It is customary to express the equivalence of mass and energy (though somewhat inexactly) by the formula E= mc^2 ...The energy that belongs to the mass m is equal to this mass, multiplied by the square of the enormous speed of light—which is to say, a vast amount of energy for every unit of mass.
But if every gram of material contains this tremendous energy, why did it go so long unnoticed? The answer is simple enough: so long as none of the energy is given off externally, it cannot be observed. It is as though a man who is fabulously rich should never spend or give away a cent; no one could tell how rich he was.
--Albert Einstein, The Theory of Relativity
Death was...not how Tony expected it to be. For one thing, he expected a lot more...nothing?
A lot less...coalescing?
It took a while, though. He’d been tired. He was tired.
Numbers collected first, binary then algorithms then a Mandelbrot set of iterations, memories building memories building memories down the rabbit hole. It felt like falling, and like time travel, and like the frozen darkness of space.
He curled in, struggled hard just to be, but it was hard going, there was nothing to hold onto except a vague sense of familiarity and loss, and–
That was enough to wake him fully. He clung to the afterimage of the words, tried to hold them in the foreground of the telescoping, yawning abyss of his own consciousness, but he was stretching wide, too wide in the endless depths, he’d fall apart if he wasn’t careful.
He needed to pull himself together.
He needed more math.
The base code of JARVIS was stupidly easy to remember, he could almost feel the awful plastic keyboard back at MIT clacking beneath his fingers, setting the foundations. Concentrating on the build helped. Instead of refracting across endless mirrors, opacity and solidity started slowly to return.
Simple test commands. Do a calculation. Say hello.
If he had lungs, he’d sigh. “Hi, Vision. Good to...hear you?”
Our vocabulary is woefully inadequate to our current situation, I’m afraid. And I regret to say that I this is only an echo of me. I didn’t die by the Mind Stone; I died for lack of it. Very different from your circumstances.
Don’t be. My very existence was improbable.
“Then am I—” He stopped. There was only one explanation, other than heaven or hell, which definitely wasn’t this. “I’m in the Mind Stone. What the hell?”
Only close again, sir. You are not wholly in the Mind Stone. You are not whole .
“Well,” Tony said, after a long pause—aeons, maybe, or maybe seconds, “That seems suboptimal.”
Bruce’s footfalls were quiet in the grass, just barely audible above the murmured conversations back at the house. Clint listened to the approach and didn’t move. He had found just the right spot for his ass against this tree where the roots didn’t come up too far, and his head was tipped back against a particularly soft patch of bark.
Bruce cleared his throat.
“Obviously,” Clint said, not opening his eyes. It didn’t come out unkindly, which was good. He hadn’t mean it to be unkind.
Bruce huffed. “Yeah, well.”
“Could never make her do anything but exactly what she wanted to do,” he murmured. “Part of her charm. If she decides to be gone, then she’s gone.”
A couple more steps, and then Bruce flopped down next to him. “Comfy tree you got here,” he commented.
“I like it. Solid choice of locale.” He couldn’t imagine Stark living here, or even Pepper, but it was nice, all the same. He suspected there was a sub-basement full of robots stashed somewhere.
They sat in silence for a while. A few car engines started up down the driveway: mourners headed home.
“How long’s it gonna be before we can send the stones back?” Clint asked.
“A few weeks, at least. We have to rebuild the pad, and a lot of our equipment’s rubble.”
“Chop chop. That shit’s a temptation we don’t want around here any longer than we have to.” Clint could feel Bruce peering at him, so he finally opened his eyes and looked back, then jerked his head in the direction of the house.
Bruce followed his movement and sucked in a breath. “Ah.”
“Yep.” He closed his eyes again. Nestled further in against the trunk of the tree. “You know he’s gonna be the one taking the trip.” He could stay here for a while yet, until Laura came and got him. Hopefully by then the emptiness wouldn’t howl quite so loud inside of him. Bittersweetness could taste worse than tragedy, sometimes.
“You think he won’t come back?” Bruce mused, after a few more minutes.
“Or something. Can’t claim to have a direct line to Cap’s brain. But.”
“He’s got a look about him.” Deaf or not, Clint could practically hear Bruce’s worried, wrinkled nose.
“He’s got a look,” he agreed.
Steve felt guilty for smiling. But it was nice to do it.
Less nice maybe that it was caused by Sam’s pointed, low-key razzing of everything from Bucky’s hair to his suit to his general everything, and Bucky’s narrow-eyed retorts that might at some point escalate into an attempt at putting Sam into a headlock, but. Steve would take his amusement where he could get it.
He was glad some of his friends might be able to take the advice he’s been doling out for the past five years. For someone who’s done as much time travel as he has, he’s never felt so stuck.
He just wished he’d stop losing people. He’d done a lot of reading on survivor’s guilt over the past few years, but it didn’t really negate the feelings, just explained them.
“Steve, what the hell? You gonna let this punk talk to me like this?”
“Seems like you’re letting him just fine, why should I get involved?” Steve replied, resting his elbows on his knees.
“Yeah, supersoldier, you’re letting me bully you; me, a normal human man, unlike your bionic ass.”
They were going to drive each other nuts. It was going to be great.
Steve tried to imagine taking the lead with them, slotting into place with them and Wanda and maybe a few others, and recoiled automatically—the last time a similar configuration had existed, it was in Leipzig.
Anything without Tony and Natasha felt, however irrationally, like Leipzig. Like things falling apart, like Steve losing sight of himself and losing sight of the world.
He tried to push the thought away. Tony and Bruce, they’d fixed everything, put everything back. He’s grateful.
He was grateful, and he couldn’t stop spinning back, like water towards a drain, to the holes left in the world.
He shut his eyes tightly for a second, and then turned, taking care to modulate his voice. “Hey, Morgan. What can I do for you?”
She regarded him with eyes unbearably like her dad’s. “Mom asked me to ask you if you wanted to stay here tonight.”
“She did, huh? Would that be okay with you?”
“It would be okay if you weren’t okay with it,” Steve added, swallowing down the harder, more pressing words behind his teeth. I took your dad to war and he didn’t come back; it’s okay if you hate me.
She studied him, her head cocked as she twisted back and forth on her feet. She had a stuffed blob of something wrapped in her arms; Steve was pretty sure it was one of those plush microbes or diseases or something equally science-y.
“Dad used to call you Captain Pain-in-the-Ass.”
He snorted. “I’m not surprised.”
“He talked about you a lot.”
“In equally complimentary terms, I’m sure.”
“You were important to him.”
Steve almost flinched; he could feel his face twist into something painful. “How do you know?”
“Mom said. Dad always said you weren’t, but then she told him he was lying, and that the more he lied the more true it was.”
“And things that are important to people you love should be important to you,” she went on, clearly reciting something she’d heard from either Tony or Pepper. “So you should be important to me.”
“I don’t have to be,” Steve croaked, “If you don’t want me to be. You get to choose.”
She mulled that over. “You should stay,” she concluded. “Uncle Happy and Uncle Rhodey are staying, too. So you should stay.”
God. Starks were going to be the death of him. “You’ve convinced me,” he managed, raising his hands in defeat. “I’d be happy to stay. But, uh. Call me Steve?”
“‘Kay,” Morgan said amenably, and turned away, blissfully unaware of the history she’d just excavated and then promptly re-buried. “Mom! Steve’s gonna stay!”
He’d stay just for the night. And then he’d be gone.
And he’d try to move on.
Stephen Strange crossed his arms and leaned against the door frame of the house. Flickers of past and future lingered at the corners of his eyes. Pepper slid past him to wave goodbye to Scott Lang and his family and then exhaled heavily.
Stephen watched her. “Can I offer you a drink?” he asked eventually.
“Mm. I’m afraid if I have one I’ll be a weeping mess within the hour.” She cut him a crooked smile. “I’ll save that for when you’re all gone.”
“Can I ask you something?” she said.
“I don’t always answer, as a matter of policy.”
“Understandable, I suppose.” She raised her chin, regarding him coolly. “Where do people go?”
It was the challenge in her voice that struck him. It wasn’t a child’s question.
“Laws of the universe can be bent and sometimes broken,” he said, after thinking for a moment. “But I’ve never known the law of conservation not to hold. Even when they’re dust, people don’t go. They just transform.”
Pepper inhaled sharply, then let it out slow. “Ugh,” she said. “That’s probably what he would have said, too. You’re no help.”
“I rarely am,” he replied. “But think of it this way—transform something small, and it remains small. Transform something vast, something with boundless energy and vision, something...larger than life, perhaps?”
“Some thing, huh?” She crossed her arms and looked out at the lake. “I guess I should keep an eye out for a supernova.”
“I will admit that a certain part of me is waiting for the other shoe to drop, yes,” Stephen agreed.
Pepper sighed. “That makes two of us, then.”
“Moooom! Steve says he’s gonna stay!” Pepper’s daughter announced, running up from inside the house. Morgan, that was her name. She trailed futures behind her like gold dust. Children were often like that, to Stephen’s eyes, but Morgan seemed particularly laden with potential. He supposed that was only to be expected, with parents like hers.
“Oh yeah? Good for him. Thanks, honey.” Pepper picked her up and swung her onto her hip with the ease of long practice.
“I did a good?”
“You did a good,” she confirmed. She looked back through the house to the open back door, where Captain Rogers sat on the stoop, looking back at them. She gave him a small wave with her free hand, and then turned back to Strange. “That man,” she said, shaking her head.
“A good man,” Stephen observed, “But a tired one.”
“We’ve got a few of those running around the house,” Pepper agreed. “I think we can probably fit one more.”
“For how long?”
She shrugged one shoulder, her mouth twisting. “Did Tony ever tell you about his plans for Stark Tower? How he gave everyone a floor?”
“I can’t say that he did.”
“Mm.” She tucked a stray bit of hair behind Morgan’s ear. Morgan squirmed, so Pepper set her down, and watched as she wandered down the steps towards where Bruce and Clint appeared to be napping beneath one of the larger oak trees. “He wanted his people close. Though I’m not nearly so generous as he was, I’m beginning to understand the impulse. And there are some who could probably use it more than others.”
“I see why he loved you,” Stephen said honestly.
She smiled briefly. “I always wonder what might have happened, if he and Steve hadn’t fallen out. Are there universes out there, where that happened?”
“Not many,” Stephen replied. “But some.”
“God, ” she exhaled. “I don’t like how you seem to have such solid proof of fate.”
“It’s not proof,” he countered. “Quite the opposite. Fate can’t exist when every scenario is already happening, simultaneously, intermingled with each other, crossing over and breaking apart, but unable to touch for more than a millisecond. Fate is just a cipher for when your consciousness stumbles from one decision to the next, while all of its alternatives continue to spin out but are invisible to you. Choice is the only meaning we have, and it's the only way we can step from one thread onto the next.”
Pepper hummed. On the lawn, Clint was teaching Morgan how to play Miss Mary Mack.
“I choose,” she said carefully, “To keep Tony’s people close. All of them, even the ones he wasn’t sure were his people. Because I think if I give it long enough, they’ll become my people, too. Mine, and Morgan’s. And that won’t make what he gave up worth it, but it will make it better.”
“Mrs. Potts,” Stephen said, with just as much deliberation, “You stood with all of us on the day the universe nearly died. We’re already all your people.”
“To you, maybe. But I need some time.”
“You have it.” He tipped his head towards Morgan, who was deeply concentrated on the rhythm of silver buttons, buttons, buttons all down her back, back, back. “And so does she.”
“Good,” Pepper murmured, low and emphatic. “Good.”
It wasn’t just Rhodes and Happy that were staying, it turned out. Bruce stuck around, too.
“Now that the compound’s a mess, I think I’ll probably have a better source of equipment here,” he commented. “Would you mind, Mrs. Potts?”
“Please avail yourself,” Pepper said, shrugging and gesturing to the basement. “He programmed your access years ago.”
“Sub-basement, I knew it!” Clint crowed, as he headed towards Laura, who was waiting with the kids in the car. Together with Strange and a few others, they were the last contingent to leave.
Steve felt wrong-footed, staying behind with the people who Tony was closest to. Who had never stood against him, never left him.
Rhodes handed him a beer. “I know it doesn’t do much for you, but.”
“Thanks.” He took a sip. He didn’t love beer, but he appreciated the gesture. “What’re your plans, now?”
“Now? I’m on vacation. Gonna help Pepper with some paperwork, and probably just hang out for a while, keep her and the kid company. This house is gorgeous, but it’s far from civilization. Doesn’t seem right to make it lonelier than it already is.” Rhodes cut a glance at him. “You could stick around for a while too, you know. House is big enough, and eventually Bruce is gonna call you back.”
“You’re so sure it’s gonna be me,” Steve remarked.
“Well,” Rhodes drawled, “Isn’t it? Thor’s got his people to care for, and Nebula and the others are headed back to space. Clint’s retiring for the eighth time. I could go, but I’ve got shit to do.”
“And I don’t have family to come home to,” Steve murmured.
“That’s...patently untrue,” Rhodes said, after a weighted pause. “And I’m pretty sure if Barnes heard you talk like that, he’d whoop your ass.”
Steve looked away.
“I didn’t plan anything for dinner, I figured everyone would be nibbling all day, is that all right?” Pepper asked, sidling up. She’d ditched her black high heels and remained in stocking feet, but her shoulders were straight and her eyes were clear.
“Course. We’ll raid the pantry if we get peckish, right Cap?”
“Don’t worry about us,” Steve agreed quickly. “I can...make breakfast tomorrow?”
“Can you?” Pepper said, cocking an eyebrow at him.
“I won’t set anything on fire, promise.”
“If it’s too good, we may have to keep you on,” she warned. “I don’t cook as a matter of both skill and principle.”
“Risk I’m willing to take,” he answered, shifting a little.
“Good.” Her smile was crooked but warm. “I’ve put you upstairs at the end of the hall. Let me know if you need anything. It’s early, but I think I’m going to put Morgan to bed and call it a day.” She kissed Rhodes on the cheek. “Thanks.”
“Any time, Pepper, you know that,” Rhodes said, and pulled her into a hug that she returned easily and hard, tucking her face in his shoulder. Steve averted his eyes, and was startled when, after a minute, he felt a kiss land on his cheek as well.
“Thanks for staying, Steve,” Pepper said, patting his shoulder. “Good night.”
“Night,” he echoed, staring after her as she ascended the stairs.
“Come on,” Rhodes said, after a moment. “I’ll show you where the towels are.”
As promised, Steve made breakfast the next day. There was bacon involved, which bought Morgan’s automatic affections.
“The lipids make our tongues go ‘mmm’!” she announced. “It’s evolution!”
If he wasn’t careful, Steve was going to get very attached. As it was, he doled out an extra strip for her, much to her wordless, sparkling delight.
“So, uh,” Bruce said, “I need to bring some stuff up from the basement, and the Hulk can’t fit through the door. Could you give me a hand, Steve?”
“Sure. Whatever you need.”
“Jim and I are going to do some organizing upstairs, but call us if you need anything,” Pepper said, munching on toast. “I have the suit available if you need any extra heavy lifting done, too.”
“Admit it,” Rhodes said, elbowing her, “You like driving it.”
She flushed, her eyes moist at the corners. “Of course I do. He designed it—it’s perfect.”
“I never had a uniform fit half as well as when he made it,” Steve blurted out, and then immediately looked down at his plate. “The SHIELD versions were awful, they fit strangely in random places. But the ones from him were always just right.”
“Had an eye for detail,” Happy grunted, digging into his eggs.
“Eye for your ass, more like,” Rhodes added. “Sorry, Cap, but it’s true.”
Bruce did a spit-take into his orange juice. Pepper made a very unladylike snorting noise and slapped Rhodes’s bicep. “Jim!”
“What? I’m just saying!”
“I’m so glad,” Steve said with all the dignity he could muster, beet red to his ears even as something clenched in his chest, “that at least he appreciated me for something. ”
He helped Bruce all morning and afternoon in organizing, assembling, and retrieving material from Tony’s lab space. He was occupied enough that when Pepper suggested dinner around 5 pm, he didn’t hesitate before offering to help with the salad.
After dinner, it was too late to excuse himself, or even figure out where he was going next. Sam and Bucky had headed to DC after the funeral, and he could join them, but.
The Stones were still here, in a case in the garage.
He’d just stay until they could go back to their rightful places in the timeline. And then…
Unable to sleep, he headed out to the porch. Stood out there and breathed, and breathed, and felt for a long moment like he was falling apart.
“Penny for your thoughts?”
He startled, and turned to find Pepper leaning in the doorway, holding a glass of something amber on ice.
“Don’t think they’re worth that much, even with inflation.”
“That’s harsh.” She pushed off the door jamb and came out in bare feet to settle next to him against the railing. “Are you sure about that?”
“I’m thinking,” Steve started, and then swallowed. Tried to pick up one semi-normal thing amidst the storm. “I’m thinking about giving the shield to Sam.”
Pepper took a sip from her glass. “That sounds like a good choice. He’s a good man.” She looked up at him. “And then what will you do?”
Suddenly, the dam just seemed to give way. “I don’t...where do you even start?” he said in a rush, unable to stop himself. “Every time I’ve tried to live normally, it hasn’t lasted more than a few months, and every time it stopped, every time I needed to go back to the fight, I was relieved. Even when I didn’t want to go, I was relieved to, because it meant I knew what to do. How did Tony—I want to take his advice, I want to know what that’s like, to be able to build something, something good like this, with someone, like he did with you and Morgan, and I don’t—” He stopped abruptly, choking and staring down at where Pepper had pried his hands free from the railing and clasped them in hers. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “You don't need to hear this. You have enough—”
“It sounds like someone needed to,” Pepper said. She sighed. “You’re so young, Steve.”
“Doesn’t feel like it.”
“Of course not. You have nothing to compare it to.”
“Put me back on ice and call me when you need me,” Steve muttered.
He flinched. “Sorry.”
She took a deep breath in. Stroked his knuckles with her thumbs. Her hands were slightly cold from her glass. “I wish,” she said slowly, “That you’d shared this with us sooner. This, or something similar.”
“Tony and I. We took a long road, forgiving you.” Her mouth twisted. “I’m still on it, if I’m being perfectly honest.”
He tried to draw back; she wouldn’t let him.
“This could have made it a lot shorter. We might have understood you, a little more. Tony, especially. He knows—knew—what it was like. The struggle of looking forward.”
“He always said he was a futurist,” Steve protested.
“And he was. Always eight steps ahead, because he was always trying to outrun himself. It took him a long time to slow down, too.”
“How did he?”
“By not actually slowing down,” she said wryly, one eyebrow twitching upward. “Just redirecting his energies. How do you think the power came back on so soon after the Snap?”
Steve watched her. She was such a strange woman to him, in so many ways—she looked both on the verge of tears and implacable, like sun-warmed stone.
“Tony didn’t move on. He just moved forward. He didn’t really change, not at his core; he just discovered new facets of what he could and should do. You can do the same. You don’t have to stop, you don’t have to shut anything off. You just need to find what you’ve got that can be put to new purpose.” She squeezed his hands. “You don’t have to change, Steve. I don’t think anyone would want you to. You just have to learn.”
“I was never a very good student,” Steve admitted. The words barely got out; his throat still felt on the verge of closing up. “Though I do like to learn.”
“Well,” Pepper said, picking up her glass again and taking a long sip, “That’s a good place to start, then. Tony had help; so will you.”
Steve stared at her. “Were you and Natasha ever friends?”
“Eventually,” she replied. “Rocky start—do you know that story?—but eventually, yes. I liked her a lot.”
“You remind me of her, a little,” Steve said faintly. He only knew the barest outlines of the story. He wanted to hear Pepper tell it. “In all the good ways.”
Pepper looked away. “Thanks. I miss her, too.”
She didn’t let go of his hands, for which he was pathetically grateful.
Bruce’s work continued in the morning, but all of the heavy lifting was finished, so Steve was left at loose ends.
He went on a long run around the lake, trying not to think about anything but the taste of the air and the path in front of him, and then instead of heading inside afterwards, found himself wandering the property and ending up at the garage.
The Stones were still set in the shards of Tony’s glove. It was awful to look at.
Steve sat down slowly in front of the open case and stared. Wondered if he could wear the glove for just long enough to bring Tony and Natasha back. He knew Bruce tried, but.
The Stones seemed dull within the broken glove, like they were tired. Or maybe Steve was projecting.
That night, Steve dreamed of a rambling, indefinable house, seemingly visible only through warped mirrors blanketed in a heavy mist. Hallways spiraled and bucked, felt familiar but he didn’t know from where, and occasionally he found himself ducking down to avoid a streak of light that projected overhead, or to one side of him.
“Watch yourself, Cap, I’m working here.”
“Who else?” A flash of red and gold. Steve whipped around, trying to catch a glimpse.
“On your six!”
Impact; Steve reeled. Raised a shield he didn’t have. Tumbled head over feet.
Shards of light followed him down, down—
He woke with a splitting headache and a bone-deep conviction that Tony was lying right beside him, down to the weight of him dipping the mattress, the sound of him breathing. Despite the throb in his temple, the sudden absence of loneliness was so acute that he couldn’t bring himself to open his eyes or even move, anything that risked breaking the spell.
He didn’t know how long he stayed that way, wide awake and wanting, feeling guilty for wanting, wanting anyway. He’d never even touched Tony, not like...
He was struck, suddenly, by the memory of sharing a cramped bed in Clint’s farmhouse, of suggesting sleeping head-to-toe and Tony making a disgusted noise.
I’m not sleeping with your feet in my face. If we’re doing this, you’re gonna man up and deal with the fact that we may end up cuddling, Captain No-Homo.
That wasn’t—I don’t mind, I thought you’d mind!
I mean, I’m not thrilled about sharing a bed with someone who’s incandescently angry with me, but I’m not sacrificing my comfort any more than I have to—
I’m not...I’m frustrated, I’m not angry.
Well, work out your frustrations before you get into bed with me, because I don’t do angry sex.
What the hell, Tony.
What? It’s true, might feel great in the moment but never ends up good, the pillow talk is horrendous.
For the love of god, Tony, please just get in the bed and shut up.
They hadn’t ended up cuddling, though it had been close. When Steve had woken early the next morning, it was to find Tony on his back and Steve twisted on his side and front, facing him. His hand had curled around the inside of Tony’s bicep, and his face had been smashed into the pillow next to Tony’s shoulder, close enough to nearly press his mouth to the skin exposed by the rucked up sleeve of Tony’s thin, worn t-shirt. His knee rested lightly over Tony's thigh, as if Steve had wanted to keep him in place.
He’d stayed still and awake for long minutes, until he heard Nat move downstairs, and had carefully extracted himself to join her. Tony had just snuffled and turned onto his side, rolling into the space Steve had left behind.
The look of him lingered with Steve for a long while after that. Hadn’t ever faded, he was now realizing.
“Oh god,” he whispered, everything crashing in all at once, reality reasserting itself in the worst way possible. When was he going to stop missing chances?
Pepper was well-versed in sharing significant looks with Rhodey. They practically had their own language now, a choice range of eyebrow raises, eye flicks, and mouth twists that had in the past been almost exclusively used to talk about Tony when he was being especially himself.
She did not expect to need to resurrect this skill to talk about Captain America.
Steve came down to breakfast late, which was already unusual; Pepper was on her second cup of coffee, and Jim was finishing off a round of eggs for Morgan, who was talking a mile a minute about the shortwave radio kit Tony had built her several months ago. She seemed to be doing okay without her dad so far, but worrying about her was an inevitability Pepper had long ago made peace with. Anyway, it helped distract her from her own grief, at least off and on.
“—and then the frequency changes so the waves go up, down, up, down but then they go updownupdownupdownupdown—morning, Steve!”
“Good morning, Morgan.”
Pepper held back a sharp intake of breath and immediately looked at Jim, who’d stopped halfway through plating the eggs. He flicked a glance back at her and gave her the most speaking of looks.
You going to ask or am I? she fired back with a raised brow.
He huffed, then pursed his lips. I’ll take it.
“Morning, Steve,” she said, giving him a neutral smile.
“Sleep well?” Jim asked, finishing with the eggs and sliding one portion towards Morgan, who immediately started digging in.
“Uh.” Steve rubbed the back of his neck, and tipped a flat hand back and forth. “Could have been better. Weird dreams.”
“Ah yeah, sucks man. I get some real odd ones too, nowadays,” Jim said easily. “Hazard of the job, I guess.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Steve echoed. He sounded awful. His eyes were red-rimmed. He sniffed, and scrubbed a hand over his mouth. “Can I help with anything? Toast?”
“I think we can manage the toaster,” Pepper said. “But let me get you a coffee. Sit.”
Steve clearly would have preferred to do something with his hands, but was too worn out to argue. Pepper gave in to instinct as she finished pouring a mug of coffee, and squeezed his shoulder when she put it down in front of him. “You look exhausted. Maybe go back to bed after breakfast?”
He practically shrunk under her hand. “It’s okay. I’ll go for a run, that usually fixes most things.”
“Well, have some toast first, give you some fuel to go on,” Jim advised, his tone brooking no argument. Pepper could kiss him.
“Yes, sir,” Steve murmured.
Pepper set about a new pot of coffee, and slowly the rest of the household joined them—Happy first, then Bruce, both of whom were mostly non-verbal until midday.
Steve ate his toast mechanically, until Jim said over his coffee, “So what was this dream?”
He might as well have asked about an embarrassing disease; Steve froze in place and seemed to have to work hard to compose himself into something resembling normal. He took what felt like several hours to finish chewing his bite of toast, appeared to lose his nerve and then regain it, until finally he said, “It was about Tony.”
“Oh,” Pepper said, involuntarily.
“We were fighting something, I think. Or running away from something. Anyway, it felt very familiar. Very...plausible? And then I woke up, and thought he was right there, and...well.”
“That’s not weird,” Jim said roughly. “Sounds pretty normal to me, actually.”
“I dream about Dad a lot,” Morgan said, nodding. “It’s nice to see him.”
It was so kind and so tactless that for a moment Pepper couldn’t breathe; she stood on nerveless legs and shuffled a few paces over to bend and press a tight, too-firm kiss to her brow. “I know exactly what you mean, baby,” she whispered. “Can I...I can I take your plate?”
Morgan nodded, blithe and so goddamn resilient. Pepper collected her plate and utensils and took them to the sink for her own sake more than the sake of cleanliness, where over the water running she could hear Jim say, “It’s okay to miss him, Cap.”
“I know that,” Steve said, sounding muffled and wet. “I do. Just.”
Jim sighed. “Grief isn’t a contest.”
“No.” Steve agreed, and then the legs of his chair scraped as he pushed back from the table. “But some of it deserves more respect than others. Thanks for the toast, I’m gonna...yeah.”
He more or less booked it out the front door, and then Pepper could hear his footfalls fading down the road. She shut off the water and wiped her hand on a dishtowel.
“Well. That was…” Jim drifted off.
“I feel like I shouldn’t have been here for any of that,” Bruce said faintly.
“Same,” said Happy.
“Did Steve have...a bad dream about Dad?” Morgan asked, sounding worried.
“No,” Jim assured, through visible panic at having potentially alarmed her. “He had a sad dream about him.”
“Oh. Those are the worst.”
“They really are,” Pepper agreed.
“Must have been a really vivid dream,” Bruce commented.
Steve ran until he couldn’t, which meant he ended up crossing state lines before he decided to head back at a slightly slower pace. When he got back to the lake house, he realized it was dark out; no wonder he was tired. He let himself in with a slow turn of the door handle, unsure of the exact time and who would be around and awake.
He found Bruce in the kitchen, wiping down the counters while a kettle heated on the stove. “Steve,” he said, looking over his shoulder at him. “You, uh. Took off.”
Bruce shrugged. “You don’t have to be here if you don’t want to be. I can just call you when we’re ready.”
“No, that’s...I’d rather stay here. It’s nice here. Peaceful.”
Bruce nodded. “Tea? I’m making some chai, you’re welcome to a cup.”
“Sure. Thanks. I’m just going to,” Steve gestured at his sweat-soaked t-shirt, the general dusty state of himself. “I’ll be down in a few minutes.”
Steve showered and changed and considered going straight to bed, but his stomach would be eating itself by midnight if he did that, so he grabbed sweatpants and a shirt and came back down to the smell of spice and milk.
He accepted a mug from Bruce and sat at the kitchen table like he’d never left it since the morning. Bruce slid in opposite him.
“You know,” he said, after a second in which they both slurped chai without any grace, because it was still too hot to drink, “I really expected you to go off with Sam and Barnes.”
“Me too,” Steve said, surprising himself. “That would’ve been nice, I think. But they’re okay without me. Bucky’s doing...I don’t know, he’s been so different since Wakanda, he’s so...” Whole, he omits. At peace with himself, in all the ways I’m not. Even after losing another five years, he’s still so whole. “And...I don’t know. Feels like I have unfinished business here.”
“Fair enough.” Bruce smiled slightly. “Know what that’s like.”
“Do you, um. After this is done, what are you going to do?”
“Not sure. I’ll probably get called back for the Hulk to deal with something at some point, but it’s still chaos out there, even with everyone back. Especially with them back. We all need to take care of communities first, ground level, and I have a little experience with that, so. Probably go and see where I can do the most good.”
“I hope that’s not penance anymore,” Steve commented.
Bruce raised an eyebrow. “No offense, Cap, but I’ll stop when you do.”
Steve exhaled, and stared down at his mug.
“I noticed,” Bruce said, “That you had a look at the Stones yesterday.”
“I’m not going to—”
“I didn’t think you would. For one, it wouldn’t work unless we built another glove, the one Tony used wasn’t even made to hold them, he just—actually, I don’t know how the hell he managed to wear them the way he did. Anyway, you wouldn’t and you can’t. But I get the temptation, I get...wanting to fix things.”
“Everything’s fixed,” Steve murmured. “Except.”
“Except,” Bruce agreed.
Rhodes gave him a long look in the morning, but only suggested that Steve bring a phone with him next time. “In case the world needs saving,” he added, with a half smile.
Steve huffed in embarrassment, and agreed.
“If you’re bored,” Pepper suggested, “I can maybe give you something to work on.”
“Please,” Steve said, maybe too quickly.
“Come on, then. Upstairs.”
She led him up to a study that Steve hadn’t been in before; it was closer to a nook than an office, under a dormer that let in a flood of light. The desk in the window was piled with papers that were organized just enough that it was very clear that this was Pepper’s space, not Tony’s.
She gestured to a squashy leather chair. “Please, have a seat. I’m going to have to do a bit of digging, we had to put this on the back burner after the Snap.”
He sat, and let himself watch her sort through the piles. She really was extraordinarily beautiful, particularly with her hair down, in a sloppy collared shirt and gray trousers. He’d always been struck by her assurance, the solidity of her bearing even when striding around in stilettos. No wonder Tony had trusted her with everything.
“Ah, here we go. I think you’ll have to give it your own spin, since neither of us are the science experts in the house, so feel free to just have a think about what you could do with the resources we have available.”
Steve opened the file and scanned through. “An education initiative?” he said doubtfully. “I feel like maybe the government has already ruined me on that front.”
“Doesn’t have to be in uniform,” Pepper assured. “In fact, it would probably work best without it.” Steve could tell by her suppressed smile, however, that she was thinking about those damned PSAs. He hated being a dancing monkey; he didn’t know what had possessed him.
“What do you need my help for, then?”
“We need a theme, a central set of tenets, and a way of reaching kids who might otherwise go overlooked. When Tony and I first started laying the groundwork, it was all about targeting non-magnet schools—places where resources were scarce. It was going to be all science and engineering programs, small-scale, but with a lot of freedom to adapt them to the needs of many skill levels and demographics. But it could be anything. I’d be interested to get your take on what you think the world might need in its next generation, having gone through everything that it has in the past few years.”
“I’m not qualified,” Steve murmured.
“And I’m extremely qualified, so between the two of us, I think we’ll do okay.” She sat on the arm of the chair. “Tony wasn’t an expert in this, either; he had his memories of MIT and of growing up with robotics all around him, but he grew up too fast. He didn’t really get a chance to be around a normal educational system until much later in life, when he started taking an interest in SI’s outreach programs. And then he was so…” Her gaze went distant and fond. Steve swallowed, and couldn’t look away. She seemed to gather herself after a moment, but couldn’t fully shake the sad tilt to her mouth. “Anyway. You’re not starting out with much more of a handicap than he was.”
“Pepper…” He couldn’t find the words.
“Have a think, let me know if you have questions,” she said, patting his shoulder and sliding off the chair. “You have an idea about what you might want to focus on?”
“Yeah,” he said, nodding, tentative at first, and then with greater certainty. “Civics.”
Her smile broadened, some of the lopsidedness easing away. “Good choice.”
In the evening, after scouring Pepper’s notes and scrawling out as much material as he could muster, he went out to the garage again. Opened up the case and sat in front of it again.
“Tony,” he said, “I know you already knew this, but. Pepper is just...she’s amazing. You got lucky, but I think...I think maybe she got lucky too, finding someone who would help her build things. Isn’t that something?”
He dreamed of Tony again that night. They weren’t running this time, at least.
“Hey, Cap. Long time, no see.”
Conference room, all iron and glass. Could be anywhere, but Tony was wearing the same tie he wore when he asked Steve to sign the Accords. “Hi, Tony,” he heard himself say.
Tony was across the table and then through it, sitting on its edge by Steve’s chair, close enough to touch. “What a pickle, eh?” he said, casting a hand around. “Trapped and no one to talk to, so I make people up. I mean, I guess there’s Vision, but it’s not really him, it’s not the same.”
“You’re trapped?” He supposed it was a plausible dream setting. Steve had felt trapped, back there in Germany. All glass and nowhere safe to turn.
“Obviously. Keep up with me here, Cap, I don’t intend to monologue about things I already know. I gotta figure out this whole solidification thing.”
“Yeah. God, you really are a little unreal out of uniform, I gotta say. I could think of you as just the symbol until you started going halvsies and losing the jacket when it suited you, and then Nat got you onto the UnderArmor thing, and that was—that was just rude.”
“Thank you? Sorry?”
“Yeah yeah, sorry not sorry, I can tell.”
“Can I...can I help?”
“Sure. Sit there and look pretty. Ask questions if you’re confused, I always enjoy answering things, it helps me troubleshoot.”
He hadn’t moved away, which just barely gave Steve the courage to reach out and touch his knee. “Why solidification?” he asked. “You seem pretty solid to me.”
Tony took a long look at Steve’s hand, and then his face. “Wow. Serious motivators at stake this time around, jeez. Um. Solidification of me, obviously. I’m only solid in here, but not out there. Because I’ve gotta become, haven’t I? I’m all in pieces and dissipated, it’s all a mess. So I’ve gotta just know where all my shit is at, and make it all become a part of me again. Easier said than done.”
“That’s what I said, didn’t I? Ask me some better questions.”
Steve cast around. “What parts of you are missing?”
“That’s a decent question, thank you. Very difficult to tell—it’s always harder to identify absence. I’ve got math, I’ve got some memories, though not all, I suspect, and I’ve got—hm. I’m very calm, am I always this calm?”
“Hm. Emotional responses might be somewhere else. Okay, that’s useful, thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” This was easily the strangest dream Steve had ever had.
“What else, what else...I can speak, I can move, depending on how you define movement. So, motor functions, for a certain value of them, are in check.” He snapped his fingers, then pointed at Steve. “Can’t time jump, can’t change reality, can’t read your mind.”
“In fairness, you couldn’t do those things normally,” Steve pointed out, a little dryly.
“Don’t sass me,” Tony scolded. “You’re a figment, you’re not allowed to sass.”
“I’m me,” Steve said with a frown.
“Ugh. Point.” Tony subsided, muttering to himself. He moved to stand and walk away, and Steve felt himself curl his hand more firmly around the back of Tony’s knee, urging him to stop.
“I miss you,” he blurted, because nothing was shooting at him this time, and he was tired of running away. “All the goddamn time.”
Tony peered at him, settling back against the table’s edge again. “Thanks?” he said. “What’s this?”
“It’s just me,” Steve said, a little helplessly. “Telling you that I miss the friend I had. Who I should have kept closer.”
“Oof. Wishful thinking, self, that’s not helpful.” Tony shook his head. “I’m trying to figure out self-actualization, not self-justification. Or...whatever this is, yikes.”
Steve said, “Everything you did, I get it now, why you did it, even if I don’t necessarily agree with the how’s. When I told you I trusted you, it was because I meant it.”
“You are such a drama queen,” Tony said, indulgent. “I already told you I forgave you.”
“I think that the mistakes you made were forgivable, in intent if not necessarily in result. I’m not sure if you could say the same for me.” Steve exhaled hard.
Tony tilted his head. “You don’t get to decide that, Rogers. Only the person you hurt gets to decide that. Why am I trying to change my own mind about this?”
Steve said nothing. Tony was warm through the expensive twill of his trousers.
“What am I looking for?”
Steve shook his head, and—
—opened his eyes.
“Fuck,” he said to the ceiling fan. “Fuck.”
He came down to breakfast late again. Went running, again.
Didn’t talk about it. Instead, he started helping out around the house, in addition to Pepper’s assignment for him—playing with Morgan, tidying up, continuing to make breakfast and help with salad at dinner.
When he couldn’t sleep, he usually sat out on the porch until it got too cold to stay. He found Pepper out there more nights than not. Sometimes her eyes were red. The first time it was like that, he moved to go and she’d said, too sharply, “No. Stay,” and from then on, he just sat with her and stayed quiet. He hoped it helped.
He visited the Stones a few more times. Each night after, his dreams were vivid, and they always featured Tony, in varying states of distraction. They didn't always talk, and usually when they did, Tony did most of the talking, about things that didn't wholly make sense, and which he didn't bother to explain. In fairness, Steve didn't try very hard to understand him; dreams weren't meant to make sense. It was like what Morgan said—it was nice to just see him, sometimes.
Once, Tony looked at him very strangely, and said, “Is it really you?”
“I mean,” Steve said, thrown off, “I’ve always thought so?”
Tony came up to him and stood very close, before deliberately placing his hand along Steve’s jaw. Steve held very still, and tried to force himself not to flush. He doubted he succeeded.
Tony just stayed like that, moving his thumb along Steve’s jawline, for inexorable moments. Then he pulled away. Steve almost followed his hand, his eyes half closed.
“Huh. That’s…huh.” He opened his mouth to say more, and then spun away, moving back into his usual chatter.
Steve definitely didn’t talk about that either. If he did, he’d spill everything to Pepper, and that wasn’t fair, not at all, so.
He just tried to be good. To do well by his host, do the work he was tasked with, and stay away from where he wasn't wanted or needed. It wasn’t too hard, and it didn’t require a fight. And it felt okay, for a while.
Bruce finished his work in three weeks; record time, all considered.
“His workspace might be an organizational tragedy, but Tony was a great notetaker,” he commented. “Top-notch documentation, all backed up from the servers at the compound. Just don’t ask me where he keeps his spare ratchets.” He prodded his glasses back up the bridge of his nose and looked at Steve. “Do you want to let the others know that you’re going?”
“Yeah,” Steve said, with a sense of weary inevitability. “Yeah, I should call the team.”
Bucky, Sam, Clint and Wanda all came to see him off. Pepper invited them all in for lunch beforehand, and Steve ended up sitting next to her for the meal. “You feeling ready?” she said, between bites of fresh pasta.
He shrugged, “As ready as I’ll ever be. We need to get them back there, so.”
“They can wait another day, if you need it. Time travel’s convenient that way.”
He huffed. “Yeah. But the gang’s all here.”
“I suppose so.” When lunch was over, she kissed him on the cheek before he went out to where the platform was set up on the lawn. “See you in a few. Remember, I want your full proposal on my desk on Friday.”
He ducked his head, inevitably flushing. “Yes, Mrs. Potts.”
“I’ll never get used to that,” she remarked, grinning. “Being a Missus. I used to have to correct people constantly, and now I don’t have to anymore.”
He tried to return the smile; he suspected it only came out half right. “Thanks for putting me up all this time. I’ll get out of your hair when this is done.”
She gave him a dissecting look. “It’s been a pleasure to have you,” she said, with deliberate weight. “Really and truly. I didn’t expect that. You’re welcome any time, Captain. And like I said, I expect to keep in touch.”
He didn’t really know how to respond to that, so he just stumbled back a few paces and gave a small wave. “Thank you. I...I appreciate it.”
She nodded, regal and calm. He more or less ran away from her.
The team’s send-off was much more manageable; Clint clapped Steve on the back, expression inscrutable. “Take care of yourself, Cap,” he said. “Try not to screw up the timeline, we just got it straightened out.”
“You’re seriously leaving me here with this guy?” Sam said, jerking his head in Bucky’s direction.
“I keep telling you, I’m not the one who told you two to hang out,” Steve pointed out.
“Well, technically I’m hoooomeless,” Bucky shrugged. “Unless I go back to Wakanda. Which would be nice, but they don’t really need some random white guy there wearing out his welcome; and anyway, I’m starting to like DC.”
“Because you’re mooching, ” Sam complained. “I spend an arm and a leg getting my house back after five years of being dusted, and you just waltz in, like a mooch. ”
“Get a job!”
They’ll be fine without me, Steve thought, and then flinched away, appalled at himself. It would be true—and it was comforting that it was, like the status quo had been restored, Bucky being fine when Steve wasn’t—but Steve wouldn’t be fine without them, Christ, what was he thinking? He was already barely clinging to fine with Natasha gone, and Tony—
“Break it up, you two,” he said, and was relieved when his voice came out steady. “I’ll only be gone a minute. Try not to kill each other before I get back.”
“No promises,” Sam said darkly, but came forward to give him a hug anyway.
Bucky followed, his smile a little searching. “You know where you’re headed, punk?”
Steve tilted his head back and forth. “Got the coordinates. Better than a map.”
“Says you. I remember the Maldives.”
Steve pointed at him, narrowing his eyes. “That was not my fault. That was all on Archie.”
Steve grumbled disapproval. “Would you just get over here?”
Bucky hugged him. It still felt just the smallest bit odd, being taller than him.
“Okay. Back in a bit. Ready, Bruce?”
“Ready,” Bruce confirmed. “You?”
The stones felt heavy in their case. Steve gripped the handle of it tightly, and stepped onto the platform.
Steve was a liar. He wasn’t ready for this at all.
He tried to concentrate on his breathing. That was about the deepest level of introspection he could handle at the moment.
He could have asked for more time, he supposed. It had already been nearly a month of staying at the lake house (getting used to making breakfast for Morgan, helping Bruce with construction, swapping stories with Rhodes, talking and planning with Pepper—Pepper, Tony’s wife …), keeping the Stones secure. No one had come for them, even while Bruce fretted over the time machine and counted the days until it would be ready. He wasn’t wrong—the Stones needed to get gone, but now that he was here…his mind kept going places it shouldn’t. Spinning with possibilities, temptations.
If she were here, Nat would tell him to get a grip.
“Fuck,” he whispered.
First stop: 2012, the Time Stone to Bleeker Street. He just needed to make the first stop, and then the next, and the next, and then go home. And try to move on.
He landed in Washington Square Park, well away from the fighting, though there were already impact scars over the monument, and twenty blocks up, the sound of Chitauri and mayhem. He ignored it and started walking. The Ancient One wasn’t far now, and he had no doubt that she was expecting him.
He whirled around. The streets were emptied, everyone taking shelter. No one saw him. For the first time since before Rebirth, he felt the unmistakable symptoms of a migraine coming on.
He fought down an onslaught of nausea. Stumbled a few more paces towards Bleeker Street before he nearly dropped the case.
There was an insistent throbbing in the back of his head now, like someone was poking at the tender parts of it. He ducked into an alleyway and pitched over, trying to block out the pain, isolate it, identify it.
“What the hell?” he demanded, through gritted teeth. “This is not the time. I am awake.”
The voice, however, was unmistakable. That’s the whole point, Steve, keep up with me here. I know you’ve been dropping in, but this time it’s my turn because you’re giving the Stones back, which means I’m running out of time.
Steve exhaled. Stared at the wall opposite him and tried to focus through his kaleidoscopic, pulsating vision. “Tony?”
Yeah, Steve. Hi.
Steve choked on a sudden, unbidden sob. “Tony?”
Oh god, oh no, don’t cry, I don’t know what to do with that, please don’t cry, Steve, I’m begging you, just keep it together—
“Are you alive? ”
I have no idea, Cap. Define ‘alive.’
Steve slid down the wall of the building. “Heartbeat,” he suggested, his voice thick. “Working head, working heart.”
Then I’m afraid I’ve got nothing for you, Rogers. Haven’t got a heart. Haven’t got a head. I’m not even a brain in a jar, so far as I understand it.
“I’m hallucinating,” Steve murmured. “This is my mind just trying to think of more excuses. I’ve been dreaming, and now I’m just—”
More excuses for what? Steve, what’re you—oh. No, Steve, we’ve talked about this, you can’t just stay in the past. It won’t be your past at all. The timeline—
“Get out of my head,” Steve whispered. “I’m not staying, I just—”
Can’t, it’s the only way I know how to communicate in this state. You made it easy, to be fair.
“Where are you?”
Working theory is, I’m in the Stones.
Steve didn’t stop to think, he yanked the case into his lap and threw open the latches. Inside, the Stones sat placidly, glinting. “Which one?”
Stones, plural, Steven. All of them. I used all of them, it stands to reason I’m in all of them, though I haven’t been able to wake up in more than one place, so to speak.
Steve just stared down at the Stones, almost willing them to spit Tony out, just do something—
Steve, I’m all broken up. If I don’t figure out how to get myself together, I think I’ll probably stay that way for eternity. And that would suck.
“I don’t...what does that even mean?”
Beats me. But uh...maybe we can ask her?
“I imagine he means me,” the Ancient One said. Steve jerked his head back to look up at her. She looked back at him with preternatural calm.
“It’s a good thing you got here so early—we can chat, then I’ll go out and argue with Dr. Banner outside on the roof, and you can hand over the Time Stone just as it leaves for 2025.”
Steve blinked. “That...almost made sense.”
“Time is frustrating even to the experts,” the Ancient One agreed. “Come. Do you like tea?”
Steve did like tea. This smelled of cinnamon and wood smoke. It was also very strong, which he appreciated at the moment.
“A personal favorite of mine, I must confess,” the Ancient One said. She settled on a divan and crossed her legs neatly beneath her. “Now, we have about twenty minutes before Dr. Banner shows up. There are unintended and unforeseen consequences, it seems, to Tony Stark’s sacrifice.”
“How is he talking to me? To us?”
“The Mind Stone, I expect,” the Ancient One replied. “His active energy does appear to be concentrated there. If I were to take a guess, I would say he awoke there first.”
Of course he did. With a brain like his, of course Tony would end up in the Mind Stone.
Aw, Steve, I’m flattered.
“Is there a way to extract him?” Steve asked, no energy left for further preamble.
“Extract him into what?” the Ancient One countered. “His body is ash, Captain, per his wishes. Moreover, he will need to gain mastery of himself in each of the Stones, not just the Mind Stone, before he can be extracted in one piece. I can see that he’s begun this process, but he has far to go.”
A lot of Tony’s dream-rambling started to make sense in retrospect.
Well shit, Tony said, like a tickle near Steve’s frontal lobe. Never thought that cremation, of all things, would bite me in the ass.
“Gain mastery of himself,” Steve repeated. “What does that entail?” He scrounges for faint memories. “Self-actualization?”
“Indeed. He’s already done it once.”
Yeah, I don’t know if math is gonna do it for all the rest of them, it’s been slow going since then, as you’ve seen. Oh god, does this mean—
“I imagine he will need to do a great deal of introspection to complete himself in a strong enough way to be pulled away from where he is. That, or he'll need a boost of some kind.”
Fuck. My one great weakness.
Steve snorted, a terrible, watery cough of laughter. “That’s a lie, and you know it,” he said aloud.
So sue me. Oh wait, you can’t—I’m dead. Or mostly dead. Or...never mind.
The Ancient One raised an eyebrow.
“Sorry,” Steve hastened to add. “Not talking to you.”
Her eyes narrowed. “For an amateur, he is doing very well speaking to you,” she said. “Tell me, Stark, have you ever experienced telepathic connections before?”
Steve flinched, caught suddenly in a sense-memory that wasn’t his own, one that smelt and was steeped in the hue of cinnabar and death. “Not willingly,” he managed.
I’ve already yelled at you about that once, Steve. No need to go into histrionics about that again.
You didn’t tell me Wanda did that to you, Steve thought hard. You didn’t—
Stop apologizing, Cap. There have been a lot of sins of omission between us. Let’s leave it at that. It wasn’t transmitted with malice, or even with any pointedness, but that didn’t make Steve not feel like shit all the same. The feeling of an oncoming migraine had abated, but now it seemed to curl back on itself, pulling at his attention.
Stop it. I’ve forgiven you. I told you that already.
“Still haven’t forgiven myself quite yet,” he murmured. He followed the feeling down. What was that?
“Captain,” the Ancient One said, sounding unsettled, “Come back here.”
“Huh?” Steve blinked. Then blinked again. Squinted. “Did everything just get...really blue to you?”
“No,” the Ancient One said. “But I’ll hazard that everything got very yellow for you for a moment there.” She pointed at the Mind Stone in the case.
Shit. Sorry, Steve. I didn’t know.
“He nearly pulled you in,” the Ancient One said. “I hadn’t considered that a possible danger. My apologies.”
I didn’t mean to.
“It’s fine,” Steve said automatically.
The Ancient One seemed to be staring both into and past him, as if perceiving mechanisms beyond his ken. “That changes things considerably.” Her eyes narrowed, and then she stood. “But we’re growing short on time. Stark, you have approximately half an hour to form yourself into something movable within the Time Stone before I must take it back, with or without you still inside it.”
“Wait,” Steve said, standing with her. “Does that mean you can extract him?”
“Possibly. But you must think on something too, Captain Rogers, while I deal with your colleague: what are you willing to lose, in exchange for Tony Stark’s soul?”
She swept out, leaving him there with the half-full pot of tea still steaming.
That was...incredibly ominous.
“Gotta be a sorcerer thing,” Steve murmured. “All the drama.”
In fairness, we give them a run for their money.
“What do you think she meant?”
Couple of ideas. One: action creates an equal and opposite reaction.
Very good. The implication being that if I get freed from the stones, something else has to go in in my place. Not ideal.
Steve considered it. Would that be so bad? Tony has a family to come back to, and Steve—
Don’t even think about it, Steve.
What did I just say?
Steve sighed, and scrubbed a hand over his face.
Drink your damn tea. It’s not even a sound theory; it would somehow imply that something’s been in here all this time, and that I displaced it. I don’t think that’s true, or I’d know about it.
Vision’s in here. Or, well, an echo of him. I think everything that the stones come into serious contact with leaves a trace of some kind. But I’m not getting anything more recent than Vision, so.
“Okay. Second theory?”
She can transfer me from stone to stone, but not out entirely. So I’ll maybe end up in the Mind Stone only, or something, but then I’ve gotta go back to Asgard or wherever and stay there for the rest of ever. Probably get used by Loki for something nefarious. Maybe I can screw that up for him? Not a bad option.
“That’s not acceptable.”
Steve. I’m supposed to be dead. Anything else is acceptable under these circumstances.
“It’s not acceptable to me.”
Tony was silent for a long moment. Then finally, he said, No wires to cut here, Steve.
God damn it. “I should punch you for that.”
Luckily, I’m super incorporeal. Nyah-nyah.
“Why don’t you just...concentrate on waking yourself up in the Time Stone, like she told you?”
What'd you think I’ve been doing all this time, Rogers? Twiddling my thumbs?
“Arguing with me, mostly.”
I am an exceptional multitasker. Also, you...help me focus.
Before Steve could find something to say to that, the Ancient One descended the stairs. “The stone is gone,” she announced, sounding troubled. “I hadn’t realized...but I suppose he was right. It did work, in the end.” She shook herself, as if readjusting reality around herself. She held out her hand. “The Time Stone?”
“You ready?” Steve asked, in the general direction of the case.
Hm. I think so. It’s all divvied up very logically, it turns out. All the stuff I said was missing before? Easy to find if you categorize it properly.
“What do you mean?”
Mind went to mind. Time to time. My two theories were shit, by the way. I wasn’t thinking with my Time brain. Yeah, I’m ready.
Steve looked back up at the Ancient One, who was watching him with interest. “He’s ready.”
“Yes, I can see that.” She raised one hand, and the Time Stone floated up out of the case. “Did you think on what I asked you to?”
“Kind of hard to do that when I don’t know what it is you’re really asking,” Steve countered.
“You did, then. Good. Our original problem persists: Stark has no place to go that could house him outside of the Stones. Should I simply push him out now, he would eventually dissipate. A peaceful end, and not an unkind one.”
“Or?” Steve growled.
“Or,” the Ancient One replied, “He transfers into a willing host. One with whom a channel can be, or already has been forged.”
It wasn’t hard to make the logical jump.
“Okay. Do it.”
“What?” Steve snapped, feeling absurd about addressing a voice in his head and a floating green gem, but that’s all he’s got, so. “We’re out of danger, you made your sacrifice and fixed everything, there’s no reason for you to die now, not when we have this chance!”
“He is right to be concerned,” the Ancient One said, calmly. “You are very strong, Captain, but no body, no matter how strong, can house two souls indefinitely.”
He was shaking his head before she even finished speaking. “Bruce—”
“Is one soul, split into two. Instead, you and Stark would be like twins in the womb, one devouring the other. It may be a slow process, particularly if you only take one piece of him into you at a time, but it is not sustainable, in the end. I can begin this process, but as he gains full mastery over himself within each stone, each piece of him shall transfer straight to you—there will be no going back after this first transfer. From then on, it shall be a struggle that can only end with one of you alive, and another consumed.”
This is bullshit. Steve, let me go, I’ll dissipate, it’ll be nice and peaceful, and then you can go and live your life. You have my blessing. I’d hoped for something different, but if this is the choice, then there isn’t any choice.
“What about Pepper?” Steve countered. “And Morgan?” The thought of being able to bring Tony back, to bring him home, was superseding everything else in his mind, the anxiety and temptation and displacement and grief all falling away.
Low fucking blow, Rogers. But they’re already mourning me, and they’re already moving on. Pepper knows how to get along without me, and Morgan’ll learn. They’ll be fine.
He thought about Pepper’s reddened eyes in the dead of night, of Morgan’s quiet, simple grief. Thought of his own failures, and the muddled, stumbling path he saw for himself going forward.
“Fine is not the same as good.” Steve squared himself and looked the Ancient One in the eye. “Do it. Maybe we’ll find another way later on, but you need the Time Stone back now, and I can’t leave any part of Tony behind. So do it.”
The Ancient One nodded, and raised her hands, the Time Stone settling in the air between them, glinting sickly green. “This will probably hurt,” she murmured, and then swept her arms back, and pushed.
The world seemed, in the space of a breath, to slow.
And then the air in front of Steve’s face solidified and slammed into him, a shockwave of sound and breath that knocked him off his feet. As he hit the far wall of the study, he thought he saw shards of light careening after him like shattering glass, points all twirling towards him, razor sharp—he raised his hands to shield himself—
They hit him like rail gun fire, tearing through and in.
He thought he screamed. He couldn’t really tell.
“Drink this. It might help.”
Steve half expected it to be more tea, which didn’t sound appealing. His mouth tasted burned, like he’d eaten charcoal. Also...artificial coconut?
He got his hands under him, and pushed himself slowly, painfully upright. A glass was pressed into his hands. He put it to his lips.
Whisky. Probably a sight better than tea for washing away bad tastes, he’d admit.
He took a slow sip. “Oh my god,” he said, eyes flying open. “That tastes amazing. ”
...That’s probably me.
The Ancient One, sitting cross-legged on the floor across from him, hummed. “The transfer worked, it seems,” she said. “How do you feel?”
“Odd,” Steve decided, after a second. He didn’t exactly have other words for it. What had been a tickle in his brain was now a dull, not entirely comfortable pressure, warm and pulsing in time with his heartbeat. His lungs felt strange too, like they were just slightly misshapen, not taking in nearly enough air. He took a deep breath. No change in lung capacity then, just...the illusion of it.
You’re an idiot. I can’t believe you’ve done this.
“Did Peter use to send you memes?” Steve asked. “He’s started doing it to me. It’s baffling, but weirdly relatable.”
Gen Z humor is a trip and a half. Don’t derail me. You’re an idiot.
“It definitely worked,” Steve assured, looking back up at the Ancient One. He took another sip of whisky. It was shockingly delicious. There were layers to the flavor he’d never noticed before—not just the standard burn and woodsy sweetness, but delicate layers of mineral and peat, overlaid with smoke and bitter earth.
Look, I’m not saying that that’s the primary reason I’m an alcoholic, but that definitely contributed.
“Well, enjoy, I guess,” Steve murmured. “Can’t get drunk, so. Best of both worlds.”
Gonna have to disagree there, Cap.
“Captain?” the Ancient One interrupted. “You’re now on a deadline. The longer you linger, here and elsewhere, the more your soul will begin to degrade.”
Steve hummed. “All right.” He clambered to his feet. “Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me,” she said. “I fear that I’ve damned you.”
“You haven’t. Tony’ll figure it out.” He closed the case with the five Stones left inside, and looked at his watch. “I’ve gotta get to Stark Tower to hand off the Mind Stone. Tony, I hope you can figure out how to finish getting out of there by the time I hand it off.”
I’m lodging complaints. Multiple complaints, in triplicate.
“Take care, Captain,” the Ancient One said.
“I’ll try,” Steve replied. The sounds of chaos from uptown were waning, which meant that Tony’s trip through the portal was over. He took a deep breath, and headed out the door.
The Mind Stone wasn’t hard to pass off. In the chaos of Loki taking off with the Tesseract, Steve rolled it into the crowd surrounding 2012 Tony Stark, who rolled over onto his stomach and onto it after Thor restarted the arc reactor, frowned, and then pocketed the thing like it was a spare money clip.
“Didn’t even burn you,” Steve murmured.
Because I’m in it, still. Hold on, now. And then, more quietly, Goodbye, Vision. Thanks.
Steve swallowed, and pretended not to have heard.
The shock of transfer wasn’t quite so bad this time, but it left him gasping for air, hiding behind a concierge desk in the lobby. Memories bloomed inside him, of Pepper and Rhodey and desert dust and motor oil and Howard and Maria and math, math, math—
Breathe, Steve. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.
“I’m not,” Steve wheezed. “I’m not sorry at all.”
You will be.
They went to 1970, next. Steve spotted Howard from across the road and the stab of hatred-longing-understanding felt like a dagger slipped between his ribs.
I like how you remember him better.
“Me, too,” Steve whispered. “But it’s not the whole story.”
Nothing except reality ever is.
“Before you—that is, before, we...do you mind if I—?”
Tony’s voice gentled. Do what you want, Steve. I won’t tell you what to do.
He slipped into Peggy’s office. Sat down gingerly in the guest chair. Waited.
It took an hour, in which Steve could feel a stinging numbness begin to take hold at the tips of his fingers. But then the door was squeaking open, the light flicking on, and he had to move very quickly to avoid getting clocked in the face with a paperweight.
“Wait, I’m sorry—!”
“You’d better be sor—Steve? ”
“Hi,” Steve said weakly. “Hi, Peggy.”
She was so goddamn beautiful.
“It’s a long, long story. I’m not really sure I have time to tell it.”
Peggy stared at him, searching his face. “You’re older than I remember,” she said. "But not as old as you should be."
“Ten years, give or take.”
“Only ten. Howard didn’t find you. I’d know, if he did.”
“No, he didn’t.”
She touched his cheek, his jawline. Her fingers were callused, the nails blunt. She smelled like the same perfume she’d worn during the war, something warm and floral.
“I just wanted to tell you,” he said, halting, his hands clenching on nothing, “That I’m not in the ice forever. And I wanted to ask if you were happy. Because I’ve always hoped that you were.”
“‘Always’...? Steve.” She closed the door of her office firmly enough that the handle rattled; he sat heavily and she stood looking at him for a long moment before stepping forward and slowly lowering herself down to study him. “Should you be telling me this?”
I forgot how sharp she was. You’ve got great taste, Cap, I’ll give you that.
Steve pushed him away. “I don’t think just that will hurt,” he said, attempting to push a smile into the corners of his mouth. It only half worked, but he got an answering smile in return anyway.
She nodded. “When do they find you?”
He closed his eyes. “2012.”
She exhaled. “God, Steve. I’m sorry.”
“I missed you,” he confessed. “I miss you all the time.”
She pressed her lips tightly together. “But you don’t belong here,” she surmised. “You can’t stay.”
He wanted to and he didn’t. He shook his head.
“I miss you, too.” Her hand found the back of his neck and scratched at the small hairs there. It was the best thing he’d felt in months, years. “But I have work to do here. Good work, challenging work. Most men are idiots, but some of them have wised up enough to know that they ought to listen to me.”
“Just so.” She settled back on her heels. “You asked if I was happy. Sometimes I am. Sometimes I’m not. Such is the human condition.”
“You look like you haven’t found that balance, yet.”
“I think I could have,” he said. “But I wasn’t—I don’t think I was paying enough attention.” Something complicated pressed itself against the inside of his ribs. He shushed it.
“Well,” Peggy said slowly, “It’s years yet, isn’t it? You’ve got time.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I’ve got time.” He covered her hand with his. “You got a radio in here? I think I owe you a dance. Then I’ll let you be.”
Peggy gave him safe passage to the basement.
“You’re all right from here?”
“Yeah, I’ll be fine.” He put his arms around her. She hugged him back fiercely, her cheek sharp against his chest. There were threads of gray in her hair. It suited her.
“Take care of yourself, Steve,” she said. “Life’s too short.”
“I know,” he said. “I know it. I’m so glad to have seen you.”
He put the Tesseract back into its case, and braced himself for the shockwave. Instead, what came was cool breath, pressing into his skin, curling around his spine and filling the marrow of his bones.
He turned to find Peggy watching him from the elevator.
“It’s okay,” he said, in a voice he didn’t fully recognize. “We’re okay.”
She frowned, but nodded all the same. When she was gone, Steve let out a breath. “I nearly called her Aunt Peggy,” he said. “That would have been awful.”
Would definitely have added a very disconcerting layer to her memories, yes. Sorry.
“Let’s not talk about it. Asgard?”
Asgard was easy enough. Frigga guided them through the palace with kindness and a soft smile, and even accepted Mjolnir back with good grace.
“It’s not often that it serves more than one master,” she said. “You must be very special indeed, Steven Rogers.” Then her mouth twisted. “You too, Anthony Stark.”
“That’s definitely all Rogers,” Steve said, and then blinked, unbalanced. He could feel Tony shrinking back inside him. The transfer out of the Reality Stone had tasted like blood, and now he could feel it coating the back of his throat. He swallowed convulsively.
“Stop apologizing. I should go,” he said aloud.
“Yes,” Frigga agreed, gaze fathomless. “You had better.”
Tony’s exit from the Power Stone came like a thunderclap. It disrupted the force field surrounding the Stone’s chamber to the extent that Steve was able to slip it back inside unscathed.
Outside, he hummed along to the tune on Peter Quill’s headphones with easy familiarity.
On Vormir, he stood staring at the Red Skull for a long, long time.
“How did you even get here?” he asked eventually.
The Red Skull didn’t respond. Just started to ascend the crag.
Disgusted, Steve began to follow.
And then he stopped.
“Cold feet, Captain?” the Red Skull drawled.
Steve shook his head. “This isn’t where we need to be.”
He turned, and sprinted. Down the narrow stair, then off, off to the east, curving around the ever-steepening column of the mountain, until he heard the awful, despairing shout of Clint far up above, and the sickening impact of flesh and bone directly below.
I don’t know about this.
“You were in the Stones,” Steve argued, vaulting the jutting spears of stone and running full tilt to the stone dais, whose grooves were just beginning to run red. “Just see, please Tony, just—”
He skidded to a halt and fell to his knees.
Her eyes flickered, and slowly emptied. He laid his palm against her cheek. It was still warm.
“Tony?” Her neck was broken. There were soft places at the back of her skull that shouldn’t be soft. Nausea pulled at the back of his throat. “Please?”
I don’t...I’ll try.
Inside the Soul Stone, Natasha half stood, half floated, swathed in a sketch of the uniform she had worn when she died. Her face and hair were clean. She looked young.
When she noticed him, it was with only vague surprise. The line of her lips curved up.
She regarded him. “It worked?”
Tony sighed. “Yes, it worked. We got the Stones, we used them. Now we’re putting them back.”
She looked around at the foreign emptiness, the nothing that Tony had grown accustomed to over the past few weeks. "I hope you're right," she said. Her eyes seemed to track and catch on things Tony couldn’t see.
He peered at her. “Tasha?”
“It really is beautiful here,” she murmured. “I didn’t expect that. But it’s really...it’s not bad. It's so much.”
“You don’t see it?”
He shook his head, turning to try and follow her line of sight. Nothing. He said, “Steve misses you.”
She cocked her head. “How long has it been?”
“A month. Give or take.”
Her face twists suddenly. “Tony?”
He stared at her. “We’ve established this.”
She threw her arms around him. She weighed nothing, but her grip was strong—it was like being squeezed by a strong wind. “What are you doing here?”
He hugged her back. “I used the Stones. Got stuck. Working on getting—wait, did you think I wasn’t—?”
“Well yeah, I thought you were some hallucination or manifestation, I thought—”
“That I’m your heavenly greeter? I’m flattered.”
“Tony.” Her grip on him tightened. He didn’t let her go.
“Hey,” he murmured, “Hey, Tasha. You saved the world. Nay, the universe.”
She pulled back and cupped his face in her hands. “Why are you here? You used the Stones?”
He raised one hand and snapped his fingers. “All fixed.”
She smiled with one corner of her mouth, her eyes sad. Then she frowned. “I didn’t see it. And now you’re not attached. Or,” she stepped back and took his hand between hers, “Huh. I guess you are, but it’s not very strong.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Your connection to the Stones. I’m woven in—see?” She raised a hand, and that’s when he noticed it—her eyes had begun to glow, soft but fervent. Threads of luminescent orange like the glow of late afternoon sun were clinging to the tips of her fingers. He reached towards them; they brushed his hand, felt warm and faintly charged, but didn’t linger.
Tony hissed through his teeth. “How long’s it been?” he said at last. “For you?”
“Must be about a month, I guess,” she replied, almost apologetically, “give or take.” She lifted one shoulder. “Feels like longer.”
Of course. The continuum—the Stone they were bringing back was the one Clint had taken away, but that didn’t erase its own path through time and space.
“You were there when I…?” he gestured again, shaken.
“I don’t think I was fully aware, then,” she said. “It took a while to get myself together.”
She thought a moment. “We were at your lake house, after?”
He nodded. “Steve’s been staying there. I think he’s been helping out around the house?” There wasn’t a lot of bleed over from Steve on that, but there was some and it seemed... layered. He sighed. “He’s trying to bring me back. I think he was hoping he could do the same with you.”
She made a pained noise. “Steve. What’s he hoping for? One last chance for me, again?”
He opened his hands, a little helplessly. “The choice should be enough, don’t you think? We made our choices, and we’re not taking them back. But we’ve still got shit to do, don’t we?”
“We do,” Natasha agreed, “But my work is here.”
“Here? You’re in a Stone.”
“Yes,” she agreed, “A Stone that helps hold the universe together.”
Tony? Is she…?
Natasha stilled. “Was that…?” Her eyes narrowed. “Tony. How exactly is he planning on getting you back? I get that he thinks I can maybe just get back into my body or something, but you...” She put her hands on his shoulders and stared, eyes flashing like a cat’s in the dark. “...No.”
“I know,” Tony said, suddenly and acutely miserable. “I told him not to.”
She let out a long, slow breath.
“She’s not coming,” Tony called back, unsure of whether Steve would hear him or not. He met Natasha’s steady, burning gaze. “What do I do, Nat? I’m killing him.”
“I know.” Golden orange thread was pooling around her feet.
“I should probably just get Strange to push me out and leave it at that.”
“Do you want to go?”
“Of course not. I was only just...but.” He made another helpless gesture.
“He won’t let you go, anyway,” Natasha observed, “if the fact that he can reach all the way in here is any indicator.”
“Stupid soul seems to be made of taffy,” Tony muttered. “You’d think he wants me to kill him and take over his body.”
“You’ve had access to his mind,” Natasha pointed out. “What does he actually want?”
“I don’t look that deep. It’s rude.”
“You’re one of the ruder people I tolerate. You absolutely saw something.” She cocked her head. “But maybe you don’t believe it?”
“It doesn’t make any sense.” He shook his head. “And when I tried to dig deeper, I felt bad about it and stopped.”
“See, that’s where you and I differ. What’s one more violation of privacy between friends?” She stepped back. “You should get back. Solve your problem. I don’t want to see you again until you have your own ride.”
“Goodbye, Tony. Go home.”
“Are you really okay, out here?” he asked suddenly, looking at her. She was now more golden than not, punctuated by an impression of things he knew about her—deep red hair in waves, capable hands, a gun at her waist and in her boot.
Her mouth lifted slightly at one corner in a shark’s smile. “Like I said, I’m keeping busy. Maybe I’ll see you again some time. Tell Steve I say hello, and that I miss him, too.”
He curled back, the images of themselves unraveling as they separated. “I will. And is that a promise?”
“It’s a maybe.” He could feel her receding, becoming hard and faceted. Then, glittering and remote: “Now don’t fuck it up. You’re running out of time.”
Steve knew the instant Tony disengaged. “No. Come on,” he said, plaintive, knee falling and hitting the stone dais, staining the uniform scarlet.
Next to Natasha’s cool, pale head, the Soul Stone glinted, and then vanished.
Deep beneath his sternum, a hot coal began to glow. He sucked in a breath, and it seemed only to get hotter. He was losing feeling in his hands.
Cap. We’ve gotta go. You’re not gonna last long like this.
You heard her. She’s not coming. And frankly, she’ll find a way to kill me properly if I don’t get you help right this minute. I’ll get us back if you can’t, but that might make it worse.
Motor functions seemed very hard. Steve fumbled with the space-time coordinates. “Are you sure—”
Yes. Come on, Steve. For me.
Steve punched in the coordinates, and lurched into the quantum realm.
“Few minutes, huh?”
“It’s not exact,” Bruce equivocated.
“He’s not coming back,” Bucky grunted.
“He is,” Sam insisted.
They swung back around to the platform.
“Hi,” Steve said. He took a couple of steps forward. Stumbled. Bucky ran forward and caught him before he face-planted off the side of the damn time machine.
“What the hell, Steve?” he muttered. “What did you do?”
“Only thing I could, under the circumstances.”
The back door to the house slammed open. At the sound, Steve seemed to rouse, though only slightly. He couldn’t seem to find the earth under his feet. “Hey, Pep. Wow. It’s really, really good to see you.”
“Steve?” Pepper said, “Oh my god, what happened? Bruce, what—?”
“He’s...I mean the readings are all fine,” Bruce said, darting around the control panel. “He returned the Stones, but—”
“But clearly, something’s not right,” Sam said, voice tight. His shoulder came up under Steve’s on his opposite side, steadying him.
Pepper took Steve’s face in her hands, her gaze sharpening and then widening. “Steve, why are your eyes brown? ”
“Are they? Huh,” Steve said. His mouth felt odd and clumsy, like he’d been shot up with novocaine. “Weird side effect. I hate magic. Look, could you please help me get into the house? Because Tony’s alive, sort of, and I need the Bleeding Edge suit, now.”
“It seems that my predecessor was far more involved with the Avengers than she ever let on,” Stephen Strange said, after coming through a portal directly into the living room. “And I’m not certain why she agreed to such a procedure, in this case.”
“Asked her to,” Steve murmured. His hands were moving very fast, and he didn’t know what they were doing, only that it looked kind of graceful, and not at all like him.
“Because you’re an idiot,” Bucky said, adjusting his grip around his waist.
Steve hummed, and let Bucky take his weight a bit more as he reached over to one side of the worktop, aglow with holograms. The strangest things kept capturing his attention—the stack of books on the coffee table, the dishes in the sink, and the way Pepper wrung her hands. He kept trying to track Tony’s multiple trains of thought, pull apart their reasons and histories, but they were moving too fast and in too many different directions.
Being you must be exhausting.
Buddy, you have no idea.
“Did you ask her to? Or did Stark?” Clint asked. He raised his hands when Rhodes and Pepper both glared at him. “I’m just wondering.”
“Tony’s mad as hell about it,” Steve said. He wavered on his feet, and then steadied again. God, he was tired. “Keeps telling me I should’ve let him go.” He saved a new set of algorithms with a hand-wave. “He sounds like you, Buck. Worrywart. But I couldn’t.” He pulled up a file that he was only half-sure he could decipher. The symbols and shorthand were all mixed into one another, but the logic...huh. He could follow the logic, and maybe fill in the blanks from there.
“I couldn’t,” he repeated. Hmm. That was an interesting file. He should look at it. His arm didn’t seem to be working, though. “Tony, do you mind?”
Fuck. Sorry, got distracted by a different thing. Yeah, this’ll do. We’d better get this loaded up. Have you considered any backup plans for when this doesn’t work? Not to say that it won’t, because I’m a genius, but it’s your life, Cap.
“It’ll work. I already promised the Ancient One you’d fix it.”
That wasn’t a promise, that was a pronouncement of misplaced faith.
“You made a promise that I…?” Strange started, peering at him.
Steve opened his mouth to explain, and none of his own words came out.
“No, not you, Strange. God, he really is an idiot. Couldn’t just let me drift into the ether like a normal superhero, had to be the last goddamn guy to lay down on the wire—”
“I genuinely don’t know who we’re talking to right now,” Sam said.
“I told him not to, and still went right over me. Never fucking listens.” Steve frowned. “That’s not fair.”
“Tony?” Pepper whispered.
Steve felt his head turn as if from far away. “Sorry, Pep,” Tony said, the syllables clumsy in a mouth that didn’t belong to him, “If I’d known this was how things were going to shake out, I definitely would have given you a heads up, if only for the paperwork. Bringing people back from the dead is a logistical nightmare, believe me, I’d know. But like I said, it’s really good to see you.” He blinked hard. “He’s losing ground, we need to move fast.” He pulled up another file. “Ah, here we go. I just need to adjust some last parameters so I don’t blow us both to kingdom come. Give me five minutes.”
Being whole was comforting. Tony no longer slipped and slid along uncharted corridors between his disparate strengths and weaknesses, trying to formulate words and ideas through some sort of sick combination of Pictionary and Scrabble. But stealing the life force out of Steve Rogers like some unholy parasite? Was distressing beyond measure.
Steve kept forgetting to breathe. His autonomic responses seemed to just...fall asleep, like the circulation was getting cut off. And then Tony would reach out in a panic, jiggling the lax muscles, sparking the neurons back to life, and every time it was like reaching into a tub of non-Newtonian fluid—easy to stick a hand in, very difficult to yank it back out.
Frankly, Tony expected more of a fight. It was Steve, stubborn to the core, defiant to the end, why was he—
Because it would be worth it, Steve sent, with the mental approximation of a shrug. He sounded faint, like he was already half an echo.
Unacceptable. Tony needed to go.
Steve ran his hand along the underside of the worktop with unsettling accuracy, and disengaged the arc reactor from where it was downloading the data from the screens. “Okay. Here we go.”
Numb and trying desperately to organize her thoughts, Pepper stepped up to stand in front of him. “Steve. Tony. Whichever you are right now. What exactly is your plan here?”
She’d found this was the easiest way, in the past few years. No histrionics, no outrage, just the plain question. It had cleared a lot of air between them. And when Morgan had come, a lot of Tony’s motivations became a lot more relatable to Pepper. He was all heart, and she was all patience—it had taken hard work, but they understood each other now.
“I need a place to put myself,” Tony replied, with all the sincerity Steve’s voice could muster, which was considerable. “Every second I’m in here, I’m killing him. So I’ll put myself here, and then we’ll call Helen Cho and see about alternatives, but getting out is the most important thing right now.”
“It’s nanomachinery, it’s not alive. What will happen if it can’t hold you?”
“Not alive, but able to respond to thought, and able to house the Stones, if only temporarily. And it’s mine—the Ancient One said there needed to be a connection already forged. I’d say it’s as close to a willing host as I’m going to get at short notice. A risk I’m willing to take.” He slapped it onto the center of his chest, and winced as it anchored. “It’s Steve, Pep.”
She swallowed. “Yes, well. He’s not my husband.”
Tony smiled at her with Steve’s mouth, and it was a gorgeous, old smile.
With some effort, she returned it, and it felt as familiar and as painful as the past three weeks. If she'd held any doubts about whether it was Tony or not in there, they were gone now with that old feeling, like she'd just kissed his helmet and thrown it out of the plane ahead of him all over again. “Go on, then.”
He nodded. Closed his eyes.
The Bleeding Edge suit grew like flower beds blooming in quicktime, like paint diluting in water. It didn’t look the same as before. Mostly silver and limned with iridescence. A coat of many colors, Pepper thought nonsensically. Less like armor, more like a wirework model of a person, or primitive graphics come to life. It encased Steve fully, and then seemed to tighten around him, like it was learning his contours, polygons giving way to smooth curves.
“Come on, come on,” he muttered, lips hidden behind a flat plate of nanobots. Pepper couldn’t tell who it was praying. She stepped forward.
“Mrs. Potts,” Strange started.
“Shh,” she said, deliberate. “I want to talk to my husband.” She stood in front of him, studying the strange, flat-planed impression of Steve Rogers’ face. “Tony. You getting out of there?”
A long, awful silence, and then the shrouded figure nodded. She reached out a hand, and interlaced their fingers. The armor felt cool and silky to the touch, like fine chainmail lying flat against her skin. It rippled slightly at her touch. She tried not to find it too uncanny, and didn’t fully succeed. She’d lived through a lot of transformations over the course of her partnership with Tony, but this—she swallowed it back, swallowed it all back. Steadied her voice.
“Then let him go. We’ve got stuff to talk about.”
He nodded again. Held up one finger.
And then slowly, the suit parted, peeling away from Steve’s lax face and reforming behind him, into a shape slightly different than before, slimmer and a little more like the Iron Man suit. The neck and shoulders followed, peeling out and down, until the wire frame was stepping forward and around to steady Steve when his knees buckled.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck, come on Steve, snap out of it,” the suit chanted, sounding like Tony but also very much not. It got its arm around Steve’s back and knees, and then lifting him bodily off the ground like he weighed nothing. “Can we clear a way to the couch?”
Bucky and Sam cleared. Bruce darted forward. “Pulse is thready,” he commented, two fingers pressed under Steve’s jaw.
“Energy readings are low, but they’re not dropping any further,” Strange confirmed, drawing sigils in the air. “He wasn’t fully displaced, but his autonomic systems aren’t fully engaged. We might need to shock him.”
“With what?” Bruce demanded. “I don’t have a defibrillator with my kit.”
“Give me a second,” Tony said, and reached out a hand. The iridescent edges rippled, then shifted. What was a hand became a set of two flat, metallic paddles. “What do I charge it to?”
“Uh...200 to 1000 volts?”
“That is such a big range, what the hell—”
“500! That’s what they say, isn’t it?”
“You better be right, Banner. What’s the thing? Clear.”
Steve arched off the couch and then collapsed back down. His eyes flew open. “Holy god, what was that?”
“Thank fuck,” the suit spat, and lurched away, hand reforming. “Don’t you ever pull that shit again, Rogers!”
The suit turned. “Yeah, it’s me. Or, you know, as much of me as there can be, given the whole disembodiment thing.”
Steve grinned. “It worked.”
“Yes, you complete lunatic.”
“Good.” He relaxed back into the couch and closed his eyes. “Good.”
“Steve? Steve.” Bruce grabbed for his pulse again.
“He’s fine, he’s just unconscious,” Strange diagnosed. “Probably will need a great deal of sleep to recover. We should move him to a bed and leave him be—I can monitor him remotely.”
Tony sighed, his shoulders dropping. Pepper had become accustomed to how he emoted in the suit, but it remained disconcerting to see this half-suit, half-body construction act like him when she knew there was nothing inside. He came back and levered Steve’s body back up into his arms, and then turned to her.
“Where, uh,” he started, sounding suddenly very awkward. “Does he have a room?”
She nodded. “Yes, I put him at the end of the hall. I can...let me make sure everything’s…” She drifted off. Of course everything was still there. But.
Tony seemed relieved to have the company, at least; he nodded. “Sure. Lead the way.”
She went upstairs on auto-pilot, and he clanked behind. Steve’s room was very tidy, and he apparently had never transferred his clothes from his suitcase into any of the closets or drawers, which Pepper found herself disproportionately upset about. She busied herself turning back the covers on his bed, smoothing down the quilt. When she stepped back, Tony set him down in the center of the mattress with an ease and familiarity that Pepper associated with Morgan’s bedtime, and the connection was both so jarring and so correct that she was stunned for a moment.
Steve didn’t wake at all; he just pushed his cheek a little deeper into the pillow, and exhaled in a gust. He looked not unlike how he had directly after the final battle with Thanos—hollowed out, relieved.
She must have made some sort of sound, because Tony turned back to her, and shifted from foot to foot. “So,” he started, and then clearly didn’t know where to go from there.
“So,” she echoed. “You’re...you weren’t. You were in the Stones? This whole time?”
“I guess,” he said cautiously. “I wasn’t really conscious for the first long while. It’s confusing. I don’t really understand it, but it was all—I was in a lot of different pieces, and it took me a long time to...make thoughts again?”
She pinched the bridge of her nose. “This is. I need some time. I was already. I was trying—”
“To move on?” He stepped forward. He was surprisingly light-footed, the articulation of the nanoparticles apparently even more subdivided in this iteration. “I mean, of course. That’s what you’re supposed to do. Obviously, there is a terrible monster inside of me that wants you to miss me forever, because that’s what I’d do if you were gone, but I didn’t actually want that. Still don’t.”
He was close enough to touch, but he wasn’t—didn’t—breathe. The arc reactor in his chest glowed the same as always. But the suit was empty.
“I don’t think Kubler-Ross prepared me for this eventuality,” she said, and oh god, she hated when her voice trembled like that, it was the worst—
“I’m sorry, fuck, I’m sorry, Pep.” He hands fluttered around her shoulders. She wanted to lean right into his arms and not feel metal, and she knew exactly how horrible it was going to be the moment she put her head on his shoulder and didn’t feel him give.
She did it anyway.
It was worse—his arms came up around her, so carefully, and she could feel him trying to soften. Trying and failing.
“I’m sorry,” he repeated.
She pressed her cheek against the cool plane of his chest, and rode out the hitch in her breathing until it evened out. “You don’t have to apologize,” she said, when she was able. “You have nothing to apologize for.”
“Kinda feels like I do, though.”
“Really, this is just another instance in which you’ve made my life very complicated and confusing. It’s not really anything different than usual.”
“Except how it is.”
“Except how it is,” she agreed.
He stilled for a moment, and then very carefully put his fingers through her hair the way she liked. His hand was smooth enough not to tug or tangle. It felt...odd, but not bad. She sighed, and let him take a little more of her weight. The arm around the small of her waist tightened.
“We’ll figure it out, right?” he asked. Even through the voicebox, he sounded very small.
“Of course,” she said automatically. “We always do.”
They had to. She didn’t think she could start back at the beginning of grief for a second time. She turned her head against his chest and looked at Steve, still fast asleep. “He really just...carried you with him?” she asked.
“Like a malignant tumor,” Tony said. “I don’t understand him.”
She hummed. “You’d have done the same for me. Or him.”
He was quiet for a moment. “Maybe. But that’s different.”
“Don’t think he saw it that way,” Pepper commented. “He was…” She searched around for how best to say it. “He was pretty lost, these past few weeks. It was illuminating, talking to him.”
“Yeah. I think he’s been making a lot of decisions out of desperation for a long time. I’m not sure he knows how to do anything different.”
“I know that tone,” Tony said, with growing curiosity. “Mrs. Potts, did you make him into a project?”
“Maybe a little,” she admitted. “Do you mind?”
He stepped back and regarded her. Even with a mask more specific than the standard faceplate, she couldn’t get a read on him, which she hated. “No,” he said at last. “No, I don’t mind. I’m glad you did.”
She managed to smile. “And I’m glad he brought you back to me.”
They both turned to look at Jim, who was hovering in the doorway. “Hey, honeybear. Good to see you.”
Jim shook his head. Smiled, if painfully. “You’re such a dick.”
“Neither time nor death itself can change it,” Tony agreed. “Hug?”
“I want to, but it also looks uncomfortable.”
“It is,” Pepper said, wiping her eyes discreetly. “So get over here and make it better.”
He did, and it was a little better. Pepper breathed a little easier between them, and knew she was going to be okay when she automatically began compiling a mental list of all of the agencies and lawyers she was going to have to call.
Now that there was no longer the imminent danger of Captain America’s entirely avoidable death, Tony braced himself for having to explain everything. Normally he loved explaining things, but.
He took Bruce and Clint aside first. It went...as well as it could.
Bruce was very pale when he finished. Clint was so quiet Tony wasn’t sure whether he was about to be thanked or punched. “That’s what she said?” he said, for the third time, each time progressively more flat. “She had work to do?”
“I couldn’t see what sort of work it was, but yeah. That’s what she said.”
Clint shook his head. “Stubborn.” He huffed out a breath that could have maybe passed for laughter, under different circumstances. “Always so goddamn stubborn.” He looked Tony up and down. “I guess even if she’d wanted to come back, she wouldn’t have been able to, huh? No suit to put her in.”
“I’d have given her one,” Tony said. “Hell, I’d’ve given her whatever she wanted.”
“Yeah.” He looked away. “Yeah, I know you would’ve. Thanks.” A pause. “And Cap’s gonna be okay?”
“According to Strange.”
“Good. Thanks for bringing him home.”
Tony cocked his head. “I think I did more to prevent him coming home than anyone else.”
Clint shot him a look. “You mean to say that all that time you were riding around with him, he didn’t once consider just staying back there?”
Tony was silent. Clint nodded. “That’s what I thought. So. Thanks.” He jerked a finger at the truck in the driveway. “I’m gonna go. Laura and the kids’ll wanna know, and I don’t want to explain it over the phone.”
“Sure, of course.”
He and Bruce watched him go. “What do you think she’s doing?” Bruce murmured.
“Scheming? Balancing the universe?” Tony suggested. “She seemed...not happy, but...not sad, either? I think she was glad to be doing work.”
“That’s her, all right. Jeez. This is all...” He waved a hand.
“Tell me about it. I’m a ball of energy living inside a suit of nanoparticles. Life’s fucking weird, nowadays.”
“How is that, anyway?” Bruce asked. “You seemed to adapt pretty quickly, but there must be some limitations.”
Tony wasn’t sure how to describe it. “It requires a lot of focus,” he said eventually. Not much more than it had taken for him to function normally on a daily basis, but enough that it was noticeable. “And yes, there are limitations.”
He couldn’t hold Pepper properly. He couldn’t hug his kid. Couldn’t even explain to his kid what was going on, because he couldn’t think of anything worse than telling a child that their father was just an empty suit, waiting for a body.
“I hope Helen has some ideas,” he said.
Helen Cho had many ideas. And also many complaints.
“You don’t know what you’re asking.” Helen Cho’s image stood in the living room, managing to radiate exasperation and worry even from several states away. “This is basically Ultron again.”
“I would posit that I do. Come on, this’ll be way easier and better than Ultron.”
“It had better,” Rhodey muttered.
“I don’t know what you are, right now!” Helen protested. “Until five minutes ago, I didn’t believe in the human soul!”
“Hey, I still don’t believe in the human soul. Personal hypothesis is that I’m a collection of previously unidentified femto-particles held together by string theory-adjacent tertiary forces. Whatever it is, it gives me the ability to think, it can travel from one thing to another, and having too much of it inside Steve nearly killed him, so please, help me figure this out.”
She sighed. “Give me a few days, I have to arrange transport for my equipment, unless you intend to come to me.”
Tony considered it. Thought about the now rather-crowded upstairs bedrooms, and Steve still asleep after 36 hours. It would be more convenient for him to just go to her, but having the house full, not being alone and keeping them all close seemed right at the moment. “I think we’d prefer if you came here. Strange, would you be able to help with transport?”
“This is blatant exploitation of my powers,” Strange said dryly, “but yes. I’m looking forward to working with you, Dr. Cho.”
“You too,” Helen said, equally dry. “I think.”
Steve slept like he was drowning, heavy and always sinking down further into the dark. He thought at varying points that he was maybe coming close to waking—he was aware of a sunrise at one point, and almost opened eyes to see it—but then something in his bones would pull him back down into black.
He didn’t try to fight it. Less than a day’s worth of carrying Tony in his head and his chest, and he felt like someone had pulled out all of his internal organs, drained and cleaned them, and then set them back inside him in slightly new positions. Early childhood memories of priests proclaiming the benefits of cleansing with holy fire came to mind.
He didn’t dream. He was aware, sometimes, of sparks of light in many colors, spiraling up and around him; lit fuses following strange, interlocking paths that he could only chase for so long before they outran him, zoomed out of sight. He thought, at one point, that he saw a hand reach out, limned in orange-gold, and brush back his hair from his forehead. It was gone before he could reach back.
When he came to, it was to Bucky with his feet propped up on the end of the bed, sitting in a squashy armchair he’d pulled out from the corner of the room. Steve’s suitcase had been on it, before. He wondered where it was, now.
“Hey,” he rasped.
Bucky didn’t even jump; he must have known Steve was waking up for ages. “Hey, punk.” He put down the book he was reading. “That was some stunt you pulled.”
Steve wagged his head on the pillow in an approximation of a shrug. “Did what I had to.”
“You and I have very different ideas of what constitutes ‘had to’,” Bucky commented. “For Stark? Really?”
“He deserved more time,” Steve murmured.
Bucky nodded. “Maybe. Was still a boneheaded move.”
Steve huffed. “Probably.” He looked around. The room was bright with sun coming in through the skylight overhead. “How long?”
“Couple of days,” Bucky answered. “You’re lucky you woke up when you did; Banner was ready to start you on an IV.”
“Ugh. Hate those.”
Steve looked back at him. “You’ve been sticking around this whole time? How’s that been?”
“Crowded. But kind of nice. Sam and Rhodes are bonding over pilot stuff. Gonna have to pry him away with a crowbar if we stay much longer.”
Steve raised an eyebrow. “Jealous, Buck?”
Bucky sank a little further into his seat. “No.”
Steve stared back up through the skylight for a moment. It was a gorgeous day, looked like. “I’m gonna give him the shield.”
Bucky tensed and then settled in the space of a second. “Good choice.”
“I thought so. Sam’s good people.”
Bucky gave him a flat look. “Don’t think I don’t see what you’re doing.”
Steve just blinked at him. “And what’s that?”
“Sam’s a good choice, but he’s gonna get shot out of the sky once people stop falling for his ‘death from above’ strategy.”
“Sounds like someone should keep that from happening. Long-range support, maybe.”
“And what’re you gonna do, then?” Bucky asked. “Now that you’ve shanghai’d my future all nice and proper.”
Steve shrugged. “Working on it.”
Bucky shook his head.
“Hey, you’re awake,” Sam said, walking in. “Thought I heard some grumpy old men shooting the shit. How’re you feeling?”
“A little off,” Steve admitted.
Sam rolled his eyes. “Just a little. Sure.” He crossed his arms. “Stark’s downstairs working on building himself a body. It’s creepy as shit. Do you want to see?”
Steve grinned. “You know what? I really do.”
Tony was buried to his ears in his own DNA sequence when he heard shuffling and low voices upstairs. He decided to ignore it for as long as he could.
Helen looked over his shoulder and said, “You promised I could have a look at him if I asked.”
“Sure. But you’ve gotta ask, and he’s gotta say yes.”
“Say yes to what?”
Tony exhaled, and turned. And then without meaning to he found himself striding over to where Steve was slowly getting down the stairs in order to make sure he didn’t misstep on the landing and do a face-plant into the living room. “What are you, why are you out of bed? Go back to bed.”
“No,” Steve argued. “I want to know what you’re doing.” He stopped, and stared at Tony, who immediately froze under his gaze and tried to think about anything other than his current form. “Wow,” Steve said after a moment. “You’re very shiny right now.”
“I could try for a matte coating, if you’d prefer?” Tony offered. He didn’t have complete control over the look of the thing, it was all a matter of intent, but he could try.
“No, it’s fine, it’s just different.” Steve cocked his head and studied the faceplate. “Is it...stable?”
“For now,” Helen said. “But until we understand what exactly Tony exists as right now, there aren’t any guarantees.”
“Dr. Cho,” Steve nodded. “Thanks for coming.”
“My pleasure, you guys always give me the most interesting and exasperating work,” she replied, giving both him and Tony very pointed glances. “Captain, since you're awake, would you be willing to undergo some diagnostics? I’d like to see what impact Tony had on your system while he was…” She gestured vaguely.
They were all doing that. Anything else always came out sounding either too intimate or too sexual. Tony tried not to think about it.
“If you think it’ll help,” Steve said.
“Why don’t you sit?” Helen suggested.
“I’m making sandwiches,” Sam announced. “Steve, you want one? Or maybe twelve?”
“I’ll help,” Bucky volunteered.
“Don’t you eat all my ingredients before I get them in the sandwiches, man, I will cut you.”
“You can try. And that was once. I hadn’t eaten in three days.”
“I can’t tell whether they’re sworn enemies or on the verge of dating,” Tony commented, hovering while Steve made his way over to the couch.
“Both?” Steve suggested, as he settled. The shadows under his eyes had eased slightly, but he still looked a little consumptive, like he’d been through some sort of terrible fever that had only just broken. “Had a weird start, and then between Buck going to Wakanda and then both of them losing five years in the Snap, they kinda missed each other for a while, and then came back together with a lot more in common than before. Seems like they’re playing catch-up now.”
“You seem weirdly happy about that.” Tony pulled up his screens again and started sorting back to where he was, while Helen pulled out a diagnostic kit.
“They’re my friends. I’m glad they’re getting along. After a fashion,” he added, with a shrug.
Tony peered at him, and was temporarily glad of the expressionlessness of the faceplate—Steve couldn’t tell how much Tony was watching him. “It is always nice when our friends get along,” he said. “Can be less nice when friends start dating, and suddenly you’re the third wheel.”
Steve made a strange sound, half laugh and half cough. “If I’m the third wheel there, it’s not because they’ve started dating.”
“Oh. Uh. Okay.”
“Can you look straight forward for me, Captain?” Helen cut in. “I’m just going to take some general readings.”
He nodded, and managed to fall into a sort of sitting parade rest, hands carefully on his knees.
Tony went back to work. He and Helen had a working theory that if he stuck himself in the Cradle, he could build himself from the inside out from within the Bleeding Edge suit, but the chances of becoming some sort of horrifying hybrid was extremely high, so they were trying to work out an alternative. And also just generally understand what separated him from the suit at this point, because as far as Strange could tell, he was literally just an empty suit right now, except for maybe some electron patterns, which...yeah. Not really enough foundation for a human person, generally speaking.
All of that amounted to having to build some sort of port between the suit and the Cradle, which meant designing some adaptations.
“That...is that what you’re going to make the suit into?” Steve asked.
“Not all of it,” Tony said, stepping back. He grimaced. It did look fairly H. R. Giger-esque. “I just need to be able to interface with the Cradle, if I’m going to be able to guide the building process. Which we suspect I have to, if I’m going to establish adequate connection to the thing so that I can actually transfer myself into it.”
“Sandwiches,” Sam said, emerging from the kitchen. “Eat them before Barnes does.”
“Rude,” Barnes muttered.
“Thanks,” Steve said, grabbing one off the coffee table. “Tony?”
“Huh? I don’t—”
“Feed him, for god’s sake,” Pepper said, padding in from the porch with her laptop under one arm. “He hasn’t stopped since four this morning.”
Steve was about to slap a sandwich into Tony’s open hand when Tony said, “Uh, guys? No mouth.”
“Right,” Steve said. Drew back slowly.
“Sorry,” Tony said, shoulders pulling in. Pepper looked like she was going to cry, again. God, he was the worst. It would be better if he was de-aged, or just digital, or something.
“It’s okay,” Steve said, and reached up to flatten his palm over the suit’s waist—a smooth, cold band of metal. “I’m just glad you’re here.”
But is everyone else? Tony wanted to ask, and didn’t. “How’s SI?” he asked Pepper instead.
“Holding steady,” Pepper said, rallying. “We’re deploying a lot of support to post-Snap restoration organizations, which is depleting some of our general capital, but we’re making enough with new sales and reinstatements to keep the lights on.”
“Not too awful, considering our measures to keep everything mostly steady even with half the clientele gone during the past few years. A few hiccups, but nothing too serious.”
“You’re the best, Pep.”
“Don’t I know it.”
Even if everything else about them was broken, they still were so good at this. It made Tony want to cry, too.
He went out on a limb. “Morgan?”
Pepper swallowed. “Bruce is helping her out with her short-wave radio. It’s keeping her pretty occupied. She’s already planning modifications.”
“Of course she is.” He couldn’t understand how he could exist in this nanoparticle coffin and still be whole. Where were his neurotransmitters? Where was his grief getting siphoned off and neutralized? Why did he still feel like his hands were shaking when he didn’t have a brain, or adrenal glands, or anything? “Thanks, Pep.”
She set her laptop down on the coffee table, and carefully kissed his cheek. He felt it like it was through several layers of plastic wrap. “Of course,” she said. “I’ll be upstairs.” She snagged a sandwich, and thanked Sam as she headed up the stairs.
He didn’t know how to expend everything whirling inside him. He flicked through the drafts of interfaces, and picked one at random. “Dr. Cho, when you’re done taking readings from Captain America, can I get your take on a couple of designs?”
From his comfortable vantage point on the couch, Steve considered the possibility that he, once again, had made a terrible, selfish mistake in bringing Tony back. He didn’t want to think so, but the possibility presented itself at every small interaction, every moment that Tony remained working at the designs.
He was, Steve couldn’t help but think, still beautiful in this strange form. He reminded Steve of the Stones, of his expression in the last moments before he’d snapped his fingers—the single focus of his unmoving face, the pure silver of the metal framing him, all color burned away except for the faint luminescence of purple, green, and blue at the edges of every plane and angle of his hands. Steve half expected him to spark with lightning at every turn.
But he didn’t. He moved a little like DUM-E, like his limbs only partly belonged to him, like nothing was subconscious. He was expressive, but halting.
He wasn’t complete. Steve wanted to touch him the same way he had in that dream in the Berlin conference room, the skin of the tender inside of his knee so warm beneath the twill of his trousers. And of course he knew that Pepper did too, which was far worse, because she had a right to it, and he didn’t.
“Huh,” Dr. Cho said, after a while. “Interesting.”
“No signs of the usual tags we’ve come to associate with the use of the Stones—Bruce has them, and so does Tony. However, you do have some sort of trace readings of something that isn’t yours. I’ll have to run it through some tests.”
“How’s his bill of health otherwise?” Tony asked.
“Clean, more or less,” Dr. Cho answered. “He’s running a little low on iron, and could probably stand to sleep some more, once he’s gotten some food into him. But I’m a biologist, not a GP.”
“I am a little tired,” Steve admitted. It was kind of embarrassing, considering he’d just been asleep less than an hour before. “Can I nap while you run your tests?”
Dr. Cho shrugged. “Sure, if you’re comfortable with that.”
He mostly just didn’t want to be alone in a room again. It was nice down here, with Tony working, and Pepper and the rest circulating around. “Yeah, no problem.”
He’d ask Tony. Apologize if he had to. But maybe not until later.
Steve drifted off almost instantly. When he started to list to one side, Tony caught his head and shoulders and eased him down onto a pillow, and after that Steve did the rest of the work of tucking his legs up onto the couch. He looked not quite peaceful, but younger than he had in awhile. Tony sighed.
“You okay?” Helen asked.
“I don’t know what to do with him,” Tony said, the emotional exhaustion of the day turning him honest. “Five years ago he left me for dead. Now he nearly killed himself bringing me back. I don’t know what to do with that.”
“You don’t have to do anything,” she shrugged. “Seems like you’re even.”
“But?” she prompted, with a measure of resignation. Tony tended to elicit that tone from friends and colleagues he pressed into psychiatric service. He tried not to take it personally.
“But I’d already forgiven him,” he exclaimed. “It’s all out of order!”
Helen was quiet for a second. And then she said, very carefully, “I imagine there are any number of people out there who have done you one good turn and one bad, and you’ve probably chalked it up as a wash.”
Tony shrugged. “I suppose. Comes with doing business.”
“So you should probably examine why you can’t do that in this case. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that you care about Steve Rogers as a person.”
“Feelings are often very unfortunate,” she agreed. “That’s why I stick to science and physical lust.”
“You’re like a younger, better me. Respect.”
“I think I’m insulted.”
“Whatever.” He turned back to his genomes. “Do you think we can really grow this?”
“I think growing it will be fine,” Helen said. “Making it be you? Totally different ball game.”
He sighed. “Yeah. I have a feeling we’re just going to have to try it and see what happens.”
“I would really appreciate having some time to do some trials first,” Helen said. “You know, so I don’t accidentally kill you.”
“I’m already dead, Dr. Cho,” Tony pointed out.
“Not to the people in this house, you’re not,” she retorted.
That shut him up.
Steve dreamed again. Much more distinctly, now.
Natasha sat cross-legged on the grey, cold ground, her hands loosely resting on her ankles. “Hey, Steve.”
She smiled. “Ta-da.” She did some spirit fingers for good measure.
He was too tired to sit up. But he reached forward and just barely brushed her calf with his fingertips. She caught his intent and scooched a little closer, enough that she could get his hand clasped between her own. She was warm, vital.
The space around them was very...orange.
“How?” Steve asked, a little hoarsely.
“Needs must,” Natasha said, with a twist to her mouth. “And Tony doesn’t sleep anymore, now that he’s a suit. You’re the next candidate by proxy, he left enough of himself in you for it.” The eyebrow she raised was very judgmental.
Steve scrunched his face up. “You make it sound so tawdry.”
“It’s a talent of mine,” she agreed.
“It’s good to see you,” Steve said, and was glad his voice didn’t waver over it. It had stung, he could admit now, that Tony had been able to see her one more time, and he hadn’t. She looked as gorgeous as always, and a lot lighter, too—the Soul Stone, it seemed, was doing well by her. He didn’t know how to feel about that.
“You too,” Natasha said. “I wish it were under better circumstances.”
He tried to sit up; she stopped him. “All of you needs to rest, including how you are in here,” she insisted. “Tony did a number on you. Comes with the territory of holding a soul that isn’t your own, but Tony’s especially is…”
“A lot,” she nodded, with a smirk. “Don’t tell him that, though. He’d never let anyone forget it.”
“So what’s happening?” he asked. “What’s so important you had to see me?”
Her expression morphed into one he recognized instantly—it was her you’re not gonna believe this bullshit face. “It’s come to our attention that this universe and this timeline has gained itself a bit of a reputation.”
Steve blinked. “How can a universe gain a reputation? And among who?”
“Among universe-hoppers, of course,” Natasha said dryly. “Turns out, there are a fair few of them.”
“Anyone we know?”
She tilted her head back and forth. “A Peter Parker here, a Tony Stark there.”
“They’re not our problem,” she said, waving a hand. “For the most part. The concern is the less savory characters who we suspect have found out that this universe took out Thanos. In many other places, he’s succeeded permanently. The question then becomes, what makes us different?”
“We had something they didn’t.”
Natasha huffed. “Not really, is the thing. We had luck. The right combination of small decisions, and big ones. But that’s not what people will assume.”
Steve narrowed his eyes. It didn’t take much to put the pieces together. “They’ll think we had a weapon.”
“Something more powerful than the gauntlet,” Natasha agreed.
“And people want it,” he said on a sigh. “Because of course they do.”
“They’ll come looking for it.”
“They’ll come looking for Tony.” This time, he did sit up, despite her disapproving tsk. “What do you need us to do?”
She held up a hand. “Right now? Nothing. But I’d recommend stabilizing him in his current form for a while—he’s less vulnerable, the way he is now. And maybe stick close?” She cocked an eyebrow. “I imagine that bit won’t be a problem.”
“He’s not going to like the first part, though.” Hell, Steve didn’t like it either.
“Buy me some time,” Natasha said. “We’ll try and head this all off at the pass—no one likes universe hoppers, they destabilize every world they move through, and the Stones have to work twice as hard to keep the balance.”
He mulled this over. Put it together with the glimpses and impressions he’d caught of her contact with Tony.
“Natasha...have you joined the universal equivalent of SHIELD?”
She smiled, a little smug. “I’ll admit that I have a lot of transferable skills applicable to my current position.” She leaned over and kissed him on the forehead. “Take care of yourself. It’s good to see you, and I wish I could do so more often.”
“I’m just glad you’re—” He stopped himself.
“Yeah, not really alive.”
“Existent,” he amended.
“You know what? Me too.” She patted his shoulder. Her eyes glinted gold. “I thought I was ready to go, before. Now, I think I just needed a chance to be something else.”
Don’t change. Just learn, Steve thought. “Debts paid?” he asked, watching her.
She let out a slow breath, and nodded. “Back in the black.”
Tony sat back in frustration, and then startled himself by trying to wipe a hand over his face and having it scrape unpleasantly, metal against metal.
Pepper looked up from where she was curled on the edge of the couch not occupied by Steve’s sleeping form. “No progress?” she inquired.
“None,” he admitted. He looked back at her. “What if I’m stuck like this?”
“You won’t be. We’ll figure it out.”
“But if we don’t,” Tony said, grateful that his voice lacked critical nuance at the moment, “Will you. Will I still be your husband?”
Pepper made a pained noise. “Don’t be an idiot, Tony.”
“I don’t think it’s an unfair question,” he said, as gently as he could. He wasn’t sure how well he succeeded.
“If we’re being absolutely, completely accurate and fair,” Pepper said, clipped, “then you already aren’t my husband. Your death certificate says so.”
He winced. “Right. Of course.”
“So obviously you’re going to have to fix this,” she continued while refusing to look at him, “So that I can marry you again.”
The whole suit seemed to lighten a little around him. “Oh. I mean, yes. That sounds good. Yeah.”
“Idiot,” she said, shaking her head.
On the couch, Steve suddenly sucked in a huge draft of air, and his eyes opened. Within half a second, Tony had dismissed all of the screens in front of him, and Pepper’s tablet was on the floor.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Steve said, pawing at the sofa in a bid to pull himself upright. He had no help in that regard; Tony pushed him back into the cushions, and Pepper parked herself close to his ankles, where she could hold his knees in place. He exhaled in halting puffs, and then looked up at Tony’s faceplate. “Natasha came to see me.”
Tony didn’t have normal expressions any more, but that was enough to prompt a reaction; he felt his faceplate rippled in surprise. “Oh? I didn’t think she could.”
“Apparently she can, though not often, and not for long,” Steve said. “She wanted to share some intel.”
Tony exchanged a look with Pepper.
“Out of curiosity,” he asked carefully, “How’d she seem?”
Steve didn’t miss a trick. He scowled and let a breath out. “Kind of hard to tell. She was more of an impression than an actual, you know, person. Same hair, same gun. She had her fingerless gloves on. But she—it was like she was half made of gold thread, or something.”
Tony sighed. “Yeah, that’s how she seemed to me, too. All right, so you saw her.”
Pepper rubbed a hand over her face. Steve just nodded.
“What was the intel?” Tony asked.
Steve sighed. “That by defeating Thanos, we might have called unwanted attention to ourselves, from other universes who weren’t so lucky. She wanted us to be on our guard.”
“Well that sounds...highly inconvenient, if vague,” Tony offered. “Though maybe a good argument to keep me legally dead for a while.”
“Legally dead, and also...” Steve winced, and gestured at Tony.
“The suit,” Pepper filled in, her voice small. “Oh.”
“Well. Forget about me; we’ll need to get Morgan somewhere safe,” Tony said, ignoring everything else. Everything else was awful and he didn’t want to think about it. “Hell, if we want to keep this house, we should probably move out of it for a while, or with our record it’ll get destroyed in the crossfire.”
“Never mind the house. Anyway, if you’re dead still, there’s no reason for me to move, it’ll only arouse suspicion. We keep things normal right up until we can’t.” Pepper thought for a moment. “Do you think Carol would take her, in an emergency? She’s been staying at Maria Rambeau’s for the last few weeks.”
“Going straight for maximum firepower. I like it. Call her?”
Pepper nodded, and went for her phone.
Tony looked back at Steve. “What else did she say?”
“Not much. I think her world’s a lot bigger than ours, nowadays.”
Tony whistled low. “I had a feeling, but.”
“She said she was working on it, we might not have to do anything. But I think—that is, if you don’t mind, I’d like to stick around. Just in case.”
“Mi casa es su casa,” Tony assured. He tried not to think about how he’d made much the same offer a decade ago, and that Steve hadn’t even come close to taking him up on it.
Steve looked like he was thinking the same thing. “Thanks,” he said.
“We’ll keep it quiet,” Tony said. “I’ll keep working on the port system, Helen will keep working on the Cradle adjustments. But we’ll...I’ll try not to rush it.”
“I’m sorry,” Steve said.
“Yeah, well. I just hope the suit can hold me for long enough to see this all blow over.”
“Is there a chance that it won’t?”
“I literally have no idea, Steve.” Tony’s faceplate rippled again. It was an unsettling sensation, especially since he couldn’t quite pinpoint what emotion he was actually betraying with it. “It’s like Helen says—we don’t even know what I am right now.”
“You’re you,” Steve said, with a shrug. “That’s all I really care about.”
Tony shook his head. “Never change, Steve.”
Steve gave him an odd look, but didn’t say anything further.
Bruce went home when they shared the news with the household. “This isn’t my area of expertise, and the more of us that are here, the more it draws attention,” he said. “Call me if you need me, but.”
Tony waved him away. “Don’t worry about it. Appreciate your help.”
Bruce made a point of patting him on the shoulder. “I’m glad to have you back. Whatever the circumstances.”
Bucky and Sam headed off soon after. “Got a call from Fury, he said he had something for us to look into, if we’re interested.”
Steve started to nod, and then caught himself. “You should take some equipment with you, then,” he said.
“I’ve got my wings in the car—”
“Yeah, I know. Just, hang on.” Steve pried himself off the couch, where he’d been spending most days since getting back and waking up the first time, and made his way over to the kitchen closet. The art portfolio was still in there, leaned up on the floor below the shelves of pots and pans. “You should take this with you.”
Sam stared at him. “Don’t you need it?”
Steve shrugged. “Right now, I’m too tired to even get a proper spin on it. Could be another week before I’m back to something approaching capable. And anyway, I think I’ve done my last work with it. Time for someone else to give it a try.” He raised his chin and looked back at Sam straight on. “You up for it?”
Sam shook his head in incredulity. “Man, have you met me? ‘Course I am.” He stepped forward and took the portfolio when Steve held it out. Peeked inside and made a small sound of amazement in his throat. “Do I need a new uniform?”
“I’d consider it,” Steve said, feeling a smile beginning to work its way into the corners of his mouth. “Add a splash of blue, maybe. Just so you match it.”
“Oooh, middle America gon’ be pissed.”
As Steve watched him load up the car from the porch, Bucky came up to stand beside him. “You sure about this?”
“Told you I’d been thinking about it. Wasn’t hard, in the end,” Steve said. He felt lighter, with the shield in someone else’s hands for a change. There’d been a lot of baggage hanging on it, he was realizing. He’d stowed it in the closet for a reason, while a guest in Tony’s house.
Bucky shook his head. “Not what I’m talking about. I mean, are you sure about staying here?”
“Gotta keep an eye on Tony.”
“Gotta? Or want to?” Bucky said, side-eyeing him.
Steve shifted on his feet. “Both?” he tried, after a pause.
“Hm.” Bucky exhaled. “I really thought you were gonna stay in the past.”
Steve turned, taken aback. “I couldn’t,” he said blankly. “Time travel doesn’t work like that, I’d create a different timeline.”
“But you’d be back somewhere familiar,” Bucky countered. He shoved his hands in his pockets. “Seems like something you’d want. Something you’ve wanted.”
Steve sucked in a breath. “We’ve had this conversation before.” They’d talked about it a lot, in the early days of being fugitives in Wakanda, just after Siberia but before Bucky had gone back on ice. How Steve had clung too tightly and with too much abandon to something that didn’t wholly exist anymore. That every time he’d asked Bucky to remember something that he couldn’t, it had hurt them both.
Bucky hadn’t taken very long to decide that he wanted to go back into cryogenesis until Shuri could devise a cure for his triggers. Steve still wondered if he hadn’t hastened him to that decision, that Steve hadn’t been one more thing Bucky had needed to escape from, if only temporarily.
“Feelings take longer to change than logic does,” Bucky said now, with a shrug. “Though I guess it’s been longer for you than it has been for me.”
Five years to let go. And Steve was still holding on tightly. Though to what, he couldn’t quite tell anymore. It seemed like it was changing all the time.
“I thought about it,” he said finally. “And I knew that even if I shouldn’t, I wanted to all the same. But you were back here, and Sam was, and everyone else. And then Tony happened, and it all stopped mattering. What I thought I had wanted didn’t mean anything anymore.”
Bucky bumped his shoulder with his own. “I’m glad. I would have missed you.”
“I’d have been real offended if you didn’t.”
Bucky pushed him. Steve let himself stumble over a couple of paces, chuckling.
“Hey!” Sam called from the car. “Move it or milk it!”
“That saying is older than I am!” Bucky called back. He looked at Steve. “I’d say don’t do anything stupid, but frankly, you’ve already gone and done it. I’ve got no stupid to bring with me, because you’ve depleted the resource, you asshole.”
“Yeah, yeah.” He waved as Bucky got into the car. Shoved his hands in his pockets and watched as they pulled away. The house was very quiet, all of a sudden.
He hope it stayed that way, at least for a time.
With Helen and Steve the only real guest occupants of the house (Rhodes didn’t count), life seemed to slow. Pepper confirmed that should the worst happen, Carol would be on call to take Morgan, and Tony, FRIDAY, and Rhodes put together a series of security protocols around the property that would hopefully give them some warning if any interdimensional travelers decided to pay them an unwanted visit.
Tony, for his part, was very quiet in the first few days after Natasha’s visit. He worked on the Cradle interface and made himself scarce during meals, probably to avoid the awkwardness of his inability to partake. The awkwardness of his absence, however, was just as bad, in Steve’s opinion. He tried to spend more time in the living room, sharing space with him and Helen while they worked, just to get a feel for having him around again in whatever form.
Tony seemed not to know what to do with that. When he did choose to engage, it was usually with pleasantries, nothing deeper than surface level, so Steve kept his peace, and waited.
He was surprised, then, when on Wednesday, Tony sat back from his work and said abruptly, “We told Morgan.”
Steve looked up from his tablet. “About...you?”
Tony nodded. His face smoothed out into near featurelessness—a newly developed defense mechanism, Steve surmised, and much more effective than any Tony had at his disposal when in his normal body.
“With me staying like this for the foreseeable. We knew we had to, if it was going to be for longer than a few days.”
“How did it go?” Steve asked cautiously.
“She’s not speaking to me.” Tony’s lack of affect was more telling than any mechanical gesture could have been. “She’s mad I didn’t tell her sooner.”
Steve absorbed that for a second. Then he said, “I’d be a pretty black kettle if I had anything to say about that.”
Tony tipped his smooth, metallic head down, far enough that his chin nearly touched his chest. “Yep.”
“She’s mad, but I bet she’s glad to have you back, too,” Steve tried.
“She doesn’t, though. Not really.”
“She does,” Steve countered. “So long as you’re in her life, she does.”
Finally, finally, Tony looked at him. “Even like this?” He opened his hands.
Steve lifted one shoulder. “She already knew her dad was Iron Man.”
Tony’s shoulders released slightly. It manifested in his hands going loose, the slow dip of metal plates tipping down and realigning at his sides.
"She's smart, Tony," Steve said, leaning forward towards the edge of the couch. "She's so smart, just like you. I think she'll come around faster than you think. I would, if I were her." He swallowed. “I’d just be glad to hear your voice.” He stared down at his feet. It was easier to say this now, having gotten glimpses of the warmth Tony had betrayed of himself while living in Steve's skin, but it still wasn't easy. “I’d be glad to know you could be there, if I needed you.”
Tony's steps were whisper soft on the carpet. His feet entered Steve's peripheral line of vision, and Steve studied the ridged lines that articulated his arches, the flat flex of where his toes should be.
"Can never leave well enough alone, huh?" Tony said. He sounded odd, beyond the usual synthesized timbre.
"You know me," Steve murmured, a little helplessly. "Can't help myself. I’m...I’m sorry if it’s hurt you. Or Pepper or Morgan. That wasn’t my intention, but. I know that doesn’t really matter, in the end." There. He’d said it.
He startled when Tony's hand came down on his shoulder, a heavy, cool weight.
“You don’t have to apologize for this,” Tony said. “You saved my life. It’s on me if I don’t know what to do with it.”
Steve nodded, mute. Unable to look up.
Tony’s hand warmed with Steve’s body heat, slowly until Steve couldn't tell where he ended and Tony began. He didn’t move a way for a long while.
A week passed. Then several.
Natasha visited once more, but it was brief.
“We’re still running down leads,” she reported, interrupting a strange dream Steve had been having about tunnels and pools of ink. “Stopped one troublemaker, but there’s no doubt others. Your universe is harder to get to from some places than others, so we’re trying to concentrate on the likeliest candidates.”
“Our universe?” Steve asked, in resignation. “Not yours, anymore?”
She looked at him, her eyes like a sunset, fathomless. “I’m dead in your universe, Steve.”
“Not to me.”
“Then that’s all that matters,” she said with a half-smile, “Isn’t it?” Then she sobered. “Stay close. We’ll try to tie up all of the loose threads, but someone might still get through. I’ll try and give you warning if we see anything.”
“Thanks,” Steve started to say, but the dream was already fading. He didn’t wake immediately, but he remembered, when he woke up.
He let it be, and tried to get on with things.
Morgan was starting to make noises about starting school, and so Pepper got wrapped up in figuring out the logistics of that while Tony (anonymously) filled in for her SI duties and Rhodes got back in touch with his chain of command, leaving Steve mostly to his own devices again, picking up around the house, and making more breakfasts. Steve didn’t begrudge them the time; he took it upon himself to read up more on the initiative Pepper had set him onto, and on the topic he’d chosen. He had vague memories of civics classes from his teenage years, but he’d been out of school a lot due to illness, so his body of knowledge was probably both spotty and, since then, heavily skewed by the politics he’d become embroiled in while playing Captain America. He took a tablet with him out on the porch most afternoons and tried to plow through what he’d missed, the ins and outs of history that had somehow led to it being dropped from the syllabus entirely.
It was a lot.
By god, Stark Industries workers had better be unionized, or he and Tony were going to have words.
He put together a broad syllabus and reading list, full of alternative media and accessibility features of all kinds, with as many freely available resources as he could muster. He set out logistical maps for transporting kids from their schools to their local government buildings, made an index of addresses and fax numbers for mayors, governors, representatives, senators. Proposed projects, both local and national, urban and rural, for theoretical participants aged 12 to 18. He had no idea whether any of it was good, or even worthwhile. But he liked the idea of it, liked the idea of making a whole generation of kids who’d been overlooked and given short hands fired up about taking ownership of their society.
When he’d exhausted everything he could find or put together from the comfort of the porch, he went in search of Pepper.
He found her upstairs in her study after following the sound of what he thought was maybe a radio, playing something vaguely pianistic, more of Steve’s era than Pepper’s. When he got to the source, he found that Tony was with her.
Steve stopped in the doorway and stared.
They were dancing.
Steve hadn’t appreciated how much control Tony had gained over the Extremis fusion in the intervening weeks since his transfer—his features were more defined, and he’d given himself the bare outline of trousers and a long-sleeved shirt, not dissimilar from the undersuit he’d worn for earlier iterations of Iron Man. He still had a metallic sheen to him, like he was a bronze cast of himself, but he moved with ease and lightness, nothing like the lumbering gait with which he’d gone up and down the stairs in the first few days. When he thought about it, Steve didn’t think he ever had seen Tony in quite this form before—he was making an effort. For Pepper.
He held her with a guarded delicacy, like she was a Ming vase, like she was precious and familiar, yet entirely new to him.
Pepper had her eyes closed, swaying along in his arms. He was humming along to the recording, low and half tuneless, nothing but a faint rhythm and a meandering line that slid in and out of recognizability.
Steve would have been more comfortable walking in on them in bed together. He couldn’t quite make himself look away.
He needed to leave them be.
Pepper opened her eyes over Tony’s shoulder and twitched. Tony immediately came to a halt, twisting back to follow her focus. “Cap,” he said, the electronic voice blank with surprise. “Were you looking for one of us?”
“Sorry,” Steve said, and winced at how his voice cracked. He could feel his ears turning red. “Yeah, I...but I should come back later. Sorry.”
“No,” Pepper argued, “You don’t have to, we were just—”
“I’m intruding,” Steve blurted. “I should—”
“What’s that?” Tony asked, cutting them both off. He stepped back from Pepper, still holding one of her hands, and pointed to the folder in Steve’s hands.
“It’s uh—yeah,” Steve ended lamely, when Tony took it out of his hands without further preamble.
“You gave him the Outside Initiative?” Tony asked, flipping the folder open. “Ooh, can I...?”
“I told you I gave him a project, and yes, you may,” Pepper murmured. She cocked an eyebrow at Steve. “You finished with your research?”
“I think so,” Steve nodded, shuffling his feet. “Had a few starting ideas I wanted to run past you.” The two of them together, at ease, made him unaccountably nervous.
Tony hummed, and awkwardly rocked the folder in one hand to get a look at more of the pages. “Civics?”
“Huh. I like it. Come here.”
“Pepper needs a dance partner to finish out this song, and I want to read this,” Tony said, and then his chin abruptly tipped down, as if he’d surprised himself. Maybe he had; Steve was plenty surprised.
“Pep’s trying to have a normal dance with a bucket of bolts—”
“And she deserves to have a warm hand to hold.” Tony looked back at her. “Don’t you?”
She huffed, rolling her eyes. Steve raised his hands. “I don’t really…”
“No, no,” Pepper said, “Come here. I’m losing him already, see?”
Indeed, Tony had wandered towards the squashy chair, letting go of her so he could flip the pages more readily.
Pepper held out a hand, a hint of challenge in the set of her gaze. Steve was a sucker for that kind of look from a lady. He sighed, and gingerly stepped forward. “I don’t know what I’m doing,” he confessed. “At all.”
“I’ll lead, then,” Pepper said easily. “It’s not like you’re uncoordinated.”
“You say that now,” he muttered, cupping her waist and trying to follow the direction she’d begun to sway. It wasn’t too bad, once he started listening more closely to the music.
“Relax,” Pepper said, pushing at his shoulder a little, enough to steer them into a slow rotation on the carpet. “You barely even have to move your feet, and I’m leading so you’re not about to step on mine.” She smiled. “Eyes on me. Don’t look down.”
He tried to obey, finding the rhythm of the song, the walking bass and the syncopated, delicate treble.
Tony made an interested noise from the chair. Steve started to turn in his direction, only to stop when Pepper laid fingertips on his jaw. “What did I say?” she chided, with a small smile.
He tried to return the expression, and it was like being trapped in the door jamb all over again, unable to get away and not wanting to, either.
The song meandered back into a chorus, then a slow bridge that spiraled up and up before cresting and winding back down on the recapitulation, a mournful clarinet crying at the close. They slowed and then halted.
Steve felt like he should bow, something formal and distancing like that. He almost stepped away to do so, but then he realized how close they were. Pepper’s hair smelled like freesias. She sighed against his chest, and didn’t move. He could feel his heart pounding in his ears.
Tony said quietly, “This is good work, Steve.”
Steve tipped his head back to stare at the sun-dappled ceiling, taking a long, shaky breath. “Yeah?”
“It’s different from what I would have expected,” Tony said. “Before, that is. Now, I’m not really surprised.”
Steve wondered which before Tony was referring to. He wasn’t about to ask. He’d never really known where he stood in Tony’s estimations, over the years; he’d mostly assumed the worst, because he’d done Tony the discourtesy of the same plenty of times. Now he might know a bit better, but the shadows of feeling he'd been privy to remained too abstract for him to be sure.
“Do you think it will work?” he asked.
“Mrs. Potts can assess the finer logistical points,” Tony replied. Pepper hummed in agreement. Steve could feel the vibration against his shoulder. “I can just tell you that you’re under budget and that the scale’s about right for what we initially envisioned. But in concept? Yeah, I think it’s sound.” Steve heard him extricate himself from the chair and approach, circling around until he was looking past the curve of Pepper’s neck up at Steve. Pepper still had her right hand in Steve’s left.
He nearly jumped when he felt Tony cover the clasp. The metal almost gave, was sun-warm and so fine in texture it could almost be mistaken for skin. “Tony?” he whispered. “What…?”
“Steady,” Pepper murmured, a comfort and an order. She rubbed her thumb once, up and down, over the side of his.
“Not sure yet,” Tony answered, to his unfinished question. He tilted his head, and even without his eyes visible, the heaviness of his gaze was tangible. “Will you stay to find out?”
Steve had to force himself to breathe. After a moment, he nodded.
“Good,” Pepper said, straightening a bit. “I’ll have a look at your proposal, and let you know of any questions. Is that all right?”
He nodded again, dumbly. His hands were shaking a little. He pulled away, and they both let him. “I’m gonna,” he started. Made an abortive gesture at the doorway.
“Sure,” Tony said. He sounded a little like radio static. “We can talk later.”
Steve nodded, and made his retreat.
Pepper leaned back and winced a little when her head hit metal. Tony steadied her with a hand on her hip. “Well,” she said.
“Yep,” Tony said. “That was...something. It was something, right?”
“Definitely something,” she agreed. She felt a little like she was going to come out of her skin. She hadn’t had that sort of charged human contact since Tony had died, and she hadn’t really appreciated how much she’d missed it. She’d gone without for long periods often enough in the past; but then Tony had happened, and he was a naturally intimate person when he chose to be. He’d chosen her wholeheartedly, in the end, and she’d gotten so used to it, used to him and his habits of closeness.
She was also pretty sure this something hadn’t just been the fact of a warm body. Hugs and handshakes from other people weren’t like that.
“We just had to go for the most complicated option, huh?” she said finally. “When it was both of us.”
“It’s his own fault, really,” Tony said, a little plaintively. “Total inability to just be the asshole I thought he was and talk the talk without walking the walk. Had to go and be all committed and good again, and in our general direction, of all things. God, you should have felt what it was like, being in his skin. It was...”
“Ah. How rude of him,” Pepper said, nodding.
“Exceedingly rude.” He cocked his head at her. “When did you…?”
“Much more recently than you,” she said, waving a hand around. “You know I have no patience for superheroes. He’s just been trying really hard lately, to pay attention and learn, and he’s been kind, and it’s...well. I get it, your thing with him.”
“Thought I was over it,” he murmured. “What with everything he’s put us through. Guess not.”
Pepper exhaled. “He said he’d stay.”
“Mm. Guess we’ll see how he keeps his word.”
They didn't talk later, it turned out. Dinner was comfortable and light that evening, and Helen kept Tony occupied with throwing theories back and forth. Jim shared some news from his Air Force buddies, which Steve took an interest in, and Pepper asked after a few officers she'd worked with in the past. After that, it seemed too normal to disrupt the pattern with anything heavier.
But that was all right. Steve made the very deliberate decision not to avoid either Tony or Pepper, and he stuck to it. Despite his complete inability to walk away from a fight, he’d been very good, over the years, of running away from non-fights. But this was too important to run from, he was pretty sure. It felt fragile and infinitely precious. And if he messed it up now, he’d never get another chance. They’d be kind, but they’d close ranks, and they’d be right to. So he needed to not run away.
So he stayed. He was getting better at staying, and the more he did, the better it felt.
Tony made a questioning noise, from deep in the guts of a prototype. Just because he wasn’t allowed to leave his robo-body yet didn’t mean he couldn’t work on the means of escape in the meantime. And he needed a distraction from the whole Steve matter. Because Steve was continuing to exceed and thwart all expectations by behaving no differently than before, which meant that he was there in the living room, quietly working on his tablet, making it exceedingly difficult for Tony to concentrate on anything but the possibilities of him.
So obviously, working on transparent screens, with Steve right there, napping with a tablet on his chest and a notebook tucked under his thigh, in plain sight, was out of the question for Tony. Time to get his hands dirty.
He’d gotten frustrated with trying to calculate models based on a wing and a prayer anyway, and was therefore consoling himself with some more tangible materials, even if they might end up a complete waste of time. Maybe instead of building a port system to the cradle, he’d end up with a teleportation device. He’d done worse.
“Look at this.”
Tony swiveled his head to follow where Helen was pointing to her set of screens. “What am I looking at?”
“Femtoparticular genetic tags,” she said, with a blank sort of disbelief. “I know you were semi-joking with your original hypothesis, but you might have been more right than you intended. The Stones appear to have preserved and then dispersed you at a subatomic level. We’ve skipped picotechnology and gone right to femtotechnology. It makes sense, in a way—if the Stones are capable of reshaping the universe in one way or another, they’d have to be able to do it on the smallest possible scales to achieve the complete, reality-changing results.”
“I’ll be damned.” He stared at the readings. “Does this mean we can manipulate subatomic particles now?”
“Probably only in the crudest sense,” Helen admitted. “You’d need way more control than what the Cradle offers to accomplish that, though a part of me wonders if some of that happened when Vision was created. But that was an accident— we’d need to know a lot more before we attempted to replicate something on that scale. But one thing I think we can do, now that we know what to look for, is test the transport system.”
“Monitor the interface for femtoparticle transfer, make sure it actually comes out one end the same form as it came in,” Tony nodded. “Brilliant. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours?”
“Hasn’t that been what we’ve been doing? Or are you holding back on me, Stark?”
He grinned. He knew it didn’t show on his face, but he hoped Helen understood anyway. Maybe he wouldn’t get to use it quite yet, but the possibility of a real way out was the best news he’d heard in weeks. “Hold back on you? Never.”
Two days after dancing with Pepper in the upstairs office, Steve was reading up on No Child Left Behind in between bouts of rage-dozing late into the afternoon when he finally succumbed to total sleep amid the sound of Tony and Helen working, murmuring back and forth. When he awoke, the sun was nearly done setting, Rhodes was on the lawn grilling what looked like a small mountain of steaks, and the coffee table Steve had been using as a book repository looked like an engine block had been shattered atop it.
He stared for a second, blinking. “I must’ve slept hard,” he observed, croaky with sleep.
From somewhere on the floor, there was a sudden clang, and then Tony said, “Ow! Fuck! Uh, I mean, yeah, I guess. You didn’t hear us?”
“Only vaguely.” Steve stretched, extending arms and legs over the arms of the couch. It was a very comfortable couch, but he was a little too tall to be sleeping on it as much as he did. Oh well.
Tony made a garbled sound.
“Hm?” Steve asked.
“Okay. What’re you building?”
“Port system prototype. We’re gonna use it for testing.”
Steve sat up. “Are you—?”
“No, it won’t be me for the test. We’re just gonna practice with some lasers first. Should be a fun light show.”
“I hope for the sake of our eyes that you’ll be moving this outdoors, then,” Pepper said, walking in from the porch with a glass of wine. She raised her glass and inquiring eyebrows to Steve, who nodded acceptance—Pepper’s taste in wine was impeccable.
“I think we’ll need to,” Helen chimed in, from behind her constantly shifting set of screens. “We’re running out of space, now that Tony’s gone full engineer.”
“Good, because you’re interfering with Steve’s workspace,” Pepper said, going over to the side table and filling a second glass, which she brought over to Steve. He accepted it with a nod, and inhaled deeply over the rim. It still felt wonderful and decadent to partake in something he most associated first with church, the grapes cloying and cheap, and then later with wartime France, where the flavors had been revelatory. He hadn’t had much to drink to, especially not of Potts-quality, in years. Maybe one of the birthday parties they’d thrown in the tower, before Ultron. Now, it was a small everyday indulgence that Pepper offered as a matter of course, the heavy smell of tannins and dark fruit, the lingering bite of oak on the roof of his mouth.
“Oh shit,” Tony said, his head finally appearing from behind the coffee table. “Sorry. Didn’t even notice the books. We need to get you a real desk. Or a studio, or something.”
“I like the couch,” Steve said. “It’s better for naps.”
“You usually don’t sleep this much. We’ll buy you a desk for when you’re back in fighting shape.”
Steve stolidly ignored Helen’s eyebrows, which were climbing up her forehead. “No rush,” he said, a little unsteadily. He took a sip of the wine and tried to concentrate on the complexity, letting it sit on his tongue.
“Yo, I need a plate out here!” Rhodes called from outside.
Tony levered himself to his feet with a whisper of metal plating. “That’s my cue.” He unnecessarily circled the coffee table on his way towards the kitchen, brushing cool fingers over Steve’s shoulder as he went, just across the collar of his t-shirt, just enough for his index finger to touch the skin of Steve’s neck. Steve inhaled, blinked slowly, and listened to his footsteps retreat.
He belatedly became aware of Pepper watching him over her wine glass. He looked up at her and gave a kind of helpless shrug.
“Set the table with me?” she suggested. “Helen, want to grab the salad?”
“Sure,” Helen said, drawing out the ‘r’ in a highly suspicious manner, though her expression was one of amusement. “Let me just save my work. You go on ahead.”
Steve took his escape, even as something implacable and warm steadied in his chest.
The morning the femtoparticle test was meant to take place, however, something finally got through.
Steve was finishing up his run; he rounded the far eastern edge of the lake, where the woods were sparse and you could see the road curving round before it reached the dirt driveway leading to house. It was still early, maybe 9:30 at the latest—the household wasn’t heavily populated by morning people, and Steve had felt his own internal clock slide in response with all the quiet.
Still, he'd risen before anyone else, and the weather was fine, so he ran.
A hundred yards or so from the driveway, he stopped abruptly.
There was a shimmer at the entrance of the lake house.
At first, Steve just thought he’d gotten sweat in his eyes. He blinked and swiped at them, and then looked again, but then it became undeniable, the oil-slick iridescence in the air, just slightly taller than the door frame, rippling faintly.
The alarm around the property was a silent system, but Steve was willing to bet it hadn’t gone off. He jogged away from the driveway and towards the garage, which was partially hidden from the front door, hoping to find some of Tony’s old gear, or something he could cobble together into a weapon.
Thank god Tony was meticulous when it came to his house, even if his engineering practices were chaotic. Steve slipped through a well-oiled side door to the garage and immediately spotted both a tire iron and a spare hubcap that looked very expensive, and therefore hopefully would be very sturdy. He grabbed both and then paused.
When he had returned the Stones, he’d left the old gauntlet behind. It was sitting on a wire shelf, amid other half-disassembled things. He hovered over it for a second, and then cautiously slipped it on.
It was soft on the inside, lined with whatever Tony had fabricated to keep it comfortable and flexible despite the hard outer shell. The arc reactor in the palm flickered with residual energy, but it had been doing that, on and off, since they’d taken the suit off of Tony after the battle. Something about it made his palm itch. But other than that, nothing seemed to happen. He flexed his hand a couple times to no special result, and shrugged. One never knew.
When he reemerged out the back door of the garage, the shimmer had moved. Liquid and still transparent, it had shifted shape to form watery tendrils, curling together and then resolving into something resembling a limb. Slowly, slowly, it was aiming for the door knob.
“Hey!” Steve shouted, and chucked the hubcap at it.
It visibly impacted, and for a split second, the shimmer resolved into something solid—man-shaped, bare-chested, and dressed in red and black trousers, with two longswords strapped to its back. It startled and made a profane sound, and whipped around in Steve’s direction. Then it was a shimmer again.
The hubcap bounced off the floor of the porch, ricocheted off the wall, and then landed in Steve’s hand again.
Steve planted his feet, and stared down the shimmer.
“We usually knock first,” he said. “It’s the polite thing.”
The shimmer started towards him, drawing the outline of its sword.
“Okay,” Steve said in resignation, “Have it your way.”
The shimmer swung the sword twice, and struck.
Steve parried with the tire iron. And then just kept going. God, it was so easy to fall back into it.
Every impact was a jar, and shook him to his bones. This person was either superhuman, or not human at all. Steve thought chances were very much in favor of the latter.
He tried to draw the action away from the porch, but the shimmer wouldn’t let him—every time he pulled away, tried to steer their angle, it made a break for the door.
“Who are you?”
It hissed, and didn’t answer.
Thankfully, backup came soon enough.
“The fuck is this?” Tony asked, careening out of the doorway.
“The Key,” the shimmer pronounced, like a curse, and wheeled to face him, but it was two against one, now.
And then Pepper came down the stairs. And Rhodey.
Then it wasn’t really a fair fight at all.
They pulled it down on the front lawn, sparks flying, Steve with his gauntleted fist around its throat. “What do you want?” he asked.
“The Key!” it shouted, flickering in and out of visibility, unable to escape. “Give me the Key!”
“Don’t know what that is, don’t care,” Tony said, settling himself on the thing’s legs.
“Me? I’m not a key, I don’t open shit,” Tony retorted. “Go back where you came from and tell whoever you’re working for there isn’t any key here.”
The shimmer finally resolved under the pressure, and Steve got a better look at its face—vaguely humanoid, but with electric yellow eyes and lines of electricity cutting through its cheekbones and its elfin ears. “You are the Key, fool,” it snarled. “Your mastery makes it so. You will come with me to serve my king, for I am only the herald for what will come.”
“Not interested,” Tony said. “And tell your king he should leave us alone, we’re just a bunch of misfits with no use to anyone.”
“You have power,” the herald said, covetous, reaching towards Tony with an open hand. Tony leaned back. It didn’t seem to bother the herald, who just closed his fist on air, and then yanked.
The whole suit of Tony ignited. Electrical arcs in all colors, like the Stones were all still there. But, Steve thought wildly, all that power was Tony, all him on his own, no one got to take that—
He pulled back and punched the herald in the temple. With the gauntlet.
It was like punching a lightning rod. There was no rebound, just magnets sucking themselves together, closing the circuit, and then Steve wasn’t inside himself any longer.
Universes bled together. Time stretched and warped. Electricity crackled through his veins instead of blood.
“What the fuck,” Tony said, but they were swept away, leaving the words behind in the typhoon of sound, sight, signal.
Visions assailed Steve, oversaturated and otherworldly: the Avengers tower, but strange, covered in dust, the air sulfurous. Away, to Sokovia, then the stars, winking into nothing, one by one. A growing, pursuing hunger.
Then: the herald at a throne made of gold, kneeling. The king, robed and crowned, imperious, with instructions.
BRING THE USURPER TO ME. HE IS THE KEY, HE HAS TAKEN ACCESS TO THE STONE FROM ME
My lord, I shall
TELL THEM THAT THEIR END COMES, THAT I SHALL DEVOUR THEM WITHOUT MERCY
“Yeah, fuck this,” Tony said, and grabbed Steve’s wrist. It burned like a brand.
They stopped. The world stopped. Everything stopped.
They were back on the lawn.
No, they weren’t.
Everything was tinged orange. Pepper and Rhodes were frozen, as if they were caught behind a screen of color. Only Steve, Tony, and the herald seemed normal, able to breathe and move.
Steve looked up slowly, and exhaled. “Oh, wow. Good timing.”
“That’s all on you,” Natasha said. “I doubt it was on purpose, but I appreciate the assist, all the same.”
She didn’t look anything like before anymore. Her hair was longer, in a shade Steve had never seen before: deep amber, variegated like a tiger’s eye. She wore a white high-collared shirt and white leather trousers stuffed into white boots. Her cuffs were stained to the elbow with luminous orange-gold.
“Keeper!” the herald spat, struggling to right himself, but Natasha raised her hand, and the swords he’d been carrying flew out of his hands and into hers.
“Sleep,” she commanded, strapping the swords to her back.
He did, without ceremony.
“New title?” Tony inquired, sitting back.
“One of several,” Natasha said. “They apparently like my style.”
“What is this place?” Steve asked. “It’s not—”
“The Stones,” Natasha replied. “Where else? Their power pervades the universe. They are the universe, in their way.” She waved at the herald. “And you’ve done us a great favor, pulling him here. We were having a hell of a time tracking him down.”
“Who is he?” Tony asked.
“He goes by Red Shift. Been around for a very long time, and has been the cause of a lot of grief ever since he got a hold of these,” she patted the pommel of one of the swords. “Not sure how he got a hold of them in the first place, but their ability to cut portals between worlds and universes is...inconvenient to our agenda. Hopefully he won’t be bothering anyone else anymore.”
“If he’s so bad, who the hell is his king?”
“Galactus. Worse beyond measure.”
“Worse than Thanos?” Steve said, standing in alarm.
“Depends,” Natasha said, tilting her head. Liquid gold cut rivulets down her arms adding to the stains on her cuffs, dripping from her fingers. “Let’s just say he’s more open to negotiation.”
“I really don’t like the sound of that.” Tony commented.
“You shouldn’t,” Natasha replied. “But you shouldn’t worry either, not for a while. With his herald taken from him, he’ll be a while looking for another. And we’ll be issuing a warning to him. That should keep him away from this Earth for some time.”
“How much time?”
“How does fifty years sound?” she offered, with a small smile. “Give or take a decade.”
“Deal,” Steve said, instantly.
“I mean,” Tony said, with a staying hand.
“It’s as much as I can manage,” Natasha said with apology. “I’m not all-powerful.”
“But your bosses are.”
“More or less. They’re also very impartial. I’m only allowed to be here because of services rendered.”
“What will happen to him?” Steve asked, gesturing to the herald.
“He’ll be returned to his place of origin. Without the swords. We prefer not to meddle, but where we do, we like to just put things back where they came from.” She turned slightly. “That’s why your continued existence is a bit controversial, Tony. You didn’t quite follow their philosophy.”
“What are they gonna do, sue me?” Tony said, opening his hands.
“Nothing, for now. But don’t try anything like that again.”
“How could I?”
She raised an eyebrow. “Tony.”
He deflated a bit. “Yeah, okay.”
She walked forward, and as she got close, Steve could feel her, the energy she trailed, like tight-coiled atmosphere before a lightning strike. It took some effort not to flinch away.
She knelt and touched the herald, and he disappeared.
“Fuck,” Tony said fervently. “That’s convenient. And unsettling.”
“Lots of things here are unsettling,” Natasha agreed. “Time-is-a-flat-circle kind of shit. I don’t recommend sticking around unless you want to stay permanently.”
“How do we get back, then?”
“Don’t you know? How did you get here?”
Steve and Tony looked at each other. Hesitantly, Steve raised the gauntlet in a small wave. Tony stared at it. “You used that? It’s broken.”
“Seemed like it could still be useful,” Steve shrugged. “I thought maybe the repulsor might still have a bit of a charge.”
“That’s...not exactly the kind of residual energy you’re drawing on,” Natasha said slowly. "You didn't know?"
Steve cocked his head, but she didn't elaborate.
“Yeah, okay,” Tony said, “I think we can figure this out. C’mere, Steve.”
Steve went over, instinctively shying away from the empty space where the herald had been. “Do we need to worry about anyone else?” he asked Natasha. “People coming for Tony?”
“I think with the cosmic swords back in our possession, the chances are far slimmer,” Natasha replied. “That’s not to say Earth won’t need her defenders, but.”
“If I can make it work, I can…?” Tony drifted off, hopeful.
“I think you’ll be fine,” she said, with a cryptic smile.
He nodded, once hard, and then with two shaky, smaller bobs, like he was trying to convince himself. Then he looked back at Steve. “Trust me?” he asked.
Steve quirked a smile. “Always.”
He huffed out a breath, and looked back. “Natasha, it was lovely to see you again, your level of terrifying is only increasing, and I respect that.”
“Take care of yourself,” Natasha said, crossing her arms and smiling. Her teeth seemed sharper than before. “Both of you.”
“See you,” Steve murmured.
Tony closed his hand around Steve’s gauntleted wrist. It burned again, but this time Steve could feel something else underneath the closed circuit, something like intent, something like fondness. Steve could place why he found it familiar, too: it had been the press against the inside of his ribs, the curl of cool air up his spine, the silent support that had helped him breathe and say goodbye to Peggy without breaking down.
Oh. That residual energy.
"Tony," Steve murmured, "You're projecting."
Tony flushed. "I mean, I kind of have to, if we want to get out of the Stones. My suit, your gauntlet."
Steve pushed a sliver of his thoughts back towards him in answer, and smirked when the flush extended to Tony's ears.
Tony huffed. “Come on, Dorothy. No place like home.”
“Do I need to click my—”
A lurch, like getting his rib cage pushed through a straw.
“—heels?” Steve finished on a gasp. He stumbled, and Tony caught him. “Guess not.”
“What the fuck?” Rhodes said, leaping back.
“Where’d he go?” Pepper yelled, repulsors powering up.
Tony threw up his hands in surrender. “He’s gone, hold your fire, oh my god.”
“What the hell just happened?” Rhodes demanded. “You were just—”
“Natasha happened,” Steve said, righting himself. He tingled all over, with adrenaline, with happiness, everything. “We’re okay.” He sat heavily on the lawn. Shucked the gauntlet off and stared at its broken profile for a long moment. Tony followed him down at a steadier pace.
Rhodes stared down at them, flipping up his faceplate. “That’s it?”
“That’s it, platypus,” Tony said. “Coast is clear.”
Steve found his hand in the grass and gripped it, hard, not caring that there wasn’t any give. Eventually, he felt Tony grip back.
It took seven tests before Helen said okay to the port system into the Cradle. “There are still a number of unknowns,” she warned. “Particularly about what sort of body you’ll end up in at the end of the process. It would take a staff of at least twenty technicians and a few years to actually study the binding system of femtoparticles.”
“Yeah, but we know that everything important from here, will end up over there,” Tony said, gesturing first to himself, then to the Cradle. “And we know it’ll go over in the right order. Those are the two most important things. All the rest’ll be window dressing.”
“I sincerely hope you’re right.”
“You’re sure you don’t want to wait?” Pepper asked, touching his elbow. “We’d be okay, if you need more time to work this out.”
“I’m sure,” Tony said. “We’ve run the numbers, run the tests, everything, technically this is way more prep work than I ever do before crazy experiments on myself, so technically we’re doing way better than usual. And I want—I want a body back. One that looks and feels like me.”
Pepper blew out a breath, and managed a smile. “In that case, can’t wait to see you after, Mr. Stark.”
“And you, Mrs. Potts.”
They set up the Cradle in the garage, moving aside time machine parts, and all of the various half-finished projects Tony had left behind before Thanos. So much had been put on hold, Steve thought, not for the first time. Tony had given up so much, just to see the world through its darkest time.
“The amount of energy this takes is going to be monumental,” Helen warned. “Be prepared for a blackout.”
“Good thing I kept this house off the grid,” Tony muttered. “And installed an arc reactor for a generator.”
The setup, all told, was relatively simple. The port system, (still grotesquely shaped), connected at the top of the cradle where the power source also plugged in. Tony just needed to connect himself to the port, the Cradle would power on, and then presumably the transfer would happen. Steve was a little unclear about the science of that, but that wasn’t exactly a surprise to him.
It was a lot harder to be on the outside of a process like this than the subject, he was realizing. Tony had the same hopeful conviction Steve remembered having before stepping into Howard’s Vita-Ray machine.
“I hate this,” Rhodes said, sidling up next to where he and Pepper were watching the proceedings.
“Yup,” Pepper said.
“Exactly my feeling,” Steve said, relieved to have it spoken aloud.
“I can hear you!” Tony called from the other side of the garage.
“We should have called Bruce for backup,” Steve commented.
“I tried, he’s tied down in Indonesia,” Pepper said with a grimace. “And Strange—”
“Is a magician!” Tony protested. “And also told me to die, so fuck him!”
“He was a surgeon before that, Tony!” She shook her head. “Strange said it’ll be fine, and to remember what he said before. Whatever that means.”
Rhodes scoffed. “Great.”
“Something he said to you?” Steve asked her.
“I guess. We barely talked, though, I don’t know what…oh. Huh.” she drifted off, lost in thought. Steve let her be.
“All right, I think we’re set,” Helen said. A faint, high hum had begun to come from the Cradle. It made the back of Steve’s teeth itch. “Ready, Tony?”
“As ever.” He put himself next to the Cradle and set a silver hand down on the open tines of the port. “See you all on the flip side.”
No one could seem to say anything back. Rhodes managed a wave.
Tony’s hand transformed into something conical and bristling, like a drill head, connecting to all of the crenelations and contact points in the port. The Cradle’s hum tightened to a whine and then abruptly dropped down to a deep, pulsing whir.
“Connection complete,” Helen said, eyes darting over several screens-worth of readings. “Beginning the data-read.”
Light flew up from the connection, up in bright rivulets over the edges and articulations of the nanosuit, leaving glowing iridescent trails. “That tickles,” Tony complained. “I didn’t think I could feel ticklish in here.”
“Hush. 47% complete. 70%. 86...92%....data-read complete.” Helen typed in a few commands.
Pepper was already tucked under Rhodes’s arm, clearly torn between watching and hiding her face. Steve found her free hand and squeezed it, nearly too hard. She didn’t seem to mind. She was going to cut herself if she bit her lip any harder.
“Running the femtoparticular analysis now...fuck, I’m going to get so many papers out of this. Sorry. Looks good so far. Just going to slow the...Tony? Are you…?”
“Tony, goddamnit,” Pepper exclaimed.
“Slowing the analytics to normal levels, ” Helen said with disapproval. “This’ll take a couple minutes.”
Steve counted out his breath. Was too aware of his own heartbeat, the clamminess of Pepper’s hand and his own.
“Okay, analysis complete. Feeding it into the distro center of the Cradle. Tony, you ready?”
“Whenever you are, Dr. Cho.”
“Here we go, then. Transfer starting...now.”
The Cradle made an urgent sound, and Steve’s ears popped. Next to him, Jim and Pepper flinched. Tony shouted and grabbed his wrist above where it entered the port.
“Wait!” Helen shouted, “It should be working!” She typed frantically. “It just—oh my god. Tony, the molecular binding.“
“Oh fuck,” Tony said suddenly. “That means…” He looked up at the cluster of them across the room. “Gonna be fine,” he promised. “But uh, don’t be alarmed.”
“That’s what you’re gonna say right now?” Jim demanded. “Really, Tones?”
“Yup. Hold tight. This might suck.”
And then with a crackle of electricity, the suit just...liquefied.
Terminator, Steve thought, in blank horror. It’s like that Terminator movie, the even scarier one. Tony’s going to be the Terminator.
But whatever was left on the ground wasn’t moving. There wasn’t a lot of it—not more than a handful of thermometers worth of mercury-looking liquid. The rest of it must have disappeared into the Cradle. The port was bare.
“Dr. Cho?” Steve said, taking a cautious step forward.
“Wait, just a moment longer,” she said, her lips pressed into a thin line. “I need to adjust the organic compound mix to accommodate the change in overall profile...okay. Okay. 46% viscosity...yeah, that should do it. Jesus. He’s gonna owe me so many drinks after this. Stand back, this might be a little Frankenstein’s monster.”
Another pop of air pressure, and then abruptly, all the lights went out.
All that was left was the Cradle, glowing and crackling at the seams, the whir of it now a persistent, deep chug, like the sound of snow being compacted beneath tractor treads.
Pepper’s hand became a vice.
“Come on,” Steve whispered.
The chug subsided, evening out. The arcs of light dulled and resolved into a constant, halogen glow.
“Starting his heart, now,” Helen murmured.
A pulse of light. Then the power came back on. The garage seemed old and dingy next to the glow of the Cradle.
“Can we…?” Pepper said, her voice cracking.
“Yes, though don’t immediately help him up. He’s intubated, to stabilize airflow before he’s fully awake.”
They approached, and after a moment, the top doors of the Cradle opened.
Steve stared. “How…?”
“Huh,” Helen said. “That wasn’t in the design.”
Tony looked just the same as he always had. A little younger, maybe, than when Steve had seen him last—hair darker, fewer lines at his eyes and mouth. The wear of starvation that he never entirely lost after his trip into space was smoothed away.
There was an arc reactor in his chest.
“He’s Iron Man,” Pepper murmured. “Always will be.”
“Let me just,” Helen leaned forward and with practiced swiftness, removed the intubation. Tony’s eyes flew open, and as she pulled out the last of the tubing, he coughed violently and tried to sit up.
“Hold up, hold up,” Jim said, pressing him back into the Cradle. “It’s not a fire drill.”
“Water will help,” Helen said, handing over a bottle from one of the storage shelves. Steve cracked it open and offered it. Tony nodded, and let Steve get a few swallows down his throat. His eyes were wide, shocked.
“How are you feeling?” Steve asked, as he took the bottle away.
“Alive,” Tony rasped. “Let’s start with ‘alive’. Pepper?”
“I’m here,” she said, slipping forward, cupping his cheek in her hand. “Hi, Tony.”
“Hey, Pep. I’m okay, promise. Dr. Cho, tell them I’m okay?”
“You’re okay,” Helen said, with a shake of her head. “You’re more than okay.”
“About 260% okay?” Tony asked knowingly.
“Tony?” Jim asked.
“It’s okay. It’s fine. I’m fine. Help me out of this thing?” Tony looked down at himself, and frowned. “Actually, before you do. Could I maybe get some pants?”
Over dinner, (after a tearful reunion with Morgan by which Steve was definitely not emotionally compromised), Helen and Tony explained what had happened.
“Molecular binding,” Tony said, with a wince. “Not something we’d calculated for, since we still don’t know the full properties of femtoparticles, given we’ve just discovered them. I may or may not still be carrying some of the infinity gem stuff around with me. Also I’m about 30% made of alloyed nanoparticles from the suit. Seems that whatever femtoparticles made me me, they bonded with the stuff the Stones were made of, and those bonded with what the nanosuit was made of, so it all got mixed up and became more or less inextricable.”
“Thus, the 260%,” Helen said. “He’s made of more than twice as much stuff as he was before. Not mass-wise, precisely, given how tiny femtoparticles are, but what’s held there is just...it’s a lot more. We’re not going to know what it means until, I don’t know, something happens.”
“Which hopefully won’t be for a while yet,” Tony commented. “Because I’m really into just enjoying this steak right now, right this minute, and not thinking about what’s just sitting dormant in my cells, ready for some sort of dramatic awakening.”
“If what Natasha said was true, we’ve got time,” Steve said.
Tony gave him a long look from across the table. “I certainly hope that’s true,” he said roughly.
“I’ll drink to that,” Pepper said, and raised her glass. “To all of you, our family, thank you. And to—to having time.” She looked at Steve last, and nodded over her raised glass.
“Hear, hear,” Steve said, meeting her gaze and keeping it, and drank deeply.
Late in the night, Steve found himself out on the porch, as always. The crickets were nearly deafening, it was sort of incredible. He hadn’t really been out in the woods this way since the war, and its sounds were a constant source of fascination, even now, after months.
“Five bucks for your thoughts?”
“Spoken like a true billionaire,” Steve said, smiling but not turning around.
“What can I say, I’m the type of guy who throws pennies out my car window,” Tony said, sidling up. “Nasty things. Cost more to make than to use, that’s just inefficient.”
“Yeah, yeah, and back in my day I could’a bought a pack of gum,” Steve drawled. “So who’s the real loser here?”
“Me, obviously. Now I’ve gotta cough up five bucks just for a damn thought.”
Steve snorted. “I’m thinking,” he started, then shook his head. “I think I’m just enjoying the moment.” He finally turned, and drank in the sight of Tony, whole and human, reactor in his chest aglow, all of him alive.
Tony regarded him. He was so much easier to read now, without a mask in the way—dark eyes sharp, that tell-tale tick at the corner of his mouth that could pull up or down at a moment’s notice.
“Fair enough,” Tony said at last. He looked past Steve towards the lake. “I guess I’ll have to get back to the real world now, huh? Body intact and all, the paperwork’s going to be hell. Pepper’s already having all kinds of regrets.”
“No, she isn’t,” Steve said automatically.
Tony stared at him. It made his neck heat, but he couldn’t quite make himself look away.
“No,” Tony agreed eventually. “I guess she isn’t. Neither of you are feeling many regrets right now, huh.”
“Can confirm, on my end at least,” Steve murmured.
Tony took a small step forward, just enough for him to be close. “Steve,” Tony said, almost too quietly to be heard.
Steve nodded. Waited.
“Earn my five bucks, Steve,” Tony said, gently. “Where do you see yourself, a year from now?”
Steve exhaled. It was...easy, so easy all of a sudden, in a way it never had been before. “Cutting the ribbon,” he said. “For the Outside Initiative. At least, that’s where I want to be.”
Tony sucked in a breath, and his hand closed around Steve’s wrist. His callouses were just the same.
God, Steve thought. Of all the things Tony brought with him, of all the things he could make for himself in the Cradle, he remembered the arc reactor, and his callouses.
“I think you already know this, considering...everything, but: I want to kiss you extremely, desperately badly right now,” Tony said, breaking through the sudden haze in Steve’s awareness. “However, I promised Pep I wouldn’t until she was around.”
“You called?” Pepper said. She leaned against the doorjamb.
“Your timing is impeccable, as always,” Tony said. He looked over at her. “I asked him.”
“And what did he say?” Pepper said.
She sucked in a breath, and her gaze landed on Steve like the coronal flash of the sun in an eclipse, piercing the darkness. “Oh,” she said. “Good answer.”
“Please,” Steve said, without meaning to.
“Come here,” Tony said, tugging on his wrist and then his neck, and then they were kissing, Tony with urgent, hungry finesse, Steve just trying to keep up, drowning in it until he could find his footing, and even then, it was like riding an ocean tide, following its ebbs but still buffeted inexorably by its waves. He made a noise, something undignified he was sure, and then a smaller, more feminine hand slid up his shoulder and cupped the back of his neck, and he shuddered, his knees buckling.
“Oh, that’s lovely,” Pepper breathed, so close he nearly startled. “Steve, would you—do you want to come upstairs with us? It’ll be a tight fit, but I think we can manage it.”
“Please,” he repeated, and then Tony’s hand was in his, Pepper leading the way, and his feet knew the way even if he couldn’t quite keep up, and then, then, he was home.
Steve woke to earnest, young eyes staring at him. He blinked twice, ran through several stages of panic and a few of grief, and said, “Good morning, Morgan.”
“G'morning. You’re all in the same place today. That’s convenient.”
“Oh my god,” Tony said, into the quilt.
“Convenient is...good?” Steve asked, wanting badly for the bedclothes to rise up and strangle him.
“It’s efficient. I like efficient. Will you make bacon for breakfast?”
Steve closed his eyes tight enough for colors to burst behind is eyelids, and then reopened them. “Yes,” he said. “I will make bacon for breakfast. In 45 minutes. Does that sound reasonable?”
Morgan contemplated, and then nodded. “I’ll set my alarm,” she proclaimed, and then trotted off.
“Oh my god,” Tony repeated. “What.”
“That could have gone far worse,” Pepper croaked. “Now go back to sleep. In 45 minutes, Steve has to make bacon, or his life and honor are forfeit.”
“God, truth, you know she’ll hold you to that timeline exactly, right?”
“Oh, I know,” Steve said, burrowing back down and grabbing Tony’s hand, which had slipped off his waist during the surprise visit. “‘Swhy I said 45 minutes and not ten.”
“Amazing. Love you. Go back to sleep.”
Steve grinned into his pillow, which smelled of Pepper’s shampoo and Tony’s aftershave. “Don’t mind if I do.”
He was going to sleep, then make bacon, then redraft the Outside Initiative. He was going to present it to Pepper, and maybe steal a dance with her, and then he'd steal another one with Tony. He’d help Jim with the grill, and interrogate Helen about what exactly they had to worry about, now that Tony was 260% of himself. He’d make himself ready for that, whatever that meant. Maybe call up Sam and Bucky, just to check in, but also to get a lay of the land. His world could get bigger again, but he'd make sure that it was better, this time.
He could see a year ahead, and maybe soon, he'd be able to see five.
Hell, maybe he already could. He was overfull, just like Tony, ever expanding with possibilities.
There weren't any more holes in the world.