They have to carry the body.
Carry him, Steve should say. Him. What’s left, or what was. He’s the first person to even suggest it, while they stand there, ash in their hair, in their mouths, in their eyes.
The kid is crying, but he’s got a hand gripped around Pepper’s wrist, and she’s screaming. It’s wordless, agony, sound. To lose a husband. She had waited, Steve thinks, when he steps forward, ground rough under his boot. She supported him, always. Which is more than Steve ever did. You can rest now; perfectly selfless.
No rest for the wicked, of course.
Rhodey puts out an arm, as if to stop him. “Don’t,” he croaks, but he’s crying too, and there’s no force there. “Too soon.”
Steve thinks, they went to college together, didn’t they? Tony and Rhodes. They had known each other longer than anyone here. Pepper’s fingers are tearing at the kid’s armour, her nails digging into his chest, knees tucked beneath her. Jesus, the daughter. She’s going to have to tell Morgan. And what will she say? Daddy isn’t coming home. Daddy gave his life so we could have ours.
Steve’s throat feels thick. Worse than that – past the exhaustion, and numbness, a bleeding in his brain. Not physical. But drip by drip. And now Thor is murmuring, saying, it’s only right, and talking about practicalities when there’s a widow sobbing over the body of her husband, and a boy crying with a hand fisted in his hair like he’s never known loss, and then the great injustice of it all, which is a man who spent a life burdened only to –
“Steve,” Thor says. He grips his shoulder. “We must,” he says.
He’s shaken. “Yeah,” he agrees. “Pepper,” he says, and rests his hand against her back, as gentle as he can.
“No!” She screams at him, and protects the corpse with her body, shields him. “No! No one! Just – “ she takes his hand, shuts her eyes. Steve peels back. He thinks, the body will harden. We need to get it out of the suit. Half of its face is calcified, burnt. The agony of that, he thinks. A terrible way to die.
It. Him, Steve corrects himself, his. The kid looks up, eyes swollen, face drawn. “What?” He croaks, frowning.
Steve stares. He had spoken aloud. “Him,” he says again, and then realises how he must sound. But the kid seems to get it – he holds out his hand, as if to be pulled up. And Steve obliges.
The kid looks at him. Peter, Steve tells himself, slowly. He should learn the name. Put the face to memory. Scared as it is, this is the boy who – Tony had said, I lost the kid. He had wanted something from Steve, in that moment. Some kind of balm, a self-soothe, even though after he had spat in his face. In that tight, brief moment, his hands on Tony’s back, frail, there had been no animosity. Like friends. Like –
I should have, he thinks, and stops. Should have what?
The kid draws the back of his hand across his eyes. “It’s not fair,” he breathes, “it’s not fair, not for him.”
There’s one moment, brief, but so fucking tangible; Steve can practically hear the thoughts in the kid’s head, in all their heads, Rhodey and Pepper: it should have been you.
Steve grips his chest, massages below the breastbone. It should have been him. It should have been him, Jesus, he has nothing to live for anyway.
“C’mon,” Steve says again, thickly, putting his arm around the kid’s shoulders. “We need to move him. You want to help, son?” He offers it, because the kid is a kid, but he’s going to have to grow up fast, now. Manhood isn’t going to wait.
The kid nods. “Yeah,” he says, eyes swollen, face filthy, resolute. “I want – I want to help.”
“Good,” Steve tells him, quietly. He nods at Rhodes, and Rhodes puts his hand on Pepper’s hair. We should move him, he says. We should take him out of the suit.
Him. Rhodes called it him. The body, corpse, carcass.
She’s sobbing still, but gently. For Steve, tears don’t come. He thinks, maybe she expected this, maybe she’s always expected it. Always prepared.
She lets Rhodes kneel, press a catch beneath the arm of the armour. And all he can think is, he has a child, he had a daughter, why did I make him, why did I steal his peace.
Rhodes grunts, pulling apart the breastplate. “Some help,” he says, and the kid crouches, scuttles closer, unafraid of the death. He helps Rhodes lever it down, gently, careful not to disturb the body. The clothes underneath have been charred and burned, the skin mottled, blistered.
Steve thinks, again: an awful way to die.
“Here,” Rhodes is saying, gently, “you’re okay, buddy.” He closes Tony’s eyes. He holds his hand. “Cap,” he says, “I can’t carry him.”
Steve nods. The others are coming, now. Sam has landed, Wanda drifted down to earth. Quill and his team, T’Challa and his sister, all of them. “Oh, no,” he hears someone murmur, so softly.
Steve’s throat is thick. He wants to be like Rhodes. He wants to tell Tony’s body that it’ll be okay, he wants to thank it. God – he wants to thank him. He never did.
He never thanked him.
“Okay,” Steve croaks. “Okay, steady. That’s it.” He slides his arms beneath Tony’s legs, his shoulders, lifts; his body drapes, head back, lifeless. No one moves, and because Steve is supposed to lead, he tells Rhodes, quietly, “Take Pepper. Get her something for the shock. I’ll make sure – he’s comfortable.”
Rhodes nods, like he’s said something very wise. Steve thinks, this is the After. Uncharted territory, and they’re just glad to let someone else take control.
So he carries him. The rest of them part, bow their heads. “Stark,” T’challa murmurs. And then, “Stark,” Quill repeats. “Stark,” and “Stark,” and “Stark,” the name travelling back, to their friends, across the crowd, and then further, until the soldiers are whispering his name, and all you hear is Stark, Stark, Stark.
Thank you, Steve thinks, because all of them, each and every one, are voicing something he couldn’t articulate. It’s important. It’s important that he’s mourned by everyone, that everyone knows what he did, what he sacrificed.
Thank you, he thinks. And then, as he walks away, Peter Parker and Thor and Pepper and Rhodes leading the trail, he says, “I’m sorry.” And no one hears. But it’s all he can do.
They walk, a procession, until they reach the outer perimeter of what used to be HQ. There are ambulances, police, the stirrings of the military already arriving. They lay his body on the grass, and drape it with a sheet. Word travels fast.
Steve sits, lets a nurse unstrap his suit, drip antiseptic across his wounds, stitch the worst. “Thank you,” she tells him, as if he’s done something worth thanking.
He doesn’t reply. She notes something on a clipboard, offers to give him a sedative. He refuses. She runs through the symptoms of shock, as if Steve didn’t already know.
He can hear shouting outside the makeshift tend they’ve erected. He frowns, pinches the IV in his arm, pulls it free. “You shouldn’t,” the nurse warns, but it lacks conviction, like she knows she can’t stop him, and IV doesn’t matter anyway.
“You!” He hears, violent, the voice thin, trembling. Young. “You,” Peter says, spits it.
Strange raises his chin, and his hands, in supplication. “It was the only way,” he starts, and Steve doesn’t understand.
“You,” Peter says again, and he lunges; Steve holds him back, fingers digging into his arms – he’s strong, usually strong, almost… almost unbearably. “You! You fucking – like a pig for slaughter, you knew! You said, you told him – “
“What could I have done?” Strange mutters, voice so soft with shame.
“He thought he was safe!” Peter screams. “You should have told him! Told him the truth, from the start! You – you – “
Steve gets it, suddenly. Tony had said: Strange made Thanos spare him. The time stone for his life, because only he could master time travel.
And then, only he would – or only he could…
Steve looks away. “C’mon, son,” he urges, “it’s no use.”
“Bastard!” Peter is screaming, kicking, clawing. “Bastard, fucking bastard!”
The words sound strange out of his mouth, it’s obvious they haven’t made them many times before. Strange must have tried to comfort him, talk to him. The kid is hanging on by a thread. “It’s fine,” Steve says, to medical staff who creep close, offering to take him off his hands, “I’ll handle it. Help the others.”
Peter is sobbing again, but this time it’s angry, unrestrained. He’s trying to tug free, even as Steve steers him away from the crowd. “Calm,” Steve says, not a balm, a command; the kid doesn’t want kind words, Steve knows. He wants order. Steve has been here before.
When they’re far enough away that no one can hear Peter’s curses, he loosens his grip, lets him pull away. “Bastard!” He screams again, bent double with it. No one hears it. “He knew! You don’t understand, you weren’t there, he said – there was one way. And he knew, he knew, he knew! He didn’t tell him, didn’t – didn’t – “
“He only saw,” Steve says, separate from himself, voice absurdly level. “He didn’t roll the dice, make those odds. He didn’t force Tony to do what he did.”
“He might as well have,” Peter sneers. Steve doesn’t know him well, but he thinks it’s an ugly look on the boy’s face – too young to have seen this much, too young to own this much hate. Or – no. Not hate; camouflaged pain.
Tony never treated him with kiddie gloves, Steve remembers. Cared for him, made sure he was safe, sure – but not to the point of indulgence, or coddling. Peter’s old enough. He deserves truth. “Did Strange talk to you?”
Peter blinks at him, confused at the turn in conversation. “Huh?”
“Did he approach you? Did he want to talk?”
Peter looks away. “Yeah,” he rasps, “he did. Wanted to say… I don’t know. Some stuff, about good fight and – whatever.”
Steve nods. “If you want to blame someone, you can blame me,” he says.
Peter doesn’t look at him. “Why?” He asks, voice absent, distant.
“Tony was happy. No one else was, but – he managed it. Had his wife. Had his daughter. I put ideas in his head, I – practically made him. I signed his death warrant.”
Peter turns. “Daughter?” He whispers.
Steve stares. “You didn’t know,” he remembers. “Of course, you didn’t know.”
The kid sniffs. He draws his hand under his nose. “You ever seen Harry Potter?”
Steve stares, blankly. “The – the films?”
“Yeah. Or read the books? There are seven.”
“Never managed to hit them off, I – watched a few of them, I think. The kid with the glasses?”
Peter nods. “Yeah, yeah. The kid with the glasses.”
Steve smiles, just a slightly. “I’m sure you’re going somewhere with this.”
He isn’t smiling. His face is flat, and hollow. “So it turns out, in the end, Dumbledore only kept Harry alive because he needed to die so everyone else could live, right? Which I thought was such a – such a sucky move,” he croaks, braces his hand on his brow, face creasing. “Because – fine, if that’s the way the cards are dealt, but he let him live, and have friends, and get invested, and I thought – that’s just not fair.”
Steve is quiet, for a time. Then he says, “Maybe, if Harry hadn’t been allowed to do those things, he never would have become the person strong enough to…”
He trails off. He feels stupid.
“Yeah, no shit,” Peter scoffs. His nose is bleeding, slightly, his eyes ringed with dark circles. He buffs it away, leaves a red smear on his upper lip. “Strange Dumbledore’d him. I’m not – I’m not stupid,” he says, and his voice has that frail defiance that comes with youth, “I know you all think – oh, he’s a kid, whatever, but I know enough to know – that wasn’t right. It wasn’t right.”
“It wasn’t,” Steve agrees. He’ll talk to Strange, separately. “I’m sorry. It’s rough that he – was taken from you like that.”
Peter blows air, mutters. “Yeah,” he says, kicking dirt.
“But kid – “ Steve puts his hand on his shoulder, squeezes. “He did it for you.”
“Shut up,” he mumbles. “I mean – “ he looks up, panicked. “Don’t tell me that, Cap.”
“I’m gonna tell you. First thing he said to me when – Peter, you don’t understand what you meant to him. And I’m not going to – it’s been a long day,” Steve finishes. “You were his future, Parker. Look at me, Peter. Son.”
He’s crying again, brushing his eyes. “It’s fine,” he says tightly, voice wheezy, “I’m fine. I just – I gotta see my aunt, you know? Maybe I just need a break, I – “
“They have a repatriation service near the tent,” Steve prompts, gently. “They’ll get you started.”
“Great. Great, great, this is great. This is great, though, right? We’re back, ha.” Peter wanders off, repeating it to himself. “Everything is going to be fine. Thank you, Tony, because everything is going to be fine – “
The boy’s shoulders are turned in, sloped. He drags his feet. Steve covers his eyes to hold back tears, and pulls it back dry; they do not come.
They carry him.
Here’s how it is: Steve and Rhodes take the front. Peter and Thor behind. Fury and Nebula, because it was supposed to be Clint, but he had squeezed her arm and shook his head and said, I would like it to be you, Tony would want you, and, you deserve it.
Coffin isn’t heavy, but then, Tony wasn’t a heavy man. He never did get back that mass he lost those awful few weeks after the decimation. He had no reason to – he wasn’t planning on fighting. Still, Steve remembers him before. The first time he saw him, even, young, or at least, younger; he had been healthy. He had been strong.
They televise this, because people want to see. They’ve been lining the streets. On earth, and elsewhere. They carry him. They lay him, draped in a flag, at the podium. The world wears black.
There’s a seat left empty for Natasha. When Pepper speaks, Morgan sits with Rhodey; she’s fiddling with a rubix cube, legs swinging, too short to reach the ground. “Poor thing,” Sam murmurs, “she doesn’t understand.”
Steve disagrees. Morgan gets it. She’s twitchy, the way Tony’s twitchy. Zoned in on the cube, fiddling with the colours. She understands that Daddy isn’t coming home, even if she doesn’t know why. Maybe she’ll be happy now, her and Pepper. She’s a great mother.
“Steve,” Bucky prompts, softly. Two fingers tap his arm. “You’re up.”
He blinks. His throat feels thick. The cards are burning a hole in his pocket. He had written his speech and some PR guru had cleared it. No pressure. This is only being transmitted around the universe.
Steve stands, mounts the stage. The coffin is behind him. He reads what’s on the cards, and people murmur and nod like he’s saying something very wise, so touching, as if just the fact it comes from his lips doubles its worth.
“And he was my friend,” Steve finishes. “The bonds of brotherhood, based in blood, that no force could…” he trails off. They’re watching him, and his words have stalled.
“Uh,” he hears himself say, frowning at the cards. “He was my friend,” he says, “and – and I loved him.”
They nod, bow their heads. Yes, they seem to think, how beautiful, friends who fought, put aside their differences, and made the ultimate sacrifice. How noble. They hear, ‘I loved him’, and they’re touched. The strength of that bond, they must think. ‘Brothers’.
And I loved him. And, I love him.
“Earth has lost its greatest defender,” he says.
Still, the tears do not come.
You feel his absence, fucking hell, you feel it. Tony always took up space; his voice preceded him, his thoughts too big for the mortal coil. To sit in a room, on a planet, in a universe where he no longer exists –
It feels like an absence of something vital, air, or sound. Other things, too: his feet don’t tap when he hears music, food has no taste. There’s colour around him, in his peripherals, but when he looks at the grass, at the sky, at flowers, it leeches. He no longer sees its depth.
He thinks –
He thinks, he could give himself what he wants, if he wanted.
Rubble is rubble. There’s barely anything left to salvage. Steve has most of his stuff at his apartment in the city, but all of Natasha’s clothes are gone, her possessions, anything even close to having something to remember her by. Still, on his bad days, he and Bucky pick through the mess, the scene of the war. They find some things: remarkably, some of Steve’s old pencils, muddied but intact. The remains of some jumpers that might have been Vision’s, the Banana Republic tag still visible. A lockbox, unmarred, made of solid vibranium.
“What do you reckon,” Bucky grunts, helping him lever it out onto flat ground, “he steal this from T’Challa’s private vault, or synthesise it on a quiet night in?”
Tony made it. He’d had it, before – Before. He’d kept it under his bed. Steve had found it, one night.
Bucky tsks. “Passcode,” he says, “looks like whatever’s in it died with him.”
Steve twitches. “No,” he says, abruptly, inputs the number on the keypad. It hisses, unlocks, easy as. He knows what’s inside, mostly; trinkets, odds and ends. Bucky is watching him.
“How did you know?” He asks.
Steve doesn’t answer. He crouches, peers through the history of Tony’s life. Old birthday cards, school reports. A bundle of photos, thick, wrapped with twine. The first is Tony, small, eyes like a deer in the headlights, holding a screwdriver; he has the same look Morgan had, when she’d fiddled with the Rubik’s cube. Steve chokes. “Oh,” he says, “I forgot he had these.”
Bucky doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t need to ask again.
There’s old film, and some new pieces, too. Steve had wondered where his drawing had gone, his little monkey on the wire. Tony must have put it here for safe-keeping after he – left. After they fought. There are some of Steve’s books, too. He flicks through, sees the old sketches of Natasha, of Vision, of Tony. “He kept them,” he croaks, thumbing the pages. “He cared.”
Bucky’s hand is on his shoulder. “Steve,” he says, quietly.
He isn’t crying. He sees colour, for the first time in weeks. “No, but see – “ Steve smiles, “he kept them. I thought he’d had them burnt, he told me he’d…”
Had them burnt. But then, Tony had said a lot of things, emaciated and sick, exhausted from travel, still wounded from battle. Liar, he’d hissed, visceral. But Tony had lied.
Why had he lied?
There’s a helmet. Steve can recognise the make – it’s more recent then the other Marks, nano-tech that’s been carved off from the rest, plating moulded and melted the same way Tony’s face had been, after. Steve picks at it, delicately; he would have put it here, after he returned. So after their fight, after they killed Thanos for the first time.
“C’mon,” Bucky interrupts. “We should take this to his widow. There are family photos, he has a kid, right? They’ll want this.”
Steve nods, swallows. They will. They deserve it, his family. His real family, the ones who were there for him, always. There’s a photo here of Rhodey and Tony, arms around each other’s shoulders, thumbs up grinning in front of a – DUM-E. It’s DUM-E, Steve realises, and he laughs, bows his head.
“Yeah,” he agrees. Packs away the memories, shuts the case.
Except, that night, he punches in the code one last time. 5232011. The day they found Steve in the ice.
He handles the helmet delicately, caresses the metal with his thumb. Cruel irony, he thinks; looking at it reminds him of Tony’s white face, the charred right side of his body. Foreshadowing, is the word he’s looking for. He strokes his fingers down the carved out metal, shuts his eyes.
“God,” he whispers, and holds back his choke. “I’m sorry. Fucking hell, I’m so sorry.”
A tear flicks against the metal, near the eye. Like the helmet is crying, too.
“Fuck,” Steve breathes, exhales, wiping his eyes and pulling his legs beneath him. “What am I doing, I’m – “ he brings it up to his face, lets his brow rest against the cool, smooth face. “Tony,” he wheezes, face crumpling, tears coming, now. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry, I’m so, fucking sorry.”
“Initializing,” the helmet says, startling him. “Voice input identified: Captain Rogers. Relaying message.”
“No,” Steve pleads, because he realises what this will be before it’s even shown, “no, don’t you dare, don’t you – “
And then Tony is there, projected against the wall, slumped. He sighs, rubs a hand across his face. “God,” he mutters, rolls his eyes. “Where to begin with you, huh?”
Steve is sobbing.
“So – “ Tony heaves, sitting himself up, “it looks like I might die. Don’t count your chickens just yet. Although… obviously, I’m not sure if you’re alive. God,” he mutters, “that would be a bummer. Not because – not because I care,” he makes sure to rectify, quickly, “but because I would like to have words with you, Rogers. I’ve had time to stew. Twenty-one days, to be exact.”
“I’m sorry,” Steve tells him.
“Oh, and I’ll bet your sorry,” Tony sneers. “I can see it now, hell, I’ve hallucinated it enough. You’ll get that – that fucking look you get, the little crease between your eyebrows? Yeah, it’s cute. Not that you’re – I meant that in a patronising way. I don’t think you’re cute.”
But Tony sighs, lets his head fall back. “As it happens,” he grumbles, “I’m unlikely to ever have words with you again. And if you’re alive, and if – somehow, I don’t know exactly – this ship is ever found, and they bring this helmet back down to earth, you’ll see this. You might be an old man by then.”
And then, he pinches the bridge of his nose, woozy. “God,” he mutters, “my head is…” he trails off. He shoulders start to shake; Steve thinks, is he crying for me? And then he realises: laughing.
Tony is giggling, and Steve laughs too, hopelessly, because that stupid little chortle – it’s the one he does when he’s nervous, out of his depth, or giddy with excitement. “Oh, God,” he groans, long and low. “Steve, I’m out here in the depths of space, and all I can think – how fucking human, huh? Do you think there are other species that use their last breaths to craft – revenge letters to their exes? I’ve got a little bit of earth with me out here, that… pathetic, grasping, beautifully jealous humanity. You bastard. God, you goddamn bastard, I hate you. But for what it’s worth – “
Tony looks up. “For what it’s worth, I guess, I – wish things had turned out different. And don’t get me wrong, 90% -- no. No, maybe 95%. 96%. 96% of that was on you, your fault, you stubborn ass, but that 4%...”
Tony waves his hand. Let’s it drop, limp, against his knee. “I could have done better,” he admits. Steve shakes his head. He couldn’t have done better. There was nothing he could have done. And even here, about to die, he thought –
He hopes Tony knew, by the end, that he had done best.
“I should have fought better. Hell, I could have joined you, I guess. I don’t know.”
Tony sounds tired, now. He shuts his eyes. “But, uh,” he frowns, smacking his lips. “I suppose, seeing as this is it, and – and I’m getting sleepy, I think I should say… we had some good times, huh? That little motel, outside Albany. You had to a shirt from the 7/11, remember that? The one with the bird on it.” Tony snorts, smiles. “You looked so fucking stupid.”
Steve still has the shirt in the back of his closet.
“I wish…” Tony sighs. “I wish you’d made different choices, Steve. I just can’t help but shake the feeling, I wouldn’t be here if you had. I’d be at home, or in a queen-size at the St. Regis. God, do you remember that? Best birthday ever. Next time -- "
Tony stops himself, frowns. "No," he murmurs, "no. Because there won't be a next time, right?"
"Right," Steve croaks.
"I -- ah, Jesus Steve," Tony groans, "I fucking loved you, you know? And you had to go and -- you had to go and screw the pooch. You screwed it, Stevie, I love you, but -- "
He rubs his eyes. "I hope you're happy," he says, "truly. I don't even mean that in a cynical, jack-ass kind of way. I hope Barnes is still there, and you two are happy. I hope you get some kind of closure, Stevie. I hope the nightmares aren't keeping you up at night, still. I..." Tony waves his hand. "I guess I don't have it in me to be resentful right now. Let's see how I feel if I live, huh? For what it's worth -- it could have been you. I don't know. It's not worth burning up the mental energy for now, anyway. I love you, Steve. I hope I make a pretty corpse."
And he signs off.
Steve doesn't move. The helmet tells him, "Next message: Virginia Potts. Confirm authorisation." He buries his head in his knees.
"Thank you," he says, to a Tony who'll never him again.
Strange has cleaned up well-enough. He floats them chai in his study, goes to the effort of pouring it by hand, maybe to avoid looking at Steve directly. "So," he says, "congratulations are in order."
"You're talking to the wrong guy."
Strange sets down the teapot, delicately. "It was a team-effort," he says. "I was always very aware it wouldn't work without all of you."
"But mostly him, right?"
Strange sips. "This is good," he says, "it's cinnamon."
Tony hated cinnamon. "I'm fine, thank you," Steve tells him, stiffly. "So how did it play out? You saw the truth? Traded the time stone, knowing Tony was the only one who could pull it off?"
Strange considers. "Not quite," he says, setting down the mug. "Captain, do you really want to know? Will it bring you some sense of closure for me to tell you the truth?"
"No," Steve admits. "I want to know anyway."
He sighs. "There are lots of moving pieces," he starts. "For starters, most of it hinged on a rat pressing the right buttons with its fat ass. So, just to give you a sense of the scale, Tony Stark only got to even give his life because a rodent was looking for a snack."
"You shouldn't be making me angry," Steve says, calmly.
"No," Strange agrees, "I shouldn't." He arches his fingers, lips pressed tight. "Tony needed to be alive. He was the only one who could master time travel."
"And after that? Was he the only one who could wield the gauntlet, too?"
"Theoretically? No. But the win never hinged on Tony just being able to slap on a glove and click his fingers -- " he ignores Steve's wince " -- it was about making sure he didn't know, until the exact right moment. Because, if I had told him," Strange says, and his face is regretful, truly, "and if he had known... well. You saw him, didn't you? I don't imagine he was in a great hurry to abandon his wife and child."
"No," Steve says, quietly. "He wasn't."
"I didn't do it to be cruel," Strange says, and Steve meets his eyes; there's a hint of desperation, there. "I would have told him. I thought -- it may be kinder, to let him have those years."
"Maybe it was."
"So you agree."
"The kid isn't happy. He says you Dumbledore'd him, whatever the shit that means."
"Not an inapt reference, but if I remember correctly, the boy likes his pop culture references." Strange's smile is tight, weary. Steve realises, he isn't angry with him; the man bore a burden. It's not gift, to see the future.
"Well. I'll tell him that, then. Put in a good word."
"Oh? Is he our new fearless leader?"
"He may be, one day. I see it in him."
"High praise indeed. But that's not why you're here."
"No. You're planning."
Strange leans forward. "You want to know, why it had to be him. You want to know, how do you avoid it."
Steve doesn't say anything.
Strange shrugs a shoulder. "More power to you, Captain," he says. "I would, if I were in your shoes. The bad news is, I can't tell you exactly. Could this whole mess have been avoided? Probably. All I'm going to say is you can't keep looking for constant do-overs. If you screw over the next timeline, don't you dare think about slapping your palm back into another. You get one do-over, understand?"
"No. I don't understand what you mean."
Strange smirks. "Sure," he drawls. "Well, good luck, Captain. Not that my opinion should matter anything to you but -- you deserve it. Peace, I mean," he adds, softly.
"Thanks," Steve says, not believing him.
Pepper doesn’t seem surprised to see him.
She smiles, and when Steve holds out his hand, pulls him into a hug. “It’s alright,” she says, stroking the back of his head, “c’mon, Captain. I’ve just finished dinner.”
“I couldn’t stay,” Steve croaks, pulling back. “I just wanted… I found this.” He holds out the box, with the helmet and the photos and the letters. “You should have it, she should…”
He trails off. “It will be good for her,” he says, nodding, “because, there are lots of photos of her dad as a kid in here. You’ll want to have them.”
Pepper’s eyes are glossy. “Well, thank you,” she says, clearing her throat, taking the box from his hands, “but I really insist you should stay for dinner.”
“I shouldn’t. I’m intruding – “
“Steve,” Pepper presses. “Please. Stay for dinner. Here,” she says, turning, “open that door for me, would you? Morgan? honey,” she calls, “we have a guest! Come say hello, sweetie.”
There are footsteps on the stairs, soft, socked feet. “It’s Captain America,” Morgan says, “hi, Captain America.”
Steve hears himself – laugh. Laugh? “Hi, Morgan,” he smiles, “you doing okay?”
She balances on her toes, arms wrapped around the bannister. “I’m doing okay,” she says, “I’m kinda hungry, though.”
“Well, that’s good,” Pepper chides, patting her along, “because you’re gonna help Mommy lay the table.”
“If I can do anything – “ Steve starts, and she waves him away.
“Don’t be silly, Steve. You're our guest." Her smile is so kind. What did Steve do to deserve that smile?
During dinner, they mostly talk to Morgan. She's full of questions. Mostly about her dad; she understands he's dead, she's just curious. The kind of things that kids are curious about, when they're trying to make sense of the world. What was his favourite colour. Is he still going to be able to play sports? Morgan says, she wants to be Captain America when she grows up. She talks about the poster on her wall. Captain America, she says, but she wants to wear ballet shoes.
"I'm sure that could be arranged," Pepper teases her, kissing her head. "C'mon. Shoo. Time for the adults to talk."
Steve feels clammy. "I hope -- the box. I hope it means something."
"It's passcode protected."
Steve tells her. She smiles.
“He, uh,” Steve clears his throat. “He left a message, on the helmet. For you.”
“And you?” Pepper asks, calmly.
Steve stares. “He – we – I’m not sure what you mean – “
“We were married, Steve,” Pepper says, helping herself to more salad, “for five years. You don’t think it came up at all?”
“He told you.”
“Of course. It was after New York, right? The first time we broke up. Right up to the business in Siberia.”
“In – in-between,” Steve stumbles, slightly. “We would – you were on and off, in-between. But never – Jesus, Pepper, never when – “
Pepper pats his hand, smiles gently. “I know,” she says, “don’t worry, Steve. It’s fine.”
Pepper pokes her fork into a cherry tomato. “Steve,” she says, chewing, “he was my boss for eight years before he was captured. I saw everything. I knew what he liked, you weren’t exactly a surprise.”
“He loved you, though,” Steve tells her, earnestly. “Everything, the life you built, the life he wanted to give you.”
Pepper considers. “Sure,” she agrees, “I know he did. You can love more than one person, Steve.” She tilts her head, raises her eyebrows. “You hurt him.”
Steve shuts his eyes. “Yeah,” he nods. “Yeah, I did.”
“So, he made his call. And I loved him. I had him, Steve, for five years, completely to myself. He was, uh,” she laughs, quietly. “You know, he talked about you a lot.”
“Did he ever say – I mean, ever mention?”
She frowns. “What you did together? Sure. Not often, he never hid it. Not from me, at least.”
“I didn’t think he’d be so open.”
“We understood each other,” Pepper says. “How else do you spend twenty years with a man, if you don’t understand them?”
Steve looks up. “I’ve been meaning to say,” he starts, “when he was – after he used the gauntlet. I know he wasn’t – that he wasn’t all there, but what you said to him? When you told him, that we would be okay, that he could rest?”
Pepper blinks, her eyes glassy. “Of course,” she says, wrapping her fingers around her wine.
“I wanted to thank you. For telling him that, I mean. For letting him know that – that it was okay to – that he could – “
Pepper grips his hand. Steve shuts his eyes. He breathes, slowly, listens to Pepper’s hitched sobs. In, and out. In, and out.
“Yes,” she says eventually, tipping back her head, dabbing at her eyes with a napkin, “yeah, no. It was true. I just wanted him to know,” she’s nodding. “To have that, you know? I didn’t want him to be – “ her throat seems to close around the word, “ – s-scared.”
“He wasn’t,” Steve assures her, quietly. “It was a bad way to go, but – surrounded by friends? Knowing you won the fight of your life?”
“A good way to go,” Pepper corrects him. “I just wish that – I mean, I think – “
Steve frowns. “What?” He asks, quietly.
“I think,” she says, “that…”
It’s quiet. The clock is ticking.
“You know, what you can do,” Pepper finishes. “I love him. God knows, I loved him. And he gave me Morgan, and – we were so happy,” she laughs, softly. “He chose me, this time. Because you both made choices. But maybe, in some other time – maybe, with different choices, it would go some different way.”
Steve stares. He clears his throat. “Pepper,” he starts.
“It’s okay, Steve,” she smiles, cupping his hand. “Look at me – I said, look at me. It’s okay. You have my blessing.”
“Thank you,” he chokes,
“You made him happy,” she soothes. “And any time where he’s happy – give him a future he deserves. It’s too late for us here, but maybe…” her eyes drift to where Morgan is playing, oblivious, with the holograms on her father’s work-station.
“I have her,” she says, resolutely. “We’ll miss you, Cap.”
Steve laughs then, swallows, nods. “I haven’t said anything, yet.”
“You know, though,” Pepper tells him, pointedly. “You always knew what you were going to do, how this was going to play out.”
Steve looks at her. “But how did you know?”
She reaches out, brushes an errant tear from his cheek. “You never cried,” she murmurs, “not once. Because I think, for you – he was never really gone, was he?”
Steve kisses her hand. “I’ll do right by him,” he promises, “we’ll have the world together, for as long as I can have him.”
Pepper is nodding. “Give him the best,” she says. “I want him dead of old age this time, you hear me, Cap? I want him to be – eighty and ugly and wrinkled,” she laughs. “Please. Just – let him be happy, okay? Do that for me. He deserves it.” A beat. “You deserve it.”
Here’s how it will happen:
Steve will return each stone. Asgard, Morag. Vormir. Then, New York, 2012. He tells Bucky, and no one else. He makes his peace. And then.
He injects the aether into a frazzled Jane Foster.
He steps over Peter Quill to slide the power stone back into its cage.
He laughs in Schmidt’s face, taunts him with the knowledge he’s throwing away the thing he wanted most.
The time stone, given back to the Ancient One, loose-ends clipped neatly.
He finds himself, lying face down on the ground. Pokes him with his toes. “Hey,” he starts, “wake up.”
The Other-Him lunges. Steve explains. He tells him everything. He holds out one of Tony’s receivers, Pym-particles already in place. “This will take you back,” he says, “already coded, 1945, the day I went down. You can just live out your life like this never happened.”
He already knows what Other-Him’s answer will be. This is a Steve who’s never loved Tony. He goes.
And that’s it. This is Steve’s home, now. On the main floor, he can see Alexander Pierce and Thor caught in a tussle. “He took it!” Pierce is screaming, “You stupid, fucking – my God, the incompetence – “
“Well don’t blame me,” Tony says.
Tony, alive, rubbing his chest and grumbling, says.
Steve feels his feet in motion. He raises the space stone above his head. “It’s here!” He calls out. “It’s here, I found it.”
They turn. Tony frowns at him. “Rogers, what the hell?”
“There was a tussle. Loki got away, but he broke the cube. Here – this was inside,” he says, taking Tony’s wrist just to feel his skin, placing it in his palm. “It should go to Asgard,” he weighs in. “It’s better off earth. Safer. Less people to come knocking.”
He realises, he must sound slightly breathless. They’re all staring at him. Tony narrows his eyes, closes his fingers around the stone. It sparks, harmlessly, unused. “You okay, Cap?” He asks, suspicious. “You look a little winded.”
Thor holds out his hand, demanding, cursing his brother’s existence. “Always gets away,” he’s muttering, “this is like the halls of learning all over again, guess who’s left holding the snake when all is said and done – “
“Cap,” Tony says again, leaning close, squinting at him, “you look like you’ve seen a ghost. Need some rest?”
He hears Thor and Pierce arguing, distant. “I need, uh,” Steve blinks at him, “I need a – a – “
He’s reaching forward. He pulls Tony against him, slowly, buries his nose in his throat. Cheap axe, and sweat. Tony after-battle. “Uh,” he says, letting Steve curl his arms around his back. “Alright there, Rogers. It’s – alright. We won, huh?”
“I’m so sorry,” he chokes. “Thank you, Tony. You hear me? Thank you.”
“I – “ Tony goes quiet. Carefully, he pats Steve’s back. “It’s okay,” he tells him. “It’s fine. Nothing to thank me for, right? I’m alive. Takes more than a space whale and the unending void to beat a Stark.”
Steve laughs, pulls back. He’s crying, and Tony is staring at him like he’s crazy. “Right,” he agrees, “no, I know. I just wanted to thank you, you know? I feel like – I said some stuff, back there, that, uh,” his throat is raw, he swallows back tears, “I didn’t mean. You know I didn’t mean it, don’t you? All that stuff about – wires, and sacrifice, and whatever.”
Tony narrows his eyes, smiles uneasily. “Sure, bud,” he says slowly, patting his arm. “You’re a little worked up, hey, I get it. I just had a cardiac arrest.”
“But it’s important you know. Thank you. For everything.”
Tony stares at him. He softens, imperceptibly; his fingers tighten in Steve’s arm. “Uh,” he says, looking at him, confused, but not upset. “Yeah. Well – okay, Steve. I accept your thanks.” He wiggles his fingers as if blessing him. “Go forth now, having been – I don’t know, redeemed, or something.” He stops, sighs, shrugs his shoulders. “Hey, if this means anything to you – you made the right call, Steve. Back there, with the wormhole. I like that. I respect it.”
“You do?” Steve croaks.
“Yeah. The hardest choices require strong wills, you know? I mean, unless you wanted me dead, but then – I figure, you wouldn’t be standing in my tower, hugging me.” A brief silence. Tony clears his throat, and flicks his eyes away, the way he does when he’s – shy. Unsure.
He scuffs his foot on the ground. “So, uh, we were going to get some lunch?” He asks, pointing back with his thumb, scratching his ear. “I don’t know if you’re up for it, I know I said – “
“Right. Shawarma. I won’t tell you them you cried,” he teases. “All over little old me, imagine that. Dad would be so proud.” He turns away, looks over his shoulder. “You coming?”
Steve nods. “Yeah,” he breathes, grinning. “’Course I am.”
“That’s what I like to hear,” Tony says, stuffing his hands in his pockets. “Hey – where’d your shield go?”
Steve opens his mouth. Closes it. “I’m sure it’s around here somewhere,” he says. “I’ll figure it out.”
Tony looks unnerved. “Well alright then, weirdo. That’s only seventy years of history you’ve misplaced. C’mon. Ugh,” Tony absently kicks away some rubble from the entrance, “this is going to be a bitch to fix-up, you know? By the way – this might be a little harsh on your taste-buds. I know you’re stuck in spam and condensed milk time, which is… famously not great. Does a guy like you get refeeding syndrome? There’s a study I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of.”
“Well, it’s alright,” Steve says fondly, “I trust you.”
“Do you really?” Tony smirks, and then frowns. “Do you?”
“Trust me,” Tony asks. He’s looking at him, now. He means it. “Because – what’s happened, I don’t think – if you had told me ten years ago – “
“That there was anyone out there? You’d have believed it, sure. But not like this.”
Tony’s eyes widen. “Not like this,” he says, “yeah. Yeah, you know – I, uh,” he shakes his head, “I saw some stuff, up there – “
His voice is strained. “Worse than space whales, you know? Stare into the void too long…”
“I just think we’re going to need something. You agree, don’t you, Steve? You have my back on this? Because I think we need to start now. Build this team, ground up, I know what you’re thinking, ‘who’s this crazy guy, why’s he asking me to live with him, I’ve known him five minutes,” Tony laughs uneasily, “but this isn’t going to stop. They know us, now. We have a big fat target on the back of our – “
“Tony,” Steve says, simply, “you’re right. I agree.”
Tony stares at him. “You do?” He asks, leaning close. “You really do?”
“I really do. I trust you, didn’t I say?”
“I’m talking world-ending events here, Rogers. Slightly higher stakes than what to eat for lunch.”
“Tony, you saved my life. You saved all our lives. Why would I… not trust you?”
Tony recoils. Blinks. “I just didn’t think – normally people take more convincing.”
“Consider me convinced.”
He huffs. Shakes his head with disbelief. “Wow,” he says. “Okay. Because – if you’re on my side, Rogers – that’s a boon, you know? That’s a big deal.”
“I’m glad you think I’m a big deal,” Steve laughs, clapping his back.
“Right,” Tony breathes. “Sure. You mean it, though?” He asks, following Steve as he walks through the rubble. “You mean that. You’re not gonna – this is a real conversation, right? I’m holding you to it. I know I’m a fun guy, but I’m being 100% serious here, buddy. We need a team.”
“No, I’m being practical. I think, we get this tower up and running, make it central command. Or maybe somewhere upstate. Your choice.”
Tony stares at him. “I – it’s a real relief to hear you say that, Steve,” he tells him, honest, no jokes. “I think I might sleep a lot easier tonight.”
“It’s urgent,” Steve agrees. “Earth’s defence is our top-priority. If we start today – the more time we have, I reckon. Suit of armor around the world.”
Tony face slowly splits into a smile. He turns on his heel. “Now you’re speaking my language,” he says, wagging his finger in Steve’s direction, “we have a lot to discuss.”
“Maybe over dinner?” Steve blurts. Tony grinds to a halt. “I mean – if you’re not busy. Maybe over some dinner, I don’t know.”
He turns. Squints, as if flashing the words over in his head, running the equations. And then: “Okay,” he says, abruptly. “Over dinner. Sure.”
Steve rolls back his shoulders, feels his chest swell. “Well alright then,” he nods, moving forwards. Tony is still watching him, suspicious. “What?” He laughs.
“Are you – sorry, it’s been a long day, normally I have more tact but I guess this is where I’m at right now: did you just ask me out?”
“Yeah,” Steve clarifies. “Is that a problem?”
Tony raises his brows. Giggles. “Wait til – “
“Your dad finds out,” Steve agrees, grimacing. “God, how will he cope with the jealousy?”
Tony smacks his arm, playful. “Check you, with the sense of humor. Finally got that stick out of your ass, huh?”
Steve snorts, scratches his hair. “You have no idea,” he says. “It’s been a really long day. A hard few – weeks.”
Tony strokes his arm, the place he had slapped. Soothing. Gentle. With little pretence. “Yeah, well I get that, Steve.”
“I know you do,” he replies, softly. “Actually, Tony, I – “
Tony stares at him, expectant. “You?”
Steve could say, I know you do. I know you, more than you think. I love you. I will give you the best life. You will have the life you deserve. Today is the first of the rest of our lives.
Instead: he waves a hand. “It’s fine,” he says, “it got away from me. I’ll remember it, though. We have time.”