Outside the Baxter Building, it was a lovely day. There wasn't a cloud in the sky, it wasn't so hot as to be stifling, and probably even the birds were singing in Central Park. Really, Tony should be out there -- well, "out there" in the sense of videoconferencing his ass off in order to recruit investors for Stark Resilient -- and not stuck away in the Baxter Building, disassembling alien technology with Reed. But given the choice between wearing his favourite suit and schmoozing with people who hated everything they thought they knew about him, or wearing his favourite work-in-the-lab jeans and tank top while working on tech that he knew nothing about... really, what choice was there?
The work table between Tony and Reed was covered in a myriad of parts of differing sizes, all of them belonging to the device sitting in the middle of the surface. Tony glared at the thing. S.H.I.E.L.D. -- no, the Avengers, he reminded himself, and rolled his eyes again at Steve's decision for renaming S.H.I.E.L.D. -- had dropped it off the day before, and all they knew about it so far, besides the fact that it was salvage from the various pieces of Skrull wreckage that still lay scattered around the city, was that it was supposed to be some sort of memory-transfer device. It was only about fourteen inches square, featureless except for the few ports on one side. Presumably there was at least a light to show power, but as they had yet to be able to get the damned thing to work, that was still unknown.
Even though he'd spent more time than he could remember in Reed's laboratory, he never failed to feel a surge of awe when he was there. The high-arching ceiling was almost invisible beneath the support struts and devices hanging from them, the random lights from Reed's varied inventions reflecting in the floor-to-ceiling windows even in the daylight that was only partially muffled by the tinting in the glass. The sheer scale of it all made his own lab look tiny... well, no. At this point, it just emphasized how empty his lab currently was.
"I think you were right. Even if you were just guessing." Reed's voice was barely audible, his words muffled by the device he was peering through.
Tony raised his eyebrows as he looked up, the overhead lights reflecting oddly from his goggles as he pushed them up onto his forehead.
Reed didn't toss out casual compliments, although his choice of words rubbed Tony the wrong way. Tony reminded himself that this was Reed, and he of all people shouldn't complain about getting compliments now, no matter how backhanded. At least he could feel halfway normal while poking around at scraps of Skrull technology, even if he couldn't actually remember any of the events that had led to the Avengers having them.
"Really? And I wasn't guessing. Even if you thought I was," he replied, hands pausing in their disassembling of the panel in front of him. He stretched, muscles sore from remaining in one place for too long while he concentrated on his work, wincing as his back popped. They had been at this for hours, after all. He vaguely remembered Sue's long-suffering expression when she'd stopping in earlier to check on them, affection clearly written underneath the exasperation, until she'd turned to him and it had been replaced with pleasant neutrality. With the ease of long practice, Tony reflexively shoved that unpleasant thought into the back of his mind. This wasn't the time to start feeling sorry for himself just because someone he'd considered one of his oldest friends now hated him for reasons he couldn't even remember. Sue wasn't even first in line for that honour. For that, she'd have to arm-wrestle Thor... or Steve.
Another wince crossed his face at the thought of his one-time best friend. He should be happy that they were at least on polite speaking terms now, he knew, but he missed the old days so much, missed the late-night conversations in the library and the joking and the overall closeness. None of it came anywhere near what he wanted, but he'd always known that it was as much as he could get, and he'd forced himself to be content with that. For years, he'd managed to to convince himself it was enough, but these days especially it was hard to be so close to Steve and yet feel farther apart than they'd ever been. He barely managed to bring his thoughts back under control as Reed's head came into view. Tony turned his grimace into an attempt at a grin, wondering if it looked as fake to Reed as it felt to him.
"You never guess?" Reed's voice was dry as he looked at Tony, the glint in his eye speaking volumes. Reed being Reed, however, Tony knew that he would ignore it. More out of his own uncertainty on how to handle emotional things than out of any courtesy, but nonetheless, Tony could appreciate that right now.
"No. I come up with logical hypotheses based on logical deductions," Tony answered cockily. Reed snorted, his face giving away his disbelief, but remained silent. "And even if I did guess, I'd never have to admit it. Because I'm always right."
Once upon a time, I was always right, he thought gloomily, his inner voice belying his outer. He'd gotten good at that over the last few months. Too good, he was sure, although he didn't have anyone to point that out to him anymore, did he? Carefully not thinking of the name of his (once upon a time, in another lifetime) closest friend, he set down the tiny screwdriver he was holding and leaned forward, eyeing the device they'd partially disassembled. Whatever the hell it was, it was a good thing Steve hadn't sent it to anyone else to study - and that Osborn hadn't had time to do so.
"Regardless, this was definitely a key component in the Skrull invasion. The Avengers' initial assessment of it as a memory-transfer device was correct." Reed's carefully toneless inflection made Tony wince, wondering just what the Skrulls had put him -- and the others -- through, but knowing that he was better off not knowing, even if he had known once.
Seemingly oblivious to his expression, Reed continued, fascination apparent in his voice, "It's not surprising, really -- the Skrulls would most certainly need something like this in order to make their deceptions effective among those who knew the person they're replacing. Especially since they focused on replacing those in positions of strategic importance, having access to their knowledge would have been crucial. It's a fascinating piece of technology, to be honest. The techniques used in the design are similar to those that I've seen in translation software and some of the Kree technology that we've encountered, but are put together in a wholly different, more complicated way."
Tony nodded, only half-listening to Reed's explanation-cum-lecture, hoping his poker face was better than Reed's. God only knew how he and Sue were coping. Tony certainly didn't, and he of all people couldn't just ask either of them. Not that it was any of his business anyway, he reminded himself. That was a line he really needed to remember. Not that it should be hard to do so, these days, not with everyone and their brother constantly throwing it in his face.
"So... they kidnap somebody, use this thing on them, and then just... go in," he said thoughtfully, forcing his thoughts back on track. Focusing on the technology made it easier to push away the darker thoughts, the fears, and he clung to that, mentally tracing the blueprints on the device that he'd worked out so far. "I'd hate to think of what this could be used for here, but the possibilities implied by the tech are amazing."
Reed nodded somberly. "If we can figure out how to make it work," he said with a pointed glance at the pieces strewn across the work table in front of Tony. "Especially since you've taken half of it apart this morning." Tony shrugged, the grin returning to his face. This time it wasn't faked.
"Putting it back together's the fun part."
Some time later, Tony sipped from the coffee that Sue had brought in earlier and grimaced at the sharp taste of the cold drink. After all these years of working late hours in the lab, he should be used to it by now, but he'd never acclimated to the bitterness once it cooled down.
"We can send a man to the moon, but we can't make coffee cups that stay hot," he grumbled. Reed's mouth opened and Tony waved his free hand at him. "Kidding, I'm kidding. Mostly." He filed the thought away for later work, part of his mind already turning over possibilities for materials that could retain heat even with an open top.
Instead, he glowered at the device, now reassembled on the table in front of them. It remained stubbornly off. Electricity, nuclear power, Reed's weird alien tech batteries, and even Tony's best glare had proven ineffective. "We've tried every power source you have here," he said, not really asking. They'd already gone over this a dozen times.
Reed's arm stretched across the room as he nodded, picking up some esoteric tool that even Tony didn't recognise. "And I'm reasonably certain that you reassembled the thing correctly," he said, in a tone of voice that made Tony peer sideways at him, not sure if he was being needled or not. He took another swallow of the cold coffee, made a face, and set the mug down. He frowned thoughtfully and leaned forward, steepling his fingers as he stared off into the distance. He already knew what he was going to do, and he knew that Reed wouldn't like it. As Tony saw it, they really didn't have much choice left if they wanted to get the damned thing up and running anytime this century. The only worry now was how long it would take to argue Reed into helping him do it. He did have meetings in a few days with his potential investors, and Stark Resilient was too important to him to put off for very long.
"That leaves us one last easily-accessible power source, then," he said, keeping his tone casual.
"What?" Reed's head twisted and he raised an eyebrow at Tony. "I just said, we've tried everyth--" He cut off his words at the expression on Tony's face and shook his head, doubt written on his face. "No. Oh, no, Tony. We are not plugging that thing into you. God only knows what it might do with an organic source of energy, especially one as unique as yours. The repulsor transmitter might have the power of a miniature star, but it's the only thing keeping you alive and breathing, in a very literal sense. It wouldn't be ethical to risk your life. Curiosity is not enough motivation for me agree to that."
Tony snorted. "I suspect most people who know me wouldn't agree with that statement, Reed. Besides, when has danger ever stopped me from doing anything? You need a better reason than that." Reed looked down at him and sighed.
"I'm disinclined to take any responsibility for any harm that may come to you as a result of this experiment, Tony. There is no reason for us to take such a drastic step to get this device operational. The risk is simply too high and we're under no time limit." Reed shook his head and then added as an afterthought, "Besides, Steve would kill me."
Tony blinked at him, his smirk wiped from his face. Dammit. Even Reed had to throw that name at him, didn't he? Although Tony wasn't entirely sure what Reed meant by that, given current circumstances.
"What? Why would Steve kill you? Me, maybe, but at this point that's pretty doubtful since he won't even admit that he's still pissed off at me for doing things I don't remember." He waved a hand vaguely to express his irritation with the situation, hoping that the motion would keep Reed's attention off of his eyes. No matter how good he was at hiding things from people, his eyes were a dead giveaway these days. Too many sleepless nights meant hiding the pain and loneliness he struggled with on a daily basis was becoming more and more difficult.
He hadn't even been able to look at himself in the mirror lately; he barely recognized the man looking back at him anymore, with haunted eyes and nightmares about things he'd forgotten. Pepper had noticed his gauntness and the dark circles under his eyes, but after his initial resistance to her gentle questioning, she'd let the subject drop. When she had started dabbing his face with concealer, without comment, before all of his meetings, Tony had offered an awkward thanks, only to be answered with, "This is just a temporary measure, Mr. Stark," and a sharp look that told him she would only let it go for so long. For now, he would take what he could get.
"That's speculative at best," Reed began, and Tony narrowed his eyes.
"In your opinion. That's if he bothered to notice anything in the first place, anyway. He's been too damned busy with reforming the Avengers and spending all his free time with Sharon to even notice if I disappeared." And wasn't that a punch to the gut? Tony couldn't remember the past year or more. He didn't remember Osborn ruling the world, or his own weeks on the run, deleting his brain one thought at a time. He couldn't remember the Skrulls, or the battles that he'd watched videos of, or the politics he'd played, and he sure as hell didn't remember tearing apart the friendship that meant more than anything else in the world to him. He'd proclaimed publicly that he'd be willing to do it all again, even if he didn't remember what he'd done or why, but every time he looked at Steve, saw the distance between them, he found himself doubting that statement. Certainly he must have been convinced at the time that he was right, but now, looking at the consequences...
Thank god he didn't remember Steve dy -- being shot. The headlines had been hard enough, the pictures enough to make him choke, and the footage... At least he'd been smart enough to lock himself away before daring to watch that footage. If anyone else had seen him fall apart, sobbing hoarsely into his hands as he watched Steve fall, moaning at the blood spatters... Tony shut his eyes tightly, hoping to blank out the images that were imprinted so vividly on his mind. Watching Steve fall on the courthouse steps, seeing the look of horror on Sharon's face, and knowing that somehow, he was responsible for it all... He didn't know how he'd survived Steve's death. He'd never thought he would be able to. Maybe he hadn't. Maybe that had been the final straw that pushed him over the edge, into the insanity that everyone else had all but accused him of ever since he woke up in Oklahoma.
No. It was a damned good thing no one else had seen his reaction. They had enough fears about him already. No need for them to finally discover just how much deeper than friendship his feelings for Steve ran, let alone make them worry that he was on the verge of a breakdown on top of everything else.
But the fact that he'd watched that footage, watched it until his dry eyes burned, until the images were forever printed onto his brain, and that he'd known from the first time he'd seen it who had fired the deadly bullets, whose finger had pulled the trigger... To know that it was Sharon, brainwashed or not, and to know that Steve had gone straight back to her with less than no hesitation at her betrayal, but that he still harboured doubts and suspicions about Tony, who didn't even know what he had done...
Wrenching his thoughts off that track, Tony reminded himself sharply that Sharon had been brainwashed and that she'd probably been more horrified and traumatized by her actions than anyone else. Of course Steve would forgive her -- Tony had, if he were being honest. It was himself that he couldn't forgive. If he'd been quicker, more on the draw, less distracted... If he'd actually been thinking clearly, Steve wouldn't have been put in that sort of vulnerable position in the first place. If he'd only managed to avoid that, the entire invasion would have gone so much differently and Osborn never would have risen to power. Things would have been so much better if Steve had been there -- if Tony hadn't screwed everything up. At this point, petty jealousy should be beyond him. Should be, but obviously wasn't.
He only realised how sharply brittle his tone had gotten when Reed gave him a long, questioning look. He forced a harsh laugh and shrugged. "Besides, it's me. I do stupid things like this, remember? And how dangerous could it be? You'll be right here, we'll have failsafes, and for all we know, it might not even bother to turn itself on." He already knew that Reed would give in. Richards was probably even more insanely curious than him, and Tony knew how to play up to that need to know things.
Reed argued, of course. Tony had practically counted on it, known the man would try to talk him out of it, and reveled in shooting down his logical arguments one by one. It provided a strangely calming distraction from the maelstrom that his thoughts were becoming, one that threatened to drag him down with it the longer it went on.
Only as Reed was reluctantly placing the final connections, Tony's shirt discarded on the workbench in order to access the RT without hindrance, did Tony wonder if he might have found a whole new way to drag himself down. Was he daring death because no one that had been around to call him on it before was around to do so for him anymore? Was he so unhappy with things as they were that he was willing to risk it all on a wild gamble? But then, what did he really have left?
Happy was gone, and from what little he'd managed to drag out of Pepper, he suspected he'd had more to do with that than she was willing to let on. That was another pain he would have to live with, knowing that his oldest friend and confidant was dead simply because he'd been Tony's friend. Pepper... god, Pepper would be so much better off without him. All he'd done was somehow cause the death of her husband, nearly get her killed, and then push her back into the position of supporting him. She had Rescue now, and she was happy with it, but wouldn't she have been even happier with her husband and the children they'd never been able to have? Rhodey was barely on speaking terms with him right now and after the trauma he'd suffered because of Tony, who could blame him? Maria seemed to know him very well, but he barely knew her, and Jarvis... wasn't getting any younger. The only reason he'd agreed to let the man continue on in the Tower was because of the immediate flash of pain on his face when Tony had tried to gently suggest he think about retiring.
He remembered reassuring Cap once that he didn't cause harm to the people he cared about. And Steve didn't. Tony had meant what he had said then. Now he could see the truth, though: It was Tony who excelled at bringing down death and danger and pain to everyone he loved. Was it any wonder that none of them loved him back anymore?
Reed must have caught some flash of those thoughts on his face, as he immediately frowned down at him.
"Tony? Are you sure you want to do this?"
Tony twitched, stretched out as he was in the chair and already connected to a half-dozen monitors, the sensors cool but itchy on his bare chest. Their quiet, regular beeping was soothing in a strange way. It was also something he was far too familiar with, after spending more time than he cared to remember in hospital rooms. Sucking in a slow breath, he forced his face to calmness and met Reed's concerned expression with a wry half-smile.
"Of course. It won't exactly be the first time I've used myself as a battery," he said lightly. Given that Reed's frown didn't subside, the joke must have fallen flat.
Reed paused, then came to stand beside the chair, carrying a single thin cable. His brows creased in concern as he looked down at Tony, worrying the cable between his fingers. "If you haven't reconsidered... this is the last connection."
Tony nodded and took the cable from hands that were slow to let go.
"Well... here goes nothing." He winked at Reed and plugged it in to the adapter he'd rigged on the RT in his chest. For a long moment, he thought that their last option had failed, too, and was just getting ready to sigh and shrug at Reed, when a small blue light blinked to life on top of the device. He looked at Reed, whose eyes were bright with excited fascination, and opened his mouth to tell him to give it more power.
And then agony blinded him, pain washing through his body. It felt too much like the times he'd been shocked, but with a strange twisting, pulling sensation that seemed to be splitting his head into a hundred pieces. He dimly heard someone screaming and wished they would stop - the pain-filled, terrified noises were hurting his ears. Only when his throat closed up did he realise it was him.
His vision went white, and then the world slowly faded to black.
"Steve? Are you coming to bed anytime tonight?" Sharon's voice was sleep-blurred and Steve blinked, forcing bleary eyes to focus on the clock across the living room. They'd only gotten home to her apartment a few hours ago... oh. When had it gotten so late? He leaned back against the couch, rotated his shoulders, stretched, and sighed a little as previously unrealised kinks worked themselves out with the motion. Glancing back over his shoulder, he smiled warmly at Sharon, who was standing in the doorway wrapped in the clinging blue silk robe that he especially loved sliding off of her shoulders. She wore an all-too-familiar expression of exasperated affection.
"That's the same look I give Tony when he's been working in the lab all night," he said without thinking. Sharon's face immediately smoothed, only the flash in her eyes telling Steve that he'd managed to say exactly the wrong thing.
"You're nearly as bad as he is, these days," she answered evenly. "You do realise it's nearly midnight, don't you?"
"I know, I know. It's just that I promised Maria I'd have these reports sorted through by tomorrow for her Avengers briefing, and I've still got to look over the new hires, not to mention check on that Skrull tech that I gave T -- Reed to investigate." He cursed himself for the slip. For whatever reason, Sharon and Tony had gotten along exactly as well as oil and water, ever since his... rebirth... and Tony's... reboot. He'd interrupted enough tense silences and arguments that stopped abruptly upon his entry that Steve had the vague, uncomfortable notion that it had something to do with him, but he hadn't managed to get either of them to talk to him about it. The oddly hurt expression on Tony's face as Steve walked away from the initial Avengers meeting to meet with Sharon came to mind for some reason and he frowned a little at the memory. The slight narrowing of her eyes told him that his slip of the tongue hadn't gone unnoticed, but she let it go unremarked.
"Well, at least you could--"
Her words were cut off by the sound of Steve's Avengers communicator. He hastily grabbed it off the coffee table, waving an apologetic hand at Sharon as he flipped it on.
"Reed?" Steve couldn't prevent the surprise from showing in his voice. "What are you doing--"
"I'm using Tony's communicator. You need to come to the Baxter Building. Immediately." Reed spoke over him, his voice serious, and Steve's entire body tensed, his fingers tightening on the communicator.
A long pause answered his question, sending nervous sparks skittering down his spine. He could just hear someone else talking on the periphery of the communicator's pickup, but he couldn't quite make out who it was.
"Tony and I were investigating that Skrull memory transfer device, and we got it to work," Reed answered slowly. "But not quite how it was supposed to."
"Is Tony okay?" The words came before Steve thought about it, and he was aware of Sharon behind him, leaning over the couch, listening to the conversation.
Reed's answer was distinctly uncomfortable. "That's the problem, Steve. I'm... not sure." Before Steve could interrupt with more questions, Reed continued, sounding impatient. "Just come over, please. You'll need to see this for yourself."
Steve was on his feet, the reports he'd been reading all evening falling to the floor in a scattered drift of paper as he turned to Sharon. "I've got to go," he said. She nodded at him, her face expressionless.
"I heard." Something in her tone caught Steve's attention and he looked sharply at her.
"I'm sorry, Sharon, but it's Tony--"
"I know, Steve," she answered, her tone slightly biting, hurt clear in her eyes. "Of course he's a priority to you. But you've spent more time off-planet in the last month than you have with me. Am I a priority anymore?"
Steve stared at her, caught off guard by the question. "You -- of course you're a priority to me, Sharon. I love you." Her shoulders slumped slightly, and he could tell she didn't believe him. "I -- what do you want me to say, Sharon?" he asked, frustrated, and aware of every second ticking by. "Look, Reed said it was important... if you think we need to talk, can we do it when I'm home again?"
Sharon shrugged, but he saw the disappointment on her face as she turned away from him. "Sure, Steve. After all, it's Tony, so of course you'll drop everything and rush off to him. You always do." The last words were nearly a sigh, and Steve stared after her as she left the room, heading for bed. Their bed.
What was she talking about? He didn't rush off to Tony at a moment's notice. Tony was always his first stop for technology help, and of course he hadn't thought twice about heading straight to Oklahoma once he was told about Tony's coma... But that was different. That wasn't just dropping everything... was it? He hesitated for a long moment, torn between going after her and heading out immediately to find out what had happened at the Baxter Building. But if something had gone wrong with Skrull tech -- with Tony... With a muffled curse, he jammed the communicator into his pocket and headed out the door.
Almost before the flying car came to a stop on the roof of the Baxter Building, he was out of the vehicle and into the building, taking the stairs downward two at a time until he skidded to a halt in front of the doors to the laboratory. His heart racing, he stared at the familiar doors, suddenly dreading what he was going to see once he opened them.
"Steve?" The quiet voice made his head turn and he smiled instinctively as he saw Sue approaching, a cup of coffee in her hand. "I'm so glad you're here."
"What's happened?" He tried to quell the worry, but long experience made it difficult. Sue hesitated, one hand brushing loose blond strands out of her face, and shrugged ruefully.
"We're not really sure yet," she answered. She glanced at the lab doors before looking back at him, a knowing look on her face. "We're nearly positive that Tony's okay, but with this sort of transference, it'll take time to sort out the details."
"What? Transference? Sue--"
"Is that Steve?" Reed called, and Sue smiled. Glancing at Steve, she pushed the doors open and walked inside.
"Yes. Reed, remember that not all of us are experts in interdimensional anomalies, please," she said fondly, moving out of Steve's line of sight as she passed behind a familiar device. The Skrull device. Steve's eyes narrowed. It looked intact. In fact, it looked better than it had last time he'd seen it, when he dropped it off here. And it was glowing. A small light glowed blue on top of it and a faint purplish-blue aura pulsed around it. Just looking at it gave Steve chills.
"You got it working," he said, entering the lab, staring in fascinated horror at the alien technology.
"What? Oh, yes. Of course we did. That's the problem," Reed answered, head stretching back on an impossibly long neck to meet Steve's eyes. "In order to power it up, Tony had to wire it to his RT. My regular energy sources were simply incompatible, so--"
"He wired it to himself?" Steve realised he was nearly yelling when Reed's eyes widened. Pressing his fingers to his temple, he took a long, deep breath, then said quietly, "I'm sorry. Go on, please." Reed looked a little dubious, but did as he was asked.
"He wired it into his RT. And then..." He trailed off, sounding oddly uncertain. "I'm not sure what happened, Steve. There was this blinding flash, and he screamed, and then he was gone. Only he's not."
"Reed... what are you talking about?" Steve asked, rubbing his head harder. The headache that seemed inevitable whenever he spoke to Reed was coming on with a vengeance this time. "How can Tony be gone if he's not gone?"
"Well... our Tony is gone. But a Tony is here," Reed offered. Steve closed his eyes briefly, willing his emotions under control before looking at Reed again.
"It looks like it. It's actually quite fascinating, you know, because this seems like an utterly unique alternate reality. Unlike the others we've seen, where timelines are similar, this one appears to be about seventy years behind ours. It really has--" Steve almost felt bad as he interrupted Reed's excited speech, but not so much that he didn't do it.
"Can we reproduce it?" he asked, effectively cutting off the nearly-babbling scientist. Reed switched verbal tracks without a pause.
"Good. Then we can--"
"--but not yet," Reed said, interrupting him in turn. "Without Tony's RT, it'll take me some time to reproduce the effect. It's a unique power source, after all."
"Well... I'll have to contact Danny Rand, since the RT was based on Rand's electromagnetic technologies, and of course probably have to build a new one, since Tony's was one of a kind, and since he didn't keep blueprints..."
Steve's eyes shut and he pinched the bridge of his nose. "So, what you're saying is that you don't know, and it won't be quick."
"Effectively, yes," Reed agreed, sounding annoyed at Steve's summary.
"Good lord, Reed. How do we know that Tony's okay? If it's an alternate universe, it could be anything, from all-magic to hordes of zombies. And he's there by himself... We've got to get to work on this as soon as possible. If we can't just pull him back, we'll have to be able to send someone after him." Steve stopped himself. This panic that kept threatening to well up was out of character for him, but he pushed aside his confused thoughts as he forced himself back to calmness. "We'll have to find out as much as we can about this other universe from... the other Tony."
"Naturally. I've been discussing it with him, but obviously we haven't had much time even to establish a baseline yet." Steve nodded. Of course, Reed would have already thought of that. Out of all of the superhero community, Reed was probably the expert when it came to time-travel and alternate universes, so Steve really had nothing to worry about. Hell, even Tony had managed to work out time travel on his own more than once... even if Steve still wasn't quite sure he believed the story about Cleopatra falling for him. That had always sounded more like Tony's typical braggadocio than anything else. Reed peered at him, an odd expression flickering over his face. "Would you like to talk to him? He's quite willing to help and very eager to get home himself. He's very much like our Tony, which should probably not come as a surprise, all things considered."
"Yes. Yes, I would." Steve answered before he could think too much about the answer. For some reason, the thought of facing a Tony who wasn't his Tony was... difficult. Even as he was frowning at his own thoughts (his Tony?), Reed was leading him across the laboratory and into an area he recognized from previous visits. The comfortable couch and chairs were certainly Sue's doing, and he'd used them more than once to sit and talk with her while Tony and Reed puttered in the lab.
This was the first time he could remember ever seeing Tony reclining on the couch. To anyone else, he would look completely relaxed, stretched out along the couch, feet propped up on one arm as he rested his head against the other. To Steve, the air of wary suspicion was palpable. It didn't prevent him from sweeping his eyes over Tony, taking in the roguish curl of hair over his forehead and the familiar charming smile. He was wearing well-cut but simple clothing: dark pants, dark shoes, white shirt. The first few buttons on the shirt were opened and the sleeves rolled up, revealing a more muscled build than normal. After another look, Steve realised why the clothing looked familiar: The suit was cut in the style he remembered from the War. He'd certainly turned up the charm; the overly-casual pose he'd assumed on the couch practically exuded sex appeal. Steve wasn't surprised. Tony was a master of charm and seduction and never hesitated to make use of those skills in situations where he felt threatened or on the defensive.
Sue glanced up as they approached, and Steve saw something strange in her expression. It took him a moment to figure out what it was, and then his gut tightened a little. She hadn't looked that relaxed, that comfortable around Tony, since... Involuntarily, his fingers twitched toward the scars on his abdomen. Their civil war had killed a lot of things, and Steve was only now beginning to understand that. If this particular disaster ended up helping mend Sue and Tony's friendship, even a little, then maybe it would be worth it.
"Sue," he said, their eyes meeting for an instant before his gaze flicked back to Tony. He nodded absently at her in greeting, his attention already taken up by the man before him. He looked like Tony, mostly, but the differences, although slight, were telling. The lines on Tony's face that Steve was familiar with weren't there. He realised abruptly that they hadn't been there before the civil war, either; he'd gotten so used to seeing them that he only noticed them now that they were gone. The eyes looking calmly up at him had a familiar twinkle in them, too -- another thing that he hadn't seen in a long time.
"Are you going to stand there and stare at me all night, or will you sit down?" Tony's voice jolted Steve out of his thoughts, and he blinked as Tony moved his legs, pushing himself into an upright position. He did so without spilling a drop of coffee, Steve noted with some amusement. Some things were definitely the same.
"Sorry," he said, and sat, a little awkwardly. Normally he'd sit right by Tony, either falling into a comfortable silence or getting caught up in easy conversation. At the moment, he wasn't quite sure what to do. An uncomfortable quiet stretched between them, and then Tony laughed.
"If you think you're confused, just think about how I'm feeling," he said with a wink. Steve smiled back, and the ice broke.
"So, you... you're Tony. Anthony Edward Stark," he stated. Tony nodded.
"Yep. Son of Howard and Maria. In this case, however, Howard was a war hero, until he died an... untimely death." Steve saw a shadow pass over the man's face, but it was gone before he could wonder about it. "My mother died when I was still young. Jarvis practically raised me." Steve nodded. Tony shrugged, taking another swallow of coffee. "And I spent years flitting around the world living larger-than-life, having grand adventures and dangerous encounters, all of them featured in my very own Marvels magazine."
Steve raised an eyebrow at the choice of words, and said questioningly, "You did?" Tony's lips quirked.
"I knew you'd pick up on that. Yes, I did. Until a few years back, when I ran into an enemy who showed me that the world was larger than just me, myself, and I." Tony paused and Steve watched as his fingers tightened on the coffee mug. "Baron Zemo."
Steve sucked in a breath, and Tony looked up at him. "That's... not a name I would have expected to hear from you," Steve said slowly. Tony shrugged.
"No, I wouldn't think so. But whereas here he was one of your worst enemies, in my world he was... most personally mine." Steve opened his mouth, then shut it again, his mind racing. How did this Tony know anything about him? He hadn't even told him his name yet, so how-- "Don't worry, Steve. You're not crazy, and I'm not a trick. As far as Reed and I can figure out, that lovely little gadget," he waved vaguely toward the Skrull device, "seems to have pulled quite a trick on us, myself and your Tony. It didn't do what it apparently should have done, but it definitely worked a treat. You see... I remember you."
Only when Tony made a show of hiding a wide yawn did Steve think of the time. Sue had disappeared hours ago, which would normally have been a sign that it was too late to stay, but caught up as he was in listening to Tony talk about his home, Steve had been oblivious. Reed of course was equally fascinated, and Tony had patiently withstood the scanners and and other devices pointed at and waved around him. Both Steve and Tony had largely ignored Reed's mumbling, as they knew the scientist was largely talking to himself anyway.
"Really, no superheroes or metahumans at all?" Steve couldn't keep from asking, even though Tony had already told them.
"None at all. And even as used as I am to strange things, it's still rather uncanny watching our friend here do -- that," Tony answered, his eyes sliding to the side as Reed stretched an arm across the lab to pick up another tool. Steve could see the tension in the lines of his body, and when Tony stretched and clapped a hand over his mouth, shooting Steve an abashed look, he took the hint.
"It's incredibly late." Shooting a glance at his watch, his eyes widened. Sharon wouldn't be happy with him at all. Staying out past dawn didn't go over well, no matter how used to the heroing job she was, and he hadn't exactly left on good terms earlier. "We really should be going."
"We should?" Tony echoed playfully. His comfort with the overall situation had grown during their conversation, his newly-acquired memories apparently helping to reassure him that Steve and the others were exactly who they said they were. Unfortunately for Steve, that meant that this other Tony had fallen into the easy banter that he knew so well, teasing Steve with the ease of years of practice. Steve found it difficult to remember that this wasn't the Tony he knew, especially because they hadn't shared this sort of ease between them in far too long. He missed it.
"Yes, we should." Steve knew that his words were too sharp, saw the narrowing of Tony's eyes as the smile fell away, and tried to ignore it by standing up. "Reed, I'm going to take Tony back to the Tower."
Reed's head swung towards him, an inquiring expression on his face. "What? Oh, of course. Avengers Tower is undoubtedly better suited to hosting guests than we are. As long as I can contact him at any time--"
Steve nodded. "Of course. Well, any reasonable time," he added, forcing himself to smile and not to yawn. Reed looked puzzled for a moment before his expression cleared and he smiled.
"Certainly. It was good to see you again, Steve. Tony, I look forward to working with you to reverse this effect." Tony inclined his head in acknowledgement and pushed himself to his feet, watching Steve with an undefinable expression.
"This way," Steve offered and turned, heading out of the lab. He could feel Tony's gaze on him and it made him uncomfortable. This other Tony seemed almost too much like the Tony he remembered, the friend that in a way he was still mourning. The friend, he reminded himself sternly, that was alive and whole and currently missing on the other side of this dimensional transference accident. And who was going to get quite a lecture on the hazards of using himself as an energy source for alien technology once he was safely home again.
The ride back to the Tower was silent, although Steve was aware of Tony's eyes flickering over every inch of the flying car, drinking in the details. After they landed, he stepped out and found himself waiting for the other man. Finally, Tony left the vehicle and something in his eyes told Steve that he was feeling overwhelmed. He reached out and laid a hand on Tony's shoulder, momentarily surprised at the unfamiliar feel of it. This version of Tony carried more weight than Steve was used to, although all of it seemed to be in muscle. When Tony glanced at him inquiringly, Steve shrugged a little, the side of his mouth curved.
"It's a lot to take in, I know." Tony's own lips quirked at that, and Steve continued, "But you're not here alone, and we will get you home again. I promise you that." Blue eyes studied him, searching for something, and Steve felt himself tensing under the gaze. Abruptly, Tony's stare softened and he smiled in earnest.
"I believe you."
Steve returned the smile, squeezing Tony's shoulder once more before dropping his hand back to his side, and gestured toward the rooftop door. "Come on. I'll introduce you to anyone who's actually awake."
Twenty minutes later, Steve regretted that decision. Apparently the team had been rousted out of bed by an alarm shortly after midnight and were only now settling down again. He wasn't entirely sure what exactly the problem had been -- Spider-Man mentioned something about seaweed, and Jessica rolled her eyes and explained the situation with a few terse sentences, concluding with, "So when they ask about the harbour getting covered in slime, that's how." Logan merely growled, and eyeing the reeking green goo still covering him as he stalked by on his way to his room -- hopefully for a shower -- Steve couldn't really blame him.
Their reactions to meeting the other-Tony had largely been similar to Bucky's, who'd just muttered, "God, not another alternate universe... Just promise me that this one isn't a budding mass murderer." Steve had managed to avoid Tony's immediate inquisitive stare at that line and continued the introductions. If this Tony really wanted to know, he could find it out on his own. That particular encounter wasn't one of Steve's favourite memories.
Once the introductions were done, the only person actually awake and coherent was Maria, and she'd waved off his questioning look with a short, "Later. You can read the report." Then she'd gone back to watching Tony with an expression that he couldn't read.
"So, Miss Hill," Tony began, and stopped at her amused and very unladylike snort of amusement. Steve bit his lip to keep from smiling at the slightly offended expression on his face.
"Maria. You've had no problem calling me that for the last year, Tony."
Steve wondered a little at the odd tone in her voice, but dismissed it. "Except that he doesn't really know that," he interjected. "Whatever else happened, the memory-transfer aspect of the Skrull device worked perfectly, but he still only remembers what our Tony remembers."
Maria's face tightened momentarily, then she let out a sigh and shook her head. "I shouldn't be surprised anymore by how conveniently it always works out for him, but I always am." Straightening, she looked him in the eye. "Well, you certainly aren't going to be an active member of the Avengers while you're our guest, but I can't really tell you not to do anything else. Technically, the Tower is yours, so you'll have full access. I'd recommend against wandering out into New York by yourself, and I'm sure Pepper will be handling the business, but she'll talk to you about that tom -- later today."
Tony nodded. "That sounds reasonable." Maria couldn't hide her flash of surprise at Tony's agreement, but took it at face value, nodded to both of them, and left the room.
"She's a good person," Steve offered after a short silence. "And she makes an excellent leader for the Avengers."
"She doesn't seem to like me very much." Tony shrugged, either too tired to care or dismissing it as "not his problem."
"I wouldn't say that." Tony glanced at him, one eyebrow lifted, and Steve cocked his head. "If you look at Tony's memories, she was by your -- well, our Tony's -- side constantly for quite a long time. At the very least, you should be able to remember her from when he woke up in Oklahoma. Don't let her attitude fool you. I'd say that she's one of his friends, at this point." He could see Tony frowning a little, presumably as he looked through his new set of memories, and decided that it was definitely time for him to be leaving. Sharon was undoubtedly still upset with him and he didn't want to end up spending much more time alone with this version of Tony; something about the combination of confidence and the looks he kept giving Steve were making Steve more uncomfortable as time passed.
"Let's get you to bed." He immediately cursed his tongue at the amused look that earned him, and turned on his heel, leaving Tony to either follow him or get lost in the Tower's halls. Only as he stopped in front of the door to Tony's bedroom did Steve think about what he was doing, and he hesitated with his hand pressed against the door.
"This is Tony's room," he said after another pause, dropping his hand and turning away from the door to face the other-Tony. Who, he noted, was eyeing him with a mixture of concern and amusement and... something else. He tried to ignore the odd expression and continued, "There are guest rooms if you'd prefer, but this..."
"It should be fine, Cap. Thank you." Steve swallowed, his throat unexpectedly thick at the nickname, and nodded silently as Tony smiled at him and entered the room.
His throat hurt. Swallowing was agony, and Tony couldn't think of a reason why it should be that way. Then again, he couldn't think of much at all at the moment. God, his head hurt. His stomach lurched and he swallowed convulsively, battling it back down again as he fought to regain his self-control. Tony's mind raced, trying to remember what had happened, what he had been doing... Skrulls. Reed. The device.
His eyes shot open and he winced at the bright lights directly overhead before closing his eyes again. Something about the lights niggled at him, something not quite right, but he tried to ignore it, concentrating on finding out what had happened.
"Reed?" he asked, grimacing with the effort as it strained his dry throat.
"Quiet, you," a gruff voice replied, and then there was a hand behind his head, supporting it as a cup was brought to his lips. He forced himself to sip at the water, rather than gulp it, and all too soon, the cup was removed again. His throat worked and he coughed, blinking furiously as he tried to clear his vision. He wasn't in Reed's lab, he'd known that from the instant he opened his eyes. So where the hell was he?
Glancing around, it looked to be some sort of workshop, from the pieces of metal strewn around the far wall and the welding equipment, along with some sort of workbench or table that he could just see the end of. The lab looked oddly familiar, although he was positive he'd never seen it before. It certainly wasn't one of his labs, not with the archaic equipment it held. Looking further, he saw stacks of steel plates, bins of machinery parts, a soldering station, more tables covered with scattered tools and half-built devices, a drafting table covered with plans... The most advanced thing in the place, he knew suddenly, was in the next room: A computer. Something told him that it was in the next room because it took that much space to hold it, but he disregarded the thought for the moment. His mind working furiously, Tony frowned as he reflexively lifted a hand to his chest, rubbing absently at the RT implanted there. All the power of a star, thousands of times more energy than any human brain normally got, and he was drawing a complete blank.
"Well... you look like Tony, sure enough, but that thing in your chest gives you away," the voice from moments before said, and Tony stopped his fingers' movement before looking up. Into a face that he knew... but didn't.
"Jarvis?" he said incredulously, staring. He looked like Jarvis. Same face, same general body type, same eyes... but more hair, more muscled than Tony had ever seen Jarvis, and there was something different, something more determined, lurking in his features. The khaki semi-uniform he wore half-reminded Tony of Indiana Jones. The man blinked, obviously trying to hide his own surprise.
"That's my name," he answered cautiously. "Not that it's a secret, so you knowing who I am doesn't prove anything." Tony opened his mouth to respond, realised he didn't know what to say, and shut it again, staring speechlessly at the man who looked uncannily like his own father figure. After several seconds of tense silence, something clicked in Tony's brain.
"Oh, lord," he groaned, and covered his eyes with one hand. "You have got to be kidding me." He could feel... Jarvis's... puzzled, annoyed stare and sighed loudly. "I do know you. I don't know how I know you, because I've never met you before in my life, but I know you. And even though you're just about drilling a hole through my head with that glare, I know that you'd never actually do anything to me, because you raised me. Him. The other me. Your me. Damn, this is weird. You'd think after everything I've gone through I'd be used to remembering another me's memories, but obviously not." Peering at Jarvis from beneath his fingers, he was met with narrowed eyes and crossed arms.
"Wow, I never thought muttonchops could be intimidating before," he said to the air. Jarvis huffed at him but remained silent. He sat up, only then realising that he was still shirtless. No wonder Jarvis had been so taken aback by his chest. The RT must look pretty damned shocking to... The sudden realisation made him groan again and he clutched at the side of his head as a fierce throbbing pain shot through it. "Damn." The moment passed and he opened his eyes again, taking in the workshop through new sight. He knew this room like he knew the blueprints to Avengers Mansion. Yes, there was the main workbench, and the repulsor charger station, and what looked to be a half-assembled long-distance sonar unit, and... the armor.
His lips quirked a little. Some things never changed. That was probably more comforting than it should be, considering all the implications of the armor's presence. Ignoring Jarvis for a moment, Tony carefully stood up, the pain in his head subsiding further the longer he was awake, edged around the chair, and crossed the room, staring in awe at the armor in the corner.
It was enormous. Bulkier and heavier even than the Mark I, and that was saying something. It was primitive, and god only knew what the power source was, but all the same... it was beautiful. All bare brushed steel, gleaming in the lights, no alloys or paint to distract from the deadly lines. He reached out slowly, stroked his fingertips along the burnished faceplate, pausing over a dent that hadn't been hammered out yet, and exhaled slowly. He'd never seen this armor before, but he knew it. Knew it intimately. His eyes fluttered closed for a moment, and he remembered poring over blueprints with Jarvis, arguing over power feeds and percentages and wiring issues, remembered long nights with the soldering iron and the blowtorch, remembered the sheer weight of the thing the first time he'd tried it on.
"I remember that you argued with me over the motorcycle," he said thoughtlessly, admiring the clean sweep and curve of steel. The sudden force on his shoulder, spinning him around and off balance, left him leaning back against the armor, staring at Jarvis' furious face.
"Who the hell are you, and how do you know about this? Why do you look like Tony?" the older man growled, and for the first time, Tony realised that an angry Jarvis could be frightening. For all his inner conviction that Jarvis wouldn't hurt him -- and where the hell had that come from, anyway? -- something else told him that this situation was entirely new and no one could be sure of might happen. Carefully raising a hand, as non-threateningly as possible, he indicated himself, his face, his chest, with a wave.
"I am Tony. Not your Tony," he added hastily, seeing Jarvis' brows knit further together, and continued, "You could say I'm from another world. I... I'm not entirely sure how I got here, although I have some idea, but I really am Tony. Anthony Edward Stark. My mother was Maria, and dad was Howard," and Tony could clearly hear the bitterness in his own voice, "and they died in a car crash when I was still a teenager. And you -- well, my Jarvis -- raised me, pretty much, after that. Well, before that, too, since they didn't exactly have a lot of time for me," he couldn't help adding.
"And I'm supposed to believe that?" Jarvis snapped. Tony's lips curved, but he caught himself before he actually smiled. It wouldn't do to have the other man thinking that Tony was mocking him. Other memories from -- this other Tony, he supposed -- told him that this was Jarvis' normal tone when he'd been caught by surprise but was starting to calm down again.
"No. At least, I wouldn't expect any other sane man to. Except that it's true. Whatever's happened, however it happened, I'm sure I can fix it, I can switch us back. I'm pretty sure that your Tony ended up in my world, and I'm stuck here in his, and all I'll need is some time to work out an equivalent to the Skrull device that caused this, and then some serious number crunching time to program the correct..." His voice trailed off as an earlier memory/thought resurfaced. "Oh my god." He stared at Jarvis in abject horror. "There are no computers here. I'm stuck in the 1940s."
"1941, actually," Jarvis corrected him. "What do you mean, no computers? Of course we have computers! You -- Tony -- has the most advanced computer in the world. Not that he's told the military that, of course," he added in a sharp tone.
Tony rolled his eyes. "Yeah, if you can actually call something that takes up an entire room a computer. Which I don't. I need something programmable, not a heap of vacuum tubes that can't do anything more complicated than play connect the dots with pieces of cardboard."
Looking around, Tony realised where he was. This wasn't just a lab - this was his lab. His other self's lab. His tools. The overhead fluorescents were obscenely bright, and he made a mental note to work on that as soon as possible, because there was no way he could get anything done if he had a constant headache from the damned things.
Turning around to look up at the armor again, he let out a sigh before smiling wryly. "I suppose vacuum tubes and punch cards will just have to do. It's not like I have a choice. Even if I wanted to stay here long enough to design and build a working micro-processor, the technology doesn't exist in 1941. Not even for your Tony Stark."
He glanced around the room before shaking his head with a chuckle. "I never thought I'd actually have a legitimate chance to say this, but... it's going to be like working with stone knives and bearskins." The wry words only produced a puzzled look from Jarvis. "But I'll make it work." He had to, he added to himself, in a grimmer tone than he dared voice. He couldn't stay here, and god only knew what havoc was going on back home with a time-lost alternate-universe him running around the place. Hopefully Reed managed got hold of Steve to deal with him. Something inside him pinched painfully at that thought and he stared at the armor for a few more moments as he regained control over his face.
He could feel the weight of Jarvis's gaze on him, silently measuring him, and turned slowly, not sure yet of how to deal with a Jarvis so different from the man he'd grown up knowing.
"You're definitely Tony Stark." Jarvis' lips quirked. "Even the best Nazi trickery wouldn't be able to fool me, so you must be who you say you are. That much is obvious. Just as much as the fact that you don't belong here. You say some sort of... Skrull device did this. I don't know what Skrull is, but I do know that it did more to you than just switch places. You remember things -- me, the lab, the armor. How?"
Running a hand through his hair, disheveling it even further, Tony sighed. "All I can say about the Skrulls, really, is that they're an alien race and you should be damned glad you don't know them. Hopefully your world never will. They've caused enough damage on mine." He reached out to the armor again, resting his hand on the polished metal. "It's funny, though. This always seems to be the same. In every universe we've seen, there's an Iron Man." Pausing, Tony weighed his words. However the Skrull device had done it, he vividly remembered this other Tony's life, his emotions, his knowledge. He remembered designing the armor, remembered using it to save Pepper's life, remembered his father's death. He remembered the loneliness and the fear, too. This Tony seemed to be a lot like he had been, before the RT, before everything he didn't remember, way back in the early years when the Avengers had first formed. The only thing missing seemed to be the guilt weighing him down. This world's Tony hadn't let people down, hadn't caused their deaths, hadn't nearly destroyed the world.
"Every universe?" Jarvis questioned, his tone softer than his earlier words. Tony knew that if he turned to look at the older man, he'd see an expression of concern, familiar to him from his own memories as well as this other Tony's.
"Call it... other worlds. I don't think your universe has come up with the theory of the multiverse or parallel dimensions yet, so it might be simpler if you thought of it that way," he offered, avoiding the unspoken questions.
"I've... had a few encounters with dimensional travel. Both myself and people coming into my world. It's almost ridiculously common, honestly." Tony smiled briefly. "This, though... this is new. We were experimenting on a piece of alien technology, trying to get it to work again. The Skrulls are basically atrociously ugly lizard-men, with extra wrinkles. They used shape-changers to infiltrate us, and one of the things they used to make it work was a memory-transfer device." He saw the look on Jarvis' face and grinned. "I know, I know, it sounds like terrible B-grade science fiction. Sometimes I really have to wonder about that, because it's practically an everyday occurrence in my world. Anyway, Reed and I managed to get the thing working, but in order to do so, we had to plug it in to me." Jarvis tilted his head, and Tony waved a hand at his chest. "This thing. The RT. It's... really complicated. But it's basically a big battery. It keeps me living, but it generates so much extra power that it's ridiculous, so I figured when nothing else worked... why not?"
"Obviously." Jarvis' face was expressionless, but his tone dripped sarcasm. "Unknown technology -- whyever not plug it directly in to your own body? Whatever could go wrong, after all?"
Tony sighed, shoulders slumping. "Yeah, well. Genius I may be, but nobody's ever accused me of having any common sense. And it seemed worth it. Anyway, the thing apparently worked, all right -- I remember all sorts of things that I've never experienced, which I can only assume are your Tony's memories." Which means that he'd have mine, Tony thought, and found himself wondering if this other Tony was as bad at dealing with emotions as he was; if he blurted out some of those memories to the wrong people... well. Maybe staying here wouldn't be such a bad idea, after all.
"The dimensional transference was an unexpected side effect. The bad thing is that it was the combination of Skrull technology and my RT --" he gestured at his chest again, "and I'm not sure how I can reproduce that here, with this technology." From the look on Jarvis' face, his attempt at keeping his feelings on the tech level around him to himself had failed.
"Well... I've a fair bit of engineering knowledge myself," Jarvis said instead, moving to the repulsor charging station. "I can't promise to understand what you're doing, but I can at least provide a pair of steady hands."
"Thank you." Tony hoped his sincerity showed. "First, though... do you think I could get a shirt? I'm a little conspicuous like this."
There were times, Steve thought, when he understood why Fury always made people come to him. At least if he stayed on the Helicarrier, he couldn't get roped into random favours that he wanted no part of. Steve wasn't Nick Fury, however, which was how he came to be standing in the main hallway of Avengers Tower looking at Pepper and wishing that he'd put off his weekly check-in with Maria for another day.
"You have got to get in there, Steve," Pepper said urgently, her hands making impatient little flutters in mid-air at him. "It's going to end in disaster if you don't stop it!"
Steve instinctively reached up to push back a cowl that wasn't there and tried awkwardly to cover the motion by running his fingers through his hair in a frustrated motion. Of all things to be asked on what was supposed to be a routine stop by the Tower to make sure everything was running smoothly...
"Pepper, I..." He stopped, tried to organize his thoughts, and started again. "Look, I know this is hard for you, but I don't have any idea what you expect me to do. I can't control him, and I can't lock him up."
"You can at least go in there and talk to him," she snapped, her eyes fierce. At that moment, Steve could see very clearly why Tony feared Pepper nearly as much as he respected her. "Don't think I haven't missed the fact that you've been avoiding him for the last week. He's lonely, Steve, and he's lost, and he's going to go crazy without some kind of company, and everyone else is avoiding him because they already had enough problems trying to deal with our Tony, and if you don't stop him from disassembling the coffeemaker, I'm going to go in there and throttle him myself!" With that, her narrowed eyes blazing, she turned and stalked down the hallway toward the elevator, her heels clicking viciously on the elegantly tiled floor.
Staring at the floor, feeling strangely helpless, Steve struggled. He didn't want to go in there and see... not-Tony. Whatever they'd decided to call him, Steve didn't know, as he'd tried his damnedest not to be around the man. Watching a smiling, happy, motivated Tony, one who was determined to make the most of his current situation but still absolutely bent on going home again, was... difficult. And he wasn't sure why.
Well. That wasn't entirely true. It was hard to watch this other Tony because although Steve could see all of the similarities, all of the things his Tony and this other Tony had in common, he could also see the differences. And the biggest difference was that happiness. The other Tony couldn't be called a cheerful happy soul, but he had an underlying foundation of contentment, of peace within and with himself that Tony just didn't have. Steve didn't know what had happened to this other Tony to give him that centered quality, but he knew that it hurt to see it. Seeing it made him see just how unhappy his Tony was, and always had been. Even during his happiest times, he hadn't possessed that same surety that this other Tony did.
And part of Steve was very, very afraid that it was his fault. Not that he could pin down a specific reason for the feeling, but Steve worried that somewhere along the line, he'd let Tony down. He tried to push away the memories from their civil war; he'd acknowledged months ago that that situation had been caused by both Tony and himself, as well as outside manipulation. Until then, until Tony had crossed so many lines that Steve couldn't overlook it anymore, they'd always been able to talk to each other no matter how badly they disagreed. That had been his saving grace just as much as it was Tony's. The man had such a small support system that losing part of it would be -- had been, he reminded himself, with some bitterness -- incredibly traumatic to him.
Taking a breath, Steve steeled himself, forcing away the confused jumble of thoughts that had become his near-constant companion ever since he'd discovered how much of his recent life Tony no longer remembered. He lifted his eyes to look at the door into the kitchen. It was a normal, unassuming door. There was no hint of horror lurking beyond it, no strange glows, not even the sound of an explosion. How bad could it be? He raised a hand and pushed the door open.
"Steve!" The tone of delight in not-Tony's voice was unmistakable, and Steve wondered at it. They'd barely been around each other after that first day, when Steve had brought him home to the Tower and introduced him to everyone before returning to his own home. And staying there, where he could safely avoid Tony's doppelganger. But then, the man had told him that he had Tony's memories, due to the malfunction with the Skrull device. Surely that included memories of their friendship, and stuck in a strange place as he was, it only made sense that he would miss the friend that half of his memories told him he had. The thought made a sense of guilt well up inside Steve; he of all people knew just how hard it was to be stuck in a strange new world, outside his own time and place. Yet he'd abandoned the other Tony because the man made him uncomfortable, knowing that no one else in the Tower would be willing to befriend him. All that, and part of the reason for the sense of discomfort was Steve's own immediate, affectionate response to this other-Tony.
Stopping just inside the door, Steve took in the scene, his eyebrows furrowed as he tried to come to grips with the strangely mixed guilt and affection filling him. The small dining table was in its normal place, chairs still safely arranged around it. The appliances were clean and humming away, there were no strange devices on the counters... there weren't even any dirty dishes in the sink. In short, it looked like a perfectly normal morning in the Tower's kitchen.
Except for not-Tony. And the screwdriver in his hand. And the hundreds of pieces of metal and unidentifiable bits that lay scattered across the table, the coffee pot off to one side. The grin on Tony's face was also normal, as was his own exasperated but resigned reaction. He pulled out a chair next to Tony and sat down.
"What are you doing?" His voice sounded strained even to his own ears, but Tony chose to ignore it.
"I'm learning what I can about this absolutely fascinating technology that your world uses. Well... what I can that I might be able to use at home, anyway." Tony leaned back in his chair, shrugging as he twirled the screwdriver between his fingers. "There's so much that I could learn using your computers and the other-me's memories, but taking that knowledge home and knowing that none of it was usable would be almost too much to bear, I think." Steve suspected that his confusion showed on his face, and the sidelong glance and sudden devil-may-care grin that Steve recognised as part of this Tony's public mask only confirmed it.
"I have your Tony's memories, but they don't give me his understanding," he explained. "My armor and traveling kit are the best in the world, but the things you take for granted, even these every-day appliances, show a marvelous understanding of how things work that I just don't have." He waved at the mess of pieces on the table. "We don't have anything like this yet, although I've often wished for something similar. It's amazing, really, what you can fit into something so small. I'm hoping that I can adapt some of it for my own inventions once I get home," he said, excitement threaded through his voice. "Not only could it make the armor better, but I could use it for my traveling equipment."
"So... taking apart the coffee maker is helping you learn?" Steve asked dryly. Apparently all versions of Tony were susceptible to breaking out in techno-babble. Tony shrugged, already fiddling with another piece of the machine that Steve would have sworn the man couldn't live without.
"It's an excellent example of the use of this technology in everyday life," he answered. Abruptly, he set down the screwdriver and the piece he was holding, leaned back in his chair so that it was balanced precariously on the back legs, crossed his arms, and looked straight at Steve. "But you don't care about any of that, even if it used to fascinate you almost as much as it does me, and nearly for the same reasons. Out of place, out of time, and all that."
The similarity to his own thoughts just moments earlier made Steve twitch, but Tony continued on. "I'd guess that Pepper ordered you in here, since I ignored her, and that makes your Pepper about as happy as it does mine." Steve saw the corners of Tony's mouth curl up, but the man continued, "And honestly, what I'm really wondering about right this moment is why you've been avoiding me. I know it must be hard, since I look like your Tony and I'm not him, but that can't be the only reason. I know you've experienced alternate universes before." He shuddered. "You can at least rest assured that I have no intentions of trying to kill someone in order to escape back to my own universe."
He must have pieced together James' comment that first night with Tony's memories, Steve thought absently, aware of the piercing blue eyes practically boring into him. He forced himself to blink, attempting to look casual and not as though he'd been staring at the man for the last few minutes. "I've been busy. It's a little time-consuming running the Avengers, as you should know--" He stopped abruptly, reminding himself that this Tony wouldn't know.
Tony shrugged, that smile still playing on his lips. "I do. Well, in a way."
The smile grew wider as Steve just looked at him, speechless. "I told you, I remember. The Skrull device worked aces, after all. It just... had some extra side effects that we hadn't anticipated." Tony paused and winced slightly. "That your Tony hadn't anticipated." Casting another look at Steve, unreadable emotions written on his face, he said softly, "I'm sorry. It's a little difficult to sort the memories out sometimes. It's not like I'm remembering someone else's life, but like... I'm remembering a new part of mine."
Steve nodded silently as he heard for the first time a hint of uncertainty and loneliness in Tony's voice. As if to cover his slip, Tony reached out and picked up the screwdriver again, dropping his gaze back to the table.
Pepper was right. As usual. He'd been so caught up in his own confused emotions at the situation that he hadn't even thought of the man at the center of it. He leaned forward and reached out, covering Tony's empty hand with his own in an attempt to be reassuring. "Look... I'm sorry. You're right. I have been avoiding you. But..." Words failed him and he trailed off as he wrestled with his thoughts, not sure what he wanted to say. Tony shifted his hand until it lay palm side up and carefully interlaced their fingers, not quite meeting Steve's eyes as he looked up at him from beneath his eyelashes. The touch seemed to center Steve and he stared at their clasped hands as words spilled out, soft and sad. "The last few years have been hard on everyone, but he... I thought I knew Tony. He's my best friend. But I..." He shook his head in frustration.
"I'm not him," Tony said quietly. Steve nodded, a sudden lump in his throat for some reason. Tony's smile turned wistful. "I wish... I wish I had that. This. At home."
Steve's brows furrowed, not sure what he meant. Tony laughed softly. "You don't even see it, do you?" He cocked his head, studying Steve, making him uncharacteristically self-conscious. Tony sighed, and the sound was so familiar, all tones of affection and exasperation and "I'm smarter than you but I'll try to explain in words small enough for you to understand," that Steve found himself smiling at him.
"You have this group of people, and this tower, and you know that you can count on all of them. Hell, man, I think you may have more of these Avengers than I do employees, from all the names people have thrown at me over the last week."
As Steve watched Tony, he acknowledged to himself that he'd missed this. Just being able to sit with Tony and talk with him, about important things or inconsequential ones didn't matter. Just being in his company, hearing him talk, seeing him smile...
"Steve?" Tony's concerned question brought Steve back to himself and he straightened, leaning back but not quite far enough to pull their hands apart.
"Sorry. I was just thinking," he said lamely. Tony eyed him thoughtfully, then let the subject drop.
"My point is that you have a huge support system here. This group of teammates, friends... It's amazing how much some of you have been through together. It makes a lot of my adventures look like children's stories." Tony chuckled, shaking his head before looking straight at Steve, his face serious. "I know that your Tony's not exactly the most popular guy around at the moment, but... He wouldn't dream of telling you this, you understand, but you need to know this. Maybe it'll help you understand him again." He gave a slight shrug, a serious glint in his eyes beneath the semi-playful mask, and Steve nearly held his breath as he waited for Tony to continue. "He's always known that he could count on you, even when he couldn't count on anyone else -- including himself."
Steve's throat tightened. He wanted to protest, to point out all of the times that he'd turned his back on Tony and walked away... His nightmares were rare these days, but he had a new one now: Tony, eyes steady in a bruised and bloody face, helmet missing and armor dented, staring resignedly up at him while he raised his shield for a killing blow. The way that Tony was looking at him told Steve that the other man knew what he was thinking and didn't care. Then again, Tony didn't remember their civil war anymore, let alone that last fight, and he hadn't done any of that to this Tony, so why would he? His next words proved Steve's first thought correct.
"No matter what you're thinking, Steve, your Tony's always counted on you. Even when you two fought, he knew that he could count on you to do what you thought was right, to do whatever you needed to do. That means a lot to him. Not many people are that committed." He sat back slightly, looking thoughtful, and Steve could tell that he was considering his next words. "Most importantly, he's always known that he could rely on you, personally. No matter how bad things got, he always knew that in the end, you would still be there for him."
A chill passed through Steve as he stared at the man in front of him. If Tony -- his Tony -- really thought that... what had their civil war done to him? What had his death done to him? If he meant that much to the man, what had Tony done when he was no longer there? Steve closed his eyes and thought, pained, I know what he did. He tried to do too much, and he tried to kill himself. He nearly succeeded. In some important ways -- he did succeed.
"Steve?" This time Tony's voice was closer, and when Steve opened his eyes, part of him wasn't surprised to see Tony only inches from him, a strangely familiar light in his eyes. In Tony's eyes... but not his Tony's. He knew that he should move away or back or even just say something to break the tension that was growing between them. Instead, he just watched Tony (this other Tony, he reminded himself) as he closed the last gap between them, his fingers tightening their grasp as he brushed his lips against Steve's. A sigh that might have been his name ghosted past his ear, and then Tony drew back, watching him carefully.
Steve couldn't find the words to express himself. He should be upset at the kiss, angry because this Tony who wasn't his Tony was trying to manipulate him, betrayed because of his relationship with Sharon. But he wasn't. As he stared silently at the other man, all he could think was I wonder if Tony's lips would feel the same.
Finally, Tony broke the increasingly uncomfortable silence. "I'm not going to say I'm sorry." He sounded defensive, and Steve wondered what Tony's memories were telling him. He wondered what Tony had never told him. "I'm not. I shouldn't have done that, because I know you're with Sharon, and your Tony never would have, even though--"
"Hey, guys, where's the coffee pot?" Spider-Man's cheerful voice cut through the intimate space between them and Tony moved back, his fingers slipping out of Steve's grasp as Spider-Man bounced into the kitchen.
"Hi, Spidey," Tony said, only a slight hint of tension in his voice.
"Hey, Tony!" Then Spider-Man paused, and Steve could practically see the mental double-take. "Oh. Um. I mean..."
"It's okay. My name's Tony, too," Tony smirked. Steve could practically see the other man pulling his defenses tight around him again. Tony was Tony, no matter what universe he was from.
Steve found his own lips curving at the smile on Tony's face. Spidey shrugged, and Steve thought that he was probably blushing a little, judging from the way his fingers twisted awkwardly at his sides.
"Sorry. So, um... coffee pot?"
Silently, Steve picked up the glass carafe and handed it to Spider-Man. Spidey accepted it, the confused tilt of his head making Tony's lips curl.
"Okay... Coffee pot. Check. Now, how about the coffee maker?" Spidey asked plaintively, cradling the carafe protectively.
Steve bit his lip to keep from laughing as Tony gestured grandly at the table in front of them. "I'm afraid your coffee maker has been sacrificed for the greater good."
"Wha -- what?" Spider-Man stared at the table. "Sacrificed? You... you took it apart?" The horror in his voice made Steve's smile widen and he hid it with a cough.
"Don't worry. I'll put it back together. And I promise you it'll be even better than before. If anyone knows what fresh Colombian coffee really tastes like, it's me," Tony promised. "I've been there at least three times in the last few years. Hunting down exotic treasures and beautiful women, you know." Spidey continued staring, then his shoulders slumped.
"Better. Right. I've heard that before," he muttered, carefully placing the coffee pot on the kitchen counter. "I'll, uh, just go down the street and pick up some espresso, I guess. Later, Steve."
Tony dropped into the chair, sighing a little in relief as he did. Apparently other-him also liked his creature comforts, since his office chair was overstuffed leather, heavy on the "overstuffed" part. Even the clothes he'd found, as dated as they looked to him, were high-quality. Jarvis informed him that Anthony Stark was one of the richest men on the planet, if not the richest man, so at least some things hadn't changed. Wouldn't change. Weren't changed. He shrugged, smoothing the fine cotton of his shirt sleeve absently. He'd kept things simple: white shirt, black slacks, and a red and gold tie, which currently hung loose around his neck, enjoying casual company with the opened buttons at the top of his shirt. The suit jacket and vest that had accompanied the slacks were currently thrown across the back of the couch against the far wall. Damned if he was going to dress to the nines just to find out what it was that had Jarvis so hyped up that he'd dragged Tony out of the lab.
Not that that had been too difficult to accomplish, for once. Tony wasn't sure if he should be laughing or crying, most of the time he spent down there. The lab was incredibly well stocked, with all sorts of ultra-high-tech tools and equipment... for the time. Which was 1941. What he wouldn't give for ten minutes in his own lab... or a microchip factory... hell, even a soda pop bottling factory would be better than what he had to work with. Still, at least he'd managed to make some headway since his arrival in this backward world.
Rhodey and Pepper had been incredulous at his story but with Jarvis standing beside him nodding at their wide-eyed glances, they had accepted it. Whether or not they accepted him was a different matter altogether, and at this point, Tony wasn't entirely sure he cared. If things worked out the way he hoped -- expected -- they would, he wouldn't be here that much longer anyway, and once this universe had its own Tony Stark back, the reaction of its inhabitants to an outside Tony would be a moot point. Privately, he acknowledged his relief that there didn't seem to be a version of Happy Hogan wandering around this world's Stark Industries. He couldn't remember how Happy had died, but his absence was still a gaping hole in his heart and seeing a hale and healthy Happy, especially if he happened to be dating one Ms. Potts, would probably have been enough to send Tony running for the nearest whiskey bottle.
So he'd spent the last few weeks trying to re-create the basic type of interaction that the Skrull device had without actually having any of the technology with which to do so. In sporadic fits of furious depression, he'd taken a good look at the repulsor charger. Horrified by its primitive setup, much to Jarvis' indignation, he'd started trying to work out a way to upgrade other-him's repulsor pump. Getting rid of it was right out, as the state of 'modern' surgery in this world was nowhere near high enough to cope with that sort of complicated operation, but at the very least he could ensure that other-him didn't need to be nearly shocked to death once a day. He'd had too much experience with that himself to think it was in any way enjoyable -- and that had been shocking himself using an adaptor, not via direct current hotwired to his heart. The mere thought of it made him shudder.
The sound of the door opening made him look up, away from doodling absently on the desk blotter, and he nodded in greeting at Jarvis. The older man strode across the room, the door closing behind him, and dropped a thick folder on the desk in front of him. It was stamped "TOP SECRET" in familiar red letters. Tony blinked, then looked up at Jarvis questioningly.
"This is everything General Fury's sent over. Tony saw it about a week before... the switch, and already called him to confirm his involvement. There's no avoiding it and no way to delay, so you'll have to familiarize yourself with the information in that briefing. Quickly. You're meeting Fury tomorrow, and then you're full-time on as a leading consultant on the project."
"Just a consultant? That won't be too bad."
Jarvis smiled grimly. "Officially, just a consultant. Unofficially, there've been rumours of Nazi spies infiltrating the project, so you're there as an extra security measure, too. And if you fail, there's always the unspoken threat of Stark losing its military contracts."
Tony frowned, then sighed. "Military... right. World War II. Military contracts." He shook his head. "Maybe someday this version of Stark will be able to do without them, too." He picked up the folder, making an impatient noise as a creased photograph fell out of the bottom. Pushing it aside, he opened the folder, automatically glancing across the front page for the basics of the project. At least he remembered his time as Secretary of Defense. It wouldn't take more than a few minutes to gather the basic information for...
He froze. He stared at the paper in his hand unblinkingly as he tried to absorb what it said. He read it over again, and again, until he had it memorized. He still couldn't convince himself that it made sense. It couldn't possibly be... The photograph. Feeling as though he were moving in slow motion, Tony dropped the paper, pushed the folder aside and picked up the photograph that had fallen out. Looking at it reluctantly, he drew in a gasping breath, part shock, part joy, part grief. Part of his mind told him that he shouldn't be surprised: It was 1941, he was in an alternate universe, World War II was going on, and of course the military was going to attempt wild experiments in order to counter the Nazis. Intellectually, he knew all of that.
Convincing his heart was an entirely different matter.
"You look like you've seen a ghost," Jarvis said, dropping down into the chair on the other side of the desk. Tony jerked, startled out of his intense focus on the photograph. His tone was gruff, but Tony could see worry in his eyes. Somehow, that warmed him a little. It had been a long damned time since anyone had truly worried about him. He tried to recover his nonchalant act, but he could tell that Jarvis wasn't fooled.
"In a way, I just have," he finally said, his eyes returning to the photograph. It was black and white and grainy, and the figure was a thin stick of a young man that he'd never seen in person, but it was clearly Steve Rogers.
"Some things just don't change," Tony observed, looking around as he and Jarvis walked down the hallway. They weren't in the Pentagon, which Tony knew intimately, but military buildings had a sameness about them that no manner of fancy architecture or interior decoration could hide... and whoever had built this one didn't care enough to even try. The harsh fluorescent lights were enough to make his eyes ache, with the glare reflecting off the polished tile floor. Jarvis cast him a curious glance, but didn't respond.
"Tony, be careful. Fury is incredibly intelligent, and if you try anything with him, well... just... don't do anything rash," Jarvis said suddenly, then paused even as Tony smirked, and sighed. "No. Never mind that last part. Somehow, I managed to forget who I was talking to. Just don't give away that you're not quite who we're saying you are. That would be a world-class mess."
"You're telling me. Like we need your military getting their hands on this kind of tech." Tony tapped the RT, its tell-tale glow now hidden beneath a gauze pad, a business shirt, and a jacket. "Good thing you don't have metal detectors yet." Tony cursed his loose tongue as a thoughtful expression crossed Jarvis' face.
"Metal detectors... what a good idea. They'd be great for security..." Jarvis' voice trailed off and he shook his head. "Not now. Right now, we have to get you to this meeting before General Fury loses what little patience he has."
"Great. Some things really don't change," Tony sighed, and followed the older man down the hallway. They stopped in front of a heavy wooden door, plain except for the small brass plaque mounted on it that read, "General N. Fury." Jarvis rapped on the door, then opened it. Tony followed him in, flashing a smile at the young blonde lieutenant behind the desk out of habit more than any actual interest. She nodded at him in acknowledgment, then calmly paged the general. Tony felt a little disappointed at the lack of reaction, then laughed at himself. If the woman were the type to get flustered at a little male attention, Fury would never have picked her as his secretary.
"The general says you may go in now," she informed them a moment later, after listening to a muted rumble from the intercom. Tony smiled at her again and entered the office with Jarvis a step behind him. Behind the desk sat Nick Fury. Tony nearly stopped and stared before he caught himself. The general looked exactly like his world's Fury, right down to the eye patch and the grey temples. The biggest difference was the uniform - with two stars on the epaulet.
"Stark. Jarvis." Fury acknowledged them and waved them toward the chairs in front of his desk. Tony sat, feeling as though the man were looking straight through him. He resisted the urge to raise a protective hand to his chest. No sense in drawing attention to the very thing he didn't want Fury to find out about. Fury leaned forward, eyes narrowed, and gestured at Tony. "First thing's first. This isn't a party, it's not an adventure, and you're not in charge. This is a military operation, not one of your little expeditions. You understand that?" Tony nodded silently. Fury was definitely still Fury, different timeline, dimension, or universe be damned.
"Good." Fury sat back in his chair, looking mollified. "You've read the information. You know the issues. I want you to know that it wasn't my idea to bring you into this." That didn't surprise Tony at all. He'd been trying to figure out why Fury would want a civilian who was most well-known for gallivanting around the world in on one of his pet projects. From what he could remember, other-Tony's work for Fury in the past had consisted pretty much of, "Go here, blow up Nazis," not working on top-secret projects. Now he knew the answer: Fury didn't want him. That would make this so much more fun, he groused to himself. "Regardless of that, you're here. What I do want you to do is make yourself familiar with the scientists on the project, their assistants, and the subjects."
"Subjects?" The word slipped out before Tony could stop himself. He'd seen the information in the file, knew that there were a handful of young men chosen for the project, but he'd hoped that he wouldn't have to mingle with them. Getting to know the scientists seemed much more practical for him.
"Yes, Stark, the subjects. There are only two of them now. We... lost one, a few days ago." Tony didn't ask how. Knowing how Operation: Rebirth had worked in his universe, he didn't really want to know. "We'll be selecting the final subject next week. In the meantime, you need to get in there and meet these people. Any thoughts, any suspicions you have about any of them, you report immediately. Any suggestions you have for improving security, report immediately." Fury smiled slightly, although it didn't reach his eyes. "Try not to piss anybody off, Stark. This is an important operation."
A fit of boredom had taken Tony from the Avengers' floor in the Tower to the upstairs office. No one questioned his presence, and he figured as long as he looked like he knew where he was going, he'd avoid being hassled by the various security guards lurking circumspectly in the halls. Using the other-him's memories as a guide, it didn't take long for him to arrive at his own office. He glanced around inside, but the Spartan interior didn't contain anything of interest besides the computer on the desk and that was a temptation he could do without. Pepper was nowhere to be seen, so he dropped down in the visitor's chair in front of her desk, eyeing the various items there. Most he could identify easily.
One of them looked interesting enough to provide at least a temporary diversion, and Tony pulled the small screwdriver out of his pocket in a decisive movement. It didn't take long to disassemble, and while simple, it was still fascinating enough that he failed to hear the warning clicking of high heels entering the room.
"What are you doing with my electric stapler?" The sharp question brought Tony's head up from his concentration on the pieces on the desk in front of him and he looked at Pepper, smiling instinctively, as he always did at a pretty lady. From the expression on her face, it wasn't accomplishing anything.
"Discovering how it works," he explained, figuring that reason would go over better than "I'm bored" would. Setting down the screwdriver, he turned to properly focus on her. He forced himself not to look her over, as difficult as that was with the form-fitting green outfit that she had on. Even though he'd only been here a little more than a week, he'd had enough run-ins with this world's Pepper Potts to know better. She appreciated that sort of attention no more than his Pepper did, and this Pepper had much less compunction about telling him exactly how much she didn't like it.
"So you took it apart?" With a drawn-out sigh, Pepper dropped the folders she'd brought up for him onto the desk.
"Is there a better way to find out how something works?" he asked, widening his smile as he leaned back to look up at her. His charm often helped him calm dames down at home, and women couldn't be that different here... She refused to take the bait.
"Put it back together." Her voice was flat, but Tony could read tension beneath the words. He tried turning the charm up a notch.
"But I'm not done--"
"Put it. Back. Together," she gritted out, her eyes narrowing. "It's my stapler, I need it, and you took it apart. Without asking me. Fix it. Now."
Tony blinked as she glared at him, then turned on one dainty-heeled shoe and left the room. They were delicate-looking high heels, but she certainly knew how to stomp in them. The fact that she didn't slam the door behind her said volumes for her self-control; Tony would have slammed it.
"Tony, my boy, you must be getting old," he said to himself, picking the screwdriver up again. "She didn't want to hear stories about grand adventures, or exotic places, or even what a looker she is. I'm losing my touch."
He found himself wondering just what that edge in Pepper's voice had been. He'd noticed it the first time they spoke and although it had lessened over the last few days, it hadn't gone away. Was it something to do with her relationship with this world's Tony? No matter how hard he searched his new memories, he couldn't find a hint to go on. Possibly it was simply that he was there and her Tony wasn't, although nothing was ever that simple in real life.
Shaking his head, he worked on putting the stapler back together. Even though the stapler itself was foreign to him, the principles behind it weren't, and it only took moments to reassemble. Sitting back in his chair, looking pleased with himself, his gaze fell on the folders. His smile faded. This world was almost insanely different from his own. Where he had automobiles, they had flying cars. He had a computer that took up an entire room and they had computers the size of their palm that could probably control an outer-space flight. He had larger-than-life adventures... and they were larger-than-life superheroes.
Setting the screwdriver down again, Tony looked at the first folder. He'd have to remember to thank Pepper for doing this. The computer she'd shown him was just -- too much. Too small, too fast, too capable, and too tempting to duplicate. His mind was exploding with ideas for inventions and creations just from wandering around the Tower looking at things, and he knew that some of them would probably frustrate him for the rest of his life, because this world was so far ahead of what he knew. If he used the computer... no. That way lay madness, he was sure of it. Nearly overwhelming temptation, with that much knowledge literally at his fingertips... and definitely too much for him to deal with at home. If nothing else, over the last few years he'd learned a little bit of patience and a lot more about his limits. While he usually still defied them, he wasn't willing to do so when he could foresee a lifetime of frustration trying to recreate this world's everyday items, if he did so here.
That determination currently fueled his complete avoidance of this world's lab. He'd wandered through it, out of sheer curiosity, the day after he'd ended up in this place. He'd nearly cried, seeing all the wonderful tools and toys that he wouldn't be able to take home with him. The one thing he had done was cobble together a portable charging unit for his repulsor pump, which had been pathetically easy to do. It made him particularly aware of the changes that seventy years could make possible.
Instead, he'd asked for printouts. And books. And these folders, which Pepper had kindly provided him. Well... "kindly" probably wasn't the word, given the way she'd walked out. He suspected her motivation had a lot more to do with wanting him safely occupied and distracted from any more thoughts of disassembling household appliances than it did thoughtfulness. She had admitted that the coffee tasted better lately, though.
Regardless of her reasoning, at least reading about general events, places, and people gave him something to do. Accidentally restructuring history, at least, wasn't something he needed to worry about, since alternate universes didn't create time paradoxes. Well... not according to some theories, anyway. At least, from what Reed had said, it wouldn't be a problem. And reading about the history of this universe didn't mean an awful lot about what would happen once he got home again. This world hadn't had him around for the war, after all.
Sliding the screwdriver into his pants pocket, Tony picked up the folders and stood, making certain that the desk once again looked as it had when he'd come into the office. Once he was sure Pepper had nothing else to snap at him for, he headed for the elevator and then down to the living room. It should be empty, since it was mid-afternoon on a Tuesday, and he wasn't surprised to find himself correct in that theory when he walked in. He looked at the television for a long moment, having been exposed to its wonders a few days before when Logan and Jessica had been watching some strange moving picture that involved a lot of explosions and amazingly realistic views of outer space. Somehow, though, the thought of watching images of real people doing real things while he was stuck inside the Tower didn't appeal.
Maria had told him that she "didn't recommend" leaving the building, but no one had actually told him not to go outside or explore New York, her veiled order aside. However, he prided himself on being able to read people and there were only so many not-so-subtle glances and frowns that he could take. The one time he'd stepped out the front doors of the Tower, the sheer noise and confusion from the masses of people and all of the automobiles crowding the streets had appalled him nearly as much as it had drawn his interest. He shook his head ruefully as he seated himself on the couch. Maybe he'd spent too much time in the Amazon and the Alps to appreciate that sort of crowd anymore. Or maybe he was just trying to deal with his own denial of the situation, he admitted to himself.
He let his head drop back against the couch with a sigh, his eyes closing. The situation was absolutely insane: Lost in a dimension that wasn't his, with "superheroes" running around showing off all sorts of inhuman abilities, and another man's memories in his head. Another man who was even better than him at denying things, as far as he could tell. The tangled mess of remembered emotions and memories that centered around Steve Rogers was nearly dizzying in its complexity. Not for the first time, Tony wondered why this other-him had spent so much time and energy denying something that was obviously one of the cornerstones of his life.
Maybe that was what had prompted the kiss. Tony's lips curved slightly at the memory. He'd never seen the point of denying himself things that he wanted, societal mores be damned. Being as involved as he was in politics and government and military, even reluctantly, only meant that he'd learned to be circumspect. Jarvis and Pepper certainly knew about his string of lovers, both female and male, and Rhodey at least suspected, but he'd made damned sure to be discreet. Very few of his lovers had ever been public knowledge -- unlike, apparently, this world's him. The memories of the pervasiveness, the sheer power, of the press in this world were dismaying; knowing that the other him had spent his life caught between utter avoidance of it all and downright glorying in it made his head ache.
Somewhere along the way, this world's Tony seemed to have decided that the one thing that mattered more to him than anything else was also the one thing he should never ever even dream of touching. Possibly the press had a hand in that, but Tony doubted it, unless it was concern for how they would treat Steve. So many of his accidentally-obtained memories centered around protecting the other man, it was a wonder either of them had survived so long. Tony winced slightly, remembering both from those memories and from his own research that really, neither of them had, even if death seemed to be strangely temporary in this universe at times.
It really hadn't been fair of him to kiss Steve. The motivation probably hadn't even been his own, although he couldn't complain about the results, and from Steve's reaction, he had absolutely no idea what his Tony actually felt about him. All the same, Tony had been treated to more than one dream in the last week that prominently featured one Steve Rogers. While one of them had been just about the worst nightmare he'd ever had, the rest had been anything but. Waking up flushed and pleasantly sticky almost made up for waking up in an empty bed. It hadn't been fair, Tony decided, but he certainly didn't regret it. And besides, no matter how difficult it made things for this world's him, he wouldn't be the one around to deal with it.
Smirking slightly at the thought, Tony stretched and looked down at the lapful of papers. History had never been his strong suit until certain events in his life gave him a deep and abiding interest in ancient artifacts and myths. Currently, however, his interest lay in a more modern aspect of study: Any developments in the sciences made in this world that he might be able to take back to his own. Setting aside the thoughts which threatened to turn brooding, Tony focused on the research in front of him.
Lost in the information about the engineering developments of the latter part of the twentieth century, Tony jumped when someone touched his shoulder. The papers flew out of his hands as he whirled around, one hand instinctively dropping down to his hip where he so often carried a gun even as the other one raised in preparation to defend himself. When he saw Jarvis looking down at him with a raised eyebrow, he felt incredibly foolish.
"Sorry about that," he apologized as he dropped his hands and began gathering up the papers he'd strewn across the floor. "Habit, you know."
"As you say," Jarvis answered calmly. Tony grinned, wondering if his own Jarvis had ever been that patient. "I'm sorry to interrupt your reading, but there's a call for you."
"For me?" Tony paused with loose papers in his grasp and looked quizzically at the butler.
"Yes, sir. It's Dr. Richards. I believe he said something about a device and wanting your assistance."
"He does remember that I'm not your Tony, right? I don't know anything about this technology, and the memories that I have are only so helpful when I have to go digging through them even for basic sci -- physics information." Tony heard the frustration in his own voice and winced, but Jarvis ignored it, only a slight softening around his eyes telling Tony that he'd heard it as well.
"I'm sure he does. He specifically said that he wanted you. Apparently he thinks something about the Skrull device, our Tony's arc reactor, and your... heart pump," Jarvis said with a delicate pause, "combined together to create the transfer. So I gathered, at least. He's still on the line, if you'd like to speak with him."
That was music to Tony's ears. If he didn't get out of this lovely prison of a penthouse and start doing something, he was going to go insane. Reed's lab at least contained things that this world's Tony didn't understand either, so he could feel like he was on neutral territory there. Smiling widely, he gestured at Jarvis. "Lead the way, my good man. Finally, adventure calls!"
Steve could feel their eyes on him, the silent concern filling the Tower's library only ratcheting his own tension up higher. The only noise in the room was the click-click of his boots as he paced, his hands clasped together behind his back in military-rest fashion, a lifelong habit that he no longer even noticed. Originally he'd hoped to find some peace in the quiet room. The walls of books, the overstuffed chairs, the large desk in the corner that Tony used whenever he was avoiding his office... all of it reminded him of the time he'd spent there in Tony's company, and that only managed to further emphasize Tony's absence. Sharon and Bucky's presence was a not-fully-welcome distraction from that.
"Steve, I'm sure Tony's--"
"Tony's not fine!" he snapped, interrupting Sharon's carefully-modulated voice. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Bucky -- James -- exchange a glance with her and he repressed the growl that hovered in his throat with an effort.
"You don't know that," James said neutrally. Even with the careful tonelessness, Steve could hear the unspoken words: "Why do you care so much?" He didn't have an answer for that, so he ignored the question in his old friend's eyes.
Steve stopped, feeling the stress nearly humming through his body, the nervous tension that had been his constant companion for the last week like an itch underneath his skin. It made him snappish, made him want to hit things... to hit people. Deliberately, he drew in a long breath, released it again. He knew that James and Sharon were concerned for him -- about him. They were only trying to ease his own heightened emotions. For the first time in a long time, they weren't helping; they were making it worse.
"No. I don't," he replied after a moment's silence, fully aware that two of the people he was closest to, two of the people he loved most in the world, were a hair's-breadth away from having him removed from active duty. They wouldn't be out of order to do it, either, he admitted to himself. He'd forced Tony to step down from active duty more than once when he was in better shape than this. Not that he was about to admit that to them. Instead, he turned to face them, his back to the desk that loomed emptily behind them all. "And you don't know that he is. All we know is that we have this other Tony who's not m -- our Tony, and Reed hasn't figured out yet how to get him back."
"Reed's sure that he can get them switched back." James' voice was even, not a hint of his loathing for the man in question audible. "It's not as though we haven't encountered alternate universes before."
"No. But this is the first time that I've ever encountered one where practically everything about the timeline is different," Steve answered. "As far as the individuals within it go, anyway. From what this other Tony has told us, 1941 is still 1941. Even if super-powered individuals don't seem to exist, Hitler certainly does."
"So what's bothering you most, Rogers? The possibility that you won't get to punch Hitler in the face for a second time, or the fact that Stark's gone missing to that world?"
Steve sighed, shoulders tensing again, at Maria's question. He didn't bother answering.
"Maria. Any progress on things on your end?" he asked mildly, turning to face the woman. He'd heard her enter the room and he suspected that he already knew what her report would be, but he couldn't stop the small flicker of hope from welling up nonetheless. Her nostrils flared in irritation, but she bit back whatever words she wanted to say.
"Strange isn't available, if that's what you mean. Off doing some... mystic thing. Voodoo's locked himself away in some other dimension, apparently, and the only other high-level magic user that I currently know the location of is Doom. I'm assuming you don't want me to ask him for help."
Ignoring her tone of voice, Steve nodded. "That's about what I'd expected, but it was worth trying. Reed tells me that he's been in contact with Danny Rand, so at least he has the blueprints for what Tony started out with. He's optimistic that he can get it rebuilt within a week."
"What Pepper started out with, you mean," Maria muttered, just loudly enough to be heard. Steve looked at her, not quite sure how to interpret the words. She stared back defiantly but offered no explanation.
"Tony -- the other Tony -- has been helping Reed," Sharon offered after a pause. He glanced at her, a little surprised that she was keeping tabs on the alternate Tony at all, given how much of a sore point the man had been between them ever since his return. Sharon smiled at him and he reflexively smiled back at her, even though he could tell it was just for show. "Reed tells me that the man's brilliant, of course. Apparently he does have all of Tony's memories, although he doesn't have the same skills with our tech, since he's not used to it."
"That makes sense. At least he's getting out of the Tower. I was afraid he'd go nuts in here."
"More nuts than he already is, you mean." Maria crossed her arms over her chest, practically daring him to contradict her. Not for the first time, Steve wondered what he'd been thinking when he chose Maria Hill to lead the new Avengers team. His flash of irritation faded as quickly as it came, and he thought ruefully, Because she's not afraid to say what she thinks and she's not intimidated by anybody. Not even me.
"If you really thought that, you wouldn't have kept him on the team, Maria," he answered instead. She snorted loudly, but didn't respond. James chuckled. Hearing that made Steve's lips twitch. Even if James could barely stand Tony, at least being around him -- and the other Avengers -- was doing his old partner some good. He'd missed hearing James laugh.
"I've got patrol," James announced, pushing himself away from the wall he'd been leaning on and leaving with a nod at Steve. Maria turned to watch him leave, and Sharon laughed quietly. Maria looked sideways at her, a smirk playing on her own lips, then waved a mock-salute to Steve and left as well. Steve looked inquiringly at Sharon.
"What was that about?"
Sharon's smile widened. "The same thing it was about whenever I got to watch you walk out of a room. That costume doesn't leave anything to the imagination."
Steve blinked a little, looking toward the doorway that James and Maria had just walked through. "What are you... Do you mean that Maria...?" Sharon laughed again.
"No. I'm saying that she's very appreciative of the suit's design. And what it shows off. Which would be everything." She cocked her head slightly and mused, "I'm not all that certain that Maria's looking for anybody like that right now, anyway. She and Pepper have gotten very close over the last few months."
Steve found himself blinking again, but chose not to comment. He wouldn't have thought the two women had enough in common to be a couple, but who knew what pulled two people together? Instead, he looked again at the desk. Papers with notes scrawled across them in Tony's distinctive handwriting still littered the top of it. The other Tony had looked at them the first time he'd been shown the library, then avoided the desk altogether. Steve wasn't sure if it was because he didn't want to be tempted by whatever scribbles were there or if the avoidance was an unconscious thing. The man seemed a little lost, drifting around the Tower and trying to stay out of everyone's way. Was it because he could feel the tension that still existed between the rest of the team and Tony?
A touch on his shoulder broke his train of thought and he looked back into Sharon's worried eyes. "You haven't been yourself lately," she said quietly. "Is it because of this thing with Tony, or is it... something else?"
He shrugged, wondering when Sharon's touch had begun to seem unusual instead of commonplace. Tony didn't even rattle him that much most of the time. "I've had a lot to think about. Seeing this other Tony, it..." He stopped, one hand rubbing at the back of his head as he tried to put words to his feelings. "It's strange, seeing him like this."
"He just seems... I don't know. Happier? More relaxed, maybe. Tony's been on the edge for... years, now, and even if he can't remember it the effects are still obvious. But this Tony, he's the same age but he doesn't seem so... tired." Steve made a face at his poor explanation.
"I think I know what you mean." Sharon looked at him, tilting her head. "I don't think that's all of it, though. You've been more distracted the last few days in particular. Did something happen?"
Steve froze for an instant, wondering if she somehow knew that Tony had kissed him. And that he hadn't protested. It hadn't been much of a kiss, but even so, days later, he could still feel it whenever he thought about that moment. He'd been thinking about that moment more and more, it seemed, and he still couldn't figure out why. Knowing that he appreciated men in much the same way that he appreciated women wasn't new to him; he'd been aware of his wants from a very young age. Between the outlook on same-sex relationships in the era he'd been born and his own ailing health before the serum, he'd willingly sacrificed the possibility of pursuing a relationship of any sort when the war had begun. Going into the military had pretty effectively put a stop to those other wants ever going anywhere, and he'd met Sharon so soon after waking up in the modern age that he hadn't thought about that aspect of himself in any seriousness in years. But he'd never thought of Tony in that way -- had he? The image of Tony in his skimpy red thong when the Molecule Man had inadvertently revealed Iron Man's secret identity leapt to mind, and Steve had to admit that the sight fascinated him probably more than it should.
More importantly, had Tony thought of him like that? From what the other Tony had implied, he did, and had for years. That put a whole new spin on things, and Steve still hadn't sorted it out. He wasn't entirely sure he wanted to but he knew that he didn't have a choice. If he wanted to rebuild his friendship with Tony, he needed to make sure there weren't any more hidden truths between them.
A glance at Sharon told him that his lover hadn't missed his sudden tension. Her eyes narrowed as she watched him and he let out a breath.
"Seeing him like this, it's just made me... think," he said awkwardly. "I don't remember him being this relaxed even when I first met him."
Sharon made a noncommittal noise, her lips pursing slightly. For a moment, Steve was afraid of what she was about to say. When she did speak, however, it was simply to say, "Well, I have to run through the latest intel, so I'll be heading out." She leaned in and kissed him quickly before leaving the room, and Steve found himself looking after her, wondering what Tony would have said about that conversation.
Sinking down onto the corner of the desk, he realised that was the crux of the problem: If he was completely honest with himself, he had thought about Tony "like that" over the years. Never in any serious way, and he hadn't spent the last decade pining away for the man. But there was no denying the times that Steve had appreciated Tony's body, his mind, his humour. He was Steve's closest friend and always had been; without him, Steve felt a little adrift himself. Even Sam, as much as Steve loved him, didn't have quite the same hold on him that Tony did. Tony had been his first friend after the ice and was the first person he turned to when he needed help. Tony meant more to him than anyone else.
That thought left him gaping. Anyone else? Steve eyed the doorway that Sharon had just walked through, and wondered suddenly why she had been so tense around Tony lately. She hadn't been like that in earlier years and Steve had probably spent more time around him then than he had in the last year. Somewhere along the line, between his own "death" and Tony's reboot and reforming the Avengers into what he'd always known they could be, he'd found himself making more and more excuses to avoid the man he considered his best friend.
James and Sam certainly hadn't minded, since their opinions of Tony were probably never going to improve, after the civil war and all of its fallout. But he'd felt uncomfortable around Tony ever since Oklahoma, in a way that he hadn't before. Was it because Tony's memory loss left him unsteady, with no one to hold accountable for all the events of recent years? Was he trying to hold on to his anger from their civil war even though he'd been the most prominent spokesperson about moving forward from that terrible time?
Remembering his answer to Sharon, Steve wondered if the strange new tension between them had to do with Tony's own lessening of stress, his newfound energy and zest for life. It had been enlightening to see how much the responsibility of being the Secretary of Defense, the spokesman for the SHRA, the weight of the decisions he'd made, and the duties of being Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. had dragged Tony down. Once they were gone, Tony nearly became the man Steve knew from years ago. The lines of tension hadn't disappeared but they had lightened, and he couldn't remember seeing Tony smile so often for years. Considering how rarely Tony really smiled these days, that said a lot about the last few years. Certainly, seeing this alternate Tony, with his smiles and his happiness obvious even through the depression that nipped on his heels, made Steve much more aware of what his Tony could be like. Should be like.
And when, he thought suddenly, a mixture of surprise and guilty pleasure washing through him, had he begun thinking of Tony as his?
"Mr. Stark! Good to see you today." The older man moved out from behind the laboratory table he'd been working on to meet Tony near the entrance to the lab.
"Good morning, Dr. Erskine," Tony said with a smile, shaking the professor's hand before continuing on out of the laboratory.
After four days of meeting people, inspecting equipment, investigating building layouts, and following up on suspicious staff movements, Tony was ready to sit down and catch his breath. Catching a nap would be wonderful, too, he thought longingly. Sleep had been short the last several days even by his standards, and without Jarvis-made coffee to keep him going, he was feeling its lack. Instead of sinking down into a comfortable bed, however, or even just a hard bench, he continued down the hallway, nodding at the silent soldiers standing guard at every corner.
Fury had been right. The day before, the project leaders had selected their final candidate for Operation: Rebirth. Tony had been completely unsurprised to find out that they had chosen Steve Rogers. Now, even though he'd tried to avoid it, he was off to meet the man who would be the first of an army of American super-soldiers. Tony tried not to cringe at the thought. Beyond the sheer weirdness of meeting Steve, Tony had seen what really made Captain America successful, and it wasn't the super-soldier serum. It was Steve Rogers. So many people had imitated him, tried to take his place, even outright pretended to be him, and none of them had succeeded. James was a decent Captain America, but even he hadn't been able to take on the mantle that Steve had carried without changing it. The thought of an entire army of super-soldiers armed with super-weaponry... Tony wondered if he shouldn't try to sabotage the project himself.
Pushing aside the heavy thoughts, Tony stopped in front of a plain metal double door. Ignoring the looks the guards were giving him, he took a deep breath, attempting to steel himself for the meeting ahead. He'd been dreading it very nearly as much as he'd hoped for it. Then he pushed the door open and walked into the gymnasium. The door swung shut behind him with a loud clang, startling the man working on the balance beam in front of him. As the young man wobbled, Tony crossed the space between them and caught his arm, steadying him as he climbed down. The unsteadiness emphasized how very unlike the Steve he knew this man was, but it also made Tony wistful; Steve never needed Tony to catch him. It had always been him catching Tony instead.
"Thanks," the man mumbled, flushing with embarrassment. Tony was fascinated, watching the pink deepen across the thin cheeks, spreading down the long neck... He cleared his throat and lifted his hand, offering it to Steve.
"Steve Rogers." Steve shook his hand with a grip at once familiar and strange. Tony had seen photos of Steve like this, in the days before the serum, but it was incredibly strange to be actually looking at him, talking to him like this. "I'm so pleased to finally meet you, Mr. Stark. I've heard a lot about you, and I've read all of your stories. They're even better than the Midnight Racer's adventures!" Steve stopped abruptly, his mouth snapping shut in embarrassment, and Tony found himself smiling. He'd gone over this meeting in his head a hundred times in the last few days, but in none of those imagined conversations had he felt this immediately at ease.
"Always glad to meet a fan," he said easily. Thank god he remembered all of this world's Tony's adventures; he suspected he might need those memories in upcoming days. "I can tell you all the stories you'd like, but really, I'm more interested in finding out about you. After all, you're the star of this show."
"Oh, me? Geez. I'm just... ordinary, Mr. Stark," Steve said awkwardly. Tony couldn't help but laugh, shaking his head a little as Steve looked at him in confusion.
"I'm sorry, Steve. It's just... you're not ordinary. You're very much not ordinary. And call me Tony, please." He stopped himself before he could say too much, and instead diverted the conversation into a safer path, about Steve's childhood and his decision to enlist. While the story was mostly familiar to Tony, it was fascinating to hear it from the lips of a Steve Rogers who had yet to become Captain America.
The next evening, Tony ran into Steve at the door of the cafeteria, feigning surprise. It wouldn't do to let Steve know that Tony had deliberately planned this encounter. That would give the man the decidedly wrong impression about him. He didn't want Steve thinking that he was a stalker or something. That wasn't at all his interest in the younger man. He wasn't entirely sure he could explain his interest, even to himself. It wasn't the fact that it was almost like having his Steve back, but that was part of it. It wasn't that he was lusting after young Steve, although he certainly appreciated the man's looks, even before the serum. Probably his interest-bordering-on-obsession was simply because it was Steve.
"Good afternoon, Steve." He managed to keep his tone casual, although he couldn't quite keep from running his eyes over the trim uniform that Steve wore so well.
"Oh, hello, Mr. Sta--" He caught Tony's raised eyebrow and interrupted himself. "Tony. What are you doing here?"
"I was pondering whether or not I actually wanted to subject myself to the horror that they call "dinner" here tonight." Tony smiled a little, watching a small, sly smile cross Steve's lips at his comment. It was an unfamiliar expression on that face.
"The food can be... not too good," Steve allowed.
"I've noticed. I think, after some consideration, that I'd much rather try that little café down the street. They have great burgers, if the lab techs can be believed." He paused, watching Steve's face, and saw a light that he recognized in those blue eyes. "Say -- you wouldn't want to come with me, would you?" he offered casually. Steve started to grin, caught himself, and dropped his eyes.
"I, uh... I don't really have a lot of money," he admitted. "I only get paid by rank."
Tony shrugged, crossed his arms casually across his chest, and waited until Steve met his eyes again. "So it'll be on me. I'm pretty sure I can afford a couple of burgers. Maybe I can even squeeze in a malt."
"I couldn't let you do that," Steve protested weakly. Tony waggled a finger at him, smiling.
"You can. I offered, all you have to do is say yes, and we'll be off for some decent food." He could see Steve giving in and gave in to the temptation to touch by clasping him on the shoulder. He felt so different from his own Steve, but so similar...
"Yes, then," Steve said with a laugh. Reluctantly, Tony let his hand slip from Steve's shoulder, settling instead for walking nearly shoulder-to-shoulder as they turned and walked away from the canteen door.
Two weeks later, dinner together had become something that Tony looked forward to every day. If nothing else, it offered a welcome distraction from the long hours he put in daily working on Rebirth's security, background checks, and attempting to cobble together something that would at least allow him to contact his home universe, if not actually return directly. Their dinner conversations, however, were sometimes another matter.
The café down the street from the base had quickly become their regular dinner stop. Undoubtedly it made most of its money from the base, and the the proprietors were quick to show their appreciation for that. Between the patriotic posters on the walls and the radio in the corner constantly burbling forth the latest news on the war in the Europe, Tony wouldn't have been surprised to discover that they got a discount on their meals every time Steve walked in dressed in his uniform. Not that it mattered, since Tony made a point of overpaying each time they ate here. It wasn't much, but at least it made him feel as though he were helping someone instead of just taking advantage of the world's general misery.
"That's exactly why we need this serum, Tony! The Nazis are doing horrible things over there, and we've already heard of their experiments to make supermen. Just think if they succeed and we send our boys over there against them to be slaughtered!" The earnestness in Steve's voice was something Tony had been familiar with since the days after they'd first rescued Steve from the ice. The topic was new. His Steve would never agree to the need for an army of super-soldiers, not now. But this wasn't that Steve, Tony reminded himself. This was a younger, more naive man than the one Tony knew.
"But is it right for us to use people as weapons?" Tony asked, leaning forward. "If we do create this super-soldier army, someone else will come up with even more effective human weapons, and when do we stop being able to call them human?"
Steve frowned, but didn't look away. "Weapons escalation is the nature of war. But if we can make this work, we might be able to stop war. Isn't that worth the risk?"
Tony laughed, with no amusement in his voice. "That's the question, Steve. When we're talking about "ifs", especially one that big..." He shook his head. "It's just not human nature not to fight. Even where I co--" He barely caught himself before saying "where I come from", and turned it into, "Where I've been, what I've seen... Aggressiveness is built into the human animal. Attempting to erase it won't work, and it might cause other problems. Our aggressiveness is what led to our developing tools, creating technology to improve ourselves so that we could be better than other animals. Without it, I'm not sure humanity could survive. But if government starts developing people into walking weapons, we'll end up going in the opposite direction, and if all we are is anger and aggression, we'll end up killing ourselves."
A long silence fell across the table and Tony cursed himself as he watched Steve's body language close off from him. Steve stared down at the plate in front of him, toying with his fork as he frowned down at the half-eaten pasta. Damn. He needed to remember that this wasn't his Steve, not Cap; this Steve didn't have the experience, the life lived, to really understand yet what Tony was talking about. He could see the curious glances thrown at them by the other customers, civilians in business suits and soldiers still in uniform, and thought that really, he should make more of a point of wearing his military ID badge. Otherwise, he was too well-dressed to belong in the area, and keeping company with a soldier so much obviously younger than him must look strange indeed.
"I'm sorry," he offered after a long, uncomfortable silence. Steve looked at him, and something inside Tony cracked a little. "I just... I know I come on strong about things. I didn't mean to shut you down. You just..." He sighed and leaned back in his chair, his gaze lingering on the wall behind Steve. "You remind me of someone I know."
Another silence ensued, until Steve broke it. "Someone you care about?" Something in his tone told Tony that he already knew the answer.
"Yes. Very much." The pained smile that accompanied his words probably told the younger man more than he'd intended, but Tony found it difficult to hide from this Steve. Something about his intentness, his openness, seemed to draw things out from Tony that he'd always managed to keep under control around his own Steve.
"I'm... not him," Steve said hesitantly after another pause. Tony blinked in surprise, caught off guard by the insight, then laughed again, pain edging the sound.
"No. You aren't. But you are -- amazingly like him, in a lot of ways."
Steve gave him a long, steady look, carefully setting his fork down as he did. "Tony. I don't know a lot about you, and I know that. But I do know that you're a good man."
Tony cleared his throat and looked away from the intent blue eyes, swallowing past the lump in his throat. "You're right. You don't know much about me, or you wouldn't say that. I've done things... I've hurt people that I care about, more than I ever meant to, in ways I can't possibly apologize for. I--" He stopped, cleared his throat again, and looked sideways at Steve, who hadn't looked away from him. "I wish I could," he half-whispered.
The touch of Steve's hand on his, slowly coaxing his fingers out of the fist he'd been unaware of making, startled him. He stared down at the table, at Steve's hand on top of his, before lifting his gaze to meet Steve's again. Something in his expression made Steve's fingers tighten on his. They sat that way for some time, Tony aware of a new undercurrent between them, and for the first time, he realised that he wasn't sure he wanted to go home.
Steve walked into the apartment and felt like slamming the door behind him. He restrained himself, knowing that it wouldn't help anything and wouldn't even make him feel better. The frustration from too many ex-S.H.I.E.L.D. agents arguing with how he ran things, too many reports on strange occurrences from around the world, and too much internal turmoil over Tony had built up too much for that sort of easy release to work. Instead, he sat on the couch and opened the first report, resolving to get to the gym after he'd finished the paperwork he'd brought home with him. There were days he could swear that the more paperwork he got done, the more there was.
"You look stressed." The low words in his ear were accompanied by a lingering touch on his shoulders as Sharon's fingers began to work out the tension knots in his shoulders. He groaned softly, his head dropping forward, and she laughed.
Without looking up, he said, "That feels wonderful."
A comfortable silence filled the room, broken only by Steve's quiet noises of contentment as Sharon rubbed his neck. By the time he was fully relaxed again, her touches had moved from comforting to caressing, and he finally opened his eyes and turned his head to look at her. He caught her hand in his.
"Sharon--" He wasn't quite sure what he was going to say. Sharon didn't give him a chance to find out.
She pulled her hand away from his and leaned back against the arm of the couch, the teasing light in her eyes gone. "Let me guess. Work, reports, paperwork, duty, no time for yourself. Or for me."
"That's not fair, Sharon. You know how busy I am. Recreating everything that Osborn took apart isn't easy, and we both knew where most of my time would go when I took the job," he protested tiredly. They'd had this discussion too often.
"Yes. But I didn't think that I'd rate at the very bottom of your priority list," she answered sharply. "You've spent every night this week on this couch with reports, a computer, or both."
Steve squeezed his eyes shut again, rubbing his temple. He could already feel the tension returning. "Before I took this job, I never understood why Tony spent so much time not taking care of himself. Now I'm beginning to understand." He meant it as a lighthearted comment, but there was too much truth in it for him to really smile, and Sharon's expression tightened.
"Tony. It's always Tony." When he only cast her a confused look, Sharon snorted. "You talk about Tony more than you do anything else, Steve. Even when you're doing your reports, you wonder what Tony would think if he read them, or what he would suggest as a plan, or how he handled that sort of situation when he was Director of S.H.I.E.L.D." She turned away from him, her back rigid. "You talk about Tony more than you actually talk to me."
"Sharon, I don't--"
"You do!" He could hear the hurt in her voice now and he winced. "If you're not running off to him, he's coming to you. If you don't hear from him every day, you worry. You check on him all the time. You wouldn't let him go onto any Avengers team but yours - and then you didn't even have the guts to stay on that team and actually face him every day."
Steve found himself on his feet, his jaw clenched. "He's my best friend, Sharon. Of course I worry about him. Of course I care about him. That doesn't make it easy for me to look at him, not after everything he's done. You said you understood my reasoning when I made that decision."
"I did, and I do. It doesn't make it any easier for me to know that you value him more than you value me."
His eyes widened. "What? That's -- Sharon, that's not true. You know that's not true!"
She turned, her arms crossed over her chest, her eyes glistening even though they sparked with anger. "Do I? Really? How? You never tell me that you love me. You never come home and just spend any time with me. Even if we're both exhausted and spend more than a night here, you're up and back to your reports and your agents and Avengers and Tony as soon as you can be. I'm not just your partner, Steve. I'm supposed to be your lover."
Steve stared at her for a minute, jaw working as he struggled to find words. "I... Of course I love you, Sharon. I wouldn't be with you if I didn't love you."
"You're not really "with" me now, even if you do live here," she shot back. "If it's not about work, I practically never see you anymore. Especially now, with this other-Tony, you spend more time with him than you do with me. If he's so hard to look at, why are you with him so much?"
"He's not hard to look at." Steve snapped his mouth shut as soon as the words were out of it, flushing as Sharon's eyes widened.
"What... what are you saying?" she breathed. Steve stared at her, his mind racing. How preoccupied had he been lately with that very thought? More than he'd realised, for him to blurt it out like that.
"I... I don't..." He cut himself off, drew a deep breath, and started again. "I'm sorry. That was... I don't even know what that was. It wasn't the point I was trying to--"
"Maybe it was the point," Sharon said sharply, and Steve fell silent again. "It would certainly explain a lot of things, if you were in love with him. I never thought you were capable of it, but--"
"I'm not in love with Tony, dammit! I just..." Steve ran a hand through his hair. "I love him, yes. He's been my closest friend since-- for years. But what you're saying... I don't..." Words failed him again and he closed his eyes briefly before meeting Sharon's stare. "I love you, Sharon."
"I know, Steve," she answered softly. "But I don't know if you're in love with me. Not anymore. I've noticed us growing apart and I've tried to fix it, but..." She let the sentence trail off, raising one shoulder in a slight shrug, her eyes shining.
"You're right." Steve felt his anger drain away, replaced with an indefinable, vague sadness. He had the impression that nothing he could do or say would change things, that they were inexorably headed down a path that Steve couldn't see. He hadn't wanted this, hadn't wanted to ruin the relationship that they'd both fought so hard for, but it seemed like everything he did made things worse. Steve couldn't give up his job, or the Avengers; they contained too much of who he was. But he was coming to realise that he had to make a decision, had to give up something -- or someone.
Before Steve could gather his thoughts, Sharon closed the distance between them and pressed a chaste kiss to his lips before drawing away again, her eyes sad and serious. "I love you, Steve Rogers. But you need to make up your mind what you want."
Leaning against the doorway, Tony watched as Steve took in the surroundings. The Stark lab itself wasn't that impressive, being a standard work room. What it held within, however, was enough to impress almost anyone... even if it wasn't as impressive as his own lab, Tony acknowledged to himself.
He saw Jarvis glance at him from his table near the repulsor pump and steadfastly refused to acknowledge the knowing glint in those eyes. This world's Tony might be more discreet than he normally was when it came to picking his partners, but showing Steve the lab had nothing to do with impressing a potential lover. Jarvis rolled his eyes, then stood up and walked to the doorway, pausing long enough to say quietly, "Just be careful, okay?" Tony didn't have time to do anything more than frown at him in answer before Jarvis clapped him on the shoulder and left the room, leaving him and Steve alone together.
The quiet word, half-whispered in tones of awe, brought a smile to Tony's lips. The amazed expression on Steve's face, the excited light in his eyes as he stared around at the lab, reminded Tony of the first time his Steve had seen the Mansion. Jarvis hadn't been thrilled about the thought of him bringing Steve here, but he'd overruled the older man with an airy, "Trust me, I know him," and done it anyway. Watching Steve as he'd shown him around Stark, lingering in his office so that Steve could stare admiringly at all the framed covers of Marvels and tell him his favourite moments from each of the stories, had made Tony happier than he could remember being since... well, since he'd woken up to find out that he'd somehow completely screwed up his entire life and then forgotten that entire part of it.
"So that's... the armor," Steve breathed, walking toward the hulking steel monster. Tony had a brief vision of the thing falling off its stand and crushing Steve, then rolled his eyes at his own mind. Just because the armor was bigger, bulkier, and heavier than his own Mark I, and because he'd really rather shoot himself than actually wear it, was no reason to assign it sinister motives. Besides, one mistake that he'd made that this world's Tony simply couldn't reproduce was the Living Armor. Thank god.
He watched as Steve stroked the armor with a sort of reverent touch that took his mind places he had to firmly pull it back away from.
"How does it work?" Steve asked curiously, and Tony mentally slapped himself. Of course he would ask that.
"It uses the energy from my repulsor pump," he answered. At the confused expression that Steve turned on him, he gestured at his chest, wondering if that really was the same in every universe. Did every version of Tony Stark do something idiotic enough to be blown halfway to hell and screw up his heart?
"Can I... can I see it?"
Tony hadn't expected that question. Taken by surprise, he fumbled for an answer that wouldn't disappoint Steve too much, without giving anything away. "I, uh... I really don't like people to see it." The firm note in his voice came from two sets of memories, and Tony wished, for a moment, that he didn't mean it. Just once, he'd like to be able to look at his own body without wincing. According to what Pepper had told him and the things he'd read, apparently he'd been able to do just that not that long ago. Given the apparent side effects of the Extremis, however, Tony wasn't exactly queueing up to inject himself with the stuff again just to get rid of his scars. Besides... it would only take away the visible ones.
"Oh." The compassion on Steve's face surprised Tony. He was used to pity. Compassion was new. "That's okay." And looking at Steve, Tony knew that it really was. Usually those words were used to cover up annoyance, to provide surface relief to someone else, but Steve actually meant it. A small swell of warmth spread through him at the realisation.
With one last touch to the armor, Steve turned away from it and began wandering through the lab, asking what different things were, picking up different tools, trying on Tony's goggles. He shot Tony a reproachful look when Tony laughed at him for that, but he couldn't help it. This younger, scrawny version of Steve, wearing welding goggles that were too big for him and threatened to slide down around his neck at any second, painted an irresistably funny picture. After a moment, as Steve held the goggles up with one hand, he began laughing, too, and Tony allowed himself to fall into the moment. He'd missed sharing times like this with his own Steve.
After they'd calmed down again, Steve placed the goggles carefully back where they'd been tossed down by Tony the night before. As he looked down at the table, his eyes fell on an especially strange-looking conglomeration of pieces wired together in odd configurations. He reached out toward it, his fingers hovering above it without quite touching as he glanced at Tony.
"What's this? I don't recognize any of it."
Tony thought quickly, hoping his consternation didn't show on his face. He should have at least covered the thing up, if only to avoid awkward questions like that one. How was he supposed to explain that it was something he was hoping would allow him to dimension hop back home to his own universe?
"That? Oh, that's just... an experiment," he answered. "I'm not really sure it'll work, and honestly, I may just scrap it altogether." As soon as he said the words, he realised that he wasn't lying. He really didn't know if it would work, had in fact every indication that it wouldn't, and... he hadn't worked on it in days. The first week he was here, he'd spent every available moment on it, sketching out schematics, building parts. Lately, though... he could blame Fury and the time that Operation: Rebirth had sucked away over the last month or more, but in reality, he was growing to like it here. He hadn't ruined his life here. Everyone he knew didn't hate him. And there was Steve.
"Really? I thought you never gave up." Steve smiled a little, making the words a joke. Tony winced slightly.
"I don't, but sometimes -- I'm only human. I make mistakes just like everyone else. The difference is that I try to learn from my setbacks. You should know that," he answered, too quickly, and immediately wanted to take back the words.
"I just mean... you shouldn't think that I don't. I do make mistakes. And sometimes... there are some things you have to give up on." Steve cocked his head, a strange expression on his face as he studied Tony, and Tony felt like swearing. Steve wasn't stupid, super-soldier serum or not, and he was saying too much. Something about the look in Steve's eyes told Tony that he wasn't going to forget what Tony had said. "Anyway, that's just... cynicism." Tony forced a laugh, and said in a more normal tone, "I don't know about you, but I'm starving. Let's go see what's for lunch, okay?"
Clapping a hand companionably on Steve's shoulder in an achingly familiar way, Tony glanced back at his dimensional shift device as they left the room. He was in no hurry to get back to work on it.
"Seriously, Tony. I need to know what you want me to do for the next issue of Marvels. The last part of the Baron Strucker serial will be published in two weeks and I've got to get started on the next story now if I'm going to get it in to the editors on time." Pepper's steady gaze unnerved Tony slightly. It was the same look he got from Pepper in his own world, but this version, dressed in the stylish version of a Forties' working woman suit, sitting with her pad and pen at the ready, felt strange for some reason.
"Um." He spun his chair around while he stared at the ceiling, his mind absolutely blank. After avoiding Pepper for three days while he split his time between the base, his laboratory, and dinners with Steve, she'd finally cornered him while he was actually at his desk. He didn't feel right sitting there signing his name in his missing other-him's place, but he could only deal with meaningful stares and glowers from Jarvis for so long before feeling obligated to make sure that other-him didn't come home to a bankrupt Stark Industries. At least the office was comfortable, Tony thought as he spun the chair around again.
"Look, I know that I can't write about your world, but at least give me an idea of what I can do. I'm already behind because of that last covert mission Fury sent you on to investigate Nazi activity in Scotland and I've got to get something in this week."
"Can't you just... make something up?" Tony flapped his hand at her.
"No. The absolute one thing that Marvels is founded on is that they're publishing real accounts of real adventures. Yes, larger-than-life adventures, and I've never seen anyone else accidentally stumble across so many lost civilizations and mythical artifacts, but they're all real. Besides, my degree is in journalism, not creative writing," Pepper said primly. Tony snorted.
"Some of what you've written is closer to pure fantasy than anything Howard or Burroughs ever published," Tony answered, looking down at her with an expression that he knew would irritate her. She narrowed her eyes at him.
"But it was based in reality. Give me something!"
"Well... Could you write something about an evil me from another universe that got here accidentally and was willing to commit multiple murders to get back home again?" Steve would never forgive him if he found out that Tony was willing to use his evil-alternate-twin as fiction fodder, but how would he ever know?
"You're kidding," Pepper answered, her voice flat.
"How about accidental time travel due to an ancient artifact, sending me back in time to ancient Egypt where I save Cleopatra's life and she falls madly in love with me?"
"You're actually serious, aren't you?" asked Pepper after a pause, studying Tony's face. He smirked.
"Damn straight. I think I broke her heart when I oh-so-gently told her that I had to return home to my responsibilities."
"That's... actually got possibilities. Details, Tony, I need details!"
"Let's see..." Tony peered at the ceiling, trying to remember. God, he'd been young then. "There was this little antique gold chariot, about the size of your palm. Almost a toy, but when you moved it just right... "
He spent nearly an hour recounting the story with as much detail as he could remember before Pepper glanced at her watch, exclaimed at the time, and hurriedly left. Probably to get to her own office and start writing up the pulp romance of the ages, Tony thought with a grin. As much as he'd initially dreaded dealing with this world's Pepper, she'd proven to be not unlike his own Pepper -- a loyal friend and a determined bulldog who wouldn't take any grief from him. Talking to her always seemed to be good for Tony. It got his mind off his situation and allowed him to lean on someone without having to seem like he was leaning. He appreciated that.
Of course, now that she was gone, he was back to thinking of that situation. He'd been here for over a month and was no closer to figuring out a way to get home, or even just call home -- he refused to think even in passing of aliens with glowing fingers -- than he had been when he arrived. Normally, he'd be spending every waking minute in the lab, working on the transmitter that he was developing, and probably most minutes that he should be sleeping, as well.
Instead, he'd spent every possible moment working on the background checks and overview of Operation: Rebirth. The habit he'd fallen into of taking Steve out to dinner practically every night was just a side effect of that, he was sure. It couldn't possibly be anything else. And on that note... he glanced at the clock on the far wall. If he didn't get moving, he'd be late meeting Steve at the base. Firmly ignoring the little voice in his head that asked when seeing Steve Rogers had become a higher priority than getting home again, he grabbed his jacket and headed out of the office.
"Damnation." The word was a quiet growl.
Reed glanced up from his station across the room beside the Skrull device, but Tony ignored him. He pushed his hair back from his forehead and let out a long, frustrated breath as he stared down at the small device in his hand. Reed had assured him that it would be easy for him to modulate the wavelength that it operated on, but so far his attempts had all failed. He thought briefly about throwing the damned thing across the room, but no. This wasn't his lab, and he shouldn't break other people's toys -- no matter how ungodly aggravating they were. Not for the first time, he wished that having this world's Tony's memories also meant that he possessed the understanding of them. It was one thing to remember learning engineering and physics, and another thing altogether to apply those memories when they weren't actually his.
His own wandering thoughts lately weren't helping, either. While he'd managed to work up a recharging unit for his repulsor pump, all he'd had to distract himself was disassembling more electronics equipment, until Reed's call for his assistance at the Baxter Building. Jarvis had made it quite clear that kitchen appliances were off-limits, even if he had managed to improve the coffee maker, and the glares from Logan and Peter when he'd started to take apart the remote control for the television had been warning enough for him to leave the entertainment equipment alone. The warning look that Pepper had given him the one time he'd eyed her printer had been as close as he'd dared come to touching anything else in the office. Overall, he'd spent a great deal of time at the Baxter Building, working on the Skrull device and trying not to wonder if he was avoiding Steve or simply allowing Steve to avoid him with less effort.
"Having some problems?" The quiet question brought Tony's attention back to the moment, and he smiled up at Sue. Her initial discomfort around him had eased, although Tony knew -- if only from memories of secondhand reports of the events -- exactly why she still acted awkward when he visited.
"Just the same ones. You know, remembering memories that aren't mine and not really knowing how to apply them," he answered. Then he tilted his head to look up at her sideways and added, "Not to mention all the time I seem to be spending alone. I'm not really used to that. I mean, not that I'm used to huge crowds, but being isolated is..." His voice trailed off as he realised how pitiful he sounded.
"Here." She handed him the coffee cup she'd been holding, then studied him for a long moment, her eyes serious. "Tony... I can't say that I understand, although I think I do, a little. But I know you're lonely. And..." She cast a glance across the room to where Reed was intent on the arc reactor he'd gotten from Rand. She smiled slightly as she watched her husband, then looked back at Tony. "I'm sorry."
Tony blinked. "What?"
She looked away from him. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry that you're stuck here, and that you're alone, and that I've been taking out my frustration on you even though you've had your own problems to deal with. And," she turned back to him, a rueful half-smile on her face. "I'm really sorry that you're not the Tony I should actually be apologizing to."
Tony wrapped his hands around the coffee mug and considered her for a moment. "I'm not that Tony, no. But I do know that hearing that would mean the world to him. He may not be willing to admit that he's afraid whatever he did that we can't remember was bad... but he knows what the results were." Sue looked away again, her lips pressed tightly together and Tony nearly regretted saying anything. "He misses his friends, Sue. And that includes you."
She stood, looked at him silently for a moment, then turned and walked away without saying anything else. He thought the conversation had gone decently well, since she hadn't slapped him or called him names. He just hoped that this world's Tony had enough sense to respond in kind whenever Sue made that apology to the right person. God knew he had enough to apologize for.
Later, Tony was never quite sure what went wrong.
He'd done everything Fury had asked of him and more: He'd checked into the background of every single scientist, lab assistant, soldier, and guard that worked on Operation: Rebirth. He'd improved the security of the building and the tightness of their procedures. He'd even managed to refine the Vita-rays machine a bit, and hadn't that been a shock. If he did get home again, he wasn't going to tell anyone that he now held the entire schematics for the vital missing component of the super-soldier project in his head. Too many conversations about it over the years with Steve, along with his own observations of their government (and didn't a part of his mind laugh bitterly at that thought -- those observations that he remembered, anyway), made Tony far too aware of the potential for abuse if the serum were again usable.
Somehow, one of the people he'd checked so carefully -- and he'd gone over that information in excruciating detail, because it was for Steve, after all -- had slipped through despite his best efforts. It wasn't Steve's first lady-love, because for some reason, in this universe, Cynthia was assigned elsewhere. If she was even in the army. Tony hadn't been able to discover the information, which made him wonder, but at least if she wasn't assigned to Rebirth, it couldn't be betrayed. Or so he had thought.
That would teach him, he thought later, to think that even a month of intense work could alter such a momentous event in any real way except the details.
Admittedly, Tony found himself staring at Steve intently throughout the entire process, taking in every bit of visual information he could. No matter how close the universes were, after all, there was always the possibility that the serum could work differently here, that it might not work on Steve... that it might kill him. Tony held his breath once Steve took the bottle from Erskine, the Vita-rays playing over his half-naked body. The hoarse cry and near-convulsion as Steve fell to his knees had Tony on his feet, ignoring the looks he got from Fury and the other visitors, until Steve had looked up, directly into his eyes, and smiled.
And then harshly-accented words and gunshots had rung out and Dr. Erskine had fallen, caught by the arms of the man his knowledge had transformed. The next few moments were a blur, with Steve vaulting into the visitor area, grabbing the spy, and then the Vita-ray machine exploding. Tony had heard the story so often, he knew what was happening even without seeing parts of it. At Steve's leap, he'd automatically started assembling the armor around him, until he caught himself and stopped, reverting back to his conservative suit. The last thing he needed was anyone seeing the armor. If the military got wind of it, they would make Operation: Rebirth look like a walk in the park and he would never see home again. Or Steve.
Much later, after everyone had been checked over for injuries, interrogated, apologized to, and sent away, Tony went looking for Steve. It was late that night, and once he'd finally escaped Fury's angry tirade, he realised he didn't want to return to the Stark labs. Instead, he went to the base to seek out Steve, knowing that he would be blaming himself for Dr. Erskine's death. Even his own Steve still felt vaguely responsible for it, and that was nearly seventy years after the fact. A few scant hours after the event, he'd be nearly swimming in his guilt. Knowing that he'd be able to touch Steve, even under the thin guise of friendship, only made Tony that much eager to see him again.
That same eagerness brought its own guilt: Was he only using this world's Steve in an attempt to gain from him what he couldn't have from his own?
The thought brought him to a complete halt in the middle of a darkened courtyard, the only light coming from the floodlights at the corners of the fence, creating pools of shadows around him. He didn't even notice, his thoughts racing. He loved Steve. He always had. Was his friendship with this world's Steve Rogers, his increasingly close friendship, simply him using the other man, making him into a substitute for someone he knew he could never be as close to as he wanted?
"No." The sound of his own voice made him twitch, only realising that he'd spoken out loud when it startled him. His hands clenched into fists at his sides and he sucked in a breath, staring unseeingly across the open area as he thought. No. No, this wasn't just him using the man. He'd done too much of that with other people. This was something else. This was... he shuddered, his eyes closing for a moment as a laugh bubbled past his lips, the hysterical tinge to it even unnerving him slightly. God, he was screwed up. Bad enough that he'd fallen in love with Steve, knowing that he could never have him. But to have done it twice?
"Tony? Are you all right?" As if by magical summons, Steve materialised beside him, strong hands gripping his shoulders, supporting him. Just like he always did, Tony thought wildly. He couldn't force words past his lips, so he simply shook his head. Steve's grasp tightened, then shifted as he wrapped an arm around Tony's waist and walked with him to one of the benches that sat in the shadows beside the fence. Easing Tony down, Steve sat beside him, worry written on his face, not releasing his hold on him.
Tony allowed himself to lean into the other man, taking some comfort from his sheer presence, trying to rein in his speeding thoughts. He dimly heard Steve murmuring to him, but he couldn't seem to make any sense of the words. Instead, he focused on the weight of Steve's arm around him, the familiar sound of his voice, and slowly, he relaxed. Some time later, the silence between them not uncomfortable, he turned his head, finding Steve's face only inches from his own, a worried frown etched into his forehead. It was strange, after the last few weeks, to see the face he knew so well looking at him instead of the thin young man he'd gotten to know.
"Are you okay?" Steve asked quietly. Tony sighed and shook his head, a rueful smile pulling at his lips.
"No. I'm really, really not. I'm incredibly screwed." He saw the confusion on Steve's face and shook his head again, not willing to have that conversation. Not with someone firmly a product of his time who would undoubtedly be horrified by the very thought of Tony loving another man, let alone loving him. "No, ignore me. I actually was looking for you, to see how you were doing."
"I'm... okay, I guess."
He felt rather than saw Steve's shrug, and rolled his eyes. "Sure. Because you're definitely not eating yourself up with guilt over what happened today, blaming yourself because you weren't fast enough, didn't react quickly enough, whatever. Right?"
Steve went still beside him, and when he finally spoke, there was an odd note to his voice. "How do you know that?"
"I know you." The words were out before he could stop them, and Tony cursed himself. He felt Steve's gaze on him and stared fixedly at the man's shoulder.
"You say that like... like you've known me for years," Steve observed. Tony flinched. "And you do. You have, haven't you?"
Biting his lip, Tony continued to study the lines of Steve's uniform where it fit snugly against his shoulder. A new uniform, he noted. His old ones wouldn't have fit any more, of course.
"Tony." A hand on his chin finally forced him to look up and meet Steve's eyes. "I... I think I know. But -- tell me, please."
He wanted to laugh, to shrug, to play it all off as his natural, incredibly good people skills. But looking into those eyes, filled with pain and guilt and... something else... he couldn't do it.
"I have known you for years," he admitted with a sigh. "You're my best friend. But not you. A different you. From a different universe. The one I'm from." Steve's eyes widened, but he didn't say anything, and Tony pressed on, his voice edged with bitterness. "I'm from a different world, Steve, where this is the past and things happened differently, and I -- I hurt a lot of people. Including you. You... you died," and his voice hitched on a choked sob, "Only you didn't, and then when you came back, I didn't remember any of it. But you do. And you're still angry with me over things I did that I don't remember, and it's killing me, because you practically ignore me, and I love you, and..."
Steve kissed him. Just a soft, uncertain brush of lips against lips, and it rocked Tony to the core. He reached out, clutching at Steve, and pulled his head back down, kissing him desperately, trying to memorize the taste and feel of Steve's mouth before the other man pulled away from him in disgust. It would be worth it, just for this moment, this one moment that he thought he could never have...
"Tony," Steve breathed against his mouth. "Tony." A hand slid to the back of his head, tangling in his hair, and Steve's lips parted. Only when Steve pulled away in order to take a deep, shuddering breath did Tony realise that there were tears on his face. Flushing, he raised a hand to scrub them away, but Steve stopped him.
"Don't," he said softly, and Tony let out a small shuddering noise as Steve carefully wiped the tears from his cheeks before looking at him in silence. Tony watched him, unfamiliar nervous tension filling him as he waited for Steve to say something.
"I never... I never thought about another guy like this before," Steve finally admitted, a faint flush highlighting his cheeks. "But I haven't been able to stop thinking about you. I know it's supposed to be wrong, but that..." He rubbed a thumb lightly across Tony's lips and Tony shivered. "That felt so right."
"Steve, I--" The thumb pressed against Tony's lips, silencing him.
"Don't say something you don't mean, Tony," Steve said softly, a note of sadness in his voice.
"What if I did mean it?" Tony whispered, and Steve stared at him.
"You can't," he finally said. "You -- you don't belong here. You said that. You're trying to go home, right? To... to that other me. The one you love."
"I was," Tony admitted. "But now... I don't know. I haven't worked on it in weeks. Everyone there hates me, so what's the point of going back? And you--" He stopped, shrugging a little, pretending that his heart wasn't lodged in his throat. "I think I love you," he finished quietly, hating the nervousness in his voice.
"It's just because of that other me." Steve tried to sound casual and failed miserably. Tony reached up, touching his cheek.
"No. It's not," he said earnestly. "It's you." Steve's hand at his waist tightened, but instead of the smile that Tony had hoped for, he frowned sadly.
"Even if it is, it doesn't matter." Tony's stomach dropped at the words, but Steve went on. "You don't belong here, Tony. And even if you... if you love me... you can't stay." Steve saw the expression on his face and said, voice gentling, "I wish you could. But even if I haven't known you for years, I know you well enough. I don't think you're really happy here, no matter what you're telling yourself, and I don't want you to stay here, unhappy, for me."
"Always telling me what to do," Tony said with a forced smile, but his voice broke and he could hear the tears in the words even as he forced them back. "There's nothing for me there. Absolutely nothing," he whispered. Steve pulled him closer, Tony's head resting on his shoulder, not saying anything, and if the shoulder of his uniform was wet by the time they broke apart, neither of them would admit it.
Over a week since Operation: Rebirth ended in disaster, and Tony still couldn't concentrate. After his meeting with Fury the day after Erskine's assassination, he wasn't entirely welcome on the base, although he had managed to save Stark's military contracts. His mouth pulled tight at that thought; all the effort he'd put in to avoiding military contracts over the last several years, and here he was making uncomfortable concessions to save them in this world. Other-him had better appreciate that, he thought bitterly.
Staring down at his sprawling prototype of an inter-dimensional transmitter, he felt like smashing the entire thing to pieces, then throwing on his armor and flying out somewhere to blow things up. Maybe after having a drink. Or two. Or two dozen. His fingers tightened on the wrench in his hand before he snarled and hurled it at the far wall. It made a faintly satisfying noise when it hit, and Tony sagged in his chair. He hadn't seen Steve since that night. There was no way to know if Steve was avoiding him or just honestly busy as hell, since he didn't dare press his luck with Fury at the moment.
"You okay, boss?"
Tony straightened up at the concern in Rhodey's voice. Damn. He hadn't heard anyone else walk in. Spinning the chair around, he tilted his head and raised an eyebrow, shooting a nonchalant look of inquiry toward the other man. Rhodey rolled his eyes and walked across the lab, stopping beside Tony's chair.
"Sure, sure. Everybody throws wrenches at walls for no particular reason. I must've forgotten."
"They do say your memory is the first thing to go," Tony smirked. Rhodey didn't return the smile.
"You should know, since you're older than I am." A pause lengthened into uncomfortable silence, and Rhodey blew out an exasperated breath. "Look, Tony, something's obviously eating you. You've been locked in here for days now, and you haven't done that since right after you got here."
"I'm fine." Tony's voice was clipped and he turned to look back at the transmitter. He could feel Rhodey's gaze on him, weighing his options. His friend's frustration was clear in his heavy sigh.
"Sure. You look just fine. I'll be sure to tell Pepper that on my way out."
"Pepper?" Tony turned again in time to see Rhodey push himself away from the worktable.
"I was coming down here to tell you she's on her way over -- but after looking at you, I think maybe talking to her would do you some good. You seem to have an easier time of it talking to her than me, anyway." Tony heard the faint ring of accusation there and winced.
"I'm sorry, Rhodey. I--"
"Save it." Rhodey cut him off. "I'm sure you have your reasons. I'll see you later, boss."
Tony was still staring at the doorway and wondering if he'd treated his own Rhodey as badly as other-him had apparently treated this one when Pepper walked in.
"Well, you look like hell."
Tony ran a hand through his hair and grimaced. "Thanks, Pep."
She snorted, then seated herself on the couch that Tony had ordered moved in a week after his arrival in this godforsaken world. She looked him up and down, then shook her head. "You have got it bad, Tony."
"You're pining. And frustrated with that gadget, I'm sure, but you're definitely pining." She tilted her head, eyeing him consideringly. "You haven't seen Rogers in a week, have you?"
Tony's fingers tightened on the edge of the worktable. "No." He really didn't need Pepper reminding him of that, or the too-knowing glint in her eye that told him she could see through him just as easily as his own Pepper could.
"I--" He faltered and stared down at the transmitter. "I can't."
"Of course you can. You simply have to walk across the room and pick up the telephone. Don't tell me that things in your world are so advanced you can just talk to thin air." She smiled slightly to take the bite out of her words.
"No. But that's not-- I can't call him, Pepper. Fury's told me I'm not welcome over there, and after the last time I saw him..." Steve had been wonderful that night, understanding and willing to hold him until he'd pulled himself together, but the silence from him since then was practically deafening. Tony wasn't so oblivious that he couldn't take a hint.
"What happened, Tony? You saw him every day and when you weren't seeing him, you were talking about him." Tony shot Pepper a sidelong glance, wondering just how much Ms. Potts knew about her employer's love life. She met his gaze, lifted an eyebrow, and then began laughing. "I've worked for Tony Stark for three years, you know. I'm not such a ding-bat that I don't know how he swings."
Tony gaped at her for a moment, then shut his mouth and straightened up. "Right. Well." He fumbled for words, taken off-guard by her easy acceptance of something he had to keep low-key even in his own time. "The problem is that I've known Steve Rogers for... years. He's my best friend. We've fought each other, fought for each other... died for each other."
Pepper crossed her legs and clasped her hands around her knee, nodding thoughtfully. "And you're madly in love with him."
"Um... yeah." Tony picked up another wrench so that he could focus his gaze on something besides his suddenly all-knowing assistant. "But he... doesn't feel that way about me. And then, ending up here and meeting him again..."
"Oh, Tony," Pepper breathed, voice compassionate. "You fell for him here, too. Did you tell him how you felt?"
He nodded silently, staring intently at the wrench in his grasp and cursed himself for a fool. Just because Steve hadn't slapped him silly, had even been willing to experiment with kissing him, didn't mean anything. After all, he'd kissed another boy for the first time when he was barely into his teens and wasn't even sure about kissing yet. Not that Ti had complained; no, he'd been more than willing to help him learn. And Tiberius Stone was absolutely not who he needed to be thinking about right now, dammit.
"You know, there have been headlines for the last few days about Nazi infiltration attempts." Tony blinked and looked up again at Pepper, wondering what that had to do with anything. She added, "The Bugle's even run a few pictures. I take it from the blank look you're giving me that you haven't seen any of them." He shook his head and she sighed. "I realise that beating yourself up for your failures is an entertaining pastime, but you may be interested to discover that the world doesn't revolve around you."
Standing up, Pepper picked up the rolled-up papers she'd brought in with her and dropped them on the worktable in front of Tony. "Read them. And then call Steve, you big idiot." Tony felt her ruffle his hair in an affectionate gesture as she left, but his attention was completely captured by the newspapers.
"COSTUMED HERO PREVENTS NAZI SABOTAGE," read the newest headline. The one below it was, "SHIELD-TOTING STRANGER STOPS SMUGGLING RING." Below that, "ANOTHER SIGHTING OF ANONYMOUS VIGILANTE."
The picture on the current newspaper made him swallow. There, in fuzzy black and white, was Steve, frowning seriously at a pair of men being led away in handcuffs. The costume was different but unmistakable, and Tony drank in the sight of Captain America, star proudly centered on his chest, shield clutched in his left hand. No wonder Pepper had laughed at him.
Even as Steve entered the elevator, he knew he shouldn't be doing this. He had work to do, reports to go through, teams to check on, meetings to attend... Instead, he was at Avengers Tower, on his way to see the other Tony Stark. Especially after his fight with Sharon a few days ago... He pushed the thought aside and headed for the elevator. Sharon still wasn't really talking to him, and he couldn't blame her. He'd been doing a lot of thinking over the last few days, and what he was coming up with was almost terrifying.
He stared at the floor counter as the elevator rose and wondered when he had lost track of everything that was important to him. It had to have been sometime before the civil war, or things would never have gone down the way they did. He wouldn't have blocked Tony out so thoroughly, and he wouldn't have let Tony hide from him, or carry all that weight by himself. The man wasn't Atlas, no matter how much he seemed to think he was. Steve's lips twitched at the thought. If Tony Stark ever had to carry the weight of the sky, he wouldn't do it with his bare back. He'd dream up with some complicated device that he could just point to and glare at that would do it for him.
The smile remained on his face right up until the elevator doors pinged open and he stepped out to find himself face-to-face with Maria Hill. While his initial impression of the woman had been nothing but bad, events since then had changed his mind. She was strong-willed, stubborn, fearless, and always spoke her mind. Associating with Tony while they were both of the wrong side of the law had made her more open-minded.
None of that made him happy to see her waiting for him, arms crossed, glaring. He stopped, giving in to the inevitable.
"What is it this time?"
"Your pet Tony took apart an Avengers communicator."
Steve waited, trying not to grimace at the "pet" comment. From her tone of voice, that wasn't all.
"When he put it back together, he decided that wiring it to a swing music station would be... helpful."
Steve fought to keep a straight face. Maria's glare intensified.
"Do you have any idea just how impossible it is to keep an Avengers meeting in order when swing music starts playing -- at full volume -- from every single communicator in the room?"
Steve bit his lip. When he was sure he wouldn't start laughing, he answered mildly, "No. But I have a pretty good idea. I ran Avengers meetings with Ultron and Kang breaking the door down, after all. In comparison to that, Glenn Miller isn't bad."
"Send him home," she snapped, then spun around and stalked down the hall. Steve watched her go, suddenly serious again. Sending this other Tony home was the idea -- it was the execution of it that was causing problems. Sighing, he reached up to adjust a shield strap that wasn't there and frowned when he caught himself. Well, it wasn't going to be as easy he'd hoped to get over years' worth of habit in a matter of months.
After finishing his regular rounds through the Tower, Steve walked into the library and stopped cold, feeling as though he'd stepped through a time warp. Tony looked up from the overstuffed chair he was lounging in, feet propped up on the equally overstuffed ottoman, and raised his eyebrows at him over the top of the book he was reading.
"You look like you've seen a ghost," he observed, only the hint of a question in his voice. When Steve only stared at him, he lowered the book, laying it carefully upside down over the arm of the chair. "Okay, you have seen a ghost. What have I done this time?"
Steve tried to find the words to explain. He couldn't just say, That's Tony's favourite chair, and I've walked into this library to find him sitting there reading at all hours of the day more times than I can count and those are some of my favourite memories and seeing you there just about stopped my heart. He raised a hand to the back of his neck, rubbing absently, before smiling slightly and answering, "I... that's Tony's favourite chair."
Tony glanced down at it, wriggled slightly, and grinned up at him. "I see why."
"I'm sorry," Steve sighed, shaking his head. "I... I've had a lot on my mind lately, and seeing you there--"
"You thought I was him, didn't you?"
"I... yeah. Just for a second." He walked forward and took a seat on the ottoman, Tony moving his feet to the side to make room for him. "Sorry. I overreacted."
"No, it's okay, Steve," Tony shrugged. "It's a weird situation all around, I know. At least you're not stuck here, seventy years out of your own time."
Steve stared at him, until he'd actually processed the words, and then burst out laughing. He could see concern growing in Tony's eyes, but he couldn't help himself. Gasping for breath, he raised a hand, and when he could finally speak again, he said, "You... you just..." He stopped and shook his head, still grinning. "You know better than that." He could see Tony's eyes narrow as he thought, searching his memories... and then he laughed softly.
"Sorry, Steve. I didn't think..." Steve chuckled again at Tony's contrite expression.
"It's not the first time." Shrugging, he leaned back, supporting himself with a hand on the edge of the ottoman. It almost felt like old times, just him and Tony in the Mansion's library discussing whatever happened to be on their minds... "So, Maria tells me that you did something to the teams' communicators."
Tony's lips quirked. "Yeah. I just thought they'd appreciate having something to listen to. I didn't realise they wouldn't be able to turn it off." Steve smiled back.
"At least you have better taste in music than T -- our Tony. Although I suspect Logan would've appreciated his type of noise more than he did swing music."
They sat in companionable silence for some time, and Steve realised how much he'd missed these moments... how much he'd missed Tony. Sharon's words rang in his head again, and he wondered if there really was some truth to them. Tony had been his best friend for years. He'd known him for longer than he'd known anyone else, and he'd been unafraid to admit that he loved him. But -- was there more to it than that? He realised that he was staring at Tony, soaking in the details of his dark hair, his lips, his eyes... eyes that were watching him just as intently.
Steve jerked his eyes away, flushing. What in the world was wrong with him? He'd known Tony for years. He hadn't been carrying a secret torch for the man -- he would've known. Wouldn't he? Then again, a voice in the back of his mind pointed out, if he really did love another man -- like that -- would he admit it to himself? Regardless of the state of the modern world, his upbringing had been explicit on that matter, and even if he'd admitted to himself in his youth that he was attracted to men as well as women, he'd never done anything to act on that knowledge.
His confused thoughts were interrupted when Tony lowered his feet to the floor and moved to the edge of the chair, his gaze never wavering from Steve's face. Steve blinked at him and sat upright, uncertain of the tension suddenly filling the air between them. Tony reached out and took his hand, his eyes soft.
"I'm not your Tony," he said quietly. "But I know what your Tony knows."
"What?" Steve was too aware of their hands touching to fully take in whatever it was that Tony was trying to say to him.
"Whatever's going on with you... I'm sorry. I'm sorry that I seem to make your life so complicated." Tony shrugged a little. "Apparently I can't help it. And whatever's going on with you and your lady..."
"Sharon is none of your concern," Steve said sharply, bristling in indignation, then winced. Too sharply -- a classic sign of overreaction. Tony merely looked at him, a knowing light in his eyes.
"From what I've seen of the two of you over the past week or so, she's not much of yours anymore, either."
Tony didn't let him get the angry words out. Steve didn't see him move, but he was fully aware of the press of lips against his, the slight scratch of the goatee only emphasizing that it was Tony kissing him. When they broke apart a moment later, Steve opened eyes he hadn't realised he'd closed to find Tony watching him, a strange mix of emotions on his face.
Those weren't words he ever expected to hear from Tony Stark. Steve looked at him, still silent in the face of what had just happened, and Tony sighed.
"I'm taking advantage of the situation, and it's not my right. I'm not your Tony, and whatever I feel... they're not my feelings. I'm just remembering his." Regret edged his words and Steve's eyebrows drew together in a frown as he tried to puzzle out what Tony was saying.
"Steve," Tony leaned forward, until they were only inches apart, their hands still together between them. "I know that I shouldn't have kissed you, shouldn't even be thinking of telling you any of this, because I know that your Tony would never dream of it. But I don't think your Tony is right about this. You and him... you have this great friendship, this bond, which he's never had with anyone else."
Frowning, Steve opened his mouth to speak and Tony shook his head. "No, I mean it. Happy, Pepper, Rhodey -- they're wonderful friends and he loves all of them. But you, you're different. You're... more to him. He's never really told you that because he's afraid of what it'll do it to your friendship -- without that to rely on, I'm not sure that he'd be able to live, quite honestly. It's frightening to look around in these memories and see how much of him depends on one person. You." Tony's thumb stroked across the back of Steve's hand in an absent motion and Steve shivered, his mind racing as things began falling into place.
"I -- I didn't know," he breathed, heart racing. "I... I don't -- I see, but... I don't know what to do." His words were quiet, uncertain, and Tony smiled sadly at him.
"I think you do know. And if you don't -- well, I'm not the one who should tell you." Tony raised their joined hands to his lips and pressed a soft kiss to Steve's fingers before releasing him. "I'm going to head to Reed's lab. He thinks we're close to finishing up."
By the time Steve looked up, the door had closed behind Tony.
Seeing Captain America up close was actually kind of intimidating, Tony realised, not for the first time. At least, when Cap was glaring at you because he thought were being an idiot.
"Tony, I can't let you take that kind of risk!" Steve insisted, leaning closer as if his proximity would convince Tony that he was right. Tony barely kept himself from rolling his eyes.
"I take that kind of risk daily," he shot back instead. "And I'm probably better equipped for it at this point than you are."
And that was exactly what had started the argument, wasn't it? Sure, he'd been excited about seeing Steve for the first time in over a week, since he'd figured out that Steve wasn't avoiding him because he was angry with him, but because the government had kept him busy getting used to his new persona. Two days after he'd finally called Steve, Tony had been waiting almost anxiously for him to show up at Stark as he'd promised. When the man had walked through the door, however, Tony had spotted the fading black eye and torn scale mail before Steve had even said hello.
Steve looked at him incredulously. "What, the armor? I'm sure it's strong enough, but it's not exactly mobile, is it?"
Damn. He really hadn't wanted to get into this, let alone reveal that it wasn't the world-famous 'as-featured-on-Marvels' armor that he intended to use. At least, not so soon. He still needed to figure out how to make his armor look more like that armor, if only to keep Fury off his back about getting much-needed technology upgrades to the military. Regardless of the potential problems, though, there was absolutely no way that he was going to sit back in the lab and watch Steve take on all the bad guys in the world by himself.
He pursed his lips, then sighed. "Not the armor you're thinking of, no. But this armor definitely is." And he let his clothing change and flow around him, the nano-tubes reforming themselves at the speed of thought into the red and gold armor that he'd spent so much of his life hiding behind. In a way, it was a relief to be wearing it again, after all the weeks he'd spent here without using it. He'd been mostly too busy to miss it too much, but he resolved to definitely go for a quick flight later that night, after dark. At least he wouldn't have to worry about being detected like he did at home.
Steve gaped at him. "What... what is that? How did you--"
"It's the armor. Well, it's my armor. What that armor," He pointed at the bulky shape painted on the gaudy Marvels cover hanging framed on the wall, "could be, with seventy years' more development and design."
"But where did it come from? You didn't have it on -- your clothes, they... changed."
"They're not really clothes, Steve, but let's skip that conversation for now, please, and move on to the "I'm better armed and armored than you are, and I'm going to help you whether you want me to or not" phase." Tony watched as that percolated through Steve's head, and was better prepared for the frown this time.
"You can't just follow me around when I'm doing covert ops for the U.S. military, Tony," Steve protested. Tony grinned.
"I won't have to." He tossed something at Steve, who reflexively caught it, then peered at it inquiringly. The communicator was palm-sized, as small as Tony could get it in this world, but still something he could be proud of, since he'd gotten it done in under a day. "Using that, you can call me."
"Look, I'm not going to just sit back and watch you get into these fights when I could be helping, especially not if you're going to be fighting things that can actually hurt you!" The armor flowed away from his hand as he reached up to touch Steve's face, fingers brushing against the cheek below the fading bruise. He shivered a little, but Steve grabbed his wrist before he could pull his hand away.
"That was hours ago, Tony, and it's already almost gone." Something in Steve's face softened as he met Tony's eyes. "And I don't want you getting hurt. You won't heal like I do."
"Hence the armor," Tony replied, ignoring the tightening in his throat at that look. Steve growled and stepped back, letting go of Tony's wrist. "You can argue all you want, Steve, but I'm not going to listen. I am going to help you, even if you do force me to follow you around every night. I'll do it if I have to -- and you won't be able to tell I'm there unless I want you to."
There was a long, long silence. Finally, Steve's shoulders slumped and he stared down at the helmet in his hand. It had a bold white "A" painted on it. His costume was radically different from the one Tony knew, but the overall visual was strikingly similar. The white star gleamed on his chest against the blue scale mail, red and white stripes running from it down to his waist, and the pants, although covered in pockets, were still blue. The biggest differences were the typical Army-issue boots and utility belt with even more pouches. The shield looked almost exactly like the one Tony remembered from newsreels and promotional posters, before FDR had presented the vibranium-steel disc, and he wondered if he should suggest the merits of a throwable shield... no. If this world were truly an analogue to his own, someone was probably already experimenting with creating adamantium. No need to jump the gun on that one.
"I'm not going to win this argument," Steve finally observed, looking at Tony from the corner of his eye. Tony's grin widened.
"No. Definitely not."
"I suppose I'll just have to get used to having some help when I really need it, then." Steve's mouth curled up at the edges, and Tony felt a weight lift from his shoulders. Noninterference be damned; at least he could do some good while helping keep Steve safe.
Weeks after that initial conversation, and Tony still couldn't figure out why the Nazis seemed to be obsessed with northern New York. It was ridiculous. They'd put down half a dozen major operations already and Steve had interrupted countless others, and yet somehow, a Nazi group had still managed to put together a twenty-foot-tall automaton with machine guns and grenade launchers without anyone noticing.
Of course they'd discover it on the first day off that Steve had taken in three weeks, after Tony had finally convinced him that a few hours spent on a leisurely drive to enjoy the summer countryside wouldn't hurt.
"Rhodey, how're things on your end?" Tony asked tersely, sizing up the terrain ahead of the automaton; low rolling hills, forest... a town far too close. He refused to dignify it with the term "robot" when he could clearly see the clockwork in its chest.
"Almost done, Tony. Had to chase down a few of them, but most of 'em threw down their weapons when I dropped from the zeppelin." Rhodey's voice was cheery, although Tony could hear the sound of gunfire and shouts through the radio connection.
"Good work. We should see you soon... I hope," he muttered, and cut the connection. He descended to tree-top height and could see Steve attacking one of the ankle joints with the point of his shield. He could also see the machine gun turret swiveling to aim at him. He swore fervently, then shot forward, a quick repulsor blast taking out the machine gun before he hovered beside Steve.
"There's a small town about two miles ahead," he reported. "I really, really wish I could just blow this thing up." Steve whacked away at the joint again, leaping away as the automaton reached down to grab him.
"Can't," he answered shortly. "Explosives in the inner cavities."
"I know! But it'd be a helluva lot of easier to take it out with a multi-beam blast," he groused, dodging a burst from the machine guns. He scanned the automaton's legs, looking for a spot that he could hit with the repulsors without triggering any of the explosives that seemed to be the thing's main component.
"Tony! Above you!"
He heard Steve's shout and twisted instinctively, narrowly avoiding another blast. "Dammit. This thing's like a machine-gun porcupine!" Checking the scan he'd just run, he thought he saw a possibility. "Cap, I should be able to take out the left ankle without setting anything off."
"What happens if it falls?" came the instant response, Steve's doubt in the suggestion audible even through the communicator.
Tony gritted his teeth. "I'll make sure it doesn't."
Angling up, away from the limited sensors on the front of the machine, Tony curved around in a long, low loop, taking aim at the automaton's ankle. One quick burst from his repulsors... and there it went. And kept going.
"Dammit!" Tony swore, and kicked on extra speed as the thing started to topple. He could see Steve reaching into the damaged leg, probably trying to dismantle a fuse, but there wasn't enough time for that. "Steve, move!" Steve ignored him and Tony cursed again. A very light repulsor blast as he came in close, and Steve went tumbling off to the side, safely out of the way of the falling automaton. There were times, Tony thought grimly, that he really missed his old electromagnetic waves. Without them, this would have to be sheer brute force. Bracing himself, he caught the machine at its waist and pushed. If he could just hold it steady enough to lower it without setting off any of the explosives...
The automaton was nearly to the ground when the surviving shoulder-mounted machine gun moved. Tony followed its line of fire and his heart nearly stopped when he saw Steve, jaw clenched in determination, heading back toward him. If he could just get one hand free, he could take it out, but at this angle... Almost in slow motion, he saw the gun swivel to keep aim on Steve, felt the agonising weight of the automaton bearing down on him, and made his decision. Shifting his weight, he slid one hand out from the metal side and fired a repulsor bolt at the gun. At the same instant, he felt the weight of the automaton shift in turn and his knees buckled, his gauntlet sliding down the steel plate with a screech. The last thing he was aware of was the staggering impact of tons of metal falling on top of him.
"Dammit, Tony, I told you that I could handle it!" Anger nearly hid the worry in Steve's voice, and Tony shrugged half-heartedly as he sagged down onto the couch, his armor sliding back into his bones, the nano-tubes taking the form of comfortable jeans and t-shirt. All he wanted was a couple of aspirin and some sleep. Or some morphine. Or a shot of whiskey. No, scratch that. The aspirin would have to do.
"Nothing's broken, Steve," he protested. "I'm just going to have some bruises. I'm used to bruises." Steve glared down at him and Tony laughed weakly. It hadn't taken long for this Steve to get used to Cap's costume or persona, and the exasperated, I-could-throttle-you-if-you-weren't-already-hurt expression was one he was far too familiar with from his own universe. He'd certainly seen it a fair number of times over the last few months here, too.
"You didn't need to practically kill yourself trying to catch that thing!" Steve's voice was no less vehement, but his tone was calmer. This was another thing he was used to. The rhythm of the argument was almost soothing, in a weird way, and he'd had it with this Steve more than a few times since he'd started aiding this world's brand-new Captain America.
"I wasn't trying to catch it, I was trying to set it down without it exploding," he answered, avoiding the sharper point of Steve's anger. "And it was working, until you came running back and it tried to shoot you."
"I could've dodged a machine gun shot at that range, Tony. You didn't need to let it fall on you," Steve retorted.
"It would've hurt you," Tony said without thinking and then wished he hadn't. Steve's face visibly softened, and Tony looked away, bitterness welling up inside. Apparently he wasn't supposed to have the one thing he really wanted, no matter what universe he was in. Steve hadn't avoided him after Tony's late-night confession, as Tony had feared, but neither had he done anything Tony had hoped for. Even the friendly touches on the back or shoulder hadn't changed -- but Steve had adamantly avoided anything more. He could hear Steve sitting beside him but he refused to look. "At least it didn't explode," he muttered.
"Tony. You can't keep doing this," Steve's voice was soft.
Tony's mouth compressed into a tight line. "I can. I have. I will."
"I hate seeing you so unhappy. It... hurts."
Tony winced. "Why not? No one's going to miss me if something does happen," he said carelessly. "And I don't think I'm supposed to be happy. That's the one thing I've never managed to really figure out how to do."
Even if he did make it back to his own universe, what was waiting for him there? Stark Resilient, a company that he was having to build from the ground up -- again -- that no one really believed in except him anyway. The Avengers, who still gave him suspicious looks and kept their distance from him whenever possible. Pepper, who seemed to be nursing a hurt toward him over something she refused to tell him and that he didn't remember. Steve.
He winced a little and wondered what exactly it was about the man that kept drawing him in when there was no way for anything to come of it. Even this universe's Steve wasn't exactly willing and eager to let him in that close, and his own Steve... his Steve was with Sharon, and they were happy together. His former best friend seemed to avoid Tony like the plague. Only his odd possessiveness toward Tony -- and Thor, he reminded himself -- when Luke put the New Avengers back together and his insistence on having Tony be part of the Avengers team again in the first place had been exceptions to that, and Tony wasn't willing to read anything into that. Especially not when Steve had hurried away from both gatherings in order to get back to Sharon and had spent the time since then either absent with his duties or trying to pretend that he wasn't avoiding Tony as they passed each other in the halls of the Tower.
There was a long silence, and when Tony finally slitted a sideways glance at Steve, he wasn't entirely surprised to see him staring down at the floor, a thoughtful frown on his face. One thing he seemed to be too good at: Upsetting one Steve Rogers. No matter which Steve it was. He sighed and took shameless advantage of his position on the couch to lean back against the other man, soaking up the heat emanating from him. He felt Steve stiffen a little, but knew that he wouldn't be pushed away. Instead, after another long moment, Steve shifted and wrapped an arm around his shoulders, pulling him close. Tony felt some of the tension seep out of him.
"I don't like seeing you get hurt, Tony," Steve whispered into his hair. "Not for me, not for anyone."
"It's part of what I do," Tony answered, voice equally soft. "Who I am. Being a superhero is... it lets me try to make up for my past mistakes. This is nothing some aspirin and some sleep won't fix." If he remembered to get either of those things, anyway. "I've suffered worse than this. Lots worse." Steve's arm tightened around him briefly before relaxing again. Tony wondered what he was thinking, but didn't dare ask. He didn't want to push this Steve away, too. He tried to remain content with the embrace that Steve would only offer behind closed doors, and tried to convince himself that he didn't care if he ever kissed those addicting lips again.
The Skrull device was glowing again, Steve noted absently. The strange blue light that indicated it was receiving power was on, but the aura he'd seen around it the last time he'd been in Reed's lab was gone. Next to it lay an all-too-familiar arc reactor, but with attachments built on that he'd never seen on Tony's. Beside him, Sharon was silent and Steve realised he was glad for that. Too often lately their conversations had been angry, and he didn't like knowing that he expected them all to be like that now. Finally looking up from his study of technology that he would never be able to understand, Steve met Reed's eyes.
"So this is it."
Reed nodded. "Tony has been an invaluable assistant with accomplishing this." Beside him, Tony rolled his eyes but Steve noted that he didn't actually protest the compliment. "I'm afraid that the alterations to the arc reactor have been based almost completely on theories, since our Tony didn't actually document the changes he made to Pepper's anywhere. At least, nowhere that currently exists." Steve winced slightly, remembering the first view of he'd had of Tony after recovering his own body from the Red Skull's manipulations. Seeing Tony lying in a hospital bed was frighteningly familiar, but seeing him so absolutely motionless, not even blinking... that had been terrifying.
"Will it work?" he asked, his voice gruff. Beside him, he saw Sharon look sharply at him but he didn't turn his head to acknowledge it. Reed simply nodded.
"We've tested it." Apparently he caught Steve's questioning glance, and added, "On inanimate objects. When the switch first occurred, it created a distinctive resonance that I was able to record. Over the last two days, we've recreated that resonance a dozen times with objects of increasing size and density. There's no doubt that we have the means to reach this Tony's universe."
Something about the small, wry smile playing on Tony's lips, combined with Reed's phrasing, caught at Steve's attention. "So what's the catch, Reed? Will it handle living beings?"
Reed frowned slightly, probably at the lack of trust implied in the question. "Of course it will. However, there is a limit to the distance it can reach."
"Which means what?" Steve demanded, leaning on the table as he stared at the device that had created so much havoc.
"It means that we can get there, and we can get back, but we can't make an automatic switch like it did the first time," Tony supplied. "Somebody's going to have to go there and find your Tony."
He wasn't really surprised, Steve realised. They'd had this sort of thing happen too often for him to expect it to be that easy. "All right. How will I get back?" Beside him, Sharon went still and Steve knew that they'd be yelling at each other again once they left the lab. Keeping his face expressionless, Steve told himself that he didn't have a choice. It was his team, his responsibility, and he was the only one here who knew the time period well enough to not stick out like a sore thumb.
"Tony could go," Sharon said quietly.
"That's true, Steve," Tony agreed. Steve took a breath.
"Yes. But you shouldn't go alone. If something unexpected happens, we'd still have someone stranded. Two people will be a better guarantee that everything goes as it should." His tone was even, and Reed was nodding before he finished speaking.
"Very true. I have a handheld... "tracker", if you will, that you can take with you. It should be able to home in on Tony's arc reactor, and once you've found him, you simply activate it to signal this device, and it will bring you both home."
"The area of effect is a circle with a diameter of four feet," Tony added. "So you'll want to be clear of other people, but you won't have to be glued to each other, either." Steve didn't miss the smirk on his lips, and from Sharon's annoyed huff, neither had she.
"Fine. Tony and I will go. The sooner the better, I think." He looked across the table and met Tony's gaze fully for the first time since entering the lab. Tony nodded slightly, a hint of sadness in his eyes. Steve remembered what Tony had said, about wishing he had the same support system... implying that he didn't have a friend like Steve waiting anxiously for him at home. People were worried, certainly, but... Steve cut his thoughts off angrily. It wasn't his concern. Getting his Tony home and this Tony back where he belonged was his concern, not the quality of life this other Tony was going to be living once he did.
"Steve. Before you do this..." Sharon touched his arm and he looked at her, saw a steely determination in her eyes, and nodded once.
"Reed, Tony. Excuse us for a moment, please," he said. They left the lab in silence, and Steve followed Sharon up to the roof. The sky was clear and bright, and even at this height the wind was only a breeze. She strode across the roof to the edge and stood looking down over it for a few minutes, her hair blowing in the wind. Steve stopped a few feet away from her and waited.
"I can't keep doing this, Steve," she said finally. When she turned to face him, her eyes were bright. "I can't keep telling myself that I mean more to you than anyone else when I know it's not true."
She shook her head and raised a hand, and Steve fell silent again. "I know you'd do this for anyone, Steve. You care about your teammates and your friends. And me. I know that. But this-- whatever's going on, this is different. I don't know if we've just grown apart, or if it's because of... of what Faustus forced me to do." Her voice shook and she looked down. Steve took a step toward her before he forced himself to stop. "Or if it's just that you're finally letting yourself admit something that I've always suspected." When she looked up at him again, a tear shone on her cheek. "I know you love me, Steve, but you're in love with Tony Stark. Go after him, bring him home, figure things out. But just know that I -- I won't be waiting for you anymore."
Steve knew he should feel like his world was shattering, with the love of his life dumping him, here on a rooftop. But he didn't. He didn't feel much of anything. He supposed he could blame shock, but in reality it was probably because he'd been expecting this for a while.
"I'm sorry, Sharon," he said finally. He couldn't deny it anymore; whatever they'd once shared was gone. Whatever he felt toward Tony, however that worked out, it wasn't fair to keep clinging to something that didn't exist anymore. He hated seeing tears on her face, knowing that he no longer had the right to wipe them away, to offer comfort... knowing that he had caused them. "You're right. Once I'm back, I'll move my things out of your apartment." He looked at her, and she nodded, as though confirming something to herself. "I never meant to hurt you," he offered lamely, his hand reaching out to her before he pulled it back to fall against his side.
"I know. Good luck, Steve." She leaned forward and pressed a kiss to his cheek, smiling sadly at him. "Goodbye."
Steve remained on the rooftop for some time after he watched her walk away, back into the building. He remembered telling Tony once that he felt like everyone who cared about him was cursed. Tony had reassured him that he was wrong. Sometimes, he wasn't so sure.
Re-entering the lab, he ignored the questioning look that other-Tony shot him and held his hand out to Reed. "Let's get this started."
"Damn," swore Tony fervently, and even as Steve laughed at his vehemence, he agreed with him. Something that Reed hadn't warned them about was the potential for the dimensional shift being a rocky trip. No. Not rocky. That didn't do the transitional feeling justice. It was more like... hurtling headlong through the roller coasters of hell. Upside down. With no seat belt. While being beaten with large sticks over every inch of your body. Yes, though Steve grimly. That came somewhat close, anyway.
Glancing around, Steve tried to place where they were. Tony was leaning against the side of a building, one hand on the bricks for support as he recovered from their 'landing.' He was closer to the street, but he couldn't make out any street signs. The chill in the air suggested that it was autumn here, and Steve wondered abruptly just how long Tony had been gone, in his own timeline. It had only been a few weeks for them, but it could have been months for him. Or even years. That was another matter that Steve resolutely set out of his mind. He could drive himself crazy with worrying about things like that, and even if something like that were true, he couldn't do anything about it, so there was no point in getting worked up over it.
Instead, he pulled his trenchcoat tighter around his body, glad now that Sue had suggested he cover up his uniform and still a little taken aback by the fact that she had had to make the suggestion in the first place. He wasn't used to missing the obvious -- but then, it wasn't as though the last few weeks had been uneventful for him, either. From the quiet sympathy in Sue's face when he had come back to the lab after Sharon left, she had picked up on some of that.
"Ready, Tony?" He glanced at the other man as he pulled the tracker out of his coat pocket. From what Reed had said, it should pick up Tony's arc reactor even from several miles away, so hopefully he hadn't ended up in another state. Or China. Steve had a fleeting thought of spending years searching the globe for Tony, and then reprimanded himself for letting his mind wander.
"Oh, most definitely. After that fun little jaunt, I'm all set to go dancing tonight," came Tony's flippant response. Steve watched as he straightened his jacket, brushed down his slacks, and patted his hair back into place. Seeing him dressed up was... breathtaking, honestly. He'd always had a fondness for Tony in formalwear. And that thought made him wonder just how long he'd been living in denial. Shaking his head at himself, Steve flipped the switch on the tracker. This was not the time to wander down that particular path.
For a long moment, he was afraid that it wasn't working. If it wasn't, how could Reed ever pull him back? He'd be stuck here, along with Tony, and wouldn't that be something... The tracker beeped faintly, and a dim spot of light appeared on the screen. Steve exhaled slowly, tension he hadn't been aware of seeping out of his shoulders, and he straightened up.
"Looks like it's near... Long Island," he said, after eyeing the screen for a moment. Tony cocked his head.
"Really? I wonder if he's not at Stark Industries, then. That's where the main lab is."
Steve nodded. "I know."
"Hm. Some things really are the same, aren't they?" Tony smiled, and stepped out into the street. It may have been an innate skill, or simply the force of Tony's personality at work, but he managed to hail a taxi within moments. Steve could only shake his head. He'd spent more time being ignored by cab drivers than he cared to remember. Wordlessly, he climbed into the back seat alongside Tony, listening as he ordered the cabbie to get them to the "Long Island Stark labs, and be snappy about it!"
Tony was nearly asleep on the couch, leaning comfortably against Steve. The last few weeks had been particularly busy, with Tony spending time in the lab whenever he wasn't helping Captain America break up nests of Nazi sympathizers and spies. He'd been attempting to recreate seventy years' worth of progress in an attempt to fabricate better armor for Cap's uniform and mostly ignoring the dimensional transmitter. At this point he was tempted to use Steve's shield to break the damned thing into tiny pieces. If he couldn't even come up with something that would offer Steve decent protection, how could he possibly expect to communicate with another dimension, let alone travel there? He'd barely slept in four days and only succumbed to the nap in the lab because Steve had insisted on it. Really, it was almost like old times.
When the lab door opened with a bang, it took him a second to respond. Steve immediately stiffened, his entire body going into the 'on alert' pose that Tony knew so well, but he didn't release his hold on Tony. Tony fought the last vestiges of drowsiness from his mind and turned to face the doorway, sharp words ready for whoever had intruded without warning. Jarvis wouldn't have done so, and Pepper and Rhodey were in California this week to follow up on research that looked promising for whatever it was that other-him had promised Namor last time they'd worked together.
"I'm here to take you home, Tony."
Tony froze, his eyes widening and his heart racing as he stared at the figure outlined in the doorway. He felt Steve's worried glance but he couldn't turn away from the piercing blue eyes that held his, surprise and relief clear even as they narrowed, taking in his proximity to Steve.
But it couldn't be, he told himself. There was no way that his Steve could be here, even if Reed had fixed that damned Skrull device. Steve would never come looking for him personally, not now. If he had the time, certainly he wouldn't have the interest to do it himself. Besides, it had been months now. If someone was going to come looking for him, they would have done it already.
For a long moment, Tony wasn't sure who had said his name: the man whose arms were still around him, or the man standing across the room from him. A choked laugh escaped him as he stared at Steve, still outlined in the doorway. His Steve, judging from the dark uniform visible under the partially-open coat.
"Well, well, well," a new voice drawled, and Tony's head jerked in surprise. Another man stepped around Steve, hands on his hips as he looked at Tony, still with the younger Steve's arms around him. "I suppose I should exclaim over how shocked I am at this sight, but I find that I'm not really surprised, honestly. Given what I know of you, it makes sense that you'd find this world's Steve Rogers." The blend of amusement and wistfulness made Tony bite back the words that hovered on the edge of his tongue, settling instead for glaring at... himself.
"That's just about the strangest damned thing to see." The other Tony smirked and Tony realised abruptly why Pepper hated that expression. He was discovering that he wasn't all that fond of it himself. Other-him sauntered closer, eyeing the pair of them thoughtfully. "God, I hope I don't get that many stress wrinkles."
"That's enough, Mister!" Steve's voice startled Tony, as well as the other-Tony and... Steve, it appeared. This world's Steve stood up, glaring at the other-Tony, and while Tony felt momentarily bereft without his warmth against him, he was grateful for the distraction. "Whoever you are, you can't just come waltzing in here and act like you own the place!"
Tony watched the other version of himself blink in lazy startlement before bursting into laughter. Ruefully, he acknowledged to himself that it hadn't been the best thing for Steve to say, but there was no way for him to know that.
"I do own the place, Captain," came the response, once the other man had stopped laughing. "I'm Tony Stark." As Steve looked in confusion from him to Tony, the man added, with a pointed look at Tony, "The one who belongs here."
"He's right," Tony acknowledged as he rose to his feet, pain lodging in his throat at the expression on Steve's face. "I told you that I wasn't from here. This... this is the me who is. This is the me who should be here." Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his Steve look at him sharply, but he ignored it. This world's Steve, the one right in front of him, was more important at the moment.
"I... you don't have to leave, do you?" Steve asked softly, his eyes wide. Tony bit his lip, wanting nothing more than to stay, here, in this place where he'd finally found some happiness. He saw his world's Steve take a step forward at the quiet words before stopping abruptly, his jaw clenched. Tony shuddered slightly.
"There can't be two Tony Starks," other-him declared, polishing his nails on his jacket. "I don't think any universe is big enough for that."
Tony closed his eyes, then turned, his own jaw set. "I don't want to go with you, Captain," he said coldly. He saw his Steve recoil from the words as though he'd been slapped. "I've been marooned here for months, Steve. You obviously don't need me, and I've finally found somewhere that I can be happy. If that means anything to you, you won't force me to leave." Every word that left his mouth felt like another pricking wound to his heart, but they also left him with a soaring sense of freedom. He didn't have to go back, to watch the man he loved act like he didn't exist and people he'd formerly called friends act like they wished he didn't. He could stay here, stay with this Steve, who might just feel more for him than he'd suspected, and he could be happy with that. "I can stay here, change my name... start a new company if I have to. I've done it before."
Steve stepped forward slowly, closing the distance between them until they were only a few feet apart. Tony saw him give a quick glance to the younger Steve, still standing at Tony's back, before returning his attention to Tony. When he spoke, his voice was rough, the regret spilling out in his words immediately catching Tony's attention. "I'm sorry, Tony. I'm so sorry that you were here by yourself for so long. I -- we didn't know. It's only been a few weeks for us, and Reed -- and Tony -- have been working at nothing but getting you home again."
"No one wants him there like I want him here." The words were in Steve's own voice and Tony jerked in surprise, twisting to look at the man standing behind him. The younger Steve's mouth was pressed into a tight line, pain clear on his face as he stared at what had to seem like an older apparition of himself.
The air grew tense as the silence continued, and then the older Steve sighed.
"You're wrong about that." Tony's eyes widened as he met those eyes again, finding himself unable to read the emotions written there. "I want him there." All the air seemed to have been sucked from Tony's lungs. He couldn't have heard that correctly. There was a misunderstanding. Surely Steve hadn't just said exactly what Tony had dreamt of him saying for the last decade and more, had he?
"Please, Tony." Steve's voice was quieter now, and Tony could see the strain in his face as Steve forced his voice to calmness, his words oddly hesitant. "Please. I... I need you."
Almost frantically, Tony looked behind him, to the younger Steve, and saw a pained grimace on his face. It looked like... acknowledgment. Swallowing, he glanced at the other Tony. The empathy and understanding he found there nearly floored him.
"I... I don't..." He shook his head, one hand pressing against his temple. Moments ago, he'd felt like he had no options at all. Now he had nothing but choices, and he had no idea what to choose. No matter what he did, he'd be hurting someone. Couldn't he ever avoid hurting other people because of his decisions?
"You can stay if you want to, Tony," came his own voice from across the room. "But I know you'd end up regretting it. That wouldn't be fair to anyone involved, now would it?"
Tony heard the footsteps of his double as the man approached, but he didn't look up. His mind was spinning, confusion and love and anger and guilt and hope twisting themselves together until he didn't know which way to turn. The touch of a hand on his shoulder finally caught his attention, and he looked up into his own face, only inches away.
"I know, Tony," other-him said softly, and Tony's hands clenched into fists at his sides as he realised how completely this other version of himself really did know, did understand him. "You do have a home waiting for you, friends and loved ones who care about you and miss you." A glance at his Steve that Tony couldn't interpret, and the other Tony's lips curled. "You have more waiting for you than you know." The hand on his shoulder squeezed, then released him and the other him stepped back again.
He really didn't have a choice, did he? His own guilt would eat him alive if he abandoned everything and everyone he knew depended on him, just for the sake of his own happiness. Taking a deep breath, Tony marshalled himself, then turned to face the younger Steve, knowing that the man he'd spent so much time with over the previous months would be able to read his decision in his eyes. The uncertainty on the younger man's face slowly cleared into an expression of understanding, and Tony wondered if he actually saw sadness there or if it was just his own wishful thinking. Reaching up to rest a hand on the wide shoulder, Tony forced his mouth into a smile, fully aware that Steve would be able to see through the lie of the gesture.
"I should go," he said softly. "I'm needed there."
Steve swallowed, his throat working as he tried to speak. When he finally responded, his voice was rough. "I don't want you to leave." Tony blinked hard, refusing to acknowledge the blurriness in his vision as he stared at the man he'd come to care so much about in such a short time.
"I don't want to leave," he answered truthfully, his own voice hoarse. "But I can't stay. I... I don't belong here. I have responsibilities that I can't ignore, and so do you."
Steve stared at him for a long moment before reaching out and pulling him close. Tony squeezed his eyes shut, fighting back the pain. Part of him was shouting that it wasn't fair, for him to finally find some measure of happiness only to have it ripped away, but other parts of him were reminding him that he had responsibilities at home, people who depended on him, and he'd survived this kind of loss before. He'd survive it again. "Tony... I--"
This time it was Tony's fingers silencing Steve's words and Tony leaned up, his gaze never wavering from Steve's as he carefully pressed his lips to Steve's mouth. He forced himself to keep the kiss short, chaste. After the months they'd spent together, he knew this Steve well enough that he knew he'd be allowed more if he pushed, but it wouldn't be fair of him to take advantage of the situation just to satisfy his own desire. One thing he wouldn't be able to live with was the knowledge that he'd made Steve Rogers regret any of the time they'd had together.
Instead, he touched Steve's face and whispered, "I know." Then he stepped back, Steve releasing him with reluctance, and turned to look at the other two men. His Steve's jaw was clenched, the expression on his face giving away none of his thoughts, but the other Tony was watching with sympathetic eyes, and Tony realised that he must know exactly how much it was killing him to walk away from this.
Walking toward his universe's Steve, Tony found himself hoping that he wasn't reading too much into Steve's earlier words. After all, the man had crossed dimensions to find him after working on it for weeks. If he fought to stay, now, what would it accomplish? No, better that he went back before he caused any further pain. Forcing his mind away from the dark thoughts, he reminded himself that he'd be returning to a world where vacuum tubes weren't the latest and greatest technology and where he didn't have to deal with military contracts. At least that would be an improvement. And if he was reading too much of his own long-suppressed hope into Steve's determination to bring him home, he'd deal with it later. He had plenty of experience with denial, after all. Tony stopped when the other-him reached out and touched his arm. Looking into his own eyes without using a mirror was a truly strange experience.
"I'm sorry," this world's Tony said softly, and Tony could see the sincerity in his face.
He glanced back at the younger Steve who stood watching him, and whispered, his throat tight, "Take care of him."
Other-Tony nodded. "You do the same. Things... aren't what you think they are." Tony gave him a questioning look, but the other man stepped back. Whatever that was supposed to mean, Tony found that he really didn't want to look at his Steve. His world's Steve, he corrected himself. The Steve who had just stood there and watched Tony kiss another version of him. God only knew what he thought about that, and Tony tried to convince himself that he didn't care.
"Tony." This time there was no mistaking the voice. The two Steves sounded incredibly similar, but there was something about his Steve's voice, some underlying timbre that years of combat and command had instilled into him, that the younger Steve of this world didn't have. Yet, Tony thought a little sadly. Yet. The upcoming war would force him to learn more of that than he wanted to. Hopefully it wouldn't end with the same tragedy. Casting a sidelong glance at the other him, now standing close by the younger Steve's side, he suspected that someone would ensure it didn't.
Silently, he allowed Steve to take his arm, staring fixedly at the floor. If he didn't look at Steve, he wouldn't see the anger there for his taking advantage of a younger version of him... for betraying him. He felt Steve looking at him, the hand on his arm moving up to his shoulder in a familiar touch that made his heart ache, but he refused to look up. Seeing the expression on his face just before he'd kissed the younger Steve... He bit his lip. He knew that this world's Steve loved him, at least a little. He'd just have to hold that memory dear, because it was as close as he would ever get.
With a weary sigh, Steve lifted his free hand, presumably in a last wave at their counterparts, but Tony couldn't bring himself to look. Then there was another movement, and the world went white.
Silence weighed between them in the flying car on the trip home. Tony stared fixedly out the window, watching the familiar skyline that now seemed almost alien to him after so many months spent getting to know the city of seven decades before. The stars were the same, even if he couldn't see as many as he'd been able to in the other dimension, and that seemed to help ground him again. He could feel the reactions from his earlier adrenaline high setting in even as the emotional high drained away, replaced by a deep sinking feeling that he knew too well. He'd be spending a lot of sleepless nights in his lab in coming days.
When Steve's voice finally broke the strained quiet, he nearly jumped.
"I meant what I said, you know."
He flicked a quick glance at Steve, but the man continued to watch the skies, only the tight clench of his fingers on the steering wheel giving away any sign of tension. Fighting back the initial burst of hope at Steve's words, Tony reminded himself that he couldn't afford to read too much into anything Steve said. He'd had years to get used to not having what he so desperately wanted, and the last few months of feeling like he finally had a chance had weakened his defenses.
"What, about needing me here?" Tony snorted. "That's a joke and you know it. I'm surprised you even missed me." Bitterness crept into his words and Tony shut up abruptly. The last thing he wanted right now was Steve's pity.
"Of course I missed you! I know I've been busy lately, but you're still my best--"
"Don't," Tony interrupted the too-sincere words with a snarl. "I don't want to hear it. If you meant it, you wouldn't be avoiding me, let alone holding things over my head that I can't even remember." He saw the Tower approaching and forced himself to take a deep breath before gritting out. "Look, just drop me off and go back home to Sharon. I really, really don't want to have this conversation right now." Or ever, he added to himself.
He could practically hear Steve biting back a reply, but none came until the car was setting down, the quiet whir of the landing more felt than heard through Tony's fingers on the door handle.
Tony's head jerked around. Steve was sitting motionless in the driver's seat, hands still on the wheel, looking ahead at the roof of the Tower.
"I can't go home to Sharon," Steve expanded, finally turning to meet Tony's confused glare. One shoulder lifted in an attempt at a casual shrug. Tony barely noticed it, caught up in the pained smile that twisted Steve's mouth. "We... ended things."
For once, Tony had no idea what to say. Steve and Sharon had been through their share of hell over the years, from her apparent self-immolation to Steve's own death and everything in between, but even when they'd broken off their relationship in the past, he hadn't seen that particular expression on Steve's face. He opened his mouth, then shut it again, shaking his head. This was just too much.
"I'm -- I -- thanks for the ride. I'll see you later," he said quickly, opening the door and stepping out. If his pace was quicker than his normal casual walk as he headed for the elevator, it was only due to his eagerness to sleep in his own bed. It definitely wasn't because he was running away from someone he'd always thought of as his best friend.
The team had been avoiding Steve for the last week. Not obviously, not with any overt, "Crap, it's Steve, run!" tactics, but with subtle silences and sudden reasons to leave rooms he'd just entered and training sessions that he hadn't scheduled. Even Jessica had developed the habit of gulping her coffee and fleeing the kitchen in the mornings when Steve walked in, fresh from his post-run shower. Steve knew he should be bothered by this, because he wasn't much of a leader if none of his teams would talk to him, but he couldn't really bring himself to care.
What he cared about -- no, who he cared about -- was Tony. Unfortunately, Tony Stark had spent most of his life avoiding situations and people that he didn't want to deal with, and he'd taken that ability to a new high, developing avoidance into an art form. Steve found himself knocking on doors that led to empty rooms, calling phones that went straight to voice mail, and barging into laboratories that were empty save for half-assembled projects.
He'd picked up the last of his belongings from the -- from Sharon's -- apartment three days ago. It hadn't taken long for her to clear away the impression he'd made there; he knew that she was hurting, and he knew that she absolutely would never admit it to him. He didn't blame her. Even though he'd never meant to, he'd hurt her enough for a lifetime. At this point, Steve just hoped that they could recover the friendship that they'd had.
He wondered if that was how Tony had felt about him, for these past few months. Several months, for him, Steve amended in his head. Tony had been gone a few weeks for Steve and the rest of the Avengers, but from what little he'd told Steve and Reed, it had been months for him. Months that he'd spent wondering if anyone even cared enough to come looking for him, and Steve knew, after what Tony had said to him there, that he'd been convinced that no one did. That Steve didn't.
Steve shut his eyes, remembering -- again -- the sight of Tony kissing him. A younger him, dressed in a Captain America costume radically different from any he'd ever worn, still new enough to be shiny. His gut clenched at the image, remembering how he'd felt at the sight: anger at the thought of Tony taking advantage of him while he was so young, so naive, mixed with undeniable jealousy that it wasn't him being kissed... and fear. Seeing that light in Tony's eyes, the soft expression on the other Steve's face as he'd asked him to stay, all Steve had been able to think was, I'm too late. The time Tony had spent lost in the other dimension had been an eye-opening experience for him, and everything that he'd suffered, and feared, and been forced to realise about himself over that time had come rushing in on him as he stood frozen in a laboratory doorway and watched Tony kiss another man. Another him. The pain had been blinding.
And, Steve thought, as he opened his eyes again and stared sightlessly at the wall of his bedroom, now he knew quite well what the other-Tony had all but told him, the second time he'd kissed him. He now knew exactly how much Tony had hurt all those years, watching Steve go from Sharon to Bernie back to Sharon, so oblivious to what was so obvious. It had only taken Steve's acknowledging of his own feelings to be able to finally see them reflected in Tony. So many of the stupid stunts that Tony had pulled over the years, the ones that Steve always wanted to shake him for, made sense now. The capacity for the human heart to hold so much love for someone, and for the human brain to deny it so thoroughly, would be amazing if it weren't so painful.
He glanced at the clock. 2:37. With a sigh, Steve gave up on the thought of sleep. He pulled a t-shirt out of his dresser and changed his pajamas for sweatpants, then padded down the dark hallway to the library. If nothing else, he could always spend a few hours visiting Middle Earth before he took his morning jog. Maybe Tolkien would help him get his mind off of Tony.
The only problem with that, he realised as he pushed open the door to the library, was that it pre-supposed Tony's being elsewhere. Which honestly, Steve had. Tony had spent most of the time he was at the Tower in his laboratory -- except of course when Steve went looking for him. He fully suspected that Tony was keeping tabs on him via the security cameras, even if it wasn't as easy to do so as it had been with Extremis, because so far he'd done a perfect job of avoiding him.
Until now. Tony's wide-eyed expression as Steve stopped in the doorway, staring at him, told Steve that he'd finally managed to surprise the man. Now of all times, he thought, resigned. Now that he was running on three days of insomnia and a week of unrelenting stress, of course he'd finally catch Tony. The man was sitting in his favourite chair, wearing pajama bottoms and a loose red robe, his hair tousled and his feet bare, an open book resting on one knee. Judging from the dark circles under Tony's eyes, he'd been getting just as little rest as Steve, and Steve had to stop himself from imagining the reasons why. He was pretty sure he knew why, and Tony losing sleep over another man wasn't really something he wanted to dwell on.
Tony finally broke the awkward silence by setting down his book without another glance at its pages and standing up. Steve would be willing to lay odds that Tony hadn't actually been reading at all, but staring at the pages while he was lost in thought. It wouldn't be the first time that Steve had seen him do that.
"Oh, hey, look at the time." Tony tried to look casual but the tension in his shoulders told Steve the lie. "I should really be getting to--"
"What you should do is stop avoiding me," Steve growled, frustrated anger flooding through him. He stepped forward, letting the door close behind him. Tony sank back down into the chair and now Steve could see the nervousness in his face. "I've been trying to track you down for the last week. We need to talk."
Tony's hands tightened on the arms of the chair. "Steve, I really don't think--"
"I don't care what you think! We're going to talk now. I didn't cross dimensions to bring you back just so we could play hide and seek for the rest of our lives," he shot back, part of him enjoying the widened eyes at his sharp tone. "Even if you don't say a thing, you're going to listen to what I have to say." He stopped, realising that his voice was growing louder and forcing himself to take a calming breath. Yelling wouldn't accomplish anything but driving Tony further into his shell. "After that, if you want to keep hiding from me, I won't try to stop you." Another long silence built up between them, finally broken by Tony nodding at him, just once. Steve let out a breath he'd been unaware of holding, and realised that he didn't know where to start.
"Damn." He almost sighed the word, then met Tony's eyes with a rueful smile. "Honestly, I wasn't expecting to catch you, so I didn't plan out what I wanted to say." He eyed his normal chair, but it sat halfway across the room and he didn't want to give Tony that much of an opportunity to escape -- or to misread him because of distance. Instead, he settled on the ottoman, Tony instinctively moving his feet to the side to give him room. As Steve looked at Tony, a chill shivered down his spine. This was uncannily similar to the last lengthy conversation he'd had with the other-Tony, and for an instant, Steve felt as though he'd dreamt everything since then. Dismissing the thought with an uneasy shrug, he studied Tony silently for a minute. Sitting this close, Tony's exhaustion -- and depression -- were clearly written in the slumping lines of his body, and Steve frowned in concern.
"You haven't been sleeping." That wasn't what he'd meant to say, but at least it was a coherent sentence. He could settle for that as a start. Tony snorted, unamused.
"Neither have you."
And what could he say to that? He couldn't deny it any more than Tony could. He shrugged slightly, then tried again. "I've moved back into the Tower." He watched Tony, waiting for some sign, any sign, that he might be on the right path.
"I noticed." The curt words gave him no guidance. "I'm sorry things didn't work out with you and Sharon."
"No, you're not," Steve said sharply. Tony's nostrils flared, and Steve pushed on, "Don't lie to me, Tony. Especially not now. Not about this."
"This? What 'this' are you referring to?" Tony used his best flippant voice, the one guaranteed to infuriate anyone within earshot. "Your failed relationship? Our failed friendship? The fact that we're sitting in the library in Avengers Tower instead of the Mansion because I failed at that, too?"
Steve gritted his teeth and kept back the angry words that wanted to spew forth. "None of that, Tony." He resisted the urge to leap on the opening about the mansion, knowing that Tony had deliberately tossed that out in order to get Steve off-track. "I'm referring to us."
Apparently that caught Tony by surprise, but only for an instant. Then his eyes narrowed. "Us? What 'us', Steve? Last I looked, you were barely speaking to me, since you're too busy playing world's best super-cop to bother with the guy you hold responsible for screwing up the world and getting you killed. I'm not really sure that you can call it much of a friendship anymore."
Steve's mouth pinched. Tony wasn't pulling any punches. But if this was really how he'd been feeling since Oklahoma -- during his time in the other dimension, too -- could Steve blame him? It wasn't as though Steve had done anything to make Tony think otherwise. A tense moment passed, but Steve didn't look away from Tony, his angry, serious gaze meeting Tony's infuriated pain head-on.
Tony blinked. "Excuse me?"
"I said, I'm sorry." Steve lifted a hand, intending to rest it on Tony's calf as he leaned forward, but Tony pulled his legs away from the ottoman, pursing his lips.
"Did the world's top cop just apologize?" Tony asked, the exaggeration in his voice making it clear that the question was rhetorical. "To me? The man responsible for the superhero civil war, the Skrull invasion, Norman Osborn ruling the world, HAL, and the creation of the Grinch? Oh, and along the way, a little incident that ended up in the death of Captain America?" The self-loathing in Tony's voice was as clear as the anger.
"God dammit, Tony, stop it!" Steve snarled, his patience snapping. "I don't blame you for that! I don't blame you for any of it, except for the part where you were too damned sure of what you were doing to actually talk to me. And you don't even remember that now, so I can't exactly hold that over your head, can I?"
For once, Tony seemed to be speechless. Steve took advantage of the opening. "What I wanted to talk to you about is this mess that we both seem to have made of things between us. The other-you was... enlightening to talk to, to say the least," and Steve saw the panic cross Tony's face before it smoothed over into his playboy smirk again, "but all he really did was make me aware of my own failings. And," he added in a softer tone, "My own feelings." He waited for a response as he tried to figure out what to say next, but none seemed forthcoming.
"Look, this isn't... easy, for me to say." The words came awkwardly. "I've never exactly been good with talking about my feelings, and this -- this is new. And strange." Tony just watched him silently, and Steve sighed again. "Sharon and I didn't "work out," as you said, because she realised before I did that I -- I wasn't in love with her. I loved her -- I still do," he said a little sadly, "but I'm not in love with her. I don't know when things changed, but they did. It took your other-universe-double to open my eyes."
"My --? What did he do?" Tony practically whispered, curiosity and fear mingling in his voice. Steve's lips curved slightly as he remembered the last time he'd sat in this room.
"He kissed me."
"He -- I --" Tony sputtered and trailed off into silence, looking shocked. And, Steve saw, wistful. For the first time since he'd walked into the room, he felt a faint hope for how things would turn out.
"Twice, actually." Tony still didn't seem capable of stringing together a coherent sentence, and Steve's lips twitched into a half-smile. He could count on one hand the number of times he'd seen that stupefied expression on Tony's face. "And then he apologized. Said that he was taking advantage of the situation, of your memories and feelings."
Tony sucked in a breath, face paling at the implications of those words, and Steve forced himself not to reach out. From his earlier reaction, Tony wouldn't allow him to comfort him right now. Especially not about this.
"And then, when we finally got the device working so that I could go after you," Steve gentled his words, knowing that the memories would hurt, "You didn't want to come back. To come home. And I saw you -- kissing another me." He realised, too late, that the pain he still felt over that was audible in his own voice and winced as Tony's face crumpled. He watched as Tony covered his face with his hands, his own heart aching. Everything about Tony screamed pain and he wanted nothing more than to reach out and pull him into his arms... and he didn't dare.
"He wanted me to stay." Tony's words were muffled, his face still hidden behind his hands, but the emotions were clear. The anguish wrenched at Steve. "He... he loved me. He wanted me. I wanted to stay. I was happy there." Hearing that, Tony's voice a harsh whisper, was like a punch to the gut. Had Tony ever been able to say he was happy, here, with Steve?
"Dammit, Steve, why did you make me come back?" Tony demanded, moving abruptly so that they were face to face. His eyes glittered, his throat hoarse, his face flushed. "You told me that you needed me, and I -- I believed you! But you don't -- War Machine and Rescue are more than enough to replace Iron Man. I could have made a difference there, shortened the war, saved countless lives, and had the devastation rebuilt into something better." Tony swallowed and the clear desperation in his eyes hit Steve like a hammer blow. "In less than seven hours, the liquor store down the street from here opens. Did you know they sell some of the best brandy in Manhattan? I could have stayed there and gotten microcircuitry onto assembly lines in less than five years, making home computers a reality before 1955. Or I could just fly over to L.A., where the bars are still open. I probably still have a tab at my favourite ones."
The words tumbled out, fast and furious, and all Steve could do was stare at Tony and listen, his heart breaking. He could count on one hand the number of times that he'd seen Tony like this; this was the first time that he could remember it happening while Tony was sober. If Tony had been fighting this, by himself, since he came back, no wonder he was exhausted. "That other me was an idiot, worse than anything you've ever accused me of. Direct current straight through your body is an overrated experience, believe me. I'm surprised it only took a few weeks with that halfwit helping you. And you know, there's a damned good hotel only three blocks away with all-night room service and a very large wine cellar. There are just too many options, Steve, I can't decide. What do you say?"
Steve could see Tony's throat working, and this time he didn't stop himself. He reached out, wrapped an arm around his best friend's shoulders, and pulled the other man close. "I say that I'd love to share a pizza and some soda with you, but that can wait, Tony. What's important is having you here, sober and close to me."
They sat like that for some time, Tony perched awkwardly on the edge of the chair, Steve leaning forward from the ottoman, their legs tangled, Tony's face pressed into his shoulder. Steve could feel Tony shuddering against him and rubbed his back with one hand, murmuring wordlessly into his ear in an attempt to soothe him. Slowly, Tony's breathing slowed and the tension in his body drained away. He made no effort to move, and Steve wasn't about to let go of him unless Tony forced him to. He wondered, as he allowed himself to enjoy the weight of Tony's body against his, how long it had been a feeling he craved. How long had he been denying this even to himself?
At some point, he realised that Tony was watching him. His hand paused on Tony's back as he looked down and met blue eyes staring up at him, Tony's head turned so that Steve could see his face. Without conscious thought, Steve lifted his hand and ran his fingers through Tony's hair, cupping the back of his head with a gentle motion.
"I thought you were mad at me because I took advantage of you. The younger you," Tony said quietly. Steve tilted his head so that Tony could see him clearly.
"Did you take advantage of him?"
Tony frowned uncertainly at Steve's quiet question. "No! I didn't -- I wouldn't--"
"I didn't think so."
"Then why were you so upset when I kissed him?"
"Because," and Steve had to take a breath, let it out slowly, before answering, staring into Tony's eyes, "I wanted it to be me."
"You..." As Tony tried to take that in, Steve could feel him tensing again. "But you're -- you were -- I thought Sharon --" Tony stopped and shook his head. "You don't like me -- men -- like that, Steve."
Steve's quiet snort of laughter made Tony look up at him again, but when Steve saw Tony's face, eyes wide, fear mixed with hope, he sobered. "You really don't listen very well, but I'll be as clear as I can. I've liked men "like that" my entire life, Tony. I've just never acted on it. I've never felt strongly enough about anyone to... to act on it. But I do like you like that." He curled his palm against Tony's cheek, feeling as though his heart were about to burst out of his chest, Tony's goatee scratching softly against his skin. "I love you," he whispered, his eyes closing at the sheer weight of the words before he forced them open again, watching Tony anxiously.
For one neverending moment, Tony was silent, only the sudden clenching of his fingers against Steve's back showing that he'd heard Steve at all.
"You...?" Tony's voice cracked.
"I love you." This time his words were certain. Tony stared at him for so long without blinking that Steve's eyes began to water in sympathy even as he started to worry: He'd completely misinterpreted everything, the other-Tony had been wrong, he'd been too late after all...
And then Tony laughed, his hand clenching on Steve's shoulder, and it was a laugh that Steve hadn't heard since before the destruction of the Mansion. Tony's eyes were bright as he said hoarsely, "I know this isn't a dream. My dreams are never this good." Steve flinched a little at the too-telling words, but Tony's next words drove all other thoughts from his mind.
"I think I've loved you since the first time I saw you, lying there unconscious on the table in my submarine," Tony said softly. "I've definitely loved you since before the first time I had to quit the Avengers." The words were surprisingly steady, but Steve was near enough to Tony to see the fear still hiding in his eyes, and he realised again just how brave Tony Stark was.
Steve was suddenly, incredibly, aware of Tony's body pressed close against his, and his hand slid down, fingers coming to rest at the back of his neck.
"I'd really like to kiss you," he confessed, and felt the shiver that ran through Tony's body at his words.
"God, yes," came the heartfelt reply, and Steve smiled a little before bending his neck, pressing his lips against Tony's for the first time. Tony sighed against his mouth and shifted, his own hand cradling the back of Steve's head as he parted his lips, allowing Steve to deepen the kiss. Lips and tongues met in a gentle, leisurely dance that left Steve breathless when they finally separated. Resting his forehead against Tony's, his soft smile was met with an answering curve of Tony's mouth.
"I want us to be together, Tony. But we have a lot to work out." Steve kept his voice quiet but determined, not wanting to ruin the moment but needing to make sure that Tony knew this hadn't magically solved all of their issues. Tony's smile dimmed and he nodded slightly.
"I know. But..." Steve worried about the hesitation. Tony shrugged, not moving away from him, finally saying, "But for the first time I can remember, I think -- no, I know -- it'll be worth it."
The reply came to Steve's lips without a pause for thought. Over the last few weeks, it had been the one thing he couldn't stop thinking about. The words were simple. "I want you to be happy."
Tony's breath caught, and this time his smile was nearly blinding.