“Iron man, I need you here, now.”
Steve knows how strained his voice sounds, but seeing as he’s in the middle of single-handedly taking on what looks like an entire battalion of city-destroying robots, he thinks he can be let off. He turns unsteadily on his heel, ducking his head and shoulders behind his shield just in time; there’s the metallic thunk of bullets hitting its surface, and Steve waits only for a break of a second before pulling his arm back and flinging it in the direction the bullets came from.
A series of loud crunches tell him that the shield found its mark, and he vaults over the crumpled remains of a car to snatch it back out of mid-air. He allows the momentum to carry him around, spinning around and hurling the shield again. Five robots down and he already knows that it’s not going to be enough.
“Iron Man, where the hell are you?” he pants, grabbing the straps of the shield in both hands and shoving it star first into the chest-like part of the next robot before it can shoot at him. It topples backwards and Steve stoops down to wind his hand and wrist through some of its wires, roughly yanking them out and killing the robot’s power.
“Yeah, be there in a moment,” Tony replies, sounding distracted. Steve can hear the whine and blast of repulsors over the comms and resists the urge to swear. Tony is the only one who can hope of getting to him; Thor and Hulk are busy on the other side of the bridge with the tanks and Natasha and Clint are busy killing their way through the building that seems to be the source of the electronic invasion, searching for whoever or whatever is in command.
“Five minutes, Cap,” Tony assures him. “I’ll just-”
Steve doesn’t hear the rest of the sentence; a flare of heat and a whipcrack of sound, and a white-hot laser catches the top of his shoulder, close to his neck. It sears through the suit and he feels his skin burn. Staggering back a step, he raises the shield and flings himself to the floor, rolling behind the car he’d vaulted over earlier.
“I need you five minutes ago!” Steve yells, raising an arm instinctively to cover his face as a laser hits the pavement a metre away, shattering the asphalt and sending dirt and rocks showering over him. Fuck, his only saving grace is the fact the damn things take so long to recharge. If they could fire as quickly as he can throw his shield, he’d be dead by now. He coughs, shaking dust and dirt out of his eyes. “Tony, I’m – I’m in trouble here.”
“Okay,” Tony replies instantly. “Cap, I’m coming.”
Steve’s not sure if he believes him, despite how quick the answer was. Panting and trying his best to ignore the pain in his shoulder, he springs from behind the car and smashes a robot with the edge of his shield. He takes out two, then three, and then something hard and hot hits him in the small of his back. He grunts in pain and wheels around, just in time to take a vicious uppercut to the jaw from an armoured fist.
“Cap? Cap, hold on, I’m on the way,” Tony is saying, and he sounds urgent in a way Steve has never heard before. Great, he thinks as he spits out a mouthful of blood and scrambles to his feet. Now Tony gives a shit about listening to me in battle.
His attacker is the biggest bot he’s seen yet; easily seven feet tall and bulky in a way the others aren’t. Steve has a moment in which to feel thankful that it has neither gun nor laser, but then his shield is ripped unceremoniously from his hands and tossed away, and the thought is gone.
He dodges a punch that could have shattered his sternum, deflects another with his forearm. The robot advances, pressing him backwards against the ruined car. He punches it as hard as he can and the metal buckles, sparks flying from the wiring near the dent. He goes to hit it again, but his wrist is grabbed and forced aside, and then metal fingers grab him by the throat, tightening slowly. He chokes, trying to breathe in, but the fingers get tighter and tighter, and why the damn thing is trying to throttle him when it could easily break his neck he doesn’t know.
With his free hand, Steve grasps the robot’s right arm and twists it violently backwards. There’s a metallic screech and sparks fly from the centre console, and Steve grits his teeth and pulls harder, the metal buckling between his fingers. If he can just push it back far enough, then-
The robot’s left hand lets go of his throat so suddenly it leaves him reeling dizzily, gasping for oxygen. Heart pounding in his ears, he raises his free hand to grab for the wires he can see snaking out of the column that serves as a spine, knowing that if he pulls enough free then he’ll be able to take it out. He reaches up, towards the wires.
The robot’s left hand shoots forwards and he instinctively tenses, but to his surprise the hand goes past him. It’s so quick he doesn’t even have time to process what’s happening. His fingers brush against the wires. The robot tears a twisted piece of metal free from the crushed wreckage of the car, pulls its arm back, and shoves it straight into the side of Steve’s chest.
Steve stops breathing.
He stares at the robot with wide eyes as then chokes as he feels the twisted lance push further into him, another few inches stabbing straight under his armpit and through his ribcage.
It hurts. Oh god, the pain is like fire, agony twisting through every fibre of his being. Behind him, he hears someone scream, and he tastes blood in the back of his throat. He tries to breathe again but all he can do is cough, wet and thick.
With an inhuman noise of rage and despair, he surges forwards and rips the bundle of wires out of the robot’s case. Sparks fly, circuits flicker and expire and the robot slumps backwards with a fading, electronic whine. It hits the floor with metallic clang, still spitting sparks and jerking spasmodically. Steve stares at it, and then lifts his hand and drops the wires that are clutched in his fist. Everything around him sounds strange; distorted and echoing like he’s underwater.
Steve stumbles back half a step, knees not feeling altogether steady. A voice in his ear is screaming at him, but he doesn’t know what they’re saying. He swallows, tries to reach for the spike of metal and pull it out from under his arm. His fingers limply brush the end of the bar and he drops to his knees on the broken concrete. Reaches out with a hand to prop himself up on his fist, leaning forwards. He can’t move his other arm, though he’s trying.
He needs to get up.
The voice is still screaming, but it sounds different, further away than the screaming in his ear but getting closer all the while. He stares down at the concrete in front of him. Notices how red his glove is. Notices the blood that’s spattered in front of him, staining the ground a deep, rich scarlet. Realises it’s coming from him.
“Shit,” he manages to say, and then his arms give out. He coughs, tries to breathe in and chokes. Everything hurts. He can taste blood and brick dust and everything is moving further and further away. He rests his cheek on the rough concrete, blinking slowly.
There’s a dull clunk nearby. Golden boots appear in front of him, and then shining red knees as someone drops down next to him. A metal hand on his shoulder, and is that the robot come to finish him off?
“Gotta get up,” he murmurs, and he’s exhausted.
“No, no, no, don’t you dare, shit, medics are on the way, don’t you even dare try and move, just lie there and breathe, you fucker. God - Cap, Cap, Steve - stay with me buddy, come on, look at me.”
A metal palm on his cheek, and with the little strength he has left he lifts his eyes. A panicked face. Wide brown eyes, looking terrified. He knows that face.
“Always gotta get up,” he says, and then his eyelids close and there is nothing else.
Leaning back against the wall of the quiet hospital room, Tony stares at Steve’s pale face, unblinking. He can’t look away. He doesn’t dare move, because if he moves he’ll start thinking, and he can’t.
The monitors beep softly, the ventilator hisses quietly as it moves up and down, forcing breath in and out of Steve’s ruined lungs.
Tony should have gotten there quicker.
He forces the thought from his mind, knowing it’s enough to break him. He breathes in and out through his mouth and edges forwards, pulling out the chair that’s next to Steve’s bed and sinking down into it. He rests an elbow on the edge of the bed and presses his palm hard to his mouth for a long moment, trying to keep everything inside.
He jerks his hand away, shaking his head. “You’re only doing this to annoy me, I know you,” he says, and hates how unsteady his voice is. “You’re making a point about me following orders, you might have Clint fooled but I know better. One measly near death experience isn’t going to do squat, Captain.”
The machines beep. The ventilator hisses. Steve doesn’t move.
Tony puts his head in his hands and cries, shoulders shaking with grief.
The first breath Steve takes is a choked gasp, filling his lungs with cold, sharp air. He feels his body jerk with the force of it, and his eyes fly open, his chest burning as he gulps in air. His return to the land of the living is fast and rough, no gradual ease back into consciousness, no slow warm slide of realisation.
Eyes watering, he struggles to sit up. The ground is hard beneath his back, sharp stones digging into his shoulder blades. All he can hear is his ragged breathing, the scrape of his boots on the concrete as he sits up unsteadily, listing slightly to the side. He aches all over, and his chest is throbbing like it did the time Thor accidentally clipped him with Mjolnir whilst gesturing too enthusiastically.
His hand reaches automatically for his shield but he quickly realises that it isn’t there. Alarm rises in his stomach, and he feels horribly vulnerable without the familiar weight in his hand. He twists around, eyes scanning the nearby ground for a familiar flash of red, white and blue. Disappointment curls thick and heavy through his gut, and as his careful eyes slowly sweep the area again, he realises he has no idea where he is.
He’s surrounded by mist, thick and impenetrable. He can see the broken concrete around him, the shattered remains of a car to his right. A broken lamppost leans across the street. He can see the shadows of buildings around him, grey and towering in the gloom.
He reaches up and pushes his cowl back from his face, hand lingering on the back of his head as he takes in his surroundings. It reminds him of a winter dawn in New York long ago, when he and Bucky had been out in the fog at some godforsaken hour of the morning, before the rest of the city had stirred. It doesn’t feel right though. It’s too quiet, too still.
Belatedly, he looks down at himself to check he’s in one piece. His uniform is filthy, and it’s covered in dried blood which is never a good sign. The fabric on his right shoulder is ripped, and as he lifts his arm he spots a ragged, blood-edged hole in his side and he remembers.
The robots, the battle, the call to Assemble. The fight, the metal bar, the blood.
He scrabbles at the tear in his uniform and stops dead as he sees nothing but clean skin beneath. That’s not right – he knows he heals quickly but he had a damn metal stake shoved into his chest and now nothing? Not so much as a bruise?
He looks up and around again, starting to feel panic working its way through his chest, because the pieces are slowly merging together and the only conclusions that he can draw are a) that he’s been lying there on the ground for at least a week and something terrible has happened to New York whist he’s been knocked out and healing, or b) he’s dead.
“Hello?” he calls out, voice sounding muffled under the oppressive fog. “Anyone?”
He holds his breath, waiting, hoping, praying. The silence stretches out and out, and the mist seems to thicken around him, the whole world shrinking and stretching away. Letting out a shaking breath, Steve tries not to let the panic and grief he can feel overwhelm him. Fingers trembling, he reaches up to press his palm to his forehead, breath coming more rapidly. Oh god, the team – where are they? Do they know what’s happened to him? Hang on, does he even know what’s happened to him? He shivers as the mist swirls ever closer and inexplicably thinks of red and gold armour at his side, and his chest clenches as he remembers Tony’s panicked face, because it was Tony as his side when he, when he-
Steve gasps in shock at the sound of a voice nearby. He lowers his hand and tries to call back, ignoring the voice in his head that warns him that he should wait to see if the voice belongs to a friend or an enemy.
“Hello,” he tries, voice catching in his chest. He clears his throat roughly, tries again. “Hello?”
Footsteps approach, swift and hurried. A shadow stirs in the fog and Steve contemplates getting up, but his whole body feels shaky and not as strong as he knows it should be. Hedging his bets, he stays where he is on his ass on the concrete, hands planted either side of his hips and body tense as he waits. He keeps his eyes fixed on where the light shifts and darkens, the shadow sharpening into the clear silhouette of a man, tall and broad-
And Steve promptly stops breathing for the second time in one day, as the figure finally appears from the mist.
Steve stares, mind drawing nothing but blanks because it’s him who is advancing through the fog, expression worried and determined. His own face, his own body, but he’s different – he’s wearing a dark navy suit, so dark in the gloom that it looks almost black. The star is still there on his chest, but it’s a faded grey, discreet and completely unlike the gleaming silver of his own. His hair is short, practically a buzzcut and what the ever-loving hell is going on?
“Damn,” he hears himself say, and his doppelganger jogs over and drops to his knees beside him, just like Tony had done when he’d been lying on the damn floor bleeding everywhere. He looks concerned but not at all shocked to find a copy of himself sat on the floor in the middle of fucking nowhere, and now Steve’s internal monologue is turning a shade hysterical. “Are you-”
The double reaches out to grasp his shoulder, right where the tear in his uniform is. Steve gasps and jerks back, partly because he can’t wrap his head around the fact he’s being touched by himself, and partly because of how cold the double’s fingers are. Steve’s head swims as he watches his own face turn confused, a frown causing a cleft between his eyebrows. The double sits back on his heels, running a hand over his brutally short hair.
“You’re not dead,” he says uncertainly.
Steve gapes at him, and when he speaks his voice sounds strangled. “Am I meant to be?”
The-Other-Steve nods. “If you’re here, you should be dead,” he says matter-of-factly, but he still looks unsure. “What happened?”
“What – what happened?” he repeats, eyes dropping to the ground and darting back and forth as he thinks, remembers, tries to work out what the hell he should be doing. “I - I got stabbed by a robot – and Tony was there calling me a fucker, and then I’m here, and you’re – you’re me, how have you-”
He scrambles even further back away from his double, ignoring the flare of pain in his aching limbs. “You’re not real,” he says adamantly. “You can’t be-”
The-Other-Steve laughs, short and clipped. He runs a hand over his mouth, still sat back on his heels. “We all say that when we first get here,” he says, but then the serious look rolls back over his features. “Though you’re the first to get here and not actually be dead.”
“We?” Steve manages to say. “We?”
Right on cue, another voice calls out through the mist. “Someone else arrived?”
“Yeah,” Other-Steve calls back over his shoulder, though doesn’t take his eyes away from Steve. The same bright blue, and shit, does he always look that serious? “Though we might have a bit of a problem.”
“He’s not one of the Directors, is he?” the voice calls back, sounding worried.
“No,” Other-Steve replies and then pauses, looking like he’s wondering what to say. “He’s not dead.”
And Steve’s jaw physically drops as another him jogs towards them through the mist, this one short and scrawny and wearing a jacket that looks miles too big for him. It’s him before the serum, he registers faintly. It’s him as he was before.
“Damn it to hell,” the short-Steve says, sounding oddly impressed and standing just behind the Steve in the navy suit, looking at him curiously, his head cocked slightly to the left. “How did you manage that?”
I’m dreaming, Steve thinks. I must be. He loses the ability to form words for a moment because it seems like forever since he went through Project Rebirth, more than a lifetime ago since his body was transformed into the one that enables him to be Captain America. To be so forcibly reminded of where he came from, how he used to be, is disconcerting to say the least. He hasn’t forgotten, of course he hasn’t, but to see this old Steve side-by-side with a version of his new self is startling.
“Says he was stabbed by a robot,” Navy-Steve says, and then the corner of his mouth flickers in an almost smile. “And then something about Stark calling him a fucker.”
Short-Steve rolls his eyes. “Oh, like that’s new. So, what do we do?”
“Not a lot we can do,” Navy-Steve says slowly. “Keep him with us, see what happens?"
“Maybe he’s nearly dead,” Short-Steve muses.
“Can someone just tell me what the hell is going on?” Steve bursts out, shouting and not even caring. “I was bleeding out all over the damn floor five minutes ago, and now-”
He breaks off.
Navy-Steve nods, patient and calm. “Ever heard of the multiverse? Some of us have, some of us haven’t."
Steve freezes. “Oh, please tell me you are kidding,” he says hoarsely, because he knows about the theory of the multiverse; he’s listened to Tony enough and met Reed Richards twice, so of course he knows about the damn multiverse. He just never gave it much thought.
Not until now, anyway.
“Afraid not,” Navy-Steve says with a small, wry smile. “I’m Steve Rogers from Earth eighty-two, four hundred and two,” he says. “Killed in action on a mission for SHIELD.”
“Steve Rogers from some other Earth, I never found out which one,” Short-Steve fills in. “Beaten to death in an alley behind a theatre.”
Steve doesn’t say anything. What can he say, really? He’s still not convinced that all this is real. If it wasn’t for the fact it seems to be happening perfectly clearly and in stunning clarity – no dream-like qualities about it – and the fact he hurts all over and can feel every pinprick of it, he would be convinced it was some sort of dream or hallucination. On top of that is what he knows about the multiverse, how other people he knows take it as a given, a fact of life that there are countless other versions of reality out there, with the potential for there to be different versions of themselves…
He absently makes a note in the back of his head to tell Tony where he is because he would absolutely combust with excitement, and then when he realises he’s dead so he can’t, he starts to laugh, the sound twisted and broken.
“I’m dead,” he says to no-one in particular. “Jesus, I get through all that and I get stabbed by a damn robot-”
“You’re not dead,” Navy-Steve interrupts, insistent. “Look-”
He reaches out and grabs Steve’s hand. His hand is cool and pale compared to Steve’s own, and he once again jerks in shock at the lack of body-warmth that he was instinctively expecting. He tries to pull back but Navy-Steve holds on firm, and slowly it dawns on him what the difference means.
“You’ve got a pulse,” Navy-Steve says softly, and his fingers move to the inside of Steve’s wrist.
“I take it you don’t,” Steve says, and both Steves shake their heads.
The other Steves seem to know he needs a moment to process and keep quiet. For a fleeting moment he’s grateful that they understand he needs the time to take it in, but of course they do; they’re him so they know what he wants and needs.
He exhales shakily and stops trying to pull back against Navy-Steve, trying to get his shattered thoughts into some semblance of order. Right: as far as he knows, he’s here, and he’s experiencing this as if it’s real, so he’ll just have to take it as real. That means working out how and why, and doing so alongside a pair of dead Steve Rogers from somewhere across the multiverse. Christ, the word normal really doesn’t have any meaning in his life anymore.
He breathes out slowly and to his immense relief finds that some of the hysteria has faded. Well, he’s always been a practical kind of guy; seems his ability to deal with even crazy insane situations extends further than he ever imagined.
“So, if I’m not dead, then why am I here?”
“Don’t know,” Navy-Steve admits, finally letting go of his hand. “Maybe he’s right, maybe you’re pretty much dead but not quite there yet?”
“Well, that’s comforting,” Steve says wearily, and puts his palm flat on the concrete and pushes himself slowly to his feet. He straightens up and stands shoulder to shoulder with Navy-Steve, and jolts as he sees how they both tower over the third Steve. The smaller version of him doesn’t seem the least bit bothered by it though, and he’s hit with the memory of sensation, how he used to stand up to guys as big as he is now and not even blink.
Wow. It seems a lot stupider now he’s got the perspective on how small he actually was. Maybe Bucky had had a point.
“Come on,” Navy-Steve says. “Let’s get out of the damn mist, find the others.”
Steve is about to take a step, but the words give him pause. “The others?” he asks, not entirely convinced that he wants to know the answer. “Who else is here?”
Short-Steve and Navy-Steve exchange a look, and he still can’t get over seeing all those expressions on his own damn face without the use of a mirror. “You’ll see.”
“Tony. You’ve been here for thirty-eight hours. Go home.”
“No,” Tony replies simply, fingers dragging over the surface of the tablet in his hand. He’s exhausted, but leaving this room isn’t an option. He will stay here until Steve wakes up so he can say sorry. He’s over the whole uncontrollable crying stage now, and clinging ferociously to the stage of determined bargaining. When Steve wakes up, Tony will apologise for not following his order straight away. He will apologise for everything, up to and including the incident with the fire hydrant and the AIM soldier that was completely Steve’s fault anyway, and he will promise to always listen to Steve when he’s in Captain America mode.
But he can only do that when Steve wakes up, so Steve and the universe need to get a move on and sort it out.
He hears Clint exhale heavily, footsteps move closer. “You do realise that you being here won’t make him heal any quicker?”
“Yep,” Tony says flippantly, eyes still fixed on the tablet and feeling far too warm. Fucking Clint. He feels like he’s on a damn hair-trigger; one misplaced word and he’s going to fucking cry again, and he is not going to cry in front of Clint fucking Barton.
Scratch that, he’s not going to cry in front of anyone. Well, except Steve, but Steve is comatose so it doesn’t count.
“Is there anything I can say that will get you out of this room?”
“Nope,” Tony says, and against his better judgement he looks up from the tablet at Steve’s face. He’s still pale and silent, still relying on the ventilator to breathe for him. There’s tape over the lower half of his face, keeping the ventilator tube in place, and Tony hates it. He wants to rip it away, pull the tube out, get rid of all the evidence that Steve isn’t okay. It’s like a horrid burning twist in his stomach, an urge to pull and twist and wrench until something gives and it’s all fixed.
God, he’s a mess.
“Alright,” Clint says simply, and pulls up a chair. He slumps down in it and puts his booted feet up on the edge of Steve’s bed, near his knees. Tony glances at him and Clint shrugs, slouching further down into the chair.
“He wants to yell at me for putting boots on his blankets, he can wake up and fucking well do it himself,” he says, and shuts his eyes, exhaling heavily.
Tony swallows thickly, blinks hard. He looks away from Clint and back and Steve’s ashen face, and all he can think is please.
Steve follows Navy-Steve and Short-Steve silently, their footsteps loud in the gloom. They’re both quiet too, walking close together in a way that seems comfortable and familiar. Steve wonders how long they’ve been here – wherever here is – because they seem completely at ease with the entire situation in a way Steve is most definitely not.
He notices that the Navy-Steve doesn’t have his shield, either.
They walk and walk, occasionally ducking under tangled wires that cross the street, or climbing over piles of rubble and broken cars. The further they go, the less destruction there seems to be, and the mist is slowly but surely thinning out. He’s in a city of sorts, it would seem. Every now and again he spots something that’s familiar, but the buildings on either side never look right. It’s like his memories of New York have been sort of blended into this unknown place, an odd patchwork that’s not quite as it should be.
By the time the mist has retreated far enough for Steve to see a pale-blue sky above their heads, their pace has slowed significantly, mostly down to the fact Short-Steve is struggling for breath and looking tired.
“Should have told you to stay put,” Navy-Steve says with a frown as Short-Steve leans forwards, hands on his knees and breathing heavily.
Short-Steve scowls at him. “And you know I wouldn’t have listened.”
“S’why I didn’t bother,” Navy-Steve sighs. “I know how pointless arguing with me can be. Especially you shorter fellas.”
“What can I say,” Short-Steve says breathlessly. “We never learned to pick our battles.”
Navy-Steve snorts. “And you think the Captains did?”
Short-Steve straightens up, a hand pressed to his sternum. “Some of you did,” he pants.
“How many of us are there?” Steve ventures cautiously. Short-Steve looks over to Navy-Steve, still panting. God, Steve remembers how that felt, to have to gasp to get enough oxygen to just keep standing.
“Three hundred and twelve at last count,” he says, and Steve does a double-take.
“Three hundred and twelve?”
“That we know of, in our district,” Navy-Steve says grimly, and again Steve is struck with how serious he seems. He winces slightly, remembering all the times Tony told him to lighten up, wondering maybe if he saw Steve the same way that Steve sees this version in front of him.
The thought of Tony and the others makes grief twist sharply in Steve’s chest. It’s still there, under the worry and shock and confusion of finding himself in this strange limbo. He pushes it down and away, because the main fact of the matter is that he’s not dead, so there must be some way of getting back to them again. He’s not going to mourn them - or himself – until he’s got no other options.
God, they’ve only been a team for a year and they’ve already lost a man. Steve thinks that if he’d had money on anyone clocking out it wouldn’t have been him. He only feels a little guilty; it’s not that he thinks the others are more likely to get themselves killed, but he is a super-solider after all. Okay, maybe he does think it a little bit, but only because Tony and Clint are both clearly reckless and insane.
He tries to stop thinking about the team. In the past few months they’ve really started to click not only as teammates but as friends as well, and he can’t bear the thought of not seeing them again. Even Tony – he’s definitely not an easy person to work in a team with, and some days Steve thinks that Natasha will kill him, but Steve is really starting to think that Tony Stark might just turn out to be one of the best friends Steve has ever had.
Bitterness creeps up unexpectedly in the back of Steve’s throat. He’s not quite quick enough to stamp down on the thought that a best friend wouldn’t have let this happen. He tries to convince himself that none of this can be blamed on Tony, but he can’t not remember asking Iron Man to come and back him up.
And he hadn’t.
And Steve had been stabbed and was now maybe dead and lost in the multiverse and he can’t even shout it out with Tony, because that was how it went. They wound each other up, shit happened, they yelled at each other about it and then got over it, all rueful smiles and sincere – albeit awkward – apologies.
He has to get back.
Shaking his head, he forces his thoughts back to the present situation. He glances over at the two-Steves he's met so far and then thinks about the fact there's apparently hundreds of them in the near vicinity.
“Are we all different?”
Navy-Steve nods. “Some more so than others.”
“You look exactly like Seven,” Short-Steve says, and nods to Navy-Steve in an indication that he can keep going. They start walking again, and both Steve and Navy-Steve let Short-Steve set the pace. “Hey, are you married?”
Navy-Steve shoots Short-Steve a look that’s quite clearly a warning, and Steve frowns. “No,” he says. “Why?”
“Some of us are,” Short-Steve shrugs, and Steve instantly thinks of dark eyes, beautiful brown curls and ruby-red lips.
“Peggy?” he asks, tentative.
“Some of us,” Short-Steve repeats, and Steve feels a little wrong footed, thinking of different versions of himself that have married people that he doesn’t even know about. People that he might not have met yet. That might not even exist in his universe.
He looks up, squinting slightly in the sunlight. Now the mist has gone it feels like a fresh spring morning, cool and clear. The streets around him still remind him of New York even though it’s not completely right, and he wonders if it’s some sort of strange mix-up of all the New York’s that the different Steves have ever known.
Fuck. He wants to go back to his New York.
He shakes his head, pushing the emotion that comes with the thought away. He continues to survey his surroundings, noticing how quiet it is. As well as the wind, he can faintly hear birds somewhere though, and how does that work – are they deceased birds in some form of afterlife, or are they birds that only exist on this plane? God, he’s actually going to pay attention to Tony when he gets back, he swears it.
“So,” Short-Steve says next to him, sounding curious. “Stabbed by a robot?”
Steve lifts his arm in reply, showing the other man the bloody hole in his uniform. Short-Steve grimaces. “Looks nasty,” he says. “Not as nasty as some of the rest, but not great.”
Steve doesn’t even want to think about that, the other endless ways in which versions of him have died. “You said you…” he begins.
Short-Steve nods, and there’s a sadness in his eyes that Steve can spot a mile off, because he feels it too. “Day before Bucky was due to ship out for England,” he says ruefully. “I was running my mouth in the theatre, got in a fight. Went down, hit my head. Didn’t get up again.”
Steve feels like he’s been punched in the sternum. “I remember that,” he says weakly, coming to a standstill. “The guy was talking through-”
“Through the newsreels,” Short-Steve finishes with a small smile.
“Never happened,” Navy-Steve shrugs, and Short-Steve just rolls his eyes.
“Yeah, in your universe.”
Steve presses a hand to his head for a moment, hurrying to get moving and catch up. “So we’ve got some crossover in terms of what happened?” he says, and the other two both nod. Navy-Steve steps off the sidewalk and heads towards a tall apartment building that has railed steps leading up to the door. Steve turns his attention to it and he sees a figure in one of the windows, hears voices and a short bark of laughter drifting down to them on the street below. He looks over the red brick of the building, the smooth grey stone of the steps. Combined with the warmth of the sun and the blue sky above their heads, it all seems very strangely normal, which only really serves to make the whole situation seem that much more bizarre.
“Come on,” Navy-Steve says, pushing the door open and gesturing for Steve to follow. “This is apartment six. There’s seven of us live in here at the moment.”
“Seven different Steve Rogers, all in one building,” Steve says under his breath, just to get his head around it. “Right. Is there – is there only…us?”
Navy-Steve nods. “Just us,” he says, starting on the stairs, taking them two at a time. Steve follows, glancing back at Short-Steve who follows at a slower pace, hand grasping the bannister for support. Steve feels a strange flash of guilt as he turns away, wishing there was some way of making it easier for the smaller version of him, but what can he do? The only people that could help are long dead, and it’s probably a completely moot point anyway seeing as Short-Steve is also dead. It’s just strange knowing that in another life he wouldn’t even have made it to Project Rebirth, let alone made it through the whole damn thing, and it doesn’t seem fair that he-
Navy-Steve opens a door on the first floor landing, steps through and then Steve promptly stops thinking, brain stuttering to a halt all over again.
The room is sparsely furnished, a large combined kitchen-living space with bare floorboards and plain walls. There’s a television on in the corner, and one wall is almost completely covered in drawings and sketches, stuck up with drawing pins. Sat on a worn leather sofa is a Steve Rogers who looks exactly identical to Steve, complete with his familiar Coulson-design suit. Next to him is another short-Steve, wearing a white t-shirt and plain military khakis. In the kitchen area is a Steve Rogers wearing a purple uniform, a Steve Rogers who can’t be more than eight, and a woman.
Steve stares at the obvious incongruence for a long moment, but then as he takes in her navy-blue uniform, almost the same as Navy-Steve’s, her familiar features and her long blond hair tied back in a ponytail, the penny drops.
It’s still him, just as a woman.
“Jesus,” he breathes, and the young-Steve starts to laugh, ending with a hacking cough. The woman-version of Steve just shakes her head. “Welcome to the family,” she says dryly.
“That’s Stephanie,” Short-Steve says from just behind him, edging past him and walking over to the window. “We think we’re a woman in about point five percent of the multiverse?”
“Something like that,” Purple-Steve nods, leaning back against the counter and folding his arms across the gold star on his chest. “We’re purple in even less, apparently.”
Standing in the doorway, Steve wonders if he’s an incredibly resilient and well-rounded individual, or if he’s going into some sort of shock. As he looks at the seven different versions of himself, he thinks there’s got to be some explanation as to why he can simply stand there and look without having a complete mental breakdown.
“I love it when I’m a superhero,” a voice suddenly says, and Steve looks dazedly over at the young version of himself. He’s wearing brown shorts that show his scuffed knees, and a worn blue and white striped T-shirt. He looks so painfully skinny that it makes a lump form in Steve’s throat. The young Steve grins at him, and Steve could cry at how happy and innocent the kid looks, even though he’s dead. “It’s pretty keen.”
Steve tries to swallow, can’t. He’s thinking about what it was like for him when he was eight, trying to tell himself that this kid is not him, he’s completely different, from a whole different world. This kid never made it to adulthood, never became Captain America, never met the rest of the team and the men and women who helped him become the person he is-
He turns on his heel and leaves the room. He walks along the landing on unsteady feet, reaching out blindly for the wall to steady himself. He plants his palm on the wall and then turns around so his shoulders are pressing into the plaster, and then slowly slides to the floor.
None of the other Steves follow him.
He pressed his fingers to his eyes when he realises he knew they wouldn’t.
“No, I don’t want to swap for your sorry fucking excuse for spaghetti,” Tony snaps, and shoves the plate across the polished metal of the counter in the serving hatch. God, if SHIELD can afford a fucking flying aircraft carrier then they should be able to stock their ground level bases with food that didn’t taste like shit. “Christ, what the fuck do they pay you for if-”
The rest of the sentence doesn’t make it out of his mouth; someone grabs him by the collar and wrenches him away. He stumbles and curses and catches a glimpse of red curls, then curses again when he realises it’s Natasha who’s got her fingers digging into his clavicle.
“Sit,” she says curtly, and shoves him into a chair with enough force to send him and it skidding back across the floor a few inches.
“Fuck off,” he snaps, and goes to get up again. She moves quicker than he can even comprehend; there’s a flurry of movement, a sharp pain in his knee and a dull thud to his chest and then he’s back in the chair with her hand fisted in his shirt and a syringe held in the fingers of her other hand, worryingly close to his face.
“Fury says I am allowed to sedate you,” she says, one eyebrow arched just enough.
Tony stares back at her, past the glinting point of the needle. “If you were going to, you would have done it before I knew you were there.”
Her mouth twitches. “This isn’t to save your life this time,” she says pointedly. “This is because you have barely slept in four days and are going to get yourself shot by the SHIELD cafeteria staff.”
Tony blinks, looks around. He sees that the cafeteria is deserted except for them, the only noise coming from the kitchens beyond the serving hatch. He swallows, steadies himself, breathes out.
“Who the fuck arms cafeteria staff?”
Natasha doesn’t bother to answer. She contemplates him for a moment and then sits back, letting go of his shirt and gently smoothing it down into some semblance of order before rising gracefully, hooking her foot around the nearest chair and pulling it around.
“It’s probably in your best interests if you let me knock you out for a while,” she says, sitting down and placing the syringe on the table.
“Not happening,” Tony says, and rubs his face. “I need to get back.”
“Take a break,” she says. “You’re no good if you’re-”
“I’m no good anyway,” Tony interrupts, and the silence that follows is far too loud and raw. He shakes his head, stares at the syringe that still lies on the table. “If I hadn’t-”
“Don’t,” Natasha warns, but it goes unheeded.
“You’re all thinking it,” Tony says brusquely. “He asked for backup. I didn’t go because I thought what I was doing was more important and assumed he was being a pedantic douchebag. Did you hear him on the comms?”
Natasha breathes out slowly, quietly, not at all phased by Tony’s switching tracks of conversation. “Yes,” she murmurs.
Tony shakes his head again, feeling his throat going tight, unable to stop replaying Steve’s last words to him over and over and over.
'Tony, I’m – I’m in trouble here.'
“You went the moment you realised he needed you,” Natasha says calmly, and Tony knows he fucking did, but that isn’t good enough. Anger flares up again, quick and close and effortless.
Fuck the risk of being stabbed in the neck. Tony stands up, the chair screeching back. “He needed me there from the get-go,” he shouts. “He told me that - it took me that fucking long to realise he was in trouble. It’s the same every damn time, every time we go out we just ignore each other and fuck things up, and it’s taken him nearly dying to get me to even notice that we were fucking it up.”
He feels self-loathing curling in his gut, rising through his chest until he’s positively sick with it.
“Iron man kills Captain America,” he says tonelessly. “Put that in my fucking file.”
“Sit down,” she says quietly. Tony can’t. His whole body is strung too tight like a live wire and he honestly feels like he’s about to tear in two from the sheer pressure inside of him, the grief and the guilt and the regret.
“This wasn’t your fault,” Natasha says.
Tony walks away.
A quiet voice makes Steve look up. He’s sitting on the bare floorboards in an empty room in the apartment building, back against the wall. He’s been here for hours, alone with his thoughts and listening to the sounds of voices and movement in the room below. Outside the light is slowly fading into a beautiful violet sunset, and everything is quiet and still.
It’s the young Steve that’s there in the doorway, fingers curled around the frame and temple resting on the wood. His eyes are wide, looking at Steve with open curiosity. God, he’s so damn small, it’s hard to believe that he was once that tiny. God, if the others could only see him, they’d have an absolute field day.
“Hey,” he replies softly, and is relieved to note that his voice sounds back to normal again. He’s calmed down significantly since his minor breakdown, and seems to have passed from borderline hysterical to quietly accepting of his situation. He’s not dead, and so he will make it home. No other options.
The young Steve in the doorway shoves his hands in the pockets of his shorts, kicks his toe against the doorframe. “They call me Steve Junior,” he says, chin held up high. “SJ.”
Steve smiles weakly at that. “I guess it would get confusing if we just called everyone Steve.”
SJ nods and edges into the room a step. Steve recognises the small, gradual approach, remembers how he used to do the same when unsure as to whether he was welcome. “We all get new names eventually,” he explains, sounding eager to share. “Like nicknames. There’s me, and there’s Shield and Brooklyn who found you,” he counts off on his fingers. “Then you met Violet and Trip downstairs. Oh, and Stephanie just gets called Stephanie because she’s the only girl around here, and Seven. He looks exactly the same as you but has got shorter hair. He’s actually Steve Rogers Earth Seven One Eight but it’s kinda long to say.”
“Have I got a nickname yet?” Steve asks, and SJ shakes his head before padding closer, slowly crouching down and sitting on the floor next to Steve. He crosses his legs and props his elbows on them, elbows and knees startlingly sharp points. His eyes are bright and blue, full of energy and questions.
“Shield says you’re not dead,” he says, and Steve connects the name to the Steve in the navy uniform who had found him earlier. “He says you’re warm.”
Steve responds by holding his hand up and out. SJ instantly reaches out too, pressing his palm against Steve’s. The touch is cool but he’s honestly more aware of the way his hand-span completely dwarfs SJ’s. Without thinking, he gently folds his fingers around SJ’s hand, covering it with his own.
“Wow,” SJ says, breathing out a huff of a laugh, grin wide and bright. “You’re warm. Really warm.”
Steve’s mouth flickers in a weak smile. “Tony always says he’s going to rent me out as a space heater.”
SJ frowns. “Seven says Tony thinks he’s funnier than he is,” he says, and Steve laughs shortly. His current feelings towards Tony are a tangled mess, buzzing unhappily in the back of his skull. He thinks he could easily be so furiously angry at him, but at the same time he’s worried how Tony will cope with the guilt he will undoubtedly feel at his actions, worried about what he’ll do without Steve there to work things out with. And god, he misses him; if he lets himself think about not seeing Tony again he’s pretty sure he’ll lose the plot completely. The others too of course, but he and Tony have still got so much unfinished business between then, especially after what happened out there today.
“I see that Tony being a pain is consistent across the multiverse,” he opts for saying, stretching out his fingers again. SJ doesn’t move his hand away, he just splays his fingers out against Steve’s, looking at their hands contemplatively before pushing his fingers into the gaps between Steve’s.
“I don’t know Tony,” he says. “Only what the others have said about him. I know Bucky though.”
The ache in Steve’s chest turns piercing and longing for a long moment. “Yeah?” he asks quietly.
SJ grins again and squeezes Steve’s fingers. “Bucky’s swell,” he says. “The best. Did you know him?”
Steve can’t help but smile back. It’s easy to think about Bucky in a way, the grief, love and remnants of guilt simple and uncomplicated to understand. “Yeah. Yeah, I did.”
Still grinning, SJ reaches up with his free hand and grabs Steve’s fingers with both hands, holding onto his thumb with one and his middle finger with the other. “I’m glad you knew him too,” he says earnestly, and then turns his head to the side and coughs, hunching in on himself and rocking forwards.
“Hey, hey,” Steve says, concerned as the coughing intensifies. He reaches out with his free hand and smooths his palm down SJ’s back, his heart breaking a little as he feels how hard SJ is gripping onto his fingers.
“Thanks,” SJ gasps, his coughing subsiding a little.
“Don’t die again,” a voice says from the doorway, and Steve looks up to see Navy-Steve walking towards them, a tired smile on his face. Steve’s oddly relieved to see it; he was staring to get worried about how serious all of his other selves seem, and it’s making him feel oddly guilty.
“You’re causing quite a stir,” he says to Steve. “Word has got out that you’re not dead. People are pretty interested in how you managed it.”
Glancing away from SJ for a moment, Steve frowns. “I don’t know how I managed it,” he says. “I’m not even certain this is all real.”
Something horridly close to pity flickers across Navy-Steve’s – Shield, Steve mentally corrects himself, they call him Shield – face before vanishing. He shrugs, looking down at SJ who has stopped coughing and is now gulping in rattling breaths, uneven but clear.
“Okay?” Shield asks, holding out a hand.
SJ looks unsure, mouth twisting up. He looks from Steve to Shield, uncertainty turning a little guilty. “He’s warm,” he mumbles, and Shield instantly lowers his hand, a crooked smile hitching the corner of his mouth.
“Now you’ve done it,” he says to Steve, but he doesn’t really seem to mind. “Kid won’t leave you alone, now.”
SJ grins up at Shield. “You’re just jealous you’re not warm,” he says.
“Hell yes I’m jealous,” Shield says easily, and then he does smile, open and relaxed. “You know who’s going to be more jealous?”
SJ’s brow furrows for a moment and then his expression lights up. “Ice! Is Ice here?” he twists around and turns to Steve, eyes huge and excited. “He died crashing a plane in the arctic,” he explains. “He’s so cold he’s blue.”
Steve takes a moment to process, ignoring the roiling of his stomach. “Right. Ice,” he says. “Shoulda guessed.”
“Come on,” SJ says and scrambles to his feet, reaching for Steve’s hand and pulling at him in an indication to get up. “Come meet him.”
“There’s more than just Ice turned up,” Shield warns, arms folded across his chest. He’s very still, Steve notices. It sometimes takes him effort to reign in all the motions and movements which give away his feelings, but this Steve seems to have all his tells firmly under control. Steve wonders if he’s learned how to do it over years of practice, or if he’s just different and has always been that bit more controlled.
SJ is still futilely pulling at Steve’s hand, and Steve doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the way the kid is most determinedly not giving up even though he hasn’t a hope in hell of actually moving Steve. He capitulates and clambers to his feet, and SJ takes hold of his fingers again, holding them tightly between both of his own hands.
Shield turns towards the door and Steve follows, oddly grateful for the feel of SJ’s small hands in his. For a bizarre fleeting moment he wonders what it would be like to have a son holding onto his hand like this, but he’s still hyper aware of how this is a version of himself that seems to have taken to him so much. The awareness marks SJ out as an equal of sorts, despite his young age and heart-breaking naivety.
“Brace yourself,” Shield calls back over his shoulder as they head for the stairs. “You’re about to come face to face with a whole room full of ways you could have died.”
Steve shuts his eyes for a long moment, breathes out through his nose and hopes that if he makes it out of this mess and back home, it’s not going to be too late for him to learn to not to be quite so blunt with people in traumatic situations.
“Well, we just don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know?”
Clint’s voice is loud and demanding and Tony is so ridiculously grateful that he’s there. Not that he’s ever going to say that out loud, mind.
The doctor just sends Clint a patient, sympathetic look and Tony sees Clint’s fingers twitch. “We don’t know,” he repeats calmly. “We’ve never treated anyway with a physiology like his - he’s one of a kind.”
Too right he is, Tony thinks, and feels his throat tighten. Damn it. After his spectacular fit of temper in the cafeteria yesterday, he’s woken up today back in ready-to-burst-into-tears mode. Calculating that there’s a seventy percent chance he will is the only reason he’s allowing Clint to do the yelling. Well, that and the fact Coulson had specifically and explicitly said ‘no shouting at the doctors,’ and Tony doesn’t want to be shot.
“So he’s not going to wake up?” Clint asks, voice rough like Tony’s inside’s feel.
The doctor looks from him to Tony and back again. “We don’t know,” he says gently. “His injury should have killed him. No normal person could survive that. Scans show he’s still healing internally.”
“So he could wake up,” Tony says suddenly, the words bursting free without conscious decision.
“Yes,” the doctor says. “But he also might not.”
“Stop being so vague,” Tony snaps. “I’m not an idiot. Hell, not even Barton is going to be scared away by you using words longer than two syllables.”
The doctor breathes out, looking from one to the other again. “Right. Okay,” he says, and sits down, indicating for Tony to do the same. Tony stays standing, and he glances up at him but doesn't comment. “We measure brain activity by using EEG’s, okay,” he says, and reaches for his tablet, flicking fingers over it and bringing up a file full of wavy lines, which Tony assumes are EEG results. He hands it to Tony, who angles it so Clint can see as well. “See here – this is from a person who is in a very similar state to Captain Rogers. They’re in what we all know as a coma. Some lower brain function, which is dealing with things like heart-rate and breathing. He’s got no frontal brain function though, no real consciousness to speak of. Actually, the Captain is probably a little better off than this guy, because his pupils are responding to light, though very minimally.”
“But?” Tony asks, feeling no small amount of trepidation in the pit of his stomach.
The doctor reaches over and swipes his fingers over the tablet. “This is Captain Rogers’ latest EEG.”
Tony stares down at the screen. “Flat lines,” he says, and his voice sounds strange to his own ears.
“What does that mean?” Clint demands.
“Flat lines. No brain activity. Not even lower brain function. Technically, he’s dead,” Tony says, staring at the black lines until they blur. “But – if he’s partly breathing on his own, if his heart is still beating, then this is wrong.”
The doctor nods. “It’s not technically possible,” he admits, frustration edging slightly into his tone as he takes the tablet back. “It’s as if his brain has literally upped and left. If there’s no brain function then he shouldn’t be alive.”
“What the fuck?” Clint says, sounding astounded.
The doctor stands up. “We don’t know if it’s anything to do with the serum, anything to do with how he was frozen,” he says. “Could be anything you guys have encountered in the past year. You’ve tangled with magic users more than once, as much as we doctor types hate the word.”
“You’re saying someone has magically stolen Steve’s brain?” Clint says, well past incredulous and all the way in to belligerent.
“We don’t know,” the doctor repeats, still remarkably calm and patient. “I for one don’t really want to say magic has done anything, but you’ve seen the EEG results. At this stage, we’re looking at any explanation that will help us figure it out.”
Tony nods, looking down at the floor and pressing the heel of his hand to his forehead. Clint swears under his breath.
“We’re taking him for another MRI at two,” the doctor says, and then he leaves, his shoes squeaking quietly on the floor.
“If he doesn’t wake up, I’m going to kill him,” Clint says roughly, and sinks down into one of the chairs in the bland meeting room they’re in. It’s magnolia and horrible, with a potted plant in the corner and calming pictures of pebbles and water on the walls. It make’s Tony’s skin crawl, thinking about the amount of people who have sat in here and been told their loved ones haven’t made it.
Clint plants his palms over his eyes, almost shaking with anger. “I thought it was meant to go denial, anger, depression, acceptance,” he says hollowly. “Not jumping around like a bipolar chick on crack.”
“Wow, how offensive can one single sentence get,” Tony says but he doesn’t really give a fuck about Clint’s lack of political correctness. He breathes out through his nose, tight and controlled. “Because we don’t know if we’ve lost him or not,” he says, staring at the stupid picture on the wall, arms folded so tightly across his chest it’s hurting his shoulders. “We can’t grieve properly until we know we’re supposed to, but we can’t not grieve either. Besides, that whole theory is scientifically void anyway and you should ignore it.”
“How the fuck are you still holding it together?” Clint mutters. “I feel like I’m turning inside-out.”
Tony feels his eyes go warm again, clenching his lips together as his chin tremors. “Not many other options,” he says roughly. “I’m going back.”
Tearing his eyes from the picture, he turns away without another word. His feet take him onto the ward as if on autopilot, and before he knows it he’s back at Steve’s bedside, sinking into the chair he left not thirty minutes ago. Bruce’s jacket is laid across the foot of the bed, but there’s no sign of him in the room.
“Wake the fuck up,” Tony says helplessly to Steve. “Come on. For America.”
Steve stays still and silent and Tony reaches out desperately to grasp at his hand, and god it feels worse than being turned inside out, it feels like dying. It feels like everything inside has been shattered and rearranged with points aimed towards his heart, metaphorical shrapnel that the arc-reactor can’t do anything about.
He clenches Steve’s hand between both of his own, and wishes with every fibre of his being that he’d realised just how he felt about Steve before Steve had been hurt, because Tony genuinely, terrifyingly doesn’t know what he’ll do without Steve and it’s a pretty telling epiphany to be having.
He lifts Steve’s hand to his face, presses his mouth to his knuckles.
“Alright, not for America then,” he says against Steve’s hand, lips and breath warm against his skin. “For me. Please.”
The ventilator hisses, the monitors beep and Steve stays still and silent.