“What do you mean, he’s not here?!”
Steve didn’t mean to yell. He really didn’t. He just couldn’t help himself. He stared at Pepper Potts in shock and dismay, waiting for her to laugh or admit she wasn’t telling the truth, or better yet waiting for her to pull Tony out of a hat. Pepper, unmoved by his shout, merely looked back at him with a calm expression. It took more than a bit of yelling to rattle her.
“Exactly what I said,” Pepper replied. “Tony isn’t here. You would know that if you’d tried to reach out to him at any point during the past five years.” Her tone strongly implied something that Steve didn’t like, and he felt himself flushing with a mixture of anger and embarrassment.
“Tony didn’t want to talk to us,” Natasha said.
“Which you’d know, because you know everything,” Pepper said with a razor-sharp smile, before turning back to Steve. “I’m not sure what else I can do for you.”
“Do you have a way of contacting him?” Steve asked. “This is – it’s really important.”
Pepper just watched him for a long moment without speaking. Her blue eyes bored into Steve; it felt as though she was seeing things that he wasn’t sure he wanted her to, but which he didn’t know how to hide. Natasha stiffened under the scrutiny but said nothing. And Scott – well, Scott was naive, and continued to smile foolishly like there was nothing wrong at all.
“I can try,” Pepper said finally. “But I make no promises that he’ll be able to come.”
“He’s Tony Stark. Where on earth could he be that he can’t come?” Steve said, exasperated. Didn’t she grasp how important this was?
“And therein lies the problem,” Pepper said with a mysterious smile, and turned on her heel. She let the door bang shut behind her, deliberately not inviting them inside. Steve was seized with the strangest compulsion to open the door and enter anyway, but he didn’t know Pepper well enough to be able to guess her reaction. She’d put up with Tony for years, so she must’ve had some kind of will and it was possible she’d back it up with a gun.
“I guess we wait,” Steve said, turning to look at Natasha and Scott.
Natasha frowned. “I don’t like this. All my sources said that Tony and Pepper married not long after the Decimation. How could they be wrong?” She gave the cabin door an accusatory look, like it was deliberately lying to her.
Maybe it was. Maybe Pepper was. Maybe this was a joke and Tony was going to come sauntering out the door within the next five minutes. Steve didn’t know. He didn’t know anything anymore, except that if there was even the slightest chance of Scott’s plan working, they had a responsibility to see it through. Unfortunately, they needed Tony to make it happen.
Pepper was gone for a long time. The sun gradually began to fall, casting a riot of late fall colors across the lake. It might’ve been beautiful under any other circumstances, but, as Steve watched the play of red and orange and yellow, all he could think about what Bucky and how unfair it was that Bucky wasn’t here right now. After everything Bucky had been through, he deserved that much.
A car pulled up, driving over the fallen leaves, and Steve shot to his feet. Natasha joined him, both of them peering in the direction of the driveway. It was a truck, as it turned out, not a car, with heavily tinted windows. Steve held his breath, hoping that the front door would open and Tony would climb out –
“Mommy, we’re home!” The passenger side door swung open and a small child hopped out, landing nimbly on the ground. Natasha gave a quiet gasp. The child stopped to stare at them.
Then the driver’s side door opened. It wasn’t Tony who got out, but Happy Hogan. He was smiling until he looked up and caught sight of the three of them standing on the porch. His expression flattened remarkably fast, and he reached out and caught the child’s hand. He pulled the child close and shut the doors to the truck with his opposite hand, then slowly approached.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“Who’re you?” the child asked at the same time. A girl, Steve belatedly realized, catching a glimpse of what looked like long, dark hair tucked up under a cap. She had Pepper’s blue eyes.
“We’re old friends of your dad’s,” Natasha said, pasting on the fake smile she used around kids. She didn’t really like kids, Steve knew, unless they were kids with the last name of ‘Barton’. He wondered if it was hard for her to stand here and look at Tony’s daughter, knowing that Clint had lost everything.
Happy snorted and shook his head. “Morgan, why don’t you go tell Mommy that we’re here? I don’t think she heard you.”
“Okay!” Morgan chirped, clambering awkwardly up the steps. Looking a bit dazed, Scott stepped out of her way as she opened the door and disappeared inside.
“We’re here to see Tony,” Steve said before Happy had to ask again. Perhaps they’d have better luck with him instead of Pepper.
“Right.” For some reason, that made Happy smirk. He didn’t say anything else; he went back to the truck and started unloading the back of it, whistling under his breath. It irked Steve in ways he couldn’t express to see Happy acting so cheerful, and he would’ve said something had Natasha not reached over to pinch his arm hard. When he glanced at her, she gave him a warning look.
Right. They were trying to get Tony to help them, not piss him off by acting mean to his friends. Steve clenched his jaw and sat. Natasha sat too. Scott looked at them, looked at Happy, and then went over to offer his help carrying the assorted boxes and bags into the house. Happy seemed surprised by the offer but readily accepted it; too late, Steve realized that had earned Scott entry into the house that he and Natasha didn’t have.
Natasha sighed. “This is a farce. I don’t know where Stark ran off to, but I doubt he’s coming back.”
“What makes you say that?” Steve said, aiming to keep his voice quiet.
“Pepper said he’s not here. From the sound of it, he hasn’t been here for a long time. That little girl must be what, three? Four?” Natasha snorted, tossing her head. The still-fading light caught the tips of her blonde hair, turning it red for a split second before she sank back in her chair with a disgruntled huff.
“I’m not following,” Steve said.
“It’s obvious, Steve. Tony knocked her up and then took off,” Natasha hissed.
Steve’s jaw dropped as he realized that she was right. He turned around to look at the house again, but the little girl wasn’t in sight. Now that he thought about it, she did have dark hair like Tony. He slowly shook his head in disbelief, his opinion of Tony falling lower than he would’ve thought possible. Tony was a lot of things, and a good man wasn’t always one of them – but leaving his wife and daughter? It was hard to believe Tony could stoop that low.
“Maybe he’s changed a lot,” Steve said, but the words rang false and Natasha shook her head.
“No, he’s always been like that. He was just better at hiding it when it counted,” she said. “I don’t know if we’re going to find help here.”
Steve pursed his lips but couldn’t deny that she was probably right about that too. Coming here might’ve been a mistake. But it was too late to leave now, wasn’t it? They might as well wait and see where Tony was, even if he just came to laugh in their faces. Maybe they could appeal to his humanity, if there was any left, and at least get him to build something even if he didn’t want to do anything else.
It was at least another half hour before Pepper returned, stepping out and folding her arms across her chest. “Tony will be here within the hour. Would you care for a cup of tea?”
“Sure,” Steve said, feeling awkward now that he knew Pepper had effectively been abandoned. He had the strangest urge to apologize, but that wasn’t right either. It wasn’t his place; he wasn’t about to apologize on Tony’s behalf.
Pepper nodded and silently stepped back into the house. Steve and Natasha exchanged looks. A moment later, she returned carrying a tray with four mugs, a teapot, and some cookies. Scott followed her out and took a seat beside Natasha, while Pepper sat across from Steve. She filled the mugs with hot water, added a tea bag, and handed them out.
“Thanks,” Natasha said, resting the mug in her lap.
“How have you been, Pepper?” Steve asked, feeling the need to make conversation.
“I’m fine,” Pepper said. There was a glint of what Steve thought might be amusement in her eyes, but he didn’t understand why. It was like she and Happy had some private joke going on that he, Natasha and Scott weren’t privy to, and it rankled.
They sat in silence for quite some time before Steve started to hear a low hum. He didn’t know where it was coming from, but it made his teeth ache. Then, suddenly, the ground rumbled beneath their feet. He looked at the others in alarm; Natasha was alert, her fingers gripping the chair to the point of turning white, whereas Scott was more focused on making sure the teapot and mugs didn’t fall off the table. Only Pepper was perfectly calm, like miniature earthquakes happened on a regular basis.
“He’s here!” Morgan squealed from inside the house. She came flying outside, now wearing a white nightgown with some colorful characters on it. Her hair was down, confirming Steve’s suspicion that it was the same rich, chestnut color as Tony’s.
“Hellllllooooo Munchkin!” boomed a voice that Steve hadn’t heard in over five years, and he automatically turned to look.
Tony Stark burst out of the trees that bordered the cabin, looking younger and healthier than Steve could ever remember seeing him. His goatee was nicely trimmed, his skin was tanned, and his eyes were bright as he bounded up the path with his arms spread wide. Morgan shrieked with joy and bolted off the steps, running barefoot down the path until she got to Tony. He scooped her up and spun her around, grey cape flying out behind him.
Wait. grey cape?
Steve looked closer as Tony stopped moving, bringing a giggling Morgan in for a cuddle, and realized that Tony wasn’t wearing a cape after all. Rather, it was a cross between a cape and a shawl – maybe a poncho was the best description? He wasn’t familiar enough with clothing to know for sure. It was long, covering his upper half and falling almost to Tony’s knees, and billowy enough that it flowed out behind him when he moved too exuberantly. It seemed like an unusual choice for Tony, who had always favorited a tailored suit or jeans and a tank top.
Morgan must have said something about them, because Tony looked up. His eyes widened slightly upon seeing Steve, Natasha and Scott before he started walking towards them. He was wearing red, calf-high boots with a slight heel, fitted black pants along with the poncho-thing. As he drew closer, Steve also saw that his hands were covered by what looked like black leather gloves interwoven with gold and red thread.
“Hi Pep,” Tony said when he reached the porch.
“Hi Tony,” Pepper said. “Where’s Quill?”
“He’s coming. You know what he’s like. Gotta make sure every inch of the ship is in sparkling shape,” Tony said with a faint smile. He set Morgan down but still held her hand.
“Considering how much he tells me that ship cost, I can’t blame him,” said Pepper.
Tony shrugged, looking right at Steve. “What’s up, Rogers?” he said, not quite a challenge but not polite either. He lifted his chin slightly and Steve glimpsed a play of red-and-gold around his throat before the fabric of the poncho shifted to cover it.
“We need to talk to you,” Steve said.
“So I gathered,” Tony said. “Badly enough you dropped by to bother my favorite girls.”
Natasha, it seemed, could no longer hold her tongue at that, because she snapped, “You have an odd way of showing favoritism, Stark. Or is it just your favorites that you abandon?”
“Abandon?” Tony repeated, both eyebrows raised high.
“They think Morgan is yours,” Pepper said, snorting.
“Wait, she’s not?” Steve said, confused.
“Mine? Little miss Morgana, you hear that? You’re mine now!” Tony said, scooping her up.
“Does that mean I can go into space with you?” Morgan asked eagerly.
Space? What? Steve looked around, feeling like he’d missed something. The equally baffled look on Natasha’s face wasn’t putting him at ease, either.
Steve stiffened at the sound of a new voice and glanced up to see another man jog out of the forest, heading right for them. This guy had dark blond hair, a tall, stocky build, and was wearing black pants, a red leather jacket, and a belt with various gadgets, including what looked like a gun. He slowed to a walk as he came up beside Tony and Morgan; he was at least half a foot taller than Tony, and probably an inch or two taller than Steve.
“Uncle Peter!” Morgan cried, reaching for him. Peter took her, grinning widely. That grin vanished when he caught sight of Steve, Natasha and Scott.
“Ah, they brought out the welcoming party,” Peter said softly. Dangerously. The hair on the back of Steve’s neck prickled uneasily, and he suddenly wished he’d brought his shield. It had been his suggestion for them to come unarmed as a show of good faith. He regretted that now, and hoped Natasha had ignored him and had some kind of weapon on her.
“Okay, what the hell is going on? If Morgan isn’t Tony’s, who does she belong to?” Natasha demanded.
“Happy,” Scott said before Pepper or Tony could speak.
Natasha and Steve stared at him.
Scott shrugged uneasily. “What? She called him ‘Daddy’ in the kitchen.”
“You’re married to Happy?! I thought you were married to Tony!” Steve exclaimed.
Pepper looked at them like they were both idiots and said, “Tony and I canceled our wedding. It surprises me that a spy wouldn’t know that.”
Natasha’s jaw clenched. “My sources were obviously incorrect,” she said stiffly. “I wasn’t aware you and Hogan had wed, or that you’d had a child. I thought –”
“That I’d knock Pepper up, couldn’t handle the pressure, and ran?” Tony rolled his eyes. “Typical. Now I see why Nebula wanted to stay with the ship,” he said to Peter.
“She always was the smartest one of us,” Peter replied, hiking Morgan a little higher.
“Morgan, why don’t you come inside? Give your uncles the chance to talk,” Pepper said. She held her arms out, and Tony took Morgan back from Peter, climbed the steps and passed her over to Pepper. Their eyes met, and Steve had the sneaking suspicion that a lot was said, unspoken, in the span of those few seconds.
When Pepper and Morgan had gone, Tony turned to them. “What do you want?”
“We need your help,” Steve said bluntly.
“Really,” Tony said, clearly skeptical. “And what, exactly, do you need my help with? Cause I gotta tell you, Cap, my wallet is closed.”
“Tony,” Steve said, disappointed. “That’s not why we’re here.” Though he had to admit, he wouldn’t have said no if Tony had offered them money. Working at a support group gave Steve enough money to survive, but his lifestyle wasn’t nearly as easy as it had been when Tony was funding it.
“It’s about time travel, actually,” Scott piped up.
“Time travel?” Tony repeated.
Peter let out a low whistle. “Man, when you guys play with fire, you don’t play by half.”
“Who are you?” Natasha said, eyeing him. “This is a private conversation.”
Tony frowned at her. “Anything you want to say to me can be said to my husband, Romanov.”
Husband. The word took the wind out of Steve’s sails. He was vaguely aware that he was gaping in shock, but he couldn’t help it. Hearing that Tony and Pepper had called off the wedding wasn’t a total surprise: the two of them had always had an on-again, off-again relationship. It made just as much sense that they had mutually agreed to end things as it did that they would marry.
But Tony with someone else? That just didn’t compute, and Steve had no idea how to reconcile that bit of information with everything else he knew about Tony. Besides Pepper, Tony had always been a playboy. He was an equal opportunist, willing to sleep with both men and women, but had never seemed interested in any other serious relationship. Steve had always assumed Tony would die alone if he didn’t marry Pepper, because who else would put up with that ego and complete lack of responsibility?
Apparently, this Peter Quill would, that’s who. He was grinning madly at their reactions, even going so far as to wink at Steve when he caught Steve staring at him. Steve scowled back, wondering what was special enough about this guy that Tony had chosen him. He didn’t look like much, that was for sure. He was sort of handsome in a plain, everyday guy kind of way, but that was it.
“Congratulations,” Scott said politely. “I’m Scott Lang.” He extended a hand to Peter.
“Peter Quill. You can call me Star Lord,” Peter said.
“No, he can’t,” Tony said, rolling his eyes. He pulled off his gloves. Much to Steve’s shock, the threads of red and gold remained on Tony’s hands. It almost looked like the threads were a part of his skin and not the gloves at all, which now looked to be plain black as he set them on the table.
“Spoilsport,” Peter said with an exaggerated pout.
Tony ignored him and said, “Now, what’s this about time travel?”
Scott did most of the talking, as he was the one who best positioned to explain what they needed. While he spoke, Tony and Peter listened with great interest. Steve didn’t bother – he’d heard it all before and it had barely made sense the first time. He focused instead on Tony, trying to reconcile this odd creature with the Tony Stark that Steve had known.
In some ways, they were undeniably the same person. Tony still had a perfect poker face, the one he always wore when he didn’t want to make his opinion immediately known. He still took his tea, which Pepper brought out to him and Peter, with two teaspoons of sugar. He still sat without fidgeting, giving the impression that you had his undivided attention even while his brain could be miles away.
But in others… Tony had never seemed so comfortable in his own skin before. So at ease. At least, not around Steve. It was disquieting in a way that Steve couldn’t put into words, and he realized that he didn’t like it. Not when it made him feel like he was being in left in the dark about important things. The last time that had happened, Ultron had nearly destroyed the world.
“So Tony, where have you been?” Steve said when Scott paused to draw a breath.
“Around,” Tony said vaguely. “Here and there.”
“Everywhere,” Peter said, and they smiled at each other.
“You mentioned a ship,” Natasha said suddenly.
“That would be mine. The Milano,” Peter said. “It’s really something if I do say so myself, especially now that I’ve got Tony and Nebula as my crew.”
“Don’t let Nebula hear you call her that,” Tony said. “She’ll stab you.”
Peter shrugged one shoulder, unconcerned. “Wouldn’t be the first time.”
“You were in space,” Natasha said, almost accusingly. “You left Earth.”
Tony looked almost amused by her reaction. “That I did.”
“You did? Why?” Steve said, astonished.
“I needed some time,” Tony said. “It was an easy way to make sure no one would bother me.”
“What if we’d needed you?!” Steve exclaimed.
“Then you would’ve done exactly what you did this time, which is come harass Pepper,” Tony replied flippantly.
Steve scowled. “That was really irresponsible, Tony.”
“Irresponsible? Really, Steve? That’s what you’re going with?” Tony said. “Okay then. Please explain me to why that was irresponsible. I’m not an Avenger. There were no existing threats that we could deal with. I left a way for people to get in touch with me if necessary. I checked back in frequently and visited often.” He looked at Steve expectantly.
“Something could’ve happened for which we needed you immediately,” Steve said. He knew his argument was weak even as he spoke, but he couldn’t seem to stop himself.
“That’s a pretty lame reason,” Peter said.
“I wasn’t talking to you,” Steve said sharply.
Peter shot him a lazy smirk. “No, you’re just sitting there trying to trash talk my husband for no reason. But no, go ahead. Continue.”
“What happened to you?” Natasha said, ignoring Steve and Peter entirely. Scott sat in silence, eyes flicking from person to person.
“What happened to me?” The smile fell from Tony’s face, replaced by something cold and hard. Had his brown eyes always been flecked with gold, or was that a trick of the starlight?
He sat forward without warning, casting his expression into shadows, and said, “You have no right to interrogate me, Romanov. We’re not friends. We’re not even teammates. Even putting aside what happened before the Decimation, as soon as both of you found out what happened on Titan, you stopped caring about me. Neither of you even bothered to come see me while I was recovering from being in space. If you had, you wouldn’t have to wonder who Peter is. He was on the ship with Nebula and me when Carol rescued us, just for your information.”
He was? Steve hadn’t known that. He tried to open his mouth to speak, but Tony mercilessly barreled on.
“In all the time we’ve known each other, you’ve only bothered to see what I can do for you. Anything I asked for in return was immediately deemed as selfish or arrogant on my part. Because surely, Tony Stark should bend over backwards to do whatever the Avengers want him to, right? He should be honored to fund their excursions around the world and create new armor and weapons for them and house them, all without so much as a thank you.”
“That’s not true –” Natasha started.
“Isn’t it?” Tony demanded, turning to her. “Five years, Romanov. It’s been five years. You didn’t even know I hadn’t married Pepper, which you would’ve if you’d done even a speck of hacking. Her marriage to Happy was nice and legal, just not widespread information. No, both of you were perfectly content to ignore me until, again, you decided that I was the only one who could do something for you.”
Natasha looked thoroughly flummoxed. Steve had never seen her look like that before. Neither of them had been expecting this. Natasha had seemed to think that Tony and Pepper would have a kid, maybe two, and they could use that as persuasion to get Tony on their side. It made sense, after all, that Tony would want to rid the world of Thanos for his children.
But this. They hadn’t prepared for this – this fire, burning passionately in Tony’s eyes as he snorted derisively and got to his feet. Peter rose with him in perfect synchronization, like the two of them had choreographed the movement beforehand. Or maybe that they just knew each other so well that they didn’t have to practice. The realization stung.
“Scott, you’re welcome to stay the night and we can talk some more tomorrow. I’m not sure your ideas are valid, but it’s worth a further conversation,” Tony said stiffly. “But you two, I’d like you to leave now.”
“Tony, please,” Steve said, standing up. “Don’t be like this. I – things have been hard all around, okay? Right after the Decimation, no one was in the right frame of mind to know what was going on. And you – you seemed happy with Pepper, and I know you wanted that, and I thought it was better if – I mean, I lost Bucky –”
He stopped too late, seeing the way Tony’s lips pressed together into a thin line. Mentioning Bucky, Steve realized instantly, had been a grave mistake. He’d never spoken to Tony about Bucky. Not once. Not after what happened in Siberia. He just wanted to make Tony see.
“Not everyone can move on so easily, Stark,” Natasha said tightly.
Tony smiled mirthlessly. “Oh, I see. Now I’m a monster because you think I’ve moved on.”
“Some of us lost people we care about,” she spat.
“That’s it,” Peter said. His eyes changed, reflecting the light of the cosmos: black with flares and dots of lights. It was utterly chilling. Natasha jumped to her feet and her hand flashed to her waist, drawing forth a dagger.
“What are you?” Natasha hissed.
“Better than you,” Peter sneered.
“I lost people too,” Tony said, very quietly. “Don’t think that what I’ve lost matters less.”
There was a moment during which all four of them just stood there, Scott still quietly sitting, with the heavy air pressing down on Steve’s shoulders. It was then that Steve fully realized that Tony was lost to him. They would never be anything more than acquaintances for the simple reason that Tony didn’t want them to be anything more than that.
“Natasha, let’s go,” Steve said wearily. “Let’s not fight.”
He thought she might argue, but Natasha squared her shoulders and stalked past Tony and Peter. Steve followed. They walked back to the car in silence, even though Natasha was vibrating with anger; she didn’t like it when things didn’t go her way, and this situation was completely out of their control now – and Steve had no idea what to do about it, but he knew better than to push the issue right now. The weight of that cosmic glare followed them long after Steve had backed out of the driveway and driven away.