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Of Things Lost in Time

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There's the siren song, the emerald green waters calling to him towards their cold, dark bosom. The war is over. You can go home. He fails to recall the feeling the word once triggered inside him, to associate it with meaning. It tastes as foreign as dust and ashes once did in his mouth.

"Where," Steve whispers. He doesn't remember what he's doing here, eighty or so stories above ground. Other than that light, it's nearly pitch-black among the ruins of the city, and now that they've won, he's a soldier without anything to fight for and no place to go.

As if they could tell what's on his mind, the waves glisten below, beckoning. They are one thousand butterflies ready to break his fall. Wherever you desire, they answer, and he reaches out, lets himself fall, tries to catch their glow—

Disappears.

 

*

 

He's flung against a thick steel beam whose shape he can feel through the kevlar, the kind of sturdy that would have snapped his spine like a twig had the serum never worked. It doesn't take the air out of his lungs, not quite, but the disconnect between where his brain says his body should be and where it actually is does, and just as he's beginning to sort himself out, he feels a familiar sharp-edged pressure that oozes and bursts inside his skull like overripe fruit.

The laughter. The flashes. The orchestra. The wrongness. The ballroom's walls are painted a pale green that reminds him of the overcrowded hospitals they sent the wounded to because this is what war is like for the rest of mortals who don't have an accelerated healing rate: death knocking at their doors and little glory other than the polite, customary letters their families get back home long after there's nothing left to do for them but arrange a burial.

"Are you ready for our dance?"

The brush of her fingers against his arm is soft, a delicate ripple of warmth, and still, he doesn't turn. He knows, because he's been through this before, that this isn't real. He knows the exact weight of her coffin as it pressed against the pad of his shoulder. Light, barely there. Unforgettable.

"You're gone," he whispers, but the music and the guffawing and the scuffles at the edge of the ballroom are too loud.

In the half-light, her skin looks pale, the color of freshly molten wax. "We can go home. Imagine it," Peggy says.

He looks again and there's no one left. The ballroom is empty and lined with unblinking yellow-green lights and the war is over, yes, but not this one.

He snaps out of it the way he did before. He stumbles, drops his cowl, and this is new—he throws up. The vision is well behind him and everything is still wrong, and if this is a nightmare, then he should be waking up right about now, jaw locked and nails biting into the flesh of his palms and heart thumping as if his chest were still too narrow to hold it in.

Instead, he hears the Hulk roar. His ears are ringing and his balance is still thrown, but dream or not, he never really learned how to ignore situations pointing south, did he—

And you aren't about to start now. He pictures Tony saying it, not for the first time.

"No, I'm not," Steve says, stands up, and if he doesn't fall on his ass, it's all because of momentum. He's not as lucky outside Klaue's ship. He slips, gets a splatter of mud all over his uniform as he breaks the fall, but he picks himself up and keeps going. The quinjet isn't far away. Bruce is already on his way to the city.

"You got no backup here," Clint says over the comms.

"I'm calling in Veronica," Tony replies, and the sound of his voice almost makes him crash against the side of the quinjet.

"I'm here," Steve says, breathing through his mouth. The door closes, the quinjet goes airborne in the blink of an eye, and then he's following right behind. I'm here, he thinks, and this is his kind of thing, isn't it? Waking up in the middle of things with the world spinning around him and making do anyway, and the idea that this might be real too, that it might not be a dream after all, sends a shiver down his spine. Eighty stories of free falling, except he never made it down below or he'd have gone splat on the sidewalk.

"Cap."

That single word makes him focus, here where the past diverges. He looks ahead, at the patches of green along the ground giving way to small clusters of houses and then skyscrapers farther down the road. There's the familiar flash of red and gold coursing through the sky too, and he shouldn't smile, not here, not now, not with everything that's yet to come and so many things at stake, but the urge is there all the same.

He doesn't indulge himself. He's not the type. "Where is he?"

"Follow the sound," Tony says, sending him the same live feeds he's getting.

"That's not going to hold," Steve says as soon as he sees the cage holding Bruce inside, sunlight glinting off the metal. The ground around it is already caving in, crumbling to pieces. It vibrates under them, shockwaves sending car alarms blaring and people on unsteady feet holding on to what they can not to fall.

Bruce's power is raw, anger tapped straight from the source, a well that doesn't ever dry, and deep down, lock upon lock and still not as safely kept as Steve would like, he recognizes the inferno. He's wondered more than once how could Erskine be so sure this is not what he would become instead. His worst impulses, unleashed.

I don't trust a guy without a dark side. Call me old-fashioned.

Well, let's just say you haven't seen it yet.

"I'm on it," Tony replies at the same time that Steve flinches at the memory. The Hulkbuster armor wraps itself around him, and here's what the quinjet can do meanwhile, engage from a distance, shield civilians as the pavement breaks under Bruce and the armor's full weight.

He's seen the footage before. The traffic light pole still goes through the Hulkbuster's arm, but pieces of the armor don't get flung into the air and into the streets like hail. A round of ammo, pinpricks against green sinew, and then he's got Bruce's attention. He maneuvers out of the way as quickly as he can and far from the range of a Hulk-sized leap, and then the ball is back in Tony's court.

The change he brings into being is small but likely enough to drag them all into trouble if it sticks. It's what they're always warning you about in books and movies, don't mess with the past, but that ship's long sailed. He lands the quinjet and does what he's best at, move at ground level, get as many people as he can to safety.

He's not comfortable doing so little. Johannesburg's downtown still looks like an earthquake hit earlier that day and Tony is still the one facing the heat, climbing higher and higher along the side of a building while sparks and concrete and broken glass rain down into the streets. They're up in the sky and briefly out of sight in a matter of seconds, but Steve can see the future. Blocks and blocks away from where he stands, one of the buildings will collapse in a cloud of dust and falling debris.

Steve gets there as fast as his legs will take him. "Run!" he yells at the people he finds along the way, and then he's hit by a gust of pulverized concrete. The shield doesn't help as much as it should, and for a few long seconds he has to struggle to breathe through the taste of dust down his throat, has to remind himself that back in the future Bucky and Sam and everyone else who vanished that day came back.

"Tony," he whispers, and then it's over.

 

*

 

The quinjet travels unseen, tucked inside clouds, and his mind keeps racing. He can't control it, else he would go back and try again as many times as he needed, as if his life depended on it. The lives of so many others do. Sokovia is only a couple days from now. Lagos is one year away, and so are Vienna, Leipzig, Siberia.

"We took a hit. We'll shake it off," Tony says, and his voice is soft, subdued. It catches on Steve's heart and tugs hard, and some of the truths he's never wanted to examine from up close, in full daylight, come tumbling down free.

There's a cut on Tony's cheek still oozing blood and Steve's fingertips itch.

The sky shifts from charcoal to ridges of gold over blue, and all he can do is wait. He walks the same path to Clint's house, meets Laura and the kids for a second time, sees Thor leave. He stays.

He means to take a cold shower to clear his head, tries to be efficient and quick, but there's dry mud under his nails and dust clinging to his hair, and he ends up standing under the showerhead for longer than he wants to, and then shivering for a good solid minute before he caves in and turns the hot water on. He should be better than this, stronger than this. He should be the man the newsreels always went on about, but he can't remember how.

When he emerges from the bathroom, Tony is sitting by the foot of the bed. He's unnaturally quiet, shoulders tense and back ramrod straight, and Steve could try to avert his eyes, focus on what he's meant to do and nothing but that, try to save them all, but he doesn't want to stop watching him. He's missed him the way he still misses the past he lost to the ice, in the exact same measure, and he didn't know it until it was too late, until there was nothing else he could do.

He swallows. His fingers wrap around the doorframe, corners digging blunt lines into his palm. Do you want to hear a funny story? I come from the future this time. His secret comes with strings attached. It means to tell him not just that but all of what happened, and in that instant, borrowing time he doesn't really know he has, he decides to make old mistakes and wait.

"You can go in," Steve says, and Tony starts and then deflates for a split of a second before they're back at square one, tension in every inch of his body before he turns to face him. He looks as tired as he sounded earlier, shadows etched deep under his eyes, and Steve should have seen it before, when it could have made a difference. Small details, tell-tale details, and he missed them all.

"Tony—"

"Do we do the dressing-down thing now or do you want to leave it for later?" He's not even looking at Steve when he says it. "I could stand to get an earful after dinner, if you're amenable to that."

It gets under his skin, quick as lighting. They just teamed up. They worked in tandem, together, and it's like it doesn't matter one bit. They always go back to this, expecting the worst out of each other. The first time around, they took this outside and Steve ripped a log with his bare hands, and it would sound ridiculous if it weren't true.

Tony Stark makes his blood boil. That's the easy, simple explanation, a well-crafted lie. But Steve comes from the future and can no longer fool himself like that, not when he knows what it's like to live in a world where Tony confines himself to the periphery of Steve's life entirely by design. The same Tony who made things happen, who could have tracked him down, if only he had wanted to, in less than half the time it took Steve to find a new hideout. Tony, who washed his hands off him like it was the easiest thing to do because, perhaps, it always was.

That's pain searing below his breastbone, not anger, and he knows it. But anger is easier to hide behind, easier to shape. "Suit yourself," Steve says, turning on his heel, taking the stairs two at a time, navigating the toys still strewn on the living room, walking past the porch and the truck parked by the entrance, following the same path that led him away the first time, into the woods.

While he's brooding, Ultron is planning to get himself a body made of vibranium. If Steve does something to prevent it, Wanda will never have Vision. Rhodey will never go down. JARVIS will stay by Tony's side.

If they save Pietro, if they never take Wanda in, there will be no Lagos, no pressing reason to draft accords of any kind, no nights spent wide awake thinking about how maybe next day he'll finally find a text or a missed call and everything will be fine again, make sense again.

He never lets his mind go this far, down the proverbial rabbit hole. He never considers the easy way out, especially not for personal gain. God's righteous man. It feels like a joke. So why him? It shouldn't be him trying to fix the past, not when he can't trust himself to do the right thing anymore. Steve isn't the one who deserves a second chance.

But he does, and that's all that matters.

He looks back at the house. His hair is still damp, droplets trickling down and inside his collar, and it only takes one late spring breeze to cover his flesh in goosebumps. He feels weak, like his body is one size too big, like his hands and his feet and the heart beating inside his ribcage aren't actually his own.

You all right?

I'm home.

He runs back.

The door to the bathroom is open. Tony is leaning over the sink, dabbing a cotton pad at his cheek half-heartedly, and gone is the precision and attention to detail he's come to associate with him. Maybe this is Tony when he takes care of himself. Only the bare minimum, as if he weren't worth the effort. Steve doesn't know for sure and he hates that he doesn't know.

He tries to picture him after his house got blown up, going at it solo from that small town in Tennessee all the way to Miami. He never hears it from Tony. It's Pepper saying, "It was awful, I thought he was dead," and Rhodey telling him what the president had to say about it all before he went, "That's Tony for you," a look of fond exasperation on his face.

Their eyes meet in the mirror. "Do you need help with that?"

It doesn't sound like his voice, scratchy and unsure, almost trembling. He feels ill and he keeps looking at Tony as if he held the cure, as if he could fix him. But neither the Tony from two years down the road nor this one owed him that.

"Hardly."

Steve doesn't wince. He doesn't. He squares his shoulders, more out of habit than anything else and says, "We need to talk."

"You breaking up with me, Cap?"

The bathroom seems cramped with two people inside. Maybe it's that. Maybe it's the fact that he can smell the shampoo's fruity scent as if he had pressed his face against Tony's hair. It's a kids' shampoo. Purple and Hawkeye-themed, for all he knows. He didn't notice it before as he went through the motions, but he does now that the space between them is infinitely small: that lingering scent in the air, light and sweet.

He's close enough that he can feel him breathe in and out, see his chest rising and falling a little quicker, and he wonders if this is all it would have taken for things to shift between them. Closeness.

Tony's eyes go wide-open and then half-shut in the space of a blink, and Steve could let it happen, let things take their course and forget about the world for one minute, but he doesn't think they can afford it.

"You leave the team," Steve whispers.

Tony steps back, bumping into the tiles. He looks stricken, but he builds himself back up in seconds, he always does. "Glad we reached an agreement."

"No, that's not what—I know you must be thinking about it now, and I know because you leave the team as soon as we make it back home. You leave—" He doesn't say me, he doesn't, he can't.

"I come from the future," Steve says. He sounds like he's lost his marbles, and right about now, Tony is probably thinking the same thing and wondering about the timing of his breakdown. Couldn't you wait until we were done dealing with a robot hellbent on genocide before going mental, Rogers? But not talking to him is out of the question, especially knowing what he knows. All of what he knows.

"Ultron wants to build himself an indestructible body, something he can use to transfer his consciousness. Hence the vibranium, hence—"

Tony's eyes dart from side to side, bright. "The cradle."

"If it plays the way it does back in my timeline, we'll get it back from him. You'll get an idea as you do," he says, and the warmth in his voice is there if Tony bothers to look for it, but he doubts he has any reason to do it. "We'll get a strong ally but you'll lose JARVIS. FRIDAY will take his place before the last battle."

"FRIDAY," Tony says very quietly, stock-still as he almost never is.

"You have to believe me, you—" Steve says, struggling not to hold him by the shoulders, not to touch him. "A year from now you'll go to MIT for that talk you never gave, and then you'll tell them about BARF. Binary Augmented—"

He never hears the name from Tony's lips. It's on a five-minute long extract from the talk, on a footnote from a science news article.

"—Retro-Framing." Tony says, and now he's all motion. Steve moves aside and lets him step into the bedroom, where he paces in a wide arc around the bed. "There's not even a working prototype. You're not supposed to know about that."

"I know."

"And I didn't say I didn't buy it."

That's what Tony says, but Steve can read the hows and the whys dancing in his clever eyes. He sits on the bed and closes his hands into loose fists, running the pad of his thumb along each of his knuckles again and again. "Start from the beginning," he says.

Because Tony asks, he doesn't start with what he's come to realize by fits and starts and not fully admit to himself. It nestles around his heart, constant and patient and hopeful for something he won't be able to have even if he fixes things. Because Tony asks, he doesn't start with the end of the journey either.

"I'm here because of the Time Stone," Steve says, but what immediately precedes it, the eighty-story fall, the climbing to the rooftop through the dark, all of it, he brushes aside. None of it matters and time is running out. He tells him about Ultron, about the twins, about Sokovia. All he does is talk, even if he has to undo the threads he's been following and get back on track more than once, simply because some details aren't important enough for Tony to know.

He says, "Ultron's vision," and "Helen Cho's work," and "you and Bruce and Thor," leaving out how Steve opposed him tooth and nail. This isn't about him and his litany of sins, about seeking forgiveness. He says, "Ultron plans to lift the city into the air," and not it's me who ends up breaking up the team and I'm still keeping secrets.

He notices it in stages, Tony's hands on him, light and careful, and then one heartbeat later, he realizes he's shaking. His own body feels like something he isn't but rather something he's trapped in, but Tony's hands are perfect and warm on his skin, real as nothing has been so far.

Steve holds onto him as if that were enough to keep them both here, inside this room, in this moment in time, and Tony flinches and stares at Steve's fingers as they wrap around his wrist, but he doesn't shake his hand off.

"You all right?"

Steve's throat is dry. "I'm fine."

 

*

 

"They won't believe me," Steve says low, like he's sharing another secret. "They might have if I had told them that Clint had a family or where we were going." He struggles to remember something that might be true of the rest of them, something that would tip the scales in his favor like the things he knew about Tony did. He only knows this—who leaves, who stays behind.

"Why wouldn't they? You never lie," Tony says.

Steve stiffens. "You're wrong about that."

Tony stops in his tracks, right in the middle of the stairwell. "There's something you're not telling me," he says, and then he sees the look on Steve's face and knows. "One thing, maybe more." He frowns, his face hardens, and something fresh and sharp blooms inside Steve's chest, because in spite of how things usually go between them, he doesn't want to fight Tony.

He thought he did, once. Deep down, lying dormant, it beat with a life of its own, and when he less expected it, whenever Tony said or did something frustrating, it would pop up in his mind, let's go a few rounds. But then he actually fought him to the bitter end, and then he lost him, and now things are different.

"Is it time-sensitive?" Tony asks.

Steve is afraid that everything is, but he shakes his head. "No."

"Okay, then you can tell me later."

They gather in the kitchen like they did once before. Tony goes to bat for him from the get go and steamrolls them into believing, even though they needed less persuasion than he had thought. This is the team before the end. The cracks are there, but they have been patched up in the name of their last, final effort. For this feels final for them, Steve remembers. There was the hope that this might be the end, that if they prevailed over Ultron, the danger would be past; that the endgame Tony had spoken about back in the Tower was part a future that would take long in coming or that, with luck, might never come.

How young they were then. They didn't know.

Nick joins them later and is entirely nonplussed about the idea of Steve traveling back in time, maybe because that's how SHIELD used to operate, trading in secrets and all manner of strange things for decades, even as Steve slept in the ice, waiting to be found; even as Tony was born and grew up and survived hell after hell.

"I have you," he says, his good eye set on them. It sounds both like an unshakeable thing, too grounded in reality to be misplaced, and also slightly naïve, to trust in the imperfect parts that make up the team, to let the fate of the world rest on their shoulders.

Out of earshot, Lila is working on a butterfly, carefully painting its wings within the confines of the line art she drew earlier. It's the one thing without color, the wings. The sky behind is light blue; the thorax is a thick black line. She picks a small pot out of a cardboard box, dips her brush in bright green gouache and water, and then paints with certain strokes.

The ballroom used to be red and the butterfly used to be yellow, and Steve, the only one who knows and remembers these facts, doesn't know for how long he'll get to stay here.

 

*

 

They sleep. They are supposed to, at least. There's a long day ahead, battles they must fight and win. Avenging is Steve's world and his world is crazy, and he doesn't have time to live in the spaces between, not in the true sense of the word. Duty comes first. It's been like this ever since he took the chance Erskine offered him, and although it never seems to end, there's a certain familiarity to it, muscle memory taking over his weariness, his malaise.

But the spaces between? He doesn't know what to do about them. Soft beds, walks in the park, the laughter of children as they play without a care in the world, sitting still in the dark while the radio is on. Something always feels off when he stops, so he rarely does. And yet here he is, lying still and staring into the ceiling, feeling human.

Steve is keenly aware of the proximity of another body, of its warmth, of the way the mattress dips under its shape. For an instant, it reminds him of the war, where the earth, soft after rainfall, would mold around his fingers and below his elbows and knees. Life in the trenches. People huddling together. But this isn't the war. The one lying next to him is Tony, and all the things he hasn't allowed himself to think in full detail until now catch on fire and burn bright.

"You seem to be taking it in a stride. I wouldn't. Hell, I'm not," Tony whispers, drumming his fingers lightly against his chest. An old habit, even if the faint metallic echo is gone. Steve comes from the future, and knowing Tony, his mind must be filled to the brim with questions they agreed were for later.

Just as restless but without giving himself away, Steve twines his fingers just below his ribs, right where his stomach keeps fluttering no matter what he does. "I told you before, I lie sometimes."

"So you have a damn good poker face and you're as out of your depth as I am," Tony says, turning to face him, and there's wonder in his voice. He sounds younger, less guarded. Even in the darkness, his eyes seem to spark, and Steve's heart somersaults even if the rest of him remains quiet. "It must suck, getting thrown forward and back in time."

Steve allows himself a small smile. "It's better this time around. All of you are here."

They didn't talk the first time. They had said everything they had to say to each other early that day by the log piles, and late at night, after they slipped under the covers, both of them scooted the farthest they could from each other and kept mum. Steve had wanted to get up and take the couch downstairs, uncomfortable as it would have been, but in the end he hadn't. Peggy's smile, her hand in his, the swirl of her dress as they danced, all of it had been in the forefront of his mind, as bright as any real, lived memory. Longing had burrowed through him, and even if he had refused to admit it to himself, he hadn't wanted to be alone.

Tony had fallen asleep before he did. He was quiet, but he shook ever so slightly in his sleep, making weak little sounds. Steve hadn't dared to touch him, not after what he had said earlier. He had spoken low instead, hoping that some of it cut through Tony's dreams and reached him: the sound of his name, and "I was wrong about you, that first time; I don't think I ever said it," and because it bore repeating, "We'll face it together."

His breathing had softened little by little, and so had the death grip he had on his pillow. His fingers, with the small nicks and cuts that Steve knew were there even if he couldn't see them, relaxed and went from a tightly wrapped fist to a loose curve. Something had eased inside Steve too, even if hadn't understood its meaning yet. He had wanted it to last, that quiet between them, but less than twenty-four hours later, they had fought each other, and at the very end, after Steve had said, "I will miss you," Tony hadn't seemed to believe it.

Tony yawns behind the back of his hand, his face soft. "Long day."

"Get some rest," Steve says. Even without his prompting, Tony's eyelids are drooping, fluttering for a few seconds before they close. His mouth eases open just slightly, puffs of air pushing past his parted lips, and Steve focuses in the way his chest rises and falls following the same rhythm, no light underneath his clothes.

Tony won't go to Oslo this time. Instead, they will set out straight for Seoul together, and this one variable stacked in his favor, having Tony at his side, makes Steve feel hopeful. He imagines domino tiles falling, little ripples in the fabric of time reaching the other shore.

Change.

What follows is black, dreamless sleep.

What follows is a spark of green in the darkness, a gossamer flutter of wings, and then he's flung against a thick steel beam whose shape he can feel through the kevlar.

 

*

 

The air is gone from his lungs, a deep, aching burn. There's the sensation of falling, of missing the ground by mere inches, stomach swooping and heart pounding against his ribs as if it were about to come loose. He can't react in time, and suddenly he's back in the ballroom, hearing laughter and the cadence of a song that never quite ends.

Steve tries to get away from everything, even from her voice as it defies the hubbub. "Are you ready for our dance?"

She's gone and it's not real, and knowing this deep in his bones earns him a few seconds less in limbo. He's breathing hard when he returns to the poorly lit innards of the ship, mind spinning. He falls to his knees. He's dizzy and fighting the sinking thought, heavy as a stone, that he's trapped here for good.

"Tony," he says, and his name becomes a lifeline. He forces the words out through gritted teeth, knows the importance of what he's about to say despite the fog in his mind, the thick forest green quality of it. "Tony, forget about Ultron. The Maximoff kid will go for Bruce next."

The comms don't work. There's only static, silence, and in answer, cold dread flows through him.

In the distance, the Hulk roars.

"You got no backup here."

"I'm calling in Veronica."

"You still have me," Steve says without thinking, but it's the truth. He had him as he sent that letter, and then every single day after that, as he waited for a call that would never come. He had him even before that, if Steve is honest. Maybe since New York.

And now, here comes the word he's been waiting for. If he listens carefully, he'll hear the relief in Tony's voice, quiet and hopeful, as lasting as an exhalation.

"Cap."

 

*

 

Steve rushes, for the second time, towards the city.

 

*

 

The team is reeling, silence lingering heavy all around them, and he can't stop looking at Tony. It's only because they keep losing themselves in their memories that they don't notice, because Steve, painfully self-aware and present in time as he's never really felt before in the future, knows that he's being as subtle as an uppercut.

He could speak out now, draw attention to himself that way, see the moment Tony looks back at him and holds his glance, but he doesn't. He gives them the time they need, and quietly, out of habit, he keeps his own troubled thoughts under wraps.

The sky changes, the terrain shapeshifts miles below the quinjet. Sea, earth, homeland. He knows where Clint is taking them, somewhere safe. Even if he hadn't lived the same day over the span of two, he would know the path they will take, the surprise that waits for them at the farm, where the flag, its colors intact, hangs on one side of the house, quietly marking it as lived-in.

He lets Thor step between him and Tony, knows that if he allows himself more closeness than that before the time is right, his willpower will shatter and he'll reach for the cut on Tony's cheek.

Again, he stays behind instead of leaving for the woods, and again he waits until they're alone in the bedroom. His uniform is covered in dirt and miniscule shards of glass that he neglects to pick. Tony's cut is still oozing.

Steve closes his hand into a fist.

"I need to talk to you," he says, and Tony readies himself all at once, bracing for impact. It's in his stance, in the straight line going through his shoulders, in the caution flashing in his eyes. In that moment, Steve's grief is bottomless.

"I—" he starts again, but the lines that should come easy to him now, having rehearsed them, fail him. He looks at Tony's hands, uncurling at his sides from the stiffness that had set in only seconds ago.

"Cap, what is it?"

He looks up. I feel like I'm losing my mind, he thinks but doesn't dare say out loud, not yet. "There are six Infinity Stones," is what comes out of his mouth instead. He starts from the beginning like Tony asked last time, and then he smiles a wobbly smile. It would be much easier if Thor were here, backing him up with the ancient knowledge of a civilization that even in spite of the many tales he's heard, he can only begin to imagine at best, a place he'll never lay eyes on. Like many things, Asgard is gone too, lost in time.

"The Time Stone is the reason why I'm here," he says, but in its imprecision, it counts as a lie.

He still doesn't know why he's here, particularly here.

 

*

 

Tony makes for the door. They haven't showered yet, another deviation from how he remembers things, and although it should be too insignificant to matter, he can sense the faint mix of cologne, sweat, and metal lingering on Tony's skin as he comes closer. This small thing changes everything, not far in the future, but right here. Steve's fingers wrap around his arm of their own accord, keeping Tony right where he is, one hand on the doorknob. It's one liberty too many there where a single word would have sufficed, and he knows he should be more careful than this, but staying at arm's length feels, increasingly, like an impossibility.

"There's something I haven't told you."

"One of the many somethings?" Tony asks, eyebrows arching a little higher. He's gotten with the program as quickly as Steve expected of him. Time traveler, Ultron, Sokovia, relevant information only, at least for now.

"One of the many somethings," Steve admits, looking down at his own hand as it curves around Tony's arm. He remembers stretching his fingers to reach the light and coming out on the other side empty-handed, and for a moment, the world spins in a mad rush, then stills. "This is the second time it happens."

The thin little wrinkles on Tony's brow deepen. "Do you mean—"

Steve sighs, a shuddering thing that makes him feel exposed, that lets on too much, still holding on to Tony as he is. Reluctantly, he lets go. "I've lived this day before. The first time, and then yesterday, and then now."

Tony's hand drops from the doorknob, heavy. "Did something go wrong yesterday?"

"We were supposed to set out before dawn, but as soon as I woke up, I was back to where I started." He's told Tony before, how he was too caught in the past to be of any help dealing with Bruce the first time, and he tells him now, how little things seem to change day to day even though he gets involved, how they still need to come here by the end of it, to hide from the public eye, to lie low.

It doesn't bode well. With him stuck here, the future has started to slip through his fingers. Soon, it feels like, it will drift so far away from him that he won't be able to reach it. But he's getting ahead of himself. This could still be an anomaly within a larger anomaly, a self-correcting one, if he's lucky. Maybe he can still make things right, save them all.

"Cap." Now Tony is the one who's touching him, one hand on his forearm, trickling warmth. He shouldn't feel it piercing through the layers of his uniform, the leather of his gloves. It's a trick of the mind, some wish not given shape yet gone rogue. Don't let go. "Sokovia," he says. "How badly we fail the first time around?"

Steve swallows. "We save the world, but over a hundred people die." He says it in hushed tones, as if that were enough to soften the blow. The hit still lands, and Tony takes a sharp intake of breath, averts his eyes. Pain is written into him, set deep into the lines of his face. Steve had been too blind to see it before, what that simple, terrible truth, every time someone tries to win a war before it starts, innocent people die, had done to him.

And now Steve is trying to win all wars, no matter the cost. It hadn't been a conscious choice, what he had set out to do the moment he jumped from that building, to change the future. But the chance was there, too tempting not to take it. He knows Tony would have. He would disregard the unwritten laws that govern time and do what's right, even if the only thing at stake was a single human life.

Even if it was just one.

"Time is of the essence," Tony says. He's got a wild look in his eyes, as if he could see a LED clock going backwards right in front of him, seconds away from reaching a row of zeros. "Here's what I suggest. We tell them about Ultron, about Sokovia, and later, we come back here and think of what to do with the rest of it."

Steve doesn't think, You're keeping things from the team again. It's the last thing on his mind. It's them keeping things from the rest of the team, and there lies the difference. Not Tony and Bruce, but the two of them.

There's a name for the fact that he's okay with it this time. That he accused Tony of not being forthright all the while Steve kept a secret that would make them implode years later makes him exactly that, a hypocrite.

These past few years, he's had to come to grips with that.

 

*

 

They lie in bed awake. If the same day starts over tomorrow, he'll have this to look forward to. It's a selfish thought, and he regrets it as soon as it comes. The last time he was selfish and put his own desires over the rest, everything went to hell.

"Here's a thought," Tony says. His hands lie still on the bed for a matter of seconds before the light drumming starts again, the bunching of sheets as he draws invisible patterns over the mattress. "Don't try to change anything."

Steve closes his eyes. He can still feel him, know he's there. It's a sweet piece of knowledge that warms him inside. I could have you back, he thinks. If he fixes things, he could gain back the years marked by his absence, Tony standing on one shore and Steve on another, never running into each other. He's obsessed with it.

"No."

Tony chuckles. "I knew you would say that. But if you find yourself back at the start . . . It's only a day. Try different things. One of them might as well be living the same day exactly as it happened. Something's gotta give. Something's got to be the key. And then, late at night," he says, and his tone changes, takes on an affected air of authority, "report back to me." For a moment, Steve's back at the helicarrier, waiting for Tony's orders about what to do with the rotors and whatchamacallits.

"I don't think I can do that, not do anything," Steve protests, and his heart rate picks up the moment he realizes what he's about to say next. It feels like baiting the past, in a way. "If I see a situation pointing south, I can't ignore it. Sometimes I wish I could."

"No, you don't."

Steve beams at him the way he did before. "No, I don't."

"But listen, after Johannesburg, give it a try. Don't change anything. If you reach the next day, we'll still have time to do something. Nothing really happens after the incident in the city, does it? We need more clues. We need data."

Steve watches him. Tony is inches away from sitting up in bed, too excited to sleep, and Steve knows, true as this day is long, that curiosity is getting the best of him. Since he's unable to come along for the ride, the only thing Tony can do is examine the facts that Steve will collect and bring to him. It's for the best. There's no one else he can talk about this, no one better. "On the off chance that you're back to the starting point, I mean."

"It doesn't feel like this time's the charm," Steve says.

Silence falls. Here, in the countryside, he can hear crickets, their high-pitched, fitful cry, a faint little rattle ticking like a clock. He counts the seconds, the minutes. There's still light in the sky lining the top of the trees, but midnight is approaching fast.

"Tony."

"Yeah?"

"What if I can't go back?"

He sounds like a kid, asking this, a little lost, a little afraid. It reminds him of the time he asked his mother whether he was going to die. Her eyes had welled up. She had held his hand tight, so tight. He quickly learned not to ask that same question ever again.

"We'll find a way, somehow."

"Well, what if it doesn't work?"

"In that case, live a little," Tony says without missing a beat, like this was the answer he had meant to give all along. "Not much life to be had around here, I'll grant you that. But if there's something you ever wanted to get away with, now's your chance. Take the quinjet for a ride. Go west. I can draw you a map with a decent list of not so decent things to do back in L.A."

"Tony."

"Steve." His name on Tony's lips is rare, something to be treasured even if he's being cheeky. "I'm not joking, not entirely. When was the last time you were on vacation?"

"There was that road trip, after New York. You know about it."

Tony snorts. "That countrywide tour where you went out of your way to help whoever needed help, are you talking about that?"

Steve sets his jaw. "What about it?"

It's only some ribbing at his expense, nothing more than that, but it's like getting his fingers cut on broken glass. It's not that he can't take some teasing. It's that every little jab, after everything, reminds him too much of all the things they could never get right.

"Well, I worry, of course," Tony says nonchalantly. "Not often, but it's always there in the back of my mind, one pesky, stubborn, old-fashioned problem shaped like you."

It should rile him up the way many things have before, but he's suddenly come down with a case of selective attention. He only listens to the first part, I worry, and remembering this, he smiles. "What's the problem, getting me to loosen up?"

"I can't believe I haven't tried harder before, but in my defense, you always seemed a little defensive yourself."

This gets a startled laugh out of Steve. "Thanks."

Tony turns and gives him an owlish kind of stare, big, unblinking eyes open wide. "What for?"

"Just, thank you."

"I'm gonna take a wild guess here," Tony says, and Steve waits with his heart in his throat. That old feeling of being about to get caught, opening the window to taste the snow while he was still on the mend, and then hearing his mother's steps, comes back to him. But as the quiet lingers, it seems like Tony has thought things through at the last minute and decided against saying whatever he was about to say. Outside, the crickets are busy filling the blank spaces they leave behind, pockets of silence, things unsaid. "We weren't like this the first time, were we?"

Something seizes inside Steve's chest, and when he speaks, his voice has gone rough. "No, we weren't."

Tony nods, yawning. He settles his head on the pillow. "In that case, I hope I can remember this."

"Me too," Steve says quietly, and then he watches him sleep.

 

*

 

"You know Ultron is trying to tear us apart, right?"

"Well, I guess you'd know. Whether you'd tell us is a bit of a question."

Word by word, one of the benefits of an eidetic memory. Steve rips the log in two halves, anger aimed at himself this time, and then he gives him the same stale line about winning wars before they start. As he hears himself speak, as he sees Tony's face fall, he's aware that it's not the worst thing he'll ever do to him.

He can't do this anymore.

Steve watches him go, already knowing that this will be part of his report later, I couldn't follow through, and then he makes for the barn. The door's open. Tony hasn't bothered to close it.

"Artificial intelligence. You never even hesitated."

Fury.

He's never thought to listen to what they talked about, but now he stays rooted to the spot, catching nothing but glimpses of Tony through the spaces between the planks. Oh, but he can hear him so clearly from where he stands. His pain, his guilt, his regret.

"I saw them all dead, Nick. I felt it. The whole world, too. Because of me."

It hurts, the bullet-proof certainty of it. Like he believes it to the very core of him, a conclusion without room left for disagreement. The wood creaks under Steve's grip, and he's forced to let go and stand aside before he rips the handle out of the door, too.

Nick leaves first, and without even bothering to look in Steve's direction as he passes by, he says, "Captain."

"Sabbatical over?" Steve whispers.

"No rest for the wicked," Nick calls back, ambling to the house with his hands inside his pockets. Relaxed, like there's no threat hanging over their heads. Once a director, always a director.

Steve goes inside, closing the door behind him. As soon as he sees him, Tony makes a face and turns, pretending to work on the tractor. His knuckles go white around the wrench, which he's currently using to knock lightly on the tractor's hood.

"I didn't know."

"You weren't supposed to," Tony says, sounding curt. Light filters through the windows, making him glow as he goes to fetch a set of tools lying forgotten on the floor. Then it's back to ignoring him, and all Steve can think about is that under the lamps hanging from the ceiling, the tips of Tony's hair are lighter, a dark copper brown. "Another thing you're not supposed to do is eavesdrop. Didn't your mother teach you that?"

"If you had told me—"

"But I didn't, and then I fucked up, which we already covered earlier."

A part of him used to love picking fights when he was younger, feel the rush of blood in his veins, the anticipation. He had legitimate reasons to stand up for himself and for others, but even if he wasn't good at it, there was no denying that he enjoyed throwing punches he thought were richly deserved. It used to be like this with Tony too, at the beginning. But now there's a lump in his throat and he can't do this again, not a single day more.

"I'm sorry."

"Come again?"

"I'm sorry," Steve repeats, runs his fingers through his hair, sighs. "I didn't walk away all right, and I'm sorry I never asked if you had."

Everything in Tony stills as if frozen in time. "Who are you and what did you do with Steve Rogers," he whispers, but there's no heat behind it and Steve doesn't rise to the bait this time.

"You said I should try not to change anything, let things happen exactly as they did, within reason, but I still can't do it."

"What?"

"I come from the future," Steve says.

 

*

 

Tony fluffs the pillows, rearranges them, tosses one to the floor, and after changing his mind, he picks it up. This Tony is less comfortable with the idea of sharing a bed, which makes Steve uncomfortable in turn.

Like it's something he can give up easily instead of the highlight of his day, Steve says, "I can sleep somewhere else if you want."

Tony scoffs. "Where, in the barn? Don't be obnoxiously self-sacrificing." He goes out of his way to fluff Steve's pillows while looking at him in the eye, and then, with his lips pressed together in a stern line, he points at the mattress and doesn't budge until Steve gets into bed.

"For what is worth," Tony says, slipping under the covers and promptly turning his back on him, "I disagree with the me from iteration . . . What was the number again?"

"I'm not keeping count," Steve says, another lie.

Tony gives him a brief, meaningful look over his shoulder, but he lets him get away with it. "I get the feeling that if you're here again, you're meant to do something," he says, waving one hand in the air as he talks, and Steve can't stop staring at his knuckles, the shape of his fingers, the curve of his wrist as his hand bends and stretches. Anatomy details, fine motor skills. He thinks of pencil lines and watercolors blending into cream-colored paper, but even if he went to fetch the tools he needs, it would be pointless. The sketch would disappear the next day.

"I think so too," Steve says.

Tony turns off the lamp on his side of the bed, letting the room sink into darkness, and just as Steve closes his eyes on cue and readies himself for what's coming, Tony whispers, "And what if it's not the world that you're meant to save?"

 

*

 

The next time, he's ready. He raises the shield as soon as he's flung against the steel beam and Wanda can't touch his mind. But that only means the twins have more time for everything else, and no matter how fast Steve runs, Pietro is much faster. No matter what he does, Bruce's rage still consumes everything in its path.

 

*

 

Here's another thing that never changes. Tony always believes him, every time.

Currently, they're sitting on the bed, school supplies they've borrowed from the children laid before them like a board game, and just below, a real board game serving as a makeshift table.

"I don't think Johannesburg is the key," Tony says, knocking down a couple of his hotels as he draws a circle around the word, written in caps. They've established this before, but Tony doesn't remember it. There are numbers and variables there too, formulas that he struck through almost from the beginning because no theory can hold its weight against the power of an Infinity Stone.

Steve, in turn, pockets the sketches he drew earlier when Tony wasn't looking and lets him reach his own conclusions in case something new comes up. It's nine o'clock and he isn't in a hurry.

"You keep passing go day after day and we still don't know why," Tony says as he picks Steve's token from Atlantic Avenue, where his properties, all of them houses, all of them green, are stacked in tidy rows. He ignores the dice and places the thimble on the corner, absentmindedly handing Steve two beige bills. Tony is both the iron and the bank, and Steve can't stop finding it cute and mildly amusing.

Tony points at him with one get-out-of-jail-free card. "Is there something you haven't tried before?"

"Yes," Steve says, looking at him in the eye. Someday he might work up the courage, but not today. Not today, but one of these days. If Tony has realized that Steve knows that he and Pepper are already on a break around this time, he doesn't let it show. Steve doesn't see how Tony could possibly make the connection either. He's been careful not to stare at his mouth, not to let his eyes linger without reason. Still, he waits all day long, every day, so that he can lie next to him.

In the future, news of the engagement reach him even though all he does during that month is conduct missions off the grid. He picks a magazine on the town square of a remote little town and there it is, miniscule cyan, magenta, yellow, and black polka dots making up the ring, hinting at the exact, lovingly crafted beauty of it. That's what happens some time after Steve leaves; Tony and Pepper get back together. But here, trapped in this circular maze of a world, unwittingly, achingly, with all his heart, Steve isn't letting it come true.

"Yes, there is," Steve repeats, clearing his throat. "I just don't think it would change anything."

"Don't knock it till you've tried it," Tony says.

 

*

 

Later that night, after the scribblings and the game and all its pieces have been put away, Steve props his head under his arm. "You can go home. That's what they said."

Eyes already closed, Tony frowns and mumbles into his pillow, "And why do you think the stone sent you here instead?"

Looking at him, at the black ink of his eyelashes and his laugh lines, at the curve of his nose and the faint scars on the back of his hands, Steve thinks he's beginning to understand why.

 

*

 

Part of admitting hard truths is that they hardly ever come alone. I love you is followed by I lied to you, and as the quinjet soars and crosses the ocean in silence, the din of that thought keeps him company.

He waits until Tony is out of the shower, lets him have a moment of quiet before he says, "There's something I need to tell you."

They walk beyond the plot of land where the quinjet is hidden behind a semicircle of trees, past the place where Steve hid himself the first day he got here, far away enough that the house looks a little smaller, dwarfed by the backdrop of the forest.

"There used to be a bunker under Camp Lehigh," Steve says.

 

*

 

The bed is cold, empty. It's late at night and the barn's lights are on. Tony isn't coming, and if Steve's hunch is right, he won't see him again this day, before the clock turns back.

He tries to picture him with grease on his fingers, eyes set on the inner workings of the Bartons' tractor; tries to remember him from before, taking apart layers and layers of schematics down to their most basic components with a flick of his wrist, lost in thought. Instead, he can only remember today. It's burned into his retinas, a smaller detonation than Siberia had been but just as volatile. The world Tony once knew getting torn from under his feet.

Around the time Ultron comes to life, it's been a year of Steve keeping secrets. His excuse, one of many, had been not having the absolute certainty that Bucky was the one carrying out HYDRA's orders on that December night. For the longest time, Steve had thought that if it had really been Bucky, the humanity he had left in him would have made him doubt, struggle, stop. But now he knows that HYDRA fed off of it, that every word that Shuri drew out of his brain, as if with a scalpel, was a pockmark left by a real memory.

Longing. Rusted. Furnace.

It was intimate and twisted, the way the threads were tangled all around them. He still remembers the way Bucky had looked at Howard the first time, the way he'd smiled.

 

*

 

The lies of omission keep piling up, even as he tells him the truth once, twice, as many times as the same day keeps coming back. He wants to tell him all the things big and small that he's kept from him, but he doesn't have the time. Tony won't listen to the rest of it after he's done telling him about his parents, about what happens after Zemo reveals himself as the mastermind behind it all.

"Please," Steve says. He's about to drop on his knees, like he's waiting for his penance and then for the absolution that he knows will never come.

"You made your choice. The fuck are you following me for?" Tony says, because he's understood completely and not at all what happens years from now, that Steve left him behind in the cold, that, in a way, he never really did leave, even with all those miles standing between New York and wherever in the world Steve ended up each time.

Steve leaves the question unanswered and follows him, something he's never done before. It earns him a hard shove against the side of a tree, only a few leaves shaken loose, scattered at their feet. He can feel the bark's rough surface even through the fabric of his t-shirt, feel the heat of Tony's hands as they seize his collar. His eyes are wild, haunted, shimmering with unshed tears. His lips, thin and pale pink, are trembling. It's still not the angriest Steve has seen him. It is, however, the closest he's had him.

The kiss is all teeth and sharp ends, nothing like he imagined all those nights he spent watching him sleep and asking, plaintive, under his breath, why it was so easy for Tony to hate him. Here's his answer. Together, they're like a bomb that's been set off. They don't stop, they can't.

They tumble on the ground, crushing fallen leaves and small wildflowers beneath their bodies. The scent of the earth fills his nostrils as Tony kneels astride his hips, as he presses his hands flat on Steve's stomach and drags them upwards, rolling his t-shirt until it's bunched around his collarbone.

"Tony."

"Isn't this what you wanted?" Tony's anger is sharp as he unbuckles his belt, his eyes hard, but there's no denying it. Steve's pants are tight, the rough, stiff feel of his jeans unbearable.

"Yes," Steve says, keeping the rest to himself. Yes, but I wanted you to want it too. A spark comes to life in Tony's eyes and then dies a quick death, and before he can think better of it, Steve says, "Let me," offering his mouth.

It's mesmerizing to watch him strip, even if it's only from the waist down; to feel the perfect curve of his ass, warm against Steve's chest. His cock, leaking precome, slides between Steve's pecs up and down, and gingerly, Steve sets his hand on Tony's hip, wraps his fingers around the dip of bone meeting bone, his free hand cupping the girth against his sternum, against the flutter of his heart.

The curve of Tony's bare throat as he throws his head back and moans is beautiful to watch. Steve keeps looking at him as he works his tongue under the ridge of his head and then around the slit, as he hollows his cheeks and sucks him off. He can feel Tony's body quivering, and because he can't take his eyes away from him, he sees it too, that single tear slipping under his closed eyelids, sliding past the cut on his cheek, getting lost into the line of his stubbled jaw.

His whole body jerks, and before he finds release inside Steve's mouth, Tony pulls out. Steve blinks, disoriented. There are beads of come lining his lips, nothing more than that. Tony has taken all of his warmth with him; it's there next to him, spilled on the ground. Steve sees him fumble, shake a beetle crawling up the back of his hand, try to put on the rest of his clothes as quickly as he undressed before.

"Tony," Steve says, sitting up. "Tony, please, would you—"

"Ah. Fair's fair, is it?" Tony's voice is rough as he kneels back down and hooks his thumb on one of the belt loops of Steve's jeans. He doesn't stop him. His breath catches as Tony draws out his cock, calloused fingers dragging along Steve's shaft.

Steve hisses and gasps his name, but Tony only bows his head and takes him in his mouth. Fair's fair, like this is a transaction, and although his chest is aching, he still loses himself in the moment, clinging to the way Tony's lips wrap tight around his cock, the feel of his mouth, hot and wet; the tingling that runs down his spine as Tony sweeps his tongue along his length, the tips of Tony's fingers pressing hard against his thigh.

When Steve comes, Tony works his jaw and swallows, darting his tongue to lick the tip as if he didn't want any of it to go to waste, as if he knew that even this small point of contact is too much for Steve to bear.

The world resolves into a mottled, darkening blue, the sky as seen through the canopy of trees; into the pinprick steps of ant scouts as they begin their climb up his knuckles. Steve's face is wet with tears, his breath ragged, and try as he might, he can't find the words to get Tony to stay.

Tony stands up and stares at him, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "Were you thinking about her?" he asks, choked up even if he's trying hard not to let it show, his chin held high. "About him?"

"You," Steve whispers to his retreating back. "I was thinking of you."

 

*

 

His mind is scattered the next day, even as Tony calls his name through the comms. "I'm here," Steve replies, but in truth, he's still elsewhere, lost in the world of yesterday, in the memory of Tony's body, in the taste of him.

Blood thrums in his ears as he approaches the city, and as soon as he sees a spot where to land the quinjet, he does. His hands are deathly still as he stands in the Hulk's path, over a thousand pounds running towards him at a bullet train's speed. It's something he hasn't tried before, a battle that can't be won.

It won't haunt Bruce afterwards, and knowing this, he drops the shield and waits. It's so quick that his brain doesn't even have the time to register the moment he's swatted out of the way and against the concrete.

Then, darkness. Then, the feel of the same thick steel beam at the base of that ladder, flush against his back. He would laugh if he could, and in the split of a second it takes Wanda to reach his side and warp his mind, he thinks belatedly, "Oh."

There are things not even him gets to survive.

 

*

 

He's only a little more careful next time, but he still hears a sickening crunch as he lands against the side of a building. Pain swallows him whole, and he fights the dark spots dancing in front of his eyes, clutches his hand around pieces of concrete come loose to stay afloat and not go under, where darkness waits.

This time, he hears Tony cry out his name. He wonders if he said it yesterday too, before everything started over. "Cap," he says, landing at his side. His voice is laced with worry, and guilty pleasure blooms below Steve's broken ribs. "You with me?"

Always, he thinks and doesn't say. "Yes. Yes, just—help me up."

Later, barefoot and wrapped into a thin, gray blanket, Bruce tells him without meeting his eyes, "I'm so sorry."

"No," Steve says, shaking his head even though it almost sends him reeling. "This isn't on you."

It's rich of him to act so charitably when it's all on him, on his selfishness. Sometimes, he thinks the Hulk himself might be his fault, that if he hadn't agreed to Project Rebirth, that if only he hadn't fought so hard to live the kind of life he wanted for himself, no one would have ever thought of recreating the formula's success.

"How are you holding up?" Tony says, low enough that only Steve can hear.

"I'm fine," he says, looking in Bruce's direction before he attempts a smile. It feels wrong on his face, like he's wearing a mask that's about to slip off. His head hurts like it's about to split in two.

Tony gives his wrist a light squeeze, and because the leather of his gloves comes in between, he can't feel the cold sweat pooling on Steve's palms. "Clint says we'll get there soon. You can still catch a wink, though. I'll wake you up."

"Thanks," Steve says, closing his eyes. He's not worried about falling asleep this time. The pain travels down his side like fire, sizzling, smothering, keeping him awake.

 

*

 

Natasha and Clint still walk at the front of the line, and although it doesn't seem so, they're leaning into each other. Thor follows, then Bruce. At the very end of it, Tony is helping him walk. The grip he has on him is firm but careful. It only seems to waver when Steve tries to act tough, when he says, "A cracked rib at most. I just need to catch my breath."

The others nod and smile, even if a little uneasily. Tony, however, doesn't tear his eyes away from him as they climb the porch steps and go inside the house.

He knows that Laura smiles as soon as she sees them, but his eyes can't quite focus on the look of her face just now. "I know all of your names."

 

*

 

After Tony has secured a room where Steve can lie down for a while, he asks, "How are you, really?"

"Fine," Steve says, but when Tony's hands make their way along the red and white stripes below the star, he has to bite his cheek not to yelp.

"Fine, my ass," Tony says, and Steve almost laughs, almost says, it is, but maybe it's not the time for jokes.

He makes him lie down, helps him out of half of his uniform. Pleasure blooms inside him again and cuts through the pain everywhere Tony touches him, and all along his side, a large purple bruise, almost black, rises to meet Tony's fingertips.

"It's been hours," Tony says, sounding small. "The serum should have—I'll take you to a fucking hospital right this very instant, no buts."

Steve catches his hand, feels him jolt under his touch. He's so sorry. "No, listen, there's so much I have to tell you. Please."

Tony sits by his side against his better judgment. Steve can almost see the war inside him, the fear of making a bad call. If Steve had the certainty that this time things would be different, that they would stick, he would ask Tony to help him reach the quinjet, to get away from the house not to soil it with death. There's love here, in the portraits above the fireplace, in the pencil lines by the porch, marking the children's growth spurs year by year.

He wants to soak in it, all these things that he won't ever be able to have. As it is, he doesn't have much time. He suspects that he's bleeding out just below his skin. His heartbeats feel sluggish, his skin is clammy. He's cold, so cold. "I come from the future," Steve whispers. His teeth begin to chatter. "I know about FRIDAY, about BARF. In the future, I make one mistake after the other. I do terrible things. To you. I'm so sorry. You don't know how much I miss you, afterwards."

"I'm here," Tony whispers, clutching his hand. "Whatever it is, you're forgiven. And now let me take you to a hospital, come on."

"I'm sorry," Steve says, and he truly, deeply is. He remembers what Tony said to Fury in the barn, I saw them all dead, Nick, and now Steve is dying on him again. He's never been so glad that the day will start over as soon as he's gone, that Tony won't have to remember any of this.

"You're forgiven," Tony says again, smoothing his hair. He repeats it like a mantra even as Steve's eyes close, and this time, it's almost sweet to go.

 

*

 

He lets Wanda come close, resigned.

 

*

 

He opens his eyes to the ballroom. The walls are a creamy white, and the lights hanging from above are warm yellow pinpoints, fireflies caught in midair. The tablecloths, pristine and pressed with care, fall into swirls, framed by empty chairs. There's no one dancing, laughing. No orchestra either, even if he can hear a mellow sound just outside, carried by the wind.

"I thought I might find you here," Tony says.

Steve forgets how to breathe. Joy bursts inside his chest, and then he remembers. "It's not real."

Tony shakes his head. "I'm afraid it isn't."

It gets caught in his throat, his very last secret. The real reason why he's here. He hadn't understood it before, but now he knows that this had been the stone's true gift. If home is a person, and that person is no longer in your life, there's only the past you can go back to.

He says it at last, "You're gone." Yes, they had won, but in the end, what did it matter? When the armor ebbed and fell away from his body, his skin was already ice cold.

"I know," Tony says with a quirk of his eyebrows, so alive that the idea of it pierces Steve through. "But here? Rules don't matter. And I dressed up today, for both of us."

Steve chuckles despite the lump in his throat. Tony looks dashing in that bespoke tuxedo, and with Steve in his service uniform, he imagines that this is how it might have been had they gotten married. "Would you dance with me?"

Tony's lips curl sweetly. "And here I thought you would never ask."

He clasps Tony's hand in his, presses one palm, light, against his waist. He leans forward, touching his forehead to Tony's. "I don't want to go back. Maybe I can stay here with you. Maybe the clock can stop for me, just this once."

"I don't think you can stay," Tony says. He kisses Steve on the mouth, a soft press of lips that ends just as it's growing a little bolder. If this is goodbye, he wants to kiss him again, one hundred times more. He holds on to him even as the ballroom falls away and disappears, even as the ground under his feet does, too.

 

*

 

He falls, untethered, wind rushing by his ears and drying his tears.

There's no safe landing, only the rapidly approaching street, busy with upturned cars, yellowed newsprint sheets tumbling free, oddly shaped mosaics made out of broken glass. Steve is still too far away to see the details, but he knows they lie below, scattered in pieces, and it would be so easy to join them, to just let go.

In the end, he can't. He tries to find purchase in the projections and the ledges of the building to no avail, even in the smooth windowpanes that slip under his fingers with a faint squeak. He had dropped his shield on the way up, and with nothing else to break his fall, maybe this is it. He closes his eyes, lets his one last thought be about Tony.

His body tumbles in the air, and then, without warning, he lands against something metallic. He should know the feeling from before. Every single day, the same beginning. But this time, it's different.

"Did you fall from heaven? Because—"

He knows that voice.

"Please," Steve says, and only that. Before he realizes it, he's trembling. The armor is holding him tight against its breastplate, and it takes all of Steve's willpower not to let himself hope. Wild theories spring to his mind, each and every one more likely as the seconds go by. Something must be powering the armor remotely, or maybe it's an AI like JARVIS had been, like FRIDAY is. An AI that sounds like Tony, that shares the same kind of humor, and perhaps even the same name. He thinks Pepper would know, and then, all at once, he changes his mind. Pepper would hate this just as much as Steve does.

He imagines peering into the armor and finding it empty, even as its crosses its arms and taps one boot against the floor, impatient; even as he hears the sound of Tony's voice as if coming from behind the faceplate. It's cruel. Even then, it's easy to picture Tony late at night in the workshop, thinking this is such a bright idea, as if Iron Man were the only one they would miss, as if the suit of armor was the only thing they needed.

The armor carries him to an empty balcony, and once there, it kneels and cradles him, its eyes lit up and trained on him. Even though anger is coiling tight in his stomach, Steve is so tired he can barely hold his head up. "Are you hurt?" it asks with Tony's voice.

It's like adding insult to injury, and finding strength out of weakness, out of anger, Steve grabs the armor's wrist. He can't possibly break it, but below his fingertips, almost unnoticeable, the alloy begins to give way.

"Hey! Okay, wait," it says, and then the helmet disappears, golden wavelets pulling back to reveal Tony's face. At once, Steve sags into his arms, completely limp except for the way his chest is heaving. If Tony lets go, he thinks he'll die.

"Tony."

Even though his brow is still filled with deeply set wrinkles, his mouth quirks. "Steve."

To make sure, to have the certainty, Steve reaches out and presses his fingertips against Tony's face, knowing him by touch as though he were blind. Behind them, the sun is coming up, bathing him in gold, and even though all he wants is to kiss him, he remembers it just in time. In the future, Tony isn't his.

"I beg you," Steve says before he can keep making a fool of himself. His cheek is pressed against the warmth of the arc reactor, white blue light filtering through his closed eyelids. "Just take me home."

 

*

 

In Bleecker Street, some of the past remains. While Steve knows better than anyone that nothing can ever stay the same, it makes him smile to recognize some of the names from way back, a pizza parlor here, a coffee and tea store there. He buys a espresso blend, and then, only a block away, he knocks on the door marked as 177A.

The Time Stone is safe, tucked inside the Eye of Agamotto. It's the same one, Steve learns, that Strange gambled away to spare Tony's life.

"No tricks, he said," Strange says with a small smile before he takes a sip of his tea. "But truth is relative."

Steve disagrees with the last part, but he's here for answers, not to pick a fight. "He was gone," he says, and even now, the memory of it makes his chest constrict. "But after I came back, he was alive again."

Strange nods. "The stones' true nature is mysterious. Like most living things, they have a will of their own." One scarred finger brushes the dark gold lines that cover the Eye like a threadbare patch, and then, as if he were able to read what's on Steve's mind, the fear that this, too, will come undone, he adds, "You needn't worry, in any case. You've already paid the price in full."

 

*

 

Months slip by unnoticed. The team is busy helping with reconstruction efforts, and between that and their regular missions, they don't have much time left to spare.

"That's just you," Sam tells him with a smile.

With his feet propped on the coffee table and balancing a book about hot rods on his knees, Bucky agrees with Sam. "Yeah, Stevie. Some of us do make the time to live our lives."

Steve doesn't think he can ask for more after what he's been granted, so he keeps his head down. He's content enough with living a different day each day, with keeping sketches that don't disappear overnight.

He knows that one day he'll have to move on as most people do, to let all the days that he lived next to him grow blunt like the stumps of downed trees. Maybe it'll be better once Tony moves to the other side of the country, and if not better, easier. But for now he keeps those memories close as he lies down at night, and the next day, without fail, he rises early. He'll leave hot coffee ready for whoever needs it; he'll go for a morning run, a different playlist each day, another genre struck out of the list of all the music he said he'd try. Even though the next town is far from the compound, he is who he is. He'll bring home fresh bagels for himself and anybody else who feels like having one.

Maybe Tony is on his mind when he does half of these things, but he allows himself these silent tokens of affection and the quick faceless sketches he fills notebooks with, all of them spelling him.

 

*

 

"Moving day," Tony says with a shrug, carry-on luggage trailing right behind.

"So I've heard," Steve replies with a smile that comes easy to his lips. He's been practicing in the mirror, a slight curve of the lips, a hint of teeth, nothing that can't be read as genuine.

A rule out of the old playbook. Blend in, Natasha had said, one dry martini in her hand. They were supposed to schmooze and gather intel that way, and in the name of the mission and not wanting to make her life difficult, he had tried just that, to smile like he meant it. There you go, she had said, hiding a smirk behind her glass. Now you almost seem like you aren't hating every minute you spend here.

"I never said it before, but congratulations on the engagement."

Tony narrows his eyes, lets out one small huff of a laugh. "Are you fucking with me?"

"What?"

"Oh. I thought you had heard. We called it off months ago," Tony says, and Steve almost knocks over the glass of orange juice he has right in front of him. It tips slightly, the liquid sloshing inside and threatening to spill, but he rights it just in time. "It was everywhere for a while, a nice distraction from everything sucking balls, I guess."

Steve swallows hard. "Postponed?"

"Not happening," Tony whispers, and everything stills. Pieces fall into place, all the things Steve has been trying to ignore with an iron will because letting his eyes linger on someone who could never be his wasn't right. Tony's extended stay in the compound. His smiles, not reaching his eyes at the beginning, and then the crinkles around them, back after so long and not just when Peter dropped by. Smiles that on some days, weak and aching with longing, Steve could pretend were meant for him.

His heart skips a beat, and then it begins to hammer inside his chest so loudly that he almost misses what Tony is saying. "People change. We didn't fit as well as we used to, after everything."

"I'm sorry."

"Don't be, she'll be fine," Tony says, flippant. His sentences are clipped, like they usually are when he's feeling too much. "Actually, she is seeing someone. Luckily, someone who doesn't resemble me in the least. Someone who deserves her."

His heart breaks hearing him speak like that, and not knowing what else to do, Steve says it again, "I'm sorry." His hand curls around the edge of the counter, holding on for dear life. He wants to hold him so badly that his fingers begin to tremble around the granite.

Tony doesn't pay attention to this. "Are you?"

Steve sets his jaw. "You deserve happiness, Tony."

Poised for fight, Tony squares his shoulders and stares at him hard. "Are you, really?"

"No!" The volume of his voice surprises him, and so does the echo that keeps reverberating long after he's closed his mouth into a tight line. He lowers his eyes, and the next time he speaks, the words are a whisper. "No, I'm not sorry. Because even though I pretend, even though I do my best, deep down, I'm a selfish fuck."

It always comes to this. His secrets spilled forth at Tony's feet.

"The day you fell. The day we won," Tony says softly. "You vanished for an instant. I thought I was seeing things, but I studied the footage as if it were the goddamn Zapruder film. 120 frames where you're not there, and FRIDAY vouching for it. You're just gone. And the readings? All over the place, but also familiar. No room for mistakes, here. At ninety-nine percent, the energy signature matched that of an Infinity Stone. Where did you go?"

"The past," Steve says. "Ultron."

And now, Tony is the one holding on to the counter. "After you took off, I had these dreams. Manifestations of shit I hadn't processed yet, my shrink would call them. But even after accepting that, I kept having them. The same damn day at Old MacBarton's farm, over and over. The FedEx package arrived and the dreams didn't change. I almost called you once just to ask you to leave me alone, and meanwhile, I kept carrying the phone everywhere I went, just in case. Then, one day, they stopped. After we shared a dance, of all things."

He's breathless by the time he's done speaking, eyes bright like a lake in the summer, and Steve can't take his eyes away from him.

"You were the iron. And the bank," Steve says.

"And you were the thimble," Tony says with a little snort. "Was that real?"

"What we lived? I think so," Steve says, and tentatively, his pinky loops around Tony's ring finger. "What I feel for you? Always, yes."

Tony looks down, letting out a shuddering breath. Steve's barely holding on to him, but he can still feel it as clearly as if his own body were shaking with the cold. "Pack your things," Tony says, looking at him in the eye.

Steve holds his breath. "Tony?"

"Pack your things and meet me—you know what? I'll help you pack," Tony says, soft crinkles around his eyes. "Let's get out of here."

 

*

 

They pack, eventually, or at least Steve does while Tony lies on his side and watches him fold his clothes in squares and rolls, eyes half-lidded. But the moment they reach Steve's room, they slam the door closed and tumble on the bed.

Smiling, Steve takes his time undoing the buttons of Tony's silk shirt below his collar, leaving his tie on, thrown over his shoulder. He kisses every patch of skin that he reveals with a flick of his fingers and takes delight in the warmth underneath his hands. Tony sighs. He's halfway there; Steve feels Tony's cock grow hard just above his tongue, filling his mouth, and the tickle inside Steve's chest, a happy little feeling, takes hold of him and remains.

Everything here is tucked away from the world and soft. The sunlight making Tony's skin glow warmer, the pads of Tony's fingers as they get caught in Steve's hair, the sound of Tony's moans, the mattress yielding under their weight. Steve pulls back just as Tony's body jerks, and then, with his eyes closed, he waits until he feels the warmth of Tony's come just below his eyelids, trickling down his throat, his mouth, his chin.

"God," Tony whispers, and once Steve is sure he's got his attention, he licks his lips. "Fuck. Come here."

Steve lies next to him and gets lost in his eyes. There's a small smile on Tony's lips just for him.

"Tissues?" Tony asks with one raised eyebrow, and Steve gets the little box between them, closes his eyes and stays still as Tony wipes his face very gently.

Then, he kisses him slow and sweet.

"You look happy," Tony says, sighing as Steve returns the favor and cleans him up.

"That's because I am."

"It's a good look on you." His eyes are bright and soft when Steve kisses his knuckles and then brings Tony's hand near his heart. Tony gives him a peck and then lets his fingers wander. He traces a path along Steve's middle, teasing a shiver as he reaches the waistband of Steve's pants.

Steve remembers the forest, the soil sticking to their skin like bread crumbs, the anger. "You don't have to."

"I want to touch you," Tony says, tipping Steve's chin so that he's looking at him. "I saw you die, in those dreams. I would wake up as soon as it happened, but the feeling was so hard to shake off. I would have FRIDAY triangulate your location just to make sure you were safe, and then delete all the data because no one was supposed to know where you were. When you fell, when you disappeared in midair, those few seconds, I—" He breathes in and out, fast, and Steve holds his hand again, squeezes it. "Would you let me touch you?"

Without saying anything, Steve nods and cups Tony's nape in the palm of his hand, stroking the damp curls there.

"Hey," Tony says low against Steve's skin, eliciting goosebumps. His fingers are wrapped around Steve's cock, sliding up and down torturously slow, tightening his grip at the base of his shaft before the rhythm picks up. "Let's really do this."

"Do what?" Steve asks between gasps. Tony is dropping little kisses along his jaw, and the tickle below his ribs is back with a vengeance, lighting up everything inside him.

He doesn't have to look at him to know that Tony is smiling. His voice is soft, light as clouds. "Start over."

 

*

 

"You can scream your head off if you want," Tony says as they race through the highway. The ocean shimmers white on the horizon, speckles of sunlight dotting the wide, vast blue.

Steve laughs at that and doesn't scream. He, however, closes his eyes, feeling the wind in his face, the salty smell of the sea. The stereo is blasting AC/DC and he doesn't mind. I'm here, he thinks, repeating the same thought every other heartbeat.

 

*

 

It takes them time to unpack everything, even if Steve makes himself at home right away. The reason why he climbed that building, the lingering grief from the lives they lived and the ones they did not, the things they kept from each other. It simply takes time to untangle everything, to restitch old wounds.

They are parking a few blocks from the therapist's office, just leaning into each other for a while, holding hands, when someone snaps a picture of them. They don't even bother chasing the wannabe paparazzo, who scurries down the street as if they were hot on his trail.

All Tony does is shrug and smile at him, and whenever he does, Steve finds it hard to care about anything else. "Cat's out of the bag."

Steve kisses his temple. "I don't care."

 

*

 

A tabloid calls him a high-profile rebound, another of Tony Stark's hot messes, never mind that he was in a steady relationship for years, and while that's not the most popular opinion about them, it still warrants a call from Pepper, asking him to lunch.

They meet in a cozy place, with napkins folded into the shape of flowers and minimally decorated dishes laid on rustic tables. The view of the ocean is hard to miss, the soft ebbing and flowing of the tide just below.

"Back when Tony made me CEO, they more or less implied I had slept my way to the top," Pepper says, smiling when, reflexively, Steve closes his hand into a fist. "We had the lawyers, but even them can't make something like that go completely away. I tried not to care, you know? I told myself I didn't. They didn't know a thing about me. Why should I give a damn about what they thought? But when I less expected it, whenever things at SI became more difficult to deal with than usual, it would hit me like a truck, make me shake with fury. The sheer audacity of those people."

"And then you made them eat their words," Steve says.

"I sure did," she says, looking proud. This is how the world sees her, Pepper Potts, full-time Stark Industries CEO, part-time superhero. He also sees her as Tony must have seen her all these years, poised and perfect, an anchor in a world of chaos. Lastly, here's how he likes to think of her, perusing her very own fan mail, one hand brushing a colorful drawing that a girl had sent her.

"Her name is Alicia and she feels like she can be anything she wants," Pepper had said, her eyes bright, and Steve smiles at the memory, tracing the contours of his napkin. He's got the folding technique memorized, just in case.

"It's not that I believe it," he says at last, and although he keeps the rest to himself, she probably hears what he isn't saying anyway. Even now, a small part of him fears that he won't get to keep him. It's the same part that feels wanting, that remembers Tony saying, "Someone who deserves her," that knows, in turn, that he doesn't deserve him.

She gives his sleeve a light tug. "Have you seen the way he looks at you?" With a slide of her finger, she shows him one of the pictures she took during the last fundraising gala they attended, before the public got wind of the news.

Steve holds her phone with the utmost care. In the picture, he's at the center of it all, talking to a few people. Telling them a wartime story, to be exact, and doing so with more enthusiasm than he actually feels. Because he's facing them, he misses it when Tony looks at him, his face soft, the corners of his lips curled in a small smile. His fingertip brushes the screen as if he could touch Tony through that motion alone.

"This is before he said he needed me somewhere, but it was just to save me from having to tell another story," Steve says with a smile. "May I have this?"

Pepper nods. "I'll send it to you right away."

Steve wonders if she would have held on to Tony tighter if she had known what Steve knows, that they almost lost him for good, that for a while, they did. He hates the idea that he built his happiness on the ruins of hers, so even if it's probably not his place to ask, he can't help it. "Tony said you're seeing someone?"

"Oh, you know her. Small world that we all live in," Pepper says, and if he had any doubts, they're dispelled the moment he looks at her. The answer is in her smile, in the faint blush coloring her cheeks, both of them real. "Her name is Hope."

 

*

 

The milestone finds them in the kitchen making breakfast. It's been a couple of years since they moved in together to the rebuilt mansion in Malibu Point, but no one has mentioned it yet. Steve is counting on being the first to speak when Tony beats him to the punch, and it's only because his hearing is enhanced that he hears him clearly despite the sound of the blender. "What would you think about getting married?"

Trusting him to catch it, Tony turns to see him. His arms are slack at his sides, his lips parted, and he stands there waiting on one of Steve's t-shirts, the collar loose enough that he can see a glimpse of the soft skin surrounding the rim of the arc reactor.

Steve, who has a notebook filled with arbor designs and sketches of simple gold bands, who has been dreaming of a beach wedding ever since they moved here, doesn't make him wait. Gently, like he's holding something precious, he takes Tony's hand and gets down on one knee.

 

*

 

There are rough patches, sometimes. Today starts with a nightmare that makes him curl against himself and scrunch up his eyes, too afraid to wake up for good and find him gone.

"Hey," he hears Tony say, his voice still soft with sleep, and slowly, he releases the breath he'd been holding in.

"Hey," Steve says back, and Tony scoots closer and drapes his arms around him, tangles their legs together. Lightly, he kisses his forehead, his eyelids, his mouth.

"I'm here. I haven't gone anywhere."

"Sorry," Steve says, and finally, he looks into Tony's eyes. His heart still hasn't caught up and realized that he isn't running through the streets of New York, fresh in the 21st century. "I didn't mean to wake you up."

"Pft. As if I mind," Tony says, stroking his hair. Steve loves the feel of his skin, no barriers in between. They made love last night, and now that he's fully awake, every little sensation comes back to him. Tony's fingers are warm as he draws circles on his back, just as warm as they were last night, when he held on to Steve's arms.

"If you want," Tony starts, and Steve is suddenly afraid that he'll want to reschedule things. They're supposed to go shopping for rings later and Steve doesn't want to miss it for the world. He doesn't want to miss anything ever again. "If you want, you can go back to sleep. It's still dark outside."

Steve presses his face into the crook of Tony's neck. "Tell me a story first."

"Okay, sure," Tony says with a chuckle. "See, it's a story from the future. It's our wedding day. Both Rhodey and Barnes have given heartwarming speeches already, but here I come to steal the show, as is my wont. I'll clink my dessert spoon against my champagne flute and say, Dear friends, my husband here loved me so much that he single-handedly brought me back to life. I would like to see you try to top that. Rhodey will go, Boom, because he's got my back and he's awesome like that, and as a matter of fact, and no one can actually top what you did, and then—"

Steve huffs a laugh. "You actually won't say that."

"Try me. And then," he says pointedly, "I'll tell them why I married him. Because he's steadfast and kind, because he inspires me to be better. Because he's everything my heart desires and I'm a hard to please jerk."

"You're not," Steve says, kissing his collarbone. "Is he, though? All of those things?"

"Yeah," Tony says, stifling a yawn. "One hundred percent sure."

Steve heaves a sigh and holds his waist, pulling him closer, and like this, with the sound of Tony's heart lulling him to sleep, he lets the morning come.