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Dearly Beloved

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Steve supposed he had only himself to blame. Throwing himself in front of stolen tech from Reed Richardshe’d had better ideas really. But the beam of energy had been gunning for Jessica and his shield had a better chance of deflecting it, so the choice was obvious. Now, sitting in a world that looked right, smelled right, but didn’t quite feel right, he had a suspicion he now knew what Reed’s tech did. “Experimental miniaturized particle accelerator my ass,” Steve muttered through his teeth, slowly rising and gaining his bearings.

He was pretty sure he was still in Midtown, and looking down the perfect grids, he could just see a green sign labeled W 56th. He glanced at the sun to make sure he was facing the direction he wanted to go and set off, looking for familiar landmarks. One specific landmark in particular.

Unfortunately, Stark Tower was further north than the Baxter Building, so that was what Steve saw first. He stared at it for a long moment, feeling the roiling sense of anger in his chest that always accompanied thoughts of Tony—of Stark. Then he shook his head and trotted onward, hellbent on getting himself home as soon as humanly possible.

Spider-man found him first, though this Spidey dressed a little differently than their own web-slinger, and when he spoke his voice was distinctly different. “Cap? What are you doing out here, Cap? Isn’t today the big day? Natasha’s gonna kill you. Come on!”

Without so much as a by-your-leave, Spider-man shot out a web and wrapped Steve by the chest, hauling him up to the rooftops, his wiry muscles straining at Steve’s weight. “Just as heavy as always, Cap. Come on, let’s go!”

“Wait, I—“ Steve started, but Spidey was already off and running, a flying leap sending him straight to the next building over. Steve sighed and followed, his long stride eating up the tar of the roofing. With one expert leap, he was neck-and-neck with Spider-man, so he tried again.

“I need to get to Reed Richards. Please tell me he exists here.”

“Exists? He’s organizing! Or…well, Natasha’s letting him think he’s organizing. She said it was easier than…wait…” Spidey ground to a halt, skidding down an aluminum sheet until his spider powers caught up to him. “Are you from around here?”

“Not exactly.”

Spider-man tilted his head to the side, frowning through the mask, and Steve sighed again. Some days he felt every second of the years he’d lived, even the ones frozen in the ice. Some days he felt even older. “Listen, I just need to get back home. I’ll be out of your hair if you can just get me to Reed.”

“Well, we’re still heading in the same direction. And you’ll be just in time for the ceremony. Special guest!”

“What ceremony?” Steve said, but Spidey was off and running again. He hefted his shield closer and gave chase, keeping a wary eye on the surroundings. If this was anything like Earth-616, chances were good a super villain would rear their ugly heads sooner rather than later. It was only as they drew closer and closer to the touristy parts of Manhattan that Steve realized they were veering not toward the Baxter Building but toward Stark Tower. His ears started ringing faintly—psychosomatic, he knew, but sometimes he still got flashes. A dark room, a flick of Strange’s hand, Tony’s voice. He blinked and shook his head hard, focusing on the roofs that stretched before him.

Steve swung down a fire escape a block from the Tower and looked up at it, simultaneously awed and disgusted. All the hope. All the fighting. All those memories. He gritted his teeth and looked left to where Spidey had landed next to him.

“Follow me!” Spider-man said, clapping Steve jovially on the back. He led him around to the cloaked heroes entrance and slipped through the holo-projection. The Tower computer intoned “Welcome Avenger Spider-man and Avenger Captain America…Error. Captain America already present. Halt Skrull.” A laser cage sprung around Steve and he froze an inch from the burning red fire.

“Uh, not a Skrull,” Spider-man said, waving his hands ineffectually. “Alternate universe. Promise.” He glanced sidelong at Steve and his mask scrunched. “Right?”

“If I was a Skrull, it’s not like I’d tell you the truth,” Steve growled, growing more and more irritated. A projection appeared then, a screen folded into the very fabric of the building, and Steve found himself staring at…well, himself.

“Miles, what’s the meaning of this?”

“Found a Steve from another dimension. He’s trying to get to Reed to get home.”

The other Steve—Rogers, stared at Steve critically, brow drawn low and mouth tightened skeptically.

“It’s alright,” said someone out of frame, a woman. “Scan’s clear. No Skrull and residual radiation from transdimensional transport. Miles is telling the truth.”

The laser cage disappeared and Steve forced himself to relax, dropping his shoulders. He hefted his shield a little, suddenly feeling very alone in this strange dimension with a Spider-man who was not quite his Spider-man and a Tower that was not quite hi—Tony’s Tower.

Rogers stared critically at him a moment longer and then said, “We’ve got Reed busy today, but he can get you home tomorrow once all the festivities are done. Or do you need to get home urgently?”

Steve shook his head and looked down at his boots. He realized he must look like a sullen child so he looked up and shook his head again. “No. It was nothing the Avengers couldn’t handle. They’ll be fine without me for a day.” They were fine without me for six months, his traitorous mind whispered, even though he knew, knew, that wasn’t true.

Rogers nodded and shifted. “You’re welcome to join us for the wedding. We’ll be happy to have you.”

Steve knew his own tells well enough to know that this Captain America was lying and was actually uncomfortable with the thought of spending time with himself, but Steve wasn’t exactly feeling generous toward many people these days. He nodded curtly and said, “I’d love to attend the wedding. Whose?”

“Mine,” Rogers returned, and then the screen blacked out and Steve was left blinking. That…was the last thing he’d been expecting. Spider-man was already moving to enter, though, so Steve shook himself off and followed, slipping silently into the Avengers-only elevator and staring blankly at his own reflection. He speculated briefly on the identity of the future Mrs. Rogers and then let it go. He’d had too many flames over the year, each brighter than the last and just as quick to burn out, and even thinking of them made him feel impossibly tired.

Tony would be guessing. Tony would be ribbing Steve and making not-so-veiled dirty jokes and laughing at his shock and dourness and…

Steve shook his head sharply. He didn’t want to be thinking about Tony. Not after everything. He stared down into his shield instead and tried to think about the mission report he would write up when he returned. SHIELD would be wanting one. Visited dimension—universe identification unknown—there one Steve Rogers was also Captain America, though preparing for his nuptials at time of arrival. I was invited to attend by a Spider-man who appears different than our own (costume coloration black and red) identified as Miles by…by…

The elevator doors opened up and memories came flooding back, bitter on his tongue and heavy in his heart. That sofa there, that was where he and Carol had sat and discussed battle strategy. And that table there, that was where they’d had Thanksgiving dinner together, Logan drinking too much beer and Jess getting tipsy enough that she accidentally started using her pheromones. And that bar there, that was where he and Tony… Steve blinked and looked away. It was eerie, how similar the layouts where. Even some of the artwork looked similar, though he noticed costumes varied—the Avengers arrayed in unfamiliar colors and sometimes unfamiliar shapes. His eyes were drawn to the Iron Man armor, in all its shining red and gold glory. It looked…almost right. But there was something about the shape. Slimmer, maybe. Less bulky than Tony’s.

No. Enough. Stop thinking about the past. The past is done, he told himself, shaking his head and looking to the landing. There the superheroes amassed, some in costume and some in fancy dress. He spotted Jan in a beautiful sequined blue number and his heart lurched with a kind of painful ache. Here, though, she smiled and laughed, the sun catching in her hair. And next to her was T’Challa, unmasked and grinning. Look at them all, smiling and laughing and…friends.

Spidey caught Steve’s wrist with a familiarity that Steve found unsettling, and started dragging. “Come on, Cap 2! I was nearly late thanks to a mugger, so I’m gonna need you to hustle. The ceremony’s gonna start any second.”

Miles, with his shocking strength, pulled Steve through the massive double doors onto the landing and pushed him forward. The Avengers turned at once, curious, smiling hesitantly. They’d clearly already been briefed. A woman he didn’t know sidled up to him and offered a delicate hand. “Captain. My name is Helen Cho and if you’d like you can sit next to me. My plus one wasn’t able to attend, so there’s an open seat and as I’m sure you can guess, space is tight. It’s not every day Captain America gets married. In this universe anyway.”

Steve took her hand by rote more than will, and shook it with a firm grip. He nodded, the words drying up on his tongue. This balcony was where they’d… He blinked away and looked toward where a small arch had been erected, curling wrought-iron and tendrils of morning glories crawling all over it. It was still fairly early and cool so the blossoms had not yet closed, their pale pastel faces fluttering delicately in the breeze.

The other Captain America, Rogers, was already standing there in full regalia. Steve frankly thought it was a bit much, but then, this wasn’t him. Or it was, but only in the superficial sense. He allowed Helen to lead him gently to his seat and fell into it when urged, feeling distinctly out of place. He noticed this world’s Reed Richards off to one side, his arms stretched disconcertingly to neaten the petals of a small vase of roses.

Just then, the music struck up and the audience settled into their chairs, flames dampening and lightning unfurling to dissipate into the atmosphere. Steve didn’t remember Jessica and Luke’s wedding being this boisterous and T’Challa and Storm’s wedding had been tense. There was something about this place, these people, that was distinctly…happier than his own universe. A part of him curdled, bitter and angry that he couldn’t have this for himself. Another part, a larger part, however, was simply just sad. Where had they gone wrong, where had he gone wrong that this kind of happiness and trust hadn’t been seen in the Avengers in years?

Steve saw that his best man and the maid of honor had arrived. Sam stood next to Pepper Potts, both of them dressed in more traditional fair. Sam was grinning from ear to ear and Pepper was already crying, dabbing gently at her eyes. But who would she be standing for…he wondered, allowing speculation to take his mind. Maybe in this world Pepper had grown close to Sharon. Or Bernie? She and Pepper would have liked each other.

But then he heard the repulsors and immediately tensed. Above them all, Iron Man appeared, slowly dropping to the aisle. Steve’s fingers tightened around his shield and he tensed, prepared to fight, prepared to hit, prepared to…to what? His breath hissed though his teeth as he forced himself to relax. This world’s Tony Stark hadn’t done anything to him. Yet, his mind whispered, but he ignored it as best he could. Beside him, Helen touched his arm.

“Are you alright?” she whispered, and he forced himself to give her a weak smile.

“Fine,” he said, and turned back to the front, watching Iron Man walk alone to the front. But where was the bride’s second maid? If Tony was on Steve’s side than surely there would be another woman for…for…

Steve’s brain froze as Tony stopped in front of Rogers and turned to face him. It was only then that he saw there was a small veil affixed to the helmet. The longer he stared at it, the more ridiculous it looked. Was this some kind of…of sick joke? Was Tony having one over on this world’s Rogers? But then Roger’s took Tony’s hands and Steve’s brain stuttered to a halt.

Behind them, Beast appeared and stepped up, smiling benevolently at them all.

“Dearly beloved,” he began, and Steve went very far away in his mind, watching through a kind of haze as Hank read the words out loud, offering up felicitations and cautions, asking for objections. Steve nearly stood, then, wanting to demand the meaning of this. But his feet were numb and his mind was buzzing. How could they…but what were they…

Then the time came for vows and Tony reached up, flipping back his own veil and opening the face plate. Only then did Steve realize that something was different about Tony, in build, in height, in nose. And then Tony spoke and Steve’s world tilted on its side. In this world, chance had taken a stupidly simple divergence. One little chromosome. One tiny genetic marker. Tony was a woman here.

By the time he processed, the vows were done and Hank was speaking again. “Do you Steven Grant Rogers…” But still Steve couldn’t fathom. What about registration? How…Had it not occurred in this world? Had Steve never used an EMP to disable the armor? Had Tony never made a horrible simulacrum of Thor?

“And do you Natasha Antonia Stark…” And even if they’d made up after a Civil War? What of the incursions? What of Tony’s betrayal? Steve should do something. Should say something. He nearly stood but then Rogers and Stark were kissing and his brain blanked out again.

Because in the darkest recesses of his heart, wasn’t this exactly what he’d wanted once upon a fairytale? Hadn’t he once dreamed, even if only secretly, of holding Tony exactly like that? Kissing him exactly like that? Maybe even one day vowing to be by him always exactly like that?

Something sick and sad and wretched turned over in Steve’s heart and he looked away, staring out into the slowly warming skyline of Manhattan. Morning was stretching to noon and it was promising to be warm, almost balmy. The breeze on his face smelled faintly of the ocean.

Suddenly the heroes around him were standing, cheering, clapping, whistling, and after a moment Steve stood, too, because it seemed the right thing to do. The appropriate thing.

Rogers and Stark paraded down the aisle, grinning, staring into each other’s eyes, arm in arm, warmth in their skin and sunshine glinting on their armor and Steve thought he might be sick. Where had they gone wrong? Where?

The party trickled after them to the main living space, where hors d’oeuvres, drinks, and sandwiches had appeared during the ceremony. Steve spotted Jarvis standing to one side, dabbing at his own eyes with a handkerchief. Hands stiff at his sides, Steve stood there dumbly and watched the trickle of the heroes disappear into the building until only Helen remained with him on the balcony, staring up uncertainly.

“Captain? Are you…Would you like to rest? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” After a moment she lowered her voice. “Did you lose her? In your universe, I mean. I know that happens sometimes.”

Steve couldn’t find the words to answer, to even begin to explain to her all the myriad ways he’d lost Tony and all the myriad ways Tony had lost him in turn. Instead he walked on numb feet into the party, heading toward the drinks. Alcohol hadn’t done anything for him in years, but today, he felt he had to try.

At some point, Helen wandered away, giving up on his unresponsiveness. Steve remained, downing champagne after champagne, and occasionally begging the bartender for harder. The young man, looking increasingly worried, nonetheless doled out the drinks. By the time Rogers found him, the party had been going for nearly six hours and sunset was drawing down on Manhattan.

Rogers looked him over from head to toe, and then snatched the shot glass from his hand. “Follow me,” he said, and Steve did, because he knew when he was making a request and when he was giving an order. And this was definitely not a request. Rogers led him back out onto the balcony, where moonflowers were now opening their petals in place of the morning glories. Their scent on the breeze was sweet and Steve suddenly felt sick to his stomach.

“What happened in your world?” Rogers asked without preamble, crossing his arms over his scale mail.

Steve blinked slowly at him, swallowed, looked down at his own hands. “Everything,” he said finally, and hated the way his voice choked, the way his eyes were stinging.

At that Rogers’ expression softened a little, and he dropped his hands until they were caught awkwardly between them, somewhere between comforting and apprehensive. “Was there a War in your world?” he said, and Steve wanted to laugh because there was always a war. When had he ever not been fighting? He couldn’t remember a time anymore.

“Stark and I…” he started, and then didn’t know where to go, how to explain to this man who’d succeeded where Steve had failed.

“There was,” Rogers murmured, more to himself than Steve. “Did you both…Did you…” Rogers couldn’t even finish his question, caught in the thought of it.

“I died,” Steve said finally, letting the memories sweep him away. “Registration continued. It was a shitshow. I came back. We repealed it. And for a while things were good. They were…we were friends again. And then…and then…”

“Incursions,” Rogers said, and this time his face was hard.

“You know?”

“Natasha told me when we first started having readings. We used the infinity gauntlet. It’s been working so far.”

“Who…who used it?”

“Natasha. She understands the science better than I do. She can control the cosmic radiation and the enharmonic vibration and all those other terms I barely grasp.”

Steve felt a shudder, a horrible sinking. He’d suspected, he’d wondered, but he hadn’t trusted and then… They never trusted each other. Wasn’t that the problem? No. Tony never trusted. Steve, Steve wasn’t…he didn’t…

Rogers was watching him with sharp focus, catching all of Steve’s tells, analyzing and guessing. Steve felt naked before him, felt all his flaws exposed and sparking like an electrical fire waiting to happen. He struggled to school his face into neutrality and took a sharp breath through his nose. “How did you get through it?” he asked, looking Rogers in the eye.

Rogers sighed and ran a hand over his cowl, pulling it back and ruffling his hair out of place. “It wasn’t easy. There was a lot of screaming. Some crying. Days where we both just stewed and refused to say a word to each other. But I heard her out. And she heard me out. We trusted each other. Hard not to when you’ve been fighting side-by-side for nearly a decade. And then we fell in love.”

“You weren’t together during the Registration?”

“No. I was interested. I don’t know if she was. But we were both speaking on different frequencies. It took us a while to find common ground. But when we clicked? It was like riding a bicycle. We just knew how to gel. Romance just felt like the next natural step.”

Steve didn’t know what to say to that so he stood silent. Let it sink in. Rogers watched him with that same razor sharp focus and then stepped away from the railing. “You should get some rest. Reed will see you tomorrow. He says if you know your universe designation, we can have you back within an hour.”

He knew a dismissal when he heard it, so Steve nodded and turned back toward the door.

“Captain,” Rogers said, and Steve paused. “Don’t give up hope. She’s worth it.”

Steve didn’t know what to say to that, so he just nodded and slipped through the doors, where Jarvis was waiting. “I’ll show you to your room, Captain. Right this way.” The layout was familiar. Steve could’ve found the guest suites on his own. But he was glad for Jarvis’ presence beside him, just as steady and unflinching as the Jarvis in his own world.

“Is there anything you need before your retire, Captain?”

Before Steve could answer, his stomach rumbled demandingly. Though he’d been hitting the booze hard (to no avail), he’d barely touched the food. Jarvis smiled. “Our Captain often forgets to eat when he’s troubled. I’ll bring you a plate.”

“Thanks, Jarvis. I appreciate it.”

Steve slipped into the room and looked around at the familiar arrangement. Huge bed. Master bath. Seating area. Television. And presiding over it all, a portrait of Captain America and Iron Man. He stared up at the oils, at the smooth burnished strokes, and knew before he looked at the signature that it was his own work. For a long time he stared at them, Rogers’ arm thrown over Stark’s shoulder, Manhattan spilling out behind them, and then he turned away.

Jarvis came back with a plate and Steve ate it, though he barely tasted it. “Trust,” he murmured around a mouthful of roast beef. When he was finished with his meal, he stripped out of his armor and settled on the bed, staring up at the painting again. If he’d extended his trust during Registration instead of extending an EMP, would everything be different now? Would he and Tony be together like this world’s Stark and Rogers?

Steve didn’t sleep that night. He remained awake, thinking about his mistakes, and Tony’s mistakes and where to go from here. Come morning, he didn’t have any answers. But deep in his bitter heart, he had something that almost seemed worse. A twist of hope.