Four minutes before.
It was almost too late before Tony understood what he had to do, and when he did he almost hesitated too long.
"I've got to close the rift from the other side," he said after he shook free of the realisation and already started grabbing equipment. Doctor Cornwallis had been a packrat as well as a deranged, space-time-rift-creating scientist, so he had no shortage. "Give me that, will you?"
Steve threw his weight against the mounting for the deuteron beam, ripping the bolts clean off the floor. "Then you can open it again, and close it from this side?"
"Sure thing," Tony lied.
Of course Steve saw through him, when hadn't he? A month ago, he'd been the only one to believe that Tony wasn't drinking again, despite the mess he'd made of everything. Now he was the only former Avenger to have answered Tony's frantic signal–though that was likely because he was the only one in range. Regardless, he'd showed up and pitched in, without question until now.
Tony hadn't even had the time to say how good it was to see him again.
"I don't have time for a better solution," Tony said. "If this thing keeps expanding, it's going to take out a Manhattan-sized chunk of land on both sides, and that's just for starters."
"That wasn't what I was asking." Steve handed the projector to Tony, who already had about as much gear as his armour could carry.
Tony looked at the rift. It had already widened to fill the hanger, and he could see an alien landscape through it: blue-green scrub land under a dim honey-coloured sky. If he were honest, he didn't know if he'd survive the trip, let alone live long enough on wherever that was to shut the damn rift. Though the air passing through it hadn't killed Steve yet. Christ, he should never have called Steve. He was going to get another Avenger killed, as though last month hadn't been bad enough.
He realised that he hadn't answered Steve, but really, there was nothing Tony could think to say, not even goodbye. He keyed on his boot jets and powered toward the alien sky.
Four minutes after.
The suit was dead. He'd fired all its power into closing the rift, including more than he should have from his cybernetic heart, and it had locked up and shut down about three metres before he'd managed to make a landing. It'd taken a little while to pull himself together enough to work the suit's manual releases, thinking as he did that there'd better be air out there.
The armour's face plate popped open, and the first thing he saw was a blurry, swimming version of Steve's face, which he profoundly hoped was an hallucination.
"You okay in there, Shell-head?" Steve's voice was too loud for his headache, and was additionally destroying a perfectly good bit of denial. Tony squeezed his eyes shut. He tried to cover his face with his hand, but oh, right, his armour was still bricked.
"Damn," he managed to say, after a moment. "Did it work?"
Steve's blurry eyes turned into Steve's blurry ear as he looked up. "Guess so," he said. "I can't see back to our world anymore. That hanger was visible when we first came through."
"That's..." Tony started, but he couldn't decide if that was good or not. "We're not dead."
"Not so far," Steve agreed. "Can you get out of that thing, or am I going to have to hack you out?"
It took a bit of fumbling, and yes a little prying with Steve's shield to get around a bent leg panel, but a few minutes later, Steve was pulling Tony up to stand beside him.
They were in the alien landscape he'd seen through the rift, high on a hillside that was mostly some kind of slate scree and partly little blue-green scrub bushes. Far below, a plane stretched along a wide valley. The air was stingingly cold, and dry enough to have already cracked Tony's lips.
"I think there's a town down there," Steve said, pointing to grouping of blobs at the confluence of two rivers. It was maybe four kilometres away, but all down hill.
Tony nodded. It looked too regular to be natural, though who knew on this world, they could be fungal growths or something equally unhelpful. Who even knew where this world was, if it was in the same universe as theirs, or another entirely? Presumably Doctor Cornwallis had, but she'd blown herself up before Tony had even got there. Tony looked down at the pile of debris that had been his armour, lying in rough to proximity to the equipment he'd brought through–which was equally toast–then back down the valley, and finally at Steve. He decided that he was going to have to ask.
"What are you doing here, Cap?"
"I guess you figured this was a one-way trip," Steve said. He was still looking downslope, his arms folded tightly across his chest, his shield slung across his back. He could have been standing on a rooftop on the Lower East Side as easily as an exoplanet, and Tony felt a flash of untempered affection, which he had to swallow back before he said something stupid. "I didn't want you to have to make it on your own."
Four hours after.
They'd left the tech where it was, covered in some scrub, but not especially hidden, and started down hill. Tony's sense of distance had been screwing him up, because he was pretty sure they'd gone more than four klicks. The gravity felt a smidgen lighter, but the air was also thinner, like the high Rockies. At least it had enough oxygen for Tony to function, and not enough noxious elements to kill him instantly. Still, he was breathing hard after the first few hours, and Steve–who looked like he was on a morning stroll–was starting to send him worried sideways glances, as though he were thinking of asking if Tony might want to sit in the shade while he scouted out the countryside. Which would have made Tony try to hit him, which in turn would have led to Tony hurting his hand.
Tony's exertion also gave him an excuse not to ask Steve things like, "What the hell were you thinking?" or "How is it better that we're both stuck here?" or "What could possibly make you make believe that I was worth this?" None of which questions he could foresee leading to anything but Steve's most stubborn expression and patronising answers about how they were all Avengers together, except for the part where they weren't because they'd disbanded the damn team.
"I think we're almost to that first river," Steve said. He'd been saying a lot of unhelpfully obvious things like that over the last few hours, even though Tony had eyes and hadn't asked. Tony thought maybe Steve was trying to be comforting, but so far it just underlined that Tony could be–should be–doing this alone.
The scrub was taller here, a different plant, maybe, and often growing over Steve's head. The occasional tree cast a bit of shade, but mostly the were labouring under a yellow-orange noontide sun which had ascended far faster than it Tony had reckoned on, and had turned the world from too chill to uncomfortably warm.
When Steve put his hand on Tony's arm, Tony's first thought was that he was now physically helping Tony walk, which really would be coming in for a smack. He glared at Steve, but Steve just put his fingers to his lips and nodded to the brush ahead of them. Tony's gaze followed his, and he froze.
At a pinch, he'd call the creatures he saw tentacle armadillo people, or possibly terrestrial nautiluses people. They kept low–maybe a metre and change–and had curving carapaces, all in greys and blue-greens like the land, narrow heads could clearly retract and had a prey species' big lateral eyes, plus another set pointing forward. At least half a dozen tentacles came out from somewhere under the carapaces, each lightly scaled in grey. The foremost one held a... pot plant? It looked like a little palm tree growing out of a reed basket.
"You have your universal translator?" he asked Steve in a low voice.
"Other uniform pants," Steve replied. He was holding his hands up, in what had worked out to be a gesture of peace on most planets they'd been to.
"Well," Tony said, "here goes. It's my turn, isn't it?"
Steve shrugged. "Have at it, partner."
Tony stepped forward. He crouched a bit to be more on level with the foremost alien, and spread both his hands in front of him. "Hi there." A prickle of apprehension trailing down his spine, but he was careful to keep his expression neutral. "My name's Tony; this is Cap, and I'm really hoping you speak English."
They didn't. Their leader made a complicated rolling-trill that Tony knew was going to be an absolute bastard to learn, assuming they were here that long, and held out the plant. Hoping this was what he was supposed to do, Tony took it. Apparently he'd done well, because the others came forward then, all making the trill, and quickly surrounding both of them. The leader, or diplomat, or whatever they were, stayed in front of Tony, turning their head to look at him out of each of their four eyes. Finally, they reached up with one their tentacles and wrapped it lightly around Tony's wrist. It felt like the underbelly of a small lizard–scaly, but not abrasive–and the tug on Tony's arm was insistent.
"I think they want us to come with them," he told Steve. "I wonder–" he broke off when all the aliens turned to the hill as one. Behind them, a second sun was rising, and Tony could already feel the warmth of its blue light on his face. "We'd better get inside."
Four days after.
"Are you sure this is a good idea?"
"If I had a nickel for every time someone asked me that..." Tony answered, hating how weak he sounded. He could feel his cybernetic heart struggling to circulate his blood, and even lying down felt like an effort now. "I don't have a lot of choice, Steve."
Steve made a stubborn face, like he thought Tony was presenting a false dichotomy, and he was just hooking his heart up to alien tech for the sake of expediency. Or it might have just been his "this entire situation sucks, and I'm mad that punching it won't help" face. Tony's vision was going a bit blurry around the edges again, and just when he'd started to get over his concussion, too.
"You don't have to stay," Tony said. "This could get ugly." It always did, but he'd made sure none of the Avengers had ever found that out.
"Like I'm leaving you alone while you connect a Rube Goldberg machine made out of leftover armour and a cactus to your heart," Steve growled.
"Fine, but don't touch me, and it's... it's not as bad as it looks." Tony reached for the switch that would open the currant he'd wired into his heart.
The aliens were called Raalslads, as far as Tony could make it out in English, or maybe the village was called Raalslad. They were still working on the language barrier, though not as much as they were working on the tech barrier. The Raalslads used biotech almost exclusively, storing data and energy alike in crops and even in their houses, which were all formed by convincing living plants into the desired shape–Tony hadn't been far wrong in joking that the village was a fungal growth. Their apparently stone-age agrarianism had turned out to be space-age agricultural community, but one whose technology Tony could barely get a handle on. The town's engineer, Naalan, had helped, but if Tony didn't have to trust his life to it... well, he wouldn't trust his life to it.
The charge hurt as much as it always did. That damned living armour had wired it right into his central nervous system, and initial flush charge sent ribbons of fire down every nerve and into every cell. His spine felt like it would combust at any moment. He tried not to convulse, knowing it could shake the connection lose, and he tried not to scream, but that was forgone the moment he hit the switch. He would have focused on his breathing, except he wasn't breathing. He shut his eyes and rode the pain.
Tony knew it was only a few minutes, less than that, actually–he'd set the first rush of energy for ninety seconds–but it felt like days before the fire settled down to a just-too-warm glow. Tony slumped, eyes still closed, and tried to get his lungs working again. He knew that if he could only stop hyperventilating, his breathing would come easier than it had in days. Charging always gave him a fuzzy, nervous energy, almost like a caffeine high after an all nighter, or it did when it was finished. He'd never been able to improve the process.
When he felt a warm, calloused hand on his cheek, he turned his face into it and inhaled leather and dirt and perspiration. Someone was saying his name, and that too helped pull him back. Tony opened his eyes.
Steve knelt above him, one hand cradling Tony's head, the other hovering like he wanted to touch Tony but wasn't sure where was safe. Steve's skin was grey with shock and worry, like he'd been the one to get the cactus-charge, not Tony. Finally, setting his jaw, Steve reached for the switch.
Tony caught his wrist. "Don't. It needs to trickle in for about half an hour."
"Good God," Steve whispered, but he let Tony draw his hand away, turning so they clasped together. "I think you need to work on the settings before next time."
"I'll see what I can do," Tony answered, "but it's not..." Even he couldn't finish that sentence. He had a pretty good idea of just how awful it had looked.
Steve's eyes widened and then narrowed as his brows came down into a scowl. He had likely just figured out that this wasn't technical incompatibility, but how Tony normally operated. He said nothing, just sighed and shifted around so that Tony was lying half propped up against his knees, and his head was resting on Steve's stomach.
"Thanks," he murmured, patting Steve's hand where it still cradled his cheek. "If I'd known this was what it took for you to hold me..."
"Like you didn't know," Steve said, still angry, and Tony remembered Red Skull's virus and tearing his helmet off to do CPR. Steve had held him then, too.
"Let's do this without the histrionics, sometime," he said, then realised what he'd said. "I mean..."
Steve pulled their joined hands up to his lips and kissed Tony's knuckles. "Hush," he said. "Just rest now."
Four weeks after.
"I don't think I can do it," Tony admitted.
They were sitting by the river in the dim light between dawns. Tony was staring at the water, pretending to watch the little lungfishy things scuttling around the shallows. These were the primary source of protein in Raalslad, which was in fact the town, not the planet. The planet was Thaal, as were the people.
"What do you mean?" Steve asked. His voice was soft, cajoling almost, and it pissed Tony off. Steve had been nothing but patient for almost a month now, and Tony knew he had to be as keyed up to go home as Tony himself was, and was struggling just as hard to learn the language and customs so that he didn't piss off their hosts. At this point, Steve's patience was practically weaponised, and his obvious passive aggressive intent in waiting everything out with grace was starting to sand Tony's nerves.
"I mean I don't know how to get us home, all right!" Tony snapped. "And as far as I can tell, the Thaal don't know either." He and Naalan had drawn a frustrating series of diagrams on that topic, which had established that Naalan had seen the rift, and had taken readings, but had no part in the creation of the rift and found the idea of deliberately making another one alarming. "I think we're stuck," he said in a softer tone.
"You'll keep working on it, Tony," Steve said, still patiently.
"That's what I'm saying, I don't even know where to start." Tony realised that he'd yelled that, and that several Thaal working in a nearby field were watching them, and made himself speak more softly. "All I've managed to establish is that this isn't our universe, and that whatever Doctor Cornwallis was trying to do clearly fucked up and killed her before she could even write her damn notes." It'd just about killed all of them too. "Maybe if I were in her lab, but, no, I had to go through, and now I'm stuck here, and worst of all, I've gotten you stuck too, for no reason!" He pitched a stone into the river, which swallowed it with an unsatisfying thlunk. "Why the hell did you follow me?"
"Would you rather be here alone?" The hesitation in Steve's voice made Tony turn to look at him. He was sitting on the bank, with his knees drawn up and his arms wrapped around them. He'd stopped wearing his cowl weeks ago, and his hair was boyishly messy. The Thaal hatchlings thought human hair was fascinating and kept asking if they could wrap their little tentacles in it–which Steve permitted a lot more than Tony. Of course, Steve was also volunteering in the nursery school, because what else would he be doing? Maybe it was being childish himself, but Tony couldn't help thinking that the Thaal liked "Seeve" a lot better than they liked "Lonee."
Suppressing his annoyance, Tony tried to think of an honest answer that wouldn't make Steve mad at him. None came to him. "Christ," he muttered, and buried his face in his hands. Steve shifted so that their shoulders brushed. Tony wanted to rest his head against Steve's, but still couldn't figure out where the hell they stood. Steve had cradled him in his lap again last time he'd charged his heart, and again they had deliberately not talked about it.
"Tony," Steve said carefully. "I miss home, of course I do. Sam and Sharon and the team, even if things have been bad since..." He sighed. "That was my first team: Clint and the twins. Now Clint's dead, and Scott and Jack, too, and Wanda..." Tony turned to look, but it was Steve now who was staring at the river and the light wasn't good enough to read his expression. "If you'd just vanished, if I'd come too late, and there was nothing but a ruined lab and a dead signal, even without knowing you were stuck here by yourself, well, it would have broken my heart, Tony. I can't lose you again, not now. So, no, I'm not sorry I came, no matter what you're thinking."
Tony wrapped his arm around Steve's back and leaned in to rest his cheek on his shoulder. Steve's beard scratched at Tony's forehead. "I'm sorry you're here," Tony said, "but I'm glad I'm not alone."
The phrase If you were the last man on Earth, had been running through his mind a lot lately, but he promised himself he wouldn't put that kind of pressure on Steve. Tony had already done enough.
Four months after.
"How's your new armour coming?"
Tony and Naalan both looked up from the gel sheet's schematics. The question had been in English, but Steve's tone was more than casual. Steve ducked a bit more to get his head in the doorway, and repeated it in his rough Thaal, which had its usual effect of suppressed hilarity: Naalan purred.
"Uh, it flies," Tony said. He made a whooshing sound and motion with his hand, and Naalan waved their lower tentacles enthusiastically, still purring. "Or it fires a stripped down heat ray, either one takes pretty well all its power, so..."
"Good to know," Steve said, and turned to go. He was wearing his uniform, not the baggy linen overalls they'd both taken up, and his shield was slung across his back.
"Why?" Tony asked, drawing out the word.
Half turned in the doorway to Naalan's lab, the sun haloing his scruffy blond hair, Steve was a picture of suppressed tension. "I'm not sure about the translation, but there might be pirates." He said something in Thaal to Naalan, who also tensed, and started rippling the gel sheet to pull of a different readout. "Or space raiders, I guess. They get through the planetary security net sometimes."
"Oh, is that all," Tony said. "And you want to go fight them?"
"Figured I'd earn my keep," Steve replied. "We're not all adding to the scientific knowledge base of our new world. I'm not good for much else."
Tony would have liked to say what he thought of that, but he knew he didn't have time. The armour wasn't in any shape for a real fight, and Tony without it, well, what would he do? He literally didn't fit in any of the fighter craft the defence force kept in the next valley.
"Well, have fun storming the castle," he said, but bitterness and self-recrimination wasn't the last thing he wanted Steve to hear before going off to defend the planet against space pirates. He got up, knees creaking from sitting on the floor for so long, and followed Steve out so they could both stand upright. "Good luck," he said, with every gram of sincerity he could put into the words.
Instead of replying, Steve took Tony's face between his hands and kissed him. It was sweet, and deep and needy, like Steve was putting all the feelings into that one kiss that Tony had put into his well wishes. "In case I don't make it back," he said when he pulled away. Then he left Tony standing, speechless, and strode off to join the mustering Thaal.
Four years after.
"You have to promise not to laugh," Steve said, which alone would have made Tony laugh, except he looked so damn uncertain that Tony kissed him instead.
"Cross my heart," he promised. They were sitting on what had long ago become their spot by the river, the remains of a picnic lunch spread between them: smoked lungfish, sun-dried fruit, a savoury custard thing that had neither eggs nor cream in it and the origins of which Tony preferred not to investigate. He leaned away a bit and put on his best listening face.
Steve rubbed the back of his neck, ruffling his shoulder-length hair. "I've been thinking," he said at last, which was pretty clear. "I mean, about us."
"Uh oh," Tony said, only half joking.
"Hush," Steve reprimanded, holding up his hand. "No peanut gallery, or I'll never get through this." Tony would have let him, but he grinned when Tony mimed zipping his lips, and then Tony had to kiss him again. "No, listen," Steve continued a few minutes later. "I've worked it all out, what to say I mean. The first thing is: this doesn't mean I've given up on getting home. I know you're still working on it, and a bunch of the Thaal from the institute are too. And it's not because I'm lonely and you're the only person in space time who speaks my first language, or is... well, biologically compatible."
"I'm pretty sure–" Tony started, but shushed on Steve's narrowed eyes.
"And I know it's going to sound silly, because what can it mean out here? But I guess it would matter to me." He stopped, took a breath, and watched Tony so intently that Tony found his face heating. "I was just... look, Tony, I've wanted to say this for years. I love you. Will you marry me?"
Tony laughed, surprised and so overwhelmed that he barely managed to say, "Yes," in time to save Steve from pushing him in the river.
Four decades after.
"Do you miss it?"
It wasn't a question Steve had asked in a long time, not since their first year here, unless he had, and Tony had forgotten. He had to think about his reply now, in any case. "I miss the sky," he said. "It was blue."
"Like your eyes, my darling," Steve answered, in some kind of put on accent that he probably wouldn't be able to identify if pressed.
"Ha," Tony said, and stretched, considering an almost-coffee drink, then decided that getting up would be too much work, and snuggled down into the chair, pulling the blanket up to his chin. "That's my line. Getting nostalgic?"
Steve hummed. He'd been watching the horizon, where the yellow-orange sun was about to rise, but now he turned from his perch on the living-wicker porch railing, and met Tony's eyes. "No," he said, then shrugged. "Well, yes. You're right about the sky." After a moment, he added, "and skyscrapers."
"Of all the things on Earth," Tony said, smiling fondly, "you miss Midtown Manhattan."
"Well, Downtown, anyway," Steve corrected, but he too was smiling. The blue sun was low enough to cast his face half into shadow, highlighting the wrinkles around his eyes and bracketing his mouth. They weren't quite dimples, but something more settled: four decades worth of smiles had carved those lines. "It's Sam's birthday today."
"I guess it is." Tony hadn't remembered. To be honest, he'd switched to the local calendar thirty years ago, comping for the twin star system was more fun anyway. Though he supposed keeping track of Earth time was a pleasing challenge as well. Thinking of Steve missing his best friend made him want to apologise all over again, despite the absolute embargo Steve had put on the topic the first week after they'd stopped trying to get back.
"I wonder..." Steve started and broke off, turning back to the second sunrise. The yellow crest was just breaking the ridge, just above the spot where they'd first come to Thaal. It could be any number of things that held Steve's thoughts. If Sam was still alive, if he was happy, if he and the others had rebuilt the Avengers from the ashes. Tony had left his assets to Rhodey, and to the Maria Stark Foundation. They could have set up the new team in Stark Tower. He'd pictured that: a new day, and a new team, with Jan or someone leading it–sometimes he even put Wanda and all the rest on the roster too, because why the hell not? He knew Steve had the same thoughts, though he would never say.
Steve never said a word that would put Tony in mind that Steve resented where he was, or who he was with, and true to form, Steve now turned and slid onto the love seat next to Tony. He wrapped his arm around Tony, and squeezed his shoulders. Age had thinned his bulk, until he was made entirely of lean, wiry muscle and sharp edges. When he leaned in to kiss Tony's temple, his lips were chapped from the dry air but tender nonetheless. He pulled away and leaned down to meet Tony's eyes, and said, "Take this as your annual reminder that if I could turn back time, I wouldn't change what I did. And that time travel never makes anything better, so don't even think about it."
Tony chuckled. "Your standards are slipping, Cap. Your reminders used to come with dinner and a show."
"That's later," Steve said, and kissed Tony deeply on the lips. All these years and Tony should be used to Steve's mouth against his, but he still felt a little thrill right to his heart, every time. "For now, I want to watch the sunrise with you."
He settled back to do just that, but Tony was still watching him. Steve's earlier wistfulness had passed, settling into contentment, and from the way the corner of his mouth quirked up, Tony knew that he hadn't been making empty promises.
"Green pizza?" Tony asked hopefully.
"You bet." Steve said it easily, as though he hadn't just spent a week scrounging the ingredients. The Thaal hadn't really caught onto the glorious potential of cheese, so Steve had ended up making it himself, which required milking his own hippo-like dairy beast. That explained why Tony hadn't seen a whole lot of him recently. Tony had assumed he'd been off training baby defence force volunteers.
"'Reader, I married him,'" Tony quoted.
"Some time ago, as I recall."
"You'll have to remind me about that too, later," Tony said. "My memory's not what it used to be."
The yellow sun was well up now, heating the porch. Tony dumped the blanket and stretched out again, tilting to catch as much of the sunlight as he could. Unlike Steve, he'd put on a few pounds–insulation against Thaal winters, he called it–but he still liked to soak up every ray the suns produced, and God bless Thaal's sturdy magnetic field.
"We should go in," Steve said, but didn't move.
"Five more minutes," Tony said. "We've got time for a sunrise."