“In short, Franklin conceptualizes the universes, and Owen and I turn those into reality,” Reed concluded.
Steve could feel Tony practically buzzing with excitement besides him. “Reed, can you even hear yourself speaking?” Tony asked as he began to pace. Even with the armor on, there was a skip in his step. “My god, you're talking about recreating the entire multiverse!”
“Well, yes. Val was rather excited, too.”
“As well she should be!” Tony exclaimed, not fazed at the comparison with a three year old. “You know, it really should scare me that a handful of people have that much power – Molecule Man, really? – but I can actually say I'm friends with and have babysat the architects of the universe?”
Tony grinned over at Steve, giddy. Steve offered a small smile in return.
“That's really great, Reed,” Steve said. "I'm glad you found a solution to this.” It had taken a lot, too much, to reach this point, but Steve could say that much honestly. “But what about the rest of us? I can't imagine we'll be of much help here.”
“Well, that's just it. Franklin, no matter how much imagination – universes worth – is contained in him, still has an innate prototype of how the world works. I call it the Prime Earth. It would be practically identical to our own Earth, being the one he grew up with. I thought that it would be best for the people from Earth-616 to go there.”
Tony laughed and clapped Steve on the back. “You hear that, Steve? We're going home!”
“You can't do that anymore,” Steve laughed as he rubbed his shoulder. “I'm actually an old man now, you know.” No matter how much his muscles did protest from that outburst, Steve could feel the excitement drumming up. He grinned so hard his cheeks ached. They were going back.
“How are we going to keep in contact with you here, Reed?” Tony was asking. “I assume you can't go back.”
Steve looked up, and Tony fell silent as Reed frowned at his fingers, twisted around each other. “We've considered that option, and concluded that it'd be best for Prime Earth to be unaware of Battleworld.”
“Ah,” Tony said, finally frowning as he and Steve thought over the implications.
“For your sake, and ours, we believe it to be the safest.”
“Will we remember this?” Steve asked too sharply, because he needed to know. “Is that what you mean by 'unaware'?”
“Battleworld and anything related to incursions specifically, most likely not,” Reed said. “However, events that occurred while the incursions were happening that weren't directly related shouldn't be affected. You losing the serum, or Sam Wilson becoming Captain America, for example.”
“Oh,” Steve said. “I see.”
“Will that be a problem?” Reed asked, looking between the two of them, looking faintly worried.
“No,” said Tony after a pause. Steve held his tongue.
When Steve was alone, he collapsed onto a bench. The buzzing in the back of his head was almost distracting enough to make him feel not present.
Steve curled over, his forehead resting on his hands, and willed them not to tremble.
Once, he had wished that he'd never found out. God, had he wished it. Nine months after discovering the betrayal, and in-between the willful blindness and single-minded obsession, what he could admit to now as an explosive combination of grief and rage had driven him.
He hadn't wanted any of this. He wasn't even thinking about the universe ending, which only made him feel numb. It was the memories that tore into him, all the moments he'd taken comfort and happiness in a year ago twisting into his worst nightmares.
All of them. Gone. Slate wiped clean. 'Unaware.' It really was that simple.
Isn't this what he wished for? He had wanted it back, the brightness and hope and accomplishment. The entire future in their grasp, without any invisible clock ticking down in the background. Tony's smile would never mean the same now as it was back in those days.
But Tony could still smile. So could Steve, even after everything that had happened. That should have been impossible, but they'd done it anyway. Didn't that mean something?
It wouldn't, anymore, and the thought opened cracks in him.
God, Steve couldn't answer if it was worth it. If all the pain was worth having Tony back now. He thought he might know the answer, but then Tony would do something like stroke his thumb over the back of Steve's hand, or smile without faking it, and Steve was lost all over again.
Steve slowly lowered his hands away from his face. Someone sat next to him, warm and comfortable. Tony was out of the armor now, and Steve brought his eyes up to Tony.
“Franklin is preparing the Prime Earth now,” he said. “When Reed and Molecule Man do their thing, we're going with it. We can just stay here until it happens, if you like.” Tony's brows were creased, and he searched Steve carefully.
“It's nothing.” Will be, at least.
Tony snorted. “I never mean that when I say it, so I'm going to have to call you out on it now.”
Steve stared ahead. “You're going to push this?”
“It must be your influence rubbing off on me.” There was a grin in Tony's voice, but Steve didn't feel like responding to it.
“It doesn't bother you?” Steve asked him.
“That we'll get out of this hellhole?” Tony had known what Steve had meant the moment he asked, so his nonchalance didn't mean much.
“I can't say it does,” Tony finally said. He wouldn't meet Steve's eyes.
“Not that. That we'll forget what happened here.”
Tony shifted, turning over his hand on his lap. “It's necessary,” he said quietly. “There's...no point in thinking too hard on the things you have to do.”
Is that why Tony could do things to Steve so easily? Like it didn't even matter, like Steve didn't matter – Steve pressed his fingers to his temples, squeezing them. He had seen with his own eyes how much Tony cared, even if Tony hadn't wanted him to. He didn't want to be angry anymore, even if he couldn't help it. But he was so weary of it.
“It doesn't have to be a bad thing. It's not, actually.” Tony smiled. “We can start over.” Tony said that like the prospect was full of hope, like Steve's entire life hadn't just been a series of beginnings over and over without any ending.
“I'm tired of starting over,” Steve confessed. “I want to move on.”
“At least we know we can,” Tony told him. “Hey, don't make me be the positive one here, Steve. I can't keep it up for too long unless you're on my side.”
Tony's hand found Steve's, pressure light and hesitant. Steve turned his hand over and squeezed back. He closed his eyes, focusing on the dry, warm contact.
“I don't want to forget.” He hadn't wanted to remember, but now he knew that he didn't want to forget more, ten times more, the idea of this being taken from him almost too much to bear.
Tony's hand gripped Steve's tighter. Steve turned to him, and lifted his other hand to rest against Tony's face. Tony's eyelids drooped as Steve intertwined their fingers.
“I love you,” Steve said. “Don't let me forget.”
“Hah.” Tony's smile trembled. “I can't do everything for you, Rogers, no matter how hard I try.”
There was a weak, piteous sound, and by the time Steve realized it had come from him, his lips were already pressed to Tony's.
Tony gasped against his mouth before curling his fingers around Steve's head, pulling him in. Steve went.
He couldn't want to say it aloud, that he wanted this, a mess of a not-even-world and a heart barely begun piecing back together, than anything whole a new universe could offer him.
Steve's eyes were squeezed shut, but he felt Tony's fingers stroke over his wrinkles, the soft murmurs that punctuated each half-second parting for breath. He couldn't tell if it was Tony was warm, or if the heat was coming from himself, overwhelming but too far gone to hold back anymore. That was how they'd always worked out, anyway.
It was like some cruel joke, that he could only have this after his entire world shattered, and only for a fleeting moment. It couldn't be enough, bare moments where Steve could give himself in. He'd loved Tony for a long, long time, dormant or taken for granted, he couldn't tell which, and it had only been when they were ripped apart did it matter to him. But now, nothing else did more.
Remember this, he told himself, fiercely, agonizingly.
When they finally shifted apart, the look in Tony's eyes was distant.
“I knew I would lose you,” Tony began.
Steve tried to ignore the cursory dread that fell over him.
“And, well, it happened. Almost exactly the way that I would have expected it, except the last part.” Tony gestured between them. “So, this part doesn't feel real. I don't think I imagined you could ever forgive me, and even in my wildest dreams did I think that you would feel like...you do.”
“Don't tell me this is fine because you don't think you deserve me. It's not about that.” What about how Steve felt?
“Oh, but saying it like that makes things so much easier.” Tony laughed hollowly. He turned away, staring straight ahead, and Steve studied his profile.
“We're not going to be different people, you know,” Tony said.
Steve couldn't agree with that. He had lost his body and almost lost his mind, and he was still reconciling how the man he would have trusted at his back for half of his life could be the same person who would lie to him.
There was a rumbling in the distance, and Steve turned to look at where Tony was concentrating. The fields before them were beginning to be lit with real sunlight. He knew that couldn't be what Tony saw, though. He never could envision the future like Tony would, couldn't make people believe in tomorrow like Tony could.
Tony squeezed his hand. “You'll be idealistic, stubborn, hard-headed, and ready to die for what he believes in. There's no person I'd trust more in the world.”
The sunlight was slowly enveloping the fields in white, with nothing past them. What did Tony see, there?
Steve's throat was suddenly tight, and he blinked rapidly. “And you'll be a hero.”
Tony's hand was shaking. Steve couldn't bear to turn his head and look. “We'll still be us,” Tony added, “which I imagine means I'd rather be with you than not.”
“We are better together than apart,” Steve agreed. As the world faded out before his eyes, he couldn't imagine that no matter where and how they ended up, he could forget that.
“Mr. Stark is in his workshop, Commander Rogers,” F.R.I.D.A.Y. politely informed him. He couldn't get used to her, for some reason.
“Thank you,” Steve replied automatically. He headed to the workshop on auto-pilot, the path as familiar as the back of his hand. More familiar than that, really, now that the back of his hand was lined with bulging varicose veins.
He played the words and images and feelings again as he took the stairs. He'd done it constantly over the past few days, keeping the dream alive. He'd briefly considered writing it down somewhere tangible, but the idea of those thoughts being penned or even drawn were too much to handle.
Steve came to a stop. Here he was. He'd never been so nervous as the prospect of speaking to Tony. He'd never been so nervous at the prospect of speaking to anyone.
But he'd made a promise to himself, and he fully intended to fulfill it. Even if Tony didn't remember. Even if Steve didn't have all the details, most of them vanished like water through his fingers. Steve had been desperately clinging onto the last precious pieces when he'd finally tracked down Johnny Storm for some answers.
The door opened without needing to use a passcode, and Steve stared blankly at the entrance.
“Come in,” Tony called. F.R.I.D.A.Y. must have given him some warning before opening the door for him.
Well, here went nothing. Steve stepped through. When he found Tony, the man was sitting on a chair, one knee pulled to his chest, the edge of the desk pressed against his leg as he tinkered with the parts laid out on the table.
“What is it, Steve?” Tony barely spared him a glance. “If you need to pass on a message to Sam, I'll let him know. Although you could just tell him yourself. Fighting with your friends really isn't a good look on you, y'know?”
Steve suddenly felt like an idiot. In his dreams, that other Tony had told him he'd always felt the same, but now it really hit him, how silly it had been to believe those words, when had Steve started giving into wishful thinking –
Tony looked up, and seeing the expression that must have been on Steve's face, sat up, rearranging himself into a proper position.
Steve's heart pounded, and he wondered if he could actually be in danger of a heart attack. But Tony looked so worried, and Steve shouldn't give him an actual reason to worry about him.
He summoned up his courage, and opened his mouth.
“I love you.”
Tony dropped the tool he'd been holding.
“Oh god,” he finally said. “It wasn't a dream.” He got up, walked over to Steve and grabbed him by the shoulders, and Steve could finally see his eyes, shiny and wet. “I didn't forget, oh god, I didn't forget, Steve.”
“Steve,” Tony repeated, breathless.
“Tony,” Steve whispered, still not quite believing even though they were right here, exactly where they'd promised to be. “I remember.”
Tony's eyes crinkled, and he smiled, bright like the future.
Steve smiled back.