A year after all the Infinity Gems shattered, leaving just the Time Gem—not undamaged, either; covered in a fine spider web of cracks—they came back.
Tony was working on his armour, soldering in his repulsor, when he felt the fluctuation in the mystical energies around him and almost dropped the iron. He managed to set it down gently, and then he closed his eyes and reached out with his mind.
The familiar humming of his artefacts was there, like a background noise that calmed him down. He reached beyond, and then a shiver went through him.
He opened his eyes and rushed to the other, more mystical side of his workshop. The safety glyphs let him pass, and he opened the drawer in the corner.
There it was, set in the middle of the white star sewn on blue material, like it’d never disappeared, the Space Gem.
A multitude of questions came to him at once, but there was one that took priority, and he extended his hand in the direction of his computers, starting up the program he’d gotten from Reed.
Universes detected: 3…5…8…13…21……987……10946……121393……317811…
The number kept growing.
Tony felt like it was the first time he could breathe in months.
Carol had teleported with him, and Emma and Shuri had already been in Necropolis when they arrived.
“It’s all of us, isn’t it,” Tony said breathlessly. “All of them.”
Emma smirked. “Aw, you keep it on—”
“I don’t want to know where you keep yours,” Tony cut her off, fixing his mental shields. She pulled a face at him. “Sorry, darling, I like my head mine.”
And a mixture of technology and magic was very efficient at stopping telepaths.
It was really no one’s business if his most secure safe held two items: the Gem—and Steve’s uniform, held together by a spell that wouldn’t let it age.
The shield was Sam’s, and rightly so. Tony had the uniform, and a pair of dog tags under his shirt.
He was so glad Emma couldn’t hear how sentimental he was being right now.
Victor and Reed teleported in next, their hands closely laced together.
“Are we interrupting you, boys?” Shuri asked. “It’s just the Infinity Gems, after all.”
Tony was sure Victor rolled his eyes behind the mask. Reed just opened his hand, and the Reality Gem levitated above it.
Tony swallowed. Initially, they had wanted him to keep it—but it was too much power. Too much temptation. He’d wielded the Gauntlet once and hadn’t given in, but it was different from being faced with that much power every day.
He pushed the thoughts away. Usually he was much better at keeping his head cool—but then, it was just a few days till the anniversary, and apparently he didn’t have to worry about the multiversal destruction anymore. That had been quite an effective distraction, especially in the first terrible weeks after Steve had died.
“So what does it mean?” Carol asked. “The Gems are back, the universe is no longer ending—quite the contrary, it seems. Do we just accept it and move on like it’s Tuesday?”
Tony would quite like it to be an option available to them. “The other remaining universes were 1610 and 616,” he said, “but it was Earth-616 that was in the centre.”
Reed gave him a long look. “You want to check it,” he said.
Tony shrugged. “We might not learn anything, but it’s worth trying.”
They didn’t even know how the incursions had started in the first place. Maybe someone in 616 had figured it out.
“The thing that worries me,” Shuri said, pursing her lips, “is that it’s not just that the problem seems to have stopped. It’s as if someone undid it.”
“And we know the Gauntlet only works in its own universe,” Emma added. “What power could’ve caused this?”
“One that we should hope never to encounter,” Victor said grimly.
“Tony,” Carol spoke up. “Do you really think multiversal travel is safe after all this?”
Tony grinned at her. “Do you know a better time?”
Victor’s eyes were right on Tony. “I thought you were done trying to kill yourself.”
“Is that worry I hear, Victor?”
“Tony, we all know we’re extremely lucky we’re all still here, after the last months,” Shuri said. Tony flinched minutely. They weren’t all there, even if it wasn’t an incursion that killed Steve. “It’s not time for poor decisions.”
“Is it ever?” Tony looked around everyone and sighed. “Yes, okay, it’s dangerous. So are our daily lives. We have to check it, and really, even if I didn’t offer, I’d be the best choice. But I want to do it. So can we skip that show of—”
“We’re friends, Tony,” Reed interrupted him mid-sentence. “It’s obvious we worry.”
Tony hoped his face didn’t show his emotions.
“We’re friends,” he agreed after a moment, “so let me do it for you.”
Reed and Victor had a family. Shuri had her kingdom. Carol had the Avengers, and Emma—the X-Men.
When it came down to it, who would miss Tony?
Emma’s look was sharp, as if she could read his mind even through his shielding. She probably didn’t need to, though, at this moment; they had known each other for a long time. “Your reasoning is bullshit,” she said. “But you won’t be convinced, and you do have a point. Someone has to go.”
He was almost surprised, but then, she was nothing if not calculating. “Exactly,” he said out loud. “I’ll make some preparations and go tomorrow.”
One by one, they nodded, until Carol was left staring at him. “You’ll take care,” she ordered.
“Don’t I always?” He aimed his brightest smile at her.
She didn’t seem amused. “Tony.”
“I promise,” he sighed.
“That’s all, then?” Tony asked.
“We’ll come by the Tower later, Tony, check the calculations—I know you can do them in your sleep, but things have changed in the multiverse,” Reed spoke, and Victor nodded.
“Fair enough,” Tony agreed. “Thank you.”
Opening the portal to another universe when he was still in his own world was easy enough. He might need some help for getting back, but with luck the superheroes of Earth-616 would lend him a hand. He remembered to take his bots with him; in the worst case scenario he could send one to alert Reed.
He went through the motions for the spell, acutely aware of Reed and Victor standing at the far wall of his lab. The portal started shaping in front of him, an oval passage.
“Good luck,” Victor said.
“I’ll be fine,” Tony grinned. “Make sure no one summons demons in the centre of New York while I’m gone, will you?”
Tony took one step when Reed’s hand on his wrist stopped him. “The Bridge is broken,” Reed reminded him. “We don’t know what is over there. If it’s dangerous, come back.”
“We’ve talked about it,” Tony said. “See you.”
Reed slowly let him go.
Unhindered this time, Tony stepped through the portal, protective magic curled tightly around him. It should take him to his counterpart from the other universe, but who was to say it wasn’t the one universe where Tony Stark was a supervillain?
The place he appeared in looked similar to his workshop—as far as he could see, just tech, though, nothing mystical. Although . . . He frowned. There was one signature, familiar—The Wand of Watoomb.
So maybe he’d finally meet another version of himself who didn’t hate magic.
Seconds later, he felt magic suppressing fields snap in place around him. He spun around to see—well, himself, clad in jeans and a tank top covered in motor oil. Through the tank top, Tony could see a bright object set in his other self’s chest, and he guessed it was an RT node or a version of it. Heart problems seemed to be another thing every Tony Stark had in common.
There was a holographic woman behind him.
The other him blinked. “Please tell me you’re just a very handsome version of Strange,” he said. His posture seemed too confident for his unarmoured look—but then, they were in his lab. Tony kept a lot of surprises in his own.
“Sorry, Tony,” he said. “I’m you.”
“Friday is detecting magic around you and you’re wearing the Eye of Agamotto,” the other Tony stated. “This is a bad dream.”
“Sorcerer Supreme, Anthony Stark. Nice to meet you too.”
“I hate magic,” the other Tony groaned, as if it wasn’t obvious already.
Tony chuckled. “You’d like pretty much any other version of us better, then.” He tilted his head. “And yet, you have a magical artefact in here. I can feel it.”
Not anymore, with the suppressors in full power—they were good, Tony must’ve worked with a sorcerer to set them up. But the signature had been unmistakable.
Tony winced. “That’s a present from Doom.”
“Huh. He seems to prefer Reed in my dimension.”
His counterpart’s eyes went wide. “Not that kind of a present, God, no—he’s very pretty, but—no.”
Pretty. So not scarred and hiding behind a metal mask?
As if Tony could talk, really.
“As entertaining as this is,” Tony said, “I’m actually here for a reason.”
The other Tony squinted. “Is it to murder me and take my intellect for yourself?” he asked.
“I’m faring quite well with my own.”
“Not if you’re a sorcerer you’re not,” the other Tony said. “Okay. What is it?” His posture was still very loose, self-assured in a way Tony himself rarely felt out of the armour.
Or maybe . . . Tony squinted. There was something around his other self. “Is that camouflage?” he asked, surprised. “Just technological? That is awesome.”
“And you’re the first person to see through it,” his counterpart answered, grimacing. He crossed his arms in front of himself. “What is it?”
Tony sighed. “Have you heard about the incursions?”
It was a minute change, but Tony knew himself, and was familiar with the expression on his other self’s face. He didn’t like the topic, not one bit. “I’ll take that as a yes,” Tony said. “They have ended.”
“I’m aware, yes,” his other self answered, his tone clipped. “What of it?”
“How did it happen?” Tony asked.
The other Tony was very, very still. “I was fighting S—someone.”
Tony felt himself going still, too. “You were fighting Steve.” How could this happen?
His counterpart closed his eyes briefly. “Yes.” He inhaled slowly. “Is this what you want to talk about? My relationship with Steve? In that case, you can let yourself out.”
It would be almost interesting if it wasn’t also so damn heartbreaking. Tony wanted to shake his other self.
His own Steve was gone. If this Tony decided to be an idiot and fight his—well, Tony wasn’t here for that. He forced himself to calm down.
“Incursions,” he said. His voice sounded unnatural to his own ears.
The other Tony huffed a laugh. “I was fighting Steve,” he repeated. “Here you are. It was the end of the world, quite literally, but hey, what better way to pass the time than beating up your ex?” This time the laugh sounded more like a sob. “We went down. When I woke up, everything was right with the world, and no one knew what happened. Most people don’t seem to remember.”
“Steve?” Tony asked, almost unwillingly.
“He still doesn’t talk to me, so I’d say he remembers.” The other Tony covered his face with his hand. “Which, yeah, that one’s better for everyone. Imagine if he found out in a year.” He shook his head, turned away. “Friday, drop the suppressors.”
Tony knew this for what it was: and now fuck off back to your world and leave me alone.
He found he didn’t want to. Okay, so he might not learn more from this Tony—but he might from Reed, or Victor, or whoever else.
Keep telling yourself that, he thought. Incursions weren’t why he wanted to stay.
He followed his counterpart through the lab. The woman—Friday?—stared at him for a moment, but didn’t say anything, and then just disappeared. The other Tony sat at a workbench. He must’ve heard Tony approach, but he didn’t move.
There was a shield on the table next to him.
It was triangular, dark blue; it seemed unfinished, as if he was still working on it—but the sight of the shield without her owner still made Tony freeze. He reached out his hand to touch it, stopped himself. “Where is he?” he asked quietly, let his hand drop back to his side.
“He stormed off earlier. I’m just surprised he didn’t punch me, really, I would’ve in his place.” The other Tony looked up and frowned. “You okay?”
“So he’s really okay,” Tony whispered, almost unwillingly.
“Serum’s—oh.” His counterpart seemed to understand something. “Alive. Yes. Very much so.”
Tony relaxed marginally.
“Is that why you jumped at me? Because yours is dead?” The other Tony looked down at his hands. “My—except he’s not, not anymore—Steve had . . . I thought he’d died, once. We all did.”
Tony sat on the bench next to him, because he wasn’t sure if he could keep standing. “How did you survive that?” His voice was trembling.
“I’ve no idea,” the other Tony answered, and yeah, Tony could understand that, it was still unimaginable to think of facing another day without Steve, but then his other self continued, “I wiped my mind of it.”
Tony couldn’t help it; he laughed, because just what kind of world did he come to; to find himself calling Steve his ex, to find Steve alive, and then learn this?
“He’s dead,” he let out. “He’s dead and he’s not coming back and—and god, if I thought for a moment I could forget—”
“It wouldn’t bring him back,” his other self said. “So unless you want to learn about it for the second time, I don’t recommend this solution.”
Or he could forget everything—even the thought was jarring. Steve was too important to forget, ever.
“I’ve no idea where Reed is, but you can talk to Strange, I guess,” his other self said after a moment, like an apology. “Or Doom, if he shows up. He has a tendency to do that, lately.”
Tony flinched. This was the second time his other self mentioned Stephen, which meant he must’ve been alive here. So there was a world where Tony hadn’t killed everyone he’d ever loved.
His other self was regarding him curiously. “Which one of them don’t you like?”
“My Strange is dead,” Tony said.
His other self stilled. “A part of me wants to ask if there’s anyone alive in your world, but then Friday will call me rude.”
“Or I can save her the trouble,” Tony said drily. He hadn’t thought he had any energy to spare on getting annoyed. “So. You don’t talk, but you’re fixing his shield?”
The other Tony laughed weakly, as if there was a joke Tony didn’t get. “Not—exactly.” He sighed. “Peace offering? I’m sorry gift? I’m really fucking sorry just let me help and then you can never see me again token?” He extended his hand, and the camouflage flickered, revealing the armour’s gauntlet. It was sleek, seemed more delicate than Tony’s armour was. A holographic photo appeared over it.
It was Steve, and Tony recognized him in a split second, but it was an older Steve. It was a Steve who looked his age. That made it easier to look at him without all of the memories of Tony’s Steve threatening to overtake him. As Tony kept looking, he noticed this Steve was similar enough; he still had the same vibrant blue eyes and a decided set to his shoulders.
Tony averted his eyes. “What happened?”
“What didn’t,” his other self muttered. “It was—”
“Boss, Avengers alert coming in from Prospect Park,” Friday cut in.
Tony stood up in a blink, the camouflage falling away, and Tony finally saw his full armour. It was very pretty; all smooth lines and a helmet like something from medieval legends that Tony loved so much. He wanted to get his hands on the designs and see all the little details that made it different from his suit.
“Who’s there?” the other Tony asked.
“The alert came from Steve,” Friday said.
Even in the armour it was obvious Tony’s other self faltered.
Tony bit on his lower lip and made up his mind. “Let me,” he said, grabbing his counterpart by his elbow. He focused on the address, let himself fall into the astral plane of this world and fish up the exact location.
It was a bit rougher than his normal teleportation, but all things considered, he thought it went pretty well for a world he didn’t know. Then they were outside, hovering over a lawn in the park, the city around them so very similar to Tony’s own.
Suddenly, there was a violet light and a fluctuation in magic next to him, but Tony couldn’t look—couldn’t tear his eyes away from Steve.
Steve, who was moving with visible difficulty, who was still standing in front of—was it the Constrictor? Villainous in every universe?
“Get back!” Steve was yelling at the civilians around.
“Steve, get down,” Iron Man shouted next to Tony, flying down.
“Seriously, Anthony, there are easier ways—” and Tony finally looked to his right, because the voice was familiar but just a bit off.
The man in the air next to him had on a dark grey suit with a green shirt, and Tony supposed that was his clue. He couldn’t say if he looked like his Victor, because that whole wearing a metal mask all the time thing made identification a bit harder, but he clearly also had magic.
There was a loud shot, and Tony realised he should not have looked away.
It felt as if ages passed before he moved his eyes back to Steve, and Steve was falling down, blood on his shirt. No no no, Tony thought. No. There was another blast, Tony couldn’t see, and then Iron Man landed next to Steve, the helmet disappearing as the other Tony caught Steve, shook him, and he was saying something, but even from this high up Tony could see how pale Steve was—
How much blood there was.
It was a terrible deja vu, and the worst thing was it was all real.
He slowly descended.
“Don’t you dare, Steve, no,” his other self was saying, but there was no point.
Steve was dead.
“No!” the other Tony yelled.
“Anthony.” Victor was on the ground now too. “Anthony, calm down—”
Tony’s counterpart looked up, wildly, tears streaming down his face. “Doom,” he said. “You’re a sorcerer, isn’t black magic your thing, save him.”
It felt like someone else was speaking when Tony heard his own voice. “I can.”
They both looked at him, and in the corner of his eye he could see Victor shaking his head, and another time he might’ve thought that was interesting—
But Steve’s body was going cold, and the Tony holding him was so desperate, and Tony knew exactly how he was feeling—and exactly what he still would give to change it.
“I can bring him back,” he repeated. “This soon after he passed—it’s possible.” It was dark magic. He was the Sorcerer Supreme. He didn’t care. “But there’s a price.”
“Isn’t there always?” Tony asked, and he looked like he knew what it was this time. “I want it. Do it.”
“I can save him,” Tony repeated. “But in doing so, I will kill you.”
“No,” Victor said.
“Yes,” the other Tony said with absolute conviction. “Just—just save him. Please.”
Tony had been alone when his Steve had died. There had been no one there who could’ve helped. Maybe it wasn’t an accident he came to Earth-616 now, to help his other self where Tony himself hadn’t gotten a chance.
“Anthony, you won’t even live to see it.” Doom sounded desperate.
“I don’t care,” Tony answered. “Come on, me. Prove that magic is good for something. Save him, if you couldn’t—”
“I will,” Tony said, before his other self could finish that sentence.
He couldn’t have saved his Steve. He would save this one.
He extended his arm, closed his eyes.
He could sense Victor, just next to him, a bright point of power. The other Tony was an explosion of electricity, and just next to him, fading—blue, warm light, Steve.
Tony twisted his left arm, and pulled. He heard a scream, but didn’t open his eyes, and in his mind, he could feel the electric power fading, and the blue light growing, getting stronger, alive—
The scream stopped, and in the next moment, there was a gasp.
Tony opened his eyes. It was a few moments before he could actually see—and then he couldn’t breathe.
Because Steve was there, young and alive. It was the most beautiful sight Tony had seen in a long time.
Steve’s face slowly turned confused as he sat up. He looked at the ground, at the other Tony’s still body, and his eyes widened in horror. “Tony,” he said, then again, louder. He lifted him, cradled him against his chest. “Tony, wake up. Tony.” He touched his hand to Tony’s pulse point.
“He’s dead,” Victor snapped, and his voice sounded like Tony’s Victor when he was worried about Reed. “Thank—”
“That’s enough,” Tony cut in.
Steve looked at him then, his eyes wet, and god, but Tony couldn’t deal with him crying. His voice was strong though as he demanded, “Who are you?”
The question hurt.
He’s not your Steve. Stop being pathetic, he told himself.
“Sorcerer Supreme of Earth-9810, Anthony Stark,” he introduced himself, still hovering in the air.
Surprise flickered on Steve’s face, and then he gripped his Tony’s body tighter. “Fix this,” he said.
The other Tony said they’d been fighting, but this certainly didn’t look as if Steve didn’t care about him.
“I can’t,” Tony said. It wasn’t a lie. One couldn’t just move life energy back and forth.
Technically, he shouldn’t even have done what he had, and he wouldn’t be surprised if Sorcerer Supreme of this Earth showed up to ask what the hell, but he didn’t regret doing it.
He should leave. He wasn’t supposed to get involved in this world’s affairs. He’d done enough. But Steve’s eyes were still on him, and Tony couldn’t ignore him.
He set down. Belatedly, he looked around, and found the Constrictor unconscious. That blast he’d heard earlier must’ve been the other Tony knocking him out.
“He shot me,” Steve said. “I remember . . . what happened?” He sounded lost, and he was still cradling the other Tony, as if he thought that if only he held him close enough, Tony would wake up.
There was a sound of wings, and then Sam landed next to them, dressed in red, white and blue, and holding the shield. Tony swallowed; this picture was all too familiar.
Steve was all right here. He’d been old; that’s why Sam had the shield. It was nothing like situation in Tony’s world.
Sam looked between all of them. “What happened?” he took a step towards Steve. “I got the Avengers alert. Is Tony—”
“You’ll probably be interested in detaining the Constrictor,” Victor spoke up, his voice emotionless. “As for the rest of us . . .”
Tony recognized the spell, and had a split second to decide that no, he wasn’t going to counteract it. It was a simple teleportation field—wherever Victor was going to transport them, Tony could bring them back from. He was expecting a lab in Latveria, really, but when the world settled back around them, he recognized his counterpart’s workshop.
Friday was nowhere to be seen.
For a long moment, it was as if Steve didn’t notice the change—and then he clutched Tony’s body securely as he looked up at them and there was steel in his voice. “What’s going on here?”
Tony opened his mouth and closed it again. He wasn’t sure what he could say, how Steve would react to the truth.
“Move away from him, Captain,” Victor said quietly.
Steve stared at him.
“I will make you.” It didn’t even sound like a threat, but Tony knew he had to step in.
“Okay,” he said. “Victor. Maybe explain what you want to do.” When there was nothing that could be done, really.
Tony was kinda surprised nothing burst in flames at the glare Victor sent at him. “Since you clearly don’t care,” he said icily, “I’m going to put a stasis spell on him.”
Steve frowned. “I know you’ve been working with him,” he wondered.
Victor looked at him briefly. “Last I heard, you called it two villains plotting,” he mentioned. “Will you move?”
Villains? It wasn’t as if Tony wasn’t aware that his Victor seemed to be in the minority, as far as Dooms in the multiverse went, being on the heroic side, but he’d assumed Victor here was the same. Why else would he be on friendly terms with Tony?
“If you hurt him—”
“He’s dead,” Victor snapped. “I can’t do worse. You could threaten Sorcerer Supreme here instead.”
Steve let go, very slowly, and took a few steps to the side. Victor began a spell, but Steve wasn’t looking at him, instead focused on Tony.
God, Tony wanted to touch him.
“What does he mean?” Steve demanded. “Why—” He faltered. He looked down at himself, back at Tony. He raised his hands to his eyes and his expression hardened. “What happened?” he repeated his earlier question.
Tony sighed. “You were right,” he said quietly, almost a whisper. “You were shot. Your Tony asked me to save your life.”
Steve closed his eyes for a long moment. “And?”
Tony could barely hear him.
“I brought you back,” he said, “at the cost of his life.”
He could call up his protective spell with barely a thought, but he didn’t even inch away as Steve suddenly moved and punched him.
His Steve had never hurt him—and yet, for a moment Tony was just glad this Steve even got close to him.
He landed on the floor, waited a second before pushing himself up to a sitting position. He rubbed his jaw and kept silent.
Steve was shaking, his eyes wet, and in the violet light of Victor’s spell he looked almost ghastly. Tony wasn’t sure what to say.
He knew life without Steve.
This Steve, however, clearly didn’t know life without Tony.
“No.” Steve shook his head. “You’re not doing anything. You will stay here, and you will fix it, and I don’t care how or what it’ll take.”
He couldn’t fix it. He wasn’t sure why he nodded anyway.
“I—I need Sam. And god, Rhodey—” Steve seemed so lost for a split second before composing himself again. “Doom, are you quite finished?”
Victor let his hands fall down and the light disappeared. He’d somehow gotten the other Tony out of the armour, and now his body was floating millimetres over a workbench, protective barrier around it.
“He’ll be safe for the time being,” he said. He looked at Tony. “Do be careful with magic around him.”
“I know how to handle stasis spells,” Tony snapped, getting back to his feet.
“Doom is going to check a few things,” Victor announced, and it said something about the situation that Tony didn’t laugh at his manner of speaking.
“No, wait—” Steve started to say, but Victor disappeared in a flash of teleportation spell. Tony idly waved his hand, creating a magical equivalent of a tracing device just in case. It should hold for one or two more teleportation spells, if Victor didn’t notice it, but with how emotional he seemed, it was unlikely he would.
Steve turned away, made half a step in the other Tony’s direction and stopped himself. He raised his hand, lowered it again. Finally, he pulled a mobile out of his pocket, typed something—his hands still shaking—and put it back in.
“Go upstairs,” he said, not turning back to Tony. “The elevator’s at the back. You want floor 51. Your biometrics will match, I think.” He leant down his head. “If you disappear, I will find you.”
Tony didn’t doubt that for a second.
He shrugged and followed the instructions.
He turned back briefly when the elevator opened, and winced as he saw Steve punching the wall.
Tony stepped out of the elevator into a big living room. It was spacious, with enough armchairs and sofas for what he guessed was the Avengers’ main space—except it was empty now, no one but him to occupy it. He wondered if everyone else had left to answer Steve’s alert or if there was another reason for it.
He walked to the window and looked outside. He could almost pretend he was in his own Tower, here. Speaking of . . . He knew he was going to stay here at least a few days longer, and he didn’t want anyone following him here. He called one of his bots to him, programmed in a short message to Reed, and then focused on a portal spell. The robot wasn’t exactly alive, which made it easier, but he was trying to transport it across the universes, which was never easy. He wouldn’t be able to open a safe portal for a living being from this side of the multiverse without any preparation, especially not after effectively bringing Steve back to life. It took him a few seconds, but finally a small portal opened, just enough for him to push the robot through.
He was getting tired. He’d used a lot of magic today, and he’d need to rest soon.
The spell he’d cast to bring Steve back was never meant to be used by anyone, and he was feeling the effects; a headache already setting behind his eyes. His magic felt shaky to him; a bit as if someone was constantly casting a dispelling spell nearby, a sure sign of spending too much energy. The RT node felt warm in his chest, and it always made him vaguely uneasy, but he knew from experience it’d go back to norm soon. It didn’t like magic that strong.
He sighed and sat down. He guessed someone would show up sooner or later, probably to yell at him.
(He hoped it’d be to yell; he wasn’t sure he could deal with Steve’s expression as broken as it’d seemed in the lab earlier.)
What the hell had this world’s Steve and Tony been fighting about? Tony had been here for two hours and it was obvious how much they loved each other.
Incursions, he told himself firmly. That’s what he needed to find out about.
He closed his eyes and started a meditation exercise.
He wasn’t sure how much time had passed when he heard the elevator, but he leant forward to see who was coming. The door opened and this world’s Sam Wilson came out, followed by three people dressed like superheroes, who really couldn’t be more than teenagers. Tony didn’t know any of them, but he could recognise a costume like Spider-Man’s, Nova’s helmet—and the girl looked like Carol had inspired her. Were they training here?
For a moment, the group stopped, and they all looked at each other. Then, Sam coughed. “Okay,” he said. “You,” he told the kids, “go one level down.”
“I’ll be there in a minute.” Sam was all Captain America’s authority, his voice bearing no discussion, and the kids went back into the elevator.
Tony decided to stay seated as Sam approached him. “Nice group,” he said.
“The Avengers,” Sam said. “The, as you probably noticed, very young Avengers, to whom I have to explain now that it’s not all beating up villains, and Tony won’t be helping them with their maths homework anymore.”
Tony bit on his lower lip. “It was his choice,” he said after a second.
“Save the bullshit for someone else.” Sam glared at him. “Steve—Steve’s a mess. And you apparently are a Tony Stark, so if you care about him one bit—”
“If you care about him,” Sam spoke over him, “you will find a way to fix it.”
Tony covered his eyes with his hand. “Would you rather Steve died there?”
Sam sighed. “Of course not,” he admitted quietly. “But if you ask him about it . . .”
“Then he seemed a good match with your Tony.” Tony didn’t mean for his voice to sound so harsh, but he was exhausted and everyone hated him for what he’d done on his counterpart’s wish. He understood the sentiment, but if he hadn’t done it, he’d hate himself, so really, there wasn’t a good solution. He just wanted a break.
“I’m sorry,” Sam said after a few moments. “He’s—he was my friend.”
“I know,” Tony said. “You can believe I didn’t cross universes to kill my alternate self for fun.”
“Why did you cross them?” Sam asked.
Tony tilted his head. “Incursions?”
This world’s Tony had said not everyone remembered. Interesting. “Nevermind,” Tony said. “I’ll talk to Steve when he’s less inclined to punch me.”
Not that Tony blamed him, really.
“Don’t—he’s hurt, okay,” Sam said. “Be careful with him.”
Tony wanted to cry. “I know,” he said.
“Okay,” Sam said. “I have to go to the kids.” He hesitated. “You should probably get some ice for that.” He pointed at his own jaw. “The kitchen’s just down the corridor.”
“Thanks,” Tony said as Sam called the elevator.
He touched his jaw gingerly and hissed in pain. He thought it must be bruising already. He could just heal himself, but he’d used so much magic anyway.
Ice it was, he decided, and got up. He felt dizzy, blindly reached out to lean himself on the armchair while the world slowly righted itself.
One of the bots chirped at him worriedly, and he tried to smile. “I’m all right,” he lied and carefully walked in the direction Sam had pointed at.
He found the kitchen behind the first door, spacious and fully-stocked clearly designed for cooking with superhumans with enhanced metabolisms in mind. He opened the refrigerator and found a pile of ice packs and some frozen pizza. Same as at home, then, he thought, taking one ice pack. He wrapped it in a towel—it’d get drenched soon, but the pack was freezing—and put it to his face as he walked back to the living room.
He sat in the armchair again, waiting for Steve to arrive.
There was a loud sound. Tony stirred, opened his eyes—when had he closed them? Had he been that out of it?
Steve was looking at him. He must’ve made noise on purpose, Tony knew how quietly he could move otherwise, but now he seemed almost lost when he noticed Tony looking at him.
The ice had slid from his grip at some point and was now in his lap. Tony sighed and put it back to his face. It was still cold enough to work.
“Can’t you heal it?” Steve asked uneasily.
Tony wanted to laugh. “I’ve done a lot of strong magic today,” he said instead.
Steve’s expression hardened as he clearly recalled the one spell he hadn’t witnessed, but which effects he was damn well feeling.
“There are a few guest rooms here,” he said finally. “Pick one. We’ll talk when you’re actually conscious.”
Steve always used to worry if Tony overdid it with magic or just stayed up working on the armour for too long.
This was not his Steve. Tony should do a better job of remembering it.
Judging by Steve’s expression, he was not doing a very good job of remembering Tony wasn’t his Tony himself.
Look at them, both faced with an alternate self of a dead man they loved.
“Why did you fight?” Tony blurted out.
“What did he do?” Tony barrelled on.
Steve’s face looked shattered, and Tony hated himself for it. For a few long seconds, he thought Steve would just walk out or maybe punch him again.
Then Steve chuckled, a broken sound. “He wiped my mind,” he said, and his voice was surprisingly steady.
Tony inhaled sharply.
“So all things considered, maybe I should thank you,” Steve continued, and it was awful, the way his eyes turned red and he was so tense he was almost trembling with it.
Tony couldn’t really process what Steve had just said.
The other Tony did what?
“What, you won’t tell me you’d never do that?” Steve looked as if he wanted Tony to argue with him. Tony guessed he wanted a distraction, something else to focus on, but . . .
One thing was true.
“I wouldn’t,” he said. The mere thought made him sick. He had no idea about the circumstances, about his other self’s reasoning—but he knew there was no way he’d understand anyway. Steve was—had been—the best thing to ever happen to Tony. Tony didn’t trust anyone the way he’d trusted Steve. And his counterpart here said he’d loved him, too.
“You killed him,” Steve said very quietly, his hands closed into fists at his sides. “I don’t think there’s anything beyond you.”
“So you would live,” Tony gritted out.
“He thought that made everything worth it too,” Steve said. He walked to the floor-to-ceiling windows and leant his head against the glass. His shoulders were shaking.
Tony wanted a drink.
He wouldn’t get one.
He should just go back home. There was nothing in this world he wanted to see. He should go back and forget all about it. He was so tired he wasn’t even sure he could attempt any spell without it blowing up on him, but a treacherous part of his mind whispered that it’d be even better; that he’d finally get to rest.
Steve wouldn’t forgive him for giving up, though.
Tony got up on shaky legs. “Steve—”
“Go,” Steve told him.
Tony nodded, even though Steve couldn’t see it. He walked out, passed the kitchen, opened the next door he saw. The room inside looked as clean and sterile as a hotel room, nothing personal about it, so Tony shrugged and went inside.
He sat on the bed, just for a moment, he told himself. He’d barely managed to pull off his left gauntlet when exhaustion overcame him and he was out.
Tony woke up with a gasp. Something was wrong.
It took him a moment to remember that he was in a different universe, and so it was normal the energy around him felt alien to him. He took a few deep breaths to calm himself down.
He’d fallen asleep on top of the covers, still in his clothes. He winced at that, decided a shower was in order before anything else. At least the RT was its normal cool temperature again.
Later, refreshed, he decided to go down to the lab again.
The lift scanner beeped, confirming Tony’s biometrics, and then started moving down.
“Friday, is anyone in the lab?” he asked.
There was silence. He sighed. She hadn’t showed herself to him since he first arrived to this universe, and he knew there was a reason for it. Still, he was pretty sure Steve would be there. He wasn’t sure he was ready to face him, but he couldn’t really put it off. When the elevator arrived and Tony walked out of it, he saw Steve touching the shield the other Tony had been building with a stricken expression on his face.
“Hi,” Tony said quietly.
Steve didn’t move to look at him. “Was he working on this?” he asked.
“He was when I came here,” Tony answered truthfully.
Steve inhaled sharply. “I told him not to do it,” he whispered. “We had coffee—he wanted to use Extremis—I said no.”
Maybe if Steve had agreed, they wouldn’t be in this situation now.
Tony couldn’t bring himself to say it aloud, though. He’d never experimented with the Extremis virus himself, but he’d met enough of his other selves who did that he didn’t need to ask. It could offer immense power, and he was well aware of that; but it could also bring uncontrollable destruction. He was the Sorcerer Supreme, he couldn’t let himself go down this path.
“It was yesterday morning,” Steve added, running his hand over the edge of the shield.
“He just wanted to keep you safe,” Tony said after a moment. “I guess he built the shield just in case—because he wanted it to be ready, because he wanted to have something to offer you.” He closed his eyes and didn’t watch Steve’s reaction as he added, “Because that’s how he shows he cares.”
“Cares,” Steve repeated with a humourless chuckle. “More like tries to ease his own conscience.”
Breathe, Tony told himself. That’s not your Steve.
“Do you really believe that?” he asked.
Steve turned to him, sharply. “They wanted to destroy whole worlds,” he snarled. “I disagreed, so Tony told Strange to wipe my memories. Yes, that says care like nothing else.”
Tony’s eyes widened as he understood. “The Illuminati,” he said, and Steve took a step back as if hit.
“I should’ve known every Stark—what have you done to your Steve?” he asked viciously.
Tony grew cold.
“I am not the Tony Stark from this world,” he said very quietly, and he was vaguely aware he was losing control, that blue light surrounded them. “You don’t know me,” he continued. “You don’t know anything about me. All you do is snap at me for killing your Tony—and yes, I did kill my alternate self to save you because he asked me to; doesn’t that make you think we both care?” He raised his voice.
“Funny way of showing it,” Steve growled. “You gonna kill me now anyway, or are the lights decorative?”
Something in the workshop broke with a loud, metallic sound. Tony didn’t tear his eyes away from Steve to look, and Steve wasn’t backing off, and Tony couldn’t focus enough to get his magic under control again. How could he even suggest—
“My Steve is dead,” Tony whispered, “and the hit that killed him was meant for me.”
And there wasn’t a day Tony didn’t wish it was him instead. The way it should’ve been. Steve had told him, “It’s not your fault,” with his dying breath, and Tony couldn’t even listen to his final words.
He fell to his knees as something exploded to his right, and he knew he should calm down, but it was a distanced, theoretical sort of knowledge; he didn’t want to calm down, he was so damn tired and his Steve was gone and this Steve hated him and—
He felt something trying to block his energy and lashed out, pushed it away. Something snapped and he heard a moan. Then someone touched his arm, and oh god even that felt familiar, but it wasn’t his Steve, and it wasn’t enough to stop Tony, quite the contrary.
“Friday, magic suppressors,” Victor called—what was he doing there?—Tony gasped as he was cut off from his magic.
The silence was almost loud.
Tony took in a shaking breath.
“I’m sorry,” Steve whispered. Tony looked up to see him kneeling next to him. His hand was still on Tony’s arm. Tony didn’t have the strength to push him away.
Around them, the workshop was a mess of exploded machinery and thrown around tools. God, Tony could’ve brought down the whole Tower, if—
He snapped his head to the left. Victor was there, picking himself up, a pained expression on his face—he must’ve tried to stop Tony with magic before calling on Friday—and oh, had he really disarmed himself as well?
“How did you . . .” Tony didn’t finish the question. His voice was rasping. He raised his hand to his face and realised he’d been crying.
“I cast the stasis spell on An—on Stark,” Victor said, his tone clipped. He wasn’t looking at Tony, instead focused on the one untouched part of the lab, where the other Tony’s body lay. “It alerted me to something happening. I did not expect to see a Sorcerer Supreme lose control like this.”
Tony let his head hang. Steve tentatively wrapped an arm around his shoulders. “That’s enough,” he said.
“Yes,” Victor agreed, “I do hope so. Take him upstairs. I need to redo the spell.”
Tony couldn’t even bring himself to get annoyed about them talking as if he wasn’t there.
“Is it safe?” Steve asked.
“If you need them, there are magic suppressors in—in the living quarters as well,” Victor said, the pause briefly noticeable.
“I’m fine,” Tony muttered. “Won’t repeat that.”
Victor looked at him then, and there was something like pain in his eyes, but when he spoke, he addressed his words to Steve. “It should be fine.” He hesitated. “Give him something sweet to eat, he might need it after that.” It sounded dangerously like concern.
Steve nodded. “Thank you,” he said.
Tony let Steve pull him to his feet and steer him towards the elevator. He felt empty. He wanted to disappear. He wanted Steve to go away, but he also wanted Steve to never let him go.
He barely noticed the way up, and then Steve leading him out of the elevator into the kitchen and pushing him to sit in a chair. He felt his magic returning to him and was just numb.
Then Steve pushed a warm mug into his hands—cocoa, by the smell of it—and sat next to him. “I really am sorry,” he said.
Tony shrugged. He raised the mug to his lips. Victor was right, he should eat. “I know I killed him,” he said. “But I have to live without my Steve, and seeing another me like that . . . Call me selfish.”
Steve bit at his lower lip at that. “I love him,” he said after a moment. “Everything he’s done to me, and yet—” He shook his head. “We just started a new team together, and then he broke up with me. He never explained why. And—it hurt to see him every day after that, but he was so obviously running himself down about something; I couldn’t just leave. He’d been my friend first.” Steve’s eyes filled with tears, but he kept talking. “And then someone killed our Watcher and set his eyes on us. I woke up the next day, and I remembered.” He paused, breathing heavily.
“My Steve and I,” Tony started, “we’d been together for years. We clashed, of course we did, but it was never—”
“Something like this?” Steve finished for him. “I refused to talk. I should’ve trusted him. I should’ve realised that when I still had a chance.”
“That really doesn’t excuse anything,” Tony muttered. He could feel his headache returning.
“No,” Steve agreed sadly, “but I hate fighting with him.” He dropped his eyes. “Or I hated. I had to tell Rhodey what happened, and . . .” He exhaled.
Tony thought of his Rhodey and winced. He was Tony’s best friend; the thought of his counterpart facing Tony’s death . . . No.
“I want to hope,” Steve continued. “Doom put him under stasis for a reason, right? Tell me the truth.”
Tony looked at the wall behind Steve. “It’s not impossible,” he said. “But it is both difficult and dangerous. And—well, I’ve no idea why your Sorcerer Supreme hasn’t shown up to banish me from this dimension yet.”
Steve nodded, kept silent.
Tony finished his cocoa. It made him feel marginally better. He thought he might as well ask now, rip off the band aid in one go. “The incursions,” he said, and Steve flinched. “That’s why I came here in the first place. To find out how they ended.”
Steve huffed a laugh, leant back on his chair and stared at the ceiling. “I’ve no idea,” he said. “It’s not as if—” He stopped himself. Tony waited, and then Steve spoke again. “Try asking Strange. Or Doom, I suppose.”
Tony emphatically did not want to talk to Strange—especially since he suspected he was the Sorcerer Supreme here—and Victor, well, Tony was pretty sure only a very thin thread of control stopped Victor from trying to strangle him after he’d cast the spell to bring Steve back. Speaking of which . . . “What’s the deal with him?”
Steve shrugged. “You’re assuming Tony told me anything about his life lately.” He closed his eyes for a moment. “He probably would’ve, if I was willing to talk to him,” he admitted quietly. “Doom’s been working with Tony, after whatever happened that saved our world. Apparently he’s trying to do the right thing now, but . . .” He trailed off again.
Tony smiled weakly. “He is a hero in my world.”
“And Tony Stark is a sorcerer there,” Steve almost sounded amused now. “It seems like a weird place to me.”
Tony liked his world. He only missed Steve. He wondered what he’d say, faced with incursions, and didn’t want to know the answer. “I could say the same about your world,” he said instead. He missed home. Everything he did went wrong here.
“Do you want to eat something?” Steve asked after a moment. Tony shook his head. The cocoa was enough; he wasn’t sure he could swallow actual food just yet. God, he was a mess.
They sat in silence for a while, and Tony tried to keep himself from staring at Steve, trying to see his Steve in him. They were almost identical, but Tony’s Steve had been happier, calmer. No wonder, really, considering what Tony had learnt about this world.
“I keep thinking it’s my fault,” Steve muttered suddenly. Tony raised an eyebrow in a silent enquiry. “I broke our Infinity Gauntlet. If I used it correctly—if we had this option later on—”
Tony raised his hand. “You broke the Infinity Gauntlet?”
Steve seemed unhappy. “I used it to stop an incursion.”
Tony thought of their Gems shattering.
“The Gems broke?” he asked to make sure.
Could it be that simple?
“Who had them?” Tony asked.
“Me and Tony,” Steve said. “Stephen Strange, Namor, Reed Richards, Hank McCoy.”
Tony bit back his instinctive question—who the hell gave Namor an Infinity Gem?—and pondered the new piece of information. Steve or Tony of this world would’ve noticed the Gems returning, which mean it didn’t happen here. Or . . . Tony’s Gem had reappeared exactly where he used to keep it, but if the destruction originated in this universe . . . He didn’t want to give Steve hope where there was none.
“I guess I’ll go ask Victor about the incursions,” he said, straightening up.
Steve tilted his head. “What brought this on?”
“I told you that’s why I came here,” Tony said.
“I know how Tony Stark looks when he’s lying to me,” Steve snapped. “One thing I’ve learnt.”
Tony sighed. “A lie of omission at most,” he said quietly. “I have an idea. About your Tony.” Seeing Steve immediately lighten up hurt, so Tony hurried on to explain. “It might not work. It probably won’t. I have to check something. Please don’t follow me.”
“What makes you think he’s even still there?” Steve asked.
Tony opened his mouth to answer and thought better about it. “He’s there,” he just said, ignoring Steve’s dubious look. He got up, and Steve didn’t stop him. Maybe they were getting somewhere.
“Wait!” Tony called, feeling Victor gather the energy to teleport himself away the moment Tony entered the workshop.
After a long second, Victor let the magic go, and stepped away from the other Tony’s body. “What do you want?” he asked coldly.
The workshop still looked a mess; Tony should try and clean it up later. The stasis spell on the other Tony’s body was recast perfectly.
“To talk?” he suggested. He wasn’t proud that Victor got to witness his rather pathetic breakdown earlier, but he only had himself to blame. He should’ve controlled himself better; he was the Sorcerer Supreme, after all.
He still wasn’t sure why the title stayed his; it’s not as if he’d wanted it after Steve—
He firmly stomped down on this train of thought.
“For what it’s worth,” Tony said, “I really am sorry.”
Victor huffed. He winced for a split second, then leant on a workbench next to him. Tony frowned, but walked closer. “He asked me to do it, and it’s exactly what I—”
“I’m very aware of Anthony’s feelings for Rogers,” Victor cut in sharply.
Well. This was . . . Interesting.
“Something happened back in my world,” Tony said. “Something that gives me hope it could be undone.”
Victor’s fingers went white where he was holding on to the edge of the bench. “How?” he asked, very quietly.
“Let me heal you and we can talk,” Tony said.
Victor looked plain lost for a moment, before composing himself. “I do not need your—”
“My Victor’s shit at healing,” Tony interrupted. “I don’t think you’re any better. Healing is, however, why I started learning magic in the first place.” Not something he liked to think about, but he could see Victor was intrigued. “I hurt you earlier, didn’t I?”
And he’d been too far gone to notice at the time—but Victor had tried to subdue his outburst of magic, and he had pushed him away on instinct. That was dangerous. It shouldn’t have happened in the first place. The least he could do now was fix it.
Victor looked a bit like no one had ever given a shit about him before, and he wasn’t sure how to proceed.
“Your Victor?” he asked after a moment.
Tony weighed his words carefully. “He’s a good friend,” he said. “One of the best men I know.”
Victor was pale. “Do not confuse me with him, Stark,” he said.
Tony shook his head. “I’m not.” He hesitated, then went on. “But I daresay my counterpart here trusted you. Considering the ease with which you can come to his workshop . . . And the magic suppressors. Those are your work, right?”
He was still a bit amazed Victor had given anyone the power to stop him.
Victor shrugged in reply, winced again at the movement. “He is a great engineer.”
“And couldn’t have done it on his own. I know, I’m good at both.”
“It is curious,” Victor mused, “a version of Stark who doesn’t hate magic.”
“I’m special like that.” Tony shot him a grin. “So?”
“Healing spell,” Victor said. “I’ll kill you if you try anything else.”
“You’re welcome to try,” Tony told him, and Victor’s face clouded. Tony walked up to him, stopped an arm’s reach away. “Your ribs, right?”
Victor nodded. “I always thought control was the first thing to learn, with magic.”
It was. Tony wasn’t proud of himself. But he was curious. If this Victor was anything like his, he should’ve had the sheer power to stop Tony. So why didn’t he use it? Was he afraid of hurting him? Tony briefly looked to where his counterpart’s body was, covered in the violet aura of Victor’s magic, and then back at him.
“Would be easier if you ditched the suit.”
Tony Stark, the healer. Stephen would laugh.
Another thing Tony was not going to think about.
“No one’s ever called me shy,” Tony quipped.
Victor slowly started opening his tie. Tony might’ve stared a bit. His counterpart had been very right to call Victor pretty.
Concentrate, Stark, he told himself, and slowly started preparing the necessary spells.
Tony waited for Victor to get dressed again, then mentally chastised himself. Infinity Gems, he thought. That was what he had to focus on now. Not any weird feelings he might’ve had about the way Victor’s throat was visible—he only pulled his tie in a loose knot now. He tore his eyes away with some effort.
“So,” Victor said. “That idea of yours?” He was flushed, but Tony knew better than to mention that.
“Infinity Gems,” he answered.
He was very expressive, all things considered; unlike Tony’s Victor—but then, that Victor had the advantage of the mask.
“You do realise those are gone,” he said coldly.
“I’m thinking they were gone,” Tony corrected him. “How did the incursions end?”
Victor went very, very pale, his fists closed at his sides. For a moment, Tony expected him to attack; Victor was almost vibrating with power, but then he exhaled, held still. “They ended,” he said. “The world is saved. Exactly how is not important.”
The Eye of Agamotto couldn’t tell Tony anything about such an obvious deflection. “It could help save him,” he said after a moment, fully aware it was a low blow.
Victor’s eyes flickered to where the other Tony was under his spell. Then, he shook his head. “I really don’t think it could,” he stated, and after a second he added, “Reed was there.”
Of course it had something to do with Reed and Victor. Of course.
“And where is he now?”
Victor shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine.”
Tony noted that down for later. Maybe his Reed could find his counterpart and solve the mystery.
“Is that related to your change of heart?” Tony asked, honestly curious.
“And how is that important?” Victor asked back.
Tony smiled. “To the matter at hand? It’s not. But I’d like to know.”
“Infinity Gems,” Victor enunciated slowly. “What makes you think they still exist?”
“Aw, not a fan of getting-to-know-each-other?” Tony shook his head sadly, then grew serious. “They shattered, in my world. At the same time as the ones here, I think. And then suddenly the incursions were stopped, and the Gems came back.”
“That’s far-fetched,” Victor mused. “Worth trying, though.”
“You are from this universe, you know the energy signature better than me. Can you do a tracking spell?”
“You’re insulting me,” Victor said. “Right here, however, it might be easier to use technological means.” He indicated at the array of the other Tony’s computers.
“Friday won’t talk to me,” Tony muttered.
“I wonder why, since you’re so charming.” Victor arched an eyebrow.
Tony could hack the computers if he had to—he knew his own way of thinking, obviously—but he’d assumed teleporting to Victor’s workshop would be easier. Unless Victor didn’t want to let him in there—but then, he clearly was willing to do much to help his Tony.
“Friday?” Victor asked.
She appeared next to him, her arms crossed in front of herself. “My primary function was to keep Tony alive,” she said, glaring at Tony. Great, even his counterpart’s AI hated him.
He raised his hands as if to placate her, his palms facing together; a combination of a repulsor and the Eye wasn’t a particularly calming view, in his experience. “I’m trying to fix it,” he said. “I need computer access.”
“I can’t do that,” she said.
“I can’t,” she repeated. “Your biometrics match, but that’s not enough.”
Tony sighed. “Victor, we clearly need your lab.”
Victor was tense. “That’s rather impossible.”
He wasn’t lying. Interesting. That left hacking—or . . . “Friday, could you call Steve down here?” he asked.
“Why do you need Rogers?” Victor asked.
Tony smiled a bit sadly. “I always gave him all my passwords.”
“Of course you did.”
Tony wasn’t exactly sure why he said the next words. “Reed and Victor have my overrides now.”
Victor stared at him.
The elevator beeped then, and Tony turned to see Steve walk out. He was pale, unsure of himself; such a wrong look on him.
“Friday said you needed me,” he said.
“I need access to Tony’s computers,” Tony explained.
Steve’s eyes widened. “No,” he said flatly.
Tony started getting annoyed. “I could hack it if I had to,” he said. “But believe me, I don’t need access to my counterparts super secret files to build my own armour.”
“He trusted me with them,” Steve said. “And you didn’t even say what your bright idea was.”
“The Infinity Gems,” Victor said quietly. “His came back, and he thinks ours did too after your little stunt with them, Captain.”
Having the two of them together in one room was not a good idea, Tony thought, as Steve curled his hands into fists.
“I doubt any one of us could’ve done what you did without something happening,” Tony said in a calm voice. “The Gems can’t operate outside of their own universe.”
“Tony could’ve done it,” Steve muttered. “It should’ve been him, he was always—”
“As touching as this is,” Victor cut in, “could we proceed?”
Steve’s face hardened. “I’ll do it,” he said, then pointed at Victor, “without him here.”
Tony sighed. This was going well.
He called one of his bots to him, walked to Victor. “You know as well as I do it’ll be quicker, especially if you don’t have a workshop ready,” he said quietly. “Take him.” He offered the bot to Victor. “He can always find the way to me, if you’re worried I’d block you otherwise.”
“It works both ways,” Victor said, his eyes fixed on Tony’s face.
“It does,” Tony agreed. “So I suppose you’ll have to trust me.” The spell he’d used to be able to track Victor earlier was long gone now, and Tony found that he didn’t want to use one like it again. That he was honest when he said he wouldn’t use his bot this way now.
He held Victor’s gaze, and for all that he spent a lot of time with his Victor, he was always armoured up. This, here, was different. Tony could see his face, but he wasn’t sure how to read him.
Victor nodded curtly, took the robot from Tony. Their fingers brushed—and then Victor was gone.
Tony breathed slowly, then turned to Steve. “I didn’t tell you upstairs because I didn’t want to give you hope,” he said.
Steve averted his eyes. “It’s not as if things can get worse.”
Tony wanted to reassure him and couldn’t. He really hoped he was right and that he wouldn’t upset the balance of things even more than he’d already had.
He was an extremely lousy Sorcerer Supreme, lately.
He reached out on instinct—but obviously he couldn’t interface with this Tony’s computers through his magic.
“Friday?” he asked, and she nodded. The screens flashed to life, and after a few seconds the password prompt appeared. Tony looked at Steve with expectations.
Steve nodded, and spoke out loud. “System override, 24-34-44-54, Steve Rogers.”
PASSWORD ACCEPTED blinked on the screens for a few minutes, and then Tony’s system loaded up.
“Thank you,” Tony said, pulled himself a chair and submerged himself in the data. His other self organised things differently that he did, but it seemed like it was mostly due to his lack of magic. A few files showed up that suggested he did have some kind of neural interface with his tech—Extremis, probably, or something based on it. It was interesting, but it wasn’t what Tony was looking for. With magic, he would’ve needed some kind of pattern to track down the Infinity Gems, but with tech hopefully Tony’s counterpart had the energy signature’s saved. It still wouldn’t be as easy as running a search—if it was, anyone with the resources to scan the planet would be able to find the Gems—but it would be a start.
The planet, Tony thought. He really hoped at least one was in fact on Earth. It’d make things easier. The Gems longed to be together, after all.
“Ah!” he exclaimed, having found a hidden folder with what seemed like most of Tony’s projects. One of the subfolders was called Sol’s Hammer. Tony hoped this wasn’t what it sounded like. He scrolled down, and finally found a document which seemed to contain all of the other’s Tony data on Infinity Gems. He browsed it quickly—it seemed like some of the notes were Reed’s originally—and nodded to himself when he found the energy patterns.
“Friday, can the Stark satellites find these?” he asked. It’d be better than trying to break into Reed’s tech. If that even still existed here, considering no one seemed to know where he was.
“Doing it now,” she replied.
After a moment, a progress bar showed up.
Tony turned back to tell Steve what he was doing, but he wasn’t standing behind him anymore. He frowned, looked around. He spotted Steve next to the other Tony’s body.
Steve had his hand extended, as if he wanted to touch him and was afraid to do it. He had a lost, guilty expression, and Tony’s heart hurt at the sight. He quietly stepped to him.
“I can’t do it without him,” Steve whispered. “He always pulled these nearly suicidal stunts, covered me in fights, as if I was more important than him. The world needs Iron Man. I need Tony.”
Tony closed his eyes against the tears. “He couldn’t live without you.”
“Why do you all assume I could live without him?!”
Tony took half a step back at Steve’s outburst. It wasn’t exactly news to him—this was the only reason he was still alive, after all.
He wished it was otherwise.
He hesitated briefly, then touched Steve’s arm. He pushed away the memories of his own Steve. “We’ll make it right,” he promised.
Steve made a sound between laughter and a sob. “The world was ending, he’d betrayed me in every way—and I got mad that he’d lied to give me hope.”
“You should know the Infinity Gems require some level of belief,” Tony said.
“There’s a trace in Pakistan,” Friday said suddenly. Steve blanched.
“What is it?” Tony asked.
“It’s where they broke,” he said. “Where I broke them.”
Oh. That made sense.
“Well, time to get them back,” he said, mustering up as much optimism as he could. He checked the exact coordinates and then extended his hand to Steve, preparing the teleportation spell.
Steve hesitated, but then he touched Tony’s hand, and Tony closed his eyes tightly, because his Steve was dead and he’d never get to hold his hand again.
They were in the mountains, and it was way too cold for Tony’s liking. He summoned a small warming spell, made sure to wrap it around Steve gently.
Steve shivered. “Is that you?”
Tony had forgotten this Steve wasn’t as used to magic. “Yes. Is it okay?”
Steve nodded. “Yeah, I—thank you.”
Tony looked around. There was a forest behind them, and snowed mountain tops all around them. There wasn’t any convenient sign saying here for Infinity Gems.
“Is this the place?” Tony asked.
“Let me . . .” He concentrated, extended his hands, and looked for any energy that didn’t belong there.
There was . . . Something . . . Tony pulled.
Behind him, Steve gasped in surprise.
Tony spun around, and there, in the air over Steve’s hand, was an orange Gem. Time, then.
In this moment, it was the most beautiful thing Tony had ever seen.
It slowly fell down into Steve’s open palm, and he closed his fist, the Gem’s light still visible through his fingers.
“Well,” Tony drawled. “This does make things easier.”
“We know of at least one time and place where the Gems were gathered. The place is here, and the time doesn’t matter anymore.”
Steve frowned. “You can’t change the past.”
“I won’t. I’ll give them back.” Tony tried to sound convincing. It was clear Steve wasn’t comfortable with the Infinity Gems, after what happened the last time he’d held one. “It’ll work.”
“Do you want to do it now?”
Tony considered it briefly, then shook his head. “No. We’ll go back to the Tower, have some coffee, and you’ll tell me exactly how things went down here. From what I understand, Stephen Strange was with you; I should prepare a cloaking spell that will hide us from him.”
That might be more difficult than gathering the Gems itself, but Steve didn’t need to know that.
“Okay.” Steve bit his lower lip. “A part of me wants to do it now, but you’re right. That’s not a good idea.”
“Shall we go back, then?”
“Take the Gem,” Steve muttered, offering it to Tony.
Tony hesitated for a brief moment.
The part that he hadn’t told Steve yet was this: it was Steve who’d have to use the Gauntlet.
But right now, Tony could take the Time Gem from him. It wasn’t even his universe—but even here, he wouldn’t accept the Reality Gem; the mere thought made him wonder how to force it to work for him, strong dark magic maybe—he stopped himself. He wouldn’t go there. Time, though, Time should be safe enough.
He closed his hands around the Gem—it grew cold, as if recognizing Tony didn’t belong in its universe—and put it in his pocket, waving a quick protection spell around it.
Then, he grabbed Steve’s hand again.
Someone was in the lab when Tony’s spell brought them back there.
He instinctively pulled up a barrier, and then recognized the man and relaxed.
“Rhodey,” Steve said, clearly surprised.
Rhodey didn’t even stir at their sudden appearance. He was sitting next to the other Tony’s body. “I had to see him,” he said quietly. His face was ashen.
Tony kept quiet. It wasn’t his Rhodey. Steve could decide whether to tell him about the Gems, to give him hope, or if playing it safer was better.
Rhodey turned to look at them, and then he froze. “It’s you,” he said.
“Yeah,” Tony said, “I’ll just go somewhere else, shall I.”
Rhodey just nodded. Steve looked between them, and seemed to come to a decision. “I’ll be upstairs if you need me,” he said.
“Thanks,” Rhodey whispered, looking back at the other Tony’s still body.
Tony never wanted to see him that broken.
“Okay,” he said quietly, touched Steve’s arm, and teleported them to the kitchen.
“Whoa,” Steve said, surprised.
“He is my best friend too,” Tony said in lieu of explanation, and he saw that Steve understood.
“Coffee, you said?” Steve busied himself with the coffee machine. He didn’t ask if Tony took it with milk, correctly assuming some things were universal.
Tony didn’t let himself think of how it felt to see Steve moving around the kitchen, preparing him coffee.
Steve started talking with his back still to Tony. “I told you who had the Gems. T’Challa and Black Bolt were with us, too.”
Not Shuri, Tony thought. Interesting.
“Lockjaw transported us. Do you know them all?”
“More or less,” Tony confirmed.
Steve poured the coffee into two mugs, gave Tony an orange one with a black kitten on the side. “Cute,” Tony said.
Steve’s face clouded. He probably gave him the other Tony’s mug.
“Okay,” he said. “We assembled the Gauntlet there.”
Tony nodded. That made sense; that much power always alerted someone. Usually Thanos.
“I asked who would wield it. I thought Tony, he’d done it before, or maybe Reed, but Tony said it was my plan—that it required belief.” He huffed a laugh. “So I put it on.”
“It’s alright, Steve,” Tony said. He wanted to reach out and touch him, but he knew he shouldn’t do that, not now. Hopefully, Steve would get his own Tony soon enough, Tony could go home and they could work out their issues. A happy ending, for once—if not for him, personally.
He could live with that, he thought.
The coffee was still hot, but he swallowed his mug down in one go. He’d need the energy.
Steve refilled it without a word, then looked down at his hands.
“It was raw power,” he said. “I’d never felt anything like that before.”
“It’s intoxicating,” Tony whispered, and Steve looked at him sharply. He shrugged helplessly. “I don’t drink, Steve. But it’s just as dangerous. More so.”
“Sorry,” Tony said. “Do continue.”
Steve frowned. “Tony grounded me,” he said. “Told me what to do. And I did—I pushed the other Earth away.” He was talking quieter now. “Tony said something was wrong. Vibration, feedback, I don’t know. And then the Gems shattered.”
It dawned on Tony a second later, and he had the urge to laugh, or maybe cry. “Fucking time travel,” he said into his mug.
Steve looked at him questioningly.
“I’d wager it’s a time loop,” Tony said. “We’ll go back; we’ll get the Gems, and give them back so that none of you notice any change. But they will be changed. They will have crossed timelines. We’ll use them with our Time Gem—and then you, in the past, will assemble it with the unchanged Time Gem.”
Steve was very pale. “Are you saying . . .”
“I broke your Gems,” Tony confirmed in a heavy voice, suddenly exhausted.
And then his counterpart wiped Steve’s mind, and then everything about their world broke, and then—
Steve slid down to sit on the cold tiles, his head in his hands. “What if . . .” He didn’t finish the question, but he didn’t have to.
“Do you really want to risk that?” Tony asked heavily. Maybe the Gems wouldn’t have shattered. Maybe Earth-616 would’ve gotten through all the subsequent incursions with the Infinity Gauntlet’s power.
Or maybe the timelines would unravel, leaving nothing alive.
“I—” Steve stopped again. “I thought I’d give a lot to get another chance.”
He’d warned Tony against changing the past himself barely five minutes ago.
“That’s not it.” Tony was deadly serious. “The incursions ended, Steve. I’ve no idea how, but everything tells me they are over. We’re alive. Countless other worlds—worlds which had been destroyed—are alive again. This is a good outcome.” He pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes. “You suffered. I know. But you can’t risk the whole multiverse to fix that, Steve.”
He’d take the Gem, he’d ask Victor, anyone else, to use it, if he had to. But he wouldn’t let Steve change history like that. He couldn’t.
“What if you’re wrong?” Steve whispered into his hands.
“I rarely am.”
He didn’t like it. He wanted to comfort Steve. He wanted Steve to comfort him, really. But that wasn’t an option.
He stood up. “I will go prepare now,” he said. “We’ll do it tomorrow.”
“I’d do anything to bring him back,” Steve said. “Anything. But if all of this never happened—”
“But it did,” Tony said sharply. “And believe me, if changing the past were so easy, I’d have done it myself.”
Steve looked at him, his eyes wide. “You—”
“We have to do it,” Tony said.
“You really are certain,” Steve muttered.
“I’m sorry.” Tony briefly closed his hand around the Gem in his pocket.
“I trusted Tony Stark for most of my life,” Steve said. “What’s one more time?”
It’d be more reassuring if his eyes weren’t red, if his voice wasn’t shaking quite so much.
“You’ll get him back,” Tony repeated.
Steve nodded, still staring into space with an empty gaze.
Tony hated himself for it, but he couldn’t stay. He left Steve there.
Back in the room he’d taken for himself, Tony sat down with a weary sigh. The Time Gem was heavy in his pocket.
He knew he was right. He had to do it. In a way, he also knew it had worked—in so far as getting the Gems to this time and back again; that didn’t mean they managed to bring his counterpart back from the dead.
Or that they did it without bringing Thanos to Earth.
In all probability, Tony wouldn’t be here to witness that anyway, but that didn’t mean he didn’t care.
First things first, though. He needed a cloaking spell, and a good one at that.
He’d already met someone who had experience with the Stephen Strange of this world—and he’d promised to keep him informed anyway, hadn’t he? It only made sense to alert him. He could just track his bot and teleport to where it was, but that would be breaking the trust he’d ask for, so instead he sent a wisp of magical energy to it. Victor would notice and, hopefully, come.
Tony pulled off his left gauntlet. He doubted he needed to be armed for that, and even without his magic, he always had Steve’s training to fall back on.
The ley lines around him shivered, and then Victor was standing in the centre of the room, the bot in his hand. Somewhere along the way, he’d taken his tie off altogether, and the top buttons of his shirt where undone. He looked around briefly, but there really wasn’t much to look at; a bed, two arm-chairs, two doors.
“I half-expected you to find me instead,” Victor said.
Tony raised his eyebrows. “I gave it to you so you could do it,” he said. Victor hesitated, then extended his hand to Tony, clearly expecting him to take the bot back. “Nah,” Tony said. “Keep it. Might be useful.”
A brief look of surprise crossed Victor’s face, and then he nodded. He didn’t sit in the other armchair, instead opted to stand over Tony. “So, what happened? You look tired.” Was it concern in his voice?
Tony reached into his pocket and pulled the Time Gem out. “We found this,” he said.
“Ah.” Understanding dawned on Victor’s face. “You want to pull the other Gems out of the timestream. Wouldn’t Reality be enough?”
“Theoretically,” Tony agreed. “But the other Gems will stabilise it, and I’d rather play it safe.”
“Safe,” Victor huffed. “Nothing about this is safe.”
“Might be worse than you’re thinking,” Tony confirmed. He hid the Time Gem, and then told Victor what he suspected was the reason for the Gems shattering.
Victor was very solemn at the end of it. “And you still want to do it,” he made sure.
“I don’t have any choice,” Tony said. It’d already happened. He only had to close the loop.
“And it will bring him back,” Victor said quietly. “I’m sure things would have been . . . Easier, had we had the option to use the Gauntlet, before. I am not sure the past me would care about it very much.”
Tony widened his eyes in surprise. That was the most Victor had said about the incursions so far, and it really looked like whatever happened at the end with him and Reed changed him, somehow.
“Me, as I am right now, however,” Victor continued, “I wouldn’t want to change it, either.”
Tony didn’t expect it, but he felt a great deal of relief at the confession. “I’m glad.” His voice was dry. “I—I think I need your help.”
Victor put his hands in his trousers pockets. “Sorcerer Supreme, really.” Somehow it didn’t sound mocking.
“We’re in your world,” Tony reminded him gently. “If I am to use the Time Gem to go back in time, I have to make sure Stephen Strange won’t see me.”
“Ah,” Victor said. “What about your experience with your own Strange? Is he a villain, if I’m supposed to be the hero there?”
“He’s dead,” Tony said shortly, and Victor faltered for a brief moment.
“I’m sorry,” he said. Maybe he’d gotten better at reading Tony, in this world.
“One thing I wonder about,” Tony mused, “is why he hasn’t shown up here yet. I wouldn’t be happy if a different Sorcerer Supreme showed up in my dimension and messed with the magic like that.”
“Surprisingly self-aware of you,” Victor said, but it wasn’t heated. “Something’s been happening with the magic energy here. I’m not sure what. I’d imagine Strange is investigating.”
Tony made a mental note to carefully check back home if nothing has changed. “Okay.” Back to the immediate issues. “You know him,” Tony said. “Will you help me?”
Victor just looked at him for a long while. “You want us to merge our powers, if only for a moment.”
Tony looked away. “Yes. I do.”
“That is very—”
“I know,” Tony interrupted him.
Victor raised his mouth’s corner in a smile. “Let’s do it.” His voice was like honey.
Tony realised he hadn’t really expected him to agree. Magic was a personal thing, in a way. It wouldn’t be quite like a telepathic mind-meld, but it would be close.
Victor sat down on the floor, a small smile still playing on his lips; Tony got up and then sat next to him. “I need a short spell, strong enough to cover two people,” he said.
Victor nodded. He tilted his head, as if in thought, then shrugged off his suit jacket, folded it next to him.
Tony could really appreciate how nice he looked just in his shirtsleeves and a waistcoat.
Which wasn’t why he was here.
He took a deep breath. Time to learn Stephen Strange’s magic signature, he thought, and extended his hand.
Victor’s fingers on his were very warm.
Tony closed his eyes, and let their magic work.
“Ohhh, got it,” Tony muttered, his eyes closed, and the energy between them slowly dispelled. The spell itself would need some more work, but Tony knew the details of Stephen’s aura now and it should be easy to customize the cloak.
He still felt an aftertouch of Victor’s magic on his, a vast well of dark energy so different to Tony’s, and simply fascinating; really, under other circumstances Tony would love to explore it. He slowly opened his eyes.
Victor was very close, his pupils wide.
A part of Tony thought Victor wanted a different man to be there, but it didn’t really matter as he started to lean in. Tony met him halfway. Victor’s lips were warm and soft, and Tony let himself fall into him.
He woke up alone, which wasn’t really surprising.
The piece of paper next to him, covered in Victor’s elegant handwriting, was.
He rubbed his eyes before reaching for it, and then smiled. Everything he needed to craft a cloaking spell was there, the perfect algorithm. And beneath it, a more personal note—”I’m keeping the bot”.
Good, Tony thought, and studied the spell. He didn’t really need the help, but it was nice.
Steve wasn’t in the kitchen when Tony finally left his room, confident that he was well-prepared to acquire the Gems.
Tony bit his lip. It wasn’t as if he really expected to meet him there. He’d just hoped they could meet up without going back to the lab. Friday was obviously still upset with him, and seeing his counterpart’s body there was unsettling.
He grabbed himself a mug of coffee and went to the elevator.
He really hoped this would work. He didn’t want to face Steve if it didn’t.
Calm down, he told himself. He was a very good sorcerer and still a better engineer. It would work. He even had Victor’s help to build on, and Tony knew he was a genius too.
It’d be fine. He’d fix what he’d broken, for once. He’d get to see Steve smile—not at him, but smile nonetheless.
The elevator stopped and Tony walked out into the workshop. As he suspected, Steve was there, close to the other Tony. He wasn’t touching him—Tony wasn’t actually sure if Victor’s spell would allow for that—but he looked like he wanted to.
“Morning,” Tony said, forcing himself to sound energetic.
Steve turned to face him. Only now did Tony notice that he held the half-finished shield in his hands. “Are you ready?” he asked, his doubts from the previous evening seemingly gone.
“When you are,” Tony confirmed.
Steve nodded. “Let’s do it, then.”
He briefly looked at his Tony again, and then walked to Tony.
“I’m going to teleport us to Pakistan again,” Tony explained. “There, you have to use the Gem and bring us back to the point in time right before you used the Gauntlet.”
Steve swallowed audibly. “Me?”
Tony touched his arm briefly, hoping it’d offer some comfort. “We’ve already learnt the Gems broke because of me. You can operate them, Steve. Don’t worry. Believe in yourself.” He stopped. “I do.”
“Okay.” Steve didn’t seem convinced.
Tony looked at his counterpart. “He did,” he said, and in the corner of his eye, Steve straightened.
“Okay,” he repeated, stronger.
Tony smiled at him, and then grabbed his hand. Steve didn’t even tense this time.
Tony concentrated, and the world moved around them.
They were in the mountains again. Tony didn’t warm them up this time; he’d need all of his concentration to hide them from Stephen. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the Time Gem, offered it to Steve.
“Don’t use it yet,” he said. “You can start to focus on the moment we have to go back to, though. That’d be just before you used it; it can’t be even half a second later.”
“I know,” Steve said, his face determined.
Tony raised his hands and began the cloaking spell. First, he put a layer of simple invisibility on them. Then, a thin layer of pure magic, sure to confuse his counterpart’s armour’s readings. On that he added the final layer: the concealment that should make them undetectable to Stephen’s magic.
“Now,” he said, and Steve closed his fist around the Gem.
The world changed.
It was the night, suddenly—day again—cold, way colder—hot sun—
They weren’t alone anymore. Tony saw the Illuminati in front of him, and in the middle of them, Steve, the Gauntlet in the air in front of him. The other Tony stood close to him, reassuring.
Hank turned around, sniffing, and Tony pulled the cloaking spell tighter around them even as he started another spell, reaching out with his magic to grab the Gems.
There was a moment of resistance—Tony touched Steve’s arm, pulled on the Time Gem’s power through him, and the Gems, always longing to be reunited, flew to him.
“Take us back,” he ordered, barely a whisper, and Steve nodded, but his eyes were focused on Iron Man.
“Steve,” Tony urged him. “You’ll lose him forever if—”
The time jumped forward.
They were alone again.
Tony let himself breathe. The five Gems were in his hands.
“Take them,” he hissed, pushing them at Steve; he couldn’t hold that much power, not ever again. Not when he had new temptations to fight.
If Steve was surprised, he didn’t show it.
Tony unravelled the cloaking spell, and in one extension of power brought them back to the lab.
There, he leant on the table, breathing heavily.
“Listen to me,” he said, even though Steve was staring at the other Tony’s body.
Steve looked away with some effort. “Yes?”
“I’m going to call Victor now,” Tony said. Steve’s face fell. “It’s important, okay. You have to use the Gauntlet. You have to bring him back. But then, I have to take the Gems back to where we took them from, and I need someone from this universe to use the Time Gem to do this.”
“I’m assuming you’ll be busy with something else in a moment,” Tony said as gently as he could.
Steve looked back to his Tony. “Alright.” He waited a beat. “Thank you.”
“It’s all my fault, have you forgotten?” Tony asked quietly as he alerted Victor’s bot again. “He should be here soon,” Tony told Steve. “And—I’m really sorry. Again.”
“So am I,” Steve muttered. “We wouldn’t even be here if—”
“No,” Tony said. “You have a chance to start over, now. Not many people get that. Use it for something better than regrets.”
Steve smiled slowly. Tony looked away.
Then, Victor was there. He was fully dressed again, not that Tony couldn’t appreciate using a business suit as an armour.
His eyes fell to the Gems in Steve’s hand. “Are you . . .”
“About to use it,” Tony confirmed. “Victor, I need you to listen.”
Victor slowly looked at Tony.
“You know I have to give them back,” Tony said.
Victor looked between Steve and Tony and nodded. “And you don’t want to do it on your own, since you do not belong here,” he said.
Victor sighed. “I’ll do it,” he said, his eyes fixed on the other Tony now. He raised his hand, and the violet light disappeared. “The spell is gone. Do it, Captain.”
Steve moved as if to ask Tony, and he said, “Go on, Steve. I know you can do it.”
Steve nodded, his mouth set in a firm line. In front of him, the Gems raised in the air, and connected, the Gauntlet appearing around them.
Steve reached with his hand, and put it on.
His eyes were wide, the power reflecting in them.
“Focus, Steve,” Tony called. “You want to bring Tony back!”
Steve’s expression was grim, he closed his fist as rays of light went in the other Tony’s direction.
Then the other Tony sat up, gasping.
Steve had enough presence of mind to force the Gauntlet to disassemble—and then he was putting the Gems in Tony’s hands, and he crossed the few metres to Tony, pulled him in a tight hug.
The other Tony looked confused, a small “what?” escaping his lips.
Tony shoved the Space and Time Gems at Victor. He didn’t feel great holding the Reality one himself, but it’d only be a short while. “Pakistan,” he said, followed by the exact time and location. He called the cloaking spell back up, glad he hadn’t dispelled it completely earlier.
Victor looked away from the other Tony, slowly, accepted the Gems. “Thank you,” he said quietly, touched Tony’s arm, and moved them through dimensions, the Gems in his hand glowing with power.
They were in the mountains, snow falling down, the Illuminati standing in a circle.
It was as if nothing had changed. No one had noticed the Gems had disappeared for the shortest moment yet.
Tony plucked the Space Gem from Victor’s fingers, and sent all of them but the Time one back.
This time, Hank didn’t move. Stephen didn’t even stir. The other Tony was so focused on Steve, he probably wouldn’t even notice if the Hulk attacked them.
“Done,” Tony whispered, and Victor nodded, activated the Time Gem again, bringing them back to the right time.
Tony hadn’t expected it, but Victor gave him the Time Gem as soon as the world around them stabilised.
Tony hid the Time Gem again. “I can take us back now,” he offered, even though Victor was more than able to teleport himself anyway.
“He’s happy, with Rogers.” Victor paused. “Or I hope he will be.”
“I do not need your pity,” Victor snapped.
Tony shook his head slowly. “It’s not.” He hesitated. “But it’s an invitation.”
Victor raised his eyebrows.
“Earth-9810,” Tony said. “And this bot I gave you? It’ll take you there, too. If you’re anything like my Victor, you must have an interdimensional gate ready—or at least the knowledge to create it.”
Victor’s eyes widened as he clearly understood what exactly Tony was suggesting. He nodded sharply—and then he was gone.
Tony sighed and went back to the lab.
Clearly they talked things out, Tony thought, as the world came back into focus.
Steve was leaning over the other Tony, who was still half-lying on the workbench, their lips pressed together. Tony’s counterpart’s hand was in Steve’s hair, pulling him closer, and Steve was holding him tightly, as if he never wanted to let him go.
It was exactly what Tony himself had lost, but it didn’t hurt as much as he’d feared it would. Mostly, he was just happy for them. Glad that maybe things would be better now, that he hadn’t destroyed everything.
He coughed, and they slowly came apart. The other Tony was very pale, but he was smiling, and Steve only had eyes for him.
“I’m still not actually sure what happened,” the other Tony said, “but everyone seems to be alive and well, so I’m guessing a happy ending? Now that’s miraculous.”
Tony laughed weakly. “You have no idea,” he said.
“I’m hoping you’ll tell me,” the other Tony said. He sat up, his legs dangling off the workbench.
Steve immediately moved closer to him, wrapped his arms around Tony’s waist. “Later,” he said.
Tony looked down at him with a wide grin. “Later,” he agreed, and then they were kissing again, and Tony knew it was always different in a heady sort of way to kiss Steve when he was standing taller than him, and—
He should stop staring at them, probably, he thought, as he glanced at his counterpart’s hands crawling under Steve’s t-shirt, and Steve made a low noise in his throat.
Not that he didn’t enjoy the view—but it’d never be his anymore.
Still. They were happy. They deserved it.
Tony was smiling as he waved another teleportation spell.
Tony’s counterpart looked relaxed, almost carefree, when Tony came down to the lab.
“So you saved him, killed me, and then saved me,” his other self summed up. He grinned. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome,” Tony answered. “Let’s not do it again.”
“Yeah, let’s not,” the other Tony agreed. “Crazy as it sounds, though, it made us talk.”
Tony sighed, sat down. “You’d have gotten there on your own anyway,” he said. “The way you love each other—you wouldn’t be able to stay away.”
His counterpart was serious. “Might be better for him if—”
“No,” Tony interrupted him. “I know what you’re thinking, but it’s not your decision. And I got to see him when you were gone.”
“I know,” the other Tony muttered. “And I’m selfish enough I want him to stay with me.”
“I’m happy for you,” Tony said. “And in the future—try and talk things out first. It always worked for us.”
His counterpart nodded. “I will,” he promised. “I’m sorry I couldn’t help you with incursions.”
Tony waved his hand dismissively. “It’s fine. Victor gave me something worth checking out.”
His other self tilted his head questioningly, and Tony explained about Reed. “I should go home,” he said then.
“Do you need help with that? I’m not exactly new to building portals,” the other Tony offered.
Tony considered, then nodded. “I could use magic, but if it’s not too much work, yeah, a normal portal would be better.”
His other self grinned with delight. “So you admit tech is better!”
“I admit that we should use the proper tools for the job, Tony,” Tony said.
“Uh-uh,” his counterpart said. “Friday, put it on record, Sorcerer Supreme prefers scientific solutions. Strange won’t—” he stopped himself. “Ah. Sorry.”
“It’s fine,” Tony said. “I’m glad he’s all right here.”
“Okay,” his other self said. “Okay. Earth-9810, you said. Let’s start.”
He started moving around the lab, clearly looking for the tools they’d need. Tony decided to wait for him. They might’ve been one person, in a way, but he didn’t like it when someone else touched his workshop. And he’d messed with this one enough for one visit.
He felt Victor’s aura before he felt his body heat, just next to himself. He looked to his left and smiled to see him sitting there. “Missed me?”
“I will not go with you,” Victor said.
“I might, however, visit,” Victor continued.
“That’s all I’m asking for,” Tony said. “I’m glad.”
“I wasn’t sure when you’d be leaving,” Victor said, clearly to explain why he showed up now.
“Soon,” Tony replied. “We’ll build a portal. I don’t want to use that kind of magic outside of my home universe.”
The other Tony returned then, stopped mid-step when he noticed them both. Tony wondered if he should move away—but no, it was Victor’s to decide.
He didn’t move.
“Hi,” Tony’s counterpart said.
“Hello, Anthony,” Victor replied. “Nice to see you well.”
“I know you helped,” the other Tony said. “Thank you.”
Victor nodded. “We’ll talk later, I think,” he said. He pressed a chaste kiss to Tony’s lips before disappearing from the lab.
Tony’s other self was staring at him. “When did this happen?” he asked, flabbergasted.
“I don’t kiss and tell,” Tony said, laughing. “Let’s do science!”
His other self muttered something about crazy sorcerers around the multiverse.
The other Tony and Steve were standing close to each other, their shoulders touching. They weren’t holding hands, but Tony could see it was a close thing.
Steve smiled at him. “You were right. It’s a second chance. We’ll do better now.”
“I hope so,” Tony said seriously. They looked so happy, he could believe it—even as a part of him knew that it was still the rush of simply being alive, than in time the issues would arise and they’d have to actually talk and solve them.
He was sure they could do it, though. That they wouldn’t repeat their past mistakes; they’d grow stronger together.
Steve pulled Tony closer to him, and he went willingly, smiled.
“If you ever need help,” Tony’s other self said, “you know how to get us.”
“Thank you,” Tony said, moved. He’d expected something along the lines of don’t ever come back.
“And if you do find our Reed, tell him to come home,” the other Tony added.
“Well, the portal is ready, if you didn’t suddenly decide to use magic instead,” the other Tony said, the distaste evident in his tone.
Tony shook his head. “Nope, don’t worry. I won’t summon tentacle monsters into your workshop.”
Steve let his Tony go for a second, stepped to Tony and pulled him into a loose hug.
Tony’s breath hitched. He hugged Steve back, closed his eyes, breathed him in.
“I’m sorry for what I said,” Steve whispered into his ear.
“I deserved it,” Tony answered. Steve shook his head.
“Take care of me,” Tony said quietly.
Steve smiled. “That won’t be a problem,” he said.
“He’ll probably still hide things, you know. And you won’t teach him not to cover you in a fight. But—”
“I know, Tony,” Steve said. “I love him too.”
“Good,” Tony said. “Good.”
Steve stepped away. Right. Time to go back to his world—alone. But Victor promised to visit. So that too would be better.
“The portal’s ready,” Tony’s other self called.
“Thanks. And good luck,” Tony said to him.
His counterpart nodded. “And to you too,” he said. Steve stood behind him, one hand on his hip, and the other Tony seemingly without realising it was leaning into him again.
They’d be fine, Tony decided. And maybe so would he.
He stepped through the portal, back home.