Tony dodged an energy beam by a hair's breadth and flew several metres to the right, keeping one eye on the figure towering over Central Park. When the alert first came, they got information about a big alien creature that was attacking the park. "Big" was something of an understatement – the creature was easily over twenty metres tall, but "alien" was as good an adjective as any.
It had a huge, circular upper body in an ugly shade of dirty brown. It had a bunch of jelly-fish like legs that were capable of floating the thing in the air somehow – repulsor fields, maybe, Tony noted with annoyance. Their movements were smooth, be it in the air or on the ground. There weren't any obvious or visible sensors on it; for all they knew, the robot might have had 360 degree sensors. It certainly seemed that way judging from how quickly it was reacting to the attacks from all sides.
Tony suddenly thought the robot seemed vaguely familiar, but he couldn't nail down the source of the feeling.
At first they thought it was some organic form of life. It seemed too smooth somehow. The armour readings were odd, however, not quite adding up in terms of temperature or heart rate. Tony wasn't sure if he shouldn't put it down to it being, well, alien, but then Barnes – he wasn't going to call him "Cap," he wasn't, even if it was apparently him who'd given Barnes the shield – landed a successful blow on one of its legs, uncovering the wires there. After that Tony tried to pinpoint the robot's power source and find out whether it was remote controlled or pre-programmed, but with great irritation he discovered he couldn't even manage to start hacking its security. It was shielded in a far too effective way, maybe the best he'd seen. He was positive he would succeed if he had more time and didn't have to dodge attacks all the while, but as it was, the robot was also far too quick for its size. It must have adjusted its protection, as well – after that first blow Barnes didn't manage to scratch it again. Or maybe it had just been a lucky angle.
The really annoying thing, in Tony's opinion, was how it seemed immune to his repulsor blasts – or any sort of energy weapon he had in his armour. It didn't even try to evade his attacks, and every hit sort of got absorbed, spreading over the robot's whole body and slowly disappearing. Carol's punches at least slowed it down.
Conventional weaponry seemed to be working better, but it dealt more damage to the streets than the robot. They’d barely been fighting for half an hour, but the unfortunate part of the city around them was in flames and he didn’t want to think of the damage bills. They had to end it soon. He was almost sure S.H.I.E.L.D. had managed to evacuate civilians, at least.
Spider-Man shot one of his webs at the robot's legs and managed to tangle them. Tony took the opening and punched it in the head, for the lack of a better word, and even through his gauntlet he could tell the thing was hard as stone – scratch that, a stone hit that hard would blow apart. Carol concentrated and hit it again in the centre. On his other side, Barnes threw the shield, aiming at the exposed cables, and this time the robot didn't manage to cover them or evade in time. They heard a screeching noise. The armour flashed a warning – it was too high for normal humans, but before he could shout out a warning that would be too late anyway, Barnes blanched under the mask and fell to his knees, clutching at his head. Tony fired a shot at the robot's other leg – it wouldn't harm it, he already knew that, but it'd take its attention from Barnes – and shot up to catch Spider-Man who was caught in the middle of his swing. He flew him to the nearest roof, narrowly missing another energy blast in the process.
"You all right?" he asked. "That was nasty. An accident or interesting security measures, I wonder..." He'd have to think about it more, later.
"I love you too," Spider-Man told him and Tony couldn't quite stifle a laugh.
"Great. Let's get married. But I don't want that robot at my wedding," he said and flew back into the fight before the robot could somehow untangle from the webs and get back to destroying Manhattan. His sensors alerted him to some weird radiation and he looked back at the robot just in time to see it glowing slightly where he'd shot it with his repulsor, melting the webs over that spot.
That went beyond simply absorbing his blasts. Tony cursed.
Punching it seemed the only option he had – he wasn't going to try out stronger weapons in his arsenal in the middle of the city, not if he still had another choice – so he hit it again, and again, and then thought of a little space 34 degrees over the damaged leg and flew the distance to aim his next punch there. The thing crumbled a little, legs no longer holding it up, but it still was capable of shooting a stunning energy blast, as Tony experienced.
He barely felt it, however, instead wondering just how the hell he'd known to check there.
It was a very specific place to hide a fail-safe, after all.
It was the armour's reflexes more than anything that saved him from the next shot. Immobilised it might have been, but defenceless it was not. Or maybe weaponless, he was pretty sure its shields had gone down too.
"Try and blow it up, Carol," he said through the comms. "Need some energy?"
"Not at all," she replied, and her hands were glowing with white light. He flew out of range and Carol hit the robot with enough energy to destroy it; it exploded brightly and Tony winced at the thought of collateral damage to the buildings around them. He was pretty sure the nearest building would completely fall down at the nearest opportunity.
He landed near the melted down remains of the robot and eyed them doubtfully. It didn't look as if there was anything left for him to take apart in his lab. Shame, really, he was curious as to how the robot worked, but nothing could be done about that now. He was also curious as to what it reminded him of, exactly, but that wasn't anything new.
He barely noticed it anymore; the nagging feeling that he’d forgotten something.
Steve couldn't sleep lately. Images of his possible futures kept haunting him. His new job didn't exactly come with a lot of free time, and he was simply tired, as he'd never been before. He knew it would pass, he knew it hadn't been long since he'd come back, but he was annoyed at himself for not being able to just shrug the stress away and take the dreams for what they were: dreams. Just dreams. Memories, yes, but he'd already lived through them. He'd already lived through Bucky's death, through Tony going crazy over his armours, he’d lived through Tony trying to drink himself to death and nearly succeeding; he'd lived through waiting for Tony to wake up after Red Zone and then after he'd stopped his heart and only Extremis had saved him. He'd lived through fighting him, through holding that shield just over Tony's neck, through the split seconds when he'd known he was going to bring it down. He didn't have, didn't want, to see it all again, and again, and again.
It wasn't anything new. He shouldn't be that moved by it.
He didn't want to burden Bucky with this more than he already had, and Sharon even more so. They decided to take a break in their relationship, and while she was and always would be one of his best friends, he felt like it wouldn't be fair to complain to her about these dreams.
He needed someone to understand him, stay with him through the worst hours, and Sharon – Sharon would do all that, but she didn't deserve that. She'd lost so much because of him anyway. She had her own problems that he knew she didn't want to talk to him about for the same reasons. And the future he saw for them... He couldn't hope for that, not if it came at such a price.
Throwing himself into work was both unavoidable and welcome at this point, though he'd started to understand why Tony used to look at towers made of Stark Industries paperwork with murderous intent in his eyes, murmuring that he hated it.
He still didn't know where he stood with him. Tony had gone beyond himself to save Bucky – and he had done so when he had supposedly hated Steve. Now he couldn't look him in the eyes. Couldn't even remember everything he’d done. Steve had heard the official story, that it was for everyone's safety – and maybe it was – but he still despised him for it a little. He'd expected – waited – to have another shouting match with Tony over SHRA and somehow close that gap that the civil war tore between them, and instead he'd found Tony unconscious, on life support, and asking from a video if they really wanted to bring him back. Steve hadn't hesitated for a second. He doubted the others had. But when it turned out that Tony didn't remember anything post-Extremis, not a single thing, Steve hadn't known how to react. He still didn't.
He was torn between being mad and wishing he had his friend back.
Right now he'd go with mad, because he was looking at yet another Avengers' post-battle report that indicated that one Iron Man thought using himself as a shield for his teammates was the best course of action. Would that man ever learn that trying to kill himself wasn't some magical solution to everything?
Steve sighed. He knew very well that the answer to that question was a resounding "no".
He had to call him anyway, and soon. He might as well try and talk to him, really talk, not just exchange pleasantries. He missed their friendship, he would take all the first steps it required for Tony to believe him.
Having decided, Steve took out his phone and scrolled through the numbers. Once upon a time, Tony would have given him some StarkPhone, probably built especially for Steve, with Tony's number set on speed dial for him, but now Steve was using the cheap mobile provided to him by Bucky shortly after he came back to life.
"Tony?" he asked, when the signal changed. There was silence for a while and Steve wondered if he'd dialled a wrong number before Tony replied.
"Yeah, Steve. It's just – you surprised me," he said quietly. They didn't call each other often these days. Not for social calls, not on anything other than secure communicators.
"Sorry," Steve forced a smile, though Tony couldn't see it. "Can I drop in on you? When are you coming to New York?" From what he knew, Tony'd come back to Seattle immediately after the last fight.
Another worrying silence. "As soon as you'd like me to, Steve," Tony said finally.
"I'm not distracting you from a project, am I?" Steve asked to make sure, even though he was pretty sure he'd never seen Tony acknowledge that question as an honest worry.
"You can distract me from anything you want, any time you want, Steve," Tony replied, sounding very serious.
He really hoped he wasn't distracting him from anything important. He could see that Tony really wanted to make Stark Resilient work. Before everything happened, Tony hadn't had difficulties with telling Steve that he had to stay and work at his company, when it faced problems, but now Steve wasn't so sure Tony would say even if he had a deadline on his project coming (before, Steve would've known about that, Tony would have talked to him about it, called him in the middle of the night to rant about uncooperative wires. Before). Now he clearly thought that his place with the Avengers was a test of sorts, that he had to deserve it all over again, that he had to be at Steve's every beck and call, even if it wasn't an occasion of a supervillain attacking. Steve didn't like it at all.
"Tony..." he sighed.
"Seriously, Steve, just give me the time."
Steve gave up. "Tomorrow at 7 PM?"
"See you then," Tony replied and hung up.
Steve sighed, but smiled, too; he'd get to talk to Tony after all... He'd get to see he was really all right, too, in the wake of all those memories of seeing him hurt that haunted Steve.
The Tower wasn't exactly the home it'd once been for him, and maybe it never would be again, not to the same extent, but it was getting closer. Tony had fixed the damage Osborn dealt it, and Steve got his old room back, too, even if he wasn't there very often. What was really different was the atmosphere – he couldn't hear Danielle's soft crying before her parents calmed her, there wasn't Peter to joke around with. Nobody quite trusted Tony, nobody really wanted to live in his home – even if the man himself spent more time in Seattle these days. Carol told him it'd feel too much like forgiveness to them – and she'd know what she was talking about; she was dealing with the same distrust, if not outright hate.
He stopped at Tony's door and hesitated.
"Come on in," Tony's voice sounded from inside and Steve opened the door. Tony was sitting on a sofa, working on a tablet, but he briefly looked up when Steve entered. "Hi." Tony touched his screen in a few places, lightning-quick, and tossed it aside before completely concentrating on Steve. "So since you're here – I know you don't have much time, you'll tell me what it's about in a moment – come closer and give me your voice sample," Tony said before Steve had time to reply. "I've got a new armour. I haven't had a new armour in – never mind. I need your voice for new override codes. First of all, the old ones haven't been changed for way too long. And my new suit works differently, you'll need new commands. Just two, actually," he said on one breath.
"Tony," Steve managed to get a word in. "Slower. New override."
An annoyed expression flashed across Tony's face, as it always did when someone stopped him from babbling about the armour. "Yes. You'll need it. Well, I hope you won't, but just in case."
Steve approached him. "I understand that," he said. Tony’s new suit – even stranger, if that was the word, than the Extremis model – had debuted some time ago and honestly, Steve hadn’t thought about override codes for it. He and Tony weren’t quite close enough for that. Not anymore.
Tony let his armour flow over his hand, what usually was his repulsor looking like a blue sphere now. "Repeat after me," he said, "Steve Rogers, armour override, 75-65-45-35."
Steve did and the sphere flashed a lighter colour for a second.
"Great," Tony said, dissolving the armour. "All saved. Now listen to me. You can't get this armour off me and I mean it," he said loud and slow, clearly thinking it important. "The actual commands: just two, as I said. One is for deactivation, it'll shut down the armour as I just did, hide it back inside my bones." He stopped, hesitated, his face serious. He looked Steve straight in the eyes. "The other is for autodestruction."
Steve stopped breathing for a long moment. "Tony..."
"Steve, I told you: you can't get it off me, you can't take it away, you can't stop me from using it – the deactivation code will only stay in place for so long. I couldn't design one that I couldn't also override, given time." Tony looked away. "So if something happens, don't hesitate." He thought for a second. "Oh, but you probably... Don't worry, it'll be quick," he added with a forced smile. "And you need to be able to stop me, you're the world's head of security, and I am a walking weapon of mass destruction."
He sounded so damn casual about giving Steve a way to kill him with just a few words – after everything that had happened, he still didn’t hesitate, even though Steve’s position didn’t call for holding codes to Tony’s armour, and they both knew it. Tony had given him a pendrive with all the designs, for one; if he had to be stopped, Steve had means to make it happen. Less than immediate, which wasn’t ideal, sure, but it was also less final.
"Steve," Tony said sharply. "Don't overthink it. Remember your code and use it if you have to, that's all." He hesitated. "I need to know you'll do it."
Steve sighed. There was just one thing he could say. "I will."
Tony nodded, a jerking motion. "Thank you." He breathed deeply, tried to relax. Steve made a decision, crossed the last few metres between them and sat down next to Tony. He hugged him tightly for a moment, to show he understood, to draw the tension away. After a short moment Tony awkwardly returned the embrace with his right arm, his left immobilised between him and Steve. They didn't move for a few seconds and it wasn't awkward, but nor was it as natural as it had been, before; then they slowly let each other go, both of them just a little more relaxed.
"Returning to the topic at hand – why did you want to meet?" Tony asked at last.
"I wanted to ask you for a new body armour," Steve explained. It was an easy enough request, or so he'd thought before Tony sort of blanched.
"Ah." Tony didn't look at him. "Sure thing. I'll need your measurements – and what about design? Does there need to be some kind of national referendum?" he joked, though it sounded strained. Steve frowned, but didn't ask, instead chose to act naturally. Pushing Tony more often than not led to him closing off and brushing everything off with a forced smile; Steve wanted to avoid that now.
"No. I have the projects, though, I'll send them to you. Unless you want to improvise," he shrugged. He trusted Tony's abilities in the matter.
"You'll regret giving me the option," Tony told him with a challenging grin.
"So long as it's not see through as your last armour," Steve answered.
Tony laughed, surprised. "You got it."
"Great. Thanks. Um, I'll leave you to what you were doing?" Steve started to stand up.
"Steve. I know I'm the best at what I do, but you could ask Reed, he's got the experience – why are you doing this?" Tony asked quietly. "Pretending to... How can you trust me with this?"
Steve stopped in his tracks, turned back to him. "Tony, you just gave me the password to your armour," he sighed. "Is this really the moment you want to ask me about trust?"
"It's not the same." Tony shook his head.
"You giving me the way to stop you – kill you at any given moment is not the same as me asking you to make my new body armour?" Steve gave him a look, making sure to let him know exactly what he thought of the notion. "Yeah, you're right, it's not."
Tony threw his hands in the air. "You know perfectly well what I meant, Steve."
"Yeah, and I'm telling you, it's bullshit."
For so many reasons, too, starting with the fact that Tony was the best man for the job – sure, Steve could keep using the uniform that S.H.I.E.L.D. made for him, except that it had just gotten ripped on a mission and one of their scientists had said "ask Tony Stark..." before cutting himself off with an ashamed face and murmured apologies. Steve had told him he’d considered asking Tony himself, but all he'd gotten in reply was a stunned look, and... Steve hadn't ever learned to pick his battles, not really, but he knew a hopeless cause when he saw one, and sometimes, just sometimes, he was too tired to try.
Convincing the world and the man himself that Tony Stark wasn't a worthless traitor was just one of those battles he knew he couldn’t win (especially since he had betrayed them, Steve knew that better than anyone, but he also knew Tony had paid for it, and the world was better for him helping build it). There was also the fact that Steve might not have trusted Tony's decisions, but he did trust him with his life.
But the point was: he'd ask Tony Stark for help even if they hadn't ever been friends and he hadn't ever trusted him with his costume (and life, never forget that) before. Convincing Tony that he wanted to fix their friendship was another matter altogether – but it was the one Tony needed to hear about. Tony knew perfectly well he was a genius, after all; he wasn't asking if Steve believed in his abilities. Steve remembered Tony's words, that he saw all his mistakes when he looked at Steve, and he desperately wished that wasn't the case. Being angry with Tony was both too easy and too hard, but he didn't want Tony to look at him with only guilt. He did that too often, when they were trying to talk their issues out, because he'd argue to death over what he thought was right for the world – and Steve really didn't want to think of the most recent example – but never defend himself when being accused of personal shortcomings.
"Tony," he said slowly and carefully. "If I had a suit of armour like you do, I'd trust you with the codes, too." It was the truth, after all. Tony went very still for a moment and then nodded.
"Okay," he said. "Okay."
Steve squeezed his arm gently, and suddenly got an idea. It was pretty late, yes, but he wasn't tired, and Tony had always kept odd hours; chances were he would be more rested now than in the morning.
"How about training?" Steve was of the opinion that every workout was a good thing, and Tony always seemed to enjoy their little sessions, even if they tended to leave him too exhausted to move.
Tony raised an eyebrow at him. "What, now?"
"Why not?" Steve shrugged.
"There's a million reasons why that is an astonishingly bad idea," Tony said seriously, and Steve's heart sunk, before Tony finished, "but sure, why not. The gym is renovated, we can try it out."
Steve beamed at him. "Great!" He stood up and pulled Tony to his feet as well.
"Oh, I see you weren't just joking," Tony commented. He looked down at himself and apparently decided that his clothing would suffice – he had on training slacks and a t-shirt, and to be honest, sometimes it was really weird how he went from expensive, perfectly-tailored suits outside to ill-fitting comfy clothes at home. Steve was mostly used to it and wasn't moved when Tony emerged from his room in worn-out, comfortable clothes to sprawl in front of the TV or shut himself down in his garage, but he remembered how astonished Peter'd been to see Tony in everyday clothing for the first time.
Steve on the other hand... Steve might not have thought this all the way through, he decided, looking at his own clothing; jeans and a jumper. Not something he particularly wanted to exercise in.
Tony laughed at him suddenly. "This was your idea," he gestured between them, "and you don't even have the right clothes. Or, do you have some in the Tower?"
"Not yet," Steve admitted unwillingly. He was planning on moving some of his things here, but he just never had time, in between supervising S.H.I.E.L.D. and running Secret Avengers missions. "Sorry. Seems we'll have to reschedule," he said and wondered whether he was imagining the disappointment on Tony's face.
"Not at all," Tony said after a while. "Half of my clothes are too big anyway. Go take a look."
Steve thought it over for a second. Tony was almost his height, so at least that wouldn't be a problem, but he was much more slim in general, if more muscled than people generally gave him credit for. Still, it was worth a try: Steve still believed a bit of physical exertion would help them dispel the tension.
"Lead on, then," he said.
"You know where my wardrobe is," Tony answered with a laugh. "Unless you want to give me a show."
"In your dreams," Steve answered, resolutely trying not to think about what he'd just said. It worked, though: apparently Tony was temporarily too shocked to do anything and decided to stand up and find things for Steve by himself. Steve felt relieved, in a way; that previous proposition seemed almost... too intimate. That way he could sit down and think of what he was doing – an evening workout with Tony, nothing weird at all, or at least, it didn't used to be – and wait for Tony to come back and come to his senses and decide that it wasn't a good idea. He could admit to himself that he hoped that wouldn’t happen, though.
And then Tony was back, a pair of black training suit pants and a blue t-shirt on his arm. He threw it all at Steve.
"Catch," he called with a laugh in his voice. Steve laughed too, because it was all too surreal, and took a look at the clothes. Yeah, the trousers should fit him. The t-shirt might be a stretch. He started to open the first few buttons of his jumper before Tony coughed slowly.
"Bathroom's there," he pointed, "if you want to try them on. Since you refused to give me a show, and everything." His expression was terribly close to a pout. Save me from rich, spoilt, genius boys, Steve thought. He'd been in the army, changing clothes in public had never bothered him before – he wasn’t going to cave just because Tony Stark had suddenly decided to play coy. Tony wasn't just anybody, but... Steve shook his head again, to clear it of those thoughts, and took his sweater the rest of the way off. He didn't look at Tony, he was just taking clothes off, for god's sake, they'd used common changing rooms and showers after the gym for years. Well, apparently that too had changed, because when Steve moved to retrieve the blue t-shirt Tony had found for him, he finally stole a look at Tony just to see that he was looking straight at him with an odd expression on his face. Steve looked away and pulled the t-shirt on. He leant down to pull the pants on and felt the t-shirt was definitely too tight in the arms for him. Damn.
"Sorry," Tony said. His voice sounded... weird. Tight. "The biggest I could find."
Steve shrugged, felt the material stretching dangerously again; he was almost positive it would rip if he tried to execute his usual exercise routine. "It's fine. Thanks. But I think I'll go without the t-shirt. If that's okay."
"As long as you're comfortable," Tony said, and then froze for a second as Steve took the t-shirt off. He seemed surprised, as if Steve hadn't said what he was about to do. His eyes seemed almost too dark, but that was probably the dim light in the room, and then he took a step back, ran his hand through his hair and put on his 'everything is all right' smile. Steve questioned his choice, suddenly self-conscious.
"Great," Tony said. "The gym is ten floors down. Let's go. Unless you'd rather I lost my shirt, too?"
Steve thought Tony must have been joking. "Only if you want to," he replied, and then frowned, because the thought of Tony shirtless, while weirdly attractive, reminded him of something else entirely. "Oh. Is it safe? The RT, I mean. I have no idea how to..."
"Don't hit it with your full force and it should be all right," Tony waved his concern off.
"You sure?" Steve asked.
Tony nodded. "Yeah. Pretty sure. I'm not worried about the RT, I'm worried about your hand if you hit it."
"Tony, be serious," Steve scowled at him.
Tony frowned. "I am. Really. The RT is hard. It's much harder than an average person's sternum. Not-average being Wolverine. Don't worry about it. You won't hurt me by accident. I'm not made of glass, you know."
No, he wasn't. He was a man of metal now more than ever, literally speaking. Metaphorically, Steve had never met anyone else quite so strong and breakable at the same time.
"I know," he said, because Tony was looking at him, clearly expecting some answer, and in seconds he’d take Steve’s silence in the wrong way and sulk. "The gym?" he prompted after a second. Tony nodded and gestured to follow him. They got into the lift that took them ten floors down in a few seconds, and when they stepped out, Steve saw that Tony had converted the whole floor into a training space.
"Showers, swimming pool, gym, mats," Tony flicked his hand around, indicating different directions. "But I guess we'll go straight to the mats?"
"Yeah, okay. I'll take a look at the rest later, okay?"
Tony laughed. "Of course you will. Probably at 6 AM or some other unhealthy hour."
The room dedicated to sparring was spacious and padded with mats; fresh towels and water bottles at the ready. Of course Tony would keep everything prepared at all times. Steve headed to the centre of the room and grinned at Tony. This, the two of them about to start sparring, felt right.
"Let's do some warm-ups," he said, and started an easy enough exercise.
They'd been sparring for almost an hour when Steve dodged a fist to his face, moved to the right and hooked a leg up under Tony, sending him to the mat – again.
He decided they should end it for now. Tony would never say it, but he was tired, Steve could see it in his moves, a little slower, his punches, a little weaker. After all the time they had spent training together, Steve had learned to recognize the signs of Tony reaching his limit, and this was it. He was tired now, and it wouldn't do to exhaust him more. He wasn't in good shape to begin with, today. He broke his fall in the last moment with his arm, avoiding hitting his head, so maybe there was something left from Steve's old lessons, but... After all the years they spent training, Steve was almost insulted that it seemed to be the only thing.
How long had it been since Tony last trained in hand-to-hand combat? It seemed like ages, from his reactions. Steve suddenly thought that it might have been since their last session – back before the war, not in the ruins of the mansion, never that, because while it was the last time he'd seen Tony fight bare-handed (fought him), that hadn't been training, but a cruel twist of every hour he spent trying to make sure Tony wouldn't get killed, surprised out of his armour; of the trust involved in their lessons – and found himself hoping it wasn’t true. That'd be too – personal. But then, their training sessions always were, for Tony; he didn't let many people see him at that much of a disadvantage, never mind actually acknowledging it.
Steve concentrated on the sight of Tony now: clad in slightly too big training slacks and a slightly too tight t-shirt the likes of which he wore in his lab, RT light shining through it; his hair damp with sweat and utterly messed up. He lay flat on his back, looking a little dazed for a moment, before sitting up and running a hand through his hair, tousling it even more.
"I'll try to be nice here, Tony," Steve said, stifling a laugh. "You're so out of shape it's not even funny."
Tony scowled at him as Steve pulled him to his feet with a strong grip. He raised his hand, his armour covering his fingers in a matter of seconds. "It's not as if I need to be," he answered.
Steve frowned. "Tell me you're not serious right now." It was hard to read Tony's expression – he was amused, but it might just have been at Steve’s tone.
"I'm not," he shrugged. "Okay, a little. I am stronger now. And I can't be caught without my armour. So..." he trailed off.
"And your reflexes are non-existent," Steve added for him. Tony playfully punched him in the arm.
"That's what I have you for," he laughed. "No doubt you'll help me fix that inexcusable fault in my training."
"Bet on it," Steve replied. "Thursday at ten," he said, thinking of his schedule. He should be able to get time then.
"I'll be in Seattle," Tony told him with an easy grin, stretching his arms up. Steve watched as his t-shirt rode up, uncovering naked stomach, and shook his head to clear his thoughts. Tony was attractive, sure, but that was like saying the sky was blue.
That Steve started to notice it all the time was another thing entirely. One he wasn't going to think about.
"You can get here in an hour," he said.
"Touché," Tony laughed again. He was so carefree, so happy in that moment, as if hitting the mat a dozen times was the thing that finally helped him relax. And that was a thought Steve really didn’t need to share with Tony.
"See you then?" he asked instead.
"Yeah, I guess," Tony nodded. "I'm afraid you'll get me arrested otherwise. For compromising national security, or something."
Steve laughed. "Don't tempt me," he said.
"Never," Tony said seriously. "I'm pretty sure there are laws against tempting Cap..." he broke off, smile suddenly gone from his face. Steve sighed. Everything felt right, like it had before, to him too, if he didn't think too hard and avoided looking at the RT under Tony's t-shit he might have convinced himself they were back in the Mansion, before everything started to go so horribly wrong. Tony's little slip brought him back to here and now, and it wasn't a pleasant thing. "Yeah, no, I'm not going to try that with Barnes, he'd probably break my nose," Tony said at last in a weak attempt to return to their previous, oh so easy banter.
Steve couldn't find it in him to joke along, now. "Thursday?" he asked to make sure. The nice mood was gone now, but it didn't mean he wasn't still willing to keep his half-joking promise to Tony.
"Thursday," Tony nodded, and fell silent.
Steve walked to the kitchen. He was tired, the day full of coordinating missions instead of taking part in them taking its toll on him; it was late and he only wanted to drink some water before lying down. He came to the Tower, because it was closest and, though he tried not to think about it, because it had been home to him once, and was still infinitely better than his empty apartment or the Helicarrier's quarters. He also wanted to talk to Tony. Their sparring last night reminded Steve just how much he missed him, and suddenly going back to not seeing Tony for days seemed unacceptable.
Steve was brought out of his thoughts when he switched on the light and only then noticed Tony leaning heavily against the wall next to the coffee maker, a steaming cup in hand. He looked like he was only standing there because he didn’t have the strength to move away even to sit down. Steve had wanted to talk to him, yes, but now was probably not the moment, he thought. Tony looked about ready to fall asleep where he stood.
"Hey, Steve," Tony said, squinting against the sudden light.
There was something off with Tony's face. He looked... It took Steve a moment to identify the change. Tony didn’t look, for once, like he’d never heard of the concept of sleep, and what did it say about him that it was so surprising? But the lines of his face were still tight, still stressed, his shoulders slumped. He didn't really look rested. Steve hesitated briefly, before approaching Tony quickly and putting a hand on his arm. Tony smiled at him weakly.
"You all right?" Steve asked. Tony looked a lot more tired than he did just a day ago.
"Keeping an eye on me, are you, now?" Tony laughed. "I'm good. I've just seen some potential shareholders. Sometimes I prefer supervillains," he joked, but it sounded strained. He was obviously exhausted, probably didn't get an hour of sleep last night, but the way he looked... Oh. Steve slowly, delicately put his thumb to Tony's face, signalling his moves so that Tony could pull away if he wanted to. He only looked at Steve, though, not moving, and Steve put his finger just under Tony's left eye, and carefully slid it down and away. Tony's breathing suddenly got shallow.
Steve looked at his finger, with a slight smear of concealer now on it. He looked back at Tony and the suddenly more pronounced shadows under his left eye. He felt tempted to clean the skin under the other eye, too, just touch Tony's face again, really, but he tamped down on it.
"So, Tony," he started conversationally, wiping his fingers on his jeans, "when was the last time you actually slept?"
Tony frowned. That he even let Steve ask this was a sign of how tired he was – usually he was a master of distraction.
"No idea. Thirty hours? Maybe forty? I don't think it was more..." he said, sounding oddly uncertain. "Long enough that Pepper felt some make-up was necessary before the meeting, as you've just noticed. Yes. Pretty damn long." He was babbling, like he sometimes did when he was battling sleep deprivation with coffee for way too long. Steve found himself smiling fondly at Tony. It would be almost adorable, if it wasn't also so worrying. Tony had never kept a regular sleep schedule, but recently he had taken it to new heights.
"Put down that coffee," Steve said and fought the urge to laugh as Tony curled his hand protectively around the mug. "Bed time for you, Tony," Steve elaborated. Tony laughed at that, looked at him through his lashes, and Steve, unprepared for that in the face of Tony's tiredness, was once again hit with realisation of how attractive the man was.
"Will you tuck me in?" Tony asked in a low voice.
He meant it as a joke, Steve knew, because he always did when saying such things to him, and if he made it look serious he only did it to try and push Steve away – and Steve wasn't going to let him do that. Instead, forcing his voice to sound steady, he asked, "Will it make you sleep?"
Tony's eyes turned wide for a single second, before an easy grin slipped on his face again. "Thanks, Steve – but I am actually an adult, I can cope," he said. Steve frowned. He didn't expect Tony to back off like that – it wasn't his style at all. Steve didn't know if he should be relieved or disappointed, and that... He didn't know what to think of that.
Their friendship had changed, after everything they went through at each other's hands. It wasn't so easy anymore, for one thing, and Steve missed it enormously. On the other hand, they weren't firmly in the realm of "just friends", and Steve wasn't sure what to make of that. Tony'd always been flirtatious, but not overly so with Steve, and Steve'd usually dismissed it with an easy joke when he was. Only recently did Tony seem to start meaning it more often than not, and while Steve had always been almost one hundred percent sure he'd only done that when he'd been at a loss for what to say or how to react in another way, he wondered now – what if he was wrong? What if Tony had really meant all those things he'd dismissed as jokes?
They'd always been awfully close to each other. Maybe losing everything changed something more in them, maybe not-quite-dying showed Steve what fifty years in the ice couldn't – that some things are worth waiting for, but shouldn't be put off forever; maybe Tony felt the same or lost his careful-strictly-platonic mask along with his memories. Maybe they realised that they could have been more than friends – that emotionally they had been, or neither of them would have been hurt half as much – and that that chance wasn't gone forever.
Maybe it took not seeing Tony as a friend to start seeing him as a man, an attractive man.
Maybe if they were trying to rebuild their friendship, it was high time they gave a chance to something they'd been dancing around, if at a distance, for so long.
Maybe it was better than constantly shouting at each other, expecting to get back to a time when they didn't have so much to shout about.
Steve knew it wasn't something to jump into, though. That anything that might exist between them had to be supported by that friendship, which was still too fragile to risk. One wrong move could send them both away from each other, and Steve doubted either of them could survive that. This friendship, Tony's friendship, was important to him. And Tony... From what little Steve heard of him after the super hero civil war that wasn't "that fucking traitor," he didn't take what he thought was Steve's death in a healthy way.
Tony hesitated now, but he didn't flat out run away, and that was something to think over later. Maybe Steve couldn't read him as well as he thought. Still, one thing had to be said. "I meant it, you know."
"I know," Tony said, looking down, before he straightened and looked Steve straight in the eye. He smiled in that self-deprecating way of his that Steve hated. "But maybe you shouldn't have."
"You don't get to push me away, Tony," Steve sighed. Not after everything, he really didn't, and he could stuff his issues.
"Yeah, but I should," Tony smiled sadly. "You're the one who's supposed to remember why," he added much quieter – and he really was running on caffeine only, wasn't he? Normally he was much more composed. Talking to him now really wasn't a good idea. Tony shook his head before Steve could reply. "No, don't mind me. I'm tired. I'm really tired and you were right, bed time. Good night, Steve," he said very, very quickly. He put the unfinished cup on the table, almost spilling it, and left the room. Steve was left feeling as if they’d made a step forward and back all at once, and ended up in a whole different place.
He looked at the door for a few moments before finally getting himself a glass of water.
Tony caught a few hours of sleep – less than he needed, of course, but he woke up in the middle of the night, his head full of half-remembered images of the time he had forgotten, and couldn't fall back asleep. He knew his dreams were just a mix of what he read in news reports and imagined for himself, but they still felt too real and he hated it. So he did what he liked best and closed himself in the lab, immersing himself in another project for Stark Resilient. He wasn't sure how long he'd been there when he heard the door opening.
"I wanted to talk," Steve said, entering Tony's lab without knocking, just using his code. That was unusual for him, Tony mused, saving his work for the time being.
He turned from his screens to Steve and raised his eyebrows. "I guessed so, seeing as how you're at my doorstep when your rooms are just a few floors down." He nodded, his voice serious in contrast to his playful expression. He was tired, he wanted to work; not even the fact that it was Steve stopping him from doing just that could lift his mood.
Steve sighed. "I've told you before," Steve said. "I wish we could just go back in time, to being friends again, but that's impossible, so I wish we could work together again, now." He stopped, looked at Tony. He stood, frozen, his face unreadable, and Steve continued. "I wish we, the two of us, were friends again, Tony. I thought I made it pretty clear."
Tony shook his head even before Steve finished speaking. "You are my friend, Steve. You always have been, and you always will be. I meant what I said after fighting Hel." He stopped, averted his eyes. He picked up a screwdriver and started playing with it just to have something to do with his hands and concentrate on something that wasn't Steve's clear eyes.
"But...?" Steve asked for him, when it seemed as if Tony wasn't going to say more.
Tony stilled his hands. "But I told you that I saw all the mistakes I'd made. That was true," he hesitated. "It gets better, though. Now you tell me – what do you see, when you look at Tony Stark? At me?"
"My friend," Steve responded immediately.
Tony snorted, threw the screwdriver away. Yes, and the sky was red. He thought he deserved the truth, at least, but maybe he was wrong...
"Yeah, no. I'm asking seriously, Steve," he said in case he hadn't made it clear before.
"I was serious, Tony," Steve sighed again. "I see my friend. I also see the man who hurt me, yes. The man I hurt, too. I see my mistakes," he finished quietly, as if it cost him a lot to admit that.
Steve was … well, he wasn't, not anymore … but he had been Captain America. Steve didn't lie, not to people he deemed somehow important, and he was telling Tony he was included in that group. That meant that he was serious, probably, surely...?
Tony looked at him with something akin to disbelief. Steve's mistakes? Contrary to most people, Tony realised all too well that Steve Rogers was a normal person, an amazing, astonishing man, the best person he knew, one who could be wrong sometimes – but never when it mattered, like it did right now. If they fought, when they fought, it was Tony who was breaking the law or compromising his ethics. It was Tony's mistakes staring him in the face. Steve could never mess anything up quite as much as him.
Tony's Avengers communicator rang the same moment as Steve's S.H.I.E.L.D. one did, and they both turned to the screens immediately, a little relieved to have their talk cut in half; Tony switching to the emergency feeds even as he answered the communicator in a quiet tone so as not to speak over Steve talking to his earphone.
Steve sighed finally, signing off, and looked at Tony. "Another one, then."
"Another one," Tony nodded, letting his armour spread over him. "Care for a ride?"
He could see Steve battling with saying yes against the option of going to S.H.I.E.L.D. to help monitor the action. He might have been a great strategist, but he wasn't made to give command from conference rooms and behind the scenes – but then, neither was Tony, and he too had accepted the job, once. Desperate times, desperate measures, he mused.
"Sure, Iron Man," Steve said finally, stepping forward and embracing him at the waist with an ease born of a thousand repetitions of the movement. Tony returned it, tight and – he hoped – safe – and flew them out the window.
He missed it, fighting with Steve.
Barnes might have been a Captain America, but he wasn't the Captain America, he never would be.
They would never work as seamlessly, Tony thought even as leant back to avoid Barnes' shield, never almost read each other's minds on the battlefield, and he knew it wasn't just a matter of the ten years worth of experience he had of fighting alongside Steve.
Steve was now using a gun instead of his shield, but he still answered to Tony's plans immediately, without the need to warn him on comms first; just as Tony knew when he was going to fire and at what – staying out of Steve's way was instinctual.
He noticed a lamppost falling towards two S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and fired a repulsor beam at it to push it to the other side, then looked around him to see where else he was needed. With his repulsors not an option in the fight, he was better at providing support, much as it annoyed him.
He saw the robot dancing off at Carol's blast, then leaning towards Steve – he only meant to shout a warning, but then it fired a blast, and he flew forward, all of the suit's power redirected for speed, knowing he wouldn't make it if he spared energy to shields.
The shot hit him dead on, and he was vaguely aware of the sensation of falling down, before the pain in his chest surrounded him whole.
Steve saw it aiming a shot at him and tried to run out of range.
Then a gold and red figure flew into his field of view and Steve stopped dead in his tracks, could only watch as Iron Man got hit in front of him. He slammed into the ground, hard; a cut-off scream echoed off the comms and stopped.
Steve felt a brief wave of anger at having Tony put himself in danger for Steve again; there was no reason to... His anger got replaced with dull fear, because the blast didn’t redistribute over Iron Man’s energy shields, and seconds later Iron Man didn't get up, didn't even stir.
Then something weird happened, because the robot swayed on its many legs for no apparent reason. Carol used the distraction to hit it full-force, and it actually cracked under her fists. Steve aimed at one of the bent legs and fired, and then again when the first bullet didn't get deflected like it had the last time. Then Bucky threw the shield, cracking the casing open, revealing a mess of smoking cables and wires. Another leg twitched and stopped moving. The whole mass went down heavily, shaking the ground around them and raising clouds of dust.
Steve looked around once it cleared – nothing suggested the robot would get up any time soon, but he still told Bucky to watch it closely before the science team arrived – though he wasn't sure who he was kidding, saying that: Tony would demand the parts to play with, once he'd woken up, and he'd get them, of course, because he was a much better engineer than anybody they had on roll – and asked Carol to help him with that.
Then he immediately ran to Iron Man's side. He looked terribly still, not having moved since falling down; face down. Steve rolled him onto his back – the armour was lighter than the last one Steve remembered – and said his override code as fast as he could. He was relieved to see the armour melting down into Tony's skin. The sight, usually unnerving, was welcome now. It meant the armour, which was so intertwined with Tony’s body, was working.
Tony was unconscious underneath it, not really a surprise, but when Steve reached to find his pulse, it was steady, and the RT node in his chest shone bright as always. Steve let out a breath he didn't know he was holding. S.H.I.E.L.D.'s medical troops were a short distance away, so he gathered Tony in his arms and stood up, carried him away from the rubble. Maybe he clutched him just a little too tight to his chest, but the thought of letting him go was unbearable. It took a lot to hit Iron Man like that, and there was no telling how injured Tony was. Seconds later, though, Tony stirred lightly where his head rested against Steve's chest, over his heart, and half-opened his eyelids.
"Steve?" he whispered, looking dizzy.
"Don't you ever do that again," Steve growled.
"Didn't have a choice," Tony said a little indistinctly. "Couldn't let you get hit."
Steve had to actively stop himself from tightening his hands around Tony. "You get so angry at the mere suggestion you can't take something on, and yet you couldn't imagine me dodging it."
Tony smiled at that. "Sorry, Steve," he murmured. He didn't seem very lucid.
"How are you feeling?" Steve asked.
"My armour's systems are a little messed up." Tony seemed to think about it. "Give it a few more seconds." He closed his eyes and Steve was a little worried he’d lost consciousness again, but then Tony blinked a few times and gave him a light shove.
"Okay, not that you're not a nice pillow – very nice, in fact – but put me down," he said. His voice was stronger already and Steve felt relief.
"Tony," he said warningly.
"No, seriously, put me down. Thanks for closing down my armour, I needed that. How are they able to stop it so easily..." He cut himself off. "Steve. I'm all right."
"What you are, Tony, is getting checked out by doctors," Steve told him. "Then you're going to a debriefing with me. Non-negotiable."
They reached the medics before Tony could argue more and Steve put him down on one of the prepared stretchers; Tony – predictably – immediately sat up and glared at him angrily. Before he could stand, Steve put one hand on his arm and held him down.
"Not funny, Steve," Tony said. "I'm not gonna fall down if I stand on my own two legs. You're being ridiculously overprotective." He sounded annoyed. He tried to shrug Steve's hand off and Steve finally let him, stood back. Tony had a point, not that he'd admit it. Tony looked behind him and frowned.
"There's a disabled robot over there, and instead of letting me take a look at it, you’re doing your best mother-hen act," he said disbelievingly. "What's wrong with you?" He raised his voice, but didn’t quite shout. It looked as if he was honestly baffled.
"There's a disabled robot that took you down in one hit," Steve corrected. "And nothing's wrong with me, thanks to you. So thank you, Tony, please get checked out."
"I'm more a machine than a regular human, Steve, your doctors won't know what to do with me," Tony snorted. "And you can't be sure that robot won't stand up in a minute, so let me make sure of it," he added. Steve opened his mouth to answer, but Tony didn't listen to him anymore, as he stood up and was moving towards Carol and Bucky standing guard over the robot.
That went well, Steve thought, but let him go. Tony had a point: he was the best choice for analysing the robot still at the scene and telling them if it was actually safe. But Steve hated it when Tony – anybody, really, it's just that Tony did it the most often – got hurt, because he was protecting him. He watched Tony exchange some words with Carol and Bucky. Bucky nodded sharply and came to Steve as Tony knelt down next to the robot with Carol and started talking animatedly.
"They're trying to take out its power source for good," Bucky said. "Stark's sure he can find it. Funny, it took him longer the last time."
Steve didn't really understand Bucky and Tony's relationship. They'd obviously learned to work together, quite well at that, and while sometimes Steve thought Bucky blamed Tony for the war, just like most people did, at other times he seemed almost fond of the man. Tony always was one to appreciate the ironic humour that Bucky specialised in, though, so maybe it wasn't that weird. Another thing was important now, though. "Are you all right?" Steve asked.
"Have you even looked at me? Not a scratch. I'm okay. Stop worrying about me all the time." Bucky waved off his concern with an easy smile. Too easy, maybe, but Steve wasn't going to push now. "I'm thinking about Stark and his connection to these bots," Bucky told him seriously.
Steve frowned. "Do you think there is one?"
"It may be a long shot, but from what I saw last time, they feed off his repulsors. And he promised to power the whole planet – apart from the weapon industry – with Resilient's repulsor tech, didn't he?"
Steve nodded grimly. That was a good point, but Tony wouldn't... He'd promised to leave the arms industry for good and he would keep his word. Steve trusted him at least in that. But the fact remained that he was the only person with knowledge of how repulsor tech worked.
"Someone must've gained access to his plans," Steve mused.
"Of course you'd say that," Bucky snorted. "But I actually agree. I doubt it's Stark's own doing. But someone with access to his designs? Yeah."
Steve didn't like where this was going. "Tony trusts his employees... Especially now that he's got so few of them." Not to mention that he'd always been paranoid about blueprints for the weapons he'd designed.
Bucky nodded. "And you trust him. I know. But what I wanted to say was – he doesn't remember what he was working on just before the Invasion hit."
"You think it's one of his old, not even implemented designs? Could be. The repulsor nodes were supposed to be a new idea, but..." he trailed off, thinking. It wouldn't be the first time someone used Tony's tech against him.
"It is possible someone got ahold of his old designs from various sources."
It was just his thoughts voiced by another person, but that made it real and Steve winced. Tony would absolutely love that. Especially since the robot seemed really advanced – more so than what Steve saw of Tony's technology recently; the fact that it hit him so hard just proved it – so unless Tony had discovered something new and then had forgotten it along with everything else, someone had upgraded it. No, not good at all.
Not to mention... It was stating the obvious, but Tony wasn't stupid. If there were so many connections to his new repulsor tech, he would have noticed them. But he didn't say a word about that.
Steve refused to think of the other possibility: whatever their differences, whatever issues still lay between them, at his core, Tony was a good man. He did what he thought was the right thing to do – and he and Steve hadn't always agreed on that, but they did agree that unleashing a weapon of mass destruction on civilians wasn't the way to go. He wouldn't hide it if he created a weapon and lost it.
"Thanks, Bucky," he said. "I'll talk to him." He turned to walk to Tony, still kneeling next to Carol, showing her a few places to aim at.
"Steve," Bucky's quiet voice stopped him. "He's not a bad man, but I don't get why you're so quick to forgive him after everything. But then, I'm still not sure how you could've forgiven me. It's just you and your damn good heart. Be careful, okay?"
"Sure, Bucky," he smiled.
He approached Tony and Carol just as she aimed the last little energy blast at the robot's upper section. A brief shock went through it and then it fell still. Somehow, it looked more final than it had before. Tony stood up, stretched.
"There! All done and safe," he grinned. "Thanks for help, Carol."
"Always, Tony," she smirked at him. "Just a warning, though: Cap's behind you."
They all called him Cap, still, out of habit. Tony was the only one who would do that and freeze seconds later, because he couldn't remember when Steve stopped being Captain America and the name went to Bucky; and he thought it was his fault.
"Steve? I'll go to that debriefing if you insist, but really, I'd love to take a look at this thing's circuits," he said.
Steve clenched his teeth, hard. "About that, Tony."
Tony took a long look at him and sighed. "Okay. So you've noticed. There is an uncanny resemblance to some of my designs. I thought it was too subtle for someone else to notice it, though. It's mostly about the way they're wired. I know where the fail-safes are. Or where they should be, at least. Some are changed, some are upgraded..." he trailed off, looked away, guilt in his eyes. "Yeah, it is based on some of my tech. I don't remember the design, but I can recognize my own work."
Steve nodded. "Do you really not know anything else?" he asked carefully. The look Tony gave him was in equal measures annoyed and hurt.
"Who do you take me for, Steve?" He turned away. "I don't know a thing about those robots, really, except that maybe I can actually find the big red shutdown button and land a happy shot on it. It's as if someone drew over the lines of your sketch. I need to take it apart in my lab to learn more. Do you trust me with that, or do you think I built them and then sent them to wreak havoc on Manhattan?" he asked sharply.
Steve winced. "No, of course no, it's just..." He trailed off. If he had any doubt about whether it was Tony behind these robots, they disappeared. No one could fake that level of honest pain at being accused of things they didn't do.
"Just?" Tony raised his eyebrows.
"Nothing. I'm sorry, Tony," Steve said. Tony nodded and moved to walk away, but Steve called him back.
"Was that enough of a debriefing for you or do you want me to repeat it on record?" Tony asked sarcastically.
Steve shook his head. "It's not that. Are you sure you're okay?" He knew how Tony was about his technology.
"I need to run diagnostics on my armour," Tony answered, calmer now. "And then to take this robot apart. Lend me a few agents to take it to my lab in the Tower?"
"In a moment," Steve agreed. "I let you make sure it's disabled. Now go and let the doctors check you over."
Tony opened his mouth to argue, but Steve looked at him warningly, and he closed it again. They looked at each other for a long moment before Tony averted his eyes and nodded.
"Fine," he almost growled and stalked away.
"Tell me what you find out about those bots," Steve called after him.
Tony ignored him and started talking to a doctor, waving his hands at him. Steve sighed, but left him to it.
It was Thursday and Tony wasn't really sure if his sparring session with Steve still stood, but he sure as hell wouldn't be the one not to show up, even if he was angry at Steve's overcaring acts.
He changed from the grease covered clothes he wore in his lab to a mostly clean set, spared a thought to how Steve had looked in his clothes the last time they sparred, another to a vague hope he wouldn't have a training suit again, and went to the gym before he got seriously distracted by those mental images.
The sight of Steve already there stretching and warming up surprised him briefly, but in a very good way. He stayed in the door for a short while, just observed Steve going through the motions perfectly; his muscles moving under his white shirt when he jumped and turned in the air.
"You're late," Steve said. So apparently Tony wasn't as stealthy as he hoped.
"You're early," he replied with a smirk. "I'm just appreciating the view." He almost winced when he realised what he'd just said. Steve was beautiful, there had never been any doubt about it. Very beautiful, and very attractive; doubly so when he was unconsciously showing off just how lethal he could be... Well, nobody could say Tony had healthy preferences. All of that didn't mean he should act on it, quite the contrary, and yet he found himself flirting at Steve more and more; and not in that innocent way that seemed natural to him back before. It had never been innocent and he had never not meant it, but he'd been reasonably sure Steve couldn't tell; now, though, now Tony wasn't sure anymore. While Steve seemed to want to move on, he also seemed to question Tony's every move, and... He could learn it was honest. And then he'd run away immediately or, worse, first apologize in that painfully honest way of his and run later.
"Tony?" Steve's voice brought him back to here and now. "You seemed to be away."
"Yeah, sorry, just got an idea on a project," he lied. "I'm all yours now."
Steve smiled at him. "I've started without you, just to warm up, but now that you're here we can continue."
"Uh, no. I'm not gonna try your warm up routine." He looked at Steve as if he had two heads. "It'd give me a heart attack rather than anything else."
Steve laughed. "It's not that bad," he said. "Let's just start with some easy stretching exercises, okay?" he asked, already entering the mat.
"Sure, Steve." Tony followed him.
To be honest, he hated warm-ups – he knew they were needed and he knew why, but that didn't change the fact that simple exercises designed to prepare your muscles were simply boring. They didn't require any concentration. Even the sight of Steve, moving with a perfect grace next to him, wasn't enough to make Tony like this part of their sessions. That Steve preferred to do them in silence just annoyed him more. Which was kinda contradictory to how much he really enjoyed training with Steve.
Finally done with stretching and running around the gym, Steve, laughing gently at his annoyance, still uncovered even by a drop of sweat, declared it enough.
"I'd say thank god, but maybe not," Tony said. He leant forward, his hands on his knees, catching his breath. Steve looked amused.
"Told you you're out of shape," he reminded him with a small smile.
"And promised to rectify it," Tony shot back, standing up and grinning. "So are we done with those tortures?"
"Only you, Tony, would prefer beating each other up to stretching exercises," Steve said, but nodded.
He attacked first, a right upper cut that Tony dodged easily by stepping away. Steve was ready for it. He gripped his t-shirt tight and sent them both to the mat with an undercut from behind. Tony actually remembered to hold his head high and started to roll over almost immediately, but Steve caught him by arms and straddled him, effectively immobilizing him. Tony was breathing heavily.
"Okay, point proved," he admitted. "I should have seen that coming." He paused for a breath again. "I would have, probably, before."
"You would have," Steve agreed, looking down at him. "Again, or do you want to try and remember some ground techniques?"
"Again," Tony said without hesitation. Steve rolled off of him and stood up, then offered him his hand. Tony took it and let himself be pulled up.
It went better, after that. Tony didn't end up on the floor every single time, and if he still missed a punch more often than not, well, he was training with Cap... With Steve Rogers, the supersoldier. But Steve had trained him once and he would do it again, especially since they weren't starting from zero now. Tony could already tell some of his reflexes were returning.
"Enough for now?" he asked tiredly from his position on the mat once again. Steve looked amused and pulled him to his feet – again.
"You're stronger, physically. Is it the RT?" he asked, looking curious. The RT node was a piece of art, of course. Tony was glad Steve saw it too.
Tony nodded. "Yeah. Better stamina, too, even if I can't feel it right now. And some other perks. Remind me to tell you all about it some other time. When I can catch my breath. It's an amazing piece of tech, really..."
"'Some other time,'" Steve interrupted him with a quote. What an annoying, if ideal, man. "But speaking of tech, have you learned anything about those robots?" he changed the subject suddenly.
Tony shook his head. "Nope. They've got good safety measures. And anyway, I told you I'd let you know when I learn something new." He rolled his eyes.
"Yeah, you told me. You haven't always told me things you should have, Tony," Steve answered quickly. Tony looked at him with wide eyes, saw just steady resolve and all of a sudden decided he'd had enough.
"That's great! So all your talk, after Asgard, was for nothing then?!" Tony shouted. "You told me we could be friends again. That you wanted it. I woke up, and I remembered that Steve Rogers is my best friend. I had to find out from the newspapers–" he stopped himself before he started to sound too whiny. He meant what he said, but it was just embarrassing to speak it out loud.
"It's not that easy, St –" Steve hesitated briefly, Tony's surname half out of his mouth, before he finished much quieter, "Tony."
"What's not easy, Steve?! I. Don't. Remember. You know it. Do you want me to say I'm sorry for the war? I won't apologize. It wouldn't be fair to you. Remembering what I knew before the civil war – I would have done the same thing." Tony knew Steve didn't want to hear it. It didn't change the fact that it was the truth, and he didn't deserve lies. He continued speaking, "But I don't remember anything that happened during it and that makes all the difference. What do you want me to say?" He knew he sounded helpless and he hated it.
"It was wrong, Tony!" he shouted, his jaw set in that stubborn way that warned that discussion wouldn't change anything. Still, Tony had to try.
"Maybe it was. Maybe it wasn't. We'll never get the full story, though!" he shouted back, annoyed at Steve's lack of – anything, really, it seemed as if he wasn't even willing to try and understand.
"Yeah, maybe if you told me the full story then –" Steve stopped himself.
"I don't remember anything, Steve," Tony said for what felt like the hundredth time, but he repeated it anyway, because it was important that Steve finally understood. Besides... "But I know myself, and you're my best friend." Were. It took two people to form a friendship. "I doubt if I ever thought of you differently. Do you really want to tell me I didn't even try?" Please don't, he thought. He could take many things, but he didn't want to believe that about himself.
Steve stood frozen. "You..." he said and stopped.
"I thought so," Tony said with a sad smile. They were both stubborn fools, after all; if only he had tried harder... Not done whatever it was he did to make Steve hate him, to get Steve killed. If only Tony could remember, so he could start to set it right. There was still one thing to make clear, though.
"If you hate me so much – if you can't forgive me," he started, deadly calm, "you didn't have to bring me back."
"Yes I did!" Steve shouted furiously. "If you wanted to commit suicide that much, you could have done it without dumping the guilt on us!" His words had barely sounded in the air when he froze and quickly shook his head. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said..."
Tony flinched involuntarily. "Said what? Said what you meant? Because you did. And I'd say you had every right to be mad at me then. Still have, because it is me who did all those things to you. So why didn't you kill me? Everybody would be happier that way. You quite clearly are dreaming of putting your – Barnes', shall I say? – shield down on my neck now. I saw the pictures, you could have done it in that last fight. What were you waiting for, Steve? Why didn't you finish it?" He didn't look Steve in the eye.
Steve took a few wobbly steps away even before Tony finished speaking, as if Tony had punched him. He was breathing shallowly, quickly, looking very angry and very lost at the same time. Tony wasn't exactly sure what he’d said to make him react that strongly, and for a moment wondered if he'd get hit in the jaw in a second, but then Steve took a step back, balled his fists at his hips and looked away. If Tony didn't know better, he'd say Steve looked guilty, guilty and panicked.
But then he spoke, and his voice was steady. "Shut up, Tony. You don't remember, so just shut up."
"That's what I was trying to tell you," Tony said, annoyed.
Steve shook his head, anger finally winning in his eyes. He tightened his fists and just shouted, "and how convenient is it?! What else did Director Stark do that you forgot?"
Tony forced himself to meet Steve's eyes. He knew that was what they all thought. He's heard it all before, shouted to his face or whispered behind his back. It wasn't anything new. But Steve...
"That's not fair," Tony said, not even caring that he seemed childish at the moment. All his willingness to fight and argue sipped out of him, leaving only exhaustion and resignation.
"Just – just find a way to stop it, Tony!" Steve shouted at him in the same furious voice.
"What do you think I've been doing for the last few days?" Tony asked tiredly. If there was one thing he shouldn't ever been doubted about it was that he did good work, important work in his garage. He would lie to cover how much time he spent there, not the other way round.
Steve approached him and Tony realized after all their shouting and stomping around he was in the corner. He didn't try to move out, just looked at Steve and forced himself to calm down.
"Just don't hurt yourself, Tony," Steve said much, much calmer, his head bowed so that they were on level. "I... I couldn't stand seeing you that motionless again." And then he ran his fingers over Tony's face – over his cheeks, chin, suddenly closed eyelids and soft mouth; Tony could still smell the soap Steve used on his fingers. Before he could react, Steve hugged him tightly for a moment and let him go. "Fix it. And don't hurt yourself," he added seriously. Tony nodded, too taken aback to do anything else, and Steve left the gym without another word.
Tony stared after him for a long moment, his thoughts a mess. All their discussions, all their arguments – lately it all seemed to come down to the fact that he couldn't remember.
He wondered, sometimes. Of course he did. He'd told Reed he'd made an amateur mistake, that he couldn't have imagined screwing up so badly – but even as the words had been leaving his mouth he knew he was lying. He was a futurist, and a part of that was that he could think of the worst black scenarios imaginable and prepare. He could think of a million different ways to do something, but he couldn't really imagine himself not having back-ups of his own mind. So he wondered, he wondered if in reality there weren't other back-ups he couldn't send Hill for, but in places she wouldn't be able to get to in time or ever; if he hadn't left himself some kind of a hint he couldn't see now.
He'd read about the civil war and Steve's death and then wondered if maybe he hadn't wanted to remember, if maybe there weren't other back-ups, because he couldn't bring himself to do them afterwards, or maybe there were other back-ups, but even though he had been prepared to format his own brain, he hadn't been quite willing to remember all of his memories if he had a chance to forget. Reading about Steve dying was bad enough; living through it was a thing Tony couldn't imagine.
But that was one side of the coin, and on the other was who Tony Stark was – apart from a horrible human being with a death wish, who killed his best friend and then forgot – an engineer, a scientist, an inventor: all in all, a curious, curious man, who had to know everything about everything. And not remembering the last two years of his own life, not knowing what to say to Steve, how to answer the unasked but ever present questions, was killing him.
He had searched through all the secure facilities he could remember; he had checked every last Stark server he still had access to, the safest, most secure places of his and found nothing.
He slowly, painfully realised that maybe he really hadn't made another back-up.
He couldn't remember, wouldn't ever remember, but he still had to set things right, somehow.
He sighed, picked up his towel from the floor and went to take a shower.
The door to his lab opened with a hiss and Tony stilled his hands over his keyboard. There was only one person who had his codes and was in New York at the moment, and he really didn't feel like talking to Steve now.
"What is it?" he asked without turning back. Maybe Steve came to check if he really wasn't hiding important information on the robots, since he'd made it explicitly clear he didn't trust him yesterday.
"Are you very busy?" Steve asked in a strange voice and Tony frowned. He swirled back on his chair and took Steve in. He was standing just inside the door, holding a pizza box in one hand, as he'd always used to do when Tony had been working on something for too long, but that wasn't normal anymore. Tony missed it. A lot. He started to smile, almost involuntarily, and then noticed how Steve looked. Tired, worn down, tense. And Tony knew that look, remembered it from the time when they had just met, when Steve couldn't sleep at night, so he'd come to the library and talk to Tony hidden in his armour, relaxing minute by minute.
Tony had been angry with him, yes, but suddenly it didn't matter anymore.
"Come here," he said, and moved to make some space on the table to his right. Nothing important there, so he just swept all the wires and motherboards aside. Steve put the pizza there and sighed.
"Sorry. I shouldn't have bothered you, but..." he trailed off.
"I wasn't working on anything important," Tony said. That was a lie, he'd been trying to safeguard his armour against the specific energy beams those robots used, but Steve didn't need to know that.
"I was under the impression that you were always working on something important lately," Steve replied. "Unless you were planning to add roller skates to your new armour, in which case I am glad I interrupted."
Tony glared at him in indignation. "I'll have you know, the roller skates are a vital part of it," he said. "And this new armour is pretty amazing, just look." He let one of his boots flow over his leg and formed it into a roller skate. Steve almost smiled at that, and Tony shut the armour down again before reaching for a slice of pizza. It felt nice, just joking.
"I'm sorry for ever thinking you could've gone without them," Steve said.
"As you well should be," Tony replied.
Steve stared at him, as if he didn't quite hear him, an odd expression on his face.
"Steve?" Tony asked, and then louder, "Steve."
Steve trembled slightly and put on a false-looking smile. "Sorry. It's just..." he hesitated. "Are you all right?"
Tony took a deep breath. He didn't want to argue now, he didn't, but... "I thought we established I'm not a defenceless child," he said sharply.
Steve winced. "I know that," he said. "I wasn't..." He shook his head, moved as if to stand up. "I shouldn't have come here."
"Steve," Tony said. "Sit down, eat this delicious pizza, stop worrying; I'm all right." If he didn't know better, he'd think that Steve had a nightmare about him, but the only kind of a bad dream involving him that Tony could think of now wasn't the kind where Steve would seek comfort from him afterwards.
"You weren't always," Steve said very softly, almost unwillingly, and winced at his words, but didn't try to leave again, and that was what counted.
"I am now," Tony repeated. Of course it wasn't going to last, of course it wasn't always true, not with their jobs of choice, not with his ever-present health problems, but in Tony's opinion that didn't matter now.
Steve looked unconvinced, but nodded, and Tony frowned at him. He hadn't seen him that unsettled since he'd learned about Bucky, probably. But that was a much longer time for Steve than for Tony, and he really wouldn't know if something bothered him lately. The thought unexpectedly hurt.
"I'm fine," he said, and he knew he sounded worried, "but you obviously aren't."
"I don't really want to talk about it," Steve said. That wasn't surprising. He really looked tired, though, and Tony hated seeing him so down. He supposed all the responsibility Steve now had weighed on him maybe a bit too much, but of course he would never admit it to anyone.
Tony did what he would have done before, and hugged him.
Steve seemed content to lean his head against Tony's shoulder and Tony almost unthinkingly started circling his hand over his back, until he could feel the tension leaving him.
"Sometimes I think I remember too much," Steve whispered, and Tony almost laughed, because wasn't it the exact opposite of his problem?
"Not remembering is overrated," he replied equally quietly. He moved away a little, but stayed close, and Steve frowned at him, but didn't say anything.
They stayed in a silence for a moment longer, before Steve pointed at the RT. "You promised to tell me how it works," he said.
Tony really had, because it was a wonderful piece of tech, so he started speaking, trying to tone down his enthusiasm a little, though he suspected he absolutely failed at that. But Steve listened, and smiled at him, and that was important.
Tony kept one eye on the battle via a few hacked CCTV cameras on his computer screen, but otherwise concentrated on trying to take the robot arm apart.
Steve had called him earlier and told him to stay put during the fight, concentrate on collecting data and finding a frequency the robots operated on – all of which Tony was trying to do anyway. He knew why Steve ordered him to do that, though. Tony clearly wasn't of any help in the field, not when the robots could take him down in one hit and recharge off his attacks. He would be a liability, if he showed up.
He doubted Steve's strange worry or maybe uncertainty from the night before had a factor in that decision, but the memory of his quiet voice, asking if Tony was okay, combined with the fact that as much as it hurt to admit it, Steve was right about not wanting him in the field, stopped Tony from arguing.
So he had gritted his teeth, had agreed and tried to sound cheerful, and set up monitors to look at the fight as he further disassembled the robot parts he had.
It was easier than he expected after the problems the main casing had given him – save for the occasional booby traps that he avoided with a huff, the designs were familiar to him. That wasn't something he wanted to dwell on just yet – the design was his, he knew it, and he'd have to find out how it got out like this. Once he finished with taking them apart he would, but not just yet – and he concentrated back on the feel of tools against his fingers, smooth metal giving way under his hands, uncovering wires and cables instead, and they too made perfect sense, so he cut off those which weren't all that important or were simply too dangerous to be left as they were, and dove deeper into the machinery. He realised suddenly that if he started learning about that now, he wouldn't get out of his science frenzy for a few hours at least, and spared one glance at the screens monitoring the battle.
He froze for a second when he moved his eyes to the right screen and saw movement in the corner. Hoping he was wrong, he zoomed the view in and saw his fears confirmed: there was a lamppost bent over a large piece of debris, two people trapped inside.
The only flyer on the battlefield was Carol, and she was also the only one capable of seriously hurting the robots. They couldn't spare her at the moment, Tony realised, and without another thought stepped back from the half-disassembled robot and activated the armour.
The flight didn't take even two minutes and he alerted the other Avengers he was on his way, but ignored the immediate questions of 'why'. He had other concerns.
The lamppost was actually supporting a big fragment of what once had been a wall, stopping it from crushing the people underneath.
"Can you move?" he asked, scanning them. A teenage girl and a boy, both of them fair-haired with similar prominent features, probably siblings. There was a cut on the girl's hand, and the armour flashed him a warning about the boy's leg. So much for walking, then.
"Guess not," he answered himself. He looked closer at the boy. He was bleeding, not looking very conscious. "Hey, stay awake," Iron Man said. "Eyes open. Yeah, good. What's your name?"
"Tom," he whispered. His breathing was shallow, but steady; he must have been in pain, but the scan didn't show any damage to his ribs or lungs. He'd make it.
"I'm Allison," the girl added. Tony nodded. She looked all right, was understandably shaken, but not hurt apart from her arm.
"Tom, Allison, do you know me?" he asked quietly.
"You're Iron Man," she replied with an expression of someone being asked whether they could add one to one.
"I'm an Avenger," he corrected her. "And I will get you out of here," he said, trying to sound reassuring. It would have worked, once upon a time, but now more people seemed to hate him than not. But the kids looked more relaxed, so there was still something in the Avengers' name. Thanks, Steve, he thought. "I need you to stay very still. I'm going to free you, but don't move."
He scanned the area to make sure they hadn't been spotted and that the fight hadn’t moved onto the street next to them, and, satisfied, slowly positioned himself next to the lamppost, over the kids, and made sure he had a steady if one-handed grip on the debris before he grasped at the post and tore it away. He immediately blasted the wall away and knelt down next to the kids.
"I need to get you out of here," he said. "Tom, your leg's broken, I'll try not to jar it too much, but we can't wait for med teams here. The fight's too close. Do you understand me?"
Tom nodded. Allison looked worried. "Will he be all right?"
"He should, yeah," Tony said, trying to make his computerised voice sound reassuring. It didn't work, judging by her expression. "And you need to get this arm looked at," he added. The cut didn't seem deep, but it should get treated all the same.
Machine gun fire sounded to their right and Iron Man raised his hand, switching on the shield. Damn, they didn’t have much time.
"Sorry," he said and picked them up, hands at their waists, and he knew it wasn't doing Tom's legs any favours, but it was better than getting killed with a random shot, so he made sure to keep the shields active and flew up.
He scanned the area for the nearest hospital, found one that was a few minutes away when he was flying with passengers, so to speak, and aimed there. He kept low over the roofs and between the higher buildings, not wanting to catch attention. He kept his shields high and was scanning the area around them continuously, so he noticed a small robot following them right away. It was similar to the ones he'd fought already, but not even half as big. Even so, he wouldn't have called it a stealth machine. And it was clearly tracking him. There was no telling how it would react to repulsors, though, so Tony slowed down for a moment, allowed his more ‘obsolete’ weaponry to form out of his armour and aimed a pair of anti-air missiles at the robot. They would slow him down if nothing else. Then he just flew as quick as he dared with two panicked kids in his arms. He landed in front of the hospital and carefully put them down. Allison was shaking all over, and Tom wasn't better. He cursed inwardly. He didn't have time to calm them, he had to get back – EMTs were running in their direction already. Good.
"Caught in fire at the fight scene; the boy's got a broken leg and is bleeding, the girl's got a cut on her arm; I'll foot any bills," he said, before anyone had time to question his actions, and then he fired his jet boots and flew away. He went back the way he came, to determine whether he had in fact dealt with the robot.
And no – he saw it, just under him, and raised his shields before aiming at it... Tony stopped himself at the last moment and, cursing his instincts, switched the repulsor off in favour of a simple missile. He hoped relying just on brute strength would work. He aimed, but didn't have time to shoot, as a pink beam hit him straight in the chest.
Later he remembered only darkness.
He woke up in the Helicarrier's med-bay – weird – armourless – double weird – and with Steve at his bedside. Triple weird, then; the last sight had been usual, but before their war. It was always wanted, though.
"What happened?" Tony asked. His voice sounded normal, not hoarse, he can't have been out that long.
"What do you mean, 'what happened'? I told you to stay in the lab!" Steve said. He looked and sounded furious. Great. Was there anything else new? Tony's head hurt. He didn't feel like having another shouting match with Captain – oh, sorry – Commander Rogers.
But there were things that needed to be said. "How did you expect me to stay away when there were people, civilians, trapped there?!"
"You should have called us! There was a S.H.I.E.L.D. unit two streets away!" Steve shouted back.
"Because sending unprotected people is the way to go against those robots!" Tony half-raised his hands in exasperation, noticed the IV line in his right wrist and aborted the movement.
"Those unprotected people are well-trained agents!" Steve was angry, that was obvious, but still came closer and gently pressed Tony's wrist to the bed with just enough force to make sure he wouldn't try to wave it around again.
Tony refused to back down just because Steve felt like caring for a change. "Which would do fuck all against one of those blasts."
Steve took a deep breath to calm himself down. "You were supposed to analyse readings on them." Steve reminded him. "They're feeding off your repulsors, Tony!"
"I couldn't ignore it and you know it, and just because my repulsors power them doesn't mean I'm useless," he tried to wave his hands around and couldn't, stopped by Steve's hand, which didn't really help illustrate his point. "I'm not defenceless."
"Of course not. For all we know you could have made them yourself!" Steve's hand tightened around his wrist to the point of pain for a second, before he relaxed, breathing hard.
Tony froze. "You don't mean that."
"I don't know," Steve replied. He turned his head away for a moment. "I don't know anything. Do you really have no idea why you're in a hospital right now?" As far as trying to change the topic went, that wasn't a very good example, but Tony could let Steve do it. He really didn't want to think about what Steve said.
"Children, getting them to safety, I think I got hit on my way back?" Tony tried to sit up and was stopped by Steve. Giving him a furious look, Tony pried Steve's fingers off his own wrist (though why the theatrics? Steve let him do that, otherwise he wouldn't have been able to move) and finally sat up.
"Lie down," Steve told him tiredly anyway. "IV in your arm. No, leave it, Tony," he looked exasperated. What did he expect, really, Tony mused as he took the needle out. A few drops of blood escaped the small incision and he wiped them off with the edge of his hand.
"Yeah, no. I got hit?" Tony prompted.
"More or less," Steve nodded, apparently deciding to ignore Tony's ideas about taking care of himself for now. He looked grim.
"Okay, now I'm getting worried." Tony said.
"Something hit you pretty hard. You went down at once. And when S.H.I.E.L.D.'s evac team got there, there were two Iron Men there."
That headache wouldn't be going away any time soon, Tony realised.
"Two," he just repeated. Must have been Thursday. "Okay. Me and...?"
"We weren't even sure if that was you, but I got you out of your armour, so there's that. It took some time for you to wake up afterwards. The other Iron Man..." he hesitated. It was very un-Steve-like.
"Yes?" Tony prompted him to continue, worry creeping into his voice. Steve took a deep breath.
"We didn't know if it was alternate evil you again, or maybe alternate good you, or time travel. We called Reed, but he said he'd take some time, and we're still waiting for him. But..."
"The armour – it looked just like your previous one. The Extremis one," Steve said. He would recognize that design, Tony thought sadly. He'd probably never forget it.
"Absolutely the same," Steve added quietly. "But, well, the codes for it..."
Tony looked at him with an odd expression. Maybe he wasn't absolutely conscious just yet, but he was pretty sure he heard that wrong.
"I have never built an armour that I haven’t given you an override code to." That was the truth, even for the older models that they could take off with a screwdriver and some other tools.
"And that must be true for every single one of you in the universes," Steve snorted. Tony thought it was quite likely, actually, but didn't say it. And he'd prefer if it wasn't really past him in the actual Extremis armour, because what were the chances it was him that hadn't destroyed his and Steve's friendship yet? They'd never been that lucky.
"You could have at least checked it," Tony said anyway.
"I did," Steve admitted. "And it worked," he finished in a tight voice.
"Told you," Tony chuckled quickly, and then it clicked. Steve had seen the Extremis armour, thought about their war and must have been sure Tony had changed his codes. The fact that Tony used that armour for some time before Stamford didn't mean much. Steve'd probably checked it just to be thorough. That they worked mostly ruled out alternate words, unless they were really similar, Tony thought annoyed. He hated time travel almost as much as he hated magic.
"Okay," Tony said. "Okay. Let's say he is from here. When exactly is he from?" Because that was the problem, wasn't it?
"No idea," Steve replied shortly. "He's still unconscious."
Tony moved to stand up, but his head really hurt and he felt a bit dizzy... He realised the only thing keeping him on his legs was Steve's arm around his waist.
"Whoa, steady there, Avenger," Steve said. "You should lie down and let some doctors look at you," he added, but there wasn't much conviction in his voice. After all these years, he should know damn well that keeping a conscious Tony in hospital wasn't really possible. But why did he act as if he cared? He showed pretty clearly that he didn't... Tony wasn't going to think about it now.
"Not a chance," Tony said anyway. "I'm fine, we need to check on that other me." Steve couldn't argue with that, could he? And yeah, he nodded and carefully stepped away, ready to catch Tony again. Tony missed his warm arm immediately, but made himself straighten up and took a step forward. No more sudden dizzy spells. Good.
"Lead on," he said, and followed Steve. They ended up in a small room just next to the one he was in, with two very visibly armed S.H.I.E.L.D. agents outside, and Tony Stark lying on a bed inside. Tony couldn't help but notice the lack of the RT node in his chest. It made him feel vaguely uneasy. His other self looked very pale and Tony averted his eyes. He'd never particularly liked looking at himself, much less at himself on a hospital bed.
Looking further around, Tony noticed a suitcase standing in the corner. It took Tony one look at it to identify his armour. He might not have remembered ever using it, but, even apart from all the footage of himself he made himself watch, he did remember working on it, the infinite frustration of not being able to make it work like he wanted it to. It would take one word to make it unfold into the actual red-and-gold armour.
Tony was grateful that it wasn't thrown into S.H.I.E.L.D.'s so-called secure storage, but exactly who thought it would be a good idea to leave the armour with the man who could wake up at any moment and operate it?
Could be useful now, Tony thought. "Code 66-26-06-95, Tony Stark," he said, and the case opened just like he knew it would.
"What are you doing, Tony?" Steve looked at him.
"Finding out about the date," Tony answered. "Armour, tell me the last logged date."
"Eleventh of May, 2007," the armour's modulated voice replied, and Tony blinked quickly. Steve sucked in a breath.
That wasn't before the civil war.
"Steve..." Tony moved to put his hand on Steve's arm. He looked shell-shocked.
"We know now," Steve mumbled, shook off Tony's hand and walked out. Tony didn't blame him.
He'd hoped... He didn't know what for.
Looking at the door Steve had run through, away from him, Tony felt tempted to do the same, but instead forced himself to calm down a little.
"Armour, shut down," he said, and watched as it returned to the suitcase, all slim shapes and hard metal. Beautiful. Then he just stood there for a while, before he forced himself to look at the other version of himself again. He looked worse than Tony'd remembered ever seeing himself and now he understood why. It made sense. He wasn't surprised, because – and saying that even in his own head would make it real, but he couldn't ignore the fact anymore – he was looking at the face of Anthony Stark, Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. The one who'd lived through the superhero civil war, and then took a position he must have hated.
He didn't want him to wake up. Not so soon, definitely not on the Helicarrier surrounded by high tech, with Extremis-granted access to every single machine there, not without making sure they could safely restrain him in case he was hostile, not without scanners nearby to check if it wasn't a Skrull, though the mere thought of a Skrull having his armour made Tony feel sick.
And why hadn't Steve thought of that? He recognized the armour, he knew about the Extremis powers. From before their war or not, Tony knew how he'd react to waking up in a strange place, facing strange people – or even friends in different uniforms.
Reed was en route and his lab was a place that filled all of Tony's requirements. Firstly, though...
He rang a bell to summon a doctor. Sure enough, a middle-aged man in a white coat arrived not a few minutes later.
"Sedate him," Tony said without preamble.
"Sedate him," he repeated. "We don't know if it's safe for him to wake up yet. Probably not. So sedate him." He hesitated. "With something non-addictive, please?" he added quietly. He hated sedating meds, was afraid of taking them to be painfully honest, but there was no other way really, and Extremis would wash it out of his system soon anyway, or at least he hoped so.
The doctor nodded, maybe convinced by something in his voice, maybe by the fact that it was an Avenger telling him to sedate, essentially, a prisoner. Even if it was Tony Stark telling him to sedate another Tony Stark. He was a S.H.I.E.L.D. doctor, he must have been used to weirder things.
Now to convince Steve to let him go.
Steve'd left in such a sudden way, visibly shaken, Tony didn't feel like facing him now. Maybe asking Maria would be a better idea.
"You're crazy, Stark."
On the other hand, maybe it wasn't. "Come on, Maria. We need to run tests on him anyway."
"We've got the tech here." Maria looked at him with sharp eyes.
Tony shook his head. "Not that good, you haven't." And what did it come to, that he argued for Reed's tech. Come to think of it, he hadn't asked the man himself if he was all right with keeping a possibly rogue Tony Stark at his home for the time being, but he wouldn't deny science, would he?
"We've got means to detain him here," she continued, unmoved.
"You don't want me with a working Extremis waking up on the Helicarrier," he replied immediately.
She grinned. It was more unsettling that he wanted to admit. "Nobody told you that story? There's an Extremis dampening cuff in our storage."
He wanted to strangle his past self for deleting his memories, but he made himself smirk anyway. "Great, it'll save us trouble." He got serious. "I know myself, Maria. I'm almost positive it's me from the past – too many similarities – but even if he's from some alternative universe, he's still me. It'll be easier for everyone to work with him, not against him, and trust me, he'll work with Reed better and faster than with any of your scientists here."
"S.H.I.E.L.D. scientific teams love you, too." Her words were dripping with irony. "You've got a point. I'll put the cuff on him, and you'll report every six hours."
He made a face. "Eight?"
"Four," Maria said steadily, and he really should have known better than to negotiate with her like that.
"Deal, deal," he said. "Thanks."
She shot him a look full of unspoken warning and then quickly left, he hoped to give orders to release the mysterious second Tony Stark into the hands of the first generally unliked Tony Stark.
Tony looked at the clock. Reed should be here any moment. Fantas... Great.
Tony woke up in seconds flat, sitting up. His first thought was that he couldn't feel his armour in his mind. His second was noticing the familiar bracelet on his wrist, and the third 'not again'. He felt dizzy. He couldn't remember what he did to warrant getting the Extremis-dampening cuff on him again and that was probably a bad sign. Actually, he couldn't remember anything past really bright light engulfing him. He felt weak, tired, his thoughts a little too slow, as if he'd been drugged. Extremis should be able to deal with that, once he got it back... The cuff was adamantium. The last time he had to get it off, he'd cut off a part of his foot. He would rather avoid doing the same to his hand. Even as relatively sure that the Extremis would fix him as Tony was, his hands were too important to him. If he had to, he probably could build a prosthetic hand, based on his suit technology, sure, and access it like he did his suit, via the Extremis, there shouldn't have be much difference, but... He shook his head. Another way, first.
He looked around him, moving his head as little as possible. He was on a couch, and when he looked around he thought he was in a lab, microscopes and soldering irons laying in disarray on the tables, half-disassembled pieces of tech next to alien-looking plants – he blinked. He knew that place. It was one of Reed's. His suspicions got confirmed a minute later when the man came through the door.
"Oh, you're awake, Tony. Hello," he said after a brief pause.
"Hello," Tony answered, soaking the word with sarcasm. He raised his hand and waved his fingers. "Care to explain?"
"Oh, that." Reed looked chastised. "That's necessary?"
"Yeah, try again." He looked around, but this time paid more attention to the details, small little things like the custom computer screens, none of the brand names or common designs, Reed's own – and very good – work, Tony remembered checking them out, and it was a level of detail nobody would be able to imitate.
"You're one year in the future," Reed said with a perfectly straight face. Tony couldn't help it, he laughed.
"All in a Thursday's work," he said, and shook his head.
"We hope. Your armour computer told us the last registered time, and yes, it was about a year ago, all the details add up, but we haven't yet run the tests on you to establish whether you’re from an alternative universe," Reed explained in his oh-so-annoying teacher voice. Tony rubbed at his eyes, trying to shove tiredness away. There was something...
"Why don't you ask the... me from this time? He'd remember, if not this little excursion, then enough to identify me?" he offered, and observed the effects.
Reed stumbled a little and shook his head. "We can't," he finally said. "I'm sorry. I need to run a few scans on you. Without you changing them with Extremis as they go. Then... Then we can work on getting you back home. Sorry, Tony."
Tony shrugged casually, his mind working. They can't ask him? Interesting. Was he finally dead, then? He saw that if he asked now, Reed wouldn't tell him anything, though, so...
"One thing, Reed."
Reed turned his neck almost 180 degrees to look at him. "What is it?"
"I'll help you in the lab. If you get this thing off me," he said. Apart from his need to check all the news feeds he could access – Reed couldn't begin to understand what being cut off from everything really meant for a technopath. He couldn't work in his full capacity without Extremis. He needed that.
"I know, I know, Reed. Check if it is me. I'd like to know if it isn't some weird mirror world too." It wasn't, he was almost sure, all the little details were in place, he knew that Reed, Reed obviously knew him, but it never hurt to check – they'd never quite established just how similar two worlds can be. "But then remove the cuff."
"Okay," Read said after a moment. "But it's not another world, Tony, I don't think so. It's too similar," he added, confirming his thoughts. Well, if he wanted to check it extensively, he had the right: Tony sure as hell wasn't in any shape to stop him. Damn, maybe they just had another Skrull crisis or impostor problem and were still a little over the edge... Which weren't really thoughts he should be entertaining about what he believed to be his own world.
Reed was working fast, but Tony still resolved himself to sit through terribly boring tests and examinations. It'd be worth it when he got Extremis back. He was probably lucky Reed had his DNA sample, it'd make things so much easier.
Reed told him to lie down in a full-body scanner and Tony, having little choice, did. Trying not to fall asleep there was something of a challenge, but Reed was perceptive and started talking to Tony every time he felt his eyes droop.
The tests took a few hours, and they all told them what they basically had known from the beginning – that Tony was Tony from this time, just younger, and that Reed was Tony's Reed, just older.
Reed still looked unsure as he opened the cuff on Tony's hand and put it on the table behind him. He looked at Tony expectantly, but Tony stopped paying him any attention. Extremis washed away the little after-effects of whatever sedative he was given, but he didn't concentrate on that.
He thought out, tried the news feeds with Extremis – and a wave of new, terrible, unimaginable information overwhelmed him.
He fell to his knees, vaguely aware that he might have been shouting, trying to stop the feeds from becoming too much and not succeeding – not after he saw the first news, an announcement from a few weeks ago, Commander Rogers taking responsibility over... not important, but – Commander Rogers, Commander Steven Rogers – Steve. Alive.
There was other news, too: of Stark Enterprises' fall, of Osborn taking over H.A.M.M.E.R – what was H.A.M.M.E.R.? Organisation led by Norman Osborn in wake of S.H.I.EL.D.'s destruction in effect of the bad management of Anthony Stark and so-called Skrull Invasion on Earth – okay, enough news, he fucked it up, what a surprise; Skrull Invasion? – Secret Invasion, secret attack of Skrull forces on Earth preceded by a long infiltration – enough, not now, not important, but back to what actually was – Steve Rogers? Commander Rogers – Steve Rogers, former Captain America, thought dead after being shot on the road to his trial over his actions in super-hero civil war – not, not that, later – mysteriously returned during the Siege of Asgard and helped defeat H.A.M.M.E.R.'s traitorous soldiers, took on the job of the head of the world security. He began his job with dismantling the SHRA, reactivated the Avengers against many objections and let Anthony "Iron Man" Stark on the team – no, the feed must have been broken, must have broadcast his own... – Anthony Stark? – founding member of the Avengers, CEO of Stark Resilient, company which promised to use only green energy and refuse any and all military financing...
Steven Rogers mysteriously returned from the dead during the Siege of Asgard
Steven Rogers mysteriously returned from the dead
Steve Rogers returned from the dead
Steve was alive, and it didn't seem like a broken feed if every single source he could access was telling him that very same thing. Steve was alive, Steve was alive – everywhere, every press agency agreed, every secret one had it in its files... Steve was alive.
When Tony came to, his head was throbbing, the migraine promising to last days. He was lying on the sofa in Reed's lab, Reed himself hunched over him, though he was typing something at the computer on the other side of the room.
"Sorry," he heard his own voice and startled, looked at the man – himself – standing next to the keyboard Reed was using. There was something in his chest, a glowing object, repulsor node? Again? What happened?
"Don't," Tony said sharply. "I'll tell you. You'll know soon enough anyway."
He scowled at himself, tried to sit up and immediately regretted it. "Start at the beginning or don't stop me from accessing your tech."
The other Tony actually laughed at him.
"I don't remember the beginning," he told him, and oh, there was some history here. He made a mental note to check it out later. Possibly when his head wasn't threatening to split. "Another beginning, though: sorry for punching you. Technically that is my face, but I want to be polite about what I do to my head. Knocking you out seemed like the only way to snap you out of your learning spree," he frowned. "Don't get me wrong, I trust in our hacking abilities, but maybe not when we're also crying and repeating 'Steve' again and again," he winced, as if it personally offended him, and it probably did, since it was apparently Tony Stark of the future. "Though, seeing Extremis in action – even like that, unwound by emotions – that was amazing. Don't do it again until you're sure you can cope with what you find. Speaking from experience – that is not very likely. The thing in my chest that you tried to access – a repulsor node, yes, but this one’s connected with some Rand technology, pretty amazing actually... Keeps my heart beating and my lungs breathing."
Tony stifled a hysterical laugh. Whatever else happened, it always came down to this: his heart, not being able to work on its own.
"It's your fault, this time," his older self added, unnecessarily. Of course it was his fault. Who else's? He should know that. What was that about Extremis, though?
"Another question: what happened to Extremis?" he asked, finally succeeding in sitting up. He decided he wasn't going to stand up just yet.
"Tony." Reed looked at the older version sharply before he could reply. "We talked about this. If you can't..."
"Sorry, sorry," he said and looked as if he actually meant it, at least to Reed.
"I didn't think you'd react quite that strongly to the news feeds or I wouldn't have removed that cuff," Reed said. "I also think that we'll need you working with us to send you back. If you need a day for yourself – it won't change much here, but we need you at full mental capacity. There are rooms in the Baxter Building. Or Avengers Tower, I was led to believe, but..."
"Avengers Tower has lots of free rooms and labs and he's got all the authorisations. He is me, after all," Tony interrupted in a slightly mocking voice.
"Doesn't mean I want to sleep in your bedroom," he replied.
"I don't know, we do look attractive..." older Tony mused, running his eyes up and down Tony's body. "But no. You look like you're about to keel over and die."
He felt like it, too, and that was unlikely to change soon. Sleep sounded like a good idea, but he knew he wouldn't be able to drift off even for a second, and he didn't particularly fancy the nightmares that were sure to arrive if he did, and he shook his head again, not remembering what a tremendously bad idea that was. His sight blacked out for a moment and he couldn't suppress a wince. Huh, maybe Extremis wasn't dealing well with the sudden time change.
"Yeah, no, better get started," he said anyway.
Reed nodded: he was obviously dying to start the science. His older self looked as if he wanted to argue, but then nodded too, and let Reed pull out the diagrams.
Sue called in at some point to tell Reed to come upstairs and hug their children goodnight and he smiled a small, warm smile, and excused himself. Tony was left thinking that Reed couldn't possibly realise how lucky he was. Though, children.
He looked at the other Tony. Here Tony? Future Tony? Older Tony? He hated time travel almost as much as he hated magic.
"So how are we still alive here?" he asked, straight and to the point. "When Reed told me they couldn't compare my memories to me from this time, I thought we were dead."
The other Tony raised his eyebrow, looked darkly amused. "You hoped you were dead here, you mean," he said. "Sorry, no such luck. You deleted my memories. Starting with when we got injected with Extremis. I don't remember a thing after that, before Steve for some reason decided to wake me up..." he trailed off, shook his head. "I'm as good as dead, when it comes to information about that time," he couldn't quite hide the bitter edge in his tone.
Tony sighed. Okay. He fucked up again, something to learn more about later, but his other self had just said... "What about...?" he stopped himself just short of actually pronouncing the question, shook his head. He wasn't going to ask it out loud. He didn't have the right to.
His older self looked at him knowingly. "Steve?" he finished. "I woke up and he suddenly wasn't my best friend anymore. People told me he hated me. He probably did, didn't he?" Future Tony lowered his head. "I'm mad at you for what you did, even if I do shout at him I didn't have a choice. Wow, that was a weird sentence. I am mad at you, for making that decision and deleting my mind, but I have to believe it was the best possible choice then. You are me, you understand that." He laughed a little, almost hysterically. "But I am also grateful, because Steve, with his terrifyingly good heart, decided to give me another chance. I don't know why – maybe it was just because I don't remember. And..." he smiled, a quick little and so very honest smile, and then shrugged. "It's hard," he admitted. "He remembers the war, even if he tries not to hold me responsible. But he's willing to try and fix us, fix what I can't remember, and I can't ask for more than that."
'He's willing to try', Tony repeated in his head. Steve wasn't willing even to stop and listen for five minutes back when they were fighting.
"You don't remember the war," Tony said aloud, as if he’d only just now realized it. He didn't remember fighting against Steve for all they were worth – okay, that was a lie, but at least Steve wasn't exactly pulling his blows – didn't remember asking Steve for help and receiving a betrayal in return, didn't remember crying, begging him to understand and hearing just a cold "Stark" in reply.
Didn’t remember begging him for death, either. And Steve wouldn’t grant him even that wish, because after everything they did to each other, neither of them had quite learned to hate the other, and wasn’t that something? He didn't remember Steve going down at the courthouse, didn't remember the terrible knowledge it was his fault, his last words to Steve a mocking insult, didn't remember telling Steve's cold, bloodied and so very dead body what he should have, but had never told Steve himself; didn't remember the following months and trying to live with that knowledge and no Steve to help him (refuse to help him, most probably, still, if only he were alive...). He didn't remember any of this. Not this, and not Happy, so still in the hospital, and Pepper in tears, and the medical machines dying because of his thought, not Sue knocking the alcohol out of his hand (and wasn't that a fucking loss?). None of that, and not having his newly-digitised mind controlled, again, and killing so many people, almost killing Steve... Not killing Mallen with a repulsor blast straight to the head. Not all the young S.H.I.E.L.D. agents dying for his orders.
He didn't remember anything. He didn't remember that it wasn't worth it.
After the war, Tony would have done anything to switch places with Steve, but that hadn't been possible. Afterwards there were moments when he’d have been willing to give away pretty much anything to forget, when – if Steve's death was going to mean anything at all – killing himself was not an option. Well, he got what he wanted, didn't he? He lost everything, and forgot everything, and Steve was back and willing to try.
Yes, he was pretty damned lucky. Of course he couldn't see that.
"I don't," future Tony repeated. He looked at him and smiled wryly. "I know what you're thinking. But if I could, if somebody told me they could give me those memories back – I'd say yes without the smallest hesitation."
Tony shook his head, even if he wasn't in the least surprised. "Don't."
"I won't, that's not possible," he snorted.
"Even if you could – trust me. You don't want to remember this." He looked away. "I don't."
"I know. You would have found a way otherwise." His future self shrugged, was silent for a long while. "We've stopped working anyway, so. Let's get some coffee," he said finally.
Tony took it as the peace offering it was.
They all returned to the lab at some point and continued with the tests: on the armour itself, on Tony from the past without it, with it; on Tony from here... Nothing they learned was of any help. There was some type of left-over radiation on past-Tony that wasn't on his armour – but it was on his future self. They checked with the readings of any one of them using Doom's time platform, but the radiation didn't show up there. Reed couldn't identify it and they resolved to think of it the next day. Nothing led to new ideas quite like a new project, after all.
"I wonder about those robots, too," Reed said. "Are they even from here?"
"Robots?" past-Tony raised his head from the computer screen.
"Yeah, my armour didn't record any weird readings on them," Tony said. "Past me, yes, robots. Our robots. Or our robots-to-be. Your robots? Have you designed any jellyfish slash giant robot killers lately?"
His expression answered Tony even before he nodded slowly. "I may have. But they're nowhere near functional, and..."
"Who could have seen it?" Reed asked.
"No one," past-him replied immediately.
"Yeah, that’s what I always think about my super secret designs," Tony snorted. He didn't like to admit it, but his tech got compromised way too often.
"No one," past-Tony repeated. "It's mostly in my head now. It was just an idea anyway."
Well, it definitely didn't stay in his head. In more ways than just that one, Tony mused, thinking of the large gap in his memory.
In the relative silence of the lab – the humming machines didn't register as a noise, not really, not after someone had spent almost half of their life among them – the ringtone was startlingly loud. It took Tony a second to realise it was his phone, the tone was the AC/DC's "She's Got Balls", and the caller, obviously, Maria Hill. He turned his back so as not to see his past self's expression saying 'oh, so you're using phones now, how very adorable' and took it.
"Stark," Maria growled into his ear.
"Pretty sure that's me, yeah – or wait, which one of us did you want to hear?" He could feel Tony's, the past one's, amused look at his neck.
"Don't annoy me. You were supposed to check in every four hours," she said, and was clearly on edge. Tony shot a look at the nearest clock and frowned.
"Sorry about that. I've gotten carried away by science, haven't noticed the time." He ran a hand through his hair. He'd really forgotten, he wasn't so stupid as to try and annoy her on purpose.
"Very funny," she growled. "Stark, that was the deal so you could have..."
"I know!" he interrupted her. "And I've already said sorry. I really am. We were working, I didn't notice the time, everyone lives and no one's an evil dictator."
"If that's you from the past, you could rethink that last description," she answered, but he heard she was amused. "Did you learn something?"
He perked up. "Yeah, the wavelengths with which..."
"Stop it with the jargon, Stark. You've missed your check-in calls, you've got a debriefing in two hours. Helicarrier's meeting room. Bring Reed and the other you," she ordered. Just before she cut the call, he thought he heard her mutter, "God save me from two Tony Starks."
"I've always wondered why she didn’t stab me in the beginning," his past self said, making it clear that he was listening in via Extremis. "She liked me having the job almost as much as I liked having it." He hesitated. "Funny, that. I trust her now."
That makes one of us, Tony thought darkly. He didn't know what happened between him and Maria to make her treat him like that, with unexplainable coldness or surprising understanding and camaraderie, depending on the day, but he'd never quite known where he stood with her and it was unsettling.
"Sorry about that, Reed – Maria Hill just called and wanted to debrief all of us," he said with an apologetic smile. He didn't want to drag Reed into it; but he still asked him for help, even though it was obvious that borrowing his lab and tech wouldn't make Maria ignore him. But Tony himself didn't have the resources Reed did, these days. Not anymore. "We've got two hours."
Reed just nodded, he'd probably expected something like this.
"Let's finish for now, or else we'll miss the deadline again," Tony suggested. He knew how they were in a lab. Past-him and Reed both nodded.
Maria Hill actually asked Steve if he wanted to be in the debriefing and he wasn't sure what to make of that. He was grateful that she took it upon herself to contact Tony – he really hadn't been in any shape to deal with him after that armour had given them a date – then a little angry that she didn't ask him at all before releasing past-Tony, then just lost. In the end, he thanked her and told her he'd come. He might have been her commanding officer, but they both realised he wouldn't, couldn't be neutral now. Objectively speaking, what she did was for the best. That's why he let her lead the Avengers, after all.
He paused just in front of the meeting room, took a deep breath and pushed the door open. There weren't many people there yet, just Maria Hill and –
He knew to expect it, but still...
Steve's breath caught in his throat, because he hadn't seen this armour in motion since he sat in the Helicarrier's cell, waiting for his trial. He thought he was ready to face To – Stark from that time again, but at the sight of the suit all of his anger returned to him at once and he felt his hands closing into tight fists.
Iron Man pulled off his helmet, throwing Steve right out of his flashback – he hadn't even deigned to do that, then – and looked at him with an odd expression on his face. Before Steve could identify it, however, he schooled his face back into such an obviously fake a mask it was almost embarrassing, the better version of which he usually reserved for journalists or shareholders.
"Commander Rogers," he said, in a more polite tone than Steve had ever heard him use before, and the rest of Steve's patience snapped. He stopped himself from lashing out with his fists, but only barely.
"Director Stark," he returned with as much venom as he could muster. The man almost flinched, something flashed in his eyes briefly and he looked away. It seemed as if he backed off, and Steve didn't remember him doing that, ever.
"Could you two not be at each other's throats from the get-go?" Maria Hill demanded, slamming heavy-looking files into the table. "Stark, war's over and I saw you not coping with the outcome, don't argue with him now. Rogers, you didn't seem to have that much problem with him yesterday. Try and be civil."
Stark said something to her, some cutting remark that was meant not to actually hurt, but to force her to back away, leave him, which meant she must have touched a nerve there, but Hill really must have spent a lot of time with him back then, as she didn't even blink, just forced him to approach the table and talked over his questions and protests.
Steve took a deep breath and thought of what she said to him. He didn't have a problem with Tony. He did have a problem with Stark.
He couldn't decide whether he hoped it'd get resolved or just the contrary.
He was the one who theoretically called the meeting, but he was well aware that he wouldn't be doing much talking – Tony, Reed and Stark needed to spend their quality lab time together to get some results; that much was obvious – but all of them needed some frame of reference.
He shrugged and sat in the corner nearest to him. Taking places during their meetings never seemed important before, but he didn't want to seem childish if he chose the furthest possible chair after Stark sat down.
Maria Hill looked at him sharply for a second before she forced Stark down on the chair in front of him, removed from Steve, as if she was reading his mind – though for all he knew she might've been just trying to avoid a fistfight on the Helicarrier. Steve just blankly looked in space, ignoring her, before Carol came in, took one look at them and went to Stark's other side. Maria and Carol were both there with him during his time as Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., he knew, and were two of the very few people who didn't hate him. Some small part of Steve was relieved that Stark wasn’t absolutely alone in this. The other part of him, the part Steve tried to tamp down on because he liked to think he was better than that, felt he didn’t deserve Carol’s show of friendship.
Tony and Reed went in, and Tony visibly stiffened for a moment, looking at his younger self, as if he was surprised to see him. Maybe seeing one's – not even alternate self (and thinking of the last time they'd met alternate Tony, Steve was really glad that wasn't the matter now: Stark might have been many things, but a homicidal maniac was not one of them) wasn't something one could get used to. Maybe he just didn't like looking at himself. He finally sat opposite Steve, Reed on his other side. That was good, Steve decided. He could keep an eye on him, check if he was all right. That meeting would be nerve-wrecking for everybody involved, but maybe especially for Tony. Steve registered Bucky slipping into the seat next to him, and sent him a quick smile.
"First things first," Maria said. "Stark, when are you from?"
"May the eleventh, 2007," he replied. "Okay, I know the procedure, but I can't tell you anything you don't know already."
"So you say. What were you doing just before you got here?"
He rolled his eyes. "Maria, I'm pretty sure all of my doings at the time are recorded somewhere in S.H.I.E.L.D.'s archives. If you don't remember me disappearing suddenly from the face of the world, I don't think anyone else will. Not myself, from what I've heard," he added. Steve briefly looked at Tony – he was clutching the table so hard his knuckles went white, his whole posture radiating tension. Judging by his obvious discomfort, he could be the one displaced through time. Maybe it was a good thing he couldn't put on a mask emotionless enough, though, because all the times when he could led to fights. Looking at Stark, his blank expression, all Steve wanted to do was punch him in the face and watch him lose his cool.
Maria nodded sharply. "And, Doctor Richards, you're sure that's Tony Stark of our Earth a few months back?"
"Yes, all the..." he started saying.
"Yes will suffice," she interrupted him. They were all on edge, but snapping at Reed wasn't going to help, Steve knew.
"Okay," he said. "Doctor, I know you need to work in the lab, but in the meantime we need to know what to expect."
"From what readings I got off Tony," he gestured at Stark, "we shouldn't fear another such event. That was a localised hit. It should be possible to send him back to seconds after he disappeared."
That didn't sound bad, in Steve's opinion. "So it's all safe for now?"
"Well," Reed looked at him. "If Tony got killed here, that would destroy our timeline."
Tony huffed out a laugh. "I didn't manage to get myself killed for thirty years, that would be unlucky." He shrugged.
"Except our villain could target you now," Maria said.
"Stark here doesn't come from before killing Steve," Bucky said. "So I guess we'll have to look out for assassins."
"Why, Barnes, I didn't know you cared," Stark drawled lazily.
Steve knew he should’ve reached out to stop him, but instead he just watched as Bucky stood up and took a swing – with his normal hand, Steve noticed with some relief – and hit Stark straight in the jaw. Stark hadn't even started to raise a hand to protect himself; maybe he didn't manage to, Bucky did move fast, always had, but Steve distantly thought that reaction time wasn't the reason at all. Tony had always been astonishingly adept at not avoiding punches aimed at him, in whatever way.
Carol was up, catching Bucky's arms and pulling him away.
"He killed Steve, and..."
"Knock it off." She glared at him angrily.
Steve should probably have said something also, but he just watched as Stark silently picked himself up. There was going to be a nasty bruise on his jaw later, he thought. Nothing he didn’t deserve, but Steve wasn’t usually one for mindless violence, and he felt almost alien in his own body when he couldn’t even bring himself to tell Bucky off. Steve spared a look at Tony – he was looking at the scene emotionlessly, but he was pale and breathing shallowly.
"If there's anyone else who'd like to punch me, can we do it now?" Stark asked and Steve felt tempted to stand up and do just that. Stark wiped at his mouth to clear the blood off, and smeared it across his chin and beard instead. Unbidden, images of Tony laying flat under him on the street among their friends fighting and their city on fire came to Steve, and he clenched his fists tight. He somehow managed not to think of it every time he looked at Tony, but Tony, his Tony, didn't have this empty look in his eyes all the time and it made all the difference. Stark looked as if he was still on that street, in all the ways that mattered.
Steve wouldn't be able to hit him if he tried.
"No? Great, in that case let's continue."
"Not much more to say," Tony spoke up. "We're going to work with Reed on getting you back – Doom’s platform’s not a solution now. S.H.I.E.L.D.'s, hopefully, going to stop any assassins from killing us. In the meantime the Avengers are going to stop more of the robots from destroying New York. Hopefully they won't have to."
"That's about it," Steve confirmed. "Some ground rules, though: we do not need two Tony Starks wandering through Manhattan."
"But I could say it's my new cloning technology," Tony almost pouted. "Imagine the free advertising."
Steve almost flinched. Cloning technology and Tony weren't two things he wanted to hear about in the same sentence ever again.
He heard a sharp intake of breath and with some satisfaction noticed that somehow that got a rise out of Stark: the man had gone pale, his eyes wide. Figures it'd be Tony who wound himself up, but it was good to see he apparently regretted trying to clone Thor. Maybe he had some conscience left after all.
Ever since Steve came back, ever since he helped bring Tony back and talked with him after the Siege of Asgard, he sort of divided Tony into two persons in his mind: the man he knew, trusted, loved, and the man he fought to the death, who betrayed him and everything they stood for. That wasn't a healthy coping mechanism and he knew it – it wouldn't do anything good for his and Tony's friendship, either – but it was the only one he had.
Looking at Tony from the past now, one would think it'd be easier for him since he thought of him as another person anyway. In reality, it was anything but, because seeing Stark with his own eyes again, Steve was forced to confront how the man was very much Tony in his every move, every gesture, every word. In guilt and anguish visible in his eyes every time his gaze slid over Steve, never stopping on him for longer than a second, much as Tony had after he'd learned about the entirety of the super hero war. Unlike then, however, Steve wasn't going to tell him to knock it off. In the soft way he moved, even in the armour. In his voice, his eyes, his – everything, because he was Tony, and if Steve wanted to salvage their friendship, he had to accept it somehow.
"Another," he said, breaking the uncomfortable silence and shaking himself out of those thoughts, "is that your armour," he gestured at Stark, "is to be in his lab," and at Tony. "Unless something happens, I want you out of it." Tony raised his head, but didn't say anything.
"No," Stark replied immediately.
"Out of that armour or in our cells, your choice," Steve said. He knew Stark could access it with Extremis at any time, and it was a good thing should emergencies arise, but he didn't want him in the armour one hundred percent of the time, as he no doubt would be otherwise. It was a weapon and he didn't exactly trust the man operating it. Some would say that the man was the weapon, and that, that Steve decided to ignore.
"As you wish, then, Commander," Stark said, not looking at him.
"Okay. Everyone here, dismissed," Maria Hill said. Saying that was just stating the obvious: everyone was itching to leave the room and forcing them to stay would probably lead to more fistfights. Steve waited till almost everybody else had left before standing up. Bucky, of course, was still with him, and looking worried, but Steve just shook his head with a small smile. He wasn't okay, but talking wouldn't help him, and Bucky understood that.
"Rogers, wait," Maria Hill said before he could leave. He stopped in the doorway and turned to face her, waited till everyone else left before speaking.
"What is it?" he asked.
"The team sent to check the street Stark was... timetravelled to," and he could hear the disdain in her voice, "reported back with pretty much nothing."
Steve nodded. He wasn't even surprised. Things were never that easy.
"Which you would have known about if you looked at the papers I left at your desk earlier today," she continued. "But I've marked them as Stark-related, so I don't know what I expected."
Steve gritted his teeth. "What are you saying," he asked flatly.
"You know perfectly well, sir." She crossed her arms. "You appointed me to deal with the Avengers, Rogers. It's my job, I can deal with it, but I need to know if you're compromised."
"I'm not," he said immediately. He had no reason to be.
"You're a bad liar, Rogers." Maria looked at him almost kindly. "Are you going to be able to deal with that Stark here? You've enough of a problem with one of them, sometimes."
Was he really that obvious?
"It's okay, Maria. You don't need to worry about that."
She looked at him, clearly unconvinced.
"Dismissed, agent," he said sharply. She'd give him hell for it later, he realized, watching her leave. He went out after her, only to run into Bucky, obviously waiting for him there. So maybe Steve was too hopeful when he thought Bucky would leave him alone.
"I am all right," Steve said immediately. Bucky raised his eyebrows.
"The fact that you even felt you had to say that tells me you aren't." He looked at him carefully. "Okay, what happened before the meeting, Steve? You were all right the other day, you're more distressed than past-Stark's being here would explain."
Steve sighed. Bucky really knew him too well. He couldn't pretend in front of him.
"You're right, it's not just that," he sighed. "It's hard." He shook his head. "It's hard, and I can't talk about it. Not yet."
Bucky just looked at him, unimpressed, for a long moment.
"I thought of him as an enemy, during the war," Steve said finally.
"We all did," Bucky reminded him. "Then and after."
Steve laughed mirthlessly. "Well. Clearly he didn’t think the same about me." He averted his eyes. "I opened his armour. With my security codes. They worked."
Bucky's eyes widened as the implication hit him. "He never..."
"Apparently." Steve couldn't say anything else.
"He was a mess, after. I think he hoped I'd kill him. I was angry at him then, of course, none of us wanted to see that he lost you, too, but... Honestly, Steve? I'm not surprised."
Steve didn't want to know why. He didn't. He'd been learning more and more about Tony from that time and he didn't know what to think. He preferred it when he could pretend everything was black and white about the war, and the Stark who fought him.
Tony was sitting in his favourite chair, staring into space, trying not to think about anything at all.
He’d thanked Reed for his help, made another science date with him (they’d need many more of those in the near future, he predicted) and led his younger self to the Tower, telling him to choose a room for himself. Then he had left him abruptly, suddenly sure that he’d go crazy if he couldn’t get a second alone.
Now, he sighed in defeat and dialled Pepper's number. She took the call at the second signal. Of course she did, you could always rely on Pepper Potts staying in contact, but he longed, in spite of himself, for a moment longer to think.
"Tony," she said and sounded a little tired. "Do you realise what time it is here?"
Oh. He hadn’t thought about it. He'd just needed to talk to her. "Sorry, Pep," he replied quietly. There was silence on the other end. He could almost hear her frown.
"...Tony?" she asked. "What happened?"
"I'll need you to take care of Resilient for a while," he said. It wasn't the answer, not really, but it was important to warn her.
"Yes. Okay. It's not as if I wasn't doing that anyway. Tell me what happened."
He closed his eyes and breathed deeply. "So apparently my past self decided to visit us."
Her first reaction was, "decided."
"Didn't get any choice, I think," he admitted. He leant back in his seat and closed his eyes briefly. It was an exhausting day.
"Past self," she repeated. "How past?"
"Recent," he shrugged, even though she couldn't see it. "So recent that I can't remember a fucking minute of it."
He heard her sharp intake of breath. "Oh, Tony," she said. "Are you okay?"
"I just left the meeting with him and Steve," he said quietly. The meeting he really didn't want to think about too much, because the one thing he got from it was that Steve really, absolutely hated Tony Stark from their past. The Tony Stark he used to be.
"I see," she said carefully. "Do you need me to come to you?"
Nice, lovely Pepper, she was way too good a person to waste her time on him. He'd never quite understood why she hadn't ever left, but he was so absolutely, selfishly grateful she stayed.
"No," he said, even though he desperately wished for a friend he could talk to here. Steve... He thought Steve counted, but after that meeting, he wasn't quite so sure anymore.
"Okay. I probably should, but I won't, if you say so. If something changes, just tell me. But, Tony..." She hesitated, stopped talking.
"Yes?" he prompted her to go on when it looked like she decided not to say anything after all.
"I was there. I saw you after the war and after Steve died, and later – and I saw what it did to you. I saw you break apart once and I really can't do it again. I'm sorry," she said in a quiet voice.
"Hey, Pep, nothing to be sorry about," he protested. "Nobody expects you to – it's just, thanks. For talking to me now. I needed that."
"Yes, you needed that," she said wryly. "Think about past-you. What does he need?"
Tony Stark, left alone in such a mood as he must have been in, was a dangerous mixture. Very dangerous, and Tony could admit it, at least to himself.
"So I'm sorry that I can't really help him, even though he is you. Wow, time travel. My point, Tony, and don't you dare ignore it," she said and sounded scary, "is that right now, that past-you that you probably don't even want to look at doesn't have anything, not even his own bed, and we both know how you get when you're like that. Go and talk to him. Get him to help you in the lab. Just don't leave him alone."
"Pep..." he started to say, but she interrupted him.
"No, Tony. He is you, and I know how to handle you. Listen to me and do that. Call at a normal hour if you want to discuss something else," she said. Tony sighed. Perfect Pep, who fixed everything. Of course, there was still the problem of dealing with past-him... But he was going to do that, because Pepper, of course, was right. He couldn't afford not to.
Tony hardly noticed his older self leading him to the Tower and leaving him on one of the higher floors, telling him to choose a room. He almost missed the elevator's door automatically slipping open in front of him. He unlocked the door to the room he acquired for himself with a thought, and in a daze went the few steps to the bed, heavily sat down. He closed his eyes briefly.
That meeting shook him more than he'd thought possible.
He wasn't going to think of that. He rubbed his hands against his face – his jaw was hurting, but Extremis would take care of it in a matter of hours, he knew and distantly regretted – and glanced around the room.
It was a guest room. It was a guest room in his tower, and never let it be said that Tony Stark was anything but an ideal host.
The liquor cabinet was standing, tempting, in the corner. He knew it'd be full.
He could check, though. Just to... make sure.
Steve's face when he called him 'Commander Rogers' flashed before his eyes. His cutting reply sounded in his ears. Steve was dead where, when Tony was from. Steve would stay dead until Tony forgot all about it.
He really could check.
He wasn't the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. here. Nobody expected him to be responsible for the whole fucking world, to give orders and answer for the lives of other people, or even just to be there and look sober. Steve couldn't even look at him. What difference would it make? Sue wasn't here to stop him. Nobody would care, anyway.
He stood up.
The other Tony Stark chose that moment to barge into his room and stop dead a few steps in, following the line of his eyes, barely hidden disgust on his face.
"Okay. Okay," his older self said, then shook his head. "Really, really not okay."
Tony sat back down and looked away. There was nothing to say.
"Speak of convenient timing," the future Tony said. "I wanted to – scratch that. Do I need to empty it?" he pointed at the cabinet.
Yes, Tony thought. "No."
"That's a yes then," he murmured, but didn't move. He probably wanted to open the cabinet as much as he was afraid of it. Tony could relate. It was himself, after all.
"That's not going to work," older Tony said after a moment. Then Tony watched as the armour flowed over his older self's skin much as the underarmour did out of his bones now, and future him took aim, and blasted at the cabinet.
"There goes your insurance," Tony said in a fit of very bad humour.
"Not as quick as it would if you got drunk," the older him replied, breathing hard. "Shut up and don't force me to punch myself."
"You already did," he shrugged. Smoke was rising in the corner, but the emergency sprinklers hadn’t drenched them yet; he must have disabled them with whatever version of Extremis he had now. A quick look into the Tower's security systems confirmed it.
"Yeah, pre-emptively. I am a futurist." The older him frowned. "Since you're looking at it, a warning – I'm switching the systems back on in thirty seconds. If you're still here..." he trailed off. "Come to the lab. I actually wanted to show you something."
He left without another word, but Tony stayed where he was. Moments later he hardly noticed the sprinklers switching themselves on, the cold water drenching him in a matter of seconds, his hair sticking to his forehead. He felt like blowing something up and in that regard the lab would be a good place, but he didn't want to face himself now.
The melted down furniture in the corner looked at him like a mocking sculpture of all his failures.
He got up, finally, once the water had long since stopped falling, and he stopped even feeling cold. Extremis would stop him from falling sick anyway. He was shivering and couldn't seem to stop. His ruined suit stuck to his body, uncomfortable, making movements difficult. After barely two steps he got annoyed and tried to take it off, ended up ripping it away before allowing his underarmour to flow over his body in a safe, body-warm embrace.
His armour was in his future self’s lab and would probably break something on the way to him if he tried to call it, so he shrugged and made his way up to his apartment. He might as well wear some jeans and a t-shirt; not another suit, he wasn't a businessman here and he definitely wasn't Director Stark, he told himself. Director Stark got to wear official uniforms, anyway, when out of his armour. Steve would...
No. He wouldn't laugh.
Tony stopped himself from putting his fist through the wall at the last moment. That wouldn't help anything.
He put on some clothes and went to the kitchen, made some coffee, his hair still dripping wet, and then sat there without moving, letting his coffee go cold.
He drank it at last, and then just sat there with his elbows against the hard table, looking into space, hoping for and dreading the possibility of someone finding him.
In the end, it was Carol who stumbled into the kitchen, having obviously only just awoken, and prepared herself a cup of coffee – he almost said something about overheating perfectly working coffee machines, but in the end decided it really wasn't all that important – and sat down next to him. She inhaled the coffee, blinked the rest of the sleep away from her eyes, and finally looked at him.
"And hello to you too," he replied.
"When was the last time you slept?" she demanded. "You look half-dead."
He looked away. "I'm not this Tony, you know. You don't have to..."
She put her cup on the table with a loud thump.
"Of course I know, idiot," she almost growled. "Believe it or not, but I can recognize two versions of my friend."
"You would," he laughed quietly.
"And as you actually remember, I spent a lot of time around you, after Steve..." she trailed off. It was hard for her, too, he knew. "I hoped I'd never see you like that again," she added quietly, sounding a little lost. She too was angry with him in his time. He knew he sucked at giving up control, that what he did with the Mighty Avengers maybe wasn't fair to her. It was nice to talk to her again without them snapping at each other. Still, it wasn't his time, and it wasn't because of his actions that people seemed better inclined towards him.
"Apparently in a short time I'll take measures to ensure just that," he snorted. Carol looked at him with disbelief.
"Are you even listening to yourself," she said. It wasn't a question. He raised his lips in a parody of smile.
"Tony, don't. You were acting like a dick then. Don't do it now. There is no S.H.I.E.L.D., no Mighty Avengers for you to worry about," she said.
"That's exactly the problem, isn't it, Carol?" He looked away. "There's nothing for me to worry about here and now."
She stood up and quickly crossed the table to stand next to him. He had a moment to wonder just what she was doing, before she caught him by his shoulders and shook him hard.
"Don't, Tony. Don't ever think like that!" she said, not moving her hands.
He nodded, silently, and looked to the side where he didn't have to face her.
"You know, Carol, and here I was getting ready to thank you for stopping Barnes from bashing my head in," he smirked.
She gave him an exasperated look. "Only you, Tony."
He forced himself to laugh at that. Carol must have taken it for permission, because she leant over him and hugged him tight. He stiffened, but after a second hugged her back. "Thanks," he murmured. She didn't acknowledge it in any way, just held him for a little longer and then let him go.
"Not everyone hates you, Tony," she said.
"Yeah. Hey, were you looking for the other me? I didn't know you live here."
"I don't. I just stayed the night. I was looking for you, stupid boy." She shook her head. "You didn't look so well yesterday, I wanted to make sure you're all right."
Tony looked away. He wasn't, and she knew it. That's probably why she was in that meeting in the first place.
"But nothing I can say will get through that thick skull of yours, right?" she asked, jokingly, and then got serious. "I know it's hard, Tony – I remember you, from your time. I know it's hard. But Cap is here, and he's working things out with present you – don't antagonize him, just because you're too afraid of letting him in again." Then she moved to the door. "I'd tell you to catch some sleep, but I know how that would work. I saw present you when I was looking for you. He's in the lab now, said he’d give you an invitation if it’d make you go down there. Clearly you need one. Reed's there, too."
"Okay," Tony nodded. She was the second person to tell him that Steve tried to forgive him, in his future, and he still didn't know how to feel about it.
Carol nudged him in the arm. "No, mister, I'm not leaving you here. Go to the lab. Maybe engineering will do you some good."
Maybe, maybe not; but solving complicated problems always took his attention from more unpleasant things. He might just listen to Carol.
Working with himself was a weird and slightly surreal experience.
He was used to working with Reed, and they worked flawlessly, bouncing ideas off each other even as they drove each other mad, but the other Tony Stark... It was almost as if he was reading his mind and it was so annoying Tony had to keep himself from screaming. In a way, he was his ideal lab partner. In another, the worst.
If his expression at solving an issue was always that annoying, Tony thought as his younger self smugly pulled a casing open that he’d had problems with earlier, it wasn’t surprising that people were always angry with him. He'd gladly punch himself in the jaw now. Actually that was the one thought that hadn't left him since that time-transporting-beam-or-whatever hit him, and he was rather amazed at his own self-control. He had to admit he was really jealous of Extremis, too. Watching himself operate computers with barely a thought was a fascinating experience, if irritating as hell. At least he had a better armour, Tony thought.
He knew what really put him on edge so much, however, and that had nothing to do with Extremis or any of their work.
No one would like to see themselves so visibly shattered.
He knew he was fucked up. He'd seen videos of himself from his time as Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., had watched Steve's funeral and hadn't slept for a week afterwards, had seen the photos. Pepper and Carol’s refusal to even talk about it spoke volumes. He realised he must have been a wreck. That didn't mean he wanted to witness that, have all the people who hated him and had only just maybe started thinking of forgiving him, see him like that – again. How the hell somebody had allowed him to lead a military organisation in such a state was a mystery to him. How the hell he hadn't managed to accidentally get in range of some explosion was another.
"Stand there, Tony," Reed's voice pulled him out of his thoughts. Before he opened his mouth to ask, he realised Reed was talking to the other him and yeah, that was annoying, too.
His younger self was standing in the middle of yet another scanner, custom build by Reed for the occasion.
"You do realise that won't tell us anything we don't already know, right?" he asked tiredly. Reed gave him a disbelieving look over a monitor. Yeah, so maybe he wasn't the best science buddy right now. He usually didn't stomp on Reed's enthusiasm to check what he knew with a new exciting piece of tech. Except that wasn't a new and exciting piece, Tony knew it, it was just another full body scanner that checked for any and all unusual wavelengths, and they'd checked it all before with tons of other equipment. He said as much.
"Not at once, and not without you analysing the results with Extremis as they were taken," Reed answered. He's not me, Tony thought irritated.
"Reed, I appreciate you, I really do, but you do realise I can access each and every computer in this lab, the satellites, and most of databases in the world and you won't find anything else on me?" the other Tony asked after Reed stabbed him in the arm with a reader again.
"Yes, Tony, I do; stay still for a moment," Reed said.
Past-Tony rolled his eyes.
"Thank you." Reed frowned. "There are those particles on you–"
"That aren't on my armour, we know that already," past-Tony said. "Which is weird since I was pulled here in the armour. There are traces of them on this time’s me, too. Anything new?" his voice was just short of snapping and Tony thought both of them were on edge. Another similarity he didn't want to have with himself.
"They're on my armour, too," Tony said. "But it's part of me now. Literally. I really wouldn't like to consider the alternative."
Reed looked thoughtful. "The connection's you. Something hit you and pulled your past self to us through the timestream." He stretched back to look at what Tony knew was a part of his time travelling device. "It works in a completely different way than my machines..."
"Another thing we knew," Tony nodded.
"I wondered about it being an accident and your tech being the connection – you said those robots are of your design..."
Yeah, Reed would think of time travel as an accident. He had a point, in their line of work.
"But then your past armour would be covered in the particles, too," Reed finished.
"You think it might be personal?" Tony frowned. As good a guess as any, and he had more enemies than most, but... "Who would want to non-consensually time-travel us, though?"
His past self raised his eyebrows. "Apart from half of the Earth population, you mean?"
"Yeah," he winced.
"Not many people have means to do that," Reed noted. "And it got triggered from this side of the timestream. Why would anyone here do that?"
"To remove me from the equation there," past-Tony shrugged. "I doubt they can actually time-travel, they'd choose a different method then. What worries me is that they haven't made a move yet."
"They hit us just under the Helicarrier – S.H.I.E.L.D. recovered us pretty quickly," Tony said. "And since then, we've been spending our time in a few of the most secure places in New York. On the other hand, though – if removing you from the equation there was their end goal, they've met it." He frowned. "As much as it can be the end goal. They are playing a long game... Do they want to change something there? If anyone wants to kill us now, there are easier ways to do it. If they want to change the timestream they're stupid or suicidal."
"And if they are intelligent enough to build a time machine like that, they have to know I won't sit here idly instead of trying to go back," past-him replied.
"Back to where, Tony? When?" Reed asked at that, quietly, surprisingly sensitively for him. "Did you like that time that much?"
Other Tony flinched violently, opened his mouth, closed it again, shook his head sharply and walked a few steps away. He leant his head against the wall and looked just defeated.
How he must have felt, to let them see this weakness, Tony didn't want to know.
Reed had a point, though. Tony didn't remember how things were for him back then, but from what he'd learned... He wouldn’t want to go back. To a job he hated, but had to do; a world where all of his one-time friends hated him, and with good reason; a world where Steve was dead, because of him.
A world that he supposedly stood on top of, controlled way too much of.
To a world that, to an observer who didn’t know him, was everything Tony Stark had ever wanted.
Who the hell knew him well enough to know that he wouldn’t want to go back, and yet not well enough to know that he would do it anyway, because it was his responsibility?
"Let's call a break, Reed," he said tiredly. His past self needed some time, that was obvious; he wasn’t cruel enough even to himself to force him to work on getting back now. He also wasn't cruel enough to try and talk to him: he disliked himself on the best occasions, and now... He understood, but he didn't remember, and past him wouldn't accept any form of comfort from him.
Past-Tony gave him a surprised but grateful look, and left the lab quickly. Reed didn't look as if he understood, but that wasn't new.
"You know me, Reed," Tony said. "So give him time."
"I know you, Tony," Reed replied. "So how are you dealing?"
Tony shrugged. "I'm fine."
Tony shook his head. "Seriously, Reed." He gave him his most charming smile. "Seeing yourself like that would move anyone. But it's nothing. Don't worry."
Reed slowly nodded, looking somehow relieved he wasn't forced to talk about feelings.
Tony found a coffee machine somewhere in his lab at some point and swore up and down that it was working, somehow offended at Reed's lack of enthusiasm. He wouldn't experiment on a coffee maker, after all. There were some things you just didn't do and messing with the state of art devices that gave you coffee was one of them. He made them a cup of coffee black as hell and sat at a table; Reed was looking at some of his other projects that Tony didn't feel the need to ward him off.
"What are you planning on doing with him?" Reed asked quietly after a while. "He has to get back, that much is certain, but what about what he learns here...?" He trailed off. Both of them understood the consequences.
Tony looked at his hands, thought of Jan. "I'll be honest. I don’t think I could find out about what happened and not try to change it, even though I know the possible consequences." He shrugged darkly. "He deleted my brain, I can delete his."
Reed actually almost startled and turned his head nearly 180 degrees. If Tony wasn't so used to him, he'd probably have freaked out.
"Are you sure that's a good idea?" he asked intently.
"The only one I have," Tony nodded. "What else do you suggest? Closing me in a lab in that bracelet?" And he did play with the idea briefly, but he knew himself. "That won't work for so many reasons. And he knows too much already."
"He doesn't want to go back there," Reed said carefully.
"Of course he doesn't, have you looked at him? But he will, because that's the responsible thing to do. We'd have to send him there anyway, but he’ll go back, and willingly at that." That, at least, Tony was absolutely certain of.
"So you want to delete his brain – I don't know, as vengeance for him deleting yours? – and send him back the way he was, so that he doesn't change anything..."
"Yes." He didn't deny the accusation. It scared him more than a little, but he couldn't honestly say Reed was wrong.
"So that he doesn't remember how you defeated Osborn – so that, if I remember correctly, that kid will start his attacks on your company in a day or so, and Pepper will be hurt – would he even remember the know-how for the tech to save her? Or would the knowledge of your new RT be gone too? I don't doubt you'd be able to make a new one, but in time? You know how losing memory works, Tony. Tell me it's safe."
He couldn't. He suddenly remembered the Stark Resilient gala, and Rhodey tying his bow-tie for him, because he didn't know how. He wasn't sure, if he deleted a part of his past self's memories, what would stay in place. If he'd be able to save Pepper, to use Extremis, to use the armour before the Skrulls came.
If he left him those memories, would he have time to save Jan? Outsmart Zeke and Osborn? Because he would try, that was for sure. Tony bit his lip. He'd started – liking was too big a word – he'd gotten used to this world he woke up in with no knowledge of what had happened after he got injected with Extremis. That didn't mean it couldn't be a better world, if Tony made even a simple, insignificant change. It could also be much, much worse. There were too many variables. And, of course, if any of these changes came into being, Tony wouldn't be there to see it, because at that point, it would be a different Tony.
But Steve was back here, and Tony wasn't going to risk it; he'd done so once already, and he didn't even remember that, but knew that it was a miracle he'd lived through it.
"I don't know," he finally admitted.
Reed nodded. "And anyway, if we send him back soon, we'll never know who attacked you in the first place."
Tony bit his lip again. "You're right. We need – we need to let them know somehow that we're working on the way to the past for him. To force their hand. And I'd really like to know where they got my designs," he added, his voice quiet and dangerous. People didn't mess with Tony Stark. He didn't take it kindly.
Reed understood; he drew up the list of Iron Man's known enemies.
"Let's start with that," he proposed. "Your past self could help."
Tony gave him a wry smile. "You do realise he's not coming back here today?"
Reed looked lost. He really wasn't well equipped to deal with feelings, was he? And neither was Tony, of course, but he at least understood himself.
"Isn't he?" Reed asked.
"Not a chance." Not after what happened. Not after being reminded of what he couldn't possibly forget; that he'd have to go back to the place that he hated and still felt responsible for. His usual masks were in tatters; Tony doubted he'd be able to pull them back on, for Reed, and even worse – for himself. And if he didn't have his masks, if even the Iron Man armour was denied to him, he wouldn't come back now. Not to let them see just how broken he was. That was why he ran in the first place, after all. This place he found himself in must have been hell for him; full of things he'd wished for and couldn’t get, take, or keep, like a twisted version of the Tantalus myth.
Tony knew himself, and Tony would rather be alone in such a situation. Once upon a time, he would have gone to Steve, but now... He'd be alone.
Steve was thinking over the merits of having the Avengers HQ in the Tower instead of on the Helicarrier for the hundredth time. There were many, he realised that, but just getting there was annoying sometimes. Wandering through corridors that had stopped feeling like home still hurt. Sure, he had a room and a standing invitation, but... It didn't really change anything. It was still too soon.
But he was there now to look for Tony, and he knew perfectly well Tony'd never move his lab anywhere else, so the point was moot, really. Steve glanced into the kitchen to check if Tony wasn't at his coffee-and-snack break, and saw him just leaving.
"Tony, wait up!" Steve called. He had a few things he should discuss with Tony, and, more importantly, once he got over his own shock on seeing Stark, Steve wanted to check how Tony was doing. Having a younger version of himself here couldn't be easy for him, either, and he'd already looked tense and tired the day before. They could eat lunch together. "I wanted..." he started saying, but the other man froze for a moment before turning back to face him, and while Steve had done his best not to look at him before, he knew his mistake immediately.
He didn't even need to see the telling lack of the RT in the man's chest to know that this Tony wasn't Tony from his time. This Tony was Stark, plain and simple, and he seemed... Not well was putting it mildly. Tony from his time, if perpetually tired, didn't look as if he was about to keel over at any moment. Stark was so pale he seemed sick. He had dark circles around his eyes as if he hadn't been sleeping for days and his whole posture spoke of exhaustion. He was thinner than Steve'd ever remembered seeing him; the t-shirt and slacks he was wearing hung loosely on him, even though Steve was rather sure they were Tony's own clothing. The sharpest difference from the Tony he knew now, though, was his eyes: Steve couldn't really describe them in any other way but "dead".
He had looked bad during their war, but nothing like this. Had it been this bad when he’d refused to show his face to Steve in the cell, or had it been it something after his death that brought him to the edge? Steve was worried despite himself.
"Steve," Stark said with a strange emotion in his voice.
No, that wasn't Tony from Steve's time. That was Tony who'd fought him, who remembered fighting him, who thought of him as an enemy. He was helping them now, of course, because that was what Tony did: save the world, whatever the cost, especially to himself. He probably didn't actually want to talk to Steve. Steve had been glad when he and Tony started fixing their friendship, as slow and challenging as the process had been, but now he was sharply reminded that his Tony didn't remember them losing it, and maybe he wouldn't be willing to put everything past them if he did. Maybe he wouldn't ask Steve to let it go. Steve honestly didn't know what to think of the Tony who did remember. Tony who'd mocked him when he'd been sitting in a cell. Tony who wasn't Tony, but Director Stark. He wasn’t sure who he was looking at now. Iron Man armour was always a mask for Tony, but to what extent? Was the Director yet another role? If so, why was he doing that to himself? Steve didn't have time to try and understand Tony's tangled ideas, because Stark was speaking, quickly, quietly, but with hesitations; and Steve realised he didn't want to miss a word. Maybe it wasn't fair to his Tony... But he needed that. That closure he hoped for.
"I knew – of course I knew you were alive, I saw you for god's sake, but there were so many others, and – Steve. Is it really you?" Stark whispered. Steve didn't know what to say in answer to that. 'Yes, it is me,' sounded stupid. He doubted Stark really wanted an answer, anyway, at least before Stark shook his head slightly. "It's not, is it? You wouldn't talk to me. Damn it, I thought Extremis had stopped with these visions..."
That sounded – had Stark hallucinated him before? And was it regret in his voice when he said Steve wouldn't have talked to him? That was so at odds with what Steve remembered from the war. He approached him, slowly, carefully.
"Tony, no. It is me," he said, when he was just two steps away from him. He barely realised they apparently were on a first-name basis again, focused on the man in front of him.
The truth was, during the war he'd been mad at Tony. Then he couldn't even keep being mad, because he died, and Tony wiped his own brain clear, and holding old grudges wouldn't have helped with anything. So he moved on and told himself he was all right with that. He definitely was all right with rebuilding their friendship, and maybe letting some things go was worth it – even if he did keep coming back to SHRA whenever he got angry with Tony.
Faced with Tony who had been responsible for everything that went wrong with them, Steve didn't know how to react. This was the Tony that Steve had thought of as Stark, as an enemy, not a friend, a villain and not a hero. This was also the Tony who, in a few months, would wipe his own brain so that the identities of countless superheroes would remain safe, and Steve still wasn't sure if he was just trying to commit elaborate suicide or really didn't see another way out with Osborn ruling H.A.M.M.E.R.
Tony reached out to him, as if unwilling to believe Steve was real. Steve didn't move, allowed Tony to move the last centimetres to touch him carefully – but then Tony's fingers connected with his chest, over his heart, and Tony's face crumpled. He took a quick, unsteady step back and fell to his knees.
"It wasn't worth it, Steve," he said in a terribly broken voice. "It wasn't worth it, it wasn't, I'm so sorry." Tears streamed down his face.
Steve thought back to the moment when he'd asked Tony that question, thought again of what Tony's reaction had been then, and decided he was wrong. This wasn't the Tony who'd mocked him. This was the man who’d asked him to kill him, during their last fight. Maybe the Tony who'd mocked him didn't even exist, because he had been hidden behind his faceplate then, and Steve knew that while Tony was Iron Man, Iron Man was Tony's mask.
He didn't really have time to dwell on that now: Tony was breaking down in front of him, and whatever else he might have been during the war, he'd always been his friend first and foremost. Fighting over SHRA wouldn't have hurt half as much otherwise.
Steve crouched down next to him, gently touched his arm. Tony didn't seem to notice him, just kept repeating the same words, "it wasn't worth it", through sobs wracking his body. After a moment of hesitation, Steve put his arms around Tony and held him. Tony was so out of it he didn't react, just kept repeating apologies even when his voice went hoarse, and then just Steve's name, over and over again. Steve was mad at him and it still broke his heart. He didn't know what to think. Tony looked tired like he only did when he was trying to work himself to death, because stopping long enough to think about something other than the next project hurt too much; he just broke down at the sight of Steve, and yet – he had fought him to the bitter end... Just because he obviously was sorry now didn't excuse what he'd done, he firmly told himself. Finally Tony fell silent, tried to raise his hand and was stopped by Steve's arms still around him. He went very, very still.
"Steve...?" he looked at him and seemed lost. His eyes were bloodshot, his face wet with tears and he still trembled ever so slightly.
"Hey there, Tony," Steve said.
Tony pushed at his arms and Steve let him go, watched him back away a couple of metres and wipe at his red eyes.
"God, Steve, I'm sorry – you didn't need that. I'm so sorry," he said. He was already putting his masks in place and Steve suddenly knew he couldn't let him do that. It was their chance to talk things out – Steve's chance, really, and maybe it was selfish of him, maybe it wasn’t exactly fair to his Tony, but he needed this.
"No," he said, and hated how defensive Tony went instantaneously. "It seems we need to talk, Tony."
"Why?" Tony asked quietly and averted his eyes. "I'm sorry you had to witness my mental breakdown. You don't have to pretend you don't hate me just because I cried on you."
"Tony," Steve gritted out. "If you have ever considered me a friend, I think you owe me some answers. So don't run now."
"Ah. Yes. Of course. You're – were – Steve, how can you doubt..." He trailed off. Steve didn't mean for the conversation to go into that direction, but at Tony's words he saw red. He stood up and didn't even care that he was now towering over Tony, still on the floor, who didn't make any move to get up.
"How can I doubt it?!" he shouted. "You're asking me that after everything you've done?! After you threw our friends – and were they, Tony? Were they really your friends? After you threw them in prison in the negative zone?! After you betrayed everything we stood for?! And for what, a power trip?!"
"I did what I had to do!" Tony shouted, but he was staring intently at the floor, not at Steve. "To keep them safe."
"The negative zone, Tony?!"
Tony finally stood up on shaking legs. "It was better than the alternative! You don't – you have no idea what the other options were!"
"Not to compromise, for example!" Steve answered angrily.
Tony laughed, a wry and utterly empty sound. "You have no idea what could have happened."
"Because you didn’t tell me!" Steve shouted again.
"I tried. Care to remember how that turned out?" Tony raised his eyebrow.
Steve winced. "I'm sorry for that. Really."
"I know you are, but that doesn't change anything. As to why I didn't tell you sooner..." his voice almost died down. It was just a whisper, he was obviously trying to rein another sob in.
"Being sorry doesn't change what you did, either!" Steve interrupted him, raising his voice again. "So the least you can do is tell me why!"
"Because I couldn't have forced you to choose like that!" Tony shouted back. "I wanted to keep you safe," he repeated in a quiet voice. "But I failed even at that, and you died. You died, and I had to live, and I wish, even if the world would’ve burned, I wish I’d fought with you, not against you, or that I’d told you everything and made you betray your principles – because you would have, Steve, you really would. But even if you couldn't have looked at yourself in the mirror afterwards, it would have still been worth it, if you were alive. But I didn't do that, I did what I thought was the right thing to do, what I still believe was the right thing to do, and you still died, and... You asked, before, and I didn’t answer, but, Steve, believe me now: it wasn't worth it," he said again, his eyes fixed on his feet. Steve was at a loss. Was it really his death that changed everything for Tony? Carol'd told him so, even Maria Hill had murmured something about Stark losing it, but he hadn't believed them. Hadn't wanted to, maybe. But now, confronted with Tony's defeated look, he didn't exactly have a choice.
"It isn't working," he said aloud. Tony startled, looked at him as if expecting a blow. "For the record," Steve said, "I don't hate you. I never did. If I hated you, even for a second, I would have killed you then and I wouldn't have been able to live with myself. Now, as I said, we need to talk, not to shout at each other or cry. In a more private location, maybe. Do you have a room here?" He winced when he heard just what he'd just said.
"Why, Captain, aren't you quick?" Tony asked, but his voice lacked any feeling. "It is my tower," he said after a brief pause with a dry smile that wasn't any more real than the last one. "There are empty rooms here. Come on."
Steve followed him to the lift which opened when they were approaching it and then moved without Tony pressing a button. He was sharply reminded that this Tony still had Extremis. They got out at the penultimate floor, and Tony lead him to one of the guest rooms there. Tony switched on the lights and Steve saw a modern interior, normal for Stark Tower. The wall opposite the door was, of course, made of ceiling-high windows, but even as Steve looked, they dimmed.
"They are technically one-way, but I'd rather made sure we've got privacy," Tony explained. He stood in the middle of the room, ignoring both the sofa and the armchair next to him, and stared at Steve expectantly. He would look completely composed if it weren't for the way his eyes were still red and a little too glossy. "So. Talk."
"Sit down," Steve said in a tired voice. "And then tell me why you thought supporting the SHRA was such a brilliant idea."
Tony sat on the edge of the armchair, leant his elbows against his knees and hid his face in his hands. "It was the only way, Steve. It'd been a long time coming, even before Stamford. It was always going to pass. I just hoped I could change it into something we would all agree on. But then Stamford happened, and there wasn't time any more..." he stopped, breathed deeply. "I knew you'd never compromise. But the alternatives... They wanted superhumans to dissect and vivisect, Kooning wanted to work on Extremis – do you know the mortality rate for Extremis, Steve?"
Steve did. He still remembered the dull horror he felt on realising how close Tony'd come to dying then.
"Of course you do," Tony said, apparently still adept at understanding him without words. "They wanted to force superheroes to fight in the army, and not just against super-villains, but in regular, human wars. The kind of wars I made my fortune on," he added quietly. "To control whether super-powered heroes could have children and with whom. To make everybody wear bracelets capable of stopping their powers, and if they couldn't be made, to put such heroes under full surveillance. I stand by what I said in the mansion, Steve: we need control. We need somebody to make sure we're responsible for our mistakes. But not like that. So I compromised. I compromised, because that was the only way. So that you wouldn't have to. I knew you'd hate me, but I thought it would be worth it."
All this time, Steve'd hoped that Tony actually had a reason for what he did, that it wasn't just an Extremis-induced power trip, and now, hearing him voice those reasons... He thought that he preferred it when he could pretend it was that, when he didn't think he'd have not only to forget, but really forgive him.
Tony looked at Steve over his hands. "I thought I could fight you. But it almost killed me, and when I wanted to make you listen after all – you wouldn't. So I told myself to suck it up and see it to the end." He stopped speaking. "Even that wasn't true. I wanted you to kill me, in that last fight."
Steve took in a sharp breathe. He wasn't even surprised by Tony's reaction. By what he said, yes, and he couldn't think of that, he couldn't, not with Tony here: he needed time alone to think it over. But by what Tony did? Not at all. Of course Tony's solution would be to shoulder everything, to try and fix it all by himself, to make himself into a scapegoat. Of course he would try to do what he believed would protect everybody else and of course he wouldn’t care about what people thought of him.
"I did horrible things, things I'm ashamed of and things I can't ever be forgiven for, don't want to be forgiven for. But I would have done it all again. And then you died, you died because of me, I got you killed, and..." his voice broke.
"You didn't get me killed," Steve said sharply. "And I'll have to punch you if you say it again. Don't make me do it."
Tony huffed a laugh, but didn't respond.
"You didn't have the right," Steve told him. "You didn't have the right to make that decision for me. For all of us."
Tony shrugged, didn't answer. Steve continued speaking. "You should have told us. You should have told me. I thought you trusted me." And here he was, making it personal again. Steve cursed himself, but he couldn't stop. If it hadn't been personal then, they wouldn't have so many problems now. Tony lowered his hands and straightened.
"It wasn't about trust. I couldn't do that to you. Not knowing what I did then. I couldn't let you compromise everything you were."
"But you could do that yourself," Steve said, almost losing his nerves again. "If it wasn't about trust, then what about respect?"
"You really don't see it, do you?" Tony smiled his empty smile again. "When you died – nothing mattered. Not SHRA, not my so called win, not even the end of the war. And there was still one thing I never told you. I wish I had, but it wouldn't have changed anything, it was just a selfish dream. I thought that maybe you knew and just decided to ignore it. But you don't, do you?"
"Knew what, Tony?" Steve asked, forcing himself to sound calm.
"My older self probably won't be too happy with me, but then, I never am. But he doesn’t remember, so he won’t tell you, because before, I wouldn’t have either. I’m not even surprised that I did that to him, because I would forget it all right now if I could. Steve, I couldn’t let you compromise yourself, couldn’t make you despise yourself, because…" he stopped and looked at the wall behind Steve.
Steve stared at him. "Why?"
"Before I answer, imagine if our positions were reversed. Would you let me compromise, compromise everything I am, knowing what it would mean? Would you do it, knowing I wouldn’t be able to look in the mirror the next day? Would you force me to betray everything I am, Steve? Even if it meant fighting against each other, would you let me? Even if it meant hating yourself for not doing it – would you, Steve? Would you give me the choice?"
Steve desperately wanted to say yes. But if he was honest, just with himself, when Tony put it like that, no, he wouldn't. He would try and protect Tony, Tony who needed many things, but definitely not protection (at least not from anything, anybody but himself), but he'd do it – because before it all went to hell, Tony'd been his best friend and he'd loved that man.
He almost flinched at the thought, hunched his shoulders briefly and looked at Tony, who seemed to know that Steve could only say 'no' and wasn't going to force him to say it out loud. "So you see. I couldn't do that to you – for so many reasons, so many reasons both moral and ethical, but none of them mattered. I didn't do it, because I love you."
After everything, Steve couldn't even say he was surprised.
Tony was right earlier, of course – Steve hadn't known, but he wasn't surprised now. It made sense in that twisted Tony-logic way, explained so many things that had happened over the years, little things, and things so big it hurt to think of them.
"Tony," Steve heard himself speaking a little breathlessly anyway. Tony shook his head, a carefree grin on his face that Steve knew to be a mask and it hurt him a little that Tony put one on, now.
"Don't, Steve. Please," he asked in a small voice. Steve wasn't sure what Tony thought he was going to say. He wasn't actually sure what he could say. He couldn't find any words that would convey how he felt – especially since he didn't really know how he felt right now. In the end he just nodded and, after an awkward silence, he made up his mind and approached Tony, tried not to see his uncertain, almost afraid expression, and pulled him in for a hug.
Tony tensed minutely before he went limp against Steve's side, and Steve could feel his heart beating frantically.
They stayed that way, not talking, Steve's arms around Tony, for the longest time, and it was as if they hadn't fought a war at all.
Steve didn’t know how long it had been when he felt Tony’s breathing go even and deep, and his muscles relax, but he realised that exhaustion must have won and Tony had fallen asleep on him. He didn't mind. For Tony, even exhausted beyond all belief as he was, that still must have taken trust, and it was... nice, Steve decided. Nice. Still, he should probably put him down and cover him with something. He gently extricated himself from Tony's embrace and laid the man down along the full length of the sofa. Tony didn't so much as stir, and god, he must have been running on his stubbornness only.
A few beeps meaning another person had entered the lab sounded and Tony and Reed both looked up from their computers at the past-Tony, who had finally decided to come back to them.
"I'd ask if you were here this whole time, but I know me and I suppose there's no point," he smirked. "It's the next day, guys. Sorry for not coming back."
Tony looked at him. He looked... better was the word, Tony supposed. Not so tense and hunched over. Maybe he finally rested for a while. "It's all okay, as long as we get coffee," he declared. Reed just nodded. They were both tired, now, but they had a few long hours of science behind them and that wasn't bad. They hadn’t even touched their new time-travelling problem, but Reed helped him solve a problem with the Resilient energy trail, and while Tony was sure he'd have cracked it on his own sooner or later, he had needed it sooner for sure.
"Did you think of something while I was gone?" past-him asked, almost carelessly, approaching the coffee maker.
Tony exchanged a quick look with Reed. What they planned to do about past-Tony, well, he didn't need to hear all of it. "We'd thought about going over the list of our known enemies before it became clear you weren't coming back. Hoped you could add someone."
Past-Tony looked at him with an odd expression on his face for just a second and then shook his head.
"I doubt it. Somebody who knows us that well and has access to our designs..." he trailed off. "Maybe some of my workers, but they're screened..." He shook his head. "Even if that was likely, I was led to believe we don't have records of our workers from before Osborn's little game?"
Tony shook his head. "No. You think it's someone new?" The coffee was ready now, and past-him gave it to him in a deliciously hot mug; he had to cover his hands a little in order to keep it, but it was well worth it. He inhaled the fresh smell and smiled. "Heaven."
"Good. Back to the topic: I think it's someone with a grudge, a grudge against me, who only just gained the means to solve it," past him shrugged. "But there were thousands of people with grudges against me, and I have no idea who could've gained any means by now. I never thought I’d say this, but waiting seems like a good idea."
"Unless they send more of those robots and start decimating New York," Tony added. His coffee was still too hot, but he drank a sip anyway.
"Of course," his past self agreed.
"Steve won't be happy about that," Tony mused quietly. He wasn't happy about anything that happened in connection to the robots, why would this be any different? They’d exhausted all their options and now they could only wait. If they were going to capture the person responsible for the attacks and find out how to safely open the timestream, they’d have to get whoever it was out in the open, but with the memories of the time after the war gone from Tony's head, and the knowledge of what had changed not yet in past-Tony's head, they couldn't really compare and contrast their suspects.
They needed to wait, and they needed to stay low doing it. At least that was something Steve would approve of, Tony thought wryly.
They’d unanimously have preferred to fight Galactus at that moment; they were, every one of them, terrible at waiting.
"The thing is, if they pulled you here to kill you – why would they want to change the entire timeline?" Reed asked.
"Well, I’ve been informed there was a war with the Skrulls shortly after the time they took me from. Which was my fault. I missed the signs – I don't know the signs even now. I should have. So..." past-Tony looked down, ran a hand through his hair. He was silent.
"Tony," Reed said, "it's not about that. A new director of S.H.I.E.L.D. wouldn't be able to fix that in such a short time. They have to realise that."
"Maybe it's just revenge. Long overdue revenge, from someone who doesn’t care about what happens to the world," Tony wondered aloud.
"Great. Can we save them under 'insane egomaniacs', please?" past-Tony snarked. "I’ve had enough of waiting. I've looked through every database Cap – Steve has on the Helicarrier and there's nothing. Not. A. Single. Thing. How's that possible? How did they get my designs?"
Steve, Tony thought. Not Rogers, not Commander. Good. Maybe that was why he looked so composed.
"As for your plans, Tony," Reed spoke up. "After Stane destroyed your company..."
"You let Stane – again – what did you do..." past-Tony started shouting. Tony raised his hands placatingly.
"I was told it was his son. I wasn't told I got drunk, and I know that's what you were really asking. I was told he blew up half of my main factories. But, you know, I don't remember that," he replied coldly and his past self just nodded at that.
"After Stane destroyed your company," Reed continued, "the Skrulls hit, and then Osborn; you didn't have time to worry about old Stark designs. Some of them emerged on the black market. Mostly incomplete, absolutely unusable, but they did emerge. It is a possible source."
"And you're only telling me this now?" past-Tony asked, looking annoyed.
"I knew about them," Tony said quietly. "I've tried to hunt them down, recently; I thought I got them all... But Reed's right, they were incomplete – it would take a genius to build..." He stopped himself. "Those robots, they're incomplete too. Changed, edited; Barnes noticed the similarity, but he's trained to do that, apart from him, I don't think anybody would know where to look. The base designs are mine, everything else – not."
"A talented engineer could have done all of this. A talented engineer who hates your guts," Reed mused. "Ringing any bells?
Past-Tony laughed mirthlessly. "Too many to count."
"Well, we won't learn anything else from them," Tony waved his hand in the general direction of the robots. "Much as it annoys me to admit it. We'd need one with a working communicator."
"Which, not happening now," past-Tony noticed. "Have I mentioned I hate waiting?"
"Well." Reed stood up. "I have to agree with you on that. Nothing more to find here. I'll go back to Sue now. Call me if anything turns up?"
Tony stood to let him out; he trusted Reed in his lab more than other people, all things considered, but it was still his lab.
"Thanks for helping," he told him, and Reed just nodded before stepping into the elevator. Tony came back to find his younger self playing around with his notes for Steve's body armour.
"Sue fought against him," he said apropos of nothing, and then nodded at the notes. "Lace it with something stronger, he doesn't have a shield anymore."
"I know," Tony rolled his eyes. "There’s a lot of things I’ve forgotten, but how to make a protective armour is not one of them."
"Okay, okay," his past self raised his hands defensively. "Got any project you can let me on in?"
Tony shrugged. "Knock yourself out," he gestured at the computer. "You are me."
"I'm impressed, Tony, you called me from the other coast when I'm not asleep," Pepper greeted him on the phone, drily. He grinned to himself.
"I live to serve, Pep."
"Save it for someone who’d buy that," she answered.
"How's Resilient doing?" he asked.
"Crying over the specs you've sent them," she said and he knew she was rolling her eyes. "They’re working the best they can. We'll do it. How's past you?"
Tony ran a hand over his face. "Good? I don't have the urge to strangle him anymore. That's probably good." He sighed. "It’s been a long couple of days. The way he was transported defies every working time machine we've ever seen, to the point where using one would blow up the person travelling, at the very least. So. We've started building a new one." They were still in the brainstorming stage, but it was infinitely better than waiting for a solution to present itself.
She laughed. "Only you, Tony."
"Still. I want him back in his time." However that would work. Tony was almost sure his past self knew too much to safely send him back now.
"I know," she sighed.
"He knows too much about here and now," Tony admitted. "That probably couldn't be helped, but he really knows too much. If I went back now, knowing what I do – I wouldn't let it all happen again."
"Could you change it?" she asked after a moment. Tony took a deep breath.
"Yeah. It's not set in stone. That's why –" he cut himself off. Telling Pepper he'd considered brain-wiping his past self wasn't a good idea. And Reed had talked him out if it, really, but... "It's a self-preservation thing in a way. I would have tried to change it if I went back, but from our point of view, here, if he did change it, our timeline would cease to exist." He ran his hand through his hair, exasperated. There wasn't really a good solution to their situation now.
"Are you planning something incredibly stupid, Tony?" Pepper asked carefully.
"No," he sighed.
"Good." She hesitated. "You'll find a way."
Those were just empty words, but she meant them, and it made him feel better somehow. "Thanks, Pep," he said.
"Any time. Call me soon." She hung up. He stretched a little and stood up. Talking to Pepper always lightened his mood. He felt ready to go back to his lab, where his past self was.
He'd only just opened the door when his Avengers communicator rang, and Tony answered right away.
"Iron Man here, what's the problem?"
"Tony," he heard Steve's voice. "You are, in a way. We've got another attack. The team is on their way. Now please tell me, do I need to throw you in a cell to keep you away from there?"
Tony closed his eyes briefly. He hadn't talked to Steve since the first debriefing. He wouldn't know how to talk to him now, if it wasn't a combat situation.
"Won't work on me," past-Tony said, and Tony realised he must have connected in via Extremis. Lovely. He really regretted not having it anymore.
"Tony?" Steve sounded surprised. "Is that... Oh, wait, I'm talking to both of you, aren't I? Extremis let you do that."
"Congrats, Cap," past-Tony said. Tony winced slightly.
"Back to the problem at hand; neither of you can go anywhere near that fight. You both know why," Steve said sternly. Tony was prepared to argue – much like last time, if he saw civilians on the scene, he wouldn't stay down – but past-him shook his head in his direction.
"Yeah, Cap, but we need a working communicator from that robot – they autodestruct at shutdown, from what we’ve established. Now, I doubt any of the Avengers will have a chance to get one, let alone the technical expertise. I, however, should be able to hack in with Extremis. Now there are two options: either I succeed and I pull the information I need out of them during the fight, or I manage to put the robots into a sleep mode, so to speak, and then Tony will need to fly there and get it."
"What if it's neither?" Steve's voice was disapproving.
"Have some faith in me, Cap," past-Tony replied, sounding terribly defeated all of a sudden, despite the easy words. He was relaying his words via Extremis. His mouth stayed shut; there shouldn't be emotion in his voice. After a brief internal struggle, Tony briefly squeezed his arm and got a surprised look in reply.
"Thank you," past-Tony said to him very, very quietly; aloud, not via Extremis. Steve wouldn't hear him. Tony had thought that talking via Extremis felt to other people like when he was speaking with the helmet on; now it seemed more like telepathy. Too many feelings. Or too few.
Yeah, he was screwed up big time.
"Tony. Both of you. Promise me you won't do anything dangerous," Steve said in a quiet voice. "I know how you are about science projects and things you feel responsible for, so promise me."
"Steve..." Tony hesitated.
"We'll try," his past self whispered.
They heard a sigh on the line. "Okay." A moment of silence. "Okay, Tony." He hung up.
They turned to look at each other. Trying wouldn't mean much if something happened.
The plan was good, Tony had to admit it; if they could hack the robots' communicators via Extremis, they’d learn a lot and maybe finally have some guess as to who was attacking them. Or why.
"Let's go upstairs," he suggested. "The Avengers' main headquarters are there for the time being. They'll have better surveillance than we have."
"We have all that they have," past-Tony smirked, tapping his temple. Tony grinned.
"Yeah, but if you need me to fly out there..." He trailed off. It was pretty self-explanatory.
"I see. Let's go upstairs," past-him agreed.
He hadn't seen the other fights, but this one was uneventful and sure as hell didn't explain why everyone was so afraid of fighting the damn things.
What it explained was that someone really had tried to build from his designs, and okay, that scared him a little. His tech in the wrong hands... He knew how this ended. He'd lived through it too many times. And it almost hurt to see the robot moving on the repulsor fields. These robots were supposed to be the ultimate defence measure, not a weapon to be set free in the city centre. He was barely aware that he’d clutched his fists to the point of pain, when his future self put a hand briefly on his arm.
"I told you they're ours," future-him said.
"Hearing it – dissecting them in the lab – is different from seeing it," he answered quietly. "But at least it makes a few things clear. I take it they haven't always been that easy to hit?"
"No. They only went down when I tried one fail-safe or another. Only Carol managed to harm them." Future-him shook his head.
"So they want us to win that fight. To see it."
"So it would seem."
"Okay then." Tony leant against the windowsill and concentrated on the battlefield he could see on many screens in the room. He reached out with Extremis until he could feel the team's comms, caught a few of them just to have a point of reference, and began searching for the robot's wavelengths. There was a lot of interference – mobile networks, normal radio waves, but he was skilled in looking through them and, under it all, he found what he was looking for. The wavelengths had a lower frequency than he would have expected, but he caught on to them anyway, saw where they led him... Switching the robot off would be easy enough now, but where did it come from? He could trace it to a building to the north... It wasn't a full address, but it would do – he heard a muffled curse on Barnes' comms. Apparently the robot had decided to act after all when he started to look at their secrets – and without further ado, he sent them a shutdown command and blocked the autodestruct.
He scanned the battlefield through the CCTV. Barnes got hit in the arm – his human arm, unfortunately, he'd take time to heal. Not good. Carol looked unharmed, only annoyed, and Peter was sitting on a lamppost, looking down at everything. A giant robot was lying on the ground, unmoving, for all intents and purposes, dead.
And future-him didn't even have to go out. Great.
"Good job," his future self said. "Extremis is impressive."
Tony shrugged. There wasn't much he could answer that with.
"So now we have a whole robot to check."
"Now we have their address," Tony smirked. "Or the general vicinity of it. Fifty-second Street," he said.
His future self frowned. "It's the street you landed on here. So it probably wasn't a random chance that the robot got me there."
"Didn't you check the area?" It was the first course of action, for god's sake.
"S.H.I.E.L.D. did," Tony shrugged. "They didn't find anything. I should have known better than not to check it on my own, though."
"Yeah. Let's move that robot to the garage and then go take a look around."
"You're not going anywhere," Maria Hill said. Tony hadn't noticed her entering the room. "You heard Rogers. We don't need two Starks on the streets."
"Yeah, preventing anyone from possibly noticing me is so much more important than stopping those robots from destroying the city," he shot back. Steve had had a point when he'd first forbidden him from going out, but they had bigger problems now.
"So far they aim at you," Maria noted curtly.
That was true, but... "So they'll destroy the city by accident. The only reason I'm still hiding here is that Reed's right about the danger to the timeline."
"Sacrificing yourself didn't work as a solution when you were running S.H.I.E.L.D and wouldn't work now, either," Hill snapped at him. "You," she waved at the older him, "go out there and disassemble the robot enough to make it possible to bring it in." S.H.I.E.L.D. agents were already swarming the scene.
"It seemed almost too easy," future-Tony reminded them.
"I know. They probably wanted us to find something. But I doubt it's a bomb hidden under a panel. Maybe a message of sorts. Or a test, in which case I've passed with flying colours and they know who I am."
"Or that," future-Tony agreed quietly. "I think they already knew, though. Let's take a look at that robot." He summoned his armour and flew outside.
"Why are you here, Maria?" Tony asked.
"It's an Avengers operation," she rolled her eyes. "And to make sure you don't do anything stupid. Rogers's worried."
"We're working on stopping them," he murmured. "I hope they won't get another chance to harm the city."
"Not about that," she said, exasperated. "Don't do anything stupid. He'll be on my head then."
Tony nodded and looked out the window to see the other him surrounding the robot with a magnetic field and lifting it. It would probably fit in the hangar on the roof. They would have to change the access levels there for the time being. The last thing they wanted was S.H.I.E.L.D. getting their hands on that tech; even during his time as the Director, Tony made sure that there weren't any ties that could lead to S.H.I.E.L.D. obtaining elements of Iron Man for their weaponry. Steve was in control now, and he trusted him with his life, but he'd been protecting his tech for too long.
He'd also have to bring some tools up. The computers were there for the Quinjet diagnosis, and it wasn't the state of the art equipment of his lab, but it would do, especially with the help of Extremis.
"If that's all, Maria, I have a robot to take apart," he said.
"Go, Stark," she told him. He took the elevator to his lab – the door opened for him without any problems, even though his older self wasn't there – and started packing the most useful tools. It was just simple, physical work that did nothing to calm his thoughts and he despised it for that a little.
He hadn't had much time to think of his talk with Steve. He wasn't sure he wanted to do that. Breaking down like that had been just embarrassing – or would have been, if it was anyone but Steve on the other side. Steve, who'd seen him at his worst already. It made it just a little easier to think of. Steve finally knew. He'd finally told him everything. And Steve wasn't repulsed, didn’t even seem quite so furious over the war, just held him close, as he would a friend. Not just a teammate, definitely not an enemy, but a friend.
Tony had been so sure he'd lost that forever.
If they sent him back wrong, to before the Civil War – he wouldn't let history take its course. He wouldn’t be able to.
There were still so many things he'd like to tell Steve, so many little things, but he realised he wouldn't get a chance for that. He had said what was important, though, and that had to count for something.
He went back up with a crate full of scanners and tools. Future-him still hadn't gotten there, so Tony looked around and measured the free space next to the Quinjet. It should do, he thought, and waited.
The roof opened a few minutes later, letting in Iron Man steering a large robot in front of him. Tony moved out of the force field’s range and looked on as the robot settled down.
"I've got tools," he said.
"Great. I'll call Reed, he'd want to be here," his future self replied and silenced his speakers, presumably to call Reed via the armour. Tony nodded. He didn't listen in via Extremis, there was no point. Without waiting for the other him to finish his call, he approached the middle part of the robot where the main device should be.
"Reed's gone on some Fantastic Four thing. Don’t keep all the fun for yourself," his future self called over his arm.
"Me? Never," he mocked and set about opening the casing. Sure enough, it only required a simple screwdriver and a little bit of force applied at the proper points. They didn't change that, this time. It was a message if Tony ever saw one.
There was a round sphere inside. He knew it was set to identify its wielder. He was pretty sure it wasn't set to kill him, and so he took it in his hand.
"Tony Stark, age thirty three, identified," a nice, male voice said. "Hello, Tony," that one was female. "It's quite simple really. I brought you here. I'd like to have a little talk with you. Just you. There are things this-time you just doesn't remember. You know the address, so, let's go to dinner, shall we? Alone, if you please. I know you want to keep this city safe."
Tony started wondering if they wanted to kill him on spot, after all. Or maybe they were just melodramatic. Catching him in the open in his own city like that, and so on. Though the message was rather anticlimactic. He raised his eyebrows and looked back at future-him, who straightened a little and ran his hand over his face. "And that was it? The big reveal? The scary message?" He rolled his eyes. "I miss the Mandarin."
Tony flinched. Maya's betrayal, dead teenagers that he should have kept safe, more dead people, because he'd trusted the wrong woman... The pain in his foot, during his final battle against the Mandarin, was nothing compared to the knowledge of how many had died because of the tests on Extremis.
He'd take cliché messages any day.
It must have shown on his face, because his future self looked at him carefully. "Something else I don't remember?" he guessed.
"Something like that," he answered quietly. "Pathetic message or no, their attempts at destroying our city were too successful. I have to go."
"One of us has to," the older Tony corrected. "And..." he started quietly. "I can make my suit look like anything I want."
Tony looked at him, measuring. "Like my suit, you mean."
His future self grinned a little. His armour covered him in a mere moment, and then reshaped over him into a perfect copy of the Extremis armour.
"Yes," he said. "I mean that."
"Steve will..." Tony started saying, terribly quiet. He was once again reminded that the man in front of him, while he was him in every way that mattered, hadn't seen Steve die, die after a war between the two of them. And then he hadn't seen Steve miraculously alive, and saying he trusted them, both of them... What did it mean to him? Especially now, that they were about to stomp on that trust? He felt terrible discussing these things behind Steve's back, but did his future self even understand that? Or was it just another strategy for him?
"I know. Believe me, I know..." his future self said, equally quiet, and then louder, back to business. "If something happens – your amour is in the lab in the basement; you have all the access codes. Steve has the codes to the one I'm using."
Steve had always had all of his override codes, Tony mused. "It should be me going there," he said again.
"I am you," future-Tony replied with a shrug. Logically, it was obvious that he was the one that had to go, and apparently he hadn't even considered the alternative. He could risk everything. If Tony went in his place and got killed, the timeline would die with him. He knew it all too well. He still hated it.
"You don't remember," he said. "It's not – I've got Extremis – I can connect to your comm, tell you whether I recognize anybody." He cut himself off.
"Thanks, but I hear a 'but' coming." His future self dissolved his armour for the time being.
"You're not going to fight them. You want to let them catch you, learn what they know."
"Is it the 'let's state the obvious' day?" future-him asked, irritated.
"Listen to me," Tony snapped. "You want to be caught. You want them to take you to wherever they’re staying. You want to be captured. How the hell do you think you’ll fool anyone into thinking you're me, when you can't take that armour off?"
Tony wasn't even sure about that – he'd seen him taking the helmet off, sure, but as for the rest... How connected was it to his body? He could dissolve it in a second, but could he pretend to take it off, piece after piece?
"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," future-him decided. "For now I want to see their faces. Learn what they know. Maybe I'll be lucky enough to bring someone in."
"If they show up without telling you to take the armour off, they're not half as intelligent as we think they are." Or too sure of themselves, he thought. He would prefer that, of course, but they didn't exactly seem stupid, all things considered.
"They didn't give us a time," future Tony noted.
"They know we’ll fly there as soon as we hear it," he shrugged.
"We can keep them waiting," other him offered with a grin.
"We really can't."
"You're right." He looked to the side. "I don't even think there's much point in stripping that robot further. We won't learn anything we haven't already from the other ones."
"Probably." Tony nodded and still half-closed his eyes, reaching out with Extremis. He immediately recognized the signature of the armour's energy and slipped into its systems, mainly reading ones, just over Tony, who for all intents and purposes was those systems, now. A technopath and a machine. As close to telepathy as they'd get.
"I got you," he said.
"Thanks. Wow, but it feels weird."
His older self looked at him, apparently surprised to hear him out loud again instead of through Extremis.
"Try not to kill yourself for me, okay?" Because I'll never forgive myself, he didn't add.
Future-Tony laughed a little hysterically and without answering shot up out the window, into the sky. True to his word, Tony used Extremis to stay with him, like a ghost.
"Fifty-second?" Tony made sure.
"Won’t be long now," Tony said into his future self's ear. "Do you have shielding?"
"Who do you take me for?"
Future Tony made sure his armour still looked like the Extremis one, and without further ado, flew to Fifty-second Street, Tony with him in every way that mattered. His future self had just reached the street, the armour still cloaked, when Tony sharply sucked in a breath. It couldn't be... The armour sensors registered a girl standing on one roof, about a hundred metres on, a familiar girl, but it couldn't be...
"What is it?" his future self must have clued into his reaction.
"I know that girl..." he sounded uncertain. He felt uncertain. It couldn't have been true.
"She was dead. She died on her watch, in the Initiative. Her partner, Paragon, murdered her." He stopped to calm down. "There was a big conspiracy, and the Mandarin came back – he was testing Extremis on humans, with Maya's help... That girl, Gadget, died, because she noticed people missing." He finished talking, but he was still breathing too quick. It took a lot out of him, telling that story. He knew that the future-him had a lot of questions, but all of them would have to wait. Tony once again cursed the SHRA in his head. He had hated it as he'd fought for it and nothing had changed about that. How many young, too young heroes did they accept for the Initiative? It wasn't supposed to be like that... He shook his head. It wasn’t the time to dwell on all the mistakes he’d made.
"And here she is. She might've been injected with Extremis?" future-Tony asked. He had a point; Extremis had wonderful regenerative capabilities. The mere fact that Tony lived through his own injuries from the fight with Mallen was miraculous. Or just the opposite. "Though there aren't any readings that would suggest her having the Extremis enhancile."
"There's also the fact that Gadget's dead. I saw her autopsy, she was buried; it can't be her," Tony cut in, but then hesitated slightly. "But if that's more than an accidental similarity – and it has to be, if that's someone from her family, they'd be right to blame me. I shouldn't have..."
"Hey, that's not important now," future-Tony interrupted him. And he was right to do so: wallowing in guilt could wait. His future self continued: "What's important is this: how the hell did she manage to create a time-travelling device based on my tech?"
"Well, Gadget was a genius. Working under the Initiative, she may have had access to some of my designs..."
Future-Tony breathed deeply. "Those are our designs, even if heavily edited. We agree on that, yes?"
Of course they did.
A moment of silence passed, while his future self must have tried to understand what exactly he had forgotten.
"What do you want to do?" Tony asked finally.
"Hand myself in and figure out what they want? Break free, before they decide to kill me? Hope they don’t notice the RT in the meantime?" He paused.
"They're hurting civilians, past-me. We both know we can't let them carry on with that." His future self didn't wait for a reply, just continued. "I could attack her. But I doubt she's alone. And all of my fights with the robots they created – well, I won't take my chances."
"The universe will be doomed either way," Tony laughed a little. He knew it sounded weird, via Extremis, but there was nothing he could do about it. Then he elaborated, "Steve will kill me and you if you don't come back. But I'd do the same exact thing, so..."
Tony privately thought that Steve probably wouldn't care that much, but his future self needed to hear that. He himself needed to hear that, to be honest, even if he didn't believe it.
"I'm going in," the other him said in the comms.
"Good luck," Tony replied.
Flying a suit of armour that was supposed to look like the Extremis one, with another him connected to his armour via Extremis was quite a surreal experience. Weird, too: Tony didn't think he had anyone he'd trust with that. But that was himself, and they were working to keep Steve, and thousands of people, alive.
He switched off his shields as he approached the roof of the building. It wasn't a good landing place – too steep, for one – but someone was standing there. Someone with uncanny resemblance to that Gadget girl, it seemed. He improved his eyesight via his armour and looked closer at the girl. She seemed very young, probably not even adult yet. She wasn't tall, but was slim and had short, violet hair, sticking out from under a helmet she wore. She also wasn’t exactly standing on the roof – she was floating, kept in the air by what looked like repulsor fields. He swore.
"She's got the hang of our tech," past-him agreed. "Are you sure...?"
He didn't wait. He fired his jet boots and flew closer to her. She moved just enough to look at him, not a millimetre more, and his systems informed him he was being targeted. Of course.
"Hey," he said brightly. "So I got an invitation, from you, I guess? Decided to take it. You should be proud, my calendar is full months in..."
"Mister Stark," she cut through his babbling quickly. "A pleasure."
"I really wish I could say the same thing," he said. "Miss...?"
"You should remember me," she said with a bright smile. "I've always admired you so..."
"You're not Lucy, you aren't in the Initiative," he snapped, coldly. "And I don't know every kid in a suit of armour. What's your name?" He didn't want to let her know he wasn't who she thought he was, after all.
His past self took in a sharp breath. "That's her sister. We had a sister in the database. But no special powers were listed, which means she's either normal or very, very good."
He almost snorted. A sister. Of course.
"Mary Cervantes," the girl said with a smile. "Lucy was older. She promised to show me around the Initiative some time."
"I should never have accepted her in the first place," his younger self whispered through Extremis.
"Okay. I see. That's... Hard to accomplish, but possible, especially with my signature. Kinda impossible from this year, though," he said, sounding completely honest. He didn't remember that, but it wasn't a stretch.
"You promised to keep us safe. You promised to help. The way I see it, it’s all your fault," Mary said, still smiling cheerfully. "Oh, but you don't know yet? That she got killed, and I didn't get anything. Not a single piece of information, much less an explanation. So I dug them up for myself. Apparently not even kids are safe when someone goes after you for revenge?"
He almost flinched. She was right, of course she was right, but what else could he do? He had to try and make a difference. And there was another thing... 'You don't know'.
She thought his past self came from before Lucy was killed. So that's what she wanted to fix.
He could work with that.
"What do you mean, killed?" he asked. "I was at their base a few days ago. I would've heard..." He didn't care about making his modulated voice sound emotional; that was not the point. The point was playing her game, acting surprised, just a little while longer.
"So I thought: that timeline was good. Very good. Imagine how beautiful it would be if you disappeared from before 2007."
"Mary? What are you talking about? It's 2006. December," he said and hoped to hell she wouldn't try and kill him now.
"Yes, and in the next few days, my sister will die. She'll get killed, because of some personal vengeance. And now... Now she won't, because you will be dead."
"Uh-oh," he hesitated. He'd learned what he wanted. No need to drag this out. Mary looked at him. Past him was silent. "That may be difficult. You see, I come from May of 2007. And I’ve already seen your sister’s autopsy. I've already buried her. You weren't at the funeral. Why not, if you love her that much?" He straightened.
Mary was looking at him with clear hate in her eyes.
"You would love that, but I'm really not. Do you want me to tell you the story of Lucy and Paragon?"
"You're lying!" she shouted. "I calculated everything – every single equation – it all adds up. You're lying! And what does it matter, I'll kill you anyway!"
Well, so now she decided.
Tony let his full armour show – no more games, not now – and fired a weak repulsor at her. She was way too young for him to fight her seriously with a clear conscience, he just needed to subdue her... He jumped after the girl, delicately, so as not to crush her, and pinned her to the roof.
"Be careful with her, Tony, she did make all of those robots," his past self reminded him. Tony remembered, but he needed to take her down. Quickly.
"Now go with me, and we may yet solve this outside of the Raft," he said to her.
She was slim and fast. She half-turned, as far as she was able to, but it was enough for her to plant a small device on his arc reactor. He cursed, flew away from her, didn’t quite manage to remove it before it went off.
He couldn't quite suppress a scream.
His connection to his future self’s armour got abruptly cut off. He swore. He'd underestimated her, they both had, or maybe the sensors hadn't picked up on her back up – either way, there went the 'no one can see you' plan.
He wasn't looking forward to letting himself die, and he was the only one who knew he'd gone off alone. Even if he called the Avengers now, it would take time.
He was in his armour and out of the Tower before he'd finished that thought.
"Maria," he said, connecting directly to her comm.
"I hate when you do that, Stark," she growled at him.
"I know. Can you call the Avengers to number fourteen on Fifty-second?" he asked.
"What did you do, Stark?"
"My future self may have gone there to talk to the person responsible. Mary Cervantes, Gadget's younger sister. She's deactivated his armour somehow."
"Rogers will kill you, Stark," she said and was silent for a while. "Miss Marvel is on her way."
He wasn't actually sure if he'd need help, but he was going in to fight someone that was able to disable his armour all too easily.
Carol caught up with him a minute later.
"You're an idiot," she told him firmly, flying next to him. "And Steve will be furious."
He couldn't help laughing. "Your reaction is so similar to Maria's, it's almost frightening."
"Maybe it's because we're right," she scoffed. "What do you know?"
"Next to nothing. I can't get a clear view from any cameras nearby and my connection to the armour got cut off."
"Because nothing can ever be easy," Carol commented.
They flew over the street his future self was supposed to be on. It was, unsurprisingly, empty.
"Okay, it was that house," he pointed at a block of flats.
"Can we just blast our way in?" she asked rhetorically, flying to the open window in the roof. He switched his vision to heat.
"Just two people in the building, must be them," he said. "Blast away, Carol."
She grinned in a very upsetting way before doing just that. He went inside first, following his readings. The first room was empty, just as he'd known it would be, and he crossed it quickly; the next was...
Nice equipment, he thought, impressed. Just how the hell did she manage to put it together and just how the hell did S.H.I.E.L.D. miss it?
Mary was standing at the control panel of what looked like a cross between a big laser and a portal door. Tony's future self looked a little dazed and very tense standing next to her, but he didn't seem hurt, wasn't even restrained. Why wasn't he doing anything?
His shirt was ripped, Tony noticed, and then his eyes fell on the RT node – oh. The last thing he'd seen through the connection before it'd gone dark was Mary slamming something against his chest. The small device must have been it. How did she control it? Tony set his armour to scan for remote controlling devices.
"Step away from there," Carol said, loud and clear.
"Oh, you came to rescue him? That's touching," Mary said and didn't stop typing. Tony shook his head slightly at Carol. Mary was too sure of herself, and that device on the RT... The node was the only thing keeping him alive.
"You wanted to kill me," he said.
She looked up at that, incredulous. "You are him. He dies either way. If I start with him, I get to kill you twice."
Gadget had been a cute little girl, sending letters describing her dreams to him. Had her sister been similar? Was it Tony's fault that she turned into this?
His system blinked, once, focusing on the band on Mary's wrist. Gotcha, he thought, and reached out with Extremis. Mary shouted as the band fell to the floor in two pieces, the device on Tony's RT node following suit. He blinked, shook his head and moved to punch her in the head.
She flew into the far wall, still conscious; her helmet, weak-looking as it was, must have absorbed some of the blow. Carol turned to her, fists glowing, and then Mary rolled away, took out a gun that Tony hadn't noticed before, and fired.
For a single second Tony hoped she'd missed, and then his future self swayed back, red rapidly colouring what was left of his shirt over his heart. Shit.
"Tony!" Carol said, worried, Mary used her moment of inattention to jump at the device and pull a lever down.
When the light went down, she was gone. Future-him was on his knees, hand pressed under his left collarbone. Tony started to move towards him when the armour flashed a warning at him.
"Shit, Carol, get out of here," he said, flying to grab his older self and then take him out of the window. There wasn't time to be careful; his sensors suggested everything was going to blow up in a couple of seconds. He activated his shields and hoped they would hold. Carol would be safe, and short of a nuke, nothing would harm him in his armour, but the other him was defenceless right now.
He didn't feel anything, but even his armour-enhanced vision went white for a moment.
The whole upper floor of the building was gone.
"Thanks for the save," the other him murmured, a little indistinctly.
"Don't thank me yet," he answered. "Everyone told me Steve would kill us."
"If he doesn't, I will," Carol flew closer to them. "Just what the hell were you thinking?"
Future-him winced a little as Tony levelled his flight and didn't answer. He closed his eyes.
"Eyes open." She shook her head at him. "How's that wound?"
"Just a flesh wound," he replied. "Hurts like hell, though."
If it was serious, he wouldn't be half as coherent now.
"Eyes open," Carol repeated.
"Too bright," he murmured. "Hate it when they shut down my armour."
Tony could relate. Extremis did wire his armour into his nervous system, and it had cons too.
"Mary won't bother us for a while," his other self said. "She told me – that time-travelling device of hers, it's one-way."
That may have been why none of their time-travelling tech would work to counter it if she told him the truth, but... "It reached back for me," Tony noticed.
"I know," he answered and fell silent, his breath a little raspy. He opened his eyes again. "Wait, that's the Helicarrier. Why are we here?"
"Take a guess," Carol growled at him. "If you even try to avoid doctors..." she trailed off, dangerously.
"Love you too," he said, "but..."
"I'm with her on this," Tony told his future self, and flew them into the Helicarrier.
They were in the Helicarrier's medical room again, but this time both Tonys were conscious.
The atmosphere felt heavier.
His Tony was lying on the bed and the fact that he wasn't even trying to get up spoke volumes. He healed quicker, these days, but apparently forcibly shutting down his armour was the way to give him one hell of a migraine. Steve privately thought he deserved it for being such an idiot. He wasn't worried about him so much as he'd been when he heard the news – now Tony was safe in S.H.I.E.L.D.'s med-bay, with heart monitors hooked up to him to alert them should anything change and an IV line that was mostly nourishing. He was refusing painkillers when he was conscious, of course. He would get better in no time, even if for the time being, he still looked terrible, too pale, with red-rimmed eyes; wincing with every movement. A pale-green hospital shirt hid his bandages from view and Steve thought it was for the best. He really wouldn't be able to concentrate on saying what he wanted to, if he kept thinking of how close to dying Tony came last night. If that bullet went just a bit lower...
"I'd go straight to the point," Steve started, "but you know the point." He knew he sounded angry. He was angry.
"She wanted me," past-Tony shrugged. "Yup."
"And you didn't think to tell me that?!" Steve really tried to keep his voice down, but he was fairly sure he failed.
Present-Tony frowned. "It didn’t concern you."
"What didn't concern me? The fact that the villain wrecking my city under my watch had made a demand?! Or that it was you who was supposed to hand yourself over?" He made a step forward in his Tony's direction, angry; Tony really didn't understand, did he?
"Seeing how she only wants past-me, I'd say it's not your problem, Steve. There's no need to further endanger civilians' security. And you're supposed to take care of the world's security now, not think over our little time-travelling problem here." His off-hand tone was what annoyed Steve the most.
"It is my problem! For one thing, you’re an Avenger, you’re both Avengers. If your past self dies, so does our world! That doesn't concern me? A villain making a trap for you doesn't concern me? If you try to fight them, civilians will get hurt again, because we all saw just how efficient you are against those robots!" He stopped shouting, breathing quickly, and forced himself to calm down. "So what exactly, Tony, doesn't concern me?"
"Well, you know now anyway," Tony shrugged and winced immediately. "Can we skip the lecture?"
"I know now," Steve growled. "Because you almost died back there. You know, everything would be easier if you would just learn to share your knowledge and plans with people who are supposed to be your friends," he added in a cutting voice. Past-Tony flinched; he had been watching their argument, but now he looked away from them, pale and shaken. Steve didn't even feel bad. He, especially him, should have learned from his mistakes. He remembered them, after all. Tony looked at his past self, too, and frowned.
"Low blow, Steve," he said.
"We deserved it," past-Tony said quietly, still not looking at either of them.
Steve breathed deeply, once. "Okay. She wanted you. So you decided not to tell anyone and just go there."
"He told me," past-Tony said with sarcasm.
"Be serious," Steve almost growled.
"He is. Okay, I underestimated her, it was a bad call." Tony, the one from this time, answered him. Steve gritted his teeth. It was disconcerting how they almost read each other's minds. They were one person, but... Tony continued, "and I couldn't risk her attacking the city again."
Steve felt like shaking him. After all these years, Tony really should have realised some things. "But you could've risked her killing you," Steve gritted out.
"I said, it was a bad call. But now we at least know what it's about."
"So what? What does it change? You knew it was about you!" Steve shouted angrily, turning back to face two Tony Starks, who were apparently working together for the moment. Figures.
"But not why, and now we do. We know what it was about her time-travelling method that was so weird and hopefully now we can reverse-engineer it," past-Tony shrugged.
Present-Tony spoke. "We know what to expect. I'll upgrade my armour as soon as I'm out of here."
"She said she wanted to kill us," past-Tony continued, "but she was rather distracted, too. Revenge makes you emotional, I guess. So if she turns up again before we're ready... I doubt she'd kill us on the spot."
"You're not a distraction!" Steve shouted, losing his nerves.
"And since when do you care?" his Tony shot back, and that was it, really, because it wasn't true, was actually hurtful, and at this point both of them should have realised it.
"You," he said to his Tony, "if you take one step with the intention of giving yourself up – again – I'll shut your armour down. Stay in the lab with Reed and think of some solution that isn’t suicide." Before Tony opened his mouth to argue, Steve looked at Tony's younger self. "From what I was told by Reed, if you get killed here, it won't matter much if we find a solution. Do I need to tell you to stay put?"
Tony was silent for a long while. Steve ran a hand through his hair, impatient and annoyed, and turned to pace the short distance to the door. How could Tony keep acting so stupid?
"I can't let you get hurt, Cap," Tony said quietly. Steve wasn't sure which one of them said it, but the other one was just silent, which in Tony-Tony speak meant "agreed". Steve breathed deeply and turned back to face them, met two identical stubborn blue stares. It was almost disconcerting.
"You getting hurt hurts me!" Steve said a little too loudly, too forcefully, but how the hell didn't Tony get it yet? "Tony, you are my friend. You don't want to see me hurt. That works both ways. Really."
His Tony didn't seem to believe him, but nodded anyway. Steve wanted to say it calmed him down, but he knew Tony better than that: if he set his mind on a solution, nothing would stop him. Tony from the past didn't move, kept looking at him with a steady expression, and that was worrying. Steve thought of their last talk briefly and corrected the statement. Very worrying.
"Tony, you already did something so stupid I don't have words for it. Try not to outdo yourself," Steve said.
Tony looked as if he wanted to wave his hands around, only with all those medical wires, couldn't. "Okay, Steve, I'll try. I'm not trying to get myself killed on purpose, you know."
"I really wish I did," Steve murmured. He took another look at Tony. The man was exhausted, that was clear. He had every right to be, and he should be resting, and instead Steve barged right into his room and demanded answers. He winced inwardly. He shouldn't have done that. He should have waited until Tony was recovered.
"Hey, Tony, I was just worried," he said in a softer voice. "I'll leave you for now, okay? You need sleep."
Tony didn't even try to argue. "Come back," he whispered, but Steve wasn't even sure if he did it consciously. He agreed anyway. Tony was half-asleep already, so Steve drew the blanket up a little bit higher – he knew how cold hospitals could get – and exchanged glances with Tony from the past. They went out of the room, quietly, together.
"I take it you're tired too," Steve said. Tony nodded, slowly.
"Okay. I'll take you to the Tower – I really don’t want you flying in that state."
As far as excuses went, that one was pretty lousy, but Tony just nodded again, his thoughts clearly elsewhere, and followed Steve to the flying car. He went inside on the passenger side without protesting. He kept looking at Steve, as if expecting something, but moved his eyes away as soon as Steve noticed. They flew in relative silence, and when they’d parked in the Tower’s hangar, Steve got out of the car too, with every intention of seeing Tony to his bedroom. As it was, the man looked about ready to walk into a wall.
"Okay, I think it's here?" Steve said, and then cursed himself, because they were at the other Tony’s door, not the one that was next to him now. Tony woke up from his reverie and glanced at the door. His mouth lifted in a weak smile.
"Good enough. We are the same person." He hesitated. Steve looked at him patiently.
"Tony? Everything all right?" Steve asked, worried, when Tony didn't say anything else for a few moments. Tony nodded, gestured at him to go inside. Steve shrugged and did, and found himself in a somehow familiar room; the same one where he'd asked Tony for suit upgrades.
"Thank you," Tony said all of a sudden, quietly. "He needs rest. And he really didn't want to worry you."
"Tony," Steve repeated for the hundredth time. "You can't just go and do something like that in secret, because you don't want to worry me. That worries me."
Tony looked at him as if he didn't quite understand what Steve had just said. Steve was at a loss for words, because how else could he make him finally get it?
"I care about you. Really," Steve said, willing him to believe. Tony was one of the most important people in his life, he couldn't imagine his life without that man, and he seemed so unwilling to believe him...
"I'm sorry," Tony said, all of a sudden. Steve looked at him, a little bit surprised. Everything they said and did to each other during the war – both of them had already apologised for it, and he didn't really expect Tony to apologise for tonight.
"What for?" he asked.
"This," Tony answered, crossed the space between them, and kissed him. Steve froze for just a second – Tony had said he loved him, and Steve knew he didn't mean it as just a friend, but he hadn't mentioned it since and Steve was honestly shocked at the moment – before he cupped Tony's face with his hands and returned the kiss.
He knew Tony was going back to his time, and probably soon. He knew the Tony that stayed with him wouldn't remember it.
He knew he needed to sort his own feelings out, think about the Tony who was actually living in his time, decide what exactly he wanted from the man – he knew all of it and pushed it to the very bottom of his thoughts and concentrated on the feel of Tony's lips on his, Tony's hands on his shoulders, Tony's body pressed against his.
Tony was clutching at him in desperation, one hand at his waist and the other in his hair, tight almost to the point of pain, but Steve didn't mind. He pressed against him, backed him off until Tony's back hit the wall, chased his mouth and returned every kiss, until it was Tony who turned his head to the right to catch some air. Steve was left with his lips pressed against Tony's cheek and didn't mind all that much.
"What are we doing?" Tony whispered in a hoarse voice, his breathing quick, shallow.
"You tell me, you started this," Steve replied equally quietly, mouthing against his cheekbone. Tony shook in a silent laugh, and Steve felt it through his hands still on Tony's arms.
"And you weren't supposed to..." Tony trailed off. "Nevermind that. Come closer."
Steve did, because at this point he doubted he could tell Tony 'no', so he took a small step forward, bringing them even closer together, chest to chest, Tony's legs between his, Tony's lips suddenly hot on his, and Steve returned the kiss almost automatically, put one hand on the base of Tony's neck and pulled him closer, deepened the kiss; noticed that his own hand had snuck under Tony's shirt at some point and Tony didn't seem to mind, so he worked it behind Tony, held him tight, his warm fingers on Tony's slim waist. In some back corner of his mind he realised it was an insane, tremendously bad idea, but Tony was making it really really difficult for him to think right now, and he was still kissing him with intent, and Steve wasn't going to push him away, probably couldn't even begin to try, and instead let himself forget everything but Tony, his warm hands and warmer lips.
Tony could have died today. Not this Tony, but Tony, Tony that was supposed to stay with Steve. He was in hospital right this moment.
This Tony, from the past, knew that he was going back to the world where Steve was dead.
Steve stopped thinking.
Steve woke up briefly with Tony embracing him tight enough that moving without waking Tony would be impossible, smiled and went straight back to sleep.
The next time he woke up, he was alone and not really surprised by that. He didn't expect Tony to stay; from what he heard, it wasn't his style. In the next second Steve decided he was being unfair to him. Making his opinion based on what various tabloids wrote about Tony – that wasn't a good idea. It'd never been. So why the hell did Steve jump to that?
Okay, he could admit it to himself. He was a little hurt. Completely irrationally, but he was.
Then the door opened, and bathrobe-clad Tony Stark came inside. He leant against the door, but didn't step closer.
"Hello, Tony," Steve replied, feeling guilty for assuming he would be gone.
"I thought it would be best if I were gone – seeing as how it was such a stupid idea, and I can't stay in this timeline, and right now I have a hard time remembering that Tony Stark here will actually be me – anyway, I thought it wouldn't be fair to you."
Oh. "Thank you," Steve said seriously. He sat up, looked at the floor. Tony came closer to him and hugged him loosely.
"I’ve already told you this, but – I love you," he whispered into his ear. "And I’m sorry for everything. I shouldn't have."
"I agreed, Tony," Steve reminded him.
"I know. Still." Tony knelt in front of him and leant his forehead against Steve's thigh. "I wish I could stay here," he whispered so quietly Steve was sure it wasn't meant for his ears. Steve tangled his fingers into Tony's hair, caressed his hair a little, just because he could, to cheer Tony up.
Tony, who was going back to the world with a dead Steve.
Sleeping with him had been a bad idea, but Steve couldn't bring himself to regret it.
"I wish you could stay, too," he whispered, but he must have underestimated Tony's Extremis-enhanced ears, because he looked up sharply.
"There’s a Tony Stark in this timeline," he said. "And he’s just as much in love with you as I am."
Steve suspected as much, realised they were one person, but...
"There isn't a Steve Rogers in yours," he answered. "And here, not everyone hates you, Tony."
Tony took in an unsteady breath, blinked a few times. He somehow managed to smile.
"Thank you, Steve. I should go."
"I really should."
Steve didn't reply this time.
Tony gave him another weak smile before slipping out the door, still only in his bathrobe. Steve sighed. He had a vague idea that he’d managed to make an even bigger mess of things.
He stood up and dressed himself – at some point Tony must have sent his clothes to wash...
He stopped moving, just looked at the uniform he was putting on for a longer while, and only then dressed completely. The design was similar, yes, just a little darker, but it was the fabric that clued him in. It seemed thinner and more solid at once. It fit perfectly – of course. Steve was willing to bet his hand that it'd never tear in action again.
So Tony had finally finished his suit. Steve smiled to himself. His shoulder straps for guns fit as well as the rest of the suit did, and were almost as familiar as those for his shield had once been. Tony was a genius, after all. Steve put his hands into his pockets, and found a note in one of them.
'It's mostly his work, but I figured he'd like you to have it now. It is much safer than your previous so-called body armour.'
Steve smiled to himself a little more. Of course. Thanks, Tony, he thought.
He went back up, to the hangar, where he'd left his flying car yesterday, and then flew straight to the Helicarrier. He had a world to run, much as he despised it at the moment.
Tony woke up with a slowness connected to painkillers and sedatives. Still half-conscious, he ran his hand over his left arm and tried to put out all of the medical tubes and wires. Someone caught him by the hand, carefully. He opened his eyes briefly, noticed the blond hair, and let them close again. It was too bright in the room.
"Let me, Steve," he murmured. The hand over his wrist tightened for a moment.
"Shall I buy you glasses or worry about your memory?" a voice quipped. A voice. Not Steve's. Carol's.
"He promised," Tony started saying, before he realised just what he wanted to say out loud and he cursed the sedatives in his head. "Carol. Hi."
He heard a sigh. "Idiot. You could have been killed, Tony."
"I couldn't have ignored it," he argued, even though he wasn't quite sure what had happened. Everything seemed blurry. Didn't they know he hated sedatives?
"Also please tell me I'm not on morphine," he said in a hoarse voice. A hand raised his head and another put a cup of water to his lips.
"You know you are," she said quietly. "Don't blame the doctors, it was a hard night for everyone."
Was it? He couldn’t remember. Hopefully yet. He had really had enough of losing his memories.
But Steve had been there, and himself, just younger... Why didn't any of them protest putting him on morphine of all things? Tony winced at himself. Now he was being irrational. They had better things to do than babysit him, of course. He hoped he’d come down from the drugs quickly and regain his clear mind.
"Tony?" Carol asked him, visibly worried.
"Sorry. Got lost in thought," he said. He sounded and felt better, the probably illicit water helped. "Thanks for the water."
"You should sleep some more. At least till you come down from the drugs," she said with a frown.
"They'll only give me more," he noted. He vaguely remembered getting shot, but he couldn't feel any pain now. Maybe staying in bed wouldn't be so bad for a while longer... Yeah, no. He started to sit up, but Carol pushed him back down.
"Stay here," she ordered. "I'll tell them not to drug you anymore. Could it interfere with the RT?" She smiled devilishly, not really worried now. Good. He loved her sometimes.
"Oh, you can definitely warn them of that."
"I will. Now sleep."
His was asleep before she even closed the door.
When he woke up for the second time, he went from still asleep to absolutely conscious in seconds flat, which told him Carol’d kept her word, more than anything. He'd really have to thank her later.
"How are you feeling?" his younger self asked. He might still have his eyes closed, but he could recognize his own voice.
"All the better for your asking," he joked.
"You've fallen low, Tony," past-him replied seriously. "I've convinced the doctors to let you go if you're feeling like it."
"Are you kidding me?" He opened his eyes and immediately moved to sit up. He decided to ignore the warm arm supporting him immediately. It was his own hand, after all. Had been. Whatever. He could lean on it. His past self chuckled.
"Yeah, I get now why I'm so annoying in hospitals. Slow down. Before you ask – no, there haven't been any new attacks. I'm not sure if she's back yet. Unfortunately, no tech survived that explosion."
He should have expected that, but it wasn't good news. And it seemed like they had to sit and wait again. "How's Steve?"
His past self tensed momentarily.
"Is he still mad...?" Tony asked.
"No." Past-him shook his head. "He wasn't happy – it's all right now."
Huh. He could see when he was hiding something. Weird.
"I gave him his new uniform."
Oh. That was... Okay, Tony guessed, though he wanted to hand it to Steve himself. A stupid sentiment. "Okay."
"Yeah, sorry, just. I was worried about him." He looked at the wall. "It's stupid, but..."
But you know he's gone in your time, Tony ended the sentence. He wasn't used to feeling bad for himself, but he was starting to feel very damn happy that he didn't remember that time.
"So she only travels forward from the point she starts the device," he said to change the topic. "We can work with that."
"Are we just going to assume she was speaking the truth?" past-Tony asked the question both of them have been thinking over.
"Yes," Tony was sure. "She was sure she'd already succeeded. She had me defenceless, or so she thought, and she could speak. What I learned, it all adds up with what we'd already known."
"She could've known that and fabricated a story," past him noted quietly.
Tony shook his head, even though it still hurt a bit. "She's not getting a look past my firewalls. No one is. They're perfect. As is my whole security system." That, at least, he was sure of.
"Perfect, huh? Good to know," past-him said with a small smile, somehow both sad and wicked. Lines of code flashed for a moment over his eyes; he must've accessed Extremis. Tony decided he was still too tired to try and guess what for. Anyway, if there was one person he trusted with his data at this point... Instead of thinking about that, he thought of the heap of wires and elements they'd been assembling with Reed in Tony's lab. He had a hard drive full of notes and ideas on their time machine prototype, suited to the particles left behind by the one of Mary's. They could start building something to detect when she gets back. Or maybe even where – or when she is now. He had many interesting projects in his lab, but that one, the time machine, was perhaps the most interesting and the less useful in long run. Perfect.
"We can prepare for her," he proposed, knowing that his past self knew exactly what he was thinking about.
"Or not," past-him noted, but smiled a bit easier.
They shared a quick smile at that. Even if they had to wait around – well, there were worse things than days of laboratory work to look forward to.
Steve steeled himself and entered Tony's lab. Tony stood in front of a computer screen, but he was just looking at it, not moving at all. He looked back at Steve when he approached him without any prompting, though.
"So gratifying to see you deign to visit me," Tony said. Steve was unprepared for the cutting edge in his voice and frowned.
"But as you're here, I'd say I'm sorry, but I'm really not," Tony interrupted him. Steve wanted to ask again what this was about – Tony seemed to be mad at him for some reason. It wasn't as if he wouldn't have one, if he let Steve say what he wanted to, but as he couldn't remember what happened between them, Steve wasn't sure what else he did to earn that. Before he could open his mouth, Tony moved to punch him square in the jaw, in a perfect move he'd once learned from Steve. Surprised as he might have been, reflexes won, and Steve blocked he blow and pushed Tony's hand aside before he took a step back.
"Tony," he said. "What's this about?"
Tony massaged his hand where Steve stopped him and glared at him.
"So there’s another me here," he started conversationally. "And that me decided, for reasons that I can’t really fathom, that it would be a good idea to … kiss somebody. Somebody it would be incredibly stupid to kiss, unless he wanted to get punched in the face. But then that somebody actually kissed him back, and I could describe what happened next, but we’re both adults, and I think you already know."
"How..." Maybe it wasn't the best thing to say, as Tony's voice just grew colder.
"Well, the fact that you haven't even talked to me for the past few days, and he couldn’t say your name without stumbling, was … enlightening. Also, that me is an idiot, and doesn't know how to delete footage from my own server. Or that trying to delete it like he did only flags it for me to notice. Imagine how I felt when I checked why the security cameras were alerting me to something. Though I don’t see why you would do that, clearly, that was a mistake on your part. Or was it pity?" He stopped, breathed quickly, and continued before Steve had a chance to say something. "Let me make one thing clear. I'm an adult, I know he knew what he was doing, he was desperate and wanted to have one good memory, if only for a few days. That's all fine. What I am mad about is that you, knowing I wouldn't remember..."
Security cameras. Security cameras... The Tony from the past wasn't an idiot, knew his own way of designing security systems, and had Extremis. He wouldn't make such a mistake as Tony suggested now. Steve decided not to think of that further.
He put his finger to Tony's lips, silencing him. Tony glared at him again, furiously.
"You're right," he said. "I get it, you're right, I'm sorry. I’m here to talk to you about it." It sounded weak even in his own ears. "But I should have come here sooner. And maybe I shouldn't have done what I did at all," he admitted. Tony seemed to deflate at that and Steve hurried to explain. Tony might have been mad at him, rightly so, but he had a point: it was still him that Steve had kissed back, had slept with, knowing perfectly well that he wouldn’t remember, and it wasn’t right. "Not because I regret sleeping with you. I don't. But I shouldn't have done it, for the reasons you've just listed."
When Tony didn't say anything, Steve realised he hadn't taken his fingers off his lips; soft, as he remembered them. "What are you saying, Steve?" Tony was looking at him with disbelief clear in his eyes. Maybe there was a tiny bit of hope there, too.
"You were... I get it if you don't feel like that," Steve said anyway. "But I wanted to kiss you. I have for a long time. It was… You've been my best friend for so long, I didn't want to risk it. I never imagined that you could be attracted to me."
"'Attracted' is one word for it," Tony murmured.
"Yes?" Steve couldn't quite keep the worry out of his voice and didn't say anything else.
Tony laughed at him, pulled him forward so that their foreheads were touching. "Yes," he said. "'Hopelessly in love with you since before I can remember' is another."
"That's not a word," Steve told him, feeling light-headed and a little giggly at the thought that he got two first love confessions from the same man.
"I'm still mad at you," Tony said.
"I'm sorry," Steve repeated. What else was there to say?
"Yeah." Tony slipped out of his embrace, took a step back. "Were you really going to tell me?"
Steve took a deep breath. He'd gone down to Tony's garage with every intention of telling him what happened between the two of them. How he felt about him. He'd wanted to do it and he would have done it, had Tony not already known everything.
"Have you … talked to you?" Steve asked with hesitation.
"Under the circumstances, Steve, that's really none of your business," Tony told him sharply.
Steve could usually read him very well, but now he couldn't say what Tony was thinking. He couldn't say what he wanted him to be thinking, either.
He may have been a little in love with that man since forever. He could admit it at least to himself. He wasn't sure if he was ready to start a relationship with him. Especially with a version of him from the past still here. But god, he wanted to.
"Kiss me," Tony said.
"Excuse me?" Steve startled.
Tony rolled his eyes. "I've asked you to kiss me. Just once. I know what you're thinking. I want to..." he trailed off. "Will you, or was only my apologetic past self good enough for you?"
"That has nothing to do with anything," Steve said, feeling suddenly angry, but he approached Tony anyway. Tony was looking at him expectantly, but seemed a little unsure of himself; Steve sighed. He’d have a hard time stopping himself from kissing him when he looked like that even if he hadn't asked. He moved closer to him, carefully, mindful of the bandages still under Tony's shirt, put a hand on his waist and leant closer. Tony closed his eyes, moved closer to him, and Steve caught his lips in a tender, affectionate kiss. To his surprise, Tony didn't try and make it more heated, just melted against him and kept things slow and easy. Steve hugged him, pulled him closer in a loose, warm embrace, and Tony didn't seem to mind. He was smiling when they broke apart a few minutes later.
"Thank you, Steve," he murmured against his cheek.
"Don't," Steve answered, equally quietly.
"I know what you're thinking," Tony repeated quietly, still happily nuzzling against his cheek. "You're right. It's not the best time ... scratch that, it's a horrible time, it'd blow up in our faces and neither of us would walk away unharmed. If you're still willing to try, later, I'll be here." He sighed, sounding a little sad, and moved even closer to Steve. "Just … give me a moment..."
Tony always was a tactile creature, Steve remembered, and leant his chin over Tony's head. Tony apparently really could read his mind, and Tony was right. They had to wait.
"In the meantime, can we get back to the whole 'getting to be friends again' plan?" Steve suggested.
Tony grinned at him. "Try and stop me from that." He gave him one last kiss on the cheek and then stepped back.
And that was when their alarm sounded, for once having waited for the right moment.
Tony sighed. "At least we get to skip the awkward goodbye phase," he joked as his armour flew over him. "Do you still want my past self on house arrest?"
"He was seen anyway, let him come," Steve decided. The PR team could shout at them later. Tony reached for his phone and typed something incredibly quick, and then activated his armour.
"Okay, he knows. Let's go outside," Tony said and extended his arm. Steve embraced him tightly, and, feeling as safe as ever, flew with Iron Man to the attack scene.
Central Park, this time. Surprise, surprise. Steve figured there was at least one minor attack there per week.
Another one of those robots was there. This time, they could also see a young girl – Mary Cervantes, presumably. And... Steve cursed. "Hostages. She has hostages," he said, gesturing in their direction. Tony gripped him tighter and closer, because Steve was probably moving too much, considering the fact that he was flying basically in Tony's arms, but he was furious. He didn't expect her to take hostages. He probably should have, but so far, the attacks were aimed so clearly at Tony...
"How's your armour, Tony?" Steve asked, forcing himself to calm down.
"Better than it was, but I'd rather stay out of her range if possible. Oh, and … I'll make my armour look like the Extremis one once I put you down. She wants to kill past me, so, two targets, let's make it harder for her."
"So that she's got a chance of killing you first," Steve said flatly.
Tony shrugged. "Better than the alternative, don't you think?"
To say that Steve didn't like this plan would be an understatement, but Tony had a point. They couldn't let her kill Tony from the past. "Okay," he said, trying not to show his hesitation. "The rest of the Avengers are coming, too."
The second Iron Man caught up to them. "Am I seeing what I think I'm seeing?" he asked.
"Unfortunately," Tony answered. "Be careful with her, you saw what she did to my armour."
"We've both upgraded," he quipped, but Steve believed – hoped – he took the warning to heart.
They landed at the side of the park and Tony, true to his word, made his armour look just like the Extremis one. The effect was even more disorienting than when the two of them stood next to each other, armourless; Steve could tell them apart, then. Now they were identical.
"Don't get killed," he said.
"You too," one of them replied. "I've scanned her. She's got a small gun – I doubt it's in any way normal, but that's all my scanners are showing me."
"It may very well be the one she shot you with last time," the other – clearly past-Tony – reminded them.
"Yeah, it may," Tony agreed unwillingly.
"Okay," Steve nodded. "Let's go."
It was high time they stopped her, because it was noon and there were still people in the park, running away and screaming, and while S.H.I.E.L.D. would take care of them in a minute, Mary had managed to capture a lot of them. Her robot just stood guard over the hostages – terrified, screaming and crying people. Steve took a step in that direction.
"Let them go, Miss Cervantes," he said.
"Oh, the Commander himself. I feel honoured. Take a step forward and I will."
"Steve, no," Tony said in his communicator, but he didn't listen. A step forward didn't bring him in her range, and as for the robot, he was in the range of its attack anyway. And he wasn't defenceless. He still had his gun on him – he wouldn't shoot, but she, hopefully, didn't know that – and his uniform should protect him a little. He could simply dodge most of the attacks.
"Great, thanks!" she smiled. "Now, two Iron Men? Oh my. The one from the past, please, lose your armour."
"You're crazy," Tony replied, shaking his head.
She looked at the robot and it nodded somehow, wrapped one of its limbs around a panicking women and moving her next to Mary.
"Out of the armour or out with her life," Mary growled.
Steve watched in silence as Tony gave the mental command to disassemble his armour and the metal parts fell to the ground around him, leaving him just in the golden undersuit. Just what protection did that leave Tony with? The undersuit was designed to fit under the armour and help with relaying orders from Tony to its sensors...
"Thank you," she said. "Okay, lady, run away," she told her hostage. The woman immediately started running, staggering slightly every now and then, and Steve felt a moment of relief. He was afraid Mary would shoot her anyway. She seemed insane enough.
"So. Again? Commander, a step forward, if you please. Current Stark, armour." The robot had given her another hostage before she even finished talking. Tony’s shoulders slumped. He reabsorbed his armour into his bones and just stood there, seemingly unmoved by his nudity. There was still an ugly scar under his left collarbone. Steve’s temper surged.
"You know, Mary, if that's what you wanted, all you had to do was ask," Tony quipped, but while he was smiling at her seductively, his eyes were just cold.
Both of them could suit back up in mere seconds. What was she trying to do? And where were the Avengers?
"Don't overestimate yourself, Stark," she snapped at him.
"You too, dear," he said, full of charm.
She looked at the robot and before anyone could react, it stepped forward, caught Tony in its tentacle, and threw him hard against a tree.
"Tony!" Steve shouted. He and past-Tony moved to helped him, but were stopped in place by her words.
"Stop, Commander Rogers, you too, Director Stark," she growled, her gun aimed straight at one of the hostages. "He'll live, now, let's go back to what's important." She lowered her gun, but Steve didn't dare run to Tony. He saw he wasn't suiting up for some reason and that couldn't be good, but Steve couldn't just leave past-Tony here alone. He spared another look at present Tony. He was slowly standing up, wincing. He looked relatively unharmed. Was he just worried that she’d attack the hostages? It seemed as though she’d stopped paying them any attention, but they couldn't be sure.
"Now look, I’ve been wanting to kill you, but... It's a funny place, this one. Did a lot of time travel happen here? Because it does funny things to my tech."
"It's Central Park. A super-villain attacks it two times a week on average," present-Tony rolled his eyes. "Background radiation is high as hell. Anything new?" he mocked, even though he was still leaning on the tree for support.
"A few things. Like, look!" In a very quick move, she raised her hand, aimed somewhere between them and fired; the bullet stopped in mid-air. "Every time, in that place. Like a barrier between us. So annoying!" She shook her head. "So as I was saying, I wanted to kill you. Then we'd go back, my sister would be safe, we wouldn't even remember all of that. So what’s in it for me if I kill you, nothing changes, and she stays dead?!" she shouted suddenly, closing her fists.
"Calm down," Steve said. "I understand your loss – believe me, I do – but you don't have to do this."
She smiled in a very ugly way. "I have to do exactly this. She was my whole life. I wanted to take Stark's away from him. But there was simply no point, not later, nothing that would hurt him. I can't save my sister, but as for Stark..."
Steve realised what she was implying a moment too late, and he started moving, but she'd already fired the weapon at him. He heard Tony screaming his name, and then he was pushed to the ground, hard; shoved out of the bullet's way. He automatically grabbed the person who’d pushed him out of the way, hoping that Carol had arrived, but he ran his fingers down their body and they came away wet with something warm, too warm, and there was too much of it, and then he looked down and –
He moved him to the ground quickly and knelt over him. In his peripheral vision he saw Iron Man knocking Mary straight to the ground with a powerful punch, but the action came too late to give him any satisfaction. Steve pressed his hands to the wound in Tony's lower abdomen. His hand slid over his chest, briefly, didn't catch on the RT node, and only then did he realise that the Tony who had saved his life was the one from the past. The one he was supposed to protect at all costs.
"I'm sorry, Steve," Tony whispered. He was getting terribly pale. "I'm sorry, I couldn't, not again."
"Shhh," Steve said calmly, pressing on the wound; in his head he was on the verge of panic, and why weren’t the Avengers or S.H.I.E.L.D. here with medical yet? "Keep your eyes open, Tony. Tony!"
"I'm sorry, Steve," he repeated. "I know – I know about the world. It'll probably just rewind to where I disappeared from..." He coughed a little, a few drops of blood showed on his teeth. "I couldn't," he finished.
"Don't say that," Steve pleaded with him. "Don't." He pressed his hands harder into the wound, as if brute strength would stop it from bleeding.
"It's okay," Tony choked out.
Steve furiously blinked his tears away. There was no reason to cry, Tony was going to be fine...
"You'll be fine," Steve said quietly. He'll be fine, because he had to be. Tony smiled at him, almost softly, even though he must have been in considerable pain.
Steve heard his Tony's voice and took a deep, too shaky breath. He hadn't even heard him approaching, not when all of his attention was on past-Tony, bleeding out under his hands. Steve risked a quick look back, away from past-Tony. His Tony looked unsure of himself, as if he thought he was intruding, something weird in his eyes. He kept looking at Steve and back at his past self, as if he wasn't quite sure whether he even wanted to be there, or whether he should.
"Thank you, me, for saving him," he said very quietly. "But what the fuck happens now?"
Nothing happens, because he'll live, Steve thought. Past-Tony was getting very pale, very fast.
"Now..." Tony smiled a little. "Now the world goes on as if we died in 2007. Sorry, me." He winced again.
"You're not dying," Steve told him, a little too forcefully. He couldn't. Not now. Not because of him. "Tony, bring a medic or something, tell S.H.I.E.L.D. to hurry up..."
Iron Man was in the sky before Steve finished talking, judging by the sound of his jet boots starting, but Steve kept looking at Tony, so very pale, and yet somehow calm.
"If … If it’s any consolation," Tony whispered, "I don't think you'll remember this."
Steve felt his eyes burning. "Of course I will. You're not dying! And don't say you're sorry again!"
Tony forced himself to smile. "I am. That's all right. You'll be happier this way." He closed his eyes briefly and then opened them again. "I never told you I loved you, before you died. I have now. It's all right," he said very quietly. Breathing must have hurt him.
"Just lay here, quiet, don't talk, don't close your eyes," Steve said, though his heart was breaking. They finally got a chance to solve things between them and this was how it ended? Tony opened his mouth, maybe to say something else, maybe to argue again – Steve didn't have the chance to find out.
Tony's head leant to the side and white light engulfed everything.
Steve woke up with a gasp and sat up immediately. His breath was too fast and so was his pulse, and it was a miracle that he hadn’t torn the bedclothes with the grip he had on them.
For a short while, he'd hoped he was done with these nightmares. The images that Doom's device made him see... He knew they weren't, couldn't be real. He'd go insane otherwise. The past that Skull dreamt of was his worst nightmare, but it was just that, a bad dream. The future with Sharon was the one he'd always thought he'd have, in the end, and it wasn't easy to throw it away... But if the cost was that post-apocalyptic world with Bucky dead, he didn’t have much choice.
And then there was that whole different world, the one where Steve came back to life to find Osborn heading H.A.M.M.E.R., but with Tony still alive, if amnesic. The one where he reconciled with Tony, where another Tony was thrown into their future and finally told Steve his reasons for supporting SHRA; the world where Steve got everything he'd never known he wanted. He remembered Tony kissing him for the first time, and he remembered kissing another Tony, in a way for the first time, too; and it was all too real, again. Steve hadn't dreamt of it since he'd thrown Skull's consciousness out of his body.
He learned what of his visions was and wasn't true after his friends helped him get back. Bucky was Captain America, and good at that, Sharon, while supportive, kept herself at arm's length, and Tony, Tony was dead, Tony died in an explosion on the Helicarrier that didn't even leave his body to bury.
The dreams seemed more realistic than ever.
He could still feel Tony's blood on his hands, see him slowly closing his eyes, hear his raspy voice...
'Now the world goes on as if we died in 2007.'
No. That wasn't possible. But it was so realistic, and...
It wouldn't hurt to try and check, would it?
That wasn't possible, but... But it had to be, Steve thought. It had to be. Seeing himself talking to Tony, understanding his reasons – not forgiving him, not yet, but understanding – all of that just to wake up and find out he was dead... Yes, Red Skull couldn't think of a better way to torture him.
On the other hand, the world was, delicately speaking, in bad condition now. Steve didn't have time to pursue his dreams in the mere hope of regaining his friend. He had read all about the time he was gone. He'd caught up on how Tony'd run S.H.I.E.L.D., how he had been trying to stop the Stane kid when the bomb went off, killing him and Maria Hill, and bringing the Helicarrier down on New York. S.H.I.E.L.D. had crumpled without both her directors, even though Dugan had been doing his best to run the organisation. Tony had been keeping it in check, but barely, and none of them were Nick Fury.
When Skrulls had attacked, the world had been anything but ready. That had gone similarly, both here and in Steve's vision – they had been overwhelmed, somehow still had managed to fight back, and Norman Osborn had killed the Skrull Queen on camera, and then had been put in charge of H.A.M.M.E.R.
In Steve’s vision, Tony had deleted his mind so that Osborn wouldn’t get his hands on the Super Hero Database.
In reality, they weren't that lucky. More one-time Avengers and other super heroes were in the Negative Zone than on the streets, now, because Osborn had no qualms about giving their identities to the public and ordering a full-on witch-hunt, telling everyone that it was the superheroes' fault that Skrulls' attack was so successful.
Just how the hell anyone believed him was beyond Steve.
If anything Steve remembered from his dreams was his real future, they needed to get ready. To assemble the rest of the heroes – before Osborn thought attacking Asgard was a good idea.
If Tony were with them, it would make things so much easier. He could disable Osborn's armour. He could help Steve think of the best strategy.
Steve lifted his phone and dialled Reed Richards' number. He answered almost immediately, even though it was 3 AM.
"Hello, Doctor," Steve said. "No, no, nothing like that, I just – look, Doctor Richards, you're the specialist on alternative universes or time travel."
"I have something I'd like to discuss with you. As soon, as possible."
There was a moment of silence on the other side. "You can't change your past," Reed said finally.
"What about the future?" Steve challenged.
"Captain, what you are asking..."
"I'm not changing history," Steve hurried on with the explanation. "I think it's already been changed. Tony..." He stopped himself. He couldn't talk about Tony, not now. It was too fresh in his mind.
"Had had some experiences with time travel," Reed said. "But you didn't want to say that. What is it?"
"Can we not do it over the phone?" Steve asked, plaintively.
"Baxter Building, one PM tomorrow. You'd get too much attention if you were to leave now," Doctor Richards said. "Be careful of the H.A.M.M.E.R. patrols. They are constantly watching my building."
"Thank you, Reed."
"Not a problem, Cap–" he cut himself off. Steve was nobody in the world now, and it was better that way. Osborn didn't get his hands on the document signed by the President – there was probably a ‘yet’ in that sentence – but Steve was in hiding anyway. He hated it.
"Just ‘Steve’ is fine," he said anyway. He didn't like how awkward things became when people tried to call him by his title.
"Not a problem, Steve," Richards said and hung up.
Steve sat heavily on the floor. He was either going crazy or making the best decision of his life.
He hoped it was the latter. He couldn't take more of waking up from nightmares that were, had been, would be real. He couldn't. He had to learn the truth, or he'd go mad trying.
Steve left early, so as to be sure he would be at the Baxter Building on time. He hated just sitting and waiting, anyway.
He put on civilian clothes – no need to make it easier for Osborn to find him – and left. He went through the back alleys mostly, avoiding people; he tried not to get mad at seeing posters promising prizes for any information on 'rogue superheroes'. Osborn had to be stopped somehow, except the last thing they needed now was another civil war.
Steve was halfway to his destination when he heard a scream and turned in its direction almost without thinking.
He took the next turn, following the sound, and stopped, surveying the scene.
A young woman was trying to run away. Two H.A.M.M.E.R agents stood, blocking her way, with their weapons out.
"Now you don't have to go with us, but we know you're a sup, and no one will look," one of them said.
Steve was on him in a second, hitting him in his stomach with his knee, and finishing with a well-aimed punch to the face. The man went down immediately. The other one was aiming his gun at Steve, but Steve jumped at him and kicked it out of his hand, then hit him in the back of the neck and watched him fall.
"I... I'm not a superhuman," the woman said, shakily.
"I don't care about that, ma'am. Go home."
She nodded and left quickly. Steve checked if the agents were lying in safe positions, and, seething, continued on his way.
He was at the Baxter Building at a quarter to one. He couldn't quite wait, but he knew it wasn’t polite to show up early, so he kept pacing out front.
"Hey, Steve," he heard, before Johnny Storm engulfed him in a tight hug. "Reed told us, but..."
"I know," Steve said quietly. "That's why I'm here, in a way."
"Standing around outside? It’s not safe. Come on, Steve, come up. I’m sure Reed will come out of his lab in a few minutes. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?" Johnny got hold of his arm and steered him to the entrance.
"Johnny," Steve said softly. "I've only recently come back. I need to make sure of a few things. I'll come by and talk to you all you want at a different date?" he promised.
"Yeah, sure," Johnny looked away and shrugged, led him to the elevator. If it scanned them, Steve didn't notice it, but they were on the highest floor very quickly. The door opened to reveal the white corridor presumably leading to one of Reed's labs.
"Go in," Johnny said and moved away.
He had only the best intentions, but Steve was tired, and Tony, his Tony, was dead. He had to talk to Reed. The man opened his door seconds before Steve could try. He didn't wear lab clothes like Tony did, but that was just because his superhero costume allowed him to stretch at will without worrying about ripping clothes.
"Steve," he said slowly, seeing him. He blinked a few times, as if he was still mentally working on some project of his.
"You said one," Steve shrugged.
"Yes, yes. Come inside," he said, gesturing at the door. Steve moved inside and saw a spacious, mostly white room filled with tech he couldn't even name, lots of computer screens. There was also a run-down sofa and a coffee machine that he wouldn't trust with his drink of choice.
"Sit down," doctor Richards told him. "And tell me what this is about."
Steve listened to him and sat on the sofa, then took a deep breath.
"You know what my ‘death’ looked like in reality," Steve said.
"Of course, seeing as how I was the one to learn how to help you get out of there," Reed answered.
Steve nodded quickly. Of course.
"So you know most of the story. While I was displaced in time, I relived my memories..." He stopped. He hadn't ever told about that to anyone apart from Sharon and Bucky, and it still wasn't easy. Reed looking at him as he would at an experiment wasn't helping, either, but Steve knew that meant he had his full attention. "I also saw Red Skull’s ideal past..." He stopped again. He wasn't sure he'd be able to tell it all, but he had to. "And a few things that are, I think, in my future. Or are my possible futures. Alternate futures? I don't know." His shoulders slumped. It sounded better in his head. More logical. He added, "one of them was about Tony."
"Steve," Reed said slowly, in the tone of voice he used to explain things to people less intelligent than him. "He's dead. If Red Skull or Doom suspected you cared that much, they'd show you exactly that."
"No, but here's the thing: they didn't know I would see any part of my timeline."
Reed nodded. "Go on."
"One was about Sharon, and if I continue my life – I think it could come true. But the one with Tony... It felt different. More real?" he hesitated briefly. Then he forced himself to calm down. He had to say that story and make Reed understand. He took a deep breath and, slowly, looking at his crossed hands, told Reed everything. He knew he didn't quite manage to make his voice emotionless, but he made it through most of it before he had to stop again. Reed raised his eyebrows at him, but Steve just shook his head, silently asking for a moment. He closed his eyes briefly and clutched his fists tight. He wouldn't break down now. He wouldn't think of how Tony's eyes went dim... He continued, "And in the end, Tony from the past … he died, and he said, to his future self, 'Now the world goes on as if we died in 2007.'"
"You think that was your true future. That all of that happened, and he died, the world came back to 2007, and you've seen glimpses of that timeline, because you were out of the timestream here," Reed summed up. "You may actually be right," he mused. "I need to run calculations on that. But you may be right."
Steve breathed with relief. Reed Richards was a genius. "I need to run calculations" was as good as "it'll work". Steve didn't know him all that well, but he knew that he and Tony were good friends, and he trusted him.
"You want me to build a time machine, and snatch Tony from just before the explosion. Or, just before he was taken to the future," Richards said, seemingly not moved by the concept. Well, he was one of the Fantastic Four, what was a little time travel for them.
"Should be possible," Richards murmured, to himself rather than Steve. "I’ve got these parts of Doom’s... And my own design from a few tries ago, but it should do. A quick jump, not much power... Catch him and come back... There wasn't a body to be found, afterwards, that's convenient..."
Steve was rather sure that doctor Richards had already forgotten someone else was in the room, but he stayed anyway, because he didn’t want to leave Reed, afraid that if he looked away everything would turn out to be just a dream. And what if Reed needed to run a scan on Steve?
"Sue’s three floors down if you want to stay here and talk to her, I'll call you when I have something," Reed said, not even looking at him.
It effectively meant 'get out of my lab and don't come back unasked," and Steve couldn't argue with that. He wanted to find Tony. To prove that he wasn't insane. To bring Tony here with him, where he belonged.
Reed stood in front of his time machine, looking at Steve expectantly.
"You'll have two minutes when I switch it on," he repeated for the third time.
"I know," Steve said.
"Steve," Carol said. She was here, because of course she offered to go with him, before Reed told them he'd rather only send one person back. "Are you sure you should go?"
"Of course I am," he said sharply. "It's Tony. And apart from everything else – I owe him that."
"It's not that," she shook her head. "You didn't see him then – he thinks you're dead."
"I know," he sighed. He had seen him, after all. He'd never forget his empty eyes.
"Let me finish," she snapped. "He thinks you're dead. He knows that. He won't just go with you, he won't believe you're real."
Oh. Steve didn't think of that, but that didn't really change anything for him. He couldn't imagine not going, he couldn’t trust anyone else with this. "Even if you're right," and she was, he knew, "he doesn't have to believe me. I just have to find him and grab him."
"And hope he won't blast your head off," she said.
"Yeah," he agreed. "That too."
She looked at him carefully and nodded. "There's no discussion with you?"
He grinned. She got him. "No."
"If you're ready," Reed interrupted. "The device should send you to the Helicarrier, just before the explosion. You should find yourself next to Tony. If you touch him, it'll trigger the return mechanism – if you don't manage to do that, as I said, two minutes, and you're back here."
Steve nodded. He had on an old S.H.I.E.L.D. uniform that was a little bit too small for him, but would play its role. He didn't want to attract attention, and showing up in his Captain America costume would certainly do that.
"Switch it on," he said.
"Stand here." Reed pointed at the raised part of the floor. Steve did.
Alarms were blazing overhead. Everything was on fire and there was thick smoke in the air. For a terrible short moment Steve thought Reed miscalculated, that it was already after the explosion that killed Tony in this timeline, and then realised it wasn't possible. He was on the Helicarrier, and he knew it wasn't going to survive the detonation.
He looked around. He was in a room that looked like a secondary control station, alone. A quick look at the monitors told him almost everyone had been evacuated. Good. He didn't know what he'd do if he saw someone other than Tony on his way to him. Reed’s machine could only bring him back with Tony – it needed to be coded to every transported person's DNA, and Reed had Tony's records, of course, so that wasn't a problem, but they couldn't possibly have prepared for every agent Steve might encounter. Steve didn't want to admit that he hadn't even thought of the possibility, he was so caught up in the chance of getting Tony again. But none of the people who might have still been here deserved to die. Steve hated being helpless, and the sudden thought that he'd have to leave them, that he had no choice, was killing him.
Steve shook his head. He didn't have much time. He started running. If he knew Tony, he'd be in the main control room, trying to move the Helicarrier over the bay. Steve already knew Tony wouldn’t quite succeed.
No one passed him as he ran through the corridors, ignoring the PA announcements to head to the evacuation bay. He ran through another door and for a split second stopped dead. There was someone in a S.H.I.E.L.D. uniform on the floor –
It wouldn't even matter in two minutes, but he couldn't force himself to ignore them. Steve cursed himself and ran to check if the agent was all right. He only recognized Maria when he’d rolled her onto her back. She was already dead. Of course she wouldn't have left Tony nor abandoned the Helicarrier. She'd been fiercely loyal like that. Stupid, so very stupid of her, but he'd known that already. She didn’t deserve that death.
He forced himself to stand up and ran further ahead. His time was running out. Just sixty seconds to go.
He kicked down the next door and finally found himself in a room with Tony. Tony, who was furiously typing on the keyboard, his full attention on the console – Tony, who was still alive and well.
Steve moved towards him with every intention of just grabbing him and explaining later, but Tony must have heard him, because he turned to him, and...
"I really don’t have time for this right now," he said in a broken voice. "You've tormented me often enough with that. Not now. Let me save at least these people," he begged.
"Tony..." What was going on? Steve had suspected that Tony had hallucinated him at some point, but had it been really that bad?
"Why his face?!" Tony shouted, his voice full of pain. Steve had thought he'd been ready for it, but he wasn’t.
"Tony, you have to go with me, we have thirty seconds," Steve said, willing Tony to trust him.
"That I should spend on my ship, steering it away from New York."
"You won't make it! You tried it once and you died!" Steve shouted. "I don't care if you think I'm real! Just come with me!"
Tony was looking at him, uncomprehending, unmoving, his eyes almost dead. "Steve Rogers died, and it was my fault. You are a figment of my imagination."
"I'm real, Tony." He hesitated. The words he was about to say, well, he'd felt this way about Tony for a very long time. He owed it to Tony to tell him this time. He hadn't told the Tony in the future, who didn’t exist now, and the Tony from the past, who didn't exist either. He owed it to Tony now, the full story, and he'd tell him everything, later, when Tony would actually believe him and stop being so fragile, but for now, for now he’d tell him the most important thing. "I love you."
Tony laughed, definitely in hysterics, and then got serious in one second. His armour gauntlets surrounded his hands.
"And now I’m sure you’re not real," he said, slowly raising his hands and charging the repulsors. "You’re not real. I need to get this ship away from the city, and you’re in the way," he continued. But his eyes – his eyes showed how much he wanted to believe him. And his hands were shaking so hard, as if Tony couldn’t quite force himself to aim at someone who looked like Steve, whether he believed it was him or not.
"Tony, you idiot..." The clock was running down. Steve took the risk. He ran at Tony, hoping not to get a repulsor blast to the heart, grabbed him by the arms, and pressed their lips together. "I am real," he growled, and then Reed’s device was pulling them through time.
Pulling them home.