Steve knows, at the very least, that they should be thankful for the head’s up. Other games have and do get pulled without warning, be it on purpose, or after a server crash that no one bothers to fix, or by the random whims of their higher dimensional masters.
In their case, they’ve had time to prepare, to finish up, to say their goodbyes. Steve’s had more costume unlocks in the last two months than the last two years, and in between all the last-minute gameplay he’s maximized his time with his friends, be it just hanging out or in missions.
By the time Fury calls the entire school body to gather in the quad, where the countdown clock is ticking to the last overhead, Steve knows what to do, and he does it. He stands at attention, hand over his heart, and thanks the Academy for everything it’s done for them.
Other say goodbye in their own ways. Last partner missions are done together, last selfies are taken, and Hank Pym triggers as many mission accomplished tick boxes as he can in a final bid to see the game will crash through the finale (miraculously, it doesn’t).
Then the countdown clock drops to zero. The fourth wall grows dark, and a wave of silence settles over the campus and its inhabitants.
Into that silence, Tony says, voice as clear as a notification chime: “Let’s get it done.”
A few of them chuckle, Steve among them. It’s just Tony being Tony, but it’s also a fitting parting shot – Tony was the first of them, and here he’s the last.
“All right, all right,” Nick Fury says. “Enough of that. Let’s file out in an orderly fashion – I said orderly fashion!”
The exit portal glows bright outside the campus gates. There are almost three hundred of them now – two hundred playables and the additional non-playables – so even with some of them flying, it still takes a while for everyone to leave. Fury and his SHIELD students – Maria, Sharon, Dum Dum and others – flank the crowd, guiding everyone out safely.
Steve lingers towards the back of the crowd. It’s partially to make sure he can keep an eye on his friends as they move to the exit, but it’s also so he can look back to watch the Academy crinkle apart, polygons of color and structure drawn upward into the ether as data is erased.
Outside their portal is their familiar sidewalk of the internet, the buildings of other games lined up around the block. While some of the Academy’s students have already wandered off – everyone already has Tony and Jan’s interdimensional communicators – a great deal more are staying on the sidewalk, looking up at their game building as it’s dismantled.
Steve joins them, settling in a comfortable spot by the two Buckys and Natasha. The last part of the building to disappear is their original game banner: Thor and Loki to the left, Steve with Natasha and Tony dead center, Hulk and Fury to the right, Jan flying above the Hulk. It’s an ancient relic at this point, a snapshot of the freshness of the game when it was new and full of promise.
The banner glows briefly, then crumbles into polygons that are swallowed up.
And it’s over.
Time passes differently outside of the game. Sort of. It was always “daytime” in the Academy, but there were pulses of in-game user activity that ebbed and flowed, generating its own sense of time that everyone could follow. That game time is, on the surface, reflected in pulses of general internet time, yet Steve finds himself losing track of hours the way he never did when he was in the game.
Basically, Steve doesn’t know how long he’s been sitting here, parked at one of the Wikia booths flipping through pages. A few hours? A day? A few days? It’s hard to tell. There’s a surprisingly large amount material to read, so Steve has been reading.
Steve looks up. It’s Tony, in his rank 1 outfit, though with an added satchel hanging from a long strap crossed over his torso.
“Hey.” Steve realizes how this must look, and he quickly puts a hand over the screen. “I’m just… um.”
“Oooh, the Halloween event.” Tony bounds up to Steve’s booth, grinning as he skims the page Steve had open. Steve lowers his hand awkwardly, accepting the lost cause. “The Cap Wolf storyline was a good one.”
“Thanks?” Steve says. “I mean. I still don’t understand why so many of my costumes were crated.”
“High-interest premium content,” Tony says matter-of-factly. “Come on, you know that. At least you weren’t paywalled for so long like Hulk and Thor.”
“I suppose.” To Steve’s surprise, Tony pulls up a stool and sits down, joining him at the booth. Tony reaches for the screen, flipping through the pages and occasional laughing or making intrigued sounds as he reads of their campus history.
Steve relaxes, though embarrassment still thrums faintly at the edges of his thoughts. He knows he’s not the only one who’s been browsing the Avengers Academy Wikia – he saw Clint and Peter Quill in their own booths, though admittedly he doesn’t know how long ago that was. Even so, it still feels like he’s been caught, and by the worst possible person. Sure, Steve hasn’t seen Tony since the game was deleted, but he seems to have been actually doing stuff instead of reading about the things that they’d lived through.
Some of the others had known exactly where to go when the game went under. The internet is massive, and some of them – Sam and OG Bucky especially – had even started exploring the vast land before they’d gotten hints that the game would go. So they, and others like them, took to Graduation beautifully. Steve had followed OG Bucky over to Wikipedia for a little while, before he found the Avengers Academy page, and then the game’s Wikia. As far as Steve knows (via the communicators), OG Bucky is still at Wikipedia, bumping up pages that need looking at.
“Are you busy?” Tony says.
“Uh.” Steve flushes. “I guess not?”
“Okay, then you can help me carry some things.” Tony runs his hands along the lower border of the screen, pulling out a secondary screen that Steve hadn’t even known was there. Steve watches, perplexed and curious, as Tony plugs in what appears to be commands, and small blue cubes are spat out from the console.
“Here,” Tony says, dumping the cubes in Steve’s lap, forcing Steve to rush to catch them. “My satchel’s full, so you can be my assistant and carry those. You have a bag? No?” Tony conjures another command console from his gauntlet, and upon plugging in a quick command, the satchel he’s wearing generates a duplicate. He hands over the new satchel, which Steve takes in bemusement.
“What exactly are you doing?” Steve asks.
“Oh, you know, this and that.” Tony stands up and turns around, squinting at the distance. “It’ll be so much faster if I don’t have to carry everything myself. Ready?”
“Ready for wha—” Steve starts when Tony calls up a traveling pod. At least, it looks like a traveling pod, except it’s shinier and slicker, i.e. a Tony StarkTM version of the regular internet traveling pods.
Tony’s halfway into the pod when he pauses, looking back. “Are you coming or not?”
Steve closes his mouth, adjusts the satchel on his shoulder, and follows.
Tony doesn’t explain what he’s doing, but truth be told, Steve doesn’t really need to know. Tony got up to all sorts of nonsense in the Academy, which means that Steve should probably be concerned what he can get up to when he’s loose in the web, but the internet is large enough that it can handle anything that Tony throws its way. Security’s improved a lot since the Wreck-It Ralph worm incident from a few months ago, anyway.
Not that Tony seems to be doing anything nefarious. He just drives around the internet, swerving around user avatars and bots and data packs, and makes faces at Steve when he suggests his driving skills could be improved.
Every so often Tony stops the pod, gets out just a few steps away and collects more of the blue cubes, before coming back in. When he does this, he waves at Steve to stay where he is, so Steve’s only job is to catch and pack up all the cubes that Tony throws at him.
“Where’s Jan?” Steve asks.
“Instagram,” Tony says. “Trying to get a job as one of the algorithms. She’s a shoo-in, really.”
“Oh yes,” Steve says, surprised by how much he agrees. It explains why she’s not helping Tony with this, too. “Controversial job, though.”
“Good thing she loves controversy.” Tony grins, but the smile turns into a grimace as he swerves around another user pod.
“Maybe I should drive,” Steve says.
“And maybe I should let you do quantum physics, too, but some ideas are just best accepted to be bad ideas.” Tony perks up as they drive past a tall green-black tower. “Oooh, Spotify.”
“That’s Spotify?” Steve peers at the building curiously, where rectangular labels of music albums float over the tower’s outer walls. “Winter Bucky’s there. Making emo playlists.”
“Yikes. But also… good for him?”
“He’s pretty happy.”
“Uh-huh.” Tony flaps a hand sideways at Steve. “Sit tight, I missed my turn.”
Steve sighs and grips the edge of his seat, while Tony yanks hard on the steer pad, sending the pod into a dramatic downward loop-spiral. Tony flies a pod as if he were flying one of his suits, which on one hand is a rollercoaster that Steve didn’t sign up for, but on the other hand is kinda comforting in the sense that at least some things haven’t changed.
Tony hits the brakes as soon as they’re close to a lifted sidewalk, bringing the pod to a sharp halt. Steve exhales a little louder than necessary, and doesn’t let his expression change when Tony narrows his eyes at him.
“Here we are,” Tony says. “Time for an extra large pick-up. You’re coming with.”
Tony’s parked on a game block, which is not all that different from where Avengers Academy used to be. This time Tony tells Steve to put all the cubes in the pod’s storage compartment before joining him, so his satchel is empty. Steve does as told, and then follows Tony out of the pod onto the avenue. They weave around pop-up ads waving their wares at them – well, Steve weaves around them, Tony mostly doesn’t seem to notice they exist and force them to either bounce off him or move around him instead.
There are a couple of games down the street, but Tony’s only got eyes on one. The banner proclaims it as MARVEL Strike Force, which makes Steve slow his steps warily, but Tony just pushes forward, tapping away at the little holographic screen on his gauntlet.
“Tony,” Steve says, “are you sure this is a good idea?”
“Of course it is.” Tony looks up, as if just remembering that Steve’s there. “You can wait in the pod if you want.”
“No, it’s fine.”
It isn’t fine, but Steve squares his shoulders and follows Tony into the game’s entry portal.
MARVEL Strike Force isn’t like the Academy. The first thing that hits Steve are the colors and resolution, everything just that much more realistic and in need of a scrubdown. Immediately inside the entrance is a grey-paneled holding area, where various characters are hanging around, presumably waiting for their turns.
A couple of characters walk past, all of them recognizable and some of them even very close in appearance to the people he knows, but there’s something slightly off, slightly more menacing or grown-up. Even so, a few of the characters – an Elektra, and a Venom – nod an acknowledgement at them as they head deeper into the game.
“Oh hey, Tony!” A Spider-man jogs over. He pulls his mask off as he approaches and, to Steve’s surprise, the polygons of the slightly older Peter Parker’s face shift.
“You’re Peter!” Steve exclaims. “I mean, our Peter.”
“Oh, yeah,” Peter says, sheepish. “I mean. I am. Hi?”
“Peter got a gig in this game,” Tony tells Steve. “Can you just wait here a sec, I need to get something.”
Steve turns to Peter as Tony walks off to a nearby tower console. Peter’s clearly pleased to see him and the enthusiasm’s infectious, prompting Steve to take Peter into a quick hug.
“Wow, so you’re playing here now,” Steve says. “That’s amazing.”
“I don’t know if that’s true,” Peter says, laughing a little. “I mean, there’s loads of jobs for a spare Spider-man, so it’s kinda lowballing it to just drop into another mobile game but at the same time… I don’t know, it’s nice here. I like the gameplay, it’s soothing.”
“How does your gig work?” Steve asks.
“Me and the other Peter switch it up. I’m sort of like an understudy? I gotta mirror the other guy, but the players can’t tell the difference anyway. There’s actually a bunch of Academy peeps here already – Luke, She-Hulk, and I think Natasha was checking out the place earlier, but I don’t know if she decided to settle in.”
Steve looks around. There’s a fight happening in a street cube just off to their left and, yeah, it looks pretty impressive. More dynamic than the fights they had at the Academy anyway. Steve finds himself flexing a little, just out of habit, and realizes that it must have been quite a while since he’d last been in a fight.
He wonders where this game’s Steve Rogers is.
Just like everyone else from the Academy, Steve has always known that there are other versions of them. They’re all part of a great big complicated character web, with some connections stronger than others. Natasha’s even gone to play in some of their sister games, and the Academy itself used to get curious visitors from time to time.
But Steve’s never gotten used to it. He accepts the necessity of it, but just the thought that there are hundreds of mirror versions of himself out there gives him the willies. Makes him feel less real, somehow. But that’s just him, and he doesn’t expect anyone else to feel the way he does. In fact, he thinks it’s perfectly wonderful that Peter and others have made new homes for themselves here.
“You’re enjoying yourself, then?” Steve asks.
“Oh, yeah, for sure,” Peter says, smiling broadly. “It’s a nifty change of pace, and because there’s two Spideys I get sweet breaks to see Mary-Jane and, um… other people.”
“Uh-huh,” Steve says with a laugh.
“I can find Natasha if you want?” Peter says. “It’s a big place, but there’s a comm system.”
“It’s fine, I still have the communicator and…” Steve turns to the tower console, but Tony’s not there. He whirls around quickly, but there’s no sign of Tony’s red and yellow jacket. “Where’d he go?”
“Oh!” Peter exclaims. “Huh. Where did he go?”
“I better get back to the pod,” Steve says. “But it was nice seeing you again, Peter. Maybe I’ll come visit again, now that I know that a bunch of you are here.”
“That’ll be great!” Peter waves as Steve takes off in a jog.
Steve steps out of the game, and sighs with relief when he sees Tony’s pod still parked where they left it. He heads towards it, and eventually sees that Tony’s sitting on the sidewalk on the far side of the pod, legs crossed underneath him and the little blue cubes strewn on the ground around him.
“What are you doing?” Steve says.
Tony jumps. “What! Nothing. Oh, this.” He lifts a blue cube and, in a magician’s flourish, does some complicated maneuver with his fingers that folds the cube into a small, flat sliver. “Ta da!”
“Right.” Steve joins him sitting on the ground. “Show me how to do that.”
“It’s really difficult, don’t be sad if you can’t do it.” Tony shows him anyway, and Steve is enough of a gentleman to not get it right on the first two tries.
Tony’s amassed quite a number of cubes, so they spend some time folding them. It’s tiring work, but simple, almost meditative. The avenue they’re sitting on is high up in this sector, so as they work the thousands of lights and signs in the vista before them change color and brightness, rather like virtual sunrises and sunsets.
Partway through the folding, Tony takes a break. He looks out at that view of the internet moving at its breakneck pace, his expression contemplative or maybe appreciative – it’s hard to tell. Steve hadn’t even known that Tony could be quiet and still like this; back in the Academy he’d always seemed so busy, and so easy to tick off.
Steve finds himself stopping as well. He puts the cube he’d been working on down.
Next to him, Tony does something that Steve’s never seen him do. He flicks a switch on his right-hand gauntlet and pulls the whole thing off.
Steve inhales sharply.
He’s seen Tony walk around the Academy in board shorts and a highly inappropriate blacksmith outfit. Both said outfits had so much more skin on display, yet this simple act of removing a gauntlet that’s been a permanent fixture in the game feels racy, and Steve has the incredibly intense urge to avert his gaze.
Tony notices Steve’s surprise and, smirking, waves his bare fingers at him.
“Wow!” Steve actually does avert his eyes for a second, before remembering himself. “I mean. I didn’t know you could—”
“I couldn’t,” Tony says. “Not while the game existed. But now it’s gone, its rules don’t exist anymore.”
Steve knew that, except he didn’t, not in this way. He sits back, thoughtful, and then removes his shield and harness, followed by the denim jacket. All of them come off easily, leaving Steve in his blue t-shirt with the white star, which apparently had long sleeves underneath. He flexes his arms experimentally, marveling at how different it feels.
“Wow,” Steve says again. He beams at Tony, who laughs a little and shakes his head.
The moment stretches long and heavy between them, like a secret.
Tony turns away first, attention drawn by something in the distance. Yet his expression – peaceful, relaxed – doesn’t change, and Steve thinks about how despite having known Tony almost his entire existence, this still feels like the first time he’s ever seen him.
“What else can we do?” Steve asks.
“I haven’t really tried much yet,” Tony says, surprising Steve. “I guess you could cut your hair if you wanted. Or grow it out in a new style. Something to think about, huh?”
“Yeah,” Steve says. “I guess it is.”
They eventually resume folding the cubes, until the whole collection is compact enough that Tony can store the lot inside his arc reactor. After that, they have dinner at a nearby cooking game, then call it a cycle night. They sleep in the pod, Tony in the front and Steve in the back, while Tony lets his Youtube playlist run as background noise. They don’t need rest the way they did when they’d had the full game workload, but Steve finds the shut-eye soothing.
Some hours later Tony gets up, having decided what counts as the start of the next cycle, and switches the playlist from the lull of video essays to kittens screaming for food.
“Time to get back to work,” Tony says, when Steve jerks up blearily from the pod’s back seat. It’s a little odd to hear that word – “work” – because it’s not like they have missions anymore, but Steve figures that Tony’s talking about work as a general concept instead of a specific one.
Tony fires up the pod and takes off, moving away from the game block, past the megacorp commerce sites, and onto what looks like a massive highway.
“Okay, we’re going to a high-traffic area,” Tony says. “The ads are way more aggressive, and a lot of them are corrupted, so I’m gonna need you to be my bodyguard.”
“I can do that,” Steve says.
With that description, Steve’s unsurprised when Tony parks his pod on the edge of a rundown, skeezy-looking stretch of highway. User avatars rush across said highway, most of them dragging huge download packets behind them. Between them are ads, but these are bigger than the ones that hang around the game blocks.
Steve, wearing his shield and harness but not the jacket, follows Tony out onto the highway. Tony’s steps are more measured and careful, and Steve follows his lead. Luckily, the ads aren’t really paying attention to them. They’re mostly waiting for a traffic light to appear on the highway, which intermittently forces a user to stop and wait, and then they rush forward with their placards, trying to get the user to detour to their clicks.
“Head down, head down,” Tony mutters under his breath. He’s checking the small screen of his gauntlet, hunting for something specific. “Dammit.”
Steve shadows Tony closely, worried when Tony turns and double-backs a little. “What are you looking for? Can I help?”
“I have coordinates for a meeting spot. It’s supposed to be somewhere…” Tony scowls and looks around. “It should be here, but it’s not—”
“Hey, mister.” An ad has trotted up to them. He’s as tall as Steve, which is pretty damn tall for an ad, and waves a rather rude placard in their faces. “Looking for lonely ladies in your area?”
“No, thank you.” Steve starts when the ad pushes forward, placard smacking him in the chest. “I said no, thank—”
“Doctors hate them for sharing this secret!” another ad yells in Tony’s face. Tony takes a quick panicked step in Steve’s direction, but is blocked by another, smaller ad that’s offering cheap airplane tickets.
“Hey, mister,” the first ad says, voice low and dangerous. “Pretty damn rude of you not to click, eh?” He shoves at Steve, who’s so shocked at the motion that he shoves back.
“Oh,” Steve says, “sorry, I didn’t mean—”
The ad tries to punch him. They keyword here being ‘tries’, because Steve blocks him, and then swerves around another ad who tries to knee him in the stomach.
Didn’t come here expecting a fight, but things happen. Steve throws a punch, then another and another, all the while stepping sideways to get to Tony, who’s flailing over placards being shoved in his face. Steve could use his shield but there’s too many of them, dozens upon dozens of them now ambling towards them.
“Steve!” Tony yells. “Dino out! Chomp chomp!”
“What, I—” Steve registers what Tony’s saying, and concentrates. His dinosaur form pops out in a rush, doubling his height and sending a tail out to smack an ad away. Steve rushes forward, head bowed low so Tony can scramble up his back. Once Tony’s holding on tight, Steve straightens up and roars, snapping his jaws at the ads that suddenly back up in surprise.
“Yeah, you wanna get eaten?” Tony shouts from Steve’s back. “He’s hungry and you look nutritious!”
“You won’t eat us!” one of the ads says.
Steve opens his jaws in what he hopes is a threatening, hungry-looking move. “Breakfast sounds like a good idea.” One of the braver ads steps forward, and Steve closes his jaws around the ad’s placard and swallows it.
“My Sexiest Game of the Year!” the ad cries.
Steve can’t hold them all off like this for long. Tony’s in a safe position for now, but they need to get back to the pod. Heck, they need to make sure the ads don’t notice the pod and try to take it.
“Hold on,” Steve says, and Tony’s grip tightens around his neck.
Steve runs. He barrels through the ads, head down and tail sweeping wide. The ads rise up in a cursing mob, but they’re not fast and their hands are slippery, making it easy for Steve to jump and flip where necessary, and all the while making sure Tony’s weight stays safe and solid on his back.
“The pod,” Tony says.
“Yeah, I see it.” Steve dodges a user as they zoom past, leaps over another batch of angry ads, and makes for the pod at a dead run. But the big ad – the first ad, the one that tried to punch Steve – is in the way, wielding a rolled up placard in his hands like a bat.
Just then the cavalry arrives. A large yellow scanner floats in directly overhead, casting the entire patch of highway in shadow. The shouting drops to a murmur as the ads look up, skeptical or confused – including the ad that’s blocking their way, which allows Steve to knock him aside with his tail.
Then the scanner starts shooting, and it’s a different kind of mayhem. The ads rush off in a cacophony of screaming, allowing Steve to come to a neat halt just next to their pod. He looks up.
The scanner is hovering almost directly over them. A small window on the bottom of the scanner flips open, and a familiar head peeks out.
“Hi, Jocasta!” Tony calls up. “Did you get it?”
“Yes, Tony.” Jocasta disappears into the scanner for a moment, and returns holding a glowing packet. She drops it, and Tony lets out a whoop at catching it. “Hello, Steve,” Jocasta says.
“Hey.” Steve waves, before remembering that his arms are short and she probably can’t see them. “You’re working anti-malware now?”
“It’s a challenge, but a satisfying one,” Jocasta says. Another laser shoots out from the skiff, and a corrupted ad screams somewhere nearby. “Tony, is that enough?”
“Yep, it’s good,” Tony says. “Can you scan us as well? Just to be safe?”
The green-blue light of the scanner passes over them. “All’s clear,” Jocasta says.
“Thanks, Jocasta,” Steve says. “It’s much appreciated.”
“I’m glad. Tell JARVIS I said hello, will you?” Jocasta waves one more time before closing the window, and the scanner starts moving again, along its path over the highway. Threat neutralized and package received, Steve rolls his shoulders and pulls the dinosaur skin back inside.
“Uh,” Tony says.
“Oh, I forgot, I—” Steve realizes that Tony’s still clinging to his back, albeit now with his arms around Steve’s upper torso and legs around his waist. Steve slowly kneels down as carefully as he can manage, face warm as Tony untangles his limbs and steps back onto solid ground. “Sorry, sorry.”
“That’s something to knock off my bucket list.” Tony shoves the blue packet under his arm and starts walking back to the pod before Steve can ask what that means. “Come on, Cap, gotta keep moving.”
They drop by a few more places over the next two cycles. Reddit, where Kamala needs to be untangled from a knotty thread; Discord, where Viv has a new gig as a tracking bot; and an xxx- block (Steve blushes when he learns of this destination, until Tony explains that it’s a restricted science protocol segment) where Bruce Banner is trawling through pages upon pages of particle physics.
But it’s not all hunting for supplies. Tony takes scenic breaks in between where he does things like give Steve tips on mixing-and-matching his outfit, and wasting a few hours watching kids play Minecraft to relax. Steve would almost think that Tony’s taking him on a tour of the internet, if it weren’t for the fact that Tony’s still collecting cubes everywhere he can get his hands on. Unless it’s one of those two-birds-one-stone situations, which it could very well be.
For their latest destination, Tony tells him: “I did warn you this one was gonna be weird.”
“I think we’ve covered weird by now,” Steve says.
“This’ll be weirder,” Tony says cheerfully. “I’m going to be in my armor, and you’ve got to… Hmm. What’ve you got that makes you look older?”
Steve blinks, switching over to his Infinity War outfit. He immediately reaches up, pushing his fingers through the beard, which is always fun when he first switches, though he knows he’ll get irritated by the weight in a few hours. “You going to make fun of my beard again?”
Tony starts a little, as though he’d drifted off for a second there. “What? I don’t make fun of your beard.”
“Is it?” Steve leans in. “Touch the beard.”
“Touch the beard, Tony.”
“No, and you can’t—” Tony laughs, hands flapping defensively as Steve threatens to give him bristle burn on his shoulder. Tony’s rank 5 red and gold armor pops out, stopping Steve where he stands. “That is very undignified,” Tony says, voice modulated through the helmet.
“I disagree,” Steve says. “So which way are we getting in?”
“Over the wall. Can’t use the pod, it’ll be suspicious.” Tony fires up his repulsors, and holds one boot out. “Hop on.”
Steve puts a foot on Tony’s boot and hauls himself up, getting a good grip on the back of Tony’s suit. It’s a short flight over the brightly-lit fence, and is over before Steve remembers that he has his own Iron Cap suit and could’ve flown the short distance by himself.
The site is massive, and loud, and near bursting at the seams with flashing lights, characters and event banners. The crowd at least means that their arrival isn’t really noticed, and they are able to brisk walk all the way to the main cluster of buildings, under the shadow of the great big turreted castle.
They’re almost there when a child user’s avatar jumps into their path. Steve skids to a halt, and grabs Tony’s arm to prevent him from falling over when he does the same.
“Iron Man!” the child says. An Oh My Disney lanyard swings from the avatar’s neck. “Captain America!”
“Hello, yes,” Tony says, deepening his voice. “I am Iron Man, and this is Captain America.”
“Did Captain America rescue you from space?” the child asks, looking eagerly between them.
“Um,” Tony says.
“Yes, I did,” Steve says. “I’m just bringing him home now.”
“Yay, I knew it!” the child says.
“Okay, so we’ve got to, uh—go save the world,” Tony says.
“The universe,” the child says.
“We’re going to save the universe,” Steve agrees. “You be good now.” He waves and starts walking, Tony thankfully taking the hint to follow before any of the other avatars notice them. Tony quickly bypasses Steve to lead the way, though Steve stays close by his shoulder, whispering: “Why do you sound like you’re lying when you say that we’re Iron Man and Captain America? That’s who we are.”
“From a certain point of view.” Tony double-takes and laughs. “Ha! Get it? Because the Star Wars land is just over there and that’s… never mind.”
Tony leads them to one of the main buildings, just off from the large blue wizard’s hat. There’s a door marked Staff Entrance, but when Tony puts a hand on the lever, the door lights up and a security bot pops her head out from a side window.
“Halt!” the security bolt says. “Who goes there?”
Tony sets his feet on the ground spaced slightly apart, and lifts one hand up to show a flashing repulsor. “I am Iron Man. I am going to my dressing room.”
Steve quickly shifts his body language, planting his fists on his hips. “And I’m Captain America.”
“Oh! Of course, sirs.” The security bot nods and the alarm light switches off. “Sorry for the checks, we’re still at code red since that racing character broke into the restricted Princess area.”
“That was very bad, yes.” Tony puts a tentative hand on the door, and only very slightly relaxes when it clicks open. “We’re going now.”
“Very good, sirs.”
Inside, there’s a long corridor with doors set at intervals and other corridors branching off from the main one. Steve tries not to look at the signs – no point getting distracted – and stays focused on Tony as he navigates his way to a specific black door with STARK INDUSTRIES emblazoned on it.
Through the door, there’s a large dressing room. A very Tony-like dressing room, with tech and glowing lights everywhere, and it makes Steve a little dizzy with how similar yet different it is from the Stark Tower that used to be the flagship of the Academy.
Steve’s about to ask how Tony’s so familiar with this place, but then he realizes that Tony’s never been here before either. Tony’s brought faceplate is down, and he’s walking slowly through the room, taking in the details with eyes that are wide and hungry.
Steve’s stomach twists. Of course Tony misses the Academy and having a place that was wholly his. Tony may be upbeat and keeping himself busy, and seemingly uninterested in getting a new gig, but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t mourn their game. It just means he doesn’t mourn the way Steve is.
“Hey,” a new voice says. “I don’t remember ordering room service.”
A spotlight turns on, highlighting a landing pad on the far side of the room. There’s a window set above it, and through it a second Iron Man lowers himself down into an unhurried landing, his boots clanking loudly when they connect with the floor. Superficially, the two Iron Man suits are the same, but the new arrival is shinier, glossier, and has different markings when one looks closely.
The second Iron Man retracts his helmet. It’s a Tony Stark, but one who’s more in line with the other Tony Stark doppelgangers Steve’s seen elsewhere on the internet, i.e. older and with a pronounced goatee.
“Holy wow!” Tony exclaims. “Steve, would you look at that! I’m so handsome.”
Steve looks from the flashy Iron Man to his Tony and back, and decides that his Tony is handsome enough, thank you very much.
“Uh-huh.” The older Iron Man raises an eyebrow, amused. “This your Steve?”
Steve snaps to attention. “Technically, we aren’t intruding if this is Iron Man’s dressing room.”
“Nice cover line,” Iron Man says. “Where you guys from?”
“Avengers Academy,” Tony says, rushing forward to offer his hand. Steve frowns a little, especially when Iron Man takes said hand and shakes it. It’s not a condescending move – Iron Man seems honestly friendly and curious about their presence – but it’s weird to see Tony like this, flushed and eager. “Mobile game,” Tony adds.
“Oh. Ohhh.” Iron Man grimaces. “Bum deal you guys got.”
“It happens,” Tony says, shrugging.
“We’re dealing with it just fine,” Steve says.
Iron Man’s eyes flicker toward Steve briefly, sharp but inscrutable. When he looks back at Tony, his smile is warmer. “What do you need?”
Steve hangs back while the two talk shop. There are words in there that Steve knows – about code and packages and string – but he knows better than to try to put them together. Instead he casts his eye about the room again, noting all of its luxury and gadgets. Steve could very easily see Tony settling in here and basking in the obvious VIP treatment, even if ‘only’ as an understudy. In fact, now that he thinks about it, he’s surprised Tony hasn’t already wiggled his way in here.
“Thanks!” Tony says. He bounds over to a console near the wall, and drops into the massive leather chair in front of it. Holographic controls appear over his head and hands, and he starts typing away furiously.
That leaves Steve with Iron Man, who’s now walking up to him.
“Okay,” Iron Man says, “Tony’s skimming off what he needs. How about you?”
“I’m just here to help him,” Steve says.
“Right. And watch out for him, yes?”
“He doesn’t need a babysitter,” Steve says sharply.
“Slow down there, soldier,” Iron Man says with a laugh. “Not what I was going for.”
It’s a genial rebuke, but Steve shrinks back anyway, self-conscious. Iron Man is helping them, so there’s no need for Steve to feel on edge. Maybe it’s just the effect of being here, in the heart of the mothership that could have saved them but didn’t. But that’s unfair, too, because nothing lasts forever, and mobile games have a limited lifespan to begin with. Everyone knows that.
“Sure, I’m keeping an eye on him,” Steve says awkwardly. “But that’s – it’s just – it’s not like he needs it.”
Iron Man tilts his head. “You sure about that?”
Steve barely has a second to process that before Tony’s jumping out of the console seat and shouting, “Got it!” He rushes up to them holding a packet that’s glowing the by-now familiar blue, which Steve takes and shoves into his satchel. Tony’s eyes are bright as he turns to his not-mirror-image. “Thank you, Iron Man, you’re my favorite.”
Iron Man laughs. “You know what, kid? You’re my fav, too. And now, to get both of you out of here. You’re gonna have to change outfits.”
“What, why?” Tony says.
“It’ll be easier.” Iron Man pulls up a screen, which he uses to call up the merch store. “You can’t pass for users, but there are so many dang characters running around the place that two more won’t matter, as long as you’re not recognizable as any specific IP.”
Tony looks down as his arc reactor. “Something black for me.”
“Got you covered.” There’s a faint ping as Iron Man sends out an order, and a Star Wars shirt drops in his hands.
Steve reaches for the screen, and Iron Man gamely steps away so that Steve can scroll through the clothes. He sets his face in a polite smile, and taps his choice. “That one.”
Iron Man grins. “Sure thing.”
They leave the staff area in their new duds and with their general appearances set back to their Academy defaults. Just like Iron Man said, they’re so invisible now that users and characters alike outright bump into them as they navigate the crowds.
“We don’t have to rush, right?” Steve asks. “There’s a dessert design app over there. Want to check it out?”
“Sure, why not,” Tony says.
There are a few other customers at the vending app, but they get a pair of seats together. Tony orders a huge ice-cream sundae, while Steve gets a milkshake and waffles, and they settle down to eat.
“They really need to work on their crowd control,” Tony says. “You could give them tips.”
“It’s my humble opinion, that’s the least of their problems.” Steve pops a piece of waffle into his mouth, the polygons disrupting into delicious syrupy code down his throat. “It’s not the crowds that’s the issue. It’s the threat of getting lost.”
Tony opens his mouth as though to say something, only to close it and. Steve knows what he’s thinking – as game characters they could always find their way home, except their building’s gone now, and there’s just the big ‘ol internet to get lost in. Oh, Steve could probably figure his way around if he needed to, and there’s always the interdimensional communicator as back-up, but the lack of a due north has been unsettling.
“You know,” Steve says carefully, “this is the longest time I’ve spent with you like, ever. Even counting the Civil War and Armor Wars events.”
Tony twitches a little, and he pushes a strand of hair behind his ear. “If you want me to drop you back at Wikia, you just need to say so.”
“You’d do that?”
“Of course,” Tony says, offended. “There might be new pages to read, mistakes to fix.”
“You don’t think it’s pathetic?”
“Why would it be pathetic?”
“Because the game’s…” Steve trails off. He realizes he’s drumming his fingers on the table, and switches motion to slice another waffle piece free. “Because I’m a fossil, and all that.”
“You made wonderful memories in the game. Of course you’d want to remember them.” Tony leans back in his chair, frowning thoughtfully at the distance. “Everything is temporary. Everything. Games, us, even the internet – it looks like this place will never fall apart, but it will, one day. But when things go away, they leave imprints behind in us, the ones who remember. That’s where their value is. So, yes, it’s sad that the game is gone, but what did it give us?”
“Good stories,” Steve says. “Friendships.”
“Really weird fighting mechanisms.”
“A giant eagle to fly on.”
“Tentacle monsters that like to attack poor unsuspecting students.”
Steve laughs. “That tentacle monster only bothered you.”
“I know, it’s so unfair.” Tony grins, bright and beautiful, and Steve cannot look away. “You don’t need to let go, if you don’t want to.”
Steve exhales shakily. His nose feels a little raw, and he dabs a thumb to one eye. “That can be dangerous thinking.”
“That’s what the rest of us are for,” Tony says. “We help each other out, make sure it doesn’t get that far. Okay?”
“Yeah. Thank you.”
“That’s why I’m a genius,” Tony says, clicking his fingers in the air. “You’re welcome.”
Steve bites his lip before he can say something stupid, like why couldn’t it have been like this between them in the game. He knows the many answers to that, anyway – the roles they had to play, the storylines that needed to be fulfilled, the time-strapped events that kept everything going at faster and faster speeds.
He thinks back to how Tony had removed his gauntlet just a few cycles ago, a simple yet elegant display of their release from the rules. He thinks of the implications of that, leading up to the fact that Tony’s sitting across from him at a dessert app table in the middle of the Disney megasite, their feet close enough that Steve can feel when Tony’s tapping his heel restlessly on the ground.
“You could get a job here,” Steve says. “The other Iron Man seemed like he’d be up for it.”
“Eh, not for me,” Tony says. “But you! You’ve got to explain yourself. Or are you just going to taunt me all day?”
“Taunt you about what?”
“The shirt. Why’d you pick that shirt?”
Steve looks down at himself. He’s wearing a red short-sleeved tee, comfortable if a little tight over his blue long-sleeve. In the center is an arc reactor, but not his Tony’s arc reactor, for the design is more complicated, with geometric lines passing through the central circle.
“Thought I was being clever,” Steve says. “You need to hide your arc reactor, so I’d wear one instead.”
Tony hums skeptically.
“Or,” Steve says, widening his eyes in exaggerated earnestness, “maybe it’s because Iron Man is my favorite.”
Tony bursts out laughing, rocking so hard that he almost falls off his chair, and Steve’s whole body goes warm.
After that, they call it day. They take the pod to a quiet street and park it for their rest-sleep, falling into their routine of Steve stretching out in the back while Tony’s curled up in the front.
The next time Steve wakes, it’s of his own accord. Tony’s playlist is still running in a comforting background murmur, but Tony’s not in the front. Steve unfolds himself and steps out of the pod, where he gets into a few easy stretches.
He’s still in the middle of warm-ups when he hears Tony’s voice nearby. Steve carefully tiptoes around the pod, and peers around the corner of the block. Tony’s back is to him, and he’s got the communicator open, a small hologram of Shuri projected in the air.
“—for a download,” Shuri’s saying. “It’s running, but I need build.”
“I hear you,” Tony says. “I’m on it.”
Steve creeps back to the pod and finishes his warm-ups. Tony eventually returns to join him, carrying breakfast burritos that they eat together on the sidewalk.
They don’t talk, but it’s comfortable, easy. The buzz of the internet in permanent rush hour is distant enough that this particular spot of the world wide web seems to belong to them and only them. From time to time, Steve steals glimpses of Tony from the corner of his eye, while thoughts churn round and round his head trying to find purchase.
“Here’s what I’m thinking,” Tony says. “We’ll go to Baidu today, but first we’ll need to pick up a guide. I’m not so hot on that part of the ‘net.”
“You can tell me if I’m holding you back, you know,” Steve says.
Tony jolts in surprise. “What?”
“Whatever it is you’re doing. If I’m slowing you down, you can let me know.” Steve smiles, hoping he’s exuding as much sincerity as is possible. “It’s okay.”
Tony’s face goes wobbly and confused. “Is this like, a hint for me to take you back to Wikia? Because you can tell me if that’s what you want.”
“Whatever you’re doing must be important—”
“Not necessarily. In fact, as far as you know I’m just wasting your time.”
“And that’s fine.” Steve shrugs, while Tony just stares at him in surprise. “I’m okay with that, too.”
“You are unbelievable.”
One side of Tony’s mouth moves up into a teasing smirk. Though the sight is lovely, right now it has Steve’s stomach twisting in knots. Longing hammers at his heart, heavy and distracting from what he’s trying to say. It’s not as if Steve’s fishing for Tony to tell him anything, or that Steve thinks it’s unfair that Tony can talk to other people about what he’s doing but not Steve, despite Steve being the one that – no.
“If you could bring back one thing from the Academy, what would it be?” Tony says.
A non-sequitur, but why not? Steve thinks. “Well. I…”
If Tony asked this a few days ago, Steve’s pretty sure he’d have come up with a list as long as the Academy roster. But now he can think about it properly, his answer’s less easy to come by.
“I’m not sure,” he says at last. “Everyone got out of the game safely, which is the most important part.”
“You have to pick something.”
“I guess it’d be…” Steve hesitates. “It’s not a thing, exactly.”
“I’d like to be able to hang out with everyone again. Well, not everyone at the same time, but like… Just, hanging out. With my friends.”
“You can do that already. It’s just a matter of communication and timing.”
Tony’s smile widens. “You’d need a place? True.” He stands up, an invitation for Steve to do the same. “Let me show you something.”
They don’t go to Baidu, nor look for a tour guide. Instead, Tony fires up the pod and sends them careening away from the megaliths, back to the relatively smaller blocks of games. Steve thinks he recognizes the block that the Academy used to sit on, but Tony keeps driving, moving further away into the neighborhood of older games, their buildings sturdy but a little run-down.
The block that Tony heads for has a sublet level, tucked beneath the main avenue. It’s mostly maintenance bots and storage down here, but when Tony toggles a button on the dash, a doorway shimmers into existence. Tony flies the pod right inside, into a dimly-lit hall that makes Steve think of the old websites and webrings long gone. It’s cleaner here, though, with a tidy patch that looks like a new storage area, plus a half-dozen pods parked neatly next to it.
Steve sees the others before they land. There’s three of them: Hope Van Dyne, Shuri and JARVIS, who gather round as Tony lowers the pod into a landing.
Hope comes forward first. “You just missed Cho. He went back out for more harvesting. Hi, Steve.”
“Hey,” Steve says.
“That’s fine.” Tony steps out of the pod, Steve following. “We might be here a while anyway. A lot to off-load.”
“Thank goodness.” Shuri darts behind a console that’s reminiscent of the Wakanda Control Center, only smaller. “Give it here.”
Tony bounds forward to join Shuri at the console, and Steve is completely unsurprised when Tony reaches into his arc reactor, pulling out the stretch of packed cube-shards they’ve been collecting over the past few days. These get fed into the console, which beeps and boops approvingly.
“Nice of you to visit, Captain,” JARVIS says, shaking his hand. “It’s modest, but all of us have to start somewhere.”
“What is this?” Steve says.
“Don’t have a name yet,” Hope says. “I want to call it the Quantum Academy. Shuri’s vote is for Shadow Academy. Tony doesn’t want to call it an Academy at all.”
“Tony’s logic is sound,” JARVIS says. “It wouldn’t do to misrepresent ourselves.”
“You’re building it yourselves.” Steve steps cautiously into the main square, which is framed by crates of data and save files in clearly-labeled piles. “What have Tony and I been gathering?”
“Space,” Hope says. “Literally. Any spare pieces of space that he can shave off from other apps and sites. We put it together, repurpose it, fold it into a new quantum block.”
Steve turns to mock-scowl at Tony. “You’ve been stealing?”
“Does it count as stealing if no one will miss ‘em?” Tony calls back.
“Bots create all the time,” Hope points out. “Why can’t we?”
“You just set your own directives,” Steve says.
“Correct,” JARVIS says.
Hope and JARVIS take Steve on a tour. It’s a brief one, since they haven’t harvested that much space yet, but there’s plenty to talk about. The first proper building they want to set up is a new Club A – a place of recreation for people to gather – but first they need to set up the base infrastructure of the quantum block to make sure their saved data is secure.
“We didn’t get to save everything, but we didn’t need to,” Hope says, while Steve reads the labels on the crates. There’s a pile for buildings, another for missions, a large one for miscellany. “We’re still in the planning and resource-gathering stage.”
“What’s this?” Steve picks up a data sheet from a nearby create.
JARVIS leans over, studying the page. “Ah, unused game functions. Mechanisms that were partially or fully coded but didn’t reach implementation stage, yet have potential.”
“The potential’s the interesting part,” Hope says.
Not an Academy. Not a game, or a training space, or even a reappropriated area to serve a new function.
“A brand new, custom-made hub,” Steve says. Wonder washes over him, as does the implications of this unchartered territory, in their hands and no one else’s. He looks up when Tony approaches. “A place where…”
“Everyone knows your name?” Tony offers.
Steve laughs. “I know that reference.”
“I couldn’t tell you before,” Tony says apologetically. “It’s not really anything yet, so it would’ve been unfair to get your hopes up, especially not when…” Not when the grief was still strong. “Anyway, it’s not going to be a copy of the Academy. We’ve all agreed it’s got to be something new, for any and all of us, whoever we become in the future, and doing whatever jobs any of us may have out there.”
“Yes,” Steve says. “I understand.”
“Not mad at me?”
“Geez, Tony, no.” Steve’s vaguely aware that Hope and JARVIS have wandered off, back to work or other activities. He feels like he has to apologize but they’re no longer around to apologize to, and besides, Tony’s right there, pleased that this surprise has been taken so well. “But you’re keeping some of the game’s data files?”
“Just for reference.” Tony pats the nearest crate affectionately. “Jumping off points for whatever we design. Personally, I’m thinking once we get the block up we’ll recycle the lot. But that’s still a while to go, so it’s good to not have to build entirely from scratch.”
“So you’re going to use things like…” Steve squints at the data sheet he’s holding. “The helicarrier’s flight vectors and the dating mechanism?”
“Hey!” Tony tries to grab at the data sheet, but Steve holds it out of reach. “We don’t know what’s going to be useful.”
Steve lifts a skeptical eyebrow. “The dating mechanism, Tony?”
“Oh, you know…” Tony’s face goes pink, just before his features shift (deliberately, Steve can tell) into a familiar expression of sly cockiness that stopped being effective ages ago, if it ever was. A surge of triumph rushes through Steve – there it is – even as Tony starts babbling: “Aww, is that a flirting attempt? Gee, Steve, it’s totally understandable if you have a crush on me, but it—it’s not…”
Tony’s words trail off when Steve puts the data sheet down and steps towards him. Tony’s eyes go wide, then wider still when Steve’s close enough to set a careful, ever-so-slightly trembling hand on the side of Tony’s face, the thumb brushing the corner of Tony’s mouth.
“Don’t need a dating mechanism to do this,” Steve says. “Game rules no longer apply, right?”
“Uh,” Tony says.
“You never needed me as an assistant,” Steve says. “You could’ve carried all the cubes by yourself, once you folded them down. You didn’t need me as a bodyguard, either. C’mon, Tony, you can fly. Collecting would’ve gone much faster without me.”
“That’s…” Tony’s eyes dart sideways, a flash of alarm. “You can’t prove that.”
“Really?” Steve leans in a little, and he feels a rush at the way Tony inhales, a deep heaving breath of expectation that parts his pink lips. “Fine. If you need to use me as an excuse, I’ll take it.”
“No, don’t,” Tony says, quiet and urgent. He grabs at Steve’s arms, his fingers clumsy as he holds Steve close. “You’re right. You were just – you were so sad, Steve. You were by yourself, and I couldn’t… I had to…”
“Thank you.” Steve looses a slow exhale, and leans in. His eyes drift shut, just as his forehead settles against Tony’s. Steve can feel Tony’s breath – quick and shallow – against his skin, and he follows that forward, bringing their lips to touch.
It’s clumsy at first, their noses knocking, but after some nudging their mouths slot together like sets of code clicking on home and it’s – wow. Steve moves his lips and Tony moves with him, warm and delicious and eager. Probably not the best place to be doing this, but it feels right. Steve can’t stop, doesn’t want to stop, not when Tony has practically melted against him, arms clinging tight to Steve’s back.
“You’re wrong,” Tony whispers against Steve’s mouth. “I did need you. Not to help with the collecting, but to… be there.”
Steve grins, and presses in to take another kiss, this one open-mouthed and gleeful. When he pulls back, it’s so that he can say, “Now will you stop trying to foist me on other apps? Tony Stark’s long-winded tour of possible new jobs. Honestly.”
“I had to try,” Tony says. “I had to find something you’d like.”
“Well, you’ve succeeded.”
It takes Tony a second to parse that. When he does, a full body jolt seems to vibrate right through him, from his toes right up to his head. Tony’s true intentions are all out in the open, yet he still can’t help himself from falling back into another teasing grin.
“I had some good ideas, though,” Tony says. “You would’ve been great at anti-malware.”
“Mm-hmm. Sure.” Steve slides his arms round Tony, his hands clasped tight at the small of Tony’s back. A gentle tug and Steve’s able to tuck himself against Tony’s body, claiming the hug that’s been long overdue.
Tony sighs against Steve’s ear, content.
“All right.” Steve draws back, untangling their limbs but slipping his hand into Tony’s, who squeezes back. “Now, you can show me what we’re going to work on next.”