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A Hundred Times, Once

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Beep, beep, beep.

Steve’s eyes fluttered open. He rolled on his side and smacked his hand around on the bedside table until it closed over his SHIELD beeper. He pressed the button. Code: 8890.

It only took a few minutes to dress, grab his go bag and slip out of his apartment. A sleek, black car was waiting at the corner and he climbed in the back. It wasn’t a priority call - they had time for a briefing at SHIELD - but it turned out there wasn’t much to brief.

“Robots?” He crossed his arms, leaning back in his chair in Nick’s office.

“Robots, Cap. Heading for Manhattan.”

Steve heard Tony chuckle from where he stood behind him, but he ignored it. “Weaknesses?”

“None that we know of. We haven't seen this kind of thing before. The military is trying to hold them off but they asked for Ultimates assistance.”

Steve shuffled through the tiny mission briefing then stood. “Alright.”

The chopper was waiting for them, and the team did one last equipment check, then piled in. SHIELD had finally come through on their promise to upgrade the comm equipment and Steve spent a moment during takeoff tucking his new GPS tracking unit into his belt.

In the distance, Tony burst out of the Triskelion, Thor close behind him. The ride was short, and Steve, Clint, and Jan each spent it gearing themselves up in their own ways. When the rails hit the ground they burst out, Jan immediately disappearing as she shrunk down, and Clint jogging off to find the high ground.

Steve took in their opponents. A long wave of robots was marching in formation towards a barricade that the army had set up across a broad street. Their weapons seemed to slow the robots down but didn’t manage to do any lasting damage. Steve sent his team wide, circling the robots so they’d have eyes on all sides.

He jogged up to the army unit defending the barricade and ordered them back, so the team could charge in without risk of putting civilians in danger. The army focused on evacuating the area and giving the Ultimates room to work.

At first, they each focused on a different robot, but once a full lightning blast from Thor failed to bring one down, Steve brought the team in tighter and they targeted one at a time. After a few tries, they got it down to a science. Thor would hit one with a lightning blast, temporarily upsetting its electrical systems and marking their next target, then Jan and Steve would charge in and occupy its attention until Clint could get eyes on its weak spot - a small port at the back of its neck. Tony circled the outside of the group, forcing the robots to hold rank and stay tight instead of wandering off to attack the city.

The system was effective against each individual robot, but as a group, the method was tiring and slow. As soon as one robot dropped, the others would rush in and fill the gap. Steve took a hard hit to his back, the bot managing to grab a hold of his arm as he fell and nearly wrench it out of the socket.

“Cap, you alright?” Clint called from his perch.

“Fine,” Steve gritted out. He pushed himself back to his feet, ducked the next swing and went low to take out the robots strong but relatively unsteady legs. It fell to the side, and with a thunk, Clint pierced the sensitive port and sent it to the ground.

Steve rolled his shoulder out and took a few steps back. The robots seemed to be focusing on the Ultimates, which was good, but taking them out one at a time was risky and tiring. They’d get sloppier and sloppier as they went on. There seemed to be nothing they could do, however. The robots never slowed their onslaught, and try as they might, they couldn’t find a single attack that would do more than slow them down, besides Clint’s arrow to the back of the neck. Even a sting from Jan there or a full-strength hit from Steve did nothing.

Tony and Thor soon found a rhythm together where they broke the robot’s ranks by flying through them, zapping everyone they could, then circled wide again to force them back together. It kept them distracted while Steve, Jan, and Clint took them down permanently, one at a time. It became clear that a hammer shot to the back of the neck was as effective as Clint’s arrows, but it had to be very targeted, so in between shocking the bots for Steve’s ground team, Tony and Thor formed their own way of knocking them down for good, Tony hitting them point-blank in the chest, and Thor swinging his hammer behind at the neck.

Before long, the street was littered with dismantled robots, but Steve was starting to feel the battle, and there was still no sign of who was responsible for this. He couldn't help but worry that this felt an awful lot like a distraction.

Finally, after hours of grueling battle, Clint brought the last of the robots down and they stood, panting and bleeding, in the street, eyeing up the carnage. The army rushed in, pushing the barricades back in and beginning the clean-up.

“Is that it?” Tony asked.

Clint shrugged. “Guess so.”

Steve wasn’t so convinced. After a short chopper ride, they met at the Triskelion for a debrief. “There were no other attacks at the same time?” Steve asked Nick for the third time. “You’re sure.”

“I’m sure, Captain. If it was a diversion, we don’t know what for. But as of now, we’re classifying this as an unknown attacker: resolved. You’re all dismissed. AA reports by the end of the day.”

Steve hit the lockers first, dumping his new equipment then changing into his street clothes and shoving his dirty uniform in his go bag. He was looking forward to getting the GPS information from the new tracker. SHIELD had said when they came in, it would be a few weeks before they emailed out the results, but after that, they'd get regular updates. Hopefully, it would help Steve do a better job planning missions like these in the future.

He shuffled up to his office and opened a new report. He was filling in the last section on the form when he heard a soft knock. He looked up and Tony was leaning against the doorframe, hands in his pockets, ever-present smirk on his face. “Need a ride, Cap?”

Steve considered it. If he said yes, he’d have to sit in the back of a limo with Tony Stark for half an hour. It wasn’t that he didn’t like Stark, he just didn’t get him. Stark was all flash and snark. He always looked like he was making fun of Steve, and Steve never got the joke. But, if he said no, he’d have to call a cab or take the subway - not so bad, but long. Normally, Steve didn’t mind, but this time it was late and he was sore. He just wanted to be home. He typed the last few words and hit send. “Sure. Thanks.”

Tony smiled like he’d known what Steve was going to say and beckoned with one hand, turning into the hallway. The made their way down to the front drive in silence. A limo was already waiting for Tony and he opened the back door and gestured Steve in imperiously.

“How’s your shoulder?” Tony asked once they were settled.

Steve rolled it out. It twinged. “Fine.”

“They moved unusually,” Tony mused, seemingly more to himself than to Steve.

“I hate ones like that,” Steve admitted. “I’ll spend the next hour trying to sleep and going over everything that went wrong instead.”

Tony grinned, shifting a little closer, he smelled like gin already and Steve hadn’t seen a drink in his hand all day. “Well, if you want to occupy your mind with something else for the next hour, I can help with that.” He winked.

Steve’s lip curled. He slouched back against the seat and crossed his arms. “No, thank you.” Everything with Stark was either sex or alcohol, neither of which Steve was interested in  - at least not with Tony.

He stayed in stony silence for the rest of the ride while Tony leaned against the opposite window, smiling infuriatingly to himself. When was he going to get the message that Steve wasn’t interested? Wasn’t like that?

When the car pulled to a halt outside of Steve’s building he shoved out the door as quickly as he could. He turned back to grab his go bag and Tony was leaning over, holding it up in one hand. “Have a good night, Steve.”

Steve snatched the bag, huffed out a, “Thank you for the ride,” and stalked away. He could swear he heard Tony sniggering to himself before the door to the limo closed.

The air was heavy and the sky was dark. It was going to rain. As soon as he stepped inside, Steve stripped out of his clothes and walked right into the shower. The hot water did a lot to soothe his tired muscles, but little to soothe his churning mind. Thoughts of the mission, of things they could all have done better, tangled up with thoughts of Tony’s proposition. It burned a little, that Tony wouldn’t stop flirting, when the truth was that Steve was lonely. He wouldn’t mind that kind of attention, but… from a woman - someone he liked. Not -

Tony was a shameless flirt, Steve didn't even know if he meant it. For all he knew, he’d say yes to going home with him and Tony would just laugh, tell everyone. Not that Steve would say yes. Ever.

He tossed and turned for hours, until finally, sometime before midnight, he slipped off to sleep.

**

Beep, beep, beep.

Steve rolled over with a tired groan and reached for his beeper. It took him a moment to blink his eyes open enough to read it. Code: 8890. Again. He huffed out a sigh and pinched the bridge of his nose. He lay in bed for a moment, trying to find the energy to stand. He’d been up too late last night.

Finally, knowing that the car would be here to pick him up soon, Steve padded across his apartment to the bathroom. He shut the door, looking behind it for the puddle of his dirty clothes from yesterday. He’d been too tired last night, but he should really put them in the hamper.

They weren’t there.

Huh. He must have been more out of it last night than he thought. He stuck his toothbrush in his mouth and wandered out to the living room where he’d left his go bag last night. But that wasn’t there either. He found it in the closet, its rightful place, but he could have sworn he’d left it on the floor when he walked in. Steve blinked blankly at it for a moment then pulled it out and put on his uniform without giving it another thought. It was too early to face the possibility that robots and Tony had mixed his mind up enough last night that his memory had been affected.

Go bag over his shoulder, he hustled out the door. He was surprised to see the sky clear of clouds and the ground dry. It had looked like it was ready to settle into an intense storm last night, but it must have blown by. The car was already waiting, and when he arrived at the Triskelion, so was his team.

Fury handed Steve the briefing packet and he frowned down at it. “The same robots?” he asked.

“Hmm? Yes, they’re robots, Cap. Heading for Manhattan.”

Tony chuckled behind him.

“What?” Steve looked around in confusion but Tony was looking at Fury.

“Do they have any weaknesses?” Clint asked.

“I asked that yesterday.” Steve looked around the room. Clint shot him a strange look.

“None that we know of. We haven't seen this kind of thing before,” Fury answered Clint, apparently ignoring Steve. “The military is trying to hold them off but they asked for Ultimates assistance.”

Steve blinked blankly at Fury for a moment. “I don’t get it.”

“What you need to get is your ass in gear.”

The team filed out of the office and Steve debated for a moment then went off after them. Tony and Thor disappeared immediately. Steve didn’t catch up with Jan and Clint until the armoury where they were doing their equipment checks.

“Don’t you think it’s weird that the same robots are attacking again?” he asked them.

Jan frowned at him. “What do you mean? Have we seen these guys before?”

He looked to Clint, but he was also tilting his head at Steve in blank curiosity. “Yesterday… we fought them in Manhattan yesterday.”

“Uh, no we didn’t, Cap. We didn’t have a mission yesterday.”

“Yes, we did.”

“No, we didn’t.” Jan held up her SHIELD phone. “I was super grateful we didn’t because I was out with friends late last night. Who wants to get called in on the weekend anyway?”

Weekend… Steve looked at the date on the screen of her phone. “That’s wrong, it’s Tuesday.”

Clint clapped Steve on the back. “It’s Monday, Cap. What were you up to last night?” He caught Jan’s eye and they both chuckled. Steve frowned and tugged his own phone out of his belt. Monday. Was yesterday a really realistic dream? What was happening?

The chopper was too loud to talk over, and Steve wasn’t sure what he’d say anyway. He remembered yesterday clearly, but either no one else did or they were all messing with him. It wasn’t something he’d put past his team, but why? It could put the mission in jeopardy. He shoved the pieces of equipment he still held in his hands into the pockets on his belt and settled in time for the chopper to swoop in for a landing.

He could put the mission in jeopardy if he let himself be distracted. So, he needed to take care of these robots and then figure out what was going on. Either the damage from yesterday had been cleaned up really quickly, or yesterday’s fight really had been a dream, because the street was clear, save for the oncoming robots, and all the windows they’d broken yesterday where whole again.

No matter what was going on here, Steve knew how to take the robots down. He commanded his team to form the same pattern they did last time, getting a little push back when he refused to explain, but ultimately moving everyone into formation more smoothly and efficiently than yesterday. It was another grueling battle, but they prevailed. Slamming their way through the ranks of robots until Steve looked around and realized they were all down.

He tried to bring up the repeating day again at debrief, but everyone talked over him, discussing the battle and whether it was a distraction or not. It was too similar, too confusing. Steve fell silent, staring around at his team. Had their memories been altered? He was the only one who remembered the day before. It wouldn’t be that hard to change all their phones to the wrong date, he supposed. So maybe someone was messing with them, confusing them, and somehow he’d been the only one unaffected.

When the conversation died down, Steve went back to his office and opened his AA form, but first he made a few calls and frowned when they all reported today to be Monday, including the Naval Observatory. So, if today really was Monday, the rest of the team’s memories about Sunday must be the problem. The fight must have been erased, so it could be repeated for some reason. Steve started filling in his report, including all the information he could about yesterday and memory alteration and his concerns for his team.

Steve wasn’t even halfway through his report when a soft knock startled him up.

“Need a ride, Cap?”

“Again?” Steve asked automatically, even though he knew Tony didn’t remember yesterday, and Tony’s smirk twisted into a frown.

“Sure.” He shrugged, his hands not leaving his pockets. He was wearing the same red shirt he’d worn yesterday. Steve could tell because one of the collar buttons had a loose thread and it had caught Steve’s eye yesterday too. It was another point towards memory alteration - why would he dream something like that?

Steve sighed and ran his hand over his face, trying to scrub the stress out of his eyes.

“You alright?” Tony asked.

“I’m having a weird day.” Steve shut his computer down without sending his report in and stood.

“That a yes?”

“Yeah.” Steve grabbed his bag and followed Tony out into the hall. Tony smiled like he’d known what Steve was going to say and beckoned with one hand, turning into the hallway. They made their way down to the front drive in silence again to find the waiting limo. Tony opened the back door and gestured Steve in the same way Steve remembered him doing the day before.

Steve realized after a moment that Tony was talking, but Steve hadn’t been listening. “Pardon?”

“How’s your ankle?” Tony asked.

Steve stared at him. “Better…” Yesterday, Tony had asked the same thing, but it was Steve’s shoulder that had been injured. He rolled his shoulder, but it was completely healed, as it would be with the serum. “Something funny is going on today,” Steve sighed, more to himself than to Tony.

But Tony smirked and leaned over. “Need something to take your mind off it, darling? I can offer a few options.” He winked.

Steve frowned and pushed away from him. “God, Tony, really? Can’t you let it go for one night?”

Tony leaned back, brow creased, the smirk wiped off his face for once. “Well, nevermind, then…” He turned to the window for a moment, then after a few breaths, shot a smirk back at Steve. “You’ve got my number if you change your mind.”

Steve grumbled and crossed his arms. They sat in uncomfortable silence on Steve’s part and knowable silence on Tony’s until they pulled up in front of Steve’s apartment building. He shoved out the door before the car had even come to a complete stop. He realized after half a step that he didn’t have his bag so he turned back to grab it, and Tony was leaning over with the strap of the bag over his hand. He smiled and Steve snatched the bag back.

“Have a good night, Steve.”

“Thanks,” Steve bit out. He marched back up to his apartment. The storm was back, squatting heavily over the street. Hopefully, it would finally break tonight. Steve took a turn around his apartment. It was hard to say if anything had changed - in the yesterday he remembered, he’d hardly spent any time here.

The laundry - that was weird. The robots. Clint and Jan might be playing him, but Thor wouldn’t play along and he didn’t have anything to say about the repeat. And then Tony… that conversation had been almost exactly the same.

Steve sat on his bed and rolled his ankle out; the twinge had already faded in the last half hour. He scratched his fingers through his hair and sighed. It was probably best just to go to sleep and forget about this.

Tomorrow was a new day.

**

Tomorrow was not a new day.

When Steve woke to his beeper going off, he shot out of bed and pulled out his phone. Monday. It wasn’t possible. He looked out the window - the same car waited at the curb, the sidewalk dry and the sky clear of the clouds that had been converging the night before. It didn’t make any sense.

Steve paced through his apartment. His uniform was back in the closet, his water glass was no longer in the sink. Everything was back to the way it was when he’d woken up two days ago.

Not everything though. Steve rolled his ankle then tugged up the hem of his pants. It was almost healed but there was still the faintest hint of a bruise there, just the palest yellowing of the skin. But it was proof. It wasn’t a dream, it wasn’t deja vu - he was repeating Monday over and over.

Steve made straight for Fury’s office and managed to sneak in before the rest of the team got there. “Nick, I have to talk to you.” He locked the door behind him.

“That’s ominous. I don’t like ominous before my second cup of coffee, Cap.”

“Something strange is happening to me.” Steve sat down in his chair, across from Fury’s desk, but Fury stayed standing, sipping at what Steve could only assume was his first cup of coffee. “I’m repeating Monday. Over and over.”

“Excuse me?” Nick’s coffee cup froze halfway to his mouth.

“I’m on my third Monday. No one else seems to remember, but I’m doing the same day over and over. I wake up and my beeper goes off and then these robots...” Steve trailed off at the look Nick was giving him.

“Are you okay?” He set his coffee mug down. “You know we have people in Medical who can help you, Cap. I know getting settled in this century must be hard but if you feel like your life is stagnant… just saying, you should talk to someone.”

“It’s not -” Steve sighed, gave up. It even sounded crazy to him, how would he convince Fury? “Fine. Make an appointment for Tuesday.” He laughed humourlessly, and Fury shot him an uncertain look, but a knock on the door interrupted them.

“Do we have a mission or what?” Clint’s voice came through the door.

Steve stood and unlocked it.

The rest of the day went on the same. The robots attacked, the Ultimates fought them off, and Steve went back to the Triskelion, sore and tired. He’d been so distracted by the repeating day that he’d nearly let a robot’s swinging fist catch him square in the gut. He didn’t type his report this time, sitting blankly in front of his computer instead.

It was always the same. The beeper, the car, Fury’s office, the robots, his office, Tony -

“Need a ride, Cap?”

“No.” Steve pushed to his feet and marched past Tony, down 17 flights of stairs, and out to the street. He walked home.

He was cold and tired by the time he got to his block, but the exercise had cleared his head somewhat. He stood by the door to his building and looked up. The sky was gathering with clouds that would never let loose their rain, not if he woke on Monday morning again tomorrow.

With a mug of tea in hand, he sat on a chair in his living room and tried to think things through logically. Something or someone must be doing this to him. So, there were two options: either he could find the person causing it and stop them, or there might be some trigger action that would stop the repeats from happening, some way to break the cycle.

Well, it seemed like he’d have an endless number of chances to figure things out. Steve pulled a pad of paper towards him and started writing out a list of things he’d noticed about the day. Even if it was gone come tomorrow morning, his perfect memory would store it in his head. He wrote down everything he could remember happening, from being woken by the Code 8890 to falling asleep in his own bed.

He decided that for tonight, he’d start with the simplest - stay up all night. If he stayed awake, maybe the day wouldn’t be able to start again. He set his wristwatch on the arm of the chair he sat in and took down a book to pass the time.

As the clock ticked closer and closer to midnight, Steve found it harder and harder to focus on the book. Even if Monday started again as soon as he inevitably did fall asleep - he could only stay up so long, after all - it would be nice to see Tuesday for a little while.

But, unfortunately, Tuesday never came.

The second hand ticked around at 11:59 and as the minute started to move to 12, Steve jerked awake in his bed to the sound of his beeper going off. Code 8890.

He sat there, breathing heavily, the ghost of his book still between his fingers for a moment, then scrubbed a hand over his face and pushed out of bed, determined. This was happening and he didn’t know why - but he had a plan now.

Over the next eight days, Steve worked his way through everything he could think of. Every night he wrote out his list, longer each time, and every morning he repeated it to himself in the shower. He gave up on refusing Tony’s ride but refused to talk to him instead, going over that day’s repeat of the battle in his head and trying to figure out what else he could try.

It became clear after the fifth battle that they were missing something. Tony’s comment about them moving oddly stuck in Steve’s head, because they did. There was something disturbingly graceful to the way they orbited around each other. But the weirdest thing was how varied the outcome of the battles could be. On the sixth day, Steve sent Clint to the south instead of the north and they’d only taken out two robots when the whole squad powered down. But on the next day, Steve tried the same thing, and this time they had to destroy all of them. It was strange enough that Steve couldn't stop thinking of it, but could come up with no logical explanation for that. Especially when the whole world was repeating. How could something like that change so much? It had to be the robots at the centre of all this. Steve would find out how.

Tony still tried to proposition Steve each night, but Steve became quite efficient at blowing him off, tossing out a curt “No,” before Tony had even finished asking. Tony always looked a little defeated, a little hurt even, but it wasn’t like he remembered, and it wasn’t like he should be expecting a yes anyway. Steve had no interest in whatever Tony was trying to get him to do. He didn’t even think about it.

But he couldn’t help thinking about it a little, really. Every day without fail, Tony tried to pick Steve up. Depending on the setup Steve gave him, the words themselves varied a little, from day to day, but no matter how hard the day’s battle had been or how angrily Steve scowled out the window, Tony always invited him home. And Steve couldn’t help but wonder - for what? It always sounded like a pickup line, like the ones Steve had heard men tossing out to ladies in the clubs Jan had dragged him to for dancing and music so loud it made his ears throb for hours after.

And that meant that Tony sought out men the same way he sought out women. Which was fine. Really. It was supposed to be fine now, anyway. That had been part of his 21st-century re-education. So he could accept that. But what made no sense was why Tony wanted him. He was the last person who’d say yes to such a proposal, and, besides there was no - nothing - there was no reason for Tony to want him like that. It wasn’t like they got along that well.

That night Steve looked at himself in the mirror as he stripped down to change into his pajamas. The serum had done a good job, he supposed. If one were the sort of man who was attracted to men, maybe his Captain America body was what they would want. He wouldn’t know. But women were always flirting with him, so surely men would look for the same things. But Tony actually knew him. It wasn’t like some random over-extroverted woman at a cafe. Tony knew him. He really had no reason to like Steve like that. He was a hedonist - it was surely just physical.

The thought of physicality inevitably awakened Steve’s body, and he frowned at himself in the glass and pulled his pajamas on. It had been days since he’d taken care of that need, too focused on solving the repeating issue to deal with it. But now, for some reason, it became pressing, urgent, the only thing he could think of.

He slid into bed and glanced at the clock - he still had an hour until midnight. If he stayed up until the day repeated, he usually woke exhausted, so he did his best to get at least an hour or two of sleep. This time, however, he thought it was worth wasting a little time. He slithered low under the covers then slipped his hand between his legs, letting out a sigh when his fingers wrapped around his rapidly hardening cock.

He stroked himself quickly, forcing his mind to stay blank, nothing but the physical sensation to get him off. It had been so long that it didn’t take much before he was grunting and coming into a kleenex he’d grabbed from the bedside table. He tossed it in the trash can and stared up at the ceiling. It struck him, like an arrow to his chest, that the worst part of this looping day, was how terribly lonely it was.