hand.
Steve can't want this. Steve can't want anything to do with him.
"Steve," Tony says, hoarsely. "I've-- I've wronged you. I've hurt you. And this isn't an apology. It can't be, because we both know I'd do it again."
He turns back. Steve is regarding him thoughtfully. Steve turns Tony's hand over and glances down at the timer in Tony's palm.
"We've got fifty minutes until the world ends," Steve says. "Let's just assume you're not going to do it again."
The corners of Steve's lips tilt upward. It might, just barely, be a smile. "You came here because you wanted to be here. If you weren't here, what would you have done?"
He doesn't say I'd have shot myself in the head, because he's pretty sure Steve doesn't want to hear it.
"I don't know," he lies, but Steve looks in the eye and Tony knows he has some idea. Steve does know him, after all.
"I'm glad you're here," Steve says, and he's looking down at the timer again, in the hand he's still holding. "I'm glad you told me. I-- I would have wanted to know. So thank you."
It's not like they used to be. But the world's ending, and Tony will take anything, even though he hasn't earned it.
He's sitting at Steve's table, and he almost can't believe he's not dreaming. This is real. Steve is actually talking to him.
They're all going to die.
Steve's got the fridge open. "Are you hungry?" he asks. "Thirsty? Can I get you anything?"
Sure, he's hungry, but he's also going to die in less than an hour. He's never really been a fan of planning out his last meal. He might as well die hungry. He doesn't want to spend his remaining minutes on Earth eating.
"Just water is fine, thanks," Tony says, a little incredulously.
Steve pours him a glass of water. It's an Avengers glass. Tony wonders if it means anything that Steve still keeps Tony's favorite sparkling water in his house. It's probably a coincidence.
"Are you sure?" Steve frowns at him as he sets the glass down at Tony's left hand. "You don't look so good." There's a solicitousness there that Tony wouldn't have expected from Steve. Not now. Not ever again. It's like Steve might care.
He's been on his feet in back-to-back incursions, already wounded when he went into combat against the Great Society, and it wasn't like he'd been asleep when the timer went off for that Earth, Earth-4290001. And now Earth-9004 is going to be the end of everything. Of course he doesn't look good. He needs a solid meal, about a week of sleep, and a month where he doesn't have to make the worst decisions of his life one after another.
What he's got is forty-five minutes.
"I'll be all right," Tony says, even though he won't be, and he smiles a bitter smile. "Like they say, I'll sleep when I'm dead."
Empty-handed now, Steve sits across from him at the small table. He leans back, looks Tony in the eye, and says, in an even voice far too calm for his words, "Do you have any idea how angry I've been with you?"
This is what they're doing now. The punishment. The rest of the punishment.
Tony breathes in, breathes out, and rubs his fingers across his still-bruised cheekbone. It isn't like Steve was holding back. "I think I have some idea," he says, "but why don't you tell me?"
Steve doesn't stand up. He doesn't take a swing at Tony. He just sits there. "Do you understand what you did?" His quiet voice is oddly rough. Wounded. "I mean that, Tony. Do you actually understand what you did to me?" He's not meeting Tony's eyes. "Do you understand that you hurt me? Or did you think to yourself, 'Oh, Steve's going to object to this idea, so we'd better take him out?' Like I was some obstacle, always inconvenient when you needed to be ruthless? Like a decade of friendship meant nothing?"
"How did you come up with it, anyway?" Steve looks up, and his eyes are bright with anger and pain. "How long did you have this particular back-up plan sitting in reserve? I know you were the one who thought of it," he says, and damn him for always being right. "It couldn't have been anyone else. I know it was Strange's magic, but it's too... personal. For him." He half-smiles and shakes his head. "And it's always been personal with you, hasn't it?"
"Do you really want to talk about this? Now?" He knows he can't avoid it. He knows he doesn't deserve to avoid it. But he'd hoped that maybe Steve would spare him this.
Steve just stares at him, face gone perfectly still. "Well, it's not like there's going to be another time, is there?"
Blood pounds in Tony's head, and out of the corner of his eye he can watch the seconds of his life tick away.
"I was terrified," he says, and even though he just had some water, his mouth has gone dry. "The Gauntlet had broken, and I knew you. I knew what you'd say. And if you'd taken the bombs away, if you'd stopped us from building weapons, there would have been nothing. Even now there's nothing else. It's still the only answer. And I-- I didn't want to die." He swallows hard. "We were in Wakanda. The Gauntlet was gone. You'd stepped out of the room, you were talking with T'Challa, and I-- I said we had to do something about you. That you weren't going to support... the only remaining solution. It was thirty seconds before you walked back in when Stephen agreed."
Steve watches him and says nothing.
"You wouldn't know," Tony says, "because you were passed out on the floor at the time, but Stephen wasn't happy at all about that one. It was, in fact, my idea." He smiles thinly. "We all know how much I love amnesia."
He can't apologize. He can't. It was the wrong call and Steve had been right. After Namor had blown up that Earth, Tony had realized he'd always thought that there'd be another way. Steve had said that very thing, and then Tony had wiped his mind for it. But he can't apologize. That would be self-serving, only done to assuage his own guilt, to beg forgiveness, and he doesn't deserve any of that.
"This isn't an excuse," he adds. "Nothing I can say or do will make it better. I know that. So this can't be an apology."
Steve looks at him for a long time. His old, old face is perfectly still; he's pale, washed-out. There's no sound in the room but their breaths, no motion but the shifting of the numbers on incursion clock in Tony's hand.
Steve sighs. His mouth turns up, just the tiniest fraction. "Then I'm apologizing."
"You want to talk about how you hurt me?" Steve asks, voice tinged with bitterness. "Well, I hurt you right back."
"What?" Tony repeats, because Steve can't-- Steve didn't even do anything--
Steve motions vaguely at his own face. "Tony, there are still bruises. I'm not blind."
Oh. That. Why the hell is he apologizing for that? "You were angry," Tony says, confused. "Of course you were angry. You found out I wiped your mind. You had every right--"
"I had no right." Steve's voice is tight, pitched low, miserable. "There is nothing that gives me or anyone else that right. There is nothing that justifies what I did. No matter what you did to me, no matter what you have ever done to me, no matter how I felt about it. I should never have hit you. Ever. In my entire life." He grimaces. "Barring mind control or sudden bouts of involuntary supervillainy. I suppose we can't actually be responsible for those, much as I feel I should be."
He's overreacting. Why is he overreacting? It's what Steve does; he gets mad, he takes a swing at him. It's no big deal. "It really wasn't anything," Tony says, quickly. "Honestly, I have had so much worse; you know I have. That doesn't even begin to approach--"
Steve cuts in. His voice is still low, but firm with resolve. His eyes are wide. "Don't you make excuses for me, Tony. I know why you do it, I'm sure you grew up doing it, but don't. Don't you dare make excuses for someone who hits you."
And all of a sudden it's like Tony can't breathe, and they've never talked about this. Tony has never let anyone talk about this -- God knows he never wants to talk about anything involving his childhood -- but Steve knows. Somehow Steve knows anyway.
He remembers Steve telling him his old man drank too.
He thinks maybe the two of them have a few things in common.
"And, yeah, I know you've had worse." Steve's mouth twists. "But the thing is, Tony, you don't even remember 'worse.'" He's shaking as he talks. His eyes go distant. "I'd cracked the armor open, and I wasn't stopping. And you were lying under me, lying there in the street, and I just kept hitting you. It was easy. It was so easy. And blood was pouring down your face and you were begging me to kill you. You could hardly speak, but you were begging for it. I remember how the shield felt in my hand. One more blow and that would have been the end of it." His voice breaks. "They had to drag me off you, you know? Not even Avengers -- civilians. They had to drag me away from you before I murdered you. I couldn't even see what I'd become, until they were holding me back from you. I was willing to kill you over some stupid goddamn law."
"Bet you still think it was a stupid law," Tony says, because he is always the best at deflecting.
He doesn't remember what happened. Of course not. Oh, he knows the vague generalities -- he knows about Registration, he knows they fought, he knows Steve died. Honestly, he's glad he doesn't remember it personally. He imagines life after Steve's death must have been pretty miserable. He doesn't actually need to remember living it.
Steve gives him a sour glance that suggests he knows exactly what Tony's up to. "Don't change the subject." He sighs again. "You want to know the worst part? When I found out you didn't remember that entire year, I was happy. I was so damn happy that you'd never look at me and remember how I hurt you. And I know we went on that adventure in Vanaheim and made up afterwards, but you-- you didn't know, not really. And you'll never know. If you actually knew, you'd never have trusted me again. And you'd have been right not to. But you did, because you don't remember what I did to you." He shuts his eyes. "So here I am, selfish and guilty."
He wants to touch Steve. To hold him. To comfort him in any way he can, in the time they have left. But he doesn't think Steve needs that from him of all people, and he has no idea how to ask.
"I think I understand the feeling," Tony says, very carefully. "Because it's exactly how I felt after I took your memory away."
There's a weary smile on Steve's face now, when he opens his eyes. "Then we understand each other."
They've hurt each other so much. They've broken each other so badly. But they've always been able to put each other back together, too.
So they talk.
They talk like they used to, the way they haven't in years. They talk like it's the old days, like they're Shellhead and Winghead, just hanging around the mansion off-duty, back when the biggest routine threats were laughably low-power villains plotting bank heists. They still have that connection, that bond. They never lost it, not for good. And it's the bitterest irony that they rediscover it only now, at the end of the world.
Time ticks away in Tony's palm.
They move to Steve's couch after a bit; Steve hadn't been complaining, but he had been shifting uncomfortably on the hard wooden chairs, and Tony figures that at ninety-five, Steve definitely wants to sit somewhere in comfort. He might as well die as painlessly as possible, right?
"Thanks," Steve says, voice laced with a little shame, as Tony gets him his cane and helps him across the room, hand on his arm. "I'm sorry to be like this; you shouldn't have to go to any trouble for me."
He's touchy about his body, Tony knows; he was like this the last time he'd been deserumed, too. Tony doesn't think Steve's ever had anything to be ashamed of, but, well. He's never going to be able to convince him of that.
Ten minutes left.
"It's no trouble," Tony says, automatically. "Besides, do you know how many times you've carried me off a battlefield?"
Steve settles down onto the couch. "Too many," he says, with a flash of teeth, and his bright gaze alights on Tony as Tony takes the opposite end of the couch. And then he sighs. "Still, I know you didn't expect to see me like this," he says, quietly. "Handsome fella like me." The way he says it, it's clear he doesn't mean it.
"It doesn't make a difference to me," Tony says, and that's the absolute truth, because Steve is Steve and he could be a brain in a jar and Tony would still love him. He smiles a little. "And you're still handsome, by the way."
There's a smile curling around Steve's lips now. "And you've always been a flatterer, Tony."
"I always thought you were," Tony says, very quietly. "Handsome, I mean. I always figured you had to know how I felt. About you."
The words hang there between them.
End of the world. Time to get everything out.
"Yeah," Steve says, in the same tone. "I knew." He raises his hands, helplessly. "There was never a good time, and I was-- I've never been with-- I didn't know how-- I didn't want to ruin what we had. I was scared, I suppose."
Tony realizes that he's blinking back tears. There's no time now. Not for them. "Nothing to be scared of. All you had to do was say the word. You'd have had me." He snaps his fingers. "Like that."
He still would, too. Even now, even after everything.
Steve's eyes are luminous, wet with tears. "Yeah," he says, hoarsely. "You think we'd have been good, Shellhead?"
The name makes Tony's heart skip a beat. "Can't imagine anyone better."
Steve's looking off into the middle distance. "I was so angry at you," he says, very quietly. "I met Franklin Richards in the future, and he wanted to talk about the end of the multiverse, and all I wanted to talk about was you. How you hurt me. And if I'd done something differently, if I'd thought about it, rationally, maybe we could have worked together. Maybe it didn't have to be like this."
"Well," Tony says. "You've got me and the end of the multiverse." He inhales hard. "It was the wrong choice. What we did. You were right. I always-- I always hoped we could find another way, but we couldn't--"
"This isn't your fault," Steve says. "It isn't, Tony."
"I couldn't stop it."
"You did all you could," Steve says, and then, slowly, very deliberately: "I'm proud of you. You made the right choice, in the end."
He has to know what it does to Tony, to hear him say that, even when Tony doesn't deserve it, even when he's so patently undeserving. Steve is proud of him and it's like mainlining pure delight. A hit of happiness, coursing through his veins.
And then Steve pushes himself to his feet, slowly, and holds out his arms.
The minutes are ticking away now.
"Come here," Steve says, and it's almost his Captain America voice, but then he softens it. "C'mere, Tony. I'm not letting you die alone."
They all die alone.
Tony stands up, takes three stumbling steps forward, and wraps his arms around Steve. Steve tucks his head down, face against Tony's neck; his white hair brushes Tony's jaw, and Tony can't let him go. Tony exhales long, shaking breaths against Steve's temple.
Two minutes left, says Tony's palm.
"I'm sorry," Tony breathes. He wasn't going to say it. He'd sworn he wasn't going to say it, but he's always been a liar and it's the end of the world and there's nothing else left, just Steve in his arms. "I'm sorry," he repeats, and then it feels like something within him cracks, because he keeps saying it. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry--"
Steve's arms tighten around him. "Shh," Steve murmurs. "It's okay, Tony, I forgive you. I forgive you, all right? I forgive you."
There are tears sliding down Tony's face now, soaking into Steve's hair where Steve is pressed up against him.
"I wish we had another chance," Tony says, helplessly, because this is what's left and it's not fair, it's not fair that it ends here, like this. "I wouldn't fuck it up this time, I promise. Just one more chance."
Steve's hot breath against his neck comes out sounding a lot like a sob.
"It was an honor," Steve whispers. "To fight at your side. To know you. You're a good man. You've always been the best of us, Tony."
Tony laughs, a small, sad laugh. "Now I know you're crazy, because that's you."
Steve just holds him tighter.
Tony wonders if it's going to hurt. He hopes it doesn't. Not for his sake, but he hates to think of the rest of the world suffering. He hates to think of Steve suffering.
"Hey, Winghead?" Tony rasps. "Don't look, okay? Don't look."
Even as he says it he knows Steve isn't going to look away, because Steve faces his death unafraid, with eyes open.
He brings one hand up to Steve's head, runs his fingers through thinning white hair, cradles Steve's head in his hand. He presses a kiss to Steve's hair, and then another kiss to Steve's forehead.
There's so much he wanted to do. So many chances wasted.
Because Tony is a coward, he shuts his eyes.
He counts the last seconds down in his head. Four. Three. Two. One.
Tony takes a shuddering breath and opens his eyes.
His hand reads 00:00:00.
He's not dead.
"Well," Tony says, finally. "This is a little awkward."
Steve lifts his head up, and he's blinking watery blue eyes at Tony. "I have to say I'm in favor of it, though."
"The world was supposed to end," Tony says, confused, retreating into hows and whys because he can't possibly think about what they are to each other. "That's how it works. Either the other Earth is bombed, or everything dies. There are no other options."
Steve's head is turned, and he's frowning at Tony's zeroed-out palm. "Do the timers automatically reset when an incursion ends?"
"No," Tony says, still trying to piece this together, "they only start automatically when another Earth is detected. We have to switch them off manually."
"And you still have bombs?"
Tony sees where he's going now. "We wouldn't. We didn't. We all refused, in the last incursion, and then Namor grabbed the detonator and blew it anyway--"
He stops, because he hadn't wanted to blame Namor. Tony was the one who'd built the thing, after all.
"Yeah," Steve says, with a faint smile. "I knew it couldn't actually have been you, Tony."
God. Steve still likes him. How the hell can Steve believe in him?
"We kicked Namor out, though," Tony adds. "It couldn't have been him. He-- he's not Illuminati now."
Steve raises an eyebrow. "But he knew where you kept the bombs, I'm guessing."
"Yeah, of course he--" Tony stops. "Oh. Shit. There are maybe a lot of other things he shouldn't have either, if he broke into the Necropolis. Things and people. Prisoners." Goddammit, Thanos is there.
"It's okay," Steve says, and he still hasn't let go of Tony. "We'll work it out."
Well, he has to let the Avengers know eventually, he supposes. "Sure," Tony says, dully. "I got it. You and the Avengers." He'll just get out of the way. Go back to the Illuminati.
"Me and you, genius," Steve says, and he draws back just far enough to drop one hand and poke him in the chest, right above the RT. "And whoever else you want to bring in, but... us, Tony."
"How in the world can you want to--" Tony begins, and Steve cuts him off.
"Everything I told you was true," Steve says, and he looks like he's about to cry again, but for a much better reason this time. "And everything you told me was true. I know. And this is the second chance you wanted. Our chance. Time to make it count."
And then Steve leans in and kisses him, the lightest brush of lips on lips, as Tony stands there, stunned.
"Come on, Avenger," Steve says, smiling, and he steps back and holds out his hand. "The universe needs you."
Tony's never been able to resist. He takes Steve's hand.