The familiar figure takes shape under Steve's pencil: scale mail, stripes, a star, a hint of wings atop the cowl. Steve stretches and readjusts the arm of the desk lamp, which is when he catches sight of the clock. It's midnight. Bernie went to bed hours ago, after spending all evening studying for the LSAT. For Captain America, it's a quiet night: Brooklyn Heights is as peaceful as it ever is, the streets outside his and Bernie's apartment blessedly undisturbed by supervillains. But Steve Rogers, Marvel Comics' newest artist, has a deadline: his editor needs this whole issue pencilled by Friday. And he's only on the roughs of the third page.
He has a good excuse, but it's not exactly one that Steve Rogers can avail himself of: he was fighting the Serpent Society, in the wake of their deadly attack on MODOK. Steve's never been MODOK's biggest fan, but even MODOK doesn't deserve what they did to him. And dealing with that, and its aftermath -- well, it took up his whole week. But it's not like he can tell his editor that.
Bernie had been delighted by his new career. Who would guess that the artist of Captain America is Captain America? she'd asked, laughing, as she wrapped her arms around him. Admittedly, it has its advantages. For one thing, he can use himself as a model. But he already knows he's going to have a heck of a time keeping up two careers, the artist and the superhero.
It just means he has to draw faster.
Idly, he wonders how in the world Tony ever managed the gig he had without going completely insane: superhero, CEO, engineer, and his own bodyguard. Dear lord. And then he bites his lip and shuts his eyes, because he knows just how well Tony is managing. He's not even Iron Man anymore, and that's the least of it. Last year he ran his whole life off the rails and over the cliff, because when Tony Stark falls off the wagon, he does it like he does everything else in his life: at the highest speed possible.
When he opens his eyes again he has to blink back tears, because the next page of the script calls for Captain America to meet Iron Man.
The world doesn't know that Tony used to be Iron Man. Heck, most of the Avengers don't even know.
Steve knows, though. And it means everything to him.
He can draw Iron Man almost as well as he can draw himself, and he doesn't particularly want to think about what that means. The straight lines and sharp angles of the armor come naturally to his fingers, and soon enough, there's Iron Man on the page, right there in panel one, and next to him there's Captain America, his arm around the Golden Avenger's metal shoulders. The best of friends. Together since the moment he woke up in the future.
He wishes they could have that again. He wishes he'd never taken it for granted.
"I wish we could have had more," he murmurs to himself, as he stares at the page. He has only the haziest idea of what more is. It hovers nebulously, just outside the edge of his own understanding.
Tony's going to be all right, he tells himself. Tony's on the mend. He'll see him again soon, and he'll hug him, and he'll tell him it's so good to see him, it's so good he's doing better. He'll tell him he's sorry, God, he's so sorry for what he said to him, and-- and--
Steve doesn't quite know what he's thinking. There's a wash of regret and-- and longing for something he knows he can never have, and he wants-- oh, he wants--
"If you didn't want me to razz you," Bucky said, "then you shouldn't have told me your damn dream."
Steve could feel his face shape into a scowl. His face seemed to be doing that a lot lately, since he'd woken up in the future. It wasn't his fault that the future was a goddamn mess. Everything and everyone he'd ever loved--
Well, some of them were still here, and he was damned if that didn't make it worse, somehow.
He'd had a future. He was going to win the war, come home, marry Gail, buy a house -- hell, maybe he'd even live next door to Bucky -- raise a few kids. It was going to be a good life. And then he'd woken up, and Bucky and Gail had gotten married, and they'd lived the life he was supposed to have. Without him. His parents had died. His brother had died. It had all gone on without him, and as if that wasn't bad enough, he was dreaming up these strange dreams about--
"I told you," he said. "I don't even like him."
Tony Stark. Steve shuddered in horror. Jesus, how had his brain even come up with that?
"I'm just saying," Bucky continued. "It sounds like you like him a lot, the way you put it. You dreamed you were sitting there, drawing pictures of the two of you, thinking about how much you missed him? That's at least friendly in my book."
Steve gritted his teeth. "He's a son of a--" He caught himself and looked at Gail. "Uh. Son of a gun."
Gail smiled graciously. She still had such pretty eyes, Steve caught himself thinking, still gorgeous even after so long, and goddammit, he'd missed his chance. "Why don't I go make you boys some coffee?" she asked, and she excused herself and got up off the sofa before Steve could say anything.
"You don't know him," Steve told Bucky, after Gail had closed the kitchen door behind herself. "He's an asshole, Buck."
If one man could be said to embody the future Steve had found himself in, that man was Tony Stark. And the thing was, everything about the future was horrible. Tony was smart, all right. He'd give him that. Tony was ambitious. He was most definitely out for himself. He drank like a fish. Steve didn't know if he'd ever actually seen him sober; there was always a cocktail glued to his hand. He piloted the Iron Man suit while completely plastered. Tony was brash, loud, crude, lewd. He hadn't met a dirty joke he didn't love. He hadn't met a pretty girl he wouldn't flirt with. And he flirted with men too, like it was no big deal, like these days it didn't even matter.
Sometimes he called Steve darling.
Sometimes Steve wanted to punch him in the face.
If not for the fact that Fury had indicated in no uncertain terms that SHIELD wanted him on board, and for the fact that Tony could somehow continue to do his job despite being a goddamn lush, he would have benched him long ago. Kicked him off the Ultimates. But it wasn't his call. And, Steve could grudgingly admit, he was a good teammate. Mostly.
Bucky frowned. "Well, I can't say as I really know him," he allowed, "but from the things you've told me -- he really doesn't sound that bad. He had you over to dinner and gave you that helmet of yours, the one he'd gone to so much trouble to find."
He had done that, hadn't he? Steve grimaced. He'd probably only given it away because he couldn't take it with him, because he had a brain tumor--
And then it was Steve who was the asshole, wasn't it? Hating a dying man?
Steve scowled again. "I still don't think this dream proves I like him. Besides, why would I dream I was a comic book artist? Do I seem like the artistic type? And I wasn't even on the Ultimates." He fumbled for the name. "I was-- I was-- we were Avengers."
He didn't know what that was. It sounded bloodthirsty. Did he want vengeance? He couldn't. (Only for his entire stolen life, his mind whispered.)
"It was just a dream." Bucky shrugged. "Maybe it doesn't mean anything."
But it had felt so real, Steve wanted to say. It felt like it was really happening. Like a memory. Like maybe it had happened, only it couldn't have.
"Or maybe you should talk to Stark," Bucky added, laughing. "About your feelings."
Steve glared at him. "No."
Half-awake and half-dreaming, Steve drifts.
In the dream, he's cold, so cold. He's in his old body, his body before the serum, and yet he has the vague feeling he's still a comic book artist. Sometimes he has these dreams. Sometimes his imagination conflates all of his life with the ice. But this isn't that dream: he's not falling. The water doesn't rise to meet him. Instead it's winter and he's sitting at a bus shelter, and Tony is shaking him awake, Tony is telling him he's going to die if he doesn't get up--
Steve jerks awake and he knows exactly why he was dreaming that. He doesn't need to be a genius to understand why he might dream of dying in a snowstorm, today of all days.
There's a knock on the door. That must have woken him.
He gets up, throws on a robe, pads to the door--
Jim Rhodes is on his doorstep, bundled up in a heavy coat, and he gives Steve a weary smile. "Can I come in?"
"Sure thing." Steve nods and steps back, letting Jim inside.
It can't be Avengers business. He'd have come as Iron Man then. No, this has to be about Tony.
"I just saw him," Jim says, with no preamble whatsoever. They both know who he means. "He's at St. Vincent's. In the ICU."
"Is he--?" Steve bites his lip. He can't ask it, a superstitious corner of his mind insists. Asking it makes it true.
It's like if he doesn't say it, it will never have happened. Tony will never have lost everything, will never have sold the coat off his back to buy booze, will never have walked into a blizzard to lie down and die.
Jim half-smiles. "He's gonna be okay, Cap. It won't be easy, though. The docs said frostbite as well as the heart damage and cirrhosis. It'll take a while. It's gonna be a long road. But he's going to get there. He says he's going to stop drinking. And I believe him."
"He wants to live," Steve says, softly, and for the first time in a long time, hope flickers in his chest.
"Yeah," Jim echoes. "And you know how Tony is when there's something he wants."
Steve takes a shaking breath, and then he knows what Jim didn't want to say. "He doesn't want to see me. Does he."
Jim's words are careful. "He hasn't said either way. But I think he does. I know how much you mean to him, Cap."
"You didn't see how I left him," Steve says, pinching the bridge of his nose. "You know that flophouse we found him in, in the Bowery, the one that burned down? I went to see had a fight. I was yelling at him, trying to get him to crawl back out of the bottle, and he--" Steve sighs. "After I pulled him out of the fire, because he was too drunk to stand up, he got away. You remember that part."
Tony had swapped clothes with a homeless man and disappeared into the streets.
He'd run because of Steve. Because whatever the right thing to say was, Steve had said the exact wrong thing. Tony had told him he hadn't understood what it was like and clearly he hadn't.
"It's not your fault."
"You didn't hear what I said to him."
"No," Jim says, "but I know Tony. And I'll bet you my armor to your shield that he doesn't blame you either. He probably doesn't think he deserves to see you. He probably blames himself."
"That's Tony." Jim presses a scrap of paper into his hand. "Here. I have to go, but it's his room number, and the phone number for his room. You're on the visitors list."
Before Steve can say anything else, Jim lets himself out.
Steve steps to the window, staring out at the snow-covered streets.
He can't. He can't face Tony. He'll say it wrong, do it wrong, never be able to apologize. And Tony will lose himself again, and it'll be all his fault this time--
Steve woke up, gasping, shivering in the warm room of his temporary quarters at the Triskelion, and for several long, terrifying seconds he couldn't shake the dream. His mind whirled with the feeling of it, an overwhelming sadness, a frozen grief for a man who wasn't dead, Tony Tony Tony.
It had felt so real.
It had felt like that dream he'd had, the one where he'd been drawing comic books. That had been a couple years ago, hadn't it? He'd just woken up then. He'd just joined the Ultimates then. Everything had been so new. He'd been so out-of-sorts. Oh, he'd settled eventually. They'd become his team.
And now, who knew what would become of them? So many friends, so many heroes, all dead. Killed in the fighting. Drowned in the wave Magneto had unleashed upon New York. Tony had pulled Steve out of the water. Saved his life. Taken him to SHIELD. Carol had said he'd waited for him in the medical wing. He hadn't had to do that. He hadn't needed to stick around.
Tony was still an asshole -- he was always going to be an asshole -- but even Steve could admit now that he had a good heart.
He had to find Tony. The need was urgent, spurred on by something he didn't quite understand. He remembered the way Jim Rhodes -- and who the hell was that? -- had sounded, talking about Tony. Fear wrapped around him, some wisp of terror left from a dream that wasn't his, a life that wasn't his.
It was silly. He knew where Tony was these days, or at least, where he'd said he was going to be. The Stark Manhattan offices. What was left of them. Securing my assets, he'd said, with a wink and something that was a lot like a shimmy.
Steve fumbled for the phone and punched in Tony's number without looking.
There was no answer.
Six hours later, Steve was in Berlin.
The rain poured down in sheets. Steve adjusted the hood of his jacket, but it didn't do any good: he was soaked. SHIELD's flight data for Tony's planes and Tony's suit had gotten him this far. He'd persuaded Carol it was important, it was an emergency, and she'd pulled all the surveillance she could get. And now he was here. In the rain.
Steve stared up at the sign above the bar's door and tried to remember all the German he'd learned in the war. The Death Cellar. Lovely. Not a place he'd pick for a drinking binge, but, well, he certainly wasn't Tony.
Inside, he stamped his boots, tried to brush off the water pooled on his jacket, and looked around the crowded room. He expected to see Tony immediately, always and forever the center of attention, with one or two dames on his lap and a martini in each hand. But he couldn't see him at all. So Steve headed through the room until he found the bar, and then the bartender.
Steve cleared his throat and summoned up every remaining scrap of rusty German that he had. "Ich suche Tony Stark, bitte. Wo ist er?"
Wordlessly, the man stepped back and gestured to the far corner.
Tony was all alone by the window, his back to the wall. The table he sat at was littered with empty bottles. Gone was the dapper star of the society pages; Tony was almost unrecognizable in a worn zippered jacket, t-shirt, and jeans. His face was flushed and he looked like he hadn't shaved in a few days. He was halfway slumped forward in his seat. And there was, of course, a glass in his hand. Next to him on the table was a strange black cube, about a foot on each side. One face of it looked to be open, but it was turned away from Steve and he couldn't make out the contents.
Oh, God, Tony, Steve thought, with a worry that was only half his own.
Tony looked up at him, and there were tear tracks on his face, as he saluted Steve with his glass. "Hey, Steve," he said. His voice was only a little slurred. "You're late to the party. Pull up a chair."
Steve sat down across from Tony.
He wished he knew how to do this. He never knew what to say. To anyone. It was just like that damn dream.
"What are we drinking to?" he asked, finally, after Tony had watched him in silence for an excruciating ten seconds.
Tony tilted his head thoughtfully. "I made a list," he said, and he set his half-full glass down, sloshing the liquid within, so that he could attempt to count on his fingers. "Killing things. Stamping out evil. Liars and cheats. Killing things." He paused, four fingers held up. "I said that one already. Fuck."
Steve sighed. "You drink too much, Tony."
As he said it, it didn't sound like him. It sounded like something that other Steve would have said, the one in his dreams, the one who lived in that other world and felt so much for Tony, the one who was allowed to feel so much for Tony.
"Yeah, well." Tony's smile was sad. "Pretty sure it's not gonna be my liver that kills me." He tapped the side of his head, laughed a quiet laugh, and picked up his drink again.
Steve found his gaze drawn now to the mysterious black box on the table, the one that was still facing away from him. "What have you got in the box?"
"Uh-uh." Tony waggled the index finger of his free hand at Steve, an exaggerated no. "I gotta tell this in order, darling." The slurred pet name sounded fond now, rather than a campy affectation. "So there I was at my offices when I found someone -- name of Ghost -- trying to steal some of my secret tech, and Justine Hammer there looking for me. Needed my help, she said. Her father had been experimenting on her. Nanomachines in her blood. Her powers were killing her. I helped her. Made the nanomachines keep her alive. She was going to help me get my tech back. Find out who was taking it. She said she'd stay with me."
He drained his glass. "Oh, God," he said, and there were tears in his eyes, the blue gone luminescent.
It was always women for Tony, wasn't it? His downfall. First Natasha, now this. "What happened?"
"I loved her," he said. "I did. And wouldn't you know it, she was up to her fucking neck in it. And the man behind it all was my grandfather. I thought he'd died when I was a boy. Turned out Grandpa had faked his death to go work on top-secret projects. He was basically a machine. Held together by nanomachines, just like Justine. And he wanted everything. Everything that was mine. He was stealing it all."
Of all the people Tony could have named, Steve hadn't expected that. "Your grandfather?"
Tony nodded. "And there was one box of mine he couldn't open. He needed me to help. He was going to kill me if I didn't."
Tony drummed his fingers on the box.
Steve waited expectantly.
"You ever hear of the multiverse?"
Steve shook his head.
"Wow, I'm too drunk for this," Tony said, with a laugh, as he refilled his glass from one of the many bottles on the table. "Okay, the idea is that our universe isn't the only one. There are thousands, millions, billions -- a whole lotta universes out there, sweetheart. And in all these universes, things happened... differently. There are a million different Earths out there, a million different Steves, a million different Tonys. And that kid Reed Richards, he's got a multiversal gate at the Baxter Building. He can look into these other worlds. Bring things back."
Maybe, Steve thought, there was a universe where he was a comic book artist. Maybe there were a thousand of them. Maybe it wasn't a dream.
He wanted to ask Tony if he had the dreams too.
And then Tony spun the box around.
Tony's own head was inside it. The head was encased in Iron Man armor, minus the faceplate. And it was very, very dead. Good lord. What had he done?
"This handsome devil is from Earth-242," Tony said. His face was motionless. "He was already dead, just like this, when we got him. But his tech was still active. Shuts down machinery. Especially nanomachinery."
"So when you opened the box for your grandfather--" Steve began in horror.
Tony nodded. "Yep. Killed the Ghost. Killed Justine. Killed my grandpa." He smiled a crooked smile. "It was them or me, Steve." And then there was a tear, trickling down his cheek. Steve wanted to wipe it away. "Jesus fucking Christ, what do I have to do to make it stop hurting?" he whispered. "Why is this my life? What am I doing wrong?"
Steve didn't have an answer. But he didn't think Tony was going to find it at the bottom of a bottle.
"Who the fuck needs love, anyway?" Tony spat out. "They're all liars. Did I say we were drinking to liars?" He raised his glass. "To liars."
"Maybe," Steve ventured, "there are people who love you who aren't trying to kill you. It can't be all bad."
Tony made a very small noise that sounded like a sob, and then his face twisted into something ugly and mocking. "Why, darling, are you offering?"
He knew Tony was trying to get under his skin. He knew Tony didn't mean it.
It wouldn't be that bad, a tiny voice in his head said.
This time, he wasn't going to throw himself out a window. He stood up, walked around the table, sat down next to Tony, and put an arm over Tony's shoulders. He rubbed an awkward circle over Tony's back.
"Come on, Tony," he said. He could feel the bunched muscles of Tony's arm, through the thin jacket. He wasn't thinking about touching Tony's body. "You've got me. We're going home."
Steve is cold, so cold. He's on a table, he thinks. He opens his eyes, and he's in a tight-walled metal room, surrounded by people he doesn't recognize. There's a huge man with a cape and hammer. A man in a red suit. A tiny woman with wings. They're superheroes, maybe. Like the Invaders. In front of them all, someone in a metal suit, red and gold. The eyes behind the mask are blue.
And then it's like something opens up wide, wide, wide, inside Steve's head, a door thrown open, two faraway rooms connected. Reality tangles with itself, and the world lurches around him.
The man in the metal suit is still staring at him.
That's Tony, he knows, with a familiar surge of affection, and he doesn't know how he knows it -- who's Tony? -- and this isn't how he wakes up. He should be in New York, at the Triskelion. SHIELD should be here.
What's SHIELD? What's a Triskelion?
Nick Fury should be here.
Why should Nick Fury be here?
Bucky should be here.
God, Bucky's dead, Steve thinks, trapped in confused grief. Isn't he? No, it's Jan, Jan's the one who's dead, Jan and Hank died a long time ago.
Tony needs him.
In his head everything snaps back and forward, and they're standing on the helicarrier at dawn, a new Avengers team forming, and then he's holding his shield high over Tony's supine body, and then they're hugging. I'm not half as good at anything as I am when I'm doing it next to you, Tony says, but he's never said that--
He can't remember.
The world goes white.
Steve jerked awake, and everything in his head was jumbled up and wrong. His first thought was that maybe the ice had scrambled his brain. Everything was so cold. Everything was always cold.
Of course he was cold, he told himself, when he'd woken up a little more. He was in Alaska. He couldn't go back to the Ultimates. He'd quit the team. He'd killed Spider-Man. He was responsible. It was all his fault.
But the dreams hadn't been like that before. Something here was unstable. Something was strange. He'd known about reality, his reality, in this dream, and he never had before.
He had to find Tony. He was certain about that much; the dream had definitely communicated that. And if that meant facing the Ultimates, well, then he'd face the Ultimates.
Ten seconds after his plane touched down at JFK, he had his phone out, and he dialed Tony's number and hit send before he could think better of it.
"Hello?" Tony asked, and something about his voice -- distracted, like he was busy saving the world -- made Steve smile.
Steve breathed in and out. "Tony?"
"Steve!" Tony said. "I was just thinking about you, darling. I thought you were busy finding yourself. Are you all done? Did you find yourself? Were you where you left yourself?" He chuckled.
Steve realized he was still smiling. Since when had Tony made him happy? How long had he been like this?
I found you, he wanted to say. He bit the words back.
"I'm in New York," he said, gruffly.
"Perfect," Tony said, and he sounded like he was smiling. "Listen, sweetheart, I have someone I think you need to meet. Right now. Can you get to the Triskelion fast? I'd fly you myself but I'm a little busy."
"I'll be there as soon as I can," Steve promised.
"Great. Love you too," Tony drawled, and then the line went dead.
Steve stared at the phone in his hand and thought about the warm tingly feeling in his chest, the one that could once have been horror and now definitely wasn't.
Maybe he'd finally made it to the twenty-first century after all.
As soon as Steve entered the room that the SHIELD agents had directed him to, he saw Tony. He'd been expecting a lab, but this wasn't one; it was one of the observation areas, dotted with low-slung couches and huge windows opening onto the New York morning. There was an adjoining door, Steve noted, but it was closed. They were alone.
Tony was smiling, but his face was tight around the eyes. There was a glass in his hand that looked like it contained orange juice and was therefore probably a screwdriver. Well, at least it was past nine o'clock this time.
Tony rose from his seat and enfolded Steve in a hug that -- oh, God -- didn't last nearly long enough, and what the hell was he supposed to do with all these feelings?
He didn't even belong here anymore. No one should forgive him. Not for what he'd done to Peter Parker.
"Hey," Tony murmured. "I missed you."
"I missed you too, Tony," he said, and it was easier to say than he thought it would have been.
Tony huffed out a rattling laugh and ran his free hand through his hair. "All right," Tony said. "Okay. Before you meet this person, I have to ask you one thing, and it might sound weird, but I have to--" He stopped, and cleared his throat. "Do you have dreams? About us?"
Steve thought that, perhaps, in the past, Tony would have made that question into the filthiest innuendo in the world, but now Tony only stared at him, wide-eyed and nervous.
"Where we're still us, I mean," Tony clarified. "But everything is different. There's you and me -- and, Jesus, Thor and Jan and Hank and even Natasha, and they're all good people, and we're not the Ultimates, we're--"
"--the Avengers," Steve finished. "But not--"
"--not like Greg's, I know, I know," Tony said, and Steve thought dimly that this was the most earnest he'd ever seen him. "We're -- they're -- all friends, even when times get tough, and they're strong and brave, and their universe is huge and weird and full of so many places I've never heard of, and when they die they get to come back, God, I wish I knew how that worked--"
Steve caught his breath. "You dream about them too."
Tony nodded. "Practically since I met you. That was the first time. And," he added, "they're not dreams."
"What do you mean, not dreams?"
"You remember the multiverse? They're messages from another Earth. An Earth where we really are Avengers." Tony's mouth quirked. "I was dreaming one of those dreams, a few nights ago, and then everything went weird and the multiverse finally opened up. Made a real connection. A stable connection, albeit a temporary one. It turned out there was a portal. And something -- someone -- came through."
Steve tried to work through this in his head. The dreams weren't just dreams. Tony dreamed them too. They were from another universe, they were things another Steve had done. Another Steve and another Tony.
"Is it you?" he asked, and Tony shook his head. "Is it me?"
"Still no," Tony said. There was a small, nervous smile playing across his lips. "But I think you're going to want to meet them anyway."
Steve watched in fascinated excitement as Tony turned, walked to the connecting door, and rapped on it. Who could it be? Another universe's Gail or Bucky? Maybe Jan? Jan had been in the dream.
The door opened, and Spider-Man stepped through. He looked just like Steve remembered him, that familiar red and blue costume covered in webs. And not blood.
"Jesus, Mary, and Joseph," Steve said, and he grabbed the back of one of the couches so he wouldn't fall over, as the world spun dizzily around him. This was a joke. It had to be a joke, a rotten joke, but Tony wouldn't do that to him. It had to be someone else in the costume, someone close enough to fool Tony. It couldn't be Peter.
Spider-Man's head tilted to the side. "Whoa, are you okay, Cap? Cap?"
He sounded just like Peter.
"I killed you," Steve said, low and desperate, and the guilt came washing back, and oh God, he was going to start crying, God oh God, he was never going to be free--
Tony had a hand on his arm. Tony was holding him up.
"Okay, first," Tony said, his voice even and measured, "you didn't kill him. And second, you didn't kill him." He let Steve go, and then he glanced over at the man in the Spider-Man costume. "Peter, maybe you should introduce yourself properly?"
Spider-Man pulled the mask off, and... it was Peter Parker, underneath. Only not exactly. He was older. Steve couldn't say how much older, but at least a few years. Five? Ten?
"Man," Peter said, "have I mentioned how terrifying it is that everyone in this universe knows my name?"
"Only about five hundred times," Tony said. "Steve, this is Peter Parker of Earth-616. He's not dead. Peter, this is Captain America."
And just like that, he was Captain America again, on the Ultimates again; it was clever of Tony, to bring him back to himself with just a few words. But then, he was a genius.
Peter held out his hand, and Steve shook it.
"You're older," Steve said, numbly. "You're older than he was."
"You're younger than my universe's Captain America, I think," Peter said, regarding him thoughtfully, and Steve remembered Peter had called him Cap, like he knew him. Peter's gaze slanted over to Tony. "And he's drunker."
Tony lifted his glass in a cheerful salute. "He says I'm sober there, darling. It sounds positively horrific."
"Well, I hear it was pretty horrific before you sobered up, yeah," Peter said, and his voice was a mix of acidic and despairing.
The dreams. Steve had dreamed about that. A universe where Tony nearly drank himself to death and he stopped talking to him because of it. It was real. It was a place where Peter Parker was still alive.
Tony made a quiet humming noise, sipped his drink again, and headed to the door. "Don't mind me. I have to go work on portal calculations for a minute. You two should catch up."
And then Steve was alone with Peter Parker.
What was he supposed to say to someone he'd killed?
"So, uh." Peter glanced away and didn't meet his eyes. "I figured out pretty early on that I was dead in this universe, but I have to say the you-killing-me thing is coming as a bit of a surprise, Cap." He paused again. "Can I call you Cap?"
"Sure," Steve said, and grief scraped at the wounds in him again, raw and open and why the hell had Tony wanted him to do this? "I mean, I didn't-- I didn't actually kill you. It wasn't like that."
"No." Peter's voice was very quiet. "I figured."
"You were being reckless," Steve said hoarsely. "You were being irresponsible. Danvers, you know, from SHIELD--" he watched Peter make a quizzical face-- "asked what the Ultimates should do with you. Tony and Thor wanted to give you a chance on the Ultimates. I wanted you benched, but I was outvoted. So I volunteered myself to talk to you, because I thought you were putting people's lives at risk. Told you exactly that. Told you I thought you were going to get yourself killed." His voice broke. "Told you I thought you weren't good enough for the team."
"And I didn't even get to finish yelling at you," Steve said, shutting his eyes. "Because a situation came up, and I told you -- I told you -- not to follow me. But of course you wanted to prove you were good enough, right? Because I-- because I let you down. Because I hurt you. So you followed me. And you took a bullet for me." Peter made a soft, pained noise, and Steve opened his eyes. "It wasn't what finally killed you. But it was the beginning. And it was my fault. You were dying in my arms and I still yelled at you."
His throat closed up, and he couldn't keep talking.
"Hey, Steve?" Peter asked. "You look like you need a hug. Can I...?"
He nodded gratefully, and Peter hugged him, gently, clearly mindful of his own strength.
He wasn't going to cry on a dead man's shoulder.
"This is really not the way our relationship usually goes," Peter said, under his breath.
"Well," Peter said, "I'm the one who started calling you and Tony Team Mom and Team Dad."
He wondered which was which. He sighed.
"I bet other people have told you this," Peter said, his voice low in Steve's ear. "but this isn't your fault, Cap." His grip tightened. "I've been Spider-Man since I was fifteen years old. Have I pulled some truly dumbass stunts? Of course. Are they my responsibility? Definitely." He sighed. "I've got kind of a big thing about responsibility. And that? Wasn't your fault. I know who I am and I know how I think and I know it was my choice to step in front of a bullet. I'm a superhero. It's who I am. It's who we all are. And as for the Peter Parker of this universe, I know he would have felt the same way. He wanted to save you."
"You were-- he was just a kid."
"He knew what he was getting into," Peter said. "I promise."
"Okay." Steve breathed in and out, slowly. "Okay." He let Peter go.
Peter smiled weakly. "Any other questions?"
"A strange one," he said, and Peter spread his hands wide. "Did I ever draw comic books, in your universe?"
"Mmm." Peter squinted, and then his face lit up. "Hey, yeah. You did! Years ago. You were moonlighting as an artist while you were still an Avenger. You were the artist for Captain America. That was what you told us, once." He chuckled. "Kind of funny, yeah?"
It was real. It was all real. Everything the other him had felt, everything he could feel -- all of it could happen.
"And me and Tony," he began, smiling, "are we--"
He stopped, because Tony was in the doorway. He'd finished his drink, Steve noted.
"Spidey!" he called out. "The boys in the lab want to borrow you for more measurements. Looking for more traces of your home universe."
"One sec," Peter said to Tony, and then he nodded to Steve. "Nice meeting you, Cap." He pulled his mask over his face and darted out the door.
And then it was just him and Tony, and Tony was staring at him with a strange expression on his face. "Yeah," he said. "So that's Peter."
"You did that for me," Steve said in wonder. "I mean, you thought I-- you knew I--
Tony nodded. "I thought you might like to see him." And then he smiled. "But what about you and me, darling? I didn't mean to interrupt your conversation like that."
"I had a question," Steve said, slowly. "I thought it was a question for him, but I think maybe it's a question for you."
Steve took a deep breath. Now or never.
"Oh?" Tony asked.
He walked over, took Tony's face between his hands, and kissed him.
Tony tasted like vodka. When they finally pulled apart, Tony was smiling.
"Yes, darling," Tony breathed. "Yes is the answer."