“But Tony, doesn’t it seem like meddling?” Steve chewed at the corner of his lip. “Maybe the other versions of us won’t want to listen to what we have to say.”
“We are pretty stubborn, I’m sure that’s true in every universe,” Tony said with a grin. “But I’ve seen some of the places they come from. Things are not good there. They need our help, Steve.”
Steve heart swelled at the care Tony had for everyone, even if they were from a different universe. “You’re right, honey. Come on then. Let’s do this.”
“Okay,” Tony called out, taking his hand, matching wedding bands sat atop each other. “Send the first pair in.”
“Have you two ever spent any time together outside of a mission?” Tony asked, eyeing them strangely.
“Uhh. There was that one time we got shawarma,” Grumpy Steve said.
“That was right after a mission and you were half asleep. That doesn’t count,” Grumpy Tony said snappishly.
“So you’ve never actually… hung out? As friends? Like, at all?” Tony asked, seeming genuinely perplexed.
“Well. When you put it like that, not really, no,” Grumpy Steve admitted.
“I think we may have discovered the root of your issues,” Steve said with a sigh. “Why not try talking to each other, for god’s sake?”
“Because he hates me,” both Grumpy Steve and Grumpy Tony wailed in unison.
“He really doesn’t,” Steve and Tony both said firmly.
“He said I was a laboratory experiment.”
“He said I wasn’t fit to be a hero.”
“He tried to kill my best friend!”
“He tried to kill me!”
Steve resisted the urge to bang his head against the desk. “That sure does sound complicated, and like there were a whole lot of mitigating factors going on. Like this staff you mentioned - the one which brought out the worst in all of you? And being forced into the middle of that messy business with the Accords? You think all of that might be affecting the way you see each other?”
Grumpy Steve and Grumpy Tony exchanged a glance.
Tony nodded sagely. “Look. You have to build up a friendship before you have a big dramatic falling out, or the story doesn’t have any emotional impact. Everyone knows that.”
Steve hid his smile behind his hand.
“Go see a movie,” Tony continued. “Cook dinner together. Play some basketball. That sort of thing.”
“No buts. The councilor has spoken. Now go spend some time together when you’re not in imminent danger of death and you might be able to salvage this, okay?”
Grumpy Steve and Grumpy Tony nodded grumpily.
As they shuffled out, Steve exhaled heavily. “Honestly, what a mess. Thank god we avoided that.”
“It’s just,” Tiny Tony looked down at his feet. “I sometimes think…. sometimes it seems like he’s more interested in dancing the Charleston than he is in spending any time with me.”
“But Tony,” Tiny Steve piped up, looking slightly distraught, “Why do you think I practice so much?”
“I dunno. Because dancing’s more fun than going to class?”
“No, silly, it’s because I want to get better. So that when I. Umm. When I find the right partner, I can invite them to dance and not make a mess of it.” Little blotches of blush spread across Tiny Steve’s cheeks. Even Steve had to admit that it was pretty cute.
“Oh,” Tiny Tony’s eyes looked sad. “Yeah, I guess that makes sense. I hope you don’t have to wait too long to find the right person.”
Steve gently punched Tiny Steve in the arm and gave him a get on with it hand motion.
“Umm. Tony, would you like to go dancing with me some time?” Tiny Steve asked hopefully.
“Yes please,” Tiny Tony answered immediately. “Umm. I mean. Yeah, sure, I guess that might be okay.” Now he was blushing too, and the pair of them couldn’t so much as glance at each other without glowing a furious red.
Tony spotted the way Tiny Steve held out his hand though, and the way Tiny Tony grabbed on to it, their fingers interlaced even if they could barely make eye contact.
Tony smiled at his Steve and said with confidence: “These two are gonna be fine.”
616 Tony was blue, and transparent. Well, that was a new one.
Tony looked quizzical. “So you’re… a hologram?”
“Not quite,” 616 Tony said, apparently cheerfully enough. “My body is in a coma, my consciousness got stored digitally, so now I’m an AI.”
“Huh,” said Tony, and they started excitedly chatting away about digitization and neural structures and phenomenal experience, and Steve was pretty sure he heard one of them claim to have solved the hard problem of consciousness.
Steve turned to 616 Steve, who was eyeing him in an evaluating manner. 616 Steve beckoned him over, and he leaned forward to hear him over the lively babbling of the Tonys.
“Hail Hydra,” 616 Steve whispered in a predatory hiss.
Steve’s eyes widened in shock for a second before he leapt to his feet and socked the guy squarely in the jaw. “Take that, Nazi scum!” he bellowed, as both Tonys whipped their heads round in surprise.
616 Steve hit the deck, and Steve had bundled him up and restrained his wrists in seconds. “We shall rise!” 616 Steve yelled wildly. “From the ashes of this world, Hydra will grow once more!”
“You be quiet or you get the boot,” Steve said coldly, bringing his foot down between 616 Steve’s shoulder blades. “Tony, sweetheart?”
“I think we’re going to need the cognitive recalibrator for this one. Be a darling and fetch it for me, would you?”
“Sure thing, sugarplum.”
Heroes United (Earth-12313)
“I certainly have been keeping a close eye on him.” Frisky Tony waggled his eyebrows.
“Is that why you’re always behind me on missions, Stark? Here I thought you were too slow to keep up, but maybe you’ve had your eyes on the goods all this time,” Frisky Steve said with a wink.
“I wouldn’t want to tire you out, old man. I know you need to save up all your energy for our sparring sessions,” Frisky Tony said, licking his lips.
Steve gave his Tony a look. “Honey, this version of you is a bit of a louche.”
Tony glanced over to Frisky Tony, who was whispering something in Frisky Steve’s ear. “Uhh, yup. Is he…” Whatever it was he was saying, Frisky Steve was smirking like a cat who had got the cream. “… Oh yikes.”
“I rather like him,” Steve said with a grin, and Tony kicked him under the table.
Marvel Adventures (Earth-20051)
“Gosh,” Tony was shocked. “They’re even sweeter than we are.”
Cute Tony was swinging his legs back and forth under the chair, and Cute Steve was bouncing up and down with excitement.
“This is so swell!” Cute Steve exclaimed. “A whole ‘nother universe, with different versions of us! Gee whiz, what a ride.”
Tony indicated to his counterpart to lean over so they could talk privately. “So. Have you and Steve ever,” Tony asked, “… you know.”
“Have we ever what?” Cute Tony asked, confused.
“I mean, you and him seem… close.”
“Oh yes,” Cute Tony said enthusiastically. “We are. He’s my best friend in the whole wide world!”
Tony leaned back, a pained expression crossing his face as if he were being forced to reevaluate his entire understanding of himself. “Never mind. They’ll figure it out for themselves eventually.”
“Figure what out?” Cute Steve asked, bright eyed and curious. “Whatever it is, I’m sure Iron Man and I can work it out. We make a great team when we work together!”
Steve was trying not to stare at Cute Steve, who had propped his chin on his hand and was beaming at Cute Tony like he was the only thing in the room.
“Oh my,” Steve said, turning to his Tony. “Is that how we used to be around each other before we got together?”
“No,” said Tony, in between laughs, “We were much less subtle.”
“What are you trying to imply here?” Gritty Steve spat. “I’m not some kind of fairy!”
“Dear god.” Steve said, eyes wide. He held up his notepad to cover his face and mouthed what a jackass at Tony.
Tony tried not to giggle and returned his attention to their guests, putting on his best serious face. “I’m just saying that you and Antonio here seem to be a good influence on each other,” he said placatingly. “We were wondering how things were going between you.”
Gritty Tony, who was lounged across the chair in a manner that somehow managed to suggest depravity, gave a smirk. “Same as always, darlings. I’m dying, he’s depressed, but when the world is falling apart we usually manage to pull it together.”
“I am not depressed, Stark,” Gritty Steve snapped. “And I don’t need any of this modern namby-pamby touchy-feely nonsense. In my day, men were real men. And they dealt with their problems by themselves.”
Gritty Tony rolled his eyes. “And that’s working out so well for you.” He turned his attention to Steve and Tony, looking at each of them in turn. “Say, who does a guy have to blow to get a martini around here?”
Steve opened and closed his mouth a few times before shaking his head. “You know what, I’m not touching this one with a ten foot pole. Good luck to the both of you. You’re going to need it.”
“It’s been a rough few years. The skrulls… the Purple Man…” Gentle Tony chewed on a nail nervously. “I’ve messed up over and over again. I guess that’s my secret superpower, always managing to screw things up. But Cap’s always stuck with me, even when I don’t deserve it.”
“Messed up?” Gentle Steve reached out towards Gentle Tony but drew his hand back at the last minute. “Tony, you’re the greatest hero I know. The world would have been destroyed a hundred times over by now if it weren’t for you.”
Gentle Tony scrunched up his face disbelievingly. “I know you think I’m fragile, Cap, but you don’t need to make stuff up to make me feel better.”
“Wait,” Steve held his hand up to stop either of them from continuing. “Tony, what makes you think Steve is making that up?”
“He’s always asking me to train more, and I know it’s because he thinks I’m weak without the suit, but I wish he didn’t treat me like I was broken,” Gentle Tony said sadly.
“And Steve,” Tony said patiently, “Is that why you invite Tony to train with you?”
“No, of course not!” Gentle Steve protested. “I ask him to train because I like spending time with him. I can’t keep up with his science and I don’t understand much about this modern world. I’m outdated compared to all the other Avengers. But training, I can do that. I thought I could do that for him. I thought I could… show him how much I cared.”
Gentle Tony shook himself out of his reverie. “Outdated? You? Steve, you’re the best thing that ever happened to me, and to the team. You’re exactly what this time period needs.”
“And you,” Gentle Steve said firmly, finally taking Gentle Tony’s small hand in his massive one, “Are exactly what I need.”
“Tony Stark, famous adventurer, at your service,” Adventurer Tony stuck out his hand with a charming smile. Steve reached out to shake it, but Tony was looking around in confusion.
“Where’s Steve?” Tony asked, slightly panicked.
“Who’s Steve?” Adventurer Tony replied affably. “A fellow traveler in this strange and exciting realm?”
“Sure, something like that,” Steve said comfortably, trying to calm his Tony down. He turned back to the Adventurer Tony. “So you’re a man of action, is that it?”
“I certainly am!” Adventurer Tony said proudly. “Searching for Atlantis, finding buried treasures, fighting Nazis, that sort of thing.”
Steve visibly perked up at the mention of punching Nazis. “That sounds swell!”
“Here,” Adventurer Tony produced a magazine from a pocket and handed it over to Steve, “Chronicles of my adventures! Seems like you’re a man who would enjoy them.”
Steve grinned and started flicking through the magazine, which had lavish illustrations.
Tony cocked his head. “That sure does sound exciting. But don’t you ever get lonely?”
“Eh,” Adventurer Tony shrugged one shoulder. “I have Rhodes, and Jarvis. And sometimes Gialetta tolerates my company. That does for me.”
Tony raised a skeptical eyebrow.
Adventurer Tony sighed. “It would be nice to have someone special to share my travels with. But who’s going to want to be with me when I’m always off on dangerous and thrilling adventures? It wouldn’t be fair to them.”
Steve studied the magazine closely. There, squished into the corner of the first page at the very bottom of the credits list, was a familiar name: supplementary interior artwork by Steven Rogers.
“Say,” Steve asked casually, “Do you ever get invited to parties for the publication of this mag?”
“Oh, the Marvels parties, sure, I get invites now and then. I never go though. Far too many suits and not enough danger for my tastes.”
“Will you do something for me?” Steve asked, with his sweetest and most winning expression.
“Of course!” Adventurer Tony replied heartily. “Anything for a fellow man of action!”
“Go to the next Marvels party, okay? There’s a skinny little kid from Brooklyn there who would love nothing more than to go adventuring with you.”
Civil Union (Earth-3490)
“Actually, there was one thing we need to have a serious discussion about,” Natasha’s face was grim, and Married Steve went pale.
“Whatever it is, honey, please tell me so we can work it out,” Married Steve said, sounding concerned and holding her hand.
“It has happened, that on bringing me breakfast in bed, there has been milk in my coffee. Milk. In my coffee. Can you imagine anything more horrifying than waking up to coffee which isn’t strong and black?” Natasha laughed joyfully as Married Steve slumped back in his chair and punched her playfully in the shoulder.
“You really had me going there, Tasha.”
“To be fair, putting milk in coffee sounds like perfectly reasonable grounds for divorce to me,” Tony said sympathetically.
“Thank you!” Natasha said triumphantly, giving Tony a high five.
“It was one time!” Married Steve protested. “One time!”
Steve grinned in recognition. “Marriage to a Stark has its challenges, huh?”
“Uh, I am a delight as a spouse, thank you very much,” Tony said with a smile. “And I can tell that she is too.”
“Just never put milk in our coffee. That’s very important.”
Both Steves sighed. “Yes, dear, duly noted.”
Western Steve scuffed the floor with the edge of his boot. “It’s true, I have been hankerin’ for a partner. It gets awful lonely bein’ the only man of the law in Timely. But at least I got Stark here to keep me company most nights.”
Western Tony looked taken aback, the points of his ludicrous mustache wobbling up and down. “And I thought you kept throwing me in jail because I was a public nuisance. If you wanted the pleasure of my company, Sheriff, all ya had to do was ask.”
“But then I’d miss bein’ woke from my slumber by your fine songs, and ain’t that always the highlight of my evenings?” Western Steve said with a rakish grin.
Steve was delighted. “Tony, you can sing? How come you never join in with my musical performances in the shower?”
Both Tonys looked like they were considering hiding under the desk, but Western Steve was having a great time. “Oh yes, Stark’s got the finest set o’ pipes in the whole valley.”
“I guess I’m glad I got one thing worth contributing to Timely,” Western Tony said wretchedly.
“Hey now, mister, don’t you be doin’ yerself down like that,” Western Steve said firmly. “Us folks are lucky to have a blacksmith like you to shoe our horses and protect our town. And I’m lucky to have such a fine man as my friend.”
Tony looked over at Western Tony, who had perked up at Western Steve’s words but still seemed rather lost. “I know it’s not easy,” Tony said compassionately, “But there is good you can do in the world. You just – put the flask down, Stark – you just have to find a reason to try.”
Western Tony eyed him strangely, but seemed to be considering his words. Tony nodded his head to indicate Western Steve. “And you’ve got a real good reason to try now, you hear me?”
Epilogue: AA (Earth-12041)
“I think that went quite well,” Tony said cheerfully as the last pair filed out.
“Hah!” Steve laughed, “And they say I’m the optimist. I’m… kind of a jerk in some of those universes, huh?”
Tony pulled a face. “And I’m kind of a trainwreck in most of them.”
“We are always better when we’re together though.”
“That we are. I’m glad to know that for every Tony out there, there’s a Steve to keep him tethered.”
“And for every Steve, there’s a Tony to give him a home.”
“To us in every universe, then. Happy tenth anniversary, beloved.”
“Happy anniversary, darling.”