“Nice follow through,” said Steve. If he hadn’t been so very familiar with Tony and his fighting style, even Steve’s enhanced reflexes might not have enabled him to avoid the swing. Tony had done little to advertise his movements, and he had smoothly carried the motion through into a secure defensive stance.
Tony grinned, even as he circled Steve, looking for another opening. He was breathing heavily, and his dress shirt was soaked with sweat, but his eyes were bright and his movements energetic.
It suddenly hit Steve how good and familiar this was, how right it felt. Just like old times. Sparring with Tony, comfortable and secure and completely in sync with each other. None of the tenseness or awkwardness that had too frequently been between them in recent years. No butting heads over every decision like they’d—well, like they’d always done, at least part of the time. But lately, especially since Tony had come to him with his ideas for restructuring the team, things had been going so well.
“What made you think to ask to spar tonight?” Steve asked him. “You’re not dressed for it.” Tony had tossed his suit jacket on the floor of the gym and discarded his tie at some point earlier in the evening but still wore what must have been a very expensive vest over his shirt.
Tony shrugged, as if showing up at a teammate’s room at half past one in the morning with a mug of coffee and an invitation to violently toss each other around a lightly padded room was a completely normal thing to do.
Maybe for them it was.
“Got stuck working on a project.” Tony shifted to the left—a feint at a feint, but Steve wasn’t falling for it. “Needed to focus on something else for a while and thought you might still be up. Didn’t get the idea for sparring practice until I saw you still in your uniform.”
“I guess I was up kind of late tonight,” Steve said, as he lunged toward Tony, grasping him by the arm and throwing him to the floor. Tony rolled neatly back to his feet and Steve smiled in approval.
“Still having trouble sleeping?”
“Some,” Steve admitted. The dreams he’d been having, of Reed, Namor, Black Bolt, and T’Challa gathered together and staring down at him shouldn’t have been as disturbing as he found them. They made little sense, and he didn’t like to think about them.
Tony seemed distressed—completely unwarranted, in Steve’s opinion. They all had rough nights from time to time. The wrinkles of Tony’s frown made him look older than he had just a moment ago, and Steve noticed for the first time tonight the darker patches under his eyes. Steve was clearly not the only person failing to get enough sleep. He was glad Tony had come to him. A little physical exertion might be just what they needed, and after, maybe they’d both sleep better tonight.
“It was a good idea,” he told Tony. “Sparring.”
Tony’s smile returned, small, but there. “Yeah?”
“Yeah. You need the practice.” He took Tony off his feet entirely, this time following him down and pinning him to the mat. Tony struggled, pushing up forcefully, but Steve had a solid position and a firm grip on his forearms. Tony wasn’t going anywhere. “See?”
Tony laughed, even as he strained again to displace Steve from his legs.
This close, the glow of the RT unit in Tony’s chest was noticeable. Steve had mixed feelings about the RT, had always hated it when Tony incorporated technology into his very body, blurring the lines between man and machine. But this technology didn’t just provide him with enhanced abilities. It had brought him back from what should have been the point of no return. It kept him alive on a daily basis. So yes, that was a very good thing, and Steve should just be glad that Tony was no longer talking to computers with his brain or housing a nano-tech version of the armor in his bones.
Tony had stilled beneath him. His breathing had slowed, he seemed calm and accepting of his current position, but he hadn’t actually tapped out, and Steve eyed him with suspicion. It wouldn’t surprise him at all if Tony had something underhanded in mind and was just waiting for Steve to relax his guard. He waited and watched, but Tony did nothing more than blink and look up at him, that small friendly smile back on his face. He really did seem pretty comfortable where he was.
Tony had told him before, how he credited these sparring sessions with saving his life on more than one occasion. He was maybe giving Steve too much credit—there was no one more resourceful than Tony for getting out of a tight spot—but Steve had always taken the responsibility very seriously. He ought to get up, make Tony do it again and do it better. But Tony looked happy, relaxed, in no hurry to move, and he just didn’t look like that often enough. Maybe they’d sparred enough for one night.
“Penny for your thoughts.”
Steve snorted. “A penny? You’ve got to be kidding me, Stark.”
“What, Captain America doesn’t appreciate the value of a hard-earned penny? Wasn’t it just the other day, you were saying—”
Tony’s arms were both still held pinned near his head, so neither of them missed it when the palm of his right hand glowed red. Tony clenched his hand, and the smile didn’t actually leave his face, but it didn’t look real anymore either.
“I give, Cap. Let me up.”
Steve stared at him, at the red light still spilling from between Tony’s fingers. “Tony? What is that?” He didn’t know what it was, but it felt like he should know, like he’d seen it before, and it gave him a strange, unsettled feeling in the pit of his stomach.
“It’s, uh. It’s part of this new project I’ve been working on. I’d better get back to it.”
“Seriously, Steve. Let me up, or I’m going to start getting ideas.” Tony gave a very fake, very exaggerated leer.
Steve stood and watched Tony as he picked up his jacket and coffee mug. He turned to Steve, gave a little salute. “Thanks for the workout, Captain. We’ll have to do it again sometime.” He sounded normal, like everything was fine.
But Steve didn’t miss the way Tony had hidden his hand in the folds of his jacket and wasn’t really meeting Steve’s eyes.
“This project. Something to do with the armor?”
Tony shifted the coffee mug in his hand, swung it carelessly by the handle. “Not really, no. It’s a communication thing. I could get into more detail with you, but to be honest, I don’t think you’d follow it very well. It’s very complex, not really your area, and I need to check in on it or I’m going to make a lot more work for myself.”
Steve’s jaw tightened. Tony usually enjoyed explaining his projects to Steve, was happy to ramble on even when a large percentage of it was, truthfully, going over Steve’s head. These dismissals and veiled jabs at Steve’s intelligence? This wasn’t like Tony.
“How about you show it to me?”
“It’s late, Steve.”
“Not tired. I’ll walk you there.”
“Look, Steve, I appreciate the interest,” Tony said as they passed through the door, “but I’m going to have to insist…”
Tony jerked and stumbled, his eyes rolling back as he fell.
Steve grabbed for him, alarmed and confused, but his hands wouldn’t obey him properly, and neither would his legs, he realized, as he fell to his knees. Tony’s head hit the floor hard, the thud of the impact loud in the hallway, and that wasn’t good, Steve thought fuzzily, because the floor here wasn’t padded like in the gym, and he didn’t have the suit on to protect him.
And then nothing made sense, because Iron Man was there, leaning over Tony, and Captain America was grabbing Steve by the shoulder. There shouldn’t be another Captain America because Bucky wasn’t…
“I really hate having to do this,” Captain America said, and he didn’t sound like Bucky. He sounded like Steve Rogers.
Steve’s first thought as he regained consciousness was that he couldn’t move his arms. His second was that he didn’t have the shield. And his third was that he was in one of Tony’s work areas, the one Tony spent the most time in, because there were the older Iron Man suits along the wall in front of him.
He blinked, trying to clear his mind and focus. There had been… two intruders. And now he was seated on the floor, back to a pillar, bound to it with some sort of thick cable. A very strong cable, he realized, as he strained against it without result.
And Tony was…Tony was behind him, on the other side of the pillar. Their arms were touching. Tony wasn’t moving.
“Tony,” said Steve, turning as far as he could, trying and failing to get a look at Tony’s face. “Are you all right?”
Tony didn’t respond, and Steve strained again, harder, against the bonds that held them, until he realized he was more likely to break Tony’s ribs than the cable and quit with a muttered curse.
It was difficult, the way their arms were tied together, but he managed to wrap his hand around Tony’s wrist, squeezing tightly. There was still no movement, no sound, but he could feel the steady thrum of Tony’s pulse and something settled within him. There was nothing more he could do for Tony at the moment, and he turned his attention to his surroundings.
Whatever those two had done to him, the not-him and not-Tony who’d somehow infiltrated the tower, it had clouded his thinking, but his mind was clearing now.
There were sounds of movement from the area where Tony’s main computer interface would be, and then footsteps, but Steve’s position prevented him from seeing any of it.
“This area’s sealed off, no alarms triggered,” said a voice that sounded like Steve’s own. “I’ve contacted the other teams. Everyone’s in place, no complications. What have you found so far?”
“I’m not sure what to make of these people,” said Iron Man, and his words had that familiar metallic tone, filtered through the suit. “Come here, let me show you what I—”
“He’s bleeding, Tony. Don’t you think we could spare a moment to—”
There was a sound he recognized as the armor’s faceplate lifting. Then Tony’s voice, across the room from him even as he could feel Tony’s arms pressed tightly against his own. “He’ll be fine. Surface injury, you know how scalp wounds like to bleed. The only danger he’s in is of having to replace that shirt. And of, you know, having to replace his entire universe, so let’s focus here, all right, Cap?”
This…did not sound good.
Tony shifted and groaned behind him. “I find myself in this position way too often,” he muttered.
“Tony,” Steve said, relieved. “Are you all right?”
“I’m…yeah, I’m fine. What happened here? Is that… Did an evil us just hand us our asses?”
“Looks that way. I can’t see them. What are they doing?”
“They’re at my work station. They’re studying… us. The tower, the team, the projects we’re working on. How the hell did they get into those files? How the hell did they get into this tower? Damn it.”
“What do you think we’re dealing with?” Steve asked, “Skrulls? Interdimensional travel? Couple of jerks who got their hands on a Captain America uniform and one of your suits?” The suit did look older, like the style Tony wore years ago. Could this be a time travel thing?
“No one has my armor. Not so much as a shin plate has been left unaccounted for. And that’s not one of mine, I can tell.”
Steve really wasn’t sure how he could, as many suits as Tony had been through in the last year alone. Tony was always so certain no one could gain access to his tech, that this time his safeguards could not be compromised. Until someone could and they did and all hell broke loose again. Two intruders were standing in the same room as several of Tony’s old suits right now. But it wasn’t worth pursuing at the moment.
Steve pulled at their bonds. “I couldn’t break these. Ideas?”
“None at the moment, sorry. I could access the putty suit if I were closer to it, but—”
Steve had figured as much. “We need to get a message out. They’ve got teams in other locations, coordinating something. I don’t know how many, where they are, or what they’re after. They said something about a threat to the universe, but—.”
Tony’s arm jerked against his, and his fist clenched. “Shit. Shit.”
Steve was surprised at the reaction. Threats to the universe weren’t good, but they weren’t particularly unusual in their line of work either.
“Sorry, I just. Stupid. I must have hit my head harder than I thought. Wasting time, damn it. I might be able to get a message out, give me a second.”
Steve could feel Tony’s fingers curling in, pressing into the palm of Tony’s hand where the red light had been. Tony’s project, the one he hadn’t wanted Steve to know about. Tony had said it was a communication thing.
Tony squeezed Steve’s arm tightly with his other hand. “Quiet. They’re coming over.”
Iron Man came into view, positioning himself to the side, where he could look at them both at once. He was…Tony but not Tony. Nearly identical, with just slight differences that most people would probably not have noticed. The goatee—styled a little differently, but Tony had always changed his facial hair about as frequently as his suits. His jawline, something about the shape of it. And his eyes, blue like Tony’s, but maybe a little wider. It caused him to look younger and reminded Steve disconcertingly of the Tony he had known years before. It made him want to trust the man when he had no reason to. Steve clenched his teeth, frustrated with himself.
“Oh, good, you’re both awake. Let’s chat, shall we?”
“Sure,” said Tony. “We can start with how the hell you got into my tower.”
“We should probably start with how I got into your universe.”
“How about we start with why you would want to do either,” said Steve, as he weighed the likelihood that these two were actually from another universe against all the other possibilities. What might they gain from pretending such a thing?
The other one, the Captain, approached from the other side, cowl pulled back. Like this Tony, he looked slightly different and also somewhat younger, but on the whole, as much like Steve Rogers as he had sounded. Looking at him was as strange and unsettling as the times Steve had seen Life Model Decoys of himself. More so, actually, because Life Model Decoys were exact reproductions, and these slight differences caught his eye, felt wrong, like when he’d scrutinized himself in the mirror during those first days after he’d taken the serum.
“I found a first aid kit. While you’re talking, I’m just going to—” He gestured in Tony’s direction. Stark rolled his eyes.
“Awfully considerate of you,” said Tony, as Rogers squatted near him, pulling gauze and antiseptic solution from the kit. Meanwhile, Steve could feel Tony resuming, with subtle movements, whatever he’d been doing earlier to the palm of his hand. “When people tie me up, it’s usually for one of two reasons, and I’m having a hard time figuring out—”
“We tied you up before talking to you because we’ve tried it the other way, and it didn’t go well. It went, in fact, very badly. And you can stop that,” he said, nodding at Tony’s hand. “You’re trying to contact Reed with that thing, aren’t you? There’s no point. We’ve got a team over there. He’s having this same conversation right now.”
Tony froze and was silent for a long moment before replying. “This is not the first time we’ve met a Tony Stark from another universe. That didn’t go well either, so you’ll forgive us if we’re not overly trusting. I have to admit I’m concerned that, whatever you’re planning, it’s going to result in the destruction of this planet, or a significant portion of it.”
Given the conversation he’d overheard earlier, Steve shared this concern. But he had the unpleasant feeling that Tony knew more, had some other reason for his suspicions. He really didn’t want it to be true.
“You would think that, wouldn’t you?” Stark said, looking somewhat angry. “Which is exactly why tied up and kept out of the way may be exactly where you belong. Nearly every one of these incidents we’ve dealt with, it seems we’ve had to spend more energy preventing people like you and Reed Richards from making catastrophically bad choices than in handling the incursion itself. But my hope is that we can find a way to work together on this. So let’s talk now and see if we can figure out how this is going to go.”
“You invade our home, tie us up, and then expect us to trust you?” Steve said angrily. “You’ve given us no reason to believe anything that you’re saying. You could be Skrulls, or…”
“They’re not Skrulls, Steve. Or at least… it’s incredibly unlikely,” said Tony, his voice resigned and unhappy. And with that went Steve’s last remaining hope that Tony had not been keeping something hugely important from him.
“You know exactly what they’re talking about, don’t you? Incursions. Preventing them. This is all part of your ‘communication’ project, isn’t it? What the hell have you not been telling me, Tony?”
“You didn’t tell him. Fantastic.” Stark shifted his focus to Steve, moving closer and looking some combination of sympathetic and annoyed. “All right, other-Cap, let me give you the short version. At some point a while back, we haven’t nailed down exactly when yet, there was an event that destroyed an entire universe. This event occurred on their Earth. The destruction of that universe caused a contraction of the multiversal timeline, which resulted in the collision and destruction of other universes. This led to further contractions of the timeline and then more collisions. I think you see where I’m going with this.”
Steve stared at him, horrified at the implications.
“One way--the simplest, most obvious way--to stop an incursion and save the colliding universes is to destroy one of the two Earths. This solution comes with some obvious drawbacks, but it’s been done an appalling number of times. We first learned about incursions and the threat they pose to the multiverse when a large number of refugees from a sacrificed Earth found their way to our planet. This gave us forewarning and some time to prepare, not to mention a larger pool of talented minds to work with. When our first incursion hit, we were successful in stopping it. Without destroying either planet,” he added, glancing over at Tony. “Same with the second. And the third. Each time we learned a little more. Gained more knowledge, more resources. We’ve recently learned how to detect incursions between other universes, and we’ve significantly expanded our efforts. This will be our thirty-seventh incursion.”
“Thirty-seven,” said Tony, sounding stunned. “And you did this without—you lost none of these Earths?”
Stark’s face darkened. “We lost two.”
“That’s not part of the short version,” Stark said curtly. “The point is the other thirty-five incursions. All the universes we’ve saved, some of them repeatedly. We never could have done it if we hadn’t, early on, begun establishing contact with other Earths, pooling our knowledge and our resources, working together. Since we’ve gained the ability to detect it, when another universe experiences an incursion, even with one other than our own, we attempt to stop it. And if the inhabitants of those Earths are…functional and trustworthy enough to collaborate with, we do so, and we stay in contact after.”
Steve couldn’t help but wonder what grim, ugly things they had seen in the universes deemed too dysfunctional to work with.
“So, to sum up,” said Stark. “Incursions are bad. Your planet is currently experiencing one, and you have approximately seven hours remaining before your entire universe is destroyed. We are here to help. Are you with me so far?”
“I’m not with you on the part where people here knew about this and didn’t tell me. What the hell is wrong with you, Tony? Is this—this is actually all true?”
“I’m sorry, Steve,” Tony said in a tight voice.
“He’s pulled this crap in over half the universes I’ve seen so far. What’s even more disappointing is the form his solo projects have generally taken. Do you know how…how discouraging it is that nearly every time I meet another me who’s learned about this situation and tried to solve this problem, he’s created nothing but doomsday devices?”
Tony had been creating doomsday devices. Beautiful. Fantastic.
“Steve,” said Tony, “you need to understand—”
“Apparently I don’t,” said Steve bitterly, “do I, Tony? You had this handled, didn’t need my input. So tell me, what did that genius mind of yours come up with? What’s your brilliant plan?”
Tony remained still and quiet, and Stark answered for him.
“He’s found a way to weaponize your sun. He’s building a Dyson Sphere with the capacity to obliterate a planet. You’ve always wanted to build a Dyson Sphere, haven’t you, Tony? To be fair, destroying the other Earth is the most obvious way to end the incursion, and when you’re saving two universe’s worth of lives, what’s a few billion here or there? No need to bother exploring alternatives when we can focus our efforts on destroying that other planet in the flashiest way possible.”
“My god, Tony,” said Steve, shocked and appalled, and then afraid at what Tony might already have done. “You haven’t used it, have you?”
“No.” Tony cleared his throat. “No, I haven’t used it. And of course I’ve been looking for alternatives.”
“You haven’t used it yet,” corrected Stark. “Because it’s not finished yet. It always goes worse when you two aren’t working together. Always. It’s one of the first things I look at anymore, and usually it’s pretty obvious. The disagreements and conflicts I’ve witnessed have not been subtle, and neither has the fallout. But it was harder to figure out this time. You have this team structured around the two of you, like you’re the parents of some sprawling family. You’re joined at the hip, even at two in the morning. And yet you left him,” he said, pointing at each of them in turn, “completely in the dark on this. I don’t know what to make of it.”
Steve didn’t know what to make of it either. He felt like he might vomit.
“All right, people,” said Rogers. He’d so far ignored their discussion in favor of swabbing and bandaging Tony’s face but was now packing the kit back up. “I’m honestly sorry we had to do what we did. I hated having to do it, but it was necessary. We have to move past that now, if we can. We have a little more than seven hours left to decide on and implement a solution. First team conference is in ten minutes. We can include you, and you can help us save your universe, or we can leave you here, and you can sort out your personal issues while we do it for you. What’s it going to be?”
They were gathered around the large cluster of screens that comprised the bulk of Tony’s workstation. The other teams were supposed to check in momentarily, but for now the four of them were just standing there, and it was… it was very strange.
“So,” said Tony, drawing everyone’s attention. He made eye contact with the other two, but not with Steve. “Always a little awkward, trying to shift gears from nonconsensual bondage to science-themed playdate. But you do this all the time, is that right? Any suggestions for smoothing the transition?”
They all stared at him. “No? All right then. With all this wisdom and experience you keep mentioning, I assume you have a plan. What’s step one?”
“Finding you and Reed Richards is always step one,” said Stark. “Even at your most well-intentioned, the sheer scale of destruction the two of you are capable of generating is mind-boggling.”
Tony crossed his arms. “All right then, congratulations, you’ve found us. What’s step two? What are all these better options I’ve entirely overlooked?”
“We’ll be going over our options with the whole group any minute now,” said Rogers.
Tony rubbed at the bandage on his forehead, expression pained, and Steve knew the pain had nothing to do with his injury. Tony never forgave himself for overlooking a better option. Steve was usually much better at that, at forgiving Tony, but he had no forgiveness in him right now. He didn’t see how he and Tony could even remain on the same team. But that was a problem for later, he reminded himself. He couldn’t let himself think about it right now.
This universe incursion thing was just too big. Steve was still trying to fit his mind around it. He hated these sorts of problems, the ones that came wrapped in mysticism or magic or science so complex it might as well have been. He was fine with complexity on the battlefield, but when it came to things like this, he just felt so out of his element.
“The whole group,” said Steve. “Who would that be, exactly? You mentioned other teams--where are they located, and what are their objectives?”
Rogers looked back at him, arms crossed, and Steve experienced the strange sensation of being appraised by himself. “We’ve sent three teams to this universe and three to 1735--the universe yours is currently smashing into. We start with teams at the incursion site, Stark Tower, and the Baxter Building--or whatever passes for them in some worlds. Initial objectives are to gather information and assess our options. We have mobile units available, but bringing in too many can slow us down. We’re on the clock, so we start small. If we get in over our heads, we can contact other universes for assistance, but they have their own problems to be dealing with, and there’s only so much we can expect them to do. We've discovered several ways to end incursions without loss of life, but what works in one universe isn't necessarily an option in another. If all six teams were for some reason unable to find a solution that would work here, evacuation might be an option, but only if we started early, within the first hour or two. But that’s not going to be necessary. My people won’t let you down.” Rogers raised one hand to his ear. “Another team’s checking in. Excuse me.”
Stark was doing something with Tony’s computer--flipping through schematics for Tony’s armor, it looked like. Bleeding Edge. Phoenix Killer. Another that Steve didn’t know the name for at all--one of those new, specialized suits Tony had been showing off the other day. Tony was staring at Stark, clearly fuming. Tony liked to keep his secrets, even from himself, it seemed. Steve struggled to suppress a renewed surge of anger, along with another, even less welcome feeling--hurt.
Tony hadn’t told Steve about his plans because he’d known Steve wouldn’t approve, that was obvious. And it was infuriating. But then there was the other aspect, the one that Steve didn’t really want to think about but couldn’t help poking at like a sore spot in his mind. Tony hadn’t brought him in on this because he’d evaluated Steve’s skill set and found him wanting. If Tony had truly needed Steve’s help, he’d have included him, disapproval or no. He’d have put forth all his considerable efforts at persuasion, sure, but he’d have told Steve. Talked to him. And he hadn’t. He’d considered Steve useless, a liability, a fossil, and he’d cut him loose.
Steve clenched his fists. There was nothing to punch, nothing to fight right now, but he would have felt better with his shield in his hands. He should never have left it in his room.
“So what’s with the suit?” Tony asked.
Stark turned to him. “What about my suit?”
“You got into my tower. You got into our universe. You can detect incursions even between universes that are not your own. You have some sort of device that managed to incapacitate us both, in seconds, and I couldn’t even identify the metal in that cable you tied us up with. And then there’s that suit, which looks like my Mark V, at best. So what’s with the suit?”
“Oh, this suit can do more than your Mark V, trust me,” said Stark, turning back to the screen, and not even noticing Tony’s intensified glare. “But you’re right, it’s outdated compared to what I’d normally wear. In one of the universes, we ran into a bit of a snag with Ultron. After that, it seemed like a good idea to take some additional precautions. I have another suit—you should see that suit. It does so much more, while still allowing me to fly under the radar, so to speak. But I damaged it yesterday and haven’t had the chance to repair it. Or sleep, for that matter. This incursion of yours really was inconveniently timed.”
“What happened with Ultron?” Tony asked, looking concerned. “Did you—”
“Sorry,” said Rogers, finger pressed to the device in his ear. “You’ll have to continue this later. Everyone’s ready.”
“Is that… is he communicating with multiple universes with that earpiece? Simultaneously? And I was impressed with Reed’s tracking device. Fair warning, I’m going to be giving you an itemized list of technology that you’ll have to share with me before you can leave.” His tone was flippant, but everything about Tony’s posture was stiff and tense.
Stark ignored him, instead doing something with the computer console, and then the screens filled with several groups of people. Steve counted two Susans. And…four Reeds. He couldn’t be entirely sure which Reed was their Reed, but it was maybe the one gesturing over a small piece of equipment that seemed to fascinate him. Steve suspected that, if this all went as well as their new acquaintances seemed to expect it would, Reed would be making a list of his own in the near future.
“Hello, Captain,” said one of the Reeds, the only one standing alone, and Steve opened his mouth to answer before realizing, of course Reed wasn’t talking to him. At the moment, Steve wasn’t leading anyone.
“Reed,” said Rogers. “Where’s Anthony? I thought we agreed that he’d be available during incursions. I don’t like taking so many of our idea people off-planet without leaving you some support.”
Reed sighed. “Anthony’s…having a bad day.”
Rogers looked concerned, and Steve didn’t think it was only over the disturbance of his plans. “Bad timing. See if you can get in touch with Natasha over at 3490, have her available for consult.”
“I’ll do that.”
“Let’s get started,” said Rogers. “Tony?”
Stark stepped forward. “We’ve got 616’s Stark and Rogers here,” he said, gesturing at Tony and Steve, “and we can work with them. We think. We haven’t explored all our options yet, but so far I’m not seeing a tier-one solution. I see one possible tier-two and several tier-threes, but we’re never short on those, so they’re not really worth mentioning.”
“Thanks, Tony,” said Rogers. “Over at 616 Baxter, Reed and Kitty?” A slightly unfamiliar-looking Reed Richards and Kitty Pryde were standing in the foreground. Behind them was another Reed—the one Steve suspected to be “theirs”—along with T’Challa, Black Bolt, and Stephen Strange. Seeing them together like that made Steve feel sick and disoriented for a moment. It wasn’t exactly the same, but it reminded him strongly of his dream.
“Everyone’s cooperating over here,” said Kitty. “They had a small team on this—ridiculously small—and we’ve made contact with all but two of them. They’d captured a Swan, but she hadn’t told them much of anything useful, just tried to indoctrinate them into her cult. As far as options, we’ve got a couple promising tier-twos, and I’d like to focus on those.”
“That sounds good, Kitty, thank you.” said Rogers. “616 incursion site, status?”
“No surprises so far,” came Hank McCoy’s voice, and Steve realized there was no video from this feed, just patchy sound. “Clear and quiet, no movement. But the tier-2 that Logan and I brought along isn’t likely to be successful with the incursion point in the middle of the ocean like this. We’ll likely have to save that one for next time and pursue other options.”
“Good to know.” Rogers directed his attention to the image of Carol Danvers and Peter Parker. Or Steve assumed it was Peter under that mask. The room they were standing in looked like one of Tony’s old workshops, but it had been torn to pieces. “Carol?”
“Not a lot I can contribute at the moment,” said Carol. “1735’s Stark had been working on what would have been an excellent tier-two, but his research and equipment’s been ransacked, and he’s drunk off his ass. We have a lead, and we’re going to pursue it.”
It wasn’t new, exactly, seeing Tony disappointed in himself, but despite how angry at him Steve was, it felt like too much, somehow, seeing two of him wearing such self-loathing expressions at the same time.
“All right Carol, keep me informed,” said Rogers, looking unhappy as well. “Susan?”
This team consisted of Susan Richards and Jessica Drew, and they were both smiling. “Good news here at 1735 Baxter,” said Susan. “We have a tier-1 solution. They’re in possession of their Infinity Gauntlet, and we have their full cooperation.”
“That’s fantastic,” Rogers said. “Great work, both of you.”
“Their Cap must not have gotten his hands on it yet,” said a Clint Barton they hadn’t spoken with yet, and several others laughed.
“Very funny, people” Rogers said, but he didn’t seem to really be objecting to the levity. It was clearly an inside joke, and one at his expense, but in high-stress situations like this, it was smart of him to give his people a moment to laugh, to feel relieved, before getting them back on track. It’s what Steve would have done. He’d have to ask about Rogers’ history with the Infinity Gauntlet, though.
“1735 Incursion, report.” 1735 Incursion was apparently Clint, with nothing but audio available, as had been the case at the other incursion site.
“No problems,” said Clint, “Other than wishing we’d thought to bring along some dramamine. Otto here’s not feeling so great.” Otto Octavius? That couldn’t be right.
“I know this is a project you’ve been working on for a while,” said Rogers, “but don’t get so distracted with that device of yours that you let down your guard.”
“We’ve got this covered,” said Clint. “The Doc’s handling the testing, and I’m keeping my eye on the water. Don’t worry, I’m great at boats.”
“All right, good work everyone,” said Rogers. “I know some of you are tired, coming right off the last incursion, but what we’re doing is important. We’re learning more, we’re gaining new allies, we’re saving lives, and we’re going to win this thing. We have our back-up plan, but let’s make sure we don’t have to use it. We need more tier-1 solutions, and it sounds like more than one of you is on the verge of finding one. I still want you checking in frequently with progress updates. Next conference in two hours.”
Stark ended the transmission, then turned to Rogers, laughing a little bitterly. “Of course. A Tony Stark with a viable idea, one that’s not a doomsday device, and he’s too drunk off his ass to finish it.”
Rogers gripped Stark by the shoulder and looked him in the eye. “That’s not you, Tony. None of them is you. You’ve got to remember that and stop placing their failings on your shoulders.”
Stark stared into Rogers’ face for a long moment, then blinked and glanced at Steve and Tony. “Thanks for the pep talk, Cap,” he said, slipping out from under Rogers‘ hand and turning back to the work station.
“That didn’t actually clear up much of anything at all,” said Tony. “Would you mind telling me a little more about these tiered solutions of yours?”
Stark, who had pulled up the schematics for…something complicated that Steve could not identify, didn’t answer.
Rogers turned to Tony. “Tier-1 are proven solutions that don’t involve blowing up entire planets, or even slicing up small portions of them. No deaths, no destruction. Tier-2 have the potential to do that but haven’t been tested or confirmed. Tier-3 would fall into the category of last resort. We haven’t had to use one yet, and hopefully we never will.”
“And if it came down to that,” said Tony, scrutinizing Rogers’ face, “what would you do then?”
“I don’t know,” said Rogers. “I don’t know what I would do. But so far I haven’t had to find out, because by trusting each other and working together, we’re beating this thing.”
“Trust only gets you so far,” said Tony. “And how can you trust the people coming up with your tier-3 ideas? Aren’t some things just wrong no matter how you look at them?”
“Of course some things are wrong. But even a tier-3 idea, when combined with another planet’s ideas and resources, can become the tier-1 solution everyone has been looking for. We have to leave everything on the table.”
Tony closed his eyes as if he were in pain.
“You’ve stopped this many incursions,” said Steve. “Haven’t you learned anything that might enable us to stop them from happening at all?”
Stark turned away from the screen, giving Steve his full attention. “There’s someone or something working against us. This would’ve been solved by now otherwise. Too much of what we’ve been able to learn so far has been tangled in superstition, but we’re learning more. Each time we learn more, and soon we’re going to know exactly what we’re dealing with, and we’re going to find it and kick its ass.”
“But until then,” said Rogers, “we’re going to work on not letting any more universes be obliterated.”
“As it happens,” said Tony, moving to stand next to Stark, “I am also strongly opposed to the cascading destruction of the multiverse. So would you mind introducing me to what you’re working on over here?” Tony gestured at the schematics on the screen. “Because it is beautiful.”
“A lot of us have pet projects,” said Stark. “This one’s mine. When we have a sure thing to fall back on, it’s a great chance to research, test, and implement our other ideas. If they work, we have something else under our belt for the next time.”
He gave Tony a thoughtful look, then tapped him on the chest with the back of one hand. “Come with me, show me that Phoenix armor of yours. I was looking it over and it gave me an idea. It might even be a good one. It’s not anything we’ll be able to use today, but it has a lot of potential.”
In the last two hours, Steve had retrieved his shield, prepped the Quinjet, checked on the Tonys’ progress, checked for updates on Rogers’ teams, checked for any alerts on other emergencies or criminal activity that might require an Avengers response, checked on everyone’s progress again, and, finally, realizing that there was nothing useful left for him to do, spent a few minutes working out his frustrations with a punching bag.
It was hard to accept, that their world—their entire universe—was under threat of destruction, and at the moment he had nothing to contribute. His shield was laughably inadequate, far too small to protect anyone from this danger. And his team—it wasn’t nearly as cohesive as he’d believed it to be. He’d failed as a leader, somehow.
He could have stayed with Rogers, as Rogers monitored the team activity. Rogers was willing to answer questions, and Steve had asked a great deal of them, gathering what information he could. Rogers would listen if Steve had suggestions to make. But the fact remained that he didn’t know these teams, and he didn’t understand enough about what they were really trying to do. When this incursion was over, he was going to call his own team together, make sure that everyone, himself included, had the information they needed, and next time they would be prepared. But right now, if he involved himself too much, he would just be getting in the way, and that was really hard to swallow.
He’d thought about calling in the rest of the team anyway, bringing them in immediately. But then he’d thought about the very structure of their current team. A core that could work in unison, because keeping things small meant better communication, better coordination. And then the larger group that could be pulled in when greater numbers were an asset. Tony had been wrong about so many things, but he’d been right about that. It was the right way to get bigger. And calling in his people, uninformed and unprepared, and throwing them into the middle of the well-oiled machine this other Stark and Rogers had created? That would be the wrong way. He could see that, even if he didn’t like it.
On his third trip to observe the progress that Stark and Tony were making, Steve brought coffee along with him. They’d all gone over twenty-four hours without sleep, perhaps significantly longer, and two sleep-deprived Tony Starks working in tandem was actually a frightening thought. The first time he’d checked in, the two had been sorting through the equipment that Stark and Rogers had brought along with them. The next time, they had moved on to something involving Tony’s Phoenix-Killer armor. Now they were making modifications to another of Tony’s suits.
Tony had changed out of his dress shirt, in favor of the style he typically wore in his workshop. Stark had removed his armor and had turned out to be dressed similarly. Either that, or he’d borrowed one of Tony’s. The two of them in their dark tanks, both grease-stained and intensely focused as they worked on the armor suspended above them, it was—well, it was an arresting image. He found himself half-wishing he had his sketch-book on hand, and he stood watching for a moment, not wanting to interrupt them.
“We could power it with my Dyson Sphere,” Tony was saying.
“What, you’re not calling it a Stark Sphere?”
“There was an issue with that. I’m working on it.”
Stark gave a small laugh. “I agree, it would make a good power source—if it were closer to being finished. The amount of power this thing needs, it’s incredible. But even if the power were available, we wouldn’t be able to use it yet. The beacon would be fine, and the disruptor on the Phoenix suit should hold up, but the inner suit needs more shielding. As is, it’s a death trap.”
“It’d be fine.”
“Word of advice: when you prioritize any function over life support as a default setting, don’t go light on the shielding.”
There was a moment of silence, and Steve considered saying something, but Stark suddenly spoke again, eyes intent on his work. “I’m so glad you’re not drinking, have I mentioned that? You may have screwed some stuff up, but…thank you for being sober. I mean it. I don’t think I could have handled dealing with another drunk me.”
“You’re welcome,” Tony finally said. “Glad there could be at least one area where I wasn’t a complete disappointment. Hand me that soldering iron?”
“I have a question for you,” said Stark, as he passed the tool over. “About that misguided little group of yours. You didn’t even include Kitty Pryde. Is she not a genius in your universe?”
“I’m sorry, did I not hear that you have Otto Octavius on your team?”
“You had Namor in on this. Namor. But not Kitty Pryde.”
“I know. But the universe this one’s from, he’s not such a bad guy. And he’s a genius. Like Kitty Pryde, you may have heard of her?”
Rogers approached and stood by Steve’s side, watching for a moment. “They’re really something, aren’t they?”
“Yeah,” Steve said. “Really something.” He didn’t even know how he meant that. He felt so conflicted toward Tony right now.
Both Tonys finally noticed they were there. Tony looked uncomfortable, and Stark looked delighted.
“Steve! And Steve! And coffee!”
Steve held a cup out to him, and Stark accepted it with a grin. “You’ve found the way to my heart. Thank you, Steven, you are a wonderful person. I have met so many different versions of you, and nearly every one of you has been a wonderful person. It’s enough to give a man a complex.”
He winked at Steve, smiling, but he didn’t look like he was entirely joking, either.
“Any coffee there for me?” Tony asked cautiously.
For a moment Steve was tempted to say no, but that would have been ridiculously petty, and Tony did look exhausted. What he was working on was important. He handed Tony the other cup.
“Thanks, Cap,” he said, looking at Steve over the brim of the cup.
“How’s the project going?” asked Rogers.
“It’s going beautifully,” said Stark. “I got the idea from you, you know,” he said to Steve. “Well, you, actually,” he added, pointing at Rogers, “but same thing.”
“It’s really not, Tony,” said Rogers. “We’ve been over this.”
“Not the point. The point is, what is an incursion? Another universe smashing into our own. We need to protect ourselves from the impact. So many of us went straight to offense, but then one day I looked at you—I mean, you—and realized: what we need is a shield.”
It was stupid, the way hearing that made him feel. Someone in another universe having taken the shield as inspiration in no way represented a contribution on Steve’s part. But there was no denying that the tight knot in his stomach, the one that came from feeling useless, had loosened, and he felt much less like he really needed to punch something.
“How do you do that?” asked Steve. “The Phoenix Killer armor disrupts things. It destroys. It seems like the opposite of shielding.”
“Exactly, it does the opposite. Which is what we need it for. See, this,” he said, pointing to a large spherical device near the pile of equipment they’d been sorting through. It was made of both Adamantium and Vibranium, if Steve was identifying the metals correctly. And it appeared to be equipped with repulsors, as well, so it was probably flight capable. “This is the thing I’ve been working on with Reed. Both Reeds, actually, and we had a little input from Stephen Strange. If it had enough power—and it would need a lot of power—it could generate a…well, functionally, it would be like a Big Bang in that it would create something similar to a small universe. If it were generated at the incursion point, it would form directly between the colliding universes. It would act as a buffer, absorbing the impact and pushing them apart. Keep them from smashing into each other, basically.
“The problem is, leaving it there after the incursion would cause all sorts of problems. Especially if it continued to expand, which is what it would do. It needs to expand just long enough to push the universes apart, and then stop expanding. That’s where this comes in,” he said, pointing to the armor. “When Tony here was trying to learn how to combat the Phoenix Force, he discovered that it had originated within microseconds of the Big Bang. He focused his efforts on decoding universal expansion. On disrupting it. That’s what this suit can do. And that’s exactly the piece we were missing.”
“And destroying this thing you created wouldn’t cause a…” Steve tried to remember the explanation Stark had given earlier. “Contraction of the multiversal timeline?”
“Nope. It would never have been part of the timeline to begin with, for one thing.”
“And you’re sure it will work?”
“Absolutely. If we had an adequate power source. We’d have to time it carefully, leaving just enough expansion time to end the incursion, but not letting it grow so large that we lost the ability to disrupt it. Not sure this suit won’t kill whoever’s inside it, though, so it obviously needs some more work. I can fix that. I should run it by Natasha next chance I get.”
“Uh, no, Natasha Stark-Rogers actually. My very favorite other-me. She’s you,” he said to Tony, “and she’s married to you.” He pointed at Steve. “She’s been, hands down, our best idea person on this thing.”
Steve blinked. That was… He tried to picture Tony as a woman. She’d be brilliant, of course, and beautiful, because Tony wasn’t feminine, but he’d always been sort of…beautiful in his own way. She might keep her hair short, because of the armor, and be toned and strong, just like Tony, and she’d probably get grease-stained and wear tanks in her workshop too. Then he tried to imagine Tony loving Steve, wanting to be with Steve, and being so sure about it that he’d want to do that, get married, promise to be there through everything and never leave. A Tony who loved him that much, in that way. This Natasha, he’d bet, hadn’t hidden the incursions from her Steve, even if she might have had some…misguided ideas about how to handle them at first. She probably told her husband all her ideas, even the crazy ones, with that manic expression Tony got sometimes when he’d been thinking too fast and too long. And if she got those ideas in the middle of the night, she wouldn’t have to wake Steve up and drag him anywhere to tell him about them. They could talk right there in their bed, and when Tony had talked for too long, Steve could…
Stark laughed, but he was looking at Tony, not Steve.
“I know, it takes a little getting used to, doesn’t it? You’ll find that Natasha has demonstrated her superiority to us in a variety of ways. Winning the good captain’s heart is just one of them.”
Rogers, who’d been watching Stark, mostly, throughout the entire conversation, shook his head and sighed. “I’m glad you’re making progress. We should let you get back to work, but I thought you’d like updates from the teams. You missed the most recent reports.”
“Yeah, I was kinda in the middle of something here.” Stark gestured at the armor. “Figured you had it covered. What’s the news?”
“Over at 616 Baxter, Kitty and Reed are making progress. The local Hank McCoy is now working with Kitty on her project, while Reed, Reed, and T’Challa are focusing on his, but none of them are optimistic about having anything usable in the next few hours. Stephen Strange had some suggestions, very tier-3, and none that didn’t involve killing himself and forty or more other people.”
“We need to put him in touch with our Stephen so they can talk about that spell he and the other Dr. Strange worked out,” said Stark.
“They’re apparently having issues with their Eye of Agamotto over on 1735, so we’ll have to table that one for later.”
“That’s too bad. It’s one of our most reliable tier-1s.”
“Namor and Blackbolt turned up at the 616 incursion site. There was a…bit of a misunderstanding when they first arrived, but they sorted it out. Hank and Logan are filling them in now on contributions their counterparts have been able to make in past incursions.”
Stark laughed. “I was wondering if Namor would show up, the incursion site being right on the water. Any sign of him on 1735?”
“Not so far. They apparently have some sort of registration act in place over there, and they didn’t go to war over it, but Namor didn’t cooperate either. He has a hostile relationship with the registered superhero community, and some nations have classified him as a terrorist. I’ve told Clint and Otto to keep an eye out for him.”
Tony raised his hand. “Can I just ask how that particular team-up came about?”
“Hawkeye’s involved because he came up with the idea for that one actually,” said Stark. “Some archery metaphor that Octavius took and ran with. They’re hoping to test it today, is that right?”
“They’ve run into a problem. They’re still working on it, but they don’t think it’s going to be usable yet. Carol and Peter don’t have anything either—aside from the gauntlet, of course. They’re still trying to track down 1735 Stark’s research.”
“How’s that situation progressing?” Judging by his face, Stark didn’t actually want to know.
Rogers looked sympathetic. “They’ve actually teamed up with Captain America, who was retrieved from the ice much more recently in their timeline. He’s only been out for a few months.”
Steve repressed a shiver. “How did that come about? The team-up, not the retrieval.” He had no interest in thinking about the ice, or what those first few months of loss, grieving, and adjustment felt like.
“He’s pursuing the same villain they suspect of ransacking Stark’s home. Looks like it was Batroc.”
“Batroc,” said Tony. “Seriously? I think this is a new low for me.”
“I’m with you on that one,” said Stark.
“For him,” said Rogers, “a new low for him. We think Batroc was hired by someone else. The equipment and research we need were probably not even what he was after, but he took everything.”
“This is really an impressive number of options that are not panning out,” said Stark. “And we’re over three hours in. I’m glad we’ve got that gauntlet, or I’d be getting worried. Speaking of which…” Stark’s expression had a spark of mischief in it that Steve associated with Tony giving him a hard time, but Tony now looked strangely tense. “I was asking my counterpart here what happened to theirs, because I wasn’t buying the official report I found in their systems. I’ll give you one guess.”
Rogers looked even more long-suffering than he had a moment ago. “Reed already told me—”
“You broke another Infinity Gauntlet, Steve. How many is that now?”
“One. I’ve broken one Infinity Gauntlet. How many times…”
“I don’t know, how many times do you think we’re going to have to discover that your complete inability to operate that thing correctly is a universal constant?” Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, Stark’s voice was almost playful, and his look affectionate. But none of this was making sense. They didn’t have their facts straight.
“I don’t know why anyone would have told you differently,” said Steve, “but we lost our Infinity Gauntlet when we got the gems away from that kid Robbins and Tony wished them all out of existence. I didn’t have anything to do with…”
One look at Tony’s face, and he realized he hadn’t finished learning ways to feel betrayed by his friend.
“I’m sorry,” said Stark, after a glance between Steve and Tony, looking like he really was. “I didn’t think. You didn’t know anything about the incursions when we got here. They must have done something to your memory. This wasn’t the right way for you to find out.”
Done something to his memory.
“Steve…” said Tony, and then he seemed to run out of words.
“Tell me,” Steve said, so angry he could hardly speak.
“You were with us, Steve,” Tony said haltingly. “Part of the Illuminati ever since we got the gems back. I didn’t really destroy them, just made it look like I did. We each took one to keep safe. You had the Time Gem. And when we learned about the incursion, and what choices we might have to make, you wouldn’t even consider… You were so angry at the very idea. We tried it your way first. You wanted to use the gauntlet, and that’s what we did. I wanted so much for it to work.”
Tony looked at Steve, expression pained and pleading, but all Steve could think was that these were moments of his life that he should never have forgotten, and he could remember none of it. The knowledge that his memories had been taken from him, that Tony had done that to him, filled him with a cold rage.
“When the gems shattered,” Tony continued, voice rough, “we knew there was so little time to find another way before the next incursion. You wouldn’t listen. You wouldn’t compromise. You had no solution of your own to offer, and if we failed, absolutely everyone was going to die. I didn’t see any other way. I did what I thought I had to do, and it killed me to do it. I’m… I’m sorry, Steve. I don’t know what else to say.”
“I don’t know what I was thinking,” Steve said, “to become a member of that group. I guess I never will know since you took my memory of that away from me. But I know this. It was a mistake to ever think we could truly be partners.” Tony flinched. “I should have learned my lesson after the Civil War. Before that even. You’ve always been so sure you know better than anyone what needs to be done. So willing to do anything to accomplish your goals. Is there any line you’re not willing to cross? What am I even saying, of course there’s not! You were willing to erase my memory so I wouldn’t get in the way of you blowing up a planet. So many times, you’ve shown exactly what kind of person you are, and I keep being stupid enough to trust you. I’m not going to make that mistake again.”
“Got it,” said Tony. “I’m just going to…” He picked up his tool set and walked stiffly across the room, in the direction of the Phoenix armor.
Rogers looked at Steve for a moment, expression unreadable, and then left as well.
“Look, Cap,” Stark finally said. “I’m not saying he doesn’t deserve to feel terrible about this, because honestly he does. I will say, though, it’s been my personal observation that most times he was taking everything into his own hands and screwing shit up, you were, how should I put it? Particularly… unreceptive to compromise. So you might want to work on that.” Stark gave him a friendly pat on the shoulder.
“So you really believe that? Those things you said about him?” Rogers, scrutinizing the screen in front of him, hadn’t even looked up but had clearly heard him enter the room.
“That he’s an egomaniac who’ll stop at nothing to accomplish his goals, no matter how immoral or misguided they might be? That I’d be an idiot to ever trust him again? Yeah, I believe that.”
“And that’s the kind of person he is.”
“You heard what he did.”
Rogers turned and looked him in the eye. “My Tony might do some of those things. If he thought lives depended on it and I forced him into a corner. But there’s a lot of other things he’d do. He’d take me in and give me a home. He’d devote every resource in his possession—his wealth, his time, his passion, his genius—to making the world a better place. He’d provide unwavering support to those fighting to protect others, no matter the personal cost to himself. He’d save countless lives, sometimes when no one else could. He’d suffer setback after painful, debilitating setback, and never give up. He’d trade his life for mine—for nearly anyone’s—in a heartbeat. And he’d never, ever forgive himself for failing to do the right thing or for making the wrong call in deciding what the right thing was. That doesn’t sound like your Tony?”
And it did. It sounded exactly like his Tony. Even through his anger, he knew he hadn’t been entirely fair in the things he had said. But… “Hasn’t he—your Tony—ever done something you didn’t know if you could bring yourself to forgive?”
“We’ve had our share of disagreements. Nothing we haven’t managed to work out. Nothing like some of the things I’ve seen in these other universes.”
Rogers raised a hand to his earpiece, a focused expression on his face. Another report coming in. After a moment, he returned his attention to Steve.
“They caught up with Batroc. Parker’s trying to make sense of Stark’s research, while Rogers and Danvers are trying to sober Stark up so he can help.” Sobering up Stark. That brought back memories. Feeling furious at Tony. Feeling like a failure as a friend. Steve had never really forgiven himself for not finding a way to help Tony during that time. It was nothing he was in the mood to revisit now.
“These universes you mentioned. Of all the ones you’ve seen, what was the worst?”
Rogers frowned. “The worst version of Earth? That would be the one with the zombies. Some sort of virus, and it had spread everywhere. Galactus had come, and maybe we could have found a way to stop him, but risk of infection was just too high, and there really wasn’t… anyone left to save.”
That was one of the most horrible things Steve had ever heard.
“For the worst version of us,” Rogers continued, “there was the universe Tony mentioned, where we did it my way, just made contact and trusted them to work with us.” He paused and clenched his jaw. “The Stark there didn’t want to take the risk that we wouldn’t succeed. He didn’t even give us time to try. He blew up that other planet, and none of his Avengers did a thing to stop him.”
And that was even worse.
Rogers looked down at his hands. “The worst version of me, though… There was this one universe. There had been a war over a superhero registration act. It hadn’t gone well, and the fallout from that war was terrible. But the hardest thing for me to see was what that other me had let himself become. In that universe, he’d—he’d killed Tony. He’d had him defenseless. Tony couldn't fight back. His faceplate was smashed open, and…" Rogers was either unwilling or unable to complete the sentence.
Steve felt nauseous, realizing how close he had come to being the worst version of himself this man had ever met. He could still remember the sheer rage of the moment. And the expression on Tony’s face when he’d looked up at Steve through the shattered faceplate and just…given up, stopped fighting. Even then, Steve had teetered on the brink. He’d come so close to bringing that shield down one more time.
"It wasn't me,” Rogers said. “I know that. I’ve had to say the same thing to Tony a hundred times. But the potential for that. It's in me. I still have nightmares about it."
Steve still had nightmares about that too.
“We had a war like that,” Steve said, and Rogers raised his hand with an apologetic glance. Another call had come in.
“They think Stark’s tier-2 project is actually closer to completion than the one Octavius has been working on,” Rogers told him a moment later, “so they’re going to join them at the incursion site so that Octavius can assist them.”
Steve took a moment to picture them: Carol Danvers, Peter Parker, a newly unfrozen Steve Rogers, a hung-over Tony Stark, Clint Barton, and a seasick Otto Octavius. “Better be a large boat,” he finally said.
Rogers gave a small smile. “It’s big enough. And I know my people,” he said. “They can handle this. You were saying?”
Right. The Civil War. “We made mistakes on both sides during that war. There were things Tony did that I didn’t think I’d be able to forgive. Eventually, we were both able to forgive each other. I thought we’d moved past it. But the things he was willing to do this time—what he did in the war pales in comparison. I just can’t understand…”
Steve looked at him incredulously.
“It’s a horrible thing to consider doing. It would have been the wrong call. But the options, as they saw them, were to save everyone in two universes except the population of one planet, or to save no one at all. I may not agree with them, but I understand what they were thinking.”
“What they were thinking was inexcusable.”
“We told you about our refugees,” said Rogers. “At the same time that we were first learning of this situation, trying to figure out how to handle it, we were also suddenly playing host to a large group of people who had just witnessed the destruction of their entire world. The risk involved in this, it was all still theoretical for us. It wasn’t for them. After that loss, some of them were more certain than ever that they could never bring that sort of destruction on anyone. But others felt that the loss of their home world was just the beginning, and they were willing to do anything to prevent the spread of that destruction throughout the multiverse. Whatever it took to stop it.”
Steve tried to imagine that chaos. It was a miracle they’d avoided their own civil war. For the short time it would have lasted before the incursions destroyed them all.
“That’s when things were most unstable for us,” Rogers continued. “So many people traumatized and not thinking clearly. So many violently differing opinions on what to do and how to handle it. And then I broke the gauntlet and we lost the best, the only, option we had on the table. Things could have gone so badly for us.”
“Why didn’t they?”
“Because of Anthony. And all the others who worked with him, but him most of all. He’s the one who came up with the idea for what became our first tier-1. I mean, aside from the gauntlet. Which I broke.”
“The refugee Stark? The one ‘having a bad day’?” Steve wouldn’t have guessed that at all. He’d have had that Stark pegged as ringleader for all those in favor of morally bankrupt solutions like the ones his own Tony had been pursuing.
“The Rogers from his universe didn’t make it to ours. He stayed behind, helping people through the portals. But the last thing he’d said to Anthony—he’d made him promise he wouldn’t stop searching for a way to end this without bringing more death and destruction.”
“And that’s what he did?”
“That’s what he did.”
He’d never met the man, but Steve suddenly felt terrible for judging him so unfairly.
“Tony asked you earlier what you would do if all your options were exhausted. No tier-1, no tier-2. You said you didn’t know.”
“After all the things I’ve seen, it’s hard to say exactly where I would draw the line,” said Rogers. “I’m sure I’d hit that wall sooner, the line I couldn’t cross, and would make a very different call than many of my friends. But what I need to remember is that those people, the ones who would make a different choice than me, are good people. They are heroes. I’ve seen them prove it a thousand times. I would fight with everything in me for what is right, but at the end of everything, I don’t need to be fighting my friends. And if I fought my friends over this, instead of fighting to find a way we could work together, would I be fighting to protect those people, or my own values? Because my friends would be fighting to protect people. To save an infinite number of lives. Focusing on that common goal, we found a better way.”
Steve stared at Rogers. Some of what the man had said sounded like wisdom, like things he’d realized after the Civil War when he’d felt sick over fighting with people whom he truly loved and respected. And some of it sounded like spin. Taking an unconscionable action and trying to turn it around and display it as a form of heroism, which it could never be. “You didn’t actually answer my question,” he finally said.
“You didn’t actually ask one,” said Rogers. “But even if you had, I’m not sure what to tell you, aside from what I just said. Some things aren’t black and white.”
“And some things are,” said Steve.
Another call came in. “Reed, Reed, and T’Challa had a setback on their project, in that something exploded,” he said a moment later. “Kitty and Hank are still making progress on theirs.” He paused. “I’d been about to tell you that Tony and Natasha have a theory about why the gauntlet broke when I used it. Would you like to hear it?”
“Their theory was that I had an incomplete understanding of exactly what I was asking the gauntlet to do. Something about the way I was conceptualizing it didn’t quite fit. But when it didn’t fit, instead of adjusting my thinking, I shoved it through with the entire force of my will, made it work, shattering the gems as I did so. Like shoving a square peg through a round hole—the square peg’s not really going to be a square peg anymore if you can get it to fit.”
“Do you think they were right?”
“I didn’t at first. I was absolutely certain that they were wrong. And then I realized that by being that sure they were wrong, I wasn’t really helping my case. So I’ve tried to work on that—on being more flexible in my thinking. There are some things I’ll never be very good at bending on, and maybe that’s a good thing. But sometimes I take it too far. Maybe you do too.”
Steve didn’t remember what his thinking while using the gauntlet had been, because he couldn’t remember using the gauntlet at all. But he needed to not think about that or he was going to punch a hole through something.
“Natasha,” he said. “Stark said she’s been your best idea person on this.”
“He says that. And she’s fantastic. But the truth is, as valuable as she and Anthony and so many others have been, more than anyone, we’d never have gotten so far without him. No one has been more focused and dedicated. I don’t know what we would do without his ability to think things through, predict outcomes, help us map the future so we can navigate it together. He’s so brilliant, and he never gives up, no matter how bad things get. We’re so lucky to have him. He’s amazing.”
It probably never would have occurred to Steve if they hadn’t just been discussing Natasha Stark-Rogers, the version of Tony who was married to a version of him, but there was something about the expression on Rogers’ face, and once he saw it, he couldn’t unsee it. Steve Rogers, the one standing next to him right now looking so passionate and so sincere—this Steve Rogers was in love with Tony Stark.
“Your Tony,” said Steve. “You and him?”
“Me and Tony? What? No.” Another call came in, which Rogers looked profoundly grateful for. Whatever the update had been, it couldn’t have been too important, because he didn’t bother to pass it along to Steve. He just stood staring blankly at the monitor, cheeks flushed.
“I love him,” Rogers finally said. “Of course I love him. But it’s not like… We’re not together in every universe. We’re not even together in most universes. It’s not something I can expect from him. He doesn’t have to want…that…from me. He’s still my partner in everything that counts.”
“I’m sorry,” Steve said. “It wasn’t my place to ask.”
Rogers looked at him consideringly. “You have more right than most.”
Steve wasn’t sure how Rogers meant that. Had he said it because they occupied the same identity and role in their respective universes, or because Rogers thought…
If he were honest with himself, there had been times when Steve had felt something resembling jealousy regarding Tony’s romantic partners. But that hadn’t been about…about wanting Tony like that. He cared about Tony, of course he did, but… That didn’t mean… He shook his head, frustrated. It was stupid, pointless to think about. Trust had been broken between them too many times. He’d be the biggest idiot alive to even consider it, and he wasn’t going to.
This time, when Rogers raised his hand to his ear, Steve could tell from the urgency on his face that the news was important, and it wasn’t good.
“Tell the Tonys, conference in five minutes. We’ve lost the gauntlet.”
This conference was clearly not between all the teams. When Steve returned with Stark and Tony, Rogers had just two people up on the screens, and they were both different versions of Tony Stark.
There was a fascinating-looking woman in a suit of Iron Man—Iron Woman?—armor, faceplate up and expression intent, but Steve found his attention drawn to the Tony in the other frame. His eyes were bloodshot, and he didn’t appear to have shaved for several days. It had to be Anthony.
“Reed’s in the middle of something and told me I needed to get my ass over here,” Anthony said. “Sorry I’m late. I didn’t think anyone would need me.” His voice was a little rough, but he didn’t seem drunk or hung-over to Steve. Just miserable.
“Of course we need you, Anthony,” said Rogers, real feeling in his voice.
“Yeah? That’s good to hear, Cap.” Anthony smiled in a way that didn’t really touch his eyes, but he stood a little straighter. “What can I help you with?”
“We’ve got a little more than three hours before this incursion ends, and we’ve just lost our only tier-1.”
“You’ve lost the Infinity Gauntlet?” said Natasha. “Someone really dropped the ball there. What happened, did their Steve try to use it?”
“Not funny, Natasha,” said Rogers. “And no. We haven’t lost the entire gauntlet, just the Power and Space Gems, but that’s bad enough. 1735’s Namor managed to get them when they were transporting the gems to the incursion point. So far he hasn’t done anything terrible with them. We don’t think he even knows about the incursion. If he did, he’d probably work with our team to end it, though I don’t think handing the rest of the gems over to him is high on anyone’s list of solutions.”
Natasha snorted. “Good luck tracking him down and explaining it to him while he’s got that Space Gem and can effortlessly teleport to any conceivable location.”
“Exactly,” said Rogers. “We’re working on it, but we need other options. Ideas?”
“I assume you’ve got your teams putting all their efforts into viable tier-2s,” said Natasha. “You do have some viable tier-2s, don’t you?”
“Nothing for sure,” Rogers said.
Anthony looked concerned. “This far into the incursion? That’s not good. I should be there.”
“We need you right where you are,” said Rogers. “Stick to the plan.”
“Sticking to the plan doesn’t always work out,” said Anthony, voice tense. “And we’ve never lost a tier-1 with so little time remaining. What are you going to do if another couple hours go by and you aren’t any closer to a solution?”
“We’ll find a solution,” Rogers said firmly. “Kitty and Hank may put something together in time. And on 1735, we’ve got Stark, Parker, and Octavius working on a project that might pan out.” Natasha raised an eyebrow at that but didn’t interrupt. “Most of our people have already relocated to the incursion points so they can share resources and ideas. They may come up with something else entirely.”
“All right,” said Anthony, and he took a deep breath. “All right.” He looked at Stark. “What about your project? Wasn’t it close to completion?”
“Exactly,” said Tony. “What about our project? It kicks ass.”
“We’ll keep working on it,” said Stark. “But we don’t have an adequate power source, and even if we did, that suit would be nothing but a coffin for whoever flew it. As of right now, it belongs with all the other tier-3s. I don’t see how we could use it without loss of human life.”
“Loss of human life hasn’t been high on Tony’s list of considerations,” said Steve.
Tony looked stricken, then angry. It was the expression on Anthony’s face, though, that made Steve wish he’d reconsidered his words.
“Look, Captain Perfect,” said Tony, taking a step closer to Steve, bristling with hostility, and that felt more familiar, better than the broken expression Tony had briefly worn earlier, the one Anthony had been wearing just now. Steve wanted to grab him, pin him down like he had when they were sparring, and not let him up until he’d realized how wrong he was, promised never to—
“Boys!” said Natasha. “Your issues are showing. Save it for later. And then perhaps look into counseling? Think of the children. I’ll get in touch with Kitty,” she continued, “and see if I can suggest anything there. Anthony, maybe you could do the same with that interesting little group over on 1735?”
“I’ll do that,” said Anthony. “And I have another idea. You still have the Time Gem. If it came down to it, if you ran out of time, you could use it to go back, make sure Namor never gets the other gems.”
“You know what a risky proposition time travel is,” said Rogers gently. “The consequences could be devastating. It would have to be a last resort.”
“I know,” said Anthony.
“He’s right, though,” said Natasha. “If absolutely nothing else pans out, it would be an option. Tell me more about this other Infinity Gauntlet. Were all the gems destroyed, or…”
“All but the Time Gem,” said Tony. “The other ones shattered, but it just…disappeared.”
“If you could find it,” said Natasha, “theoretically, you could use it to travel back to the moment the gems were shattered. Prevent it from happening or just use the gauntlet from there before it was destroyed.”
“That gem could have ended up anywhere, any time,” said Anthony. “Where it went would have had everything to do with who was wearing it and what he was thinking at the time.”
“I was wearing it,” said Steve. “But I have no way to know what I was thinking. My memory was erased by Dr. Strange when they decided it would be easier to just get rid of me.”
“Get him to un-erase it then,” said Natasha, looking unimpressed. “Clock is ticking, boys.”
“We’ll do that,” said Stark. “And Anthony? Don’t worry.” He clapped Rogers on the back. “I’ll bring him home.”
At least he’d already prepped the Quinjet.
Steve and Rogers were now heading to the incursion point. The Tonys were supposed to follow later, after they’d settled between themselves what to do with their project. A few minutes into the flight, Rogers spoke.
“I want to be clear about something. What you say to your Tony? I’m going to leave that between the two of you. But you are not ever going to talk that way around Anthony again. Do you understand?”
“I understand,” said Steve. “I shouldn’t have said that. I wasn’t thinking.”
Rogers was silent for a moment. “Tony’s had that effect on me before from time to time,” he admitted.
They were over the ocean and nearing the incursion site when Carol’s call came in. Steve glanced to the side, making sure Rogers would be out of the frame before he took the call.
“Carol, what is it? Are you all right?” She looked like she was in pain.
“Good morning, Steve. I’m fine, just a headache. I was just calling to tell you I don’t think I can make it for breakfast. I’ve got something— Wait, are you in the Quinjet? What’s going on?”
Of course, breakfast. They were supposed to meet in the kitchen at 8:00, have breakfast together. Steve would probably even have remembered if it hadn’t been for the newest development.
“There’s a situation. Tony and I have been up all night dealing with it.”
“Do I need to reschedule my appointment?”
Steve hesitated. He hated the thought of not telling her immediately what was going on. It felt far too much like hypocrisy. And he knew if he asked her, she wouldn’t hesitate to ignore whatever she had going on in her personal life, throw everything in her into helping them solve this problem. But for what? Right now she’d probably end up feeling as useless as Steve had.
“I think we’ve got it handled for the moment,” Steve said. “Bringing in the whole team right now might just complicate things. But I want to discuss it with you. I’ll be calling a meeting, tomorrow. And be ready, just in case. If we need you, I promise we’ll call you in.”
He would, if it came down to that. And he’d tell her tomorrow. He’d tell them all tomorrow. That would have to be good enough.
“All right, Cap,” she said. “Raincheck on the breakfast?”
“Absolutely. I’ll bring the kale.”
“Those headaches,” said Rogers, when the call had ended. “She get them often?”
Steve thought about it. “Now that you mention it, she does. She didn’t used to.”
“It might be nothing, but I want to put her in touch with my Carol, rule out a couple things. After we deal with this.”
Steve glanced at him, concerned. If Rogers didn’t think to bring it up again later, Steve would.
There was no missing it when they entered the area of the incursion. Another Earth loomed huge in the sky above their own. Below in the water was the incursion point team’s “boat.”
“Bigger than I was expecting,” Steve said, referring to both the other Earth and the ship, as they landed on the deck.
“We’ve got one on 1735 too,” Rogers said, with a touch of pride. “Tony and Reed designed them together. They have advanced cloaking capability, and they can generate an interdimensional portal. We can transport them from one universe to another, though we still haven’t worked out how to do that directly into an incursion zone.”
“Pretty sure that’ll all be going on Tony’s list,” said Steve.
When they stepped onto the deck, it became obvious how different things were here in the incursion area. Sounds were muted. The air and the water seemed to have no movement. The very color of the light around them felt wrong somehow. It was unsettling but somehow familiar, as was the sight of Stephen Strange, T’Challa, Namor, and Black Bolt gathered to meet them.
Stephen Strange moved forward. Steve gripped his shield tightly and reminded himself that punching this man in the face would be counterproductive.
“I’m sorry, Captain, for what I had to do,” said Stephen. “Reed didn’t feel he could come away from his work, but he asked me to tell you the same.”
“We are all sorry,” said T’Challa. “If there had been any other way, we would have chosen it.”
“I’m not,” said Namor, crossing his arms. “He brought it upon himself.” Namor was perhaps defensive that his power-hungry counterpart was responsible for the new emergency they’d been thrown into. Or maybe he was just being Namor.
Steve still felt disgusted with them, unaccepting of their excuses, but the pain and the rage he’d felt looking into Tony’s face? That wasn’t there. He just wanted to move on, skip the stupid, worthless apologies and do what they needed to do. These people had all had a hand in what had been done to him. Namor had been an ally, a brother to Steve for longer than Steve had known Tony. Yet Tony’s betrayal had cut so much more deeply.
“Just do it,” said Steve.
Stephen nodded and raised his hands, swirls of colored light gathering around them. And Steve remembered. He remembered it all. The overwhelming sense of power as he’d worn the Infinity Gauntlet, and underneath that, the fear that he would fail them all. Tony’s shouted instructions, encouraging him, guiding him in what he needed to do. The crushing sense of failure when he’d realized the stones had shattered. Namor punching him in the face. Steve, even through his anger, feeling like he’d deserved it. T’Challa abandoning him, leaving Steve to stand alone and furious in his principles. Reed, being so infuriatingly rational as he deconstructed and dismissed all that was right and decent and good. Tony, saying he was sorry, that he’d find some way to make things right, and then not meeting his eyes as he’d told Stephen to—
“Well, Steve?” said Rogers. “Anything?”
“I can remember. But I can’t remember anything useful. I wasn’t thinking about anything but pushing that other universe away. I didn’t understand why the gems shattered. I don’t know where the Time Gem went.”
“You might not have known consciously” said Stephen. “But the Infinity Gauntlet provides infinite awareness. It’s too much for the human mind to process all at once, and you were very focused on your task. While in possession of the Time Gem, even if only subconsciously, you were given access to everything that had happened, everything that would happen. You were capable of existing at all points in time at once. In a sense, your past, present, and future became one. You were aware of this on some level and almost certainly influenced where the Time Gem went. If you could go anywhere, at any point in time, where would you choose to go?”
“He sent it to the 1940s,” Namor said in disgust.
“I’d go where I was most needed,” said Steve, ignoring him.
Rogers frowned. “You think he sent it to where it was most needed? To where he was most needed? How are we supposed—”
Rogers was interrupted by the arrival of Stark, back in his armor again. He landed beside Rogers and raised the faceplate.
“Hey Shellhead,” said Rogers, and Stark gave him a quirky little grin.
“Hey yourself. Any luck with our boy here?”
“Strange thinks he may have sent the Time Gem wherever he feels he’s most needed. Or it’s most needed. Or something.”
“Then you should check in his Tony’s pocket,” said Stark, “because that man needs all the help he can get.”
“Where is he?” asked Rogers.
“He should be right behind…” Stark trailed off as the Phoenix-Killer armor entered the incursion zone, huge in the sky, and climbing higher. “Oh, god. That idiot.”
“What is he doing?” asked Rogers. “I thought you said there wasn’t enough power—”
“There’s not” snarled Stark, “unless he’s been holding out on me.” Stark moved to close his faceplate, blast off and follow Tony, and Rogers grabbed Stark’s arm.
“Don’t even think about it. Tell me right now, what level of threat is he posing here?”
“We went over the calculations on his Dyson Sphere,” Stark said. “It was aimed precisely, and we built in a fail-safe to protect the planets. However much power he manages to put through it, the planets should be okay. But if he gets it to work, he’s going to kill himself. And he’ll probably break my beacon,” he added, as an afterthought.
They stared up into the sky where the Phoenix armor had climbed to a point mid-way between the two planets.
“Get in contact with him,” said Rogers. “Now.”
Stark did something with the arm of his suit. “Stark! What the hell are you thinking?”
“Sorry,” came Tony’s voice from the suit’s speakers. “Taking it for a test run without you. Not cool, I know.”
“Stand down now,” said Rogers, “That equipment is not ready for use, and—”
“I’ve thought of something that should give it an extra kick,” said Tony. “This’ll all work out fine. Trust me.”
“Even assuming you’re right, are you forgetting the part where you’ll be fried in your suit?” shouted Stark. “Damn it, we still have other options.”
“Nothing we can count on,” said Tony.
“We’ve got the most brilliant minds of three universes—more than three—working on this problem,” said Rogers. “We can count on them. We’ve still got time. You don’t have to solve every problem yourself. They’ll get this figured out.”
“Or they won’t. I’m not going to take that risk. We’ve lost our last sure thing. Everything else is incomplete and hypothetical. I’m not going to let any more people die because I made the wrong call.”
“You’re making the wrong call right now,” Steve shouted.
“This is my fault, Steve. We both know it. I didn’t get enough minds on the problem soon enough. Well, you’ve got enough now. You’ll have the next incursion covered. We get through this one, and you’ll be fine without me.”
There was a small pause that Steve spent choking on his outrage.
“Look, I’m sorry,” Tony said more quietly. “I know I screwed up on this one. But I told you I’d find a way to make it right. There’s no point talking about this anymore. I’m doing this thing.”
“He’s cut off contact.”
“He never learns,” said T’Challa.
“Idiot,” said Namor.
Stark shook his head. “I’m the idiot. I should never have left him unsupervised. I should never have let you untie him, Steve. This is my fault. And it’s too late to stop him, now.” Steve could now see the beacon floating in front of the Phoenix armor. It seemed far, far too close to Tony.
What looked like a focused and incredibly powerful laser tore through the sky, hitting the beacon and engulfing it in light. Sparks arced from the device to the Phoenix armor, until it couldn’t be seen anymore in the gathering energy. There was a growing, rhythmic vibration, so deep Steve could feel it in his bones, and then the entire sky flashed white, in a sort of muffled explosion. The shockwave nearly knocked them from their feet and left Steve’s skin crawling with a lingering sense of dispersed power. The beacon still floated in the air high above them, but the Phoenix armor was gone.
“Where is he,” shouted Steve.
Stark didn’t answer, instead scrutinizing the sky and the other planet that was now clearly moving farther away from them. It already looked smaller, took up less space in the sky.
“Fuck me, he did it,” said Stark.
Blackbolt pointed up at the sky, and then at Stark.
“Tell us what just happened,” said Strange.
“What that beacon created,” said Stark. “You could think of it like a small universe, or you could think of it like an air bag in a car crash. It’s formed between the two universes, and it’s pushing them apart. Stark’s inside it now, and when the incursion has ended, the disruptor on that Phoenix suit is going to punch a hole in it before it grows too big. Even if he didn’t survive, the suit should fulfill its primary function. He designed that suit with protection after layer of protection for the disruptor. If he’d put the same effort into protecting the occupant of the suit, he might have had a chance of surviving this.”
“Why wouldn’t he survive?” said Steve, a terrible tightness in his chest. “What’s wrong with the suit?”
“That Phoenix suit is so huge, he wears a regular suit inside it, and I found obvious problems with the interface, at least if it was going to be used in conjunction with a device like this. It allowed for greater function, communication between the two suits, sure, but it exposed the inner suit to vulnerabilities. There’s a lot it could handle, but being so close to that beacon… The inner suit has to be fried. Life support functions must have failed. Damn it, I could have fixed it if I’d had more time.”
“You’re telling me he’s in there,” said Steve, “and he’s alive, and he’s suffocating in his suit?
“I’m telling you that if he survived, he would suffocate in his suit, except he almost certainly doesn’t have that long before the pseudo-universe he’s in entirely collapses.”
The beacon sparked with light again and then it seemed—not entirely there, like it was glitching in and out of existence.
“He fired the disruptor,” said Stark. “That beacon exists in all three universes, connects them, but it’s not going to for long. He needs to get back to it, but if his suit has lost all thruster capabilities…”
They all stared at the flickering beacon. Tony didn’t appear.
“I’m going to get him,” said Steve, turning to the Quinjet.
Stark grabbed his arm. “There’s no way you’ll reach him in time. Not a chance.”
Steve shook him off roughly. “I’m not leaving him there!”
“You get that Quinjet through, and you’re not making it back out.”
“Tony and I will figure something out.”
The others stared at him.
“You won’t figure anything out,” Stark said, “because you’ll both be dead.
“You’re not thinking clearly, Steve,” said Rogers, and he looked grief-stricken, like he understood how important this was, but he was standing in Steve’s way.
Steve raised his shield. “You try to stop me and I will take you down.”
“All right,” said Rogers slowly, “it’s your call,” but Steve was already bounding into the Quinjet.
“What the fuck are you doing letting him go like that, Steve,” Stark was shouting, and the door closed behind him.
“Steve,” came Reed’s voice as the Quinjet lifted off. “I built several functions into the device I implanted in Tony’s palm. Limited communication. Interdimensional tracking. And lifesign monitoring. I’m sending you the data—”
And there was Tony’s heartrate on the screen in front of him. A little uneven, but there. Proof he was alive.
“If that disappears, you have to understand that there’s nothing you can accomplish by going through. There’s no point anyway, Steve. There won’t be time for either of you to make it back out. Don’t throw your life away too. Tony wouldn’t want that.”
Steve didn’t answer, gaze darting between the heartbeat on the monitor and the flickering beacon growing larger in front of him. He envisioned Tony, sealed in the pitch black suit, gasping for air. How long could he breathe in a sealed suit that had lost life support function? Some longer than others. Which one was he wearing inside the Phoenix armor?
“Steve, can you hear me?” called Reed.
Steve remembered another explosion, falling into water. A friend in peril, so close, but beyond Steve’s reach. Everyone had said it had been hopeless for Bucky too, but it hadn’t been. He’d spent decades suffering, and Steve hadn’t been there for him.
“I’m not leaving him there” shouted Steve. But when he reached the beacon it wasn’t there. He stopped the jet, hovering, and stared at where the beacon should have been.
He looked down and saw that Tony’s heartbeat had stopped. All signals from the device in Tony’s palm had stopped, as if Tony, and his palm, and the small device within it didn’t exist anymore.
The beacon had been right there. He’d been just seconds away.
“No! shouted Steve, clenching his fist tightly around the stone in his hand.
The beacon was there again, but the sky and water were gone. He was in the buffer universe. Where Tony was. He glanced at the stone, disbelieving, before shoving it into a pocket and leaning forward over the Quinjet’s control panel, scrutinizing the emptiness for Tony. How long had he bought himself? Five minutes? One? There had to be enough time, if he hurried.
The beacon, again existing in three locations at once, provided some light, a small flickering star in an unstable, empty universe. And there was the Phoenix armor. He felt sick at its motionlessness, but no, there was also Tony’s heartbeat, back on the screen.
He transmitted override codes to the armor even as the Quinjet approached, because the Phoenix armor was just too large. It would never fit in the Quinjet. The armor opened the way it was supposed to. He could see Tony’s smaller suit in the intermittent light of the beacon, but there was no light coming from the suit itself.
He positioned the Quinjet carefully, placing Tony within feet of the door, and grabbed an oxygen mask from under his seat--the type that had saved his life on more than one occasion during bouts with toxic gas and rare deep-space missions.
He was irrationally tempted to not even bother with the mask because there couldn’t be much time left now, and he’d done that before, just held his breath, and he’d lived. But that wouldn’t be smart, Tony was counting on Steve to make the right choice, and there was no one else to take over if he failed. He waited to get the mask on before opening the door, grasping Tony in his lifeless armor, and pulling him aboard the ship.
Even harder was waiting to open Tony’s faceplate, see him breathing again, but if he didn’t get them back to that beacon in time, neither of them would ever breathe again. He let Tony drop to the floor as the door closed, then lunged for the Quinjet controls.
The beacon was flickering but still there when he reached it.
It wasn’t until he saw the sky and ocean again, not that strange motionless off-color version from the incursion zone, but the healthy normal colors of water and air, that he left the Quinjet hovering high above the water and spun around, tearing off his mask and reaching for Tony. He had override codes, Tony always gave him override codes, and he knew the secret places to press to convince the armor to open if the codes, for some reason didn’t work.
He got the faceplate open first, and although any air lost from the Quinjet while the door had been open should have been replaced by now, because Tony was clever and brilliant and fascinated by space travel, Steve wasn’t going to take any chances. He pressed his oxygen mask to Tony’s face as he worked to get the rest of the armor off.
Tony was still and unconscious, and at first Steve couldn’t tell if he was breathing. He couldn’t see the heartrate monitor behind him, but while the suit had been dark and functionless, the RT in Tony’s chest was still lit, and that was good, that was beautiful. Unless Tony wasn’t alive, and the light was just making mockery of it, was that possible?
He pulled the mask away from Tony’s face and leaned forward, prepared to breathe for Tony the way Tony had, at one time, breathed for him, but he felt the light touch of Tony’s breath on his cheek and was so relieved he might have cried, if he hadn’t spent so long teaching himself to push that sort of feeling down and in, never letting it free.
He sat back, placed a hand on Tony’s chest, and wrapped the other around Tony’s wrist. He was checking his pulse, yes, the way he’d been trained to, but he was also drawing reassurance. Tony, living and breathing and warm under his hands.
So many times, he had watched this man nearly die. Times when he’d been heroic, times when he’d been stupid, times when he’d been both. But this would have been the worst, Tony dying like this, after angry, hurtful words and nothing fixed between them. Tony believing that Steve really had given up on him, thought he was a terrible person. Tony never understanding how Steve really felt.
Steve didn’t understand how he felt. How was it possible to feel so many different things at the same time, about a single person? But maybe that was the only way to feel, if the person was Tony Stark. Tony was so brilliant, and so, so stupid. He was a source of such pain and comfort and sadness and joy.
How did Steve feel about him? Love was there. And anger. Anger that came when Tony twisted away from Steve in some way. In his ideals, in his values, in the ways he went about accomplishing things. When they didn’t fit together anymore the way they should. The way Steve wanted them to.
His hand tightened on Tony’s wrist. He’d spent a whole minute now, checking Tony’s pulse. Tony was living, Tony was breathing, but there was nothing more to be gained by monitoring his vital signs. Right now he needed medical attention, not Steve sitting there brooding at him.
He returned to the controls and saw that the ship was still below them, where they had left it, though it looked different, as did the choppy water around it, everything brighter and more natural somehow, now that the incursion had ended. The deck was empty, which was strange. He brought the Quinjet lower, landed, and quickly turned back to Tony, debating whether to carry him from the Quinjet or wait for the others, who would surely arrive soon.
He crouched down by Tony, brushed his fingers over the bandaged forehead, felt the pulse at his throat, just to be sure, and then slid his hand up into Tony’s hair, cradling his head. His thumb stroked along Tony’s jaw, brushing gently over the goatee that had been neatly trimmed a day ago, as well as the light stubble surrounding it, before moving to the smoother skin over his cheekbone.
Tony groaned and shifted, pressing his head a little more firmly into Steve’s palm, then blinked up at him in confusion. "What are you doing here? Aren’t I supposed to be dead? I could buy you as an angel if I believed in the afterlife.” He paused. “Did it hurt when you fell from… our universe into…” He glanced around. “The Quinjet? I mean. That didn’t make sense. Give me a second, I can do better. Did you know you're touching my face?"
Steve laughed in delighted relief. “I had noticed that,” he said, and that was the right time to pull his hand away, but he found himself not actually doing it.
“All right then,” said Tony, alertness returning to his expression, more mingling with the confusion than replacing it. He didn’t move to sit up, didn’t move at all. “So it worked, didn’t it? I totally saved the universe. We are in our universe, right?”
“We’re in our universe, Tony.”
“And you saved me. How did you do that? There shouldn’t have been time.”
Time. He withdrew his hand from Tony’s face, reached into the pouch on his belt, and Tony sat up, watching him, as he pulled out a bag of trail mix and…the Time Gem.
“Whatcha got there Steve? Keeping Infinity Gems in the same pockets as your snacks? You should take more care with those things. I hear they’re important.”
“It was just there in my hand, right when I needed it,” said Steve, staring at it.
“Lucky for me.”
Steve looked up at him. He wanted to touch Tony again, and that was stupid, Tony was awake now, and he didn’t need his pulse checked every two minutes. Although…
“Look at me,” said Steve, placing a hand to the side of Tony’s face. Tony looked at him, eyes wide. Steve carefully inspected one eye, then the other. Even, but dilated. That could be a sign of shock. He took one of Tony’s hands in his, and it wasn’t cold or clammy. That was good.
“What’s up, Cap?”
“Checking for shock.”
Tony pulled his hand away. “I’m fine, don’t worry about it.”
Tony was right. He was probably fine. They should go find the others. It was strange that they hadn’t—
He looked over and saw a group gathered around the front of the Quinjet, watching them through the window. They looked very amused.
Clint and Peter were both there, fantastic.
“Is that another us?” said Tony.
It was. What universe were they even from, and when had they arrived? This Stark was shading his eyes, squinting at them grumpily, and the Rogers beside him looked both intrigued and confused.
“Who’s that behind them?”
It looked like… Otto Octavius.
The Quinjet door opened, and Carol Danvers stuck her head in. It was not his Carol Danvers.
“Hello, boys. You lost?”
He and Tony stood on the deck, looking out over the ocean.
“You said we were in our universe. This is not our universe. How could you possibly miss that?”
“I was distracted.”
“This boat isn’t even the same color.”
Steve stared at Tony, annoyed. “Shut up and eat your trail mix.”
“Kinda funny, the gem showing up when it did,” Tony said after a moment.
“All the times when you could have used a little extra time. There had to have been a lot of them.”
Steve considered that.
“I don’t think, even subconsciously, I would have sent the stone back and tried to change the past. I know how many problems that can cause. But if I’d looked forward and felt that moment…” He swallowed. “I was just so desperate for even one more minute. I watched you die, right there on that monitor. I was so close, but I couldn’t get to you in time.”
He looked at Tony. And Tony was looking back at him like he honestly didn’t get it.
“You don’t like to fail, and you don’t like to lose anyone, I know that. But there have to be so many other…” He trailed off, clearly frustrated.
“You’re important to me. You know that.”
“You said you were done with me, Steve.”
“I was angry.”
Tony glanced at him, then back out at the water. “Sure. But you meant what you said. You haven’t trusted me—really trusted me—in a long time.”
“Why do you say that?”
“You’re not the only one who’s worn the Infinity Gauntlet, Cap. I didn’t mean to pry, but I was sort of all-knowing at the time. You really believed I was going to abuse the power. Remake the world in my image, that sort of thing. You didn’t have any faith in me at all.”
Steve reached out and took hold of Tony’s arm.
“In that moment I had doubts. But I would have had doubts about anyone who was tempted with that much power, and Tony, you proved them wrong. You knew my thoughts while you were wearing the Infinity Gauntlet. You don’t have a clue what I was thinking after you took it off.”
Tony looked up from Steve’s hand on his arm. “What…were you thinking?”
“I was thinking that I should have believed in you. I was thinking that you were amazing. I was thinking I honestly didn’t know if I could have done what you did. Did you miss the part where I wanted you, and not me, to take the gauntlet when it was time to use it to stop the incursion? It probably would have worked out better for everyone if you had.”
Tony laughed. “It is sort of refreshing, finding something you’re not good at. But it doesn’t make sense. Of all the people who should be great at using that thing, you ought to be at the top of the list. You’re already practically perfect in every way. Like Mary Poppins. Only… taller. And more patriotic.”
“I’m not perfect, Tony. I don’t know why you keep insisting that I am.”
This was really the first moment when Steve could look back on his memories, the ones Strange had returned to him, and reflect on what had happened. He still didn’t agree with what the others had wanted to do. Not at all. Not ever. But he could see, in retrospect, that he had made the situation worse, forced Tony’s hand, closed the door to any solution where they could have worked together and found a better way. Tony had not handled things well in Steve’s absence. But Steve couldn’t imagine ever finding a way to solve this problem without Tony.
“You said to me once before that you don’t…do anything half as well. Without me,” said Steve, struggling with his words, but knowing this was important to say. “I feel the same way about you, Tony. You help balance me out. You have gifts and strengths that I will never have. We need to listen to each other more, stop making the same mistakes. I’m so tired of making the same mistakes,” he said more quietly.
Tony was affected by what Steve had said, he could tell. But his expression quickly shifted to something ironic, amused. Something less real.
“We do tend to make a lot of them. Well, to be fair, me more than you. What do you think, ninety, ninety-five percent of the mistake-making in this relationship…”
Steve wasn’t going to let this turn into another joke. He tightened his grip on Tony’s arm, and Tony’s expression sobered. “I mean it, Tony. We never should have let ourselves get this far off track. I know we can do better. We’ve seen better. We saw it today.”
Tony was quiet and still. “You’re right. We can do better.”
His hand was still on Tony’s arm, and he didn’t really want to let go. But that had to be okay. Tony was always touching him. A playful elbow to the side, an arm draped around his shoulders. Steve didn’t often touch him in the same ways, but surely he had the right.
They looked back over the water.
“What sort of alternate universe fish do you suppose they have here?” Tony asked.
“There has to be a planet somewhere where the dominant species is sharks,” said Tony. “Or giant squid.” He shuddered.
There was a strange vibration, the air in front of them seemed to shimmer, and the 616 ship appeared alongside theirs, about 30 feet away. It was a different color, Steve noted with irritation.
Stark was standing at the side of the ship and caught sight of them immediately. Tony waved. “You two!” Stark said, pointing at them with two spread fingers, “Are officially on my shit list.”
This had to be the strangest debriefing Steve had ever participated in. He’d given up trying to keep track of the Reeds.
“So apparently when Namor has the ability to teleport to any imaginable location in the universe, where he winds up is the same room as Sue Storm,” Clint was saying. All four Reeds looked irritated.
“Well, it worked out well for us,” said Rogers. “Good job, Susan, getting the Space Gem away from him. And Carol, for getting the Power Gem once we could keep him in one place.”
“Nothing I couldn’t handle,” said Carol. “I was in the mood to hit something.”
“Carol, that reminds me,” said Rogers. “Your counterpart on 616 has been having frequent headaches. I’d like you to get in touch with her later this week, after their team is brought up to date.”
“So,” said Stark, looking at Tony pointedly from across the table. “Refresh my memory. How many viable solutions did we end up with here?”
Tony rolled his eyes.
“Kitty finished her project with time to spare. Because she is a genius. Have I ever mentioned that?”
“Not frequently enough,” said Kitty.
“And over on 1735,” continued Tony, “the spirit of cooperation overcame every obstacle.”
“Well, actually,” said Clint, “Parker and Octavius say they’re not ever going to work together again, no matter how many universes are ending. I knew that wasn’t going to last. But they did get that device of Drunk-Stark’s operational in time.”
“Don’t call him that.”
“I’ll call him what I want, Newbie-Cap.”
“Clint, go get some sleep,” said Rogers.
“Furthermore,” said Stark, “the lovely and talented Susan and Carol reacquired the Infinity Gems, also with time to spare. That makes three. Three solutions that didn’t require theatrics, didn’t require self-aggrandizing martyrdom, and didn’t require you.”
“Harsh,” said Tony.
“If you’d told me you had an idea for the power source, we could have focused our efforts on improving the inner suit’s interface. You idiot.”
“Hey, I told you that suit kicked ass. Apparently the ass I was referring to was my own.”
“It seems like a peculiar sort of mental illness,” said Stark, “to be so sure that you’re the only one who can solve the world’s problems and be convinced that you can only solve them by dying. Exactly how many problems do you expect to solve with that method?”
Tony shrugged. “It’s worked out so far?
“You’re the luckiest man I know.” Stark’s gaze shifted lower to Steve’s hand on Tony’s wrist. Steve blinked. He hadn’t noticed he was doing that. “Oh, and by the way,” Stark continued. “You owe me a new beacon.”
Tony grimaced. “I owe myself a new suit. This needs to be classified as tier-4—way too goddamn expensive.”
“I’m overbrimming with sympathy,” said Stark.
“Can we wrap this up, boys?” said Carol. “Jessica and I have places to be.”
“I think that about covers it for now,” said Stark. “But I want us to look further into the 616 Infinity Gauntlet option now that we have their Time Gem back. We still haven’t had the chance to try Infinity Gauntlets from both universes at the same time.”
“Operation Infinity Gauntlet Fist Bump!” said Tony, raising one fist in the air. “Officially on our to-do list.”
“Right,” said Rogers. “Let’s get you two back where you belong.”
Steve sat on the couch, watching the two Tonys work. Stark had been helping Tony add contacts to his system, giving them the ability to quickly call for help in a multiversal emergency. “Wake the Worlds,” Tony was calling it. And they’d completed that, as far as Steve could tell, but Tony was pushing for more knowledge, asking question after question, despite clearly being dead on his feet. Had he even slept the night before last?
“Tony, come here,” Steve finally said. “You’re exhausted. Sit down.”
The strange thing was, he actually did it. Steve couldn’t remember ever managing to pull Tony away from a project so quickly before. He must have been even more tired than Steve realized.
Tony sat next to Steve, glanced over, and when Steve gave him a small smile, Tony relaxed, leaned his head back, and closed his eyes.
“How’s it going?” Steve asked.
“They won’t give me half the things on my list,” Tony said, eyes still closed. “It’s not fair.”
“Did you finish the team expansion?”
“Multiversal Avengers? Yeah, we added them.”
“It really was a great idea,” said Steve. “Organizing the team the way you did, allowing it to expand quickly for the highest level threats.”
“I did it for you, you know. I wanted to make it up to you. To put you back at the center of things where you belong. To show you that…”
“To show me what, Tony?”
Tony was half asleep already. “Never mind.”
A few minutes later, he’d slumped over, neck in what had to be an uncomfortable position. Steve shifted to accommodate him, wrapping an arm around Tony, letting his head rest on Steve’s shoulder. It was…it was really nice, to be able to just sit there, and relax, and breathe, and not worry about anything for a moment.
Stark approached them, taking in their position with a raised eyebrow. “Clint said you looked like you were about to propose there in the Quinjet. I assumed he was exaggerating, but now I’m not so sure. You do realize that he’s already rescued, don’t you? You don’t actually need to maintain physical contact at all times. He’ll be fine, I promise.”
“Clint’s full of it,” said Steve. “Where’s Rogers?”
“He’s checking in with the others. Look, I know how good you are at selectively ignoring the bits of conversations that don’t suit you, and I know that it’s not actually any of my business, but indulge me. What is this…” He gestured at the two of them on the couch. “…all about? One bout of suicidal heroics and all is forgiven? Did he figure out something to say that made it all better? Is there a Get Out Of The Doghouse With Cap Free card? Because that’s something I’d appreciate having up my sleeve. That is knowledge I’d be willing to trade for. If I could say something that would make Cap go from wanting to read me the riot act to wanting to snuggle on the couch with me, I would really, really like to memorize those magic words.”
He had that look on his face, the one his Tony made when he was joking but not really. He looked frustrated.
“We aren’t snuggling,” said Steve, and Stark crossed his arms.
Steve sighed. “It’s not that the things he did don’t make me angry. It’s just…” He raised the arm not wrapped around Tony in a half-shrug. “I realized I didn’t handle things well either. We agreed we’d try harder and do better next time.”
Stark stared at him incredulously.
“Look. When Tony and I aren’t on the same side, when we aren’t together on things, everything in my life feels wrong. When I thought I’d lost him today…” He didn’t even know how to finish that sentence. “I felt like I’d been ripped in half,” he finally said. “We got another chance. It would be stupid to waste it.”
“So what you’re really saying is, it’s simple,” said Stark with a bitter smile. “All I need to do is make my Steve fall in love with me.”
“Sure you’re not.” Stark shook his head. “Well, thanks anyway. If that were an option, I’d—well, never mind.”
Stark flopped onto the couch on the other side of Tony, clearly no longer in the mood for conversation. Steve stared forward blindly, lost in thought. This idea, the one Stark had just confronted him with, was one he had been skirting the edge of all day. And he’d been avoiding it. He knew that.
It was just. It was a crazy idea. Wasn’t it?
Was this something he wanted?
It hadn’t even been that long since Sharon had broken things off with him. Again. He knew he hadn’t been giving her what she’d been looking for. She’d been ready to move their relationship forward for a while now and had grown increasingly frustrated with his stubborn refusals to discuss it. He didn’t even really know why he’d been resisting the idea. It was one of those other things he hadn’t let himself think about.
He’d half assumed they’d get back together. They always seemed to. But the fact remained, he’d felt no strong need to pursue her. If they got back together, it would happen in its own time. If he was honest with himself, he’d never been half as distressed over a breakup with anyone as he had over the times he’d felt betrayed by Tony in some way. And he hadn’t thought about Sharon today, not even once.
Had he been happy when he was with Sharon? That wasn’t fair. Sharon was a wonderful woman. It wasn’t her fault that he wasn’t, in general, a very happy man. And he didn’t feel happy now, exactly. But he felt peaceful, content, with Tony warm and close to him, in a way he almost never did. Like how the lingering pain of a dislocated joint would be outweighed by the overwhelming relief of having it back in place.
There was a certain kind of life he’d always assumed he would prefer over any other, if he could have it. It came as an image. The wife, the kids, the house with the fence. A perfect life. It had always seemed impossible. First because he had been skinny, weak Steve Rogers, whom no one would want to entrust with the duties of a husband and father. And then because he’d been Captain America, and other duties always came first.
It hadn’t really been impossible, though. There had been people who wanted that from him. With him. So why hadn’t he ever really tried for it? He’d never fought very hard to have it or keep it when it seemed like it might have been within his grasp. Even actively avoided it at times. Why was that?
He’d always told himself that his feelings for Tony were that of a friend. A brother. Now, with Tony’s breath soft against his neck, he knew that wasn’t quite true. No, it wasn’t true at all, he realized, as Tony shifted against him.
What did he want? He didn’t even really know. And he definitely didn’t know what Tony was going to want. But whatever this was, right now, it felt closer to right, closer to what he needed, than anything he’d had in a very long time.
“Maybe you’re right,” Steve said quietly, and Stark looked up, surprised.
“Right about… really. How very self-aware of you, Captain. I’m impressed.”
“But even if I did. It’s likely that Tony wouldn’t feel the same way.”
“You’re joking, right?”
Steve gave him a flat look. “Why would I joke about that?”
Stark looked amused. “We’ll need to be going soon. I should collect my captain.” He stood up, but before he’d gone more than a step, Steve caught his arm.
“Hey, Stark… Tony. Thank you for everything you’ve done for us. You’re amazing. And…” He hesitated. Some things weren’t his to share. “Don’t be so quick to give up on your Steve, huh?”
Stark appeared both pleased and confused.
Rogers entered the room, stopped, and stared at them, and Steve took note of his own position: one arm around Tony, the other holding onto Stark’s wrist. Steve let go.
“Hey Tony, I want to show you something,” Rogers said, approaching and taking Stark by the arm, with a warning glance at Steve. Stark looked delighted.
“Sure, Steve, show me anything you like.”
“Did you see that uniform changing station Stark had set up for Captain America here? I know you’re busy, but if you got the chance…”
“You want to change out of your uniform in my workshop? I’m intrigued.”
“No, I mean. I mean, no,” said Rogers, a light flush appearing on his cheeks. “I meant the machine that polished the shield. I know that’s something I can do on my own, but when we’re really busy, and there’s not a lot of time between changing and getting back out in the field…”
“Sure, I can do one of those for you. I can make one way better. It wouldn’t be any trouble to install something like that in my workshop.”
“It wouldn’t have to…”
“In my workshop.” Stark repeated.
Rogers stared at him, glanced over at Steve and Tony on the couch, then looked back to Stark.
“Hey, Tony, I was thinking,” he finally said. “It’s been a long time since we’ve played basketball together. I know we haven’t had much time for things like that lately, but next chance we get…”
“That sounds great,” said Stark. “Burgers after?”
“We could. Or if you had a little more time, there’s this place. It’s more formal, but I heard the food’s really great. I thought it might be nice to try.” He smiled a little uncertainly.
“I’d love to, Steve,” Stark said, eyes wide. “I really would.”
Rogers’ hand slipped down to Stark’s, gave it a small squeeze before letting go, and then they just stood there, grinning at each other.
He and Tony didn’t look at each other like that, did they?
Rogers raised a hand to his ear—a call coming in—and stepped away, clearly a little flustered.
Stark sat back down on the couch, a small, absent smile still playing at the corner of his lips. “I take it back,” said Stark, glancing at the still-sleeping Tony. “He’s the second-luckiest man I know.”
“That was Anthony,” Rogers said, a moment later. “He’s come up with some idea for improving my uniform after seeing the one that other Rogers was wearing.”
“Funny how many of his ideas involve keeping you safe in some way.”
Rogers crossed his arms.
“I’m not objecting!” said Stark. “I entirely approve. Just making an observation.”
“I worry about him,” said Rogers. “I want him to be happy. He deserves to be happy.”
“He’s doing a lot better. These things take time.”
“He spends too much time in his room. We need to get him out more.”
Stark looked thoughtful. “I’d been thinking of inviting him to share lab space with me. We could work on more projects together. I’d enjoy that.”
Rogers laughed. “The two of you locked in that workshop? That would be almost as bad.”
“Well, I’m sure you’ll think of something. I know that look.”
“You ready to get home?” Rogers asked. “You must be exhausted.”
“This couch is pretty comfortable,” said Stark. “But yes, very ready to go home. No offense,” he said to Steve, “but our universe really is the nicest one I’ve ever been in. I don’t think a better one exists.”
“That’s all right,” said Steve. “I’m partial to mine.”
“You’re a good man, Steve Rogers,” Stark said, leaning forward. “He’ll never deserve you. But you could do worse, I suppose.”
Stark looked at Tony thoughtfully, expression softening a bit, and he ran a hand briefly over Tony’s hair. Then he looked back at Rogers. “Just out of curiosity, how would you feel about inviting Anthony along to play basketball with us one of these days? Not right at first, of course, but—”
“That’s a good idea,” Rogers said. Then he narrowed his eyes. Stark grinned. “Basketball is a good idea. Whatever else you have in mind, it’s a terrible idea, and you’re ridiculous.”
But the way Rogers’ gaze lingered for a moment over the three of them, Steve thought…well, he wasn’t going to think about it.
“Come on, Tony. Wake up. Time to go to bed.”
Tony opened his eyes, blinking stupidly at Steve, and Steve could admit it to himself. He found it adorable. Tony could stay up for days on little or no sleep and still manage awe-inspiring feats of genius. But after, once he’d finally crashed, he crashed hard. Getting him to wake up and be halfway functional before he’d had a good eight to twelve hours of sleep was nearly impossible. Steve wondered if he should just get a blanket and leave Tony on the couch. But, no. He really deserved to rest in his own bed, after everything he’d been through.
“On your feet, Avenger.” That worked better. Tony struggled to his feet, stumbled, almost fell. Steve wrapped a steadying arm around him.
“Sorry, Cap,” Tony mumbled. “Been a long day.”
“Any excuse to get me to hold you,” said Steve.
Tony huffed a quiet laugh.
Steve picked up his shield, which had been leaning against the couch, and guided Tony toward the elevator. It felt perfect, having the shield in one arm and Tony in the other.
When they reached Tony’s room, the doors opened for him. He glanced around as he guided Tony to the bed. He hadn’t been in here much. Tony visited Steve’s room at the tower fairly frequently, but when Steve wanted to see Tony, he could more often be found in his workshop. And aside from not wanting to disturb Tony’s rest when he finally took it, a person’s sleeping space just seemed…private. He’d never minded Tony coming into his room, but he just hadn’t felt comfortable doing the same.
He pulled back the covers, and the lights lowered automatically as he settled Tony beneath them. The main source of light in the room was now Tony’s chest RT. Steve was fascinated by the play of shadows on Tony’s face and knew it was an image he’d be trying to recapture soon.
He watched Tony for another long moment, not really wanting to leave. But of course he needed to. He’d stayed as long as he could possibly justify. He turned to go, and Tony grabbed his wrist.
“Stay,” said Tony, then blinked and looked a little more awake, and maybe also a little embarrassed. “Or, or don’t, that’s fine, you probably—”
“Shut up, Tony,” Steve said, warmth spreading through him. He kicked off his shoes, took off his belt, and after a moment’s debate, removed his shirt but not his pants. When he lifted the covers, Tony scooted over to make room for him, and then there they were, together, in Tony’s bed. They looked at each other in the low light, and neither seemed to have a clear idea what to do next.
“I’ve never done this before,” Tony finally said.
“Right,” Steve said, nearly laughing at the idea.
“No, I mean. Been in bed with someone like this when we’d never…when there weren’t any plans to…” Tony smiled, tried to play it off as a joke, but Steve didn’t know if he’d ever seen Tony look so nervous.
Steve didn’t have any plans, not precisely. That didn’t mean he couldn’t make any. He placed his hand on Tony’s shoulder, felt the the thin strap of the tank he was still wearing and the soft, warm skin around it, then slid his hand down Tony’s arm, took Tony’s hand in his own.
“Checking me for shock again?” said Tony breathlessly. “I think I am, actually. Feeling a little shocked.”
It was Tony’s right hand that he was holding. He brought it slowly to his lips and kissed the palm, that spot that had glowed red and later connected them over impossible distances, watching Tony carefully. He didn’t want to do anything Tony didn’t want from him, but Steve wanted…
He opened his mouth, flicked against the palm with his tongue, then applied gentle suction.
“Oh my god, Steve,” Tony gasped.
Steve pressed another kiss into the center of Tony’s hand, and Tony drew a shuddering breath. He pulled his hand gently from Steve’s grip, and ran it hand through Steve’s hair, traced the side of Steve’s face, the entire time watching him with impossibly wide eyes.
“This doesn’t make sense,” said Tony. “You don’t… It’s been years, and you’ve never…”
“You’ve always meant the world to me, Tony.”
“The world’s always meant the world to you.”
“Of course I care about the world,” said Steve. “But when I woke up from the ice, I didn’t feel like I had a place in it until you gave me somewhere to belong. I still don’t…” It was hard for him to put this into words. To explain how cold he still felt, sometimes, when he was alone. And it didn’t appear that Tony was going to give him a chance to figure it out.
“Wait, you are my Steve, right? Because this doesn’t seem like the kind of thing…”
Steve leaned forward and kissed him.
Tony gasped, gripped Steve’s hair with both hands, and moaned into his mouth, deepening the kiss. It was overwhelming, sweet and warm and perfect, sending jolts of feeling throughout Steve’s body.
Tony sucked gently on Steve’s lower lip, then not so gently, then kissed higher along Steve’s face. The prickle of his facial hair against Steve’s skin was the most amazing new sensation, and Steve rubbed his cheek against Tony’s, making a happy, rumbling sort of sound that Tony swallowed in another kiss. Steve put his arms around Tony, pulled him closer, and Tony pressed his whole body against Steve’s, followed by short, sharp movements of his hips. That was overwhelming too, and Steve had to pull out of the kiss, panting into Tony’s neck.
Tony bit Steve’s earlobe, sucked at the skin of his throat, pushed him onto his back and placed open-mouthed kisses down his bare chest. Tony’s hands moved across Steve’s body with an ever increasing urgency, over his shoulders, down his sides, and then lower, where he began to undo Steve’s pants with smooth, practiced movements.
Steve wanted this, he wanted it so much, but—
“Hey. Hey, Tony, it’s okay. Slow down.”
Tony blinked up at him with dark, unfocused eyes.
Sex, for Tony, was most likely a reflex action. Something he could do without thinking, probably could do in his sleep. And he was so exhausted. Steve was starting to have a much better idea what he wanted from Tony, and this wasn’t the right way to start it.
“Steve?” said Tony, his eyes clearing. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have… I should have known you didn’t want—”
“Tony, no,” Steve said softly. “It’s just you’re so exhausted. I don’t want you to misunderstand. Wake up and think everything’s already over. Or wake up and realize you did something you didn’t really want to do. If you still want this tomorrow, I promise that I will too.”
Tony blinked at Steve uncertainly, and Steve tugged at Tony’s arm. “Here, come here.” They kissed again, more slowly, for long, uninterrupted moments, and Tony sighed against his face.
Steve nudged Tony into a more comfortable position, head resting on Steve’s chest, and let his hands play soothingly under Tony’s shirt, over his back and shoulders. Tony’s breathing slowed; he was already falling asleep. Steve knew he’d made the right call.
Steve’s own body still felt like it was humming, vibrating with energy, but that was all right. He was in no rush to sleep, and it felt good and right, consciously relaxing his breathing, holding Tony tightly to his chest.
With Tony pressed against Steve, it was fully dark in the room—as dark as night, which of course it wasn’t. What time would it be when they woke? How long would Tony sleep? It was hard to say. And would Tony even remember their conversation? Extreme exhaustion wasn’t that different from intoxication in its effects—possibly one of the reasons Tony was so prone to pulling all-nighters—and Tony sometimes seemed a little fuzzy on the details, toward the end.
Steve felt a moment of worry at the thought, but no. Tony wouldn’t forget this. And if he did, Steve would be here to remind him.
There were still going to be so many more problems. Grief and injustice and threats to their world, all the terrible things they had to face. But for now, there was just this. Just them and nothing else.
He tightened his grip, and Tony stirred in his arms. He resettled Tony on the pillow, Steve’s body curved protectively behind, arm wrapped around Tony’s chest. It was so peaceful. It was perfect. Steve thought he might be able to fall asleep himself.
“Steve,” Tony mumbled. “I can’t imagine a universe where I wouldn’t want you. Prove it to you when we wake up.”
Steve felt a surge of fondness sweep through him, and he pressed a kiss to the back of Tony’s neck, warm and content. “You bet.”