Tony groaned when his monitors flashed an alarm screen at him. Interdimensional travel detected, his computers warned him, and it was just what they needed in addition to incursions; who-knows-what from who-knows-where to appear on their Earth. For all he knew, it could be someone trying to destroy different Earths before the incursions threatened their planet.
Tony started suiting up as his scanners worked on establishing the exact location of the breach. His lab wasn't really suited to multiverse research; that was Reed's part, but Tony had been updating his lab too. It was too important, these days.
The location finally showed up on his screen, and Tony blinked when he processed the address.
The Avengers Mansion.
This . . . was a weird choice. Whoever it was, must've been well aware of what their world was like. Tony pinged Steve's Avengers card. They could go check it out together.
(Every excuse to spend time with Steve while he could, he knew.)
Steve must've been in his suit already, because he was waiting for Tony at the rooftop on the Tower when Tony got there.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Some interdimensional disturbance,” Tony said. “Not sure if it's actually an issue, so I think we don't have to alert everyone yet.”
“Let's hope you're right,” Steve said as he stepped closer to Tony and wrapped his arm around the armour's waist.
There was a time Tony wished they could get as close and intimate in a different setting. Now he was glad they never took that final step. Because if Steve had said yes to that question, Tony wouldn't be able to lie to him now.
He pushed the thoughts away and quickly made sure he had a secure grip on Steve before he took off, flying slow enough so that Steve was safe.
“We could get lunch later,” Steve said.
“Sure,” Tony agreed. “Burgers?”
“Sounds great,” Steve said, sounding happy.
Tony bit his lower lip and fell silent. They were almost there anyway, he could see the building already, and—
He swore as the armour confirmed what he already saw: that there was someone in the yard behind the mansion, and that they had an Iron Man suit on.
An Iron Man suit, painted white and red and blue, and Tony had made an armour for Steve once, but—there was no time to think. The person in the armour noticed them, and Tony's suit flashed another set of warnings at him as they clearly tried to scan him.
“Tony?” Steve asked quietly.
“My tech,” Tony confirmed. “No idea who's inside.”
Osborn had stolen it once, but Tony had made sure this particular armour was locked up, only his and Steve's voiceprints able to open it. But in a different world . . . ? He didn't know.
They landed, and Steve moved away from him and stood in a fighting stance, his shield held securely in front of him.
“Who are you?” Tony asked. He didn't hold much hopes that they could avoid a fight. Nothing in his life was so easy.
“I'm standing next to you and you don't recognize me?”
Tony glanced to his left, at Steve, back at the armoured man—
It was Stark tech, that was clear, and it cooperated with its pilot; Tony could see this much. No one had broken into this armour like Osborn had here, years ago.
“Steve?” he asked anyway, not believing what he was seeing.
“Yes,” and his voice sounded strange through the armour's filters, “but really, Tony, I expected better from you. Did you need a formal introduction after all these years?”
Tony stared at him. He wondered about the world this Steve came from. About a Steve that would use armoured suit in the first place. He wasn't prepared for that.
“What are you doing here?” Steve asked.
There was a subtle shift to the other Steve's stance. “That's easy enough to answer.”
“Careful, Steve!” Tony warned over the comms a split second before the other Steve fired. Tony shot him with his repulsors, but they only splayed over an energy shield around Steve's armour—something Tony didn't remember programming in yet, and he was curious how it worked.
And, of course . . . It couldn't be Steve, whatever he said, because any Steve, wouldn't attack himself. Except he said he was, and there wasn't really any reason for him to lie, and—Tony didn't have time for that.
Firstly, he had to find a way to disable the armour.
The Steve in the white and blue armour seemed to ignore Tony, as he kept firing only at Tony's Steve, who just kept dodging or deflecting the attacks with his shield.
The armoured Steve had tried to scan Tony, so there was a way in. Tony kept steadily shooting his repulsors as he tried to hack the other armour. It was Stark tech, and Tony knew himself and his way of coding. He could safeguard as much as he wanted; he couldn't really stop himself from accessing his own tech. Finally, he found a gap in the security he could explore.
The armour froze mid-step, the other Steve contained inside.
“Okay,” Tony said. “Okay. We should—”
“What did you do?” Steve asked.
“I immobilised the armour,” Tony explained. “It's my tech. Well. Alternate-me, I guess. We should take him to the Tower.”
He'd like to get the other Steve into a normal cell. Being trapped in his armour like that was one of Tony's worst nightmares, one he didn't wish to inflect on anyone else, even if it was a seemingly evil alternate version of Steve. He didn't exactly have a choice right now, but he still didn't like it.
Steve nodded. “I suppose I was overdue for meeting my evil counterpart,” he sighed.
Tony put a reassuring hand on Steve's back for a moment.
Tony looked at his scan results and desperately wished they were wrong. He'd run them three times already, though, and every time he got the same result.
It wasn't an alternate version of Steve Rogers.
It was his Steve Rogers from the future.
But that didn't make any sense. Tony knew Steve. Steve, who was kind and caring and always did the right thing.
Steve, who trusted Tony even when he shouldn't.
Steve, who wouldn't try to kill anyone, and . . .
It didn't make any sense, he thought again, and then, what happened to him?
He had to see him. He knew it was a bad idea, but it wasn't as if he'd ever been any good at stopping himself from realising those. With a sigh, he powered off his computers, and then went to see the Steve from the future. At least it wasn't a long walk—they'd locked the other Steve up in on of the Tower's cell, fit to hold superstrong villains. Tony had ordered the armour to disassemble once he'd been put inside, and then he'd left before anyone could say anything. He'd needed to run his scans and get his head around this situation.
But now that he had the results, he had to go. There was one question that wouldn't just leave him.
“What I can't figure out,” Tony said, looking at this version of Steve who was everything Tony never wanted his Steve to be, “is why you didn't try to kill me instead. Wouldn't that solve all of your problems?” He carefully kept his voice flippant, except—it was true. Steve would be so much happier if he'd never met Tony.
Tony's Steve didn't know it yet. But this one, from years in the future—he had to, right?
Steve, not-Steve, laughed quietly. He looked the same as Tony's Steve, down to his azure eyes and barely visible freckles on his cheekbones. He seemed older, somehow, but it was more in his expression than physical look. He didn't seem surprised to see that it was Tony who came to talk to him. “You'd say that.”
There was something unsettling in the way Steve was watching him now. His eyes followed Tony's every move, almost as if he didn't want to look away, like it'd been a long time since he'd seen Tony. There was something like longing in his expression.
“I'm dead, in your timeline,” Tony said, not a question.
Steve shrugged. “Everyone is.”
And you watched it all happen, Tony finished in his mind. Was that why he went back in time to kill himself first? Tony could understand that, perhaps a bit better than he wanted, except—he still couldn't imagine Steve planning that. Steve just wouldn't. Steve knew how to survive. Then again, Tony's life lately was full of things he'd never imagined. Never wanted to.
“You saved me,” Steve let out, finally. His voice wavered. “You—you shouldn't have done that. I wasn't worth it, and you died in my arms, and—” He stopped himself.
Tony couldn't breathe. Of course that's how he died—he knew he would trade his life for Steve's without any hesitation. That Steve seemed to be angry at him—that Steve would rather Tony live—that was a different thing. Tony was disposable; Steve never was. Steve should remember that.
And Steve being here was a proof of something else too, something Tony should focus at.
“Our world survived,” Tony said.
“So everything you're doing is justified, is that what you want to hear?” Steve cocked his head. “He is going to remember, you know,” he said, almost conversationally, and Tony took a step back. The words were like a punch.
“So you'll tell him every—” he started saying, because he had to make sure, and—there was something weirdly, wrongly refreshing about being honest with Steve for once.
“No,” Steve cut in, his voice like ice. “You don't have to worry about that.”
Tony stared at him. “Then what? You'll lie even to yourself?”
“You're the one to talk, Stark,” Steve growled, and Tony forced himself to breathe.
This couldn't be Steve, except it was.
“You think you're being so kind,” Steve said. “Taking the burden from everyone else, right? Everyone not intelligent enough to help you, everyone—” He cut himself off. His eyes were dark. “You think you stopped me, saved him? You think the Avengers World is a gift?” It was like he was taunting Tony. “You tell yourself it's for him.”
“It is for him,” Tony admitted, a lie he repeated to himself so often it was almost easy to try and convince everyone else.
“Congratulations, then,” Steve snarled. “I survived. Aren't you glad?”
He looked like Steve, his voice sounded like Steve's, he was Steve.
“But don't get the wrong idea,” he continued. “I don't blame you for his decisions. You were just a catalyst—and not always a bad one. We had good times, Tony.” He laughed again, a hollow sound. “I was so naive, wasn't I? Good thing I know better now.”
He couldn't be Steve, because this wasn't Steve; Steve wouldn't be saying these things and Steve wouldn't be doing this, and God, if this broken shell of a man was what Tony's actions led to, he might as well just sit down and do nothing when the next incursion occurred because anything had to be better than seeing Steve's future like this.
“What happened to you?” Tony let out.
“Last time we talked,” Steve said, “you knew not to ask this question.”
But he said Tony had saved his life—was it already after he'd changed into . . . this?
Tony bit at his lower lip. “I'm sorry,” he said.
“There was a time I believed you,” Steve smiled without humour. “I miss it.”
Tony couldn't look at him any longer. He left.
“He's not me, you know,” Steve said. Tony startled. He hadn't heard him come in. Dangerous, that; Tony had secrets now that Steve couldn't discover.
Except in the last few days he'd been focused on Steve more than on incursions. Even now, he was disassembling the suit the future Steve had on when he'd arrived here, making mental notes on how to improve his own armour. There was something to be said about the tech from the future.
“We ran the tests,” Tony muttered. He set down the gauntlet he'd been holding.
“Yes,” Steve agreed. He stood just behind Tony, and Tony sighed and turned to face him. Steve looked serious. “He's not me,” he repeated. “I—you've been acting weird ever since he showed up, and you keep looking at me, and—he's not me, Tony. You say he's from our future, and I believe you, but . . . It's not set in stone. And I doubt I'd ever become him.”
Rationally, Tony knew Steve had a point. Even just his future self showing up here was changing his timeline. Knowing that, however, didn't help dissolve the cold fear in Tony's gut whenever he thought of that future Steve.
And also, Steve still had no idea Tony had been lying to him for months now, smiling to hide the betrayal that could never be forgiven.
The man in the cell was Steve, and it was Tony's fault.
He thought it was too late to change it, too—and he was saving the world. He was. He couldn't have any doubts, because the knowledge that ultimately he was doing the right thing was the last thing keeping him whole.
He was helping them all.
Steve touched his arm. Tony tensed.
“Stop worrying, Shellhead,” Steve said, his smile as honest as Tony's wasn't, and Tony couldn't help but laugh hysterically.
“That's my job,” he said, and hoped Steve would take it as a joke.
“And mine is to remind you not to be such a pessimist,” Steve answered, his hand still curled around Tony's arm, and for one terrible moment Tony considered just telling him.
He would remember anyway.
He would remember.
Tony shut his eyes tight. He'd always known it was a possibility, that Strange's spell wouldn't hold forever. But to know it for certain was different, yet another protective layer stripped off, the edge of the cliff so much closer.
Tony was so tired.
“I want a drink,” he whispered, and for just a second Steve's fingers tightened almost to the point of pain.
“But you won't give in to that,” Steve said with absolute certainty, and then, “I trust you,” and Tony wanted to cry.
He shouldn't rely on Steve to keep him above the water; not after what he'd done.
Not when Steve didn't know what he was saying.
Tony wished his words weren't comforting still.
“Come on,” Steve said. “You've been cooped up here too long. You need a break.”
He didn't have time for a break, but Steve would remember, and Tony hoped it'd be after they saved the world, but he still couldn't know if this wasn't the last time Steve would want to spend time with him.
He was selfish enough to take it.
“What are you going to do with him?” Reed asked.
Tony shrugged. He'd been trying not to think about it, but his thoughts ran to the future Steve all the time anyway. “Sending him back would be preferable,” he said. “But we don't even know how he got here.”
“He had your armour,” Reed said.
“Or a version of it,” Tony agreed. “It's good; I've been working on it.”
“I don't doubt that,” Reed said. “I have Doom's time platform, if you need it.”
“I know,” Tony said. “Thanks.”
“Does he know?” Reed asked, and of course he would think of that.
Tony hesitated just for a second. He trusted Reed, possibly more than anyone else these days. But . . . Tony had already betrayed Steve by agreeing to wiping his mind. He'd agreed it was necessary at the time. But now—what would happen to Steve if every Illuminati member learnt that Steve would remember? “I don't know,” Tony lied, finally. “Steve doesn't want to talk to him anyway.”
“I suppose that's for the best,” Reed said. “Still. It is dangerous.”
“You don't have to tell me that,” Tony snapped. He wasn't an idiot.
But he was tired enough he might start making mistakes that he couldn't afford. He pushed the thought away, irritably.
He could keep it up as long as he had to. There was no choice.
“I made some changes to the Dyson sphere,” he said, both because it was important and because it was an easier topic.
Weapons which could destroy a planet; easier to think about than Steve, of course.
Everything was wrong these days.
“I got you coffee,” Steve said, walking in the lab.
Tony turned from his armour and looked at him gratefully. “You're a lifesaver,” he said.
Steve smiled at him. He passed Tony the mug. It smelt heavenly and it was just the right temperature not to burn his mouth. Steve made the best coffee.
“Such a cosy scene,” Steve said.
Tony glanced at him, not understanding. Except Steve wasn't talking; he was frozen in place, and—
Tony followed his eyes to the workshop door, where the other Steve stood.
Tony cursed. “That's not the best escape plan, is it? Getting into my workshop?” he asked. He reached behind him, trying to reach his gauntlet.
“I'm not really worried about that,” the other Steve said. He cocked his head. “I wouldn't,” he said.
Steve, the right one, was tense next to Tony. He didn't move, but he squared his shoulders, looked at his other self. “What do you want?” he asked.
“There are too many mistakes to fix in another way,” the other Steve replied quietly.
Tony grabbed his gauntlet.
“I warned you,” Steve said, looking at him. “Override, 13-43-93-83, Steve Rogers.”
Tony's eyes widened as the armour slipped from under his fingers and fled to the other Steve, assembled around his hand.
That was the danger of trusting someone with all of his passwords, he thought, except trusting Steve, the real one, was never any danger at all.
The other Steve fired.
Steve moved as if to cover Tony, and Tony pushed him back in the last moment, fell on top of him. He wasn't the one the other Steve was aiming for, Steve should've remembered that—
Tony's thoughts were cut short as the repulsor blast hit him in his chest, and for a short moment all he could feel was the pain as the RT broke, the metal case heating.
He fell down, Steve's arms around him, and he couldn't breathe, couldn't think; the world was icy cold but for his chest.
“Cover—” he tried to say, and couldn't get the words past his lips.
“He isn't worth it,” someone—it must've been the other Steve—said. The words reached Tony as from afar.
“He's—always,” Tony replied.
“No!” the future Steve yelled. There was a loud sound, like metal hitting the floor. Did he drop his repulsor? Tony couldn't raise his head to see.
“Tony,” his Steve was saying “Tony. What can I do?”
His hands were on Tony, frantic, and Tony wanted to say something, I'm sorry, or maybe You shouldn't worry, and couldn't.
“Let me help,” the other Steve must've stepped closer to them.
He pushed at Steve weakly. There was nothing either of them could do anymore.
“Please,” the other Steve said, sounding hysterical. “I didn't want that—”
“You should go,” Tony's Steve said, his voice like ice. “He's dying, and it's your fault—my fault—and—” His voice broke.
“Steve,” Tony whispered. “No.”
There were steps. Tony wasn't sure whose. He was so tired.
“He left, the bastard. What do I do, Tony?” Steve cried.
Steve's safe, Tony thought, and closed his eyes. He saved him.
Even the pain disappeared into nothing.