“Good evening, Mr. Stark,” Friday said.
“Is it?” Tony muttered, loosening his tie and heading for the bar.
“Your meeting with General Ross was unproductive?”
“You could say that,” Tony said, dumping everything that was left in a bottle of Glenfidditch into the nearest glass. “He suggested that he should be able to use my tech to start bombing old SHIELD safehouses, and I suggested that he fuck off.”
“How did that go?”
Tony shrugged. “Considering how much weaponry we each have access to, I’d say it ended about as peacefully as possible.”
“I see,” Friday said.
“He has the nerve to say I’m standing in the way of his investigation,” Tony said. “As if I of all people don’t know that Barnes is - ” He cut himself off. “You ever think maybe I went chose the wrong side somewhere along the way, Friday?”
“I don’t presume to know, sir.”
“Right,” Tony said, flopping down in the chair nearest the window and staring out at Midtown. “Well, considering I don’t have anybody to ask except my AI, I feel like that pretty much answers my question. If anybody calls, you can tell them I’m drinking myself into oblivion.”
“Yes, sir,” Friday said, and Tony threw back his first drink.
When Tony woke up, the first thing he noticed was that there was somebody else in bed with him.
He was - in order of appearance - puzzled, turned on, and perplexingly not-hungover. The last thing he remembered was pouring his fourth glass of scotch and the bright lights of Manhattan in the middle of the night. He’d woken up in bed with people he couldn’t remember plenty of times, but usually not when he was pretty sure the most flirting he’d done the night before was with his AI.
Without opening his eyes, he slid his hand across the sheets and ran into - an ass.
A firm, supple, and very distinctly male ass.
He hadn’t brought a guy home in a decade, maybe more - sexuality was a spectrum and he’d been hanging out on the other side of it lately. So, that was interesting. And awesome.
Keeping his touch light so as to not startle the attractive (if the ass was anything to go by) gentleman beside him, Tony skimmed his hand around a muscled hip and down a broad thigh. He bit his lip as his fingers slid into a bunch of wiry curls and took a deep breath as he palmed the thick cock, which swelled at his touch.
The man groaned softly, and Tony finally opened his eyes with a grin. He slid forward and pressed his cock against the man’s back, preparing to nuzzle the back of his neck and murmur something absolutely filthy, when -
- suddenly he was on his back, both hands pinned above his head and a knee threatening to crush his femoral artery.
“Who the fuck are - Tony?”
Tony blinked up at the face staring down at him. This was impossible. This was definitely 100% not possible, he had not just started giving a good morning handy to -
They stared at each other for a long moment. Tony was aware, dimly, that they were both still extremely naked, and, to put it delicately, enthused.
Steve seemed to become aware of it a moment later. He leapt away, scrambling to the other side of the bed.
“What the hell?” Tony said, rubbing his wrists where Steve had clamped them to the bed.
“Where am I?” Steve said, standing up and falling into a pose that would have indicated that he was ready to defend himself from an attack if he hadn’t simultaneously been trying to keep a sheet around his waist.
“My bedroom,” Tony said. “How did you get in here?”
“How did you bring me here?” Steve snapped.
“I didn’t,” Tony said, feeling a little stupid. “I woke up, and you were there.”
Steve looked around the room wildly. “A dream. It’s a dream.”
“Uh,” Tony said. “Is it?”
“I’ve had this one before,” Steve repeated, clearly more to himself than anything. “It’s a dream.”
“You’ve had - you’ve had this dream?” Tony said. His mind tried and failed to wrap itself around that. “This exact dream?”
“I mean,” Steve said, his cheeks going pink, “similar enough.”
“Okay, that’s gonna have to wait,” Tony said. “The thing is, though, that if you’re dreaming, so am I. Because I’m definitely here too, and I’m pretty sure I’m not a figment of your subconscious.”
Steve narrowed his eyes. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“For once, Cap, we agree.” Tony climbed out of bed, naked as the day he was born, and padded across the room to his dresser. “Excuse me just a second, this conversation needs a little bit more underwear before I can fully what the hell is this?”
Out of his underwear drawer Tony pulled - a pair of tighty-whiteys. He held them up gingerly by the elastic and blinked.
“Uh,” Steve said. “Those are mine.”
Tony lowered them. “Yours?”
“I mean,” Steve said, “they look like mine. They’re not actually mine. Obviously.”
“Obviously, because why would your underwear be in my underwear drawer?” Tony said, throwing the briefs in Steve’s general direction. “None of these are mine! And these socks - oh my god, they look like they came in a twelve pack, they’re horrible.”
“They look familiar,” Steve admitted, dropping the sheet and pulling on the tighty-whiteys.
“I take back the thing about this not being a dream,” Tony said, finally discovering a pair of his own boxers in the drawer usually reserved for cashmere socks. “This has got to be a nightmare.”
“I’m calling Sam,” Steve muttered from across the room.
“My phone’s on the bedside table,” Tony said, like he wasn’t about to full-out panic about his drawer being full of the underwear of a dude who he kind of hated and who, oh yeah, was supposed to be halfway around the world.
“Uh, I actually - there’s one on my side, too,” Steve said, holding it up. “But I’ve never seen it before.”
“That’s one of my prototypes,” Tony said. “I only make five of each. Why do you - ? No, you know what, that’s not the most important part of what’s going on right now. I’m clearly having a mental break and I am way too naked to deal with it.”
Steve wasn’t listening. “All of my contacts are in here,” he said faintly, thumbing through the phone. “And texts with everybody - Sam and Natasha and Wanda and Clint and you, a lot with you. Um. Some of them are - uh - pretty raunchy.”
“Yeah, I’m a big sexter,” Tony said distractedly, blinking at the open walk-in closet. “Hey, quick question. Is this yours?”
He held out a brown leather jacket.
“Yeah,” Steve said blankly. “It is.”
“Thank god, at least there’s no universe where I’d ever wear it,” Tony said. “So, your clothes are taking up half my closet. Just, like, heads up on that.”
“Um,” Steve said, padding across the room and holding out the phone. “So, was just emailed to me by someone named Annie Leibovitz with the subject line ‘For Vogue’.”
“Annie’s a sweetheart, I’m sure it’s nothing to - ”
“Tony, just look,” Steve said, sounding so miserable that Tony couldn’t help but pause in the act of rifling through his (half) closet and take the phone.
It was a picture of Tony and Steve, perched on stools and dressed casually, and Steve was grinning goofily at the camera like he didn’t have a care in the world, and Tony - well. Tony was kissing him on the cheek.
“Oh, fuck,” Tony said.
“Chemical poisoning resulting in shared psychosis,” Tony said.
“Possible,” Steve said, buttoning up his shirt. “HYDRA plot?”
“Maybe, but what’s their aim?”
“To make us think we’ve gone crazy.”
“Time travel,” Tony suggested, carefully selecting a belt, because clearly matching was a priority.
“To some future where we’re shacking up?”
“Did you just say ‘shacking up’?” Tony said. “I’m going back to nightmare.”
“I know I’m real,” Steve said.
“Yeah, well, so do I,” Tony said. “Would all of this have happened in any of those dreams you mentioned earlier?”
“Fuck off,” Steve snapped.
“I would, gladly, but you’re standing in my bedroom,” Tony said. “If we’re going to get any further with this, I need coffee.”
“Fine by me,” Steve said, crossing his arms.
“Uh, no, I’m not leaving you here without me.”
“What do you think I’m going to do, dig through the dresser we apparently share?” Steve said, rolling his eyes.
“Look, something really fucking weird is going on and I think we should just stick together and try to figure it out,” Tony said. “And then you can get back to wherever the hell you and the Sundance Kids are hiding out and we can go back to hating each other, okay?”
Steve stared at him, his lips pressed together. “Fine. Lead the way.”
As soon as they hit the hall, Tony could hear voices - way more voices than he was used to hearing at 10 am in the penthouse - and he glanced at Steve as they approached the kitchen. Steve was tense, his muscles taut under his shirt, his jaw set.
“There you two are,” Sam said as they turned the corner. “Breakfast was twenty minutes ago.”
“There are plenty of eggs left, but I’m afraid Major Wilson has finished off the bacon,” Vision said from the stove. “I’m about to make another round of french toast, if you’re interested.”
“I’m good,” Tony said, just as Steve said, “I could eat,” brushed by Tony roughly, and grabbed a plate.
There was an awkward silence.
“Trouble in paradise?” Natasha said lightly.
“Didn’t sleep well,” Steve said, loading eggs onto his plate.
“Same,” Tony said warily. The coffee pot was blissfully full, and Tony busied himself filling and draining an entire cup in the corner while the rest of the team - the former team, he reminded himself - chatted their way through an entire loaf of bread worth of french toast.
Steve stared at his plate the whole time, but Tony watched the others closely. He was starting to rule out VR or robots - they moved too naturally, said “um” and “like” in all the right places - but it was still possible that these people were clones, or doubles, or HYDRA agents, because there was no way, there was no way that this was Natasha and Vision and Sam and Wanda sitting around his kitchen table eating breakfast and talking about, about team stuff, like they were all still a team, there was no way -
“Rhodey,” Tony burst out, and everyone turned to look at him.
“Excuse me?” Sam said.
“Where’s Rhodey?” Tony said. “Shouldn’t Rhodey be here?”
Natasha arched an eyebrow. “He’s visiting his sister in Atlanta.”
“He left this morning, remember?” Wanda said.
“Oh,” Tony said. “Right. And he’s… okay?”
“Uh, last we heard from him, yeah,” Sam said. “Oh, you mean because of how I kicked his ass in Krav Maga last night? Nah, he’s good.”
“I didn’t hear that it was an ass-kicking,” Wanda said. “I heard there was some cheating involved.”
“Cheating?” Sam said. “Is that what Rhodes is saying?”
“It was implied,” Wanda said.
“Sam,” Steve said, standing up suddenly. “Can I talk to you?”
Sam looked from Steve to Tony, then back to Steve. “Sure. We’re supposed to go flying later, right?”
“Right,” Steve said. “Why don’t we go now.”
Sam looked at the half slice of french toast and sighed. “Whatever you say, boss,” he said sadly, pushing back from the table and following Steve down the hall.
“What’d you do,” Natasha said.
“Me?” Tony said.
“I didn’t do anything,” Tony said.
“Sure, that’s why you sound so defensive,” Wanda said, grabbing Sam’s plate and stealing the rest of his french toast.
“I’m sure it was a misunderstanding,” Vision said. “Though if past performance is anything to judge by, probably one initiated by you.”
“Yeah, I’m just gonna go,” Tony said, filling his mug up again and heading toward the elevator.
“Sir, Mr. Parker will arrive in five minutes,” Friday said as Tony whooshed down to the workshop.
“Mr. Parker - what, the kid?”
“Yes, sir,” Friday said.
Tony dropped his head against the elevator door.
“Hi, Mr. Stark, sorry I’m late,” Peter Parker said, picking his way through the workshop like he’d been there a million times before. “Aunt May was like I waited two days for you to empty the dishwasher, Tony Stark can wait ten minutes, but anyway do you want to x-ray my hand?”
Tony blinked. “What?”
“My hand,” Peter said. “The one that should have broken because it got crushed by like three tons of building but then it was fine? You wanted to x-ray it.”
“Oh,” Tony said. “Did I?”
“Yeah, you were pretty insistent on it,” Peter said. “Hey, did you think any more about the Spider-Bots?”
“I just think they would really be useful to keep tabs on the whole city,” Peter said. “Which would be awesome.”
“I’m sure it would be,” Tony said. “Why are you here?”
“Um, it’s our Saturday session,” Peter said. “It’s Saturday today, right?”
“You come here every Saturday?”
“Yeah, unless you’re, like, fighting bad guys. That actually doesn’t happen a lot on Saturdays though. I think they tend to enjoy their weekends.”
“Right,” Tony said. He stared at Peter, who was fiddling with something on a table that Tony hoped wasn’t combustible, and tried to figure out what to say, because he hadn’t seen Peter Parker since he’d almost gotten the kid killed in Leipzig, and he’d never told anyone the kid’s name and after the fight at the airport he’d wiped Parker from the databanks, and if this was all some big HYDRA set-up then it went way deeper than he could imagine, because there was no way anyone, anyone could have known what Spiderman looked like under the mask.
“Hey, are you okay?” Peter said. “You’re being kind of weird and your face is doing this crumply thing. Sorry. Was that rude? That was probably rude.”
“Only a little” Tony said. “If I tell you something, can you promise not to tell anyone? I mean anyone. Not even Aunt May.”
“Sure,” Peter said. “You’re not becoming a supervillain, right?”
“I don’t think so,” Tony said. “But I think something’s wrong with me. Or maybe something’s wrong with the world. I can’t tell. I’m not… from here.”
“You mean because you used to live in LA?”
“Not exactly,” Tony said. “I mean that I woke up this morning and everything was… different than when I’d gone to sleep. Do you - god, this is going to sound weird, but do you know what’s going on with me and Cap?”
“Uh, yeah,” Peter said, looking puzzled. “You guys came out a while ago.”
Tony blinked. “Okay. That’s… okay. When did that happen? No, wait. How did that happen?”
“I mean, you’d know better than me, right?” Peter said. “But if you’re not you - okay, okay, my understanding is that, um, Ms. Potts broke up with you after Ultron, and stuff? And Cap sort of, uh, comforted you, and then you two like, you know, started doing stuff, I guess. Like a year ago, right?”
“Uh huh,” Tony said.
“Anyway I don’t really know the details because you’re like old enough to be my dad but Aunt May says you’re the best thing that could have happened to the gay rights movement,” Peter finished.
“I bet we are,” Tony said faintly. “So this is - me and him? Really? We really… like each other?”
“Dude, I think you, like, love him,” Peter said. “Hey, are you okay? You look kind of pale.”
“Just having a minor out of body experience,” Tony said.
“Oh,” Peter said. “That’s probably pretty weird.”
“Thanks for a great day, Mr. Stark!” Peter called as he bounded into the elevator, his arms weighed down with tech that Tony had given him to buy his silence over the fact that Tony had spent the day peppering him with questions that definitely wouldn’t make sense unless you accepted that Tony was from an alternate universe. “I’ll see you next Saturday!”
“Who the hell was that?” Steve said from where he was sitting tensely on a barstool.
“Spiderman,” Tony said vaguely.
“That was Spiderman?” Steve said. “Jeez, Tony. Recruiting your little army off the playground, huh?”
“He’s powered, he needs - look, it doesn’t matter, except it does because in our world, I haven’t talked to him in months but here he apparently visits me every weekend,” Tony said. “Along with Nat and Sam and Wanda and Vision, too.”
“Actually, they live here,” Steve said. “There’s no compound. And you and me - ”
“Are super in love, yeah, I heard,” Tony said, flopping down next to Steve. “Everybody’s heard, actually. We came out on Good Morning America.”
“Oh my god,” Steve said, dropping his face into his hands. “What the hell is this?”
“I think it’s an alternate universe,” Tony said.
Steve opened his mouth, and then closed it. “Sure.”
“I’m serious,” Tony said. “I knew a guy at MIT who had books full of equations where he tried to prove the existence of alternate universes - Richards was a total dick but he was smart, and I always kind of blew him off, but as much as I hate to say it, it’s totally possible that he was right.”
“You’re telling me,” Steve said, “that you think we’re currently in an alternate reality where, instead of literally almost killing each other a few months ago, we’re dating.”
“Working with what we know now? Yes,” Tony said. “In multiverse theory, there are infinitely many universes, and some of them are completely different and, like, Earth is still covered in dinosaurs. But a ton of them are actually really similar except that at some point, something changed, or somebody made a different decision, and things went another way,” Tony said. “From what Peter told me, everything up to about a year or so ago is exactly the same as the way I remember it - and then, at some point, it all changed. And we ended up like this instead of the way we really are. So. Alternate universe.”
“That’s actually an oversimplification,” said a voice from the shadows.
Tony and Steve both whirled toward the voice; Steve stepped in front of Tony, and Tony reached for the convertible watch on his wrist, ready to blow away whoever was there if he so much as looked funny.
The owner of the voice chuckled and stepped around the corner. He did, in fact, look funny: he was wearing a sweeping robe and had a knockoff Tony Stark goatee, and he had his hands behind his back like he wasn’t even concerned that the two Avengers in the room were about to attack him.
“Who the hell are you?” Steve asked.
“And how did you get in here?” Tony said.
“I can become invisible,” the man said dismissively. “And my name is Dr. Stephen Strange.”
“Is that supposed to mean something to us?” Steve asked.
“No,” Strange said. “Not yet, at least. We won’t meet for a while.”
“Sure, that sounds reasonable, considering you’re standing right in front of us,” Tony said.
“The versions of you in this universe, is what I meant,” Strange said. “And you two wouldn’t have met me anytime soon either, if not for my… decisions.”
“Back up,” Tony said. “I’m right about the universes?”
“They do say you’re intelligent,” Strange said. “Though I admit I didn’t expect you to figure it out so quickly. I was a bit worried you might kill each other before you did. That would have been highly inconvenient.”
“Do you have something to do with this?” Steve said.
“Yes and no,” Strange said. “In one sense, yes, I’m responsible for - how shall we put it - scrolling through the universes until I found one in which to place you. But really, you’re here because of your own choices.”
“Scrolling through the - I’m sorry, you put us here?” Tony said.
“Indeed. I have access to many universes. Please don’t ask me to explain; it’s beyond your comprehension.”
“So put us back,” Tony said.
Tony glanced at Steve, who narrowed his eyes. “Why not?”
“Because I don’t think this has been sufficient,” Strange said calmly.
“Sufficient for what?”
“I don’t want to be cliche,” Strange said, “but in the simplest terms, you have a lesson to learn.”
Strange sighed, as if this was all terribly dull for him to have to explain. “The universe you both come from is shit. And do you know why? It’s because you both had so many opportunities to set it right, and you chose not to. You chose. Other things along the way - your time in Afghanistan, Stark, and you, Captain, your journey through time - those things happened to you. But this petty war, the one that ended with your team split and the Earth in peril and all of you pathetic and miserable, that was your choice.”
“So you’re punishing us?” Steve said. “By sending us into some alternate reality?”
“Oh, no,” Strange said, looking amused. “No, this isn’t a punishment. In fact I rather think you might enjoy it.”
“What was that you said about the Earth being in peril?” Tony said.
“Nothing for you to worry about,” Strange said. “Not while you’re here, that is.”
“Why here?” Steve said.
“Out of all the alternate dimensions available to me, I calculated that this is the one most likely to help you resolve your… conflict,” Strange said.
“I haven’t the slightest. I’m a sorcerer, not a mindreader. Best of luck to you both.”
“Wait,” Tony said, because Strange was - well, he was floating a little bit, and Tony did not like that one bit. “Wait, what are we supposed to - ”
“Try not to break anything while you’re here; realities are awfully hard to put back together.”
And then he vanished.
Tony stared at the spot he’d been. Waved his hand through it. Considered shooting at it.
“And here I thought the future couldn’t get any weirder,” Steve said.
“Reed? Hi, it’s Tony Stark, I need - yes, I remember. Yeah, I know, I know I called you a bag of assholes, but I really need - Richards, come on, listen to me, it’s about the - yeah, same to you, buddy!”
Steve rolled his eyes. “That sounded like it went well.”
“Richards is a moron,” Tony said, throwing his phone on the bed. “This could have gotten him published everywhere.”
“So what do we do now?” Steve said, standing stiffly by the door.
“I don’t know,” Tony said. “Hide in here and pretend we’re having sex all day?”
“Sam thinks we’re having a fight,” Steve said. “That’s how I got him to talk about, you know. Us.”
“Oh yeah? And what was his non-seventeen-year-old perspective on us?”
Steve shrugged. “He said we’re, and I quote, ‘stupid, but in a way that kind of works.’”
“Weird,” Tony said.
“You’re telling me,” Steve said. “What do you think Strange meant about realities being hard to put back together?”
“I don’t know, and I don’t want to find out,” Tony said. “But I’m guessing we shouldn’t go around screaming from the rooftops that we’re from an alternate universe.”
“Not that anyone would believe us,” Steve muttered. “I’m not even sure I believe it. What do you think is happening in our universe? Do you think they’re there?”
“The other us! The ones who - you know,” Steve said. “Live here. In this room. Together.”
“Well, if they are, they’re probably even more confused than we are,” Tony said.
“You think they’ll be more confused?”
“I mean, yes, it’s crazy that they share a fucking underwear drawer, sure,” Tony said. “But they didn’t start a war that tore their team apart and drove one of them into hiding with a homicidal maniac and the other one into an alcoholic breakdown, so I dunno, maybe they had a couple of good ideas. Plus, my phone is full of pictures of your dick so to be honest I kind of get where the other me’s coming from.”
Steve blinked, clearly sidetracked. “My what? I would never - ”
“You would, and you did.”
“I’m not him,” Steve said. “And excuse me if I’m worried about what’s happening to my team when I’m not there to help them.”
“Worst case scenario - and this is only if the other you is incredibly stupid which considering the other me is into him is probably not the case - you bring Barnes back to the States and you both get taken out. Okay, that’s actually a pretty bad worst case scenario.”
Steve shifted from one foot to the other. “That’s not going to happen. Bucky is - he’s taken care of.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means I put him on ice,” Steve said, his voice hollow. “Where he can’t hurt anyone.” He glanced down at his phone. “Sam’s ordering pizza and wants to know if we want in.”
“Perfect timing,” Tony muttered. “Steve, look, I - ”
“I don’t want to hear it, Tony,” Steve interrupted, sounding tired. “Three meat or hawaiian?”
“I still think we should just make our own,” Vision was saying as Tony and Steve followed the smell of pizza into the kitchen.
“But when you make it, it’s all covered in spinach and grilled chicken instead of a gallon of grease,” Sam said, snagging a slice of pizza that was, admittedly, dripping.
“It’s gross,” Wanda said around a mouthful of cheese and dough. “Anyway, we got salad.”
“Which none of you will eat,” Vision said, adjusting his sweatervest.
“We’ll eat some of it,” Natasha said, spearing a leaf for emphasis.
“Superheroes need a lot of calories to kick as much ass as we do,” Sam explained.
“Ah, yes, today’s rousing bout of Madden 16 was indeed physically intensive,” Vision said.
“Was that sarcasm?” Sam said as he opened a beer. “That was pretty good, actually. I can see you’ve been working on it.”
“Thank you so much, Major Wilson,” Vision said. “Your encouragement is highly appreciated.”
“You two make up?” Natasha said under her breath as the rest of the team led the way to the living room, arms full of plates and pizza boxes.
“What?” Tony said. “Oh, me and Cap? Sure, we’re fine.”
“You didn’t seem fine earlier.”
“Well, we are now,” Tony said, which felt weirdly true.
“Good,” Natasha said. She glanced at Steve, who was settling onto the couch next to Wanda and filling his plate. “Whatever it is, just don’t let him push you away too hard, okay?”
“Oh-kay,” Tony said slowly, watching Natasha perch on the edge of a chair and realizing that the only seat left in the room was right next to Steve. He bit back a sigh, pasted on a smile, and went to sit down next to a guy who he was starting to think he didn’t know at all.
“All right, that’s enough 30 Rock reruns for me,” Sam said. Tony looked up from his phone, which he’d been studying as closely as he could without giving away that he hadn’t exactly been the guy who’d designed it, and saw that the rest of the team had wandered away earlier. “You haven’t forgotten about our training session tomorrow, right, Cap?”
“Nope,” Steve said. “Uh - what time is - ?”
“7,” Sam said. “You’re kind of out of it today, huh?”
“Guess so,” Steve said. “Sorry. Hopefully I’ll be back to normal tomorrow.”
“Don’t keep him up too late, Stark,” Sam said, winking at Tony on the way out.
Once he was gone, Steve turned off the TV. “Think you’ll be able to sleep?”
Tony shrugged. “Might as well try.”
“I’ll stay here,” Steve said, tossing the remote onto the coffee table and fluffing up a throw pillow.
“On the couch? No,” Tony said. “If anybody wakes up and finds you here, I’m gonna get an earful.”
Steve rolled his eyes. “I’ll tell them it was my fault.”
“Steve, come on,” Tony said. “Tomorrow we need to focus on getting home, not convincing Team Nosy that we’re not having another lover’s spat. The bed’s plenty big enough for both of us. It’s actually designed to comfortably sleep three. You know. Just in case.”
“Of course it is,” Steve muttered, heaving himself off the couch and following Tony down the hall.
By the time Steve crawled into bed next to him, Tony was starting to feel his eyelids get heavy. “You find pajamas okay?”
“Yeah,” Steve said. “Only after I opened a drawer of sex toys, though.”
“Whoops,” Tony said. “Should have warned you. Third from the top?”
“Some things never change.”
There was a long silence. Tony was starting to wonder if Steve had fallen asleep when - “Do you think we’ll wake up back home?”
“I don’t know,” Tony said, staring at the ceiling. He laid still and quiet, tried to stay awake until he heard Steve’s breathing get deep, but at some point in the night their breaths matched up and Tony floated away gently, not really caring either way what reality he woke up in.
When Steve’s alarm went off, Tony groaned.
“Still here?” he mumbled
“Guess so,” Steve said, hitting the alarm and rolling out of bed all at once.
“Try to get Sam to tell you if we have any major Avengers responsibilities to deal with,” Tony said, rolling over and burying his head in a pillow. “I’m already avoiding anything to do with Stark Industries, so it’s probably best if I don’t totally destroy this guy’s life.”
“You’re already sleeping with the enemy,” Steve said, his voice fading away across the room. “How much worse could it get?”
Tony’s phone started ringing, and he opened one eye to glare at it.
“You had to say it,” Tony said, fumbling for the phone. “Hello, it’s 6:30 in the morning, why are you calling me?”
“Maybe because you were supposed to send me your feedback on my speech by midnight and you completely ignored me?” Pepper said archly from the other end of the line.
“Oh,” Tony said. “Sorry. I’ll do it today.”
“Uh, yeah, you will, considering it’s tonight.”
“Tonight?” Tony said. Steve stuck his head out from the bathroom and raised his eyebrows.
“Yes, tonight - oh my god, you didn’t actually forget about the gala, did you?” Pepper said, sounding horrified.
“No! No, of course not,” Tony said, waving Steve away. “I would never do something like that.”
“Yes, you would,” Pepper said. “Should I call and remind Steve in case you forget again?”
“Let’s go with no.”
“Maybe I will anyway,” Pepper said, sounding like she was making a note. “Look, just send me anything you want me to change before 11, otherwise it’s going forward as is. The limo will be there for all of you at 6 sharp, and Happy and I will be waiting for you in the Special Donor suite at 6:30.”
“You and - Happy?” Tony said, struggling to keep up.
“What, you’re allowed to bring your new boyfriend but I’m not allowed to bring mine?” Pepper said lightly.
Tony choked on his tongue. “I - you - ”
“Anyway, I’ll see you at 6:30,” Pepper said, like everything about this conversation was totally normal. “Don’t forget about my emails!”
“I won’t,” Tony said, but she had already hung up. He stared at the phone in his hand. “Uh, Steve?”
“Yeah?” Steve said from the bathroom.
“I think we have a date tonight,” Tony said.
There was a long silence. “We,” Steve said finally, “have got to find a way out of here.”
If you’d asked him to explain it, Tony could have told you exactly why it made sense to dig into his counterpart’s private, personal server.
He wasn’t snooping: this was an alternate version of him, one who might have good ideas about updates to the suit or the arc reactor or his team’s - his former team’s - equipment. Not to mention that something in here might give Tony a clue as to what exactly he and Steve had to learn about what they’d done differently in this world, which would give them a chance to make it back to the one they belonged in.
If the first thing he happened to open was an image called “Captain Perfect Ass”, really, that was just a coincidence.
And anyway, the file was a dead end: it was just a series of sketches of updated versions of Steve’s uniform, some with flame retardant linings, a few featuring a utility belt with a frankly absurd number of pockets, and one made from an impact-absorbent material that Tony hadn’t even invented yet.
He waded through the rest of his alternate self’s private files from the past year. Some of it was familiar - patent applications, updates to the suit, his VR experiments - but there were also things that weren’t: a smattering of photos of the team that Tony didn’t remember taking, friendly emails between him and Pepper in recent months, grainy cell phone footage of at least one battle against a holdout HYDRA cell that they’d never found.
But most of all, there was a lot of - well, there was a lot of Steve. Tony skimmed a seemingly endless series of chats between them that contained a lot more emojis than he remembered from Steve, and cringed his way through the first two minutes of the big Good Morning America reveal; he read through a Gawker article titled “These Superboyfriends Are Making Everyone Within 50 Miles Of Martha’s Vineyard Insanely Jealous” and glanced at a file that seemed to be mostly pictures of Tony in France, with just a few selfies featuring both of them. Captain America, it turned out, was terrible at selfies.
He opened a video titled “first.mov” and watched as Steve appeared on screen - ugh, vertical video, come on Alternate Universe Tony, get it together - and Tony’s voice said, “Okay, now, say it again so I can get it on camera? Please?”
“No,” Steve said.
“Pretty please? Come on, say it again and I’ll give you a blow job.”
“Tony - ”
“I’ll give you a blow job while you fly the Quinjet.”
The other Steve opened his mouth, then closed it. “That’s low, Stark. Real low.”
“Hey, it’s your choice,” Tony’s voice said. “Let’s go, time’s ticking, this offer expires in thirty seconds…”
Steve sighed heavily, but a smile was playing at the corner of his lips. “Are you ready? I’m only saying it once.”
“Well, technically, this will be the second time you say it, but - ”
“You’re pushing it.”
“I’m shutting up, I’m shutting up!”
“Okay.” Steve looked directly into the camera. “Tony, I was wrong and you were right.”
“You heard it here first, folks. Recorded for posterity, Steve Rogers admitting for probably the first time in his entire life that he was wrong, now excuse me, I have a blow job to give - ”
“You are so lucky I love you,” Steve said, moving toward the camera, and then the screen went black.
“Adorable,” came a very real voice from behind Tony.
Tony whirled around. “How long have you been there?”
“Long enough to want to give the Quinjet a thorough scrub down,” Natasha said, tossing her Widow’s Bites on the table next to Tony’s holo-screen. “Think you can take a look at these for a second or are you too busy mooning over videos of your boyfriend?”
“What’s wrong with them?” Tony side-stepped.
“Wanda and I were experimenting,” Natasha said.
“You fried the core,” Tony said.
Natasha shrugged. “It was a fun experiment. So what’s up with you two?”
Tony looked up from the toasted insides of the Bites. “What do you mean?”
“Yesterday you were fighting, now you’re sitting alone in your lab watching videos of him. You’re being weird.”
“It’s kind of a long story,” Tony said. “Look, can I ask you - do we make sense to you?”
“No,” Natasha said.
“Not at all,” she said. “But you make sense to each other.”
“It’s funny you put it that way,” Tony said under his breath.
Natasha arched an eyebrow. “You know how Cooper and Lila fight?”
“Are you comparing me and Steve to Clint’s kids?” Tony said. “I gotta be honest, that’s kind of mean.”
“When the shoe fits,” Natasha said with a smirk. “They fight because they love each other so intensely that neither one of them can stand that the other one doesn’t agree with them. If they didn’t care about each other so much, they couldn’t hurt each other the way they do.” She shrugged. “Sometimes I think you two are kind of like that. I’ll pick up the Bites tomorrow?”
“I’ll see what I can do,” Tony said.
“And by the way, if you’re freaking out about something,” Natasha said, “you should be talking to him, not me.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” Tony said as the door slid shut behind her.
“Any updates?” Steve said the second Tony walked in the door.
Tony blinked up at him. Steve was dressed in an extremely well-fitted tux and a deep blue bow tie and it was, to put it mildly, distracting. “Huh?”
“On getting us home,” Steve said. He looked down at himself, then back up. “What? Is this not right for the gala?”
“No, it’s fine,” Tony said quickly.
“Are you sure?” Steve said, sounding as uncertain as Tony ever heard him. “It just looked nice, I found it in the closet and it’s - ”
“It’s perfect,” Tony said. “And I didn’t find much. If the other me knows anything about reality hopping, he’s not sharing with the class.” Tony tore his eyes away from Steve and made his way to his - their - closet. “Did you know we went on vacation together?”
“To the south of France,” Steve said. “I found some drawings in my desk. His desk.”
“I didn’t know you drew,” Tony said, selecting one of his suits at random.
“I don’t,” Steve said shortly. “So you didn’t find anything that could help us get into the other reality?”
“Nada,” Tony said. “And nothing on this Strange guy, either. A neurosurgeon with the same name died in a car accident a year ago, but oddly enough, his obituary didn’t mention whether or not he could break down the barriers between universes.”
“He might not exist here,” Steve said. “But if he doesn’t exist here, that means we might have to wait - ”
“Until he comes back for us,” Tony finished.
There was a long, uncomfortable silence.
Finally, Steve said, “We can’t fake this for much longer.”
“I know, pretending not to hate me must be such a trial,” Tony said. “Let’s get going.”
“I didn’t mean - ”
“Look, Pepper is going to slaughter me if I’m late to my own gala,” Tony said. “Are you ready or not?”
Steve straightened up like he was going into battle. “As I’ll ever be.”
“Lighten up,” Tony said. “How bad can it be?”
“Can we leave yet?” Steve said.
Tony glanced at his watch. “We got here ten minutes ago.”
“It feels like it’s been an hour.”
“What’s your problem?” Tony said. “You’ve been to plenty of these things before.”
“Yeah, but never as your date,” Steve hissed. “Did you hear that guy on the way in tell me to give you a kiss for the cameras?”
“Well, would it kill you to show me some affection once in awhile?” Tony said. “Go get something to eat and - oh, perfect, awesome, here they come.”
“Here who - oh, hi, Pepper,” Steve said.
“Hi, Steve,” Pepper said warmly, pressing an air kiss to Steve’s cheek. “Hi, Tony.”
Behind her, Happy nodded. “Hey, boss.”
“Happy,” Tony said.
“So, this is… nice,” Steve said awkwardly.
“Isn’t it?” Pepper said quickly. “Have you been to the annual Maria Stark Foundation Gala before?”
“No?” Steve said uncertainly.
“Pro tip - they bring out the all-you-can-eat crab legs after the speeches,” Pepper said.
“Good to know,” Steve said, while Tony tried not to notice how close Happy was standing to Pepper and, unrelatedly, clenched and unclenched his fists.
“So, Tony, are you ready to introduce me?” Pepper said, clearly still clinging to the mistaken belief that this interaction could be anything but uncomfortable. “You know, it’s so silly, but I still get nervous before big speeches.”
“She was up all night practicing,” Happy confirmed, and Pepper smiled at him, and the bottom dropped out of Tony’s stomach because he couldn’t remember the last time Pepper had smiled at him like that.
Without warning, Steve threw an arm around Tony’s shoulders. “Hey, can I talk to you for a minute? Sweetheart?”
“Uh,” Tony said. “What?”
“See you guys later!” Steve tossed over his shoulder as he led Tony away from Pepper and Happy.
“I wasn’t going to punch him,” Tony said. “Probably.”
“I know,” Steve said. “You just looked... miserable. I’m guessing in our world they’re not a thing?”
“If they are, they haven’t told me.” Tony tried to look casually over at them, but Steve grabbed his shoulder.
“Don’t,” Steve said. “You’re in love with me, remember?”
“How could I forget?” Tony said. “Also, ‘sweetheart’? That warms my heart, Cap, it really does.”
“It was the first thing that came to mind,” Steve said, turning pink.
“If you say so, honey bunches,” Tony said.
“Are you gonna ask him to dance?” Sam said, elbowing his way through a crowd of donors to join Tony at the bar. “I need a beer, a vodka tonic and, oh yeah, a sparkling water for Vision the party animal.”
“Vision drinks water now?”
“I think he just likes to hold it,” Sam said. “So - dancing?”
“I don’t know, Vision kind of looks like he has two left feet.”
Sam rolled his eyes. “You know he’s been practicing, man.”
“Has he,” Tony said flatly, following Sam’s gaze over to Steve.
“Yup,” Sam said. “You know, until now we’ve avoided having that stupid conversation where the best friend tells you I’ll kill you if you hurt him, but I think I’m gonna draw the line right here. I cannot guarantee your well-being if you let him sit there all night, Stark.”
“He doesn’t look like he wants to dance,” Tony hedged.
“You think you can take me without the suit?” Sam said, collecting his drinks. “Because it sounds like you want to find out.”
“I really don’t,” Tony said as Sam gave him one last smirk and edged back to their table. “Yeah, can I get a shot of the strongest thing you have back there?”
One $98 glass later, Tony threw back his shoulders, marched across the room, and tapped Steve on the shoulder. “May I have this dance, Captain?”
Steve stared at him. “Very funny.”
“It’s not a joke,” Tony said, as quietly as he could. “You’ve been practicing, remember?”
“No,” Steve said, looking horrified.
“Yes,” Tony said.
“I don’t - ”
“Well, you’re gonna have to if you don’t want to make your bff suspicious.” Tony nodded at the rest of the team, and when Steve glanced at them, they all quickly looked away like they hadn’t been watching in the first place. “Come on, soldier,” he said, grabbing Steve’s elbow and hauling him up. “One dance so Wilson doesn’t tear me a new one.” The crowd of dancers seemed to open up around them as they made their way to the middle of the dance floor. Taking a deep breath, Tony grabbed one of Steve’s hands and put the other on the small of his back, and Steve laid a large hand on Tony’s shoulder. Tony stepped gently to one side, and Steve stepped with him, half a beat behind.
“Sorry, do you want to lead?” Tony said.
“I don’t care,” Steve said, gritting his teeth.
Tony pulled him in a little closer. “Maybe try smiling? I hear that some people actually think dancing is fun.”
“I can’t help it,” Steve said.
“Is it that bad to be dancing with a guy?” Tony said lightly.
“No, not - just dancing,” Steve said. “I have no problem with dancing with men - ”
“I know, I kind of figured that out when you said you’ve had dreams about me,” Tony said, leaning in close to Steve’s ear.
“I knew that was going to come up again,” Steve snapped. “You were just waiting to - ”
“Steve, come on, I’m teasing you,” Tony said. “We’re dancing in front of 500 of our closest friends and you look like you’re in a HYDRA torture chamber, I’m just trying to lighten the mood.”
“Everyone’s staring at us,” Steve said. “And taking pictures.”
“Well, yeah,” Tony said. “We’re kind of famous. Haven’t you noticed?”
“I still think we should be spending our time trying to get back home instead of dancing at $1000 a plate events - ”
“$5000 a plate, come on, it’s for the kids,” Tony said. “Look, I want to get out of here just as much as you do, but it doesn’t do anyone any good if I fuck things up for this universe’s version of me in the meantime, okay? Screwing up one universe is more than enough. Anyway, the song’s almost over. Ready for the big finish?”
“You’re not going to dip me, are you?” Steve said.
“You’re the one who’s been practicing your moves, shouldn’t you dip me?” Tony said.
“Not in a million years,” Steve said, shaking his head as the music wound down and a few people started to clap. “All the things this other me could have been doing with his time, and he spends it - ”
Half for the cameras, and half just to shut him up, Tony leaned in and pressed his lips to Steve’s. Behind his eyelids, he saw a dozen flashes of light, and he hoped that Steve wasn’t about to haul off and punch him.
“ - dancing,” Steve finished faintly. “I can’t believe you did that.”
Ton grabbed Steve’s hand and pulled him off the dance floor. “I can’t believe you let me.”
“What, just one song?” Natasha said, arching an eyebrow as Steve collapsed in the chair next to her.
“I don’t want to wear him out,” Tony said with a wink. “Plus, I should probably get back to greeting New York’s rich and obnoxious.”
“Sounds like a blast,” Natasha said, sipping her vodka tonic and watching him in a way that made Tony distinctly uncomfortable, almost like she knew something wasn’t quite right. Well, to be fair, she was a spy. Tony swallowed hard and smiled brightly at Steve.
“See you in a bit, baby,” he said, swooping down and pressing a kiss to Steve’s cheek.
“Uh, bye,” Steve said, blinking at him.
“Have fun,” Natasha drawled, and Tony could feel his eyes on her as he walked away.
“You were laying it on a little thick with Nat earlier,” Steve said later that night.
“Would you prefer tongue next time?” Tony said, yanking off his tie and dropping it on the bedroom floor. “She seemed suspicious.”
“Oh, yeah, I’m sure she’s got us figured out,” Steve said, picking up the tie and hanging it next to his own. “‘They’ve been acting weird - I bet they’re from another universe!’ Nat’s smart, but that seems like a stretch.”
“Better safe than sorry,” Tony said. “We have no idea what could happen if someone figures out we’re not supposed to be here. I have no idea how we act here, but I’m guessing you don’t go around looking like you’re heading to your own funeral just because you’re standing next to me. And oh my god, stop picking up my clothes!”
“Then stop throwing them on the floor!” Steve snapped.
“Look at us, we’ve only been together for two days and we’re already fighting like an old married couple,” Tony said as Steve slammed the bathroom door behind him.
Steve’s muffled voice shot back, “Shut up, Tony.”
“If we want Strange to come back for us, we have to follow his rules,” Tony said, not looking up from his phone as Steve emerged from the bathroom a few minutes later.
“I know,” Steve said shortly, sliding into the far side of the bed. “But being around them here - Nat and Sam and Wanda - it feels wrong. Like I’m betraying the real them.”
“These versions of them are real too.”
“That’s exactly what makes it so hard,” Steve said. “I know them and they know me, and it’s so - it’s so easy to be here with them. It’s so much easier than sleeping in shifts with Sam and eating whatever Scott can steal and - ” He broke off. “They’re still out there somewhere.”
“They’ll be okay,” Tony said quietly.
“They’re only there because of me,” Steve said. “Because I asked them to help me.”
“You did what you had to do.”
Steve snorted. “I’m sure you believe that.”
“I do,” Tony said, surprising even himself. “That’s the thing. I really do. Just like I hope you believe that everything I did, I did because I had to. If you think I walk around here happy about how everything turned out, then - well, it’s safe to say the other you knows me a lot better than you do.” He rolled away. “Night, Steve.”
He was about to drift off, was just hovering on the edge of consciousness when Steve, so quietly that Tony wasn’t sure he was meant to hear it at all, said, “Night, Tony.”
When Tony woke up, the bed was big, and empty, and - cold.
He was on his feet before he could think, his brain struggling to catch up as he blurted out, “Where is he?”
“Captain Rogers, sir?” Friday asked.
“Yeah, him,” Tony said, stumbling to the dresser and pulling open a drawer of his socks, then another of his undershirts, then -
“He’s in the kitchen,” Friday said, just as Tony pulled open a drawer absolutely chock full of tightey-whiteys.
“Oh, thank god,” Tony said, staring down at the frankly atrocious underwear and trying to catch his breath.
“Is everything all right, sir?” Friday asked.
“Fine,” Tony said. “I have never been so happy to see briefs in my life.”
“Eggs?” Steve asked a few minutes later, after Tony had gotten his heart rate down to normal and made his way to the kitchen.
“Coffee.” Tony poured himself as big a mug as he could find, then leaned against the counter next to the stove. “So I thought I woke up back home.”
Steve glanced at him, then looked back down at the frying pan. “What made you think that?”
“You were gone.”
“It’s almost 10 am,” Steve said. “Did you consider the possibility that I’m a morning person?”
“You’re not a morning person,” Tony dismissed.
“I am compared to you,” Steve said. “So were you disappointed when you found out you were still… here?”
Tony took a long sip. “No,” he said.
“Nah,” Tony said. “I still haven’t figured out exactly how to track you down once we’re back. General Ross will be expecting a full report.” Steve whirled on him, and Tony rolled his eyes. “Come on, Cap, I’m kidding. After all this, I’ll be too busy celebrating my tightey-whitey-free closet to worry about where Real World Superhero Edition is hanging out.”
Steve shook his head. “I’m starting to think you’re obsessed with my underwear.”
“Uh, yeah, I am, when we get home the underwear thing is going up on TMZ immediately - ”
“There are our resident lovebirds!” Sam said, crowding into the kitchen with Natasha, Wanda and Vision on his heels. “You guys see the front page this morning?”
“What front page?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Wanda said. “All of them?”
“Superheroes Steam Up Stark Soiree,” Natasha read off her phone. “Courtesy of the New York Times.”
“Hot hot hot - Cap and Iron Man Go On Lip Lockdown,” Vision said. “A somewhat less poetic effort from People.com.”
“Fox News said that your ‘crass display of nontraditional values -’ wow, now there’s a sexy euphemism - ‘should result in the Avengers’ immediate loss of governmental support,’” Sam quoted.
“Should we tell them we’re not supported by the government in the first place?” Wanda said.
“There’s no point feeding the trolls,” Natasha said, snagging a bite of Steve’s omelette right off his plate.
“What’s the big deal?” Tony said. “It was just a kiss.”
“Nothing you two do is ‘just a kiss’,” Natasha said.
“Yeah, remember the time you held hands in Central Park?” Sam said. “The internet almost exploded.”
“Or the time somebody got a picture of you wearing a Captain America shirt,” Natasha said. “That was CNN’s top story for literally an entire day.”
“My favorite is still the lunch date at Per Se,” Wanda said. “The one where that woman live tweeted their entire fight about napkins, remember?”
“That was a classic,” Sam said. “I wanted to tell her, hey, come hang out at my place, you can listen to them have pointless arguments all day. It’s just one of the many perks of being an Avenger!”
“Don’t you guys have anything better to do than stand around and harass your teammates?” Tony said.
“Good point. Before we got sidetracked by your ugly mugs all over every paper in town, we were on our way to flying practice,” Sam said, elbowing Wanda.
“More like hovering practice,” Wanda grumbled. “I still don’t know why I can’t just jump off of something and figure it out on the way.”
“Maybe because last time you tried that, you almost died?” Natasha said.
“That was months ago,” Wanda argued.
Natasha shrugged. “All I’m saying is that if you splatter, I’m not cleaning it up.”
“Gross,” Sam said good-naturedly, slinging an arm around Wanda and dragging her toward the elevator.
Tony watched the others disperse, Sam’s teasing echoing in his ears. He thought about the last time he’d seen Sam and Wanda, locked in their cells on the Raft; about Natasha, fleeing his thinly veiled threat; about Vision, silent and solemn back at the compound, cleaning up the empty bottles Tony left behind -
“Omelette?” Steve said.
Tony blinked. “What?”
“I made you one,” Steve said, sliding the plate across the counter. “No onions, right?”
“Right,” Tony said. “So what are you doing today?”
“I’m going to dig my way out of my - his - email,” Steve said. “Budgets are due on the 1st. And here I thought being on the run had gotten me out of administrative duties.”
“What are you talking about? You miss budgets. You love budgets.”
“I don’t love budgets,” Steve said. “I only pay attention to the budgets so that you don’t sneak in rocket launchpads and ice cream bars and - what was it - experimental roller skates?”
“Just trying to keep you on your toes,” Tony said. “I do have a real idea for roller skates, though, and they are going to be amazing - ”
“You can’t veto me,” Tony said. “I pay for everything.”
“I can veto you, and I’m vetoing roller skates,” Steve said. “They’re useless and slow and probably dangerous once you get your hands on - ”
Steve cut himself off and pressed his lips together, and Tony could see it on his face just as he thought it himself: I forgot.
“Anyway,” Steve said. “I’ll let you know if I find anything useful.”
“Sure thing,” Tony said. “And thanks for the, uh, breakfast, you really didn’t have to - ”
“Don’t mention it,” Steve said, tossing the frying pan into the sink with a clatter and disappearing from the kitchen before Tony could finish his sentence.
Tony speared his omelette a little more violently than necessary and headed for the elevator.
“So here’s a thought,” Tony said. “What if the universal physical constants are in fact just that - universal physical constants? How would I know if, say, general relativity in this universe varied very slightly from mine?”
“You wouldn’t,” Friday said. Friday was, helpfully, a generally non-judgmental AI; when Tony had told that he was from a parallel universe, she’d simply asked him how he’d like her to name it in her files. “Unless the physical constant in question, i.e. gravity, was so different that it impacted the calculations required to achieve flight in your armor. So you may have to learn to live with your curiosity, unless you’d like to recalculate every mathematical equation involved in all of your inventions.”
“As fun as that sounds,” Tony said completely seriously because he was a major nerd, “I should probably focus on figuring out if there’s any way to travel back to my own universe before I settle in with this one.”
“Very reasonable, sir,” Friday said. “Have you given any additional thought to your black hole hypothesis?”
“Not really,” Tony said. “I’ve been kind of busy with, uh, other stuff.”
“Such as dancing?”
“You’ve been reading the gossip rags.”
“I have a Google alert set up for you,” Friday said.
“You’re creepy,” Tony said. “You’re creepy and nosy and I did not build you to pass judgments on my personal life.”
“I’m not passing judgment, sir,” Friday said. “You and Captain Rogers make a very mathematically pleasing couple.”
“We’re not a - what do you mean, mathematically pleasing?”
“Based on my readings, your relationship is highly functional,” Friday said.
“Functional, now there’s a romantic word.”
“I’m not programmed to observe romance, as you know, sir,” Friday said. “But 89% of your interactions with Captain Rogers are positive or very positive. That doesn’t include interactions in the bedroom, which I don’t maintain records of but which, from what you say outside of your private quarters, seem to be very positive as well.”
“I can imagine,” Tony said, trying his very best not to. “So, you’re keeping track of how often Cap and I fight?”
There was a pause, slightly longer than the kind Tony preferred to hear from his AI. “You used this information to convince Captain Rogers to transfer to your private quarters on February 19th.”
“Wait a second - are you saying I used data to get Steve to move in with me?” Tony said. “And it worked?”
“The other me is totally gone for him, isn’t he.”
Tony dropped his face into his hands.
“Any update on the Bites, or are you too busy writing love poetry for Captain America?” Natasha said a few hours later.
“I’ll have you know they’re actually dirty limericks,” Tony said, opening up the top drawer of his desk to pull out the Bites. “And hey, next time you and Wanda want to play with fire, why don’t you come do it in the lab? That way, if anything explodes, at least I can get video of it.”
“But it’s so much more fun on the roof,” Natasha said. “Hey, what’s that?”
“What’s what?” Tony said. “There are a lot of things in here, some of them borderline illegal, so you’re going to have to be a little more - ”
“The box in the top drawer,” Natasha said. “The little black one.”
Tony pulled the drawer open again and pulled out the box. “Oh, yeah, this? It’s just - uh,” he said, prying it open. He hadn’t even noticed it at first; it was black and non-descript and almost looked like -
Tony slammed the box shut.
Natasha looked from the box to Tony and back to the box, her eyes wide. “Was that a - ”
“Nope,” Tony said.
“Because it looked like a - ”
“Are you going to - ”
“Nuh uh,” Tony said.
Natasha arched an eyebrow. “I’m not going to tell him.”
“Good, because you didn’t see anything,” Tony said, throwing the box back in the drawer and closing it firmly.
“Tony - ”
“Excuse me, sir,” Friday said. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but you have a call from Mr. Parker. Shall I put him through? He says it’s urgent.”
“Peter?” Tony said. “Yeah, let me talk to him - what’s going on, kid?”
“Hi Mr. Stark! I mean Iron Man,” Peter said. “Sorry, I know I’m supposed to say Iron Man when I call you here, but everyone knows who you are, it’s me who has the secret identity - ”
“Peter, did you need something?” Tony said.
“Oh, yeah,” Peter said. “So there’s this guy, I don’t know what his deal is but he’s throwing electricity around and it’s kind of freaking people out. It’s probably only a level three but you said I should call for anything that’s a two and a half or more so I just thought I’d - oh, hey, I think he saw me? So anyway if you want to drop by, that’d be cool, but I can probably handle it on my oh shit.”
“I’ll get the team,” Natasha said, slipping on the Bites and heading for the door.
“Peter, you alive?” Tony said.
“Yeah, I’m good, we’re all good here, hey, are you gonna say it? Or can I?”
“You know - avengers assemble!”
“Sending his location to the team now, sir,” Friday said.
“Don’t do anything stupid until I get there, kid,” Tony said.
“What’s going on?” Steve said, meeting up with Tony as they both headed into the equipment room.
Tony glanced around; the other Avengers were all checking weapons and pulling on their uniforms. “So, I think Spiderman might be an Avenger in training.”
“Don’t look at me, it wasn’t my idea,” Tony said.
“Yes it was.”
“I think that’s debatable, really - ”
“We’ll debate it later,” Steve said. He pressed his hand to his uniform’s bio-scanner and the locker swung open to reveal his uniform.
And his shield.
Steve paused and looked from the shield to Tony, and Tony thought of its double, thrown in a corner back in his lab, the bitterest spoil of war. “If you don’t want me to - ”
“Don’t be an idiot,” Tony said.
Steve nodded. “Nat’s getting the helicopter ready - see you there?”
Tony grinned as the facemask snapped shut. “Let’s go help the kid out with his homework.”
“So I don’t remember exactly how the rating system works, but this is a three?” Tony said, surveying the scene.
“It’s gotten a little worse since I called,” Peter said, swinging around the corner with the flying, electricity-wielding madman not far behind.
“When did it start raining?” Natasha said.
“About thirty seconds ago,” Peter said. “After I told him his mask looked like it came from Party City.”
“You insulted the crazy electricity dude,” Sam said, swooping out of the way of a lightning bolt. “Perfect. You really are molding him in your image, Stark.”
“A well-timed insult is a key part of superheroing,” Tony argued, spinning in midair to avoid his own blast.
“That was my first lesson,” Peter said from the top of the nearest building. “So what do you think we should call him?”
“Well, what can he do?” Tony said. “That’s key to a good villain name.”
“Let’s see,” Peter said, swinging down from the building. “He can throw lightning, make it rain and - oh, yeah - ”
Tony landed fist down on the street and looked up just in time to be hit in the face by a vacuum cleaner.
“ - control electronics,” Peter finished.
Roaring down the street was a crowd of electric scooters, Segways and Roombas, a small, blinking, and not particularly threatening army.
“Is that supposed to be scary?” Wanda asked, blasting a slow-moving refrigerator away from a crowd of gawking pedestrians.
“Let’s just be glad he hasn’t found a Prius,” Sam said.
“Spidey, you know what his weaknesses are?” Tony said.
“Not being able to find a socket?” Peter suggested. “I think I’m gonna call him Electro. It’s cool for me to name my own supervillains, right?”
“Spiderman, draw him toward the park,” Steve said as he rappelled out of the helicopter. “Vision and Scarlet Witch, I want you on crowd control. Falcon, Iron Man, start hitting him with everything you’ve got.”
“Now that’s the kind of order I like to hear,” Sam said, immediately firing off a shoulder-mounted rocket.
“On your right, Cap,” Tony said as Electro threw a bolt of electricity toward Steve. Steve spun around, blocking the blast with his shield, and Tony hit the bad guy with a repulsor to the back just to confirm that, yep, energy beams definitely weren’t going to work on a guy who was full of energy. “Over here, Light Show. Friday, give me a heat map - he’s not energy all the way through, is he?”
“He’s human, but he seems to have a build-up of static electricity in his forearms,” Friday said, zooming in on Electro as he spun around and blasted a parked car toward Spiderman, who swung away just in time. “Perhaps a highly targeted EMP could - ”
“Cut his power at the source,” Tony finished. “You read my mind, Friday. Start narrowing the EMP’s range, I don’t want to be blamed for destroying every electronic device in the vicinity - ”
“Hey, Mr. Stark, question,” Peter said as Electro shook off an attempt to web his hands together. “He’s not going to be able to control your suit, is he?”
“It’s powered by the arc reactor,” Tony said, hovering above Electro as he auto-targeted the EMP. “So unless he can manipulate energy at the molecular level, there’s no way he could - ”
Tony heard it before he felt it: all the joints in the suit went rigid, his arms pinning themselves to his sides and his legs snapping together. The heat map disappeared from his HUD.
“ - touch me,” Tony said. “So, I guess he can manipulate energy at the molecular level.”
Electro, his hair standing straight up, cackled. “Won’t this be fun?” he said. He twirled a finger in the air, and Tony spun around in a tight circle.
“You know, fun wasn’t the first word that came to mind,” Tony said, watching the world spin by faster and faster.
“Tony?” Steve said. “Tony, are you - ”
“Don’t make me talk too much, I’m trying not to throw up. Friday, how are we doing with the EMP?”
“Slightly delayed, sir,” Friday said. “Auto-targeting is nonfunctional. You’ll need to aim manually.”
“That sounds easy,” Tony said. “Hey, can somebody distract this guy for a second?”
“Up here, buttface!” Peter yelled, swinging over Electro and hitting him in the face with a web.
“Buttface?” Sam said, taking aim with a laser. “Did you just say buttface?”
“There might be kids around,” Spiderman said reasonably.
“Well, we know there’s at least one,” Wanda said.
“Hydraulics coming back online, sir,” Friday said as Electro turned his attention to Peter’s taunts. “Targeted EMP will be most effective from a distance of less than twenty feet.”
“Hey, is that all you can do?” Peter called, hanging upside down from a light pole. “Just the rain thing? Maybe we should call you the Meteorologist!”
“Maybe we should call you fried,” Electro snarled, throwing a bright flash of light at Peter’s webbing; the web snapped and Peter plummeted toward the ground. Tony shot toward him automatically, but Peter wasn’t half bad - he threw up a web that looped around Sam’s wings and hoisted him into the air.
“Oof, you’re heavy,” Sam complained as Peter used his momentum to flip off the web and stick to the nearest building.
“Yeah, I’ve been working out,” Peter said.
“You think you can get away from me with your little circus tricks?” Electro said, raising his arms. “Let’s see you run away from this.”
“Did you take a class in supervillain dialogue?” Peter said, just as dozens of bolts of bright blue lightning cracked against the pavement.
Tony fought back an eye roll and lined up his forearm-mounted EMP cannon, aiming as close as he could to Electro’s chest. “Say goodbye to your iPhones, everybody.”
“Aw man, and I just got a new one,” Peter said.
The EMP was silent, but its effect was immediately obvious: the clouds that had crowded overhead disappeared, and Electro dropped to the ground, his eyes glazed and his hair drooping. The remaining onlookers, huddled behind trees and parked cars, poked their heads out. A few of them already seemed to be grumbling about their phones.
“Thanks for the assist, guys!” Peter called, swinging away in the direction of Queens. “I’d stay and help clean up, but I gotta get home for dinner!”
“One of these days, I’m gonna forget to catch him,” Sam grumbled.
“So he never had access to you, the weapons, or the other internal systems. But he did have hydraulics and repulsors.”
“Correct, sir,” Friday said.
“Looks like it came down to the charge of the thermal pathways,” Tony said, flipping up another holoscreen. “At least I know what to do if we run into him back home. If we ever get home, that is.”
There was a polite knock on the door of the lab. On the other side of the glass, Steve waved.
“You need something?” Tony said as Steve let himself in.
“Repairs,” Steve said, holding up the red, white, and blue of his uniform apologetically.
“No big deal,” Tony said, taking it and laying it out on his workbench. “I’ve seen worse, you know that Clint once lost an entire pant leg, don’t even ask - whoa, this doesn’t look good.” There was a rip in the torso area, the fabric blackened and scorched. “Did he get you?”
“Just a little,” Steve said.
“Did anybody fix you up?”
“I know you will,” Tony said. “But somehow I doubt the other me would let you walk around with a burn the size of Long Island. Sit down.”
“Right,” Steve said, sitting gingerly on a stool as Tony rummaged in the med cabinet for Dr. Cho’s miniature Cradle. When Tony turned back around, Steve was carefully pulling off his shirt, his teeth gritted. “Hey, hey, slow down.”
“I’m fine,” Steve said.
“Well, you look about as miserable as you do when you’re dancing.”
“Nothing’s as bad as dancing,” Steve said wryly as Tony eased his t-shirt over his head.
“Yeah, you made that very clear - Jesus, Steve.” Tony shook his head, calibrating the mini Cradle and holding it over the oozing, peeling skin of Steve’s torso. “You always ignore third degree burns?”
“Only when I have more important things to deal with.” Steve sucked in a painful-sounding breath as the Cradle started knitting him back together. “Like convincing the American public that their electronics aren’t about to turn against them.”
“The police chief’s question about whether or not we should all lock our Keurigs in a cabinet was gold.”
“I had half a mind to say yes,” Steve said darkly. “Would have served him right to - ah, shit.”
“Language,” Tony teased, putting his other hand on Steve’s back to hold him still. “You know it doesn’t help to tense up.” He rubbed his thumb over the knotted muscles of Steve’s back in light circles, and Steve relaxed fractionally under his hand.
“So Spiderman’s pretty useful when you’re not fighting against him,” Steve said.
“He talks too much.”
“You think he talks too much?” Steve said. “Hello, pot? This is kettle. You’re black.”
“You’ve been watching Friends?”
“It’s on eight times a day.”
Tony snorted. “Peter’s got a lot to learn.”
“You planning to teach him when we get back home?”
“Until two hours ago, I was planning to leave him the hell alone and not get him killed. Now? I’m not sure.”
“I think he’d fit in with the team,” Steve said. “Once he graduated from high school, at least. And he could probably use some guidance.”
Tony shrugged, focusing on the reddening flesh beneath the Cradle and the feel of Steve’s skin under his thumb. “Not sure I’m qualified to give it, considering my recent record.”
There was a long, quiet pause during which nobody disagreed.
“It was nice to be back out there with the team,” Steve said finally.
“Yeah,” Tony said. “Turns out it’s more fun to fight together than against each other.”
“Tell me about it.”
“I’m not looking for you, you know,” Tony said, keeping his eyes on Steve’s burn. “Back home. Ross is using some of my tech, but I’m not - I don’t want to fight you again.”
“I never wanted to fight you in the first place,” Steve said. “Tony, I - ”
“I know,” Tony said. “Look, I - I never apologized.”
“I didn’t expect you to,” Steve said warily.
Tony shrugged. “Ross and the rest of them, they’d have taken all of us out the moment they had a chance. And I was ready to start handing out chances. I should have listened to you.” Tony clicked the Cradle off and peered at the fresh pink skin. “Done. Don’t get it wet for a couple hours and you’ll be all set by morning.”
“Thanks,” Steve said, but he didn’t move away from Tony’s hand. Tony could feel his gaze, familiar and unfamiliar all at once, like something you’d seen a million times but never really noticed. He slid his hand up Steve’s back slowly, feeling goosebumps rise under his fingers, threading them into Steve’s hair.
Steve breathed in sharply. “Tony, what are you - ”
“Just seeing what all the fuss is about,” Tony said, leaning in and kissing him.
Steve froze under his lips, and Tony was sure he was about to be shoved away, was already formulating jokes and getting ready to claim that he thought he’d seen someone coming out of the corner of his eye, when suddenly -
Steve was kissing him back.
Steve was kissing him back, his lips warm and pliant, his hands coming up to rest on Tony’s waist, and Tony hadn’t had a first (well, second, technically) kiss this good in - well, let’s just call a spade a spade and say ever, and when he tried to pull away to catch his breath Steve made a little sound and pulled him closer, fisting his hand in Tony’s shirt and that was fine with Tony, he would never breathe again if it meant Steve would keep making that sound -
There was a rap on the glass.
Tony jumped back, the sound going through him like an electric shock, and spun around to see Sam pulling open the door. “I’d say get a room, but considering you have one, it should be unnecessary,” he said, smirking.
Tony glanced at Steve, who was blushing bright red as far as the eye could see, and the eye could, for the record, see quite a lot at the moment.
“Sorry,” he said, sounding a little out of breath. “Uh - do you need - ?”
“Just a weapons restock,” Sam said. “But if y’all are busy making out, I can come back later.”
“I was just leaving,” Steve said, grabbing his shirt and beelining for the door.
“Oh-kay,” Sam said, clearly perplexed as the door slid shut behind Steve’s rapidly retreating form. “I ain’t gonna apologize for interrupting because, the thing is, this whole room is glass. You do know this whole room is glass, right?”
“Yeah, I know,” Tony said, swallowing hard. “So what can I get you?”
“So that was a totally normal and not at all weird thing that happened earlier,” Tony said as he climbed into bed.
There was a beat of silence. “I was pretending to be asleep.”
“Clearly you’re bad at it,” Tony said, punching his pillow.
“Did Sam say anything?”
“Somehow I get the feeling he’s walked in on worse,” Tony said.
Steve sighed. “What is it with this century and kissing in public?”
“Hey, that’s yourself you’re talking about.” Tony propped himself up on one elbow and looked at Steve. “Had you ever kissed a guy before?”
“That’s definitely not your business,” Steve said, staring resolutely at the ceiling.
“You’re sleeping in my bed,” Tony pointed out. “Well, pretending to sleep. And I’m only asking because unless you tell me not to, I’m going to kiss you again.”
Steve opened his mouth, then closed it. “You’re the most confusing person I’ve ever met.”
“You probably won’t be surprised to learn that you are not the first person to say that to me in bed,” Tony said, following up on his promise.
Steve kissed him back immediately, his mouth opening hungrily and his hand sliding into Tony’s hair. Tony mentally revised his calculations of how many people Steve had made out with and pressed his luck, swiping Steve’s upper lip with his tongue.
“Alternate universe brainwaves,” Steve said against his lips, hooking a leg over the back of Tony’s knee and pulling him closer. “That’s what’s doing this.”
“Could still be a HYDRA plot.”
“Or,” Tony said, “maybe it’s just one of your dreams.”
Steve paused. “If you mention the dreams again, I’m going to stop doing this.”
“Stop doing wha - oh,” Tony gasped as Steve’s hands slid into his pants. “What dreams?”
“That’s what I thought,” Steve said.
At this point, Tony was used to waking up next to Steve.
But he wasn’t used to, well, waking up next to Steve.
Tony slid toward the edge of the bed. Just one more roll and he could successfully extract himself from the covers without disturbing -
Steve murmured into his pillow, “You’re a sleep cuddler.”
“Sorry, do you prefer big spoon?” Tony said.
Steve rolled, propped himself up on an elbow. “Never really thought about it.”
“Well, think it through, I’m flexible,” Tony said.
“I know you are,” Steve said.
Tony snorted. “And they say you’re the innocent one.”
“I am,” Steve said, grinning. Tony wanted to kiss him so bad it kinda hurt a little, and Steve must have noticed because he just grinned wider and army crawled across the bed to press his lips to Tony’s, morning breath and all.
“You’re definitely not,” Tony said when he finally pulled away to breathe. “If last night wasn’t enough to prove that, the current location of your hand definitely is. In a totally not-awkward segue, we don’t have to talk about this, do we?”
“Definitely not,” Steve said, pressing kisses down Tony’s neck.
“Okay, so we’re on the same page.”
“Sounds like it.”
“But I mean, if - when we get home, we might need to talk about this.”
“But we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
“And for now, we’ll just - oh, god - ”
“Just not worry about it?”
“You’re cheerful this morning,” Natasha said.
Tony glanced up as the door slid shut behind her. “What makes you say that?”
“No, I’m not.”
Natasha smirked. “Yes, you are.”
“Friday, tell her I wasn’t humming.”
“You were humming, sir,” Friday said. “It was Firework by Katy Perry.”
“Traitor,” Tony said.
“Is Steve around?” Natasha asked.
“He disappeared after breakfast,” Tony said. “And before you ask, everything’s fine with us. We were going through a moment, which honestly you should all expect considering 50% of the relationship is made up of me, but we are totally a-okay.”
“That’s actually what I wanted to talk to you about,” Natasha said. “Have you noticed anything… odd about him lately?”
Tony swallowed hard. “Odd? What do you mean?”
“I mean he hasn’t really been himself recently,” Natasha said, sounding as if she was choosing her words carefully.
“We were fighting,” Tony said. “It was probably just that. He’s fine now.”
“Maybe,” Natasha said. “But I wanted to run a few things by you, see if they made sense to you - ”
“Sir,” Friday interrupted, and Tony silently thanked his past self for inventing such a brilliant piece of technology, “you have an urgent incoming message. It’s private.”
Briefly, she flashed a picture of Stephen Strange on the holoscreen at Tony’s fingertips, then replaced it with a map of New York.
“I should probably handle this,” Tony said. “I’ll talk to you later, Nat?”
“Right,” Natasha said flatly, already halfway out the door. “Later.”
Tony waited until the door shut behind her, then said, “Do we have a match?”
“98.7 percent, sir.”
“Bingo,” Tony said, pulling up a holo-projection of the hastily-coded program he’d set up the day before. “Let’s see that disappearing British son of a - yep, that’s him, I’d recognize that terrible goatee anywhere. Where is he?”
“26th and Madison,” Friday said. “Shall I bring the Mark X online?”
“Put me through to Cap first,” Tony said. “Steve, we have a Strange sighting, that’s Strange with a capital S, not just a weird thing I saw.”
There was no reply.
“Steve, you reading me? It’s time to go kick some interdimensional ass, let’s get moving - ”
“Sir,” Friday said, “he’s currently on the launchpad preparing the Quinjet for departure.”
“What?” Tony said blankly. “Where’s he going?”
“He hasn’t filed an itinerary.”
Tony pushed himself back from the desk and headed for the stairs. “Keep tracking Strange, Friday. Don’t let him out of your sight.”
Tony took the stairs two at a time and burst out onto the launchpad on top of the penthouse, the roar of the wind and the Quinjet’s repulsors blasting his eardrums as he jogged across the pad and up the ramp. “Steve? What the hell is going on?”
Steve didn’t look up from the central console, his fingers flying over the keypad. “How’d you know I was here?”
“Friday told me,” Tony said. “I found Strange, he’s a few miles away, we have to - ”
“I can’t,” Steve said shortly.
“You - what? Steve, we don’t have time to argue, this could be our only chance to - ”
“I can’t,” Steve repeated. “I need to - I have to go.”
“Go?” Tony repeated. “Go where?”
“Toronto,” Steve said, closing the console and striding toward the pilot’s seat.
“Why? What the hell is in Canada?”
“Tony, get off the plane,” Steve said, buckling himself in.
“Excuse me?” Tony said. “Are you even listening to me? Strange is in Manhattan, we can find him, we can - ”
“I said get off the plane,” Steve said, turning around to narrow his eyes at Tony. “Get off, or I’ll take you off.”
“What in the hell is more important than going home?” Tony snapped as the Quinjet’s repulsors revved up.
“He’s here,” Steve said, so quietly that Tony thought he must have misheard.
“Bucky’s here,” Steve said. “I got an email from Dr. Cho - Helen - he’s in Canada being treated, we found him - ”
“They found him,” Tony corrected automatically, feeling like someone had just thrown him into the ocean without a suit.
“Did you know?” Steve asked.
“Did you know he was here?” Steve was staring out the front of the plane, not even looking at Tony. “Were you keeping it from me?”
Tony recoiled. “No. Why would I have - ” he froze. “The other Tony is helping you with him.”
Steve pressed his lips together. “They’re helping him. I have to find out how. I’m sorry, Tony, but I can’t go home yet, I have to - ”
“Don’t,” Tony interrupted, holding up his hands in defense and surrender and backing off the plane. “Don’t even - just go.”
“I’m sorry,” Steve said again as the hatch closed, and Tony stepped back and watched the jet take off and head north.
“Friday, get my suit,” Tony said as the jet disappeared into the clouds. “Lock me onto Strange’s coordinates and put the NYPD on alert. This could get messy.”
Strange was sitting on a park bench in Madison Square Park with a cup of coffee in hand when Tony slammed into the concrete in front of him.
“Send me back,” Tony said, his voice hard and mechanical through the speakers.
Strange lifted an eyebrow and didn’t move. There was nobody around for a block in any direction, and Tony was beginning to wonder what other powers Strange was hiding under that decidedly not on-trend robe of his.
“I said,” Tony said, holding out a hand and firing up the repulsor, “send. Me. Back.”
“Don’t you mean us?” Strange said.
Tony didn’t flinch. “Sure, him too.”
“But you come to me alone,” Strange said.
“What does that matter?”
“It matters because the entire reason you’re here is to put your petty insecurities and childish disagreements aside,” Strange said. “And yet you come here without him and demand to be put back where you belong.”
“How the fuck do you expect us to learn to get along when he - look, me and Cap, we’re fine, okay? We’re good, we’re getting along great, in fact we’d be even better if you sent us - ”
“You’re not ready.”
“Oh, I can assure you that I am definitely ready,” Tony said. “I have never been more ready. I am the dictionary definition of ready.”
Strange stood - or rather, he rose to his feet without ever touching the ground, hovered just inches above the pavement. “There is an oncoming storm, Stark,” he said, his voice echoing just a little more than it should have. “It ignores the boundaries of universes and has no interest in the restrictions of time or space. You will face it whether or you like it or not, and the odds are that many of you - most of you - will fail.”
“Well,” Tony said. “That doesn’t sound great.”
“But in the worlds where you do not fail,” Strange continued, like Tony hadn’t spoken at all, “few and scattered though they are, there are clues. Do you know what is true of all the worlds in which you succeed?”
“Really good wifi?”
“You work together,” Strange said. “You and Captain Rogers find a way to overcome your differences and bring your team together, and you fight back, and every once in a while, you win.”
“Okay, fine, so I’m cosmically important, tell me something I don’t know,” Tony said.
“I do so hate to stoke your bloated ego, but you appear to be the only ones who can prevail,” Strange said. “You do call yourselves Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, do you not?”
“But if this is happening across universes, why did you choose us?” Tony said. “Why not some version of us from another universe? Why do you care so much about ours?”
“Because I happen to be from it,” Strange said. He landed gently on the sidewalk and started walking toward 5th Avenue. “I recommend you not let it be destroyed.”
Tony stared at him as he faded into the crowd. “Thanks, this has been super helpful!” he yelled after Strange’s retreating back.
Tony spent the rest of the day doing exactly what he always did when he distinctly didn’t want to think about something: working as hard as he possibly could on the most dangerous thing he could fine so he was not, at any point, tempted to think about The Thing He Wasn’t Thinking About.
So far it was going pretty well, and there had only been one small fire, so, hey, winning.
“Captain Rogers has returned in the Quinjet, sir,” Friday said as Tony was elbow-deep (metaphorically) in his miniature particle accelerator. “He appears to be on his way to the lab.”
“Tell him I’m busy splitting atoms.”
“I’ve relayed the message,” Friday said.
Tony didn’t look up when the door to the lab slid open a few minutes later.
“Did you find him?”
“Him who?” Tony said, picking up a wire cutter.
“Strange,” Steve said. He was keeping his distance, sticking near the door; Tony glanced up and was almost surprised to see he didn’t have his shield.
“Oh, yeah, I found him,” Tony said. He snipped first one wire, then the next. No explosion. Cool. “He sent us home, didn’t you notice?”
“What did he - ”
“He said he wouldn’t send us back until we found a way to work together,” Tony said. “And since that’ll never happen, I’m building a way to move between universes. It’ll probably take, oh, I don’t know, two and a half years, give or take. You might want to settle in.”
“I had to see him,” Steve said. “If there’s something I can do for him back home, I have to - ”
“I was going to propose to you,” Tony said, before he could think it through. “I mean - he was going to propose. To the other you. He has a ring and everything. Crazy, right?”
Steve just stared at him.
“So I figure, this guy, Tony, the one I’m pretending to be, I thought, wow, he must know something I don’t,” Tony said. “There must be something - there must be something different about him here. Something he knows, something that makes them work. But today I realized - it’s not what he knows.” Tony shook his head, bit back a harsh chuckle. “It’s what this other version of me, the one with the velvet box burning a hole in his pocket, it’s what he doesn't know. He doesn’t know what Barnes did, and he doesn’t know what it’s like to have to watch you choose him over me.”
There was a long, strained silence.
“I don’t know what you want me to say,” Steve said finally.
“Neither do I,” Tony said, throwing down the wire cutter and finally looking Steve in the eye. “All I know is that I’ve admitted that I’ve made mistakes. I’ve made more than my share of mistakes, and I would do anything to undo them, and it’s clear now that you? You wouldn’t. You’d do the same thing every time. It was your decision not to cooperate and your decision to take his side when you knew, you fucking knew that he killed - ”
“What would you have done if it was Rhodey?” Steve burst out. “Would you have let me kill him right in front of you for something he did when he was brainwashed, something he never would have done in his right mind?”
“I don’t know,” Tony said. “I don’t know what I would have done, but I know I wouldn’t have done what you did. What you keep doing.”
Steve took a step back. “I’m sorry that taking his side meant I couldn’t take yours. Please, just - don’t make me do it again.”
“You already have,” Tony said. He picked up the wire cutters and turned back to the accelerator. “Find yourself a different bedroom for the night, all right? It was stupid to think we could fake this.”
There was a long silence, then footsteps. Tony waited until the door slid shut, counted to ten, and threw the wire cutter against the wall.
Tony didn’t have plans to sleep. He was going back to the shop and back to work, fiddle with the facial tracking algorithm and fuck with the particle accelerator, what did it matter if he just stopped by the bedroom first, just to see -
The room was empty. Tony glanced at his watch: it was almost 1 in the morning. “Friday, is Steve in one of the guest bedrooms?”
“No, sir. He’s in the gym.”
“Agent Romanov is with him.”
“They’ve been talking for over an hour.”
“Okay,” Tony said. “Thanks for the update, I’ll - ”
“It seems like a tense conversation.”
“What isn’t these days?” Tony muttered.
“Sir, you may want to know that she’s cut audio visual transmission to the gym with the private use access code.”
“Why would she do that?” Tony said. “Play back the last audio from the room before the recording ended.”
“That’s not right,” Natasha’s voice echoed. “Are you lying to me?”
“Nat, come on,” Steve’s voice said. “What are you - ”
“You made a mistake somewhere,” Natasha said coldly. “Terminate recording, Friday. Access code 4892.”
The bottom dropped out of Tony’s stomach. “She knows.”
“She knows it’s not him,” Tony said, halfway to the stairs already. “She figured it out, she caught him saying something wrong, she - Friday, is she armed?”
“With a Glock 26, sir. She also frequently carries three knives, one at each ankle and one - ”
“Right, so she can kill him fast or slow, whichever she prefers,” Tony said, the stairs whirring by 2, 3, 4 at a time.
“Shall I send the rest of the team to - ”
“No,” Tony said. “Don’t tell them anything.”
“Sir - ”
“That’s an order, Friday,” Tony said. “I don’t know what I’m dealing with and I don’t want anybody else getting hurt.” He paused outside the door to the gym and took a deep breath. “Open it up.”
The door slid open, and Tony stepped inside.
At first glance, everything seemed normal: Steve was in the corner in workout clothes, his hands taped up; Natasha was between him and the door, one hand resting casually on her hip.
Tony looked around. “How’s everybody’s night going?”
“Fine,” Natasha said. “Can you give us a minute? We’re a little busy.”
“Sure,” Tony said. “Once you tell me why you shut down the video feed from this room.”
Natasha was unruffled. “Steve and I are having a private conversation.”
“Well, I’m sure it’s nothing you can’t say in front of me,” Tony said.
“Tony,” Steve said.
Tony ignored him. “What’s going on, Natasha? Because from my perspective, you’re either trying to sleep with my boyfriend, or - ”
“It’s not him,” Natasha said flatly.
“He’s not Steve,” Natasha said. “But he knows where the real Steve is. And he’s going to tell us. Aren’t you?”
“Nat - ”
“Don’t call me that,” Natasha said. “Where is he?”
“It sounds like there’s been a big misunderstanding,” Tony said.
“He’s been gone for three days, maybe more,” Natasha said. “Where is he?”
“Natasha - ”
“Ask him something, Tony,” Natasha said. “Something only he would know.”
“Why would I do that?”
“So you can see for yourself that this isn’t Steve,” Natasha said. “Ask him, Tony.”
“You’re being crazy,” Tony said. “Come on, Nat, why don’t we head upstairs and just talk about - ”
“Tony,” Steve said. “You should go, you should - ”
“Where was our first kiss?” Tony said.
Steve stared at him.
“Come on,” Tony said. “She said ask something only you would know, so I’m asking - where was our first kiss?”
“Your workshop,” Steve said. “You patched me up, and we talked, and then - you kissed me.”
Tony turned to Natasha. “He’s right. About all of it. So now that that’s cleared up - ”
“It’s not him,” Natasha said. “I’m sorry, Tony, he might have information from Steve, but he’s not Steve. I don’t know yet what he is. But I’m going to find out.”
The hand resting on her hip tensed.
Tony glanced at Steve. “Natasha, look. We probably should have - ”
“Tony,” Steve said. “Don’t - ”
“Natasha, do you believe in parallel universes?” Tony said.
“No,” Natasha said. “What are you trying to - ”
“Steve and I are from a parallel universe,” Tony said. “We ended up here five days ago, and we don’t know where your Steve and Tony are, but they’re fine. Probably.”
Natasha didn’t draw her weapon, but Tony could tell it was a close call. “Keep talking.”
“We’re not here to hurt anyone,” Steve said. “We want to go home.”
“Then why are you here?”
“You know,” Tony said, “that’s kind of a long story.”
“So we’re supposed to believe that some kind of wizard - ”
“Sorcerer,” Tony said.
“- some kind of wizard,” Sam continued, arching an eyebrow, “snatched you out of your universe, using magic, and brought you here to ours to teach you a lesson, but you don’t know what the lesson is, so you can’t figure out how to get back, and you don’t know where our versions of you guys are?”
“That’s pretty much it,” Steve said.
“Huh,” Sam said. “All right.”
“All right?” Wanda echoed. “You believe them?”
Sam shrugged. “What the hell else am I supposed to do? I can’t prove they’re not telling the truth. And they haven’t done anything wrong as far as I can tell. Anyway, this ain’t even the weirdest thing this month.”
“What differences in your universe inspired Dr. Strange to bring you here to teach you a lesson?” Vision said. “There must be some major changes, and yet you have blended in with us for days.”
“Not as well as we thought, clearly,” Steve said, glancing at Natasha. “But things seem to be, uh, pretty similar. There’s a few things that are, you know, a little different. Recently.”
“Like what?” Natasha said.
“I kicked you all out of my house and set up a base in upstate New York,” Tony said.
“And Tony tried to retire,” Steve said.
“Yeah, you claimed you were doing that for about five seconds,” Sam said. “I mean, he did.”
“And the team, we’re, uh, in a fight.”
“A fight?” Wanda said. “With who?”
“With each other,” Tony said. “There was a… disagreement among the team.”
“Between you two, you mean,” Natasha said.
“Who said it was between us?”
“Nobody had to,” Natasha said.
“We’ve always said you two would have the divorce of the century,” Wanda said dryly.
“There’s another thing,” Tony said. “In our universe, me and Steve, we’re not - ”
“Together,” Steve finished. “We never have been.”
Sam looked from Tony to Steve. “But I walked in on you guys last night in the lab. Didn’t you say you’d been here for five - ”
“It’s an evolving situation,” Tony said.
“What’s important right now,” Steve said, “is that we bring your Steve and Tony back.”
“And how are we going to do that?” Wanda said.
“I’m still working on that,” Tony said.
“This fight in your universe,” Sam said. “How’d it end?”
“I think it’s best if we don’t tell you too much about our universe,” Steve said.
“That means we lost, doesn’t it,” Sam grumbled.
“I need to get back to work,” Tony said. “We’ll let you all know when we have a plan, all right?”
“So, we’re just supposed to pretend like everything is normal?” Wanda said.
“Is anything ever really normal around here?” Sam said.
“That’s a fair point,” Wanda said.
“We’ll keep you all updated,” Steve said.
“And look, when you really get down to it,” Tony said, “we’re still, you know, us.”
Sam yawned widely. “Kind of.”
“Kind of,” Steve agreed. “See you at breakfast?”
“I think I should get to know who was on whose side before I decide who I make breakfast for,” Sam said, pushing his chair back and heading for his room, Wanda and Vision close behind. “You want pancakes, you better not have been beating me up in some alternate universe.”
“I’m sorry I threatened to kill you,” Natasha said, sliding out of her seat.
“I would have done the same,” Steve said.
“We probably shouldn’t have told them about the war,” Tony said as Natasha and the rest of the team disappeared into their own rooms.
“Maybe if they know, they can avoid it,” Steve said. He ran a hand through his hair and pushed his chair back. “I’ll go find one of those guest bedrooms.”
“Look,” Tony said. “Steve - ”
“It’s late, Tony,” Steve said. “Get some sleep. We’ll talk tomorrow.”
“Right,” Tony said, and watched him walk away.
The penthouse had never really felt particularly big to Tony, but it turned out it was plenty big enough for two people to avoid each other all day.
Tony lost the first half of the next day to a set of calculations for universe-hopping that he had to throw out because he missed a negative, and the second half to tinkering with the Dr. Strange facial recognition program after it gave him a false positive with three different hipsters in Brooklyn. By midnight, he was tired, and cranky, and pissed off that apparently this version of him didn’t hide alcohol in the workshop anymore.
He was just this side of making it out of the living room with a full bottle of Lagavulin when Sam called out from across the room, “All right, am I kicking your ass or his?”
Tony turned around. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Uh huh.” Sam was clearly unimpressed. “That’s why you’re sneaking out the door with a bottle of Scotch and Steve’s in the gym going for the punching bag destruction world record. He’s on number four, if you’re interested.”
“I wasn’t,” Tony said.
“Sure,” Sam said, leaning against the bar. “He’s going to town on the equipment because he’s in a good mood, then?”
“You’re wasted as an Avenger, Sam, you should have been a detective. I’ll catch you later.”
“Look, I get that in this universe you’re not dating my best friend, but that doesn’t mean I’m not gonna meddle in whatever’s going on between you,” Sam said.
“Well, it’s gonna be hard for you to meddle when there’s nothing going on, so - ”
“He went to see Barnes yesterday.”
“You wanna talk about it?”
Tony wondered if there was any way to convey to Sam how much he didn’t want to talk about it. “What is there to talk about? Look, I have a lot of work to do, so unless there’s a point to all this - ”
“All I’m saying is if the guy had killed my parents, I’d be pretty pissed every time Steve decided it was time for a playdate.”
Tony blinked, re-arranged everything he knew about this universe, and dedicated a full second to wishing the drink in his hand was full. “You know about that?”
“Uh, yeah,” Sam said. “Everybody knows about that. Some Sokovian guy found out about it and released it to the papers a few weeks after you guys got together. Did that not happen in your universe?”
“It went a little differently,” Tony said. “To put it mildly. How did they deal with it?”
“It was touch and go for a while,” Sam said. “I gotta imagine it didn’t do much for the situation in your world, either. So: you wanna talk about it?”
“Sam, look, I appreciate what you’re doing here, but it’s - it’s complicated.”
“Yeah, I know it is,” Sam said. “And it sounds like it’s even more complicated where you come from. But they got past it. You can too.”
Tony looked down at the bottle of Scotch and thought about Steve’s voice in his ear, and Steve’s lips on his, and the look on Steve’s face, back in the gym with Natasha’s gun all but drawn, when Tony said, Where was our first kiss? - and then he looked back up at Sam.
“You want a drink?”
“Sure,” Sam said, pulling another glass out of the bar. “You buying?”
“First round’s on me,” Tony said, pulling out the cork.
Steve was still in his office - Christ, Steve had an office in Tony’s house, this whole thing just would not stop getting weirder - when Tony poked his head in an hour later.
“Hey,” he said, leaning against the doorframe.
“Hi,” Steve said, turning around in surprise. “You need something?”
That, Tony thought, was a good question. “Just, uh, came to say hey.”
“Oh,” Steve said. “Hey.”
“Hey,” Tony said. “So, that’s that covered. What are you working on?”
Steve turned back to his computer. “I’m reading all of my reports from the last couple of years. Most of them are the same until after Sokovia, just like you said. And then… I don’t know. We had a meeting to talk about the land upstate, and you skipped it. Sam started seeing somebody in Chelsea that I know he’s never met. Wanda got the flu and none of us went to that press conference in DC. It’s little things - small changes, adjustments by degrees. We’re just... different.”
“That’s for sure,” Tony said, shoving his hands into his pockets.
“I can’t just leave it at that,” Steve said. “In this world, Clint’s at home with his family. Sam still volunteers at the veteran’s hospital on Thursdays. Rhodes can walk, and Wanda smiles, and you and me - ” He cut himself off, shook his head.
“Yeah,” Tony said. “You and me. You know, the other me, he’s a different guy.”
Steve arched an eyebrow. “Is he?”
“Yeah,” Tony said. “He is. And for a while I couldn’t figure out why. He did so many things the same, you know? Afghanistan, and the Mandarin, and Ultron - he fucked up plenty of things around here. But not… not quite everything. And I want to tell you he just got lucky, but he didn’t, because every single thing he did, I could have done too. I could have done it that way if I wasn’t so angry. If I wasn’t so afraid.”
“What do you - ”
“The first time Pepper tried to leave him, he let her,” Tony said. “You know what I did? I begged her to stay, and then I got resentful, and then I drove her away. After Ultron, he admitted to himself that he could never really retire from the team, and he brought you all back here and tried to actually make the world a safer place. Me? I got drunk, threw money at you guys, and hoped for the best. When Ross came to him with the Accords, he told him to fuck off. And when they found out - when they found out that Barnes killed my parents, he dedicated himself to finding him. To bringing him home. So they could help him. And what did I do? I tried to kill him.” Tony shook his head, disgust and loathing and fury mixing in his chest and threatening to claw its way up his throat. “But you know the craziest thing he did?”
“What?” Steve said.
“At some point, he let himself fall in love with you,” Tony said.
Steve opened his mouth, then closed it. “Tony - ”
“Hold on, I’m trying to do a thing here,” Tony said. He took a deep breath. “I’m never going to be okay with Barnes, all right? I’m just not. But I’ve made enough mistakes and lost enough people to know that I don’t always get a second chance, and here I am being given one, free of charge. The other me, he made it work here - I made it work here - and I’m starting to think I want to try to be a little more like him.”
“You’re not the only one who made mistakes,” Steve said.
“Oh, I didn’t say I was,” Tony said.
Steve let out a surprised laugh. “Yeah, I guess you didn’t,” he said. “I don’t see shades of gray, Tony. I’m stubborn. I’ll always fight for my friends, even if they’re wrong. But I like it a lot better when my friends include you.”
“Yeah, me too,” Tony said. “You punch really hard.” He shoved his hands in his pockets. “We can’t take it back, you know. Being here - ”
“Being here doesn’t change any of it,” Steve said, standing up. “It only shows us what we can be if we try.”
“If we want to,” Tony said.
“Do you want to?” Steve said.
“Yeah,” Tony said. “I think I do.”
Steve smiled, and then the space between them disappeared and Tony kissed him, and Tony didn’t get lost in kisses usually, was too busy planning and thinking and waiting for the other shoe to drop, but just this once, he decided, he could make an exception.
By the time Steve pulled away, they were both out of breath. “We’re still here.”
Tony blinked. “What?”
“I thought maybe he’d be listening,” Steve said.
“Oh my god, you thought this was like a true love’s first kiss thing?” Tony said. “Steve, come on, it’s not a fairytale - ”
“Isn’t it?” Strange said, stepping into the office. “And here I was all ready to play the fairy godmother.”
Tony dropped his head back and sighed. “How do you keep getting into my house?”
“Security systems find me rather baffling,” Strange said. “And before you ask, Captain, no, I haven’t been spying on you this entire time. I’m not SHIELD, after all.”
“Then why are you - ”
“I have ways of sensing when tides are turning,” Strange said. “You’ve each begun to fight the battle against yourselves rather than the easier one against each other. Perhaps now you’ll be ready to face a much more dangerous foe.”
“You’re still not going to tell us anything about that, are you,” Tony said.
“That would be cheating,” Strange said.
“And the rest of this wasn’t?” Steve muttered.
“That depends on your definition of cheating,” Strange said. “You should be unsurprised to learn that I have my own.”
“So it really wasn’t the kiss?” Tony said. “Not that I’m in love with - anyway, I just meant - anyway, I didn’t think kissing was enough to get us out of here.”
“It wasn’t,” Strange said. “If it was, wouldn’t I have sent you home after you did rather rather more than kiss the other night?”
“I thought you said you weren’t spying on us the entire - ”
“Like I said,” Strange said, smirking, “I have ways of sensing when tides are turning. So. Are you ready to return to your own rather battered and bruised reality?”
“That’s it?” Tony said. “It’s that easy?”
“Who said it was easy?” Strange said. “Shall we get on with it? If you’re both quite done with the interrogation, that is.”
“What, no ruby red slippers?” Tony said. “C’mon, Glinda, I’ve been looking forward to getting those in a 10 and a half.”
“You’re intolerable in every universe,” Strange said. “Though I wish I could say we’ll never meet again, I unfortunately have a feeling that we will. Goodbye, Mr. Stark.”
“Beijing,” Steve said, turning to Tony. “I’m in - ”
“I’ll find you,” Tony said. “I’ll - ”
And then everything went black.
Tony woke up to the sound of a glass shattering.
“Friday? How long was I gone?”
“Gone, sir?” Friday said. “You sat down just a moment ago. You’ve had three glasses of scotch, and you just dropped your fourth.”
Tony blinked. The shards of glass sparkled in the lights of Midtown after midnight; as he stood up, they crunched under his feet.
“Friday, start the Quinjet launch sequence,” Tony said. “We’re going to Beijing.”
It wasn’t until Tony got out of the cab in front of the drab one-story house on the outskirts of Beijing that he realized he’d have to knock on their front door.
It hadn’t been hard to find them. He’d pulled out the little black burner phone and called on his way across the Pacific, not that it had done much good: when he’d said I need to see you, the Steve who had picked up the phone - whoever he was - hadn’t said anything except Okay. But that’s what Tony had expected. He still wasn’t sure if he had believed what had happened. If Steve had called him, he wouldn’t have said anything either. Between General Ross and Doctor Strange, you never knew who was listening.
The house was quiet, but Tony knew they knew he was there. They wouldn’t have missed his approach, and they might not have had their regular gear but they were armed, and Tony very distinctly wasn’t. He lifted a fist and knocked.
There was a long, hold-your-breath sort of pause, and then Sam pulled open the door.
“Inside,” he said, and yanked Tony in, slamming the door behind him.
Tony slowly pulled his sunglasses off. “Hi, guys,” he said.
Sam, Clint, Wanda, and Steve all stared at him. Tony could tell that each one of them was ready to run. And ready to fight.
“Stark,” Sam said. “What are you doing here?”
“I was in the neighborhood,” Tony said, glancing from Sam to Steve. Steve was still, his face unreadable, his fists clenched. “Everything going okay? I brought pizza.”
Clint arched an eyebrow. “Excuse me?”
“I just thought, after a few months out of the country, you might want some of the good stuff,” Tony said.
Sam and Clint glanced at each other. “You want to explain this, Steve?” Clint said. “Because look, Tony, and I mean this in the nicest possible way, we all kinda wanna kick your ass.”
“And we’re only holding off because Steve asked us to after you called him,” Sam said. “So, if you want us to keep holding off, we’re gonna need to know why.”
Tony looked at Steve, but Steve didn’t say anything. He seemed to be waiting for something, seemed to be indicating that Tony would have to be the one to take a leap of faith, and it hit Tony all at once that it was a leap he was entirely ready to take.
Tony took a deep breath. “I guess I just thought I’d drop by and, uh… ask you for a dance.”
There was a long, startled silence.
“Excuse me?” Wanda said.
“Did you just say a dance?” Clint said.
“Oh my god, he came all this way just to fuck with us,” Sam said.
Steve took a step forward, and Tony’s stomach dropped.
And then Steve smiled. “I was starting to worry it was all a dream,” he said.
“You and me both, honey bunches,” Tony said, and then Steve was kissing him right there in the middle of the room.
“Okay, am I the only one who’s missing something?” Wanda said.
“Definitely not,” Sam said.
“Honey bunches?” Clint said blankly.
At that moment, Scott Lang walked in through the back door. “Mmm,” he said. “Is that pizza?”