It was more of a novelty than it should have been to wake up in bed with Steve instead of waking up with his face smushed into his desk or in a strange hotel room or with the Avengers alarm blaring. There was a blond head tucked into the back of his neck, and one of Steve's legs was between Tony's thighs. Both of Steve's arms were wrapped around Tony's waist. He could tell that Steve was still sleeping, which wasn't surprising since Steve hadn't been there when Tony crawled into bed at 4am.
Tony blinked sleepily at the ceiling, half-expecting the Avengers alarm to go off at any moment. Their team had been called out multiple times over the past two weeks, dealing with issues all over the globe, until finally even Steve had gotten pissed. He’d politely but firmly told SHIELD that the Avengers were not to be summoned for at least three days.
Since Pepper was in Dubai, that left the day wide open. And Tony knew exactly what he wanted to do. He wriggled out of Steve’s grip and grabbed a pair of pajamas bottoms, sliding them on. Then he padded out of the room, leaving his sleeping supersoldier to hold down the fort. Steve would probably be a little annoyed when he woke up to find Tony already gone, but at least he wouldn’t be surprised. He'd know from Tony's lingering scent that Tony hadn't been gone long, anyway.
An alien invasion five days ago – except on a much smaller scale than the usual invasion. For some reason, these aliens were obsessed with a small town in Russia – had left him with a strange piece of machinery. It looked like a flat disc, about the size of a small dinner plate and half an inch in width, but it was very heavy and made an odd clicking sound whenever it was held upright. It was also made from a material Tony didn’t recognize which appeared to be nigh-on indestructible. He had plans to find out everything he could about it.
“Wake up, Daddy’s home,” he sang as he sailed into the lab. He swaggered over to the table where he’d left the disc last night; he’d wanted to get started on his tests immediately after the last mission, but Steve had put his foot down. And, much as Tony hated to admit it, that had probably been for the best. At least it meant that Tony was approaching the disc with a clear(er) head this morning.
He sat down on his stool and stared at the disc, then curiously flicked it with a fingernail. Now that his eyes weren’t burning with fatigue, he could see that the black metal had some kind of pale grey pattern. But there was no rhyme or reason to the pattern that he could distinguish. It was just a bunch of random loops and swirls. The aliens had been extremely protective of the disc, so whatever it did had to be important.
“J, let’s start with a full work-up. I wanna know what’s inside this thing,” Tony said. He flicked it again, but he didn’t hear the kind of sound he would’ve expected from metal. It only increased his curiosity. He was like a cat with a closed door; he had to know what was inside.
“Yes sir. Scanning now.” There was a pause. Then JARVIS said, “My scans don’t appear to be capable of penetrating the exterior.”
“What?” Tony frowned.
“I am unable to gather any data about the interior at this time.” JARVIS didn’t sound happy.
"Show me what you've got," Tony said, leaning forward as the room around him lit up with holograms. Well shit. What JARVIS had was actually very little. Aside from the very basic information - height, weight, color, etc... - the data was inconclusive.
"Might I suggest some tests, Sir?" JARVIS suggested.
"You read my mind, buddy." He stood up, grabbing his blowtorch, and pointed a finger at Dummy. "You and your fire extinguisher stay over there."
Dummy wilted with a sad, soulful beep. Tony ignored him and switched on the blowtorch. Had Bruce been in the room with him, he probably would've been treated to a long lecture about safety and control. Fortunately, he was alone. Besides, in the end the blowtorch did no damage at all: he held the open flame to the disc for a full minute, but it didn't leave so much as a scorch mark.
Hmm. This was going to require some additional testing.
It turned out that the disc was impervious to sledgehammers. And water. And ice. And electricity. And repulsor blasts. And knives. And being thrown against the wall in a fit of frustration.
"Okay," Tony said finally, putting his hands on his hips. "This is not going the way I had planned." He walked over to the disc and leaned down to pick it up. It began to click when he lifted it upright, but Tony couldn't feel any cogs or vibrations under his fingertips. The surface had to be thick enough to mask whatever was happening inside.
"Sir -" JARVIS began.
Tony never got the chance to find out what else JARVIS was going to say. The disc warmed beneath his hands and then pulsed, the previously hard material moving as though it was suddenly organic and alive. He yelped and jerked his hands away without thinking. The disc hit the floor and lit up with a dull grey light; he threw an arm over his eyes to protect them, but the resulting explosion knocked him clear off his feet. He hit the wall of the workshop and blacked out.
"Tony. Tony! Wake up!"
Steve's voice, as well as the ugly headache blooming behind his eyes, made Tony groan as he woke. He processed the full range of aches in his body and groaned again. "Stop talking," he rasped.
He blinked one eye open just in time to see Steve's mouth snapping shut so quickly it was almost comical. At any other time, Tony might've laughed. As it was, he was grateful for the silence. He tried to sit up, hissing out a breath as Steve's hands moved to his back and gently supported him. It didn't feel like there was anything broken, but he was stiff from head to toe.
"What the hell happened, Tony?" Bruce said, pulling his head around so that he could look into Tony's eyes.
"Explosion. I dropped that disc. It went boom." Tony winced when Bruce's fingers touched the knot on the back of his head. That smarted. A lot.
"I thought we agreed you were going to be more careful with your experiments," Steve said. He had that slightly wild look about his eyes, the one that said the alpha in him was screaming to attack and wreak vengeance for the pain and suffering of a fellow pack member and his mate. Unfortunately, the only enemy here was Tony's stupidity. Tony doubted that even an alpha rage would be enough to break that stupid disc.
"You can ask JARVIS. I was being careful," he argued. "It only reacted when I picked it up off the floor."
"With your bare hands?" Bruce asked wryly.
Tony hesitated a second too long. "... No."
"Tony," Steve sighed, pulling him into a hug. Tony squawked and swatted at his boyfriend's head, but there was no escaping the hug and honestly he didn't really want to. He settled for grumbling, ignoring Bruce's amused look, and peered around Bruce to see the damage done to the rest of the lab.
He wasn't expecting to see Thor and Natasha - apparently the explosion had been loud enough to bring everyone who was home running - and he definitely wasn't expecting to see a body on the ground. Tony lurched upwards, ignoring the pain that shot through his head, in an effort to get a better look. Because he couldn't be seeing what he thought he was seeing.
"Bruce? Is that -"
"You?" Natasha said, lifting her head to look at him. "Apparently, though there are some noticeable differences. He doesn't have an arc reactor, for one thing."
"... What?" Tony said blankly.
Steve helped him to stand and kept a supportive arm around Tony's waist as they moved closer. Natasha was right: the man on the floor didn't look exactly like Tony. His hair had a lot more grey peppered through the brown, and there were more lines on his face. Even unconscious, his face looked pale, worn and stressed. Even at his worst, Tony didn't think he'd looked this bad.
Most telling of all, there was no familiar blue glow through the man's t-shirt. Tony knelt down and pulled the guy's shirt up to take a look, though he was smart enough not to touch. His stomach churned at the sight of the mess of thick, white scars covering the guy's chest. The guy might not have the arc reactor now, but he'd definitely had it at one point.
"Do you have any idea what happened?" Natasha asked him.
"No. I... is this one of Loki's tricks? Thor?" Tony turned to Thor, hoping for an answer.
Unfortunately Thor shook his head. "I can sense no magic."
"A clone?" Bruce suggested.
"Dropped into the workshop after an explosion?" Tony said, squinting at him skeptically.
Bruce shrugged. "Wouldn't be the first time Hydra tried."
"It smells like you," Steve said suddenly. He reddened a bit when they all looked at him, but continued. "Underneath the soot, I mean. I think he's wearing that blocking cologne, but I can still... Just a little." His fingers flexed on Tony's hip. As an alpha, and as Tony's mate, his sense of smell was strongest.
Which was... huh. That was an interesting bit of information. Hydra had tried to create clones before, but until now they'd never been able to replicate a scent. Made it pretty easy for the team to ferret out who was real and who wasn't, not that Hydra's clones had ever been that convincing in the first class. Seeing any version of Steve Rogers dancing on the bar counter was a sign something was wrong.
"JARVIS, what readings do you have from when that thing exploded?" Tony asked.
"My readings show a spike in energy, Sir. I also have this video." A hologram screen opened on the far wall. It showed Tony bending down to pick up the disc - gloveless, of course, which made Bruce glare at him. Tony pretended not to notice, focusing his attention on watching himself drop the disc. Right as the disc hit the floor, a glowing grey light opened up and spat out the guy. Then the disc exploded.
"What the fuck," Tony said under his breath. He belatedly scanned the room, expecting to see no sign of the disc. He wasn’t sure whether he was surprised or alarmed to see the apparently unharmed disc in a corner of the workshop.
Was exploding not even enough to hurt that thing?!
"He needs medical attention," Natasha said, drawing Tony’s attention back. She'd knelt back down next to the guy and had two fingers pressed to the side of his neck. "His pulse is very weak."
"I'll call the doctor," said Bruce. "Steve, take Tony upstairs to bed."
"What? Hey, no!" Tony protested. "I want to see what happens when that guy wakes up."
Bruce sighed but gave up the fight. "Fine. Thor, can you take the other Tony upstairs to the living room? We can't leave him down here on the cold floor," he added defensively to the others. "It's Tony. Or some version of him."
"It's more likely to be a trap," Natasha said.
"Maybe not," Tony said slowly, brain already working. He let Steve steer him into the elevator, not really paying attention to where they were headed. Was there a possibility that the portal had lead to... what? An alternate dimension? It wouldn't be the first time that Tony had heard of such a thing. If Reed Richards got you alone for more than five minutes, he would launch into a detailed theory about parallel universes and string theories. That wasn't really Tony's area, so he'd never given Richards more than a few minutes of attention.
But what if?
They ended up taking the other Tony to the living room. Steve forcefully pushed Tony down into a chair and refused to let him get back up. Tony gave up with a roll of his eyes, watching as Thor carried the other Tony into the room and gently laid him on the couch. The other Tony was smaller than Tony was, Tony noticed with satisfaction. The clothing he was wearing practically hung off of him, but he was also pretty sure that the other Tony was at least three inches shorter than him.
"JARVIS, do a full scan," he ordered.
While they waited for the doctor (and Tony waited for the scan to finish), Bruce brought him a glass of water and stood over him until Tony drank it all. Which he did, muttering about pushy scientists in between gulps. Bruce ignored the comments and just grabbed the empty glass, stalking back into the kitchen. Tony stuck his tongue out at Bruce's back and winked at Steve when Steve stifled a laugh.
"Sir, my scans show that this is Tony Stark," JARVIS said. "His scans are nearly identical to yours."
Tony lost his smile. "Any possibility that you're wrong?"
"Probability of less than 0.000001%."
That was a lot of zeroes. Tony rubbed his head. "Clone?" But it was unlikely, unless Hydra had magically figured out how to improve their engineering. Based on their last battle, wherein the weapons the Hydra agents had been using had actually overheated and self-destructed, Tony didn't think so.
"I would say not," said JARVIS. "Might I suggest summoning Dr. Richards and Dr. Strange?"
"Yeah, might as well," Tony muttered, staring at his double. Well, almost a double. He didn't have an arc reactor. That was... well, not troubling per se, but not something Tony was comfortable with either. He placed a hand over his own arc reactor, feeling the comforting thrum under his palm.
In less than ten minutes - it paid to be a billionaire - the doctor showed up. She and Bruce huddled over the other Tony, blocking the view of everyone else, much to Natasha's annoyance. The doctor's examination was brief, and her conclusions were compatible with what JARVIS's scans found.
"Malnutrition?" Bruce repeated, looking baffled. "Are you sure?"
"Quite sure," Dr. Smith replied, putting her jacket back on. "The signs are clear. Dehydration and exhaustion are also high on my list. Whoever this man is, he hasn't been eating, sleeping or drinking very well."
"What about his scars?" Tony asked, unable to resist. "Do they match mine?"
She turned a thoughtful eye on him, but all she said was, "Some do. Others don't. For example, there's a scar across his chest that's relatively fresh. Right about here." She cut a hand across her breasts. "The bruising must've been significant. Might have even broken a bone or two."
Right over the arc reactor. Tony couldn't help cupping a hand over it protectively for the second time in twenty minutes. Steve, standing behind him, growled low under his breath, raising the hair on the back of Tony's neck.
"Do you think he's dangerous?" Bruce asked.
"That's hard to say. My instinct would be to say no, but I've been Tony Stark's personal doctor for more than two years and I'm well aware of how much damage he can cause." She smirked at Tony.
"You insult me like that in my house," Tony said.
"Damn right I do," she said, zipping her coat. "Food, water, rest. No upsetting him. That's my official recommendation. If you're going to lock him up, I suggest that it be somewhere with a comfortable bed."
"We're not savages," Tony said, truly insulted now.
"Thank you, Doctor," Bruce said, rolling his eyes at Tony. He escorted the doctor to the door.
Natasha crossed her arms. "I think we should tie him up."
Tony fluttered his eyes at her. "Why Tash, if you want to tie me up, all you had to do was ask."
Steve growled a little bit louder. Tony tipped his head back to stare in surprise. He couldn't remember the last time Steve had growled at a member of the team and actually meant it. Natasha snorted and jerked her head at Thor; they left the room together, presumably to find one of Natasha's secret stashes and bring back something to tie the guy up with.
"Are you okay?" Tony asked as soon as the room was otherwise empty.
"My mate was just in an explosion," Steve ground out. "And a person who looks exactly like you was recently beaten badly enough to leave scars. And you're flirting with Natasha."
Out of that list, he sounded most upset about that last one. Tony bit back a smile and reached up, tugging at Steve's wrist until Steve rounded the chair and squished in beside him. It wasn't exactly comfortable until Tony squirmed onto Steve's lap and curled up as best he could when his ribs were still tender. The pounding in his head eased a little when he rested his cheek against Steve's chest.
"I like flirting with Tash," he said. "She glares at me less when we flirt."
Steve sighed. "I know. I'm sorry. I didn't mean it like that." He wrapped both arms around Tony. They cuddled while waiting for Natasha to return, which she did shortly with a pair of handcuffs. Tony didn't have the heart to tell her that Peggy had taught him how to get out of handcuffs when he was six, and that he was pretty sure the other Tony probably knew how to do it as well.
It took about forty minutes for the other Tony to wake up. When he did, it wasn't a graceful awakening. He thrashed around a little before suddenly sitting up, mouth open wide as he gasped for breath. Natasha, thankfully, had the good sense to back off and give him some space, or she might've ended up being slapped judging by how the other Tony flinched when he saw her.
"Romanov?" he said, sounding genuinely bewildered. "What the hell are you -" He stopped abruptly as his eyes fell on Steve and Tony. His face drained of color. Seriously, Tony had never seen himself go that shade of white.
"I don't think you're the person to be asking questions here," Natasha said. Her face was eerily blank, like she was ready to pull out a set of torture instruments if the other Tony didn't start talking. Tony eyed her, wondering if they needed to get Thor in the room to restrain her A.S.A.P.
"What?" the other Tony whispered. "I don't - is this some kind of trick? Or did I finally lose my mind?"
"Either that, or you were somehow pulled through space and time by a weird alien disc," Tony said. "I'm going with the latter, personally, considering that there was an explosion and then you appeared. Out of curiosity, were you fiddling with any alien technology at the time?"
The other Tony blinked at him. "I - yes? There was this weird orb. FRIDAY was running a scan on it when it exploded."
FRIDAY? Tony filed that bit of information away. He'd coded a handful of rudimentary A.I.'s with the vague plan of using them someday in the future. He'd named one of them FRIDAY after one of his mom's favorite songs. That couldn't be a coincidence. But why would the other Tony be using an A.I. other than JARVIS for something like scanning? It didn't make any sense.
"Sir, Dr. Richards has arrived," JARVIS announced.
"JARVIS?" the other Tony said, shocked. If Tony thought he was pale before, it was nothing on how white his face went as his eyes rolled up into his head. He collapsed back against the couch.
"Shit!" Tony said, flying out of Steve's arms. "We killed him!"
Natasha gave him a scornful look and moved closer, placing her fingers on the other Tony's neck. "He's not dead. I think he just passed out." She pursed her lips, then said, "Something about this isn't right."
"Well, yeah. My twin just fainted. He's ruining our reputation," Tony said.
"Your reputation is fine," said Steve, getting up. "Let Dr. Richards in, JARVIS."
"He is on his way up, Captain."
No sooner had JARVIS said those words than the elevator doors open and Richards practically flew out, eyes gleaming. "What's this I hear about a visitor from a parallel universe?" he demanded, and then caught sight of the other Tony. "Oh, I see."
Richards sounded way too interested for Tony's tastes. "He just... appeared," he said lamely, before launching into the whole story all over again. Not that there was much to tell. Richards insisted on going back down to the lab to check out the disc. Tony left the other Tony - Stark, okay, he was going to call the guy Stark, because that was just weird - with Steve and Natasha and took Richards down to the lab.
Strange joined Tony and Reid in Tony's workshop about twenty minutes later. For the third time, Tony repeated the story. Strange was just as interested as Richards; while Richards poured over the footage of the explosion, Strange retrieved the disc from the corner of the workshop and performed a variety of spells. His frown grew deeper with every spell, because nothing was happening. The magic slid off the disc like water. Tony was intimately familiar with that feeling of frustration.
"You say this is alien tech," Strange said at last, making a shooing motion with his hands. The orange symbols hanging in the air flickered out. The disc looked just the same as ever.
"Remember that last alien invasion?"
"I was on another planet," Strange said.
Tony blinked at him, then decided not to ask. "Anyway. There was an alien invasion last week. This was what was left over but I'm not sure what they did with it."
"As best I can tell, it is used for travel. As you can see it's capable of opening portals of some kind, but the device seems to be dead, or possibly drained of energy, though if that's the case I have no idea how you would go about recharging it. At any rate, I'm not sure these aliens were from this universe."
Richards perked up. "Do you think they were from a parallel world?" he demanded.
"It's possible. I'm sure you're familiar with the theory," Strange said to Tony, who nodded. The particular theory Strange was referring to was the idea that there were infinite worlds, and that, for every choice you made, another world was created where you had made the opposite choice.
In some ways, it was comforting to think that there might be a world where Tony had never believed in Obadiah Stane's lies, or where Howard Stark had been a good father, or where Steve Rogers had never crashed his plane. Then again, it was equally discomfiting to think that there might be a world where Tony had never been kidnapped in Afghanistan. A world where he remained complicit in Stane's illegal activities until he died. A world where someone else had become Captain America. The possibilities were infinite.
"That would be my best guess. And I suspect it would be a world that is similar to ours, since you would need another one of these to open a portal on the other end." Strange gestured to the disc. "Your counterpart must have been running tests on his disc at the same time that you were running tests on this one."
"So is there a way to send him back?" Tony said hopefully, but Strange was already shaking his head.
"It's not that easy. There's a vast number of worlds out there. Unless there is someone in the other Stark's world that is searching for him at the same time that I am, it's practically impossible."
"Can't you just look for a world that's missing Tony Stark?"
"You are not alive in every world," Strange replied. "In some worlds, you don't exist. In others, you are already dead. I would argue that there are more worlds where you're not around than worlds where you are, and that goes for all of us, including myself. None of us are so unique that the universe can't exist without us. Unfortunately, there's no way to know which of those worlds are which without visiting each one. That would take an exceedingly long time."
Tony frowned, frustrated. "Then what about looking for a world that matches Stark's energy signature or whatever you want to call it?"
"That won't work, either. His energy has already stabilized to this world. Otherwise he would've been blown apart as soon as he hit the ground."
Why had Tony bothered to call Strange in again? "Shouldn't the world have crumbled or something since I'm meeting another me?" he muttered.
"You aren't the same person," Strange said, his smile disappearing. "You should remember that. I said our worlds would be similar, but not identical. Your life experiences would not have been the same."
"If the two worlds are similar, doesn't that mean they would be close together?" Tony asked, hiding a chill. He didn't like the way Strange had said that. Was he trying to imply that Stark was evil? Or otherwise dangerous? Maybe he was the Tony Stark who had never become Iron Man (though the scars on his chest implied that he'd had the arc reactor at one time). Or maybe he was the Tony Stark who'd grown up to be exactly like Howard...
"Not necessarily," said Richards. He hefted the disc. "I've been researching this for some time now, and I've written many papers on the subject, so I might be able to help. May I borrow the disc? I might be able to pinpoint the universe that contains the exact same energy read-out that this disc has. That would at least give us a direction to start in." He looked like a puppy seconds away from wagging his tail. Obviously he was going to do the research whether Tony said it was okay or not.
"Sure. Have at it," Tony said with a sigh, waving his hand. Maybe if Richards could find the right world, Thor could ask Heimdell to open up the Bridge? It was worth a shot. Or maybe Strange could wave a wand and send Stark back to wherever he came from. Tony didn’t care how it happened.
"Sir," JARVIS said. "There is a small problem."
"What's wrong?" Tony said, immediately on alert.
"The other Sir -"
"Call him Stark for now, JARVIS."
"Stark," JARVIS amended, not missing a beat, "awoke exactly three minutes ago. He did not react well to seeing Captain Rogers and Agent Romanov in the room with him."
"Didn't react well how?!" Tony demanded. Oh god, if Stark had hurt Steve or Natasha, Tony was never going to forgive himself. Without waiting for a response, he turned to Reed and Strange. "JARVIS will see you out. I have to go." He left the room at a dead run, sprinting towards the elevator. Natasha was just a human, and even supersoldier Steve could be hurt... or worse.
The elevator couldn't go up fast enough. Tony burst out of it the second the doors opened, scanning the room frantically. He didn't relax until he spotted Natasha and Steve, both of whom looked no worse for the wear. Well, Natasha had the beginnings of a spectacular black eye and a scowl on her face, but other than that they were fine. There was no sign of Stark though.
"What happened?" Tony said, rushing over to her. "Did he hit you?"
"It was my fault," Natasha said begrudgingly. "I should have known better. I was leaning over him when he woke up again, and he reacted very badly at seeing me. His elbow caught me in the eye when he was scrambling over the back of the couch."
"He took off for the stairs," said Steve, submitting to Tony's somewhat unnecessary pat down. He caught Tony's hands. "I told JARVIS to lock all of the exterior doors, and prevent him from accessing any floors below ours, but JARVIS said that's not where he's headed." He wore a faint, confused frown.
"JARVIS?" Tony prompted.
"Stark is currently hiding in my server room," JARVIS announced.
"Your server room?" Tony repeated stupidly. "Why the hell would he be in there? Is he doing any damage?" His heart pounded, remembering how Stark had fainted upon hearing JARVIS's voice.
"No. In fact, my sensors indicate that Stark is experiencing a panic attack."
A panic attack. Tony grimaced, some of his alarm fading. He was intimately familiar with those, and he couldn't help feeling a wave of compassion towards his counterpart for having to suffer them too. When Tony was having a panic attack, he usually tried to get somewhere safe - typically the workshop or to Steve, but any of the Avengers would do in a pinch. Was that why Stark had fled to the server room? Because that was somewhere he felt safe? But why would he run from Natasha and Steve? It didn't make any sense.
"I'm going to go talk to him," Tony decided.
"Not alone," Steve said quickly. “I’ll go with you.”
"Steve, he ran away from you. Both of you. I don't think you being there is going to help."
Steve’s jaw tightened, that mulish look flashing across his face. “You don’t know what he’s capable of. You don’t know who he is. He could be Hydra for all we know.”
“First of all, no version of me would ever be Hydra and I’m insulted those words even passed through your mouth. Second of all, I repeat: he ran away from you and is now having a panic attack. You know what those are like for me. I doubt he’s capable of doing me any damage. But if it makes you feel better, I’ll wear the armor.”
“Fine,” Steve said, albeit reluctantly.
“Fine,” Tony repeated. He swooped in and pressed a quick kiss to Steve’s lips, then turned and jogged back to the elevator. “JARVIS, ready the Mark LX.”
The Mark LX was a newer armor, designed for ease of movement and combat in closer quarters. Tony stepped into it and then clunked down the hall – he hadn’t quite figured out how to soften the sound of several hundred pounds of gold titanium alloy against a hard floor. Stark would definitely hear him coming, so Tony was either giving the man fair warning or walking into an ambush. He was hoping for the latter.
He stepped into the server room to the tune of gasped sobs and ragged breathing. Yeah, he was familiar with that too. He followed the sound and found Stark with relative ease: he’d wedged himself under the furthest shelf of servers and was huddled into a ball. Stark jumped at the sight of the Iron Man armor and cracked his head against the shelf; Tony winced on his behalf.
“You wanna come out?” he asked.
“This c-can’t b-be happening,” Stark rasped.
“Sorry to break it to you, but it is happening. Alien tech. It’s a pain in the ass for all involved.” Tony cocked his head, considering, then went down on one knee and let the faceplate snap up. Stark recoiled at the sight of his face. Tony tried not to take that personally.
“This is a dream. Or a –”
“Nightmare?” Tony supplied, smiling wryly. “’Fraid not. Why don’t you come out? We can have some coffee – I won’t believe you if you claim not to like it, no Tony Stark hates coffee – and you can tell us what you were doing when you got jerked out of your world and into mine.”
“Us?” Stark said, apparently seizing on that one word and disregarding everything else. “Us.”
“Me and Steve and Natasha. Probably the others too once –” ‘they get back’, Tony was going to say, but he shut up just in time. That shade of white was not a good look on anyone, much less Tony Stark, and he was honestly kind of afraid that Stark might faint again. For whatever reason (and he was determined to find out why) mentioning the rest of the Avengers was not going to end well. He decided to switch tactics.
“Just me,” he amended. “Me and JARVIS. You can talk to just us, okay?”
“Just you,” Stark repeated, sounding skeptical, though at least a bit of color had returned to his face.
Tony grinned at him. “I’ll even come out of the armor,” he said.
“J, put us on lockdown. No one in or out,” Tony muttered. Steve would be freaking out when he saw Tony step out of the armor. Tony couldn’t risk him bursting into the room. He waited until JARVIS confirmed the lockdown before straightened up and taking a step back. The armor opened around him and he stepped out, watching as Stark edged out from under the shelf and stood up.
They looked at each other. Stark was, as Tony had guessed, a couple inches shorter. He held himself warily, like he was expecting an attack. Tony couldn’t blame him for that. He’d probably feel the same way if he’d been thrown into a strange universe. At least Stark wasn’t attacking, which was a step in the right direction, even if Tony wasn’t inclined to trust him just yet.
“Coffee?” he suggested, spreading his arms.
Stark nodded stiffly. “Coffee.”
Dummy brought them coffee via the private hall that connected the server room to the workshop. It was made exactly the way Tony liked it: light sugar, no motor oil, thanks to JARVIS. Stark’s hands shook noticeably as he reached for his own mug. He made a face when he took a gulp of the coffee, so he must’ve taken it differently. Tony wondered idly if he’d finally met a Tony Stark who could handle cream in coffee.
“You’re a beta,” Stark said, lowering the mug. He held it with one hand and reached out to cautiously pet Dummy’s chassis with the other. His expression was pure affection, and Tony smiled.
“I am,” he said with a nod. Howard had been devestated when Tony turned out to be a beta and not an alpha, but Tony had made his peace with that a long time ago. He eyed Stark. He couldn’t smell anything on the guy, which was unusual. Even betas had a scent to them, though it tended to be less in-your-face than alpha and omega scents. Which meant that biology worked differently from where Stark was from, or he was using scent blockers.
“So am I,” Stark said. He smiled faintly, a self-recriminating smile that Tony recognized. “Too bad.”
“I like being a beta,” Tony said, hearing but unable to stop the defensiveness from creeping in. “It means that I can usually see things more clearly than some of the alphas on the team. I’ve saved us from causing more than one international incident.”
Stark’s smile vanished. “Then you’re fortunate.”
They looked at each other. Tony was burning with curiosity, but it was blatantly obvious that if he pushed too much, Stark would just shut down. But there was also no point in dancing around certain subjects. So he said, “You had an arc reactor. I could tell by the scars in your chest. You had it removed?”
Surprisingly, Stark relaxed a little. “Yeah. About two years ago. It was back when I tried to quit being Iron Man.”
Tony had just taken a gulp of his coffee. He choked. “You what?!”
“Pepper – do you have Pepper here?” Stark waited for Tony to nod before he continued. “Pepper and I were dating and she wasn’t comfortable with it. She didn’t like that I put myself in danger all the time. So I told her I’d stop. For her sake.” He went quiet for a moment, then sighed. “I had the reactor removed. Obviously that didn’t work though. It just meant that after that, the reactor powered the suit and not me.”
Wow. That was… wow. Tony took another, more careful sip of coffee while he thought about how to respond. “Pepper and I never dated here,” he said finally. “We kind of danced around each other for a while, but then the Avengers formed and I could tell it was never going to happen.” He touched the reactor with his free hand. “I asked them about removing this once, but they said it couldn’t be done. I never bothered to follow up on it after that.”
“You should. It could save your life,” Stark said.
“I’m pretty careful with who knows how it works.” Tony wondered if the same thing had happened to Stark. If he’d been kidnapped in Afghanistan under the orders of someone he’d trusted, and then come home to have that same someone literally steal the heart from his chest.
“That’s not what I meant. Someone could… they could crush it.”
“I wear the armor into battle,” Tony said. It sounded like Stark had a person in mind when he said ‘someone’. A fight gone wrong, maybe? But the armor was reinforced titanium alloy. It would take someone massively strong to get through it.
“The armor,” Stark said quietly, bitterly, “isn’t always strong enough to protect you. Not against the right enemy.”
There was definitely a story there. All of Tony’s curiosity surged to the surface. He was dying to know more, but it didn’t look like Stark was eager to share. “I’ll keep that in mind,” he said, instead of pressing for details. “You and Pepper though… wow. How did that go?”
Stark shrugged. “It was good while it lasted.”
Tony sighed. “Yeah, I figured that’s what your answer would be. One reason I’m glad I got together with Steve before –” He cut himself off. Apparently it was Stark’s turn to choke on a mouthful of coffee. Tony watched him in fascination, wondering if his own expression was that unappealing while choking. He might need to practice choking in front of a mirror. Clint would have a field day if the media ever got a picture of him looking like this.
“You and Steve?! Steve Rogers?” Stark choked out.
“Yeah. I take it you and your Cap aren’t together,” Tony said, feeling a surge of pity. Steve was hands down the best thing that had ever happened to Tony, and that fact was reaffirmed on a daily basis. He loved Pepper, but she could never hold a candle to Steve - romantically, anyway, Pepper could kick anyone's ass when it came to being CEO. But Stark, judging from the look on his face, disagreed.
“Rogers hates me.”
“What?” Tony said, startled by the force with which Stark had said it.
“He hates me. Like, really hates me, would-leave-me-to-die-in-freezing-temperatures-with-a-malfunctioning-suit level of hates me.” Stark smiled, but his eyes were flat. “The whole team hates my guts, actually. Except for Rhodey and Vision. And Peter. But I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before I fuck that up, too. It’s what I’m good at.”
Tony was quiet for a long moment, trying to absorb that one. There had been a lot of awkwardness between all of the team members when they first moved into Avengers Tower, mostly because none of them were used to working together. And at one time Tony would’ve said that Steve didn’t like him, and it would’ve been true, or at least it had been before he and Steve became friends. But hate? Especially the kind of hate that Stark was talking about? That was something he couldn’t imagine.
“Is that why you ran away?” he asked finally. “When you woke up to see Natasha and Steve?”
Stark shuddered. He was trying not to, he was that tense, but it rippled through him anyway. “She was leaning over me,” he said, low and tight. “I can’t – Rogers was right behind her, and they were leaning over me -”
“Whoa, hey!” Tony said, putting his hands up. This was getting out of control fast. “Sorry about that. I’ll let everyone know that you need your space, okay?” Except he thought that might be the opposite of what Stark needed. Tony was familiar with how it felt to push people away when you desperately wanted, or needed, a hug. Or even a touch. A hand to your shoulder, or your knees bumping together, or whatever. Now that he got those things every day, he could tell what a difference they made.
“Okay,” Stark said, still strained. “You… you trust him?”
“Who, Steve? With my life.”
“You shouldn’t. What if he chose Barnes over you?”
“Bucky?” Tony repeated, bewildered. This conversation was like a roller coaster: so many ups and downs his head was spinning. He suddenly remembered what Strange had said about how different parallel worlds could be.
Stark nodded. “Barnes is the most important thing in Rogers’s life. He’ll always come first, no matter what.”
Tony honestly didn’t know how to answer that. Steve and Bucky were close, of course they were. And sure, Steve had basically ignored Tony for the first four months that Bucky was in the tower. Even though he’d felt neglected, Tony had never begrudged Steve that. He’d known that Steve was stressed out and struggling, and he hadn’t wanted to add to that. Steve had snapped out of it on his own anyway, after Bucky finally lost it over Steve’s constant hovering.
“You should be careful,” Stark said into the silence. “You’ll never mean as much as Barnes does. And Rogers would burn down the world to make sure Barnes was safe. It doesn’t matter who is standing in his way.”
“I don’t think my Steve would do that,” Tony said carefully, though he could feel a faint flicker of doubt. Stark looked so certain: the sky was blue, coffee was life, and Steve would always put Bucky’s safety above everyone else’s. “I think our worlds must be pretty different.”
“You do still have JARVIS,” Stark said, eyes darting towards the servers around them. “Not Vision?”
“I’m not sure who Vision is, so no.”
“It’s what ultimately became of the Ultron program.”
“The Ultron program is something that Bruce and I have looked at, but we could never get it off the ground,” Tony said, though god knows they’d tried. He leaned forward. “It worked? What did you do?”
“It wasn’t me. Well, not entirely me. And it wasn’t worth it.”
Tony thought about that. He said, “You lost JARVIS.”
“Yes,” Stark whispered, like the admission pained him. Tony felt sick at the thought. JARVIS was the one constant in his world that he could always rely on. There might be a 1% chance that Steve, Rhodey, Pepper and the other Avengers would get sick of him and leave, but JARVIS? At the end of the day, JARVIS would always be there. He couldn’t fathom what it would be like to lose that.
“I’m sorry,” Tony said, meaning it. No wonder Stark had passed out when he heard JARVIS’s voice. He must’ve thought it was a dream – or maybe a nightmare, since he’d woken up to find Natasha and Steve standing over him. Which was apparently a bad thing, since Stark didn’t have a good relationship with the rest of the team. God, this sounded like Tony’s version of hell.
Stark just shook his head and turned away, apparently done with the conversation for the moment. “JARVIS?” he said, sounding… sounding lost, Tony realized, and wasn’t that just uncomfortably awkward.
“Yes?” JARVIS said.
“Would you… could you… talk to me?”
It was far from the first time that JARVIS had received that request. “The time is currently 7:21pm,” he began. “The temperature is –”
Tony picked that moment to stand up and tiptoe away. He glanced over his shoulder when he got to the doors, chest squeezing at the sight of Stark huddled into the wall, arms curled around his knees. That could’ve been Tony. That could’ve been Tony so easily. Part of him wanted to run over and shake Stark until he got an answer as to how things had gone so wrong, but the other part didn’t want to know. What if Tony had somehow passed the point of no return without realizing it, and his own world was heading to shit too?
He disengaged the locks and opened the door, barely managing to bite back a yelp as two hands grabbed him and dragged him out. He was hauled into familiar arms, which crushed him against an equally familiar chest. Tony sighed and wrapped his arms around Steve’s neck, pressing his face to Steve’s shoulder. What had he been thinking? This was Steve, who loved him.
“Tony,” Steve whispered. His voice was ragged. “Tony, oh my god.”
“You were watching,” Tony said, already knowing the answer, grateful that the server room was still soundproofed when Steve let out a choked sob. He ran his hands through Steve’s hair.
“I can’t – Tony, I would never –”
“Shh, Steve. I know,” Tony murmured, wincing when Steve hugged him tighter in response. He had to wonder what the rest of the team was thinking right now. He knew they would’ve been watching, too – Natasha, Clint, Sam, Thor, Bruce, Bucky. What did they think of Stark’s admission that his team hated him? What did Bucky think of Stark’s certainty that he would always come first?
“I love you,” Steve said fervently, catching Tony’s lips in a frantic kiss. And he kept saying it between kisses, until finally Tony gentled the kiss into something slow and sweet.
“I know,” he said when the kiss broke. “I love you too.”
Steve just shivered and rested their foreheads together. “He looked so… so broken. I see him and I look at you, and it’s killing me. I can’t even do anything about it, either. I can’t give him a hug. He couldn’t even stand me and Natasha being beside him.”
“You’re not that Steve,” Tony said fiercely, kissing Steve again. “You’re better than that. Stark will figure that out, Steve. He will.” But even as he spoke, Tony wasn’t so sure that was true. From the sound of it, Stark had been given good cause not to trust the Avengers (he hadn’t even had JARVIS to depend on for fuck’s sake and somewhere in the back of his brain, Tony was panicking big time over that). Changing Stark’s mind would be nearly impossible.
“Are you going back inside?”
Steve’s quietly voiced question gave Tony pause. His instinct was to say yes. He had so many questions for Stark. He wanted to sit down and pry every last detail out of the man, until Tony knew exactly what had happened in the other world. Until he knew exactly how to avoid having those disasters happen here. And he wanted those answers sooner rather than later.
But Steve was still holding onto him like he thought Tony might disappear if he let go, and Tony was positive the rest of the Avengers were buzzing with questions too. If he hid himself away with Stark for too long, it was likely someone (Clint) would get antsy and try to break in. Based on what Stark had said, that would be a disaster in the making. The last thing they needed was for Stark to have another panic attack because he felt threatened (!) by someone on the team (!!!).
“JARVIS, what is Stark doing?” Tony asked.
The glass wall beside them suddenly melted away into color, though – Tony was confident – only on their side. They could see Stark now. He was still in the corner of the server room, now curled up against Dummy’s base. He had his head resting against Dummy’s body, which couldn’t have been comfortable, and judging from his head was tilted, he was still listening to JARVIS talk.
He was also shaking.
Steve made a pained sound. “He’s so small. I want to hug him.”
Tony patted his shoulder, knowing that Steve’s alpha instincts were rearing their ugly head. Omegas were widely known for having an instinctual drive to fix and provide things that kept pack mates content. They were the providers, the nesters, the hoverers. But along with that, alphas possessed a similar drive to keep cohesion and positivity alive in the pack, because packs that weren’t happy were packs that fell apart. Though Stark wasn’t technically a part of their pack, Steve’s instincts apparently weren’t recognizing the fine difference between him and Tony. That, Tony thought, could be a problem.
“Let’s go upstairs. You can hug everyone up there,” Tony said gently, deciding that his alpha came before a stranger. “JARVIS, lockdown. No one goes in or out unless I say so.”
The wall faded back to black. Tony coaxed Steve down the hall and into the elevator, which took them automatically to the common floor. He was not surprised to find the whole team there waiting for them, though he was kind of grateful for his slightly dulled senses that meant he wasn’t privy to the maelstrom of emotion clouding the room. But even his nose could still make out that everyone was very, very upset.
“What the fuck was that?” Clint burst out. His normally sweet scent was shot through with fear and panic, and tasted bitter on the back of Tony’s tongue. “I come home to find that we have a visitor from another dimension and this is what we get? Where the hell are the hot blond bombshell versions of you?!”
Tony blinked at him. “In what world do you think blond hair would work on me?”
“Boys,” Natasha said in a steely tone. “Now is not the time. Tony, do you think that what Stark said was true?”
“Yes,” Tony said without hesitation. He could recognize the signs of trauma in someone who was basically himself, mostly because he’d spent years staring at them in the mirror. “I don’t know how or why, but he was being honest. Things are messed up in his world.”
“To say the least,” Bucky said. He was looking at Steve and Tony like he didn’t quite know them, and flinched back when Steve took a step in his direction. His eyes darted to Tony as he moved, and Tony felt his stomach sink. Steve stopped short. Clint’s eyes flicked between the three of them, and then he shifted closer to Bucky and let Bucky clutch at his arm. Bucky relaxed minutely when Clint got closer, but he was still tense as anything.
“Bucky,” Tony said. “You don’t – it’s okay. I don’t think the way that Stark thinks. I know Steve loves me.”
Bucky just shook his head. “Do you really?” he asked.
“Bucky,” Steve said at the same time. “Whatever happened in Stark’s world is never going to happen here. Ever. I promise.” He stepped closer again, and this time Bucky let him. Tony sighed as the two alphas embraced, glancing around at the rest of the team. Natasha, Thor, Bruce and Sam didn’t look much better off.
“You need to get more details from him,” Natasha said quietly. “Because I can tell you that what we’re all thinking right now is way worse than what really happened.”
“I’ll try,” Tony said, not bothering to address the second part of her sentence. Natasha didn’t like being told she was wrong, and in this case she was. The team was everything to Tony. He loved them all as much as he loved Rhodey and Pepper. And that meant every one of them had the ability to absolutely destroy Tony. If Steve had ever left Tony to die in freezing temperatures with a malfunctioning suit, he was pretty sure that would be it for him.
“This doesn’t change anything for us,” he added to the room at large. “Just because one world is super fucked up doesn’t mean our world has to change in any way. I’ve already got Strange and Reed working on a way to send Stark back. Hopefully, within a couple of days, he’ll just be a bad memory.”
“I’m certain Jane would help as well,” Thor said.
“Thanks, big guy. I might give her a call,” Tony said, patting Thor on the arm. “Bruce? Maybe we can get together on a conference call with Jane and science it up.”
Bruce nodded. “I can do that.” He sounded kind of upset. No doubt he was thinking of Stark’s proclamation that the whole team hated him, and how Stark hadn’t omitted Bruce from that list. Tony stared at him for a moment, trying to think of what could make Bruce hate him.
“Don’t try,” Natasha said, and when Tony turned to look at her, she was right up in his face. “We need to know more.”
“Whoa, I’ll do my best. But seriously, it’s not like I can tie him down and force him to talk.” Her face changed, just a little, and Tony glared at her. “Natasha, no. He’s already traumatized.”
“Absolutely not,” Steve said, and both of them jumped. Tony hadn’t even realized Steve was listening, much less prepared for the alpha tone. Steve’s eyes were even a little red as he loomed over Natasha. “He’s scared of us. Do you want to give him a reason to be even more terrified?”
“No,” Natasha said. “But the more we know, the better equipped we’ll be.”
“If I might make a suggestion,” Sam piped up. “Stark doesn’t have a problem with Rhodes, right? Why not give him a call?”
“That’s… I can’t believe I didn’t think of that,” Tony said, shocked at his own oversight. Of course they needed to get Rhodey here immediately. They’d been friends for so long that Rhodey always knew what to do or say to make Tony feel better, or at least feel like he could manage whatever was happening without turning to a drink. He was positive that Rhodey would know how to approach Stark.
He stepped away from the team and pulled out his phone. “Hey platypus. How do you feel about two Tony Starks?” he asked as soon as Rhodey picked up.
There was a pause, then Rhodey said, “Frankly, that sounds like a nightmare. Why?”
“Funny story,” Tony said cheerfully. “I was playing around with an alien object and it exploded. Another me fell out of a portal at the same time. But he’s super traumatized. He ran away from Natasha and Steve and hid in JARVIS’s server room. He told me that he and Steve aren’t together in his world, and that his Steve and team hate his guts. He also said that he still loves his Rhodey, so could you come over and pry more details about that world out of him before Natasha loses her temper and tries to beat it out of him?”
There was an even longer pause. “Is this some kind of weird joke?”
“Sadly, no. JARVIS, send Rhodey some photos,” Tony added. “I am unfortunately being 100% serious.”
“Oh my god,” Rhodey breathed at the other end, presumably at the sight of the photos since Rhodey had flatly resisted calling Tony ‘god’ for years now. “This is… he looks like you did after Sunset and Tiberius got through with you.”
Tony winced. “Yeah, he kinda sounds like it too,” he admitted. “JARVIS can send you a video of our conversation, but I… I don’t know what to do, Rhodey. When I’m upset, Steve makes me feel better. But I can’t throw Steve at Stark. He’ll freak out again.”
“I’ll be there in three hours,” Rhodey said, and hung up.
“Rhodey’s coming,” Tony announced, turning back to face the team. “Anyone up for pizza?”
That was a stupid question. Bucky, Thor and Steve were always hungry. The three of them could put away a dozen extra large pizzas easily. Tony asked JARVIS to put in their usual order, as well as an extra medium cheese pizza. He didn’t know what Stark liked to eat, so a plain cheese pizza was a safe bet. Judging from the look of him, Stark couldn’t handle missing any more meals.
The team dinner had none of the usual boisterousness. Tony even put a movie on, but he could tell that no one was really paying attention. They were all too caught up in thinking of Stark, just like Tony was. Twice he gave into the temptation to ask JARVIS what Stark was doing, but each time JARVIS reported back that Stark was exactly where Tony had left him and hadn’t even tried to leave the room.
It was a relief to see Rhodey walk in. Tony scrambled up and yanked him into a hug, grateful that he had such good friends. He was positive that, if Rhodey had been away on a mission, Pepper would’ve come. But Stark had said that he and Pepper dated and it hadn't ended well, so Tony wasn’t sure if Pepper’s presence would have the same impact.
Rhodey hugged him back tightly, whispering in his ear, “If Steve ever does that to you, I will kill him.”
“Rhodey!” Tony said.
“I’m just saying.”
Tony rolled his eyes and broke the hug. “Come on, he’s still downstairs.” He tugged Rhodey down the hall, deliberately not looking over his shoulder. He knew it had to be killing Steve that he couldn’t come with them.
They took the elevator back downstairs. JARVIS had de-tinted the walls again, allowing them to see in as soon as the elevator doors opened. Rhodey groaned like it physically pained him when he saw Stark curled up against Dummy. He charged down the hall and into the server room without waiting for Tony. Stark jumped and flinched when the door banged open, but then he caught sight of Rhodey and froze.
“Rhodey?” he whispered, sounding shocked. “You can… you’re walking.”
Wait. What? Why wouldn’t Rhodey be walking? Two seconds in and Tony was already confused. Rhodey must’ve been confused too, but he didn’t show it.
“Aw, Tones,” Rhodey said. It came out as more of a croon, almost a purr, all alpha-y and concerned and strong. Tony almost swayed towards him, and he wasn’t even the one Rhodey was talking to.
“Rhodey,” Stark said again, almost a whimper. There were tears in his eyes.
“C’mere, Tones.” Rhodey walked right over and knelt, easily pulling Stark up into a hug. Stark burrowed into him, hiding his face against Rhodey’s neck and shaking all over. Rhodey shushed him, sitting down on the floor and settling Stark in his lap. Stark looked pathetically small curled up like that, but Tony was willing to forgive him for that. Sometimes a Rhodey cuddle was exactly what you needed to make life bearable.
"You can go to bed, Tony. I've got this."
Tony startled at the sound of Rhodey's voice, not even having realized he'd drifted off. "Are you sure?" he asked, squinting at Rhodey. JARVIS had dimmed the lights in the server room, leaving just enough to see. Rhodey and Stark were still curled up together at the far end of the room.
Rhodey smirked at him. "Do you even realize how many years of experience I've had in putting you to bed? You put one Tony Stark to bed, you've put them all to bed. So yeah, I can handle it. Do you mind if we crash on the couch in the workshop?"
"Knock yourself out," Tony said, covering a yawn. Normally he would've balked at anyone spending the night in the workshop, especially if he wasn't joining them. But he knew that Rhodey and JARVIS would be monitoring Stark very closely, and it didn't look like Stark was up for anything too dangerous anyway considering that he was passed out against Rhodey's shoulder. Besides that, he had the feeling that Stark would freak out if he woke up and found that he'd been removed from the server floor.
He got up and waited while Rhodey stood up and gently tossed Stark over his shoulder in a fireman's carry. Dummy beeped and led the way to the workshop. Tony went out the opposite way, stumbling down the hall to the elevator. It was times like this that he was most grateful for JARVIS, as he didn't even need to ask the A.I. to take him up to the floor that he and Steve shared.
Predictably Steve waiting for him, sitting up in bed with a book open on his lap. He didn't look like he'd been paying very close attention it, though. His face was drawn and worried. Tony stripped off his clothing, not bothering to shower, and crawled into bed. He was immediately yanked into a strong hug, not that Tony fought against it when Steve pressed his face against the arc reactor, shaking all over. Tony just petted his hair until they both fell asleep.
Sometime towards morning, he rolled over and reached out for Steve only to realize that the bed was empty. Tony lifted his head and looked around blearily, quickly spotting his boyfriend standing near the windows. But Steve wasn't looking out at the view. No, when Tony sat up he could see that Steve was looking at a projection on the windows. Unsurprisingly, the glass showed Stark and Rhodey.
"You're turning into a creeper," Tony said, rubbing his eyes. It looked like Stark was passed out on the couch and Rhodey was sitting on the floor, head tipped back at an angle that would probably give him a bad crick in the neck come morning.
"We can't send him back."
Tony froze. "Come again?"
Steve turned to look at him. In the light of the arc reactor, his eyes were hollow. "We can't send him back, Tony. He's barely said anything about his world, but it's enough to make it sound like your version of hell. It goes against everything that I am to let any version of Tony Stark be that unhappy."
"Steve..." Tony wasn't sure how to respond to this. He guessed he should've seen it coming - and to some degree he had, though he hadn't expected it this early. "We can't just keep him here. Maybe he'll want to go back."
"I doubt it," Steve said dryly. "Once we show him how much better our world is..."
"You don't know that our world is better," Tony said, knowing that argument was half-hearted at best. Stark looked the way that Tony imagined he himself would had he never met or become a part of the Avengers team. Or, he supposed, if he'd met the team and the team ended up turning against him. He grimaced at the thought. He'd never say as much, but that was one of his worst nightmares.
"Call it an educated guess," said Steve.
Tony shook his head. "You don't even know him. Maybe he deserves it." He dropped his gaze, not willing to look Steve in the eyes. Steve always seemed to want to believe the best of everyone, including Tony. But Tony knew that he wasn't a very good person. There was so much blood on his hands. Blood that he would never be able to make up for. And that was after he'd turned everything around and done his damndest to atone for his sins. They didn't know if Stark had done that. Just because he was Iron Man didn't mean very much. Tony was positive that there were super villain versions of Iron Man out there, or at the very least versions of Iron Man piloted by the same asshole, playboy Tony Stark that Tony had been in his twenties.
"Tony, no. Don't say that."
"It's true. He could be a terrible person, Steve. Maybe the Avengers were right to leave him to freeze to death."
In a handful of steps, Steve was right in front of him. He knelt, forcing Tony to meet his eyes. "You're wrong. There is nothing you, or anyone version of Tony Stark, could do that would be worth that," he said gently. "I've frozen to death before. I know what it's like. I wouldn't wish that fate on my worst enemy, much less someone who was supposed to be my teammate." He cupped Tony's cheek with a warm hand.
"Not everyone is as good as you are," Tony said in a low voice, leaning into the touch in spite of himself. He glanced past Steve at the window. "Natasha's right. I have to get more information out of it him tomorrow morning. I just... I have this terrible feeling that I'm not going to like whatever he'll say."
"Maybe Jim will be able to help with that. But baby, whatever he says, it won't change my mind about you. You're a good person. You're selfless, brave, amazing, kind -" Steve kissed him between each word, each kiss lasting a little longer than the last, until he was just murmuring adjectives against Tony's lips.
And Tony kissed him back, of course he did, but it was more because he wanted to stop having this conversation than because his heart was really in it. Steve wouldn't hear of Tony saying anything bad about himself, but Tony couldn't help thinking that Steve was a bit naive. Tony wasn't a good person. And it stood to reason that another version of himself could be just as bad, if not worse. He needed to know.
Which was why, as soon as the sun came up and Steve slipped out for his morning run, Tony had JARVIS order coffee and breakfast for three from his favorite diner. The order was on the doorstep of Avengers Tower within half an hour. He collected it, with a hearty tip for the delivery woman, and headed down to the workshop. The instant he entered, two sets of eyes opened.
"Is that coffee?" Rhodey said, wincing and rubbing at his neck. "Oh god, I love you." He made grabby hands for one of the cups. Tony bit back a laugh and handed it over.
Stark sat up too, looking sideways at the two remaining cups. Tony knew that look. He wasn't cruel enough to make Stark ask. He handed over the cup that had plenty of cream and sugar in it and watched the way Stark's face lit up after he'd tasted it. Yup, definitely found the Tony Stark who didn't care for straight black coffee. Natasha would be thrilled. She'd finally have someone to drink fancy coffees with.
He handed out the containers with breakfast and sat down, looking at Stark. “I have some questions.”
“I might have answers,” Stark said in between sips of coffee. “Depends on what you want to know.”
“Why were you surprised that Rhodey can walk?” Tony hadn’t meant for that to be his first question. Yet, once the question was out, he realized he was dying to know.
“Because in my world, he can’t. I built bracers for him, but it hurts him when he uses them. He usually sticks with a wheelchair.”
“What happened?” Rhodey asked, and Tony was pleased the question had come from him. He thought that Stark would have a harder time not answering Rhodey.
Sure enough, Stark responded readily: “When we were fighting Cap’s team, Cap and Barnes got into a plane. I was trying to stop them. Falcon was providing them with aerial support. We gave Vision the order to shoot him down. I…” He sighed heavily. “Rhodey got in the way. Vision hit him instead. He fell…” Stark trailed off, closing his eyes. His voice was a whisper when he finished with, “He was paralyzed from the waist down.”
The blood drained out of Rhodey's face and he rocked backwards. Tony stared at Stark in shocked silence. It took him a moment to be able to speak. “Wait. You were fighting Steve? You tried to shoot Sam down? Why?!”
“I don’t know what that is,” Tony said, glancing at Rhodey. His friend was still very pale. Tony reached out and gripped his arm, which earned him a weak smile.
Stark sighed again. “Two years ago, when we were dismantling the last of Hydra, Wanda Maximoff -” He glanced at them, checking to see if they knew the name. Tony nodded. “ – used her powers to give me a vision of aliens attacking Earth. I decided that Ultron needed to happen. I was playing around with things that I didn’t understand.” For some reason, Stark rubbed his neck.
“It wouldn’t have worked but for the right combination of factors. Ultron came to life, but he was a monster. He wanted to destroy humanity. We all came together in the end to fight him… it was lucky we had Vision, or we would’ve lost.” His mouth twisted, and Tony remembered that he’d lost JARVIS to gain Vision.
“Okay, so scratch the Ultron program,” Tony said, attempting to force some levity into his voice. “What are the accords?”
“A lot of people died because of Ultron. The United Nations started seeking a way to hold the Avengers accountable. The accords are… was their way of doing that. It was something that every superhero had to sign. A way to make sure that people couldn’t just do whatever they wanted to do. A way to make superheroes understand the consequences of their actions.”
“That sounds reasonable,” Rhodey said. He was still pale. One of his legs had started bouncing, like he needed to be sure that he could still move it.
Stark let out a bitter laugh. “Yeah, you would think. Cap didn’t agree. He was convinced that it was a way for governments with agendas to control the Avengers. It didn’t help that the government was trying to bring Barnes in at the same time this was going on. This guy Zemo had framed Barnes for an explosion that killed a bunch of people… Cap was freaking out trying to keep him safe.”
“Barnes didn’t come in of his own free will?” Tony said, frowning. In their world, Bucky had just shown up at the tower one day. Walked in like he owned the place and scared the living daylights out of Clint in the process.
“No.” Stark looked away, not meeting their eyes. “Cap spent a lot of time trying to find him. It was all he could think about. I wish I’d gone to talk to him about the accords earlier. Maybe I could’ve explained things better. Maybe the fight at the airport wouldn’t have happened. Maybe he would’ve trusted me…” His hands tightened into fists.
Tony and Rhodey exchanged looks. It was Rhodey who asked, very gently, “Trusted you with what?”
“Cap didn’t tell me anything,” said Stark, still staring at the ground. “I didn’t even know that they were going to dump all of SHIELD’s files on the internet. Do you know how many agents I couldn’t save? How many people died because their missions were compromised? I bet you Cap doesn’t, but I do. I have their names and faces memorized.” He squeezed his eyes shut, lifting a shaking hand to his forehead. “He didn’t tell me about the other Winter Soldiers, or that Barnes had been framed for the explosion… or anything about Barnes.”
A very bad feeling was creeping up on Tony. He couldn’t bring himself to speak. He couldn’t even look at Rhodey. He couldn’t think about Steve and Bucky, who were probably watching this. All he could think was please god, no. Don’t let him say what I think he’s going to say. But he could see, from the look on Stark’s face, that what Tony was thinking was true. And he honestly thought that he might throw up right then and there.
“I met them there, in Siberia. Cap and Barnes.” Stark sounded numb. Dead. “Zemo was there too. He showed me the footage of Barnes killing my parents. Cap admitted that he knew. He’d known for over three years. He just didn’t tell me because he thought I wouldn’t fund his search for Barnes. And when I attacked him, attacked them both, Barnes tore out the reactor and Cap beat me with the shield until my armor wasn’t functioning anymore. And then they left me there.”
Stark was ruining the Avengers.
It had only been two days since their little chat in the workshop. In that span of time, Tony had not seen Bucky or Steve. And it wasn’t for lack of trying, either. According to JARVIS, both of them had left the building right after Stark finished telling Tony and Rhodey how he’d gotten out of Siberia. Tony had tried to call them both, Steve especially, but they weren’t picking up.
“You need to be patient,” Natasha said as she watched Tony try Steve’s number for the fifth time in a row. “They will come back soon.”
“You know where they are, don’t you?” Tony asked, resting his forehead on the table in defeat. He probably could track them down if he really wanted to. But Steve had made it clear that, barring an emergency, he didn’t want Tony tracking him when he left the Tower. It was a privacy thing that Tony did his best to respect.
A chair scraped against the floor, and a moment later her hand was on his head, stroking his hair. “Yes, I do. Bucky is struggling. Well, they both are, but Bucky especially. Steve is doing his best to help him. They’re very upset.”
“But why? It’s not their fault!”
Natasha sighed. “I think that, in Steve’s case, he sees how something similar could’ve happened.”
“Steve would never have done that!” Tony said, insulted on Steve’s behalf. He glared up at her.
“I hope not,” Natasha said, meeting his gaze steadily. “But secrets have a way of piling up on each other. A snowball effect, Bruce called it. And when you make the wrong choice, sometimes it’s easier to keep making it then to admit that you were wrong. Dating you and telling you the truth about your parents was the right choice. For whatever reason, the Steve Rogers in that world made the wrong choice.”
“I doubt I was blameless,” Tony muttered.
“Probably not. I’m sure they all fucked up, including Tones. That doesn’t make what Rogers or Barnes did okay, and Steve and Bucky are struggling with that. It’s hard knowing what you, even an alternate universe version of you, is capable of.”
She had a point, much as Tony hated to admit it. “Well, if I can’t fix this with Steve and Bucky, I’ll fix it with Stark instead.”
“I’m going to show him some footage,” Tony said. “He needs to know that things aren’t the same here.”
She smiled. “Why does that matter if we’re just sending him back?”
“You be quiet,” Tony said, pointing a finger at her in mock annoyance. After the whole ‘my team beat me up and left me to die’ thing, the rest of the Avengers had universally agreed that Stark didn’t have to go back if he didn’t want to. Natasha in particular was adamant that he was going to stay. Tony suspected she felt bad for her earlier suggestion that they tie Stark up to get some answers.
“You should start by calling him Tones, not Stark, and see where that gets you,” Natasha said.
“If you name it, you end up keeping it,” Tony said, but it was a losing cause. He threw his hands up and walked out, leaving her laughing behind him.
He headed into the elevator alone. It wasn’t that he didn’t want Stark – okay, fine, Tones - it wasn’t that he didn’t want Tones to stay. It was more that Tony was worried about how much things would change if he did. Was the world really ready for another Tony Stark? Particularly a Tony Stark who was that traumatized? And how would it change the dynamics of the team? What about Tony’s relationship with Steve? What if Steve liked Tones better than Tony?
Okay, wow. Tony shook his head at himself. That had derailed quickly. He had no business thinking things like that. Steve loved him. Tony knew that. He’d said as much to Steve less than a week ago. Steve’s interest in keeping Tones around was more because Steve was insanely overprotective, not because Steve was interested in Tones. It was just hard to remember that when he hadn’t even spoken to Steve in two days.
Tones and Rhodey were still in the workshop, of course. Rhodey had his Starktab and was showing Tones some things on it. As Tony walked into the room, he heard the familiar sounds of battle and realized that Tones was watching footage from one of their last fights. It wasn’t until he wandered closer than he saw it was the one where Tony got knocked out and tossed into the river. Steve had fished him out, carrying the Iron Man armor in true damsel in distress style. Those pictures had haunted Tony for months.
“Aw, come on, really?” Tony complained. “You need to show him those? You couldn’t have picked something that made me look a tiny bit cool?” He pouted, watching as the Steve on screen laid the armor down and then pried the faceplate up to reveal Tony’s unconscious face. Thank god Steve hadn’t attempted C.P.R. It would’ve looked too much like a dramatic kiss for comfort.
“You’re not cool,” Rhodey said absently. “I wouldn’t want to give him unrealistic expectations.” He looked up with a grin. Tony glared at him.
“Steve saved you,” Tones said, effectively cutting off whatever smart comment Tony was going to make. He sounded surprised.
“Well, yeah. Steve loves me. You should’ve seen him that night. He wouldn’t leave me alone,” Tony said ruefully. “Fussing is nice to a certain degree, but then I need my space. I had to agree to build Clint a new set of arrows just so that he’d tell Steve about his busted ankle.”
Tones frowned. “Why would that matter?”
“Clint is an omega,” Tony said, taking a seat in his chair. “You know what alphas are like.”
“Clint is an omega? And he’s still part of the team?” Tones looked blown away by that. Rhodey and Tony exchanged looks.
“Yeah, of course he is. I’m not sure where else we’d find a birdbrain that still shoots arrows in this day and age,” Tony said slowly. “Why wouldn’t he be?”
“Cap didn’t think omegas should be on the field,” Tones said quietly. “He shared that opinion with us several times. He said it was wrong, and that he didn’t care what Fury or SHIELD said: he wouldn’t be the leader of a team that had an omega on it. Too much chance that the omega would lose their head and put the team in danger.”
Tony whistled softly. That was some old-school bullshit right there. “Steve thought that way too back in the beginning, but he changed his mind pretty fast.”
“It’s ridiculous,” Rhodey said, bristling. “Omegas are excellent in the field.” His little sister was an omega, Tony knew, and doing very well for herself in the Marines.
“I never bothered to argue the point,” said Tones. “We didn’t have any omegas on the team.”
“That’s probably a good thing,” Tony said. “And not to change the subject, but that’s why I’m here. I want you to see some footage. Not of our battles, but of the Tower. I want you to see what the Avengers are like behind closed doors. Literally. I’ve even included some stuff of just me and Steve.”
“Tony,” Rhodey began.
“No sexy times,” Tony promised, knowing what Rhodey’s question was going to be. “Just… you know, that sweet, fluffy crap Steve likes so much. Movie nights, team dinners, that kind of thing. Everyone else gave me permission, and you know Steve and Bucky would be okay with it if I could ask them.” He took the tablet and called up the file he’d put together. “I want you to see what my Steve is like. I swear, he’s nothing like that asshole you had to put up with.”
“Why can’t you ask them?” Tones asked.
“They’ve both vacated the building,” Tony replied. “Your story was a little hard for them to hear.” Not just them, and Tony was deeply grateful for Rhodey’s understanding look.
“Will they come back?”
“Of course they will,” Rhodey said before Tony could. “This is their home.” He took the tablet back from Tony and opened it up to the first video.
Tony had thought long and hard about what to include. He’d considered starting with the day that Bucky showed up at the tower. But from the sound of it, things had gone wrong in Tones’s world long before that. So he’d backtracked, going all the way back to the beginning, and included footage from the time when the Avengers first moved in. When yeah, they’d sniped and snarked at each other because they were still trying to figure things out, but they’d also been coming together as a team.
So the very first video was of the day that Tony was working on one of his cars in the garage and Steve had tracked him down. Looking a little shamefaced, Steve had apologized for what he’d said on the helicarrier and admitted that the version of Tony Stark that he knew of did not line up with the man who’d willingly flown a missile through a portal on what was almost a one-way trip.
That, Tony believed, was the day that everything changed. Because Steve’s apology, fumbling and awkward as it was, had been the catalyst to change them from a group of individuals fighting for the same cause to an actual team. It seemed like an achingly slow process at the time, but now, looking back, Tony could see how fast his own defenses had fallen after that.
Tones watched the video in silence with a composed face. His eyes twitched with surprise when Steve apologized, but other than that he had no reaction. Not even to Tony’s admittedly poor acceptance of the apology, since it was the last thing Tony had been expecting at the time. The awkwardness radiating off of the video was real.
“Did Rogers ever do anything like that?” Tony asked when the video was done.
Tones exhaled with a short laugh, shaking his head. “God no. The only apology I ever got from Cap was some half-assed letter, and it was more apologizing for my reaction to the situation than an actual apology. It’s hard to believe this actually happened. Between you and him, I mean.”
“Rogers is a dick. My Steve isn’t,” Tony said. Rhodey snorted.
“I think it’s more likely that Steve just made some difference choices,” he said. “Because Steve can be a dick sometimes.”
“True,” Tony said with a nod. “To this day, I’m still not sure what made him come down and do that. I sure as hell wasn’t going to be the first to say it.”
“I wasn’t either,” said Tones. “But then, I wouldn’t have had the chance. We scattered after the Battle of New York. Barton and Romanov went off to do their own thing with SHIELD. Cap took off on a road trip. Bruce came back with me to the tower for a little while, but he didn’t stick around either. Did everyone actually move in?”
“Fury’s idea,” Tony told him. “Something about how we were crap as a team and needed the work. Then he sent Coulson over to supervise us all.”
“Wait, Coulson’s alive?!”
Rhodey and Tony exchanged surprised looks. Then Rhodey said, “Yes? He was stabbed by Loki, but pulled through.”
“He died in my world,” Tones said, sounding stunned.
“He almost died here too. Fury lied to us about it, the lying liar.” Tony scowled at the memory. “Apparently he was going to keep lying to us, too. He had some plan for Coulson to supervise a new, super secret team. But then Coulson found out he wouldn’t be working with Steve and had a fit about it.” He grinned, because Coulson’s fan boy tendencies towards Steve would never not be funny.
“Maybe he did survive in my world and Fury kept lying,” Tones muttered. He looked very tired suddenly.
“Do you want to keep going?” Rhodey asked, looking prepared to shut the tablet off.
“Yes, I do. I want to see more,” Tones said. He took the tablet from Rhodey and swiped for the next video. Rhodey raised his eyebrows at Tony, who shrugged. At least Tones was open to watching the footage. They couldn’t ask for much more than that at this point.
Tones spent hours watching the footage that Tony had put together for him with the same, single-minded obsessiveness that usually kept Tony in the workshop on a binge. Rhodey tried to pry the tablet out of his hands once, but Tones looked up at him with the most perfect set of puppy eyes Tony had ever seen and Rhodey crumbled pretty much on the spot. It was hilarious. Tony had to walk out of the room because he couldn't keep himself from laughing. Rhodey joined him a moment later, rolling his eyes.
"Don't say it," he said. "God, it's like trying to take a bone away from an adorable puppy."
"You're so whipped," Tony said, amused. "Look, I think it's time to try and get him out of the workshop. He can't stay in there forever. The footage was a good first step, but we should try to get him up to his own private floor."
"Is this because you're genuinely concerned or because you want your workshop back?"
"Both," Tony admitted shamelessly. He wasn't used to having to share the workshop, so if Tones ended up staying they would probably have to build him one. Tony liked the idea of brainstorming with another Tony Stark - he was sure that the two of them could create some amazing things - but he also liked having his personal space. He was almost positive that Tones would feel the same way.
"Well, you're not wrong. What floor were you thinking of?"
"One of the lower guest ones. They're all far enough away from the Avenger floors that he won't have to worry about accidentally running into them. It also means that he doesn't have to pass by the Avenger floors to get down to the workshop."
Rhodey smiled. "That's a great idea."
"I also think we should introduce him to one of the Avengers."
"Now that I'm not sure about."
"Hear me out," Tony said, holding up his hands. "I've been giving it some thought. Footage can be doctored. Neither of us would bother, but it is possible and I am 100% sure that Tones knows that. He won't really start to believe things are different until he actually gets to meet people."
"You make a good point, but he's not ready to meet anyone."
"Not Steve or Bucky, no. Probably not Natasha or Clint either. But I don't remember him talking about Bruce or Thor during the whole 'my team abandoned me to die in Siberia' thing." Tony swallowed. It still made him sick to think about that. "Thor's pretty intimidating and doesn't really know how to be gentle yet, but what about Bruce? I can't imagine any world where Bruce and I aren't science bros. Bruce could talk to Tones and prove that things aren't nearly that fucked up here."
"That's a really good idea. I'm proud of you," Rhodey said, wrapping an arm around Tony's shoulders. "But since when did you start calling him Tones?"
Tony flushed. "It was Natasha's idea," he muttered.
"I'm sure it was," Rhodey said, grinning.
"Shut up," Tony said, elbowing him. "I can ask JARVIS to ask Bruce to meet us upstairs if you think you can pry the tablet away and not give in this time."
"I only gave in because he was at a point in the battle where War Machine was being awesome," Rhodey lied.
"Yeah right," Tony said. "JARVIS -"
"Forgive me, Sir, but Captain Rogers has returned to the tower and would like a word with you," JARVIS said before Tony could finish. "Might I suggest meeting with him before you speak to Dr. Banner?"
Steve. Tony's heart started to pound. He slipped out from under Rhodey's arm and ran to the elevator without bothering to say a word, knowing that Rhodey would understand. It seemed to take forever for the elevator to get to his and Steve's floor, but the second the doors opened Tony was being pulled out and into a huge hug. Tony threw his own arms around Steve's shoulders and hugged him back. After hearing Tones's stories, there had been a small part of him that was afraid Steve wouldn't come back at all.
"I'm sorry," Steve said, which wasn't what Tony was expecting to hear.
"You're sorry? For what?" Tony thought about it and sighed. "Did you and Barnes get another fucking parking ticket? Because I swear to god Steve -"
Laughing, Steve kissed him quiet. "No, no parking tickets," he murmured against Tony's lips. "Natasha tracked us down and pointed out how stupid we were being. And by we, she meant me. You're my partner. I should've at least sent you a text saying that I was okay and just needed some space, but I didn't. I knew you'd understand. But that doesn't make it okay."
This. This was why Tony loved Steve so much. "It's okay. I mean, it's not okay because I was worried. But I get that you needed space."
“I’d like to say it was more Bucky than me, but the truth is that we both did,” Steve admitted. “I can’t… I can’t imagine a world where I could be so cruel to you. Didn’t that other Steve know what he was missing? Didn’t he realize how valuable you are?”
A rush of warm affection flooded through Tony. “I guess not,” he said. Truthfully, Tony didn’t think he was that good of a person. He wouldn’t have been surprised if he and Steve had ended up in a similar situation. But Steve was so damn stubborn, refusing to believe that Tony was anything other than worthy, that Tony knew that could never happen.
“He was an idiot,” Steve said fiercely. “A fucking idiot. I love you so much, Tony. I swear that I will never lose sight of us or the team.”
“I believe you,” Tony said. It was the truth. “I never doubted you, Steve. I know you’re not like him.”
“But I am. He’s me. We’re the same person.” And Steve looked genuinely anguished about that, like he'd spent the whole time away from the tower agonizing over it. Knowing Steve, he probably had. That was something Tony needed to nip in the bud immediately. He shook his head, pressing a kiss to the curve of Steve's jaw.
“No, you’re not. Tones and I might share the same genes, but we didn’t have the same experiences. Some point after Afghanistan, our paths diverged. I was clearly the lucky one. I ended up with a team that loves me and the best alpha in the world. In all the worlds." He squeezed Steve tighter. "Tones ended up with a team that didn’t appreciate him. That sucks, but that doesn't mean you would ever make the same choices."
"I wouldn't," Steve said.
"Who are you trying to convince, me or you?" Tony asked knowingly. "You're not the same person, Steve. I know that and you know that."
"Yeah," Steve muttered. It was clear he wasn't convinced, but Tony wasn't sure what to say to ease the remainder of Steve's fears. He hated that he couldn't comfort Steve the way he wanted to, and he hated Tones a little bit for making Steve - and, to a lesser extent, Bucky - doubt themselves like this.
"You're not the same person," Tony repeated. "You made different choices. I can guarantee you that Tones and his Steve never thought about dating. They certainly never thought about fucking each other into a bed, or testing out super soldier refractory periods, or seeing how long you could hold me up against a wall before you got tired." He allowed a lecherous smirk to cross his face. "That Steve certainly never got the benefit of my years of cock-sucking experience."
Steve rolled his eyes, but at least he no longer looked quite as upset. "The other Steve is stupid for not seeing what was right in front of him."
"I agree. He missed out. My cock-sucking skills are legendary."
"Tony!" Steve said, torn between amusement and exasperation as he so often was, and Tony grinned. He didn't think this was over. Tones's stories had rattled Steve badly, and it was probably going to get worse before it got better. But it was helping, and he would take what he could get if it meant that Steve stopped beating himself up for things he'd had zero control over.
"I'd give you another demonstration," Tony said, dropping one of his hands to Steve's belt. He fingered the buckle regretfully. "But Rhodey and I want to introduce Bruce to Tones."
"You think he's ready for that?" Steve asked, perking up immediately.
"I think so. Bruce is probably the least-threatening option we've got at this point."
"That makes sense. I wish I could meet him," Steve said, a little wistfully. It wasn't hard to figure out what he was thinking, and Tony was hard-pressed to keep from rolling his eyes. Steve was going to spoil Tones rotten when they finally got to that point. The whole team was. Poor Tones wasn't going to know what hit him.
"You will eventually," Tony said, patting Steve's arm comfortingly. Maybe he should've been jealous, but honestly he wasn't. It would be nice for the team to have someone else to fuss over. They, especially Steve and Bucky, had the bad tendency to gravitate towards fussing over Tony because he was the only non-assassin human on the team - especially when Clint wasn't around. And from the sound of it, Tones could use someone to fuss over him. It was a match made in heaven and meant Tony would have more time for the workshop. Excellent.
"We showed him some footage so that he could see how things are different here. That, plus Bruce, might mean he'll be comfortable with seeing everyone soon," Tony added. "Just... give me a couple more days, okay?"
"I can give you that. I'd give you anything you asked for," Steve said, pulling him into another warm hug. "Bucky wants to apologize -"
"Again?" Tony said, slightly exasperated. They'd been down this road before. Hearing that the Winter Soldier had killed his parents, instead of a drunk driving accident, had been massively upsetting. It was weeks before Tony felt like he could be anywhere near Bucky, and longer still before he felt anything but numb distrust towards him. Poor Steve had been caught in the middle, though he'd never once pressured Tony.
Eventually, Tony had come to terms with it after much discussion with a therapist (Pepper's suggestion) and Rhodey. It helped that Bucky was genuinely remorseful and never once tried to pretend that it wasn't his hands that had done the act. Now, things between them were actually okay. Better than okay, if Tony was being honest. He had no interest in going back to when things were tense and awful.
"He feels guilty," Steve said.
"It's not his fault either! Please, Steve, tell him that he doesn't need to apologize."
"I think he needs to hear it from you."
Tony sighed. "Okay, fine. Let me talk to Bruce and then I'll go find Bucky."
"Thank you," Steve murmured. "I love you. Thank you."
"Don't thank me yet. I have the feeling this other me is going to throw a huge wrench into everything," Tony said. He kissed Steve one more time and then broke away, following JARVIS's directions to find Bruce.
It didn't take much effort to convince Bruce to meet Tones. Bruce was all too willing, following Tony into the elevator. "Did you tell him you were bringing me down?" Bruce asked.
"Surprises are good for the soul," Tony said. The doors slid open as Bruce rolled his eyes, but he walked out with Tony so Tony considered that a win.
Tones and Rhodey looked up at the same time when they walked in. Tones's eyes went wide. "Bruce?" he said, sounding shocked. "You're... you're here?"
"Hi Tones," Bruce said with a gentle smile. "It's nice to meet you." He held out a hand for Tones to shake, which Tones did, though he kept darting confused little looks at Tony and Rhodey.
"I don't understand," Tones said hesitantly. "I thought - did Wanda not mind whammy you here?"
"What do you mean?" Bruce asked.
"In my world, Wanda used her powers on the team, including you. The Hulk lost it and killed a lot of people. You couldn't stand being around Wanda after that, so you left when Cap and Barton asked her to join the Avengers," Tones said, staring at Bruce as though he was something wondrous. "I wish you could've stayed, though. It was nice having around someone who actually liked me."
"Wait," Rhodey said, holding up a hand. "Did you just say Maximoff is an Avenger in your world?!"
Tones looked around at them. "Of course she is. It's one of the reasons I stepped back after Ultron. She hates me, so I didn't want to be around her..." He trailed off at the horrified looks he was getting. "Um. Is she different here?"
"No," Bruce said tightly, a little green around the edges. "She works for Hydra and is one of the Avenger's enemies."
"Oh." Tones blinked. "I wondered why I didn't see her in the footage."
"I think we need the whole story," Tony said, feeling revolted at the thought of having Wanda Maximoff around on a regular basis. She and her brother had popped up right around the time that Tony and Bruce had given up on the Ultron program once and for all. They were dangerous apart, but together made for a combination that had come close to beating the Avengers at least twice. From the sound of it, she was no different in Tones's world. What the hell had the other Steve and Clint been thinking?
When they were all sitting and looking at Tones expectantly, he cleared his throat a couple times. He seemed strangely uneasy at being the center of their attention, but Tony couldn’t put his finger on why. Surely Tones was used to being in the spotlight? If he wasn't, he was going to have to get used to it, especially if he remained here. Two Tony Stark's meant the press would have a field day.
Somewhere upstairs, the entirety of the Avengers team was watching this with bated breath – Tony, before sitting down, had issued a whispered command to JARVIS to have the team watch. It was probably a good thing Tones was unaware of that. He had to suspect the team was monitoring him, but knowing and suspecting were two different things.
“I told you how we managed to create Ultron, and that he was a monster,” Tones said, drawing Tony's attention back to him. He was sitting back on the couch beside Rhodey, holding the tablet on his lap. “An outside influence perverted everything my Bruce and I had worked on. He didn’t want to protect us; Ultron thought that humanity wasn’t worthy of anything. Pietro and Wanda Maximoff joined forces with him until they realized that Ultron wanted to destroy all of humanity, including them.”
“Wait, they joined forces with him?” Tony said. “Why?”
“They were Hydra,” Tones said, shrugging. “At first they thought Ultron was just trying to bring down the Avengers. And they really hated me. I think Wanda in particular saw it as her chance to get revenge.”
“She thought you’d killed her parents,” Tony said knowingly. “Maximoff thinks the same thing, even though I have proof that it was actually Stane who was responsible for putting that bomb on the black market and in the hands of terrorists.” He’d researched it a lot after Maximoff’s initial accusation. Pepper had helped him to look into the records that Stane had hidden. It actually hadn’t taken much searching to find proof. Stane would’ve sold weapons to anyone with the right amount of money.
Tones blinked at him. “Well, I never actually looked into it in my world. I didn’t have the time. And it didn’t matter. I doubt anyone would’ve cared.” He muttered that last part.
Rhodey, Tony and Bruce exchanged looks. It was Rhodey who broke the silence. “So you said until they realized. What happened after that?”
“Oh, well, Pietro died when we were fighting Ultron. Wanda survived, and Cap and Barton decided that Wanda would make a good addition to the Avengers. She was asked to join the team effective immediately. Barton retired. Bruce and I both resigned. Bruce left, actually. I’m not sure where he went. I haven’t seen him since.” Tones rubbed the back of his neck and sighed.
Clearly a lot of the story had been skipped. Tony narrowed his eyes, trying to understand. Just because Wanda had helped the other Avengers defeat Ultron didn't mean she would make a good Avenger. The Wanda Maximoff Tony knew didn't care about anyone outside of herself and her brother. He tried to picture Wanda without Pietro and inwardly shuddered. Pietro did a lot to keep his sister in line.
“So what kind of ramifications did Maximoff face?” Rhodey asked.
“What?” Tones said, looking surprised by the question.
“Well, you said she was part of Hydra. At the very least, she must’ve participated in some criminal activities. I mean, this is Hydra we're talking about. No one works for them and comes out of it innocent. So did she face jail time? Was she paroled? Were the Avengers part of her community service?” Rhodey sounded skeptical.
“No. Nothing like that. Cap asked me to step in and make any potential charges against her go away. He seemed to think that losing Pietro and fighting against Ultron was enough to absolve Wanda.”
“And you did it?” Bruce said in tones of great disbelief.
Tones frowned. “He was the Boss,” he mumbled.
Bruce and Rhodey were staring at Tones like they couldn’t believe what they were hearing. Tony was… not less surprised, exactly, but slightly more understanding. He knew exactly how much power and influence Steve Rogers had over Tony Stark in any universe. If Steve asked him to protect or get a pardon for someone, even a known criminal or Hydra affiliate, Tony couldn’t say that he wouldn’t. Steve could be persuasive, especially with the force of the team behind him.
“So then what happened?” Tony asked, giving Bruce and Rhodey a warning look. It wouldn’t do them any good to judge Tones after the fact. It might actually have the opposite effect of making Tones shut down.
“I went back to New York. The new Avengers started training together. There was Cap, Romanoff, my Rhodey, the Vision, the Falcon, and the Scarlet Witch,” Tones listed, ticking them off on his fingers.
“That’s bullshit. I can’t believe they made Wanda Maximoff an Avenger!” Rhodey said. “And especially at the same time as me!”
“I guess they felt she’d redeemed herself,” Tones said quietly.
“You disagreed,” Bruce said.
“Yeah, I did. I still do, to be honest. Wanda’s young. She’s not trained like she should be. And her mistakes are usually very costly.” Tones went silent for a moment, then sighed again. “Her magic is tied to her emotions, mostly her temper. I kept my distance after she joined the team for a reason. I truly pity the normal person who gets up close and personal with her bad side.”
“What the hell was Steve thinking?” Tony asked bluntly. “Maximoff is a known Hydra operative. The one in this world learned how to use her powers by torturing people. She goes into people’s minds and tortures them to get what she wants.”
Tones flinched a little. It was subtle, but they all saw it. “I know.”
Bruce’s eyes looked a bit green. “Did she do that to you?”
“She got the whole team, actually,” Tones said. “Well, most of them. Cap, Romanoff, me and Bruce.” He wouldn’t meet their eyes, avoiding Bruce especially. “Bruce, um, Hulked out at whatever he saw. It wasn’t pretty.”
Bruce paled. “What did I – he do?”
“There was a nearby city. There was a lot of damage and some civilian deaths,” Tones said reluctantly. “That’s why he left, I think. He didn’t really say. He was there one day, gone the next.”
“So he left you to face the consequences of Ultron alone?” Tony said.
“Well, there weren’t really consequences… I had to pay out some money and face a committee… but we were able to prove that a staff we’d stolen from Hydra had kick-started the process. Ultron was kind of his own entity in a way. So…” Tones trailed and shrugged. “The real consequence were the Accords.”
Every time they talked to Tones, Tony was left feeling more fucked up. He put a hand to his forehead, trying to rub away the headache that was forming. “Wait. So Maximoff mentally tortured four of the Avengers and then Rogers decided she would make a great member?!”
“She said she was sorry. That was enough for him,” Tones said. “I tried to bring up some concerns, but Cap wouldn’t hear of them. I realized that he had it set in his mind that Wanda was going to be an Avenger.” He shrugged again. “There wasn’t anything else I could do.”
Tony just stared at him, appalled on every level. “That’s… I can’t even… why?!”
“Romanoff told me he compared himself to Wanda and Pietro. He said that he’d volunteered for strange governmental experiments and so had they. And Wanda was pretty young, so that got to him too. Cap was always a huge sucker for anyone he perceived as younger or weaker than him,” said Tones.
“But that makes no sense!” Rhodey exclaimed. “Everyone knows Steve Rogers volunteered for an experiment so that he could serve his country and protect people. The Maximoff's volunteered because they wanted revenge. And then tortured people during that experiment! How is that the same thing?”
Tones actually smiled. “I’ve wondered that myself, once or twice. But no one else wanted to hear it, so I gave up talking about it."
"Did your Bruce ever come back?" Bruce asked.
"No. I haven't looked for him, either. He didn't want to be found."
"What about Thor?" Tony asked suddenly. Thor was the one person that Tones hadn't mentioned during most of his stories, which was unusual to say the least. "Was he around for this? What did he think of Maximoff?"
"Thor left. He had to go back to Asgard," Tones said. "I don't think he really cared one way or the other, to be honest. He had more important things to worry about." He did something weird then. He put a hand to his throat and rubbed at the skin there. "We haven't seen him since. I guess he could've come back after I was pulled into this world, but I doubt it."
"Your world was fucked up," Rhodey declared. "And I don't think you should go back."
"Rhodey!" Tony said.
"What?" Tones said at the same time, looking shocked.
"They don't appreciate you. You should stay here where people actually care about the Tony Stark's of the world." Rhodey wrapped his arms protectively around Tones, half dragging Tones into his lap. The baffled look on Tones's face made Tony want to laugh, but he held it in.
"Um, I do have people who need back in my world," Tones said, voice muffled. "Pepper is still running Stark Industries. She's way better at it than I am, but she still tells me that she needs my support. And the bracers I've been working on for my Rhodey are still a work in progress. Plus there's Peter. He's just a kid."
"Peter?" Bruce asked.
"Peter Parker. Spider-Man?" Tones squirmed enough that he could look at them. "Oh shit. Did I just out him?"
"I've seen Spider-Man on the news a couple times. I've been following up on him," Tony said. By which he meant he'd figured out that Spider-Man was just a kid and had already set a couple of tracers on him. Not so that he could figure out who Spider-Man was - that would be pretty easy - but so that he would know if anything went seriously wrong. So far, it seemed like Spider-Man was just sticking to muggers and small time thieves.
"But you haven't made contact yet?" Tones guessed. "I know him in my world. I actually made him a new uniform because he was going out in what was basically a pair of sweatpants." He wrinkled his nose. "It was disgusting. Pathetic and disgusting. I burned it when he wasn't looking."
"Tones," Bruce said, sounding mildly disapproving, but he couldn't hold back a smile. "And you're sure none of them could live without you?"
"Wait. Are you actually serious?" Tones said, staring at them. "Surely to god one Tony Stark is enough for you."
Tony bristled slightly. "Hey, one Tony Stark is never enough. We are a gift to the world."
Bruce snorted. "I'm sure Steve agrees with that when he's hauling your ass out of the workshop and up to bed after a three day binge," he teased.
"Steve loves my ass," Tony said haughtily. "And yes, you should know that they are completely serious. I've already had Steve ask me like five times if we can keep you. He really, really wants the chance to punch your Cap in the face."
"I would like to see that," Tones said, looking briefly contemplative. But then he shook his head. "No. I really couldn't stay."
That was fair enough, and Tony didn't push. He could tell that Rhodey wanted to, but fortunately Rhodey also knew when to back off. Tones hadn't even met the rest of the Avengers yet. He didn't know what they were like or how they would react to him. Tony knew that they would absolutely fawn over Tones, but it wouldn't do any good to just tell Tones that. He needed to see it for himself.
"You don't have to decide now, since we don't even know how to get you home in the first place," Tony said. "Since you are going to be staying for at least a little while, how about meeting the rest of the team?" Bruce and Rhodey shot him startled looks, which Tony ignored. The meeting with Bruce had gone well enough that Tony felt confident that it was time. Time for Tones to see once and for all that Tony's team was nothing like the idiotic assholes Tones had had to put up with.
Tones's eyes widened at the suggestion, but to his credit he was quick to nod like it was no big deal. "Sure, why not?"
"Tony and I will go up first to give the team a heads-up. Then you and Rhodey can come up together, okay?" Bruce said, all but dragging Tony into the elevator. The door closed on Rhodey's and Tones's confused expressions and Bruce immediately let go, backing up into the corner. He put both hands over his face and took a couple of deep breaths, looking a little green around the gills. Tony eyed him warily, wondering if he was about to have a Hulk-related incident.
"Bruce, breathe," he instructed, hitting the button to stop the elevator. "It's okay."
"It's not okay," Bruce snapped, sharply enough that Tony winced a little. "I abandoned him, Tony! I left him... you behind to face everything alone. I couldn't even stick around for five fucking minutes to help?"
Hearing Bruce swear would never not be a surprise. Tony stepped towards and gripped Bruce's shoulders, forcing his friend to look at him. "Bruce, listen to me. That was not you, okay? That was a different Bruce Banner. I said the same thing to Steve a couple days ago. Whatever choices these other people made, they don't reflect on you. The Bruce Banner I know might take off on occasion, but he always says goodbye to me because he knows I'm scared of waking up to find out that everyone I care about is gone. Okay?"
Bruce let out a shuddering sigh, eyes meeting Tony's finally. "But all those people -"
"No. You do not get to feel guilty about some people in another world," Tony interrupted, exasperated. "From the sound of it, even that Bruce shouldn't feel guilty. It seems pretty clear to me that Maximoff was responsible for all those people. She might've used the Hulk as a weapon, but it was her fault. You know what it's like when she messes with people's brains. They can't be held responsible for what she does."
"Okay," Bruce said, sounding slightly steadier, hands coming up to cover Tony's. "It's just... he looks so... broken."
Tony grimaced. "Not broken. No Tony Stark is ever broken." He let go of Bruce and stalked over to hit the button to resume their trip. "Battered, maybe, and cracked, but that's about it."
When the elevator doors opened, Clint was right there. He gathered Bruce up into a hug, letting Bruce stick his nose against the scent glands along Clint's neck. Bruce shivered once and then relaxed, all the tension flowing out of him. The effect an omega could have on an alpha or a beta really was kind of remarkable. Tony edged around them and looked at the rest of the team. Natasha, Thor, Bucky and Sam all met his eyes. Only Steve refused, standing by the windows with his shoulders hunched. No doubt beating himself up for the choices that the other Steve Rogers had made.
Tony went to him, wrapping his arms around Steve from behind. "Hey. Tones is coming upstairs. You guys all have to put your best non-threatening faces on. Especially you, Nat. I think you and Steve really freaked him out."
"I'll be good," Natasha said, holding her hands up to prove that she had no weapons. Which was a lie, Tony knew: Natasha could be stark naked and still have half a dozen weapons hidden on her body. He was pretty sure that Tones would know that too.
"We will all behave," Thor boomed. "Let us see our new friend Tones, for we have much apologizing to do on behalf of our other selves."
"Yeah," Tony sighed, deciding not to bother giving the speech again. He had the feeling he'd be repeating it a lot once this was over. "JARVIS, go ahead and let Rhodey know they can come up now."
Everyone stared at the doors in anticipation. Tony could feel Steve vibrating, he was so tense. He hugged Steve a bit tighter, resting his cheek on Steve's back. When the doors opened, Rhodey stepped out first. Tones was right behind him, shoulders squared in a way that suggested he was going into battle. There was a fake smile pasted on his face, which Tony recognized as the one he usually wore when he was facing the press and really didn't want to have to answer whatever they were going to ask. He half-thought Tones might change his mind and run, but he didn't.
"I'm sure you know everyone," Tony said. "But just in case, this is Steve, Clint, Natasha, Sam and Thor. You know Bruce already, and of course me and Rhodey. We're the Avengers. Unlike in your world, we're actually the good guys here." He glanced around the room, realizing he was missing someone, and realized that Bucky had actually wedged himself into the furthest corner from the elevator. Sheesh. "Also, the dark and broody one in the corner is Bucky."
"Hello," Tones said quietly, with none of the usual bravado Tony might have expected.
"You are well met!" Thor said, stepped forward. He seized Tones's hand and shook it enthusiastically. Tones tensed, but didn’t pull away as Thor added, "Were we friends in your world? I couldn't help noticing that my counterpart was largely absent from your tales."
"Thor – the Thor in my world – was there during Ultron," Tones said, looking a little rattled. "But he left right afterwards. He had some things to do on Asgard. To the best of my knowledge, he hasn't returned." He drew back when Thor released him, putting a little bit of distance between them.
“I heard the other Barton was a dick,” Clint said bluntly. “I might be an asshole, but I try to limit my dick moments to people who deserve it.” He was still wrapped around Bruce, but Bruce released him so that Clint could step forward and offer his hand. His scent was sweet and mellow, calming. Tones’s nostrils flared, picking up on the scent, and his eyes widened a little.
“You’re really an omega,” he said.
“Yeah, I am. That a problem?”
Tones shook his head. “No. I just… in my world, all the other Avengers were alphas.”
“Even me?” Clint looked very surprised by that. “Huh, no wonder the other Barton is a dick.”
“Hey!” Natasha said.
“I call it like I see it, Nat,” Clint said, grinning.
Tentatively, Tones took Clint’s hand and shook it. “It’s… nice to meet you, I guess. Is everyone an alpha?”
“I’m not,” Tony said. “You knew that. Bruce isn’t either, though the Hulk is.” It was one of the reasons he and Bruce got on so well. Tony liked to call it a beta zone of neutrality.
“My other self might be an alpha in your world, but obviously she’s not very good at it,” Natasha said. She didn’t try to approach, just hung back with her arms at her sides. “I’m sorry for scaring you when you first got here.”
“You didn’t scare me,” Tones said, which was such a bald-faced lie that Tony snorted. “I was just surprised.”
Natasha smiled sweetly. “Then I’m sorry for surprising you. I’ll try not to do it again. I forget how used to the team Tony has gotten.”
“Like I had a choice,” Tony said.
“You love us and you know it,” Clint said, smirking at him.
Tony rolled his eyes. “I frequently ask myself why.”
“Did you know the other me in your world?” Sam asked.
Tones looked at him warily. “Not really. You… he was always more Cap’s friend than mine.”
Which probably meant that Wilson hadn’t had a very good opinion of Tones. Sam’s smile flickered slightly. “Well, in this world Tony and I are always up for a good troll session. You should join us sometime.”
“Troll session?” Tones repeated, confused.
“Hell yeah. Gotta keep Steve’s ego from getting too big for his head somehow,” Sam joked, lightly nudging Steve. “When it gets really bad, Bucky and Clint chip in.”
“You gang up on him? Together?” Tones said, sounding startled.
“Steve is used to it from me and Sam. Clint and Bucky provide a fresh perspective,” Tony said innocently. Steve huffed and finally turned to look at them, rolling his eyes.
“What you mean is, you get bored when I stop rising to your tricks and so you employ other teammates to undermine me,” he said, but it was spoken so fondly that Tony just grinned. He knew that Steve liked it when they teased him. Without thinking, he leaned forward and brushed his nose against Steve’s, then lightly pecked his mouth in a kiss.
“You love it,” he murmured, borrowing Clint’s phrase.
“God help me, I do,” Steve whispered back. Had the others not been there, they probably would’ve started making out. Hell, even with the rest of the team there it might’ve happened anyway – but Rhodey, who had been silently hovering behind Tones, pointedly and loudly cleared his throat. Tony jerked his head back and saw that Tones was staring at them with eyes the size of grapefruits, mouth hanging open a little in disbelief.
“Sorry,” Tony said, slightly sheepish. “Didn’t mean to make you watch, uh, that.”
“How come Tones gets an apology?!” Clint exclaimed. “And for nothing? I’ve walked in on you two naked five times!”
“Only five times?” Sam said. “I’ve walked in on them like fifteen times. I’m starting to memorize the sight of Tony’s bare ass.”
“That’s because you suck at scouting out rooms before you enter them,” Natasha said, examining her nails. “You also suck at knocking.”
“I have knocked!” Sam yelped. “They ignore me!”
“Then learn to listen at a door before you just walk in,” she said.
“Okay,” Steve said loudly. “I think that we’ve discussed this topic enough for the time being. Tones.” His voice shook a little. Tony took his hand, unsurprised when Steve grabbed back with a grip so tight it hurt. “I want you to know that you are safe here. I’m nothing like the Steve Rogers in your world. I don’t even understand that man. I just – you should know that nothing will happen to you. None of us will ever hurt you like that. Ever.” His eyes flashed alpha red.
“I… okay,” Tones said faintly, looking at once bewildered and overwhelmed. It was probably a good thing that Steve didn’t try to get any closer; Tones probably would’ve bolted.
“Hey,” Clint said, apparently picking up on the same thing. “I heard a rumor that someone was making cookies. You want to try the best cookies in the world?”
“Um, sure?” Tones said, glancing at Rhodey.
“They really are the best cookies,” Rhodey said. “Thor’s an excellent baker.”
“Thor?” Tones repeated in disbelief.
Thor laughed. “Aye, I enjoy baking. Come! We shall have cookies.” He led the way into the kitchen. Natasha, Clint and Sam were on his heels like a couple of hungry puppies. Rhodey wrapped an arm around Tones’s shoulders and gently ushered Tones along.
Steve closed his eyes once they were gone, looking like he was in actual pain. “He’s so small. So… sweet. I can’t believe they hurt him.”
Tony eyed him. “I wouldn’t say that to his face. You know how much I hate it when you call me short or small.”
“What? No, I wouldn’t, I just…” Steve shook his head. “I don’t get it. When I think about what you mean to me, I can’t imagine any version of me that doesn’t love you.”
“Flatterer,” Tony said, trying not to show how much the words flustered and warmed him. “Bucky? You doing okay?”
“He was so scared,” Bucky said quietly. “He was scared of us. Of me.” He hadn’t spoken a word while Tones was in the room, but now he sounded devestated. It wasn’t hard to guess why. Back when he first came to the tower, Bucky had barely spoken. He’d walked around with his shoulders hunched, sticking to shadows, never interacting. They’d all thought he was terrified of the team, even Steve, and acted accordingly.
Come to find out, it wasn’t because he was scared of the Avengers like everyone thought – it was because he was scared of hurting them. That had been a hard one to swallow. It had taken some time and effort before Bucky realized that he wasn’t the danger that he believed himself to be. Tony really hoped this was going to send him into some kind of repeat episode.
He went over to Bucky and knelt, putting them on the same level. “Hey. Don’t take it personally, okay? I actually think Tones is less scared of you than everyone else.”
“The other Barnes killed his parents too,” Bucky said. “How could he not be scared of me?”
“I’m sure that hurt,” Tony said carefully. “But… that Barnes was brainwashed too. What he did is a lot less personal than what everyone else did.” He felt more than saw Steve wince behind him. “I forgave you and Tones has nothing to hold against you personally. Against any of us, really.”
“It’s not that easy,” Bucky muttered. “We look just like them. You know we do.”
“But you… we don’t act like them,” Tony said. “That’s what matters. Remember that.” He squeezed Bucky’s knee, hoping that what he was saying was true. If Tones remained scared of the team forever, he would never agree to stay. That would break the hearts of pretty much everyone. Hopefully Tones hadn’t been betrayed and broken to the point where he couldn’t start over.