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Inside of This Machine

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Tony isn’t sure what makes him feel worse—the knowledge that he is here while the rest of the Avengers are in space, or that he lied to Steve’s face so he can stay behind, or even that, when added to all the other things he can’t stand about himself, this feels almost noble. At least, until Steve gets home, Tony won’t have to worry about bumping into him during the middle of the night, exhausted from not taking a moment away from the Dyson sphere and the anti-matter bombs, and barely able to avoid just telling Steve then and there.

If Steve knew, Steve would hate him.

Sometimes that’s exactly what Tony wants.

Tony’s in the workshop sometime in the middle of the night, but time doesn’t really matter anymore; there just isn’t enough until the next incursion. And what if Steve’s team calls in? There were many things Tony never thought he’d be able to live with, but he’s sure now that he doesn’t want to know what it would feel like if he missed hearing from the Avengers. He’s checking his palm like he used to check his phone when he was with Rumiko, like he’s checking the feeds from where the Builder’s War is being staged.

Which is exactly what he’s doing when he hears a strange pop. He looks up and sees a brown haired woman, small but lithe, with a face that makes him uncomfortable. The soft waves of her hair are pulled back in a low ponytail, it settles over an extra large crew-neck sweater that can’t possibly be hers. Something about her reminds him of his mom, but nothing about her looks like his mom, and a weird dread begins to curl in his stomach when he begins to figure it out.

“I should have known you’d be awake,” she says and smiles like they have a secret they both share.

“FRIDAY, how did she get in here?” he asks, a bit disturbed that this strange woman is standing in one of the most secure places on the planet and FRIDAY hasn't said anything.

“I… I don’t know,” FRIDAY responds, uncharacteristically.

“It was a multiverse jump. I stole some tech from Reed, may have made a couple of adjustments.” She begins to walk around the workshop and pick up things or stare at monitors as it suits her.

She’s unsettling. Tony doesn’t like her.

“You’re me,” he states because he has a feeling she’s got more information than he has, and he hates that.

“Yeah, I’m Natasha,” she says without prying her eyes from the Avenger’s Machine interface. “You are?”

“Tony,” he responds and doesn’t give out any more information than necessary. He doesn’t trust her.

“Huh. I guess that’s close enough.” Natasha doesn’t look particularly impressed and moves on to the next thing she finds interesting.

“So, you're me, as a woman?” Tony asks.

“You don’t believe me?” She laughs and then winks at him like she’s playing at flirting. “I’d prove it to you, but my husband’s the jealous type.”

“Husband?” Tony walks up next to her where she is standing admiring one of the suits. “I’m married?”

“No, I’m married. And it’s not really a big deal. Steve thinks it’s old fashioned. Sometimes I’m not sure if that’s a positive or a negative for him.”

That’s… wrong. That’s very, very wrong. Tony knows now is the right time to come up with some smart-ass remark, but nothing comes to mind.

Natasha is so glib about the entire thing, she doesn’t even look up from the Mach VIII’s elbow joints to see him standing there, winded, wordless, and empty.

“You mean Steve Rogers?” he asks after he has a sufficient time to think it through.

Natasha finally looks at him and grumbles, “Who else?” The way she says who else makes it sound like she surprised Tony’s confused at which person she would marry, not just which Steve.

The idea floors him, steals his rational thoughts, and puts him in that moment right after they had started their new Avengers team before the SHRA. Tony had spent the entire week working up his courage to just ask Steve out to a real romantic dinner after overhearing Steve whisper to Jan about how he understood Logan’s sexual appeal. But then Steve, right over sushi, told him he was sure he was rekindling his romance with Sharon. “That doesn’t make sense,” he says and there is a vulnerableness in the way he says it that makes him ashamed the moment it comes out of his mouth.

She doesn’t try and soothe him. In fact, there’s a way she tilts up an eyebrow that's more scorn than pity that really reminds him of his mom. He hopes he doesn’t do that. “If you say so.” It doesn’t look like it particularly concerns her. “Anyway, I can’t stay too long. I just wanted to see if this worked, and the only difference between your universe and my universe seems to be that I’m a man here, and oh, can I look at Wikipedia?”

The question startles Tony from the thought that many things are different here, obviously. “You want to see how the introduction of my penis has altered the world?” he asks and with anyone else he’d be able to get away that comment, but Natasha sees right through him.

“Among other things…” she says, trailing off as she looks around the workshop. She stops when she doesn’t find what she must be looking for, and asks, “what’s going on?”

“Huh? I should be asking you that.”

“They’re left, right? Like my Avengers went? There are… things missing. Weapons and…” she walks over to the side table by the couch and finishes, “... Steve’s notebooks.”

Tony is going to assume that she means her own Avengers are also up in space, fighting the builders. “Yeah. They left yesterday.”

“So you’re trying to figure out why Reed and Stephen are acting so weird, too?” She is ruffling through whatever detritus has ended up in the end table’s drawer.

“No, I’m here to prepare any and all contingency plans in case the Avengers fail.” If it sounds awful when he says it out loud, it felt more awful when he was lying and trying to convince Steve that it was the best tactical decision.

“Yeah, I know that’s what we told the rest of the team, but the real reason is that the rest of the Illuminati are acting fishy.”

“No it isn’t,” Tony says, and it’s too fast. He wants to backtrack because he knows his confusion can be used against him.

“Really, you haven’t noticed? I think it has something to do with those weird multiversal energy readings. You should look into it.” She pauses and then finds whatever she’s been looking for. “I knew it would be here. He’s the same in every universe.” She’s holding a small spiral notebook that Tony recognizes as Steve’s and flipping through it like she has no concern for privacy. She gets halfway through and then looks up at Tony with something like comprehension in her eyes.

“That’s not yours,” Tony tries to say, but it’s weak. He’s never actually looked in any of Steve’s notebooks without his permission; he always thought that was a line he didn’t want to cross.

It is hilarious, in context.

“I miss him,” Natasha says as puts it back exactly where she found it. “I didn’t want him to go. Make Carol do it, I told him. But you know Steve...” The way she looks at Tony makes him feel like she doesn’t have a doubt that he does. “He never could say no to a good war. That righteous asshole. Fuck…” she is talking to herself, mostly. "How I love him.”

Tony sits down, only half sure there is a chair behind him to sit in. It feels strange hearing those words out loud. He certainly knows the feeling well enough. “What do you need from me?” Tony’s not sure if it’s an olive branch or if he just wants to get her on her way so he can pretend this never happened.

“Tell me what Reed’s up to,” she demands, and she’s angry in a way that makes Tony want to shut down. “I could be in fucking space right now, with my friends, with Steve, and instead I have to do this. So what IS IT?”

It feels odd that she doesn’t know, and Tony’s not sure why exactly that is. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. And why do you think I would know if you wouldn't?” It’s a blatant lie. She knows it. He wishes he didn’t.

“All the other members of the Illuminati are looking like the sky is falling, but they haven’t said shit to Steve or I.” And then she adds, softly and with an uncomfortable amount of pride, “I got all those men in a room together in the first place. Did they think I wouldn’t notice?”

Maybe in this other universe they just didn’t include her and Steve? Maybe T’Challa only called Reed, maybe he thought Steve was too much of a loose cannon to include, maybe, maybe, maybe.

Or maybe the Illuminati gave her the same option they gave Tony when they wiped Steve's mind.

“So, Stephen just says a thing, and Steve forgets this ever happened?” Tony asks. He can’t believe it’s going to be this easy and quick. He’s trying to focus on the efficiency of the plan, not the way it’s settling low in his chest and making his breathing shallow.

“He will never remember these meetings, the incursions, or the Infinity Gauntlet. It will be like he was never here,” Stephen confirms and just hearing him speak is making Tony nauseated.

“And then us big boys can do what needs to be done,” Namor says, his feet on the table. His mind was made up even before the option was proposed. Tony feels betrayal on behalf of Steve. He doesn’t deserve this from his old war buddy.

Tony is completely aware of his hypocrisy.

Tony swallows around a lump in his throat and tries as hard has he can to sound flippant, bored if he’s lucky. “Well, while you’re messing around in there, could you remove that time with Mentallo? It would make my life a lot easier. He has a habit of bringing it up during the worst possible moments.” He feels sick for making the jokeit’s in the worst tastebut he can’t help it. If you don’t laugh, right?

“Tony,” Reed said, and oh boy, he’s using his ‘dad’ voice. “If you wanted, we could do it to you, too.”

“Do what?” Tony asks. Everyone around the table is looking at him with a gross sort of pity. Or almost everyone. Hank looks confused.

“We could wipe your memories, too. You wouldn’t remember any of this. You wouldn’t have to, at least.” T’Challa’s voice is full of understanding.

Tony feels like he missed the punchline. “Why would I want that?”

“No one would judge you for it,” Reed soothes and Namor makes a noise that sounds like he definitely would. “Might make things easier for you. With Steve.”

It makes him furious that they know about this thing he has for Steve. This special, serious, and very secret thing. He takes three deep breaths and tries to will down the desire to lash out.

And then, he says, “ No. And never bring it up again.”

Either the Illuminati never had to ask Natasha that question, or she agreed to what Tony never would.

It makes Tony oddly happy that he could have told them yes if he had to sleep in the same bed as Steve every night. But if she did, that also means she agreed to wipe Steve’s mind in the first place.

There’s no sense in any of it.

He’s interrupted by a deafening alarm. “We’re being invaded,” FRIDAY says, hilariously calm.

“The tower?” Tony asks and he watches as Natasha begins to fiddle with something on her wrist.

FRIDAY responds, “no, the earth.”

“Shit, I should get back,” Natasha says over the blaring sound. She did say her universe was almost the same. Tony’s trying not to watch her as he checks the situation around the globe. If he also checks how it’s going for the Avengers in space, well that’s just good information to know in this situation.

She’s just about to go—there is this light emitting from her watch, Tony feels all the time wasted that he should have been asking about her technology—when he realizes he should say something. “Wait!” he shouts, and then, as if on cue, the alarm stops. He doesn’t want to tell her he’s enjoyed their conversation, because, well, he hasn’t. But something else comes out of his mouth instead. “I hope your Steve gets back okay.”

The minute he says it he knows it’s stupid and incriminating. It’s just that his anxiety sits shallowly under the surface these days. Tony doesn’t particularly care if he makes it past what’s about to happen. Or, he only cares because he has the most knowledge about the Dyson Sphere.

But if Steve doesn’t come back…

“I hope yours does, too,” Natasha responds, reading him without effort.

And then she’s gone, and Tony’s too busy saving the world to think about what any of it means.