His whole body hurt. This wasn't exactly new, these days, with how fragile he'd become, but the armour was supposed to take care of him. Clearly, he just couldn’t ever trust Tony.
The last thing he remembered was . . . Fighting To—Stark, and then . . . The world was supposed to end. So what happened?
His hands were cuffed to the bed. He couldn't break out in this condition. He hated this body. He wasn't sure where he was or how he got there, but he hated Stark for that too, because whose else fault could it be? Steve had thought they were friends. That they mattered. Steve had thought a lot of things, but Tony had set to proving him wrong about all of them, in the past few months. Why did that still hurt?
And why could Steve still only think about him, even now, in a situation he knew nothing about? He had to get a grip on himself.
He opened his eyes. He didn't recognize the room, but it didn't look like a cell. Steve was lying on an actual bed. There was a wardrobe in the corner, and the windows weren’t barred; sunlight streamed in unimpeded. Steve could only see the blue sky outside from his position. More importantly, he wasn’t alone. There was a man with his back to Steve, hunched as if he was typing something on his phone.
A man, Steve thought bitterly. As if he couldn't always recognize him. As if he didn't spend enough time with him he'd be able to recognize him by his hands alone, or his eyes, or—
“To—” Damn him. “Stark,” he said.
Tony spun around, putting his phone in his suit jacket as he did. No Extremis, or was he just pretending?
“What I want to know,” Tony said, not taking even a step in Steve's direction, “is who you are, and what made you think putting on his face was a good idea.” He frowned. “And also, I haven't seen him in a while"—was there pain in his voice, Steve wondered—"but he doesn't get old; that was rather lousy. Almost insulting to think I'd believe you.” He looked at Steve, all of his attention focused, and it wasn't any less nerve-racking than ever. The full attention of Tony Stark was always something else, and it was clearly true for all versions of him. “Who are you?” Tony repeated.
Steve stared at him. This was Tony—but it wasn't his Tony. Fuck. It wasn't the Tony he—he'd thought he’d known.
He was older, for one, his hair streaked silver, wrinkles around his eyes. At the same time, however, he looked less stressed. Like he was actually sleeping through the nights. Had this world treated him kinder? Or did he have even less of a conscience? His eyes were as blue as ever, though, and his words suggested that he also had a history with his Steve.
“Where am I?” Steve asked finally.
Tony laughed. “Where are you,” he mocked. “As if I'm going to give you information.”
Steve sighed. “I'm not a spy,” he said. “If I were trying to be, I'd be better at it. Everyone knows Captain America doesn't get old; you said so yourself. And yet, you recognized me.” Where was the Steve of this world? Fighting with Tony, or against him?
“I'd always—” Tony cut himself off, for a moment looked undecided. “Okay. Mystique would be better at it. Some new mutant? A Skrull?”
“You really don't have Skrull detectors to check that?” Steve asked. “My universe has had a bit of an interdimensional problem lately. Nothing like that here?”
Tony’s eyes turned to the cuffs around Steve’s wrists, and they opened at once, smoothly. Ah, so he did have Extremis. Great. It was the last thing Steve needed now; another drunk with power version of Tony Stark. He almost felt guilty for thinking that, and stomped down on those feelings. He owed Stark nothing, and certainly not his sympathy.
"You're saying you're a Steve from another world," Tony said.
"And you clearly believe me," Steve said, sitting up. He rubbed at his wrists. The bruises would take days to disappear.
"Stranger things have happened," Tony said. "I don't think any of my enemies would be clever enough to send a spy disguised as older Steve and have him claim he was from another dimension, though. I don't think I would've thought of that."
Steve almost smiled. There was a time when he’d thought Tony's arrogance was charming, in a way—before he'd turned it against Steve, too.
God, but Steve wanted to trust him; after everything, that was still his instinctual reaction to Tony Stark. Why couldn’t he let go?
"I used you. And I'd do it again."
Steve closed his eyes briefly. "So where am I?" he repeated, his tone sharp.
"Let's wait with the questions, shall we?" Tony shot him a smile. "I'd wager you're hungry. Steve al—" He cut himself off. "Let's have dinner. We can talk then."
Steve didn't want anything to do with him, certainly not eat a dinner, but he was clearly still the prisoner here, so all he could do was nod.
"Great." Tony left without another word. Steve couldn't help thinking it looked like he was running away.
Just what happened between this world's Steve and Tony, he wondered. He needed to know that, he excused his curiosity, in order to know how to talk to this Tony and how to get back to his own world. There was nothing personal in his interest. He'd learnt that lesson.
He stood up. He checked the door out of habit more than any actual hope to find it open. It was locked, of course. There was another door leading to a bathroom—nothing useful there—and then, finally, Steve walked to the window, curious where he was.
He’d been expecting New York, maybe San Francisco. Seattle wouldn’t have surprised him. But the city outside was like nothing he’d ever seen, modern, full of smooth-looking buildings and green terraces. There were people flying with what looked like modified repulsor technology everywhere. Steve must’ve been pretty high up, and from his remote point of view, it looked peaceful.
It looked like a city Tony would design, and Steve supposed that was his answer.
Steve waited for any indication that the dinner was supposed to take place soon. He was hungry—he didn’t need to eat as much anymore, but he got tired quickly, and he needed to eat more often. There was nothing for him to do in the room apart from lying on the bed trying to sleep—but he didn’t want to do that—or staring out of the window. So he did the latter, and with each passing minute the fact that he was locked up somewhere far away, unable to take part in the life he was seeing in front of his eyes, was getting more and more obvious, grating on his nerves. He wanted to be there, he wanted to be a part of it; he longed for the times his Tony might’ve—
No. He didn’t want to spend time in Tony fucking Stark’s perfect city. Steve wondered what the Tony from this world must’ve sacrificed to build this place. The answer couldn’t be pretty. Tony’s dreams looked beautiful, but they rose on other people’s blood.
Steve knew that intimately.
(Years ago, he’d be overjoyed to see a Tony who succeeded in creating his happy future. He knew better now.
A part of him still wished he didn’t.)
“It’s pretty, isn’t it?”
Steve shook himself. He hadn’t noticed Tony entering. That was dangerous. Understandable—Steve didn’t hear half as well anymore, and Tony had Extremis—but still dangerous.
“It’s very beautiful,” Steve admitted, because at least this was true. “What was the price, though, Tony? Was it worth it?”
He turned to see Tony go pale. “It is,” he answered. “It has to be. Our people are happy, and—” He stopped talking. He whispered something Steve didn’t catch, but he could guess.
This Tony was very much like Steve’s Tony used to be.
“So, dinner,” Tony repeated, his fake smile plastered in place. “Follow me, if you will.”
“Aren’t you afraid I’ll stab you in the back?” Steve asked. He wouldn’t—but why didn’t Tony take any safety precautions?
Tony laughed. “Do you really think the only things I know about you is what you told me the last time?” he asked, smiling. “Come on. I ordered your favourite pizza.”
Tony made it sound like an official thing earlier—or a fancy word for interrogation—but here he was, talking about pizza.
And Steve believed him. He was going to like it.
Dealing with two Tony Starks in his life was too much. At least it’s not at once, Steve thought, and silently followed his host or captor.
The corridors were tall and bright; Steve had a suspicion that the white-looking panels would light up if Tony touched them. Or thought about using them, as it were. Inside, it was even more obvious Tony had designed the building. Steve had lived in the Avengers Tower for years; had seen all—almost all, right, not the ones that mattered—of his plans. This place wasn’t the same, but it was similar enough. Tony liked circular shapes and lots of light.
Tony turned left, and suddenly Steve found himself in what looked like a meeting room; a white table surrounded by chairs, the promised pizza in the middle.
“I know you are who you claim to be,” Tony said quietly, “but that doesn’t mean I’m going to trust you near people I care about so soon.”
Fair enough, Steve thought. If their roles were reversed, Tony would be locked up in a cell.
Tony gestured at him to sit down and poured them both a glass of water. Steve was glad it wasn’t alcohol.
The chair was comfortable, supporting his weak frame. Tony pushed a plate in his direction and Steve nodded his thanks. Three cheeses. His favourite. He took one slice and bit into it. It was delicious—of course.
“So,” Tony said as Steve ate. “Carol found you.” He looked closer at Steve. “You know her,” he decided. “Good. You were lucky, I suppose. However you came here, it couldn’t have been pretty on the other side.”
Steve forced himself to keep eating. Not to show any weakness. Not to . . .
Couldn’t have been pretty. Did he really not know?
There was no world for Steve to come back to. There shouldn’t have been any world for Steve to even come to. Not unless—Tony and Reed both had said so, before the last incursion, and maybe at least one of them had been honest. Wouldn’t Reed have built a portal to another universe, if it were possible? Instead of a ship that might or might not survive?
Steve knew he would’ve, but there was still a shade of doubt in his thoughts, because—he had no idea what it was Tony had been doing when Steve had come to confront him for the last time, as their world ended.
“Not a topic you enjoy?” Tony asked. He almost sounded sympathetic.
Steve realised that while he had managed to swallow the first bite, he hadn’t touched more food, and his fists were curled tight, his knuckles almost white.
“It was ugly,” he said shortly. “And if you want to build me a portal to send me back, don’t bother.”
Tony raised an eyebrow. “I see you meant it when you said interdimensional issues,” he murmured, probably mostly to himself. “Was someone with you?”
Steve just stared at him. Let him get to it on his own merit. He was a genius, wasn’t he?
“Ah,” Tony said. “So am I also the reason for your stellar mood?”
“Waking up in chains didn’t make it better, no,” Steve said, avoiding the question. Even he knew it was obvious, but he couldn’t talk about Tony with another damned Tony.
“Okay.” Tony was quiet. “I—never mind. This can wait. Eat your food, Steve, you need it.” He almost sounded worried. Caring.
Steve let himself pretend it was the Tony he knew and trusted. He never liked to worry him. He reached for another slice of pizza.
Tony was right, he needed some calories. It wouldn’t do to become even weaker here.
When Steve glanced at Tony moments later, Tony was smiling, looking unguarded, and Steve felt a pang in his heart.
He hadn’t seen his Tony like that in months.
“I’ll get you a proper room tomorrow,” Tony said. “And we can talk then. I don’t know if I can help you. I don’t know what you’d consider helping.” Tony raised a hand. “No, don’t answer that now. Maybe you’ll be able to help me, however, if you want to.” He gave Steve a stern look. “Tomorrow,” he repeated. “You need rest now. Interdimensional portals aren’t easy on anybody.”
Steve didn’t understand why Tony became so damn helpful out of a sudden, but he wasn’t going to complain just yet.
He finished the pizza, drank a bit more water, and then Tony led him back to his room.
Steve didn’t check it this time. He knew the door would be unlocked.
Just as he knew that running away wouldn’t lead to anything good.
Tony’s question stayed with him though—what would be best for Steve now?
He didn’t have his world. His Tony might be dead—and even if not . . . Maybe he should be. He hadn’t been Tony in too long.
Steve hadn’t felt this lost since long before the ice.
Carol came to pick him up. In a way, Steve wasn’t really surprised. Of course Tony delegated. Of course it was Carol.
“So you are a Steve Rogers,” she said in lieu of hello.
“And I have you to thank for being here, right?” Steve winced at himself. He didn’t mean for it to sound like he wasn’t grateful. He didn’t know what this world was like. He had no idea what could’ve happened to him if he hadn’t been brought to Tony. At least this Tony didn’t want to harm him. “I’m glad you found me.”
“That’s right,” she said. “You’re lucky I like flying out so much.”
This sounded like the Carol he knew, and he smiled at her. She looked the same—but her uniform was unlike any of Carol’s. It looked like something between her Ms. Marvel suit and Tony’s armours. Which . . . Sure, it gave her better protection than what amounted to a swimming suit—but why did Carol need an armour?
“Tony’s tech is good,” she said. “It helps. And you were staring.”
“Sorry,” Steve said. He didn’t mean to. He was just curious. This world seemed to be very different than his.
But his world was dead, so maybe that was a good thing.
“So where’s the me from here?” he asked, figuring Carol might give him a straight answer.
She shook her head. “Nope,” she said. “He was my friend, but I don’t know you, and I won’t step between Tony and—whatever it is that he thinks he’s doing with you.”
Steve raised his eyebrows. Was? What happened here?
“The Carol from my world,” he said finally. “There was a time—we fought on opposite sides, once. But then, after the war . . . We became friends again.” It had been so much easier to talk to Carol again than to talk to Tony, but not less important. “I’ve always been glad of that.”
“I’m glad for her, then,” she said, a bit sadly, “but you’re not my Steve.”
And his Carol could well be dead, he realised with a jolt.
It was easy to think that his world had died—it was impossible to understand and process. But if the ship Reed had built didn’t survive—and Steve had no way of knowing . . . But even if it did—there were so many other people who died.
Steve had never planned on surviving, when he’d gone after Tony in the final hours of their world. He’d never wanted to face a reality where everyone he’d known was dead. He’d done it once already, and he only survived because it was Tony who was there to help him through it, and Tony—the Tony Steve knew had been long gone now.
Steve was alone.
His steps faltered, and Carol caught him by his elbow, stabilised him.
“You okay?” she asked after a moment, looking at him with concern.
He closed his eyes briefly, then he gestured at himself. “You might’ve noticed I’m not exactly in peak condition,” he said finally.
Her eyes told him she didn’t believe the lie one bit, but she didn’t push and they continued their slow walk.
“Tony wanted to see you,” she said slowly, with hesitation, “but if you’d rather . . .”
“Rather what, sit in that room doing nothing?” he snapped and immediately felt guilty.
She only smiled, though, and it had to be something connected to the other Steve, but asking about that wouldn’t lead anywhere.
“Where is he?” Steve asked finally.
Carol didn’t answer. He followed her down the corridor and to an elevator that opened at her fingerprint. The elevator descended without any prompting as soon as Steve stepped inside too. It could be programmed. Or Tony could be watching them already. Steve should mind, he told himself, but he wasn’t sure if he did. Long ago, he had trusted Tony with Extremis.
Look where that had gotten them.
“This is where I’m leaving you,” Carol said when the elevator stopped. “It’s his lab. He doesn’t need a bodyguard.”
“Not even Iron Man?” Steve asked, and Carol smiled.
“Right,” she said. “See you later, I suppose.”
“Bye. And thanks again,” Steve said and stepped out of the elevator straight into Tony’s workshop.
Some things never changed, he understood as he turned around.
Half-assembled armours were everywhere. Lots of parts Steve couldn’t identify lay on various tables; screwdrivers, pliers, and other tools around them. There were rows of big machinery at the end—probably for actually building the armours, not just fixing them. A myriad of computer screens, and a very comfortably looking chair—because Tony loved to build, but he also loved to program his inventions, and as he’d explained to Steve, programming in a chair that was anything less then perfect was absolute hell.
Steve smiled at the memory.
He missed being friends with Tony.
The thought woke him up and he looked around with more purpose, trying to find this world’s Tony.
As soon as Steve took a step forward, Tony straightened from behind a pile of wires. “Here, Steve!” he called. He had on a white tank top, stained with oil that very clearly showed there wasn’t an RT node in his chest. Or an artificial heart. Or any number of other things Steve’s Tony had had done to his heart.
“Always working,” Steve chuckled, pushing the thoughts away.
“I guess that’s a universal constant then,” Tony said. “Tell me, Steve—did your world go through the superhero civil war?”
Steve did a double-take. He hadn’t expected Tony to start with that. He—
“I’ll take that as a yes,” Tony sighed. “Sorry, I have to ask. How did it end?”
Steve looked at him for a long while, and then decided, fuck that. If Tony Stark wanted to ask that question, he could deal with consequences. “I surrendered.”
Tony went pale. “You—”
“And then,” Steve didn’t let him finish, “as I was being led to my trial, Red Skull shot me.”
Tony was even paler now, if that was possible, and he was staring at Steve with wide eyes. “Just as I thought there was a world that got it better . . . You . . .”
“I died,” Steve repeated, calmly. It didn’t really hurt to talk about it anymore.
Clearly, it hurt Tony to hear about it.
“My—Steve would never surrender to me,” Tony admitted, his voice bitter. He wasn’t looking at Steve. “And yet, if the alternative is you dying . . . Then I’m happy with our outcome.”
He didn’t sound happy. He sounded like he was about to cry, and Steve had already seen one Tony brought down by memories of the war that weren’t even his own. He couldn’t stand by and watch it happen to another.
“I’m fine, Tony,” Steve sighed. He walked over to him and put a steadying hand on Tony’s arm. It was what he would’ve done for his own Tony, years ago, before . . . No, he wasn’t thinking about it.
It worked, at least, and Tony gradually relaxed under his touch.
“How did he survive that?” Tony whispered, but Steve suspected Tony hadn’t actually meant to ask the question.
Still; he was done hiding things to spare Tony’s feelings. Any Tony’s. “He didn’t. He wiped his brain clear.”
Tony inhaled sharply, and then his palm was over Steve’s hand, still on Tony’s arm, clutching almost to the point of pain. “I can’t”—his voice shivered—”I can’t even pretend I’m surprised. Fuck.”
“Tony.” Steve squeezed his arm briefly. “That was my world, not yours.” He hesitated. He wanted to know, but was this the right moment to ask? But there was no telling when another time would come, and maybe it was better to rip the band-aid off in one go. “What happened here?”
Tony stared at their connected hands. His eyes seemed glassy.
Steve firmly told himself it could’ve been some Extremis side-effect. It could change his eye-colour, it could . . . Because Tony wasn’t on the verge of tears. No.
“How did the war end here?” Steve repeated when Tony remained silent.
Tony chuckled. It sounded like a sob. “It didn’t.”
And then he told Steve everything, and Steve could only listen, desperately wishing it was all just an elaborate joke.
Them dividing not only the superheroes, but the whole country? Steve’s counterpart trying to blow up their friends in the Negative Zone prison? That just wasn’t possible, and yet, Tony’s sad, quiet voice made it obvious it was all true.
Then, Tony finished talking and they both fell quiet; just looking at each other.
Steve was still frozen in the spot when Tony spoke again, quietly. “Funny, that,” he said, his voice shaking. “We restarted the Avengers, you know? He kissed me on the helicarrier deck. Everything was better than it’d ever been. And then the war started, and he wouldn’t listen, not even once.”
“Tony,” Steve spoke up, even though he didn’t know what he intended to say.
“What?” Tony shot him a sharp glare. “You said you surrendered. But had you listened before it went that far?”
Steve shook his head mutely. He’d been so angry, during the war, and just after coming back to life; so angry. But it wasn’t an excuse. He had betrayed Tony. That much was true.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
Tony shook his head. “I’m not the Tony you should be having that conversation with.”
“And I’m not that Steve,” Steve retorted, “and yet here we are.”
“Did you love him?” Tony’s question was quiet, so quiet Steve could ignore it. But why ask? Hadn’t it always been obvious?
“Always,” Steve said, and even after everything he had had to live through, this one answer remained constant.
He didn’t expect it, and yet, Tony’s lips on his weren’t exactly a surprise. This was how Steve imagined Tony would kiss—before Red Skull, before he started calling himself superior—but that last meeting was the last thing Steve wanted to remember now.
Tony then had been cold and demanding and nothing like himself.
Tony now was gentle, almost afraid, but there was warmth in his every move.
It wasn’t Steve’s Tony, but it was the next best thing. Steve kissed him back.
For a moment, he let himself forget about everything. Tony’s carefully trimmed beard tickled Steve, but it was just right. His lips were soft, and he tasted like coffee. Steve realised their hands were still tangled together, and he let go in favour of pulling Tony closer with both hands. Tony leant into him, moaned into his mouth. He ran one careful hand over Steve’s cheek, held on to him with his other arm, bit on Steve’s lower lip and licked into his mouth, hot, insistent.
It was always something to have Tony Stark focused solely just on you, something that made it impossible for Steve to think.
He winced, suddenly, when Tony’s fingers dug into his elbow a bit too hard, and Tony took a sharp step back. He was breathing fast, his eyes dark, but he wasn’t moving in Steve’s direction again.
Steve understood. It was—almost right, but not quite, and reminded of it, he couldn’t forget again.
“It’s not that you’re old,” Tony shrugged. “It’s that you’re not him.”
Steve smiled, tilted his head. “I know,” he said. It didn’t hurt, because he understood perfectly. That didn’t mean he didn’t already miss Tony pressed against him. “He’s alive, Tony. Why this?”
The separate countries at war, no visits, hostile politics. It didn’t make any sense. Even in the heat of the Super Hero Civil War, Steve had never wanted to fight with Tony. He hadn’t been given a choice. But here, with both of them alive, and leaders of their countries?
Steve’s Tony was either dead or changed beyond all recognition, or maybe he’d never existed at all. But this Tony, right in front of him? He could be happy yet, if he let himself.
Steve should have remembered Tony never allowed himself that one thing.
Tony’s face hardened. “I thought you of all people would understand.”
Steve shook his head. “I surrendered in our war, because I’d realised it had gone too far. Civilians were being harmed. The very people we were trying to protect. And . . . I never wanted to harm Tony. I never wanted to be against him.”
And then he was, again and again and again; how did his life become such a fucking mess? He wanted to say it was all Tony’s fault . . . But he knew parts of it were his own, too.
“Do you think I want that?!” Tony yelled suddenly. He took a few breaths and continued much quieter. “He won’t talk to me. And—I told you what had happened in the Negative Zone.”
It was the only part that didn’t make any sense to Steve. He wouldn’t have given an order to blow their one-time friends up—well, while apparently this Steve was very different, Steve refused to believe that any version of him could’ve done that.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” he said aloud. Tony was glaring at him, angry and upset in both measures.
“And I suppose you can explain it to me, oh genius strategist,” he snapped.
Steve had a sinking feeling that yes, he could.
“You asked how our war ended, Tony,” he said.
"You didn’t ask what happened after.”
And Steve wasn’t there to see it, but he’d read the reports, had been appalled at what had been done to Tony in the aftermath. He steeled himself, and then he told this Tony all he knew about the so-called Secret Invasion, about the Skrulls infiltrating their teams, their families, about the Skrulls taking over the Earth without anyone ever noticing something was wrong.
Tony stared at him with wide eyes when he was done. “A part of me wants to believe you, even if that means we were—we still are—exceptional idiots. A part of me doesn’t even want to hope this might be solved.”
Steve suddenly remembered the moment Tony had first woken him up in this world. “You didn’t know if it was me—you don’t have Skrull detectors.”
Tony shook his head. He sat down, his face hidden in his hands. “You might be right.” A beat. “Steve will never believe it. He hates me now.”
No, he didn’t, unless he really was a very different man than Steve himself. And Tony should know that.
“Tony—my Tony,” Steve made clear, “he—well, we fought that war. We argued countless times. He lied to me more often than I can remember. He erased my memories and kept lying to me for months. He used me.”
He noticed how Tony’s face was going steadily ashen, and with a wry chuckle thought that if anyone was to tell that to Steve’s Tony, years ago—he’d also be horrified at himself. Steve should never forget that Tony’s worst enemy was always just Tony himself.
“And for all of that,” Steve continued, “you asked if I loved him, and I said yes. I do.” He was exhausted. He wanted to be alone. “I don’t think your Steve could really hate you,” Steve finished. “Is that enough information for now?” A part of him didn’t want to leave this Tony in such a state, but then—staying together might not lead to anything good, either.
Tony was staring at the floor, avoiding Steve’s eyes, but he nodded. “Thank you,” he said, but Steve was already on the way to the elevator. It opened in front of him and took him to the right floor without him pressing any buttons again. Steve wasn’t sure he minded it.
They hadn’t made any progress on what was important, on what happened to Steve’s world, on whatever it was that Tony needed his help with—but this morning, or was it a day now, wasn’t wasted.
Steve had a feeling both of them needed that conversation more than they’d thought. That didn’t mean it was pleasant, to think of all his past again.
And now he really couldn’t think about Tony fucking Stark anymore, because while it was easy to remember the good times, it was also hard to forget how cold Tony had been the last time they touched, how Tony’s secret meeting turned into sex that none of them really wanted, how they’d been broken beyond fixing even then.
He was back in his room, Steve realised, not really having noticed the walk through the corridor or the elevator letting him out, and he punched the wall, and swore as it hurt his hand.
This Tony was nice. Familiar. But he wasn’t Steve’s.
It hurt, and yet, as he waited to fall asleep, there was just one thing he could think about—he was going to help this Tony.
He couldn’t do anything else.
Someone knocked on Steve’s door the next morning. He got up from where he was attempting to do the few push-ups his body allowed him to, these days, and opened the door.
“Hi, Jen,” he said.
She smiled. “So you know me. A me, as Tony would insist to call it.”
Steve chuckled. “Pretty much.” He got serious. “Why are you here?” He knew it wouldn’t be a social call. Not in this universe.
If it even was her, and not a Skrull, a quiet voice in his head said.
“Tony wants to talk to you,” she said. She tilted her head. “For some reason he didn’t want to come himself.”
Steve felt as if she saw right through him, but he coughed instead. “He’s busy, I imagine.”
He wanted to be next to Tony, which was a good reason for why he shouldn’t be.
She raised an eyebrow, clearly unimpressed.
“We can go,” he said.
Jen stopped mid-corridor and turned to stare at him. “Tony seems to believe you are a Steve Rogers. He doesn’t need another you—”
“I don’t want to hurt him,” Steve cut in. He was glad that Tony had friends who cared for him, even if he was also annoyed that Jen—well, clearly noticed too much.
They walked to the elevator in silence.
Tony was pale; worse than yesterday. He had dark circles under his eyes, was blinking a lot. He couldn’t stay still, almost vibrated next to his lab table.
Steve frowned. “Have you slept at all?” he asked before he could stop himself—as if he could stop himself from caring. Tony never knew where to stop.
Tony rolled his eyes. “Some things never change. I’m fine. Extremis—well, you probably hate it. But I’m fine, and—”
“And you don’t even realise how fast you’re talking right now,” Steve cut in and sighed. He looked around, took in Carol in the corner, Jen still behind him.
He trusted Tony.
He didn’t trust them.
“Could we talk in private?”
“Thought you’d never ask,” Tony replied, as if Steve needed any more proof as to how exactly sleep-deprived he was at the moment.
Jen looked between the two of them. “You won’t punch each other?” she asked dubiously.
“We can actually talk,” Steve said. It was only his Tony that Steve had no idea how to talk to anymore. But this Tony was different.
Tony just nodded, and both women left.
“Do you trust me?”
“Steve—yes, I trust you, but I also trust them.” Tony looked annoyed.
“You don’t know if you trust them,” Steve corrected him. “You’re not a Skrull. You’d have killed me the moment I finished speaking the word, if you were. I’m not one, because I wouldn’t have said anything. You don’t know that about anyone else.”
Tony sighed, leant against the table. “That’s what I wanted to check.”
“But if either of them is a spy—you couldn’t keep it from getting out. And Veranke—or whoever is in charge here—will know it’s time to strike. Are you honestly prepared for that?”
Tony smiled sadly. “That’s why you’re the better tactician of the two of us.”
Steve shook his head. “That’s why you should sleep sometimes. Your plans tend to be brilliant.”
He expected Tony to get angry, not withdraw. Tony hunched his arms, sat on his workbench. “I just really want to know it wasn’t him.”
Steve sat next to Tony and put his hand on Tony’s arm gently. “I know,” he said. “And I really don’t think it was him. But I know you, and I understand you need a proof. Just—don’t destroy everything else you worked for. I didn’t see your city, but it seems like a good place.” Steve sighed. “My Tony always wanted young heroes to have a place to train safely. I guess he had a point.”
Tony was staring at him now. “Are you sure you’re Steve Rogers?”
Steve huffed. “Look at me.” He gestured at his wrinkled body. “I had a lot of time to think about our war. A lot of time for regrets. We never compromise until it’s too late. None of us. Not you, not me.” Steve laughed, unhappy. “I’m pretty sure that the next time I fight my Tony, I won’t compromise either. And—” he trailed off.
If his Tony was still alive. If he hadn’t died ages ago at the hands of Red Skull.
Suddenly, Tony hugged him. “You’ll find him,” he whispered into Steve’s ear, his arms warm around Steve. “And you’ll talk things out. I’m planning to do it with my Steve, so really, I can’t expect less from you.”
Steve let himself lean into the embrace. After all, Tony always meant home.
“I was alone, when Carol found me?” he made sure.
Tony nodded. “We scanned the terrain afterwards.”
Steve sighed. His own issues could wait. He had to help this Tony save his world, at least. “Can you—have you even met him since . . .?”
Tony winced. “Once or twice.”
Steve nodded. “You need to meet with him. Tell him.”
“We don’t have any proof.”
Steve bit on his lip. “Give me a list of who was supporting you,” he asked.
Tony’s eyes immediately went black. Steve fought the urge to shake him. “Not now,” he said, patiently. “Now, you need to sleep. But tomorrow. I think I can guess on a few potential Skrulls—and then you can take them to your meeting.”
Tony stared at his hands. “People already say I’m paranoid, and now everyone I talk to can be an alien. All my friends.”
“You’ll make it,” Steve said. “You’re Tony Stark.”
Tony laughed. “Isn’t that why my Steve hates me now?”
“He doesn’t,” Steve said. “Come on. You’re really sleep deprived. You won’t be happy tomorrow if I let you talk more now.”
Taking care of Tony seemed only natural. Maybe Steve should be less trusting—but he didn’t want to be. He’d spent months telling himself not to trust Tony Stark again, and now, faced with this Tony who was so like the man Steve remembered—missed—being friends with, he couldn’t just ignore him, let him suffer. He’d rather get hurt again than not try at all—and if that made him an idiot, then so be it.
Tony stood up and swayed. Steve tried to keep him steady. God, just how tired was he, really? Extremis should be doing a better job of keeping him healthy.
Tony steered them towards the private elevator at the back of the lab.
“What about Jen and Carol?” Steve asked. “Aren’t they waiting?”
“Oh, I texted them earlier,” Tony said. “They didn’t seem happy, but I can’t help that now.” He pressed at his eyes in that way signifying migraine.
“You shouldn’t use Extremis like that.” Steve’d been over this with his own Tony before.
“It’s a tool, Steve, nothing else.” Because each and every Tony Stark was too stubborn for their own good.
“A tool that’s giving you near-constant migraines,” Steve corrected. He went into the elevator with Tony and wasn’t surprised when it moved without anyone pressing any buttons.
Steve sighed. What was it about every Tony Stark that made him lower all his defences?
The elevator stopped in a few seconds, the number over the door saying 50th floor. Steve slowly followed Tony out. It was Tony’s penthouse.
Steve suddenly wasn’t sure where this was going, or even where he wanted it to go.
Next to him, Tony was tense. “I don’t want—scratch that. The only thing I’m asking of you now is to stay. Don’t leave.”
“You want me to share your bed.”
Steve smiled involuntarily. This was new, and again, so different to the Tony Steve had seen the last time back in his own world.
“You don’t need to ask,” Steve said.
If Tony wanted to kiss him, Steve felt, he’d agree to that too. He’d agree to anything, as long as Tony stayed gentle and caring like he was supposed to be. It was an illusion, in a way; that wasn’t Steve’s Tony and it was unfair to pretend otherwise.
But it was still a Tony. Steve wanted to be close to him.
Tony was observing him with a clouded expression. “There’s something you didn’t tell me,” he said.
What happened to Steve’s Tony. Yes. And he owed him that.
“Tomorrow,” Steve promised, and if Tony was surprised, he didn’t show it.
He walked up to the wardrobe, took out a set of pyjamas and threw them at Steve’s. “Should fit you.”
Tony’s shirts used to be too tight for him, but now, with Steve so much thinner, they might only be too long. He nodded his thanks, and Tony disappeared into the bathroom.
Later, with both of them wearing Tony’s clothes, somehow it wasn’t awkward to get into one bed. It was wide—of course it was—but Steve didn’t try to stay just next to the edge. The point was to be together, not pretending otherwise.
He moved until Tony was just next to him, and Tony reached for him and laced their fingers together.
Steve squeezed his hand, closed his eyes, and was out in seconds.
Someone tapped him in the nose, gently, and somehow Steve knew there wasn’t any danger. He opened his eyes slowly, still warm from sleeping.
Tony was smiling at him, and Steve was hit by a wave of longing. God, he wanted this with his own Tony.
“Morning,” Tony said. “I don’t remember the last time I slept for eight hours, so you might’ve had a point.”
“I usually do,” Steve told him.
Tony grinned for a second, before he grew serious. “So. My charming alternate self. Because frankly, your expression when you think of him is worrying.”
Steve closed his eyes again. He didn’t want to talk about it. “I told you what he’s done to me.”
“So I can’t imagine it getting worse,” Tony said, not unkindly.
Steve sighed. “I don’t know, Tony.” He met Tony’s eyes. “Our world—everything was going wrong. The incursions, the Watcher dying, and then Red Skull gained Xavier’s telepathic powers.”
Tony flinched, but didn’t say anything.
“There was a spell. Deadpool became a monk. The Absorbing Man turned heroic. They called it inversion.” Steve took a deep breath, but Tony looked like he already knew how it ended, his face very pale. “Iron Man. He called himself superior.”
Tony bit his lower lip.
“He—he’d lost Extremis, in our world. He worked on it again, and then set it on San Francisco. We found a way to reverse the spell, but he’d shielded himself. He poisoned the water supply. He—”
“Stop.” Tony was breathing heavily. “I’m aware of what I could do, if—people say I don’t have morals anyway, Steve, but—” He looked straight at Steve. “I’d be a monster.”
Steve sighed. “Yes.” A beat. “No. It wasn’t him, right. But it was him who wiped my mind. I don’t know which is worse.”
“I wonder,” Tony muttered. There was something dark in his eyes. “I’d do a lot to secure your survival, Steve.”
Not his, Steve knew. The other Steve’s. But Tony didn’t make any move to correct his wording.
“I—look at the Civil War. It started the same in both our worlds, didn’t it? I thought I was protecting him.” Steve tensed, and Tony shot him an amused look. “You don’t need protecting?” Tony shrugged. “I’m a futurist, Steve, but I make mistakes.”
“I’d like to hear my Tony say that,” Steve snapped, moving away.
Tony chuckled humourlessly. “That’s the thing. I’m a dangerous man. Don’t forget that.”
Steve couldn’t. He supposed they only got lucky that the inverted Tony didn’t want to actually conquer the world. Tony could be a terrible force. There was nothing he wouldn’t be able to do if he set his mind on it.
“Where are you going with this?” Steve asked.
“There are things I wouldn’t do in my right mind,” Tony said. “What you said about San Francisco. But—I’m capable of terrible things, Steve, and don’t fool yourself into thinking I’m not.”
Steve knew that . . . And yet there was a part of him that still wanted to find an easy excuse for what Tony had done to him in Wakanda. To make sense of all that. He felt like he’d never move on otherwise.
As if he could move on from Tony Stark, anyway.
“Well,” Tony drawled after a while. “That wasn’t a nice good morning conversation. I’d expect better from having a gorgeous blond in my bed.”
Steve glared at him. “I’m not.” It wasn’t what he’d intended to say, but the words slipped out anyway, pathetic as they were.
Tony pushed himself up and stared at Steve incredulously. “I’ve never seen any Steve Rogers look anything less than gorgeous.”
He reached out, and Steve let him touch his face. Tony’s fingers were warm and incredibly gentle. “You’re beautiful and intelligent, Steve,” Tony whispered. “I always wished I could be like you.”
“I’m not him,” Steve let out, his mouth dry.
“No,” Tony agreed, sadly. “But some things are constant, it seems.”
He leant forward and pressed a chaste kiss to Steve’s lips, and Steve wished this was his Tony.
“And because they are,” Tony continued talking, his breath warm on Steve’s face, “my other self would tell you the same.”
Steve thought of the nightmare he had in Ultron’s realm and pushed it away. He’d trust Tony, not weird dreams.
And he wanted to stay, he wanted to pull this Tony closer, but it wouldn’t be fair to either of them. Tony seemed to realise it yesterday—but he must really have missed his Steve.
Steve could understand.
Suddenly, Tony frowned, his eyes black.
“What—” Steve started the question, but Tony raised his hand, silencing him.
“I’m talking,” he said quickly, and Steve understood he was making a call with Extremis.
Tony moved away from the bed, away from Steve, and stared outside. He was tense, his hands behind his back. He shot a look back at Steve, and it was so full of longing, Steve understood who he was talking to immediately.
He’d said they hadn’t talked in five years.
Tony nodded, a gesture that wouldn’t be seen over a phone, and then he turned around, crossed the room in a few long strides and took a bottle of water from the table. He drank it in quick, long gulps, and Steve suspected he wanted to drink something else entirely.
He sat down on an arm-chair, and covered his eyes.
Steve turned away. He shouldn’t be witnessing this.
“Stay.” Sharp command.
He busied himself with making the bed, setting the pillows straight. He could at least not observe Tony’s face as he talked to the man he still so obviously loved.
He went into the bathroom, splashed his face with cold water. He wasn’t sure where his clothes were, and suddenly being in Tony’s pyjamas meant too much. He told himself to breathe and calm down.
So they were both terrible at drawing the lines between their respective other selves, but . . . Steve didn’t regret staying. It was comfort. He needed it. Tony needed it.
And now . . . Why did the other Steve call now, after years? Unless . . .
Steve felt dizzy with relief, but he couldn’t let himself believe it just yet. It could be any number of things. It wasn’t realistic that Steve’s Tony was in the same universe as him, alive.
But suddenly, it was just a bit more possible.
There was a knock on the door. “Are you actually using the bathroom, or just hiding?”
Steve opened the door. “Yes?”
Tony took a long look at his face. Then he smiled, a bit sadly. “You’re right. He didn’t call me just to talk.”
Tony waved his hand. “It’s okay. He wants us to meet.” Tony paused.
“All four of us.”
Tony emphatically did not like waking up in handcuffs outside of sexy scenarios, and the cell he was in did not look sexy. A torture chamber more than anything, if he had to guess, although there was a Steve Rogers looking at him, and Steve was so boring, he’d never resort to torture.
Although, maybe; Tony wasn’t quite sure how he was alive—how anything was alive—and just because the man staring at him looked like Steve didn’t mean it was him. Speaking of . . . Tony reached out with Extremis, trying to find a network that would answer his questions, and found nothing. He glanced at the walls. Screened? A good idea, if someone really was to try and hold him.
“So now that you’re awake,” Steve said, his first words since Tony opened his eyes, “take a look at this.” Steve raised his left hand. He was holding a small device—a device Tony knew, if not from his own memories—and then, before Tony could react, pressed a button.
Pain erupted in Tony’s body, cutting him off from Extremis and his suit, leaving him gasping for breath. He wanted to reach and touch the RT and hated the handcuffs even more—but it was fine, had to be, he was still thinking, and he’d shielded it years ago; shame he couldn’t wrap his whole body in EMP shielding, he thought through the pain.
“So you are just like my Stark,” Steve said flatly. “What kind of tech did you put in your body this time?” Steve shook his head. “No, I don’t really care. I don’t trust you.”
“That makes you smarter than my Steve,” Tony gasped out. He was also looking better than Tony’s Steve, at the moment; still young and proud and strong. Tony would quite like to get him out of that uniform.
“How did you get here?” Steve asked, ignoring him. “Stark’s too good of a tactician to send you to me and hope for any outcome good for him. So?”
“My world might’ve ended.” Tony would’ve shrugged if he could. “The multiverse will be better for it. You do seem to have an awfully high opinion of your Stark.”
Steve’s jaw tensed. For a moment, Tony was sure Steve would punch him—and wouldn’t that be fun, Captain America beating up a helpless man?
“Is that unrequited?” Tony kept talking. “My Steve was also so very good at denial, you know. You could—”
“Shut up,” Steve growled. “Answer my questions—”
“But where would be the fun in that?” Tony smirked. “Sorry, you’ll have to do more than just EMP me if you want me to listen to your orders.” He looked Steve up and down, deliberately. “Or maybe, in the right setting . . .”
He half-expected to see disgust in Steve’s eyes. Instead, Steve stared straight at him, seemingly angry—but his eyes were darkening. Interesting, Tony thought. He wondered about himself in this world. Was he as weak as Tony used to be, before the Skull set him free? Or did he live up to his full potential? The Steve in front of Tony was so very different. More fun.
More dangerous, possibly, and that just made Tony more curious. He wanted to pick him apart, see what made him tick.
A part of Tony thought that if the only thing this man had in common with Steve Rogers of Earth-616 was just the name, then he wasn’t that interesting after all, and Tony frowned and pushed the thought away. It sounded horribly sentimental, and he was anything but that.
“We’re in a screened room,” Steve said, only confirming what Tony had already known. “We have EMP devices that seem to be working on you just fine. Why don’t you just cooperate?”
Tony grinned. “Do you really think cutting me off from my tech makes me any less dangerous?”
There was definitely . . . something in Steve’s eyes. Something dark, and undefined, and maybe something that Tony wasn’t prepared to name.
Something that told him that yes, it was really Steve Rogers.
“You’d have to kill me to really stop me,” Tony continued, and he remembered saying these words to a different Steve, back when he was a different—inferior—man himself, and he thought he might get a different answer this time, “but I don’t think you’re prepared to do it, are you, Steve?”
Steve’s fist connecting with Tony’s jaw wasn’t a surprise, and most importantly: it wasn’t a yes.
But it was a yes, I’d punch a tied man, yes, I’d torture a prisoner.
Curiouser and curiouser, even. What was his version of Tony Stark like? Tony suddenly wanted to meet him.
“Do you have any other questions, Stark?” Steve gritted out.
Tony shot him a bloody grin. “Many,” he said. “But I suppose I could tell you this—I said it before, but I come from a different universe. I have no allegiances here . . . or anywhere. And you already know you’ll let me out of this cell—I’m too valuable an asset, even just potentially, and I won’t give you anything, locked down like this.”
Steve muttered something that sounded like Tony fucking Stark.
And then he left, without a word, leaving Tony in the cuffs against the wall.
Maybe Tony didn’t read him just right, after all. He closed his eyes. He had a headache, but it wouldn’t recede until Extremis was back. Without Steve there, Tony had no distractions from the pain, and he breathed slowly.
Minutes later, Steve came back, and Tony couldn’t help but laugh as Steve freed his arms.
He should’ve remembered: he was always right.
Steve didn’t get any nicer even after freeing Tony. No are you okay, certainly not do you need a medic. He just led him to another room without a word. Tony glanced inside. A simple bedroom. One bed, one table, one wardrobe; it was so dull it was almost painful. There was a lamp at the nightstand, and Tony carefully avoided looking more closely at it in case Steve decided it’d be safer to leave him with just a candle.
“Gonna join me?” Tony smirked.
Steve rolled his eyes. “I’ll call you when I need you.”
“Just don’t take too long,” Tony winked.
Steve sighed and walked away.
He was certainly interesting.
Tony could try to play nice for a time. He could multitask like no one else, but he had to give it to Steve, even now, he could make Tony focus just on him. Still, he had to put his armour and Extremis first; Steve might’ve compromised it for now, but there was no way he’d keep it down forever. Tony knew what to expect from him now and he could plan around it. And when he fixed it, he could get access to everything, probably, and finally plan. He didn’t like working with no data, but he wouldn’t have to. Making sure if his Earth still existed would be a start.
And of course, he’d have the side project of taking this Steve Rogers apart.
Yes. He quite liked that plan.
(With his armour online and operational, he could also try looking for the Steve Rogers of Earth-616, and Tony pushed away an insistent thought that it should be his priority.
He could have more fun here than that.)
Tony’s head was still throbbing in the morning. Normally, he’d use Extremis to heal it, but this was the problem. Annoyed, he got up and dressed, and then tried the door.
Surprising. He shrugged and left the room. Steve hadn’t blindfolded him yesterday, but that only meant Tony knew the way back to the cells, and he wasn’t interested in repeating that particular path. Steve’s office should be in the other direction. And . . . He probably wanted to keep Tony close by, just in case.
Tony turned left.
“One wrong move and I will EMP you again,” Steve said.
Tony turned to face him, forcing a smile on his face. “I’d expect nothing less.”
“Come with me,” Steve said.
“A personal tour, how enchanting.”
“We’re at war,” Steve said flatly. “I know your particular skillset.”
Tony laughed. “You want me to build weapons?”
Steve glanced at him. “You know a better candidate?”
“Guns are so boring,” Tony mused. “I’ve been into world-class business lately, you might say.”
Steve stopped in his tracks.
Tony looked at him and laughed again. “No, I didn’t blow up my own Earth, God, Steve, who do you take me for.”
Other Earths, maybe. But Steve did not need to know that.
“War with whom?” Tony asked.
Steve smiled darkly. “Does it matter?”
To Tony, in a world he didn’t know? Not really. But it clearly did to Steve, and Tony wondered what was the story behind it. Or . . .
“Just where is the me from this world?” he asked, turning around so that he walked backward and could see Steve’s face.
Tony chuckled. “Well, you definitely need Tony Stark on your side to beat another Tony Stark,” he commented.
This was amusing. His Steve would be shattered to learn of another world where they were fighting—well, but Tony didn’t care for his Steve. This Steve, here, was so different; hard and committed and ruthless . . . But he didn’t seem happy about fighting Tony, either, under all his façade.
“I’m more than capable of taking on any Stark,” Steve growled.
Tony smiled, ran his eyes up and down Steve. “Are you?”
Steve slammed him against the wall, and Tony’s head rang, but then Steve kissed him, and he kissed back enthusiastically. He really was nothing like Tony’s Steve; young and strong and violent. Hot.
He kissed like he knew what he wanted, and here, Tony was more than happy to provide. He pulled Steve closer and opened his mouth, letting Steve’s tongue in. He felt dizzy, and he kinda wanted to try it out differently—he flipped them around, briefly registered Steve’s surprise—he wasn’t used to people matching his physical strength, huh—and continued kissing him, licking into Steve’s mouth, hearing his breath shatter and heartbeat going crazy under Tony’s hands.
Finally, he took a step away, and tried to compose himself.
Steve was staring at him, his pupils dilated, his cock straining his trousers.
Tony took a few more breaths—it wasn’t as if he wasn’t similarly affected, but he was a better actor—and smiled. “That was one hell of a demonstration,” he said. “I’ll take the full package.”
Steve grinned, dark and dangerous. “If you can.”
Tony had the urge to kiss him again, and stomped down on it. That could wait till the evening. His headache had briefly receded under the endorphins, but it was back now, and Tony wanted to actually get better today.
“But a weapon demonstration was it not,” Tony said. “Lead the way.”
Steve looked at him for a moment, as if trying to get a read on him, and then shrugged. “Follow me,” he said.
Tony walked next to him with energetic steps. Steve would probably give him something boring to build, just to check if he would. Or maybe he’d surprise him again and give him his shield. Yes, Tony would quite like that.
They reached a workshop—biometric lock, Tony noted—and Steve let them in.
“Everyone out!” he called—and just like that, people got up and left. Talk about authority. Tony recognized some of them, had no idea who others were.
Hank—or he thought it was Hank—stayed. “What’s the matter, Steve?”
“Stark.” Steve indicated Tony with a movement of his head.
“Not from this world, you might say,” Tony drawled. “Hank McCoy, right?”
“Anything fun for me to work on and prove my stellar intentions?”
Steve snorted. “Pretty sure you meant the opposite.”
“You know me so well, darling,” Tony shot back.
Steve tensed, but didn’t lash out, verbally or otherwise. Good.
Hank looked as if he wanted to be anywhere but there. “So do you need me, Steve? You can show him what we’ve been working on on your own.”
Steve nodded. “Yeah, go. Check up on them.” He gestured at the engineers who just left, but Tony was sure he meant something else entirely.
Another mystery to solve.
His head was almost clear again.
“Come on,” Steve said, and walked to a workbench at the end. It was well-lit, several blasters on top of it.
Several Stark blasters.
“What did he do? DNA lock them?”
“Just make them usable,” Steve said. “If you can.”
“You’re insulting me,” Tony said, reaching for screwdrivers.
The work was easy—although, he believed impossible for anyone else—and almost calming. He focused on the wires as Extremis fixed itself in his body.
It was the evening when he tore himself from his work. There were no windows in the workshop, but at least enough of his systems were back online to know the hour. He was going to wait for calling his armour, though—trying to google something (or whatever it was they used for google in this universe) almost knocked him out.
Damn, but that EMP really messed with his systems. Almost as if Steve had something designed specifically against an Extremis user . . . Which might just be true, for all Tony knew about his counterpart from this world.
He stood up, straightened his hands.
“Going somewhere?” Steve’s voice, of course.
“To you, actually,” Tony said, licking his lips. “What, were you watching me work? So romantic.”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” Steve asked. “We can get dinner. You’re probably hungry.”
“A proper gentleman,” Tony said. “With pleasure. But I’m not waiting till the third date.”
Steve turned to him. “No,” he said. “Neither am I.”
This time, the kiss was quick and dirty, and it still left Tony out of breath. Damn Steve Rogers. Steve was smirking, and it was all Tony could do not to whine and try and follow his lips, try to get them both naked here and now.
“Food, Stark,” Steve said, sounding way too pleased with himself.
“Of course, I wouldn’t want an old man to get hungry later,” Tony said, and followed Steve.
He had no idea if it was really Steve’s room. His rooms in the Avenger Tower never looked personal anyway, he’d always preferred to be in one of the Avengers shared spaces. Here . . . Tony could only guess.
But there was a bed, which was important, and there was a set table, which, after the last few days, Tony could appreciate.
Steve gestured at the bathroom. “You, shower. I can wait.”
“Apparently you can’t,” Tony shot back, but Steve had a point, so he went to the bathroom. It was just as impersonal as the room, but there was a blue robe hanging next to the door. Tony shrugged, undressed. He showered, missing his luxurious bathroom and scented oil; then he towelled himself dry and put only the robe on. He thought it worked with his eyes nicely—not to mention the RT.
Steve swallowed when he saw him, and Tony grinned. “That’s what you wanted?”
“Not—exactly.” Steve downed a bottle of water.
Tony strode closer to him, and then stopped at the edge of the table. “Dinner first, right.”
“It’s just burgers.”
“So American,” Tony commented. “It will do.”
He ate quickly—he was hungry, but he also really didn’t have much patience for more of this game.
He wanted Steve, Steve wanted him; there was nothing more to it.
So when he was done, he purposefully walked up to Steve, and shed the bathrobe in front of him.
Steve’s breath caught.
Tony kissed him, and Steve’s grip on his arms was almost painful.
Later, Tony learnt that apparently there was something to be said about sex with a supersoldier.
Tony kept working on the blasters—if reassembling them and creating completely different weapons could be called working on the blasters in any case. He wasn’t sure if it really made Steve trust him, but it definitely gave him more time. With each passing hour, Extremis was closer to him. He could feel the armour, and accessing the feeds didn’t hurt quite so much anymore.
That revealed another problem: whatever passed for network here was encrypted, and Tony would probably break it without even noticing it existed if he was at his full capacity. As it was, he still had to wait.
He’d be impatient, if not for Steve, who really served just wonderfully to pass the time—not to mention that he was really nice to look at, in his dress uniform.
“So, Captain,” Tony said in the afternoon. “Busy morning?”
Steve flinched slightly, and Tony wondered which name he went by these days. Another question to add to his list of research, once Extremis rebooted.
“Miss me?” Steve asked after a moment.
“You are marginally more interesting than rebuilding someone else’s stuff, yes,” Tony grinned, hauled Steve closer by his suit lapels, and kissed him.
Perks of Steve throwing out everyone else working there: they were alone, so Steve didn’t push Tony away.
Still. That war he’d mentioned . . . It must’ve been going on for a long time, but there couldn’t be much open warfare; Tony had no illusions that Steve would have quite so much time to spend on him otherwise. Which was for the better.
“So your Tony,” Tony said between kisses, and Steve angrily bit on his lower lip. “Sore topic, right?” Tony pushed Steve at arms’ length. “Bad break up? Lifetime of longing?”
Steve’s face was dark. “Bad break up is a bit of an understatement,” he said.
“And now you’re telling yourself you don’t miss—” Steve’s lips were on his again, shutting him up, and really, what better answer Tony could get?
He’d never imagined Steve would fuck him on a workbench, but he was 100% on board with the idea, and it was fast and rough and just on the right side of painful.
“What about your Steve, then?” Steve asked when he was buried deep into Tony, and Tony looked straight at him, and didn’t know the answer.
“Gone opportunity,” he said finally, when it seemed like Steve wouldn’t start moving again if Tony didn’t say anything.
Tony didn’t care about his Steve. That was the worse, inferior him. He was better than that.
“Somehow I think that story is even more interesting than mine,” Steve said afterwards, wiping himself clean.
Tony chuckled. “Or there is no story at all,” he said, pulling up his trousers.
At the very bottom of his mind, Extremis came back to life.
Tony forced himself not to react.
Steve’s heartbeat was still a bit too fast, and there were people on the other side of the wall; no computers in the hall Tony was in, but quite a lot upstairs. The blasters he’d been working on waited for a command, and he could feel planes in the sky, and satellites—
The United States, except with a canyon—the divide—in the middle, an unbreachable border, a country forever divided in two, and if Steve Rogers was leading this part . . .
Tony Stark was leading the other.
Tony remembered one war which could’ve done it to them—but even so, it didn’t make any sense.
Steve was watching him warily. “Tony?”
Tony tried to remember what they were talking about. Ah. His Steve. Okay. “Or maybe you’re right,” he said, and Steve raised his eyebrows, “and the story is interesting.” He turned away. “I, however, have no intention of going back to it.”
He deliberately picked up a screwdriver and a few spare parts and waited until Steve left.
Finally alone, Tony walked back to the bedroom Steve had given him earlier. He’d spent the last two days in Steve’s bed—but it wasn’t that late yet anyway, and he just wanted to think. To rest.
He tweaked the cameras as he went so that no one would notice him leaving, and then looped the camera in his room to show an empty bedroom.
Firstly, he called on his armour, and it came, perfect as always. He took a deep breath, sat down, and read about the Superhero Civil War of yet another planet.
He was glad he didn’t much feel about the topic anymore, because what he read was fucking ridiculous, and everyone in that damn world was an idiot.
He got up, hid his armour, and went straight for Steve’s office.
Tony let himself into Steve’s office without knocking. It sounded ridiculous, General Steve Rogers, running a country. What would he try next, President? No, that apparently was Tony, in some fit of insanity Tony didn’t want to understand.
Steve looked up at him from his papers. His hand clearly went for his gun, and Tony raised his hands, placating.
“You know,” Tony said, “I was thinking I liked you more than my Steve—he was so sadly boring.”
Steve raised his eyebrows as if to say, continue.
“The sex is fantastic, of course, mister super-soldier.” Tony stopped in front of Steve’s desk. “Did they forget to speed up your brain too?”
“Superhero Civil War,” Tony said, just three words, and Steve froze. “Don’t worry; the other me here is clearly also an idiot. Because what I read doesn’t make any fucking sense.”
“What, that you—okay, a version of you, would leave us all to die?” Steve’s laughter was bitter. “Check again.”
“Darling, and here’s a thing not many people know, but if I were ever capable of pulling the trigger on Steve Rogers, he’d be dead.” He tilted his head. He hated idiocy. “I’m not like your Tony at all.”
“I noticed,” Steve snapped.
“I’m also not the person I used to be, in my world,” Tony continued. He smiled. “I’m better for it, believe me. The point here is: whatever your Tony is like, and I’m gonna bet he’s like I used to be, he wouldn’t have done that.”
“But he did,” Steve all but growled. “So?”
Tony stared at him. “And in all of your genius, it hasn’t occurred to you that there’s a third party at play? That you’re all being manipulated?” Tony’s eyes flashed dangerously blue for a second. “I wouldn’t call myself a hero, General. I don’t care about that. But the one thing I hate is being manipulated.”
He could see the moment it clicked for Steve, stubborn ass or no.
“So what do you suggest? Mind control? Xavier—”
“Xavier is a shadow of himself and you know it. But my world went through this war, Steve, right before the Skrulls attacked. I’m not sure attacked is a good word though, considering they’d been hiding amongst us for years.”
Steve was looking at him, waiting—but there was something else in his eyes, too. Hope.
That he’d been wrong, and his Tony had always been on his side?
Tony wanted to laugh.
“Skrulls,” he said. “Shapeshifters. Aliens.”
“I know who they are,” Steve snapped. “It’s impossible.”
“Is it?” Tony leant in. “Tell me, Steve, who do you trust?”
The answer was obvious in Steve’s eyes.
“Call him.” Tony focused on Extremis for a second, and—his security was good, but—someone was flying next to the Tower, and someone else was inside, looking outside, a familiar face. “You two have to meet. And the other you as well.”
“So he is alive,” Steve said.
“News to me too,” Tony said coldly. “I know what the Skrulls did to my world, Steve, and believe me in this—you don’t want to see it happen here.”
Steve nodded after a moment. “I need to plan.”
“Tomorrow,” Steve said calmly. “Go—do whatever you want, Tony, I can’t stop you anyway. Come back tomorrow.”
Tony shrugged and left.
Steve wanted to plan? So it was time to find his real office and his real lab.
In the end, it was disappointingly simple. Steve had left his office after a few minutes, and following him with Extremis really wasn’t difficult.
“So, Steve, what are you working on?” Tony asked, casually strolling into Steve’s base of operations. The real one, not the one Tony had been working in on frankly ridiculous weaponry.
Guns pointed at him. He didn’t stop smiling.
“What are you doing here, Stark?” Steve was marching in his direction, looking annoyed. Perfect. “I told you to—”
“Your security sucks,” Tony interrupted him. He crossed his arms in front of himself. “Not that I think anyone else would be able to hack in here; but darling, you really shouldn’t underestimate me.”
“I’ll knock you out and put you back in that cell,” Steve growled.
Tony laughed. “We’ve already talked about that. Come on, wasn’t there anything you wanted to show me?” He waggled his eyebrows. “Anything interesting?”
“I have nothing—”
“No sudden things to plan?” Tony snapped. He doubted Steve had a working Skrull detector, so what was his point? He wasn’t planning to nuke the rest of the country, right?
Steve’s hand twitched at his side. “How did you get here?”
“Dear, I designed all of your security in my world. Clearly not here; I’d have done a better job, but also clearly yes, in the past; I recognize my old designs. Can we move on to the interesting things?”
Steve cocked his head as if he was debating something. “You did help with the guns.”
“Now you’re clearly not giving me enough credit. Try built them from scratch.”
“My Tony would never do that,” Steve said, but he’d said it before and Tony had agreed; what was the point?
“We’re working on a bomb that would remove all superhuman abilities,” Steve explained calmly, clearly aiming to observe Tony’s reaction.
Tony couldn’t help it, he tensed. It would show the truth about the Skrulls, that was true. But all abilities . . .
Tech-based as well? He couldn’t ask that. He wondered if Steve suspected.
He must’ve. He was a good strategist, he wouldn’t show Tony what was clearly their most important weapon at the moment otherwise.
And . . .
“Funny,” Tony muttered.
“My Steve wouldn’t stand for that.”
“Good thing I’m not him, then.”
Tony looked at him coldly. “No,” he said. “Because I won’t stand for that, either.”
“Good thing it’s almost ready for testing, then,” Steve said.
Too late, Tony noticed a button in Steve’s hand—
Everything hurt. Tony groaned. He tried to remember the last time he might’ve fucked up to end up in such a state.
There was—Red Skull, a silver armour, Extremis—
No, he wouldn’t have.
He sat up, looked around with wild eyes, and someone immediately pushed him back down.
“So you’re not a Skrull,” Steve said. He had a military uniform on and seemed older than the last time Tony’s seen him—
No, that wasn’t correct, Steve had been deserumed, old and weak, and Tony had used him—
His head hurt. He couldn’t think. If he was being honest with himself, he didn’t want to think. Everything was fuzzy, as if he woke up from a long dream.
“Stark?” There was something like worry in Steve’s voice, and it sounded strange. He’d been so angry all the time, right? But Tony hadn’t seen him looking like that since before . . . “Tony?”
Tony looked at him with wide eyes. “What—”
“You said you changed.” Steve frowned.
Tony shook his head. He couldn’t—
He extended his hand, and he didn’t even need to think, it was as instinctual as breathing; a silver gauntlet wrapped itself around his fingers. Tony inhaled sharply and closed his fist, sending the armour away. He was shaking. His whole body hurt. He had Extremis—and it was fantastic, he could feel the tech in the room, access the wireless data, he instinctively scanned the environment for potential hostiles, but there was no one near him but Steve.
Wait, back up. He had Extremis. That . . . That had been the plan, right? Maya’s invention worked and saved his life. He felt relief washing over him. All these half-formed memories he didn’t want to access—must’ve been a feverish dream.
“I have to stop Mallen,” he muttered, tried to get up. Everything around him swam, and Steve caught him, pushed him back on the bed.
“Stay down,” Steve said.
“What are you doing here?” Tony asked. “I didn’t call the Avengers. Where’s Maya?”
Steve frowned. “Maya Hansen . . . ?”
“Who else,” Tony snapped.
Some of the pain was receding. His armour had been silver, in that brief moment before. Why silver? And why was his instinctual reaction to shut it down?
Steve knelt in front of him. He looked serious. Tony had a feeling he didn’t know him—but Steve was his best friend. “Tony,” Steve said. “What do you remember?”
Nothing, Tony wanted to say, and everything was fine. It was 2005, Maya called for his help, Mallen was wreaking havoc outside. Tony almost died, and Extremis saved him. Steve must be worried. The New Avengers must be worried. Tony should finish the job quickly and get back to his team—reassure the Stark International board as well. But the team came first. They’d been getting along so nicely, and working with Steve again was good, better than that.
Tony closed his eyes against the tears, because this was a lie.
Everything was the truth.
Memories he didn’t want to have lined up in his mind, in perfect clarity, every detail saved on the hard drive that was his brain—but not because of Maya, because Maya was dead. (Tony’s fault). Because of Red Skull. Because Tony had—Tony had been a villain, and long before the Skull went through his mind.
Steve hated him. That was good, Steve should hate him after what Tony had done. Steve—
Tony remembered their last meeting, him in the silver armour, Steve old and weak and still beautiful; he remembered mocking him and angry kisses and—no.
Tony remembered building bombs to destroy other worlds, and being unable to use them. He also remembered using them, after the Skull.
He remembered all the terrible, unforgivable things he’d done with Extremis.
He remembered fighting Steve as the world was ending.
He remembered two Earths crashing together, and then—
He opened his eyes. It all must’ve lasted less than a second, because Steve’s expression was still the same. Except this wasn’t Tony’s Steve, this was—someone else, and Tony remembered kissing him and fucking him, and he remembered angry words and threats; not the—concern.
“Shouldn’t you handcuff me? You seemed to like it before,” Tony snapped.
Steve looked at him sharply. “I think I’m only now getting to meet the real you.”
A part of Tony, a part he hated, wanted to go back to being as he was before; wanted to once again feel no guilt at all.
“It was Red Skull,” he let out, and hated how it sounded like a sob. “And—” He raised his head sharply. “And the things I’ve done—I’ve still done them with my own hands.”
Steve chuckled. “Yeah, you’re a Tony Stark if I’ve ever met one.”
Tony focused. “You—you set a depowering bomb on me.”
“Judging by your little armour display earlier, it still needs some work,” Steve said flatly.
“It worked on what was important,” Tony muttered, then stared at Steve. “Why?”
Steve shrugged. “I wasn’t sure if you weren’t a Skrull,” he said. “I was sure there was something wrong with you.”
Steve stared at him for a few moments without blinking. “You—he was still a Tony.”
Tony couldn’t really say anything about that. Everything he could’ve had with his Steve was long gone. He probably would’ve kissed this one as well.
God, he wanted a drink.
He dug his fingers into his palm. He wanted to cry. He wanted to scream. He wanted to make the past year go away.
He never could, and he was so very good at living with his mistakes.
“Oh god,” he let out. “You—you fought the same Civil War, and you’re alive.”
Steve raised an eyebrow. He probably thought Tony was insane, but that didn’t matter. He was alive. But with the Skrulls here—
Tony would damn well make sure he saved at least one Steve, since he’d already failed his.
Figuring out how the hell anyone was alive at all after the incursions could wait. Steve was the priority.
And . . . He remembered one more thing.
His Steve was alive as well.
Tony took a deep breath. He had work to do. He could push everything away until that was done. He looked at Steve in front of him. “Have you called your Tony?”
“Not when I thought it was a Skrull ordering me, no,” Steve said.
“Then do it now,” Tony said, meeting his gaze and holding it. “Because you might think this war, whatever it is you two are doing now, is bad—but believe me, it will get worse.”
“Funny,” Steve muttered. “I’m inclined to trust you now.”
Steve was flying the copter. They didn’t take anyone else, although Steve had considered asking Hank to pilot. Tony didn’t trust anyone but Steve, though; he didn’t know if Hank wasn’t a Skrull agent. Ten minutes in his counterpart’s workshop and he’d be able to build a Skrull detector into his armour, but he didn’t have that, and they had to make do. He didn’t want to risk Steve’s scientists noticing what he was trying to do if he used the labs there.
Tony didn’t know what to expect. He scolded himself immediately. He knew perfectly well what to expect, he just didn’t want to think about it. He couldn’t stop, though.
Miriam Sharpe agreed to host the peace talks, as they were called, because the Steve and Tony of this world couldn’t just meet each other again without politics, expectations, without war between them.
Seeing this should hurt, but—at least this Steve was alive. Tony wondered if his counterpart knew just how damn lucky he’d been.
He also wanted to hope that if his Steve had lived through the Superhero Civil War, they’d have figured out the Skrulls’ involvement much earlier. But that wasn’t a line of thought he enjoyed, because he hadn’t detected the Skrulls and his world had suffered for it.
Tony was still terribly glad he didn’t remember their own Civil War. It had been necessary, it had to be, but—he didn’t want to remember. He was glad there wasn’t any way of getting his memories back—because then he’d have to take it . . . And he really didn’t want to know what it felt like to see Steve shot down.
He shook himself. He had to focus on here and now. It was difficult—his recent memories were still a mess after Steve oh-so-nicely uninverted him—but Tony had a job to do.
He could put on his suit and fly ahead, but he didn’t want Steve to think he was still under the Skull’s influence. Not that that changed much—he’d done plenty of horrible things all of his own will.
They were almost there anyway.
“Hi, other me.”
Tony barely stopped himself from flinching. “Is Extremis the standard Tony Stark starter kit these days?” he thought back.
He heard, or maybe felt a chuckle. “We can talk about that in person. Steve told me he got you back to your normal state. I’m guessing he was right.”
Tony tensed. “Anything else you discussed about me?” He didn’t need another him judging him; he was doing just great with it on his own.
“You know you would’ve asked too.” It sounded almost like an apology. “So, I have a Skrull detector ready—”
“Send me the plans. I’ve actually built working ones before.”
“Ah, so that’s why working with us is so annoying.”
Tony blinked slowly as the plans for the detector appeared in front of his eyes. He wasn’t used to Extremis yet, but he had to admit it was pretty great. He looked over the plans quickly.
“Looks good,” he allowed.
“Told ya.” A moment of silence. “We should set it on all four of us.”
Tony closed his eyes. “So Steve’s coming.”
“From what he told me—”
“You’ve no idea what I did to him.”
“I have some idea.” A beat. “I can also imagine what it did to you.”
“Doesn’t matter.” Tony sighed. “Look. Steve and I—we’ll help you with your Skrull situation. But leave what’s, what was between us alone.”
“You’re still making decisions for him?”
Tony made his hands into fists. He wasn’t. He just—
“Stop that,” Steve growled.
Tony flinched, looked at him.
“Your eyes go dark and you stare into space. You think I haven’t seen that before?”
So Steves hating Extremis was also a universal truth.
“Whoever you were talking to—”
“He sounds fine,” Tony provided.
“I don’t care,” Steve snapped, and it was such an obvious lie Tony briefly wanted to laugh.
“We’re almost there,” Steve said. “Try to keep your own mind your own.”
That sounded weirdly as if he was worried, and Tony wasn’t sure he could handle two Steves at once.
He knew Extremis was dangerous, though; even if his own history with it hadn’t provided some inclination—well, the hum of electronics near him was all too tempting.
It was better to focus on all the data he could feel around him than think of what he’d done.
“I lied,” he said out loud. “When you asked about my Steve.”
Steve raised an eyebrow.
“It—nothing will ever come out of it. Not after everything.” Tony smiled weakly. “That doesn’t mean I don’t love him. And your Tony—I bet he’s similar.”
Steve turned back to the controls without a word, but Tony could see him in the security camera, and could see how pale he was.
Moments later, they landed.
Miriam Sharpe lived literally between the two countries.
Tony wouldn’t have guessed that, not with the way she pushed—understandably—for the SHRA to be accepted.
Tony knew Steve had explicitly forbidden any media from approaching the divide and Miriam’s house—and it was a fact everyone on his side trusted him unconditionally; no one had even protested. Tony guessed his other self promised exclusive interviews and press conferences and claimed security reasons to stop anyone approaching—or at least he hoped it was diplomacy and not extensive use of Extremis and hacking that explained no journalists on the Iron side, either.
Hopefully, while taking care of the Skrulls, they’d also reunite their countries, so there wouldn’t be two sides to everything anymore.
Tony could dream, right?
He kept his head down while walking from the copter to Miriam’s house, didn’t even look at the other pair of people through any security cameras nearby. When he finally saw Steve again, he wanted it to be with his own eyes.
They reached the door. Steve opened it and let Tony in first.
“Such a gentleman,” Tony said, walking in.
Steve followed, not waiting for his Tony with the other Steve. “We’re sorry, Miriam,” he said. “But this is important.”
“You haven’t extended a hand in his direction since the war, so I believe that,” she answered. “But you’re in my home, and you will explain why there’s someone dangerously similar to Tony Stark with you.”
“Let’s wait for everyone,” Tony spoke up. “Is there a room you’ll fit us all in?”
She nodded, and led them further in the house to a small room. There was a table and five chairs set around it. The window looked over the divide.
Tony leant against the wall and waited for the other him and Steve, especially Steve, to arrive.
He remembered Steve begging him to let them invert Skull’s spell. He remembered laughing at him.
He dug his fingernails into his hands.
He wasn’t ready.
And then the front door opened, and he heard voices—one that he knew very well from listening to recordings of himself, and another, which he missed so much.
He really wasn’t ready.
He’d barely managed to force himself to breathe normally when Steve walked into the room, and froze.
Tony didn’t look him in the eyes, but a breathy, “Steve,” tore out of his mouth anyway.
“Stark,” Steve snarled.
“He’s back to his normal self,” the other Steve said almost off-handedly. Tony would be surprised, if he could spare any of his attention from his Steve.
(Not his. Not anymore. Not ever.)
“He didn’t need brainwashing to become a villain,” Steve snapped.
“True,” Tony said. “Steve, I—”
“Don’t you dare,” Steve interrupted. “You don’t get to say sorry. Not after . . .” he trailed off.
Tony closed his eyes briefly. “You know our world is probably dead,” he whispered.
Steve’s voice was cold. “So was it worth it?” he asked, and there was something in his voice, like there was more to this question than Tony could imagine.
There was only one answer, though. “Is it ever?” Tony’s voice was very quiet.
Everything he’d done to save Steve, to spare him the pain—it’d been all for nothing. It all had backfired.
And now here they were, in a world that wasn’t their own, and they still couldn’t talk.
No, it wasn’t worth it.
“It wasn’t worth it,” Tony said out loud, and Steve almost flinched.
Then someone put a hand on his arm, and Steve visibly relaxed.
Tony saw his other self standing next to Steve, whispering something to him.
He could access Extremis to hear them.
Then the other Tony finally went into the room, and stopped much like Steve had moments earlier, looking at the Steve who belonged there.
Tony thought it was slightly voyeuristic, to watch them in this moment, but it was still better than thinking about his own Steve.
The other Tony seemed slightly older than him, but he was rather certain that if they’d been the same age, they’d be identical. It was slightly unsettling. He was very pale now, fingers of his right hand shaking in a way Tony knew all too well.
He was stressed, he wanted a drink. He’d sounded so confident in Tony’s head—he looked nothing like this now.
The other Steve stood ramrod straight, his face clouded. He looked like he wanted to say something and didn’t know what.
“So,” the other Tony broke the silence. “Long time no see.”
The other Steve shook himself. He crossed the room in two long strides, grabbed the other Tony by his suit lapels, and pulled him in for a kiss.
It looked rough, and Tony immediately put his hand in Steve’s short hair, his other hand behind Steve’s neck.
One of them moaned, and there were definitely tongues involved, and Tony knew it wasn’t meant for anyone’s eyes—but he couldn’t stop watching, because most of all, it looked like they knew each other, even after five years apart.
Tony had kissed that Steve, more than kissed, if not in his normal state of mind, and he was very much aware it’d been nothing like this.
“I lent you my house for diplomacy talks, not this,” came Miriam’s voice.
The other Steve and Tony didn’t jump apart; they slowly moved away from each other, as if they wanted the touch to last as long as it could.
Tony sighed. Someone had to say it. He focused on Miriam, made sure his armour was ready if there was something about her they didn’t know. “Not that I didn’t enjoy the view,” he said, “but didn’t someone mention Skrulls at some point?”
Miriam just looked confused. His Steve seemed terribly tired all of a sudden. Tony knew better than to offer him a chair.
The other Tony extended his hand, and a gauntlet came flying in his direction. His face was closed off as he aimed it at his Steve.
He couldn’t know what the other Tony was trying to do, but he didn’t even flinch.
Then light came from the gauntlet, and Steve stood there, eerily beautiful in the blue light—definitely human. Definitely himself.
The other Tony almost sagged with relief, before composing himself in a second, and aiming the gauntlet at everyone else in the room in turn.
“No shape-shifters here,” he said.
“But I wouldn’t trust Hank Pym, if he’s alive in this world,” Tony added.
“Bucky fought on Tony’s side here,” Steve said flatly. “But we didn’t check anyone—that would let them know we knew. Informing you was more important.” He even sounded tired.
The other Steve turned sharply to look at him. “Bucky’s not—”
Tony did not want to get into the mess that was Steve’s guilt complex when it came to Bucky now.
“He worked with me too,” he said aloud. It was a lousy explanation, and one not entirely true anyway. It made him feel like shit. It wouldn’t help in the long run.
The naked relief in the other Steve’s face hurt almost like a knife to the gut.
He half-expected his Steve to deny it out right, but he remained silent. Tony risked a look at him, but his expression didn’t tell him anything.
There used to be a time they understood each other without words.
Miriam stepped between them, forcing the other Steve and Tony to step aside. “I need an—”
Something caught Tony’s eye, and he acted before he could even process it, jumping forward and pushing his Steve to the ground.
The shot was startingly loud in the small room.
For a moment, Tony didn’t move, Steve still under him. Then Steve pushed him away, sitting up.
“You okay?” Tony asked. Steve wasn’t weak, but he seemed so fragile without the serum; even pushing him down like that seemed dangerous.
“Yes,” Steve barked, and he was staring behind Tony.
His other self was pressed against the wall to the left, the other Steve on the other side. They were both staring at Miriam, and suddenly moved as one to check her vitals—but there was no need; the bullet had neatly gone right through her heart.
Tony didn’t need Extremis to do the calculations for him. “They were aiming at you,” he spoke to the other Steve.
Whoever they were.
The other Steve was staring at his Tony.
“It came from your side.”
The other Tony looked incredibly hurt for a split second. “Really, Steve—”
“And you have the only sniper able to make a shot this far.”
“I don’t mean Bullseye!” Steve yelled, and they both stilled.
Tony ran the calculations again, thought about whom he’d known in his own world, and came with the same answer every time.
“Bucky,” his Steve whispered.
Okay. Tony really should just have shut up moments later. “A Skrull,” he corrected.
He wouldn’t order a shot on Steve. Bucky wouldn’t agree to take it. They were dealing with shape-shifting aliens to begin with.
“So Stark would like us to think,” the other Steve snarled, still kneeling over Miriam’s body, and god, this was deteriorating quickly.
Any moment now, someone from either side was going to approach the house.
“Do you honestly believe I’d order someone to kill you?” The other Tony’s voice was very quiet.
“I don’t know, there must be a reason they can’t look at each other!” Steve snapped.
Tony had the urge to laugh. Knowing their history really wouldn’t inspire trust in Steve.
“I’d told you I’d never been able to kill you,” he said anyway.
“He’s winning this war, it makes perfect sense—”
“Am I? Can you repeat that on tape—”
“Miriam’s dead,” Steve spoke over them. “And you’re—god, you’re both complete idiots.” He was leaning on a chair, and yet there was an undeniable air of authority over him. “I don’t trust Tony. You’re right.”
Tony thought it should hurt, but all he could focus on was how it felt to hear Steve say his name again.
“I still know he wouldn’t kill me,” Steve continued. “And if you actually doubt that, Rogers—do you think Bucky would have agreed to that?”
The other Steve was stubbornly silent.
“Someone has kept this war of yours going for five years,” Tony said. “That was always the only way to defeat the Avengers. Make us fight each other first.”
He couldn’t help it, he looked at Steve, and Steve’s eyes were steady on him.
Tony had only spoken the truth, and with it he’d realised what he’d done. Months of telling himself he’d been doing the right thing (always the necessary monster, wasn’t he?), weeks of convincing himself he’d taken the best choices under the circumstances fell away.
He’d always known he was at his best at Steve’s side—what had made him betray him in Wakanda?
Fear, and guilt, and a skewed sense of responsibility; yes, all of that. But he should’ve remembered there were things he couldn’t do without Steve.
He should’ve trusted him.
And now it was too late.
Not for their other selves, though.
There was a sharp noise, and then steps running down the hall. Tony prepared his armour.
Spider-Woman ran into the room.
Steve’s eyes widened, and Tony yanked on the Extremis, called on his other self’s armour—there was a moment when he pushed him away, and Tony gritted out a mental, “Trust me”, before the other him let go.
He aimed the gauntlet at Spider-Woman and switched the Skrull detector on.
There was a loud shot, and the Skrull swayed before falling down.
The other Steve stood with his hand extended, his finger on the trigger. Tony hadn’t known he’d taken a gun—hadn’t imagined Steve using one, really—but the other him wasn’t surprised.
“Because there was no way we could’ve interrogated them,” the other Tony commented with a sigh.
“Okay,” the other Steve said after a pause. “Skrulls.”
“And soon they’ll know the game’s up,” the other Tony said.
He had Extremis. Tony didn’t doubt the other Steve had an impressive array of spies. How had they missed this? How hadn’t they noticed anything? Neither of them had had a shade of suspicion before . . .
“The divide,” he said out loud.
“Excuse me?” Steve asked.
“You’re serious about this,” Tony explained. “Two sides, two countries; the divide. Has anyone even been down there?”
“You think—” the other Tony spoke up.
They stared at each other.
It was a canyon, for all intents and purposes. Tony thought it was simple, really.
“I have a bomb,” he offered, making the armour flicker to life around his hand briefly.
His eyes moved to Steve, almost unwillingly, and Steve gave a small nod.
“No,” Tony said aloud at the same moment as Steve spoke, “I’ll go with you.”
Their other selves looked between them.
“If I understand you correctly,” the other Tony started to speak, “you want to head down there and blow it up.”
Tony flashed him a grin. “Know a better option? We are good at blowing stuff up.”
“It’s our world,” the other Steve said.
“Exactly,” Tony’s Steve answered. “So you need to go and make sure there are no more Skrulls. You need to go and finish that war. Fix it all.”
“There’s no fixing us,” Tony said. “There’s no atoning for what I’ve done. But you, Steve—”
“I’m going with you,” Steve repeated stubbornly.
“How about neither of you goes,” the other Tony offered.
“And you what, nuke the middle of the United States?” Tony snorted. “Wait for Veranke to kill you in your sleep while wearing his face?”
The other Steve flinched minutely. “It’s been five years,” he said. “That can’t be fixed just by saying aliens made us do it.”
Steve turned on him. “So you want to just give up?”
“Isn’t that what you’re doing?”
“We handled our Skrull invasion,” Tony interrupted. “We’ll handle yours.”
His counterpart sighed. “We’ve fucked it up,” he said.
“Our world is dead,” Tony said. “Let me save yours.”
“Us,” Steve corrected him once again. “Unless you can delete my memory again right now, Tony, I’m going with you.”
Tony couldn’t help a dry chuckle escaping him. “Is this where you want to argue on doing things together?”
“I should’ve argued years ago, after Stamford,” Steve told him, “so it’s late, but yes.”
Tony wasn’t going to convince him, and a part of him had always wanted to go out like this: with Steve. Together. On the same side.
They should’ve died along with their planet. They’d gotten another chance. They could do the right thing here.
“Okay, Winghead,” he said, the old nickname like a caress.
Tony stood at the edge of the divide, the other Steve next to him. His Steve and Tony’s counterpart were back at their copter—apparently the other Tony kept a spare pair of jetpacks there.
“You’re sure you want to do this?” Steve asked.
Tony glanced at him. “I didn’t expect you to try and talk me out of it.”
“I told you.” Steve was looking straight ahead. “You’re him.”
“Not really, no,” Tony answered. “And that’s a very good thing.”
For all that they’d been fighting for five years—Tony knew his other self had never betrayed Steve like he had.
“I’d go with him,” Steve said, and paused. He turned to Tony. “I could go with you.”
Tony startled. For a brief moment, he’d considered it—in a different world, he could be happy with this Steve. He could take the offer, he could go and die with him, he could save his Steve—and after a time, his Steve could even find happiness with this world’s Tony.
But his Steve knew what Tony was going to do, and he still wanted to go with him. “I think I’m done denying his choices,” Tony whispered.
“Fair enough.” Steve’s face was solemn.
“Oh, fuck it,” Tony said. He stepped closer to him, put his hands on Steve’s arms, waited a second, fully expecting to be pushed away. Then Steve kissed him, more gently than Tony had remembered—but in a way it was the first time, really. He kissed him back, just for a moment, Steve’s body heat warming him in the cold wind.
“I never said,” he muttered once they separated, and made himself look straight into Steve’s eyes, a bit darker than Tony’s Steve. “Thank you for making me me again.”
“With an experimental bomb?” Steve raised the corners of his mouth in half a smile.
“By any means,” Tony answered.
He turned when he heard steps, and Steve was right there, a Stark-made jetpack on his back. It wasn’t a full armour, but it still reminded Tony of Steve wearing his suit, and them fighting as their Earth was dying around them—and really, it was only fitting, what they were going to do here.
Tony’s counterpart was next to him, still just in the business suit.
“Thank you for taking care of him,” Tony said to him.
“Thank you for doing this for us,” he heard back.
“You know me, can’t stop myself from saving the day.”
He got a weak smile in reply.
The other Tony touched Steve’s arm briefly and said something to him, very quietly. Steve smiled—a real smile that lit up his whole face for a second, and Tony couldn’t help but feel a stab of jealousy that it wasn’t aimed at him.
“Don’t repeat our mistakes,” Steve said. “Talk to each other.”
The other Steve saluted him.
Tony and Steve looked at each other and stepped off the edge.
Tony scanned the caves around them. Entirely too much metal, and under it—computers, ton of alien tech, and—body heat, tens of signatures, slightly lower than a human’s would be. “They’re here,” he warned. “In the caves. They’ll notice us soon.”
“I know,” Steve answered.
“You can go back,” Tony said, because he had to.
“And do what, Tony?” Steve asked.
Tony would’ve shrugged if he wasn’t flying. “Help them.”
“They’ll figure it out on their own.” Steve was close to Tony, as close as it was safe to be right now.
“We haven’t,” Tony answered.
“I think we’re getting there now,” Steve said. He sounded so calm. “I don’t trust you, Tony. I mean that. If we were to go on—I don’t know if I could do that.” He sighed. “I wish it was different.”
“Let me say this.” Steve’s voice was like steel. “I trust you to do the right thing here. I trust you in a fight.” He made a sound that was all too close to a sob. “But I’m not sure I could be in a room alone with you.”
“Good thing there are Skrulls all around us,” Tony quipped, because he couldn’t stand Steve saying all of that.
“I’d trusted you ever since I’d met you,” Steve said. “And now, after everything—I don’t want to go on without that trust.”
Tony’s mouth was dry. “That’s my fault,” he managed to say. “It’s all my fault. You don’t have to—look, our Earth might’ve survived, you could—”
“Tony,” Steve said patiently, “you can stop lying to me now.”
Tony bit down on his lip, hard. “I love you,” he said.
“If I could go back—”
“You wouldn’t change a thing, and don’t you dare tell me otherwise!” Steve yelled.
Tony slowed down his flight. “You asked,” he said. “You asked and I said it wasn’t worth it. So yes, I caused you pain for nothing!” And I’m sorry, he thought, but he couldn’t do that to Steve, couldn’t apologize for everything he’d refused to apologize for when it could’ve mattered.
Steve came to a halt in the air, hovering in place. “I asked,” he agreed very quietly. “Years ago, in the helicarrier cell, Director Stark. You didn’t answer.”
Tony wanted to cry. “I don’t remember a damn thing,” he let out, “and yet I can assure you the answer would be the same.”
Everything he’d ever done was to protect Steve, and he’d failed every single time; why were they rehashing their past mistakes here?
Not theirs. Tony’s.
“I’m sorry,” Steve said.
Tony stopped breathing.
“I told them to talk,” Steve continued, “but it’s the one thing I refused to do in our war. If I’d listened—maybe we wouldn’t have ended up here.”
“Or maybe we would’ve ended up exactly like them,” Tony said. “And hey—we had a good run. You know. Before.”
“That we did,” Steve chuckled. “Shellhead.”
“Thank you,” Tony said through his tight throat.
Steve just smiled.
“Ready?” Tony asked.
Steve extended his hand. Tony took it.
It felt like ages too late.
It felt like just the right time.
Together, they descended the final metres.
It was a simple command, the armour autodestruction. Tony had always known he’d end up needing it.
The Skrulls came out of the caves, and Tony never let Steve’s hand go as the RT powered the explosion.
This time, unlike back on their home world, the end was theirs.