Come on, Steve thought, how hard does it have to be to find a picture of Tony that hasn’t been photoshopped to the moon and back? He glared at the magazine rack as though he could peal back the layers of digital editing with nothing but the heat of his disapproval.
The kicker was that Tony was already gorgeous and photogenic as hell. When natural perfection landed in your lap like that, you didn’t mess with it.
But beggars can't be choosers, so he picked one of the less egregious examples off the rack and got into line for the register to pay for it. Bright yellow front running along the bottom promised more photos inside. Perhaps there’d be one or two that had escaped the airbrush.
After the cashier handed it back to him, along with his change, he walked quickly back towards the Tower. Tony said he’d call at three o’clock on the dot, and he’d already learned from unfortunate experience that if he wasn’t in the Tower, the Compound, or the Malibu house at the time of the call, the connection would be deemed ‘insecure’ and he wouldn’t be able to talk to Tony at all. Three weeks ago he’d been caught out while on a jog by a couple of determined history PhD students hoping for a primary source and hadn’t gotten back to the Tower in time for their scheduled chat. The price for his tardiness had been a fifteen-day wait before his next opportunity to talk with his husband.
Your connection is not secure. Please make or accept your call from an Approved Security Location.
Just remembering that mild, robotic voice made his blood boil with frustration and helplessness.
Not today. He had made sure to stick in sight of the Tower all day, as he had every Call Day since that disaster.
The large, stylized clock in the Tower lobby read two thirty-three when he stepped into the elevator headed for the penthouse. After an interminable elevator ride, the Iron Man clock resting on Tony’s dresser read two thirty-six. He checked his phone just to be sure that it had really only been three minutes. To his disappointment, it had been.
He sighed and pulled out the magazine.
Tony Stark Introduces Tequila to Alien Scientists at interplanetary Cooperative Communications Engineering Conference on Quatara 56, the headline declared in bright, bold lettering that half-obscured the bottom half of a photo of Tony smiling and offering a brightly-colored drink in a glass as big as a bowl to an alien with orange and scarlet-mottled skin and long red hair.
Steve snorted. It was a good thing he’d bought this rag for the pictures and not the stories.
Tony’s smiling, smug-looking face wasn’t quite right- if he had to guess, he’d say it was a reprint of a similar picture from his pre-Iron Man days, digitally aged to look current and photoshopped into an appropriately science fiction-esque picture. The only question was whether the tabloid had fabricated the image, or Tony himself.
He flipped the page.
The article started with a page of mostly text, with only three small photos embedded in the text. The uppermost picture showed Tony arm in tentacle with an eight-foot tall alien near a forest of squat, bubblegum-pink trees with long, trailing vines. This one looked like it might be real- as real as a staged photo could be, at least. The wrinkles around Tony’s eyes and across his forehead were so painfully familiar he could almost feel them on his lips.
It had been eleven months since he’d last kissed Tony.
The second and third photos were fakes, probably digitally edited old pap photos. He passed them by after only a passing glance and turned to the next page.
This one was much heavier on the pictures and lighter on the text. Most of them were edits, but the one of Tony sitting in one of the pink trees in a nest of thick rolls of multicolored cables was probably real. It took up a solid quarter of the page, and Tony’s smiling face was large enough and focused enough to make out the shadows under his eyes and the light blue tinge on his tongue. A memory of sitting on the roof of the Malibu house eating popsicles flashed through his mind. Did they have popsicles in space? He’d have to ask Tony when he got back.
Even if all the rest of the photos were fakes, this one photo made purchasing the magazine worth it.
He flipped through the rest of the magazine, not even bothering to glance at the text. Like the photos, it was certainly more fabrication than fact. Tony wasn’t even in the Quatara system, much less at an ‘interplanetary cooperative communications engineering conference.’ What precisely he was doing was so top secret he couldn’t even discuss it over a secure line, but it certainly didn’t involve sitting in pink trees sipping tequila and schmoozing with tentacled alien engineers.
To be fair, some of the fake pictures were quite nice. If they had just been real, and not some aged up old pap shots…
A sudden idea shot through him like a lightning bolt.
He leaped up and ran for the elevator, only barely remembering to grab his phone and the magazine as he went.
“Workshop, Jarvis,” he called out.
His art supplies were in the workshop. He didn’t have time to really start anything before Tony called, but he could get set up. Then after their call, when he was feeling low about having to wait however long it was this time for the next opportunity to talk to Tony, he could channel all his frustrations into fixing those god-awful edited photos. Redraw them, but with the laugh lines in the right places and a smile that radiated real emotion.
It wouldn’t be the real thing, but it would be something to occupy his time.
His phone rang just as the glowing numbers on Jarvis’s projected clock flickered from 2:59 to 3:00.
“Steve!” Tony’s enthusiastic voice poured through the speaker. “What’s up with Brooklyn’s hottest centenarian?”
“Still missing his knight in gold-titanium armor. How are things progressing on your end?”
“Making steady progress,” Tony said. Steve heard a shade of frustration in his voice, but he didn’t point it out. It was hard enough for Tony to keep himself from discussing his project as it was. He didn’t need Steve making it even harder on him.
“Things have been quiet over here. There was some sort of magical attack on Manhattan, but Dr. Strange took care of it before anyone called the Avengers.”
“Good for him. It’s about time he started pulling his weight around here. What the point of having a wizard on call if I still have to be the one to deal with the magical flying rhinos?”
“That was one time, Tony,” Steve laughed. “He was in another dimension.”
“Oh yeah, so convenient. Any time you could actually use some of that magic baloney, he’s off centering the universe’s chi or something.”
Steve sank into the warmth of Tony’s voice like a hot bubble bath. Their conversation never got too deep- it was kind of impossible to, what with Tony being unable to tell him anything more informative than some story about a weird alien moss he found three planets ago that vibrated strongly enough to break through stone.
“I wanted to tell you about it when I first saw it, but since it only grows on a hundred and seventy-nine planets, telling you about it was too big a risk. If the call was intercepted, it would be easy to narrow down which part of the systems we’re holed up in.”
“Call me old fashioned, but that doesn’t seem very narrowed down to me.”
“Hey, until Stark Industries expands into the final frontier, I’m technically not the boss of anything in space, so I don’t get to make the rules. Or so Carol loves to remind me. Which is totally valid, she knows all about space history, and I promised myself in freshman year of college that I’d never crack another history book in my life, so I’m not going to challenge her expertise. The last time I did she told me this super-long story about how this one general lost his entire spaceship fleet because he mentioned picking a flower that was sacred to this weird religious group on the next planet over who had been neutral until he picked their flower. So they joined with his enemy and crushed him and now his name is synonymous with idiots who don’t know the customs of the planets they visit.”
“I don’t know, it sounds like you two get along just fine. She seems like a frontal-assault, I may be outnumbered but I’m not outgunned type of woman, just like you.”
And also not like the sort to tell long historical anecdotes, but he let the lie stand. He was pretty sure Tony and Carol weren’t all by themselves all the time, and even more sure that whatever rules Tony was chafing at, they weren’t Carol’s idea. But if Tony wasn’t willing to come out and say that they weren’t alone, then all he’d get for asking was some version of ‘I can’t tell you.’
“Who said we didn’t get along? I am completely onboard with her policy of not calling when redacted or redacted and only talking while in redacted via redacted.” Tony’s frustration seeped through the speakers, as thick and sarcasm-sweet as syrup.
Steve laughed without much enthusiasm, and carefully steered the conversation back towards Earth. Sam and Bucky had been by again the other night, which meant he had some new gossip from them that Tony wouldn’t have heard yet. It was mostly silly stuff, but it was better than just sitting there listening to Tony breathe through the speaker. He wasn’t that pathetic.
(He kind of was.)
Tony hung up and immediately felt like a candle in his chest had been snuffed out. After months of running from ugly underground metal box to ugly underground metal box on grey, bombed out planet after grey, bombed out planet, Steve’s voice seemed like the only beautiful thing in his life right now. The only color he’d seen in weeks was Carol’s photon blasts. Even the Iron Man armor was so covered in alien space dust and blaster burns that the hot rod red barely shone through anymore.
He forced himself to put his communicator down and turn back to Carol, who was waiting expectantly behind him.
“Okay, your turn. I’m gonna go try that Xangyn sequence again, but with a separate search algorithm subroutine at the end instead.”
“Let me know how it goes.”
He nodded, then slid past her into their mobile hacking room, though not quite fast enough to miss her happy “Hey Maria, all quiet on the Southern Front?”
Jealousy rose up in his chest like flickering flames, sudden and irrational, followed by the overwhelming urge to start crying. Instead, he quickly shut the door behind him to block out the sound of her call. There was no reason to horn in on her conversation; he’d already had his time with Steve.
The wall of glowing screens nearly blinded him after the darkness of the communication room. His eyes squinted automatically against the harsh, artificial light as he altered the nearly-but-not-quite successful Xangyn code sequence. He had a good feeling about this one. The Kree Supreme Intelligence hadn’t even noticed the first probe, as far as he could tell. If they could get this to work, even on something as small as an unmanned supply shipment, then the end was in sight. Once the Kree Supreme Intelligence’s interplanetary communication with Kree technology was hobbled, the balance of organizational power between inner and outer Kree Empire planets would be tipped. Carol’s Skull allies would be able to resist more effectively, and Carol would be able to do her glowy-shooty-explody thing to much greater effect.
Coding alone was getting to be depressingly familiar. It had taken him months to stop automatically asking Jarvis to make certain edits, and even longer to stop trying to find any spark of sentience in the algorithms the Skrull spies brought them from Kree and Kree-controlled coders. Apparently the Supreme Intelligence didn’t care for competition. Which was probably a good decision. Jarvis could run a better empire any day.
With a push of a button the new and improved code was launched and running. Tony settled back in his seat to watch the output data streams run and ignore the desire to beg their Skrull guards to let him call Steve again. They had said it would only be another three days before they could open the wave shields again. He could wait three days.
Something on the computer screen interrupted his thoughts. A red icon in the corner of the screen was flashing.
Horror washed over him.
In a flash he opened his ever-ready counter-hacking windows and launched some of his more destructive, harder to hide algorithms at the system’s intruder. A quick glance at the firewall monitor told him it was still holding firm. That taken care of, he leaped out of his chair, sprinted across the room and threw the door open to the communication room.
“Carol, end the call! We have to put the shields back up. Your old pal Hal-for-President is trying to hack us.”
The pencil groaned and gave under Steve’s fingers. Splinters flew and his fingers slipped out of their rigid positions without the pencil wood to return the downward force of finger pad on tool. Only a jerky arm motion saved the drawing in front of him from being marred by a stray swipe of lead.
Steve stared at the broken pencil as though it would spontaneously repair itself if he just refused to acknowledge what had happened. Then he sighed and carefully set the ruined pencil down on the side of his drawing desk. He’d try and salvage the bottom half of it later.
On the page in from of him, Tony’s face appeared as if half-hidden behind a mist. Some portions of the face were well-lined and complete, while others were sketchy and covered in so many lines it almost made it look like Tony was a decade older than he really was. His hair curled lightly, hardly enough to even see, and his eyes stared up at Steve, a little bigger than they were in real life.
No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t seem to render Tony faithfully. Something was always off, even when he asked Jarvis to literally surround him with projected reference images of Tony. There was just some magical, clever quality to Tony’s face that refused to cross the pencil from his mind to the page. Maybe it couldn’t be properly transferred that way. Maybe Tony could only truly be appreciated in motion.
God he missed Tony.
The eraser squeaked as he tried to rub out some of the extra lines, but as soon as he was done he realized one of those lines had been important. A frustrated sigh whistled through his nose like steam from a kettle, and he violently ripped the page out of his sketchbook. It crumpled easily in his big hands. He tossed it over to the small mountain of other failures and flipped to the next blank page.
At this rate he was going to run out of pages before his next call with Tony.
Maybe he should try something else- painting, maybe. Perhaps a little color would help him capture that essential Tony-ness that he just couldn’t seem to manage with graphite.
The magazine lay open on his desk, mocking him with Tony’s perfect, fake face. How much longer could the ‘conference in space’ cover story hold up? He was sure someone would have started trying to get quotes or video clips of the alien scientists he was supposedly hanging out with. Should he expect to see an ‘exposé’ about Tony’s antics on a planet he’d never been to, as told by an alien scientist who probably didn’t exist, splashed across the newspapers this time next week? Would he have to corroborate that, if some nosy tabloid reporter caught him on the street and asked for a quote? Would it hurt Tony more to deny it, or to assert that it was the truth?
He had to stop. If he kept doing this, he’d just fall into a spiral of worry and loneliness.
He fished his phone out of his pocket and tapped on Sam’s contact number. It rang for a few seconds, then Sam’s voice came through the speaker.
“Steve? What’s up?”
“Are you free today?”
“Not right this second, but I will be in half an hour.” The familiar sounds of the clinic came through with Sam’s voice like sonic hitchhikers. It sounded like he was near the front desk. That’s right; he’d said yesterday that he was covering for one of the receptionists today.
“Great. I just need to get out of the house, and I thought you might have some ideas for something fun.”
Sam paused, thinking.
“There’s an art show going on in Central Park,” he said. “It’s all art that involves the park in some way. There’ll probably be some hot dog stands or something to eat. Sound like fun?”
“I’ll meet you there.”
He was about to end the call, when Sam stopped him.
“Hey, while we’re on the topic- do you know who painted that enormous Iron Man mural that’s all over the news? Not the one Stark Industries commissioned for that new add campaign, the surreal one. Weird style, no artist signature. Sort of had a night sky theme to it?”
Steve did, in fact, know the mural Sam was talking about. He had painted it a few nights ago, hoping to capture that little something that was missing in all of his paintings by giving up on perfect portraits in lieu of something a little more fluid.
But if he told Sam that, Sam would get on his case about his pining again.
“I don’t remember seeing it on the news,” he said carefully. “Haven’t been watching much TV.”
“Well, if you find out who it was let me know. They did a great job. Think they’ll do the other Avengers too, or just him? Maybe they were saved by Tony somehow? I don’t know, but it’s good work. Well, I’ll see you there.”
“See you there,” Steve repeated.
Tony frantically pounded on the keys and touch screens surrounding him, trying desperately to help Jarvis code faster than the Supreme Intelligence.
The hack had been quick, and hadn’t hit any of their crucial data. He would have felt a lot better about that if the data it had got its metaphorical hands on was anything but the communications data.
There wasn’t much there. They didn’t save anything, or record anything, precisely because the Skrulls had worried that this might happen. If it had attacked at any other time, there would have been nothing there to find. But it had attacked while he and Carol were calling home.
His heart pounded in his throat. Steve was in danger, and it was because he, Tony Stark, had been hacked. Worse, he could just picture Steve trying to comfort him even as he fled from whatever deathbots the Supreme Intelligence was surely sending to ambush him at the Tower. It’s not your fault, Tony. The Supreme Intelligence runs an interstellar empire, and can set hundreds of people to lend it all the manpower it needs.
Carol’s head popped down from the trap door in the ceiling.
“That’s the last of the autopiloted ships. We should get a little breathing room before the next set gets here.”
“We’ve got three options, as far as I can tell. Well, we’ve got infinite options, but we’ve got three real options. We can gun it for home, fight off whatever the Jarvis-wannabe sent, then grab Steve and Maria and start this whole thing over again with them hidden with us.”
Carol wrinkled her nose.
“Are there any options that involve less running away?”
“We can hope someone on Earth’s got this and attack now, while it thinks we’re running to Earth, and try and destroy its main server banks and whatnot. I imagine there’s a bunch of backups and some travel-sized versions like the one you fought off back when you first defected, but it would be a huge blow. Possibly impossible to come back from, though that would depend more on how much technical AI expertise the typical Kree citizen has than anything else.
Carol’s expression darkened even further.
“There’s no way to send a warning to the Avengers or something?”
“I’m in the middle of fixing the hacking equivalent of a cannonball hole in our communications defenses. There’s an excellent chance it might try again, and if it does and we’re trying to send a message, we’ve lost the element of surprise.”
“What’s the third choice then?”
“We split up. You head to Hala with an Iron Man suit and destroy as much as you can. Whenever you need a technician, you can contact me through the suit and I’ll pilot it remotely. I’ll head back to Earth and deal with whatever needs dealing with, and then hopefully hear from you that everything has gone up in glorious flames and the Supreme Intelligence is no more.”
“Sounds like a plan. Which suit can I take?”
Steve stepped out of the elevator after his afternoon with Sam. The art exhibition had been fun, and Sam was always good company. They’d had an early dinner before saying goodbye, and he was hoping to get to sleep before falling back into a Tony-spiral.
A small twinge pinged from his upper back. That was strange. He hadn’t done anything to strenuous today-
Then he turned the corner and came face to face with Tony.
For a second, Steve’s heart soared on wings of euphoria and terror. The missing chunk of his heart was finally back within arms’ reach, looking none the worse for the time spent apart, but why was he back so suddenly? Steve had held himself back from asking too many dangerous questions while Tony’s communication security was under constant threat of attack, but he could guess enough to know Tony could easily be here to tell him to suit up and call the other Avengers to assemble.
Then Tony smiled at him, and Steve’s soaring heart crashed to an abrupt stop. That was all wrong.
“Hey honey,” The thing that wasn’t Tony said, “I’m home.” It’s face twisted into a perfect rendition of the tired smile Tony flashed at friends and close colleagues after a grueling mission finally ended.
The disguise was absolutely perfect. The thing standing in from of him was Tony in meticulous, photo-perfect detail, from the pores at the edge of his nostrils that Steve’s enhanced eyes could just make out through his concealer to the exact length and angle of the lines around his eyes. Every little thing that Steve’s attempts at artistic recreation had overlooked or lacked, every detail that he couldn’t figure out how to add without throwing off the balance of the whole face, this thing had incorporated perfectly.
But no matter how picture-perfect it was, it hadn’t studied Tony the way he had. Just like in all those half-finished sketches he threw away, the smile was all wrong.
“Who are you?” he demanded.
The-thing-that-wasn’t-Tony’s face crumpled with hurt. Even as he yelled at himself to not let it get to him, that that wasn’t really Tony, something in his chest crumpled in sympathy. You upset him, make it right now, while you can, before it gets worse warred with pound him with the shield until he stops getting back up.
“Steve?” The fake Tony asked in a small voice.
“You’re not Tony,” he bit out. He held out his arm and engaged the recall device Tony had built for him. A second later the shield struck his wrist with familiar force.
“Steve, what’s wrong? Of course I’m me. It’s been so long since I’ve seen you, but you’re exactly like I remember.”
The-thing-that-wasn’t-Tony prowled closer. The shield trembled slightly in his hands as his muscles sang with tension, trying to flee, attack, and embrace all at once.
“Come on, Steve,” it cajoled, “can I have a kiss?”
God, it almost got that perfect too. It made it’s eyes go wide and so painfully open and so full of love, fear, and desire that he could drown in them. It blinked, top and bottom eyelashes sticking to each other for just the briefest instant just the way Tony’s did when he was getting emotional, and threw open his arms in the sort of expansive gesture of welcome that looked so natural on Tony.
But Tony always mixed a little angst into his soulful expressions, and he never waited for Steve to accept his invitation for closeness when he could initiate it himself.
He flung the shield.
Tony’s eyes widened, and then the shield passed right through him as though through a hologram. It rebounded off the wall and sailed back through him a second time as it returned to his wrist.
“Where’s Tony?” He repeated through gritted teeth.
Its face twisted into a smarmy parody of Tony as he appeared on television.
“Is that any way to welcome me home?”
He punched it. The room spun, and suddenly he was on the floor. Tony stood several feet away, smile still firmly in place.
“Do we have to do it this way, Captain?” It asked him. “You can’t fight me. Why don’t you just tell me the things I want to know, and I’ll let you have a little dose of Tony to help with the loneliness?”
It was in his head somehow. He couldn’t land a hit or count on the ground not to move. But if it was in his head, that meant he had an advantage. Hopefully.
He took another swing, this time with mental force behind it instead of physical force. That one landed, though the room quickly jumped so that the-thing-that-wasn’t-Tony was far out of swinging distance.
The smug look had finally slid off its stolen face.
"It's not supposed to be like this. You shouldn't be able to recognize that anything's wrong. How are you fighting me?"
Because I'd recognize Tony anywhere, and you're not him.
“Alright then, if that’s how you want to-”
It cut off with a gurgling noise, and then the illusion fuzzed away, leaving him in the real penthouse bedroom. He knocked his knuckles against the wall; they connected normally, though who knew if that meant anything.
And then there were arms around him and lips on his and Tony was there, this time for real. In his waving fist was a crushed, sparking electronic device the size of a cockroach.
“Sorry I’m late, it had a head start on me.”
For a few heartbeats, all the feelings he couldn’t force into words so he could speak them and let them go crowded up against his throat, blocking his words from escaping his throat. Then he yanked Tony into his arms and felt his chest rise and fall against his own.
“Do you have to go again?” His voice came out small and scared. He had already gone so long without Tony. Asking to let him go again would be like asking him to take a cheese grate to his heart.
“Don’t worry about it, honey. Carol’s got it.”
He offered Steve his phone. On the little screen, Carol was posing in front of a giant, burning stack of servers.
“It wasn’t supposed to come after you, I promise. I’d have warned you, but I thought our communications were secure enough that it wouldn’t find a reason to target you.”
“It’s okay, Tony. No harm done.”
He didn’t care what that thing had been; evidently, it was either destroyed or seriously wounded, and Tony was back in their bedroom saying he wouldn’t have to go back out and keep fighting it. As far as he was concerned, it was just another mission report to be processed at a later date.