I've seen the future, brother: it is murder. --Leonard Cohen
Tony's workshop is a ruined mess of sparking equipment and broken armor, and Tony -- Tony the coward, Tony the monster -- is safe behind the last of his suits, black and gold, his eyeslits glowing a sinister, inhuman red. Behind the faceplate he's bleeding, Steve knows, but it's not enough. It's nowhere near enough. He wants Tony to hurt like he's hurting; he wants Tony to know what it's like to have his memories ripped out of his mind, to know how it feels to find out that his best friend has been lying to him for a year, that everything they've built together has been made worthless. It was worthless all along. Tony's probably been laughing at him for believing it. Maybe he's laughing now. It was all a trick. It was all a lie. It was all a betrayal.
The other Avengers are grappling with the last of the suits when suddenly everything is a blinding orange-white.
The Time Gem is floating in the middle of the room.
"What is that?" Steve asks, and he's pushing himself up. He's drawn inexorably toward it, even as something at the back of his mind is screaming that he knows what it is, that he shouldn't touch it.
It's his Gem. He's borne it for a couple years, after all. It came back for him, he thinks, half-hypnotized. It's his. It wants to be his. It needs him.
He's walking forward, even as he knows he shouldn't. He can't stop himself.
"Get away!" Tony yells, his modulated voice hoarse with fear. Steve wants to laugh. Like Tony cares about what happens to him.
He's holding out his hand -- why is he doing this? why can't he stop? -- and closing his fist around the Gem. He wonders if where he's going is better than here. It can't possibly be any worse.
Everything goes white, white, white--
Betrayal -10 Years
It's morning. Steve's standing on a sidewalk. He's in New York, he thinks, as a grumbling, balding man in a business suit shoves past him, heading for what looks like Fifth Avenue, the next cross street; he's right in the middle of the flow of people. He looks down at himself. He's in uniform, but this one looks a little old-fashioned. Not quite the one he's used to wearing these days. His right hand -- the hand that reached out for the Gem -- is extended in midair, frozen into a fist.
Slowly, Steve opens his hand. It's empty. The Time Gem is gone.
Okay, he thinks, okay. He can handle this. It's just a little bit of time-travel. Maybe the Gem will come back. It came back before. He's an Avenger. He can do this. He takes a few deep breaths, stepping back into the shade of the nearest building, out of the path of the foot traffic. He tries to think. He was furious with Tony, but Tony isn't here anymore. Different problem. New problem. He inhales sharply through his nose, shuts his eyes for a second, and tries to breathe more slowly, to let the rage go, to breathe it out. That's not how it works for him, calming down, but it's the only thing he can do right now. He wants to run, to fight, to punch something until he can't think, until he can't remember, until only his body is left. He doesn't have that luxury.
First things first: when is he? He's in his past self's body somehow, he thinks; he's in his past self's clothes, anyway. The cars on the street are modern, but not quite as sleek as the current models. He's never had much of an eye for fashion, but even he can tell the basics; the other pedestrians' clothes are likewise modern, although they're not wearing, he thinks, currently fashionable styles. He's not in the forties again. He supposes that's a good sign; he wasn't fond of that trick when Kang the Conqueror tried it. Or when the Red Skull tried it. And, besides, that's not his home anymore.
(Does he have a home now? He'd thought he'd had one at the tower these days. The home Tony had given him. The team they'd built together. Another lie.)
He walks past a row of newspaper vending machines, stops, and squints at the date.
It's almost ten years ago.
Well, he thinks numbly, that's not so bad. He's had worse. He's done this before. He can do this.
So he knows when he is. That leads to the second question: why is he here now? He didn't pick this time period; the Gem did. There must have been some reason, some point. If he figures out why he's here, maybe it will send him home. Maybe there's something he has to do. He leans against the building and tries to think. Ten years. He would have been an Avenger for about two years at this point. What are the Avengers up to now? They've faced a lot of things. Ultron, maybe? They've probably fought him a couple times by now. It can't be time for him again. Tony's had his heart surgery not too long ago, Steve thinks, and then it all turns into pain and frustrated anger; he's remembering everything by what had happened to the man who'd just wiped Steve's mind. No, something else is bound to be happening. Something more important than Tony goddamn Stark.
He looks at the date again, and then it clicks: the Kree/Skrull War. Tomorrow. Tomorrow the Avengers are going to catch Mar-Vell at the Baxter Building, using the portal to the Negative Zone. He's going to draw Earth into their war with the Skrulls, the Avengers will fight the Kree Sentry, humanity is going to learn that the Kree exist, the Alien Activities Commission -- headed, of course, by a Skrull posing as Senator Craddock -- is about to be formed, the AAC is going to stir up a witch-hunt because the Avengers are sheltering Mar-Vell, the Inhumans are going to show up, and eventually they're going to have to rescue half the Avengers from the Skrulls. It's a mess that should never have involved Earth in the first place.
What is he supposed to do? He hadn't even been there when the Avengers had stumbled onto Mar-Vell; that had been Pietro, Wanda, and Vision. He hadn't been there for the fight with the Sentry in the Arctic; that had been those three, plus Jan, Hank, and Clint. He'd only gotten there after the public had found out about the Kree, after the Skrulls impersonating him, Iron Man, and Thor had tried to disband the team. He'd been too late to stop anything.
They fought Tony's Mandroids together, he remembers, when the Commission came after them. Of course Iron Man had known exactly how to take them down. Steve hadn't known why Iron Man knew at the time; he hadn't had a clue about Tony's secret identity.
Remember when Tony trusted the government and built those things? he thinks, and he wants to laugh. Or cry. Remember when he trusted anyone?
Is he supposed to try to stop the war anyway? Is that what the Time Gem wants? It's a little strange to think of the Gems -- the Gem, he supposes, because it's the last one -- as having any kind of sentience, but they've always had their mysteries. It could be possible. They had an affinity for each other; that much, he knew. Maybe this one has some kind of affinity for him. Maybe it has a plan. If he were the Time Gem, what would he want? What would he want that he can do, right now?
The answer hits him like a gut-punch, and he's bracing himself against the wall for balance.
He's not here to stop the war. He's here for what happens after the war. In the wake of the Kree/Skrull War, the Illuminati are going to assemble for the first time. Ten years from now, they're going to destroy the Infinity Gauntlet. He's going to destroy the Gauntlet. Maybe he's supposed to fix that. Maybe he's supposed to make it so that it never has a chance to happen. No Illuminati, no broken Gauntlet. That's got to be it.
Or if it isn't it, it's a good enough theory for right now.
How's he supposed to stop the Illuminati? For a start, he knows who they are -- will be -- and he knows where they live. That's an advantage. He squints at the nearest street sign. He's two blocks from Avengers Mansion. He knows where the closest future Illuminati member probably is right now.
Of course, that man happens to be Tony Stark.
Well, no one ever said saving the world was easy, he thinks, and he takes off toward home -- it's not his home, it hasn't been his home for years, why is he even thinking that? -- at a dead run.
He's starting to feel better as he approaches the mansion, just a little; for a brief few minutes there's nothing to think about except his feet against the pavement, except the pattern of his breathing, and he's grateful, because he knows he's going to need all the inner peace he can muster to be able to confront Tony, the last person he ever wants to see again.
The wave of nostalgia that hits him as he sees the familiar gates and the sprawling brick building behind them is unexpected. This is his home, something in him knows, with soul-deep certainty. This was always his home, waiting for him. This is the way the mansion used to be, before Wanda destroyed it, before it was rebuilt, before the Avengers disbanded and came back and came back and came back. This is the beginning. This is when they were a team, really a team, and not a broken web of secrets and lies.
He blinks back a tear -- why is he crying? -- and knocks on the door.
Jarvis -- a decade younger, of course -- opens it, regarding him with surprise. "Captain!" he says. "You're back from your run so soon. Is all well?"
That explains why he was on the street. "Fine, fine," he says, curtly. "I just remembered that I needed to talk to Tony. Something urgent to discuss with him. Is he still around?"
Jarvis stares at him like he ought to have known the answer to that. "He's still in his workshop downstairs, I believe, as he told you he would be," he says, finally. "I was just about to take him his breakfast."
There is, in fact, a breakfast tray, set down on the nearest table.
"I can do that for you," Steve offers, even though it's really the last thing he wants to do. But it will give him some time with Tony. Time alone, where no one is expected to bother them. There won't be any Avengers alerts today, at least. He remembers that much from the past.
"If you insist, Captain," Jarvis says, a little disapproving.
Steve scoops up the tray. "I do insist. Thanks, Jarvis."
He heads down the familiar steps to the basement, feeling an eerie sense of déjà vu prickle down his spine. He's going to confront Tony in his workshop. Again. He just did this. Of course, that was the tower and he had armed Avengers at his back, and here it's the mansion and him with a breakfast tray. But something about it feels the same.
He's standing in front of the closed door to the workshop. Open the door, he remembers instructing Thor, and something heavy and anguished twists deep with him.
"Come on in," Tony's voice says, muffled through the door, sounding a little preoccupied, no doubt by whatever he's working on. "It's open."
He pushes the door open and is confronted by an Iron Man suit, red and gold, hanging half-built from the ceiling. It's only the top half, and the pieces aren't together yet; they're hanging from separate hooks, with enough room between them that they can each be inspected individually. Cables are draped every which way, trailing into the corners of the room. Tony himself is standing under the main body of the suit, halfway into it, leaning back and looking up inside the chestplate, reaching up above his head and adjusting something within it. There's a screwdriver jammed in his mouth, brushing half his mustache askew. He hasn't even looked away from his work. He's... God, he's so young.
Steve stares, and stares, and he can't stop staring, and something within him just starts to melt, the fist around his heart unclenching. Tony's so very young. So innocent. They've never hurt each other. They're friends, the best of friends. There's no pain here. I miss you, he thinks, helplessly. He had no idea how much he missed this until right now. It's everything he's lost. Everything they've lost. Everything they've broken and ruined.
"You can just put it down anywhere there's room, please, Jarvis," Tony says, distracted and nearly unintelligible thanks to the screwdriver that's still wedged in his mouth. "Thanks, and-- oh!" He looks up, takes the screwdriver out, and then smiles, wide and pleased and -- as Steve has always thought -- goddamn beautiful. "Hey, Steve. Thought you'd gone out for the morning. You running Jarvis' errands for him now?"
"Not exactly," Steve says, and he puts the tray down. "I have to talk to you."
Responding, Steve thinks, to the seriousness in his tone, Tony ducks back out of the suit, unselfconsciously wipes his grease-stained hands down the front of his t-shirt, and stands up. "Sure, Cap. Is there a problem?"
Is there ever. "I have to talk to you about what's going to happen," he says, looking Tony levelly in the eyes. "There is-- something's going to happen soon. Tomorrow. The Kree and Skrull Empires are fighting, and they're going to bring the fight to Earth, and--" He's going about this the wrong way, he knows, because Tony's looking more and more confused.
Tony blinks at him. "The Kree and the Skrulls? Sounds like Avengers business to me. Do you want me to call the team for you? How did you even find something like that out? Why-- how-- I just don't understand why you needed to tell me," he says, which is, upon reflection, exactly what a man pretending he isn't an Avenger would say. "How can I help? Is there something you need built?"
How can I help? He swallows hard. Tony wants to help him. God. Tony really wants to help him. Tony's absolutely sincere. Earnest, even.
Steve takes a deep, desperate breath, and tries again. "Tony," he says, "I'm from the future."
Tony stares. For a long while he says nothing. He just blinks a few more times. "Just so you know, Cap, you should have led with that." He's still staring. "You're really-- you just look like yourself. Haven't aged at all, huh? Or, wait, no, how far in the future are you from?"
"Ten years," Steve says, automatically, before it occurs to him that he should maybe think more about what he's saying and how much he should tell Tony. "But I'm-- I think I'm borrowing your Steve's body. I don't know. This is all new to me, and I didn't exactly pick this."
"My Steve," Tony says, in an odd tone, lingering over the first word. "And, really, a decade? Are you-- wait, first I need to establish something. That you're you." He frowns. "Do your Avengers have a protocol for this? Do you still have Avengers? Because my team -- I mean, uh, the current Avengers I sponsor, I don't think they do." He makes a face. "That's an oversight. Maybe you could tell me something only you know? Or only I know? Something I tell you in the future? That kind of thing."
Steve looks at Tony, looks at the suit, thinks about what year it is, and he can only think of one thing to say. "You're Iron Man."
Tony goes white.
"Your Steve doesn't know," Steve says, quickly, and God, Tony looks like he's going to pass out, but what else was he supposed to use as proof? "He doesn't even guess. I promise."
"But you know," Tony says, wrecked. "You know."
"Everyone knows," Steve says, and that's probably not the best or most well-considered thing he's ever said because now he's watching Tony's legs give way and he's at Tony's side in an instant.
Tony's stumbling to his desk in the corner, to a chair, and Steve reflexively shadows him, getting an arm around him. He's holding him up, because this is Tony, this is always what they do for each other, and he can't not help him. Tony's staring at him, ghost-pale, his mouth shaking, and the fatigued circles around his eyes look like bruises. Wordlessly, Tony slides open the nearest desk drawer; there's a flask in there, and now Steve's the one staring in horror as Tony takes a fortifying sip.
"What?" Tony asks, confused, hoarse, looking back at him, holding out the flask. "You want some?"
"You don't drink," Steve says. "You've been sober for years. I haven't seen you drink since-- it's just a shock--" He shakes his head, scrapes his hand over his face. "Sorry, Tony. I'm doing this all wrong. I don't know what I'm doing."
Tony's still looking up at him, wild-eyed, as he puts the flask away. "I have to say, I thought messages from the future would be more... authoritative."
Steve chuckles a little. "Yeah, it would be nice, wouldn't it? Listen, Tony. I don't actually know why I'm here, why I ended up in this time, but I'll give you the best guess I've got, and then you've got to promise me to do something, okay? Promise me you'll try. I think that's the key to fixing it."
"I'm listening," says Tony, and he doesn't actually promise, Steve notices. But maybe he'll try. "You said something about the Kree and the Skrulls?"
Steve nods. "They're-- they're going to fight here. They're going to drag Earth into it. The public's going to learn all about it. It's... it's going to be kind of a mess."
Tony stares. "You want me to stop it before it starts?" He shuts his eyes, runs his fingers through his hair. "Okay. I can-- we can try. Tell me how it happens. The casus belli. Give me the details. We can think this through."
Working together. Just like the old days. These are the old days.
"No." Steve shakes his head, and Tony looks up at him, confused again. "I don't think that's the point. I think the war's supposed to happen. It's what happens after the war that isn't supposed to happen. It's what you do after the war."
"What I do?"
"After the war, you get an idea," Steve says, and he has the awful thought that maybe this is how Tony gets the idea in the first place, that it's him telling him this that started it all, that time loops back on itself like an ouroboros, that maybe this will happen again and again. But he's already talking. "You take a look at all the heroes we've got -- us, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, the Inhumans, everyone else -- and you think, we're all separate. You think if we'd been able to put up a united front, share resources, share knowledge, it never would have happened." He meets Tony's gaze; Tony stares back at him, unflinching. "It's a laudable goal. I'm not saying it's not." After all, he was Illuminati too, once.
"So you set up a group," he continues. "I'm not going to tell you who you pick, but I'm sure you can guess. A small group. A secret group. A coalition. You agree to meet whenever there's something bigger than any one team can handle. You work behind the scenes. You shape things. You... you meddle. And gradually, you get into things bigger than you can handle. Bigger than you should handle. You don't tell anyone. And it... it poisons you, Tony. You do awful things, unconscionable things, because you think they're the only things you can do, the only things that are left, and God, Tony, I can't--"
The man who needs to hear these words is a decade away. Steve shuts his eyes. When he opens them, this Tony is looking up at him, mouth half-open, hesitating.
"In the future," he says, softly, "you're furious with me. Aren't you."
Well, it's not like Tony's stupid.
Steve nods. He can't speak.
Tony is silent for a long while. "I'd apologize for my future self," he says, "but I don't think it would mean anything, coming from me. And I don't think it's what you want."
"I want you not to do it," Steve says. "That's what I want." I want you not to wipe my mind. I want there to be no lies. I want us to be friends, like this, just like this. I want it to be real. I want this back.
And then Tony reaches out and lays his hand over Steve's. "Okay, Winghead," he says, and the old nickname, the one Tony hasn't called him in years, makes his heart twist up in combined longing and sadness. "No bright ideas for me. No founding a secret society. I promise."
Is that it? Is it this easy?
Steve smiles weakly. "Thank you."
"Can I ask you a question?" Tony asks, and his eyes are wide, pale, nervous. "About the future, I mean. You don't have to answer it."
"Sure. Anything," he says, and the word falls from his lips without him having to think about it. He would always have done anything for this man.
Tony glances back in the direction of the half-finished suit. "When you found out about Iron Man," he asks, and he pauses to lick his lips, "were you mad?" His fingers tighten around Steve's hand.
Tony's never asked him this before, and suddenly Steve remembers how he felt, that long-ago day. Something deep within him, something long-buried, is warm, glowing with contentment. It's something he never thought he'd feel again.
Steve smiles. He pushes down the impulse to embrace him, to tell him it'll all be okay, to hold him tight. "No," he says, as gently as he can. "I wasn't mad at all. Concerned about your heart, when I found out you'd been fighting with us, yes. Mostly I remember that I was so happy. I was happy I knew the truth at last, and I was so, so, happy it was you."
Tony smiles back.
Orange light dances across the walls, glints off the metal of the suit, and Tony's eyes focus on something just beyond Steve's shoulder.
"Cap," Tony begins. "Behind you--"
"Let me guess. There's an orange gemstone hovering in midair." Tony nods, and Steve glances behind him. Yep. There it is. "That's my ride."
He's turning towards the Time Gem, because he can't not turn. His body, his borrowed body is reaching out for it.
"Maybe you shouldn't," Tony says.
Steve's holding out his hand, inches from the Gem. "No choice," he grits out, uselessly trying to force his fingers back. He has no control. "I'm not the one doing this. It's making me take it. Remember what I told you, okay? Please, Tony."
"I'll remember," Tony says, and then the world whites out.
Betrayal -8 Years
He's in... a factory? Some kind of factory, anyway. Tony's standing in front of him; he's wearing a business suit. It's probably one of Tony's factories.
"Sure, Steve," Tony's saying. "Like I said -- it's my pleasure."
He looks down at himself, dazed. He's holding out one arm; his coat's draped over it. His other arm's clutching his shield, but something's not quite right here. The uniform. It's black, he realizes, with red and white horizontal stripes on his torso. A black star on his chest. The shield tucked under his arm is unpainted, bare metal.
Oh, God, no. He knows exactly when this is. Why would the Gem pick this?
Why is he here at all? He did it right. He should be home. Tony said he wouldn't found the Illuminati. What happened?
"Steve?" Tony reaches out a hand to his shoulder, bracing him. His eyes are wide, dark with concern. Strangely, he looks... guilty? "Steve, what's wrong? Are you okay?"
Steve stares back and sighs. He gets his feet under him. All right. All right. He's soldiering on. He must have done it wrong. He can try again.
"I'm from the future," he says, and Tony's eyes go wider. "Again."
"I told you we needed an identification protocol," Tony mutters, half-annoyed, half-affectionate. "If you're going to keep going all Quantum Leap on yourself, that is."
"Believe me," Steve says, "I would much rather not be doing this either."
Tony draws his hands back, and Steve still wobbles a little. "I'm sure," Tony agrees. "So how many jumps is this, out of curiosity? Is it random?"
"Second jump." He sees no reason not to tell Tony. "My present, then that Kree/Skrull stuff, and now here."
"That was two years ago," Tony muses. "I wonder what the linking factor is. I wonder if you're going to keep going forward, chronologically. Let me know the next time you're here, will you?"
Steve can practically see him thinking, trying to work this out. But Tony doesn't have all the data. And that's not what this is about, anyway. He doesn't think this is something Tony can solve for him like that.
"All right," he says. "I'll keep you posted. If I keep going, that is." He sighs. "I'm really hoping I get to go home next, though." It's not like he actually misses being in Tony's wrecked workshop with a Tony who has ripped apart everything that was between them, but he is not and has never been a fan of time-traveling involuntarily through his past, and he can actually say that with authority.
"I bet," Tony says, and something in his expression softens, easy and gentle, but he still looks oddly... guarded.
"Did past me remember? Did he remember what I said to you, while I was in his body?"
Tony shakes his head. "I don't think he had any idea, no. He seemed to have gotten some kind of memory of coming back to see me, having a normal conversation; I think somehow your Gem manufactured something that would make sense to him."
That's good, Steve supposes. If his past self remembered anything he'd said, the timeline, such as it is, would be even more of a mess now.
"So," Steve murmurs. "The Illuminati?"
Tony jumps a little and hunches into himself, guiltily, and Steve's heart sinks. If he hadn't done it, the name would mean nothing to him, nothing at all except an idea from the realm of crackpot conspiracy theorists. But he knows. And he knows Steve knows.
Steve sighs. "Tony, I asked you one thing. Not to do it. You-- dammit, Tony, you promised!" His voice is raised. He feels the anger curl within him, hot and familiar. It's so easy to hate him, these days. It never used to be. He hates that Tony makes him feel like this. He doesn't want to feel like this.
And Tony flinches, flinches hard, like he's afraid of what Steve might do, like Steve has never spoken to him like this before, and maybe his Steve hasn't. Steve wants to apologize but he can't, he doesn't know how, and he just can't stop being angry.
"It wasn't me who did it," Tony snaps back, eyes flashing cobalt. His chin tilts up, defiant, matching anger with anger. "Reed Richards called me up, invited me to a get-together in Wakanda, and what was I supposed to do, tell him no? Was I supposed to say, no, I'm not interested in talking about how we can come together to save the planet? Was I supposed to leave myself in the dark while his little secret club plotted behind my back?"
Why not? It's where you left me, Steve thinks, and he's got his fingers tight over the rim of the shield.
"Yeah," he retorts, "that's exactly what you were supposed to tell him."
Tony sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose. "Look, Steve, I fucked it up. I'm sorry. But how about this for a theory: the Illuminati were always supposed to form."
Tony shrugs. "I did what you said to do. I didn't start it. You said in your future it was me who had the idea. I didn't tell anyone. So Reed had the idea instead, because somebody had to. Maybe it was always supposed to happen. Maybe they were always supposed to exist."
"That can't be right." Because if Tony's right, then it means that he's unstuck in time again for another reason, and he has no clue why, because he can't think of anything else the Time Gem would want. "I was so sure it had to be that. The Illuminati. I don't know what else it could be if it's not that. I don't know what the key is. I don't know why I'm here."
Steve stares down at himself again. He's The Captain. Tony's just given him a brand-new shield. Tony's acting strangely. He knows when this is.
It was Tony he was drawn to before. It's Tony now. Maybe it's... personal. Maybe it's not the Illuminati. Maybe it's them. Maybe it's the two of them. If he'd managed to make the Illuminati never happen, the mindwipe never would have happened. They would have been friends. Real friends.
Maybe it's all betrayal.
The Gem came back when he found out Tony had betrayed him.
The Gem first brought him to a time when he might have stopped that final betrayal.
And, now, well... he knows when he is now. A bond is broken, because of what Tony does to him. What Tony is about to do to him. The first crack in their friendship. The first betrayal.
Dazed, despairing, Steve staggers back against the wall. How can it do this to him? How can he hope to fix any of it? How can he possibly live through this twice? It only gets worse from here.
"Steve?" Tony's brows are drawn together in worry. "Steve, are you all right?"
"No." He shuts his eyes. "I know the linking factor. And I know what you're planning to do to the Guardsmen."
Tony's mouth works but no sound comes out. He can't meet Steve's eyes. "Which of you knows about the Guardsmen?" he asks, finally.
Steve gives a helpless shrug. "Both of me. I'm sorry."
"You're going to try to stop me." Tony's lips thin. It's not a question.
"We've had-- we're going to have this fight." Steve sighs. "I know that the uses other people have for your technology could be... bad. And I agree -- I always agreed -- that you were right not to want people you couldn't trust using your tech. I disagreed with your methods, not your motives. It's the same fight we've always had. My principles, your... pragmatism. This is just the first time, I think. The first time it really mattered."
"You can't seriously think you can convince me to stop, Steve." His gaze is determined. "I'm going to do this. I'm going to take them out. The things I've built -- my tech could hurt so many people. I have to stop them."
Steve leans his head back against the wall and shuts his eyes. It can't be an exercise in futility. It can't be. If he's here, they have to be able to change something. "Oh, I know. And I'm going to try to stop you. I did try before, anyway. I can't imagine that it would be different now."
"You're saying it's pointless, then?"
"I'm saying you have to do something," Steve says, frustrated. "Because I can't, because I only get to be here now, not when I can actually change anything. You have to keep us from fighting, Tony, that's the key. Either you back down or you make me back down. At this point I'm happy with either, but it can't happen. You can't fight me on this. This is when everything starts to break, Tony. You don't know how bad it gets between us. You have to stop it here and now."
He sees it in Tony's eyes before Tony answers: Tony doesn't understand. Tony can't understand. He doesn't think this could possibly be significant. He doesn't think this is really the link here. He thinks it's a little disagreement, maybe. He doesn't know what lies at the end of this road.
"I'll try," says Tony, and Steve knows he doesn't believe it, not like he needs to, and then Tony blinks. "Uh, Steve, you've got a Gem incoming."
"That's the key," he repeats, and as he's bathed in orange light, reaching out for the Gem, helpless, he can't stop talking about it. "Just don't fight me, please, Tony, just don't--"
Tony fades into whiteness, as does the rest of the world, and Steve knows it's not going to be enough.
Betrayal -7 Years
He's standing in a briefing room, surrounded by Avengers. The most obvious of them is Goliath -- Clint, not Hank -- as he's now at least ten feet tall. Most of the rest of these people, he hasn't seen in years: US Agent, Crystal, Hercules, the Black Knight, Sersi.
And Tony, of course. Always Tony. He's off to Steve's left, practically in the corner, gleaming red and gold in a suit whose hard, angular lines are harsh and almost unfamiliar. It's not a suit Tony's worn recently, and Steve can't remember exactly when he had it. If it were Tony making this trip through time, he could probably date everything down to the day just by his armors. Steve is not so fortunate.
He doesn't quite know when he is. Still years in the past, obviously.
The assembled team is staring at him like he's been talking, like he's been leading a briefing, which doesn't exactly narrow things down, time-wise. US Agent is practically glaring at him, his lip curled in disgust, and Steve wonders what he said or did to him.
He has no idea what he's supposed to be saying. Couldn't his past self have finished the briefing first?
Clint coughs as discreetly as someone who is currently ten feet tall can possibly cough. "Uh, Cap?" he asks. "Are we done here? We should probably start prepping the Quinjets."
Okay, so at least he's finished the briefing. That's good.
"T minus three hours," Tony says from the corner, like it's an offer. "If that sounds good to you."
"Sure," Steve says, vaguely. He has no idea what he's agreed to. "That works. Dismissed." He takes another breath. "Except Iron Man. Stay a little, would you, Tony?"
Tony nods, and the rest of the Avengers file out. It's just the two of them. Tony's staring at him. He's fully-armored; his eyes are glowing slits. He's unreadable.
Tony holds his gauntleted hands out. "Well, Winghead, you've got me. What did you want? Make it quick; I've got to start the flight checklists for both teams." Both teams? When is this? When Steve says nothing -- hoping that Tony will say something more useful -- Tony tilts his head, seeming to finally get a look at him. "Are you doing okay? You don't look so good."
"Time travel," Steve manages. "I'm borrowing your Steve's body again. From the future."
Tony swears, brief and heartfelt. There's the click of his helmet unlocking, and then he's staring down at him, blue eyes wide. "Welcome back, Billy Pilgrim. We really need a protocol for this."
"We seem to be doing okay so far with this one," Steve says, his mouth twisting. "I am never reading that book again, I just got here, it's my third jump, and will you please tell me when the hell I am?" His voice is raised. He doesn't mean to, but-- he wasn't supposed to be here. Tony was supposed to fix this last time. He told him. Something went wrong again. He wants this to stop.
He must sound panicked, because Tony reaches out and puts an armored hand on Steve's shoulder, trying to calm him. Tony cares about him, he realizes, stupidly. Tony's always cared about him. "Shh, Steve, it's okay. If this is only your third jump, you're still going chronologically forward. The thing with the Guardsmen--" Tony winces-- "was about a year ago. You haven't been back since."
He's seven years ago, maybe? He can't think, God, he can't think. "What's going on now?"
Tony sighs. "It's complicated. The Kree and the Shi'ar are at war, and they're using the sun as an energy source for their wormhole, but it's going to make our sun go nova if they don't stop. You... you just told the Avengers we should try diplomacy, and you split us all into three teams: two sets of envoys, one for each empire, and one team to stay at home. You put the two of us on the Kree team. We're just about to go to Hala." He pauses, takes a breath, smiles a cocky smile that can only be hey, aliens, come and get it. "Feel free to stop me when you know when you are."
Oh, no. Not this. Not this, too.
"I know," Steve says, and he shuts his eyes. "I know when I am now. God help me, I know why I'm here." He opens his eyes. "You couldn't stop me, huh? With the Guardsmen? You couldn't stop yourself?" He doesn't mean to be angry. He doesn't. But his fists are clenching, and he can't not, he can't not feel this way.
They don't have infinite chances to get this right. They've wasted two. Tony's wasted two. He has to make Tony fix this.
For an instant Tony tenses up, like he's going to fight back, but Tony only sighs again. "I don't know if you know this about yourself, Cap, but you can be a stubborn bastard sometimes."
He thinks back to that day--
And he's remembering it twice.
"Listen," Tony says, sunlight glinting off his red-and-silver armor, as they're standing over the downed Guardsman. "You have to listen to me, Steve. I can't-- I can't tell you why, but it's important. You have to let me do this. Please."
He has no idea why Tony's telling him this. Tony's wrong; doesn't he see how wrong he is? How can Tony even do this? "I won't let you harm innocent people. I'm going to stop you."
Tony sighs, a crackling hiss of static. "I tried," he says. "I'm sorry. I guess I'll see you again soon."
Steve has about half a second to wonder what that means before Tony hits him from behind, and he's out.
Steve blinks and comes back to himself. That wasn't how it happened. Except, he supposes, that was how it happened now. He has no idea how he can remember it both ways. Time travel makes his head hurt.
"Okay, yeah," Steve acknowledges. "You tried. I can-- I can remember that. Somehow." He can remember so many things about them, these days. "But you have to try harder. Please." He doesn't want to think about what's going to come after this. He doesn't want to think about what he doesn't want to live through again. You know you don't actually live through it, he tells himself, and that's even worse.
Tony raises his hands. It's a defensive move, but thank God, he has enough presence to keep the repulsors dim. "There wasn't really a lot of time just then to have a heart-to-heart, and afterwards you came to visit and you just wanted to fight me about it. I did my best--"
"Your best wasn't good enough," Steve snaps back, furious and terrified. Maybe this is all inevitable, maybe he has to do it all again, maybe they always have to fight and fight and fight, maybe he has to die again, maybe it will never be okay--
Tony jerks where he's standing, eyes gone wide and shocked, pained, and Steve knows he's hit him right where it hurts. They know each other's weak spots far too well. He's always been able to get in under Tony's armor, and as Tony wobbles and looks down at him, he's hurting and Steve knows he shouldn't have said it. The Steve from this time never would have.
"God, Tony," he says, and he wishes he could take it back. "I'm sorry, Tony, I'm so sorry, that was rotten, I should never have said it--"
He watches Tony's throat work as Tony chokes back something that could have been words or tears. "It's all right." He sighs. "So that's how we are in the future, huh?"
"It's not how I want us to be." They can be better. Steve can be better. He can try.
"Yeah." Tony's mouth twists. "I can see that." He takes a breath. "Okay. Okay. Are you sure you're not here because of the Kree? It was the Kree the first time."
Steve nods. "Positive. It's us. The Kree thing is a coincidence. It wasn't the Kree last time, after all. And -- if I'm right about when I'm going -- it's not going to be the Kree again." It's going to be so much worse.
Tony contemplates this. "All right. What do you need me to do? Is it-- are we going to fight again?"
"Pretty much." Steve sighs. "Not physically. It's an argument. I remember I was mad about a couple of the command decisions you made, although that's really a minor point now. That's not the part I remember being the angriest about. I'm not even mad about you leaving me in the prison on Hala--"
"I leave you in a prison on Hala?" Tony asks, horrified, like it's the worst thing he can imagine doing to him. He doesn't know.
Steve shrugs. "You had to get on with the mission. That one was the right choice. Apparently you knock out Clint when he wants to go back for me. He might be going to be mad about that; I don't remember."
Tony's gaze has become uncertain. "Are you sure you're supposed to be spoiling me for this?"
"I'm not sure of anything," he says, honestly. "I'm just... I'm trying to do what I think is right."
Somehow Tony summons up the tiniest of smiles. "You always are." Steve wonders how Tony can still look at him like that. They're still friends, he supposes. Even now. Tony can forgive him, because he hasn't seen the damage they're actually capable of inflicting on each other. "So if that's not the problem between us, what's the problem you think I have to fix?"
"At the end of the war," Steve says, remembering what made him so angry about this once, "we're going to hold the Kree Supreme Intelligence responsible. And we're going to destroy it. We're going to murder it. You're going to be the one to want to murder it. You're going to kill it."
Tony blinks at him, a few times, like he doesn't understand where the problem is. "Steve, it's an artificial intelligence," he says, quietly, and this is the exact problem, right here. "I know we're Avengers. We don't kill. I-- I can't believe you'd think I'd want to. But this thing isn't alive. We've seen it. That's not sentience. It wouldn't be murder. If this comes to pass, it'd be like flipping the off switch on a computer."
Helplessly, Steve stares back at him. This is how it's going to go. They're going to have so many chances, and they're going to ruin them all. Even now he that he's telling Tony the future, Tony can't change it. He can't change his own reactions. He's not going to understand.
"Yeah," Steve says, wearily, and he wants to cry. He wants to yell. "That's more or less what you're going to tell me."
Tony's looking down at him, confused and angry and hurt, and Steve knows the bond between them is cracking. He never looked at him quite like this before. Maybe Steve is ruining their friendship further, with these time jumps, but what is he supposed to do? It's not like the Gem is giving him a choice.
As if on cue, there's an orange light at his side, glowing brighter.
"I guess I'm going again," Steve says, feeling the inevitability seep into his bones, and the Time Gem makes him reach out for it. "If I see you before the war -- if I'm not going home now, God, I hope I see you before the war--"
"What war?" Tony asks. "I thought you said it wasn't going to be the Kree again--"
There's not enough time to explain. Steve is gone.
Betrayal -5 Years
Steve comes to in an empty hallway in Avengers Mansion. Everything is quiet, peaceful. Pictures hang neatly from the unblemished walls. It's still the original mansion, before the rebuilding. The only thing he can feel is profound relief. He might still be falling through time at the whim of the last Infinity Gem, but if he's in the mansion -- if the mansion hasn't been destroyed yet -- then he has at least this one chance. Before Registration. Before the Civil War.
He takes a shaky breath. All right. He's still in the past. Time to do something about it.
He looks down at himself, just to see if that provides any temporal help. The uniform's looking more recent, with a vaguely familiar heavier section along the edge of one of the gloves, a metal gauntlet underneath the leather; the weight of it is throwing him off a little, and he remembers having to compensate for that. He slides the fingers of his other hand down the glove and flips the little switch at the wrist. He isn't particularly surprised when the energy shield flashes into being. It spreads out all across his forearm in a curve of glowing light, a simulated vibranium matrix.
Huh. He hasn't had the energy shield in a while. He remembers Sharon giving it to him. He wonders if that's just happened. He tilts his wrist thoughtfully, this way and that, and finally flicks the shield off. It's not going to help him here.
He needs to find Tony. He always needs to find Tony.
When he knocks on Tony's door, there's silence, stretching for long enough that Steve begins to wonder if Tony's in there at all. Maybe he's not at the mansion. Maybe he's not even in New York.
Just as he's about to turn away, Tony calls out "One second!" from inside the room, and it's an eternity later -- why is this taking so long? -- before the door starts to swing open.
I'm from the future again, Steve prepares to say.
Then he sees Tony, every other thought flies out of his head, and he understands why it took so long for Tony to respond.
Tony is a wreck. His face is a mask of heavy bruising, black-purple almost everywhere, covered in bandages. There are more bandages on every part of exposed skin Steve can see. Tony has one hand pressed against his ribs like they're broken -- they probably are -- and his other hand is bracing his weight against the doorframe. He looks like he shouldn't be walking. He looks like he shouldn't even be standing, or in fact, be anywhere outside of a hospital.
"My God," Steve says, "what happened? You look like hell."
Tony blinks at him, confused, pain-fogged, and Steve realizes that this time period's Steve would have known the answer. "Nice to see your handsome face too," he says, with a smile that looks more like a grimace. "Though, really, nothing's happened since you saw me ten minutes ago. What's new with you?"
He can almost remember this-- he had the energy shield-- and Tony was hurt-- and--
"Visiting from the future again," Steve says, hoping that Tony can tell him when he is. If he can't immediately remember, it can't be that bad, right? "Fourth jump. Hi."
Tony sighs, and even leaning against the doorframe he sways unsteadily. "Please don't be here to tell me we're going to get into a fistfight tomorrow, because I don't think I can handle fucking up anything right now. I'm already fucked up." He takes a few wobbly steps backward. "You should come in. I should probably be lying down."
"Probably," Steve agrees, and he knows Tony must be in immense pain even to admit to that much. "Can I help you with that part?"
He watches Tony move slowly, limbs shaking, toward the chair in the corner, where he was clearly settled with a glass of water, a laptop, a blanket, and a footstool -- or at least, he had been settled there before Steve interrupted him -- and when Tony gives him the slightest nod of assent he slips a hand around Tony's arm and Tony leans heavily on him. It seems unbelievable, even horrifying, that this morning he punched Tony in the face.
He doesn't think he'd do it now.
Of course, that doesn't help anything, does it?
Stifling a groan, Tony settles down into the chair, the cushions propped up behind him, and he gets his feet up as Steve spreads the blanket over him. "If this is jump number four, you're still heading forward, and -- oh, thanks, that's great -- you were here about two years ago."
"And how about the Kree Supreme Intelligence?" Steve asks, even though he already knows the answer.
Tony sighs. "Are you absolutely sure you're not here for a Kree thing? We just fought the Kree, I swear."
"I would have gotten here before then if that had been the case," Steve points out, and he knows Tony's stalling. But he kind of remembers this, now. "This is-- when Carol left the team? That's now?"
Tony nods. "Just happened. And I-- I tried to do what you said, with the Supreme Intelligence. I really did. I'm sorry. But I think maybe I did it right anyway?"
He thinks about the Kree debacle. Last time, with the Guardsmen, he had two sets of memories, but this feels... exactly the same. Exactly. Right down to the discussion after, where Tony'd met with him and Clint in that bar and Tony'd told him he couldn't explain the Guardsmen -- which, Steve thinks, makes more sense with this version of events.
"Tony," he says, very carefully, "you still murdered the Kree Supreme Intelligence."
Tony holds his arms wide, displaying hideous mottled bruising. "You made it sound like it was going to be just me, the lone voice of dissent. You didn't tell me it was me and the entire rest of the team against you. And we talked afterwards. We made up. We're good now. I thought... I thought maybe that was enough."
Steve shakes his head. "It's the exact same thing. I'm sorry. Nothing's changed. I don't--" he looks around the room-- "I don't even know quite when I am. Why I'm here now." I'm just glad it's not the war.
"It's a good thing you're here today, I guess," Tony says, his eyes falling half-shut. "I'm going back to Seattle, day after tomorrow. Recuperation. I just showed up for the parade tomorrow, really. Before all this I'd been hoping to have a good time, but Whiplash, the Spymaster, and the Mandarin kind of spoiled it for me." He gestures at himself, stiffly. God, Tony can hardly move.
Steve frowns. He remembers the parade, but-- "Do you know what I'm up to these days?"
Tony shrugs. "I think you were going to go check out a suspected AIM base after the parade. No big deal. We're not even going to be on the same continent. Doesn't sound to me like anything can go wrong."
AIM base. Tony's injured. He has the energy shield. AIM base. Mentallo. No.
Tony's peering at him, concerned. "Steve?"
He shuts his eyes and takes a few deep breaths, trying to force back the sickening twisting in his stomach. This is when Tony's going to violate his mind for the first time. The minds of his friends. He's going to make them all forget he's Iron Man. Tony's going to rip him open -- again -- and he's going to change his thoughts and he's going to snatch his memories away and it can't happen again. He can't let it happen.
"You're going to alter my memories," he manages, nauseated.
Our memories. He meant to say our memories.
Tony just blinks at him. "I'm not a telepath," he says. "And I hate magic."
"I know," Steve hisses, with a rage that Tony must surely think is disproportionate, "but you're going to do it again, damn you--"
"Whoa!" Tony says, indignant. "Whoa, hey, maybe we could try only punishing me for crimes I actually commit, huh?"
"Why?" Steve shoots back. "It's not like knowing any of this is going to stop you doing it! That's the problem with you, Tony, it always seems like a great idea to you at the time!"
His heart is pounding in his chest and he's gulping huge breaths like there's not enough air in the room. He feels dizzy. He can't stop this and he can't stop the future and the war is coming and it's going to break them, again.
Tony's voice is low. "Okay," he says, "Steve, okay, maybe that's true -- believe me, I am the first to admit I have flaws -- but you're really scaring me here. There's something you're not telling me about the future."
Steve swallows hard. "It's going to be bad. When you see me next--" he can't imagine there's going to be anything between now and the war-- "it's going to be the worst thing that ever happened to either of us. Ever." He's shaking.
Tony's eyes go wide.
"But I'll get here before it," Steve says, talking fast, frantic, wanting to get it all out in case the Gem comes. "I've gotten here before the other fights, we just haven't changed anything. It hasn't worked so far. But next time, Tony, next time, please, if you've ever cared about me, if you've ever cared about anything, you have to listen to me, you have to stop--"
Suddenly the Time Gem is right in front of his face.
"No," Steve says, angry, helpless. "No, no, no, not yet--"
But his hand is closing around it--
Once again, the world is white.
Fractured Temporal Space
Everything is still white, blinding, almost too bright to see. Wherever he's going -- and honestly, he knows exactly where he's going now -- he hasn't quite gotten there yet.
Memories coalesce around him. Tony still wipes his mind, except in this version he looks at him for a long time as he's explaining what he did, tells him I'll find some way to make this right, and Steve shudders, because that's just what he said before-- again--
He's going to war.
But he might be able to stop this.
It takes two to fight, he realizes. It's always taken both of them. He isn't blameless. Maybe this hasn't stopped because it's only been him asking Tony. Maybe he needs to try, too. Maybe there's something he can do. Maybe they can do this together.
He'll switch sides. He'll help Tony implement the SHRA. He'll do it right, he'll help him stop Wideawake, help him curb any possible abuses of power. They can do this together. It's not about whether Registration is right. It's not about winning the war. No one wins this. The Time Gem can stretch itself and come up with some manufactured memory for his change of heart, to justify it to his past self. He doesn't care. He'll do it. He'll do anything. He'll change history.
He'll get down on his knees and beg. He has no shame. He has no pride. Those are feelings for people who haven't watched televised footage of their own funerals. His own funeral. His own funeral, at which Tony Stark -- a man who has been calm and composed in front of the cameras since he was five years old -- breaks down in tears on national television, sobbing too hard to give a eulogy.
He'll do anything to spare Tony that.
He loves him. He's always loved him. No matter how much they've fought. He's never stopped loving him.
He's gotten to all their other fights now with time to spare. No reason to think it'll be different this time. He isn't sure how early in the war the Time Gem is planning to drop him off, but he's not one of the Avengers' best tacticians for nothing. He's got plans for all of the likely exit points. The earlier he's there, the easier it will be. Maybe he'll get there before the SHRA even starts; it'll be so easy to warn Tony then. Maybe he'll get there before Stamford; the remote possibility exists that they'll be able to stop Stamford, that they can denounce Registration together, like Tony was planning. It would be good to be there early enough to stop Stamford -- or any of the other losses of life -- but that's up to the Gem, not him.
He imagines standing on the helicarrier with Maria Hill, telling her, yes, he'll hunt down unregistered superhumans.
He remembers Tony saying we don't want to fight you and holding out his hand. He'll take Tony's hand. He'll smile. Let's talk, he'll say, and he'll never put an electron-scrambler in Tony's palm, and they'll talk, and it will all be okay. They'll come up with a plan together.
Maybe they'll meet in the ruins of the mansion, and when Tony puts his hand on his shoulder and says we're not done, he'll put his hand over Tony's, and he'll say, you're right, we're not, and they'll work something out together, in their home, in the home Tony gave him.
Or perhaps -- and this might be his last chance -- they'll meet for that parley at Yankee Stadium, but not out in the open, not where anyone can ambush them, and they'll come to an agreement. He'll surrender.
He can do this.
He remembers how Tony's face looked in the footage of his funeral.
He won't let that happen.
There are so many times he can stop this. The Time Gem has to bring him to one of them.
He shuts his eyes against the brightness as the world solidifies around him. He's not afraid of dying. He's done it before, after all. But please, God, please, let him save Tony.
Betrayal -3 Years
Steve opens his eyes.
He's holding his shield high.
Tony is lying beneath him, motionless, faceplate shattered into a halo of shining metal on the pavement. Tony is staring up at him, broken and bleeding and ready to die. His one visible eye is nearly swollen shut with bruising. He spits blood.
"What are you waiting for, Steve?" he whispers. "Finish it."
No, Steve thinks. No, no, no, God, no, why this? Why now? It's too late.
"No," he repeats. He's starting to cry.
The shield falls from his nerveless fingers.
He stands on shaking legs. He holds his hands high.
"I surrender," he rasps out. "I'm unarmed. I surrender."
The first responders who in another life pulled him from Tony are approaching him slowly. This he sees out of the corner of his eye. He can't look at anything but Tony. His vision is starting to blur from the tears.
His friends, his allies, are calling out in defiance, asking him not to do this as he strips the cowl from his face and holds out his hands for the cuffs. He knows he had words for them before, but he has nothing now. He has nothing left.
He had so many plans, and in the end this is the only difference he can make to the war, to the world: he can turn himself in ten seconds early.
It's not good enough.
Tony, I'm sorry.
He knows where he's going when they lead him away; he's done this before, after all. The helicopter flight to the Raft is familiar, a choppy ride, and he sits with his bound hands between his knees, staring at his ripped uniform. How could the Time Gem have done this to him? It always gave him enough room before to talk to Tony, to be able to have him change something, even if they couldn't manage it. But there's no time now. Oh, he's going to talk to Tony -- that happened, too -- but he's not sure Tony will listen to him. He's going to die in under a day. What can he change, anyway? Registration is a done deal. He can't talk the resistance down; he'll be dead. It's too late to switch sides.
He wonders if he'll still be in his past body when he dies; he wonders if that means he'll die permanently. He wonders if that will affect the time-travel he remembers undergoing while dead. He wonders if he'll do that all again. That would make it the fourth time in his life he'll have been to the Kree/Skrull War, he thinks, counting the visit this morning, and some part of him wants to laugh hysterically. It wasn't even that great the first time.
Soon enough, he arrives at the Raft, and he is escorted through to his own familiar little cell by a fresh-faced guard he vaguely remembers talking to, before. He doesn't bother saying anything this time.
"Director on deck!" a voice calls out, and when Steve looks up, it's Tony, impassive in shining, unblemished armor. Just like last time.
"Will you excuse us?" Tony asks, and the voice issuing from the suit is harsh, curt, mechanical, all emotion covered.
"Y-yes, sir," the guard says, and then they're alone.
He remembers how this went before. He's not going to reenact that. He remembers his last words to Tony, a defiant, angry question -- was it worth it? -- and Tony's last, parting insult. The last things they said to each other before he died.
He has to tell him. He has to warn him. Please, please, let Tony listen.
He's on his feet and almost reaching out for the energy-barrier bars before he realizes what a bad idea that's going to be. "Tony," he says, urgently, "Tony, please, I have to talk to you--"
Tony tilts his helmeted head in disdain. "I think it's a little late for that, wouldn't you say?" The mechanical voice is cruel, and Steve's stomach twists.
"Please," he repeats. "I just need to talk to you. Let me-- let me see your face--"
He can't imagine what possessed him to say that. It's not like Tony will do it; he never saw Tony's face last time. It's not like it will make a difference.
But Tony huffs out a staticky breath, all mockery, and then Steve realizes that Tony's going to do it after all, but for entirely the wrong reason. "You want to see my pretty face, Rogers? You want to admire your handiwork?"
Wait, he wants to say, but the armor clicks and then Tony is lifting the helmet away, staring down at him. Half his face is bruised in the shape of the armor bracing, thick lines of black-blue and green-gold. It doesn't look as bad as Steve had thought it might, but then, Tony has a healing factor these days. Knowing that doesn't take away the pain of knowing he did it. The rest of Tony's skin is pale, too pale, like he doesn't take the armor off at all anymore, and maybe he doesn't -- Steve can hardly remember seeing his face during the war. He looks gaunt, ragged, nearly destroyed, and Steve hates to think what he's going to look like twelve hours from now.
Tony smirks down at him. "Well? You like what you see? Sorry you didn't finish me off when you had the chance? That what you wanted to tell me?"
Steve feels sick, and Tony only grins wider. Like he meant it. The taunt is bravado backed with suicide.
"Time jump number five," Steve says, hoarse, appalled, afraid. "Trust me, futurist -- you're going to want spoilers for this one."
Tony stares at him. "Fuck," he says, thickly. His eyes flash Extremis-black, inky and unnatural -- that's something Steve hasn't missed -- and then the security camera in the corner explodes in a fountain of sparks.
"That's a little showy," Steve says, finally, as the sparks finally trail off into nothingness, fizzling out.
The guards will probably think Tony switched the camera off to beat him. Maybe Tony will. He probably wants to.
"I'm assuming you'd rather speak in private," Tony says. His voice is still so, so cold. "It's the best I can do." He takes a shaky breath. "And that's about as much finesse as I can manage. You-- I am so angry at you right now that I can't even think." The words are a dispassionate observation. "But apparently you're not him. He's not here. I'm-- I'm trying to adjust."
Steve remembers meeting a much younger Tony in his first jump, ten minutes after he stood in Tony's workshop and took a swing at him for everything he'd spent ten years building up to. "I understand."
Tony sighs. "So how long have you been here? The last fight? Half the war?" He laughs. "The whole war?"
"Since about five seconds before I surrendered." He looks up at Tony. Tony's eyes are pale, tired, bloodshot. Tony's mouth is a tense, hard line. Everything within Steve twists up, small and wretched. This isn't what he wanted. "You asked me to finish it. I couldn't."
Tony's face is motionless. "Did you kill me before? In your future?"
He would have. He would have. They'd had to pull him away from Tony. He doesn't know if he would have done it. God, he doesn't want to think about that. He shakes his head. "No," he says, because that at least is the truth. "I didn't."
"I thought maybe you had," Tony says, and the words are even, but his eyes are all despair. "I thought maybe that was what had you so freaked out, the last time I saw you. I've been... preparing for that." He is so wrong. He is so, so wrong. God, Tony. Tony's gaze isn't focusing. "Is this what you were mad about, the first time you ended up in the past?"
Steve shakes his head. "No, but... I don't think we've ever really healed." How could they? Tony can't remember this. Tony will never remember what this was like. No matter how many handshakes, how many hugs, how many apologies they exchange, there's still a void in his mind, and Tony will always think the worst of himself.
"Yeah." Tony's voice has gone tight again, angry. "I'm not really seeing a way back from this."
He has to talk to him. He has to get him to see.
"I thought I'd be here earlier," Steve says, miserably, and he's sinking back onto his tiny bench, shutting his eyes. "I thought-- I thought since I knew, I could stop this. I had it all planned out. I never thought I would get here too late to stop anything."
"What were you going to do?" Tony's question echoes, sharply, like an interrogation. Like he's blaming him for not having fixed this.
Steve looks up, bleakly. "I would have surrendered. Gone over. Helped you implement the SHRA. Anything. Anything you wanted. You have to listen to me--"
And Tony laughs, once, a harsh sound. "Forgive me if I don't believe you." Tony's words are ice. "Tell me, who wins?"
"No one wins. It's not about that," Steve says, panicked, because Tony's not listening and what if the Gem comes now and he can't even warn him? This is the last chance. He'll be dead soon.
"Who wins?" Tony repeats, and Steve thinks he hears the high whine of a charging repulsor. Tony is so angry that he would threaten him now. God. He's forgotten this. This is what it was like.
"Registration keeps going for maybe a year," Steve says. He'll give into the threats. He'll back down for this. Tony just needs to listen. "It's gone after that. It's... complicated."
Tony sneers at him, but at least the repulsor whine fades. "And I bet that makes you real happy."
"No," Steve says, aghast, because Tony has misunderstood everything. "No, Tony, listen to me. I understand. I understand what you're doing. But you're wrong."
"Are you positive you're from the future? Pretty sure we've had this talk before--"
"Listen!" Steve yells, and he's on his feet. "I know you, goddammit! I know you want to take the fall. I know you always do. That's always your solution. You're a good man, you're a hero, and you want to save us. I've always known that." He's holding out his hands, pleading. "I know you'd sell your soul to save us. To save me." Tony's face goes slack with shocked recognition. "But that's not what you get. You don't get what you want." He meets Tony's wide, dazed eyes. "This is the future: you sell your soul and you get nothing."
Tony takes a breath -- he's shaking -- and attempts to summon a response. For a long time he's just staring. His mouth is open. He licks his lips.
"So the world will hate me," he says, low and intense. "So you'll hate me. I don't care. I don't care what I get. I don't care what happens to me." The words sound well-worn. He's been trying to convince himself, Steve knows. "So maybe I'll die," he says, and his voice breaks on the last word. "That's always been the plan. As long as you're still--"
No. Not this. He doesn't want to hear this, even though he always knew it had to be true.
"Tony," Steve says, and he reaches out, as close to the bars as he can. "Listen to me. You live. But you get nothing. You get nothing, because I'll be dead."
All the color drains from Tony's face. He staggers back until he hits the opposite wall, with a clash of metal on metal.
"No," Tony whispers. "You're lying. Tell me you're lying. You can't-- you can't die. You can't."
"I have about twelve hours left," Steve says, dull, numb. He's not sure what they can do now. "I don't quite make it to the arraignment."
And then there's life in Tony's eyes now, fear and rage and heat, blue like a flame. "Tell me how it happens," he snaps out, an order. "Tell me now."
Tony wants to save him.
Maybe that means something.
"I'm on the courthouse steps," Steve says, as fast as he can, tripping over the words, in case Tony can stop this, in case Tony can do something, in case it won't be too late. He looks away. "It's-- it's Red Skull. Crossbones is sniping. He's not going for me, at first; he wants to take out one of the guards. I see the laser sight on one of the guards and I block him--"
"You bastard, you fucking noble bastard," Tony breathes, the words gone ragged, and Steve looks up again and realizes Tony's crying. "Of course you do."
"Hit in the shoulder. Through and through. It's not the kill shot," he continues. His memory's a little hazy, but people have told him enough of the details. "I go down. Pandemonium. Skull... has a plant among the guards. Sharon shoots me. Point-blank. Three rounds. I bleed out on the steps. Die in the ambulance."
Tony blinks. "Sharon Carter? Agent 13? Your girlfriend? That Sharon?"
His first impulse, irrelevantly enough, is to say we're not together these days, in the future. "Red Skull brainwashed her. She doesn't know. She won't know until after."
"Okay," Tony says, and there are still tears running down his face, and he doesn't even seem to notice. "Okay, I've got this. I can detain her. I'll come up with something. I'll keep her away. Tie her up myself if I have to. As long as you can take the first shot and survive. And you'll live, right? Then you'll live?"
He thinks he can just march up to Sharon with armed SHIELD agents? Her coworkers? "Tony, you're not running the secret police here--"
Tony meets his eyes, and his stare is dangerous, terrifying. "This is nowhere near the worst thing I would do to save your life. Don't."
Steve swallows hard. "If I leave this body before then, talk to him. Try to get him to agree to something, anything that would delay the arraignment. Talk to your Steve."
"He's not my anything." Tony's laugh is low and bitter.
You're wrong, Steve wants to say, you're wrong about that too.
And then the Time Gem's in the cell with him, reflecting its dancing orange light off the glowing energy bars, and Tony's staring at him like he's already dead.
"I'll save you," Tony says, and it sounds like a vow, and it sounds like I love you, and then everything's gone.
Fractured Temporal Space
He's wherever he is when he isn't somewhere.
He's sitting in his cell, furious, and on the other side of the bars Tony is crying. Does Tony think that tears will move him? Tony's a monster. It's like Tony doesn't know him at all. What the hell is he playing at now?
"Please," Tony says, desperately, "please, you just have to give me something. Some kind of show of agreement. Something. Anything. We have to stand together. Just once. A pardon, maybe. We can get you that."
"You think after all this you're going to get me on your side?" he asks. "Registration is wrong. It may be the law now, but it's still wrong. I'm not saying I haven't... committed crimes, but that doesn't make you right. And it never will."
Tony's eyes are wide. "You're going to die."
"Yes," he says, wearily, because he's committed treason and sedition. Doesn't Tony know this? And he pushes back with everything he's got, all the anger in him, because Tony fucking Stark does not get to regret what he's done to Steve. To their friends. To the country. To everyone. "They execute traitors, Stark," he snarls. "Isn't that what you wanted? Did you get what you want? Was it worth it?"
Tony chokes out a wordless sob, slides the helmet over his head, and he's gone.
In the bright timelessness, Steve's hands clench into fists. No. Not again. Not this, not this, not like this.
The morning is bright, and he thinks he sees an even brighter flash of red-gold in the skies as the security escort hurries him toward the doors. Iron Man is on patrol. Strange; he'd have thought Tony would be down here glorying in his victory. And Sharon's not here at all. He'd expected to see her as part of the SHIELD detail. It's even stranger.
He's climbing the steps, and then he can't worry about anything anymore, because he hears the sharp report of a weapon, and then he feels a burning, searing pain in his chest, and then there's nothing--
Betrayal -3 Years
The world resolves into shadows and light. He's in a small room, metal-walled, darkness behind him. In front of him a bright light, high above, is cast down onto the room's most notable feature: a table, on which his own body is lying.
His corpse is wearing the same uniform he was just wearing, the same uniform he surrendered in, ripped and rent. His eyes are shut, his face frozen in death. His shield, blood-spattered -- that's Tony's blood, he thinks -- is lying on his chest. With his shield or on it, he supposes.
He didn't make it.
Well, he thinks, at least I didn't wake up in my corpse.
Why is he here? There's nothing he can help with. There's nothing he knows how to fix. He's dead. There's nothing he can tell Tony now that can mend their friendship. How is he even here? He's been jumping into his body, and now, well, he obviously hasn't done that. What's the point? Why are the rules changing?
He's still staring at his corpse. It's not every day you get to see your own dead body, after all. He would call it a shock, but he's pretty sure he's long past the point of calling anything shocking, the way his day has been so far.
Abruptly, he realizes he's not alone in the room. There's a flash of red-gold just off to his left. Tony. Tony is sitting next to his corpse, armored up save his helmet. He's holding the helmet between his hands, head bowed, not looking up, and he's sobbing like his heart's broken.
"Tony," he whispers. He doesn't know if Tony can hear him. Given the Time Gem's cruelty in doing this to him in the first place, Tony probably can't hear him. Why should he be able to? The Gem's probably just out to torture Steve, to show him all of his best friend's most private grief, to show him what he could have stopped if only he'd understood how.
Tony doesn't look up. He only cries harder.
"Tony," he says again, more loudly.
This time, Tony looks up.
Tony's staring at him, glassy-eyed. His face is a tear-streaked, blotchy mess. He's silent, but his gaze is fixed on Steve. He sees him. He sees him.
"Oh, God," Tony rasps out, "I'm going crazy. I'm seeing things. I guess it makes sense, as a way to go. Hallucinating the dead. I mean, I was just talking to your body. Why shouldn't I imagine you talking back, huh?"
"You're not crazy," Steve says, quickly, holding out his hands. "This is real. I'm real. Time jump six, Tony. I don't even know why I'm here. I don't know what the Gem thinks I should tell you now. I shouldn't be here. I mean, I'm dead right now, so what's anchoring me? It doesn't make any sense."
Tony's standing up, unsteadily, and reaching out for Steve's outstretched hands. Steve has an instant to worry, because if this doesn't work, if he's insubstantial now that he's dead, it's going to absolutely kill Tony, but Tony wraps one gauntleted hand firmly around his gloved wrist and holds on like it's a lifeline.
"You're real," Tony says. The words are a ragged sob, and he shuts his eyes for a second. "You're real, you're really real. God. You're real in the future." He's staring at Steve like he can't believe it. "You're from the future. You're alive in the future?"
He wants to touch Tony more. He wants to hold Tony. He doesn't dare. He smiles as gently as he can. "You thought I was time-traveling from the afterlife?"
Tony gives a little self-effacing shrug -- though of course any shrug looks big in the armor. "I'm talking to you over your dead body; at this point I'm not about to rule anything out. And you have a pet Infinity Gem. You could probably work a miracle or two with some of those."
Not enough of one, he thinks, and he remembers the Gauntlet shattering in his hand.
So Tony does know what the Gems are now. He had been wondering. Steve grimaces. "I think the Time Gem has me as its pet, really. I sure don't get to pick when we go on walks."
Tony tilts his head. "How'd you get one of those, anyway? You're not-- the Illuminati have them all. You're not Illuminati."
"Not yet, I'm not," Steve counters.
"And that's what you wear in the future?"
He looks down at himself. He's wearing the uniform he put on this morning. The one he walked into Tony's workshop wearing. It seems like a lifetime ago. "Yeah, it is."
It's surreal, that they could have an almost ordinary conversation over his dead body.
"Because you're going to come back." Tony says this, slowly, tasting the words, like he can't believe it's true. "You're going to come back."
"We're Avengers," he says, and he squeezes Tony's hand even though Tony can't feel it through the gauntlet. "We always come back, don't we?"
Tony shuts his eyes, and when he opens them he's starting to cry again.
"I couldn't stop it," he says, voice low and harsh. "You told me what was coming and I couldn't stop it. I detained Sharon, but that wasn't enough, and I guess that alerted Skull we were onto him. His backup plan was all Crossbones. I don't know what the hell kind of gun he had -- it's like nothing I've ever seen -- but the bastard aimed right for the star." He sniffs wetly. "Don't-- don't look, okay? It's awful. I thought-- God, I thought it would always be my heart. Guess I was wrong about that too. And to top it all off, someone just broke Sharon out of custody. Who knows what's happening to her now. I couldn't stop any of it. I killed you," he says, and he's sobbing again now. "I killed you."
Tony's looking at him, lost and broken, and Steve holds out his arms. "Hey," he says. "Hey, Tony, no. Come here."
Tony gives another sob, and then the armor clatters down around him, metal ringing on the deckplates, until he's standing there in the golden undersuit and even that's slowly disappearing, fading patchily back under his skin. He's half-naked, vulnerable, wounded, and he's shaking, falling in on himself, like he doesn't care, like he thinks he's not worth protecting.
Steve enfolds him in his arms and Tony's wet face slides against his cheek. He brings up one hand to cup the back of Tony's skull and wraps his other arm around him; trembling, Tony buries his face against Steve's neck.
"I killed you," Tony whispers again.
Steve holds him tighter. "You didn't kill me. I don't blame you. It's not your fault. I never blamed you. Never."
"I put you there."
"I put myself there." Steve runs his fingers through Tony's hair. "You did everything you could. It's not your fault, okay? I want you to remember that. No matter what anyone says to you -- you remember that I said it wasn't your fault, all right? And I would know. And I'm coming back, okay? I'm coming back. I promise."
Tony lifts his head, and there's a spark of familiar determination in his eyes. Like this is a mission: endurance. "How long?"
"A year," he says, and Tony wavers and leans into him again. "You can do it, all right? Just hold on. For me. You can do it. You can do it. I'm not going to say it's going to be easy, but I swear to God, Tony, I'm coming back to you."
Maybe this is why he's still here. Maybe he's supposed to comfort Tony. Tony needed him. He'd known it was bad, but he hadn't known it would be like this. Maybe this is what heals them. Maybe it's not just arguments. Maybe it's the aftermath. Maybe it's all of it.
The light in the room is tinted orange, and Tony's arms tighten around him when he sees the Time Gem. "No!" Tony cries out, half-sobbing, trying to hold him back. "No, dammit, don't leave me, don't be dead, I can't do this alone, it wasn't--"
He doesn't know what Tony would have said, because the world goes white again.
Betrayal -3 Years
He's in a cemetery. He thinks it might be Arlington. The SHIELD helicarrier is barely visible through the cloud cover overhead. He's in the middle of a wide path, wending its way past unending rows of headstones, decorated here and there with flowers, bright dying life plastered to the grass in mud and puddles. Some of the graves have mourners in front of them, but no one looks up at him. He looks down at himself again; he's still in uniform. He thinks he'd be noticeable, but someone pushes right past him on the path without even looking at him. Some of the mourners are looking in his direction, but they're all looking through him.
No one can see him.
Then he comes up over a rise and he knows exactly when and where he is, because there's a great knot of people gathered at the base of a statue. A statue of him, in full Captain America garb, shield and all. A flag-draped casket rests at the very foot of the statue.
This is his funeral.
There's a stage and podium in front of the statue, in front of the rows of chairs, all filled. So many people have come to see this. No one looks back at him, even as he walks closer.
"Our first speaker today," a man at the podium says, "is Mr. Tony Stark."
Just beneath the stage, the news crews jockey for better position. He doesn't want to see this. Watching the footage was bad enough. But what else can he do? He goes where Tony goes. And if they have to get this right between them, somehow, even when he's dead, he doesn't want to leave Tony. He's pretty sure he's almost out of chances.
Tony walks up to the podium, downcast. He looks so small, and that can't just be an effect of the distance. His eyes are hooded, shadowed, and he doesn't look up. It's been raining on him for a while; his hair and suit are both soaked, but he's just standing there like he doesn't care what he looks like, like there's nothing left in the world to care about. He clutches an equally-sodden sheet of paper, sets it on the podium before him, and adjusts the mic.
"Welcome," Tony begins. "I... I... um..."
He's squinting at the paper, and then he looks up. He looks out past the assembled guests, and he looks right at Steve, standing behind them all. In his bright uniform, no one could miss him.
But only Tony can see him.
A couple people turn around to track Tony's gaze, shrug, and look back.
He watches Tony's hands grip the side of the podium, white-knuckled, as he staggers. "It... wasn't supposed to be this way," Tony says, and Steve knows those words now are for him, addressed to him, another apology.
Tony's crying, in front of the cameras, in front of their friends, in front of the world.
And he walks away, taking a seat next to Carol.
Numbly, Steve stands and watches the rest of the funeral. He never watched the rest of the footage before. Sam gives a moving speech. All the speeches are good. Touching. Heartfelt. Carol has a bracing arm around Tony's shoulder and Tony spends most of the speeches with his eyes shut, leaning into her.
Then it's over.
The news crews pack up.
The crowd disperses.
And then it's just Tony, sitting alone on the stage, eyes shut, head in his hands, rain still falling on him. After a long while Tony stands, steps down, and turns back to stare at the memorial.
Steve starts to walk forward -- surely Tony still wants to see him? -- but then he stops, as someone he hadn't even noticed comes out of seemingly nowhere, to stand beside Tony. Whoever he is, he's not human. He's dressed like the rest of the mourners, in a dark raincoat, holding a dark umbrella, but there the similarity ends, because he's black-skinned, with pale glowing eyes, red-white. The stranger isn't anyone Steve knows, and he wishes for his shield. He doesn't have his shield. What if the stranger hurts Tony?
It's ridiculous, of course, because Tony can fight his own battles, but looking at him, Steve is beginning to think that Tony doesn't want to. Someone has to fight for him if he won't.
The stranger looks over, but he doesn't see Steve either. He's talking with Tony, but the words are too low to catch. Tony's gesturing back, impassioned. Then the stranger steps in close -- he's tall, he's taller than Tony -- shading him with his umbrella, and he can't see what happens, but Tony goes still, horribly still. Steve tenses, ready to run, to fight, to do something--
Then in an instant, Tony is talking to the stranger, and Steve guesses that whatever happened didn't happen aloud. They exchange a few more words, and then Tony freezes again.
But this time, when he steps back, Tony is crying again, and he sinks to his knees next to one of the nearby gravestones. Whatever he says is agonized; he's nearly doubled-over. The stranger is unmoved, and bids him farewell with a few more words as Tony stands up.
The stranger is gone.
Steve is running, and then he's at Tony's side.
"Tony," he says, "what the hell--?"
Tony's still crying. "You know," he says, weakly, "it's really hard to accept you're dead if you keep showing up."
"I didn't choose this," Steve says, exhausted. Maybe now he'll get to go home. Maybe he'll figure out what he's supposed to say to make it right. He's had so many chances. How can he have ruined them all? "I'm at jump seven now. But who was that?"
Tony shrugs. "Hell if I know. The Ghost of Christmas Future. Wanted to show me the multiverse. All the ways the war could have gone. Well, two of them."
Steve bites his lip. Tony had fallen to the ground. "The second one was that awful?"
"No," Tony says, and there are still tears on his cheeks. "In that one, you never disabled my armor. We talked. You helped with Registration. We were happy."
It's what he'd imagined. It's what he thought he could have done. But he couldn't, and they didn't, and it hurts so much to know it could almost have been real. "God, Tony. I'm sorry."
Tony looks him full in the face. He's shaking. His skin is pale; water runs down his face in rivulets. It's probably all tears. "He showed me so many visions of you. You fighting. Dying. I'm probably making you up, aren't I? How do I know you're even real? I've probably just hallucinated you to make myself feel better; that's not even your body in that casket, and so this isn't the same as those other time jumps, because here you are as some kind of ghost. So I'm probably imagining this. Last time you told me everything I'd ever want to hear. You're not real." He shuts his eyes. "I can't take this."
"I'm real." Steve reaches out and brushes his fingers against the back of Tony's hand, but Tony doesn't even open his eyes, doesn't acknowledge the touch. "You feel that?"
"More hallucinations," Tony says. He opens his eyes. "Do something I wouldn't do."
"Do something I wouldn't do," Tony repeats, staring him down. "Say something I wouldn't say. Something I don't know about you." His eyes are red-rimmed and he's shaking. He really needs to get out of the rain. He needs-- he needs so much. And Steve can't be here for him now. He can't give him anything because he's probably about to be yanked through time again and he doesn't know how to get it right between them. He doesn't know what words to say. He's tried everything. Maybe there's no way to get it right.
And then he realizes what Tony doesn't know about him.
He's dead anyway, he thinks. He might as well be absolutely honest. It's not like there's anything left to ruin.
He grabs Tony by the front of his sodden coat, hauls him close, and kisses him. Hard.
Tony tastes like rainwater and tears, and his mouth is so, so cold. He doesn't move away; he only stands there, frozen, and Steve thinks you didn't know this, you didn't ever guess--
Tony pulls away and that's it, that's it, Steve has finally wrecked everything, and this time he didn't even have to hit him--
"Oh, God," Tony breathes against his mouth. His breath is warm. It feels like the only life in him. "Steve, that doesn't prove anything." He chuckles. "That's just wish fulfillment."
And then Tony opens his mouth and is kissing him back, hard, giving as good as he was getting. His arms go around Steve, holding him fast, and although he still tastes like rain and salt his tongue is hot and knowing and good God, Tony can kiss like nobody's business. He's kissing Steve desperately, sliding one rain-soaked hand up to Steve's head to hold them together, like he's determined to make this last as long as possible. Somehow Steve's hand is in Tony's hair, trying to find purchase as it's plastered wetly to his head. Tony kisses him harder, deeper, and Steve goes weak in the knees and he's dead and they're kissing in front of his goddamn grave--
He pulls away, panting for breath, and Tony looks up at him, and there's something bright in Tony's eyes, something kind of like happiness, and, oh, he made Tony look like that. When was the last time he saw Tony look like that?
"That was unexpected," Steve murmurs, and Tony laughs weakly, like he wants to cry again. He leans his head on Steve's shoulder, and God, Steve never wants to let him go. The way Tony has his arms wrapped around him suggests that Tony feels exactly the same way. How did he not know this? How did they never know this?
"In the future," Tony ventures, "we're not together?"
Steve shakes his head. "We're not."
"I never told you how I felt about you."
"No," Steve corrects him. "I never told you how I felt."
They stare at each other. Rain drips off Tony's nose. And then it finally occurs to Steve what they both just admitted to, and he can't stop smiling.
"I am a fucking idiot," says Tony, with feeling, and then he lunges at Steve, and they're kissing, and they're kissing, and Steve never wants to stop. "How long?" Tony whispers, between every kiss. "Tell me, how long have you wanted this?"
"Always," Steve says, fervently. "Since I met you."
"So when you come back," Tony says, determined, voice gone low with desire, "when you come back I'll tell you, I'll tell you how I feel, and you-- you'll want this? You'll want me?"
"Yes," Steve says, "yes, of course, more than anything, I am so serious about this, Tony, you mean the world to me--"
Maybe this is the way. Maybe this is what was right. Maybe they're supposed to be together. Maybe that's the answer. They love each other.
And then he realizes. Tony won't remember.
Tony's frowning at him. "Steve? Are you okay?"
No, he thinks. They can't lose this. He can't lose Tony now that he's just found him.
"I want you to do something for me," he says, and he knows he's grabbing Tony harder, wet fabric bunching under his hand.
"Sure, of course," Tony says. "Anything."
"I want you to remember this," he says, and Tony stares back, uncomprehending. "Remember this. Remember us."
Tony smiles vaguely, confused. "I-- there's no way I'm going to forget this, believe me."
Steve wants to cry.
"You're going to make a choice," he says. "And I know it doesn't make sense right now, but please, please -- remember this. I want to give you something to remember. You'll understand."
The Time Gem is orange against gray skies. Steve is honestly surprised it waited this long.
"I'll never forget this," Tony says, and he's smiling now, and he kisses him again, hard, one last time, before letting Steve step back, the way the Time Gem is forcing him to go.
Maybe this is it.
Maybe they've done it.
They love each other, and they know it.
That has to be enough.
That's all he's got.
Betrayal -1 Year
Steve is on a balcony in Wakanda, looking out over the Necropolis. T'Challa is standing next to him.
"When have you ever known me not to do the right thing?" T'Challa asks, turning to head inside, and oh, Steve knows exactly when he is. He knows exactly what Tony's about to do to him.
It didn't work. He'd thought love would fix everything. It hadn't.
Steve clears his throat. "Wait," he says, and T'Challa turns back. "Can you tell Tony I want to talk to him out here, before we reconvene?"
How could it have gone wrong? What's left to try? He's out of choices. He's out of options. He wonders if he'll still be in this body in ten minutes, if they'll mindwipe him again, and he won't remember any of it when he jumps forward.
And then Tony's striding out onto the balcony. He flips his faceplate up; he looks tense, weary. They've probably been talking about Steve, inside. They've probably been planning out how to take his memories away.
"Something you want to talk about, Steve?"
"This is jump number eight," Steve says, and Tony stares at him in honest surprise.
"Haven't seen you in a while, time-traveler," Tony says. "To what do I owe the pleasure? Last I checked you were at four. I think that was, what, just before that Mentallo business? Are you going non-linearly now?"
The bottom drops out of Steve's stomach. He doesn't remember. He doesn't remember any of it.
"You don't remember the war?" Steve asks, stupidly. He already knows the answer.
"I'm permanently missing an entire year of my life," Tony says, awkward, pained. "Come on, you know that. From what I hear, it wasn't that great anyway."
"I--" Steve begins, and for the life of him he doesn't know how to end that sentence. I asked you to remember. I kissed you. You kissed me. I never wanted you to forget that. Maybe this is why it didn't work. Maybe it would have been right between them if Tony hadn't forgotten. "I visited you then," he says, finally, and it's nothing like what he wanted to say at all.
Steve sighs. They might as well get on with it. The future is inevitable. Maybe there's no hidden fix. Maybe it really was supposed to happen just like this, again and again. Captain America doesn't give up, he knows, but Steve Rogers is damned tired. Their last chance is gone.
"I know what you're going to do to me," he says, wearily. "You might as well get on with it. You're going to wipe my mind. And then you're going to build bombs."
Tony's eyes widen a little -- in guilt, maybe, or surprise at being found out -- but he doesn't even try denying it. "You don't want to ask me to stop? Anything?"
He's already played his last card. He thought, for one brief shining moment, that they could have been happy together. It was a lie.
"It's not going to change anything," he says, and he meets Tony's gaze. "Listen. This buys you a year. I don't know what you do with it other than build bombs, but it had better be worth it to you. When I find out I'm not... very happy. I'm going to punch you, by the way. I'm-- I'm sorry. About that." The apology is strange in his mouth.
"Nah, don't be," Tony says, looking away. "I deserve it. But do I tell you why I'm going to do it?"
"What do you mean, why?" Isn't it obvious? "You don't tell me anything. I don't-- I don't really give you a lot of time."
Tony's eyes dart back toward the door. "I can read a room with the best of 'em, and our friends there aren't feeling very friendly. For what it's worth, I agree with you. I believe we'll find a better way, and I want to try for that. They-- they don't. The amnesia choice here isn't you or nothing, Steve. It's you or both of us. So I'm... undercover, for lack of a better word. I'm going to build them several things that I hope to God I'll never have to use, and I'm staying in, because it's the best out of a slate of bad choices. We can't both be in the dark. So it's got to be you, and I'm sorry. There's no way around that, unless current you is about to knuckle under."
Steve winces. "Yeah, that's... not going to happen."
This is the truth? This was the truth all along? He just assumed, and he'd-- he'd hurt Tony. They've hurt each other so much. But he knows now. This is Tony, this is what Tony always does. Tony's saving him. In his own way.
"I didn't think so," Tony says. "So a year from now is when this starts? The Time Gem comes back?"
Steve nods. "It does. That's when I remember everything." He gives him the date, for the hell of it.
"We get a Gem back, assuming you come back with it," Tony muses. "It's-- maybe it's not hopeless after all. They had that affinity for each other, maybe we can use that--"
"They're destroyed," Steve points out.
"It's a Time Gem," Tony says, with a grin. "The Gems aren't always destroyed. Maybe there's a way."
"Maybe," Steve says, his heart soaring, because maybe it can all be better, now that he knows. Maybe they haven't ruined anything. Maybe it's not too late.
The Time Gem is glowing again, bright, familiar, and this time Steve welcomes it.
He's going home now. He has to be. There's nowhere else he could visit. He knows the truth. They're still here for each other. They never stopped.
He's standing in Tony's ruined workshop with the rest of the Avengers behind him: Hawkeye, Thor, Black Widow, Hyperion, Starbrand. Some time has clearly passed; Tony is most of the way out of his armor, with only one arm gauntleted, and his face has darkened into obvious bruising. Steve did that to him.
Steve opens his fist, and the Time Gem floats there. It's not going anywhere. It hovers quietly in midair.
"Steve!" Clint says, and the Avengers are rushing around him, forming up in ranks. Tony hangs back.
"What happened?" Natasha asks.
"It's a long story," he says, "and first I think I'd like to talk to Tony. Alone."
Thor's hand goes to Mjolnir; the tension in the room rises. Steve thinks about what they think he probably wants to do to Tony, and he feels sick.
"It's all right," Tony says, very quietly, but the words are a command. "He's not going to hurt me. We'll be fine."
"We will," says Steve, and he means it.
The rest of the Avengers file out, and Steve sets the Time Gem on Tony's now-cleared workbench, next to a face-down envelope, the only other thing there.
Tony half-smiles. "You brought me a present."
"So," Tony asks, "do you still want to kill me?" The question is delivered neutrally, as if it means nothing, and Steve remembers Tony facing him through the bars of a prison cell, saying so maybe I'll die, and he shudders.
"Glad to hear it," Tony says. "Still mad about the Illuminati?"
"A little," Steve admits, because, well, he can't not be. But he's seen too much now. "What are you planning to do?"
"Now that you know? I was hoping to join the side of the angels," Tony says, the words sounding much more easy than they probably were to say. "You know. See if the Avengers will still have me. Tell them about the incursions. Try to solve a problem with more than six people."
Steve exhales. "That's... good." It's what he wanted. It's what he's been hoping for.
And then Tony's picking up the envelope that's on the table, worrying at it. "I've got something for you, actually. From me, for you. Well, for me, but I'm hoping you'll be able to help." He presses the envelope into Steve's hands. "Apparently I left myself a message a couple years ago."
Steve looks at it. It's in Tony's handwriting. Today's date is written on it, next to the words FOR TONY STARK, DO NOT OPEN UNTIL STEVE RETURNS ON DATE SPECIFIED. He flips it over and frowns. Tony's opened it. Even the ripped-open edge is wrinkled and folded; it's been opened for a while.
"Tony...?" Steve asks, uncertainly. "You didn't wait to open this."
Tony raises his eyebrow, suggesting wordlessly that this is perfectly obvious. "Well, of course not."
Steve opens it:
I know you're going to open this the instant you find this, but trust me, it's not going to mean anything until the date I actually told you to open it. Anyway, I want you to tell Steve that I'm sorry, I had to use the first backup. It was the only one that didn't have the list. He'll understand.
Ask him what happened at Arlington. Please. That's all you need to know.
Steve folds the letter and shoves it back in the envelope. He feels dizzy. Dazed. His heart's going a mile a minute.
"So," Tony says, his voice far too casual. "What happened at Arlington? Your funeral, I assume?"
Steve nods. "I showed up for my own funeral. Not sure how, still. I was some kind of ghost. Only you could see me. And, afterwards, we--" he takes a deep breath, and God, he can't believe he's doing this again-- "I kissed you."
Tony's staring at him. "You kissed me."
"You kissed me back." He's starting to feel like he can't breathe, his chest tight. Tony's gone unreadable. He doesn't know what Tony's thinking. "But I started it."
"What, was I sad?" Tony sounds dryly curious. "Was it pity? Were you trying to see if you passed through solid objects while you were dead?"
Steve shuts his eyes, takes a breath, opens them again. "I've loved you for twelve goddamn years, Tony. And I thought that there was nothing left to lose, and I thought I'd better do something. I thought it was the last chance I had. And you-- you kissed me back, but then you didn't remember--"
And Tony looks at him, and then Tony's kissing him, and he's kissing Tony back, and they're going to remember this, their second first kiss, they're going to remember this forever, and no one's leaving.
"Hi, there," Tony whispers. "You going away again? Will I see you in the future?"
Steve grins. "I'm staying. The future's right here."