Chapter 1: 1.
The sounds of the hospital surround them like a cocoon. Tony's chest was rising and falling beneath the thin sheet and Steve watched it. He needed to watch it to convince himself that Tony was still there, still breathing, still alive.
They had just started to make this work.
Tony had been making plans. “This is going to be a long game, Cap,” he'd said and for the first weeks after they'd joined up on a planet on the verge of chaos after half of the population had simply vanished, he'd carefully avoided calling Steve anything but “Cap”. They'd just worked past that recently when he'd found Tony hunched over and heaving dry sobs in the Compound's armory and Steve had held him until it was better. Although he'd had his own grief tainting his every breath, it had been easier for Steve – since Tony returned. He hadn't voiced it, careful to not overstep any boundaries or upset the fragile equilibrium they'd established, but that Tony had returned to Earth, beat up and looking like death warmed over, had healed at least one of the aching wounds the loss had left him with.
Tony had returned. Tony had survived and returned to them.
But they'd both lost too much. Pepper, Peter, Dr. Strange. Bucky, Sam, Wanda and Vision.
It was the only excuse he had for not telling Tony how he felt about him right then and there. He'd put it up another week and then he'd not found the words either. Another crisis call came in and before Tony could drag himself to his feet and call up his armor, Steve had wrapped him in his arms and kissed him. Briefly. Just a promise of a talk they'd never had after.
Warm, brown eyes had widened and then Tony had patted his shoulder, nodded. “I missed you too,” he's said, although by then they'd spent three months closely working together to find a way to set things right again.
Now they were here and Steve couldn't ask what exactly it was that Tony had tried to imply.
Steve had taken up his vigil today in an uncomfortable white plastic chair and he was pondering picking up a science-fiction novel that Sam had shoved at him sometimes during their mission in Lebanon before Thanos had turned their world upside down. Maybe Tony would enjoy being read to.
Maybe Steve could use the distraction.
He heaved a sigh.
He'd briefly scanned the blurb and lost all taste for it when he'd realized it was about alien invasions and setting things right with time travel.
There were other books though. He could find another book and read to Tony. Until he woke up.
Because he was going to wake up, of course.
He leaned his elbows on his thighs and allowed himself to hunch forward. How was he going to keep it together until he did? “Look, Tony,” he said. “You were the one with the plan and the one who said we'd be playing a long game. What are we going to do now?”
No answer was forthcoming and he had of course not expected one. The sounds of the machines and the sounds drifting in from the hallway were all he could hear.
He sat back up, straightened, tried to come to a decision.
Painfully, this felt like he was back where he'd started.
Missing Tony, unable to make things right.
Bruce stepped into the room together with one of the doctors. They'd been mumbling, talking things through since Tony's bed had been rolled into the room and Steve had only been allowed in here under protest. When he saw him, Bruce nodded. His lips were set. It was rare to see him so nervous and yet without a hint of anger. “Hey, Cap,” he said.
Steve nodded. He wasn't exactly feeling like small talk.
“What happened out there?”
He had asked himself the same thing. “Aliens,” he said. “Again. Kree, I think. I'm trying to figure this out. There was this one blue masked alien in a floating yellow throne. I couldn't get to them. I think Tony tried to hack his... chair?”
“The spaceship crashed down. Size of two Helicarriers. Tony said it would be alright. He said, he'd survived a moon... and...”
“Didn't work out this time, huh?” Bruce asked quietly. Steve knew that Bruce needed Tony as much as Steve. Tony was the one with the plan and Bruce had been more than ready to follow him into bouncing possibilities and making suggestions.
“We sent him out to gather Intel on the Shi'ar Empire situation. We were hoping it wouldn't come back to bite us too soon.”
Suddenly Tony had muttered a few days ago, Earth is on everyone's map. Perfect balance you gave us, Thanos, thank you so much for taking everything and leaving us with this fucking mess.
Steve studied Tony's waxen face. A dark bruise marred his cheek and there was a bad cut along his temple.
“Tony?” he asked careful.
Bruce nodded. “There's some trauma. As far as we can tell, the nanites are working on it. I would have to run more tests, get more of Tony's data, but you know how he was about this kind of information.”
“Tight lipped, yes.”
“Tight-lipped and like a paranoid bastard.” It sounded strange when Bruce said it like this – without a hint of heat. He looked tired. His inner battle with the Hulk was ongoing and Steve thought he might blame himself for not being there as the green guy when Tony could have used the backup. “The hospital can keep him for now. There's no medical staff left at the Compound, so, for now, this may be for the best.”
Steve nodded, tired not to bite his lip. “If you think so.” He trusted Bruce's judgment, but part of him would have preferred to take Tony home.
Home to the Avengers Compound.
Where he and the others had recently stayed to help the Avengers, but where he knew Steve Rogers technically still had no place. Ross it turned out was one of the only people in charge who hadn't vanished and so far he hadn't made a move, but who knew what crazy idea he would come up with next.
Natasha appeared in the door. She was carrying the items of clothing Tony had been wearing. Even from here, Steve could see there was blood on the shirt. He got up to take it from her hands anyway. There was a black flip phone on top of the pile and he picked it up startled.
Bruce cleared his throat. “I returned it to him when he came back. It... I didn't think it mattered anymore with all of us in the Compound, but he wanted it back. In case.”
“In case he needed to call you in.”
Had Tony thought they were leaving again? Had he expected them to split up after the worst was over? Why would he have kept the phone?
In the clean hospital room, Steve was suddenly very aware of the way he looked – long bangs, shaggy beard, a blackened uniform that was worn at the edges and had taken some abuse over the months. Tony had teased him about it: “At least shave,” he'd said and pointed at his own well-groomed beard. “You look sad.”
“Can you believe that he survives a lethal stab wound in space and this puts him out of commission?” he asked and Bruce looked at him startled.
But it wasn't Bruce who answered, decisively: “No, I don't believe it.”
“Good,” Steve said. “Because he's going to get back up. And when he does we'll have kept it together. We'll be ready.”
She nodded and Bruce blinked, then also nodded his agreement.
“Time to get back the shield, Cap,” Natasha said.
“No,” he disagreed. “Time to get a new one.”
And he knew exactly where to get it.
Stepping from the hospital room still took some effort. “Come on,” Natasha urged.
Bruce remained standing at Tony's bedside. “I'll stay. He'll be okay.”
Would Tony have laughed at his behavior? Likely. Steve himself realized suddenly that he was presenting an open book the people closest to him. Bruce was looking at him sadly, and Natasha's blank expression with the observant gaze said much more than nothing to him now. How long had she known? When had she realized?
Why had Steve never bothered to reveal all he'd been keeping in when everybody knew anyway?
Had Tony known?
Before the kiss?
Had he suspected?
There was no way now to ask him and there was no time to linger either. The next crisis would come upon them before they were ready and the Avengers were now without a leader.
This he could do.
And when Tony woke up they'd have done all they could to protect the world in his stead.
He nodded at Bruce, threw a last lingering look at Tony on the bed and then followed Natasha out of the room. Aware of his own effect on people, he isn't surprised when people make room for them, let him walk through.
“Captain America,” someone whispered, although Steve hadn't been that in a long time.
A small boy at the end of the hall asked his mother in a mewling voice: “Where's Iron Man? He's cool.”
He nearly stopped to agree, but he was a man on a mission. “Nat, meet me back at the Compound. Take care of clean up. I'll talk to you later.”
“You're gonna be okay?”
She watched him carefully as he swung a leg over his bike. He thought about that. “No,” he admitted. “But I haven't been in a long time. I owe him to keep things moving.”
He knew that Natasha understood this more than most and she nodded. It helped to know that she'd have his back no matter what, even in this – his unreasonable need to pick himself up because he didn't want to think about what it would mean to lose Tony again.
You barely ever had him. And you only have yourself to blame.
He passed the area where the recent attack had left some building crumbled. Nobody had been hurt – only Tony and some of the aliens had been pulled from the rubble. Apartments were empty all across New York, house owners had vanished, some companies around here had recently shut down because bosses and required personnel couldn't be replaced fast enough. But the city as moving on, the country was. Some parts of the world struggled more than others, but New York was stubbornly moving forward, just like Steve Rogers.
He arrived at the Compound without any incident. Rhodes was waiting for him in the command center, face grave and worried. A day ago he had learned that with Pepper gone and Tony in hospital, he was now in charge of Stark Industries. Tony had taken precautions.
“How is he?”
“No change,” Steve said softly. He knew they shared the terrible worry that after all the close calls Tony wouldn't be coming back from this one.
“That's good though? It means it's not worse.”
He couldn't lie: “I don't know. I think so. But he looks terrible.”
“They always do,” Rhodes sad softly.
“FRIDAY?” Steve asked and he had never schooled himself out of the habit to look to the ceiling when talking to the disembodied voice of the AI.
“Yes, Captain Rogers?”
“Call in a press conference. We need to address Tony's state before someone makes a power play.”
Rhodes nodded and watched Steve walk along the glass panels and walls towards his own quarters. “What are we going to tell them?”
“That earth is still protected,” he said flatly.
It was a relief to close the door of his room behind himself. He took a moment to sit on the edge of his bed, exhausted, sad that again he hadn't been able to protect someone so close to him. “The press conference is being set up,” FRIDAY informed him.
“Thank you,” he said, compelled to politeness. “Can you open the vault with the uniform Tony talked about. Do we need his authorization?”
The AI answered quickly: “There are two people with authorization for the CA-EUD-XII vault.”
He hoped it was Rhodes.
“You,” FRIDAY announced.
“Oh, that's good. Open it for me then. I'll have a look after I had a shower.”
He stood up, methodically discarded his clothes, inspected his own wounds and bruises and then took a shower. It was time to get ready.
Two hours later, clean shaven, haircut to an acceptable length, and dressed in a new, bright red, white and blue uniform that Tony had made for him from durable fabrics and with light-plated armor underneath that promised more protection than any of his previous uniforms, Steve Rogers stepped in front of the assembled press and new agencies.
He was carrying the shield on his back.
Tony had kept it in the vault for him all this time.
The next time he stepped into Tony's hospital room the sun was setting and he'd been very quietly informed that the visitor hours were over, until the nurse on duty had looked up to catch a glimpse of his face. It was the nice woman who had pushed a glass of water into his hands yesterday after they'd brought in Tony. “He's Iron Man,” she'd said. “We all believe in him.”
Her name tag read Aliyah Parks and this time he committed it to memory. “Can I go in?”
She nodded. “Doctor Banner is in charge there,” she said and gave him a wane smile. She didn't need to tell him. He knew there was no change.
Nobody else seemed to notice him now that he had dressed down into a t-shirt and jeans and look like a regular guy. In a patient's room, a TV was on and the news showed Steve at the press conference, saying: “We can't say anything about Iron Man's condition at this point. But everything is done. He would be the first to tell us that this fight will be won in the future and that we can't sit around waiting for it. This is why I am announcing that the Avengers will go on.”
His own voice from the new program trailed after him and he ducked his head, afraid that now suddenly all eyes would turn to him. But nobody held him back and quietly he could slip into Tony’s room.
“Hey,” he said and slipped into the room. “I shaved. It feels weird, to run around showing my face again.”
Bruce wasn't there. Steve knew he had taken some of the readings back to the Compound and there was supposedly a security detail out there protecting Tony. Later, he would make sure they were really doing their job, but right now he just wanted to sit here, while the sunset. “I was thinking of bringing a book,” he explained, “and then I realized that I have no idea what you read. You talk about the movies sometimes, but somehow I've never actually caught you watching one. Do you watch movies?”
Of course, he expected no answer.
He leaned forward in his chair to see Tony's face. He was still afraid that he'd sit here and the breathing would simply stop and that was it. “Bruce says that you're pretty beat up, but stable. I hope that means you'll wake up soon.”
Awkwardly he watched the soft rise and fall of Tony's chest. There were so many things he wanted to say, but Tony wouldn't hear them.
“I kissed you. I'm not sorry. I'm only sorry I didn't do it before.”
I missed you too, Tony had said.
And Steve felt his own voice breaking. “I... I missed you, but that wasn't...” He paused and sat back in his chair. Why was he trying to explain it now, while Tony was sleeping, out to the world? Why hadn't he explained it weeks ago? “I know we rubbed each other the wrong way a lot. And...”
He stopped again, sighed. Frustration, sadness, anger, worry – everything was bleeding together.
“Only you can make me so confused and angry, you know?”
He leaned forward, hunched over.
“That's not what I wanted to tell you at all. Don't make me miss you again. The Avengers are back together. For real. So you need to wake up.”
Tears were stinging at his eyes and for the first time since it had happened, he allowed himself to feel the fear, the doubt. What if Tony didn't wake up again? What if Tony had come back to them – to him - from space and now it had been all for nothing.
“Did you have to provoke that blue face alien?”
He was replaying what remembered from the fight that he'd only seen from afar in his head. He'd done so last night, over and over again, wondering if he could have stopped it.
With one hand he swiped at his eyes and his face.
He was staying here. No use going back home and sitting in his room alone. He was going to sit here and make sure Tony was safe.
“Just get better, okay? Everyone is counting on you.”
More quietly he added: “I need you to wake up.”
He kept quiet after, lost in his own thoughts, watching Tony, wondering if he could hear what was going on in this room or if he'd been ripped away from them to a place where sound couldn't reach him.
He was too preoccupied to notice the shadow of someone pushing away from the wall and striding down the hall to put distance between themselves and the hospital room.
Chapter 2: 2.
Leaving the hospital was as easy as it had been to sneak in, which in itself was worrying. Nobody gave the guy with the gray tracksuit and the orange ball cap and sunglasses a second glance. Tony knew that the staffing situation here was better than in most hospitals because there had been a quick coordination between the hospitals in the neighborhood to work together, but he knew there were still shortages.
Patients had vanished, and so had local staff, medics and doctors, vendors and delivery men. For the first day after the event that Tony hadn't actually witnessed himself, it must have been utter chaos.
He was no stranger to utter chaos.
He'd seen the worst.
Even this didn’t quite compare to the amount of senseless death he had seen.
And yet here he was wondering what exactly had happened in this universe to make things turn out so dire. From what information he had gathered, Thanos, the mad Titan, had done it again: He'd assembled the gauntlet, taken possession of all the Infinity stones and spread death through the universe with one simple, cruel thought he forced into reality. Tony didn't properly remember all the cosmic events that had been caused by the Thanos he’d crossed paths with, but he remembered a few and he knew some of the stories that Stephen Strange had told him over the years - about the events that had been reset to save Earth and universe.
He very clearly remembered Thanos taking an active role in the hunt for the gems recently too. When their universe was on the brink of destruction he'd been one of the people to rush towards an endgame that would guarantee his survival and power.
And for what? It hadn't served him in the end.
But Thanos or even the tragedy he'd caused here or on any other world wasn’t what made Tony hasten his steps to get out of here fast.
He'd seen the newsreel; he'd seen the speech Steve had given on TV and he had known some of the basics about what had happened to him and the Avengers before this day. In any world, he was Tony Stark and he knew how to gather information to be on top of his game, and in any world, he knew Steve Rogers and the way he worked, but he had to see this for himself.
Seeing Steve always hurt.
With the precision of an icy knife seeing Steve managed to wound him every time, because it reminded him of the Steve he'd known and loved for years, and been with for much too short a time after they had finally dared to try for a relationship. And it was the universes where it was like this – Steve caring deeply for a Tony that wasn't himself – that hurt the most.
Tony pulled the cap deeper into his eyes when he left the hospital to hide his face and brooding expression.
There was nothing he could do at the moment to help this Steve – or the Tony Stark of this world. He would have to come back and find a way to help at a later time. And if there was a way he knew he would find it.
On foot he made his way over to the temporary apartment he'd picked out for himself in one of the near empty buildings.
All thoughts wandered back to Steve.
The one he'd lost.
The one he'd been unable to save.
Tony wasn't sentimental or stupid enough to fool himself: He knew exactly why he'd followed Steve from the press conference to that hospital room.
I'll make it right for you somewhere, yet, Steve.
Thanos had won and ripped away lives here because the Avengers hadn't been prepared for the cosmic threat he represented. From what little Tony knew he could say that in part it had been because there hadn't been enough cosmic level heroes, not enough of the god-like beings who usually took an interest involved. He didn't know if they even existed in this world.
For now, Thanos had won, but if there was something they could do to change it Tony would be sure to find it. Especially if it meant he'd also find a way to help this Steve Rogers find some happiness and peace, and especially if it meant he could wake up this Tony Stark, who the media had started calling: “Earth's Mightiest Defender.”
Surely in one universe, the two of them deserved some lasting happiness, something less than tragedy and he would do everything in his power to see it happen. Even though he would never be able to set things right for himself, the people he'd lost, or the earth that had been destroyed.
I miss you, Steve, he thought. But at least I can do this.
He entered the apartment when he was sure nobody was watching, which was easy enough in the half-empty building.
“Welcome back, Tony,” R.E.E.D. told him when he entered. “Our data indicates that something is going down on Earth-90214.”
“Which one is that?”
“Ah,” the male voice that only sounded very remotely like the real Reed Richards told him, “you'll like this one.”
Tony gave a cursory glance to the data the AI had been running through the multiverse scanner he'd developed together with the real Reed back when he'd still had a home and an earth to call his own. It was serving him well now in his travels. Some data and profiles sprang up on a holographic display in front of him and he nearly sighed, when he saw – again – the face of one Steven Grant Rogers.
But this one was slightly different.
“Yeah,” he admitted softly, while he took his time to study the little data there was on the universe and then let his eyes drift over the gaunt face with the same stubborn blue eyes he was so used to. “I think I like it. What's the deal?”
“The deal,” R.E.E.D. provided, “is a temporal anomaly. Not unlike the one we've encountered here.”
Without more information, that could mean a number of things.
“It looks like it was Kang. Here I mean. Here it was Kang meddling for some reason,” he muttered, indicating that the temporal anomaly here hadn't been the kind of time travel induced disaster that had broken the whole universe for a time and led to the destruction of his own earth - yet. Kang had his own ruthless power-seeking plans always and he didn’t actually care if he broke a universe on his way to getting it. Tony had reviewed the footage from the fight that had put down another Iron Man couple of times and caught a perfect glimpse of the dangerous time-traveling despot, recorded very clearly as he threw all that he had at Iron Man. But whatever resources the other Tony had had at his disposal at the time – and there must be significant resources there if he had really gone toe to toe with Thanos in possession of a significant number of gems and lived to tell the tale if barely – had been enough to propel Kang and his army back out into time and space.
He must have hacked the chair, Tony concluded, but then was hit by the rubble. The nanites that make up the suit must have been drained from the attacks or the effort Iron Man had put into the infiltration of the chair's systems, or the Bleeding Edge like suit would have protected the man inside. That was something he could look into later.
It said a lot about him that the broken-hearted expression on Steve Rogers’ face haunted him more than the idea of himself in a coma.
“I always knew I had issues,” Tony muttered. “Alright, let’s help out Mr. Steven Grant Rogers from Brooklyn. The ones who aren’t super soldiers get to me..”
He would run the data he had for now and at a later time he would come back to this universe and see whatever he could do to solve this problem.
Right now there was nothing more he could do.
Time to use his resources to help out somewhere else.
Strolling down the street wasn’t as easy this time. It had taken him a while to find appropriate clothes and he’d let R.E.E.D. run some analysis of the fabric even to make sure it fit the period. He’d become wary of temporal paradoxes to the point where sometimes he felt he needed to stop his own meddling before he caused disaster. Then he remembered that it took a lot more to push the multiverse to its breaking point than multiverse travel and the occasional out of place good deed.
He wasn’t causing paradoxes or changing timelines over and over. He never went back to correct the mistakes he made along the way although some stung. None would ever sting as much as the failed attempt at saving his earth would - and there was no universe or timeline left to go back to after it had been erased.
I could have told Steve to come with me. I could have evacuated everyone to another star system, a satellite, another universe; they could all have survived if they’d been with me when the incursion happened.
But Tony had been out on his own, holding a modified twin jet frozen in its own little space of non-time, collecting data about the thinning walls between the coordinate space of different universes. He’d seen the call by the Illuminati and he’d seen Steve’s message, but the instant it took him to drift back into the coordinate space of his own world without ripping a hole into the fabric of space and time, Earth had been gone. Or more exactly - what he and Reed had predicted would happen sooner or later had happened: coordinate space had overlapped and time had flown into all direction and at the end of it another universe had filled the space of the destroyed world.
Nothing let of what he had once known, his earth put out like a light on a nightstand from one moment to the next.
Tony had lost it after.
He remembered floating in space for a long, long time after he’d realized the truth without the will to even sit up.
Everyone was gone.
Steve was gone.
After many wasted years, he’d been gone. Just ripped away like he’d never existed.
But he’d been the world to Tony.
I should have gone to him sooner. Told him about my feelings sooner. I should have asked him out when we were in our twenties.
But even if he wanted to, these were mistakes he would never be able to correct. No device on earth could make him go back to a time and universe that had been wiped from existence.
He hadn’t been fast enough with his solutions, he hadn’t been there when it counted - when it came down to it all was his fault.
That was why he was here.
Doing what he could to help make heroes in other worlds make a difference.
He carefully walked down the street, feeling strange in his 1940s clothes. But he was used enough to tailored suits to not feel awkward. And there, just two blocks away was the automat where Steve Rogers was taking a meal right now. Tony checked his little wrist computer to make sure he had the right location.
“There are two temporal distortions taking place in the area,” R.E.E.D. informed him over a hidden mike in his ear and there was the hint of a drawl in it that belonged to F.R.I.D.A.Y. Tony would have to put some time into diagnostics and recoding if this kept happening, because he did not need even an approximate speaker modulated Reed drawling in his ear ever.
“Temporal distortion focused on Steve Rogers?”
“Inconclusive,” R.E.E.D. said.
Tony wondered what he was supposed to do. “Do we have a scan on the timeline?”
“No scan possible. You need to give me more time for something like this, Tony. Planning ahead takes time.”
He chuckled. “Yeah,” he said to himself. “That sounds about right.”
Sometimes he wished he could stand still, give himself the time he needed to grieve and figure this out. But that way lay the easier ways out - it would be too easy to drown his misery in alcohol and forget everything. He didn’t need to be Tony Stark anymore. He didn’t even need to be alive. Nobody would miss him or give it a second thought if one day he just decided to give up.
But that would be the easy way out.
And Steve – his Steve – would never forgive him. Tony felt strongly that the burden of survival was his and he had to bear it.
He was bearing it.
Looking for ways to keep the universe from imploding again.
If this multiverse's survival had been bought at the high price of the demise of his world then he would make sure it fucking went on in perpetuity. And if he could do something to make it better, then he would do that too.
Right now he couldn't help the feeling that someone wanted to make it worse.
He watched the cars go by – all old-fashioned to him but the newest and most dazzling models to other people strolling along the sidewalk. Then the automat door opened and out came a lanky man with a gaunt face. Tony had seen the pictures, had seen pictures of Steve before the serum long before that – and he'd also had the privilege to see Steve like this himself when he'd come seeking for help when the serum had failed him. Even without that knowledge, there was no mistaking Steve Rogers.
The shoulders weren't mile-wide and stunning; they were a little hunched over, scrawny. The man was the opposite of buff. But for a single moment, Tony got a glimpse of his face with the set jaw and expression of determination, and there was no denying that this was Steve Rogers at his best. He had a pamphlet in one hand and he was hurrying across the street.
“Temporal distortion imminent,” R.E.E.D warned.
Then it all happened too fast.
Steve crossed the street and Tony knew where he was going: He was making a beeline for the queue to join up. No car was anywhere in sight when he hopped off the sidewalk. Before Tony's eyes there was something of a rip in time and space, a sudden yellow flash and suddenly a car was there, speeding down the road and literally out of nowhere. It was aiming for Steve.
Acting purely on instinct Tony lurched himself forward, jumping ahead two, three steps. He feared that he wouldn't reach Steve in time, but the last step got him there. Pushing Steve out of the way hard he found himself in the headlights of the speeding car.
Fuck, he thought and a gauntlet took shape around his right hand. He fired one blast to shoot out the motor, but also to throw the car off its trajectory with the blast. Then he braced himself. The car swiveled around, Tony stumbled out of the way and fell, coming to lie on his knees not far from scrawny Steve Rogers.
When he looked up he realized there was nobody in the driver's seat.
“Type of temporal distortion suggests Kang,” R.E.E.D. told him.
“Figures. Again?” He didn't exactly believe in coincidences.
“Again? Does this kind of thing happen to you often?” Beside him, Steve was doing his best to gather himself up. He gathered the papers he'd been carrying and finally their eyes met, despite Tony's best efforts to look away, hide, run. This wasn't how Steve Rogers met Tony Stark.
“More frequently than you would think,” he said carefully and got up, holding out a hand to help Steve to his feet.
Steve took the offered hand, but he was staring at Tony, open-mouthed. “You're Tony Stark,” he said flustered when he'd come to his feet.
That nearly knocked the air out of his lungs. How could Steve know? It was 1942. Tony hadn't even been born yet. “How do you...”
“I bet you rescue people every day,” Steve said with a grin. “I love your stories. And I've been following all articles about Iron Man. I even collect clippings.” He showed Tony a pamphlet.
Buy War Bonds it read in curled lettering. Above it towered a monstrous grey version of the Iron Man, and – unmistakable and impossibly – Tony himself, dressed in functional pants with suspender over a blue shirt, sleeves rolled up – pointing out of the picture and right at the reader.
He took it and stared.
“That's...” Impossible he wanted to say.
But R.E.E.D. provided him with the quick answer: “Anthony Edward Stark became Iron Man a year ago. Born in 1918.”
Tony swallowed against his dry throat. That was what he got for not properly doing his research.
“You're my hero,” Steve said bushing, then flustered, stumbled over his words. “I mean I read all your Marvels stories.” He blushed harder. “I was on my way...”
He pointed down the street.
Tony noticed people watching, knew that he shouldn't be drawing attention; but there was a fuming car at their side and a red gauntlet on his hand.
“Is that part of the Iron Man?” Steve asked faintly.
Tony pulled the sleeve down and straightened. “I have to...”
“Oh, yes, of course,” Steve said with a blush. “You must have better things to do than saving civilians from speeding cars.” He looked up and frowned because then he noticed the lack of a driver too.
“Go,” Tony said and clasped his shoulder to distract him from the fact that a car had been thrown at them out of nowhere. “Join up. Never enough brave men to pick up the fight.”
Steve's mouth fell open. He was stunned.
Tony nodded encouragingly.
“Thank you,” he said and tried to pull away from Tony, suddenly skittish.
Understanding his confusion, Tony let him go. “Go now,” he said. “I'll handle the rest.”
Whatever the rest was.
“I'll see you in Europe,” Steve said and the blush was still bright on his face. “Fighting Nazis.”
Tony nodded. When Steve had finally walked the rest of the way to the building he'd aimed for, all the while looking back at him, he muttered: “Did we just set him on the path to Project Rebirth?”
“It's likely,” R.E.E.D. answered.
Oh boy, he hoped that whoever the Tony Stark of this world was, he could handle meeting Captain America. Because it seemed inevitable now that he would meet him soon.
Taking comprehensive readings in plain sight of military police and with the car crash drawing attention was out of the question, so Tony took the data he could easily acquire, left Steve not-yet-Cap Rogers to his own life.
He had the small Quinjet in which he'd started his initial journey that most of the time he held in that precious bubble of non-time and non-phasedness in the non-space between universes. It took too much of a strain on the equipment, but sometimes making himself stand outside of existence and life, was as much as he could take. He had four different armor models and he took scrap parts from Iron Men around the multiverse when he needed them, telling himself that wasn't really stealing as long as he was borrowing from himself. (If someone had taken his parts he would have thought of it as stealing, so he was also aware that he was being a hypocrite whenever he did it.)
Right now his biggest problem was that the Quinjet needed work.
This couldn't go on. One day the jet would fail him at the wrong time, catapult him back into time and coordinated space - and then he would be the next temporal paradox or cross-universe crisis.
At some point he needed to set up more than a random apartment somewhere and give himself a place to rest and work. That felt too much like building a home though and he didn’t want that. He needed a base where he could set down, get work done, perhaps in a universe where he could earn some quick money to keep things moving - this and nothing else was what he was looking for.
Somewhere that had room and where no other Tony Stark was walking the streets.
He had seen quite a few worlds where Iron Man had never been created, where Tony himself had vanished from the stage of history early on or where he'd never existed. He knew there were places.
“Temporal distortion detected.” R.E.E.D.'s voice drifted over to him from the cockpit and he had a hard time picking himself up to go look at what was wrong this time. Tony cringed. The pattern wasn’t as disturbing as the frequency of these occurrences. In the beginning, he had to look for them, now it seemed they were following him around.
Safety was a concept he hadn't bothered with for too long, but all the running was finally catching up with him. He was exhausted. He needed a place to stay. Coffee. A real bed would be nice. Getting more than three hours sleep would also go a long way.
So, where do I set up shop? Somewhere where I don't have to watch my back constantly.
“This is the sad universe again,” he muttered.
“That is not a scientific classification model,” the AI admonished.
“It's a model that works,” Tony said, although he had seen too many sad universes out there. And still, the ones where there was genuine love between Steve and him still hurt the most – whether things went well between them or not. “Get us back there.”
“To the sad place?”
We're in the sad place, he thought. Nearly seven months of this and we still haven't found even a trace of anyone but me surviving the implosion of our home universe.
A ghostly hand settled on his shoulder and the short, much too real memory of Steve putting a hand on his neck softly, massaging his shoulders when he got tense like this, hit him like a wall of bricks. You can do this, Tony.
“I couldn't do it. I failed to save you, all of you,” he said out loud.
But the remembered Steve was still smiling.
He really needed sleep.
Right now he was one step away from breaking down or losing it.
At least he knew where to go. He still had left behind a device in an empty but protected apartment in Queens that was taking readings for him – and he still had work to do there.
The apartment wasn’t furnished and for his first night he slept on a mattress he’d shoved into one corner, too exhausted to mind any discomfort. The main living room was where he’d previously set up equipment - most built out of laptops and devices he’s taken apart and put together again to make them do what he wanted them to. The readings they’d taken showed no grave temporal anomalies in the last week, but there had been a spike two days ago that without any additonal information he couldn’t explain. He let R.E.E.D. run via one of the computers he’s set up in the corner. The AI was mainly relying on the Quinjet systems to keep his computing power up.
He’d left the Quinjet in space and used the stealth armor to come back down here.
Nobody would take an Iron Man sighting well when Iron Man was hospitalized.
Tony checked the news - there had been no relevant Avengers incident in the last week, nothing to explain the spike in temporal distortion energy, and Tony Stark didn’t feature in the news as more as a byline. Apparently this universes Rhodey had recently stepped up to take the reins at Stark Industries, which indicated that there was no change in other Tony’s condition.
That was his first problem to solve.
If he put other Tony back on his feet then it was likely that he and the Avengers could take care of the rest.
And his Steve will be happy.
It was such a stupid thought that he huffed in disgust at his own overly emotional reaction to everything that was connected to Steve Rogers in any world.
You don’t know this man. He’s not your Steve.
But in his first days here he’d seen enough of his moping, the beard, the disappointed sagging of his shoulders, and enough footage of the man who’d made his stand against Hydra and SHIELD and Ultron - and Iron Man - to know that despite all the differences, this was the man he knew too well. Steve. It was a dangerous thing to ponder because it promised hope and yet made him feel like a traitor, a weakling who’d rather meet the next Steve than be without one.
He’s dead. Accept it, Tony. He and all the people you cared about are dead and gone. You can make a difference here, but never for yourself. Even if he’s right over there in that state of the art upstate facility.
Depression wasn’t new to him and neither was grieving for Steve.
But it was different losing him when you thought you could never have him, instead of losing him when the two of you were finally together.
He felt the urge to curl up in the pile of blankets and forget the world existed, pretend that strong arms were there to hold him, while Steve whispered: “It’s alright, Tony. We can do this. You can find a solution.”
“If we’re staying,” he said out loud and not necessarily at R.E.E.D., “I need a coffee maker.”
“If we’re staying,” R.E.E.D. countered, “you’ll need money.” But that seemed like such a trivial concern. He could get resources. He could set up shop and if he really needed to he could get the money to do it. But he had more interesting problems to solve.
“It will be a pain to get into that Avengers Compound they’ve set up there. The stealth armor will come in handy, but not if other me set up security that’s as state of the art as the rest of that facility.”
He hadn’t really looked into the specifics yet. But he knew how he himself got when he built a home for the people he loved and an HQ for the operations of world’s mightiest heroes. And with things like Ultron and with what had happened with Thanos - this Tony would be a strange Stark if he hadn’t done everything in his power to give them the safest possible base.
It wasn’t beyond him to use the tech at his disposal to get past all that - it was Tony Stark against Tony Stark and when it came to the tech he definitely came from the superior universe after all. He would prefer an easier way if he found one.
“First things first,” he said, and picked out some clean clothes from a bag, took a shower, got dressed again. He was feeling less and less like himself these days. The clothes were becoming shabby and he kept slipping from one disguise to the next. Perhaps he should shave off the beard and bleach his hair again to make sure nobody recognized him. Just… Right now that would feel like losing the last shred of himself.
He would simply have to be careful.
He could do that. Be careful.
He snatched up a hoodie and ballcap again, made sure his eyes were hidden behind sunglasses before he let himself out of the apartment. Before he was going to do anything else, he would go make sure Tony Stark was still there. Waking him would be his top priority right alongside figuring out what caused the temporal anomalies.
The walk through the neighborhood did him some good too. He rarely was among people if it wasn’t for a mission and he enjoyed seeing people in the streets going around their business, visiting coffee shops along the way, walking to offices, as if things were going back to normal in a city that had lost half its citizens only months ago.
If New York can keep it together, so can you, Stark, he thought to himself.
Getting into the hospital was still too easy and Tony wondered if it was a good idea for anyone to leave Iron Man in a hospital that anyone could get into without trying. He spotted at least on security detail from miles away and sidestepped the other. A pang of terrible regret shot through him when he recognized Happy Hogan across the hall.
“Where are the Avengers?” he muttered.
“Hospital log details indicate that Dr. Banner is in a lab two floors above you,” R.E.E.D. provided. “There is no information about the rest of the team.”
That wasn’t surprising. The media would know about big altercations or a crisis that needed the attention of superheroes, but they wouldn’t necessarily have information on where they were beyond that. He hoped to have a few minutes in that hospital room this time before anyone could walk in who would have questions.
Steve being Steve - he would have too many questions and Tony wasn’t prepared to answer a single one of them. He wouldn’t be able to. Because looking at him was hard enough.
After that pre-serum encounter, if I have to talk to one more not-my-Steve Steve I’ll break down.
He wished he was being dramatic, but he knew that pushing on only worked until you were pushed to stop and actually think about what you were doing.
Much easier to slip into a blissfully empty room at a hospital and find yourself lying on the bed. It didn’t seem like anything had changed at all since he’d last observed what had gone on in this room. “Hi,” he said awkwardly and made sure the door remained open and the hallway empty. “No idea why they leave you all alone up here. Seems like a good place to post a guard. But, hey, they probably think you have a Hulk here, so nobody would dare sneak in here.”
He stepped up to the man in the bed and looked down. The Tony lying there was him - unmistakable and surely. It was like looking at your twin. For a moment the similarities took his breath away. Then he noticed all the tiny differences. Some light gray strand in the brown hair, a scar on the arm that he didn’t have, a few wrinkles around the eyes and mouth, a few subtle hints of grey in the stubble beard. They were the same and yet they were also very different people.
This Tony had come to the superheroing late. Before that, he had been a very different man, from what Tony had gathered, more like the Tony he’d been when he was playing a role. Perhaps it had been a role for him too, that had taken too much of his life until he’d received the wake-up call. Tony wondered about what made all of them out there who they were: Tony Stark, Iron Man in all the worlds that mattered. All those that had mattered, too.
He stood there awkwardly for a moment, focusing on nothing but his own breathing. “I know it’s probably hard to believe right now, but things could be worse. So much worse. I don’t wish that kind of worse on any of you. And, yeah, hi, I’m Tony Stark, too, and here to stop things from exactly that kind of worse if possible. So that when you wake up you can know exactly how lucky you are, you bastard.”
He looked at the machines. Most were the usual medical equipment. Some of these Tony knew intimately from his days spent nearly dying of his failing heart. Some were decidedly more sophisticated. Something Tony Stark would have access to - or the Avengers would. It looked like Bruce Banner was busy.
Knowing that meant the Hulk’s alter ego was somewhere close-by, Tony didn’t waste time. He pulled a scanner from his pocket and took some of his own readings. Dawdling wasn’t an option, so he knew he would have to come back at a later time if he wanted more comprehensive insight into what was wrong with his counterpart. For now, he wanted to make sure he knew exactly how much of this was normal biology and medicine, and how much was superhero crisis holding the man in this state.
A sound in the hallway caught his attention and he froze. He’d moved to sit at the side of the bed. What would it look like if someone walked in on them now: Tony leaning over Tony to get a better look at his face?
But it had been somewhere down the hall and nobody entered the room.
From what he could tell at a cursory glance, the other Stark was stable. In fact, in some respects, he was better than stable. Bruce Banner had scribbled something down on the patient chart at the foot of the bed in the chicken scratch that passed for his handwriting and Tony went through all the charts. Tony took a quick picture with his supercomputer hidden in a smartphone case.
“So, tell me, Tony. Give me a hint. What did you do? Bruce seems to think your nanites are running rampant, but there’s no hint of them being active in your bloodstream. So, what is it? Extremis? I do know what it’s like to be your own favorite guinea pig. What did you do? What did you have to do to survive Thanos, huh? And what’s keeping you down now? You can be frank with me. I know all the ins and outs of this stuff. No chance of shocking me.”
In the following silence he made sure that all data he needed, for now, had been taken and nodded to himself.
“I’ll be back,” he said and stood up. “Perhaps you can tell me then.”
Just before he reached the door he turned around again and said: “Just so you know: Steve hated what I did to myself with Extremis and the RT… and well, everything I did. Keep that in mind. Thanks. Good talk.”
Then he slipped out just like before. He heard steps again and changed direction before someone could meet him hanging out on this particular hallway.
Chapter 3: 3.
“You look like Cap,” Rhodes said and studied him as he stepped out of the conference room where he'd had a meeting with the remaining and new members of the security council, “but your eyes are still that of a wary run-away warrior.”
“That's poetic,” Steve shot back without a smile.
He knew it was true.
The years on the run hadn't always been easy, but he couldn't say he had missed the politics of being an Avenger, or of being a symbol people held to higher standards. For all the mistakes he'd made, he couldn't say he regretted any of his choices. Working on his own with a small group of people he trusted had been a good experience. Like with the Howling Commandos it had just been right. And traveling and seeing more of the world hadn't hurt either.
But he'd missed home.
And he'd only figured out how much of this place was his home – more than SHIELD or empty apartments had ever been – was connected to one person: Tony. Tony had done so much to make him feel at home, to give them all what they needed. Tony had bickered and argued and he had a way of seeking confrontation and pushing at people when he tried to misdirect, hide his own issues, but Steve hadn't seen it as clearly until both their issues had come back to haunt them.
His mother had always warned him that you needed to go through life with open eyes to not miss your chances.
Today more than ever he felt like he'd been blind for too long.
Even the new uniform – enhanced, durable and made to fit him so perfectly that even in a fight it never limited his movements – was a posthumous declaration of how much Tony had cared even when he must have hated Steve at least at some level. The facets of Tony Stark only became visible when you looked closely. Upon their reunion, upon working together again and growing closer once more, Tony had admitted, that he'd never doubted even for a moment that Steve would be there if Tony had chosen to call him. “Because that's who you are.”
“Then why didn't you call?”
Tony had shrugged. “You don't run to the person who makes you snap cleanly and then walks out on you. Relationship 101.”
“As in human relations.” Tony had used his hands to emphasize the broader sense.
Steve had mulled that over for days. When Tony – eyes wide and uneasy, sensing what was to be shown on that monitor even though Steve had never told him of his suspicions – had watched Bucky kill his parents on that tape playing in that dark bunker room where they had only found dead super soldiers, would it have been the right thing to do to wrap his arms around Tony and just hold him? Let him rage in his arms until the anger had run its course and the grief could take over? Would it have made a difference to be there and offer support before Tony's trauma could unload in violent anger?
He would never know.
He hadn't done any of these things.
In part because he had not dared to get that close, let himself be that close.
When had he subconsciously drawn the line of “can't have that” in the sand between them instead of following his own gut instinct and let himself fall in love?
He couldn't say. Perhaps he'd built his own walls after he'd realized that Peggy had lived a whole life without him. Sometime before he'd ever met Tony face to face.
Mistakes you couldn't undo.
It had become a theme in Steve's life.
And yet he and Tony had been on their way to build bridges, to make it work, to let each other close again.
They could still make it work when Tony woke up. But although Bruce wasn't right out saying it, Steve knew that he was reaching the end of his rope. They'd had Wakandan doctors over and Bruce was sharing information with other experts to some extent, careful not to put Tony in danger.
So far there had been no change whatever they had tried. Tony wasn't waking up – and there was no real explanation for it.
Every time Steve visited, Tony's face looked a little more ashen, a little more gaunt, like he was using up all his energy in his eerie slumber. Whatever fight he was fighting he didn't seem to be winning it.
How will we go on if he dies? We need him. All of us. But me... especially. What will I do?
“Do you want to come?” he asked Rhodes.
“I went by this morning and I...” He gestured at paperwork. Rhodes was a soldier and no businessman, but he had accepted his impromptu legacy and was doing the best he could to learn and understand the workings of the multinational company he'd found himself saddled with.
Steve nodded. It suited him fine. He liked to be alone in that room. He didn't need to show a strong face for a sleeping Tony and he could speak about anything he wanted, hoping Tony would hear him.
He dressed in plain civilian clothes, got himself on the bike and drove the way over to the hospital, where Bruce had taken up residence for the time being. In the light of the world's current severe problems, he had started consulting on other cases too. Some specialist had vanished and everyone was trying to do their part to keep the world moving.
He pulled the bike into the parking lot, followed the same way up to the hospital. He found Aliyah scribbling notes at the reception desk and nodded to her: “On duty again?”
She looked up, startled and looking like perhaps she'd been on her feet too long. “Ah, Steve, you're here as much as me, it seems.” She smiled mischievously. Then her eyes darkened a little. Everyone who knew that Iron Man was hospitalized here was hoping for better news. But right now it seemed Iron Man wasn't coming back to them. “It helps. Talking to him helps.”
He nodded. “I hope so. Not much else I can do for him. This isn't the sort of thing you can fight with a fist and shield.”
Because he liked to keep moving and he preferred not to alert more people than necessary to his presence, he took the stairs up to Tony's room. One of the security people nodded to him on the staircase. They'd received instructions to stay under the radar and Steve wondered if they were operating under the radar to the point where they didn't offer enough protection.
Your job. You protect him. You wanted him to be your responsibility and he is. You might as well just stay here when out there Captain America isn't needed.
Perhaps he would. There would be an empty bed somewhere that they could pull into the room for Steve. He wouldn't mind staying in a hospital bed. He'd slept in worse places.
He pushed open the heavy fire-resistant steel door when he reached the right floor. It always struck him as sinister that the light in the hallways was kept to a minimum – suggesting that this part of the hospital was empty. But there was a murmur. Was someone talking somewhere down the hall?
Was Bruce with Tony right now?
Steps sounded softly on the vinyl floor. Steve hastened his on steps to catch up. Another corner and he would be seeing Tony's room. When he finally got a look, a hooded figure was hastening out of the door, hurrying down the hallway in the opposite direction. Steve was to startled to call out. Was it Bruce?
No, the person seemed too tall and it was obviously no nurse or doctor.
And there was nothing on the other side of this wing but a staircase. Had his arrival startled them?
Maybe one of the security people was doing a checkup? After all, they were trying to blend in.
Suddenly uneasy, Steve hurried to Tony's room.
There he was: peaceful in his perpetual sleep, but looking pale and exhausted. The machines around him were beeping softly. There seemed to be nothing out of the ordinary.
Then he saw it: A book on the nightstand. He went over and picked it up. It was a short story collection by Ray Bradbury that Steve hadn’t read, but that someone or other had mentioned to him at some point when everyone had advised him on what to put on his catch up list.
Had it been Tony?
He didn’t think so.
Walking closer he noticed a neon pink sticky note sticking to the cover. Someone had scribbled on it: “Not a favorite, but good to read out loud.”
He stared at the curved f and l, and the elegant swing of the g. It wasn’t Tony’s handwriting exactly, but it was close to it. Had a younger Tony written this? Had someone else gone through his books and found this and brought it?
Steve picked up the book - but he didn’t look at the monochrome illustration on the cover or even take in the title. He was staring at the note.
Then he looked up to watch Tony caught in his perpetual sleep. “I feel like I should say this Tony: You need to wake up before I go crazy. I know we argued often, before…” His voice broke. Before Siberia. “We argued. A lot. You just knew exactly how to push me sometimes. And I suppose it went both ways. But it was never unfriendly until then. And I can tell you, having to do all the talking without anyone contradicting me is... It’s driving me up the wall. Could you please wake up and argue? Or at least talk. I kissed you and… I still don’t know how you felt about it.”
He pulled his chair closer, put the book back on the nightstand. He would consider reading from it later when he was sure there weren’t any more awkward confessions that needed to spill out.
After a moment of long silence he reached for Tony’s hand and held it between his fingers. “I want you to be safe. You make sure everyone else is safe, but I think you need someone who looks out for you. I'll be that, okay?”
Sitting here, holding the hand of someone he could now - only now that it was too late - admit he loved dearly, reminded him of the days he'd sat by his mother's sickbed and all the days before that when she'd sat beside his, and sitting by Peggy while her whispers grew more and more rambling.
“See,” he whispered, “I've done this before and I've seen it end. The silence scares me the most. But you have a way of defying expectations. So I'm not giving up.”
For the rest of his visit he sat in silence, withdrawn and thinking.
He didn't think about the shadow he'd seen move away from Tony's room until later when Happy Hogan looked in on them.
“Do you have someone check up on Tony?”
“Check up?” Hogan asked.
“There was someone here when I came up and I didn't get a good look at them.”
“Our people are supposed to make sure nobody comes up. I'm the only one checking in on him. Makes people nervous after everything to see Iron Man like this.”
Steve understood, but he felt even more strongly that Tony in his helpless state should have someone here protecting him at all times. He knew that he would gladly take the job, but that he owed Tony to keep the world safe at the same time.
“Someone did. Who was it?”
Hogan's face had taken on a worried frown.
“Let me check,” he said.
Steve nodded and glanced at Tony, worried. “Let me come along. Bruce will be down here in a minute.”
He wanted this to be quick, even more unwilling now to leave Tony unprotected until he knew what was going on, but also trying to clear this up quickly.
I'm getting paranoid. That's all it is.
Paranoia wasn't going to help them, and he needed the facts cleared up.
They questioned all of Hogan's people briefly. No one admitted to having come up to Tony's room, none had noticed anything suspicious.
“Someone might have dipped in to take a picture or sneak a peek. He's... Tony,” Bruce pointed out when they stood by Tony's bedside a little later. “Are you sure it wasn't just someone sneaking a peek at sleeping beauty.”
He bit his lip. The metaphor begged the question: Would he wake up with true love's kiss? And would that be me if it were? What makes me think that he'd wake up for me? There's nothing between us but a kiss he didn't start and a promise to talk later – if that's what it was.
He left Bruce to his check-up, always a little uncomfortable when Bruce's frown deepened with every new thing he tried. Steve wasn't ready to give up hope and he knew Bruce would do whatever in his power to help Tony. But what would they do if Bruce ran out of new ideas to try?
Would he sit by another bed waiting?
Would they have to give up on their plans to challenge Thanos and set things right? Could they use the gauntlet to set everything right – bring those he'd wished out of existence, unmake the destruction that had been wrought, heal Tony?
It was tempting and yet without the driving force behind the tentative plan they'd been working towards, who would lead them?
Did he need to call in Thor or Captain Marvel who were in space gathering forces?
At the reception he asked the nurses if they'd seen anything suspicious.
Nurse Parks wasn't around this time, but a young blonde woman nodded: “There's this guy. I saw him come from the wing a few days ago. Looked a bit like a Stark fanboy.”
“Ya know. The ones who style themselves...” She moved a hand over her chin and Steve gathered she was implying the goatee. “Even the sunglasses. One of those. I saw and thought, he might be a hired double or something.”
Steve blinked. “And he was up there alone?”
“Don't know. Came down alone anyway. Not sure what his deal was or where he came from.”
His jaw set in the commander-in-chief way and his thoughts had already rushed ahead: “I'll need to have a look at all security footage.”
It wasn't that easy, of course.
Hogan knew how to push for what they needed, but there was too much footage to review.
“F.R.I.D.A.Y. should be able to help,” Steve said tiredly. He was feeling like he was chasing shadows to make himself feel better. After all, he couldn't help Tony heal or wake up, but he could make sure he wasn't in any danger from outside forces they could control.
“So,” Natasha asked and sat down in a chair beside him, watching him skip through the footage of the indicated day while F.R.I.D.A.Y. analyzed weeks of footage, “what exactly are we looking for?”
“A Tony Stark fan.”
“A Tony Stark fan,” she repeated and gave him a pointed look.
“Someone who copies his style, I mean. Someone who was on the 4th floor or comes from Tony's wing when he shouldn't.”
“Cameras,” she concluded, “I gather, don't cover the whole area?”
“A person with knowledge of the place would know how to go in and out unseen,” Steve agreed. “But he must come in from somewhere.” He pointed at the stack called parking lot.
“Captain,” F.R.I.D.A.Y. announced and holographic screens sprang up around them – one, then two, three and four. All were playing the same scene, exemplified by the fact that an elevator door opened and nobody stepped out.
“Why is it doing that? Why's nobody in there?”
Natasha looked closer. “It's looping.” She pointed at the time stamp and they watched.
“It's an elevator. It might be a coincidence.”
F.R.I.D.A.Y. slowed down the sequence and slower there was the tiniest moment of black visible where the switch between recording and old footage had happened.
“Someone did get off that elevator,” Natasha concluded.
“It would seem that way,” the AI agreed.
“And more than once.” Steve studied the time stamps feeling a lump of ice form in his stomach. Someone had left that elevator four times and hid his traces. Why? Had they had anything to do with why Tony wasn't waking up?
At that Natasha's eyes narrowed. “I admit I thought you were seeing things,” she said slowly. “But tampering means there's something there that someone doesn't want to be seen..”
“F.R.I.D.A.Y.? Any people who fit our description?”
More screens with tiny windows of videos playing footage. There were different men with sunglasses who might or might not have styled their hair like Tony's across the different spots with surveillance.
“Narrowing it to relevant dates,” F.R.I.D.A.Y. announced and windows closed.
Steve and Natasha watched carefully as footage played and replayed all around them.
“Natasha,” Steve said and pointed. A man in a lightly colored hoodie, wearing a ball cap and sunglasses walked across the parking lot. He seemed to know exactly how to turn to not give too much of a glimpse.
“Replay this one,” Natasha ordered.
F.R.I.D.A.Y. followed her command.
“Slow to 20% at 18:34,” she instructed after their third watch.
The man's movements slowed in front of their eyes. He walked, casually and like someone who knew where he was going, face carefully or accidentally averted from their gazes. But there: The man turned to look over his shoulder. Just a short motion before looking straight ahead again, obscuring his features.
“Again,” he ordered, then: “Freeze.”
Flickering, but clear, they had a glimpse of a face, goatee, sunglasses.
He looked so much like Tony. Same cheekbones, same jawline, same... lips. The mouth was pressed into a thin line. Tony did that, when he was serious, when things were dire.
“It's not Tony,” he said after a moment of studying the frozen, slightly blurry black and white image.
“No, it's not Tony,” Natasha agreed.
How could it be? Tony was in a coma. They knew he was in that room. He'd held his hand today.
The explanation that this man was a fan copying Tony's looks seemed extremely likely now. But the length the man had gone to sneak into Tony's room was worrisome.
Now you know who left the book.
He remembered the note.
Tony's scribbled handwriting but not; just like this was Tony's face but not.
What the hell was going on here? Hadn't their Kree expert Carol mentioned that shape-changing race? Skrull? Was someone trying to impersonate this planet's most famous hero while he couldn't leave his hospital room?
“Steve,” Natasha said. “I have a bad feeling about this.”
He nodded. “We better look into this. But we know one thing about this one: He'll try and get back into that hospital room.”
For three days, Steve ate and slept at the hospital, waiting, watching, observing.
Natasha was the one who intervened then, sitting down beside him in the cafeteria at lunchtime as if she'd always been at the hospital. “This is really very sweet, Steve, but it can't go on this way. You're Captain America again and you lead the Avengers. You know Tony. He had priorities, always. And so do you.”
“I know I can't play bodyguard forever. But someone will have to.”
“That can be arranged. It's not like there's a Hulk in the building 24/7 or anything.”
“I know, just... Banner is busy – and that's good. He makes a difference here.”
“Steve, don't explain. It can be arranged. In fact, I went ahead and arranged it.”
No muscle moved in his face and he waited. Natasha kept track of all valuable SHIELD assets. There would be capable people among them. But when Natasha nodded over to the doorway, he was surprised to see Okoye, standing tall as always, dressed in a tasteful business dress.
She too managed to look like she'd been here the whole time – blending in while standing out.
Steve nodded a greeting and unsmilingly she nodded back. Then she made a step to the side to open the view to the person standing behind her.
T'Challa's smart little sister.
He stood up and Natasha followed suit. They met their friends in the hallway.
“Thank you, for coming.”
“We promised we would help where we could,” said Shuri.
“Aren't you needed...”
“Nakia is making sure things are in order. She speaks as queen when I'm not there.”
He nodded his head. Much of Wakandan culture was still new to him, but he trusted that Okoye wouldn't have accompanied her queen here if she had thought it a bad idea. Together they moved towards the elevator, exchanging curt pleasantries and updating each other on the progress of their respective countries. Shuri was talking like the teenage genius he'd first met in Wakanda, but her eyes had aged. She was going to grow up too fast with the burdens that had been pushed on her young shoulders.
Back in Tony's room he watched Bruce and Shuri walk around the bed, compare notes and ideas.
“You think it's not a natural condition?” Shuri wanted to know. “He should be awake.”
“It happens sometimes.” Bruce nodded.
“The doctors I sent came to similar conclusions. We have not yet given up on looking for a way to help Stark's recovery.”
“Thank you, your highness,” Bruce said. “We have contacted Thor and Captain Marvel. They promise to inquire if Kree technology might help and will return to earth shortly.”
Okoye had taken her place beside Steve in the door. “But we're not here only to help in the recovery.” She met Steve's eyes and held his gaze.
“Yes,” Shuri picked up her statement with a grin. “I bring you the best bodyguard of all of Wakanda. So that Captain America can leave this place when he's needed.”
While the young queen was smiling, her eyes were serious and sad. Echoes of his own grief and determination seemed to be hidden behind her driven nature. The recognition hurt.
Because none of them had given up on a chance to put their world back together and recover their loved ones. They had smart people in this room who could reinvent the future if they needed, but Tony had been the one preparing and planning for years, he had been the one with a plan. If he didn't wake up Steve would have to consider sharing what he knew about it with the Wakandan queen.
“Thank you,” Steve said to Shuri and then looked at Okoye to make sure she knew her presence was appreciated. “We had hoped that – whoever our silent visitor was – that he'd come back here. So far he hasn't shown himself again.”
Okoye inclined her head and looked down at a tiny wristwatch that Steve knew was a sophisticated communications device. “You were always here?”
“Yes, of course, but we tried to keep that as quiet as possible.”
“How did your intruder know when to come before?” Shuri tipped a finger to her cheek, deep in thought.
“We already looked into that,” Natasha explained. “He must have watched the hospital or known it very well. We went through former employee lists...”
Okoye chuckled. Then Shuri laughed.
Startled Steve looked from one to the other until Okoye held up the tiny image of a scan. It showed small dots located in different parts of the room and hallway, button-sized and attached to various surfaces.
“Surveillance? He's a spy?”
“If he is,” Shuri said, “I want to know who gives him this kind of equipment. I want it. This tells him when the room is empty and it sends information through a relay straight to him.”
“Information?” Steve stepped closer and he noticed immediately how uneasy Bruce looked.
“About Tony's state?”
“So it would seem, Cap.”
“Right now, everyone is here, so he won't come.”
At that exact moment a warning beeped and Steve pulled his communicator from his pocket. “Rhodes? You're still in California?”
“Yes, Cap,” Jim said slowly. “And I just received a warning from F.R.I.D.A.Y. that someone made remote access to at least three of Tony's private servers. Whoever they were they managed to mask it well.”
He gritted his teeth.
Time to leave the hospital and track whoever thought they could play games with Iron Man and the Avengers.
Chapter 4: 4.
Tony was hands deep in an older armor model. He was stripping it for micro-circuitry, because now that he had settled into a workshop, he could take the time to enhance the equipment he needed. This world had developed a flourishing black market for Chitauri parts and technology, and Tony had found also for Stark tech.
“Another problem we need to tackle,” he muttered as if somehow the other Tony would be able to hear him.
R.E.E.D. reminded him: “Technically you only need to wake up the Tony Stark who belongs here. Then it's his problem.”
“Yes,” he said. “That's what I meant. Obviously.”
Nobody was suggesting he was going to stay here. And yet it felt that as long as the man wasn't awake it was Tony's problem to solve.
Not like these Avengers don't have their hands full.
He'd taken the stealth armor out yesterday to help Cap and Black Widow in taking down an alien terrorist cell while staying unnoticed.
“You're taking too many risks,” his AI commented.
“Happens,” he said, “when you have nothing left to lose.”
“You should see someone about that.”
“Sometimes you sound like J.A.R.V.I.S. and F.R.I.D.A.Y. Perhaps I should review your code,” he warned.
“Perhaps you base all of us on yourself more than you want to admit.”
Tony rolled his eyes and put another part of the armor to the side. It was good to keep his fingers busy.
Because if he didn't he'd be tempted to wander the house.
Currently he and his too-sassy-to-be-the-real-Reed-Richards AI had taken up residence in a city block-sized mansion on 890 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. At home the place had long been known as Avengers mansion. Here apparently it had an overseer and crew who came to clean and make sure everything was in order once in a while, but the house hadn't been used for anything more than the occasional party in the ground level staterooms since Howard and Maria Stark's deaths.
Tony had shortly set about to cancel the maintenance contracts in the name of Stark Industries, made sure all utilities would be paid – and he'd be able to remain here unnoticed for as long as possible.
This universes had presented him with many subtle and some startling differences from the beginning, but the empty mansion was as of now the one that had hurt the most on a very personal level. There was the library here – and untouched as it was it looked like the one he remembered from their early year – where he and Steve had spent so much time as Cap and Iron Man when they'd been new to avenging. The kitchen looked like it had when Jarvis had only him, Jan, Hank and Thor to take care of.
It was a weird and very painful trip down memory lane, especially when he thought too hard about the fact that Steve Rogers in this world had never set foot in this place. The mansion had been his Steve's first real home in the future, the place where he'd learned to fit in and make a new life for himself. It had been the place where he and Tony had gotten to know each other and where Cap had taught him hand to hand combat, where they'd shared milkshakes and made plans to go out. They'd had Avengers barbecues right out there on that same lawn in a different coordinate space.
This, to Tony, was very much the place where they'd become a family – and where Tony had fallen in love but convinced himself that Steve's friendship was so important that it would always be enough. He knew today, that something more had always been between them, and he knew now what it felt like to have more than Steve's trust and friendship – knew also what it had been like to lose both of these.
And although the Steve Rogers of this world had never been here, for Tony nearly every piece of furniture he recognized also held a memory of the Steve he'd lost. Even the bedroom upstairs – that of a young, college kid Tony – had brought up some terrible moments of recognition. A Captain America action figure was still placed in a shelve over the bed's headboard.
Why did he never fill this place with life again? He could have done anything with this place.
Tony already knew the answer. The Tony Stark who had grown up here had left New York to get himself back in order – to get away and not look back. He'd built himself a villa in Malibu where he'd had everything he'd ever need. It was so easy to follow the bits and pieces of his life through media articles and what he could scrap from the man's own servers when he dared. So far he'd tried not to take too much information to not trigger any internal security measures. This world wasn't as far in the super science department as the one he came from, but Tony Stark of any world wouldn't be Tony Stark if he didn't take all possible precautions and had a few tricks up his armored sleeve.
He finally set the microcircuits away, considered what he might need from what remained of this armor, and decided to instead review his scanners.
The information stream from the hospital indicated that Steve rarely even left the hospital anymore.
I'm sure he didn't see me, but something has his protective side up in arms.
It was touching.
Steve had been like that.
He pushed the thought away.
What was Steve worried about? That couldn't be good – and even with his limited knowledge of the new world, he was temporarily living in he knew how many possible explanations there were for that kind of caution. Someone might be after Tony. One of the smart people might have figured out who had done this to him in the first place. Or... they were bracing themselves for the worst.
There was nothing in the vital signs of the comatose Stark that suggested he was crashing. All vitals were stable, so stable that everyone seemed at a loss.
But when he'd been there last the man had looked exhausted. Whatever was holding him in that state, he was fighting it.
So far, Tony had found just one anomaly: There was some residue radiation that matched up with the kind of readings he'd gotten off the Infinity Gems of his world. And not surprisingly maybe, because Kang had been involved, there was a trace of the readings you would get from a time traveler.
As far as Tony knew the other Tony hadn't ever actually traveled in time.
But he'd come close to the Infinity Stones when he'd fought Thanos.
Was that it?
Was Thanos involved somehow?
The mad Titan was still in possession of the gauntlet. Essentially that made him a god. Why would he be interested in Stark now? He'd won. Why would he care?
And why would show the body traces of Infinity Gem energy so long after being in contact with them?
The implication that an entity like Thanos could be taking an interest in what was going on here filled Tony with weariness. With the power of the gauntlet, Tony wouldn't be able to hide his movements. If Thanos cared to look he would know someone here was hopping in and out of the universe at will. The only thing that Tony had going for himself right now, was that he was no cosmic level power to reckon with. Why would Thanos even care to look?
Infinity Gem energy. There's something there, Tony. Don't fool yourself and don't let your guard down.
“Every day a new thing to fear. How exciting,” he said and decided that it was time to get some food. He'd plugged in the fridge in the kitchen and stocked it with the bare necessities. It wasn't like he could order pizza in his exile.
“R.E.E.D., continue monitoring the readings we get from the hospital. I'd like to go visit again if Steve ever decides to leave Tony's bedside again. And make sure we remain alone here. The last thing I need is someone to discover another Tony Stark and cause trouble.”
It sounded strange talking about Steve Rogers and Tony Stark like that had nothing to do with him, but he needed to compartmentalize and keep his head in the game.
“We're not alone,” R.E.E.D. announced then as if it hadn't been programmed to announce it sooner and without prompting.
Tony jumped to his feet.
“Why didn't you...?”
“You left the kitchen window open,” R.E.E.D. explained and Tony startled.
“What are you trying to tell me?”
A small crying sound drifted down the stairs and Tony startled. He didn't wait for R.E.E.D. to explain. That was no human being out there. When he reached the top of the stairs a small, very scrawny cat was walking carefully through the halls meowing at the top of its little lungs in a high pitched mewling voice. The tiny animal sounded terribly lost. Perhaps it was looking for the way out of this big sized trap of a house it had curiously fallen into.
That resonated with Tony.
The cat looked around every corner carefully and hopped away startled the moment it saw Tony.
“Hey,” he said. “Nobody told me we expected house guests.”
The little brown and black tabby peered at him with wide curious yellow eye and then brushed along the corner it had hidden behind like it was getting ready to be petted.
“I guess,” Tony muttered when he noticed the thin little thing wasn't wearing a collar or any sort of identifier and crouched down to be less threatening why the cat continued to rub its tiny head against the closest furniture with wary joy, “strays need to stick together. I'd be a hypocrite to tell you that you can't be here. At least you were born on this earth. I hope. You're not an alien, are you?”
He wouldn't admit his feeling of bemused delight when the cat got closer and allowed him to pet her.
The cat that Tony named simply “cat” after the second day came and went as she pleased, breaking his routine with her sudden interest in his person. He had stopped working yesterday because she had curled up in his lap suddenly, and the day before he had found something else to do for himself because she'd fallen asleep in his chair. Cat who for the first hours in this house had been cuddly, but also weary, now looked like a happy cat.
Who had adopted who wasn't quite clear to Tony.
As far as Tony was concerned, he mostly didn't leave the house if he didn't need to run errands. Buying cat food had become part of the necessities after a week and cat visiting him again and again though, he was venturing out more often. He was telling himself that he shouldn't get attached; this wasn't his home, not his cat, and he wouldn't stay forever.
Now he already had a feeling that he needed to find a home for the surprisingly cuddly little stray because he couldn't just leave her behind to fend for herself.
I can't take a cat on multiversal crisis prevention trips.
Turning her away would have been the better thing to do.
He hadn't though.
Loneliness made you do funny things.
He imagined himself putting her in a box with a letter to Tony Stark saying: “Please, hold on to my cat for me. She's like you.”
First he would have to wake up that Tony and he wasn't getting anywhere with that.
Tony slept in one of the guest rooms downstairs and in the beginning he'd left the door open to make sure he could hear any alarms in case a real, non-cuddly intruder crossed the perimeter. He'd set up more scanners and cameras, had given R.E.E.D. as much range as he could with the equipment they had, but besides birds – and cat – the park around the mansion remained peaceful.
By the second week he realized with a scared sort of finality that he was starting to hole up in the workshop he had built, that he was walking through a stranger's home that was like a tiny sliver of his own world preserved where everything else was lost, and that it was beginning to feel normal.
Coming here had been a stupid idea.
But losing himself in the workshop, doing the things he had done for years to keep himself from thinking too much about the ghost of Steve who didn't live in these halls and yet seemed to follow him around was good for him. It was his coping mechanism.
By the end of the week he got used to waking up with the cat curled up on his legs, or wrapped around his head uncomfortably on the pillow and knew he was in trouble.
“It's the exhaustion,” he told R.E.E.D. “I needed a break.”
It was an easy lie.
The problem ran deeper than that.
He was alone.
And in this city, on this earth there was a Tony Stark who wasn't, but a Steve Rogers who was afraid to be the one left behind.
It all came down to this one thing.
If I can't make me happy, then I'll do my damnedest to make it happen for them.
He was already working on a strand of Extremis that might solve the other Tony's problem. But because he couldn't get direct readings anymore he had no idea how to make sure it was safe.
The cat strolled into the workshop and tried to hop onto the workbench.
Tony watched her. “Cat,” he said, “what do we do?”
Just as he asked it a second level alarm went off. On the screen in front of him data sprang up and R.E.E.D. said: “Temporal distortion. Incursion likely.”
“Great,” Tony said and nearly shivered at the sound of the word “incursion” spoken in a voice that was at least partly Reed's. “Where? Cat, I'm sorry, this is the end of my vacation. Give me the rundown, R.E.E.D. and make sure the stealth armor is ready.”
“Earth-549. Hydra controlled. Resistance led by Steven Grant Rogers aka Nomad.” He wanted to hide his face in his hands and yet he forced himself to look at the data and knew he would go. “Kang the Conquerer is visiting the same point in time for the third time.”
“To do what?”
To save his future he was ready to take Steve out of the fight against Hydra at any cost – even if it broke time and space.
Damn, damn, damn.
“R.E.E.D.,” he said. “Send the data we gathered on the other Stark's condition to the remote server at the Avengers Compound. Make sure it's not traceable.”
Then he looked at the cat. With a pang of regret, he realized that he had already become attached.
Who would take care of the cat if he didn’t come back?
Chapter 5: 5.
While Okoye took up her duty as Tony's temporary bodyguard, Steve found himself with the sudden freedom of returning to his role as temporary leader of the Avengers. Although freedom wasn't the right word. He felt as uprooted and unsure of what he wanted as he had back in his day of rebuilding his place in the world. Did he want to lead the Avengers? No. Did he want to lead the Avengers with Tony? Yes. And for that, he had to find the person who might know more about his state than they did.
“Don't look so grumpy,” Natasha told him and rolled her eyes. “Tony isn't going anywhere.”
“That's why I'm grumpy.”
“I'm sorry,” she said quickly. “It was a terrible thing to say, I know. We all want him to wake up. We already lost too many friends.”
He knew that it had hit her as hard as himself when in the end only the two of them had survived of their band of Secret Avengers. The culling Thanos had bestowed upon the universe had taken next to everything from them. Natasha and Sam had worked well together, a close-knit team by the end. And they both missed Wanda terribly.
“I know, it's fine. And I'm grumpy. I'm old and grumpy and I want to know what's going on here.”
And I don't want Tony to die because we're not able to figure out what's happening to him.
For a week they'd waited for their Tony impersonator to return, but nothing had happened. There had been no sign of him. Instead, there had been another incident that before closer inspection had seemed unrelated: In a recent fight something had pushed parts of a crashing alien transporter off trajectory. Later they found clear markings of repulsors on the metal that none of them could explain. At the moment it seemed like mere coincidence and there hadn't been any Iron Man sighting, but then F.R.I.D.A.Y. had admitted that someone had gathered data on Tony from Tony's own private servers.
“Obsessed fan?” Bruce suggested.
“This is going in directions I don't like,” admitted Steve, and he couldn't admit that he spent far too many of his evening staring at the recording of the man in the parking lot.
He knew it was impossible, but they had talked about the possibility of time travel at least two dozen times. Was it possible? How? And would Tony remain hidden to preserve the timeline? Did this mean he was there even though he was in a coma?
The hope was futile. He pushed it away and tried to not give in to it.
Then Bruce received an email with data on Tony's current condition.
“This... is actually helpful.”
“You're saying this stalker is helping?”
“Well, I don't know yet. Some of this is... new to me.”
Steve wanted to rage, but instead, the usual battle calm settled over him. “Don't actually use it right now, please. Check that it's safe first, please, Bruce. We don't know anything about the person who sent this. We have no idea what their motives might be. Let us make sure who is taking an interest in Tony before we make it worse.”
At least they had a new lead, even though someone had tried to make sure to make it impossible to find the person who sent this data. The care that had been taken to cover their tracks only furthered Steve's suspicions.
It was Shuri in the end who set them on a path, calling from Wakanda to tell them she had reverse engineered one of the small surveillance devices from the hospital. “You wouldn’t happen to be interested in a tracker?” she joked. “I can provide you with one now.”
Determined, Steve took the little screen and nodded at the picture of Shuri, while she got ready to send them all they needed to know to trace the data signals.
“Natasha,” he said under his breath when Bruce with the help of F.R.I.D.A.Y. and Shuri's information had set up their new scanner, “we’re going on a hunt.”
She nodded. There was no stopping him. And Natasha had learned when and when not to try and change his mind. He could tell that she was as impatient to get her hands on their mystery visitor as Steve was. Someone had made a play right under their noses and might be the cause of Tony's coma. Finally, they had a lead to get to the heart of things and a way to go about it.
And maybe then we can wake up Tony.
Finally he felt like he was being useful, like what he was doing was making a difference.
“Cap,” Clint said in his ear. “Thor and Danvers have returned with news.”
Without humor he pressed the little button in his ear and asked: “How bad is it?”
“That lawn is ruined. The ax isn't much better than the...”
“I meant the news? Do we have to expect another attempt at conquest in the next five hours?” Would it even surprise him if that were the case? Iron Man was down. If he'd be planning to move against earth, he'd seize that kind of opportunity with both hands.
“Ah, no. Not in the next five hours and not in the next few months. They are struggling just like we are. Hard to cope with the sudden losses. Expert knowledge lost. Right now they at least aren't looking to earth. We were warned about independent scavengers though.”
“That we already knew.”
“Yes. How is the search going? Got your man?”
Steve looked up to surveil the mansion's grounds. From his vantage point on an opposite rooftop, he could see the grounds well enough, but he could also see that it would be hard to get close without being noticed if someone was actually looking.
“We're on it,” he informed Clint. “We'll let you know how it goes. Cap out.”
“It's the only building in the area that belongs to Stark Industries and someone canceled contracts that would have brought people to the doorstep regularly.” Natasha to was surveilling the area, committing entryways to memory and looking for easy ways to beak and enter.
“Not if you're in there alone.”
“You think so?” He could see the pros and cons of choosing a house like that to fend off superheroes.
Natasha took the binoculars from him and swept her gaze over the walls. “It's boarded up. Did Tony live here?”
“As a kid apparently.”
“Someone was there recently. There's an open window.”
“So we are closing in?”
All their information said: “Yes.” Steve hoped this would be over quickly. But he wanted Natasha's honest opinion.
Natasha shrugged. “Let's hope so.”
There was really no way to sneak in unseen dressed like Avengers. They would have to make their way in over one of the walls or fences. But they were experts in infiltration and Natasha seemed to enjoy the prospect to meet their mystery helper as much as Steve did.
“We should have brought Thor for the dramatics,” she whispered when they’d jumped over the outer wall and made their way carefully towards the house. “This lawn could have used some ornamental work.”
Steve looked around. Had Tony played here as a child? He couldn’t even imagine it. This place looked like something from another time and not like the futuristic playgrounds Tony preferred as an adult. To a kid, it would have been a perfect place to run around in, play ball, laugh and be happy. Had Tony at any time been happy here?
“Why was this house not just sold?”
“I think there was a provision in Howard Stark’s will and it looked like Tony wanted to remodel it and make it the seat of a foundation for people who had been harmed in superhero incidents like Sokovia. He never got around to it.”
“Rhodes had access to some of the notes thanks to F.R.I.D.A.Y. Tony really needs to learn to keep fewer secrets huh?” She chuckled and winked.
“Oh, yes, absolutely. You’re the expert on that, Natasha.”
She laughed quietly.
Steve had expected some sort of security system, some traps or even just electric fences.
“He might have Iron Man tech and repulsors,” he whispered when they had finally made their way to a backdoor that Natasha cracked open in under three seconds with the help of one little S.H.I.E.L.D. device. “If he does we take him down quick and hard. Don't give him the chance to get an advantage or it could get dangerous.”
Natasha was already venturing into the hallway carefully.
Steve hoped there weren’t going to be more unpleasant surprises waiting for them.
There was no sound down the hallway and they kept close to the walls and out of sight, but nothing moved.
“This is a big house,” Natasha said and looked at him.
“We’re not splitting up.” He was too wary of the idea that whoever this crazy Tony stalker was, he’d acquired an Iron Man suit or parts of one. He knew he could stand up against Iron Man in an older suit model. There was a sad precedent for that. He hoped that someone who hadn’t been Iron Man for years would be an easier opponent, but only god knew how long this had been going on.
Something moved in the shadows and Natasha and Steve froze simultaneously.
There still was no significant sound, no steps, no indication of anything moving or falling.
He was about to relax when from the corner of his vision he saw the movement again - and startled.
A small cat was cautiously walking along the hallway, ducking and stalking towards them with the stomach close to the ground like a predator making ready for the jump, or a scared animal ready to scurry away at the sign of danger.
“A cat?” Natasha whispered.
Steve shrugged. “Hi there,” he whispered and the cat stopped, sat back on its haunches and studied them, a slightly quizzical look on her face. “We’re not who you thought we were, right?”
“Tony fan has a cat?”
“It might just live here,” Steve indicated the house.
And anyway. There was no time for pets. He wanted to know where all the data was going someone was getting from the hospital. Tony’s safety was the most important thing.
“That makes no sense, Steve. Nobody comes here. If any of the groundskeepers kept it here, wouldn't they have taken it when leaving?”
“Open window? It may just have slipped in and found a warm place to sleep for itself?”
He watched the small animal warily scoot to the side when he moved forward and carefully made his way to the next corner. Natasha followed on his heel. A quick look back indicated that the cat was sitting there now watching them - interested or uneasy.
Natasha shrugged. “At least it’s a cat and not secretly an alien watchdog?”
Even feeling as tense as he was right now, he had to grin at that: “How do we know that?”
They watched the cat, the cat watched them. Natasha asked: “Did you have to say that? She’s so cute. Now I feel like I have to watch my back.”
“Always watch your back.” He knew Black Widow didn’t actually need the reminder.
He wondered where they should look for their quarry. “Where would you set up sensitive equipment?”
“Depends on how heavy it is and what you would use it for.”
He had to concede the point. “Look for an office or workshop?”
Behind them the cat meowed and when Steve looked at her she was still following them while keeping a careful distance between them. She looked curious and wary at the same time.
Steve wanted to shoo her away, but ultimately decided he didn’t have the heart to do it.
If the person they were looking for had the kind of technology that could surveil a far away hospital room then he would know they were here. Either the man was playing hide and seek to take them by surprise, or this house was as empty as Stark Industries files had indicated.
He decided in a split second that there would be no momentum of surprise and one obvious way to hurry this up. “Hello?” he called out.
Natasha narrowed her eyes at him and grinned: “I’m not used to you losing your patience so quickly.”
“I’m not always patient.”
“Right and never when it’s about Stark, so I should have seen it coming.” She motioned for him to lead the way.
There was no answer to his call and still no sound.
The cat sprinted forward, flitted past them and vanished down the stairs to hide. Natasha stared after her. “Want to look what’s down there?”
“We’ll have to do a search anyway,” he said, suspecting that nothing would happen before they found what they were looking for. If it was indeed here.
Natasha was already on the stairs. “Leads to the garage, I think.”
Where Tony had spent most of his engineering time in Malibu if what little Steve knew about that was true. Compelled, he followed Natasha down the stairs, keeping a careful eye out for trouble.
She was a few paces in front of him and whistled suddenly, as she looked at what was obviously a workspace used by a crazy inventor. It was a mess of equipment, half-built machines and strewn around or discarded spare parts. Steve had seen Tony do this to spaces when he started to work with a frantic, single-minded focus. And there were to Iron Man suits lined up along the wall. This was it.
They walked in together, looked around, then Natasha jumped back and nearly pushed into him. Steve whirled around, his hand on the shield already.
A holographic image of a blue, translucent man was standing in the middle of a spacious workroom, that was filled with computers, equipment, and Iron Man parts. Steve felt pushed back to the moment when they had discovered Zola’s mind in the computer back in Camp Lehigh. But this was even more like science fiction. The holographic image wavered slightly and Steve realized there was something like an Iron Man gauntlet on his hand. “I’m not programmed to harm you, Captain America,” the holographic entity said, “but I can’t let you in here either. This is sensitive equipment and right now some of it is in use.”
Getting over her surprise first, Natasha raised a hand to move it right through the bluish projection. “Are you going to tell us about a zombie infestation next?”
“No,” the projection said, not getting the joke.
“What are you?” Steve hadn’t moved his hand away from his shield yet.
“A holographic projection, an AI programmed to keep our assets safe.”
Steve didn’t like the sound of it. “What assets?”
This was the kind of AI he knew ran much of Tony’s facilities, but he could see at a glance that someone had set it up here on a row of haphazardly put together computers.
The AI must have read his reactions and interpreted them right. “I can’t let you destroy the hard drives. It wouldn’t destroy me, I'm stored remotely. But I’m needed here right now, so please refrain from making a move.”
“Who built you?”
“I’m not at liberty to disclose that information.”
A soft sound started up somewhere in the room and Steve calculated he could use the shield do disable the armored gauntlet before the holographic entity could do anything with it. How was it even holding it up if it didn’t have a body?
“What is this?” Steve asked and Natasha had her hands on her escrima sticks now too.
“Iron Man is returning,” the entity said.
A rectangular platform in the middle of the room was shivering. It was hooked up to multiple other machines, running on power that was led to it by thick cords. How much energy did it use up? It must be a lot.
“We should stop it,” Natasha suggested.
“What do you mean Iron Man?” Steve snapped. Iron Man was in a coma. There was no Iron Man here, just an impostor. Quietly he agreed with Natasha’s assessment. Better to just stop this before the room blew up.
“We don’t have the best track record with sentient computer programs,” he told the projection in warning and pulled free the shield.
“Don’t,” the AI told him and as he was raising his shield, the AI flickered. Steve got thrown back by an electric bolt, not a repulsor blast. Natasha jumped forward at the same time – and next hit the wall hard by his side also pushed back by the AI's machinations.
He hadn’t fallen and made sure to cover her with his body and the shield, ready to just take this whole room apart and figure out what all of this had been used for later. But on the platform colors had started to flicker. He’d seen Thor come and go often enough to see the similarity.
“Steve,” Natasha warned, but he couldn’t stop staring at the platform. Flickering between translucency and existence someone was taking shape, like he was stepping from nothing into the here and now.
A black and gold Iron Man armor.
Steve moved, ready to get at the impostor.
“R.E.E.D., what the hell?” the modulated voice said and it sounded so fucking much like Tony that Steve lost it. He snapped, anger fueling every single muscle in his body, as he threw his shield and followed it up with a punch to the armor’s neck.
He knew Iron Man. He knew every one of his weaknesses and he knew if this was a genuine Iron Man armor, then there wouldn’t be many.
The impostor punched his fist against the shield, pushed back against Steve so that he had to give him a little room.
“You could have warned me, R.E.E.D.,” the voice from the helmet snapped without missing a beat, meeting Steve’s punches and movements like he knew exactly what Steve would throw at him next.
“Who are you?” Steve spat, seeing nothing but his own face reflected back at him in the golden faceplate.
“You were preoccupied with Hydra,” the AI said and Steve tried not to give in to the urge to glare at it.
Natasha had taken her place at his shoulder. “Answer his question. We know you were at the hospital. What do you want with Tony?”
Either he didn't know how to operate the repulsors to fly out of range or he was holding back. Steve saw his opening then. The fake Iron Man was favoring one side, not moving one arm as fast as the other. He pushed the advantage with a kick and punch, got the man to stumble back and go to his knees hard, catching himself with a terrible clang when metal arms met the platform’s surface.
“What did you do to him?” he spat. “Tell me, and you’ll walk out of here.”
“I can’t help,” the AI pointed out.
“I know, abort security program X45.” The AI flickered out of existence and the gauntlet clattered to the floor.
“What did you do to Tony? Why can’t we wake him up?”
The black and gold armor pushed itself up. “How would I know?” he asked. “I was trying to help!”
“Why?” Steve asked back and made sure every dangerous thread of the different mingling types of anger and confusion bled into it. He was ready to strike, ready to take out the person responsible for hurting Tony, even though he still had no idea how the man had actually pulled it off.
The faceplate snapped up and suddenly Steve was staring at a handsome face - the one he’d only seen hints of on the security tape. Blue bright eyes, elegant cheekbones and a goatee.
“Why are you…?” Natasha started asking, but her voice got caught in her throat.
Trying to look like Tony, Steve thought, but he knew why Natasha hadn't finished the question. He was seeing it too, hearing it in the voice that was too spot on to be faked.
“You’re not… How can you be…? Who the fuck are you?”
“I’m Tony Stark,” the man said. “No need to swear, Winghead.”
“How!?” he insisted and felt like a cat about to hiss when he let the stupid nickname sink in. It was like something Tony would come up with to rile him up.
“That,” the man said and his startlingly - wrong! - blue eyes clouded with pain or sadness, “is a long story, Cap.”
Steve stared. He wasn't sure he trusted this. How could he ever trust something like this? But then, after all they'd been through, after all they'd seen wasn't it possible that...?
“You'll have to accept that we'll run our own scans on you,” Natasha informed the man who he had trouble thinking of as Tony. “This is not possible.”
“Smart, 'Tasha,” he said, and that was another nickname Steve had never heard Tony use before. Natasha's narrowed eyes suggested that it was the first time she was hearing it too. “I might be a Skrull. That came back to bite us a couple of times.”
“Those are the shapechangers?” Steve wanted to know from Natasha, but the Iron Man in the shiny black and gold armor nodded.
“Yes, that's them. You haven't dealt much with them yet.”
His voice, low and tired and just a bit sad, made Steve study his face very carefully. “Tell me, why I should believe your story. Tell me why you went to see Tony. Why send information on his condition here to analyze? Why not just come to us?”
He was trying to be calm, forget about his worries and anger, but the other Iron Man pulled off his helmet and set it aside. “You might want to sit down for that,” he instructed and smiled a tight smile that bled sadness.
Steve's heart missed a beat.
Then Tony – and he was beginning to accept the fact that “Tony” was what he was – made a step forward and the armor opened with hundred of metallic clicks to let him step out of the Iron Man suit. He stood in front of them, dressed in a plain black bodysuit that he’d seen Tony serve as underarmor and that didn't leave much to the imagination – and even fewer defenses. It was a show of trust or a cunning ploy.
The face was that of an identical twin, but there were differences when you knew Tony well enough to look for them, and the startling Azure eyes were a dead give that you were dealing with a different person. But Steve could see then that it wasn't just the eyes: The new Tony was leaner in frame than Steve, but nearly as tall. His face had all the same lines and angles and even the taller body had all the right proportions. And yet there was something about his eyes that made him seem younger and at the same time more burdened and serious than he’d seen Tony before Thanos.
This man also had dark circles under the eyes and looked like he would keel over any minute. Out of the armor, he looked less like a threat, but Steve knew too well that looks could be deceiving.
“I swear I was trying to help,” he said. “R.E.E.D., show them all we've got.”
Holographic screens sprang up. There were charts and colorful diagrams – and right now it didn't mean anything to Steve.
“Start at the beginning,” he said. “How... How are you here? Where do you come from? How can you be Tony?”
There were still too many possible explanations – and too many of them uncomfortable.
Blue eyed Tony considered him. Steve could see him think it over and come to a final decision. “I'm from another universe, where obviously some things were different. I'm traveling between universes, because... I'm trying to help other worlds to not make our mistakes.”
His voice nearly broke on the last bit.
And it was such a Tony thing to say.
Steve exchanged a quick look with Natasha and she asked: “Why not just reveal yourself?” She was clearly still wary.
“I never meant to...” Tony pressed a hand to his face. “I didn't want to meet you.”
And the look he had was for Steve.
Uncomfortable, sad, full of longing.
Steve felt a knot form in his stomach.
Now he needed to know.
The story Tony relayed – about a dead universe, about the world that had made him and now left him behind to travel other universes alone, about the infinite possibilities o the multiverse – was too much. Steve was glad they had sat down for it. Tony sat hunched over at the edge of the metal platform he'd used in what he called the “phasing” and looked like even telling as much had taken the last ounces of strength he'd possessed. Every word seemed to hurt him.
Steve just felt numb.
“So, you were trying to find out what's keeping our Tony down?”
Tony nodded. “I know it's a lot to take in.”
At some point the cat had appeared, flitted through the shadows and finally, it had curled up on the workbench and fallen asleep.
Natasha stood to the side, listening, casting her quiet judgment. Occasionally, she and Steve shared a glance to see what the other was thinking of this.
Do you trust him? Natasha asked with her eyes.
He wasn't sure. But there was the problem: The man was so irrevocably Tony that not being sure hurt. It brought up memories of fights he and Tony had just managed to put behind them.
“You'll come with us?”
“That's not...” Tony started and he wasn't looking at either of them, but their hands.
“You will accept that we will look into your story. You might still be a shapechanger or clone or god knows what. But... I'm trying to believe you, here, okay? But you will come with us. No more secrets. No more hiding. I want Tony to wake up and be safe, so if you can help, then I'll appreciate any input you have, but this...” He motioned around the room, “is over. You're with us – or it stops.”
Tony peered up at him, then leaned forward with a heavy sigh, hiding his face in his hands. He sat there like that for a long time.
Natasha threw another glance at Steve and Steve shrugged. He had no idea what was going through the man's mind. If his story was true then meeting the Avengers might be a painful idea to him.
“Okay,” the Tony finally said and sat up. His face was pale and his eyes rimmed with red, “it's not like I can change your mind, Cap.”
The innocent accusation hit him with the ease of familiarity. “Not in this,” Steve said and got up. “We'll help you move your stuff. But you're staying at the Compound. Where we know what you're up to.”
Not yet moving, Tony looked around the place. He had briefly explained that he'd chosen the mansion because this was where the Avengers had lived together once in his world. Steve had trouble imagining it.
“Alright.” Tony nodded. “I'll stay at the Compound for now, until everything is cleared up.” From his body language Steve could tell that he was bracing himself for what that would mean for him. “I have one demand though before I agree to this.”
After a moment of silence he declared: “I hope nobody is allergic to cats.”
Chapter 6: 6.
The whole affair was a mess.
Tony knew it was a bad idea. Every interaction with Steve was like someone was taking a hot poker to his skin. The memories it brought up, the longing it stirred – it scalded. Until now Tony had kept it together and that in itself was an accomplishment, but how long was he going to keep it together when all he wanted was to curl up in a ball cry for the love he could never have again.
Cat had hated the move. The little thing had probably never been put in a cat carrier in its life, and the experience of it had not agreed with her at all.
“She needs to see a vet,” had been about the first thing James Rhodes had spoken to him, while Tony had tried very hard not to just throw himself at him for a hug because he had missed his own Rhodey too much.
“She needs to be allowed to calm down,” Tony had shot back – not sure he was talking about Cat or himself and feeling incredibly guilty that he was putting the cat through all of this. The cat hadn't brought this on them – Tony had.
Because it was reasonable he conceded the point though and the cat went through a check, while Bruce Banner was allowed to poke and prod at him. Thor, who looked like the lead singer of a fantasy festival punk rock band, remained standing in the door watching him quietly. Three glass walls away he could see Carol, Natasha and Steve debrief.
Thor turned to see what he was looking at and then looked back at him. “In other universes, all those who we lost here are still alive?”
“In this universe many of those I have lost, are,” he said, with a painful amount of truthfulness.
“That brings me some comfort,” Thor said formally.
Tony wanted to say: “Nice, it doesn't bring me any.”
But that was a lie. It had been what had kept him going until now.
It was just so hard to see a Steve move around the building, looking at him with several parts of surprise and suspicion (not that they hadn't been there before) and not be able to make it right. This wasn't his place. This wasn't his Steve.
Tony was set up in a room right between Carol and Thor as if he was still seen as a threat. Perhaps Steve only wanted him far on the other side of the hallway away from his own room. That suited Tony fine for the moment. He wanted to go to work and solve this so he could move on. Preferably before all of his grief finally caught up with him.
For the first three days after the traumatic move, Cat refused to leave the only safe space that seemed to console her: She remained a small, often invisible bump under his bed's covers and blankets. Tony didn't fault her for that, because it was exactly what he would have chosen to do if he didn't have work to keep him focused. The fact that she didn't come out at all even for food worried him to the point of distress.
He'd never had a pet – and he'd certainly not have planned for one under the circumstances, but now he felt responsible for the tiny fur ball.
Holing himself up alone for work wasn't an option anymore, but citing the need to keep an eye on the cat he managed to keep out of the way of most Avengers for a good part of the day.
On day four, Cat finally poked her little head out from under the covers and started to briefly explore the room.
It looked like they were going to be okay.
“I'll have to take a leaf from your book now,” he said when she sat down beside him and tensely allowed herself to be tickled under the chin. “I'll have to make this work.”
Tony got busy putting up his equipment. This world's F.R.I.D.A.Y. kept an eye on him under Steve's orders, while Avengers walked past the glass doors of his temporary workplace stirring some of his best memories in him.
If it weren't for the initial tension, then Tony might have enjoyed all this.
“Congratulations, you are Tony Stark,” Bruce Banner said to him when he appeared in his workplace that day, making Tony wonder what about that warranted the compliment. “All readings are weird and check out. You're not a clone, not a shapechanger, not an illegitimate brother, but all the weird radiation about you actually proves your story.”
“I'm not an engineer, but I'd like to hear all about the tech that makes it possible. I'm sure Queen Shuri would love to hear about it too...”
He shrugged. Talking science was easy. He set up a connection for R.E.E.D. who still mostly ran through the Quinjet and started giving Bruce some of the broader details without much fuzz. “I'll have to bring down the Quinjet at some point. It is in severe need of repairs. The phasing puts some strain on it, but it's me keeping it on the edge of time and space that is really taking its toll.”
“How did you make it last this long anyway.”
“Desperation and ingenuity, I suppose. I do my best thinking when I'm hanging by a thread.”
“I'm familiar with that,” Bruce said. “I've seen Tony work.”
It wasn't uncomfortable to sit with him after that. He at least seemed to take the differences and similarities in stride.
Steve pushed himself into the room a while later. “Are you getting along?”
“Yes, we're exchanging facts and information, before I have to run back to the hospital.”
“Who's there now?”
“Okoye and Thor. Okoye will return home though if she's no longer needed. Wakanda needs her too.”
It was still hard to look at Steve and Tony avoided it. “The threat you were looking for is here now, Cap. I don't think anyone will actually try and get to Tony in that room.”
With a sigh Steve said, “I'm sorry. I know I was harsh, but you have to understand how all of this looked like to us.”
“No need to apologize.”
“I'm not apologizing, but I wanted to thank you for trying to help us.” Steve watched him with a little too much knowledge then. It always was – whichever Steve Rogers he dealt with – like the man could see to his core when he bothered to try.
“Now, how about you give us some insight into the temporal anomalies you're chasing?”
Things got less awkward after.
“I'm not sure this is a place for a cat,” Steve told him one morning when they met on the way to the kitchen.
But from the kitchenette, Tony could hear a happily excited meowing sound and Natasha saying: “Aren't you just the cutest? Didn't your daddy feed you yet? Let me see what we have...”
Tony raised his eyebrows at Steve, who said: “Point taken.”
“Don't worry,” Natasha said to him with a grin, when they finally rounded the corner and saw her crouching by the little tiger who was eating with gusto, “you're still her favorite, Tony.”
It was new. For the first week or so, everyone had avoided saying his name. Now they were slowly getting used to the fact that he was here, that there was another Tony Stark. Steve had even suggested he accompany them on missions.
So far Tony had declined. He didn't want to take Iron Man's place here where there was still an Iron Man around. “Believe me, he'll hate it enough that you guys let me at his toys. I would.”
Steve laughed, happy and free – a laugh that hadn't really been on the table under these dire circumstances until now. It was the laugh; the one that had been for him so often and that had the power to make his knees go weak.
He stared, lost, feeling that tiny bit of warmth and heat creep into his heart that he had tried to keep out for too long.
Not your Steve, he admonished himself. You're not the Tony he's waiting for.
Steve still spent hours at the hospital when there was nothing to do, but Tony also noticed a significant break in his pattern. He was at the Compound more often, he took charge with the team again and he managed to drag Tony to breakfast at the same time each morning. And although Tony was really trying to keep it from happening, they talked more.
You’re just weak against his charm.
“Do you want to come with me to the hospital? You said you needed more information to figure out what’s wrong.”
Tony tried his best to smile and not show how much he did not want to come along. “I’m on it. Bruce is giving me all I need.”
“Oh,” Steve said and sounded disappointed. “Of course, I understand. It’s not exactly the most comfortable thing to see yourself lying in a hospital bed.”
“Strange, yes, but I’ve seen worse.”
“Like me being a being magically fused into my armor, or… just being an unhinged supervillain. That’s never fun to see.”
Steve blinked. “All of that's out there?” He nodded towards where Tony had set up his phasing equipment.
“I never asked,” Steve who had been so obviously about to leave suddenly said over his shoulder, “but… what was he to you? Steve Rogers? Captain America? Your Steve?”
Tony bit his lip. He had so carefully avoided any mention of it.
Everything. He was everything to me.
Did he owe this Steve an honest answer? Did Steve really want to hear one?
“He was… the best of us and I was always happy when I could call him friend.”
Steve focused on the implication like the smart man he was, hearing the echo of his own falling out with his Tony bleed through the words. “So that wasn’t always the case?”
“We had our fair share of terrible disagreements,” Tony admitted, because in a way - here and now - that was the easy truth. “You have to understand that we met as young men. He was a little older than me when we pulled him from the ice...”
The tiny gasps of surprise were unexpected. “You’ve known each other for all these years?”
“Yes, but he didn’t know I was in the Iron Man armor for the first few of them.” He tried not to grin at adding to Steve’s surprise, but it was only right that the man who was causing him so much confusion just by being alive would know a little about the constant differences that Tony had on the mind all the time. “We had our disagreements and we recently had some of our worst,” he said and then nearly faltered, because “recently” had been so long ago already. Steve had been whisked out of existence months ago, although the wound still felt fresh to Tony. “Doesn’t matter we always gravitated back to each other, even when it hurt, even when it was hard. We led so many Avengers teams together and went through so much. He was always my best friend, always the one I looked up to most, even when I gave him too many reasons to hate me.”
He'd said that wrong, he realized when he saw Steve’s eyes narrow and then ask in a pained voice: “He hated you?”
Tony nearly gasped and realized that Steve was still struggling with some of the decisions he had made that had driven him and his Tony into opposite directions. “No,” Tony said and there was just too much emotion in it. “No,” he repeated, and felt tears prick at his eyes that he tried to quickly blink away while willing the throatiness out of his voice, “he didn’t hate me.”
“I kissed Tony,” this younger, more depressed Captain America said matter-of-factly and Tony felt all the air leave his lungs with the sudden invisible punch of emotions that threatened to tear him down. “Before that battle with the blue alien, I took him aside and I kissed him - and he didn’t pull away and I think he smiled; the half-smile you also show us sometimes when something is too complicated to talk about.”
The observation made it feel as if Cap wanted to follow the gut punch with a left hook. “Not an alien,” he said, but that was all he could get out. He wasn’t even feeling amused that everyone still assumed that Kang was an alien and that him being an alien was so much more reasonable than him being a vindictive time traveler.
Momentarily the air was knocked out of him, he wasn’t sure he was still breathing.
Perhaps he was crying, because he was hunched over and hiding his face in both his hands now.
He couldn’t answer, didn’t dare open his mouth because he was afraid all that would come out was a sob. He tried to not hear Steve’s voice, blend it out, just close himself off against it.
“He’s not there anymore. Nobody is,” he finally said and hoped Steve would understand. “And we were…”
“More than friends,” Steve concluded with an equally broken voice, no shock in it only understanding. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have.”
“No, no, never mind, it’s alright,” he lied. Nothing was ever going to be alright again.
Because he liked making things difficult for himself he accompanied Steve to the hospital the next day. It was easier to focus on differences and the distance between them when Tony Stark was lying in a hospital bed beside them and Steve was reading to him, this time from a newspaper.
“You left the book. The one with the sticky note?” he finally said, when he’d finished with an article and Tony had returned from his third trip to the cafeteria.
“It’s from his shelve in his room at the mansion, yeah.”
“Don’t thank me. I shouldn’t have meddled.”
Steve smiled. “You’re helping.”
Tony decided it was as good a time as any to flee the scene. “I’ll talk to Banner.”
“Don’t make him Hulk out.”
“I’m not usually that annoying,” Tony shot back over his shoulder, already standing in the door.
He saw Steve frown a bit - too sweet, too familiar, too perfect - and then he chuckled. “Right, yeah. That’s this Tony I suppose and even he rarely let it go that far.” He pointed at the Tony in the bed.
Tony’s laugh nearly got stuck in his throat.
Cat had the whole facility to play in. Only some places were too dangerous and off limits. Tony hadn't let her out of the building yet and wasn't sure how exactly they'd give her a way in, after they let her out.
F.R.I.D.A.Y. suggested: “I can let her in when she wants to come back.”
Tony wasn't sure how you could tell whether a cat wanted to come back before you took the risk of letting her out of the house. So for now, Cat remained inside. She didn't try to get out, sleepily hiding for part of the day in Tony's room or under the common room sofa. Only sometimes she sat in front of the floor to ceiling windows, making checkering sounds when birds flew by.
Tony joined her there in the afternoon, staring out at the lawn, while she sounded like an annoyed bird herself. “Yeah,” he said, “I get it. It's nice here. But sometimes it feels like we belong out there.”
R.E.E.D. announced a temporal distortion on Thursday and Tony barely kept himself from punching the air, in part, because he didn't want to wake Cat. Right now Cat was perched happily on Tony’s shoulder, steadying her weight on the backrest of the comfortable chair, purring into Tony’s ear - ignoring R.E.E.D.’s warnings and Tony’s frantic typing.
Clint was still the Avenger who had warmed to him least out of all the bunch, but from what Tony knew he was willing to forgive him on the grounds of what he’d gone through. He was trying to be a good single dad while doing what he could to help them keep the world from falling apart and making sure everything was done to bring all those who had vanished like his wife back into existence. It sounded like he’d had put a lot of hopes on the long game their Tony had been planning for them.
Despite Clint’s dislike for the idea of another Tony he had become an often seen companion in the workshop because his daughter liked to search for Cat.
“That’s what I’m chasing.”
“An event like the one with Tony?”
“Not necessarily. Just something that threatens the integrity of time and space.”
“Yeah, no biggie,” Clint said and snorted. “So what? Now you pull the stunt where you run off to another universe and we never see you again?”
Tony was trying to carefully extract himself from beneath Cat, but was met with petulant sounds and clinging on with pointy claws. “Ouch,” he muttered and petted the disgruntled cat anyway when she glared at him from beneath his chair after he’d finally got her down.
“You have my cat,” he said, still feeling weird about the way everyone seemed to assume he was in a position to keep the cat indefinitely. He was beginning to hope that between Natasha and the Barton kids Cat would have a good home when he was irrevocably going to leave at the end of this.
He tried not to think of it.
He knew he would feel the loss acutely.
“Can I come?”
It wasn’t Clint who had asked but Thor.
“Is that a good idea,” Carol piped up from behind him. “What if you don't come back? We’d be one more heavy hitter down.”
“Yeah, Stark, wake up our Stark before you go lose our Thor.”
“It’s good to know you’re the same brand of annoying in all universes, Barton,” Tony declared with an air of annoyance.
Clint shrugged, completely unfazed and ready to play it up even more now. “You’re less fun, more put together. It brings out the best in me.”
He had no way of knowing if that was true, so he glared.
“You talk less like all thoughts spill out at the same time,” Thor added, good-naturedly siding with Clint without antagonizing Tony. “Unless you talk with Banner. Then it’s about the same.”
R.E.E.D. had been busy with putting all information together for him until now, but chose this moment to pipe up: “He had to translate science to human for a lot of us nerds.”
Tony frowned. “The real Reed would never have said anything like that. I really need to straighten out your ones and zeros.”
But that was that. He was going to take the current king of remaining Asgardians on a little journey. As long as it meant, they’d let him go, he had nothing against the company.
“Take care of Barton for me,” he told Cat with a last light pat to her head, letting his fingers run along the sensitive ears. “He needs supervision.”
“Ha ha, very funny, Stark.”
The temporal distortion on Earth-245 turned out to be a kid with an X-gene that could time travel due to the powers granted by the mutation. Things turned out to be pretty harmless, but Thor seemed fascinated by it all, by Tony's knowledge of the situation – and the possibility of another Asgard out there. Tony realized Thor too had lost a lot in his world.
Thor looked around the interior of the Quinjet. “It looks like one of ours.”
“It's one of mine, so it's not entirely surprising that it would be like one of his.”
“Indeed it does make sense,” Thor said solemnly. “Is it possible that another me is here? Another Loki?”
“Likely,” Tony admitted. “Although there are worlds out there where none of us exist.”
Thor sat down in the co-pilot seat, pensive and quiet. “It would have been easy to settle down somewhere where there's no you.”
In his initial grief he had pondered that. “I don't think I'll find my peace in any world. I lost my home and... all I had.” It was easier to admit it to Thor than to the wrong Steve: “I should have saved them. I should have found a way. I should have been there with them.”
Thor didn't disagree with him or say anything to make him see how he had done enough. What he said was: “I was king. I should have saved Asgard. And yet I let half of my people be slaughtered even before Thanos had all of the Infinity Stones. We fight. We go on. We learn to be better. Sometimes that is all we can do.” He clasped a hand to Tony’s shoulder. “You are welcome to stay with us and do your work from our home. You’re welcome in the new Asgard we’re building too.”
A sad expression must have passed his face because the corner of Thor’s mouth twitched sadly in reaction to it. “That's already a problem. I never planned on getting comfortable. I don't want to get comfortable before I...”
“Survivor's guilt is an old friend to all of us.”
“It's different for me,” he insisted, voice rising slightly. “There's nothing even there anymore to survive, no going back at all. My home is nowhere. It doesn’t exist and might as well have never existed. And I can't go back.”
Thor nodded. “Yet like a man out of time, you make the best of it. You honor those lost by going on.”
His mouth snapped shut.
“You and Captain America have a lot in common,” Thor said with a deceptive lightness – and he was obviously talking about their Cap and not the general concept.
“I'm not sure that's true. It's different.”
“You can get to know him better – if you stay with us. Then you will see. I'd be honored to help with this.” Thor gestured to the Quinjet and the button that would phase them back into Thor’s origin universe.
Tony shrugged helplessly.
Wherever he settled in the end - his Steve would be gone, his friends, the people he'd let down. And other people, like this Thor, would be there to remind him of it. He couldn't stay and watch Steve grief over his Tony and not feel reminded of what things would never be like again for him.
He felt like he'd received a warning shot. He needed to get out before he got in deeper.
He visited the other Tony again the next day and found Steve sitting at his bedside. When he saw Tony he smiled, heartfelt and tired: “Glad you're back. Thor said it was an interesting ride.”
“A harmless one,” he corrected.
Tony hadn't looked at the charts yet, but he could see that the other Tony looked worse.
Why? Nothing had indicated that he was in any danger.
“How is he?”
“I can’t give you the details,” Steve said and sounded exhausted. “But for some reason, it's not getting better but worse. We don't know why.”
Worried about Steve's own ashen face Tony suggested: “Get some coffee at least? Eat something? I'll be here for a while.”
When Steve didn't put up much of a fight, Tony got even more worried.
“He's running himself ragged with worry. That's how much he loves you. Can't that be enough for you to wake up?” he asked his sleeping counterpart. He knew of course that it wasn't that easy.
For a while he went over all the known data for what must be the hundredth time, pondered the temporal radiation that still clung to Tony, the nanites that seemed to be weirdly frozen in his bloodstream. There was one Extremis treatment they could still try – using the Extremis of Tony's dead universe and not of the one they were in now. Something had to be done before they lost this world's Iron Man.
“I can't tell if you're working on something and did this to yourself – because let's be honest here that is something we would do – or if you were put here by Kang or... who knows? If you could only answer my questions.”
There was no answer, no sign, no change in the scans and readings.
Tony Stark, a hero who had survived Thanos, was wasting away in front of their eyes.
“Thanks,” Steve told him later, “for looking after him.”
Tony felt like he wasn’t doing enough.
He spent two days working with F.R.I.D.A.Y. and R.E.E.D. on analyzing Tony's medical nanites. Kick-starting them with Extremis promised progress, but wasn't without its own risks. He was working with this universes Extremis and hadn’t dared yet bring his own universes virus into the mix. That would be his last resort.
Only Cats unhappy meowing that indicated the need for attention or food, pulled him from his work. He followed her out of the workshop and let himself be led towards the kitchen in their daily ritual of “get the human”.
Other Avengers were talking in the room that open towards three sides.
“Banner isn't sure what he can do, Steve,” Natasha said. “Neither is the other Tony. He's trying to find a solution, but what if it doesn't work?”
“I can't accept that.”
“We don't want you to have to. We know there's so much unresolved between...”
“I don't want to give up on him.”
“Please, Steve. You're Cap. We need you. We need a backup plan for our future if the worst happens...”
“That sounds awful,” Steve said.
“We all have lost,” Thor said, “too much. We don't want to let go of even one more friend or loved one. But we owe them – the people we let down – to move on.”
The silence was so thick it could be cut like a knife.
Cat didn't care, food the only priority on her small mind. Like a royal princess, she walked into the kitchen and announced her presence. Tony followed at a sedate and quiet pace, pretending he hadn't heard a word.
He too owed it to the people he had lost to move on and find better solutions. But their ghost would be with him forever.
“You look so much like him,” Steve admitted. Tony had been aware of being watched from the open door. “Do I look that much like the... like your Steve?”
Uncomfortable with the line of questioning, Tony tried not to look up from his work. “It's eerie. Sometimes you do something – pick something up, frown a certain way, move just like he would – and it sends me reeling.”
“Yes,” Steve agreed. “Yes, I... That's it, yes. Just now you flicked your wrist just like... and...”
“I'm sorry.” He wasn't sure what he was apologizing for.
He expected Steve to leave him alone after that, but Steve took a chair and sat down instead. “I'd like to hear more,” he said. “I avoided asking because it was too painful. But I'd like to hear everything you're willing to tell me about him.”
Tony stopped typing. Where did you begin to describe the brightness of heartfelt smiles, the sadness at missed chances, the loyalty and anger that had bound them together.
But he owed it to his Steve to never forget the memory.
And this Steve smiled at him just in the right way, too.
He'd always been weak in light of that smile.
Even now his heart jumped in his chest. He couldn't resist the sad blue eyes – different and yet so familiar.
Was he destined to fall a little for every single Steve he met?
He remembered his recent meetings with the stubborn, non-super soldier who had nearly been killed before ever joining project Rebirth and the brave man who fought against Hydra in a world that had gone wrong after he'd vanished. That Steve had grasped his hand and smiled that same smile and Tony had wanted to hug and kiss him, shoulder some of his burdens.
It was wrong though.
It was exactly why he shouldn't stay in a place for too long.
And yet he was still here, comfortable despite his best efforts not to be. He was beginning to feel like he belonged somewhere like he belonged here. After the months of running and exhaustion, it was like a balm to his frayed state to have even a temporary home. Steve's friendship did the rest: Like once Iron Man had helped Captain America to arrive in a new era, Steve was helping Tony to feel anchored in this universe.
Everyone needed a safe harbor.
Even if the waters in it were more dangerous than the raging sea.
“What do you want to know?” he asked and cleared his throat.
There was the Steve he'd lost, the Steve he'd failed and who’d left a gap that would never be filled, but there was no use in denying that he was destined to perpetually fall a little for any Steve Rogers who crossed his way.
It didn't help him feel less lonely, but sometimes it made him feel like there was hope for him left in the multiverse.
By the end of the week he and Bruce were standing in the hospital room again. “He's wasting away,” Bruce declared slowly, “and I can't find the reason why.”
Steve was leaning against the wall, arms folded against his chest and Tony kept a careful eye on him. The tension, the sadness, it all was too familiar.
He nodded at Bruce. “Thank you,” he told the man who seemed to have a better handle on the Hulk than the Bruce Banner he knew had ever had. Right now Bruce seemed ready to turn green an smash something though and Tony thought it best to let him flee the room before it got too much. Tony was still here to watch over the other Tony. It had become his dedicated mission to solve this before it was too late.
He wasn’t doing a good job though.
When Bruce was gone, Steve asked tightly: “What do we do now?” He was barely containing his emotions. Through long years of familiarity with another Steve Tony could read him well enough in this.
Trying to find an answer, Tony studied the pale face of his counterpart. He couldn't help the feeling that he was missing something, that he was letting someone down again. He leaned over the bed to take a closer look.
How often had other people stood beside his deathbed like this?
How often had he come back from it?
He had to believe that this Tony could do it, too.
He cleared his throat. “What we should have done much sooner,” he said. “Let's take him home. We're not done yet.”
There were still some things they hadn't tried yet. Extremis was one of them.
He was surprised when Steve was by his side with one panther-like stride, moving so fast that Tony only registered it when he was already inside his space, wrapping his arms tightly around Tony's body and holding him close. “Thank you,” Steve chanted, “thank you.”
His breath was warm, moist puffs against the sensitive skin of Steve's arm.
Steve's cheek was wet too.
“Thank you,” he whispered again, “for not giving up.”
He lifted his hand to pat Steve's back, to give silent support, somehow the ended up moving at the same time, their faces much too close suddenly.
Tony was caught in it, the embrace, the movement, the warmth that he'd missed. It was the only excuse for why he let Steve hold him like this, bringing their faces closer, why he hesitated, ready to taste the soft lips...
“No,” he said at the last moments, Steve's face already ghosting over his face.
Steve pulled back like he'd been hit with whiplash, staring, blushing as he realized what they'd been doing.
“It's okay,” Tony said. “Emotions are running high.”
And we're both lonely and scared.
“Let's take him home now, Steve. I'll tell Banner.”
He walked out of the room before he could forget himself again.
Once more he was nearly relieved when R.E.E.D. informed him of a new temporal distortion. He and Steve were growing closer and Tony wasn't sure how he was going to handle that when the other Tony finally woke up and took his place as the Iron Man of his world again. And Tony wanted that to happen, wanted Steve to have the chance he thought he'd missed.
He had no right to let his own confused feelings of loneliness interfere with his mission.
This wasn't about making himself happy.
It was about protecting the multiverse from more devastation, and maybe, because hope was past the point of running out, finding traces of survivors of his own doomed universe.
And yet it had been hard to forget about the hug and the near kiss, the warmth and the longing it had stirred in his lonely heart. Like all human beings he wanted to feel loved.
And this was Steve. He’d always needed Steve.
They had set up their Tony in his own well monitored room in the Compound’s building complex and Tony had set up temporal scanners all around him.
It was his last gamble after the first Extremis treatment had failed to kickstart the nanites that still remained in Tony's body, unmoving, like they were frozen in time.
All that remained after were the kinds of things he had done to himself - his universe’s Extremis, rebuilding the body as part machine, RT’s and fail saves.
More and more he was convinced that something had happened with Kang and he would get behind it before he forced such a drastic change on the man.
For the other Tony.
For this world that had suffered too much.
And then he would leave and pick up his life on the edge of time and space again.
He'd miss them all – Steve, Natasha, Thor, most of all Cat.
Of course, everything went to hell right after he’d felt relieved to be away from the temptation of a home and the wrong Steve, who was also perfectly Steve.
He came back from the mission banged up and bleeding. The armor had been partly ripped from him and he had taken a bad stab to the side. He phased back onto the platform in his workshop exhausted and ready to die.
Steve was there, catching him.
“I...” he croaked. “Thanos... Another world and... they're dead. I was too late.”
He couldn't go on, because he couldn't forget the dead faces of the heroes of this other world that hadn’t been his but close enough; Jean Grey, Wanda, Carol, Jessica Drew, Gamora, Hank Pym, Logan, and Steve Rogers had made their last stand and fallen one by one.
Another Steve's dead face would now haunt him forever – blood splattered across the chin and black and blue with bruises.
And here was the other Steve.
Not his, there and yet far out of reach.
The armor fell away with a thought and he nearly stumbled out. Steve caught him, helped him to stand, inspected his wounds.
Tony didn't fight.
Hot tears streamed down his face.
He'd seen him – the other Iron Man standing right by Doctor Doom, taking his place behind the throne of Thanos. Perhaps it was another man inside that armor, but in the moment the only thing he had been thinking was: “I caused his death. I killed Steve. That other me let him die, helped killing him and did nothing.”
Sobs broke their way out of his chest.
“You're here. It's okay,” Steve whispered and his hands where busy pushing up Tony's black t-shirt. He hadn't even bothered with the under armor.
“I can't talk about this,” he tried to say between sobs.
“That's fine. You're fine. You came back to us, to me,” Steve whispered and gently inspected his stab wound, set about cleaning it, patching it up. “You'll live. You're a tough one, Tony.” He used a compress to press against the bleeding wound, let his fingers search for other cuts and bruises, found another cut on Tony's face that he cleaned, gently.
“Tony, you're fine, whatever happened,” he whispered, “it's one world. One place. You can't be everywhere. It's not your fault. You’re doing your best.”
He sobbed again, tried to keep it in by pressing a hand to his mouth.
Steve's arms held him. He was rocked gently in his hold while his crying died down.
“I'm sorry,” Steve whispered. “You're always so strong for everyone else, don't let this defeat you.”
That was what Steve didn't get: Tony had been defeated from the start.
Soft lips pressed a kiss to the cut on his cheek.
It startled him out of the dark reeling thoughts and memories of the Iron Man armor standing unmoving beside Thanos. “Steve,” he breathed, wanted - and yet didn't want - to say: “Stop.”
This time the longing bubbled over, sounded like a scream through his traumatized mind. Just now he had lost Steve all over again, and here he was still. He was so weak. He was so terribly weak against Steve.
Steve delved in, kissing him, his fingers moving up along Tony's stomach, carefully avoiding his wound and pushing the t-shirt out of the way completely.
“We weren't... I kissed him, but we weren't yet... Not like this,” he whispered when he felt Tony writhing against him. “It’s not like we would be…”
“He and I were,” Tony half-sobbed, wished that mouth back on his to make the sounds and words stop.
“I know, I know. Please, I'm so glad you're alive. You scared me to death, I thought... With all the blood,” Steve whispered, trailing kisses along his neck and pressing a soft kiss against the sensitive spot beneath his ear.
Tony was lost.
He had nothing left to fight this gentleness with. And he didn’t want to. This was what he needed, craved, missed, recognized and knew. He met Steve's kisses, gave into the caresses, clung to Steve like a lifeline.
He knew he wouldn't be strong enough to say no.
And Steve wanted him to say yes.
Their loneliness had turned into a tornado of longing; they needed the touch, the reminder of life and happiness and hope. He let it happen, unable to control himself. He let Steve push him back on the metal table he was sitting on, opened his legs to let him slip between them, as they gasped and moaned together, thoughts fleeing in the heat of the moment and the loving feel of each other.
Helpless, still reeling from the lost fight, he let himself be pulled down, down into the blissful oblivion of pleasure.
Chapter 7: 7.
Warning: There's MCU!Steve/616!Tony relationship stuff happening while MCU!Tony is in a coma.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
He woke alone, wondered why Tony had chosen to leave the bed without waking him and after a short moment of doubt, Steve found that he didn't regret a thing.
He had missed too many chances to have any kind of happiness to beat himself up now for having taken Tony to bed. The thing he was more worried about was how Tony would feel about it after he had time to think. Because he was Tony. He would overthink.
Tony – just like his Tony – had too many masks to hide behind and sometimes it was hard to tell what he was feeling, because even when he showed his emotions readily, there might be other things going on under the surface, complicated emotions hidden behind layers of the once he wanted to let you see. Yesterday Tony had been in a bad place, perhaps in the worst place to make decisions. Perhaps Steve should have offered nothing more than a hug and comfort. But the spark had been simmering between them for weeks by then and Steve didn't see why he should put out a flame that had the potential to warm and sustain them both.
Life had been bleak and lonely.
And it had the potential to get worse. The constant worry was wearing both of them down the grief, the fear of crisis.
He tried to find Tony to talk about what had happened, but apparently, he had taken Carol up to space so she could have a look at his Quinjet. They'd made plans to bring it down as soon as they knew it would survive re-entry into Earth's atmosphere despite the hull breaches that Tony had only patched up. It felt like a deliberate choice on Tony's part to put some distance between them right now.
So Steve was left to make his confession to another Tony.
“He's not giving up on you,” he told Tony. “I think that's when I knew that I felt more than a confused attraction to a face that was too much like yours. He's you. He doesn't accept what facts tell him to be impossible. He tries to make it possible – like you would.”
There was no noise in the room. Even the machines here were silent and it made it eerier than the hospital.
“I slept with him,” he admitted and watched Tony's chest rise and fall. “I love you and I miss you so much, Tony. You need to wake up. But you need to know that this wasn't just an easy way to... I don't know, replace you?” The word made him uncomfortable. “Nobody could replace you. But he is you – and yet he's so different. He's been through so much. I think he and I share something. We... Do you think you can love two people?”
It was confusing. And he wasn't sure he wanted the team to comment on it when they found out. Was he loving two people – or was he loving Tony in two different bodies?
Even thinking about it made him uncomfortable.
No, he was drawn to both of them. He admired different things about both men, although he was attracted by their looks that were so similar as well and there was no use denying it. He had a type and his type it seemed was Tony.
That wasn't the most important though.
“Is that how you feel?”
Tony was standing in the doorway, hands in the pockets of his black jeans. Steve hadn't heard him coming.
“You're starting to sneak around the place like Cat.”
Not taking offense, Tony shrugged. He looked calm. The cut on his cheek was inflamed and red and he was leaning on the door frame to steady himself.
Steve wondered if he'd let anyone look at the stab wound if anyone had helped Tony to change the dressing they'd applied to it yesterday evening. If not, he would do it.
“How much have you heard?”
“Enough,” Tony said and his mouth moved into a quick, tired smile that was gone as soon as it had registered with Steve.
“Yes,” Steve said. “It's how I feel about both of you.”
Tony nodded, taking the information at face value and evaluating it.
Steve felt compelled to admit: “I'm not sure what this is or how it will work.” He was painfully aware of Tony watching his hand hold the other Tony's in a tight grasp.
“I watched you die yesterday and I was about to shatter,” Tony explained – and nobody should be allowed to say something like this in such a calm voice. “You put me back together. It doesn't have to be more than that.”
He knew that Tony was offering a gentle way out, but it hurt to hear it. “I'm not going to hurt you,” he offered. “I know this might get complicated, but you're here and alive and I'm here and alive. Why shouldn't we make the best of it?”
“True,” Tony said and turned to lean his back against the door frame, let his head sink back against it with a sigh. His sad look said: “Because you can destroy me.”
Steve recognized it now.
Because he had seen it on Tony's face once when things between them had fallen apart.
He looked at the Tony in the bed, with the unhealthy pallor and the hints of gray in the brown hair around the temples.
Nothing had changed there. He needed Tony. He was desperate for him to wake up. But at the same time, he was beginning to feel that the brave man standing in the door, hiding how much his wounds were affecting him also needed someone on his side. Someone who cared for him deeply.
And he did.
Would Tony understand that? Either of them?
“I do have one more idea we can try,” Tony said tiredly and rubbed at his temple. He was watching the body on the bed, contemplating options. “Maybe that'll work.”
Despite the woken desire they didn't fall into a torrid affair. Steve allowed himself to touch Tony more often – settle his hands at his shoulders, on the small of his back, stroke his fingers along his hands. So far Tony kept from initiating anything, but Steve could see how he leaned into every little touch. It was so obvious now that he knew all about this Tony: He must have been without any human contact for months.
When Tony declined an offer to stay in his room, Steve turned up in his instead – to sleep. And Tony didn't have the heart to send him away.
Steve lay awake on the bed, protectively wrapped around Tony who, exhausted, had fallen into a restless slumber. Cat turned up her nose at him when she realized she now had to share the bed with two humans who were taking up all the space and consequently made the hierarchy clear by stepping over him, to press her little body between them.
“We'll work that out,” Steve whispered softly and tickled her behind one ear until she started purring. “We can learn how to share.”
A group of Shi'ar rebels requested a meeting with the Avengers and Steve half expected to run straight into a trap. But he went because it was important to establish Earth's place in this greater universe. Trouble did happen when Imperial Guards got involved and it took him a full two days to wrap the whole thing up by the grace of Thor's ax and Carol's sweetly delivered threats.
Steve wished he had Iron Man with him. Their Tony was always good in a situation like this – and he hadn't actually fought side by side yet with the other Tony.
He wanted to see how well they would work together in the field. The unbidden thought, hopefully as well as in bed, sprang into his mind unbidden.
So far Tony had declined though.
He was keeping himself busy, working on his Quinjet and trying to find a solution for their Tony. At some point, Steve really wanted to take him out of the Compound, make sure he stopped working, saw something more of their universe than workspaces, hospital rooms and old empty mansions.
When Steve arrived back at the mansion he found Banner together with Tony by Tony's bed in their spacious sickbay.
“We wanted to try something.”
“I have another strand of Extremis in me than the one that was developed in your universe.”
“Quite something,” Bruce added and he sounded interested and cautious all at once – like they were cooking up another Ultron.
“This isn't going to be Ultron all over again?” Steve decided to cut to the chase.
“Ultron?” Tony sounded confused. “What does Hank Pym's menace have to do with this?”
“Pym's?” Both Bruce and Steve stared at Tony.
“Another difference?” Tony asked. “Don't tell me you made Ultron, Banner? Wasn't Gamma Radiation enough for you anymore?”
Steve blinked. But it was Bruce who nearly broke down laughing.
He had waited in Tony's room for an hour and not seen hair nor hide of him until he had ultimately lost patience and had gone looking for him. He found Tony in the hangar. He was wearing a red and gold Iron Man armor that looked about as advanced as the one he’d seen their Tony wear recently, but he wasn't wearing the helmet. With the armor, he was flying his way around the Quinjet, checklist in hand.
Again Steve had a feeling that Tony was trying to prepare for a mission he wasn’t sure he would want to come back from. The closer they got, the more he feared Tony was going to return to his life out there alone in the multiverse again and leave him behind.
Their sudden closeness, Steve knew, still scared him.
“I’ve lost a Steve before. And you’re in love with another me,” Tony had admitted to him when Steve had kissed him in the shower this morning. “It’s all out of step and full of possible complications. Let’s keep it casual and not make it more dramatic than it needs to be, please. I ran out of my capacity for drama recently.”
“Yes,” he had whispered back, because he sat by Tony’s bed every day and had continued to do so since this thing had started, and had to admit that he wasn’t sure what scared him more: That Tony would hate him for having started something with another him, or that his Tony hadn’t really been that interested in the first place and wouldn’t care at all.
Right now he really had no idea where his life would go if Tony didn’t wake up. Could he ask it of the other Tony, his casual partner and friend, to fight Thanos alongside him? Wasn’t Tony doing enough?
You only have to ask. He will do it, he thought and knew with unshakable certainty that it was true. You’re not the other Steve he would rip all of the multiverse apart to get back, but he would do it for you anyway if you’d ask.
That much love and devotion was scary; it was too much. And he couldn’t help wonder: Isn’t Tony like this? Throwing himself all in when he takes up a project when he decides to build a superhero team, a Tower, an armor? Would things have been different if I’d asked him about this before Zemo manipulated me like he did?
He would never know.
“How is it going?” Steve asked when it seemed like Tony was too focused on his work with the Quinjet to even notice him.
Tony startled and smiled.
That put some of Steve’s fears to rest for now.
“Good, I’ll be done with this soon. Good as new, the old lady.”
He laughed up at Tony. “Not as old as me.”
Iron Man landed right in front of him and grinned: “True, but you're ancient.”
They kissed, briefly.
Like this was beginning to be normal.
And Steve liked it.
He returned from a mission with Natasha and Clint. Little Lila Barton came running towards them down the hall. “The cat snuck into Tony’s room,” she declared with a grin when her father scooped her up and balanced her on the shoulders.
“She lives in Tony’s room, sweetie,” Clint said and grinned towards his son Cooper, who rounded the corner at a more sedate pace.
“Nah,” the little girl declared. “The other Tony.”
Steve wondered how Tony had taken that - and how other Tony would take having a cat around if he knew. Did their Tony even like cats?
“What did blue eyes say to that?” Clint asked and Lila shrugged.
“He was just glad he found her I think. She didn’t show up for food and he got worried.”
Steve chuckled. Tony was making it a point of telling everyone that the cat owned him and there was something to it.
“At least Cap will know where he can find everyone. Right there neatly stacked in one place.”
He knew Natasha was onto them and he had more than a feeling that Clint knew exactly what he and Tony got up to between the sheets. Nobody had yet outright commented on it, not even Thor who had clapped him on the shoulder once and nodded as if he was quite proud of this development. Nobody had yet asked what it meant for them or what it would mean for him and Tony when there was more than one Tony around.
Steve still hadn’t figured it out himself, so he was glad nobody was barraging him with questions.
Tony insisted there would be no hard feelings and he’d step aside easily when the time came. But did Steve want that?
“Oh, Steve,” Natasha whispered from beside him. “You’re in so much trouble. I wish Sam were here to give you a lecture, because, oh boy.”
“You were thinking about two Tonys in one room and it got dirty, old man,” Clint said, holding his hands over Lila’s ears as if that would help.
Steve nearly missed a step.
“Oh god,” Clint exclaimed and then laughed. “Now you are actually thinking about it.”
Clint and the kids bounded up the stairs then. Copper asked: “About what?”
Steve felt like his face was melting off from embarrassment.
He was thinking about it now.
“Hey soldier,” Natasha said, “I don’t care how many Tonys you want to get it on with, but make sure he doesn’t get hurt.”
“Blue eyes, sad all the time, less sad right now but worried. Tall, quite handsome. A bit quiet for a Stark,” she listed. “But all three of you really. This could get complicated.”
“God,” he said and tried to smile. “I’ll take all complications if only both of them could manage to stay alive and healthy for any significant amount of time.”
Because “blue eyes” had returned with bad bruises yesterday and Steve had felt like he should just lock him in his room and throw away the key until he took fewer risks.
Big chance of that happening...
Natasha pursed her lips. “Good luck with that, Mr. I don’t need a parachute.”
“Beside the point.”
“No,” she said. “It really isn’t.”
She left him at the top of the stairs to walk to her own room and he immediately made his way over to the sick bay.
While one Tony was lying in the bed, looking worse and thinner than ever, a cat latched to his side atop the covers, stretched out and purring gently, the other one was sitting in a corner typing on his laptop.
His expression was tight and focused.
This wasn’t about the cat? Surely?
Steve quietly let himself into the room. “Something wrong?” He raised an eye at Cat.
Tony looked over his shoulder. “I thought it might help. At least I was sure it wouldn’t do harm. And I’m here to keep an eye on her.”
That made sense.
Could Tony feel the warmth? The small heart beating beside his?
He really looked terrible.
“How bad is it?”
“Bad,” Tony admitted. “Something is putting stress on him and we can’t find the source. And the nanites don’t move. They should be moving. How can they just be still?”
Data was running on the monitor while Tony was typing. He had set up all kinds of more enhanced scanners and Steve wasn’t sure he understood what all of them were doing.
Tony nodded. “I’m working on it.”
“I know.” He stepped over to press a kiss to Tony’s temple and sat down beside Tony’s bed, reaching for his fingers. Cat, stirred by the motion or his presence, opened her green eyes just a slit and stretched out her paw to catch his hand - as if she was trying to stop Steve from stroking Tony’s by now bony fingers.
“Hey,” he said softly. “We really need to come to an arrangement, you and I.”
“What the fuck?” Tony shouted, startling both him and the cat. “There is a temporal anomaly.”
“What?” He startled. “Another mission? Now?”
Don’t go! Don’t leave me here when every day might be the last for…
“No! It’s here. It’s in his fucking bloodstream. The temporal energy we scanned coming off him! It’s right in his bloodstream,” Tony rattled off. “The nanites. I have to tell, Banner. This might be it.”
Steve couldn’t say he understood what this meant or why Bruce and Tony looked like they had a new clue. What he heard sounded dangerous and not at all safe.
“You don’t know what it means though?”
“No,” Bruce admitted, “but we can find out now. We're on the right track.”
Steve got his hopes up for a quick solution, but then for four days, nothing happened. Tony and Bruce vanished behind charts, spent time thinking up and testing theories with F.R.I.D.A.Y. and R.E.E.D. - and then before they had come to any conclusions, R.E.E.D. loudly announced: “Emergency. Incursion imminent on Earth 780.”
He knew that “incursion” was the kind of word that scared Tony. Predictably, Tony was up and out of the room immediately. There was no stopping him.
“Let me come with you,” he heard himself shout before he sprinted after him. “I can’t help here, but at least I can make sure you’re not coming back all banged up again, Tony.”
They got stuck for longer than expected. Time, Tony explained with a calm that Steve didn’t share, had gone wonky because someone had crossed a timeline once too often and caused a paradox.
“From the looks of it… you,” Tony told him and tried not to look too uncomfortable about it, but from where Steve was sitting he was failing at it.
“We mess up the universe quite often, you and I?”
“Relatively speaking everyone does. Just takes the right motivators.”
He let Tony review some of the data.
“Why did I?”
R.E.E.D.’s voice piped up then. “In 2016 Tony Stark retired as Iron Man to live a life with her husband out of the public eye.”
“Husband,” Tony repeated with a startled lack of breath.
To illustrate R.E.E.D. projected pictures of the news headlines for them.
“Me,” Steve said and, startled, realized that “Tony” in this world was short for Antonetta Margaret Stark and nobody had known that she was piloting the armor until about 3 years ago.
“She died when a sniper tried to shoot Captain America after they resumed their identities temporarily to attend public meetings about the Superhuman Registration Act in Washington. The bullet went clean through her heart, destroying part of the RT in her chest before she could call up any sheen of protective armor.”
Tony had gone pale when more pictures gathered around them.
Something about this spooked him. Did he recognize some of this? How?
“What did I… What did Steve Rogers do?”
“He used the Infinity Stones to reset the timeline, and he started to do so every time something went wrong. He did so more and more frequently – went back to change their lives for the better.”
“Oh.” Steve tried to imagine the grief it would take to drive him down that road and realized he didn’t have to look far. “Is this the kind of thing you deal with every time a temporal anomaly is detected?”
Tony answered with an unhappy shrug. “Not the exact scenario, but you're getting the idea. At least it’s you. You can reason with yourself,” Tony suggested. “I’m not even going to try.”
Steve looked at him.
Nervously Tony was chewing the inside if his lip.
Then Steve leaned in to kiss him. He could only imagine how much suffering Tony must have seen long before he'd stumbled into their universe.
Tony was so startled that he just melted into the touch.
When Steve pulled away, he said: “We should both reason with him. There’s always hope.”
“That would be true,” Tony said, “if Steve Rogers were the problem that started the fracturing of timelines. But that,” he said, “is on Kang again.”
“The blue… time traveler?”
“Well, Mr. Man out of Time, he has a special love for you. To be honest, he hates us all. Whatever other you did to save his wife, will have affected Kang's future reign.”
“Sounds like we have our way cut out for us?”
“We usually do,” Tony agreed and he looked like with Steve he was able to take on the whole multiverse if he had to. “Never stopped us before.”
They returned to the Compound with the satisfying feeling of having saved a world, and the sad realization that they’d left behind a grief-stricken Captain America.
“Let’s wake up your Tony,” Tony said with a wane smile, while they walked out of the hangar and to the main living era. “I need to feel like I’m helping someone towards a happy ending.”
Steve felt like he should tell Tony that being with him was enough - but the truth was Steve still missed the Tony he’d pined after for far too long. And he wanted him awake.
What’s wrong with me? Can I never be happy with what I have?
As if on queue laughter drifted over to them from the kitchen. Natasha and the kids were laughing. Clint, too, who rarely laughed the unstrained real laugh he’d given so easily before. The kids were giggling and there was another voice joining in. Steve and Tony rounded the corner and Steve froze in his tracks.
It was like the floor had been pulled out right from under his feet.
“You’re back!” Laura greeted. “We’ve kept some stew for you. Are you hungry? You must be starving after traveling the multiverse.”
“How is this possible?” Steve whispered.
“Possible?” Everyone was looking back at him surprised.
Tony stood behind him in the door and he too was gauging Sam who studied him calmly in turn. “Stark,” Sam said cautiously. “You brought Steve back. We really appreciate it.”
“You’re welcome,” Tony said slowly, and then added: “Sam.”
“What’s wrong, Steve?” Sam asked and Steve focused back on him, forced his eyes away from Laura. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost, man.”
A hand settled on Steve's shoulder; Tony was right there offering support, his blue eyes narrowed and concentrated. “I do have a theory,” he muttered and grabbed Steve by the arm. “Come with me.”
“Steve,” Sam asked, “seriously, man, what’s wrong?”
But he followed Tony, too overwhelmed to do anything else. “How is this possible, Tony?”
“I may not be the right Tony to answer that question.”
They reached the sick bay, reached Tony lying in his bed. At first glance, there was no change. The temporal scanners were still recording, the machines monitoring Tony were also still taking readings.
Tony was still caught in his coma.
But his face had regained some color.
Not sure what to make of this, Steve turned to the Tony at his side: “What happened?”
Tony was looking at the readings. “He’s waking up. Will take a bit, but he's coming out of it. I think he did it?”
“It? Sam? Laura? Are you saying Tony did all this?”
Tony huffed. “I think he did it, yeah.” And with the little knowledge that Steve had acquired of time, and temporal distortions and the spaces of non-time in between, he too realized that there were spikes there in the reading that were out of the ordinary.
Tony laughed. It looked like he understood much more now about what had happened, but wasn't sure how to explain it.
T’Challa contacted them from Wakanda to inquire about the incursion he and Tony had tried to solve. Steve was speechless. The young king of Wakanda had just returned from the abyss like he’d always been there and never been gone - and Wakanda and the world were richer and safer for it.
“The White Wolf sends his regards,” T'Challa said formally.
Steve closed his eyes, tried to deal with the idea of it. “Tell Bucky to come visit when he has the time,” he said, his voice nearly failing him.
Everyone was returning and nobody seemed aware.
“That’s because they were here when it happened,” Tony explained to him. He looked tired and subdued.
“And we remember because we weren’t?”
“When time straightened itself out, we were in another universe, Steve. Or we wouldn’t have noticed.”
“You have to explain this to me,” he said and watched Tony set up R.E.E.D. via a phasing platform, to make sure at least Tony and R.E.E.D. would know what changes were still happening around them.
“Can I help?” Wanda asked from the doorway.
“Thank you, Wanda,” Steve answered her quickly. “We’re figuring it out. Don’t worry.”
He was still confused as hell, but at least Tony would wake up. Everything seemed to pale in light of that knowledge.
Tony laughed at him until he had tears in his eyes, but Steve - now only eyes for the sleeping body in the bed, had no idea why he found the situation so funny.
“Wanda,” Tony pointed out.
“Yes,” Steve said, “what about her?”
When Tony finally woke up from his months-long coma, Steve was sitting by his side, holding his hand like he’d done so often in the last few excruciating weeks. His brown eyes blinked open slowly. “Hi,” he said, voice dry like sandpaper and raw from disuse. “Did somebody kiss me?”
Steve laughed, nearly threw himself at him and kissed him for real. He carefully hugged him instead.
Tony patted a hand to his back and made soothing noises. “I missed you too, Cap, so much, but I had to do this.”
Elated to finally be able to kiss and hold and communicate, to ask and get answers, he turned towards the other Tony and wanted to ask: “Is this real?”
But Tony wasn't in the room anymore.
“What did you do, Tony? What did you do?” Steve whispered brokenly.
Tony grinned tiredly. “There was a time-traveling despot and I really wanted to send him back where he'd come from. And then... He wanted you gone, Steve. He wanted to completely scratch out any trace of your existence. He said you're waking up in the future had upset everything for his future. Couldn't have that, could I?”
Tony shrugged, awkwardly.
Steve realized that he looked rested and like he'd simply woken from a very long sleep. Tony's cheekbones stood out a bit more than he remembered, but the breath of death that had clung to him was gone. Even his tired eyes twinkled with mirth.
“Tony, did you... Everyone is back and...? What did you do?”
Tony's hand grasped his tightly. “Cap,” he said, “I missed you. It was an exhausting ride and I got stuck. Now where is he?”
He sensed that Tony was asking for his counterpart. “How, Tony, how? How did you influence any of this in your state? And how can you know about Tony?”
“He hacked Kang's chair. I expect he got unstuck in time or stuck out of it?” The blue-eyed tall Tony stood in the hallway, looking in through the open door, Doctor Strange at his side. Steve had never formally met the sorcerer, but he knew enough from the footage to recognize the flamboyant red cloak.
“Hi,” Tony said tiredly from the bed and grinned at Strange. “Doctor's orders?”
“Stay in bed,” Strange said without mirth. “Your counterpart here says he has seen someone unstuck in time before. He'll deal with you.”
“Yeah, but when it happened to Steve he couldn't change any of the past he could only relive it.”
The tired Tony on the bed chuckled. “Aren't you all proud of me? I nudged a bit here and there and... Poof. Everything back to normal.”
“How?” Steve repeated and laced their fingers tightly together.
“The nanites in his blood became an impromptu time machine, tied to Kang's chair? But you couldn't get out of there alone, could you? You got frozen in it?”
“The nanites froze before I could get anywhere,” Tony admitted and Steve helped him when he tried to sit up to meet his visitors properly. He and the other Tony started taking each other's measure with the eyes. “Aren't you handsome?” Tony asked absentmindedly, then continued in his previous line of thought: “You saved me. Whatever you did there that pushed the nanites back into action, it allowed me to see this through.”
The other Tony nodded. It was eerie to see them interact so easily.
And also good.
This wasn't a dream.
They were both here alive, talking to each other.
“You're welcome,” the taller of the two Tonys said and nodded. “I'll leave you two to play catch up now.” He nodded at Steve and then swiftly turned and walked away, leaving a blinking Strange alone in the doorway.
“More than one Tony Stark? We're either the safest planet or the one most at risk now.”
Tony chuckled quietly at Strange's comment and let himself fall back into the cushions.
The first evening he helped Tony settle back into his own room. Steve was too nervous to let him out of his sight.
“I'm not going anywhere, Steve.” There was a warmth in Tony's warm brown eyes that he had missed before, but that had been there for years. Why had it taken all this to make him realize it?
“Can I kiss you now?”
“I thought you'd never ask.”
They made out careful and soft and gentle on Tony's bed that had room to spare.
“Why did we waste so much time?” Tony whispered. And Steve had no answer. He only knew he didn't want to let Tony out of his sight or embrace ever again.
Steve knew he couldn't put up talking to both Tonys anymore now that they were both here. Tony had sprung back into life like the force of nature he was, and the other Tony had quietly pulled back and out of sight like a shadow. From what little Steve saw of him the next day, he knew he was keeping busy, kept his mind on problems and the solving of them to not think, to not let himself fall apart. He was giving them their space and at the same time pulled up walls around himself.
Cat came to visit them in the kitchen when Steve had his first real breakfast with “their” Tony after the world had shifted back into place.
“Hi,” Tony said bemusedly. He stroked her soft fur and then watched her wolf down food like she hadn't been fed in ages. “I think I knew there was a cat here. Was there a cat here before?”
“Tony brought her,” Steve said and wasn't sure why he felt awkward now about mentioning it.
Tony studied him. He was dressed in a silvery business suit but without the jacket for now, because he had a press conference scheduled to announce his recovery. The world was still putting itself back together. Thanos was still out there, but whatever small changes Tony had made to their timelines, they'd been enough to change the worst. And Steve remembered it.
And so did Tony, he realized when he heard him make a strangled sound of distressed relief when he saw footage of Spider-Man slinging through New York.
He hugged and kissed him then, deepening the kiss the moment Tony let him to allow them both to feel the presence, the new here and now, and the length they had gone to get here.
After the press conference, Tony vanished to take care of business and Steve decided it was as good a time as any to finally go and talk to Tony's counterpart. His feelings about both Tonys had still not straightened out. He'd been so excited for Tony's recovery that he had ignored the man without whom he wouldn't have gotten through the worst of the grief before – and now that he had time to think over his actions he regretted them.
He had known that Tony would pull back, that he would take this as a sign that he was no longer needed or wanted.
He had told his Tony about their relationship though and Tony had only casually shrugged as if he didn't mind as if he'd known all along. It hadn't seemed like a big deal then.
Now Steve thought all of this had the potential for disaster.
He didn't want either Tony to be jealous, he didn't want the other Tony to quietly take his Quinjet and leave either.
“Where is Tony?” he asked of R.E.E.D. and hoped he didn't need to specify.
“He is in his room,” R.E.E.D. provided without the need for more input.
He walked the few meters over to the living quarters and found Tony's door open.
That was strange.
And suddenly Steve was gripped by the fear that Tony had already cleared out, had already packed his few possessions and armors and was ready to leave this universe behind now that there was no more mission for him here.
I am here.
But you have someone else now...
“Tony!” he called and looked into the room. He startled.
Tony's tall back was turned to him and he was wearing a nice black suit this time as if he'd been ready to go out, but that wasn't the startling thing. The startling thing was that his Tony was there, pulling out of a kiss and looking at him from over the taller man's shoulder one hand on the small of the other Tony's back.
Steve's gazed latched back on the other man and his soft blue eyes and the now slightly mischievous grin on his lips. “Tony is trying to convince me that I shouldn't.”
His throat suddenly dry Steve fully stepped into the room, pulled the door shut behind himself and stared. “You can't leave,” he said and hoped his voice carried authority. “This is your home now.”
“See?” the brown-eyed Tony of his universe whispered and leaned up to steal another kiss, quick and chaste, but knowledgeable and insistent. “He wants you to stay, because, god, he wants you. And you and I...”
The other Tony gasped when Tony stroked his hand up his back and with the other pulled him down into a harder open-mouthed kiss.
“We can work it out,” his Tony whispered.
Steve stared, transfixed by the display they made, by the lust in both pairs of eyes. “Let's work it out,” he agreed and with a few long strides was behind Tony, wrapping his arms around both of them, pressing a kiss to a lithe neck and then pressing a kiss to his Tony's lips across the taller Tony's shoulder. “I missed you so much.”
“He just likes our problem-solving skills and creative thinking.”
The Tony in the middle gasped. He could feel Steve's erection press against his buttocks despite the clothes between them. “I can't fault him. We're so good at that.”
The bed was too small for this, but they made it work. His Tony pulled the other one down with him, settled against the headboard, while the other undid his fly and zipper to free his cock, to wrap his lips around it – and Steve followed pressing down on him as he had a few nights before, making him gasp and writhe and moan around Tony's cock.
Brown eyes dilated, Tony grinned at Steve and mouthed. “Didn't know you had it in you.”
He grinned, left a small bite mark on the other Tony's neck, making him moan even more around the erection he was working until the other Tony couldn't take it anymore and gasped, let his head fall back, no longer able to still the movement of his hips. “Yes,” he hissed and threaded his fingers into hair that was slightly darker than his own.
It was too much. Steve shrugged out of his own clothes, helped Tony get his pants off, kissed a line along his back, and stroked where he could reach. “You'll be the death of me,” he whispered. “Both of you.”
With a bobbing sound Tony's cock slid from his counterpart's mouth. “No dying allowed today. Steve, please...”
And who was he to deny so delicious a plea?
He kissed the smug grin away from his smart genius Tony's face, who he knew was proud that he had gotten them into bed so easily. But then there was no more room for smugness and competition, as it all dissolved into touching, kissing, as they were as close and bound to each other as you could be, three bodies becoming one in the pursuit of pleasure.
They didn't share the words, but he and Tony had decided to keep Tony's other universe counterpart between them. Even now when they lay tangled together, stroking skin where they could reach, not caring who they were caressing because it was all equally good and welcome, they made sure to frame him with their body.
Tony tangled his fingers again in the darker strands of hair. The other Tony was resting half on top of him, but he didn't seem to mind.
Steve had his arms wrapped as far around both of them as he could. The arm trapped beneath them was falling asleep, but he didn't want to move or do anything about it. He didn't want this moment to break.
“Okay now?” Tony asked - brown eyed Tony. He would have to find better ways to separate them in his mind, because there was no longer my Tony and the other Tony. They were both his Tony now, he hoped. If they had convinced their lover to stay.
“I'm not sure,” Tony admitted from between them. “I'm not sure I'll ever be okay.”
“Yeah,” Tony agreed and smiled sadly at Steve. “That's us. But you saved me. You helped me pull out of it and save the world. You deserve some rest.”
Tony buried his face in the crock of Tony's neck and whispered. “I'll try,” he promised.
“We'll help you,” Steve added and painted the promise into his skin with lips and tongue and teeth.
After all Tony, both Tonys, was what gave him hope.
Don't leave before the credits are through!! It's Marvel!
Chapter 8: Post credit scene I
“R.E.E.D., send the data to Carol, please? I think we're receiving deep space signals from a new location,” Tony ordered. His blue eyes were focused on a new set of readings, scratching Cat behind one ear while she purred. She'd found the perfect space for herself right beside his keyboard.
“Your partners want to remind you that it's date night,” the AI answered. “F.R.I.D.A.Y. is threatening to hack our lab if you don't come out in time.”
“Let her try,” Tony said, amused at the antics of their two AIs who had quietly started running different parts of the facility and were as competitive as he and Tony were.
It had been a good year. He had found hope and a home.
He was still going out to do what he could to safeguard the multiverse.
Thanos was still out there and threatened to come for the gems again – just this time they would be prepared on a whole different level.
And Tony? He was content here, but that didn't mean he had stopped his search. Others might still have survived the destruction of his home universe and if he wasn't the only survivor then he wanted to know, even if he had found stability and happiness here now.
“Trace the signature readings from the last mission again and check them against the radiation signatures of the last incursion at home. They're unlikely to be a match, but who knows. I'll be back after date night.”
The AI ran the calculations.
Not half an hour later, the conclusion on the screen read “MATCH”.
It had been a hard year, but finally they were making it work. “I'm coming back in now,” he announced to the comms. Open the city gates for me, please.”
“Roger that, Cap,” Carol answered.
Walking through the hot sand was difficult and he was glad to see the city Dome appear before him.
He'd only gone out to make sure their arc antenna was configured in the right way. Reed had insisted it needed the adjustments to give them a better chance to find what they were looking for.
The needle in the haystack.
Even a more than a year after the incursion event that had changed everything, Steve hadn't given up hope that Tony had been stuck somewhere in a pocket of non-time, that he'd pop up here someday and tell them all about his adventures, safe and sane and hole.
He knew the others were humoring him because they understood.
Everyone had lost so much.
But he wasn't giving up.
“Doors opening now,” Carol announced. “Welcome home, Captain America.”
He smiled. Their little settlement on this harsh planet surface was always a sight to behold a reminder that he should never give up hope.
If Tony was still out there, then Steve would find him.
Steve Rogers, Tony Stark, Tony Stark (and maybe one more Steve?) will return!
Thank you for reading.