“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.
Just to clarify - STEVE DOES NOT DIE. I cannot do character death, my feels simply cannot take it. He gets injured, his mind goes walkabouts. He does meet a whole host of other multiverse Steves who have died, though, just incase that bothers anyone. That will be all.
Shield was right to warn him, Steve thinks vaguely as he looks around. There are six more Steve Rogers’ in the room this time round, and it’s a lot to process even for him. He mentally congratulates himself on his resilience because he’s actually managing it pretty well, all told. No panicking, no hysteria; just a strong and mildly detached appreciation for how strange the entire situation is. The Steves are all just lounging about, chatting in small groups or reading – Steve spots the Steve in the purple uniform doodling idly on a scrap of paper – and altogether doing an admirable job of giving the impression that they’re not all there to see him.
SJ is still clinging to his hand, and Shield is at his elbow, hovering protectively. Steve remembers Tony making a snarky comment about him doing it on a mission a couple of weeks back, and suddenly understands how Tony must have felt with his presence looming at his side. Not that it in any way validates Tony’s bitching about it; Shield’s protectiveness here is clearly completely unwarranted, whereas he was completely justified in keeping close to Tony, considering they were on the lookout for stray AIM snipers at the time.
“Okay?” a voice says, and Steve turns his head to see the Steve who looks almost identical to him stepping up, Stephanie at his side. Just behind him there’s a Steve wearing a forest- green suit, turned away and talking to a Steve who is wearing a suit that looks like his old one, with a few buckles and straps in different places. The guy looks deathly pale and as he turns his head to the side, Steve catches sight of his white face and blue-tinged lips. That’ll be the version of him that froze in the arctic, then.
“Yeah,” he says slowly. He spots the skinny Steve – Brooklyn, his mind fills in – from earlier over by the sink, leaning back and talking to a Captain-sized-Steve who is wearing plaid pyjama bottoms, a white T-shirt and no socks or shoes, and that springs more questions than it answers. Did he die in his sleep? Did he get caught short whilst lounging around somewhere? His mind immediately jumps to a mental image of the Avengers all fighting in their sleepwear and he fights down a sudden and hysterical urge to laugh.
“We did suggest some of them come back later, but no-one seemed willing to be the one to leave,” Stephanie says, drawing his attention back to the situation.
“Yeah, we’re stubborn across the multiverse,” the other-Steve says with a grimace. “They call me Seven, by the way.”
“I explained,” SJ butts in hurriedly, pulling slightly on Steve’s hand like he wants to remind him he’s there. “I told him already.”
Seven raises an eyebrow at Steve, who nods in confirmation. “He says you all have nicknames,” he repeats. “To avoid –”
He stalls momentarily as Green-Steve moves to the side and reveals a Steve who is wearing a white tank top and black combat trousers and boots, and Steve does an honest to god double take because the guy appears to be half robot. He blinks and his brain quickly informs him that the guy isn’t actually a robot, he just has a metal arm (not that that makes it any better), gleaming silver from shoulder to fingertip. A blue star is painted on the shoulder, and it moves easily and fluidly as the guy folds his arm across his chest.
“He doesn’t remember losing his arm,” Seven says in a low voice, following Steve’s shocked gaze. “Tony made that for him.”
“It’s…” Steve says uncertainly, and then he’s looking at the guy that the robot-arm-Steve is speaking to. He’s in 1940’s military gear, olive green and neatly pressed, and Steve’s sharp eyes spot a hole in the front, over his heart and right next to the Howling Commandos insignia. Next to them is a Captain-sized Steve who is wearing jeans and a T-shirt, looking calm and completely at ease.
“Jesus,” he breathes, unable to stop the way his eyes are darting about. It’s too much; so many identical faces and blond heads, so many subtle differences and then the sheer amount of questions whipping through his mind: how did they die, what happened to them? The voices overlap each other, identical murmurs of sound like waves upon waves-
“Where is he?”
Steve’s thoughts and the conversation in the room are both interrupted as a loud voice comes from just outside the doorway. Seven sighs audibly and Shield’s jaw clenches tightly, his nostrils flaring, but Stephanie’s reaction isn’t as negative; she just turns her head, expression alert and ready.
Wondering why there’s such a divide in responses, Steve turns just in time to see anther iteration of him walk into the room. He’s wearing a completely black suit with a white star, and his expression is so serious it’s downright grim. Just behind him is a Steve who is wearing the same suit as Steve’s but even more bloody and torn. Steve stands stock-still and tries not to freak out at the blood that’s matted in his hair, the obvious bullet holes in his uniform.
Seems he spends a lot of time being shot across the multiverse, he thinks with a steadily rising hysteria. He takes a deep breath and shoves it back into place, focussing on the feel of SJ’s hand in his.
“Ah, shit,” Seven mutters, and the battered and bruised Steve’s head jerks up, a pained and angry look passing over his features for a moment before his face is schooled back into neutrality. Steve watches them carefully for a moment, frowning at the obvious tension.
“You’re not dead,” the black-suited Steve says brusquely, and Steve snaps back to look at him.
“Apparently not,” Steve says warily.
“Status?” he asks, and Steve raises an eyebrow. This version of him clearly has – or had – a hell of a lot of authority somewhere, but that doesn’t instantly mean that Steve is going to bow to his whims and answer all of his questions like he’s nothing more than a grunt back at basics. He’s still Captain America, no matter if some of these other versions appear to have been promoted somewhere along the line.
“Meet the Commander,” Shield says dryly. “He was in charge of Shield for so long that he’s forgotten how to be polite.”
The Commander sends Shield a look that clearly says he’s not impressed. Wow, and Steve thought that Shield looked serious. He’s got nothing on the Commander.
“I just want to know what’s happened,” he says curtly. “If the Director shows up, we can’t be caught off guard.”
And uneasy murmur goes through the assembled Steves, and Steve feels SJ lean more of his weight against his leg. Unconsciously, he reaches down and puts a hand on his shoulder, looking up at the faces around him. It’s gone pretty quiet now, and expressions have gone grave and worried.
“Do I want to know?”
The Commander ignores him. “Which verse are you from?”
Steve shakes his head, nonplussed. “Sorry,” he says. “I didn’t pay that much attention to Tony.”
The Commander just nods. “Tony Stark?”
“Who else?” Stephanie murmurs, and Seven elbows her in the side. She looks up with an almost rueful expression on her face, and Seven sighs, appearing to concede whatever her point was. It’s so, so strange being able to pick up on all the facial expressions and cues that he knows so well, but without any context to help make sense of them.
“Who else,” the torn-up Steve who had come in with the Commander echoes, and there it is again, that sad look that’s a little too bitter for Steve’s liking.
“Yeah,” Steve says, looking away from the guy and back at the Commander. “I’m an Avenger. Woke up just over a year ago out of the ice, recruited by Nick Fury. I live in Stark Tower with Tony and the others.”
The Commander nods. “How did you get here?”
“I don’t know,” Steve admits. “I got stabbed by a robot, and then I woke up here.”
“He’s got a pulse,” Shield fills in, and the Commanders eyebrows raise.
“Tell me everything you remember.”
Steve rubs the back of his neck with his hand, glancing down at SJ. He doesn’t want him hearing this, really. “Well, we were fighting robots – unmanned drones with rudimentary AI’s. We were spread thin, I got overpowered and stabbed,” he says, gesturing to the hole in his uniform. “I was waiting for backup, but-” he breaks off, something too close to anger and not far enough away from hurt pulsing in his chest. “I remember – well, Tony was there. He was there when I blacked out, I guess.”
“Tony was with you when you died?” the torn-up Steve suddenly asks.
Steve nods. “Well, according to you fellas I’m not dead, but yes. He was there-”
To his surprise, the torn-up Steve curses violently in a wavering, broken voice, turning on his heel and marching away. The Commander also swears, looking tense. “Don’t go anywhere,” he instructs Steve. “I’ll be back-”
The Commander takes off after the other, calling after him as he leaves the room. Steve looks at Seven, Shield and Stephanie, all of who are looking each other, accepting yet resigned expressions on their faces.
“Want to tell me what that’s all about?”
Shield blows out a breath and nods. “We’ll go to the roof,” he says. “SJ, go and find Brooklyn.”
SJ looks up at Steve with a beseeching expression on his face, and Christ, no wonder Steve got away with so much when he was younger.
“I’ll come back,” he says, and SJ apparently trusts him because he nods quickly, lets go of Steve’s hand and disappears into the crowd.
Casting one last look over the room, Steve turns away and follows the three other hims out of the room, and they head up the stairs and out of a door onto the rooftop. He watches the easy, effortless way that Stephanie takes the stairs, three at a time like he does and can’t help but wonder how she got to this point in her life. She wouldn’t have been allowed to join the army like he did back in 1942, but maybe she’d been a specialist like Peggy? He supposes there’s a hundred million ways in which life could have been different, countless moments where a single difference could have had far reaching ramifications.
They step out onto the roof and Steve instantly understands and is glad for the suggestion. The sun is just about to set and the air is fresh and cool, a breeze ruffling his hair slightly. It’s peaceful and calm, and Steve already feels less tense with every breath he takes in and lets out. Stephanie breathes in deeply and exhales, eyes closing for a long moment before reopening, and Steve easily recognises a mutual appreciation of the open space and fresh air.
Shield wanders over and sits on the edge of the building, legs dangling off the edge. Stephanie sits next to him and Seven chooses to lay back on the roof next to them, sprawled back and propped up on an elbow, legs crossed at the ankle. Steve hunkers down next to him, sitting down with one leg bent up so he can rest his elbow on his knee, the other leg stretched out in front of him.
For a while, they’re all quiet, and whilst Steve doesn’t exactly at ease with the situation, he feels a lot better than he did. He’s glad they’ve moved away from the large group downstairs; the sea of identical faces was honestly too much for him to deal with. It’s much easier to manage just three versions of him, and he gets the odd sort of feeling that it could easily become quite companionable with a smaller, familiar group.
Breathing out deeply, he looks out over the skyline he can see, recognising odd familiar features every now and again, mingled with the new and different. He wonders where the others are back in his New York and his heart aches, wishing that he could know what is happening to them, wishing he could let them know he’s okay.
He doesn’t know which would be worse; the possibility of his body still being at home whilst he’s here in a sort of dream, or the option that’s he’s actually physically here and there’s no body left back in his universe. Whichever it is, he’s just praying that they don’t give up on bringing him home.
It’s Shield who finally breaks the silence. “Don’t worry about Eight,” he says, tilting his face up towards the sky, eyes closed. “He’ll be fine.”
“Eight?” Steve asks, and Stephanie twists around, pulling one leg up so she’s sitting sideways on the edge of the building, facing Seven and Steve instead of having her back to them like Shield does.
“Yeah. He…he and Tony didn’t get on in his universe,” she explains, and her eyes are full of the same lingering pain that Steve has seen haunting many of the Steve’s eyes. “Well, they did to begin with, but things went sour. He finds it hard to hear about other universes where we had…had a good relationship.”
And it’s back to Tony, again. Steve nods in acknowledgment of her words, wondering what in hells name could have happened in Eight’s universe for things to be irreparably broken between him and Tony. The thought makes him feel cold inside.
“Why – do you know why?”
There’s a long moment of silence and then it’s Shield who steps up. “Civil War,” he says quietly. “In his universe there was a war between superheroes. Some political mess that got out of hand. Tony Stark and some of us didn’t see eye to eye. Eight died in the fighting. Assassinated.”
“What?” Steve asks in shock. “I was assassinated?”
“Not you,” Shield says without turning around. “We’re all separate, remember.”
Steve flounders, looking for words and feeling completely poleaxed. “What – there was Civil War? Between superheroes?”
“Yeah,” he says dully. “Steve Rogers on one side, Tony Stark on the other.”
“We fought – we joined opposite sides in a war?” he can’t keep the incredulity out of his voice. “No, no way-”
Seven snorts. “They created the opposite sides in the war,” he says, and his voice sounds tight. “God help the universes where we didn’t get our act together.”
Steve stares at Seven, not quite able to believe what he’s just heard. Yes, some days he and Tony don’t get on, and this whole mess is proof of what happens when they’re not working together properly, but to actually fight one another – to cause a war? To drag other people into their mess?
“Don’t look so worried,” Stephanie says, voice steady and reassuring, and Steve recognises his own ‘keep calm,’ tone in the way she says it. “Eight’s situation isn’t normal. It’s worst case scenario, I guess.”
Steve grasps at the words, clings to them and tries to be comforted. “Yeah?”
“Yeah,” Stephanie says with a small hitch of a smile. “The worst Tony did in my universe was accidentally blow up the house and not tell me. Like he thought I wouldn’t notice.”
Shield and Seven laugh at that, and even Steve finds himself smiling quietly.
“Really?” Shield twists around to send Stephanie a sceptical look, amusement playing around his mouth. “That’s the worst thing he did?”
Stephanie pulls a face. “I wasn’t allowed to complain about him missing the first wedding after I was late for the second one-”
Steve promptly chokes on a breath that doesn’t seem to want to go into his lungs. He’s glad he didn’t decide to sit on the edge of the roof because he’s damn sure he would have fallen off because did she just say she married Tony?
“In my defence, AIM tried to kidnap me on my way there,” Stephanie is saying defensively, but Steve doesn’t care, his brain is still stuck on a stuttering loop of what the hell? “He just forgot what day it was.”
“You married Tony Stark?” Steve chokes out.
Stephanie looks indignantly at him. “Don’t look at me like that, I know that judgemental face when I see it,” she says, and then jerks her thumb at Seven. “He did too.”
Steve’s brain stops stuttering and turns off. He stares at Seven, who groans and rubs his face with his hand. “Way to go,” he grumbles at Stephanie.
“What? You did.”
“Yes, but he clearly doesn’t have anything going on with Tony and now he looks like he’s going into shock,” Seven says, exasperated.
“You married Tony Stark,” Steve repeats blankly.
Seven sighs again and reaches down into the neck of his suit. He tugs and pulls out a chain, on the end of which is dangling a gold ring. “Still not sure if it was the cleverest or dumbest thing I ever did in my life.”
“You didn’t end up at war with your Tony,” Shield says, turning away again. “I’d say marrying the idiot was a smart move.”
“You didn’t marry him did you?” Steve manages to ask.
“Hell no,” Shield says vehemently, and Steve feels a flicker of relief run through him.
“He married his job,” Seven says, slipping his forefinger into the ring and dragging it back and forth on the chain, a soft zipping sound as the curve of the ring drags on the metal links of the chain.
“Hilarious,” Shield says, and then cranes his neck around to look at Steve. “Don’t worry, not everyone married Tony Stark. Forty-two married Peggy Carter at the end of the war, and Violet married Sharon a few years after he got unfrozen. Got his ass divorced not long after, mind, but it still counts. I think Trigger got married too? Some agent from Shield? These two here are the only ones around here fool enough to marry Stark.”
“Brave enough,” corrects Stephanie, with a small smile curving her mouth.
“Fool enough,” Seven agrees with Shield, and the look Stephanie sends him is both knowing and amused.
“I just-” Steve cuts in before he can hear any more, before it can sink in that for these guys it’s acceptable to wear that look whilst discussing Tony Stark. “Tony? Really?”
“Tell me you never thought about it,” Stephanie says, challenge clear in her tone.
“No,” Steve insists, shaking his head. “No, never, I – we’re friends. Some days we’re not even that.”
She appears to let it go, nodding and briefly glancing at Seven. Seven also stays quiet, absent-mindedly pulling at his lower lip with his thumb and forefinger and still turning the ring – his damn wedding ring – over in the fingers of his other hand. Steve watches the unconscious movements, sensing the comfort that Seven gets from the repetitive actions.
He shakes his head slightly, looking away. He doesn’t even want to think about Tony, let alone contemplate this-
“So if there’s no war and no missed weddings,” Shield says, bringing Steve to the moment. “What’s the worst thing Stark managed in your universe?”
Still blindsided by the shock at hearing that another version of himself married Tony, Steve feels the words slip out without permission. “Today,” he says without thinking, and the others all go quiet and still. Steve blinks, still not thinking properly. “What he did today.”
“You need to wake up, like yesterday,” Tony says, groaning and throwing the Starkpad he’d been looking at onto the bed next to Steve’s knee. “The press know you’re KO’d and they’re going mental. Barton is going to shoot someone, I swear to god. He’s on the top of the building with boomerang arrows. What use boomerang arrows will be in a fight I do not know, but he’s insisting. Come on, he’s not even listening to Natasha, we need you to come and do the frown at him. You know the one, the one that inspires him to be a better human being because it reminds him what a douche he is.”
He rubs at his mouth with his fingertips, exhausted. “Coulson is preparing a statement, you know how he does. Note cards and everything. Of course, you do all our press announcements these days, seeing as Fury loves the whole leader-of-men attitude you’ve got going on. I don’t know who they’re going to get to actually read it. Maybe Thor, everyone loves Thor. I’m sure as hell not doing it. I would, but hey, you know, they’re telling me that they’re not putting the fact this is my fault into the speech, and it is, so.”
He pauses, reaches out and touches Steve’s hand. It’s still so warm, proof that despite how he appears, Steve is still living.
“I’m so, sorry, Steve,” he says, and he feels himself break again, throat going tight and tears spilling over without any build-up or warning. They’re simply there, barely brushing his cheeks as they fall, almost too quick to notice.
Without thinking, he pushes his fingers through Steve’s, threading them together and holding on tight.
Steve stares up at the ceiling, hands behind his head, sharp eyes tracing the cracks in the paint even with the only light coming from the moon outside. The sun has long since set and the apartment has gone quiet, but he can’t sleep. Shield had directed him to a spare room for the night and he’d gone willingly, wanting to be alone with his thoughts.
He’s mulling over everything he’s learned in the past few hours, trying to work out how he feels about it, how it even fits with what he knows about himself and his life. The whole civil war thing just seems so impossible. The Avengers are a team; their whole purpose is to work together to protect people, not to cause problems by fighting. The only way he can deal with even contemplating it is by forcibly reminding himself that each universe is different, have had countless different things shape the outcomes of their lives. Just because there has been war in one universe doesn’t mean there will be one in his damn universe.
Aside from the war, there’s a lot of other things that are occupying his thoughts. Wondering about the circumstances surrounding the other Steve’s is pretty high on the agenda, but muscling its way to the front of the queue is another issue entirely.
The whole concept is just a jumbled mess inside his head. He can’t even – how did any version of himself end up marrying Tony Stark? He’s not even queer, let alone interested in Tony, so what the hell has happened in these other universes for him to end up marrying him? It’s almost more unbelievable than the news that some versions of he and Tony ended up at war with each other, and isn’t that frightening, that he can imagine himself hating Tony so much more easily than he can loving him?
It’s a horrid feeling, but completely understandable considering what happened between him and Tony most recently. He pulls one hand from behind his head and reaches down to press his palm to the hole in his undershirt where the stake had gone in. He’s taken his boots and suit off, leaving him in his shorts and blue undershirt. He itches to put the suit back on, feeling vulnerable in this place he doesn’t know, but it smells of blood and sweat and he keeps flinching every time he shuts his eyes and inhales, being dragged back to the moment where he was stabbed.
A soft whisper from the doorway draws his attention and he turns his head to the side. He sees SJ hovering in the doorway, looking tired.
“You said you’d come back,” SJ whispers, and Steve immediately feels guilt roll through him. He pushes himself up on an elbow.
“I’m so sorry,” he says, voice low. “I completely forgot.”
SJ pads over, stands next to Steve’s bed, fingers plucking at the sheet. Seems he isn’t going to hold a grudge against Steve for his momentary lapse, which makes SJ an infinitely better person than Steve is being right now. “Can I sit with you?”
“Course,” Steve says, and SJ instantly scrambles up onto the bed next to him, lying down with his head on Steve’s shoulder.
Surprised and a little taken aback, Steve hesitates and then shifts, moving his arm and wrapping it around SJ’s shoulders. SJ snuggles in closer and presses a palm to Steve’s side. Steve is hit with a sudden flash of memory, a bitterly cold night in the orphanage, not long after he’d first arrived. He’d been so cold he’d been beyond shivering, curling in on himself and shuddering so much he’d felt sick, and then Bucky has been there, elbowing his way into Steve’s bed. ‘Move your scrawny butt up, Rogers,’ he’d said, teeth chattering, shoving his head into Steve’s armpit and curling up against him. Steve had been so grateful for the warm body and the companionship that he’d not even questioned it, just wrapped his skinny arms around Bucky and fallen into a much more comfortable sleep than he could ever have previously hoped for.
“I can hear your heart,” SJ says, and crowds even closer, leaning over and pressing his ear to Steve’s chest. His eyes go wide in wonder. “Wow.”
Steve huffs out a surprised laugh, letting his head fall back against the pillow. “I’m not properly dead yet, then,” he says, eyes shutting.
“Is your body still in your universe?” SJ asks. He coughs once, a rough noise that sounds on the verge of being painful.
“I don’t know,” Steve says softly. “I just know I’m here, and that’s all I know.”
He feels SJ shift and the small body settle back down at his side, head resting on his shoulder. Steve hesitates and then gently puts his palm on SJ’s shoulder.
“Can I stay?” SJ asks, burrowing into Steve’s side, obviously relishing the warmth.
Steve’s initial thought it that he would rather be alone, but he passed over it almost instantly. He remembers what it was like for him being so small and frail; constantly feeling cold, feeling relieved and grateful every night that Bucky snuck into his bed. God, he’d spent so many nights after his mother died feeling alone and wishing for someone there – he doesn’t know if SJ’s life followed the same trajectory as his own, but he’s not about to deny the kid the comfort he remembers craving.
“Sure,” Steve says, and SJ wriggles around a little more and then finally stills. His breath evens out and he soon falls asleep, eyes moving behind the lids as he dreams. Steve watches him for a moment, wondering what he’s dreaming about and how he died. Maybe something to do with the horrendous cough he seems to have brought with him; he’d nearly succumbed once or twice himself as a kid, only scraping through by the skin of his teeth.
God, he needs to get back. He has not battled through all the challenges his life has thrown at him for it all to end now. He has to get back to the team and-
And just like that his thoughts are back at Tony.
Steve holds a breath in his chest for long, long seconds and then breathes out. He tries to stop thinking about Tony for more than one damn minute, trying to take comfort from the small figure curled up and sleeping next to him.
It doesn’t work.
“They’re taking the ventilator out."
Tony is on his feet before he knows it, the chair beneath him screeching back and his knees banging the edge of the cafeteria table. He looks up at Bruce, feeling panicked and angry and oddly betrayed.
“They’re doing what?!”
“Tony, no,” Pepper tries, reaching for his sleeve and holding him in place. She casts a despairing look at Tony and the untouched meal on the table where he’d been sitting, plate surrounded by empty coffee cups.
“Why?” Tony demands, and extricates his sleeve from Pepper’s grip. “Why, what’s happened?”
“Nothing,” Bruce says, and he pinches the bridge of his nose as Tony walks away from the table, towards the doors, needing to be out of the goddamn cafeteria and in Steve’s room right now. He hears footsteps behind him; Bruce’s steady even footfalls and the sharp click of Peppers heels.
“Then why are they taking it out?”
“His lungs are healed,” Bruce tells him. “They’ve been reducing the amount of time that the machine is actually controlling his breathing, and he’s basically holding his own now anyway.”
“Why has no-one told me these things?” Tony snarls, shoving through a door and knocking into an agent carrying an armful of files. He hears Pepper apologising but he doesn’t care, he needs to be with Steve and talking to someone who can explain why they’re fucking around with the ventilator. It’s a piece of shit machinery anyway, and if it hadn’t been attached to Steve then Tony would have already ripped it apart and built a better one from its remains.
“We did, you weren’t listening,” Bruce says without inflection.
Tony ignores him, feeling his heart hammering in his chest. God, despite Bruce’s reassurances he’s terrified that the moment they take the ventilator out then Steve will stop breathing, will give up and die-
He bursts into Steve’s room and it’s quiet and still. Clint is sat on the chair next to the bed, and the ventilator is gone. His throat goes tight and he holds his own breath as his eyes frantically search, and relief tears through him as he detects the steady rise and fall of Steve’s chest.
“Fuck,” he says roughly, and steps forwards, eyes on Steve’s pale face. He looks so different now the invasive tube is gone, along with the tape that had held it in place. He looks relaxed and like he could be sleeping, and it feels better however also infinitely more awful. He’s glad the machine is gone, but if Steve’s body has healed itself enough to not need the machine yet is still not waking up, what does that say?
Maybe in the next few minutes, Tony thinks as he walks over and sits carefully on the edge of the bed.
“He’s okay,” Clint says quietly. Behind them, the door softly opens and closes again, and Tony looks over his shoulder to see Pepper outside the room with Bruce. Her expression is understanding, and she raises her hand in a small wave before turning away.
“Any change?” Tony asks, turning back to Steve.
“No,” Clint replies. “They said not to expect any though.”
Tony nods, and absent-mindedly reaches out to push Steve’s hair back from his forehead. His fingers tremble slightly, and they drift down the side of Steve’s face, across his mouth to his chin. He swallows hard and then slides his palm onto the side of Steve’s face, thumb gently tracing the corner of his mouth where he can feel the faint stickiness where the tape used to be.
“So, I now feel awkward,” Clint says, and Tony blinks, realises what he’s doing and slowly takes his hand away. “Is there some new clause to the bro code that I’ve missed, like circumstances where face stroking is acceptable when sober? Or is this a thing? You and Steve?”
“What? No,” Tony says, frowning and shaking his head agitatedly. “I just.”
He doesn’t even know how to continue that sentence, because he’s starting to suspect that maybe he’s not been categorising Steve in the same way that he would Clint or Bruce or any of the others, and it’s not only fucking terrifying but also horrendously painful, because why is he only just realising this now?
“I think maybe it should be a thing,” Clint says, and pauses. “I mean, you know they say it’s a damn thin line between love and occasional mutual animosity caused by conflicting egos.”
“What? Do you even hear the things you say?”
Clint shrugs, rocks back on two chair legs. “It’s not love and hate though is it? You two can’t hate each other even on the days when you’re really, really trying.”
“Can we not,” Tony says abruptly, pressing the heels of his hands to his temples. “Not now.”
Clint just salutes him without the chair so much as wobbling, and Tony is infinitely grateful. He turns away from Clint, hesitates, and then puts his hand down on the bed next to Steve’s thigh, stretching his fingers out so the tips of his just brush Steves.
It’s barely much at all, but in that moment it’s enough.
Steve watches the sun rise through the window of the apartment room, light slowly filling the sky and the space around him. SJ is still curled up next to him, head now resting on Steve’s stomach and mouth open as he breathes. Every so often his breath catches rough and dry in the back of his throat, chest rattling with every deep inhale. He seems comfortable enough though, so Steve doesn’t wake him
He hasn’t slept, but then again he didn’t really expect he would.
Slowly worrying his lower lip between his teeth, he exhales heavily and then belatedly looks down to check SJ hasn’t been woken by the jolt of movement. He twitches minutely but sleeps on, and Steve feels a warm pang of fondness for the small figure. SJ's presence is an unexpected support in this strange place; he makes Steve feel needed in a small way which helps ground him, keep him from completely losing the plot.
The sun is already growing warm on his face through the glass of the window. It must be pretty early still, he thinks, though he can hear movement in the room below his, footsteps on wooden floorboards and the low hum of familiar voices. He should have expected it really; he’s always been an early riser, and apparently that’s a given across the multiverse.
He needs to be up and doing something. Lying here for much longer is going to drive him crazy; he needs to at least try to work out where he is and if there’s any way of getting home. Like hell he’s just going to sit on his ass and wait to be rescued, not if there’s even the slightest chance of him fixing this mess himself.
Carefully, he reaches down with one hand and up with the other; he pulls his pillow from behind his head and then lifts SJ’s head from his stomach, gently cradling it with his palm. He edges his body sideways and then slots the pillow under SJ’s head, smiling faintly when he huffs out a sleepy breath and rolls over, unwilling to fully wake.
Steve sits on the edge of the bed and watches him for a moment, idly wondering who is left in SJ’s universe now he’s here. Will SJ’s Bucky be okay without him there? God, he hopes so.
He quietly gets to his feet and reaches for his suit, pulling it back on and ignoring the tang of blood he can still smell. He does it up fully, smoothing his hand over the white star on his chest, feeling a fierce rush of pride flicker through him. Whatever happens to him, he went down whilst fighting in uniform, in the blue of Captain America, and he won’t regret that, not now, not ever.
He leaves SJ asleep and leaves the room, debating for a second before deciding to go back down to the impromptu lounge, maybe find someone to talk to, to discuss their options and what they can do about this entire situation. As he descends the stairs, hand on the warm wooden bannister, he half heartedly hopes that there’s no new Steve’s to contend with.
He’s in luck. The only people present are Stephanie and Brooklyn, and he’s relieved that it’s people he doesn’t have to be reintroduced to. They’re both sat on the floor, a chessboard between them and looks of identical concentration on their faces.
“Morning,” Stephanie says without looking up, evidently having heard him come in. Brooklyn looks up, distracted, and gives him a sort-of-wave.
“Still here then,” he says, and Steve nods, walking over and perching on the edge of the couch just behind Stephanie.
“Still here,” he confirms. The fingers of his right hand drift towards his left wrist, pressing gently against the skin. “Still alive.”
Stephanie glances up at that, her eyes flicking to where his fingers are on his pulse point. “No pain anywhere?” she asks. “Has anyone actually asked you how you are, or were we too distracted by the fact you’re still alive?”
“Aching,” Steve admits. “Like I got beaten up by a robot.”
Her mouth twitches. “Funny, that,” she says, perfectly deadpan, and Steve can’t help be fascinated by the way she’s so obviously one of them, even though she’s a woman. She’s well-built and clearly as strong as he is; tall with broad shoulders and a narrow waist. She’s less curvy than Natasha is, but her figure is definitely more feminine than masculine, despite her strength and build.
He watches as she pulls at her bottom lip with her thumb and forefinger and then reaches down to decisively move a rook two spaces left.
“Damn, thought you hadn’t thought of that,” Brooklyn says, sounding grudgingly impressed. “Plan B it is then.”
“You’re only on plan B?” Stephanie asks, and Brooklyn pulls a face.
“Technically, possibly plan H by now.”
Stephanie smiles at that, watching Brooklyn as he thinks. “So,” she says, and Steve knows she’s talking to him. “I guess I should say sorry for dropping a bomb on you yesterday, huh?”
Steve feels his stomach clench at the reminder. “Yeah, kinda,” he says awkwardly, rubbing the back of his head. “I just...”
“Can’t even comprehend how a version of you ended up with Tony?” she fills in bluntly, and he nods. “Well, if it helps, I hated him when I first met him.”
“You did?” Steve asks despite himself, surprised by the admittance.
“Oh yeah,” Stephanie says. “He was too loud, too obnoxious, too much. Throwing his weight around, switching from being patronising to demanding and back again in the space of a damn minute.”
“I know that feeling,” Steve mutters, and she laughs.
“Sounds like your version had the same effect on you as mine did on me,” she says. “But then I also had to deal with his pathological need to flirt with every woman he came into contact with. I didn’t find him remotely amusing to begin with, told him to back off on more than one occasion. Felt like he wasn’t taking me seriously.”
Wincing, Steve nods. “Because you were a woman?”
Stephanie pauses. “At first I thought that,” she admits. “But then I saw how he respected Natalia, how he trusted her to get the job done.” Her mouth curves in an almost smile. “The way he was quite clearly shit-scared of her. Then it became less about the fact I was a woman, and more about the entire Captain America thing. It was like the flirting was just another way of poking fun, an opportunity he took advantage of rather than being because he was genuinely being chauvinistic.”
“Yeah, I still don’t know how he feels about that, the whole Captain America thing,” Steve says. “Some days he treats me like a joke, and others it’s…”
“Proud, eager, wants to fight with you, wants to be on your team?” she fills in, and once again she’s right on the mark. “Like he’s your best friend.”
Steve laughs shortly, nodding. “Yeah. Exactly that.”
Brooklyn whistles between his teeth as he finally makes his move, nudging a pawn forwards a space. “Sounds like a swell guy.”
Stephanie shoots him a look that’s half admonishing, half amused. “Things change, you know that.”
It’s on the tip of Steve's tongue to ask how and why it all changed between her and Tony, but the look on her face kills the curiosity dead. She’s still almost-smiling and her eyes are warm and bright, for once not overwhelmed by the sadness he saw before. God, it’s thinking about Tony Stark that has put that look on her face, despite all the shit she just said about him being a complete and utter ass to her. It just makes no sense
Thankfully, he’s saved from the conversation as SJ runs into the room, almost tripping over the threshold as he does. He manages to right himself with a small amount of flailing, and Jesus, was he really that uncoordinated before the serum? SJ just grins at him, scrambling up onto the sofa and then sitting up on the back of it, his feet pressed into the cushions.
“You didn’t wake me up,” he complains, wide blue eyes turned on Steve.
“I didn’t know I was supposed to,” Steve replies, and SJ scrunches up his nose, pulling a disgruntled face.
“Bucky never used to wake me up,” he grouches. “Always said I had to sleep. He’d stay with me when it was too cold, but sometimes he wasn’t meant to because I was sick and Sister Marie said he’d be a rotten patient if he caught it too.”
“Yeah?” Steve asks, happy to hear and reminisce about Bucky and keen for the conversation to be steered away from Tony as much as possible.
“He wouldn’t ever listen,” SJ says ruefully, and Steve chokes back a laugh because that’s probably exactly what his face looked like whenever he was thinking or saying Bucky, no.
“Damn right he never did,” Brooklyn says, eyes still on the chessboard. “But he said the same about me, so go figure.”
“Once he had to sneak out of the window,” SJ says, nudging Steve with his knee. “Sister Maria was looking for him, and he climbed out of the window to hide, and I had to lie and say he was in the bathroom but she saw his fingers over the edge of the windowsill.” SJ holds his hands up with his fingers curled over, demonstrating how Bucky must have been clinging onto the ledge. “She hauled him in and gave him a hiding, and then told him off for making me lie.”
Steve laughs at that, sitting back on the sofa. “Bucky was always good at finding trouble,” he agrees, and SJ grins at him.
“Bucky says that I’m the one who finds trouble, he just has to deal with it,” he says, and Steve is chuckling until SJ abruptly changes topic and asks, “Do you miss your friends back in your universe yet?”
Steve pauses, looks up. Stephanie has her attention focussed on the chess board but there’s next to no chance that she’s not listening.
“Yes,” he says. “I do miss them.”
SJ nods. “You probably miss Tony a lot, right?”
Steve falters, the words hitting him like a smack in the mouth. For a moment he wonders why SJ is singling out Tony to ask about, but then it dawns on him; if he hangs around Stephanie and Seven who ended up marrying Tony, then there’s a pretty damn high probability that he’s heard a fair bit about him.
“A bit,” he says shortly, which is probably the truth. Despite spending hours pondering over the multi-verse’s answers to the relationship between him and Tony, he still can’t exactly pinpoint how he feels about his Tony. Who isn’t his Tony, most definitely not.
SJ notices his pause. “Did you fight with him?”
Steve breathes out, rubbing his eyebrow with his thumb and staring down at the chessboard. “Yeah,” he opts for saying. “But it’s okay. When I get back we can sort it out.”
SJ nods slowly, though he doesn’t look entirely convinced. “If you actually properly die, will you stay here?”
Steve grimaces. “Hadn’t thought about it,” he says honestly, and now he’s probably not going to think about anything else in the near future. Great.
“SJ, stop badgering him,” a voice says, and Steve looks up to see the Commander walking over. “Go and find the rest of the younglings. We’re having a meeting.”
SJ doesn’t move. “Why are you having a meeting?”
“None of your business,” The Commander says, and reaches out to grab SJ under his arms, swinging him down off the back of the sofa. He gives him a gentle nudge towards the doorway. “Go on. Younglings.”
“Fine,” SJ grumbles. “I’m coming back in an hour though.”
“Deal,” the Commander says.
“Younglings?” Steve queries.
“The other young ones. Anyone under eighteen,” the Commander tells him. “They tend to stick together. Except this one, this one seems to be glued to Shield.”
“Am not,” SJ says, but he does as bid and goes. “See you later.”
Steve watches him go and then turns to the Commander. “Meeting?”
He nods. “People want briefing on the situation,” he says seriously. “Want to know how you got here. Maybe talk about what we can do to get you home.”
Steve nods, though feels a little taken aback that he's not been the one to initiate the conversation about finding a way to get him sent back to the right universe. “Really?”
The Commander nods, turning away and walking back across the room towards the kitchen area. He picks up a sheaf of papers that someone has left and glances at them before tossing them back onto the counter. “Of course. You’re not dead yet, you need to get home.”
Gratitude swells in Steve’s chest and he nods, following the Commander’s path across the room. He’s not daft enough to feel hopeful just yet though, but he’s certainly not going to give up. He idly pushes at the papers the Commander just left; it’s a collection of sketches rough and unfinished. The top one is of Clint in full Hawkeye mode, arrow nocked and ready to fly. The second is also Clint, perched up high on what looks like the arm of a crane. He pushes them to the side and spots another familiar face with bright wicked eyes and a neatly trimmed beard, a smudge of dirt across a cheekbone, a warm and genuine smile-
He hurriedly shoves the stack of papers straight again, the sketches of Clint covering the one of Tony. His fingers linger, flicking at the edge of the papers, tempted to flick through the rest and see who is there, if there’s other people or more drawings of those eyes and that smile.
He slides the papers away from himself along the counter and firmly ignores the wave of sadness and grief that he feels. Part of him wants to sit and stare at the familiar faces all day long. He clears his throat, straightening up. “Who’s coming?” he asks the Commander.
“As many people as we can gather without the Director noticing,” the Commander says, stepping over to the window and looking out.
“The Director,” Steve repeats cautiously. “I get the feeling that’s not a welcome name around here.”
“No,” the Commander says shortly.
“But he’s still…one of us?”
“Yes,” the Commander says, and he turns to face the doorway and Steve hears the sound of boot-steps and voices on the stairwell. Steve thinks there’s more to this Director business than the Commander is letting on, but before he can ask Seven and Eight walk into the room – Eight looking more tolerable than he did yesterday – followed by another five Steves. Violet is there, as is Ice, and Steve recognises the Steve in the olive-green uniform with the bullet hole in the breast, but the two others both appear new and different.
“Steve Rogers ninety ninety one, died on a European mission for Shield and Steve forty eight twenty, drowned trying to save some kids,” the Commander fills in helpfully. “Dresden and Hudson.”
“Wonderful,” Steve says flatly. “I’ll cross swimming and backpacking around Europe off my to-do list.”
The Commander doesn’t quite smile, but his lips twitch slightly and maybe that’s as much as Steve can hope for. “If you’re writing off everything that has ever killed a version of us across the multiverse, you’ll have to stop doing a lot.” He pauses, mouth twisted contemplatively. “And that would also negate the idea of sending you back to Stark.”
Steve groans, leaning forwards over the counter on his elbows and pressing his hands to the sides of his face. “Every four damn seconds and it comes back around to Tony,” he says. “Which one of us was killed by Tony Stark, then?”
The Commander doesn’t even blink. “Literally, figuratively, or inadvertently?”
“You know, I don’t even want to think about Tony anymore,” Steve says abruptly, and the Commander holds up his hands in a placating gesture.
Luckily, more Steves enter the room at that point, distracting them from the conversation. Robot-arm Steve is there, along with the Steve in the green uniform. Two more blue-suited Steve’s follow, and then a gaggle of shorter-Steves. Minutes behind are a group of Steve’s who all seem to be from the war, followed closely by two wearing the same navy uniform as Stephanie and Shield. There’s even one wearing a sharp black suit and tie, who wanders in alongside the Steve who is barefoot and in sweats. Very soon the whole apartment is full, and Steve is now so over it that he doesn’t even bat an eyelid, not even at the Steve who has a suit the same as his own and a blatant bullet hole in his temple.
Steve looks up, moving his eyes without bothering to lift his head from his hands. He probably looks sullen and moody but he can’t bring himself to care. It’s Seven who has stepped up, and Steve’s eyes automatically flick to his collar where he knows the wedding ring lies hidden.
“Yeah,” Steve says, and forces himself to straighten up, suddenly feeling exhausted. “I’m alright.”
They blatantly know he’s lying but they don’t call him on it. They just exchange a glance and then Seven moves to stand next to Stephanie, and Steve wonders if they’ve bonded over their mutual marrying-Tony thing. They’re quite blatantly as crazy as each other, so it’s highly probable.
Two more Steve’s wander in – one in a modern sand-camouflage military uniform and one wearing jeans, a blue shirt and a black baseball cap – and then the Commander walks over and shuts the door. The one called Dresden peers out of the window, scans the street and then gives the Commander a thumbs up.
“Right, some sort of attention would be nice,” the Commander calls, and everyone shuffles around and falls quiet. Steve expects him to start talking but instead he turns expectantly to Shield, who nods and steps forwards next to Steve, arms folded across his chest.
“Most of you have heard, but a Steve Rogers joined us yesterday and he’s not dead,” Shield says bluntly, and a murmur goes through the assembled crowd. “He received a life-threatening injury before blacking out and waking up here, fully aware and still with a pulse. So far we don’t know how or why, so if anyone has experienced anything similar in their universe, we’d like to know. Also, there’s the matter of the Director. This is something that he’ll probably take an interest in, so be on your guard.”
A rumble goes through the assembled crowd. “Does he already know?” the Steve with the metal arm asks.
“We don’t know,” the Commander fills in gravely. “Just assume he will find out and he will try and get involved. Back to the problem in hand – has anyone ever heard of anyone passing through the multiverse like this?”
“Only Deadpool,” a voice from the back calls, and someone groans.
“We are not taking Deadpool as an example,” an exasperated voice replies. “He’s nuts.”
“Agreed,” the Commander replies.
Shield looks around. “So no one has any idea as to how this has happened? Not seen anything similar?”
There are a few ‘nos’ and several head shakes, and Steve feels his heart sink.
“Damn,” Shield murmurs. “We’ll keep asking, but for now it looks like we’ll have to wait and see if they can pull you back from your side.”
“Who is on your side?” a voice asks.
“The Avengers,” Steve says. “Bruce Banner, Clint Barton, Natasha Romanov, Thor and Tony Stark.”
“You’ll be fine,” a Steve in a blue suit says to him, sounding almost dismissive. “If anyone can get you back it’s Tony.”
Some of the Steves make noises of agreement, and a fair few look sceptical. For his part, Steve wishes vehemently that they would talk about someone else for a change.
“Maybe,” he says tightly, because half of him aches for it to be true, knowing that Tony is probably his best hope. The other half still doesn’t know how to feel about Tony and this entire mess, even more so now he knows that some versions of himself have gotten far too involved with the guy.
“Not likely,” a voice interjects, and Steve lifts his head to see Seven, Stephanie and some of the others scowling at Eight, who stares back defiantly.
“Just because your Tony Stark was an asshole to you doesn’t mean his will give up on him,” Stephanie snaps, and Jesus, she might as well have punched him in the face. Eight’s cheekbones go a blotchy pink with anger.
“Tony will do everything he can-” Seven begins, and suddenly Steve has had enough of hearing people defend Tony. For god’s sake; he’s the one who has been stabbed and dragged unceremoniously through the multiverse, so how the hell is this suddenly all about Tony?
“Tony is the one that got me in this mess.”
All heads swivel to look at him, some looking taken aback and some looking like they expected no less. He feels guilt roll through him the moment the words are out of his mouth; yes, he’s angry at Tony for what happened, but he’s aware enough of the fact it wasn’t Tony’s fault. God, Tony would never ever wish harm on him intentionally – the look on Tony’s face when Steve had been dying on the floor is seared into his memory, and god, the guilt and shame and terror he remembers witnessing makes Steve feel horrendous. He wants to go back and both punch Tony and pull him into a hug and tell him it’ll be fine.
“He’ll get you out,” Seven insists. “Trust him.”
“Look, he is not you,” Eight says. “And your Tony is not his Tony.”
“The whole world doesn’t revolve around Tony Stark,” Violet chips in with a frown, and Steve bites back a choked laugh because he’s really starting to think that it does.
“Your world didn’t,” Stephanie retorts, and they all hear the ‘but mine did,’ that she doesn’t say out loud. “This Steve is friends with Tony, so we can assume Tony will be doing everything to get him back.”
“He said Tony caused this,” Violet says, starting to sound angry.
“He didn’t cause it,” Steve says, and he pinches the bridge of his nose because now he’s been pushed into defending Tony, and how did that happen when ten minutes ago he was ready to yell at people for doing the same? He breathes out deeply, tries to regain some composure. “He didn’t cause it,” he repeats. “I got myself in a bad spot and asked for backup.”
“And he didn’t turn up,” Shield finishes flatly.
Steve winces and lowers his hand. “He did,” he says. “Just not quick enough.”
“I thought we were having a meeting about getting you home,” the Commander calls over, looking as unimpressed as ever. “Not having yet another session of arguing about Tony goddamn Stark.”
“We were,” Steve tries, but his exasperated voice goes unheard.
“See? Stark isn’t even here and everything ends up revolving around him,” Violet says.
“Can we not talk about Tony?” Shield butts in. “Look, if we get him home, then he’s going back to live with Stark and the Avengers. How is he supposed to go back to his life if all he can think about is how the rest of the multiverse slept with the guy?”
Steve’s jaw drops. “The rest of the multiverse?”
“No, not the rest of the multiverse,” a Captain in World-War-Two gear says vehemently.
“You didn’t make it past the forties, you don’t count!”
“I knew Stark and I didn’t sleep with him,” Violet interjects.
“So tell us why Sharon divorced you,” Stephanie shoots back, and his cheeks turn a blotchy pink colour in the exact same way the rest of the Steves’ do when they’re angry.
“Back off,” he warns.
“Oh for god’s sake,” Steve says, finally losing his cool. “How many of me have slept with Tony Stark?!”
Stephanie raises her hand, exasperated. Next to her Seven does as well.
That, Steve expected.
The rest of the Steve’s, not so much.
Steve groans, pressing his hand to his forehead as he looks around and sees that over half the god damn room have got their hands up. Steve looks over at the raised hands of the Steve who drowned and the one with the robotic arm, despairing. Some of them look a little embarrassed by their admittance, some look like they’re completely not bothered. A few even look happy, proud. For god’s sake, even Shield has his hand raised too, and is looking apologetic.
“Seriously?” he says weakly. “That many of us?”
Steve with the green uniform shrugs, unabashed. “If it helps, Tony was a girl in my universe.”
Over in the corner by the door, a Steve in navy-shield gear elbows Commander Rogers, other hand held up by his ear. “If what I did counts, what you did counts,” he says stubbornly. The Commander groans, pinches the bridge of his nose and half-heartedly raises his hand.
Steve starts to laugh, the sound a little hysterical. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
He looks up, pressing his palm over his mouth. His eyes scan the group again and he notices that most of the Steves that haven’t got their hands up are iterations of him from before the crash, most of them in 1940’s military gear, and of course the couple of Steves who never made it to project rebirth.
“We always end up back at Tony,” Seven says, sounding a little apologetic.
“Is Tony anything like Howard?” one of the Steves from the war suddenly asks, and Steve stares at him as he flushes, crossing his arms across his chest and looking obstinate. “What?”
“Please tell me you didn’t,” Steve asks weakly.
“Tell me you never thought about it,” War-Steve retorts.
Steve covers his face with hands and officially gives up.
“Hey,” Pepper’s voice says quietly, and Tony shuts his eyes, braces himself ready to argue with her because he’s not leaving this damn room. If Clint and his bow and Natasha and her various stabby implements can’t threaten him into leaving, then he’s not going to move for anyone-
He opens his eyes, looks sideways and sees her holding out a giant cup of coffee. The gesture makes the lump in his throat come back, and he takes the drink wordlessly, hoping she knows how grateful he is.
“He’ll be alright, you know,” Pepper says, standing close. He lets himself slump sideways, resting his head on her hip. She slides a hand into his hair, strokes through it for a moment before gently pushing him back and sitting down in the chair next to him. She's in a neatly pressed business suit, obviously still busy with running Stark Industries whilst Tony's world has ground to a halt.
“Not talking about it, Pep,” Tony says abruptly, because he can’t. If he tries he’s going to lose the grip he has on the last remaining threads of self-control he possesses.
“Okay,” she nods, calm and quiet, and Tony wishes that she wasn’t so good to him. He stares at Steve’s face and feels all sorts of terrible things churning in his chest, and suddenly the words are there on the tip of his tongue, and he stares unblinkingly at Steve’s mouth, willing them back into place, willing himself to keep it all locked down-
“I want him back, Pep,” he blurts out, and the words hang there, heavy and far too real. “I think – I think I need him back.”
“I know you do,” Pepper says quietly, and oh god, she understands, she knows. Her hand slides onto Tony’s shoulder, and he blindly reaches for her wrist, holding on tightly and wishing that the realisation didn’t feel so much like dying. God, if Steve doesn’t come back to him then Tony will regret it for the rest of his life-
The door behind them opens, and Tony roughly wipes his eyes with the back of his hand.
“Yes, but his entire metabolism is faster,” Bruce’s voice is saying, sounding fed up. “His cell processing rate is, Tony – how many times faster than it used to be?”
“Four point three one three four,” Tony says tonelessly, and then blinks and breathes out, refocussing. “What are we arguing about?”
“The cocktail of drugs they seem determined to pump into Steve,” Bruce says. “I’m telling them it’s pointless because we don’t know why he’s in the coma. It’s not down to hyperglycemia, there’s no signs of intracranial pressure-”
“It’s pointless,” Tony agrees, and Bruce folds his arms across his chest and tilts his chin down towards the floor, eyes lifting to look at Tony as he takes over the argument. “He weighs two hundred and twenty eight pounds to begin with, two hundred milligram doses wouldn’t do shit even if he didn’t have a super-soldier metabolism. Hell, the guy can drink eight bottles of Macallans and not even wobble, I know, I’ve seen it-”
“You gave him eight bottles of Macallans?” Pepper asks, sounding astounded, just before her eyes narrow dangerously. “Hang on, which bottles?”
Tony doesn’t miss a beat. “Ones from Walmart?”
Pepper looks at him. “Please tell me that the twenty thousand dollar bottles of whiskey that were supposed to be for a charity auction didn’t go missing because you were trying to get Captain America drunk.”
Tony winces, shrugs. “I wanted to see if he could tell it was from 1940, you know, the taste of the good old days.”
Pepper looks at him, mouth hanging open. She then looks over at Steve and she starts to laugh but it very quickly descends into tears. Bruce is there immediately, hands on her shoulders in a comforting gesture. Tony’s heart clenches because he hates seeing Pepper upset, hates it with every fibre of his being.
“He would be so mad at you,” she half laughs, half cries. “Oh, Tony. You idiot.”
The doctor has gone from looking crestfallen to completely bemused. He seems to try and remember what they were actually talking about prior to the argument about getting Captain America drunk. “Well, we could try-”
“No more drugs,” Tony shakes his head. “Not until you can say you know exactly what they’ll do to him. The amount you would have to give him is unprecedented, and let’s face it, at the moment you’re just stabbing in the dark.”
It absolutely kills him to say it, because if it were possible he would bottle a miracle and inject it straight into Steve’s heart if he thought it would bring him back. He turns away from the doctor and back to Pepper, slumping sideways to rest his head on her shoulder, zoning out the sounds of the doctor and Bruce now discussing something to do with EEGs. Pepper pulls herself together within minutes, breathing out shakily through her mouth and wiping under her eyes with her knuckles, straightening up in her chair.
“How did you not already realise?” Pepper murmurs to Tony, taking one of his hands and holding it in hers. He knows what she’s talking about without having to ask.
“You know me,” he replies quietly, eyes on Steve’s face. “There has to be some sort of near death experience for all of my epiphanies.”
“Seems to be your thing,” Pepper agrees, and stays with him, holding his hand tight.
The early morning sunlight glints off the surface of the river, the slow moving current throwing glittering sparks across Steve’s vision. A breeze ruffles his hair, washes cool and welcoming against his skin where he’s got the suit pulled down to his waist, arms loosely knotted around his middle. He’s lying back on the grass of what he knows as the Brooklyn Bridge Park, looking out over the river and Manhattan. He’s walked miles and miles to get here this morning, sneaking out past Shield and the others who had all been firmly of the opinion that he should stay in the apartment. He understood their concern to a point, but he’d felt so restless and cagey after the previous days revelations that he’d had to get out. Exploring the city has been a welcome distraction, helping him feel marginally purposeful instead of like someone incompetent who needs to be constantly babysat.
The park – as he’s found with the rest of the city - is not quite the same. The 1920’s carousel is still there, and with piercing clarity Steve remembers the day Tony took a forty minute diversion through hellish traffic to show it to Steve, apparently on nothing more than a whim. He’d pulled up – illegally – on the side of the street, pushing Steve out of the car with impatience and the words 'come on, it’s the one thing around here that’s actually older than you are.'
The crowds had been excitable and loud, the queues simply mind-boggling, and Steve had been completely and utterly taken aback that Tony had even spared a thought to consider that Steve might like to see the old fashioned carousel.
But now the Park is deserted, the carousel is still and silent, and there’s no Tony wearing sunglasses more expensive than Steve’s motorbike and bitching about a parking ticket, adamant that it wasn’t fair because 'we were here for like five minutes and you’re a national icon, they can’t ticket a national icon, that’s just un-American – hey, stop looking at me like that, you know I’m right. Cap, get a pen, write that America objects on this ticket.'
Steve feels a lump in his throat as he stares out over the glittering river at the alien skyline of Manhattan.
How the hell is he supposed to even process the fact that it seems inevitable that he’ll end up with the guy? Married at worst, only sleeping with him at best? God, Steve hasn’t ever thought of Tony like that and he can’t understand it. It’s making him feel horrendously uncomfortable, like there’s a ticking time-bomb in his chest that will one day blow and he’ll end up falling in with Tony whether he likes it or not.
God, he’s supposed to be thinking about how he’s going to get home, what he’s going to do to sort this mess out, not about Tony. For not the first time, he pushes away thoughts of Tony and manages to turn his brain to what it’s supposed to be doing.
He finds himself toying with the idea of walking back into the misty part of the city where he’d first appeared, to see if there’s anything there that will help him make head or tail of this mess. He’s not got many other ideas, and he’ll be damned if he just sits about and does nothing for much longer.
He cranes his neck around at the familiar voice, and internally cringes as he spots Seven walking towards him. Just what he needs; Tony Stark’s goddamn husband to come and make everything more complicated and confusing. He’d possibly rather deal with Shield’s over-protectiveness right now, as disconcerting and frustrating as it is.
But no, maybe that’s unfair. He can’t be a dick to Seven just because he somehow thought it was a good idea to marry Tony goddamn Stark, however tempting it feels. After the morning he’s had he realises he would have to be a dick to nearly every version of himself if he truly wanted to object to the decisions that they’ve made across the multiverse.
“Hey,” Steve replies evenly as Seven wanders over and sits next to him on the grass, one knee pulled up to rest an elbow on.
“Shield is both annoyed and impressed that you managed to sneak out,” Seven says matter-of-factly. “I think he and the Commander were about to orchestrate a city-wide sweep.”
Steve just shrugs. “Had to get out,” he says unapologetically. “How come they didn’t?”
“I said I’d come find you,” Seven says. “They knew one guy would draw less attention than a whole search party.”
“Still worried about this Director fella finding me?”
Seven nods. “He’ll be interested in you, that’s for sure. Though it’ll probably be harder to find you when you’re out and about. He could pass you in the street and not know you were any different.”
Conceding the point, Steve nods. He looks exactly the same as the others after all; there’s no light shining on him to mark him out as different, no billboard that declares ‘I am not quite dead,’ no flashy lights like the adverts of the twenty-first century seem to find necessary. Only his heart that still beats away in his chest, the fluttering of his pulse, the warmth in his skin.
“So. How’re you doing?,” Seven asks, shifting to get comfortable on the grass. “I assume not all that great considering the escaping act.”
Steve hums noncommittally, eyes on the not-quite right arrangement of buildings that make up what should be Wall Street. “Well, I’ve been asking around, and I’ve found three Steves that married Peggy Carter, ten that married or were involved with someone called Sharon, twelve that were invested in relationships with other women, five who admitted to sleeping with Bucky and thirty-one who have somehow become involved with Tony Stark, including two who married him. And that’s not counting the ones who admitted kissing or sleeping with Tony whilst involved with someone else.” He shrugs, fingers pulling at the grass by his hip. “Seems I am an awful cad throughout the multiverse.”
“No, it seems you have a thing for Tony Stark across the multiverse,” Seven says, unapologetically, turning his face up towards the sun and shutting his eyes. “It’s not a big deal.”
“For you, maybe,” Steve sighs.
“Thought about it?” Seven asks suddenly.
“No,” Steve says abruptly, but he’s not quite sure that’s the truth anymore. His mind keeps drifting towards what if more times than he’s comfortable with. He keeps rethinking over everything that’s ever happened between him and Tony with this new context in mind, and he’s alarmed to find how easily it could fit together. He knows it’s different to how things are with Bruce or Clint or any of the others, and he hates that he now recognises it.
“Have you really never thought about it?” Seven asks, sounding curious and not altogether convinced.
“No,” Steve groans, flopping down onto his back so all he can see above him is clear blue sky. “Not until now, anyway,” he continues, raising a hand to shield his eyes from the brightness of the sun. “And it’s stupid. If I start thinking about it…” he trails off. “When I get home, I’m going to be seeing everything differently, even if T- even if everyone else isn’t. It’s going to be awkward enough as it is. What do I say? ‘Hey, Tony, remember the time you got me almost killed? Well it’s okay because there’s a whole goddamn gang of Steve Rogers out there across the multiverse that are actually swooning over you.’”
Seven laughs at that, shaking his head. “I don’t think swooning is the right word,” he remarks.
Steve pauses, squints over at Seven who is idly twisting blades of grass between dexterous fingers. He feels the question on the tip of his tongue, wants to force it back down. He doesn’t quite manage it.
“What is the right word then?”
Seven breathes out, and it’s clear he knows exactly what Steve is asking. “It wasn’t some instant falling in love thing,” he says, beginning the explanation that Steve still isnt sure he wants. “It was…he’s like the goddamn sun. So intense, so in your face and just…hell, I don’t even know. It’s not always pretty, and we fight like cats and dogs some days. But we both know that we’re in it together, we’ve always got something underneath it all.”
Steve swallows, because that’s exactly how he’d describe Tony some days. “How did you…” he asks hesitantly. “How did it change?”
Seven smiles crookedly. “Not really sure. We were fighting because there’d been an inter-dimensional breach and we’d been given orders by SHIELD to remain on standby. Of course Tony didn’t listen and stormed off without me to go and raise hell; I could have throttled him for that.”
“But you didn’t,” Steve says.
Seven smiles again, quiet and warm. “But I didn’t,” he murmurs.
“And the whole…” Steve ventures. He clears his throat. “Being married, thing?”
“Years later. We were fighting,” Seven pauses, grimaces. “Hell, what a broken record. We were fighting about changes to the initiative that the government were proposing, and he made some awful comment about us not actually being on the same side, like he didn’t believe I’d side with him when it mattered. Gets right up in my face and has the balls to say ‘why the hell should I assume we’re on the same side with anything?’ I dragged him to the City Clerk’s office in Brooklyn and walked up to the counter, asked to apply for a marriage licence. The look on his face. I think he thought I was bluffing, so out comes the ID, he signs the form with this look on his face, like he’s daring me to do it. Neither of us backed down, and there we are with this valid licence, and Clint’s behind us yelling that we’ve completely lost the plot, bow in hand and scaring the hell out of the woman behind the counter.”
“I’d side with Clint,” Steve says, and Seven laughs again.
“Yeah, everyone else did. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Coulson speechless before.”
“And you went through with it?”
Seven nods. “Yep. He locked himself in his workshop, I was ready to knock down the damn door and drag him out, but of course there's an alert and I had to go with Clint to deal with a situation in Michigan. When I got back he was sparring with Thor, and the ass turns around and says ‘if you wanted to pussy out you could have hid in Brooklyn, didn’t realise it was that bad that you’d consider Detroit as the better option.’”
“Oh God,” Steve groans, pressing the heels of his palms to his eyes because he knows exactly where this is going. He can imagine exactly how he’d react to a statement like that.
“Yep,” Seven says. “An hour later and Coulson has managed to hustle the guy who used to be the Mayor into the tower, Natasha has got her hands on a pair of rings that fit damn near perfect, and Clint is insisting he gets to be best man and waving a bunch of flowers around. Tony glares at me throughout the whole thing, and then after he just says ‘I don’t do divorce, I’d be a walking cliché, so suck it up Rogers.’”
Steve starts to laugh, because really, what else is he supposed to do? “Still in the suit?” he asks.
“Still in the suit,” Seven nods. “Clint tried to pin a veil to the helmet and Tony nearly decked him. Bruce wore it instead.”
Steve just laughs harder, because the mental image is not only bizarre and terrifying but completely hilarious, and it would be so like him and Tony to end up married out of sheer bull-headedness. He thinks his laughter is erring on the side of hysterical, but he thinks it’s perfectly understandable. After a few long moments the laughter fades, and he rubs vigorously at his face with his hands.
“Did it work?” he finally asks, dragging his fingers down over his cheekbones, pressing his fingertips hard to his mouth. “Did you stop fighting?”
Seven just looks at him. “What do you think?”
Steve breathes out, looking up at the sky again, thinking about what Shield had said regarding Seven’s marriage and the aversion of the war that appears to have scarred some universes. “I think you stopped the serious kind of fighting,” he says.
“It’s like you think arguments over bagels and whose turn it is to fill in mission reports isn’t serious,” Seven deadpans, and despite the strange twist of some unknown emotion in his gut, Steve can’t help but laugh again.
“It probably seems crazy,” Seven says, and that’s not the only word Steve would use but he lets it slide. “But it works. For both of us. For everyone, really.”
Steve feels the familiar ache of grief and want twisting painfully. He’s lost everyone before, and god, he doesn’t want to lose this bunch of misfits that he’s been thrown in with this time around. He can’t. Though most of it undoubtedly is, it’s not even just about Tony; he misses all of them fiercely and unwaveringly.
“You don’t look too traumatised,” Seven remarks with an arched brow.
Steve blows out a breath, reading between the lines and knowing what Seven is trying to say. “I’m glad you were happy,” he says sincerely. “But that doesn’t mean the same for me.”
Seven just looks at him for a moment, before turning his face back up towards the sun, and doesn’t say anything.
Tony jumps at the sound of Natasha’s voice just behind him, cursing and rubbing his chest with one hand, the other locked around the arm of the cafeteria chair. He unclenches his fingers, heart thudding painfully against the arc reactor.
“How is it even possible for you to sneak up in those shoes on this floor?” he snaps, and then registers what she’s holding out towards him, his anger vanishing. Without a word, he reaches out and taking the bottle of Macallans from her, turning it over in his hand and rubbing his thumb against the label.
“The last one?” he says, mouth twisting contemplatively and ignoring the lump in his throat. He remembers Steve sitting at the kitchen counter, seven empty bottles in front of him, the eighth in Tony’s hand as he poured out yet another measure. ‘Tony, no,’ he’d protested half-heartedly, though he’d looked amused and had drank without an objection, only the same wince and heavy exhale. Tony had been laughing by that point out of sheer disbelief, both impressed and a little awed. Seven bottles and the only indication that Steve’d consumed his own damn bodyweight in alcohol was a slight pink flush to his cheeks, though whether from the booze or amusement, Tony hadn’t been able to tell.
He just remembers being secretly pleased beyond measure that Steve had been willing to go along with it. In the beginning, Steve hadn’t been at all open to humouring Tony; it was still pretty hit and miss depending on his mood and exactly what Tony was after.
“The last one,” Natasha confirms, and slides into the chair opposite him, leaning back and breathing out deeply.
“Thought you would be more of a vodka girl,” he says.
“She is,” another voice calls, and Tony looks up to see Clint walking over, three tumblers grasped between the fingers of one hand and a metal champagne bucket in the other. “But this,” he begins, pushing Tony’s half-finished meal aside with his elbow, “was up for grabs and free booze always tastes better.” He sets the glasses and bucket down on the table and Tony sees that the bucket is in fact not full of champagne but full of ice.
“What, we’re going to sit in the cafeteria and get drunk?”
“Yes,” Natasha says simply.
“Pepper will murder you for taking that,” Tony says as she takes the bottle back from his hands and cracks it open, pouring three healthy measures of whiskey which Clint drops ice into, the ice clinking and cracking with a familiar and soothing sound.
“Pepper is the one who gave it to me,” Natasha says as she sets the bottle down and pushes a glass over towards Tony with her fingers. “I think she’d rather you be supervised through the self-destructive phase.”
Clint lifts his own drink in a toast. “I volunteered.”
Despite himself, Tony smiles, a weak twitch of his lips. “So why is Natasha here?”
“I’m supervising Clint supervising you,” she says with a perfectly straight face, and Tony starts to laugh. He spans his hand over his eyes, thumb and fingertips on his temples as he tries to keep control of his already wobbly emotions. Thankfully, the other two ignore it. Either they’re being sensitive, or – more likely – they don’t want to deal with anything remotely emotional right now. Whichever it is, Tony is grateful.
“This is officially the most expensive thing I have ever put in my body,” Clint says like it’s an announcement, and Tony looks up in time to see him neck his drink, the ice clinking softly against the glass. Clint sucks in a breath, eyeing the bottle and frowning. “Aw, I can't tell the difference.”
“You need to work on your phrasing,” Tony remarks and then follows suit. Natasha just smiles at them, sipping at her own drink in an altogether more dignified fashion.
“And Steve drank eight bottles of this stuff?”
“One of the more impressive things I’ve seen him do,” Tony says as Clint pours two more drinks.
“More impressive than the throw he did that took out eleven AIM grunts?” Clint grins crookedly. “Or the thing with the fire hydrant?”
“That wasn’t impressive, that was moronic and cost me a small fortune to fix,” Tony grouches, and his chest is tight and his stomach rolling and he aches to be back with Steve, to have him in sight and within touching distance.
“But it was internet gold,” Clint sighs, knocking back his second drink without pause. “But then again, nearly everything Steve does seems to be internet gold, whether he means for it to be or not.”
“He loves the internet,” Tony says absent-mindedly, staring at the ice in the bottom of his glass.
“Erm, we’re both talking about Steve Man-Out-Of-Time Rogers, right?” Clint asks sceptically.
“Yeah, I mean he hated it at first. But he hated everything at first,” Tony says, and Natasha hides a smile in her glass. “Too bright, too flashy, too in his face. Too unnecessary, from his point of view. But yeah, he was complaining about not getting something and I threw a Starkpad at him and said to Google it.”
“You taught him how to Google.”
“He taught himself how to Google.”
Clint snorts. “Did you turn safesearch off?”
“Christ, no. I’m not a maniac.”
Natasha does smile at that, a soft sad curve of her mouth. “He still writes down everything though. As in pencil and paper in the back of one of his sketchbooks.”
“I know, I know,” Tony says wearily, taking a large gulp of his drink. “What can I say. You can take the man out of the forties…”
“And you can teach him to love Google?”
“He’ll never admit he likes it,” Tony says, and his mouth hitches in a small smile. “And yeah, he hates the murkier side of it, the porn and the gossip and the gambling-”
“All the fun parts,” Clint interjects.
Tony bites back on a laugh. “Yeah. Those parts. But he’s clocked the fact that now he doesn’t have to constantly ask when he misses a reference. His pride can make it through the day intact.”
Without him having to ask, Natasha leans forwards and tops up his drink. He blinks, eyes all at once feeling too warm and bright as he thinks about the Steve’s stubborn frown, the way he insists that he’s got it, that he doesn’t need any help, thanks. “Was this the plan?” Tony asks, voice rough. “Get drunk and wax poetical about Steve?”
“Talk about him, complain about him, write sonnets about him,” Clint shrugs. “Whatever, man.”
Tony laughs, a rough unsteady sound, and he reaches up to pinch the bridge of his nose between his fingers. The words are on the tip of his tongue, and Pepper already knows, and Clint has already hinted that he suspects something, so there’s really next to no chance that Natasha won’t have picked up on it. With that in mind, the urge to actually say it is pretty much more than he can supress.
“So, should I just get it out the way and admit that I might be totally and utterly gone for Steve?”
“Glad you’ve worked that out,” Natasha says, and grasps his wrist, lifts his hand off the table-top and pushes his glass back towards him. “Drink.”
Tony pulls his hand away from hers, a little disconcerted by the lack of reaction. “That’s it?”
“That’s it,” Natasha confirms with a nod.
“Dude, it was pretty obvious,” Clint says with a grimace. “We talked about this already, with the whole face touching thing. You two are kinda…intense around each other.”
“We are not.”
Clint just gives him a look. “You can either deny it, or we can cut to the chase and get started on that sonnet. How many words can we think of that rhyme with America?”
Tony slumps forwards, elbow on the table and forehead resting on his knuckles. “God, I hate you.”
A hand claps down on his shoulder. “Yeah you do,” Clint says easily.
Taking a deep, steadying breath, Tony pushes himself back into a more upright position and lifts his drink. He pauses with the tumbler inches from his mouth and points at Natasha with his forefinger.
“Just so we’re clear, this isn’t drinking because we’re mourning, or we’ve given up-”
“Of course not,” she says, her mouth tightening a fraction, barely noticeable unless you were looking for it. She’s hurting too, Tony knows. Probably as much as the rest of them, despite how she’s less obvious about it.
“Come on,” Clint scoffs. “You really think we’ll ever give up? This is a clever ploy to get him to wake up. He’ll sense us getting drunk with his heightened responsibility receptors and get up to yell at us.”
Tony and Natasha both snort into their drinks.
“He’s got them,” Clint insists, and drops his voice to a whisper. “They’re red, white and blue. I’ve seen them.”
And Tony is laughing, laughing harder than he has in weeks, and it still feels like he’s about to cry as well as laugh but it’s okay. Clint and Natasha are both clearly at their limits as well and they’re getting drunk so being a little sloppy with his control is probably allowed.
He looks up just in time to see Natasha wipe her fingertips under her eye, still smiling as she listens to Clint's rambling. Without saying anything, Tony reaches over and grasps her free hand in his, and the way she squeezes his fingers in return is the most comforting thing he’s felt in days.
“Where have you been?"
It’s not Shield’s demanding voice that calls out the minute Steve steps into the apartment, or even the Commander’s. It’s SJ that he finds blocking his way across the room, arms folded across his chest and glaring at Steve with all the force he can muster.
“Out running,” Steve says. He reaches out to ruffle SJ’s hair and SJ scowls more ferociously and pushes his hand away, turning his face to the side as he coughs.
“For five hours?” SJ demands, and Steve laughs. He steps forwards and grabs SJ under the arms, lifting him up onto his hip and squeezing him gently. SJ doesn’t protest, just curves his small frame into Steve’s side, head resting on his shoulder and snuggling happily towards the warmth.
“You’re all sweaty,” he complains, wrinkling his nose. His breath catches and his back shifts as he supresses another cough.
“You’re all cold, you don’t see me complaining,” Steve replies, and smiles as cool fingertips press into his neck and then dance up his face, pressing against his cheeks. SJ grins and leans up and Steve takes his hand and presses it to his forehead with an ‘ahhh’ of satisfaction, making SJ giggle.
“So, you’re clearly the new favourite,” Seven’s voice says, sounding amused. He steps into the apartment, stretching his arms above his head before letting them flop down to his side. He’s still wearing his full uniform, unlike Steve who has kept the top half peeled down to his waist. This place is warm, the sun shining pleasantly and accompanied only by a soft breeze, and Steve knows he’s the only one who really appreciates it. The rest of them are always cool or cold, the sun having no real impact on them other than to provide light. Exercise doesn’t affect them in the same way either, though Seven insists that he and many of the others still enjoy running and working out.
“I’m clearly being forced into a life of servitude as a hot-water bottle,” Steve says pointedly and SJ just grins.
“Don’t like being cold,” he says, and a skinny arm winds its way around Steve’s neck. Steve hitches him up slightly, feeling a swell of emotion in his chest.
“Pretty sure none of us do.”
“Lewis does,” Seven says. “He was part of Spec Ops in the US army. Died in 2007 in Iraq, says he always ended up being deployed in the summer and was sick to all hell of being constantly hot and sweaty.”
“I take it he was never frozen in the Arctic if he’s from the twenty-first century?” Steve asks, and then sighs as SJ’s hand slides down over his eyes. “Really? I swear I wasn’t this annoying when I was small.”
“I’m not you,” SJ giggles, spreading his fingers apart so Steve can see. “We’re different, you keep forgetting.”
“Yes, I see. Very different in that I’m less annoying.”
“Are not,” SJ argues, kicking his feet against Steve’s thigh. “Shield said you were a pain in his ass for wandering off.”
“Language,” Steve and Seven both say at the same time, Steve sternly and Seven somewhat more wearily. SJ purses his lips, looking slightly abashed but not enough so that Steve is convinced he’ll never say it again. Steve steps over to the counter and swings SJ onto it, his heels clattering against the wood. Looking disgruntled, SJ shifts up onto his knees, leaning against Steve’s side. Steve capitulates immediately and slips an arm around SJ’s middle, palm smoothing over his tummy. It’s slightly disconcerting how easy it is for him to be there for SJ, to slip onto that comforting role. Maybe it’s because he knows what he wanted at that age; maybe it’s just instinct.
His instincts are also telling him where he should go next in his search for answers. He remembers the cool touch of the mist against his face when he’d first woken up here, and again contemplates what he should do. Should he just go, by himself? Would it be wiser to at least let someone know what he’s planning, even if he doesn’t want anyone to come with him? But would they even let him go alone-
“You’ve got that look on your face,” Seven says, folding his arms across his chest. “Out with it.”
Steve bites back a grin; seems there’s no point in wondering how to broach the subject of going off to search in the mist. After all, he’s surrounded by versions of himself who would definitely know that was plotting something, even if they couldn’t guess exactly what he was thinking. Hey, that was one benefit, he supposed; not having to tip-toe around when trying to broach a subject.
“I want to go back to where Shield and Brooklyn found me,” Steve says, and Seven lifts an eyebrow but lets him continue. “I need to start looking for ways to get home, and that’s as good a place as any.”
Seven nods slowly. “That’s where I was going to suggest we start,” he says, and Steve sags into the countertop in relief at the lack of resistance, hip checking against the edge. SJ winds an arm around his neck and Steve distractedly rubs his thumb over the worn blue and white stripes on his shirt.
“Has anyone ever been back that way, through the mist? Is that where everyone turns up?”
“We all seem to come in from somewhere out there,” he says. “You were the last one to come in. No-one has been back through though, as far as we know.”
“Do you have to go?” SJ suddenly asks, and Seven and Steve both stop, eyes locked for a long moment. SJ seems to regret what he’s said, slumping back down to sit on his heels and twisting as if to get away from Steve. Steve doesn’t let go, just gently tugs SJ close to his side again, arm still wrapped around his middle.
“You know I do,” he says, though he’s unable to fight away the wave of guilt he feels. “Got people at home waiting for me.”
SJ just nods tiredly, understanding. Steve looks at him helplessly for a moment, not sure what to say. He’d give anything to be able to send SJ back to his own universe, alive and whole. Hell, at this point, if given the chance he’d probably take SJ back with him to his universe and raise him as his own goddamn kid, consequences be damned.
“I take it you want to go now?” Seven says, bringing his mind back to the task in hand.
“As soon as possible,” Steve says, though focussing on the job isn’t as easy or straight-forwards now he thinks about leaving SJ and the others behind. He’s only been here a few days, he shouldn’t be getting attached, definitely not considering this is only temporary-
Or at least he’s hoping it’s temporary.
“Can I come?” SJ asks, and Steve hesitates for a moment.
“Probably not the best idea,” he says cautiously.
“But if you find a way home, I want to say goodbye,” SJ says, and Steve feels his already weak resolve crumble.
“He’ll probably only follow us anyway,” he concedes, and turns towards the door. “Let’s go.”
“Come on then,” Steve says letting go of SJ and leaning back. “You walking or hitching a ride?”
“A ride,” SJ replies immediately. “I tried walking to the mist once with Sticky. It’s really far.”
“You don’t have to come,” Steve reminds him, but he’s crouching down anyway, balancing easily on the balls of his feet. SJ immediately scrambles forwards onto Steve’s shoulders, cool palms clamped on Steve’s forehead. His heels kick against Steve’s chest and he shouts with laughter as Steve straightens up, hands going to SJ’s ankles to steady him.
“Don’t wriggle,” he says, and laughs himself as SJ curls forwards over his head to look him upside-down in the eye.
“You’d catch me,” he says confidently. “You’re a superhero.”
Steve lets go of one ankle to poke SJ on the nose. “Even superheroes need to be able to see where they're going.”
Kicking his heel against Steve’s chest again, SJ obediently leans back, fingers sliding into Steve’s hair. Steve can barely feel his weight on his shoulders, and part of him is honestly struggling to remember the time when he must have been just as small and light.
Taking hold of the wayward foot again, Steve steps forwards after Seven, remembering to duck through the doorframe as he does. He navigates the stairwell carefully as well, though SJ is just as vigilant and leans forwards every time there’s a doorframe or a spot of ceiling that’s a bit lower than the rest.
He finds Seven waiting for them just outside the building on the stairs, watching as two more younger Steves tear down the road past the building, red faced and panting. Steve slowly descends the stairs, frowning slightly as he watches them go.
“SJ, how many younglings are there around here?” he asks
“Fifteen,” SJ replies promptly. “In our group anyway.”
“Who’s the youngest?”
“Park and Pond,” SJ replies. “They're both six.”
Seven looks at Steve, also frowning. “Yeah, we’d noticed,” he says, correctly guessing what Steve is thinking about. “If we were so sickly as a kid, why aren’t there more younglings?"
“Why is the youngest six?” Steve finishes as he falls into step beside Seven. His fingers flex gently on SJ’s ankle, an unconscious reflex as he thinks of his shield. It’s disconcerting being anywhere without it, and he still finds himself absently reaching for it every time he gets up to go anywhere.
“Doesn’t quite add up,” Seven admits. “And now with you showing up, it’s another thing that doesn’t quite sit right.”
“How long have you been here?” Steve asks thoughtfully.
“No idea,” Seven says. “I just…I remember my life, and I remember my death, and then there’s this. It’s a bit…I don’t remember getting from there to here, and it feels like I’ve always been here, but I know I haven’t. I’ve got no sense of time.”
“Doesn’t seem quite right either,” Steve muses, tilting his face up towards the sun and squinting slightly. The weather really is glorious, much more so without the usual traffic and noise and pollution that is usually present on a summer day in New York. Not that this is better; hell, if he wanted sunshine and fresh air he’d take a vacation or move, not go through a near-death experience in an effort to make New York more environmentally friendly.
“Well, no-one ever knew what happened when we die,” Seven reasons. “This could be perfectly right for all anyone knows.”
Steve thinks of the lack of younger Steves, how there’s no-one else to be found anywhere. Seven is right in that no-one can ever truly know what happens to people when they die, but this whole situation is starting to seem more and more off with every new thing he finds out. It’s unnerving but also gives him hope that he’ll be able to get out and back home.
He listens to Seven and SJ talking for a while, content to be quiet with his thoughts and observations as they walk in the direction of the mist. He sees more and more versions of himself as they progress, but he’s now so used to it that he doesn’t so much as look twice. There appears to be more Steve Rogers that are in civilian dress in this area, and he feels a wistful pang go through him as he watches a couple throwing a baseball back and forth, dressed in jeans and t-shirts, laughing and larking about.
As predicted, it’s a long walk back to the mist, growing steadily colder and more difficult as the landscape starts to change. The buildings grow more dilapidated; rubble blocks their path on more than one occasion. Soon they’re clambering over broken cars and toppled masonry, ducking under girders and electricity poles. It’s made marginally harder by having SJ perched on his shoulders, but SJ’s grip on Steve is tight and he doesn’t wriggle too much, so all Steve has to do is keep one hand one his knee and compensate for the added height and it’s not too tricky.
“What are you looking for?” SJ asks, looking up and around, expression somewhat awed. The grey hued buildings around them reach up, their roofs shrouded in mist. It makes Steve feel like they’re minuscule; ants walking around the feet of a city that reaches endlessly upwards towards the heavens.
“No idea,” Seven replies, and his voice is low and tight and it’s clear he doesn’t like being here in the slightest. “Anything.”
Steve doesn’t know what he’d been hoping to find back here, but it was definitely more than what he’s currently observing. This is where they’d all appeared, surely there must be a way through of some kind? A portal, a doorway? Or maybe they just materialised out of thin air, which wasn’t going to help him in the slightest.
His boots crunch on broken glass, loud in the stillness.
“Steve,” SJ whispers, and then coughs, the sound swallowed up by the mist. His heels press back against Steve’s chest, his hand reaching down to grab Steve’s fingers where they rest against his knees.
“It’s okay,” Steve says, and lets go with one hand so SJ can hold his fingers, squeezing them briefly. He reaches up and lifts SJ from his shoulders, setting him on his hip instead, one arm looped underneath his thighs to easily hold him in place. SJ’s fingers fist in his undershirt, both front and back, and Steve briefly wishes he’d put up more of a fight when SJ had asked to come along.
“There’s nothing here,” Seven says, sounding frustrated. “Goddamn it, I wish I had my shield.”
“Does anyone?” Steve asks, stepping over a broken drain, one hand on the side of a truck-sized block of concrete to keep them steady.
“No,” Seven says shortly. “And that’s pretty telling, huh?”
Steve just smiles grimly and vows to never ever let the shield out of his sight again when he gets back. He’ll get Tony to glue the damn thing to his hand if needs be. SJ coughs again, letting go of Steve’s shirt to cover his mouth, eyes wide and uncertain.
They all fall quiet; the only sound is their boots on the rough concrete and the occasional cough from SJ. They press on regardless, pushing through the increasingly thick mist until Steve can barely see Seven anymore, walking only a few feet away, visible only because of the bright colours of his uniform.
They walk so far that Steve is certain they must have passed the place where he appeared, deeper into the mist than he was before. His side aches and throbs in phantom pain, recalling the agony of the injury that sent him here. He ignores it. Keeps going.
There’s a rustle, a soft sigh of noise. A breeze picks up, ruffling Steve’s hair and swirling the mist around them in tight eddies. Steve halts, looking around.
“That’s not normal,” he murmurs. Seven steps backwards, his shoulder bumping Steve’s. He doesn’t reply, and another stronger gust of wind pulls the mist around them again, cool fingers tugging at their hair and clothes-
'Go back, Steve Rogers. This is not the way home.'
Steve whirls around, heart pounding in his chest. “Did you hear that?” he asks, but Seven is already stepping forwards whole body tense and ready to leap into action.
'This is not the way home. Not here, not yet.'
“Hello?” Steve shouts as the faint voice drifts through the mist again, distant and muffled. “Who’s there?”
“Who is that?” SJ breathes. “Steve?”
“There!” Seven barks, and Steve whips around just in time to see a dark shadow shift in the mist, the faint silhouette of what could be a person. Seven is off before Steve can get a word out, vaulting over the crumpled remains of a car and lunging forwards, and damnit, that's exactly what he'd be doing if he didn't have SJ to think about-
Another shadow moves in the periphery of Steve’s vision and Steve spins around to try and catch it, SJ gasping at the sudden turn. “Wait!” he bellows at Seven, but he’s gone, chasing the first shadow, or is it the same one moving too quickly to properly track-?
'You are here to learn, Steve Rogers,' the voice whispers, curling around him like silk, the word learn echoing and fading. 'Here to learn, here to see.'
“See what?” Steve shouts out, and the shadows flits past on his left this time, closer than before.
'Too many wars, too many battles,' the voice whispers, and it’s repeating itself, layer upon layer of voice threading through the air, wrapping around him and curling away, distant and too close all at one. 'When you learn, we will send everyone home.'
“What do you mean, home? Back to life?”
'You go back to your life when you have learned, Steve Rogers. The others go back to where they have earned the right to be, their place in death.'
And all at once the mist erupts in front of Steve, layers upon layers of blinding colour whipped up like a tornado, and he cries out and instinctively throws a hand up in front of his face. The wind is now tearing at his hair and clothes and SJ is clutching him so tightly, and he has to step forwards on one foot, bracing himself against the sudden storm, the deafening roar of the wind. He manages to open his watering eyes and he spots countless images dancing in front of him, like a thousand screens have been thrown up around him. Some tower above them like the buildings behind, some are no bigger than a sketchbook. Their edges are indistinct, the sound blurred and echoing like they’re underwater, the movements within speeding up and slowing down uncontrollably, and in the centre of each one is a Steve Rogers, a different Steve Rogers every time-
Through streaming eyes he spots himself in a blue uniform standing with Tony and Clint at a table, laughing and leaning forwards, blond hair hanging in his eyes as Tony throws his hands up in the air. The image twists and is snatched away, and then through the rush of wind and colour there’s another Steve in olive military dress, dancing with an aged Peggy Carter and beaming at her like she hung the sun, moon and stars. Another younger Steve, leaping into a river with a Bucky who can’t be older than fifteen, hollering and whooping. A navy blue Steve lying on his back on some grass, with a Tony Stark next to him, head on Steve’s stomach and fingers linked lazily together, faint smile curving his mouth. A Steve walking hand in hand with a blond woman, grinning as she swats him on the back of the head with a sheaf of files and then pulls him in for a kiss.
Back to their real place in death, the voice repeats in his ear, and Steve staggers back a step in the force of the wind, boots scraping across the concrete. Metal screeches and concrete groans; debris flies through the air around them and he puts a hand on the back of SJ's head, wildly hoping nothing hits them. He forces his eyes to stay open though, and he sees a Steve in jeans and a T-shirt hefting a child up into his arms, rolling his eyes at a blond woman across a kitchen table; another walking slowly and alone through a snow-filled forest; a Steve in full Captain America gear pressing a Tony up against a metal wall, catching his mouth in a kiss; a Captain America sitting in a booth in a diner, crammed in with the rest of the Avengers and falling asleep with his head resting on Natasha’s shoulder as Clint steals his fries.
"No," Steve chokes out, and he can barely stay upright anymore, keeping his eyes open is absolute agony but he can't look away. He holds his free hand in front of his face to try and shield his eyes from the worst of the wind, and he can feel it tearing at his hair, cold and stinging. SJ is screaming, and still the images come, the glimpses of a thousand other worlds.
There's the distant sound of swooping airplanes, roaring engines, and Steve sees himself in modern army fatigues, howling with laughter as a Bucky in the same modern military dress half struts, half staggers across sandy ground, a beer in his hand and slopping all over his wrist; now it's a Steve Rogers in civilian gear next to a Tony Stark in casual attire, and they’re walking through a corridor and there’s a small kid between them, clutching their hands and swinging his feet up off the floor; a Steve in nothing but a pair of sweatpants leaning across a bed to kiss Tony, popping himself up on his fists and laughing against Tony’s mouth as Tony grabs his dogtags and pulls him close -
And then the images are gone, wrenched away as if someone has pulled a power-line somewhere. The wind dies and the mist crawls back in, covering up the landscape around them, and Steve is gasping and sinking unsteadily to his knees, SJ still in his arms and clinging to him like he’s never going to let go. He’s sobbing into Steve’s shoulder, coughing and gasping, chest rattling.
“I saw Bucky,” he cries, and Steve raises a trembling hand to hold his head close. “Steve, I want to go back to Bucky and Tom and the others, we were, we were in the p-park behind the orphanage, I could see them-”
“I know, I know,” Steve tries to say, tries to comfort him. God, it’s not just him that’s not meant to be here, all of them have been plucked from their own spaces across the multiverse and shoved into this place for some reason, some goddamn reason that he doesn't know. All these versions of him should be in their own afterlives, with the people they loved-
He jerks his head up as he hears Seven’s voice, distant and indistinct.
“Here!” He shouts back, clambering unsteadily to his feet. “Seven! We're alright, over here!”
“Don’t move!” Seven bellows back, and then Steve hears him approaching, sees his silhouette form and break in the mist. He’s pale and shaking, looking like he’s just been knocked six ways from Sunday.
“Did you-” he asks, voice hoarse. He scrambles over, concerned eyes on SJ who is still gulping in unsteady breaths, coughing every time he breathes out.
“Yeah,” Steve replies, and he hitches SJ up and runs a hand up and down his back. SJ shifts as close as he can possibly get to Steve, his wracking sobs turning to shuddering breaths as Steve holds him close.
“We’re not meant to be here,” Seven says violently. “None of us.”
Steve nods, feeling a lump in his throat at the distraught expression on Seven’s face. Steve notices he’s got his wedding ring clutched in his fist, the chain swinging freely and glinting in the pale grey light. God, there’s no chance he wouldn’t have seen a version of him with Tony, and his heart must feel like it’s been torn out, realising that he’s here and not with Tony in his own afterlife, in his own heaven or whatever the hell those places were-
Steve takes a steadying breath in, composes himself. “So,” he says, voice rough. “Seems it’s not just about getting me home anymore, is it?”
Seven’s hand – the one holding the ring – jerks up slightly, his knuckles tightening. “No,” he says, somewhere between determined and distressed, and he’s got that look on his face that Steve knows all too well. “Not anymore.”
Tony stands next to Steve’s shoulder, reaches out and gently touches his shoulder. “I’ve-” he begins, clears his throat roughly. “I’ve got to go back to the tower. Paperwork, and legal stuff, and things I don’t care about. You know, the usual. Barton’s staying here, and I’ll be back when I’ve done with the whole multi-national company thing.”
He has no reason to linger, but he can’t make his feet move. He stands there uselessly besides Steve’s bed, eyes on Steve’s face, not wanting to leave even for the night because if he leaves and something happens-
Breathing out hard through his nose, Tony shuts his eyes and composes himself. He forces his eyes open and then without thinking about it, leans forwards and presses his mouth to Steve’s forehead. He pulls back just enough to gently knock his brow against Steves.
“Come on, sleeping beauty, seventy years was enough, now you’re being greedy,” he says, shutting his eyes tightly. “I’ll be back tomorrow.”
He pulls back, and as he straightens up a gust of wind outside hisses at the window, the blinds stirring and the glass rattling slightly as the draft finds the miniscule cracks and crevices around the frame. Tony frowns over at the window as the blinds still again, the gust of wind apparently a single occurrence.
He waits for several long moments, but nothing more happens. Shoving away the growing internal struggle, he forces himself away and leaves the room without looking back.
Feeling more exhausted than he thinks he ever has before, Steve bends down, shushing SJ as he coughs weakly, murmuring fitfully as he dozes against Steve’s shoulder.
“Shush, shush, just putting you down,” he soothes as he carefully lays SJ down on the bed, one hand cradling the back of his head. He folds the blankets over him, knowing how SJ hates being cold, then steps back quietly, rubbing his mouth with his fingertips. SJ coughs again but sleeps on, a small frown between his eyebrows and mouth hanging slightly open. Outside the sun is just starting to set, the sky turning a beautiful lavender colour as the last of the light draws away. It feels like weeks since Steve was watching the sun rise, walking through the quiet streets on his way towards the Brooklyn Bridge.
“We need to go,” Seven says quietly behind him, and Steve nods in acknowledgement. He can already hear voices on the floor below, footsteps on the wooden stairs as more and more people arrive.
He turns away and meets Seven’s eyes for a moment. He’s put the chain back around his neck, though the ring is lying on the outside of his suit, next to the star. Steve wishes he’d put it away; he’s seen more than enough evidence of what can happen between him and Tony in the past few hours, he doesn’t need any more reminders.
God. It’s so stupid; there’s a whole new level of intrigue and question been brought into the situation and the one thing he can’t shake is the way his alter-egos looked when kissing Tony.
He lingers for a moment, not really wanting to leave SJ. He’d fallen into a fitful sleep on the walk back, curled up in Steve’s arms with tears still clinging to his eyelashes. It’s breaking Steve’s heart, seeing how lost, confused and upset SJ is. He can’t help but feel guilty as well, seeing as he was the one that agreed to SJ coming with them today.
“He’ll be okay. Just exhausted.”
Seven sounds subdued and tired as well, voice quiet from where he stands in the doorway.
“I know the feeling,” Steve replies heavily, and then turns away and walks over to join him. Seven doesn’t reply, just reaches out and claps him once on the shoulder before they head downstairs and walk into the room where the rest of the Steves are assembling. The Commander is there, looking harried, so are Stephanie and Brooklyn and many other versions that he recognises. The Steve with the robot arm catches his eye even though he’s skulking at the back; his movements are so very different to the majority of the other Steves, some lingering shadow in his expression that Steve doesn’t understand.
Steve can’t spare much thought for working it out though; the room is quickly filled and they’re all looking at him and Seven expectantly. Most of them are frowning and Steve supresses the urge to cover his face with his hands, promising himself he’ll stop doing it as much when he gets back home. Maybe Clint’s jokes about patenting his disapproving look had been warranted after all.
“Tough crowd,” Seven mutters in an undertone, standing shoulder to shoulder with Steve.
Sighing, Steve reaches up to rub at his mouth again, pulling at his lower lip. “Did you ever do the USO show with the 107th?”
Seven pulls a face. “I tried,” he replies, and then the Commander is there in front of them, one brow lifted in question.
“Why the emergency meeting?” he asks, and Steve tries not to be irritated by the way the question is clearly directed at Seven, like he’s not even there. He’s the new guy here after all, the anomaly.
“We went looking for some explanations as to why this Steve is here when he’s alive,” Seven says, and the rest of the room falls silent, everyone listening hard. The only sound is their breathing, not even the shuffle of a boot on the floor or the rustle of clothing. “We went into the mist,” Seven continues. “And there was something or someone out there.”
A murmur goes through the room. “What the fuck do you mean?” asks a Steve in modern military fatigues, and Steve thinks helplessly of the glimpse of the Steve dressed like that, laughing with Bucky in that sandy camp somewhere, beer in hand and expression lit up.
“Something spoke to us,” Seven says, and the room is again so still they could hear a pin drop. “All we saw was a shadow, something moving, and it spoke-”
“What did it say?” Stephanie breaks the tense silence, arms folded across her chest.
Seven looks at Steve, who breathes out and lifts his chin. “It knew me – us – by name. It said ‘Steve Rogers, you are here to learn.’
“Learn what?” someone asks, sounding suspicious.
“No idea,” Steve says shortly, and keeps talking because they've not heard the kicker yet, the piece of information he's pretty sure they'll all be interested in. “It also said that we’re not supposed to be here. Not just me, none of us.”
“None of us?”
“What the hell do you mean?”
“This isn’t heaven,” Seven says bluntly. “This isn’t the afterlife we were supposed to have. We saw the places we were meant to be – the thing out there whatever it was whipped up a hell of a storm and we saw all these places, the real places were supposed to be. With the people we’re supposed to be with.”
“So why are we here?” a shorter-Steve demands, and Steve has a brief moment to feel grateful that they all actually believe them. What they’re saying isn’t in question; it’s only the explanation behind it all that they want.
“We don’t know,” Seven says. “I think it’s to do with Steve, this Steve.”
And just like that, all eyes are once again on him. Some look curious, some look way and a few look downright angry. Steve doesn’t really blame them.
“I’m the odd one out here, right?” he says, to a general murmur of assent. “So when the thing talked about learning…it said something about too many battles and wars, and that we had to learn. I had to learn. We both heard it, but I think it was directed at me. You’re all – you’re all dead, right? You’ve all got your – your afterlives, or whatever the hell they are. I’m the only one that can actually learn and go back and change things.”
“It’s about the Civil War,” a voice says, and Steve looks around to see Eight in the doorway, face oddly blank and eyes staring at the floor. “It’s got to be.”
“Not everything is about-”
“You heard him,” Eight says tonelessly, his normal prickly agitation completely absent. “Too many wars? Has to learn?” He blinks, and then lifts his head. “How many of you went through Civil War, or something similar? How many lives were messed up because of it? How many universes were left a mess because of it?”
No-one moves, but the point is made.
“So if this is someone trying to manipulate the multiverse to prevent Civil War happening in his dimension,” the Commander says slowly, jerking his head towards Steve. “What is it he’s gotta learn so he can avoid it?”
Eight laughs hollowly at that, plucking at his torn uniform. “If I knew, you think I would have ended up like this?”
“We need to go and check this out,” someone says, and there’s more agreement. “Into the mist.”
“We’ve been into the mist before and seen nothing like what they’re saying happened,” Stephanie points out.
“Ten bucks says it’s because of this Steve,” Seven says, tipping his chin towards Steve. “Like he said, he’s the one that’s got to do the learning, he’s the only one that can actually go back and change things.”
“Well he better hurry his ass up with the learning,” robot-arm-Steve suddenly says, and he’s right there behind Stephanie and how the hell did he move so far across the room without Steve noticing? “If this isn’t where we’re supposed to be, I’d quite like to get back to where I am supposed to be, with the people I’m meant to be with.”
“Why don’t any of us remember where we were before?” Brooklyn asks, wedged in between robot-arm Steve and a captain-sized Steve in a three-piece suit, and as usual he's looking completely unperturbed by how they tower over him.
“We saw it,” Seven says shortly. “We saw the Avengers, Peggy, Bucky-”
“With Tony?” Someone interjects, and Seven’s mouth tightens.
“Yeah,” he says shortly. “A hell of a lot of us with Tony, actually. Some people I didn’t recognise- ”
“Sharon?” someone asks, and another voice is asking about someone called Emily, and Steve hears more unfamiliar names; Ian and Edward and Janet-
“I don’t know, I don’t know who they are so I wouldn’t have recognised them,” Seven says, holding up his hands. “I’m sorry.”
“It does make sense,” the Commander says slowly, and Steve glances at him. “The things here that don’t add up. The missing ages. The distorted sense of time…”
“We need to go check it out,” a voice insists, and he nods.
“You willing to go back?” he says, and Steve realises that this time he’s talking to him.
“Yes,” he says, because it’s only fair on the others that they get to see what he and Seven did, and maybe the voice will be able to shed more light on the situation. “Right now?”
“No,” the Commander decides, and then raises his voice and turns to the rest of the room. “We’ll go back tomorrow afternoon,” he says. “Anyone who wants to go, give me your name. “We’ll draw lots at midday, first ten names will go first.”
The rest of the Steve’s all nod in understanding, though some don’t exactly look happy about the decision. Steve finds he’s glad that he’s got until tomorrow to wrap his head around what he’s seen before he potentially has to do it all over again, and he’s willing to bet that the decisions to only let ten go at a time is so that no untoward attention is drawn to them.
He watches as Stephanie moves over to Seven, her expression determined. She pulls him around by the elbow, and he can hear her low urgent tone even if he can’t discern what she’s saying over the rest of the conversations in the room. He clearly reads the look on her face though, the uncertainty and grief and desperate desire to find out more, and he just knows that they’re talking about Tony and what Seven saw of him earlier.
Glancing around, he wonders if any of these fellas belong in any of the snapshots he saw earlier. Which ones belong with Tony? Who is the one that was alone in the snow? Who should be with their damn kids instead of here?
Steve can feel a headache brewing; a dull ache in his temples from exhaustion and thinking too much. He looks over at Stephanie and Seven one last time, and he can’t help but think back to the last vision he saw; the Steve Rogers leaning across a bed with tangled sheets to kiss a smirking Tony Stark, smiling against that laughing mouth. It feels strange and alien, but a small desperate part of him is acknowledging how easy and right it looked, just like how he and Tony always are together but taken up a level-
Could he ever kiss Tony like that?
No, the small desperate voice in the back of his head says, but he’s not convinced by it. What if the way to avoid things going wrong is by being with Tony? Christ, Shield had said that Seven had made the smart move by marrying Tony, what if that’s what needs to happen in his universe?
No, he tells himself a second time. Just, no. Making sure he and Tony don’t end up on opposite sides of a war does not involve getting into a relationship with the man. It means communication and trust, and yeah, those are things needed in a relationship but also in a friendship as well.
Unbidden, the image of a version of them kissing against the metal wall springs to mind. Fuck, there were so many other people in those visions – Bucky and Peggy and those other women – so why is he fixating on Tony?
Because he’s your best friend, even when he’s not, he admits to himself as turns away and leaves the room; Shield is trying to catch his eye and he really doesn’t want to talk to anyone right now. Because he was there when you didn’t-quite-die. Because Bucky and Peggy and those other people aren’t a part of your life right now. Tony is.
He climbs the stairs, slips back into the room where SJ is still flat out asleep. He carefully clambers onto the bed next to his feet, leaning back against the wall and staring out of the window at the fading light. Long shadows stretch across the room, dark and soothing. He breathes out slowly, tipping his head back against the wall and glancing sideways at SJ’s sleeping form.
“Would you have been a Captain and fallen in love with Tony Stark, huh?” he asks, voice low. He shakes his head at his own ridiculousness, shutting his eyes and exhaling heavily again. “Guess we’ll never know.”
“Iron Man! Over here, just a minute-”
"Can you tell us who is in charge of Cap's treatment? Why is the serum not healing him?"
“Tony Stark! Tony, where have you been? How come you're back today?”
“What do you think about the people who say the Avengers can't handle the newer threats we're seeing?”
“Is Captain Rogers still alive?”
“Over here, just a quick question!”
Tony knew his plan of going back to the tower was a poor one at best. Now he’s well and truly convinced it’s the worst idea he’s ever had. The paperwork and thousands of messages and hundreds of items on his ever-growing to-do list are one thing; the reporters that are camped outside the tower – despite several public order notices that forbid them from doing exactly that – are something else entirely. Clint is at his side, trying to shove through the crowd without hurting anyone. The strained consideration won’t last; Tony can tell that he’s at the limits of his patience, but fuck it. So is he.
God, he never thought he’d crave the silence and stillness of Steve’s hospital room. Which he really needs to stop thinking of as Steve’s room, because that means he’s starting to feel like Steve belongs there-
“We understand that the Captain is dead-!”
“He is not dead.”
The vicious words are out before Tony can remind himself that he’s not meant to say anything. The crowd surges, the noise swells, a hundred more questions thrown his way in a torrent.
“Get in the damn car,” Clint snaps at him, trying to step around to the passenger side, but finding his path blocked. “Jesus, will you lot fuck off.”
“We just want to-”
“Just a quick statement?”
“Iron Man, what are you going to do without Captain America?”
Tony sees red. He lashes out and knocks the closest camera to his face to the floor.
“I am not going to do anything without Captain America, you got that?” Tony snarls, kicking the camera at his feet away even as the reporter stoops down to snatch it back up again, cursing violently at him and threatening to sue. “He is going to be fine, and you know why? Because there is no-one else who is going to be leading this team, and the universe knows it. There is no-one else I want leading this team, there is no-one else I want beside me, anywhere, at any fucking time. Now get the fuck out of my way so I can get back to him.”
There’s close to uproar at his words, more shouting and questions and he’s had enough, he wants them out of his way, and fuck, why did he open his mouth because now he’s let slip they want more, they always want more-
Suddenly there’s a flurry of movement next to him; there’s the rough sounds of a scuffle, a cry of pain and then there’s a reporter with a bloody nose on his ass next to the car and Clint is squaring up to the remainder, arms apart in a clear ‘come at me,’ gesture. The reporters aren’t taking up the challenge, and instead are hastily backing away.
“Get in the fucking car,” Clint says tersely, without looking around.
Tony does. He opens the door and climbs in, and Clint ducks into the passenger seat, slamming the door behind him. The noise from outside is instantly muffled, and he’s grateful for the hard top and tinted windows of the car, could easily stay in it all damn day, cocooned away from the noise and the faces and the rest of the world.
Trembling with anger and adrenaline, Tony grips the steering wheel and leans over it, pressing his forehead to the leather. “Well done,” he says into the space between his hands. "The Avengers PR team are going to have your balls for that.”
“Relax, no-one knows who I fucking am anyway,” Clint says moodily, slouching down in his chair. “Besides, they’re going to be more bothered by your little tantrum than me swinging punches. Are you even – do you get what you just said? You know what they’re going to read into that.”
Tony doesn’t bother to reply. He knows Clint is right, and he’s already regretting his outburst. He’s just stretched so thin, his emotions already at breaking point, ragged and torn. It’s hard enough to keep a lid on it all even when he’s not being harassed by journalists.
Fuck it. He’s got more important things to think about. More important places to be.
More important people to be with.
Sitting up, he jerkily puts the car in drive and the wheels spin as he slams his foot down, the car screeching angrily and impatiently away from the curb, whipping him through the streets of the city and back towards Steve.
“You know, playing poker against someone with the same tells as you is pretty pointless."
Steve snorts with laughter at the disgruntled look on Seven’s face as he frowns down at his cards. He, Seven and Brooklyn are sat on the roof of the apartment building in the morning light, and have playing since the dawn first broke. After spending several unsettled hours tossing and turning, Steve had given up on trying to get any decent sleep, instead leaving SJ asleep and heading up to find some air and space to clear his head. Originally, he'd planned to sit up here by himself and just think, but the others have actually proved to be a welcome distraction so he’s not going to complain.
“Yeah, I can’t exactly keep you guessing with my expressions seeing as they’re yours as well,” he muses, and slides the top of his cards over his lower lip, humming thoughtfully.
“Play against the Commander,” Brooklyn says, sounding distracted and pulling at his lip with his thumb and forefinger. “He has no tells whatsoever.”
“Yeah he does. You just have to watch really carefully,” Seven says. “Try playing against Winter. He could undergo torture and not blink.”
The gritty crunch of gravel draws Steve’s attention. He glances up from his cards to see Shield walking across the roof towards them, expression as serious as ever. Brooklyn salutes him as he comes closer, and he nods back in greeting.
“Morning,” he says evenly, walking closer and standing right behind Steve, arms folded across his chest. “Wondered where you were this morning, Steve.” Steve immediately recognises the tone of voice and wearily braces himself for questions. “How’re you doing?”
Steve nods. “Okay,” he says slowly. “Better now we’ve got something to go on, rather than feeling like I’m sitting on my ass waiting.”
Shield nods in understanding. “Ready to go back out later?”
“Mhhm,” Steve says, eyes still on his cards. “How many people have put their names forward?”
“Two hundred and four,” Shield says, and they all look up simultaneously.
“Two hundred and four?”
“Well, what did you expect?” Shield says with a short laugh, and he sinks down to sit next to Steve, kicking one leg out and leaning back on his hands. “Would you stay behind?”
“The hell I would,” Steve concedes. “How many have just said to hell with it and gone anyway?”
“None as far as we know,” Shield says. “They need you, remember? A few of them have been back that way before and nothing’s ever happened. “
“Great,” Steve says, feeling his stomach swoop. “To be reminded it’s all on my shoulders here.”
Steve recognises his own calm, placating tone in Shield's voice and he feels irritation swell in his chest because that’s exactly what he doesn’t need right now and Shield probably knows that damn well.
“It is all on me and you know that damn well,” he says shortly, almost snapping. “It’s me whose got to learn something from this whole damn experience and no-one can get home until I do, even though I have no idea what that’s even supposed to be.”
There’s a beat of strained silence, and then thankfully Brooklyn breaks it. “I’m out,” he grouches, and drops his cards down onto the concrete. “Steve?”
Steve blows out a breath. No-one says anything about his outburst, which probably means they understand where he’s coming from so aren’t going to argue with him, but they don’t exactly want to encourage it by agreeing either.
Hell, he can live with that.
“Still in,” he replies, and flicks another quarter into the pot. Seven looks at him and then down at his cards, brow furrowed in contemplation.
He looks up to see SJ appear in the doorway to the stairwell, looking pink-cheeked and breathless. He’s grinning widely and runs across the roof, skidding to a stop and slumping over Steve’s back, barely enough weight for him to even notice. His cheek presses against the back of Steve’s neck and his arms dangle over his shoulders, hands in mid-air. Steve’s expression turns exasperated and Seven hides a smile, looking down at the quarter he’s turning over between his fingers.
“Don’t mind me,” Steve says pointedly, and reaches up to gently take hold of one small hand. “Gosh, you’re cold,” Steve comments, concerned by how SJ feels even colder than he usually does, fingers icy against his skin. “Where have you been?”
“Outside by the river with Hudson,” SJ says, and clasps his hands together for Steve to wrap in one warm palm. His arms are skinny and tight around Steve’s neck, and it’s odd how reassuring it is despite the chill. “I was going to ask you to come but you weren't there this morning, and Stephanie said to leave you alone for a couple hours so I went and found Park and we all went to the river. Sticky went in and Hudson pulled him back out again.”
“Well you know better than to mess about by the river when he’s there,” Shield says, and frowns at SJ where he’s lounging over Steve. “Come on, give him some space.”
“He’s alright,” Steve says absently, and SJ’s arms bend, folding around his neck so he’s stopped lounging and moved onto something closer to hugging. “Seven, what're you playing?”
Seven hums, fingers flicking at the edge of his cards, but before he can reply there’s a shout from somewhere down the street, distant but loud enough to be easily discernable. A moment and another shout, and then another, urgent voices carrying in the still air.
“Wait,” Shield says, tense, and Steve looks up at him, squinting in the light. SJ shifts against his back and Steve reaches up and holds onto SJ’s skinny forearms where they’re resting over his collarbones. Shield steps up to the edge of the roof, scanning the street, and Seven clambers to his feet and stands next to him, shoulder to shoulder.
“What is it?” Steve asks. No-one answers him; they just stand there watching and waiting, and the shouting has stopped. It feels as if everything has stopped, a moment of stillness and tension as if the world has taken a deep breath in and is holding it. Steve holds his own breath in his chest, hyper aware of his thudding pulse and SJ’s arms tight around his neck.
The moment draws out and out and a horrible sense of foreboding curls tight in his gut-
“DIRECTOR AND COMPANY ON TWENTY FOUR!”
The bellow comes from street level and the moment shatters. Brooklyn scrambles to his feet and Shield curses violently and Seven dashes for the stairs.
“Seven, wait!” Shield shouts, and then turns to Steve. “Get out of here. Take SJ and go, downstairs and out, back towards the river-”
“What? No,” Steve begins. He makes to stand up but SJ won’t let go, his arms have locked around Steve’s neck in fright. Steve reaches around and grabs him, pulling him round and hefting him up, standing up with SJ on his hip, still clinging tightly to him. His eyes are huge and petrified and Steve feels a horrible twist in his chest, because who is this man who has managed to make everyone react so violently-?
“Shield, come on,” Seven shouts urgently, impatiently. “Where’s Eight, have you seen him this morning?”
“Brooklyn, go with Steve and SJ,” Shield commands, and Brooklyn nods curtly and heads for the stairs. Shield reaches out for Steve, making to push him towards the stairs.
“What is going on?” Steve demands. “Someone-”
“Go!” Shield shouts over him. “He’s probably here for you, you need to-”
“SHIELD!” a voice from the stairwell yells, echoing. Moments later and Violet appears at the door, jaw set and expression grim. “Shield, the Director’s on twenty-four,” he says. “Six-One-Eight is with him.”
“Damn it to hell,” Shield snarls. “Steve, trust me. Take SJ and go.”
“Steve,” SJ whispers, voice trembling, and Steve tightens his hold on him fractionally.
More shouts come from street level and Steve forces his feet to move. He swiftly follows Brooklyn to the stairwell, one arm hooked under SJ’s legs to keep him up. Seven grabs his shoulder and hustles him through the doorway, but then the sound of a gunshot tears through the air, too loud and too close, and Steve stills instinctively, ducking down and twisting around towards the direction the sound came from. There’s a distant crash and more yelling, dull scrapes and thuds and the sound of a shattering window-
“Change of plan,” Seven says tersely. “Stay here.”
He pushes past Steve and he and Violet both storm back down the stairs. Oh, god, Steve feels so totally out of his depth and lost and he should be the one organising everyone and acting, not standing useless and incompetent and completely vulnerable. Shit, if there’s a fight happening – and the noises he can hear sound like the worst kind of fight – and he gets hurt, could he die? Is his life tied to his presence here or back home-?
“Get back,” Shield says, and pulls Steve back away from the stairwell. He runs over to the edge of the building and swears again.
“Steve,” SJ whispers again and Steve reaches up instinctively, holding SJ’s head to him, tucking him safely under his chin.
“I’ve got you,” he says. “You’re okay.”
Another shot rings out and there’s a cry of pain, and now it sounds like the fight is happening in the apartment beneath their feet. Shield turns from the edge of the building and strides over to Steve, pulling him away from the stairwell.
“Get down,” he instructs, but Steve is not going to sit through a fight cowering on the floor. His heart is hammering in his chest, and the noise on the stairwell is louder; shouting and dull thuds and scuffles. It’s getting closer and closer, and Steve braces himself as he hears footsteps pounding on the stairs, but it’s Seven who appears again, breathing heavily.
“He’s in,” he says, shaking his head. “I don’t know how he got the jump on us, no-one saw him coming…” he breaks off, takes a breath. “There’s four of them, and Six-One-Eight is on the way, I’m gonna-”
“No you’re not,” Shield says tersely. “Where the hell is-”
“Like hell I'm not,” Seven snaps, eyes flashing with anger. “I’m not gonna let him-”
“This is not about Six-One-Eight,” Shield says emphatically. “If he starts anything, end it, but do not go looking for him."
“Who is Six-One-Eight?” Steve demands. “Will someone tell me what the hell is going on, dammit!”
“Looks like you, covered in blood, complete maniac,” Shield says. “Don’t worry about him, worry about-”
His cuts off as heavy bootfalls sound on the stairs. They all whip around, and then a new version of him appears in the doorway.
The stranger is wearing black SHIELD gear from head to toe. There’s no star on this uniform though, and it’s conspicuous in its absence. The only clue is a small SHIELD insignia on his left breast, with five small silver stars underneath it. The straps of a double weapons holster are easily and obviously visible looping over his shoulders and under his arms, and Steve’s stomach drops as he spots a gun in each, tucked in securely against the stranger’s sides. There’s another holster around his thigh as well, as Steve spots a twin pair of knives stashed away, ready to be pulled out in the blink of an eye. Despite the gear giving off a palpable and unmistakable threat of violence, it’s the stranger’s expression and stance that is setting Steve on edge. He looks calm, but there’s a slight and disconcerting hint of cruelty in the set of his mouth, the lines of his shoulders. His eyes are bright and dangerous and he’s looking straight at Steve.
“You,” he says, and his tone of voice is commanding with an edge that Steve has never heard from himself or any of the others before. “You’re the one that’s alive.”
Seven and Shield both step forwards in front of Steve. He can still hear raised voices on the stairwell, the argument ongoing and moving closer.
“Yeah,” Steve says warily, not seeing that he can gain anything from denying it. “Problem?”
The other Steve smiles at that, easy and open and trustworthy to anyone who wouldn’t know better. “No. I’m just interested. Thought we could have a chat.”
“I guess you’re the Director,” Steve says, and the smile gets fractionally wider.
“You guessed right,” he says, and then turns away from them as another new Steve appears in the doorway, panting and holding onto his side. This must be Six-One-Eight; he’s wearing an identical suit to Steve’s and is the most battered and bloody version Steve has seen yet. It’s not the blood that’s bothering Steve this time though, it’s the absolutely foul look on his face, ugly and bitter. In front of Steve, Seven makes a move towards the newcomer, hands balling into fists and fury stealing over his features.
“Seven, don’t!” Shield barks, and grabs hold of him and hauls him back. Steve moves without thinking, grabbing his other arm with his free hand, inadvertently jolting SJ as he does.
The Director halts Six-One-Eight Steve with a hand on his shoulder, though it’s the warning glance he sends his way that keeps him in place, not the touch. “Don’t,” he instructs. “We’re not here for that.”
Steve feels his feet skitter across the gravel as Seven tries to wrench free from their restraining grip. SJ cries out and he hears Shield grunt with exertion but they succeed in keeping Seven from launching himself at the other Steve. Shield gets a better grip on him and hauls him back violently, and Steve lets him go to hold onto SJ more securely.
“Take your attack dog and get him out of here,” Seven says, and Six-One-Eight laughs, the sound twisted and bitter.
“Attack dog? Look at yourself,” he says, and there’s something not right in the way he speaks, something loose and bent out of shape. His eyes dart over Steve and then back to Seven, and Steve is still shocked at the sheer contempt in the gaze.
“We’re not here for you two to fight,” the Director says, sounding impatient, and then turns towards Steve again, interested and contemplative. “I’m here for him. What are we calling you?”
“I’m still Steve Rogers,” Steve says, and he wants to step up in-between Seven and Shield, but he can’t, not with SJ in his arms. “Don’t need a nickname.”
The Directors mouth twists, still almost smiling. “Of course,” he says easily. “You’re special, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, I reckon I am,” Steve replies.
“Word is that Tony Stark killed you,” Six-One-Eight calls out. His eyes lock on Steve’s and there’s something manic there, unsettling. Seven makes another violent move, wrestling against Shield’s hands. Six-One-Eight notices and starts to laugh.
“Still hurts, doesn’t it? Hearing about your husband and killing in the same sentence?”
“Fuck you,” Seven snaps back, the profanity raw and jarring.
“How many universes has he killed people in?” Six-One-Eight demands, taking a step forwards. “Hundreds?”
“You can’t justify what you did to him!” Seven roars back, and oh god, this is all coming down to Tony again, but this isn’t just sex and marriage, this is oceans of torn up emotions, people left broken beyond repair.
“He started it,” Six-One-Eight spits. “He started the war. Not me-”
“Shut up,” the Director snaps over them, smile completely gone. “You’re wasting time and I’m not in the mood.” His eyes lock on Steve’s again, and he jerks his head towards the stairs. “Put the kid down and come with me.”
Steve debates it for a moment. He considers passing SJ over to someone else and standing his ground against the Director, because this is his fight and he didn’t become Captain America to back away from his own damn battles.
The Director makes an impatient noise in the back of his throat, obviously unused to being kept waiting. “I will prise him out of your hands if I have to.”
Steve stiffens at the threat, and the urge to put SJ down grows, because he wants nothing more than to go over and take the guy out, but then SJ’s breathes in sharply against his neck, obviously trying valiantly to not cry.
Steve abruptly changes his mind.
SJ has chosen to cling to him and that means he’s the one who’s got to protect him from whatever this is. Suddenly, he’s seeing the whole situation differently; the whole point of Captain America isn’t to fight battles, it’s to protect people. The battles are a secondary issue, they’re not the cause but the effect; the battles he fights are just a result of the main goal, to protect everyone he can. It doesn’t even matter that SJ is already dead and possibly not even real; the terror on his small face certainly looks and feels real enough to Steve, and as long as it does it matters.
He hitches SJ up again, not because he needs to but because he wants to prove a point. He sets his jaw and lifts his chin defiantly, looking the Director in the eye.
“Not a chance."
Distantly, there’s a bang and it sounds like a door being busted open. Six-One-Eight turns his head but the Director doesn’t so much as blink.
“You’re alive. I want to know how you did it,” the Director says bluntly, and folds his arms across his chest. “Come with me, and this can be easy. I don’t have to hurt you.”
“Go away,” SJ suddenly shouts, lifting his head from Steve’s shoulder, his voice trembling but loud. “Leave him alone!”
The Director raises an eyebrow, looking very much like he’d throw SJ off the room if he had the opportunity, and Steve feels a chill go down his spine. Beneath them they can hear banging and thudding, and Six-One-Eight takes a step forwards.
“It won’t hold them for long,” he says.
“No,” the Director says, and his eyes narrow marginally, calculating. “Probably not.”
In one swift movement, he unfolds his arms, unholsters a gun and shoots Shield in the shoulder. Shield lets out a strangled yell and hits the floor hard, and then the Director grabs Six-One-Eight and shoves him towards Seven. Without Shield to hold him back, Seven launches himself at Six-One-Eight, blind rage etched into his features.
“Steve, run!” Shield bellows, scrambling to his feet with a hand clamped to his shoulder. This time, Steve doesn’t have to even think; it’s three against two but he’s got SJ to think about, and he’ll die properly before he lets anything happen to him-
It all happens so fast; Seven and Six-One-Eight are fighting by the stairwell, seemingly determined to end the other at all costs, and the Director raises the gun to point it at Steve but before he can shoot Shield is there, lunging at the Director and shoving his wrist high. The gun goes off above their heads and SJ cries out, and Steve looks about for an exit as the Director is distracted-
There. A fire escape. He surges into motion, running across the roof and heading for the wrought iron bars he can see. “Hold on tight,” he says to SJ, keeping on hand on his head and the other tucked under his legs. “Don’t look.”
There’s a crash and a cry, and then a hand grabs the back of Steve’s uniform and yanks him viciously backwards. SJ screams and Steve swings around on instinct, letting go of SJ’s head to punch his assailant straight in the mouth. The Director staggers back, the gun flying from his hand, and Steve has a wild moment of satisfaction because the bastard hadn’t been expecting that, now had he? Steve kicks the gun away, sending it skittering across the rooftop out of the Director’s reach.
The Director straightens up, spitting out blood, eyes glittering with fury.
“Why should you live when the rest of us don’t?” he snarls, and he swings at Steve, catching him with a vicious uppercut. Steve staggers back, and SJ is screaming and he’s falling; he hits the concrete on his back, barely throwing out a hand in time to break his fall, and SJ’s head smacks painfully against his jaw.
“This is exactly your problem,” the Director says, standing over them. “You’re so concerned with protecting that you forget we were built to fight.”
Steve struggles to his knees, body screaming out in pain. He looks up to see the Director right in front of him, and then Shield sprinting away from Seven and Six-One-Eight, signalling with his hand as he comes towards them. The navy of his uniform looks black where it’s covered in blood, and his face is pale but the expression on it is determined and also pushing scared, eyes locked on SJ-
Steve’s heart is pounding in his chest, adrenaline coursing through him. “Trust me?” he asks SJ, voice low, not taking his eyes from the Director
“Yes,” SJ replies, and Steve doesn’t hesitate. He stands up swiftly and pulls SJ away from him, grabbing him under his arms and hefting him through the air, over the head of the Director. SJ lets out a strangled yell but Shield is there perfectly in time, reaching out and grabbing SJ roughly out of the air, grunting in pain, presumably because of the bullet wound. He turns with the momentum of the catch, spinning on his heel and running towards the stairwell, SJ clinging to his side.
“Nicely done,” the Director concedes, right before he steps forwards and kicks Steve in the stomach. Steve staggers back and hears SJ screaming in the background. There’s the bang of a door and SJ’s voice is muffled and echoing as Shield carries him down the stairwell, and Seven and Six-One-Eight are still fighting-
The Director kicks out at Steve again and Steve grabs his ankle and twists, but the Director knows the move and turns with it, dropping down and rolling over on his shoulder, moving into a crouch and swiping his leg around, kicking the back of Steve’s legs hard and sending him crashing to the floor. Steve rolls back as the Director lunges at him, bringing a knee up to catch him in the chest and then shoving him sideways onto his back.
The Director twists around and his hand goes for the remaining gun strapped in at his side; Steve lashes out and punches him hard enough to send him staggering back. He lunges after him to grab the gun, yanking it free from the holster. He tightens his hold on it but instantly realises it’s been modified to withstand the Director’s grip and the case doesn’t so much as bend, so he opts for hurling it well out of reach off the edge of the roof.
“Don’t need a gun to take you out,” the Director pants.
Steve cocks his head, bracing himself and raising his fists. “Yeah, I can see you’re doing swell so far. I’m clearly nearly beat.”
Face twisting in fury, the Director swings at him again. Steve dodges the first hit but not the second; another dizzying uppercut to the jaw that leaves him reeling for a moment, the memory of the robot doing exactly the same just before he was stabbed searing into the forefront of his mind. He swings for another punch but the Director grabs his wrist and hauls him over, flipping him onto his back so their positions are reversed, and Steve wishes violently for his shield-
There’s a distant crash and Steve manages to look up just in time to see Stephanie and the Commander burst onto the roof. The Commander grabs Six-One-Eight and helps Seven tackle him to the ground, and Stephanie bolts over to Steve and before the Director can even look up, she jumps over and kicks him hard in the side, sending him sprawling across the gravel. Panting, Steve gets to his feet and joins the fray; it’s nasty and messy and Steve feels like he’s in a goddamn bar brawl, but between him and Stephanie they wrestle the Director to the ground. Steve has his arms around the Directors neck and Stephanie has his wrists twisted up behind his back, and then Violet is there and holding his shoulders down. Breathing harshly, Steve looks up to see Dresden and Seven hustling Six-One-Eight through the doorway, hands now bound behind his back.
The Commander walks over very deliberately, a gun in his bare hand. He cocks it and points it straight between the Director’s eyes, so close that the barrel is almost brushing his skin.
“Won’t do any good,” the Director pants.
“It’ll make us feel better,” the Commander growls. “And it’ll hurt. A lot. Take you a few weeks to bounce back again.”
“If he cooperates-” the Director begins.
“Nuh-uh,” the Commander says. “Not going to happen. Now, are you going to leave, or do I get to shoot you?”
The Director sends him a dirty look. “You wouldn’t dare.”
“I would,” the Commander replies evenly. “I’m not like you, I don’t shoot people for the hell of it. But I do shoot people when they deserve it.”
“Save it,” the Director replies. “Don’t you ever get bored of working out who deserves what?”
“No,” the Commander replies, and then he swiftly raises his arm and backhands the Director with the butt of the gun, hitting him on the temple and knocking him out cold.
“Steph, Violet,” he says. “Take him back where he came from.”
They both nod and Steve lets go of the Director, allowing Stephanie and Violet to haul him away. He breathes out, watching him go, shaking from head to toe and not able to do anything about it. It’s half adrenaline, he knows, and half shock. He watches the limp body being dragged across the gravel, unable to process that in another life, he could have turned out like that, he could have been as cruel and calculating, putting strategy and the mission above the lives and the safety of the people around him.
The Commander is issuing directions, walking away towards the stairwell after the others, but Steve isn’t listening. He wants to get out of here, he wants to go home-
Steve looks around in time to see SJ appear at the top of the stairwell, darting under the Commanders arm and barrelling across the floor towards him, flinging himself at Steve the moment he’s close enough. Dizzy with relief, Steve grabs him and holds him tight, one arm around his waist and the other on the back of his head.
“Shush, I’m alright,” he says, and he can feel SJ’s shoulders jerking as he gulps in air and tries not to cry.
“He knew he could hurt you, and he still did it,” SJ manages to say, voice trembling and hitching. His skinny arms cling around Steve’s neck like he never wants to let go, and Steve wishes with all his heart that he could do something, could send SJ back to his universe alive and whole.
“I know, I know,” Steve says shakily. “I’m alright.”
It’s a lie, and the other Steves know it. He can only hope that SJ is young and naive enough to not pick up on it. He’s just witnessed himself viciously attacking other people with no hesitation or remorse, of course he’s not alright. He’s sickened and absolutely terrified, and he has no idea what happened in those other universes for him to turn out like the Director has, like Six-One-Eight has-
“God, that was a hell of a fight,” a voice says grimly, and Steve looks up past SJ to see Shield pacing towards him, a hand still clamped to his shoulder. He comes up close and then sinks to the floor with a groan of relief, face flickering in pain. Someone else steps up behind him and nudges him with his knee; Shield nods gratefully and leans back against their legs, and Steve glances up to see it’s the Commander. He hears more footsteps crunching across the gravel towards them and then Dresden is also there, sitting down next to Shield and nodding at him; Brooklyn appears and crouches down beside Steve, clapping a reassuring hand onto his shoulder.
“Hey, don’t look like that. We’re not all bad,” Brooklyn says, and Shield snorts with tired laughter.
Steve looks around at the familiar faces, and feels some of the worry and panic bleed away as he realises that Brooklyn is right. There’s a whole bunch of Steve Rogers here with him, good versions of him, no matter what they did or who they ended up with. Shield nods at him and Dresden offers him a small crooked smile, and the sense of solidarity is a heady relief, a balm on his ragged emotions.
“Yeah,” he says, smiling weakly even though he’s battered and bruised and exhausted, and the expression is matched on the faces around him. “Guess we’re not.”
Tony stares down at the newest EEG results on the tablet in front of him. Shakes his head because there’s still nothing but straight lines, still no discernable activity from Steve’s brain. By all medical opinions, he’s still technically dead.
Dropping the tablet, Tony reaches out and takes Steve’s hand in both of his own, turning it over and slipping the fingers of one hand up to his wrist. He can feel the steady tic of Steve’s pulse under his fingertips, and it just doesn’t make sense.
“Trust you to still continue to defy medical science,” Tony mutters. He’s infuriated by the situation; the fact he doesn’t understand it is almost too much for him to handle. He’s one of the smartest guys on the damn planet and being unable to work it out is more of a wound to his pride than he’ll ever admit out loud. He feels raw like sandpaper; constant pain, fear and uncertainty no longer piercing like knives but constantly scraping away at his insides. He's drowning with the burdens he's carrying, being slowly crushed by the need to have Steve back.
He lets go of Steve’s hand and gently reaches up towards Steve’s face. So, so gently he eases Steve’s eyelid back with his thumb, watches the pupil contract in the light before letting go. He slumps back into the chair, wrapping both hands back around Steve’s wrist, fingertips pressing against his pulse point again.
It makes no fucking sense and Tony wants to scream.
Throat tight, he breathes out shakily, and he knows there’s no point in saying it out loud but he does anyway, his question hanging heavily and unanswered between them.
“Where the hell have you gone, Cap?”
“What’re you doing?”
Steve smiles weakly at the sound of SJ’s sleepy yet curious voice. He lifts his head away from the back of the couch and looks down at SJ who is curled up on his side on the worn cushions, his head on Steve’s thigh and his eyes fixed on Steve’s fingers where they rest on the inside of his wrist, against his pulse-point.
“Just checking,” Steve replies, and SJ reaches out as well, pressing a finger in-between Steve’s, cool against his skin.
“Two,” Steve says, showing him, gently moving his hand into place, holding SJ’s fingers still so he can feel his pulse.
“I could just do this,” SJ says, pulling his hand away and sitting up, climbing into Steve’s lap and leaning against his chest with his ear resting over his heart.
“Or you could just do that,” Steve agrees, wincing slightly and shifting SJ so he doesn’t have a bony elbow sticking into his solar plexus.
SJ is quiet for a few long moments. He looks sleepy, despite having spent the last hour and a bit napping. “Is the Director going to come back?”
Steve hesitates. He absent-mindedly reaches up and smooths a hand over SJ’s head, pushing his soft blond hair away from his forehead. Normally, SJ would object to the ruffling – and Steve has plenty of memories of objecting when Bucky did the same to him when they were younger – but he just breathes out heavily and rubs his cheek against the fabric of Steve’s uniform.
“Don’t know,” Steve finally admits, not wanting to lie. He knows that the others have gone out to check that the Director and his crew are back across the river in the area that they normally haunt, but he’s not going to relax until they get back with a positive report.
“If I grew up I’d be like you and not that,” SJ yawns, and the simple sentence feels like a punch to Steve’s sternum. His throat goes alarmingly tight and he’s momentarily lost for words. God, there’s no doubt about what’s the right thing to do as both Steve Rogers and Captain America when it’s phrased like that. Well, ‘truth comes from the mouths of babes’ was what his Mom always used to say; at the time Steve had been nothing but suspicious of the phrase, because his Mom had clearly never listened to the tall tales that Eugene Jackson used to tell, but now it all slots into place and he finds a new and startling clarity about what she had meant.
“Good to know,” he finally opts for saying.
“Well, you or Shield,” SJ says. “Maybe Shield because he never got beat up by a robot.”
A laugh tumbles from Steve’s mouth, catching him by surprise. “Gee, thanks,” he says ruefully, and SJ grins up at him, looking pleased with himself.
Steve’s sharp ears catch the sound of approaching footsteps on the stairs; evidently the others have returned from their sweep of the area. He’s glad; now he’s over the initial shock of meeting the Director he’s got so many questions to ask. Some of the answers aren’t going to be easy to hear, but he wants to know. If he’s going to continue to be the good man he needs to be in order to live up to the role of Captain America, he needs to know.
“Come on then, move off,” he says to SJ, planting his fists into the cushions in order to push himself up-
“Nu-uh.” SJ instantly wraps both his arms around one of Steve’s, burrowing into his armpit and not shifting off his knee. Steve debates just picking him up and moving him, but he doesn’t have the heart, so he just stays where he is and looks expectantly towards the door.
Within seconds, Seven and Shield walk into the room, looking tired but not stressed or worried. Shield looks as serious as ever, back to business as if he’d not been shot only a few hours previously. Seven has got the remnants of a black eye but is otherwise looking fine.
“All clear?” Steve asks.
“All clear,” Shield says with a nod, and sits down heavily next to Steve, his hand moving up to press carefully against the wound on his shoulder. SJ wriggles his feet into Shield’s lap and his mouth flickers in a small smile as he lays a palm on SJ’s ankle. “Winter says they’re all the way up to where the 8th street bridge on the Passaic River should be, still heading north west. It’ll take him hours to get back here even if he decides to turn around and come back now.”
“What happened to him?”
Steve’s question hangs in the air, heavy and tense. Seven shifts around to sit on the floor opposite them, legs kicked out in front and weight wresting back on his hands. It’s hard for them all, Steve knows that, but they can’t avoid the issue. Maybe there’s something about the Director which he can learn; the key to him avoiding war in his own world and getting home.
“Someone needs to tell me,” Steve says when no-one answers, voice low and serious. SJ is very still, his eyes on Shield and clearly listening in.
Shield breathes out through his nose, slow and deliberate. “We don’t know,” he finally admits.
“What do you know?” Steve asks.
Shield and Seven exchange an unhappy glance. “As far as we can tell…he’s always been that way,” Shield tells him, his mouth a sorrowful twist. “He went through Project Rebirth, joined the army, went to war.”
“Did he – was he frozen, like us? Did he crash the plane?”
There’s another weighty pause, and then it’s Seven who speaks. “Yes,” he says. “But it was different. We think he murdered Erksine to make sure he would be the only super-solider, then founded Shield with Peggy and Howard before the end of the war. He was the heart of Shield, and when he woke up after being frozen he took it for himself. No-one questioned it.”
Steve’s mouth is dry, his stomach churning unpleasantly. “He murdered-”
He can’t even finish the sentence.
“We don’t know why,” Shield repeats bitterly. “But it looks that way.”
Steve shakes his head. No, that’s not right, he would never. He looks up as SJ shifts in his arms, leaning forwards and pressing fingertips to the back of the hand Shield has resting over the bullet wound. Shield nods, reaching out to ruffle SJ’s hair, and SJ smile is wobbly but true as he pulls his hand back.
“Why didn’t anyone stop him?” he asks, and his mind immediately goes to the one person who always calls him on his attitude when he gets stubborn, when he pushes too far with the team. “What about – what about Tony?”
Shield’s smile is depreciating and crooked. “In his universe, Tony Stark died in Afghanistan. He never knew him. No Iron Man, no Avengers.”
Steve shuts his eyes tightly, breathing out and feeling his throat constrict. He doesn’t need to know anymore. He doesn’t want to know anymore.
“And the other guy,” he manages to say, doing his utmost to keep his voice level. “Six-One-Eight.”
Shield’s face falls and he looks over towards Seven. Seven’s posture has gone completely rigid, his jaw set tightly. “He definitely wasn’t always like that. He - he killed Tony Stark during their Civil War,” he says abruptly, face twisting in anger. “The grief, the guilt over what he did…he couldn’t handle it.”
Steve feels like he could throw up. He opens his eyes, begging, pleading them to be wrong. “No,” he says, denial thick in his veins. “No, I would never-”
“It was war,” Shield says quietly. “We all know what war does to men. Even good men. Tony pushed and pushed and pushed, and he just…”
He trails off unhappily.
“That’s not an excuse,” Steve says tightly, and he needs to get home now, to check Tony is alive and well, to hang onto him for dear life and promise him that he’ll always have his back, do anything he can to make sure they never get to that point. “Christ, this is ridiculous – how can the relationship between two people, two people out of billions, have any impact on the way the world turns?"
“We don’t know, but it does,” Shield says abruptly, looking at Steve and frowning. “You think you and Tony – you think that that’s what you’ve gotta learn? That you have to be with Tony?”
“No,” Steve insists, shaking his head. “No I – I don’t know. I didn’t end up with him in every universe, did I? As long as we stay friends, as long as we don’t…”
He breathes out heavily, fingers clenching into a fist. He doesn’t want Tony like that, Tony doesn’t want him like that; all he needs is-
“It’s about having someone to keep us both in line, to remind us who we are, what we are.”
He knows it’s true the moment he says it. He blinks and looks from Seven to Shield, who are both completely focussed on what he has to say, expressions intense. “It’s – if we don’t communicate, we get so bent out of shape that we get out of line, we manage to create opposite sides in a damn war,” he says, and now he’s almost talking to himself, thinking hard. “When we do communicate-”
“We keep each other from missing the point,” Seven finishes for him.
Steve nods, mind turning over a thousand times a minute. “Tony needs – Tony needs someone to share with. Otherwise he takes it all on his own shoulders, he makes decisions and doesn’t tell us because he feels it’s all on him-”
“And sometimes they’re bad decisions, and he can’t see it,” Seven says quietly, and that’s it, and all the pieces are falling into place in Steve’s mind, effortless and quick.
“Okay, so he needs us to rely on, what do we need?” Shield asks. “What do we need from Tony?”
“It’s not always Tony,” Steve says, and he shifts SJ from his knee onto the sofa, gets up and paces the length of the couch, hands behind his head. SJ doesn’t object this time, just sits back and watches him with wide eyes, muffling a cough into the crook of his elbow. “Sometimes it’s Bucky, or other people.”
“Yes, but the universes that avoided the war, they’re the ones where you’re with Tony-”
“Not with him,” Steve corrects. “Where we had a good relationship. Whatever that relationship was. Husbands, lovers, friends, it doesn’t matter, as long as it worked.”
“Okay,” Shield concedes. “The question still stands, why Tony?”
Steve stops pacing. He stares out the window at the clear blue sky, the light warm on his face. His hands fall to his sides. “The fight with the Director,” Steve says distantly, still staring out of the window. “Earlier, I could have-”
He stops, turns around, looking at the others. “I could have put SJ down and jumped into that fight,” he admits. “But what would be the point? What was I fighting for? Fighting to beat the Director, or fighting to protect SJ and the others?”
Shield looks agitated, troubled. “But why Tony?”
“Because when we’re honest with Tony he’s the one that reminds us what we’re fighting for,” Seven says, and his voice is raw and trembling. “God, some days he was the only one that kept my head on straight. He was the only one who I would be honest with, the only one who would call me on my crap when I needed someone to, and I loved him so I let him. I listened to him.”
And that’s it. The final piece of the puzzle slotting into place, and that’s why Steve needs Tony, to remind him of who he’s supposed to be, to remind him to be a good man-
Steve’s words are cut off, wrenched from his throat in a strangled gasp as a piercing pain slices through his chest, starting somewhere under his sternum and spreading through his ribcage.
He tries to breathe in but the pain surges through him again. Gasping, he presses a palm to his chest, right over the star. Oh god, it’s not letting up; every time the pain recedes slightly it surges back even stronger, and his whole ribcage feels like it’s on fire, his pulse thudding violently in his ears.
He sinks to his knees on the floorboards, and he’s vaguely aware of SJ scrambling off the sofa and towards him, of Shield shouting urgently, grabbing his shoulder and shaking him, a hand on his cheek and trying to force his face up. His vision is going blurry at the edges and he feels himself slipping sideways, his shoulder hitting the floor, hard and painful.
Strong hands rolls him over onto his back and the last thing he sees is SJ’s panicked face above his own, and then everything goes black.
And Steve moves.
The barest flicker of an eyelid, but Tony feels like he has stopped breathing, his own eyes locked on Steve’s. He continues to hold his breath, willing Steve to do it again.
“Come on, you bastard,” Tony breathes, and he hears someone shift behind him, possibly Bruce or Clint. “Come on.”
And Steve makes a sound, a rough catch of air in the back of his throat and his eyelids are flickering again, the faintest hint of blue under groggy lids, and now his fingers are twitching before everything goes still again.
“Come on, Steve,” Tony repeats, and he reaches forwards and holds Steve’s head in his hands, not giving a damn about everyone else in the room. He leans over the bed, palms on Steve’s jaw and thumbs roughly stroking his cheekbones. One hand darts distractedly upwards, fingers combing through blond hair, pushing it back away from Steve’s face.
Another rough noise, almost a cough, and then Steve’s eyes open, heavy and bleary and not altogether there. He coughs again and his hand moves, lifting unsteadily from the blankets before falling back again. He blinks slowly and Tony feels a horrible panic that the eyes won’t open again, but they do. His brow creases in a frown and then his eyes open more fully, focussing hazily on Tony’s face.
“You absolute fucker,” Tony chokes out, half-laughing, his thumbs stroking against Steve’s cheeks, throat tight and eyes too warm. He leans back, letting go of Steve’s face and instead grabbing his hand where it’s trying to lift from the blankets again. “Yeah, yeah, we got you.”
He reaches for the controls for the bed and hits the button which will lift the upper half of the mattress, sitting Steve up. He can’t stop touching him, hands on his shoulders and arms as he helps him sit comfortably, pulling the blankets straight and brushing Steve’s hair out of his face. The doctor is crowding the other side of the bed, checking vitals and holding up a penlight.
“Captain, can you hear us?” the doctor asks, carefully leaning over and lifting Steve’s eyelids, checking his pupils with a penlight. “All responsive. Captain, can you hear me?”
Steve’s brow furrows and he clumsily lifts his free hand and knocks the doctors hand and the light away. “Quit it,” he slurs, and somewhere behind them Clint starts to laugh. Tony’s laughing too, laughing so hard he has to fall back into the chair next to the bed, still clutching at Steve’s hand, holding it in both of his own and pressing it to his mouth. The doctor simply smiles ruefully and steps back, nodding in apparent satisfaction.
“‘M I alive?” Steve slurs, blinking hard, head lolling forwards. Tony catches him with a hand on his cheek, pushing his head back up and against the pillows.
“Yeah, yeah you are,” Tony says, and he feels Natasha’s hand on his shoulder, squeezing tightly. He reaches back with his free hand and grasps her fingers, covering her hand with his own.
Steve breathes out heavily through his nose, eyes drifting shut again. He swallows thickly, coughs again, and Clint is instantly there with a glass of water.
“Slowly,” Bruce says, and Clint slips a hand onto the back of Steve’s head and presses the glass to Steve’s lips. Steve’s eyelids flutter and he leans forwards slightly, enough to drink a couple of sips of water before falling back. He swallows again, throat clicking, and then his brow furrows, distressed.
“Tony,” he croaks, and forces his eyes open. “Tony-”
“Yeah,” Tony says, and his stomach tightens into a knot as blurry blue eyes meet his own. He feels Steve’s hand tighten on his, almost painfully despite how weak Steve clearly is.
“You – you’re okay,” Steve manages to get out and Tony is utterly thrown by the panic is Steve’s eyes, clear to see even through the haze and the sluggishness. It was Steve who was stabbed because Tony wasn’t there quick enough, why the hell is he concerned that Tony isn’t okay?
“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine,” Tony says, shifting so he sits on the bed, next to Steve’s hip. Steve’s free hand pushes the water and Clint’s hand aside and gropes for Tony’s shoulder, fingers curling into the material of his shirt and pulling Tony close with wavering strength.
Not understanding, but not quite able to care, Tony lets himself be pulled. He shifts closer to him, pressing close and winding an arm around Steve’s neck. Steve tips forwards, burying his face in the juncture between Tony’s neck and shoulder, breathing out heavily.
Confused, Tony looks up over Steve’s head at Clint. Clint just shrugs, spreading his hands wide.
“We got you,” Tony murmurs, holding onto Steve’s hand and stroking the other up over the back of his head. “Steve, I got you.”
Steve wakes up again a few hours later, lying on his side and curled into something warm. The something warm is stretched out in front of him, against Steve’s cheek and hips and knees, and it’s moving every now and again, shifting gently next to him-
Abruptly, Steve realises that the thing he’s curled into is Tony.
His first thought it thank god, because Tony is here and safe and Steve knows he’s alive and back in the right dimension. His second is that Tony is warm and comforting and smells nice. His third is to remember that at least thirty versions of him across the multiverse have slept with Tony Stark.
Without even thinking, he jerks back, limbs not quite cooperating up to their usual standard. He feels something tugging at his hand and a constriction around his feet, confusion and mortification warring in his stomach. Oh god, no, he and Tony aren’t-
Luckily, Tony is scrambling up off the bed, swinging onto his feet so he’s not pressed against Steve. He stands close though, hands planted on Steve’s shoulders in a futile attempt to keep him still. Still seized by a minor amount of panic, Steve shoves back at him and then there are more hands pressing him back down with considerably more force than Tony managed.
“Steve, stay still, you’ll tear your IV out,” Tony says, and Steve looks around wildly and realises that first, the tugging sensation is indeed a line that’s in the back of his hand, and second that Thor is there, and he’s the one that’s got him firmly pinned in place.
Somewhere close, he hears Thor’s deep chuckle, and then the pressure on his shoulders lifts and then vanishes. “You are not back to your usual strength yet, in body or in mind. Be still, my friend.”
“Where am I?” he tries to ask, but his voice is rough and hoarse and it feels like his throat is lined with sandpaper. Everything in front of him swims, blackness creeping in at the edge of his vision. Bending his arm up at the elbow, he blindly reaches out, fingers fumbling and uncooperative.
Strong fingers catch his and hold firm, and he grips them tightly, trying to force his eyes open. Oh god, he feels like he did that time he and Bucky drank that horrendous excuse for whiskey on his twenty-first birthday; disorientated and sick and like he could throw up. It’s something he’s not felt for years, not since he became Captain America.
Groggily realising that maybe he should sit still, he acquiesces to Tony’s request and stops moving, sinking back down into his pillows. He’s confused, doesn’t like how it seems to be taking ages to latch onto a thought. He tries to swallow, inches his free across hand to take the goddamn IV out the back of the hand being held, because he guesses it’s pumping all sorts of drugs into him, strong enough to make him feel woozy.
“Nuh-uh, not on my watch,” Tony says, and another hand grabs his wrist, pulls his hand away. His fingers are warm and strong on Steve’s wrist but he wants the damn IV out as soon as he can, fingers scraping at the tape that’s holding it in place. “Steve, don’t – there’s no sedatives in it, I swear. Just the usual crap, to get your fluids and electrolytes back in balance, you’re pretty dehydrated.”
Steve’s fingers fall away from the tape and he allows Tony to move his hands apart. The fingers of his left hand push between Steve’s and Steve realises that Tony is now holding both his hands, gripping tightly like he’s scared Steve will vanish. Steve doesn’t blame him in the slightest; he’s pretty worried himself, scared that if he slips back into the darkness that’s still hovering on the edge of his vision then he’ll end up back in the apartment with the rest of the Steves-
Oh god, the others. Steve’s insides all clench and he struggles to get up, panicking again. SJ - where will SJ be? Is he alright? Will he be still with Steve, waiting for him to get up again – hang on, will Steve have vanished from the apartment, or will there still be a body?
Will the rest of them have got home as well? He remembers SJ’s tears when he’d seen Bucky through the mist, and he feels like he’s being torn in two, he can’t bear the thought of not knowing if he’s okay-
“Thor, a little help!”
Steve finds himself once again firmly clamped down by a pair of weighty hands on his shoulders, but this time he’s less willing to play along. He yanks his hands back out of Tony’s grip and tries to shove free, and then there’s a lot of pushing and shoving and there’s abruptly more weight on his shoulders and across his legs and he can’t move a damn thing-
It’s not the sudden weight on his limbs or the way Tony yells at him that stops his struggles; it’s the way his stomach roils and he has to swallow convulsively against wave of nausea. He goes limp and the room goes silent, and when he blearily opens his eyes he realises why he can't move.
Thor has got his shoulders pushed back against the pillows; Tony and Bruce have got an arm each, his elbows shoved tightly into his sides and wrists in the tightest grips the pair can manage; Clint is sprawled across his thighs and Natasha is sitting on his shins and looking at him in such a way that he knows that if he tries to kick her off she will have him by the balls.
“Jesus, Steve,” Tony says fervently, and Clint starts to laugh, his chest shaking against Steve’s thighs. Thor is also chuckling, and then Tony and Bruce and even Natasha are joining in, and Steve is suddenly hit with such a wave of emotion that he could burst into tears. He’s home, god, he’s home with this bunch of idiots and there’s nowhere else he’d rather be. He’s not been left behind again, not lost everyone, they’re all here with him-
“Alright, let him go,” Tony’s voice suddenly says. “Hop to, Romanov, get your beautiful ass off his feet-”
The weight from his feet vanishes and then Clint slides off his thighs as the same time Bruce lets go of his arm. Thor is the last to move; nodding and stepping back, apparently satisfied that Steve isn’t going to make another ill-advised break for it.
Tony, however, doesn’t move away; Steve feels gentle tugs at the back of his hand and watches as Tony untangles his arm from the IV line again, before leaning over to tug the sheets straight. His hands are efficient yet gentle and it makes his stomach twist in a confusing new way, shaky and warm and not altogether comfortable. He still feels strange, like his thoughts are trying to wade through treacle, slow and groggy.
“Someone go find some more chairs,” Tony says, though his eyes don’t leave Steve’s face. “And raid the vending machine. Raid all the vending machines, the poor guy hasn’t eaten in days and he gets cranky when he misses second breakfast. Actually, a thousand bucks to whoever can get a damn pizza here in the shortest amount of time.”
His hands smooth down over Steve’s shoulders, and they’re shaking slightly.
“Don’t-” Steve begins, but he falters, stops. He wants to ask Tony not to go, but everything’s so tangled up and confusing, and he doesn’t even know how to begin looking at Tony anymore, not after what he found out about Seven and Stephanie and Six-One-Eight and hell, every other damn version of himself-
He blinks and Tony is holding out a cup of water. He reaches out with a shaky hand to take it, draining it and realising just how thirsty he is, and Tony takes the empty cup and refills it without question.
Steve drains that one too, and as Tony takes the empty cup he almost feels himself give up. He’s exhausted and sick and emotional and he doesn’t want to second guess or appease the denial that he can feel lurking on his periphery. He just wants to allow himself whatever comfort he can before the fog clears from his mind and he has to start making sense of it all.
The words are hoarse and quiet, and Tony doesn’t so much as flinch. He simply clambers back onto the bed next to Steve and sits up, sliding an arm over his shoulders and pulling Steve around until Steve is resting against his shoulder, head on Tony’s collarbone.
“You think I’m going anywhere ever again, you’ve got another thing coming,” Tony turns his head abruptly and speaks into Steve’s hair, and Steve is confused because that’s not what Tony usually says, he usually makes jokes and tells Steve he can do perfectly well without his star-spangled-ass, and he never sounds so genuine.
He thinks of Stephanie, Seven and the wedding band, and is this what they saw in their Tonys? Tony’s fingers side over his ear and into his hair, the heel of his hand pressing gently against Steve’s cheekbone, thumb stroking against his temple. Steve can hear the others moving around in the room and he should push Tony away because this isn’t how they are in this universe, or maybe Tony is just being so handsy because Steve got hurt and he thinks it’s his fault?
Should he even care?
He lifts his own hand and clumsily wraps his fingers around Tony’s wrist, holding the hand in place. Tony’s fingers stroke through the short hair above his ear and he shudders out a breath, aching for the comfort, the simple touch keeping him grounded and reminding him that he’s okay, he’s still here.
He feels his eyelids drooping, tries to fight it. Tony notices and shushes him, thumb stroking Steve’s cheek.
“Go to sleep, Cap,” he says. “I swear on JARVIS I won’t let you turn into a Capsicle again.”
He hears Clint snigger, hears something that sounds like Natasha smacking him upside the head. He hears footsteps and the scrape of chairs on the floor. The quiet movement around him is so soothing, everything he needs right now to chase away the fear that he’s still going to end up alone once more.
“Where am I?” he asks again, voice still hoarse and painful.
“SHIELD medical. They wouldn’t let me take you back to the tower,” Tony says, and his voice is wavering slightly, just enough for Steve to notice. “And you’re too damn heavy to smuggle out.”
“Have,” Steve tries, coughing roughly in the back of his throat. His fingers tighten on Tony’s wrist.
“For once in your life, stop talking,” Tony says, but there’s no heat to the words, just a soft genuine cadence that Steve rarely hears from Tony, and certainly not ever directed at him.
Steve ignores him, forces the words out.
“Have I been here the whole time?”
There’s a long pause. “Yes,” Tony finally says, dragging the word out and sounding cautious, hesitant. “I told you they wouldn’t let us move you. Why are you asking? They haven’t stolen any super-solider organs to experiment on, if that’s what you’re worried about, Bruce has been checking-”
“No,” Steve says, exhausted and edging swiftly and inexorably back towards sleep. With Tony right next to him and the others nearby, it doesn’t seem as frightening as it should. He feels more fingers slide through his hair, strong yet delicate, mostly definitely Natasha. “I just…I think. I think my mind has been places it shouldn’t have been.”
And sleep is rolling over him like a smothering blanket, pulling him down despite his best efforts to keep his eyes open. He dimly hears someone swear, voices talking urgently and footsteps moving quickly away. They’re mentioning the doctors, saying something about brain scans and checking his frontal lobe activity, and he hears Reed Richard’s name being thrown in there too, and Stephen Strange.
Must have been something I said, he thinks, and then he’s out.
And Tony gets as far as the doorway and then changes his mind and about turns, back towards Steve. He sits on the edge of the bed and takes Steve’s hand in his, clutching it between both of his own and bringing it up to his face
Bruce’s voice is gentle, questioning. Tony shakes his head, screws his eyes shut. His breath is coming too short in his chest and in that moment the relief hits him like a ton of bricks, a punch to the chest.
He’s alive and he’s awake and he’s back, and he’d opened his eyes, still blue and bright even after the past few weeks. He’d managed to speak, voice rough and torn and beautiful as he rasped out Tony’s name of all fucking things-
The door softly clicks shut and Tony draws in a shuddering breath. There are tears on his cheeks, wet and messy, squeezing from beneath his clenched eyelids. He tries to pull himself together, opening bleary eyes and letting go of Steve’s hand to swipe across his face, hoping he hasn’t woken Steve up-
He hasn’t. Steve sleeps on, mouth slightly open and brow slightly furrowed. He looks different, asleep instead of unconscious, and Tony is never going to bitch at him for frowning ever again, because it’s that stubborn frown on his sleeping face that reassures Tony he’s still there, he’s simply asleep and not gone again.
Gulping valiantly, trying to get his breathing steady and back to normal, Tony pulls the sleeve of his shirt over his hand and wipes his face. It doesn’t work; his lungs still catch and spasm and hiccup, and he can’t stop crying, like he’s a hormonal goddamn teenager. He swears roughly, looks up at the ceiling and forces himself still, to show a façade of calm, of control.
A minute later and he’s externally composed. He shuts his eyes for a long moment and looks down at Steve’s sleeping face, glad to find that he can now look at him without breaking down. He pushes the feelings away, because he knows he’s going to have to batten down the emotional hatches to deal with the conversation he can sense lurking in the distance.
The guilt rolls back, thick and familiar underneath the relief.
“Whatever you say to me,” he begins, and takes a steadying breath so he can continue. “However fucking mad you are with me, whatever you say, I’m just – fuck, you will never know how glad I am that you’re back.”
Steve doesn’t answer, but this time it’s okay. Now Tony knows it’s only a matter of time before he wakes back up, and he will be able to hear that rough voice and see the brightness of his eyes, even if the voice is cursing Tony for what he did and the eyes are narrowed in anger.
Whatever form it takes, Tony will take it.
“…then everything went black, and then I woke up, here again.”
Steve finishes his tale – the very abridged version, he has neither the strength nor energy to tell them everything right now – and then looks up from where he’s been fiddling with the IV that’s still in the back of his hand. Tony had batted his hand away once, but then seemed to forget all about it in the wake of what Steve has to stay. The whole room is silent, a pregnant pause as he looks up and tiredly takes in the expressions on his friends’ faces.
“Alright, who gave Captain America acid? Because that sounds like you’ve been tripping balls.”
All faces turn as one to Clint, who is somehow perched on the windowsill, looking somewhere between incredulous and impressed. Steve lets out a sigh through his nose, reaching up to rub between his eyebrows, because whilst he didn’t want to have to convince them all about what happened, he doesn’t blame them for finding it a little hard to wrap their heads around. Frankly, he sounds insane and he knows it.
“That’s what happened,” he says, dropping his hand and eyes flicking to Clint. “Take it or leave it.”
Clint holds his hands up like he’s surrendering. “Oh I’ll take it. That’s fine, I believe you. But I still maintain,” he says, spreading his hands out expressively. “Tripping balls.”
Steve would laugh, if he was in better control of his emotions. He’s still exhausted and so completely blindsided by everything that’s happened; feels grief and frustration and fear lurking far too close to the surface, as if one move or word too many will let it all come rushing free.
“Good to know,” he forces himself to say, looking from Clint to Natasha, who is leaning against the wall next to his perch, looking at Steve carefully. Thor is on Clint’s other side and is probably the only one who seems to have happily accepted Steve’s story without any disbelief or reservations.
“So you were in a facsimile of New York with three hundred and twelve other versions of yourself,” Reed Richards repeats back, looking like Christmas has come early. He’s leaning forwards in his chair, and behind him Natasha’s eyes keep flicking to him like she’s about to make him sit back. Next to Richards, Bruce is also looking intrigued, but his expression is erring on the side of cautious.
“Dead versions,” Clint adds.
Steve shuts his eyes for a moment. “S’what I said,” he says, and there’s hints of Brooklyn creeping into his voice with his exhaustion, and he knows it’s making him sound more irritable. “Yes, dead versions.”
Next to him, on the opposite side of the bed to Richards and Bruce, Tony makes an aborted move like he was about to grab hold of Steve’s hand. He’s not said anything so far, which is unnerving as it is, and he seems completely out of sorts. Only by knowing his face so well can Steve spot the faint red puffiness around his eyes, but his barely restrained agitation and turmoil is probably clear to everyone. He’s twitchy, left leg bouncing on his toes and fingers drumming on his knee, and Steve knows guilt well enough to spot it a mile away.
He half wishes everyone would clear out so he can talk to Tony, because he knows exactly why he’s looking so guilty. The other half of him doesn’t want to be around Tony at all, because since he got back Tony has been nothing but there for him, kind and caring and genuine, and it’s confusing as all hell.
“Besides, it wasn’t a correct copy of New York,” Steve says, willing to continue talking if it stops him thinking about Tony and whatever it is that’s going on between them. “It was different. Buildings out of place, moved, missing. Like it was my New York mixed with other – other peoples.”
“Fascinating,” Richards says. “And the other versions of you – I assume they were different?”
Steve feels the grief and anger under his skin spike, his fist clenching in an automatic response. He remembers the Director pulling the gun and shooting Shield without hesitation, remembers the easy, calm expression on his face when he’d been threatening SJ. He remembers the goddamn look on Six-One-Eight’s face, the cruel taunts aimed at Seven.
“Yeah. Very different,” he says, feeling his temper brewing like a thunderstorm. He breathes out and tries to fight it down; he will not succumb to volatile emotions like some of the others did, will not let them rule him.
“In what way?
Steve’s fingers clench again, remembering the Director standing over him, face calm and unconcerned. ‘This is exactly your problem. You’re so concerned with protecting that you forget we were built to fight.’
“In every way,” Steve says, and he can’t keep the bitterness out of his tone. “Look – I don’t want to talk about them. Not – not yet.”
“What you’re describing is an unprecedented breach of the structure of the multiverse,” Richards says, either oblivious to or ignoring Steve’s discomfiture. “It could have massive implications for travel between dimensions, for-”
“Hey, Stretch Armstrong, he said he doesn’t want to talk about them,” Clint snaps. “He’s been mostly dead for weeks, back off.
There’s a beat of tense silence. Natasha, Thor and Clint all have eyes on Richards, all looking put out and ready to jump in and physically remove him from the room if needs be. Even though any violence is exactly the opposite of what Steve currently wants to see, the sentiment is certainly appreciated. Bruce is looking between Steve and Reed, mouth slightly open. Steve turns his head and something inside him jolts as he sees Tony staring right at him, jaw clenched tightly and eyes now too bright.
Their eyes meet, and Tony looks away. Steve looks away too, not sure what the feeling in the pit of his stomach is. Feels like relief, like guilt, like disappointment all rolled into one. Maybe even regret, he just doesn’t know.
“Can a man be mostly dead? Is this a medical term I have not yet come across?”
Thor’s puzzled voice breaks the silence, and Steve knows him well enough now to know he’s probably playing ignorant for effect but he doesn’t care because it works. Clint chokes on a snigger, and then he’s outright laughing and Bruce is also chuckling tiredly, sitting back in his chair and letting his head fall back. Even Natasha’s mouth flickers in a smile and Steve feels some of the tension leave; he breathes out heavily and slumps back into the pillows, blinking slowly and tiredly.
He doesn’t look across at Tony to see his reaction. Isn’t sure he can take it right now.
“Okay,” Richards says, appearing to concede the point and giving up on asking Steve about the different versions of himself. “So, now the question is, in what state were you there?”
“He got stabbed by a robot, that’s a pretty bad state.”
Richards sends an annoyed glance over at Clint. “That’s not what I mean,” he says. “We need to know if it was hallucinatory, or if there has been some sort of actual interference which moved your consciousness through the multiverse."
“What do you mean by interference?” Bruce.
“Magic,” Tony says, the word automatic and toneless. It’s the first thing he’s said since Steve started talking. His knee has started to bounce again, and Steve fights down the urge to reach over and hold it down.
“Magic,” Richards agrees with a look of distaste on his face.
“But why would someone magically steal Steve’s brain and stick him in some sort of limbo?” Clint demands. “What would be the point?”
Steve opens his mouth fractionally, but then his eyes dart to Tony and he closes it again. Damn. He’s in a room with the cleverest men on the planet and several damn spies, there’s no way that no-one noticed the automatic jerk of his eyes. He feels a flush rising in his neck, because the Tony part of the whole ordeal is the part he left out, and he’s got absolutely no intention of talking about that in front of everyone, least of all Tony.
God, he’s never felt like a coward before. It’s not pleasant.
“Does it matter?” Thor interjects cautiously, voice calm. “Steve has experienced something that was real to him, no matter how or why it happened.”
Steve is immeasurably grateful for the interruption, even though Richards is still wearing an expression which clearly says he’d rather to wire things into Steve’s brain to study him than take anyone’s word for anything.
“Can I just-” Steve begins, and breathes out deeply. “Can I just-”
“Yeah, way to finish a sentence, you’re obviously beat,” Tony suddenly says when Steve tails off. “Come on. Interrogation is over, everyone out.”
Steve knows he must look awful, because no-one argues or protests, not even Richards. They all just nod in acquiescence and leave the room. Natasha takes a step towards the door, but then seems to change her mind, turning back towards Steve. She walks softly over and leans down and kisses his cheek.
“I’m glad you’re back,” she murmurs as she pulls away, eyes on his and openly full of relief.
Steve feels his throat go tight, and he opens his mouth to try and reply, but he can’t. He doesn’t know what to tell her, how he can even express how he feels to be back here with his team again. He takes a deep breath, worried he’s about to cry - and then jerks in surprise as Clint promptly leans in and kisses him as well, pulling back and patting him on the other cheek.
“What?” he says, as Steve looks at him open-mouthed, baffled and amused. “The bro-code has clearly changed, people keep crossing the bro-code lines, I‘m just following suit.”
“The bro-code?” Steve manages, brows knitted in bewilderment.
“Yes, the unwritten code which lets all bros know what is acceptable between friends and what is not,” Clint says, and then he looks right at Tony, clearly and deliberately enough for Steve to notice. “Apparently, it’s changed.”
“Right, quiet time,” Natasha says firmly, and grabs Clint by the elbow, hustling him from the room. Steve can hear him going ‘ow, ow, ow, ow,’ all the way along the corridor, until the door swishes shut again.
Belatedly, he looks over at Tony. Tony is staring at the door, face shuttered and tense.
“I’ll leave you to it,” Tony says abruptly, and stands up. Before he can think about it, Steve reaches for his arm, grabbing his hand.
Tony freezes, turns to look at their hands and then up at Steve’s face, something helpless and vulnerable visible for only a moment. “Cap-”
“I need to talk to you,” Steve says, and it’s the wrong thing to say. Tony’s face shutters again and he pulls his hand free from Steve’s grip.
“Clint’s an ass,” he says shortly. “He’s talking shit.”
Steve files the response away for consideration, because he’s not an idiot, he can work out what Clint was hinting at, that Tony’s behaviour hasn’t been strictly friendly whilst he’s been out for the count. But that’s – that doesn’t mean anything; Tony has been close to him since he woke up and Steve has put it down to guilt and Tony wanting to reassure himself Steve is okay. It’s probably been the same whilst he’s been unconscious.
“That’s not what I want to talk about,” he says, and it’s true. He really doesn’t. “Tony, it wasn’t your fault.”
The words hang there in the air, heavy and serious, impossible to dismiss or gloss over. If Steve thought Tony has shuttered himself off before, it’s nothing compared to now; he looks as if he’s gone into complete lockdown, body still and eyes far too bright. It’s lasts for too long a moment, and only breaks when Steve reaches out, touches the back of Tony’s hand with his fingertips.
Tony draws in a sharp breath through his nose, head jerking around to look. His fingers clench and his face falls, mouth turning down and twisting unhappily.
“Anyone would think you weren’t happy to see me awake,” Steve says lightly, because it’s true. Tony hasn’t been right since he opened his eyes, and he doesn’t know if he’s made it worse by reaching out for him, by taking so much comfort from him. He knows how other versions of Tony feel about other versions of Steve, but here, between the two of them, it’s not like that. The lines have always been clear, until now.
“Of course I’m pleased to see you,” Tony says, and his voice is forced and fake and Steve can spot it a mile off. He reaches up, scratching at his eyebrow with his thumb and studiously avoiding Steve’s gaze. “We had no-one else to put in charge of the Avengers, can you imagine what would happen without you there to kick us into shape? Natasha and Bruce refuse to be in charge and Clint is clearly a giant eight year old, so it would either be me or Thor and that’s just a disaster waiting to happen-”
“Tony,” Steve repeats to stop the rush of words, and Tony’s eyes close, brows drawing together as he fights away some barrage of emotion.
“I’m sorry,” he says, and the words ring out, leaving silence in their wake. “I’m so sorry,” he says, and Steve hates how broken he sounds. “You asked me to be there and I ignored you,” he says. “God, I didn’t know – I wanted to get to the source and shut it down, and I thought-”
He breaks off, makes to move away. Steve stops him by grabbing his wrist, fingers tight enough so that this time Tony won’t be able to pull free. Tony freezes all over again, still looking away.
“Well, you won’t be dumb enough to do it twice, will you?”
Tony does look at him then, expression disbelieving. “Just like that. You forgive me just like that – Steve, you can’t just let this slide-”
“The hell I can’t,” Steve says stubbornly. “My forgiveness, I’ll give it to who I damn well want.”
Tony stares at him for so long it makes Steve shiver. Tony’s eyes flicker over his face, searching for something, and then shakes his head. “You nearly died. Because I directly ignored an order. I told you, I don’t work well in a team, never have, never will-
“Don’t even,” Steve snaps out, and that’s the loudest his voice has been since he woke up. “Just don’t.”
“It’s true,” Tony shrugs, looking dismissive and like he doesn’t care. “Can’t be relied on in, not in the way you need-”
“Tony, shut up,” Steve says, and pulls him closer by his wrist, unthinking. Tony isn’t expecting it and stumbles, hip catching the edge of the bed. He throws out an arm to steady himself, ends up far too close to Steve. Steve draws in a sharp breath and lets him go, wildly thinking of Seven and the others and the images he’s seen of himself kissing Tony, and what Clint said-
“See,” Tony says, leaning back, obviously having spotted something in Steve’s expression that he’s misread. “You can’t convince me if you can’t convince yourself-”
“No,” Steve says, though he feels wrong footed and unsteady, and he tries valiantly to remember what he’s supposed to be fighting about. “No, Tony – l don’t blame you. I was angry, yeah, but I know you would never hurt me intentionally. God, look at yourself. You tell me you haven’t been beating yourself up over this-”
“Of course I have,” Tony bites out, and then looks like he regrets it.
“There you go,” Steve says. “I remember everything. You came the moment you realised. You dropped everything to get to me-”
“Not quick enough.”
Steve ignores the interjection. “Next time you’ll trust I’m not just ordering you about for the hell of it,” he says.
“Maybe I won’t!” Tony bursts out. “Maybe I’ll still always think I know better.”
“You won’t,” Steve says adamantly, because he didn’t nearly die and spend god-knows how long stranded in the multiverse learning that he and Tony need each other just for Tony to refuse to play ball. “The things I saw when I was – when I was there,” he says, shaking his head slightly. “I learned a lot about myself. And a lot about you."
Tony stares at him, clearly not sure what to say. “A lot about me? But it was only you there – only versions of you.”
“Yeah,” Steve says slowly, and then rallies his courage and looks Tony right in the eye. “But they had a lot to say about you.”
Tony finally meets his gaze, unflinching. When he speaks, his voice is quieter, less jagged around the edges. “Do I want to know?”
The words are there on the tip of his tongue. Steve knows he should tell Tony, knows he needs to explain what he learned, but that involves admitting that there are versions of them that have been too involved with each other. Tony is still looking at him, waiting. Steve swallows and then looks down at his knees, hating himself for not just saying it.
“I don’t understand half of it myself – I don’t – I just know that – my issue isn’t with what happened during the fight. You-”
He breaks off, struggling. He looks at Tony and then away again.
“Okay,” Tony says slowly. “I hear what you’re saying, I'm hearing and I'm probably trying to listen, but this whole aura you’re giving off isn’t filling me with confidence.” He gestures to Steve with a hand, helplessly.
Steve doesn’t know what to say. He jumps as fingers touch his chin, lifting his head so Tony can look him in the eye. The world seems to pause for a moment, a deep breath.
“Steve,” Tony says, sounding wrecked. “What’s going on here? Because words are saying one thing and your face is saying something completely different-”
Footsteps in the corridor cut off his wreck of a response. He’s mucking this all up, he knows – he just wants Tony to know it wasn’t his fault, wants them to be friends. They need to be friends if his escapade through the multiverse has taught him anything; they need to be there for each other-
“I literally wrestled this out of a junior agent's hand in the lobby,” Clint’s voice says proudly as the door swings open. “You better appreciate it, and you better give me my thousand bucks.”
Steve lets go of Tony’s wrist and Tony steps back. Clint pauses in the doorway, pizza box balanced on his left hand and a carton of juice in the other.
“Maybe I should take victory pizza elsewhere?”
“No,” Tony is the one to speak, pulling his phone from his pocket and thumbing the screen. “He needs to eat. Pizza probably isn’t on the doc’s recommended list for nutrition, but knock yourself out. I’m gonna go sort a thing, I’ll be back in a bit-”
And eyes still on his phone, he leaves the room without looking back. Steve groans and slumps back against the pillow, feeling completely and utterly lost
“Right. So this was like an eleven on the awkward scale,” Clint says, walking over and putting the pizza box down on Steve’s knee. It smells mouth-wateringly good and Steve’s stomach gives a violent rumble. Clint sniggers and sits down in the chair Richards had been in earlier, putting the carton of juice on the small table next to the bed.
Steve’s into the pizza box and dragging free a slice before any doctors can turn up and tell him not to. Clint snorts with laughter again and reaches for a slice of his own.
“Slow,” he says to Steve as he takes a bite, and Christ, he’s never going to take food for granted ever again. “Seriously, pause, no more – you’ve not eaten proper food in weeks.”
Steve swallows his first glorious bite of proper New York pepperoni pizza, looking at Clint with a pained expression on his face. “You’re kidding me, right?”
“Nope,” Clint says, popping the ‘P’. “Take a bite, drink some juice, wait five minutes. You’ll puke otherwise, and I’m not having Mother-Hen-Stark on my ass because I let you hurl.”
Casting a mournful glance down at his pizza, Steve sighs unhappily, but does as bid, putting the slice back in the box and reaching for the juice on the side. “Mother-Hen-Stark?” he says as he unscrews the cap. “Dare I ask?”
“Only if I can ask about the atmosphere between you two,” Clint says, and he sounds casual but Steve knows he’s serious. “What’s up with that?”
Steve takes a swig of juice, the orange flavour bright and sharp against his tongue. He puts the carton back and follows with a drink of water, feeling infinitely better already.
He hesitates, but deep down he knows that he’s not going to be able to keep a lid on everything forever. They’re going to keep looking for explanations about what happened to him and why, and he doesn’t want them wasting their time when he has half the answers already.
“I didn’t tell you all of it,” Steve admits slowly. “When I explained what had happened.”
“Right,” Clint says warily. “And logic tells me that that missing chapter has something to do with Tony?”
Steve breathes out. Considers lying. Decides he can’t do it.
“It was all about Tony,” he says, “Whatever sent me there, took me there, wanted me to learn something. In other universes, there have been wars – fights between groups of superheroes. With Steve Rogers on one side and Tony Stark on the other. Seems it was bad enough that something somewhere wanted this universe to avoid it.”
Clint’s mouth is slightly open. “You and Tony were at war?” he asks, sounding astounded.
Steve nods. “In some universes, we killed each other,” he says hollowly. “There was a fight when I was there – a couple of versions of me who weren’t too swell. One of them had killed Tony and lost it, completely lost it.”
Clint hasn’t looked so grave in a long time. “Well, I can empathise with the whole having a version of you doing asshole things, I guess,” he says with a shrug and a depreciating smile. “Go on.”
Steve isn’t sure he wants to, but he makes himself. “A few universes I never met Tony,” he says, and then breathes deep. “And in a hell of a lot Steve Rogers was sleeping with him. In a relationship with him. Even married him in a couple.”
Mouth promptly dropping open all over again, Clint stares at him, looking completely poleaxed. “A version of you married Tony?”
“Two that I know of,” Steve says, and reaches for the pizza again, taking a bite. He chews, swallows, shrugs helplessly. “I don’t know what to do. I just wanted to get back and make sure we were okay, that he knew I didn’t blame him, but now we’ve got all this goddamn baggage from stuff that hasn’t even happened here, because I saw-”
He abruptly stops, not wanting to share exactly what he saw. Unbidden, the image of him leaning across the bed to kiss Tony once again rises into the forefront of his mind, and he shoves it away. This is not what this is about.
“Versions of you married Tony,” Clint repeats, and then seems to shake himself out of his daze. He throws his hands in the air and rocks the chair back on two legs. “Are you actually – you two. You fucking morons. You could only fall ass over teakettle for each other whilst you were in a goddamn coma.”
Steve’s hand falters as he reaches for the juice. “What? We’re not -” he begins, frowning. “It doesn’t mean the same in every universe; Tony and I don’t feel that way-"
“He wouldn’t leave,” Clint interrupts bluntly. “He was glued to your side, holding your goddamn hand and he would not leave. Bro-code completely and utterly disregarded. He pretty much lost the plot. And he realised he was losing the plot because he was totally gone for you – which, by the way, are his words and not mine.”
There’s an odd ringing in Steve’s ears, he’s sure of it. He knew Tony was different with him when he woke up – less abrasive, less flippant – but it was because of the fight, and the guilt, not because he has feelings for Steve, right?
“Ass over teakettle,” Clint replies deliberately, each word emphasised to make his point. “Whilst you weren’t even awake, Jesus.”
Rallying his scattered thoughts, Steve tries to argue. “It’s because he felt it was his fault,” he tries. “He felt guilty-”
“Yeah, he felt guilty, and then he felt more than guilty,” Clint says pointedly.
“God, you – seeing as you just woke up from the second unnatural period of suspended animation in your life, I’ll let the being stupid slide. Hang on - I know, here, watch this.”
Shoving a hand into his pocket, Clint pulls out his phone. He flips the screen sideways, taps rapidly with his thumbs and then hands it over. Steve takes it cautiously, and he sees a Youtube video with just over a million hits loaded and ready to go. The still image is a tad blurry but not too hard to make out; he can see Clint and Tony in the doorway of Avengers Tower, heads down and ready to walk outside towards a waiting car. Tony’s car, the sleek black Audi with the blacked out windows. There are reporters everywhere, and he feels frustration roll through him because they’re not allowed to be there, and he knows that they’ll have broken the public order notices because they wanted news about him.
“Try and ignore my bad-assery and don’t tell me off for punching a reporter until you’ve watched it all,” Clint says.
Steve lowers the phone and looks at Clint, despairing. “You punched a reporter?”
“Shhh, no, of course not,” Clint points at the phone. “Watch."
Sighing, Steve lifts the phone and taps the grey play symbol with his thumb. It flares to life in a riot of noise and colour; reporters shouting and yelling, cameras flashing left right and centre. Clint and Tony are clearly trying to ignore them, doing well until they quite clearly and abruptly stop trying.
There’s no doubt about what Clint wanted him to see when he hears it. Tony’s voice, loud and raw and vicious, devastating in its honesty. Almost as heart-wrenching as the look on his face.
‘I am not going to do anything without Captain America, you got that? He is going to be fine, and you know why? Because there is no-one else who is going to be leading this team, and the universe knows it. There is no-one else I want leading this team, there is no-one else I want beside me, anywhere, at any fucking time. Now get the fuck out of my way so I can get back to him.’
Steve lets out a shaky breath, his stomach churning in a way that has nothing to do with his hunger. God. It’s not even just about what Tony said, it’s the way he said it.
Steve passes the phone wordlessly back to Clint, not even caring about the latter half of the video and Clint socking the reporter. He feel like he’s been hit by a goddamn train, because now he knows exactly how Tony feels about him, and that just goes to make the whole goddamn mess of a situation more complicated.
The feeling that he and Tony are an inevitable thing is stronger, closer and more terrifying than ever before.
“Sorry,” Clint says unexpectedly after a few minutes of silence, and he does sound sorry, but also unrepentant. “I thought you should know.”
“What do I do,” Steve says before he can stop himself, because he might be Captain America and a strategic genius, but relationships have never been his forte and hell, everyone knows it. He’s lost here, and has no clue as to where to go next-
“Man it up and join the rest of the multiverse in loving Tony?”
“But I’m not in love with Tony!” Steve bursts out. “I can’t just –”
“Can’t just make yourself love him?”
Steve nods soberly, reach up to rub his face. The IV line snags on the edge of his blanket and he reaches for it, tearing the tape off in one vicious yank, before sliding the needle out of the back of his hand and tossing the line away. It doesn’t make him feel any better.
“I feel like I have to,” he says. “God, if he-”
“You don’t have to,” Clint says firmly. “Tony’s a big boy; if you don’t feel the same way about him he’ll deal with it. He’s Iron Man for god’s sake, he’s dealt with worse. Always has, always will.”
Nodding again, Steve unhappily acknowledges that Clint is right. As long as he treats this right – as long as he treats Tony right – there’s no reason for this to be a disaster.
“But maybe you do feel the same way.”
Frowning, Steve turns to look Clint in the eye. He still looks deadly serious, but shrugs as Steve looks at him. “You two are…I don’t know. Intense around each other at the best of times. And come on, if the rest of the multiverse has gone for it…”
He trails off, the implication unspoken but simple to infer.
Steve groans. “Dammit, this is exactly what I didn’t want to happen, I didn’t want to get back and everything be weird.”
“Is it weird because other versions of you love other versions of Tony, or because Tony likes you, or because you quite blatantly can’t work out if you like Tony…?”
Steve rolls each question over in his mind. Swallows thickly, rubs at his temple.
“I don’t know.”
Steve is sleeping again. He’s lying on his side with his mouth lax and open, tablet computer held limply in his hand. He looks still and peaceful, still with that damn almost-frown on his face
Tony would be worried, but the doctors have told him that despite spending the last few weeks complete KO, Steve will need a lot of rest as his body adjusts to being awake and moving once more. After all, all he’s had in the way of sustenance is whatever nutrients were pumped in via IV and the half a pizza that Tony has no intention of giving Clint a thousand bucks for. His energy levels are completely shot, and it’s visible in his slow movements, his pale skin, the shadows around his eyes.
He aches to go in to sit beside him, but he won’t.
“Phil would be pissed that you’ve usurped the title of Cap’s Number One Fan.”
Tony breathes out through his mouth as Clint’s voice calls out to him, not looking away from where he’s watching Steve through the window in the hospital room door.
“You are the least helpful person I have ever met.”
Clint saunters up, hands in his pockets. He peers through the glass window in the door and then leans back against the wall, facing Tony. “How’re you doing?”
Tony’s not touching that with protective gloves on. He doesn’t reply, eyes tracing the curve of Steve’s forearm, across his wrist and down to his hand, fingers curled slackly around the edge of the tablet.
“So,” he says conversationally. “Which nurse was it that came by to take his IV out?”
Clint shrugs. “A blond one.”
“Yeah. Was the mystery blond named Steve or Clint?” he asks, and Clint pulls a face at him, crossing his legs at the ankle and glancing towards the door.
“You know I couldn’t have stopped him,” he says as way of admission, and Tony could kill Steve some days, he really could. “He wanted it out, so out it went.”
“He’s still dehydrated,” Tony says, annoyed. Trust Steve to always be on everyone’s case about taking care of themselves and then blatantly ignoring medical advice directed at himself. Tony finally pulls his eyes away, turning his body and slumping back against the wall next to Clint. Shoves his hands in his pockets because he doesn’t know what to do with them. “I’m going to tape a bottle of Gatorade into each of his hands.”
Clint breathes out, a huff of sound that’s nearly a laugh. “Tape not necessary, he’ll do it if you ask.”
“What’s your game plan, Barton?” Tony says suddenly, hearing the implication in the words, the stress on the word you. “I have an acute feeling of dread that you’re up to something, and that never ends well for anyone.”
Innocent look on his face, Clint shakes his head. “When am I ever up to anything?”
“Bullshit. I sense bullshit, and I’m calling you on it, Hawkeye. You’re not as dumb as you like people to think you are. Lacking in basic common sense, but not dumb. It’s all a terrible, terrible act.”
Clint smiles at that, and then uncrossed his legs, shifting his balance back onto both feet. “I think you two are good for each other, is all. I’m not the only one.”
Tony shakes his head, looking down at the floor. “Still calling bullshit.”
“Shut up,” Clint says. “Come on.”
“No, you need to stop this like yesterday,” Tony says. “Look, I know what I said, but it doesn’t matter because it takes two to tango, right? Whatever I feel about this, it doesn’t matter. I’ll keep a lid on it-”
“Did you know that he met two versions of himself that married you?”
Tony freezes, words catching in the back of his throat. He looks to the door, then to Clint, then back at the door. Steve met versions of himself that married him? What the actual-? But that means somewhere across the multiverse there are Steves who feel the same way about him-
He stamps down on the thought as quickly as it arrives, smothering it with a familiar blanket of denial.
“And from what he said, a hell of a lot more versions of himself were sleeping with, dating or in a relationship with you too,” Clint informs him, ignoring the refutation.
Tony holds onto the denial. “It might not even have been real,” he reasons, voice low. “You heard Richards.”
“And you heard Thor,” Clint shoots back. “Even if it wasn’t, even if all that was just some bad trip, he felt it. It was real for him. And either way, it’s either the multiverse or his subconscious, there’s feelings for you swimming around out there. Big, big feelings, even if he doesn’t get it yet.”
As much as he doesn’t want to, Tony has to acknowledge that Clint is right.
“Fuck,” he says, hollowly.
“Aaaand he might also know how you feel about him.”
Something close to distress swells in Tony’s sternum. “Barton, what did you do? What did you tell him?”
Clint promptly pushes himself away from the wall and starts stepping away, moving backwards swiftly. “Would you look at that, now everyone is freaking out. My work here is done.”
He’s gone before Tony can grab hold of him, which probably would only end with Tony being pinned to the floor in a very painful and undignified position anyway. He bites down to the impulse to keep yelling after him, still aware enough to remember Steve is sleeping on the other side of a door that isn’t sound proofed.
Clint vanishes around the corner at the end of the corridor and Tony puts his hands on the back of his head, cursing internally. He clenches his jaw, turns to look at Steve through the window once more and then drops his hands in something that’s either acceptance or defeat. Maybe both.
And SJ is laughing, laughing hard without any trace of that horrendous cough that had followed him beyond death, and Bucky is standing there, eight years old and full of affront. Steve watches as SJ keels over backwards onto the sidewalk, clutching his sides, and then Bucky pounces, grabbing him in a headlock and ruffling his hair. SJ protests violently, feet scrabbling as he laughs and tries to push Bucky’s hands away.
“You’re a punk,” Bucky says as he steps back, and his little voice echoes and lilts and dances, the sound drifting from far away. He’s stood straight with his hands shoved in his pockets, a slight cocky tilt to his chin and Steve’s heart aches because god, that’s Bucky all over, isn’t it?
“I’ll tell Sister Marie you called me that,” SJ retorts, and Bucky sticks his tongue out.
“You wouldn’t dare, punk,” he says again, and SJ is laughing and Bucky is laughing too. Bucky sits down next to him, the brighter than usual light shifting, breaking around his form as he slings a protective arm around SJ’s shoulders. The light shines clearly on SJ’s happy face, lighting it up.
This isn’t a dream. Steve knows it without question. It’s too real, too perfect, just like his stay in the multiverse had been. He’s there but he’s not; none of the versions of him can see or hear him, so all he can do is quietly watch them, full of relief that they appear to be back where they should be, with the people they always wanted to be with.
Steve smiles and steps away, turning around. The light around him shifts and breaks and he slowly wanders forwards through it, not even the slightest bit afraid. It’s peaceful and calm and he doesn’t think for a second anything here will hurt him. There’s a break in the light to his left, a shadowy image appearing as he comes closer. He turns towards it and takes one last step and then he’s in someone’s house, a neat and homely place that feels comfortable and inviting. SJ and Bucky and the warm New York street are gone, but the same bright light pours in through the windows, illuminating the scene in front of him.
“Not going, you’re not going,” a Steve Rogers in civilian dress is saying in a sing-song voice, mug in hand and eyes on the paper in front of him. He’s sat at a kitchen table, empty plate at his elbow and a pile of paperwork stacked haphazardly at the other end next to a pile of neatly folded shirts.
“There is no way you’re stopping me,” a voice says, and a blond woman wearing SHIELD gear walks over, a sheaf of paper in her hands. She goes to swat the other Steve Rogers on the back of the head with them but he’s too quick; he turns and grabs her wrist, pulling her close, hands moving to catch her hips.
“Stop it,” she says, but she’s fighting down a smile. “Steve, stop. I’m going, it’ll be two days tops-”
“Nu-uh, not on my watch,” he says simply, and she rolls her eyes.
“Iron Man needs me there,” she says very pointedly. “And you will not let anyone watch Tony’s back but me, and you won’t let anyone watch my back but Tony.”
The version of Steve pulls a face. “Lies, you’re all conspiring against me,” he says, burying his face in her stomach and looping his arms around her waist. She laughs too, dropping the files onto the tabletop and smoothing her hands over his shoulders, eyes warm and full of affection.
Steve breathes out a soft laugh himself, turning on the spot again as the scene fades away into the light. He can hear voices all around him, soft and gentle and echoing, drifting through the light to be caught by sharp ears. His own voice, his own laughter, sometimes the words of others. Not all of them coalesce and form something he can see, but sometimes if he looks in just the right direction at the right time-
And he’s in the Tower, and he’s in the workshop with Tony. Tony is perched on a stool at his workbench, busy pulling something mechanical apart, tossing unwanted pieces over his shoulder and talking distractedly without turning around. His feet are hooked around the legs of the stool, his back a graceful arch that Steve finds himself wanting to draw. There’s a Steve Rogers reclining on the couch, sketchbook on his chest and hands behind his head. Steve steps forwards, unheard and unseen.
“I’m just saying, it lasted all of thirty-eight minutes before it was on Twitter. Someone blabbed; my money is on Barton.”
Other-Steve laughs softly. “It wasn’t Barton, come on.”
“The Mayor then,” Tony says, and drops something to the floor with a clang. “Actually, that’s where my money is going down. He’ll be trying to improve his public image, get some spin from the whole thing, which I personally find insulting.”
The Other-Steve shifts, turning himself onto his side and propping himself up on an elbow, moving the sketchbook to the floor. There’s a thin chain around his neck and Steve watches as he reaches up and takes hold of the gold ring that the chain is looped through, resting gently against his shirt.
Steve realises who it is. He debates moving away, to see someone else, somewhere else.
“You find everything personally insulting,” Seven says, sliding his forefinger through the ring and zipping the band of gold back and forth on the chain. Tony obviously notices the sound because he stops, turns, and then he smiles, a soft gentle quirk of his lips and crinkling of his eyes that Steve hasn’t seen before.
“You’re wearing it wrong, I think I’m going to take that as a personal insult,” he says, and he puts down the gears he has in his hands and gets up, walking over to Seven. He perches on the edge of the couch, hip tucked in to the cradle of Seven’s pelvis and reaches out to take the ring, turning it over in his fingers. Steve’s heart does a strange skip as he sees a matching glint of gold actually on Tony’s finger.
“If I catch it wrong on the shield it’ll take my finger off,” Seven murmurs, sliding a hand onto Tony’s side. Tony hums, conceding the point, and then he sits back, expression bright and alert.
“Hey, if you lose a finger, will the serum grow it back?”
Seven’s expression turns half exasperated. “I’m a super-solider, not a damn lizard.”
“I’ll take that as a no,” Tony says and Seven is laughing, pulling Tony down to him and kissing that smiling mouth, and his fingers fold over Tony’s, both of them holding onto the ring. They kiss slowly, lazily, and then Tony pulls back to nudge Steve’s nose with his own, and Seven is trying to catch his mouth again but Tony holds back just out of reach, smiling that same genuine smile. Seven laughs and lets go of Tony’s hand to slip his palm onto the back of Tony’s neck, pulling him in once more.
Steve watches them for a moment, quiet and still and contemplative. This could be him, he thinks, and it’s not scary, it’s not terrifying, it just feels…okay. Maybe it’s actually more okay than seeing a version of him with whoever the blond woman was, because it’s Tony; he knows Tony and already has him has part of his life. It feels real, and maybe that’s something he needs to remember, to hold onto.
“So, how much would I have to pay you to get you to change your name to mine?” Tony is saying against Seven’s mouth, and Seven laughs as he pulls back, tapping his chin thoughtfully.
“Sixty-four billion dollars,” he says, and Steve can’t hold back his smile at the look on Tony’s face, the devious twinkle in Seven’s eyes.
“I thought you’d be sure thing for a handful of loose change and a milkshake,” Tony grumbles theatrically, and as Seven laughs and laugh and laughs, the light gets brighter, the workshop fading around them. Steve steps back calmly, into the expanse of white and calm, breathing out deeply and shutting his eyes.
And Steve wakes up.
He blinks slowly, groggily, letting his senses become acclimatised to his surroundings. He can hear a soft tapping, the sound of someone breathing, the pattering of rain against the window. He swallows and then opens his eyes more fully, taking it all in. Everything seems dimmer than the worlds he just left, less blinding but more steeped in colour. It’s not as bright, less heavenly and clean; it seems darker and duller but it’s his world so he doesn’t care.
He thinks about what he’s just seen, and he smiles.
He turns his head to see Tony sitting next to him, expression unreadable. His hands have stilled on his phone, and his eyes are fixed on Steve’s face. He looks haggard and tired, dark shadows still under his eyes and stubble blurring the normally sharp edges of his goatee.
“I’m okay,” Steve says quietly, his smile fading somewhat. Yes, he’s relieved that it seems that everyone is back where they should be across the multiverse and afterlife, but that doesn’t mean he’s off the hook. He’s still got to deal with this here, and he honestly doesn’t know where to start. Here in the dull artificial light with the sky overcast and gloomy outside, it suddenly seems very, very real.
“Here,” Tony says, and passes over a styrofoam cup. “Tastes like ass, but even bad coffee is coffee.”
Steve pushes himself upright, bending one leg at the knee and leaning forwards to take the cup with a nod of thanks. He fully expected for Tony to be nowhere in sight after what happened yesterday, so to find him here bringing Steve coffee is unexpected to say the least.
So is the way his chest aches when he looks at him.
“I got you these as well,” Tony says, and twists around to pick up some things off of the table that’s behind his chair. He turns back and hands over a paper bag and a tablet. “Got all the important news stories from whilst you were out all loaded. Nothing major, but I know you hate being out of the loop.”
“And this?” Steve asks, balancing the tablet on his blanket-covered knee and unfurling the top of the paper bag. The scent that immediately hits him is absolutely glorious and he can feel his mouth watering before he even realises what he’s looking at.
“Kind of a thing,” Tony shrugs. “Cheeseburgers after near-death experiences. Welcome to the club.”
“Tony,” Steve says, and stops, grateful and wrong footed and unsure. “I-”
“Just say thank you, Cap,” Tony interrupts, looking down at his phone again. Steve watches him for a moment, taking in how exhausted he looks.
“Thank you,” Steve says quietly. Tony doesn’t look up or even acknowledge it so Steve turns his attention to both the tablet and the cheeseburgers. There are four of them in the bag but he’s far from complaining; he wolfs down two of them whilst still reading the first story Tony has loaded up for him, something about a business merger in Chicago that’s being violently objected to by a couple of other corporations. He can’t quite focus on it though; he’s hyper-aware of Tony only sitting a few feet away from him, close enough to touch. Fresh in his mind is the image of seeing Seven back with his Tony as well, and he just knows that seeing how easy and happy things were between them is most definitely linked to the strange feeling in his chest that just won’t shift.
He flicks to the next news story, then looks up at Tony. Tony is still looking at his phone. Steve swallows and looks back down, barely taking in the headline about some stupid thing some senator said about welfare whilst within earshot of a reporter and his microphone-
“So,” Tony suddenly says, voice casual and eyes still most determinedly on his phone. “This is awkward, right?”
Breathing out in sigh, Steve reaches up to rub his face. “Tony, I…”
He trails off, has no idea what to say. He feels miserable and confused and full of god-knows what other feelings, ones he can’t or doesn’t want to identify.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Tony asks abruptly, and Steve looks up at him, startled. “What you found out when you were there,” Tony presses, eyes intense, and with a horrible lurch Steve realises that Tony knows.
“Clint told you,” he says hollowly, and Tony nods jerkily.
“I,” Steve begins. “I don’t know what to say,” he says helplessly. “Look, me and you are – we’re me and you. That shouldn’t be influenced by whatever other versions of ourselves have done, by what I’ve seen.”
“I didn’t see anything,” Tony says quietly. “So it’s not about influence, is it? It’s realisation.”
And it feels like Steve’s heart has just stopped with a painful jolt because god, it’s one thing to hear it from Clint and another thing entirely to hear the admission from Tony’s own mouth.
“I thought I’d killed you,” Tony says, voice rough and raw, and it’s as if now the words are coming he just can’t stop them. “And you know what was the worst thing? It wasn’t the guilt. It wasn’t the guilt that was the worst, it was the thought that I might have to get up every day without you there. Do you not get it?”
Steve opens his mouth, closes it again. He feels utterly helpless. The small sad smile that twists Tony’s mouth shows that he understands.
“I’m going to LA for a while,” Tony says out of nowhere, looking away. “A few months at least, got a few projects out there that probably need working on, will keep me busy for a while.”
“What?” Steve manages, feeling completely winded. “Why?”
“I need to get my head on straight, and you need some space from me,” Tony says frankly. “Work out if it’s influence or not, and where we stand afterwards.”
“I don’t want you to go,” Steve says, and goddamn it, why is he saying this stupid things to Tony when he knows how Tony feels? It’s not about what he wants in the wake of his accident; he can’t keep Tony by his side for stupid selfish reasons when Tony is clearly struggling with this strange new thing that’s going on between them-
Tony just shrugs. “You need me to.”
“Seriously, Cap,” Tony interrupts, still looking everywhere apart from at Steve. “I know what I’ve said, and I’m literally kicking my own ass for being honest and not just hiding it, and I don’t want you to do anything stupid because of what I’ve said or what you’ve seen. It’s got to be what you want.”
Steve swallows. He waits until Tony looks up at him, stomach churning uncomfortably. “And if I don’t want.”
“Then you don’t get,” Tony says simply.
The room is quiet and still. The rain patters against the window, soft and sad. Steve reaches out, and Tony is immediately there, taking his hand and squeezing it tight.
“Barton has got your back,” Tony says. “And I’m – if you need me, I’m there, don’t think otherwise. As Iron Man and as me. But I really think some space is the only way we’re going to get through this without killing each other.”
He doesn’t mean anything by it, it’s just a throwaway comment, but Steve feels his stomach clench and his throat go tight because he’s seen that, he’s witnessed universes where they have killed each other and it’s not funny in the slightest.
Tony lets go of his hand, reaching out and pushing Steve’s hair back from his forehead. Steve lets him, doesn’t pull away. “Get dressed, Cap,” Tony says with a horrid note of finality in his voice, nodding over to the second chair where there’s a stack of neatly folded clothing that Steve hasn’t noticed until this point. “Barton and Romanov are coming to smuggle you out.”
Steve just nods. Tony’s hand drops, and then he leans in and quickly presses a kiss to the corner of Steve’s mouth. Confused and miserable, Steve turns his face into it but he’s too slow; Tony is pulling back, dropping Steve’s hand and then he’s gone, leaving the room without looking back.
Breathing harshly in and out through his mouth, Tony throws himself into the driver’s seat of his Audi and slams the door behind him, shutting out the rest of the world with a dull muffled thump. He grips the steering wheel with one hand, wipes the other over his forehead to get rid of the dampness from the rain.
He doesn’t want to go. Fuck, he really doesn’t, but he knows he has to. Steve is a walking disaster right now, confused and caught up in everything he’s witnessed whilst on his merry trip through the multiverse. And yes, Tony knows how he feels about Steve but he’s not willing to throw his chips in there when the odds are that it’s all going to go horrendously wrong.
His phone buzzes in his pocket and his hand goes automatically for it. He looks down and grits his teeth as he sees a message from Clint, because he can’t decide if Clint is being helpful or just making everything worse.
Bro come back. He’s miserable now you’ve left.
His throat tightens because doesn’t Clint get it? He wants to be back at Steve’s side, he wants to be there and take exactly what he wants, but he can’t. He’s not going to be selfish about this because it won’t be fair, it won’t work and it’ll only end in more heartache and disaster-
Even as his thumb hovers uselessly over the screen, wondering what to do, another message comes in. This one is from Natasha.
Ignore Clint. If you need to go, go. Just make sure Steve knows why you’re going and that you’ll come back. Kisses.
He laughs, a short broken sound, shaking his head and tossing the phone into the passenger seat. Natasha’s words are more comforting than he ever expected them to be, and with them in mind he takes a deep breath and touches the console to start the engine. It rumbles to life, ready to go the moment he puts the car into drive.
He told Steve he’ll come back the moment he wants him to, and he means it.
For now, that will have to be enough.
The tower is still and quiet and feels so much like home that it makes Steve’s chest ache. He stands there in the communal lounge area, just looking around as Clint drops his bag on the kitchen area counter and makes a beeline for the coffee machine. Natasha is there as well, murmuring quietly into her phone, still discussing Steve’s choice to leave SHIELD medical with Fury. Apparently, he isn't too happy. Steve does not care one bit.
“Coffee, Cap?” Clint calls, and Steve blinks and then nods.
“Yeah, please,” he says, and walks over to the island counter, sitting down on one of the stools. He feels tired already and all he’s done today is a simple journey from SHIELD to the tower. It’s frustrating as hell, not being able to function at the pace he could before the accident, but he knows it’s just a matter of time.
In the back of his mind, he can imagine Tony making jokes about his age finally catching up with him.
He takes a steadying breath, trying not to think about Tony. He still doesn’t know how to feel about him leaving; relief is all mixed up with disappointment and regret. Hell, trying to fathom that Tony has feelings for him is confusing enough on its own, let alone without Steve trying to work out how he now feels in return.
His gaze wanders across the room, then abruptly stops. On the coffee table is a book that belongs to him, still there even though he’s not been in the tower in weeks. It’s next to one of Tony’s tablet computers that he leaves strewn over the place so he can carry on working whenever he feels like it, and god, Steve remembers when he was last reading that book. He had been quietly reading on the couch, minding his own business, and Tony had sauntered in and said ‘look at this,’ and simply slid the tablet right over the top of the page Steve was reading. Steve had been so exasperated he’d taken the tablet from Tony and refused to give it back. It had been such a petty argument, and it could easily have gotten out of hand like so many of their stupid fights did, but that time it hadn’t. Tony had ended up standing on the couch, one arm around Steve’s neck and the other hand grabbing futilely for the tablet, and Steve had said ‘this is dumb, you’re short and I can do this all day,’ and Tony had started to laugh. He’d laughed so hard he’d fallen back onto his ass on the couch, and then Steve had started to laugh as well. Steve had given the tablet back and Tony had sat down quietly and let him read whilst he continued to work, and it’d been easy and companionable.
See, a voice in the back of his head points out. You don’t have to be in a relationship with him for you two to get on.
And then he abruptly thinks of Seven and Tony kissing lazily in Tony’s workshop, and resists the urge to cover his hands with his face.
“Okay, here’s your French-roast extra-tall double half-caff skinny mocha vanilla hazelnut venti latte macchiato with whipped cream, cocoa powder and caramel drizzle on top,” Clint says, and slides a mug onto the counter in front of Steve. Steve arches an eyebrow at him and takes a sip of his decidedly normal black coffee.
“Hmmm, I can really taste the hazelnut.”
“I live to serve,” Clint says perfectly seriously, hopping back up onto the counter with his own mug in hand. “So. Plan?”
Steve takes another sip of his coffee, feeling oddly listless and unmotivated in a way that has nothing to do with his lowered energy. “I probably need to get some more rest,” he says, and it’s a half-truth; he does feel like he could easily sleep for an hour or two but he also just wants to retreat to his room and hide.
“Alright, I’m going to go shoot stuff,” Clint says and slides down from the counter. “Later, Cap.”
He leaves the room with his coffee in hand and as Steve watches him go he realises that Natasha must have also have vanished without him noticing because he’s now most definitely alone. He’s grateful that they haven’t felt the need to hover and make sure he’s okay.
Tony was right to leave, he thinks tiredly and sadly. He can’t do this without some breathing space from the entire mess of a situation.
He grabs his bag and heads to the elevator instead of taking the stairs as he usually would. He steps in, and a quiet voice calls out to him as the doors slide shut.
“May I say it’s a pleasure to have you back, Captain Rogers.”
Steve smiles, shutting his eyes. “Yeah, thanks Jarvis,” he replies as the elevator starts to rise, a smooth movement that most people barely notice. Jarvis doesn’t speak again and Steve is thankful, because it’s just another reminder of Tony that he doesn’t need right now. Maybe the tower isn’t the best place for him after all; yes, it’s pretty much his home now, but it’s just drenched in Tony. Every place he looks, every step he takes, he finds something that brings it all back to Tony; most of all the fact that this whole space he calls his was built for him by the man.
He silently thinks about all the things that Tony has done for them, done for him, and his stomach twists.
The feeling only intensifies when he steps out onto his floor, going into his rooms and shutting the door behind him. Everything is exactly where it he’d left it all those weeks ago; a pair of those stupid, modern, fashion trainers that he hates but can’t stop wearing by the coffee table; a sketchbook and set of pencils on top of it next to a book on portraiture that he’d bought on a harrowing trip to Barnes and Noble; an empty coffee mug that he really doesn’t want to go anywhere near after leaving it unwashed for this length of time.
Deciding that putting off cleaning up for one more day really isn’t going to make a difference, he goes to step through to his bedroom and then freezes in the doorway when he spots his shield resting against the edge of his bed. He knew that it had been recovered and taken safely back to the tower, and he’d resisted the urge to ask Tony to go and fetch it for him whilst he’d been in medical. There’s a bright yellow sticky note stuck to the centre of the shield, right over the star, and Steve’s throat goes tight as he crouches down and pulls it from the smooth surface.
Stop dropping this when you’re fighting robots or I’m going to permanently attach it to your hand.
He knows that handwriting anywhere, and he doesn’t know what’s more overwhelming; the implication of worry and fear in the words or the fact that it’s exactly what he thought when he’d first realised that he hadn’t got the shield with him in the multiverse. Reaching out, Steve trails his fingers over the star on the shield, taking comfort from the simple fact that it’s there with him. God, it’s so good to be back, he can’t bear the thought of what would have happened to everything if he hadn’t made it. What would Tony have done with the shield then, if he’d died? Would he have kept it, or gotten rid of it as quickly as possible?
Steve shakes his head. “Get it together, Rogers,” he mutters, and stands up again, sticky-note still in his hand. He steps around the bed and carefully sticks the note to the wall just beside the headboard, behind the lamp on his nightstand. There’s another sketchbook beside the chrome base of the lamp, this one full of doodles done with felt-tip pens. There’s a set beside the sketchbook and he's not going to lie; he loves the damn things, even if Tony does say that makes him a giant artistic ten year-old. The lines and colours are just so bold and bright, completely different to anything he could get his hands on in the forties.
His side is starting to ache; a phantom pain that he normally ignores because he knows that he’s pretty much completely healed. He does acknowledge that it probably means he’s pushing past his limits for the day though, and kicks his shoes off and clambers onto his bed, leaning back against the pillows. Throwing one arm up over his head and shifting to get comfortable, he blinks up at the ceiling and then looks over at the glorious floor to ceiling windows that cover the right side of the room. He’d been a little disconcerted by them at first, until Tony had assured him that whilst he could see out, no-one else could see in. He’d even offered to suit up and fly Steve around the outside of the building to prove it, but Steve had declined and opted for taking Tony’s word for it instead.
And he’s back to Tony again. As if he really ever left.
Despite how his body feels, his mind feels too jittery and out of sorts for sleep. Instead, he reaches over and grabs the sketchbook, bending his knees so he can rest it against the slope of his thighs. Without looking away from the blank page in front of him, he reaches out for a felt pen and flicks the cap off. He can already feel his mind starting to calm; drawing has always been something that he’s found wonderfully soothing and almost cathartic, and today is no different.
The pen sweeps over the page, smooth and even. He finds himself drawing the lines of the apartment building from his trip through the multiverse and decides to go with it. He fills in the steps at the front, concentrating as he works out which lines need to go down first, which need to wait until another part of the drawing is complete. It’s not too much effort but it’s enough so that he’s not overwhelmed by his thoughts surrounding Tony. They’re still there, hovering in the periphery of his mind, and he’s beginning to realise that maybe they’re not going to go away.
Judging by the unhappy ache in his chest that tightens when he thinks of Tony being thousands of miles away, they’re definitely not going to go away.
Why does everything have to be so hard?
Or maybe it’s easy, a small traitorous part of his brain says as his hand continues to draw, barely aware of what he’s doing. Maybe you have fallen for Tony, maybe you just don’t want to admit it.
He’s about to tell that part of him to shut the fuck up when he realises that he’s stopped drawing the apartment, and has instead starting drawing Tony. A rough sketch of his face, a small smile in place that fits with the oddly gentle way he’s been acting around Steve since he woke up-
Steve groans and leans forwards, hitting the sketchpad against his forehead before leaning back and huffing. He glances down at the sketch again, something strange churning in his stomach.
His fingers trace the edge of the page, and as he does, he feels the faint ache in his side come back again. Pressing his palm to his ribs, he tries not to think about the metal pressing into him, snapping bone and tearing through flesh. He’s not a queasy guy anymore but it’s still not pleasant to think about.
Abruptly, he wonders how it would have looked from Tony’s point of view. Getting there only to find Steve prone on the floor, bleeding out and completely skewered by the twisted spike of metal. Well, he knows how he would have reacted if he’d been the one to find Tony in that position.
And then he’s wondering what it would be like if their positions were reversed. Forgetting what has happened in the rest of the multiverse; what would it have been like for him if he’d seen Tony taken down by a robot? If he’d been there on his knees as Tony had slowly bled out all over the floor, slipping through his fingers, unable to be saved by anything Steve could do?
The agonising wrench of emotion in response to that thought is answer enough. He can’t imagine what it would be like to lose Tony, to not have him by his side every day, to not know he was safe.
Swallowing thickly, he looks down at the drawing once more. If Tony had been killed that day, Steve would have missed him for every day for the rest of his life. If something were to happen to Tony now, he would – god, he doesn’t even know. He can’t even contemplate it.
There’s your answer, Rogers, he tells himself, and every thought he’s ever had about Tony and how he’s different from Clint and Bruce and the others all slots effortlessly into place, like someone’s taken an eraser to every barrier, every thought that made him deny it.
He bites his lip, shaking his head, eyes once again on the picture his hands have drawn without permission. He thinks of Seven and Stephanie and the other versions of him throughout the multiverse, and his mouth hitches in a weak smile.
“Guess you guys knew me better than I did,” he murmurs, and he sets the sketchbook aside on the nightstand, capping the felt-pen and also setting it aside. He breathes out heavily, sinks back into the pillows, and he sleeps.
Tony drags his hand through the hologram in front of him, movements listless and without purpose. The workshop in LA is just as good as his workshop in New York, but it feels strange, oddly sterile. Not only is he missing the presence of the bots, there are no memories of the team here: no holes in the wall where Clint had been testing the newly invented armour piercing arrows; no doorway which Natasha likes to slink through unannounced, scaring him half to death when he turns around and spots her; no cabinets that he’s caught both Thor and Bruce delving through, albeit for very different reasons; no place on the workbench where Steve likes to lean when he’s standing drinking coffee, no spots that he’s stood in and laughed or rolled his eyes or shouted.
God, Tony hadn’t realised how much that bunch of broken things and misfits has come to mean to him.
He’ll add that to the list of things he didn’t realise until now.
“J, record changes and shut it all down,” he says into the silence of the workshop. He’s barely spoken five sentences since he arrived a few hours ago; he’s not even bothered to check the rest of the house, just headed straight down to the workshop. He guesses he might as well just stay here until Pepper arrives in a few days.
He hopes he doesn’t completely lose the plot before then.
“Of course,” Jarvis says, and even he sounds more subdued than usual, but Tony’s pretty sure he’s imagining it.
He aches for a drink, but is so far resisting. He’s come here to work, to allow Steve space to work through their issues, not to wallow in self-pity and get drunk. He’s determinedly holding onto what he remembers from his last conversation with Steve; the way Steve had asked him not to go, how he’d reached for his hand, the way Steve had turned his face towards Tony’s when he’d kissed him goodbye, his hand reaching up helplessly like he’d wanted to hold on.
They’re good signs, and they’re making him feel both hopeful and guilty. Not guilty enough to regret his choice to leave though; he’s still determined to wait it out, to see what Steve decides with a clear head.
God, after spending weeks at his side, he misses him like he’s missing a limb.
Breathing out heavily, he props his elbows on the edge of the workbench and presses his palms to his face. He sits perfectly still for a moment, debating what he’s going to able to focus on for the next few hours. It’s bizarre; he used to thrive on being left alone for days at a time – he still does, in all honesty. It’s just disconcerting that he’s so completely alone here; there’s not even the possibility or option of being interrupted, of finding someone to interact with, no-one to talk science with or share coffee with. So much for his insistence that he’d never be a team player.
He’s just about to say ‘fuck it’ and let himself take a nosedive into feeling sorry for himself when he hears an achingly familiar sound. The sound of stilettos on the metal stairs that lead down into the workshop.
“If you’re sitting here in the dark, drinking and feeling sorry for yourself, I’m calling Steve!”
Tony shuts his eyes, and he smiles.
“Knock, knock, coming in.”
Looking up from his almost-finished sketch, Steve is about to make a comment about Clint actually knocking but decides against it when he sees Clint’s hands are full of boxes and bags that smell exactly like Steve’s favourite Cantonese takeout. He doesn’t usually eat in his quarters, but supposes he can make an exception every now and again.
“Bon appetit,” Clint says as he carefully lowers the cartons and bags onto the coffee table, Steve hastily moving his sketchbook out of the way and setting it on the couch cushions next to his hip. “I feel like my sole job at the moment is keeping you fed.”
“It’s an important job,” Steve says seriously, leaning forwards and pulling cutlery and cans of coke out of one of the bags. He nods to the other couch. “Take a seat.”
Clint happily complies, grabbing a fork and picking up one of the cartons and deftly pulling it open. “How’re you feeling?” he asks as he digs in. “Did you sleep okay?”
Steve nods, reaching for a fork and a carton of his own, stomach rumbling in anticipation. “Slept eleven and a bit hours,” he says with a grimace. “Still not used to sleeping that long.”
Clint shrugs, balancing his carton between his knees as he reaches for a can of coke, snapping it open. “Doc says you need it,” he says, no sympathy at all evident in his tone. “Though you probably feel you’ve slept enough, right?”
“Right,” Steve laughs, lifting a brow and nodding. “Pretty sure I’ve got the world record.”
Clint shakes his head, taking several large gulps of coke and then belching into the crook of his elbow before putting the can aside, picking up his carton again. “You’re technically superhuman, you’re not allowed to be considered for official records. Tony looked it up when he found out how much you could bench.”
Steve looks at him, forkful of noodles suspended in front of his mouth. “He actually looked it up?”
“I think he found the idea of you effortlessly breaking around a hundred people’s hard-earned records hilarious.”
“He would,” Steve says, slight smile hitching the corner of his mouth.
“He’s a jerk for leaving,” Clint says suddenly. Steve looks up but Clint is looking down at the carton of chow mein in his hand, jabbing his fork into it with more force than strictly necessary.
“No, he was right,” Steve says, reaching and Clint looks up, frowning. “We needed some space.”
The look Clint sends his way is pained. “You’re not even dating and you’re talking about needing space, ugh.”
Steve laughs, soft and self-depreciating. “Yeah, it’s a hell of a mess,” he says honestly. “And that’s on top of the fact I’m still trying to work out what the hell happened to me.”
“Yeah, about that,” Clint says through a mouthful of food, swallowing noisily. “Reed Richards has already called four times. He wants to ask more questions and possibly wire things into your brain.”
“Great,” Steve says flatly, already mentally vetoing having anything physically wired into him, no matter if Richards insists it's necessary. “Not my first choice of doctor.”
Clint pulls a face. “Hate to say it, but he’s the expert of all things multiversy.”
“Is that a word?”
“Possibly not,” Clint concedes, reaching for another carton and wresting it open one handed, pulling out a spring roll with a noise of triumph. “Talk and eat. Come on, multitask, Rogers.”
Steve obediently shovels another forkful of food into his mouth, and as Clint goes back to his own food without comment, Steve is suddenly and forcibly reminded of Bucky. Clint’s a lot like him in some ways, he thinks, not least the way he’s currently sort of looking out for Steve with a combination of tough love and food. He doesn’t feel the desperate need to fight against it the way he used to with Bucky though; he’s got nothing to prove to Clint, who has only ever known him as he is now, as the Captain.
“So, what’s the stage of play at the moment? Is Richards still trying to get hold of me?”
“Natasha is fencing,” Clint says. “Which is one part threatening him with violence, one part threatening to tell his wife that he’s harassing Captain America, one part threatening to call Tony and tell him he’s harassing Captain America.”
“Can’t hold him off forever,” Steve says ruefully, not entirely sure if Clint is joking or not and choosing not to ask. “And I guess he’s the guy to talk to.”
Clint nods. “You’re not doing it until you’re fully fit,” he says frankly, and again, Steve can’t help but hear a little bit of Bucky in the‘so don’t even try it, Rogers,' tone of voice. “By official order of Nick Fury, and unofficially by the rest of us. Don’t look at me like that, I’ll call Thor and get him to pin you down again. I’m serious, he’ll lay you out and put that damn hammer on your chest.”
“Okay, okay,” Steve concedes, smiling quietly. “You know, you remind me a lot of someone sometimes.”
“Not a super-villain, I hope.”
“No,” Steve says, cocking his head to look at Clint. “Bucky.”
Clint draws back a little, sitting up a little straighter and looking genuinely taken aback. “Wow,” he says. “That’s like, I don’t know. The compliment of my life? I might quit now, while I’m ahead.”
“Wouldn’t get too hung up on it, he was a jerk.”
“I can live with that,” Clint says cheerfully, sinking back into the couch cushions. “Now eat your goddamn take out. I gave up a whole four seconds of my life asking Jarvis to order it in.”
Jarvis cuts in at that moment, perfectly deadpan. “I wouldn’t want you to forget the hundred and twenty-eight seconds dedicated to collecting the takeout from the lobby and carrying it up to Captain Rogers’ quarters.”
“Carrying and collecting,” Clint says earnestly as Steve laughs. “I’ve had a tough day.”
“I feel like I’ve had a tough day,” Steve admits, reaching over for a spring roll and demolishing it in two bites. “Even though all I’ve done is sit, read, watch TV and draw.”
“Back with the drawing? Still playing with your felt pens?”
“Yes, still playing with the felt pens,” Steve says, and then on a whim, shoves his fork into the carton and reaches over and picks up his sketch book from the seat next to him. He hands it over to Clint wordlessly, and Clint raises an eyebrow but takes it without comment about Steve’s new willingness to share.
“That’s a whole lot of you,” he finally says as his eyes skirt over the page. It’s a drawing from this morning; a medley of all the versions of Steve, spread all over the page. “Who’s the kid?”
“He was called SJ,” Steve tells him, heart aching with how much he misses SJ's small trusting presence at his side. “He was eight, died of a chest infection I think, he had this god-awful cough. He was pretty much glued to my side the whole time I was there, liked the fact I was warm.”
“The others weren’t?” Clint asks.
“No,” Steve says. “Possibly because they were actually dead.”
“You miss them?”
Steve nods without pause, thinking especially of SJ. “Yeah,” he says. “It’s hard, seeing everything about yourself laid out in front of you. All your faults, all the things you do that you hate. But at the same time, you learn a lot about yourself too, and you see the good as well. Things you wouldn’t notice about yourself unless you were standing back a way.”
He hesitates, and then reaches over and taps the figure in the corner of the page. “This version of me was known as the Director. He was…he was wrong. In his mind, he was completely twisted. He was violent, power-hungry. No remorse. He killed so many people – he came after me when I was there.”
“Shit, Steve,” Clint whistles between his teeth. “A bad version of you? Having trouble imagining it.”
“I’m not,” Steve says heavily. “But it kinda helps to hear you say that.”
“What made him bad?"
“No idea,” Steve says. “And that’s probably the worst bit, not knowing. Like, is it something that could happen to me, and make me lose it? Could I turn out that way if something goes wrong?”
Clint just shakes his head. “Nah, you’re good,” he says simply, and Steve believes him, immediately feeling more relaxed. Being insecure in his sense of self has been a strange, foreign feeling; even when he was tiny he never doubted himself, only the body he’d been born with.
Reassured, Steve sits back and eats some more, watching Clint as Clint looks at the sketches of the other Steves, still eating one handed. His mouth kicks in a slight smile as he looks at the drawing of Stephanie, but he doesn’t comment.
“So, which ones were married to Tony?” Clint asks casually.
“The woman, Stephanie,” Steve tells him. “And Seven – top right.”
“And – hang on, has that you got a robotic arm?” Clint asks, distracted. “Oh my god, he looks like he’s got issues. Look at that scowl. It’s like eye murder.”
“We all had issues,” Steve laughs. “Some more so than others.”
“So, if you could swap with any of the other yous, which one would it be?”
Steve considers for a moment, thinking of the Steve’s from the war who never crashed and froze; of the ones who are happily married; the Steve’s who were part of the modern world, as soldiers or civilians; the ones who didn’t lose Bucky or Peggy; the ones who lost everything in one way or another.
And he thinks of his life as it is now.
He smiles softly, looking up at Clint. “Don’t think I would,” he says.
Clint grins at him. “Even if your love-life is an absolute clusterfuck and you got stabbed by a robot?”
Steve laughs, dipping his head for a moment before looking back up. “Even if my love-life is an absolute clusterfuck and I got stabbed by a robot.”
“Well, we fixed the stabbing,” Clint muses. “Maybe we can fix the wreck that is the Steve and Tony train.”
Way beyond denial – and knowing that there’s little point trying with Clint, who is proving himself to be astoundingly perceptive – Steve just nods easily and carries on eating.
“Whatever you say.”
And that's time, ladies and gents. Thank you so much to everyone who has read, commented, left kudos, cheer-leaded (cheerled?) and made me feel welcome in Avengers fandom. Coming soon - more multi-chapter Steve/Tony and some Clint/Bucky because you are all terrible enablers.
“Time,” Steve pants as he skids to a halt in the basement of Avengers Tower, slapping his hand to the panel on the wall to close the doors behind him. His chest is heaving with breath and he’s sweating buckets, though he doesn’t care in the slightest because his whole body is thrumming and energised from the exercise. Outside, the sun is already creeping up and the day is already promising to be a glorious one.
“You completed the run in two hours and fifty-eight minutes, beating your previous personal best by three minutes,” Jarvis says, and Steve punches the air delightedly, grinning.
“Not bad at all,” he says breathlessly, walking across the garage towards the elevators. There’s a bottle of water on the floor by the elevator, left there on his way out earlier that morning, and he stoops to grab it as the elevator doors slide smoothly open.
“Thanks, Jarvis,” he says, twisting the cap off the water bottle and draining half of it in several easy swallows. Bracing his hands on the smooth chrome rail at waist height, he leans back against the wall of the elevator, smiling to himself as the elevator takes him up towards the communal floors. He’s not ever managed to run that route in under three hours before, which can only mean that he’s finally back to full fitness. It’s taken way too long in his opinion; just over seven weeks of gradually building up his strength and energy, having to be careful about how much he attempts to do without rest.
Seven weeks. Seven whole weeks of recovering, looking back on his time in the multiverse and learning from it. He doesn’t miss being there, but he does still miss the characters he met, particularly SJ. He’d had a dream a couple of nights ago – a real dream, not a multiverse experience – that SJ had turned up at the tower and Steve had adopted him and Fury had gone absolutely spare and Natasha had taught SJ how to dance. He’d woken up feeling close to tears, frustrated and miserable that SJ was gone, far out of his reach. It had taken him a while to realise that he was mourning SJ and the others and not just missing them; before he’d made it back home they’d all seemed very real and very much alive, and he hadn’t immediately registered in his own head that they were dead.
It's not just SJ and the others that have been on his mind; it's also been seven weeks of living in the tower without Tony there, trying not to feel unhappy with how empty it seems. He hasn’t heard anything from him, but he didn’t really expect to. Tony made it quite clear that it was down to Steve to decide what he wanted from their relationship, and he’d act accordingly whenever Steve finally did decide.
Seven weeks of time to recover and sort his head out, and Steve thinks maybe that he’s starting to come to a few conclusions. Tentative, fleeting conclusions that are constantly creeping up on him at unexpected moments and then abandoning him when he actually tries to lock down on them. He’s almost given up on trying to force his thoughts in any direction, and is instead just allowing himself to be content with the simple ache in his chest that misses Tony. He’s starting to think that maybe that’s enough anyway.
He knows Clint is in contact with Pepper and sort-of Tony (annoying him by sending him pointless picture messages, according to Natasha) and Clint says Tony is safe and healthy and working his ass off. Pepper is apparently rather taken aback by his new and improved work ethic, though still wishes that he would stop bumping his own projects to the top of his schedule.
God, but Steve misses him.
Clint is sitting at the island counter in the communal kitchen when Steve walks in, fiddling with an arrow. There are more arrows and loose fletchings scattered over the countertop, alongside a screwdriver and something that looks suspiciously like a mini blowtorch from Tony’s workshop.
“So, the no weapons at the kitchen counter rule lasted all of a week and a half, then,” he calls out as he walks over.
“These are tools, not weapons,” Clint replies, turning around and grinning at Steve.
“Arrows, Clint,” Steve says, amused, and Clint glances at the carnage on the table and then grimaces.
“I’m in too good a mood to be mad,” Steve says honestly, stretching his arms above his head and grunting in satisfaction as his spine stretches and relaxes. “Ran under three hours.”
“That what you were running before your excellent adventure?” Clint asks, and Steve nods.
“Yep. Quickest I’ve ever done, by three minutes,” he says, and leans forwards, intending to stretch his back some more. He gets halfway down and feels his sweat-soaked shirt sticking uncomfortably to his back, catching under his arms. Wrinkling his nose, he stands up and peels it off, finding a semi-dry spot and wiping his face on it. The air conditioning in the tower is of course working perfectly, and the room feels fresh and pleasant against his sweaty skin.
“Aw, come on. Now that’s just,” Clint says in a tone somewhere between awed and exasperated. Steve lowers the shirt from his face to see Clint pointing an arrow at him, presumably because he’s trying to make a point. “I am totally not gay but seriously, you are like porn. If I sent a photo to Tony now he’d combust.”
Steve folds his arms across his chest, trying not to be amused. Clint just raises both his eyebrows and spreads his hands apart, gesturing at Steve and then pretending to swoon, wrist pressed to his forehead.
Clint straightens up in his seat, folding his arms across his chest in a mirror of Steve’s pose. “Steve.”
Clint grins. “I’m making you uncomfortable, aren’t I?”
“Yeah, little bit,” Steve says dryly, reaching for his water bottle again and feeling rather conscious of every flex of muscle as he does. He’s not trying to show off, honestly, he’s just thirsty.
“Not used to guys being open with the attention?” Clint asks, eyes on the arrow in his hand. He reaches for the blowtorch, and then remembers Steve is there and puts it back down again.
Steve makes a thoughtful noise, shrugging one shoulder. “Still not used to the attention, no matter who it’s from,” he says, and takes a swallow from the water bottle before putting it down. “You spend most of your life as someone who never gets a look and then suddenly you’re someone who’s turning heads all over the place.”
“Wow, you’ve clearly attended the Stark seminar on humility,” Clint snorts, and then pulls a contemplative face. “So, you ever banged a dude?”
“I’m just asking.”
Steve shakes his head, wondering how he can have such awful taste in friends. He’s clearly going to have to make some more, ones that don’t seem to consistently have winding him up as the top item on their to-do lists. “You really aren’t being very helpful.”
“Ha, that’s almost exactly what Tony said.”
Steve huffs, pinching the bridge of his nose for a second before looking up. Clint is still looking at him, clearly waiting for an answer. “Shall I do the abridged version of this conversation? No, I have never banged a dude,” Steve says, making air quotes with his fingers, and Clint chokes with supressed laughter. “No, I never indulged in any helping hands with the fellas during the war. Yes, I have kissed a guy before, but it was over seventy years ago and was the result of a game of dare that got out of hand.”
Clint looks positively gleeful, shaking with restrained laughter. “Captain America played gay chicken and lost.”
Steve stares at him, nonplussed. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Gay chicken – never mind. Did you like the result?”
“I didn’t not like it. I didn’t really anything it.”
“Yes, I’ve thought about kissing Tony. No, I can’t think of any objections.”
“You know that positivity is not just the absence of negativity?” Clint says cautiously. “Like, you can’t decide something is a good idea just because there’s nothing to say it’s a bad idea. You have to think it’s a good idea because, well, because it’s a good idea."
“Okay,” Steve says, rubbing at his forehead. “Maybe I quite like the idea.”
“Aaaaand touchdown!” Clint says, throwing his hands in the air. “Conclusion reached, that’s time ladies and gents, please don’t tell me anymore of your ideas about Tony.”
And despite Clint once again reaching Bucky-levels of annoying, Steve finds he’s laughing. There’s a funny sort of feeling in his stomach, a lot like butterflies, and the feeling only intensifies as he thinks about his admission. Kissing Tony…it’s true; now he’s letting himself contemplate the idea, he’s finding that maybe it wouldn’t be completely awful. Maybe okay. Maybe even pretty swell.
“So, if you would bang Tony and you hate being without Tony and you feel like a better person when you’re around Tony…?”
“Yeah,” Steve says, drumming his fingers on the countertop.
“Yeah?” Clint asks.
Steve blows out a breath, knowing exactly what Clint is actually asking. The ‘yes’ is on the tip of his tongue, another admission waiting to come out into the open, but before it can, Jarvis is interrupting, his voice quiet and calm.
“Captain Rogers, Dr Richards is on the line. He once again says it’s urgent.”
Steve sighs, folding his arms across his bare chest again and leaning sideways, checking his hip against the countertop. “I’m not in,” he says, as Clint sniggers. There’s a pause, and Steve holds his breath.
“I’m afraid he knows you are here, Captain,” Jarvis says apologetically. “Johnny Storm saw you out running this morning as he was returning home. He has informed Doctor Richards that you appear fit and well, and that you were heading back into the tower. Doctor Richards is insisting that he needs to speak with you urgently, as he has spoken with Doctor Strange.”
Steve’s stomach lurches, and he exchanges a look with Clint. “Strange? He’s back in this dimension?” Clint asks, sounding guarded.
“It would appear so, Agent Barton.”
Steve blows out a breath. He is perfectly fit and well again and could probably move on with his life quite happily after his stint in the multiverse exactly as he is now…but there’s a part of him that will always want to know how this happened to him, even if he’s managed to work out why. And besides, his experience could really be of use to Richards and the others who are interested in finding out more about the multiverse. With that in mind, he makes a decision.
“Patch him through,” Steve says.
Richard’s voice comes through the speakers almost immediately, sounding annoyed. “About time. I’ve been waiting for you to get back to me for weeks.”
Clint pulls a face and shows the ceiling his middle finger. Steve bites down on a laugh. “Yeah, sorry. Fury’s orders,” he says. “Had to be back at full strength before I let anyone poke about in my brain again.”
“You know if you’d come in sooner we would have been able to draw more conclusive data-”
“I’m sorry, was the point to get data about your freaking pet multiverse theory or to help Steve?” Clint butts in angrily, before Steve can say anything. He shoots Clint an exasperated look, because he appreciates the solidarity but he’s most definitely fit and well enough to be fighting his own battles. Especially when the battle in question is nothing more than an awkward phone call with an overzealous scientist.
There’s a pause, and then Richards speaks again. “This whole experience could hold the key-”
“Yeah, you’ve said that before,” Clint says rudely, and Steve sends him a warning look which he of course completely ignores. “Now what do you actually want?”
Richards sighs, sounding put out. “Stephen Strange is back. He can help us look at any traces of magic left in your consciousness, maybe he even knows who did it. Either way, he seems interested in helping.”
Steve jumps in before Clint can piss Richards off too much. Frankly, if Richards is going to go delving about in his brain, he wants him on side. “Okay, when is he available to-”
“This afternoon,” Reed says immediately. “He says he hasn’t got much time to spare.”
Steve pauses, thinks for a moment. “Okay,” he says.
“Whoa, whoa, time out, not okay,” Clint says, slashing his hands violently through the air. “This afternoon? Don’t we need to call a team meeting or something? Is this going to be safe? What are you even planning?”
“Of course it’s safe,” Richards says dismissively. Clint sends Steve a meaningful look, shaking his head insistently from side to side. Steve frowns back; surely if Richards says it’s safe, it will be safe? They wouldn’t put him in danger just for the sake of sating their curiosity, surely?
“You can guarantee it’s safe?” Steve says, and Clint emphatically mouths ‘no.’
“Yes,” Richards says, now sounding impatient. “We wouldn’t do anything that would permanently damage you, Captain.”
Steve raises his eyebrows in a ‘there you go,’ face which he directs at Clint, who is still shaking his head, mistrust etched into every line of his face and countenance. Steve ignores him, and carries on talking to Richards. “Okay, this afternoon is fine. Thank you, Doctor Richards. Shall I come by the Baxter Building?”
“Yes. One O’ clock. See you later.”
The call disconnects without further ado and Steve reaches for his shirt, slinging it over his shoulder. Out of the corner of his eye he notices Clint is still looking far from happy, annoyed frown firmly in place. He’s got the shaft of an arrow in one hand, a stray purple fletching in another, turning it over and over between his fingers.
“Hey. Stop with the frowning, it’ll be fine.”
“You know the Fantastic Four became the Fantastic Four because Richards miscalculated something?” Clint says pointedly, chucking the arrow shaft back onto the counter with a clatter.
“Okay. I’ll tell him that if he’s going to miscalculate again, I want invisibility.”
“Oh ha fucking ha, joker,” Clint retorts, and then looks down for a moment, staring at the fletching that’s between his fingers. “We can’t lose you again, Cap,” he says to his shoes. “Seriously.”
Steve suddenly feels bad for not taking Clint’s obvious – and understandable – concerns seriously. “I’m sorry,” he says honestly. “But you can’t – I’ll be fine. If you guys start leaping in to protect me from everything that could go wrong-
“This is Richards, it probably will go wrong.”
“Clint, he knows what he’s doing,” Steve says firmly. “I need to do this, and I trust that he’s not going to do anything that’s going to hurt me. If it helps, you can come with me.”
Clint looks at him for a moment and then nods, though he still looks unsure. “You need to tell Tony.”
“Don’t,” Steve says, before he can stop himself, spine prickling at the way Tony’s name is casually thrown into the conversation. He’s not sure what to make of the fact that Clint thinks that Tony needs to be a part of this – Steve and Tony aren’t together, Steve doesn’t need Tony’s permission or say so-to do anything, Tony doesn’t need to know everything that’s happening to Steve. “He doesn’t need to come back just for this.
“He’d want to be here.”
“Well he can’t get here,” Steve reasons, because it’s true; even if they called Tony now and he managed to get his jet off the ground in the next hour, he still wouldn’t arrive in time. Clint is looking more and more unimpressed, so Steve hesitates. “I’ll call him afterwards.”
Clint still doesn’t look completely convinced, but there’s not a lot Steve can do about it. Supressing a sigh, Steve pushes away from the counter and reaches over to clap him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry,” he says, straightening up and stepping backwards. “I’m going to take a shower.”
“I still think you should be more concerned about this plan,” Clint yells after him, and Steve just rolls his eyes and walks away. It is touching – yet frustrating – that Clint’s worried, but he supposes it can be put down to the fact the rest of the team went through hell whilst he was out for the count. It still makes him feel oddly guilty in a way, though he had had his own torments to be dealing with whilst in the multiverse. It wasn’t like he had an easy ride whilst leaving them all here in the lurch.
As he heads up to his rooms, his thoughts drift back to the way Clint had so easily said that Steve should call Tony, to let him know what’s happening. He thinks about it for a moment, and finds he actually wants to. Not because he thinks anything will go wrong, but simply because it seems right to tell Tony about something like this.
Like he would if he were in a relationship with someone.
He bites the inside of his lip and pushes the thought away. He can’t call Tony, not for this. The whole point of Tony going away was so that Steve could deal with this whole multiverse experience and then work out how he felt, not to tangle the two up again.
I’ll call him afterwards, he promises himself, and doesn’t debate it any more.
“Always with the shouting, what’s with the shouting,” Tony says vaguely, eyes on the circuit board in front of him, soldering iron in hand. Pepper is still shouting his name and he can hear her heels clacking on the metal stairs that lead down to his workshop. He’s been in LA for seven and a half weeks now and he actually thinks he’s been pretty well-behaved for his tenure on the west coast; he’s signed all her paperwork and completed the specs for the new tower's energy grid and even been to two whole shareholder meetings. Honestly, he’s got no idea why she’s yelling.
“J, have I forgotten anything?” Tony asks, eyes still fixed on the circuitry in front of him. “Work out why she’s yelling.”
“I’m afraid I do not know,” Jarvis said apologetically. “You have actually completed all of the tasks that Ms Potts categorised as non-negotiable.”
“And you, always with the surprise,” Tony grumbles.
Jarvis ignores him and carries on. “Though it may be down to the fact she has just finished a phone call with Agent Barton.”
Tony goes very still, eyes on his hands. He’s not heard much from Clint and the others in the past few weeks; just enough to keep him comforted that they aren’t pissed at him for leaving and are simply respecting his choice to put some distance between himself and the situation. Mostly he receives photo messages from Clint. They’re often pretty random, coming in at unpredictable and ridiculous times of the day and night, and they seem to serve as a sort of pictorial commentary of life in the tower; images of empty coffee cups; some amazing array of equipment that Bruce has set up in the lab; the kitchen table covered in empty plates, newspapers and various bits of Natasha-themed weaponry. One had been of Steve asleep on the sofa in the rec room of the tower, sprawled out on his back with his mouth hanging open, shirt all twisted and rucked halfway up his stomach, the cushions all knocked to the floor.
Clint never adds any captions or words to the pictures, but Tony thinks there’s no real need. It’s oddly reassuring, getting the odd snapshot of his teammates, though the picture of Steve had made Tony feel like throwing something across the room because he hadn’t been there to see it himself.
“Tony, where are you?”
“You rang?” Tony says as Pepper’s feet hit ground level, shoving his stool away from the workbench and rolling across the floor so he’s not hidden from view behind the tool cabinet. He frowns as she marches over; she looks somewhere between panicked and frustrated and that’s never a good look, especially when he’s got no idea why she’s looking that way.
“Clint just called, he was trying to call you, why did you not answer?”
“Busy,” Tony replies, standing up and walking over, catching her elbows with his hands. “Jarvis was diverting, Pep, whoa, calm down and tell me-”
“Clint says that Stephen Strange has appeared back in this, this dimension or whatever you call it, I don’t know,” Pepper says, frantic. “Reed Richards is organising some sort of appointment for him to go delving through Steve’s brain to find out where it went, and Steve apparently thinks it’s not a big deal and is trusting Richards, but -”
Tony’s mind stutters to a halt. Hang on – Steve is going to let Strange fuck about with his mind with only Reed Richards for supervision? Fuck, he knows Strange too well to believe he’ll prioritise Steve’s wellbeing before his own wants and needs. And Richards as well. The level of risk that they are going to consider acceptable is going to be too high, Steve probably isn’t fully recovered from the accident and they won’t give a shit if they hurt him, not if it’s in the name of magic or science-
“Hold him off,” he says, going back to his workbench and grabbing his phone. “Jarvis, remove call blocking. Pepper, call Clint back and get him to hold them off, I don’t care how he does it-”
“Okay,” Pepper is already dialling, biting her lip. She’s moving back and forth agitatedly, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. “Clint? Clint yes, he knows, he says to hold him off. I don’t know, what do you normally do when you’re trying to divert someone-? No, Clint, you can’t shoot anyone, just think of – ask Natasha. Get Natasha on the phone – well go and find her then-!”
Heart thumping behind the arc-reactor, Tony lets Pepper deal with that end of the situation and shifts his focus to what he needs to do instead. He dials Steve's number, heart thudding strangely as it connects and rings. And rings. And rings. And then goes to voicemail.
"Fuck!" Tony swears. "Jarvis, where is he?"
"I'm sorry, Sir, it appears Captain Rogers is not in the tower."
Tony doesn't stop to think. "Jarvis, get the suit ready. Mark fifteen, go.”
There’s a pause.
“Sir, the mark thirteen is the fastest model,” Jarvis says. “If speed is your priority.”
Tony nods brusquely. “Good call. Light it up.”
There’s a faint and familiar whirring and Tony watches the storage compartment in the wall open slowly, focussing on breathing in and out steadily. There’s only one thought left in his mind, repeating over and over and he doesn’t doubt it, not even for a second.
He needs to get to Steve.
Reed Richards' lab is nowhere near as great as Tony’s, is Steve’s initial thought upon entering. It’s just gone half past one and he’s only just arrived, apologising for being late. He fully blames Clint, who had done his damnest to get Steve to rethink his decision and put off the appointment; it was only when Steve told him he was going with or without him that Clint conceded and let him leave the tower. Actually, Clint didn’t even really concede; he just couldn’t physically stop Steve from exiting the building and had instead followed him with a very bad grace.
Steve blows out a breath, rocking back on his heels and starting to feel a little nervous. He tries to take his mind off it by looking around, but it doesn’t work very well. It’s nothing like Tony’s workshop; it’s all science and numbers and theory, none of the bots or machines or cars that Tony works with. More abstract. Less real, somehow.
Steve suddenly wishes he had called Tony. It's too late now, and besides, even if he wanted to he's left his phone on his nightstand after showering.
“Take a seat, Captain,” Stephen Strange says to Steve, his voice low and melodious. He gestures to the chair and Steve nods and climbs carefully into it, leaning back and exhaling heavily. Strange looks amused, like Steve is a small child finding something illogically frightening. “Relax. The tenser you are, the more uncomfortable it will be for you, and the more difficult it will be for me.”
“Easy for you to say,” Steve says, and he’s only half joking. He wants to do this – he needs to do this – but Stephen Strange isn’t exactly a warm and welcoming type of fella. He’d greeted Steve politely enough, but had been openly keen to dismiss with pleasantries in favour of getting down to business. It doesn’t help that Steve knows very little about the guy; he knows his official title is Sorcerer Supreme, and he protects the earth from magical threats. He knows that he used to be a neurosurgeon before he learned magic, which he supposes is a plus for someone who’s about to go delving around in his brain.
He’ll be honest; between Strange and Richards, Steve is starting to feel a bit like a lab rat. He’s not going to back out now though, not when he’s so close to getting some more answers. At the end of the day, he can’t really object to what the two men are planning if he gets what he wants out if it.
“I still think we should wait,” Clint says stubbornly, from where he is leaning back against Richards’ desk with his hands shoved in his pockets, much to Richards’ chagrin.
“It’ll be fine,” Richards says without turning around. His fingers are flying over his keyboard, eyes glued to the screen in front of him. “Just sit still. Strange, are these sensors going to affect what you need to do?”
Strange looks over to Richards, who stops typing and picks up a couple of small white circular disks, holding them up for inspection.
“No,” Strange says without pause. “Unless any of your equipment runs off magical energy.”
“No,” Richards says, and reaches – no, stretches – his arms over towards Steve. He doesn’t flinch, but Clint does take a large step back away from the extending limbs, a look of alarmed distaste on him face. Steve smiles fleetingly, and then sits perfectly still as Reed sticks the two sensors onto Steve’s head, one just below each temple.
“It will happen quickly,” Strange says to Richards, watching as his arms retract and he goes back to typing. “Will your sensors be able to keep up?"
Steve’s eyes flick to Clint as the conversation turns back to science. Or magic, he’s not sure at this point. Noticing the glance, Clint pushes away from the desk and walks over to Steve, still looking unhappy.
“Relax,” Steve says to him, even though he’s been given the same instruction and can’t quite manage it himself. “It’s fine.”
“Only Captain America would insist that having his brain messed with is fine,” Clint snorts, kicking his toe against the leg of the chair. “What is it gonna take to get you to hold off?”
“Hold off for what?” Steve says pointedly. “What is the point in waiting?”
Clint’s mouth opens and then closes again almost immediately. He kicks at the chair leg again. “Tony,” he finally says stubbornly, looking up. “You should let Tony know, wait for Tony-”
Steve shakes his head. “We’ve talked about this,” he says. “Clint. Don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere. These guys have got me.”
“You’re not listening – that’s exactly why I’m worried.”
“Ready Captain? Hawkeye, move.”
Clint turns an unimpressed glare on Richards, but does deign to step back. Strange steps up, taking his place beside Steve, bright eyes fixed on his face and now looking at Steve like he’s a particularly interesting puzzle. “I am going to delve through your consciousness and see what traces of magic are left,” he says smoothly. “If possible, I will find the window which opened up to your consciousness, push you through and follow.”
“Push me?” Steve asks, taken aback. His stomach clenches. “No offense, but I really don’t fancy going back.”
“I will have you tethered,” Strange says. “I highly doubt the place that you describes even exists anymore, so you will not, as you put it, ‘go back.’ We will merely be following the path of whoever it was that did this to you.”
“I don’t fully understand,” Steve says slowly, because he can put most of the pieces together and he’s far from stupid, but this is so far beyond anything he’s ever encountered before.
“I’m not asking you to understand,” Strange says. “I’m asking you to sit still.”
And Steve looks from Richards to Strange to Clint, hesitating for a moment before nodding. Strange says he will have him tethered, that he’s not going to let him slip away, all he’s going to be doing is looking-
Strange reaches out and his hands hover either side of Steve’s temples. Steve takes a deep steadying breath and lets his eyes flutter shut. His chest expands and then settles, and everything is quiet, only breathing and the shuffling of someone’s footsteps. He’s still nervous, and a voice in the back of his mind still wishes he’d called Tony, but Tony wouldn’t have been able to get here in time anyway.
He breathes in. Out. Tries to relax.
And then cool fingertips touch his temples and agony tears through his mind in a piercing rush of light. He feels his whole body snap taught as if electrocuted, his hands grasping spasmodically at the arms of the chair, fingers gripping so tightly the metal buckles. A strangled scream never makes it out of his throat, catching painfully in his chest as his back bows.
The shout comes from thousands of miles away, echoing and distant. Steve is torn mercilessly from his body, falling, falling through roaring wind and swirling light. Screams and shouts and cries of pain echo around him, and he twists around desperately, trying to find something to hold onto. He’s no longer in the chair, he’s nowhere, he’s falling and there’s nothing to grab onto-
God, it hurts. The wind is tearing at his clothes and hair, stinging his eyes and his chest is burning, burning where the metal went through his ribs. He’s coughing, choking, can taste blood in the back of his mouth. He lifts an arm, covering his face, trying to shield his eyes.
No, he tries to say, desperate. He’s getting lost again, he doesn’t want to be lost again, he needs to get home-
‘Was it worth it?’ a voice screams through the wind, and it’s his voice, he holds his hand in front of his face and tries to see. It’s his voice, shouting and yelling, and then the light and shadows lurch and twist and he’s there, he can see himself right there, in a dark corridor, sitting inside a steel cell barred by bars of light with Tony standing impassively on the other side.
“No.” He tries to lunge forwards but the image is ripped away from his grasping fingers. Another takes its place; Steve lying prone on the ground with his head in Tony’s armoured lap. He’s pale and not moving, and Tony’s bare hands are stroking gently across his face, through his hair. There are tears on Tony’s face, and his mouth is moving as he speaks softly to Steve.
The pain swells, twists and he feels bile rise up in the back of his throat. There are shadows and images tearing past him, just like when he an SJ had stumbled across the magic in the multiverse, but this is more invasive, more painful. He feels like he’s being dragged away in the current and he tries to scream, for help, for anyone.
He sees bright green eyes and a sweep of dark hair as a figure turns away and runs. A streaming cloak, snapping and fluttering in the wind. He tries to follow but the pain is agonising, and he can’t. He gasps and then he can see himself again, alone and walking slowly through a silent forest. The snow lies thick on the ground and flakes fall silently, smothering the ground beneath his feet. Blood drips onto the snow, shockingly bright against the white. He's staggering, stumbling, clutching his left shoulder where his arm should be-
The image is snatched away but he can’t be grateful, because now he can see Tony lying on the floor, armour bent and battered and Steve is standing above him, shield raised and rage etched into his features. Tony isn’t moving and Steve is swinging, swinging the shield down viciously, and Steve is screaming but not making a sound, horrified and sick and desperate-
And he falls back into his body with an agonising wrench. The force sends him lurching forwards out of the chair, falling forwards and gasping, and strong hands grab him, keeping him from hitting the floor. All he can hear is his pulse pounding in his ears, and he can barely lift his head. The wind is gone, the light is gone and he’s back. He can still barely see; pain licks at his temples and footsteps around him, urgent and alarmed voices.
He sways dangerously and sinks further down, listing sideways. There’s a curse, and he slumps forwards into something hard and solid. He reaches out weakly, tries to push against it and get up, but he can’t, he’s too damn weak. Another bitten off swear word, and there’s a hand under his chin, a hand on his shoulder and pushing him back, tilting his face up. He screws his eyes shut against the light for a moment, forces them open, and then his heart jolts behind his aching ribs.
Tony is there.
It’s Tony who’s there in front of him. He’s in the armour, gauntlets and helmet off, kneeling in front of Steve and looking somewhere between worried and furious, eyes not on Steve but over somewhere to his right. Still gasping in air, Steve just stares at him for a moment, eyes locked on Tony’s face and trying to grasp hold of a single coherent thought other than Tony is here-
Oh god, a second ago he was watching a Steve Rogers kill a Tony Stark, swinging his shield with such sickening and determined violence, and no, he is not letting anything happen to Tony, he will kill himself before he lets anything happen to Tony-
And suddenly he understands what Tony meant by ‘it’s realisation.’ God, he knows exactly what Tony means, how he saw something terrible happen to Steve which wrenched open a raw and painful part of him, something that bursts into fierce life under his sternum.
“-didn’t tell him it was going to be that fucking painful!” Tony is bellowing, angrier than Steve has ever heard him. “You absolute bastard, Richards, you were meant to call-”
And Steve pushes forwards with monumental effort, pushing himself up and rolling forwards into Tony, his hands sliding under Tony’s arms and clutching at his armoured back. He can’t even – he just knows that some raw, newly unearthed part of him wants – needs – to be as close to Tony as possible.
“Whoa!” Tony grabs at him, alarmed as they both rock back dangerously, threatening to tip over completely. “Cap – Steve!”
Steve shoves his face into Tony’s throat and doesn’t let go. He’s shaking from head to foot, and he can now hear Clint yelling and Richards shouting back, but he doesn’t care because Tony is somehow here, Tony is here and got him out of that awful, terrible place-
“Steve,” Tony says softly, urgently, and a hand comes up to hold onto the back of Steve’s head. “Talk to me, please say something, oh god, he’s scrambled your brain hasn’t he-”
“I’m okay,” Steve manages to say, face still pressed into the curve of Tony’s neck. His whole body shudders and the edge of the suit digs into his jaw. “I’m alright.”
“Oh, thank fuck,” Tony breathes, so quiet and torn up with relief. An armoured arm wraps around Steve, pulls him close. He raises his voice again. “What the hell were you guys thinking?”
“He will suffer no lasting damage,” Stephen Strange says, sounding annoyed. “A few more minutes and-”
“A few more minutes? You nearly boxed him with thirty seconds of that shit!” Tony snaps, and Steve can hear Clint snarling, “I’ll cause you lasting damage,” in the background.
“And you, you fucking moron,” Tony says angrily to Steve, but Steve doesn’t want to hear it. He can barely think, all he can feel and smell is Tony, and his mouth is moving gently against the skin of Tony’s neck, a silent thank you, a wordless don’t leave me.
Tony’s breath stutters, exhales shakily. “Steve,” he murmurs, uncertain, all the anger gone. Steve presses impossibly closer, eyes suddenly hot and burning, and for the first time since the accident he knows what he wants. He is not going to let Tony go, not ever. He’s never going to let anyone hurt him, least of all himself.
“You’re here,” he manages to say. “Stay. Stay with me.”
And Tony is tightening his arms around Steve, forcing his head up and pressing his cheek to Steve’s, breathing rapid and harsh in Steve’s ear. “Yes," he says, and his hand is still on the back of Steve’s head. It moves clumsily, shaking as it strokes his hair. “Steve.”
Steve presses his nose against Tony’s cheekbone, nudges at him, his chest heaving as he tries to catch his breath. Tony’s beard is rasping against his skin and somehow his mouth is pressing at the corner of Tony’s, and he wants. He feels like his body is drugged, lethargic and clumsy. Tony’s breath is hot on his face, and Steve is trying to inch closer, turning and pressing his face further into Tony’s nudge by nudge, and then his mouth finally reaches Tony’s, and he never wants to leave.
Tony draws a sharp breath in through his nose as Steve’s mouth presses to his. He doesn’t move for several long seconds, and then he’s shuddering and pulling back, pressing his forehead to Steve’s.
“You fucking moron,” Tony is saying, but Steve doesn’t give a shit. “Tactical genius my ass, why the hell would you – why would you not tell me this was happening? Jesus, Steve, if Barton thinks it’s a bad idea then you know it’s a bad idea, and I’m never forgiving you for enabling Barton as the sensible one, that’s fucked up on so many levels-”
“Stop talking,” Steve manages to say, rolling his forehead against Tony’s.
“Fuck you,” Tony replies. “And fuck this. I’m taking you home. No more mind fuckery. Clint, call someone and then help me carry this son of a bitch downstairs. So help me Richards, if you’re about to complain about incomplete data I’m going to tell Sue what you just did-”
Zoning Tony’s voice out, Steve slumps forwards, forehead resting against the cool metal of the Iron Man armour. He feels like he could sleep for a week, and they’re never going to let him forget this, are they? God, he’s had it with the multiverse, he’s officially out. He doesn’t care who did this to him; he’s learned his lesson, he never wants to see another alternative reality as long as he lives, and-
And Tony’s fingers are gently stroking up the nape of his neck even as he carries on arguing with Richards and Strange, and Steve remotely thinks he can’t even be all that mad about it, if this is where he’s ended up. Tony’s hand moves, palm cupping the back of his neck. His face turns towards Steve, mouth pressing to the side of his face for a fleeting moment before he lifts his chin to snap back at Doctor Strange.
Yeah, Steve thinks, breathing in the smell of metal and Tony, so impossibly wonderfully close. There are definitely worse places to end up. It’s a crying shame it’s taken him so long to realise it.
It takes Tony in the armour and some help from a hastily summoned Thor to get Steve back to his room in the tower. Steve’s energy is slowly returning but he’s not quite back up to speed and is still off-balance even by the time they haul him into his room and dump him unceremoniously on his bed. Tony is torn between feeling bad and feeling like Steve deserves it, the moron.
“I shall leave him in your care,” Thor says to Tony, watching with a knowing smile as Steve pushes himself into a sitting position, leaning on the edge of the bed with his elbows on his knees and his forehead propped on his knuckles.
“I’m alright,” he says, sounding tired and pissed off. “Stop worrying about me.”
“Once again, fuck off,” Tony says cheerfully, and turns to clap Thor on the shoulder. “Thanks, big guy.”
Thor nods, and then turns and leaves the room. Tony watches him go, and then turns his attention to getting out of his armour. He takes his time disassembling it, leaving the pieces stacked up in the corner of the room. Only when he’s out of it, clad in his jeans and T-shirt and barefoot, does he turn to Steve, folding his arms across his chest. God, his heart feels like it’s about to turn inside out – he’s back here with Steve, he’s so close that Tony could climb into his arms again and kiss him senseless, kiss him the way Steve had kissed him before. God, even the thought of it makes shivers go down his spine.
“Unacceptable risk, Steven Rogers,” he says sternly, and Steve just holds out the hand that’s not being used to prop his head up, not even looking at Tony as he does.
Tony capitulates, stepping over and taking Steve’s hand in his. “Sorry for pulling the plug,” he says. “But I honestly could not sit through another moment of that.”
“Neither could I,” Steve says, and then, “Clint called you didn’t he?”
“Yep,” Tony says. He’s about to make a snarky comment about it, but he sees Steve’s shoulders tighten fractionally, his mouth open as he exhales, chin trembling. “Hey, hey,” Tony says, concerned. He steps forwards and Steve reaches blindly for him with both hands, catching his hips and pressing his forehead to Tony’s stomach. Tony slides his hands onto his shoulders, feeling his own throat go tight. “What the hell did he do to you?"
“Dragged me through the multiverse,” Steve says, voice muffled. His fingers tighten slightly on Tony’s hips. “Painfully.”
“And you let him, you idiot,” Tony says.
“Don’t, it’s bad enough admitting Clint was right,” Steve replies.
"I'm seriously considering nominating bird-brain to be in charge," he says frankly. "I've got a lot to thank him for."
"He'd never," Steve breathes out heavily. "But yeah. We both do."
There's a moment of silence, the only sounds their measured breathing. Steve's thumbs move against the waistband of Tony's jeans, and Tony can feel it acutely even through the denim. He's not sure what to say, but luckily for him it's Steve who breaks the silence.
“I’m glad you’re here.”
“Careful what you say, Cap,” Tony says lightly, feeling hope burning traitorously in his chest. “That’s open to all sorts of interpretation.”
And Steve, the bastard, pushes Tony back by his hips and looks up at him, blue eyes open and piercing. “What you said about realisation,” he says, and there’s so much honesty in his gaze that it makes Tony’s head spin. “I want to be with you. I want you back here in the goddamn tower. I want you telling me when I fuck up, and I want you to let me tell you when you’re doing the same.”
And Tony has never felt so completely winded in his life. His hands smooth over Steve’s shoulders as he tries to find words, as he tries to find thoughts. Steve is still looking at him with those damn blue eyes and he can’t look away.
“Okay,” he manages. “So, you know friends can do that for each other-”
“No,” Steve says, sounding strained. He dips his head again, presses his forehead to Tony’s abdomen again. “No, I can’t-” He looks up again, awkward and beautiful. “I wouldn’t say I’m queer, I never have, I just-”
“The ends of these sentences better be good,” Tony says blankly, and Steve huffs, irritated.
“You, Tony. It’s always about you. God, why are we even talking about this?”
“Because communication is the key to a healthy, functioning relationship?” Tony suggests and it's a joke until it isn't, and it isn't when Steve’s head snaps up, eyes finding Tony's and pinning them in place with nothing more than his own bright gaze.
“Yeah?” Steve says, and he looks more vulnerable than Tony has ever seen. He wants to be the person to fix that, right now. He breathes in, lets his shoulder relax as he exhales. He can scarcely believe it, that Steve seems to have actually realised that he wants him. It’s terrifying and humbling and amazing all at once, and Steve is still looking at him openly, waiting for a response.
Waiting for Tony to decide if they’re going to do this or not.
“Yeah,” he says softly, and Steve’s eyes flutter close, relief and joy and something else flickering over his face. Tony laughs shortly because he put that expression there, and he traces his hand down the side of Steve’s tired face. “But I agree with the why are we talking sentiment. You need to be resting, and I need to be finding a creative way to ruin Reed Richards’ life.
“Stay,” Steve says, and then, “please.”
And Tony cannot – will not – argue with that word or tone of voice, not ever. He nods wordlessly and gives Steve a push. Steve acquiesces and lets go of Tony’s hips, toeing his shoes off and reaching down to pull off his socks. He doesn’t appear to think twice about pulling his shirt over his head, tossing it aside and then reaching for the button of his jeans. Tony’s mouth goes dry as Steve pushes them down his thighs and then shimmies out of them, kicking them off and then turning to crawl up the bed. God, he’s all tight muscle and glorious expanses of skin, begging for Tony to map each line and space with his mouth. He resists the urge though, watching as Steve climbs under the covers and settles on his side, on the left side of the bed.
God, but that man is beautiful.
Steve sighs, pulling at his pillow, eyes already closed. “Get in,” he murmurs, and who is Tony to deny that request. He’s glad Steve is lying on his left side because it means he’s facing Tony. Not that he’d be complaining about getting to get to see the glorious expanse of Steve’s back and shoulders, but right now he wants to be able to see his face, to catalogue every breath and commit every flicker of his eyelids to memory.
Tony unbuttons his own jeans and kicks them off and then, feeling slightly like he’s in a dream, goes around to the other side of the bed and climbs in. He leaves his shirt on, concious of both the arc reactor and the fact this is the first time they've done anything like this. “You got a tablet anywhere?” he asks as he shifts, edging closer to Steve.
“Nightstand,” Steve mumbles back.
Tony twists around and then falters. He’s spotted the tablet but that’s not what’s caught his attention; the tablet is half underneath a sketchbook, and the sketchbook is open. On the top page is a trio of sketches done in what looks like green felt pen; one is a snapshot of Steve fighting what appears to be a version of himself; the second is a small kid with a stripy shirt and scuffed knees who looks suspiciously like a little version of Steve; the final is a profile of Tony, smiling gently and warmly.
His eyes feel far too warm. He debates asking Steve about the drawings now, but Steve is already breathing deeply and evenly. Instead, Tony carefully pulls the tablet out from under the sketchbook, settling back against the pillows, half sitting and half reclining.
He means to read, to check in on some data for the stress capabilities for the new suit, but he can’t. He’s got Steve right there next to him, and Tony can’t stop looking at him. God, over the past few months he’d thought he’d lost Steve in more ways than one, and now he’s got him right here next to him.
He remembers the conversation they’d had when they’d talked before he’d left for LA; Steve’s careful words and his own honest reply.
‘And if I don’t want?’
‘Then you don’t get.’
Tony’s eyes flick to Steve again, and his heart aches at how peaceful he looks. He reaches out, brushes his fingertips lightly along Steve’s jaw for a moment.
“You want, you get, Rogers,” he murmurs, a smile on his lips that he doesn’t think is going to go anywhere anytime soon.
Steve wakes up just as the sun is setting. The blinds haven’t been drawn over the windows and the last of the light is casting an orange glow over the room, long dark shadows stretching across the carpet and bed. It’s peaceful and warm and quiet, and he doesn’t want to break it.
He blinks slowly, eyes on the form that’s lying next to him. Tony is asleep; he’s lying on his back with a tablet held loosely in his hand, resting against his chest. His other arm is resting loosely over his stomach, and his breathing is steady and easily audible as he breathes through his parted lips.
Steve doesn’t think. He doesn’t question or second guess. He just shifts closer, lifting himself up on his elbow, and as he does his bare legs brush Tony’s under the blankets and a shiver goes through him. His eyes flicker over Tony’s face, taking in all the details that he’s noticed but never stopped to appreciate before. The dark of his eyelashes lying against his skin, the soft bow of his upper lip. Objectively, he’s a handsome man; Steve’s always known and acknowledged that. But now it’s more; he’s here and he’s Steve’s and that means he can act on these new feelings that are simmering pleasantly under his skin.
He wonders how any other Steves across the multiverse discovered this just like he has, and then he decides he doesn’t give a damn, leaning over and brushing his mouth over Tony’s.
Tony stirs, making a rough noise in the back of his throat. He shifts atop the mattress, shoulders inching back and chest lifting towards Steve’s, and Steve feels want uncurl warm and fluttering in his belly. It’s something he’s not felt in so long, and it disconcerts him a little how strong it is; it’s as if now he’s realised exactly what he and Tony can have, all the barriers are toppling like towers of cards.
Steve kisses him again, catching his lower lip between his own, slowly tipping his head back and gently breaking the contact. Tony moves again, lifting one leg so it bends at the knee, foot flat on the mattress. He also lifts his head from the pillow, chasing after Steve’s mouth with his own. Steve indulges him with another gentle kiss; it’s all he can manage before he has to pull back, overwhelmed by sensation and emotion.
“You drew me,” is the first thing that Tony says, before he's even opened his eyes, words gentle puffs of air against Steve’s chin.
“I did,” Steve confirms, eyes flicking to where his sketch book lies on the nightstand. Tony's eyes open slowly, and he just breathes out, not replying for a long while. He blinks up at the ceiling, expression inscrutable when he finally speaks.
“Do I read into that?”
“Depends what you’re reading,” Steve says, pulling back a little. He shoves his pillows up and out of the way against the headboard to rest his elbow on the mattress, propping his head on his fist. He feels physically fine now he’s had some rest, though is still a little shaky after witnessing the fighting between him and Tony across the multiverse. Even the memory of it makes him want to grab Tony and haul him close, promise him that he’ll never be that blind.
“Optimism and ego would say that it means you totally want all up in this,” Tony says, gesturing to himself, and Steve can’t help but laugh, short and easy. “Caution would say that it’s just green lines on paper…and it’s thrown in there with other green lines on paper which are evidently snapshots of your trip through the multiverse. So, possibly all still mixed up in there.”
Steve looks at him, serious. Tony senses the pause and glances over, his hair ruffling on the pillow. His eyes flicker over Steve’s face, down to his bare chest and back again, and Steve reaches out, fingertips dragging across Tony’s shoulder. “I’m not confused.”
Tony doesn’t look convinced. “You are perpetually confused.”
“Oh, come on,” Steve says, mildly exasperated. “I had a traumatic experience and returned from it unsure about the nature of our relationship. I actually think that’s the one time in my life I’ve been genuinely confused.”
“Yeah, I don’t know whether to be honoured or dismayed by that.”
“Tony,” Steve interrupts, and straightens his fingers out, pressing his palm to Tony’s chest, just above the arc reactor. His fingers brush over the soft cotton of his t-shirt. He can sense Tony’s defensiveness, the way he’s digging his heels in and gearing up for a fight, ready to pull holes in this from every angle. God, and people say Steve can be stubborn. “You said you’d go to give me time to think about it. I haven’t thought about anything else.”
That at least shuts Tony up. He shuts his mouth with an almost audible clack, staring at Steve with his expression wobbling between defiant and vulnerable. He stares and stares, and then exhales heavily, a huff of breath through his nose. He shakes his head and then laughs, looking down and reaching up to pinch the bridge of his nose.
“You are,” he begins, and his mouth curves in a rueful smile. “You are more stubborn than I am.”
“Yeah. Might just be easier for you to go along with that.”
Tony laughs again, a soft sound, and then it fades, eyes going serious once more. “How can you be sure?” he asks, though he doesn’t sound argumentative any more. “How do you know it’s not just obligation, or you going along with what has happened in the other universes-”
“To hell with what the other universes have done,” Steve says, and reaches for Tony, pulling him close. “I like what’s happening in this universe.”
“You are ridiculous,” Tony replies immediately, but he lets himself be pulled into Steve’s front, half draped over Steve's side, one leg slotting between Steve's. “Utterly, utterly ridiculous, Rogers, how corny can you get-”
“Shut up, Tony,” Steve says with a roll of his eyes, and slides an arm around Tony’s waist, hand sliding under his shirt to press against warm skin. His mouth hovers in front of Tony’s, and he can feel Tony’s warm breath against his face.
“Stay, you should stay, great idea,” Steve says, rolling them over, and Tony is laughing against his mouth, tangled in the sheets, one leg hitched awkwardly around Steve’s waist. He doesn’t seem to mind; he sinks back against the mattress and slides his hands over Steve’s back, hauling him close.
“I still feel like I should be trying to talk you out of this,” he says. “For multiple reasons.”
“Don’t,” Steve tells him. “I’m ninety-four, I’m old enough to make my own decisions.”
And Tony is laughing again, and Steve is nuzzling down into his neck, shutting eyes and just breathing, overwhelmed by how right and easy this feels. It’s all warmth and comfort and shivery thrills down his spine, and he so very badly wants to know how he’s done without this before.
“I feel selfish,” Tony says, and a hand strokes down the back of Steve’s head, fingers brushing against the hair of his nape. He shifts against Tony, hand moving without permission to Tony’s thigh where it’s hitched around his waist. He drags his palm down to Tony’s knee, not knowing what the hell he’s doing, just wanting to touch and pull and hold. He presses a kiss to the dip between Tony’s collarbones, just above the hem of his shirt, shuddering with want that he’s never felt the like of before. He’s embarrassed by the sheer need he feels, the desperation that seems to have been yanked free, the urge to crawl into Tony and never let go. It’s like now he knows what he can have, the idea of losing it, of not having it, is just too much to bear.
“Easy, Cap,” Tony breathes, both hands on the back of Steve’s neck, fingers lacing together. His voice in tinged with awe, like he can barely believe what he’s seeing, what he’s realising through Steve’s actions. “Christ, I thought you wouldn't, that you didn’t-”
His fingers slide apart, his hands move so they’re cupping Steve’s jaw, fingers splayed along his cheekbones and thumbs tucked under his chin. He lifts Steve’s face, eyes flickering over Steve’s.
“You don’t get it,” he murmurs, and he doesn’t look away. “You let me have an inch, I’m taking a mile. You seriously want this, and I will probably do all sorts of things to keep you where I want you, most of them probably pretty unethical. I’m not kidding, I’ll play dirty, I’ll-”
And his mouth has been moving closer and closer to Steve’s and he cuts himself off when he reaches his mouth again, breath catching in his chest as he gently kisses him, so agonisingly, painfully slowly. Steve’s heart is thudding in his chest, and all he can do is kiss Tony back, letting himself be swept along in the current, until the words in his chest refuse to be held back any longer.
“Don’t you dare leave me again, you jackass,” Steve says against Tony’s mouth. “Or I’m going to get Stephen Strange to send me back through the multiverse so I can kick the ass of every Tony Stark in existence.”
Tony is laughing, trying to kiss Steve at the same time and failing miserably. Steve doesn’t care. He laughs too, pulling his mouth back from Tony’s and knocking their foreheads together.
“Stay with me,” he says simply, and Tony nods with hesitation, shutting his eyes and rolling his forehead against Steve's.
“If the multiverse insists,” he says, pressing his mouth to the corner of Steve’s, smiling as Steve turns his face into it.
They’ll talk more later. For now, he’s happy to be exactly where he is, with Tony. The rest of the world – all of the worlds – can wait.
“Cap, I repeat, do you need backup?”
Natasha’s voice is calm and controlled over the comms but that’s the second time she’s asked in less than a minute, which is telling enough. Steve doesn’t call her on it, just ducks sharply as another drone shoots a laser in his direction. It hits the pavement behind him, leaving a hole a foot deep and scattering asphalt in all directions. God. Just like last year all over again – supervillains really are creatures of habit at times.
“Nope,” he says, slinging his shield skywards, hitting the hovering drone in its rounded underbelly and sending it listing to the side, sparks showering down onto the asphalt below. There’s a click behind him and he catches the shield just in time to spin around and deflect a shower of bullets, fired by a drone fitted with an obscenely large gun. He waits for a pause in the firing and then lunges forwards, smashing the shield star-first into the drone and knocking it backwards. He slams the edge of the shield onto the weak neck joint of the drone, killing its power quickly and efficiently.
“Hawkeye, what’s your status?” Steve yells as Clint’s cursing cuts through the comms.
“Fine, just - sticky arrows. Accidentally stuck a Ferarri to the sidewalk. Man, Fury’s gonna kill me if we have to pay for that.”
“Stop shouting fuckballs if you’re not actually in trouble!” Steve yells back, and he hears Thor and Clint both laughing over the comms, above the sound of the Hulk roaring in the distance. He shakes his head in exasperation and slings his shield at another drone, knocking it out of the sky. It hits the pavement, sizzling and buzzing. He grabs his shield and slots it back onto his forearm, and smiles grimly as he steps forwards to finish the drone off-
There’s a familiar whine, a blur of red and gold and then Iron Man appears from nowhere, landing on the drone with both feet and crushing it flat. Steve slows his steps and comes to a halt, a smile tugging the corner of his mouth.
Iron Man turns. The faceplate flips up, and Tony’s mouth hitches in a small, not quite smile.
“I don’t trust your track record with robots.”
“I had this one covered,” Steve says pointedly, and he wants to be stern but he’s still smiling and he can’t hold it back. “You’re supposed to be in Washington arguing with senators.”
“You know, senators can actually argue pretty well between themselves even when I’m not there,” Tony says lightly, too lightly, though his eyes are on Steve’s and he’s not looking away. “Didn’t want to take the risk. Not twice in a lifetime. Not twice in any universe.”
Steve looks around at the tail end of the fight that’s still sort of going on around them, and then thinks to hell with it. He strides over, slides a hand onto the back of Tony’s neck and yanks him close, kissing him hard. He feels Tony’s breath hitch against his mouth and then Tony’s armoured hands are sliding onto his waist, over the red and white of the stripes.
“In the middle of a robot incursion too, wow, your priorities are shot to hell,” Tony is saying, laughing against Steve’s mouth. “Who are you and what have you done with Captain America-”
“Shut up,” Steve replies, glancing up. “It’s barely an incursion.”
“Yeah, it’s really almost embarrassing,” Tony agrees. “Though I hear they’ve taken out the coffee shop on fifty-first and that really needs to be Avenged with extreme prejudice-”
“And you talk about my priorities,” Steve says, and he pulls Tony close again, about to kiss him properly when there’s the rush and boom of an explosion behind them. They both jump apart, spinning around to watch a drone smash into the asphalt in a fireball.
“Right, robots,” Tony says, snapping his fingers. “We should get on that. Priorities.”
“Yeah, probably,” Steve grins. “Go, I’ve got your back.”
“Think you’ll find I’ve got yours,” Tony retorts, and he’s off again, blasting into the air and soaring above Steve’s head, smashing into a drone and sending it careering into the side of a building.
“Going to help Barton take out the unit that’s on seventh. Call me if you need me, Cap,” Tony says in his ear, voice calm and collected, but Steve hears the words and knows exactly what Tony means.
Steve smiles. “I will,” he replies easily, and turns back to re-join the fight.