There was another Earth over him. The incursion was going to end in fifteen minutes. Steve had the Infinity Gauntlet on his raised hand. He wasn't thinking of pushing the other world back. That's not what he was supposed to do this time.
Instead, he focused on pushing his own universe back into its orbit, just like his other self had told him, presenting him with a miraculously whole Gauntlet.
There were other heroes around him. The Avengers. The Illuminati, and even in his mind, he couldn't think of them calmly. Tony, standing with the second group, his eyes locked on Steve.
Steve could do everything, and the only thing he could think of was Tony.
Tony, looking at him wielding the Gauntlet what felt like ages ago, believing in him. Tony, standing in the dim room, averting his eyes, saying, I'm sorry, Steve. I'll find some way to make this right. Do it, Stephen. Tony, waking him up from the nightmare he'd caused. Tony, waking him up on the battlefield, calling the Earth theirs. Tony, asking him a million times if he was going to be okay, alone on Christmas and then staying in the Tower. Tony, staying in his lab, unapologetic, saying Steve broke first. Saying he'd used Steve. Saying he'd do it again. Tony, fifty years in the future, asking if Steve was going to kill him.
Steve would never do that, but he'd wanted him to hurt; he'd wanted him to understand how Steve felt, he'd wanted him to feel the betrayal, he'd wanted him to see for himself – he still wanted it, at times.
“Captain, the incursion,” Richards said, his voice urging, bringing Steve back to here and now, just in time to see Tony falling down.
Part of him was worried, part of him wanted to run to him and check if he was all right, but McCoy was leaning over him already, and Richards had been right moments earlier –
Steve had to align the worlds.
He cleared his mind of all the distractions, pushed thoughts of Tony away, and concentrated on that.
The world shook.
When he could see again, the Gauntlet was gone, but so was the other Earth.
Steve looked around. The Avengers were looking at each other, everyone wondering what happened. Richards was looking at his scanners.
Tony was lying on the ground, unconscious.
Steve reminded himself he didn't care.
“How is it, Doctor Richards?” he asked, walking to him.
Richards didn't look at him, fiddling with his device. “It seems to have worked,” he said. “I'll need to take more scans, but I have all the equipment in my lab.”
Steve nodded. He could only hope Richards wouldn't find anything suggesting the incursions could start again.
Then the man said, “It'll be easier with Tony's help.” Steve was surprised for a moment. It was something they would have to talk about between themselves, he was sure.
Unless Richards was worried Steve was going to throw Tony back in his cell. Steve was forced to admit it wasn't entirely unfounded; he had let him out, but hadn't allowed him to use his suit. He knew that, in the long run, he wouldn't be able to stop Tony from being Iron Man, and he didn't really want to. He wasn't sure what he wanted, though. He'd closed Tony in a jail cell to stop him from committing atrocities and let him out when his expertise was needed, and all this time he was convincing himself that his personal feelings hadn't factored into his decisions.
Clearly, he wasn't fooling anyone, if Richards had picked up on it. “Okay,” Steve said, not willing to discuss it.
With another look at Tony – still not moving – Steve went to the Avengers. “It seems it's done,” he said.
Thor gave him a look. “Are you all right, Steven?” he asked, and Steve nodded quickly. Yes, he was. Why wouldn't he be? He'd almost doomed them all by destroying the Gauntlet once, but he'd saved them using it just now, even if he still wasn't sure how it was possible. He was okay. And he didn't want to do discuss it now.
“I'm going –”
Was the Tower still home?
“To my place,” Carol told him. He shot her a grateful look.
“So,” Carol said, later that day. She'd been gone for some time, leaving Steve to adjust in her apartment in the crown of the Statue of Liberty. “Tony's in hospital.”
Steve froze. He schooled his face into something that he hoped looked calm. “What happened?” he asked, when it became obvious she was waiting for it.
“Hard to tell,” she said. “He just fell down earlier and hasn't woken up yet.”
Steve frowned. Tony had seemed all right, physically; all the injuries Steve and Clint had given him healed, his heart hadn't been a problem since the RT – had something happened to it? No, someone would have noticed . . .
“The doctors don't know anything either,” Carol said. “His vitals within normal ranges. He's all right. He's just unconscious.”
“Okay,” Steve said, trying to tell himself it was.
Carol was at him in a second, looking furious. “'Okay'?” she quoted. “'Okay'? Your friend is –”
“He's not,” Steve interrupted.
Friends didn't delete friends' memories, and friends didn't not care, and Steve definitely didn't care about Tony, or so he'd been telling himself for the past few weeks.
If he didn't care, it wouldn't hurt, right?
Carol was looking at him, still angry, and then her expression went gentle. “Steve . . .”
“Don't,” he asked. “I should go.”
“Don't be dumb,” she said, glaring at him.
“Stay,” she repeated.
Carol left the next day too, and Steve stood at the windows, looking at New York. Keeping it, and the whole world, safe was the only thing that had let him push away the hurt and betrayal, focus on something else, and now . . . Now he didn't know what to do any more. He could lead the Avengers, but he knew he couldn't live with Tony, seeing him every day, remembering him saying I'd do it again.
It didn't matter what Tony's motivation was; it hurt too damn much.
Steve had been happier than he'd ever remembered being, before he found out.
He couldn't – he wanted to, maybe, but he couldn't.
Carol came back in that moment, her hair messed up by the wind. She glowed all over as she changed her costume back into regular clothing.
“How is he?” Steve asked numbly.
“'Fine',” she said, making air quotes with her fingers. “But he really wasn't hurt, and no one knows what happened.”
“Hey, Steve,” she said. “Are you all right?”
“Yes,” he said immediately.
“He told me, you know,” she said quietly. “I went to him, when he was in jail.” When you threw him into a cell, she didn't say. “He was trying to make me leave, I think.”
That did sound like something Tony would do. “I'm fine,” Steve repeated. “I need some time.”
She looked at him, searching. Steve wondered if he really should have accepted her invitation, except he'd really seen no other choice back on that street save going to a hotel, and a part of him hadn't wanted to be alone. He still didn't. Not when the only thing he could think of was Tony. Of course, Carol insisting on talking about him didn't help. Finally she nodded.
It was so ridiculous, Steve laughed.
It was a few days later when he finally forced himself to go to the Tower, see the team, because while no villain had attacked yet, someone would, soon, and the Avengers had to be ready.
He wasn't sure if he just wanted to say he was leaving or tell Tony he had to.
He ran into Tony in the corridor.
“Captain,” he said, and Steve blinked. Tony had always called him by his name or Cap. This was – weird.
He looked at Tony, noticing how pale he was, how thin he seemed in his black t-shirt. Tony didn't look all right, but then, he hadn't really for months. Steve still wasn't sure how he hadn't noticed the dark bags under Tony's eyes that seemed to be a constant thing now, how edgy Tony had been, how he couldn't meet his eyes. Just like now.
“Stark,” Steve heard himself saying.
The look Tony was giving him was blank. “I wanted to call you,” he said. “I'm resigning from the team.”
Steve didn't know what to say.
“You can stay here, of course – you and the team,” Tony said. “I'm leaving.”
He moved to go past Steve, and Steve extended his arm, stopped him. “What, that's it?” he asked, incredulously. After everything, this was all Tony had to say? Steve didn't expect an apology, but this –
“What else is there to say,” Tony said, giving him a weird look, as if he wasn't sure of Steve's reaction.
“You wiped my memories and now you're running away?”
Tony was suddenly very tense. He looked surprised. Maybe he hadn't expected Steve to bring it up. Well, that was his problem.
He looked away. “Yes,” he said, just that, and Steve – Steve didn't know what he expected him to do, but not this. He had expected yelling, another repetition of “I'd do it again”, anything, but Tony being so quiet, not arguing. This was strange.
“And now that we've established I shouldn't be here, let me go,” he said, and there was something in his voice Steve couldn't identify. He removed his arm without a word, and Tony all but fled.
Carol said Tony had been okay, but . . . Something was off about him. Could Steve really tell though? Tony had been lying to him for months, and he hadn't noticed. Tony was all right.
And Steve didn't really care, did he? With that in mind, he went to find the team.
Months passed, and he didn't see Tony. The Maria Stark Foundation kept financing the Avengers, and Steve tried to call Tony, then Pepper and Rhodey, and Tony didn't answer, Pepper told him there was nothing to talk about, and Rhodey told him to drop it.
So Steve stayed in the Tower, leading the team that worked just as well as Tony had promised it would, pretended he didn't miss Iron Man at his back, and woke up from nightmares more often than not.
It was always the same dream, the Illuminati standing over him, Strange doing his spell and Tony laughing and laughing and laughing.
Iron Man fought solo, sometimes, but mostly Tony seemed to focus on his company. The last time he'd helped the Avengers, Steve had put himself in position with his shield, waiting for Tony to fire repulsors at it so he could reflect it – and Tony hadn't.
He probably hadn't noticed, but that had never happened before.
But then, Steve had always trusted him, and he didn't now, not really. Everything was wrong: he didn't want to think of Tony, and he couldn't stop, and he wasn't sure what hurt him more.
Tony was effectively gone from his life, and Steve had thought he had everything he wanted, now. Somehow it didn't feel like this.
I'm sorry, Steve. I'll find some way to make this right, and Tony looked so damn guilty, and Steve didn't know what was happening –
He sat up, breathing heavily.
The team that had been such a good thing, when Tony had proposed the very idea of the Avengers World, stopped making Steve happy. For the first time in his life, the Avengers felt more like a chore than something Steve wanted to do, and he didn't know how to deal with it. Everything was wrong without Tony there, and everything was wrong when Tony had been there, and even now, with him seemingly far away, everything came down to Tony, and Steve hated him for it.
One year had passed, and Steve couldn't sleep.
He didn't know what he was supposed to do, how he was supposed to go on. He led the Avengers and remembered the Illuminati laughing at him for ever thinking he'd be useful, even if for all he knew that had never happened.
But it might have, because this was the truth; Tony hadn't needed him then and didn't need him now, and Steve didn't want to say he missed him, because every time he saw Tony's picture in the newspapers, with his fake grin on, it sent a jolt through him, sending him right back to the lab, Tony so pleased with himself, I'd do it again, and he would, and –
“Steve,” someone said. “You're massacring this punching bag.”
“That's what it's there for,” Steve snapped, not turning around. He didn't move to punch it again. His hands were hurting, the bandages bloodied. It would heal in a few hours, and he wouldn't care anyway. He knew Jan was worried. There was no reason to be, though.
“You should take a few days off,” she said.
He laughed, feeling empty. “What for?”
“I've never seen you like this,” she said. He felt a touch on his shoulder blade and it took all of his will power not to push her away.
“I'm fine,” he lied.
“You're not,” she said. “You're not and neither is Tony.”
“Not my problem,” he said, turning around.
Jan was frowning. “What's going on?”
“Steve. I know you. And you're not the same – ever since the incursions, something happened, and Tony won't talk about you, and you won't talk about him, and the time you fought about SHRA just about killed him –”
“It killed me,” he reminded her. “It killed you.”
“It wasn't his fault,” she said, and he knew that and didn't care. “Steve, what's wrong? I worry. Everyone does.” She shook her head.
“Did you draw the short stick?” he asked. “The poor person to go talk to Steve about his non-existent problems?”
The look she gave him was cold. “You idiot. You're my friend. You can trust me.”
Like he could have trusted Tony, he thought, and didn't say. Jan wouldn't hurt him – but he would have sworn Tony wouldn't, either, and letting people in was dangerous. He'd learnt his lessons.
“I know,” he said anyway. “Leave it, Jan.”
He moved past her in the direction of the showers. She didn't stop him.
“I'm not half as good at anything as I am when I'm doing it next to you,” Tony said, and Steve thought, me too, and hugged Tony instead of saying it aloud.
He hated fighting against him. He loved fighting with him at his side. But Tony was with him now, so everything was going to be all right.
He woke up covered in a cold sweat.
It was dark in his room and he realised it was just a dream. The first dream he had in more than a year that wasn't of Tony agreeing to wipe his mind.
Steve didn't miss him.
He was on his way back from his morning run. He caught the closing elevator door, and someone was there already. The elevator started, and Steve looked at the other person.
“Hel –” he started saying and stopped himself, staring at Tony. He looked as bad as the last time Steve had seen him, but he had on an expensive suit, and seemed one hundred percent the successful businessman he was.
He also looked stricken for a moment, before he schooled his expression. “Good morning,” he said, his voice very steady. The way he would greet a stranger.
They weren't strangers.
The elevator stopped, and Tony moved to leave it. Steve grabbed him by his wrist, hard enough so that he couldn't wrestle his hand away. “No,” he said.
“No what,” Tony said, still calm.
“We're going to talk,” Steve told him.
“What about?” and Tony's face was just an expressionless mask, and Steve hated it. Without letting Tony go, he pressed another button, to the floor full of impersonal conference rooms, because he didn't want to have this talk in his bedroom and he didn't want to risk any Avengers running into them in the living room. Steve didn't say a word before the elevator stopped. He walked out, taking Tony with him. Tony didn't even try to take his hand back. He wouldn't be able to, but that would have never stopped him before.
He only let him go when they were in a room, a long table surrounded by chairs and not much more inside.
“I've had enough of you avoiding me,” Steve said.
“I'm not,” Tony said immediately, and Steve wanted to yell at him.
Tony had been wrong, but Steve missed him anyway.
“Come back,” Steve gritted out.
“I can't,” Tony said.
“Yes you can!” Steve took a deep breath. “You always could, after you stabbed me in the back because of your damn tech, after you went crazy on us with SHRA, you –”
“Oh,” Tony said, and shook his head quickly, as if he didn't mean it. “Shouldn't that have taught you I'm not trustworthy?”
Steve wanted to hit him.
“I'm not – we're not friends,” Tony continued. “The Avengers are a good team.” There was something like longing in his eyes.
Why was it Steve convincing him to go back? Why wasn't it Tony begging for forgiveness?
Ah, yes, because Tony was a stubborn fucking asshole and Steve hated him and he couldn't go on without him.
“Stop acting like we're strangers,” Steve said.
“We are,” Tony said.
Steve felt as if he hit him.
Tony was looking straight in his eyes now. “I don't know you,” he said.
“I woke up in the hospital, and there was Captain America on the news,” Tony said, his voice very even. “People talking about you. I had my friends asking me what I did to you.” He gave a small laugh. “Well, you told me that, and I really don't know why you want to talk to me.” He shook his head. “I don't know you. I don't know what I did to myself, but I don't remember meeting you. I've heard we used to be friends – I have no idea how that's possible, considering all the times I've learnt about where I hurt you – but this is it. I don't know you.”
Steve stumbled back from him, hit the wall, didn't care. Tony stood still, his eyes locked on Steve.
“I miss something, I'm missing something,” he said. “But before that meeting in the Tower? I'd never seen you before. So whatever I fucked up –”
“You didn't,” Steve found himself saying.
“You didn't,” Steve repeated.
“You told me I deleted your memory. I'm pretty sure there's nothing I couldn't fuck up.”
“I did,” Steve said, feeling empty. Remembering using the Gauntlet, thinking about hurting Tony. Tony falling down. It – it made sense. It was terrible and it made sense. “I had the Infinity Gauntlet.”
Tony blinked. “You had the Infinity Gauntlet.”
“I thought about you.”
“You had the Infinity Gauntlet, and you thought about me.”
It did sound stupid when put like that, but it was the truth.
“I wanted to hurt you.”
Tony laughed. “Well, I can't blame you for that.”
Steve wondered how Tony could be so calm. “I'm sorry,” he said. “I –”
“Don't be,” Tony said. “Isn't it better? I won't hurt you anymore.”
“You're hurting me now,” Steve said, and he hadn't meant to, but – “Tony. Did you try to talk to someone?”
“How do you think,” Tony said. “We were friends, right, aren't you supposed to know me?”
“Stop acting as if it's all right,” Steve said. “Stop, I, I can't –”
“Nothing is right,” Tony snapped. “There's a big giant hole in my life, but if it means not hurting you, I'm okay with it. I don't even know you, but I know that much.” He was breathing quickly, and he was looking at the door as if he wanted to run away, and Steve didn't know what to do.
“I'm sorry,” he repeated. How was Tony still even here, why didn't he hit Steve, he damn well deserved it, why was he acting as if it was his fault –
“Stop apologising,” Tony said. “Just – stop.”
What did he remember?
Steve wasn't about to ask.
“Tony, I –”
“No,” Tony said. “I don't remember you, I'm not your friend, by the looks of it I never have been – stop, okay, just stop!”
It wasn't anything Steve hadn't thought himself, and it hurt, and he didn't know why he said the next words. “Let's try again,” he said.
“What,” Tony said, blankly.
“Let's start again,” Steve said. “Let's – you were my best friend, Tony, I miss you, I'm –”
“I know how the Infinity Gauntlet works,” Tony said. “You don't want that.”
“Don't you think I would have deleted my own memories, then?!”
Tony looked down. “Why? It was my fault.”
“You don't even –” Steve looked around, at the blank walls, grey table, boring chairs, back at Tony. “Let me fix it,” he asked. “Let me – come back here, Tony, we can do it again, we can –”
“No,” Tony said.
“Don't you want it?” Steve asked, and it hurt.
“I don't,” Tony said, and Steve could tell he was lying.
“Look me in the eyes and repeat it,” he said.
Tony laughed. “And do you really think that would make me honest?” he mocked. “Look, Steve,” and Steve missed hearing his name in Tony's voice, “I don't remember. But I'm a scientist. I look at what our – relationship – did to the world. To us.”
“It was a good thing,” Steve protested.
“I got you killed. I wiped your memories,” Tony said. “I'm a scientist, and I see an equation, and I can solve it, and the result isn't us working together.”
“You don't have all the variables,” Steve whispered.
“To the contrary,” Tony said. “I'm not emotionally invested. My math is sound. It's not worth it. So, Steve. Good bye.”
He left, and Steve sat down, hid his face in his hands.