There is a man sitting on a bench near the southern edge of the Pond in Central Park, who has no idea why he comes to that exact spot every day. A man is selling hot dogs nearby. He is not an old friend, but his presence feels familiar. The man contemplates that for a second, because these kinds of thoughts always startle him. He doesn't know why he's here, doesn't know where he came from, where he's been, what kind of life he has lived.
But there is the terrible certainty that he doesn't belong. In some significant way that goes beyond the unexplained trauma that took most of his memories away he feels like nothing in this world fits, or that he simply doesn't fit in with the rest of the world. He's out of step and wants nothing more than to fall into step with everybody else.
There is a restlessness he can't explain that tells him he misses something. He wants to feel at home.
So far the only place where he feels he can be at peace is here, right this spot in the park, waiting for something he can't name.
A tall guy jogs past his spot on the bench and he has blond short hair, is well trained and good looking and just for a moment his heart jumps in his chest and then the man passes him by and he realizes that he doesn't know him, they don't know each other.
Most days the haze of not knowing anything about his life doesn't even bother him, and it doesn't now. Not really. He's smart and he has discovered he is a hard worker. He can build a life out of nothing if he has to and that's what he's doing.
But once a day he comes out here to wait, not sure if he wants memories to come back or if he's better off if nothing happens at all.
Like most days there is a little metal cube in his hands and he just knows that he made it himself, even if he has no idea why or what it means that this was the only thing he had on him when he woke up without his memories. It's the key, the answer. He knows it is.
One day he'll find out what the question was. Until then he'll come out here and feel that all things will come together and he can wait for that to happen.
He's not in a rush to find out.
* * *
And it's worse now, because they are standing in a room full of Avengers, a party for a victory achieved without fighting going on all around them. This is a good moment. This is a moment for Steve to enjoy and remember. Instead Steve's mind has caught onto something that Tony hoped they wouldn't have to face yet, for one very important reason: He does not yet have a solution for the next crisis. Not yet
“Look, Steve,” he whispers and bumps his shoulder against Steve's in a playful way. “Enjoy the party. I know you're worried about Wakanda. I am too. But today is a good day.” He gives Steve a slightly sultry smile and hopes that's enough.
Steve does smile at him in answer, but there is a bit of a strain in it.
So Tony adds: “We'll find a solution. We always do.” He's said it before: We will find a way to save everyone.
Because that's what he does. He's the guy who finds solutions. And Steve is the person who saves everyone. That's how it's always been. It doesn't always work out for that fragile messed up thing between them that they are always - always - reluctant to name. But that's what they do: finding solutions and saving the world.
Tony just needs to make sure he can find a solution before Steve catches on.
Because he knows, the incursions are not going to stop without some hard decisions being made and Steve will remember. Life follows rules. He knows how these things go and he knows what he has to do.
He's a futurist after all.
Steve gives a slightly exasperated breath as he looks at him. He's still smiling and Tony's heart beats a little faster. Being with Steve always makes him feel a little breathless, a little like he's falling in love all over again for the fist time.
It makes the lying worse, but it makes it also easier.
Tony can't leave this up to Steve, because Captain America is not made for no win scenarios. Neither is Iron Man. So Tony will make sure he finds a way to make this into something they can win.
“There is always a solution,” he promises Steve, who only knows part of what he's talking about.
And there it is, the first hint of something he's always afraid of seeing: Steve smiles at him, but there is some sadness there, because he knows he might not like Tony's solution.
It hurts like someone just stabbed him right in the heart and he's lightheaded and giddy suddenly. He takes Steve's hand and squeezes. “Why don't you and Thor try and drink each other under the table?” he proposes.
Steve shakes his head and promises: “I think I have better things in mind. For the two of us.”
Tony tries his best not to feel like this is the beginning of the end, like he's a traitor and a liar who deserves none of this. But it's so much easier to forget what's coming when, Steve holds him down and fucks him into the mattress slow and painfully sweet at first, until Tony wants to beg him to let go of control – and then Steve, grunting and panting, and biting his neck, savagely, marking him, rides him hard and fast.
It's perfect, he thinks as he comes, whimpering, tears in his eyes.
This is bliss and a disaster waiting to happen rolled into one, but he selfishly can't let go of this.
Even if he might lose Steve, he can't allow to lose a world with Steve in it.
He needs a solution, any kind of solution. When he finds that he can start re-building. Because seeing the disappointment and disapproval will be better than a universe without Steve.
I'll find a solution, he vows when Steve falls asleep pressed to his side, his face hidden against the side of Tony's neck, breathing against him in warm, damp puffs.
For now he's here and the world is okay.
* * *
He's working with the most brilliant men he knows and even between them it looks like there is no good way out of this.
But there has to be.
He stares at his hands for ten minutes straight and sighs. He can't give up, because that is not something he can do, period. He can lose and re-build, he can lose and die, but giving up is not an option.
He thinks of the story of the Latverians re-building their walls with the stones that their enemies had thrown at them. Even as a child he had loved the story, understanding that this was a story of using something destructive to build a better future. As a former weapons manufacturer who has tried to turn his life around time and time again it appealed to him even more today.
While he rarely thinks of defense as his strong suit – inventing and building are - defense has always been part of his work he excelled at, even if the more destructive ideas are still there and have never left him. With the Illuminati he has started to build the offense that might safe their universe, their Earth. But here, sitting alone in his workshop staring at his hands he still wants to believe that there is a better solution.
Walls, he thinks. Take the destruction and turn it into defense.
Staring at his hands still, his mind has already started taking notes for what he needed to explore next. What is this thing he is fighting against and how could he turn it into an advantage?
* * *
He falls asleep sated and at peace, warm and safe in Steve's strong arms.
None of that keeps him from waking up, dreaming of worlds colliding and universes dying, of Steve's shield coming down on his throat, of Steve looking at him like he's worse than dirt. It scares him, not because he knows some of this might as well be one of those memories he wiped, but because as always a part of him that is never quiet believes he deserves all this.
The world is ending and he might deserve all this.
He sits at the foot of the bed, pressing the heels of his his hands against his eyes and tries to breathe easy, tries not to wake Steve.
This is all gonna end, but if he can find a solution then he and Steve can find a way to re-build again. They did it before.
And a world they can disagree in is still so much better than the alternative. And perhaps he can spare Steve the need to hate him enough to attempt to kill him this time.
* * *
The incursions keep happening.
Steve is picking up on him working on a special project.
Tony knows it's been a while since he's been straightforward with anyone.
“There may not be a solution,” Reed says one night and buries his face in his hand, tired.
“There is always a solution,” he shoots back.
He's thinking of walls again, of the blood of their enemies that the Latverians used to spill over the stones they then used to re-build their city walls in medieval times. Weapons and blood turned into the mortar of a new better wall. Steve had wrinkled his nose when he heard him tell the full story for the first time.
“What if there isn't a solution?” Reed asks and Tony can tell he's thinking about his family.
It's the question he has feared the most. “Then we die,” he says and it hurts. “But we won't. We'll find a way.”
Once, what feels like a long time ago, he told Steve that if the world ever ended and they wouldn't be able to change the fact, he would spend his last day on earth drunk. People forget that because he has been sober for so long, it doesn't change the fact that he still craves the stuff every minute of every day, that he still remembers that falling off the wagon has ruined his life, but has made some things so blissfully easy.
The truth is, Tony is good at building solutions for the future. Over years of seeing his life destroyed and starting over, of re-building their homes, of ending and re-building the Avengers with Steve, of destroying and re-building his friendship with Steve and finally having something more with him – re-building has become more than just a story about Latverian walls. He knows now that he will rather see the world and everything in it destroyed to be re-built again, than sit idly around waiting for the end blissfully drunk and not caring about tomorrow.
He will find a way or he'll go down guns blazing.
* * *
He works on a portal and tries to smile cheerily when Steve comes to visit him in his workshop. There is a cube of data recordings sitting on the table that he has already keyed to Steve's DNA, but thankfully has not activated yet. When Steve picks it up his heart still stops for a micro-second, because he half-expects it to spring to life and show Steve the first recording Tony has made for him.
He has made a decision about all the lies.
He wants Steve to know the truth about everything – after everything has already been done, so he can't stop him, so he doesn't have to make the decision.
“So this portal will connect everything?”
“So to speak,” he says and smiles. “Think about it this way: If we ever lose any Avengers to the multiverse, this will give us the means to find them.”
“Sounds nice,” Steve said, but he looks worried again.
Things are spinning out of control faster than Tony expected. He doesn't want to lose Steve, but he knows he has no right to hold on to him out of selfishness and fear, know he can't make Steve give up a part of himself either.
Tony is going to re-build walls that he spent all of his life tearing down. Steve can't have a place in this.
He doesn't think he can trust the Illuminati to solve this, he can't trust the Avengers to play out one of the scenarios that is just like one of the team building exercises Steve had made them all play out time and time again a long time ago for training purposes. Innocents on both sides will suffer: what will you do? It's like the Kobayashi Maru test for Avengers and he knows Steve had thought it was a character building exercise, that would help them to make the right decisions under pressure. It only taught Tony one thing: Steve may think he is ready for a no-win scenario, but the truth is none of them are. They've done the impossible too often.
A problem without a solution is unthinkable, but for Steve a problem without a good solution will be just as uncomfortable.
Tony will not tear him down with himself.
He makes Steve bend him over the workbench, because that seems like the thing to do. Messy, hot, fast and distracting.
Next morning the first cube sits on Steve's night table. Steve thanks him over breakfast, but doesn't ask any more questions. It's like they both already know what is coming – and Steve doesn't.
* * *
He's been looking at space and the friction between universes, has asked Reed time and time again about data and theories, but the answer is right here: Spacetime.
He has forgotten that timetravel and spacetravel and the tears are all connected, that timelines look straight and clean in theory, but aren't linear at all.
He and Steve? They have seen themselves in so many possible futures. They know things aren't set like that.
When Steve's fist connects with his face again, he laughs.
Cause and effect.
It seems so simple, but nothing is.
* * *
He thinks of Steve, old and bitter and full of anger at the lover who betrayed him and knows this is so much easier without him. Just now he also feels the anger, but the love has never left him. Where Steve has always been made in black and white, Tony has always been shades of gray. He still loves, but he has no qualms about what he's doing either.
There's always a way.
* * *
“Steve,” he speaks into the little recording device. “I think I figured it out. The answer is not in the incursions themselves, it's in the bends and coils we caused in our own timeline. There has been too much messing around. Our timelines have split and broken in so many places that it's effecting space and slipspace and what lies beyond. That's what's effecting not just our universe.”
He pinches the back of his nose with two fingers and sighs. “Reed can explain it to you. Show him the data packs, he'll know. I promised you I would fix this and you have no reason to believe me, but I will. If this goes wrong though, you're all on your own and I wish you the best of luck.”
He stops recording, deletes the last part and starts over.
This time he sticks to the data, explains how the little wrinkles and possibilities in their timelines are like little hooks that are pulling everything apart at the seams. He isn't sure he cares really, until he finds himself kneeling on the floor crying, sobbing. He has a theory and no idea if he's right.
He stops recording and deletes the whole thing.
Instead he finds Steve, breaks into his apartment like he does it every other Friday, and sits at the foot of his bed as Steve lies sleeping. He could, of course, do this every time he wants, but this is the first time he comes here. He contemplates what he's going to do next. “Wake up, old man,” he barks finally, and shakes Steve awake. He still wakes up and springs into action as soon as he recognizes Tony, even now that he's aged, the serum failing. The punch to the chin is earned and he laughs, because he's angry and afraid of what's going to happen, but he wants to kiss Steve, so he does. Steve tries to shove him off and succeeds, Tony lands, laughing, on his knees in front of the bed, watching Steve wiping his mouth with his sleeve, trying to erase the kiss, the feel of Tony on his lips. It's all so fitting.
His eyes are pits of angry fire, but Tony can only think about how different his skin felt, how much he still smelled like himself, how much Tony still wants him, how he needs him. He still loves this man and that's like the core truth of his being even now. “You're the key,” he laughs. “You've always been the key.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I need the time gem. You have it.” Steve is reaching toward his nightstand, but Tony is faster. “Sorry, you can't contact anyone before we're through with this. I need the time gem, Steve.”
“What makes you think I have it, you bastard? And what are you eve doing here?” Steve shouts, acid in his voice. He is sitting up now, reaching for his cane.
“I think you do. It's tied to you. I saw it that day when you punched me in the lab.”
“So?” Steve is shaking with anger.
Tony feels that makes everything easier. “The gem brought back your memories. And look at you, spry and kissable even in old age.”
“I take it your bombs did not work?” Steve's voice is pure hatred now.
Tony shrugs. “Change of plans.” He's flippant and it comes easily. Everything will be over soon anyway. Extremis churns through his veins and Wanda's spell gives him the peace of mind he needs to be cruel. “I never wanted you to have to make the choice between a noble death and survival at these costs. That's why I'm making all the choices without you.”
“I know. You build your walls with stones drenched in blood.” It's said with so much venom that it should be off putting, but Tony laughs again.
“You remember,” he says. “We've always been so good at re-building. Together. It's so fitting that you should be the key and now I need your help. Cause and effect. I need to know exactly when and how these incursions started and then I can stop them.”
“I'm not going to help you. I can never trust you again. Every word you say is a lie and has been for a long time.”
He shrugged. “I know that you can't trust me and that's fine.” He has worked hard to tear those walls down after all. “But remember that there is a core truth to every lie. I'm doing this for you and I can finally solve it.”
“You've had your chance. It's over.” Steve's hands are shaking so hard that Tony is afraid he's going to have a heart attack. Strange how things change. He used to be the one with the weak heart.
But Steve really doesn't have a weak heart even now. That's why Tony's sure he must have the infinity gem he's looking for.
“I need you to give me the gem, Steve, and I promise nobody else will have to die. The incursions will stop.”
“I can never trust you again.”
“Just one time.”
“Not even one time.”
Tony reaches into his pocket to peal a final cube out of the pocket of his jeans. “Let's trade then,” he says. “This has all the information on what I did and what I plan on doing. If the incursions don't stop, then you can use it to find me and give me what I deserve.”
Steve hasn't even agreed yet, but he raises his palm and Tony is relieved that he hasn't been wrong.
Steve has always been the key.
* * *
He picks up the data cube he made for himself.
And this is it. No turning back.
“It's up to you to rebuild, Steve,” he says to no-one in particular. He has found a way. He will take two branches of their time streams and merge them so that none of this has ever happened, a future that was never touched by the incursions, an Earth that was never set off course by irresponsible time traveling will be laid over this one in just the right places.
This earth will be safe.
But he knows he will be standing right on the glue flap as time and space fix itself.
It's okay. You re-build better walls, but he has always know that some blood has to be split in some way to do it.
And he really deserves this one.
At the very least he can be sure, that Steve won't grieve for him too hard. He doesn't need to be sad for the world that comes after.
* * *
The little metal cube is sitting at home in his lonely, nearly empty apartment on the window sill. For months he hasn't even looked at it. He feels empty, but like he's slowly adapting. Whatever the little thing is the key to, he thinks he might be better off not finding out. It's time to not only build this new life, but live it.
He still sits on his bench in Central Park when he has the time, when he feels especially lonely, when he ponders the void in his mind too much.
When he finds a suitable stone he skips it over the smooth surface of the pond's water.
With a loud swishing sound a little metal machine appears out of thin air and he nearly falls backwards in shock. He stumbles away, when the little thing falls down hard on the rocks and lies there.
His heart is thumping hard in his chest. But the thing looks like the cube he has at home. Slowly, very slowly he moves closer. The thing isn't moving and it's eerily quiet.
His hand is shaking as he reaches out and picks it up. With a whirring noise it comes to life and a metallic voice says: “Tony Stark: Confirmed. Message playing.”
A friendly, male voice says: “It's time to come home, Tony. We're not done re-building.”
The voice stirs something in him. He can't place it, can't name it, can't say he wants it.
“I love you,” the voice adds, like an afterthought.
Then the cube goes quiet again.
His heart is still beating fast.
Perhaps it's time to look at the little forgotten cube on his windowsill tonight. Perhaps it's time to find his past again.