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Stone by Stone

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1

There was a soft ding as the elevator settled, and the button, worn and smooth, lit up on ‘B3.’ That Reed’s meeting place was in the basement of Danny Rand’s building didn’t surprise Steve. He could gauge Danny’s sympathies well enough, even if he couldn’t pin anything on the man.

Three basements in the Rand building – that did surprise him.

And that was probably why Reed had picked it, as a thumb of the nose. You think you know us so well, Steve. But you know nothing.

At first glance, Steve wondered if he’d read Reed’s chicken scratch on the card wrong. He had stepped through a narrow door into an electrical room. The hum of the machine banks vibrated through the floor and the dryness of the air was palpable on his tongue. It was dim, mainly illuminated by the blinking green and red lights from the machines. A fluorescent strip flickered above on the room’s high ceiling, but it was old and muted, like moonlight filtered through clouds.

Steve stopped, held the card aloft, and squinted in the gloom, trying to read the number again. But like so many other parts of his body, his rheumy eyes failed him.

“You’re in the right place, Steve.”

Despite his best efforts, Steve stiffened at the voice and the sound of the door closing. He turned and saw a long sinuous hand locking the door. It was followed afterward by Reed, emerging paper thin from between two machines.  

The scientist looked him up and down before nodding. “I see you kept the bargain.” He had the scruff of a beard and unwashed hair, but life on the run had done little to soften him. He still had a stiff jaw and a steeled look in his eye.

Steve bristled. “Of course I did.”

“Are you going to tell me what this is all about then?”

The words felt wrong on his tongue, like acid. “I need your assistance.”

Reed snorted and Steve’s fingers twitched toward a phantom side-arm. It’s not the laughter you heard in your dreams, he told himself, taking a breath, willing himself to stay calm.

It had been wise of Reed to ban weapons.

If he’d had a choice, Steve wouldn’t have proposed the meeting. But Tony had put the system in place long ago, and he hadn’t left Steve much choice in the matter.

“It's been months since we last had an incursion, which doesn’t fit the models.” Steve said gruffly. He held up the first record, a cube that glittered a pale gray. “Wouldn’t you like to know why?”

 ***

Tony sauntered up to the table with his club soda. He wore a look beneath his stubble that managed to be both non-judgmental and concerned. “I don’t think ‘Loch Lomand’ is traditionally a drinking song.”

Steve rubbed at one of his temples with the hand that was cradling his head, eyes half-lidded. “Don’t let Thor hear you. If I have to hear another verse of ‘Bawdy Bilge Snipes,’ I will eat my helmet.”

Something mischievous danced in Tony’s eyes. “Mmm, nex-gen high-tensile fiber. Just like Mom used to make.”

He kicked out a chair and Steve felt his cheeks burn with self-consciousness.

Not that he objected to the company. But Steve was drunk, and with super metabolism that was a feat. Usually he reserved that level of debauchery for late night card games with Thor and Natasha.

He preferred not to drink around Tony at all.

The first time he’d opted for sparkling water at a holiday team party, Tony had teased him. The All-American boy picking up European habits? And even though the engineer had never said anything beyond that, Steve couldn’t help but notice that from then on, when it came time for the evening’s toasts, Tony was nearby.

Several tables over, Steve could hear the bravado in Thor’s voice that marked the beginning of “a proving.” It was Asgardian and involved liquor, and that’s all Steve needed to know to stay clear. He glanced at Tony, who seemed quite comfortable watching their team’s antics from afar. So Steve didn’t make any excuses, just stared at his half-empty glass and tried to do that math of what he’d had. He doubted he’d be much of a conversationalist till the fog lifted.

Tony was still in his Resilient t-shirt. He’d made his apologies earlier after the fight on Mars, taking the Quinjet to Seattle for work instead of the portal to New York. He’d promised to catch up with them later, which was a phrase Steve dreaded. Most of the time it meant it would be days before he saw Tony again.

“Pretty different from the first time we re-formed the Avengers, isn’t it?” Tony said, his eyes sweeping down to Steve’s drink. “What’s the occasion?”

“Hmm?”

“Well, the rest of our cohort is giving the start-up kids a run for their money on partying. And you usually don’t stay out this late unless there’s something worth celebrating. Any other night, and you’d have begged off to go file the incident report by now.”

Was he that transparent? But this was Tony. Tony noticed things like that.

“Winning with words is always worth celebrating,” Steve said with a shrug, referring to the uneasy truce they had just made with the gardeners on Mars.

“I’m half tempted to believe that, what with how soused you are.” Tony twirled the straw in his drink. A frenzy of bubbles foamed in the glass. “And maybe it is for them, but that’s not why you’re alone in a corner, drunk.” He paused, lips hovering near the straw. “It’s Wakanda, isn’t it?”

Steve stiffened -- just a little bit -- but that was all the confirmation Tony needed.

“There’s always a way, Steve.”

But will I like your way? He felt bile climbing in his throat.

Tony’s mouth thinned, just like when he was contemplating the suit’s power output. And it made Steve’s stomach twist to see that calculating eye for efficiency turned on him.

He looked away from Tony, squinting his bleary eyes as he twisted the empty tumbler in his hands.

As it tilted, the light caught on the rim of the glass and blazed like a flare. It dragged him back to that moment when he had emerged from the mouth of the Wakandan crypt, blind under the hot African sun. The heat had sizzled on his skin, and it had felt like everything that had been done and said in the darkness of the crypt was cracking and peeling in the merciless sunlight.

We’ll find a way to save everyone.

But even inside his own head, it sounded more like a prayer than affirmation. It had then, and it did now.

Tony, for his part, did not seem to be half so troubled. When Steve looked up again, the engineer had shelved whatever had sparked that appraising expression. He seemed content to simply watch the celebrations.

“Steve, do you remember when you used to make us play those horrible team building games?”

Steve set down the glass and nudged it away. Would that he could rid himself of those awful memories as easily. “As I recall, they started out as Stark International hand-me-downs.”

Tony snorted. “In fairness, no one at SI had to guess if Mrs. Hammond in HR would choose between saving an alien planet from Galactus or rescuing a school bus of toddlers from Magneto.”

“It was the city of New York, not a school bus, and we haven’t made any one do that in ages.” Damned if he was going to accept full culpability for that particular episode in Avenger’s history.

“Because they were universally reviled,” Tony laughed. He punched the ice in his glass with the straw. “Not our best idea, huh?”

“No.” Steve agreed. “Not the most useful thing we ever did.”

“It was handy the one time. Remember Clint’s imposter? But only because Clint had been so angry when we assumed he’d be a woman for a week.”

“I’d forgotten about that.” Steve folded his arms and leaned in conspiratorially. “I’m still not convinced he was telling us the truth.”

Tony tried and failed to hide the growing grin behind the hand holding his straw. “At least his clone enjoyed Loki’s magical endowment.”

Steve snorted. “He was rather voluptuous, wasn’t he?”

“I think the ladies on the team might have actually been jealous.” Tony looked wistful for a moment. “Did you know Ultron made me into a woman once? Hacked into Extremis.”

Steve frowned, wondering if Tony was teasing him. “Sounds like something I would remember.”

The engineer waved a hand dismissively. “It was before the reboot.”

Ah. That. While you were dead, Tony could have said. And he shouldn’t have said what he said next, but Tony had brought up the old guessing game first. And he was drunk. “The one thing you regret losing from the wipe?”

Though his smile stayed in place, something suspiciously vulnerable flickered in Tony’s eyes. But Steve knew his comment had burrowed deeper than he intended -- knew it in the subtle shift of Tony’s body as he turned, ready to make excuses about leaving: to catch up with the others or to get back to work.

“Reed could probably replicate the hack…if you were curious,” Tony said, neatly ignoring the thornier question and causing Steve to blush all at once.

“I’m sorry,” and Steve was surprised to find that he mostly meant it.

“I’ve said worse while drunk.” And to Steve’s surprise, Tony didn’t get up. “If the world’s going to end tomorrow in an incursion, might as well say what’s on your mind.”

Steve wasn’t sure what he ought to make of that. “Is that a free pass?”

In the back of the bar, Thor burst into yet another off-key rendition of ‘Loch Lomand,’ but he was getting the words wrong and mixed up – “I’ll take the high road and you’ll take the low road…And I’ll be in Scot’s Land before you…”

Tony shrugged, noncommittal, which gave Steve pause. So he hesitated, listened as the “music” briefly lost its cheery lead singer, interrupted by the crack of Thor and Hyperion knocking steins together -- or it might have been skulls, hard to know with those two.

Then Steve decided to ask anyway.

At the time he had only thought it was Tony’s two cents on where they were, and later there had never been a good time to ask -- it never seemed to come up again. But it had stayed in the back of his mind, like a thorn on a withered rose bush. “When we were pulled through the portal under Asgard, Thor was sure we had died and been transported to Hel, but not you.”

“No, and I was right,” Tony smirked.

“Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why did all of us winding up in the same place make you so sure we weren’t dead?”

Tony raised an eyebrow at him, as if he couldn’t believe that Steve was using his carte blanche on this. “The world follows rules. Thor is supposed to end up knee-deep in mead, and you get a halo to match your wings. I miss the helmet that had actual wings, by the way. Have you thought about bringing it back? These days retro is--”

For the second time that night, Steve said what he wouldn’t, had he been sober. “What about you?”

Tony finished his drink, setting it down a little harder than he needed to as he rose. Thor had started up “Loch Lomand” yet again. “Don’t have a clue. You two were the only variables I needed. Q.E.D. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I need to broaden our favorite Asgardian’s bar hymnal. Let me know if you need a lift back to the tower.”

“Tony--“

The engineer looked over his shoulder at Steve, his eyes slightly too wide, his smile just a little too brittle. Of course. Tony hadn’t promised him answers.

The question he wanted to ask died in his throat.

“Why the old team games? What brought that up?”

Tony cocked his head. “Just nostalgia. I was thinking about the time we went around trying to figure out what we’d all do with our last day on earth. You’d been itching to do a still life painting, as I recall.”

Steve nodded.

“Did you ever get around to doing one?”

Steve shook his head. “No. Not a painting, anyway.”

“Shame,” Tony said, slipping off to join the others. “Still -- no time like the present to start, right?”

 ***

“I wanted to say thanks,” Tony said, tossing the rock with a flick of his wrist. It jumped once, then twice, before plunking beneath the surface. Twin ripples spread from where it had skipped across the blue-green water of Central Park's southern pond.

“For what?” Steve watched as Tony bent down, looking for another smooth rock. The engineer passed up at least two or three Steve would have been happy with -- ever the perfectionist.

“For believing me when I said I wasn’t drunk in front of the U.N.”

Steve didn’t know what to say to that. You’re welcome, seemed grandiose. Of course, sounded too patronizing, like he thought it was easy for Tony. He settled for, “I trust you.”

Tony sent the stone he’d found flying through the air, it managed three skips this time before it sank. “I know. I’ve been thinking about what you said.”

“It wouldn’t feel like a team without you,” Steve knew it was selfish to say, but he didn’t care. If the Avengers were going to reform he wanted Tony there by his side -– wanted Tony there no matter what.

“If I say yes –- and that’s still an if…” Tony stressed, “it can’t just be picking up where we left off.”

“Never said it would be.”

In fact, he agreed wholeheartedly. Wanda’s breakdown had shattered the group. But it wouldn’t be right, continuing as if nothing had changed when she was no longer with them.

Tony nodded and seemed pleased at that. “You know, the ancient Latverians used to rebuild with the stones their enemies used to knock down their city walls. Some of the old walls have supposedly been preserved, and you can see the patches were the old stone ends and the new begins. They’re layer cakes of old limestone from the local bedrock and newer blocks their enemies quarried from the siege sites.”

Tony straightened up, but this time he put the stone he’d selected in Steve’s hands. “I want us to rebuild. And I want us to rebuild better, with everything we learned from what was used to knock us down before.”

The gray stone was smooth and cool in Steve’s palm. He was tempted to pocket it, give it to Tony later with a note. “The first stone in the new wall.”  Tony would call him a sap and probably lose it somewhere in his lab. Sentimentality always got the better of Steve where it fell on Tony’s deaf ears.

Instead Steve weighed the stone in his hand, running his thumb over the smoothed curves. “You don’t have to pitch to me, Tony. I’m sold as long as you’re on board.”

He flicked the stone, letting a little too much of his strength into the throw. The stone easily skid across the pond’s surface a dozen times before being cut short. Steve grimaced as distress twisted a duck’s quack into a shriek. The mad fluttering of wings against the water sent violent ripples across the pond.

Tony’s mouth quirked into an amused frown. “I think a fox may be eating well tonight.”

Steve winced.

“Speaking of dinner. Want to grab crab tonight?  We haven’t gone to the place down on 51st in ages.”

“Because you’ve been busy,” Steve said, not realizing how accusatory he sounded till it was out of his mouth.

“Then consider it a celebratory dinner for my resignation as Secretary of State.” Tony let out a moan that was vaguely pornographic. “I cannot tell you how much I am looking forward to packing up the political philosophy and going back to Grisham novels.”

“I liked them.” Steve said, finding another stone, and testing the weight. He squinted against the glint of sun on the calm water and hoped there was no other wildlife in his path.

“Really? You are an old man,” Tony laughed. “We’re going out for dinner, then. It’ll do you good.”

Steve let his stone fly. It bounced once, veered off at an odd angle, and promptly sank. “You know I think crab is more trouble than its worth. A hotdog on the other hand--”

“Crab is delicious, you heathen. I’m not celebrating over a frank.”

Steve sighed. No point in putting up a fight when he knew better. “Fine, we can talk about just war theory over the romantic din of cracking shells.”

Tony grimaced. “Better idea: our new headquarters. I’m leaving the mansion as it is, but I have some new real estate in mind. How do you feel about towers?”

 

2

Reed wore a puzzled look. He clearly didn’t recognize the silver cube that Steve held. So whatever Tony had set into motion, the damned weasel hadn’t told anyone.

“Tony told me that this, and the others, are attuned to your bio-signature,” Steve offered by way of explanation. “That once he gave me a key, you would be able to unlock them -– that they would explain what happened.”

“The incursions, you mean.”

Steve gave a curt nod. “ Three months since your warning last lit up?”

“Yes. It was unprecedented. They were coming exponentially quicker just before. It doesn’t fit the pattern at all.”

Steve held the cube out, nestled in the palm of his hand. No point in preamble. The scent of new information would be too tantalizing for Reed to resist.

When Reed’s fingers brushed it, the effect was instantaneous. A pale mist swirled up, and a bright light from within started projecting an image -– Tony, soft and tinted in shades of silver, appeared in the eddies of the cloud. His head and shoulders were the only bits visible, as if he were bent forward in front of the camera.

“Hello Steve. Hello Reed.” Tony said. “Steve, if you’ve activated this recording, then you have my incursion implant. So you remember.” He bit his lip. It looked as though something else had been on the tip of his tongue as well. But whatever it had been disappeared on the next instant.

“I’ve been working on contingency plans,” the little gray projection went on. “So far I’ve only succeeded in finding nuclear options. Literally. The weapons designer in me never really went away, I guess. But now that those are squared away, I’m trying to think defense.” Tony grinned vaguely into the camera. “Be proud Steve, I’m taking a page out of your book. I’m trying not to settle for the shit solution that just barely works.

He took a deep breath. “But defense isn’t usually my ball-game and I’ve been stumped. So I’ve been brushing up on my multiverse theory by re-reading your work, Reed -– specifically your papers on the slip-space between universes. Steve, if you want the long-winded version, I’m sure Reed will indulge you. But the short version is that space time is a lot like cloth. Irregularities in the multiverse create wrinkles, and wrinkles can compress the slip-space, causing friction between universes. Friction is bad. Friction causes wear and tear. You can't escape it all together, and because the universe is more like a very large organism than a machine, it has some limited ability to repair itself. We don't fully understand how, we just know that of the few we've documented, most eventually close up again. Unfortunately, there are only a few documented areas where the effect has been big enough to be observed -– there's currently one on the moon, and there used to be another near Hala. Due to its proximity to the Kree home-world, we weren’t able to study the latter one much.

The one on the moon was, at it’s biggest, only around the size of a baseball. The vast majority of these events are no more than pin pricks in the vastness of space, microtears, if you will. But I noticed something strange. Currently, there is a high density of tears around the Earth. And they’re larger than the average you reported in your paper, Reed. At first I thought that maybe someone else was using them –- generating them for who-knows-what reason. But they’re too random. So for now I’m watching and recording…and thinking of more contingencies.”

The image flickered as the projection light winked out and Tony disappeared.

“Did that make any sense to you?” Steve asked, because Reed had a deep frown on his haggard face.

“Some,” Reed said. “You said there were more?”

Steve nodded.

*** 

Something was festering in the back of Steve’s mind, like a task he had forgotten. But trying to grasp at it was like collecting water in his cupped hands. No matter how tightly he pressed his hands, the water kept sliding through the cracks of his fingers, leaving Steve with four dim silhouettes in his mind, a shadow play retelling a half-remembered dream.

It dribbled into his mood, poisoning it, a frustrating itch just under his skin that had festered for the last week.

Apparently it hadn’t gone unnoticed.

“I don’t understand what all the fruit is for,” Steve said, holding up a banana tinged with green.

He’d opened the door to a delivery boy with both arms full of paper bags. The boy had handed them over and asked if Steve had a hand truck he could borrow to bring up the rest. In all, ten bags sat on the counter top, stuffed to the brim with mangos, apples, oranges, plums, and more.

He pulled out a green oblong-shaped fruit that he hadn’t a hope of guessing the name of and looked pointedly at Tony. “Are you planning to make fruit salad for the entire roster?”

“Me? Cook?” Tony feigned innocence, not looking up from his Starkpad.

“Technically, you’re not cooking anything for a—“

Tony waved a hand at Steve, a gesture he’d long ago come to realize meant, you know what I mean.

“They’re for you.”

“Most men just buy flowers.”

Tony rolled his eyes. “You always used to talk about doing a still-life. Things have been quiet, so I thought: no better time, right?”

“And to you, still-life means a painting of fruit? Steve asked dryly, studying the banana anew with bemusement.

He pictured Tony buying a painting, asking, “Yes, but how many bananas have you put into it? Under thirty? I won’t take less than forty for that price.”

“What? Did you want vegetables too?”

Steve sighed.

All the same, maybe Tony had a point.

With the bigger roster, he could swap himself into and out of the active lineup at will. Just a few hours ago Carol had called in to report that the experimental animals AIM had set loose in Midtown had been contained, no back up needed.

“Though if we have room at the tower for a pet rhinoceros-lizard…”

Steve had, in no uncertain terms, told her no.

He looked at the bags of fruit, somewhat daunted, somewhat intrigued. Between all the varieties, his choice for color and composition was abundant. If he could find a bowl or a tea towel suited to the green of the pears and the sunset red and gold of the mango…

He felt something shift in his mind, like a cat stretching out in the warmth of a window.

He had talked about doing a still-life, but it had been years, hadn’t it? And yet it felt like just yesterday that he had mentioned it to Tony.

Just shows you’ve known the guy too long. Everything feels like yesterday.

He thought back to that day in a crowded, bustling crab shack, Tony sketching on napkins -- new training rooms, new Quinjets, new building, new everything.

And of course Tony had reserved the biggest room with the best view of the city for himself.

His dark eyes had bored into Steve.

“I could put you there too,” he said quietly.

“I don’t know that I’m ready for that,” Steve confessed.

He couldn't even remember when that had changed -- but change it had. Steve let his gaze wander, from the engineer consumed with work to the kitchen around them. It was remarkable what they had built. What they had rebuilt: from mansion to tower, small threats to large. They had once been a roster that banded together out of desperation. Now they were an adaptive machine, one that prevented intergalactic war.

If only he still had that skipping stone, he would have slid it back into Tony’s hands.  

It hadn’t been a building block, he realized. A wall did not contain that kind of vibrant, new energy. It had been a seed.

We shape the world, it does not shape us.

Steve paused. Who had said that – had it been him? But when? He groped for where he had been, what else had been flowing through his mind, but there was only darkness and the shifting of dried leaves on stone floors.

Perhaps the Gardeners? They had planted seeds of their own.

A shudder went through him at the thought. Almost reflexively, he asked. “What happens if we ever become like the Gardeners?” 

“Us?” Tony blinked, still largely absorbed with whatever he was tapping away at on his Starkpad. “Doesn’t seem likely.”

“Why not?” Steve busied himself with pulling out a colander and arranging shapes as they caught his eye: purple grapes spilling over oranges, a mound of apples. He rolled an apricot in his palm, failed to find a good place for it, and instead bit into its soft flesh.

Tony frowned. “Because the Avengers have always been about preservation, not policing. How else do you explain Doom’s continued reign in Latveria?”

“Okay,” Steve conceded, balancing a banana on top of the grapes. “But you don’t have to enforce something to change it. I don’t think you can argue that what we do doesn’t have an influence or change things. You and I have come to blows over it. And all of the other worlds...”

Steve trailed off, pondering that. Where would Hala be, he wondered, if they hadn’t intervened in the Kree-Skrull war? Where would the universe be, if Thanos had gotten his hands on those accursed infinity gems?

The stretching sensation in his mind grew, felt like it was scratching against the inside if his skull --

He realized the sound of Tony’s fingers on the glass stilled. When he looked up, Steve saw that Tony was rigid in the chair. Steve had his undivided attention. He felt hi stomach twist.

He shouldn’t have brought the civil war up.

Steve swallowed. “Water under the bridge, though.”

Something in Tony’s shoulders relaxed, even as a troubled expression ghosted across his face.

But he hid it quickly, his eyebrows flickering up toward his hair in feigned moment of inspiration. “Well, you said it best yourself. We have disagreed. As long as we can do that, we won’t become Gardeners.”

Tony pushed himself up out of the chair and crossed the kitchen to rest his chin on Steve’s shoulder. “I might be tempted to impose some architectural stability on your woebegone tower, though.”

“It’s art.”

“Good design is art.”

Tony wiggled an arm beneath Steve’s, worming the hand up to show Steve a small cube, pale gray with a little “001” printed in the surface.

“Steve,” he said, chin still planted on the soldier’s shoulder, “I know you hate when I’m busy. And I know it chafes that I won’t tell you about this project -- maybe I should have gotten you flowers. But I promise it’s important. And it’s also important that I get it right before sharing it with anyone. Once I do, you’ll be able to unlock this. It’s a log of sorts, and it will catch you up on what I’ve been working on.”

Steve took the little cube from Tony’s fingers, rolling it in his larger palm. “I don’t like when we have secrets.”

Tony pressed a kiss to Steve’s neck. “That’s why I’m trying to make sure they don’t linger.”

He withdrew from Steve's shouder, grabbed an apple, and took a bite. Juice dribbled from his goatee. “Mmmm. On second thought, maybe the fruit salad isn’t such a bad idea. We could get everyone together. Bet I can even get Thor to grill.”

Steve let go of a pear, thinking he had it poised right. But it shifted strangely, knocking an apple at the bottom, and triggering an avalanche that left his composition an ugly lump. Steve sighed, picking up the colander with what remained of his tower, and turned on the water with a flick of his elbow. He could paint another day, and it would be a shame to let it all the fruit go to waste. “You want to send out the signal, or me?” 

Steve felt a gentle, but insistent buzzing near his thigh -- his pocketed Avengers ID. He raised an eyebrow at Tony.

“No, that wasn’t me,” Tony was already glued to his Starkpad again. “Bad news: our barbeque may have to wait. Manifold is requesting an all-hands meeting, says he has an urgent message from Captain Universe.”

 ***

Tony ran his hands through his dark hair. “I can’t believe you talked me into this.”

Beyond the glass doors, the hot New York summer gave way to the chill of air conditioning. The heat on Steve’s arms fizzled away as they entered the darkened maze of glass displays. “I thought you’d like it,” he said, voice dropping to a murmur.

Plus, it was a celebration of sorts –- that Tony was back, that Extremis hadn’t killed him. Tony deserved a break.

Steve was also still adjusting to his partner being a cyborg.

Tony didn’t like being called a cyborg though.

“It’s an enhancile.” The engineer had insisted.

A virus that overwrote your biology and made you grow wiring in your lungs sounded like the soul of cyborg engineering to Steve.

And while it still made him uncomfortable –- because there were still parts of Steve that grappled with the twenty-first century -– he told himself that it was nothing time and trust couldn’t solve.

Tony fidgeted. “You could have just given me the summary.”

“And defeat the purpose of going out?”

Tony scowled briefly. He had been enthusiastic enough the night Steve had brought the flyer home. Medieval Latveria: Destined for Doom. Perfect, Steve had thought, remembering Tony’s fondness for that anecdote about Latverian city walls. As for Steve, he’d always had a soft spot for museums.

As the son of poor immigrants, he’d never had much. But his mother had always found ways to enrich their meager lives.

When he was seven -– maybe eight -- they had boarded a north-bound bus for Manhattan. He’d never been to the Upper East Side before. As he’d followed his mother down Fifth Avenue, he’d goggled at all the buildings. They were nothing like the tired, half-rotted wood and brick of their street in Brooklyn. These shops and offices had stone carvings and stained glass. It was the first time Steve had seen buildings that could be called beautiful and he’d been so engrossed that he would have barreled headlong into a man in a trench coat if his mother’s hand hadn’t slipped into his own and tugged gently.

Now Steve imitated that tug at the crook of Tony’s elbow, heading into the first exhibit room.

Inside, the theme of the room was upper class life. Surveying the spread of typica items in a rich family's home, Steve noted the luxury: velvet dresses dyed in deep greens and blues, silverware, a large tapestry. But he also shuddered at the wood chamberpot. As a man out of time, he supposed, there were worse periods to wake up in -- ones that did not enjoy the benefits of modern plumbing, for example.

Steve put his back to the toiletry exhibit and found himself transfixed by something infinitely more aesthetic: a painting. The color was faded and chipping off the wood it had been painted on, but a fair-haired woman was still recognizable, standing on a staircase. She was reaching out toward a man in armor, but his back was to her as he faced a group of men bearing spears. It might have been the man’s army, or it might have been an invading force from afar. The lack of perspective and proportion always left Steve unsure, and the placard merely said, “The Lord Takes Leave, gouache on wood.” 

Tony leaned over his shoulder. “I could do that.”

For one brief moment, Steve was back at the Met in 1928, his mother ruffling his hair as he stood in front of a painting of a stern looking man named Rembrandt. “If you work hard, your drawings could wind up here one day too.”

“Yeah,” Steve told Tony. “You’d just have to wait a thousand years for it to be noteworthy.”

“With enough money in the right palms, I could make an art exhibit of dirty words spelled out in alphabet soup.”

“That’s cynical.”

“That’s business,” Tony shrugged as they drifted into the next room.

Then the engineer’s scowl brightened into an elated grin

The trebuchet at the back of the hall was a giant wooden monstrosity. At its tallest point, the pivot, the machine was easily three times Steve’s height, and the arm was long enough that over a dozen people could comfortably stand in front of the display. A rock -- or a model of one, at least -- had been placed near the massive sling, so large two men would have had to haul it up for loading.

The structure was in surprisingly good shape. The wood looked newly enameled. Either it had been lovingly restored, or --

“Not the real thing,” Tony stuck his hands in his pockets and craning his neck to get a better view of the counterweight, wanting to touch – no doubt. “But a good recreation.”

“Is that a note of disappointment, I hear?”

“It’s just nice to see originals,” Tony shrugged. “I built one of these when I was nine.”

Of course he had. Steve tried to hide the smile by shaking his head.

“What, you don’t believe me?”

“No, I think that sounds exactly like you. You work on machines in your spare time now, why would your childhood have been any different?”

“You aren’t allowed to complain when I’m working late tonight.”

That took a bit of the wind out of Steve’s sails. “You work too much, Tony.”

“Says the cheap date who took me to a free exhibit.”

That stung. “If you don’t like it, you can leave.” It was never about the price. That should have been obvious. He turned, leaving Tony in front of the siege machine.

When Steve was nine, he’d finally gotten to go back to the Met with his mother. He remembered staring at a painting of a French sea-side town, the hills naked and green. No buildings, no streets. When he’d pointed this out to his mother, she told him about living in a rural city on the other side of the ocean. One day, she promised, they’d take a trip out of the city and go to the countryside. He’d finally know what clean air smelled like, she said.

She’d passed away before they ever got to take that trip.

It had been years ago, but it still made his heart twist.

He paused in front of yet another glass case, blinking furiously. This one had a book, and once he'd regained his composure, he saw it had been opened for display on a page listing dates. The calligraphy was perfect, but the real artwork was in the margins. Every inch of whitespace had been painstakingly hand-illuminated. Sheaves of wheat sat in each of the corners. Between them, cycling clockwise from top, the seasons of a field had been drawn: springtime planting, the green fullness of summer, peasants harvesting golden fields in the fall, and finally a fallow field covered by the snow of winter.

And Steve thought about how when he’d finally seen the countryside, it had been on the army’s dime. It was almost farcical, the difference between the idyllic pastures his mother had described and the fields cut deep with trenches and the smell of blood.

He moved on hastily after that, rounded a display of rusted swords and chainmail, and found himself staring at an enormous glass exhibit. It was at the center of this display hall, stretching from floor to ceiling, bisecting the flow of people around it. Even from a distance, Steve could see it was a misshapen thing – small black stones scattered throughout, large, rough cut gray blocks in the center, and brown brick-shapes at the top.

So Tony hadn’t been making it up. The caption on the display case confirmed this, drawing attention to the dissimilar mineral make-up and age of the stone strata. A map at the foot of the wall showed the quarry locations, some as far as thirty miles away.

The museum’s write-up also went into far more detail than Tony ever had.

The medieval Latverians hadn’t just rebuilt their walls with the stones their enemies had brought to their doorstep. They had anointed the rocks with the blood of their foreign invaders -- had mixed it into the very mortar. And anyone in their ranks suspected of treason was given an execution by stoning.

Steve walked to the other side of the wall and was started to see that instead of leaving, Tony had come in from a door on the other side of the room. He was studying the wall just as Steve had, but his eyes were unfocused. He was analyzing it with Extremis, Steve realized, and an uncomfortable itch crawling over him.

“Is it what you expected?”

Tony blinked, just as surprised at see Steve. “Frankly, I’m a little shocked it’s so well preserved.” He pointed to a droop where the weight of unusually large stones had compressed mortar into dust, leaving raw stone on stone.

Steve raised an eyebrow. “I thought you worshipped the old Latverian city planners.”

“Worship?” Tony snorted. “Makes for a hell of an inspirational anecdote, though.”

“Right up till the point they painted them red.”

Tony didn’t even bat an eye.

“A good story always has a certain amount of simplification,” he shrugged, disappearing around the other side of the wall.

 

3

Reed’s fingers brushed against the next cube, perfectly like the first, but bearing a “002” mark. Once again Tony’s face swam in a cloud of mist.

“I’ve been categorizing the tears I mentioned last time. It’s not incredibly useful so far,but without something better to work on, it seems like as good a starting place as any.” He let loose an enormous yawn, stretched, and winced. “I got maybe two hours of sleep last night because of you Steve. You and your big ideas.”

Tony said it with enough of a leer that Reed coughed, perhaps out of discomfort, perhaps to hide a sputter.

“I have nearly 70 major tears mapped out. Of those, I’m tracking the five biggest closely because my measurements indicate that they’re growing on something like the order of a half a millimeter a day. Growing. Not shrinking. I’m still trying to figure out why they’re growing at all, and whether I can stabilize them. If I can, I think I might be able to use the warp to give us more leeway during the next incursion. I’m working on a probe to send through the tear. But of course that comes with risks too, since I’m not sure what made them in the first place. The simulation for sending it should finish computation by tonight.”

The image glanced at something over his shoulder, sighed and stood. “But not for a few more hours,” he leaned over so that his face was at camera height. “So I think I’d better do some preemptory liaising.” He winked and turned the camera off.

Steve felts his cheeks burn as he dug in his pocket for the next record. Amazing. Tony had managed to make him feel even more thoroughly used after everything.

Standing in the same room as Reed Richards, gratitude had been the last thing Steve expected to feel. But during those agonizing moments it took to find the third cube, Steve was thankful for Reed’s patient silence.

*** 

“I came down here to give you a demonstration.”

“Of course you did,” Steve said with a grin. His thumb brushed over the crook of Tony’s forearm, then stole upward to cup the scruffy goatee.

Tony didn’t quite manage to hide his smile. “Did you devolve into a teenager while you were gone?”

“I’ve been in space,” Steve protested, as though that justified anything. At the moment he rather thought it did. He put on his best attempt at a pout and Tony melted in his hands. Long fingers twined around Steve’s neck, pulling him close till the men were hip to hip.

It seemed to have lasted ages, Steve leading the Avengers in space against the Builders, Tony holding the home front against Thanos. Much too long for Steve. He hadn’t felt so overwhelmingly cut-off from Tony since the war--

All the things that had been left unsaid between the two of them over the last few months dissolved as Steve buried his nose in Tony’s mussed hair. The smell of charcoal and engine oil overwhelmed him as he closed his eyes. Underneath it, just the faintest scent of vanilla took Steve back to the first night he’d held Tony close, the first time he’d noticed that subtle sweetness beneath eau de inventor.

“Green boobs,” Tony said, resting his pointy chin on Steve’s shoulder. “You know I wouldn’t have held it against you if you were curious.”

“I don’t want green boobs.” Steve said, sliding his hands beneath the soft fabric of Tony’s black tank top.

“You’re not going to let me give my lecture, are you?”

“I’m listening,” Steve assured him, pressing a kiss to Tony’s neck.

“Liar.”

“You were telling me to stop thinking of the machine in fixed terms.”

“Mmm,” The sound could have been agreement or a moan. Either way, the inventor shivered as Steve’s teeth grazed a spot just beneath his jaw. “You get too set on things sometimes. You need to step back, rearrange the pieces, be willing to change the conclusion if your original hypothesis doesn’t fit.”

“I don’t need a whole speech to figure that out.”

“I disagree.”

“Why?”

“You remember the night I caught you burning a sketchbook?”

Steve groping through his memory to find what Tony was talking about. “The grocer’s stand?”

It had been a cold winter day. He’d been using charcoal, stretched out on the fire-warmed floor of the living room, trying to sketch a memory of the stall on the corner opposite his parent’s apartment. But something about it was wrong. His memory of the place was filtered through the mind’s eye of boyhood. The bins of apples had been enormous -- as big as him. And something about adding structure and perspective made it seem small –- less than what it had once been.

He’d abandoned the ruler, but it hadn’t made the process any easier. A dozen crumpled pieces of paper attested to that. By the time Tony found him, he was on the verge of throwing his charcoals and the rest of the sketchpad into the fire.

“Can’t you just find an old photo of the street?” Tony asked when Steve had explained the mess.

“Wouldn’t be the same.” Steve said, flipping on to his back and rubbing at his tired eyes.

“More efficient though,” Tony said with disdain, flicking a crumpled ball of paper away as he got down on hands and knees to rummage through the newspaper Steve had been using it to protect the hardwood floor. Of course -- he’d forgotten to ask if Tony wanted the business section first.

Steve sighed as he helped rummage through the pile of newsprint. “Efficient isn't always the same as good. he Times ran a piece on a sculptor in the East Village a few years ago. He started off as a painter, but refused to sell anything because he didn’t think the pieces were good enough. Then one day as he was looking at a Vermeer, he realized he was never going to be as good as a long-dead Dutchman. So he threw away his paints and started sculpting.”

“So he spent years of his life not making money because he was a perfectionist.”

“He had principals.”

“What? Conforming to the penniless artist stereotype?”

“No. He wouldn’t settle for mediocrity. He went through a hundred drafts and found a masterpiece.”

Tony frowned, pulling out the headlines from section A. “He must have had plenty of time to kill. I’d rather distill that process to a number and get it right every time.”

Steve looked up at the Avengers machine, puzzled at why Tony had brought such an old memory up. “What does the grocers stand have to do with anything?”

“Perfect results. With more possibilities open to you, you’ve been spending more time running strategies through the old simulation software. If it’s going to be harder to make decisions, then the least I can do is make the data quick and easy to come by.”

Tony reached a hand out to the console, his fingers brushing over the keyboard. “Any team you can think of, you can assemble in the program.” A hologram with eight empty slots coalesced in the air beside them. “There are thousands of pre-configured scenarios based on old mission reports, or you can build custom scenarios. Everything’s tagged, performance data tracked and updated in real-time, the AI is pre-programmed to–“

“I push buttons, results come out.” Steve’s voice was low as he reached for the hem of the engineer’s tank top again. “Tell me Tony, is this scenario in the database?”

Tony flushed. “You are such a luddite.”

“Some things haven’t changed in eighty years. I stick to what I’m good at.”

Tony opened his mouth, probably to disagree more out of habit than anything else. But then he seemed to think better of that, his fingers going to the button at Steve’s throat. That was all the approval Steve needed to roll the thin cotton shirt up and over Tony’s head.

The engineer’s skin was warm beneath the tips of Steve’s fingers, and he teased himself as much as Tony as he ran his hands down the length of Tony’s chest. When Tony pressed against him, hard and ready, it was Steve’s turn to moan. He felt electric.

As he reached for the button of Tony’s pants, he felt calloused fingers close around his.

“The door isn’t locked—“

He pressed another soft, quick kiss to Tony’s lips, felt the itch of the engineer’s beard against the corners of his mouth, felt something else too -- itching deep inside his mind, but Steve pushed it down. Not now. Not when he had this. “No one’s coming down. I told Sam we were working.”

“You think they’ll believe that?”

“Does it matter?”

“Space definitely took an edge off of you,” Tony smirked, and this time when Steve reached for the button, he didn’t stop him. He took that as permission, unzipping, and taking Tony into his hand.

“Steve—“

He cut Tony off with a kiss as he stroked, languid at first, then harder. Tony gasped, his arms curling around Steve’s shoulders, his hips arcing up to meet Steve’s hand. The faster Steve’s fist moved, the hungrier Tony’s kiss grew.

Tony let out a low keening noise when Steve withdrew, but it was abruptly silenced when Steve knelt and took Tony in his mouth. Tony’s fingers tightened in his hair as they fell back into a feverish rhythm.

And as Tony’s breathing came more and more ragged, Steve felt he was conducting an exhibit for one -– the deconstruction of an industrialist business man.

No suit, no tie, no power. Just abandon.

He loved this side of Tony: stripped, his calloused, quivering hands holding on to Steve as he rode out the pleasure, his blue eyes screwed shut --

Tony panted, and from the corner of an eye, Steve saw him bite down on the back of one hand to keep from crying out. Something carnal and lusty curled inside Steve at that sight. He wanted to coax that cry out of Tony, he wanted the sex to leave Tony hoarse.

But “work” or no, they’d be missed sooner or later, and Tony was a top teetering on the brink. So Steve pushed him over the precipice and was rewarded with the taste of salt and a muffled sound that erupted from Tony. The engineer pulled Steve up for an sloppy, eager kiss, as though it had been years they’d been apart, not weeks -- as though he were a man dying of thirst under a hot desert sun who had come across an oasis.

Next time he had to take a deep space mission, Steve resolved, Tony was the first one going into the machine’s lineup.

“Shall we put in an appearance?” Steve asked, his hands once again on Tony’s hips, thinking of what he would be doing once the party had ended for the evening.

“I did have one other thing you didn’t let me get to,” Tony said, eyes half-lidded, the picture of contentment.

“Something I’ll enjoy?” Steve teased, his voice low in Tony’s ear.

“After a fashion,” Tony said, holding up a second cube.

***

“How would you spend your last day one earth?”

“Probably drinking.”

“But you’ve been sober for years.”

“Doesn’t mean I don’t want a drink.”

Steve thought about that conversation often during the civil war. Up until that point, he’d never really understood what Tony had been saying.

Tony had always been mercurial –- fiery and passionate when his ideas were flowing fresh and fast, withdrawn when it all stagnated. But the lows never lasted long –- certainly not this long.

Two months into his life on the run, lying in an underground safe-house, in a small dark room with no windows, it had finally clicked for Steve. He turned on the TV and saw Tony giving a press conference about the Initiative. He was immaculate: blue tie in a perfect Windsor knot, not a hair out of place in his dark goatee. Tony had quippy answers for everything and a jaunty smile.

He looked happy. Like nothing was wrong.

Despite himself, Steve felt a dull ache. In some ways, it would have been easier if Tony were dead.

If he hadn’t been so miserable, he might have developed a new appreciation for what Tony went through during every toast. Instead he let his resentment for Tony boil over. Hated him -– or at least the choice the man had made.

And Steve hated himself too -- hated his inability to stop aching for something that he couldn’t have any longer.

It wasn’t a new feeling, this hole that he couldn’t fill. He’d gone through it before, from all-too literal hunger pains during the Depression, to the desperate desire to sit out under the stars trading stories with Bucky one last time.

But it had never been as simple as waving a white flag to fulfill those longings. And it would be simple, he knew -- simple as the alcoholic taking a sip from a New Year’s Toast. Simple as a problem reduced to running the numbers. Simple as a dilemma with a third way out.

 

They parlayed three times during the civil war. The first was at the stadium, the final was at the mansion. The second was at the docks.

“Fresh seafood,” Tony joked, turning around in front of a blue-gray shipping container emblazoned with a cartoon crab, his red and gold arms spread wide. “It worked the first time we reformed.”

“Is that why we’re here?” Steve asked. They both knew it was too late for that.

He pushed back his cowl, and had to sweep a lock of hair out of his eyes. His blond hair was still short, but shaggier than the close crop he was used to. No barbers in the underground Avengers.

Understanding the gesture, Tony’s helmet whirred and the gold faceplate retracted. He had circles under his eyes , and the blue of his eyes was bright against the bloodshot whites. Steve filed what little he could see in the moonlight away in his mind. 

Was it petty that he was so gratified Tony didn’t look half so well-composed in person?

“What do you want, exactly?” Steve asked, voice gruff, when Tony failed to answer his first question.

Tony’s smile fell. “We both know what I want.” He left that dangling for a bitter moment. “Steve, have you asked yourself what happens if you manage to win this thing? What do you plan to do? Force the government to repeal a law?”

“Of course not. When congress is ready, we’ll negotiate terms.”

Tony’s blue eyes bore through Steve. “And how do you get there? How to you win a place at the table when there are people like me willing to work with them? If you do, then what do you do with people like me?”

Steve was silent as Tony’s eyes searched him.

“If you gave me something. Anything to work with--” there was a note of desperation in Tony’s voice and Steve hated the way he relished it.

“No. There’s no compromise to make.”

Tony’s jaw tensed. “You stubborn ass. There’s no compromise for you because you refuse to accept anything short of what you think this should look like in the end.”

“Me? This is about me?” Steve spluttered. “Tell me Tony, what is your ego more bruised by? Me refusing to play along with your pandering to congress? Or the fact you’ve become a lapdog for the people you despise?”

The red and gold faceplate snapped shut with a hiss of hydraulics, for a moment it looked like he would simply take off, leaving the ringing echo of repulsors in Steve’s ears. Instead, he asked in a much-too calm voice, “Tell me, have you given this any more thought than a knee-jerk reaction?”

“I don’t have any doubt about what I’m doing, if that’s what you’re asking.” Steve said. “I’m not the one with blood on my hands.”

For a moment Tony was silent behind the faceplate. Then he took a step toward Steve, clawing the Iron Man helmet off and letting it fall at his feet. Beneath, Tony’s black hair was tousled, skin pale under the moon’s light, and his blue eyes alit with fury. “You're not, are you?" The tone made it clear Tony disagreed. "I’m not the one who fired the first shot.”

Funny. You sure as hell marched the armies into place.”

“You decided to defy the law, and you don’t think that’s a dangerous place to be? And let’s not forget what this is all ultimately about!” Tony said, throwing his arms wide once again, a humorless smile on his face. “Just how much is anonymity worth to you? Do you think it’s worth Wiccan and Patriot rotting in a cell for the rest of their lives for reckless endangerment of the public? Do you think it’s worth Luke’s daughter having her first birthday in an underground safe house? You raised a flag, and people followed, Steve.” He stalked closer to Steve. “I never wanted anyone to die, but Bill’s blood is as much on your hands as it is mine.”

A sharp clang echoed off the metal shipping containers around them as Steve shoved the red and gold armor into the side of the nearest one. One hand curled around Tony's bare throat. Beneath Steve’s calloused fingers, Tony’s pulse was wild.

“Yes. Maybe you could end it all with me,” Tony said, his voice low and cocky despite being half-choked, “but I don’t think you have it in you.”

Tony’s skin was so warm. How long had he been waiting to touch the man again only for it to come to this? Steve let go, feeling his stomach turn.

This time when Tony’s face disappeared beneath the armor, he didn’t linger. In moments the engineer was airborne. The hair on the back of Steve’s neck prickled in the after wash of the repulsors.

He swallowed and covered his face, only to find his hands shaking.

No more parlays, he resolved – or only if it was absolutely necessary.

Because he wasn’t so sure Tony had been right.

 

4

“Two more,” Steve said, handing over the next cube.

Once again, Tony sprang to life in the small cloud of mist. He was looking mystified at something beyond Reed and Steve, scratching his goatee.  It took several more moments before he finally spoke, and when he did, his eyes remained fixed intently on whatever it was holding his attention.

“Yeah,” Tony ruffled his hair. “Time for an update. This isn’t making any sense.”

He sat back, in what Steve could only assume was a chair, his fingers steepled. “The tears are changing again. Not only are they widening, when two are in close proximity, they seem to be engage in mutual distortion. The biggest two under cross effect are in the upper atmosphere about 70 and 90 miles east of Reykjavik. I’m sending the probe through to see if I can figure out why.”

Tony pinched at the bridge of his nose. “I only started to notice the distortion after we assimilated the rogue planet. And that had its own issues. So I started looking more closely at the numbers.” Tony waved a hand.

Numbers began to shimmer in the air next to Tony’s face, and Reed squinted at them.

“When we captured the rogue planet, the readings for high-energy particles spiked. Astronomically so. And we lost mass from the rogue planet. A lot of mass...more than an Earth’s worth. Definitely more than the capture process should have converted into energy. It doesn’t make sense, but I have a hunch that they’re linked.”

Reed rubbed at his eyes as the image winked out again. “He couldn’t have just told me about this?”

Steve grimaced, “Welcome to the club.”

 ***

Tony’s fingers were black, and he had a smudge of grease across his chin from where he had stroked his goatee in thought as he looked up at the underside of the gutted quinjet. The welding goggles he’d been wearing from his secret project still sat askew on his head.

Steve still wasn’t sure what Tony was up to, but he was trying to be understanding, and Tony seemed appreciative. A third, newly acquired cube was nestled in Steve's back pocket.

Steve had managed a peek into the back room where Tony was conducting his secretive project one night when Tony left the door open. The engineer had fallen asleep at his desk and around three in the morning Steve had come to drag him to bed. He’d caught sight of bits and pieces of things, but nothing that made sense. It all seemed to be numbers and projections, half of it in script that didn’t look like English.

And of course when he’d woken Tony with a nudge, the man had been livid and ordered him out. They had had only stiff conversation the day after. This time Tony had bought flowers.

But it was still hard, some nights going to sleep without seeing Tony at all.

Still, say one thing for Tony Stark: the man was a consummate tinkerer, and the team usually benefited from the curiosity that drove Tony to take everything apart.

“It’s plausible,” Tony said. “But the top speed would suffer. I’d need to completely redesign the thruster system, so it’s not the superior solution.”

“Then what is?” Steve asked.

“Having two, like we used to.”

Steve shook his head. “We need to have a backup.”

“We can have a backup quinjet. We can afford three – four if you want each crew to have its own spare.”

Steve crossed his arms, still not convinced, but happy to let Tony argue. “And put them where? The roof? We can’t exactly just park them on the street.”

“We could rent space in the Baxter building. Or I can get us a hangar. I could build us one,” Tony huffed.

“Or you could design a quinjet that seats the active roster.”

Tony leaned against the giant rubber tire and rapped a knuckle against it. “I grant that these are antiques by today’s tech turnover. They should be replaced. But aircraft isn’t really cutting edge transport these days. Redesigning the quinjet into a quinbus is like trying to design a desktop computer to fit in your pocket: there’s no point when other tech is already filling the niche.”

The corner of Steve’s mouth twitched, halfway between amused and annoyed, “Do you have to compare everything to tech?”

“I am practically contractually obligated to.”

“New era, new needs. But new doesn’t have to mean rebuilt from the ground up.”

“If you can do it, why not?” Tony waggled his eyebrows as one of his pockets started beeping. He fished out his phone and studied it, his grin swept away.

“Something wrong?”

Tony’s gaze flicked up to Steve and back to the phone. He shook his head. “No, just Resilient. Pepper’s pushing an aggressive timeline for the new prototype, but we keep hitting delays.”

Steve waited.

When Tony mentioned a roadblock on a project, it was usually followed by idle threats about replacing his lab assistants with robots. He’d never even bothered with humans when it came to his lab in the tower, as evidenced by the little robots currently using tiny lasers to cut out the damaged parts of the Quinjet’s wing.

Today: nothing. No complaints, no snide remarks about the inherent superiority of bots.

Tony just rubbed his head with a greasy hand and came out looking like the right side of his face had an ugly bruise. “Anyway, what I’m trying to say is: is this really what we want to prioritize? I could be working on portals or matter reconfigurators.”

Steve hesitated. What had really been on Tony’s phone? Despite all of Tony's efforts, the secrecy rubbed a nerve. The irritating itch he’d been feeling for weeks was there again too. Always it seemed to come up when he was with Tony.

With an inventor who dabbled in biological systems for a lover, if Steve had been a paranoid man…

“Can I take you silence for affirmation that I’m right, old man?”

Steve’s voice was firm out of reflex as he mentally waded back to the discussion at hand. “Do we have anything to power that kind of tech?”

Tony laughed. “We have an entire planet’s worth of mass we can convert into energy. Power is the least of our problems.”

He had to concede that Tony had a point. But they needed to prioritize his projects because the engineer was overworked. As it was, it was difficult enough to catch a moment with him without some overlap with work or the Avengers.

On the other hand, they also needed a reliable solution for transporting lots of superheroes, and the Quinjets were tried and true.

“Bigger roster means bigger needs. The ride back after we lost one in space was long and cramped.” And smelly.

Tony’s shoulders slumped in defeat, but he tried one last stand. “You know, in ancient Latveria—“

“I know.”

Tony scratched at his goatee. “Told you that story, huh?”

We went to see it. He wanted to say, but he hated reminded Tony about memories that had been erased.

“Every time you want to make a point about rebuilding better. In this case bigger really is better.”

Tony shot him a coy look and Steve rolled his eyes, at which point Tony threw up his greasy hands in defeat. “Fine. But I’m not piloting it. The Quinbus is going to be uniquely yours.”

“You were the one who told me to stop thinking in fixed terms.”

“And I’m proud,” his voice dripped false sincerity. “But stretch yourself, Steve.”

Steve considered this for a few moments. “Reed already has some portal tech. Do you think we can convince him to install something here?”

Tony fidgeted with the goggles on his head. “Reed has been busy lately.”

“When has that not been true?”

“Point taken, but mine still stands.”

“If he gave you the blueprints, could you build whatever he’s designed?”

Tony prickled –- Steve saw it in the way he stood a little straighter and got a steely look in his blue eyes. “Imagine if I asked, 'Cap, can you sing the "Star Spangled Banner?" ’ ”

“I just meant that you’ve also been busy.” He hoped the implication didn’t exude resentment. “Let me amend that: can you build it without going to five hours or less of sleep?”

Tony smirked. “If I can’t get something set up by next week, I’ll sing with you before the next Dodger’s game."

*** 

“When I look at you, all I see are the mistakes…”

Steve smiled, even as Tony’s words cut through him.

They weren’t surprising, but at the same time he had hoped -- because he remembered standing on the edge of The Lake in Central Park, finding a way to rebuild the Avengers with Tony after their lives and home had been shattered. Because he remembered the lilt in Tony’s voice that night they’d parlayed on the docks. It worked the first time we reformed.

He wouldn’t remember that night, Steve thought with an ache.

“I’m sure it won’t be for forever,” Tony said, “But--”

But what?

“It’s a new era,” Steve said. “Moving on doesn’t have to mean leaving behind what worked in the past…”

If Tony had caught the more personal bent beneath Steve's words, he didn’t give any sign. His face was just as stony as when he’d walked through the conference room's door and they’d locked eyes.

The whole conversation was awkward –- at arm’s length, stilted, with Steve at a loss for what to say. It was an ugly shade of times when they’d been able to guess exactly what was running through the other’s mind.

Would he ever have that again?

Steve remembered standing outside the door to Tony’s room in the Sooner Motel, the humidity of late summer in Oklahoma oppressive, Maria Hill standing guard between him and the doorknob. He could have pushed her out of the way. Instead he said, “I need to talk to him.”

He’d needed to talk to Tony that day on the courthouse steps too. And realizing that he wouldn’t make it…his last regret had been assuming he would have more time.

And once he had another chance? Once he tried to set it right?

Maria had shook her head and told him to leave.

Steve felt a bit of himself tearing apart as he looked into Tony’s guarded blue eyes now and realized it wouldn’t have made a damn bit of difference if he’d broken the motel room’s door down.

“We’ll just have to find a way avoid killing one another,” Steve said, injecting cheer into his voice that he didn’t really feel as he thumped Tony’s breastplate.  Anything to cover the fear he felt settling in stomach. Because Tony always rebuilt –- was in talks even now with Thor about raising Asgard back up out of the Oklahoma prairie. But trying to salvage anything of what they’d had didn’t seem to be in the cards.

Maybe Steve had taken that for granted?

Jealousy curled around his heart. Of all the things Tony could have given up on-- 

But no, Steve couldn’t dwell on that.

At least they were talking.

Maybe if he laid the foundation they could build from there.

 

5

“I’m an idiot,” Tony said without preamble after Steve had passed the fourth cube to Reed. “Shit. This is bad…”

The gray image disappeared almost as quickly as it had appeared, and when Tony reappeared again he looked different. The tank top he had been wearing was now a long sleeved shirt. He’d looked reasonably well, but now he seemed tired and drawn, as if a lifetime had passed in those short few seconds.  

“I forgot something very fundamental.” Tony said. “Time and space are inextricably linked. I realized the tears were wide, but I didn’t consider that they might also be deep. Deep in the sense of space-time. And the simulations I’m running on the data from the Reykjavik tears all point to deliberate, sloppy alterations of the timeline. I think these tears are from the universe reconciling itself from something big. But it’s more than just that--” More data started to swim in the mist next to Tony’s face. Reed squinted at it and seemed to leap two steps ahead in understanding because he gasped.

“By tracing the signal’s decay, I was able to date it. Then I tested the next three largest tears to be sure. But the data is consistent. They all date to the same time frame -– to when we first learned about the incursions.”

Steve felt something sick roll in his stomach, a gut understanding that something was wrong, even if his mind couldn’t keep up.

“So here we have the collision of two planets averted by putting the rogue planet just out of sync with the other in the space-time continuum. We have the annihilation of an Earth’s amount of mass in what fits a classic matter-antimatter collision, massive thinning of the space-time fabric around the Earth, and a link to when we first start to see the collapse of space-time with the Earth at the center of everything.”

The image of Tony was silent for a long time, his face turned away from the camera.

“Of all the Earths I’ve catalogued, I can’t find any others with rogue planets. Which all leads me to the same conclusion. And it’s strange.” He seemed lost for words again. “Strange for billions to die before you’ve even set things into motion.”

***

“The bus full of puppies,” Tony said.

Steve brushed a strand of hair out of his eyes, still damp from the post-mission shower, and started stacking pillows up on one side of the couch. His favorite pencil had gone astray when the Avenger’s alert went off, and like a good shepherd he was determined to find it.

He gave an irritated grunt. “That’s not what I asked.”

“You’re assuming Von Doom wouldn’t have any wild cards up his sleeve.”

“Doom wouldn’t make you choose between saving Hala, New York, or a bus full of puppies.”

“My point exactly,” He could hear the smirk in Tony’s voice. ”He’d nuke the planet, annex the city, and make a new fur coat. Why would he let me have one when he could have all three?”

Steve paused in his search long enough to shoot Tony a glare, but it was lost on the engineer. Tony had folded himself up on the couch and started flipping through one of the half-completed sketch books Steve had left on the coffee table.

“Something has to go into storage at this rate,” Tony had threatened earlier, eyeing the much-reviled philosophy books that he tried, at least once a year, to send to a dump. Steve, unwilling to give them up just yet, had promised to fill up his old sketchpads before buying new art books.

Tony’s eyes flicked up to meet Steve’s “What? I gave you an absurd answer for an absurd question. Though the fact I thought of a third hostage really points to me being the superior supervillain here.” The smug look on Tony’s face warped into a scowl. He held the sketch book out at arm’s length and squinted at the paper as if scrutinizing a centerfold. “Steve. You have never, ever, once asked me to model for you.”

Strange accusation, Steve thought, since he hardly ever sketched from real life models. “I could draw you blindfolded.”

His fingers brushed against something rounded and thin and his hand emerged victorious from the depths of the cushions with a stub of a pencil. Triumphant, Steve turned around and held out his hand to Tony for the sketch book.

“Liar.” Tony held up the notebook for Steve to see. “You’ve forgotten the RT.”

Steve took the book from him, eyebrows knit together. The picture had the familiar dusting of dark hair across his lower chest, the same old lopsided, sleepy grin. He was mostly covered with a quilt. But the space beneath his collar bone was unmistakably smooth. “No, it’s just an old sketch.”

“But before that the mechanical—“ Heart, he’d been about to say. Something must have clicked in Tony’s brain. “Oh.” He looked back down at the sketch.

After Extremis.

The virus hadn’t just removed the need for the mechanical heart. It had erased every scar, every allergy, anything that Tony had deemed imperfect. It had been petty, but the disappearance of small things -- a curved scar just below Tony’s left shoulder or the crease on his earlobe -– had made it harder in those first few weeks for Steve to cope with the way Tony had completely rebuilt himself.

The way Tony shifted gave Steve the distinct impression he was uncomfortable. The RT’s blue-white glow had been a full moon shining through the navy, button-down shirt, but it shrank to a crescent as the engineer angled himself away. With a sigh, Steve sank on to the couch beside his partner, used just a touch of his strength to catch Tony by the waist and pull him close. Freshly washed, the engineer smelled of vanilla and spice. Steve wrapped an arm around Tony and splayed his hand out across the glow, neither hot nor cold, just a steady and constant light.

“I drew it when I was underground, during registration,” Steve confessed. “I missed seeing you, so I just used the most recent memory I could call up.”

If he thought that would help, it didn’t. Tony was still stiff, still fixated on the paper.

“Is it important to you?” Steve asked.

Tony’s lips thinned, and Steve knew the answer was yes, but that Tony was too proud to admit it.

Steve pressed a tentative kiss to Tony’s lips, found a hesitant response, and tugged at the hem of Tony’s shirt until it came free from the waist of Tony’s slacks. “May I?”

Tony raised an eyebrow at him. But in answer, he undid the pearly buttons and let the shirt slide off his lean shoulders.

Steve swept his hand along the RT, running his thumb around the smooth metal of the casing, remembering the first chance he had had to do that.

Such a dark night that had been.

Then he pressed Tony onto his back. The plush cushions seemed all-too happy to give way, letting the two men sink down into the couch as Steve kissed Tony deeply. One of Steve’s hands ran along Tony’s leg, coaxing it up, the other ran along one of Tony’s wrist, moving it up over his tousled brown hair. Tony moaned and opened up before him.

“Now stay like that,” Steve said, standing, a wicked smile on his face.

Tony frowned, clearly expecting something else. “What are you--”

Dropping himself into a chair opposite Tony, Steve held up the sketch book by way of explanation. “You complained.”

A groan from Tony. “I’ll tell you what matters more, Rogers.”

“Yeah, you staying still.” Steve said, laying down quick, broad strokes. “Which you might as well do. There were at least ten people still waiting to use a shower when I was done. Unless you want to explain why we need to use one again.”

Tony groaned again and screwed his eyes shut. “Knew I should have put in more bathrooms.”  

 

Later, when Steve went to get a new book before bed, he found yet another cube sitting on top of his sketchpad. He pocketed it, picked out a book on Cold War history, and went to bed wondering if Tony was tweaking the portal he’d set up. He'd finally got the interface up and running a few days ago. Steve had come down to see Tony talking to a blue hologram of a woman's face. Tony had introduced it as the portal's AI.

When Steve had asked why the portal needed one, Tony had shrugged and said that someone had to keep Hawkeye from accidentally going to the planet with giant toxin-breathing bats. He'd turned to the hologram and said, "Actually, you should send him there once if he's being...well, Clint. He'll learn from the experience."

Unfortunately, the new cube seemed to be a depressing hint that Tony was back at the mystery project. Although he read for hours, Tony never came up from the lab, and that was all the confirmation that Steve needed for that suspicion. It was disappointing, but Steve was becoming re-acclimated and resigned to solitary nights.

However, in the morning Steve awoke to find the other side of the bed unused, and he felt a cold knot settle in his stomach at the prospect of a whole new level of estrangement.

*** 

“Have you handed over the records yet?”

“That’s what this is about?”

“Tony.” Steve was losing his patience.

“No--”

“Are you going to?”

“I’m still picking out the stationary--”

Tony.”

Tony pinched the bridge of his nose, “Yes, I’ve arranged for the delivery.”

“And what are they going to find?”

For a moment the industrialist just stared at him. Steve was not one to mince words or dance around topics. If Tony couldn’t act like a big boy and behave when the law required it, Steve had no qualms about benching him.

He thought he might have to, no matter what.

He watched the play of emotion on Tony’s face as he shoved down his pride and hung his head, a sinner at confessional.”The data shows that at one point during the Serpent’s invasion, I had a BAC of 0.12 while wearing the suit at a GPS coordinate roughly matching the ruins of Asgard."

Something icy settled in Steve’s stomach.

“I warned you,” Steve said, as Tony looked up to face him again. “I told you we’d be tied up in red tape. And now I’m here instead of you,” he gestured toward the SHIELD logo emblazoned on the desk. “You’re the one who wanted public transparency. So now you’re telling me that you drank while you were wearing the armor, and I’m supposed to just turn a blind eye?”

“It had to be done,” Tony said, crossing his arms. "Odin likes his sacrifices."

"Was there really no other way?"

Tony remained silent and looked pointedly at the floor again. Anywhere, Steve noted, but at him.

“You’re the one who told me you needed accountability, Tony. Remember? You told me you nearly killed two people because you put on that suit while you were drunk.”

The slump of Tony’s shoulders grew more pronounced. “No, I don’t remember telling you that.”

Steve stiffened. No, he wouldn’t, would he? That had been during their final parley during the war –- before Tony erased everything.

“I was the only one for miles.”

Steve bit his lip to keep from swearing at the man. And what about your safety? Steve choked it down. He hadn’t asked Tony to come so that he could argue with the man.

He slid open a drawer, withdrew a file, and pushed it across the desk toward Tony. “My intel says this is what they have planned for you.”

Tony picked up the folder. Inside was a photo of a silver object roughly the size of a fist. It was a thin device, and a hole in the center suggested it had been designed to fit around the RT node in Tony’s chest.

“Who is they?” Tony asked, flipping through the other photos. In the last, one edge of the device proudly bore the Hammer Industries insignia. When he saw it, Tony shuddered.

“The Pentagon.”

“Does it do what I assume it does?”

“Suppress your ability to control the armor? Rumor is, yes. They plan to have it on you until you’ve proven rehabilitated.”

“The Pentagon,” Tony mused, a note of dark amusement in his voice. “And if I say no?”

“Then once they’ve found the read-out with your 0.12, they get a court-order to have it installed.”

“I’ll be honest.” Tony stared resolutely at the picture of the disk. “This thing is liable to blow a new cavity in my chest -– due to malice or incompetence. Either is about as likely as the other.”

Steve told himself to be firm. Tony had held himself up as an example for accountability, and now that the case study had become practicum, no matter how unfair it was, he couldn’t start backpedaling.

“I want you to have an override,” Tony said.

“I’m not going to override the Pentagon so you thumb your nose at their decisions.”

“That’s not -– damn it, Steve!” Tony shoved the file across the desk angrily. “If I have to give someone I don’t particularly trust a back-door into my biology I want safe guards. If I start acting weird I want you to be able to use an override for this thing instead of the kill-switch.” They both knew which one he was talking about. The thumb drive with the code was sitting inside a safe in the very room. “I would assume--”

That you’d want the option too, was left unspoken between them.

“Do you have a way to get one?” Tony pressed.

Steve nodded.

A flash of angry resignation passed over Tony’s face, so quick it might have been a twitch. “Then expect my call.”

 

Steve was woken, just after two in the morning, on the third day after meeting with Tony. The man was on his apartment doorstep within the hour, eyes hollow and tired.

“So this is it,” Steve said, running his fingers around the regulator that circled the RT.

The only light in the room came from Tony's chest, a steady blue glow that shimmered on the silver surface of the Governor and cast his skin in a waxy, sickly gray.

“Your source in the Pentagon came through?”

Steve nodded.

Some of the tension went out of Tony’s shoulders. And Steve wondered how it was that after all the fighting and personal heartache they’d been through, the maddening distance and the walls they’d built up -– for all that, Tony had still asked him for help.

Steve’s hand stayed on the RT longer than propriety said it should have, his fingers silhouetted against the glow. But Tony didn’t pull away.

“Does this mean you trust me again?” Steve asked softly.

Tony looked at him with blue eyes filled with longing and regret. “You never really lost it to begin with.”

When Steve drew in close, lips hovering just inches from Tony’s, it was the engineer who closed the gap between them.

 

6

Tony looked thinner in the last cube. He was still in the same long sleeve shirt, as though he had spent days in the lab. And Steve realized with a pang that he knew exactly when the message had been recorded. It had been shortly before AIM brought through a mirror-world version of the Avengers.

“I suppose,” Tony started, voice raspy and heavy, "the only question I can really answer at this point is: what can I salvage?” The picture’s eye glazed over as Tony shifted, looking at another screen, typing something. “How to you stop a domino effect after it’s been set off? How do you create a firebreak between worlds? With what I have, the only answer is that it isn't possible.” He paused. “But with the right tech, I could stop it from ever starting. And I think I know just the thing."

Tony looked at the camera, seemed as if he were staring straight into Steve’s eyes. “I thought it was an easy decision at the time -- when our survival meant saving two universes from mutual destruction. But now that it’s us…” He had a distant look in his eyes. “The city or the planet. New York or Hala. Everything you’ve ever loved or everything that ever will be?”

Tony shut his eyes.

“I don’t know how to make that choice. I don’t know how anyone could…but if there’s another way, I can’t see it. I'm out of options and worlds keep dying.”

And just like that, the message fizzled out.

“That’s it?” asked an incredulous Reed.

"That was the last message he left with me."

“And yet, here we are. Perhaps he couldn't find what he needed.”

Steve felt a cold knot twist in his stomach. "No, I think he found it."

"Then he couldn’t go through with it.”

Maybe.

But Steve’s mind drifted back to that conversation in the bar. What made you so sure we weren’t in Hell?

“Why would the incursions end if he didn’t change anything?”

Is a world, dead in its entirety, any different from a live one? Steve wondered. He felt like he’d been living in a hell ever since he had woken up sweating, consumed by unburied memories.

"Maybe we are all dead and don't know it.”

Reed just grimaced. “If we’re talking about things we can’t prove, I’d rather be optimistic. Did Tony mention anything else to you after he left this?”

He promised no one else would die.

“No,” Steve said bitterly. “But he did ask for something.”

***

Tony hefted the duffle bag strap up on his shoulder and slammed the trunk. Steve held out a hand in silent offer, more than willing to carry it for him. But the engineer just shook his head. He was dressed for the office -- slacks, a light blue dress shirt with a yellow tie. He’d abandoned the jacket, though.

“Is this weird for you?” Steve asked, pushing through the mansion’s gates. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d walked through them.

“Only because I’m not the landlord anymore,” Tony flashed him a smile.

The flawless sandstone façade could have fooled Steve into thinking that it had stood that way forever. Low, well-groomed hedges lined a curving walkway. On the far side of the lawn, a white stone bench sat next to a bronze plaque wear Jack of Hearts had fallen.

Steve ducked under a tendril of ivy hanging over the front door. “Luke takes good care of the place.”

“The guy’s got good taste,” Tony agreed, ringing the doorbell.

Luke and Jessica were remarkably good natured about the influx of Avengers. “Not like it’s the first time,” Luke grumbled. But when they asked if he wanted them anywhere in particular, he scoffed and told them they could take their pick of the south wing’s rooms.

“But you know you’ll never hear the end of it if you take Clint’s old room,” Luke warned.

“Duly noted,” Steve said, following Tony up the stairs. “Any particular one you want?” Steve half expected Tony to claim Clint’s for the uproar it would cause.

But Tony just shrugged, looking dispirited at best.

Steve pursed his lips. He’d seen that look before, when the tower had been reduced to rubble in the wake of the Serpent’s invasion. He’d found Tony forlorn, sifting through chunks of concrete and twisted steel, ready to permanently bury his beloved building.

He’s nothing without something to build, Steve thought, mind running to the gaping hole Hulk had recently left in the tower, the reason they had come to stay at the mansion. It would be an easy fix, relatively speaking. And yet this time he’d found Tony in the dining room, datasheets for several contractors strewn in front of him, head in his hands looking lost.

One of those little gray cubes was sitting on the table too, but Steve ignored it.

It didn’t take a genius to see something was wrong.

He’d sat his mug of coffee down, pulled Tony close, and just held him, running a hand through the short black hair.

Even now, poking his head half-heartedly into the rooms, Tony looked weary. Too much to do, so little time.

Maybe it was handing the work over to contractors instead of doing it himself.

Guessing was all he could do, and the uncertainty gnawed at Steve. He hated the gulf between them.

Tony ultimately picked a room with a window overlooking the street with two double beds. Steve doubted they would be needing both, but he still threw his suitcase on the other bed when Tony chose the one next to the window.

“Time was, we would have taken separate rooms.” He remarked.

Tony grunted as he nestled himself into the pillow. “Might keep up the tradition if you start to snore.”

Steve smirked. At least he knew that for the idle threat it was. “Still weird?”

The dark haired man cracked an eye open at him. “Us sharing a room?”

He'd never been able to place a finger one when that had changed. It had seemed like a natural outgrowth over the years. To his dismay, no one had seemed particularly surprised when they’d started officially sharing a bedroom. But then, when the rest of the team joked about them being Mommy and Daddy…

Steve shook his head and gestured at the room, “Everything.”

“You can’t go home again.”

“I don’t think anybody knows that better than me.”

“Yes, but unlike nineteen twenty-four, this home has wifi, bikinis, and a conspicuous lack of Hitler.”

Steve shrugged. “New York in its heyday was different.”

“Heyday day says you.”

The bed dipped and creaked under his weight as Steve climbed in next to Tony. The engineer readily accepted him, rolling so that he was practically lying on top Steve.

“I didn’t say it was better,” Steve leaned in to kiss Tony.

“You implied,” Tony mumbled against his lips.

“You assumed.”

“I never assume you’re better off without me,” Tony smirked for a moment, before it faded. He had that faraway look in his eyes again that Steve would have given anything to burn away.

He’d seen it when Stane was taking over Stark International, when they’d met at the mansion during the civil war, and more recently, somewhere dark he couldn’t quite place. The itch stirred, and Steve willed himself to ignore it.

Instead, he whispered into Tony's ear.

The effect was immediate. Tony chuckled, his breath warm and light against Steve's cheek as he pulled away, shifting so that he straddled Steve’s lap. "You haven't asked for anything like that in a long time."

"Might have been when we last lived here," Steve agreed.

"It may have." Tony said scratching at his goatee in thought, then loosened the pale yellow tie at his throat. The fabric was cool and satiny as Tony wound it around Steve’s head and gently knotted it, effectively blindfolding him.

“You seem to like my idea.” Steve point out. “You’ve forgotten to take my shirt off first.”

“I haven’t forgotten anything,” Tony said, coaxing Steve into a seated position. He wound his long fingers into Steve’s hair. “Mood killer.”

“And pass up an opportunity to tease you?”

“Is this your way of hinting you want a gag?”

Steve just smiled, leaning into Tony’s kiss when offered.

At first the kiss was fierce, possessive and passionate. Then Tony withdrew, his lips just ghosting across Steve’s, like a whisper of silk sliding against skin.

He heard the sound of a zipper sliding down, slow and deliberate, and the rustle of fabric pooling on the floor. Then Steve felt Tony, warm and hard at his lips, his fingers at the back of Steve’s head, gently carding into his hair.

Steve let his lips part, felt Tony slide into his mouth. He was salty and musky, and goddamn it if Steve wasn’t turned on by the insistent way Tony curled his other hand behind Steve’s ear, guiding and encouraging.

Tony was right, it had been a long time since he’d asked for this. In that moment, it occurred to Steve just how much he depended on his sight. How many hundreds of times had he tangled himself around Tony beneath the sheets, watched as the engineer’s head tilted back, the way his eyes hazed over with lust, how they grew half-lidded when he was close.

Steve let his own eyes fall shut under the blindfold, even though he yearned to peek from beneath the tie. Instead he willed himself to just listen.

The noises Tony made were delicious: half moan, half whimper. Steve’s hands crept over Tony’s thighs, felt them quiver beneath his touch. And he knew without seeing that Tony was a loose thread, prone to unravel if Steve pulled just right--

But tempting as that was, he never got the chance. Tony pushed him onto his back, the down comforter soft beneath him. He heard the clink of his belt, and with a raise of his hips it was gone. His pants almost immediately followed suit. The snap of a bottle top was the only warning he got before he felt Tony’s hand stroking him with something chilly and slippery. He had a few moments to marvel at Tony’s packing – futurists and their foresight – then the bed dipped and he felt Tony’s warmth astride him. He sank down slowly onto Steve, velvety and tight, and every twitch Tony made, Steve felt.

It wasn’t long before the skin of Tony’s thighs was flush against his own. But when Steve reached out, groping blindly for the other man’s hardness, he felt Tony’s hands encircle his wrists. The bed creaked as Tony bent forward to plant Steve’s hands firmly on the pillow, and the arrogant voice he loved so much whispered in his ear, “Not till I say.” Steve felt a shiver run down his spine.

But then, he had asked Tony to surprise him.

Tony shifted, his fingers tensing on Steve’s wrists as he lifted his hips, slow and deliberate.

“Do you want me to go quicker?” He teased.

Steve groaned something intelligible.

“Ask me nicely.”

“Please.”

“Please, what?”

Steve hesitated. “Please, sir.”

How long had it been since he’d last said that? Not since the war…

It felt uncomfortable -– jarring even –- to hear the word come out of his own mouth, as though a part of him still balked at the deference. Steve’s heart twisted at the revelation because Tony deserved better than that. The war was in the past. Perhaps Tony still had his secrets, but he’d been more open about his current project than any Steve could remember.

Steve bit down on his lower lip to muffle a moan as Tony twisted in his lap.

Yes, Steve decided. Compared to all they had been through, what was a simple word?

He felt an itch -– Tony’s goatee against his neck, and tilted his head back, letting Tony take what he wanted, trusting him to see to both of their needs, even though he wanted so badly to touch. He could smell the musk of Tony’s arousal, and it was maddening to stay still.

But a good soldier follows orders, doesn’t he? Tony had once told him in a hushed, throaty voice. The memory made his skin burn hotter.  

It seemed like only moments –- thought the ache of his tensed arms told him otherwise. Tony put his lips next to Steve’s ear, his voice deep and husky. “I’m not going to last much longer.”

Steve swallowed whatever qualms he harbored. It was easy with his mind awash in the headiness of sex. “Permission?”

“Granted.”

Steve reached up, cradling Tony’s hips as he thrust, the engineer’s taught muscles coiled beneath his fingers like a spring. He heard fabric rasp against skin as Tony’s knees shifted on the comforter, bracing himself against Steve’s raw strength.

Both their breathing came in short pants and he felt Tony tighten as he came. Steve gave one final pull at his own unraveling thread before he followed with a gasp and a groan. Then Steve wrapped his arms around Tony, sent out a blind kiss, and landed on the side of his nose.

In response, Tony tugged at the tie, raising it up over Steve’s left eye, and he savored the sweet glow on Tony’s cheeks, the warmth in his eyes, and the self-satisfied smirk.

“At ease, soldier.”

 

Afterward, when his head lay in the crook of Tony’s arm, Steve closed his eyes, feeling light as a feather in the sunny warmth spilling through the window.

“If this were my last day one earth,” he said, “I would be content.”

Tony didn’t respond, at least not immediately. His fingers stilled mid-stroke against the hard edge of Steve’s jaw. “You wouldn’t want anything else?”

Steve smiled, squeezing the hard edge of Tony’s bony hip. “No.”

I thought I’d lost this forever, once. Never again.

It felt…almost surreal.

It felt good.

Like the old days, when things were simple.

He propped himself up, looking into Tony’s blue eyes. “What about you? You once said--”

Tony cut him off with a nip on the lips. “I know.”

“Still?”

Tony pursed his lips, a rakish look in his eyes. “No. On my last day, I’d go to Central Park for a hot dog.”

“Liar.”

“You’re right. I forgot seeing the Dodgers win the pennant.”

“Now you’re just having fun at my expense.”

“And you wouldn’t have me any other way,” Tony smirked, one of his hands running along Steve’s waistline, apparently ready for round two. In the back if his head, Steve was already thinking that he should probably volunteer to do laundry before their stay was over.

He pressed his nose against Tony’s scraggly cheek and closed his eyes.

“I miss the old stone lions that used to be out front.”

“They always scared me as a kid.”

“No hope of them coming back then?”

“Not my place to say now.”

“Yeah.”

It would never really be home like it once had been. They’d never be able to go back to the way things had been before the war -- before the wounds and betrayals. But that was okay.

In some ways, things were better. They disagreed more than they argued now. Tony still worked like a dog, but he was away less –- more present and focused on the Avengers.

The cuts had scarred over, but in the end he still had Tony.

And Tony was enough.

*** 

Wake up, old man…

He felt the burn of the African summer heat first, felt it peeling back his skin like paper in a fire, felt it digging up what had been buried in the city of the dead. Like a chiaroscuro painting, faces emerged from the dark silhouettes, bright as flame against the inky darkness of his dreams.

The faces…he felt sick seeing them, remembering -- knowing what they had done. Reed, Stephen, Hank, Namor, T’challa…

And Tony.

And they were all laughing at him.

Steve sat up in bed, kicking the sheets off his sweating body. Heat still coursed over his skin, like a bright yellow sun, burning him from the inside out.

 ***

Do you want to talk about it? Tony had asked.

And it had devolved into blows, just like it always did when they pressed each other too hard.

But hadn’t he guessed what they –- what Tony -– would resort to? After years of working and living with the man, Steve would have been a fool not to see it coming. But what they did to him…

He couldn’t fathom how Tony had gone through with it.

He knew what it was like. Tony knew what it was to hear a word or a phrase and have it rub against the emptiness of memories taken. But Tony had made his own decision; he’d left Steve no recourse.

Steve had always been the sort to make do with the cards dealt. But Tony never had to bother with anything as pedestrian as a dilemma, not when he could build a different solution. So it was hard to tell which hurt worse: the betrayal, or knowing that this had been Tony's preferred end-game.

His fingers thudded against the keyboard interface, raced to pull up the last known locations for all of the men that haunted his dreams. He felt Clint’s hand on his shoulder, solid but squeezing harder than normal. Worried.

The machine, Tony’s marvelous machine, displayed only gray nodes. Gray for gone, dull, and lifeless. He told it to cross-reference any and all locations of friends and family, look for their bio-signatures, license plates, anything that might disclose their whereabouts.

No results.

Steve clenched his hands into fists, heard an awful grinding sound – the sound of his own teeth. It sounded like the crack of the infinity gems in the gauntlet. He remembered that too now, the terrible, awful popping sound of the stones splitting apart –- the look of shock and terror that mingled on his companion’s faces.

The map in front of him stayed resolutely blank and then darkened.

Like his hopes for the gauntlet. Like his resolve to find a peaceful solution. The Illuminati had seen the end to all of it.

Everything dies.

Had Tony killed it remotely Steve wondered? Had he installed a doomsday scenario, knowing Steve’s first instinct would be to hunt them, throw them all in cells, and make them answer for their crimes?

Were they all laughing at him, even now?

His hand went through the glass of the empty screen.

“Cap--!”

Clint’s voice seemed miles away. Steve pulled his hand out of the shattered monitor, looked at the tear in the red leather glove with detachment. He could mend it later. It didn’t hurt.

As if to prove this, he grabbed the sparking, fizzling monitor with both hands and tore it from the metal struts. It took a fraction of his strength, and throwing it against the wall even less. Glass shattered, and the shards glinted under the room's lighting as they fell to the floor.

Like the sunlight catching on the shards of broken gems. His solution. His hope for stopping a genocidal think-tank. Failed, and they –- Tony ultimately -- hadn’t given him a second chance.

It might take a dozen or a hundred or a thousand drafts to find the masterpiece.

I'd rather distill it to a number and get it right every time.

Tony claimed they hadn’t destroyed a world yet, and Steve couldn’t bring himself to believed him.

The solution to any inventor's dilemma is simple: build. Create a better way. Design the simplest system to achieve the end you want.

Could he really expect Steve to draw any other conclusion?

Steve placed a firm hand on one of the machine's metal struts and pulled. Tony's machine groaned as the steel twisted, screamed as the metal gave way under his strength. He swung the strut, striking blow after blow until the rest of the machine was little more than a pulp of slag.

Steve breathed, gasped really, his fingers unclenching, leaving indents behind in the steel where they had warped the metal.

No second chances for them either, Steve resolved silently.

***

He dreamed of Tony. Not of the man who had disappeared inside Wakanda's necropolis with a single decision. He dreamed of him on a sunny afternoon in Central Park, next to the lake. It had been their spot, ever since that day they had skipped stones and dreamed about rebuilding the team.

They were laying on a blanket, enjoying the last days of summer, the green of the trees around them already starting to fade into fiery hues. A yellowed leaf had taken up residence in Tony’s mussed hair, and he hadn’t seemed to notice. He was too busy trying to cheer Steve up.

Winter had never been the soldier's favorite time of year, not when he was young and money for heating oil meant less of everything else in the Rogers household. His ‘dip’ in the ice hadn't helped on that front either.

“You know what the Latverians used to do on the winter solstice?” Tony said, propping himself up on one elbow.

“Did they build a wall?”

Tony rolled his eyes. “They brought two cows to the town square, the biggest one they could find and the smallest. The largest was slaughtered for the evening's feast, but the small cow was given a seat of honor at the king’s right hand."

“Was everyone drunk when they thought this up?”

“I think it’s beautiful.”

“Really.” Steve said, his voice laced with disbelief.

“Sure. They were making a point. Anything can die during the winter, the strong and the weak alike. But with a little luck and the right intervention, anything can live, too.” The RT glowed bright beneath the t-shirt as he bit his lip. “I think you and I have had a little bit of both…all things considered.”

Steve blinked, surprised, and twined his hand with Tony’s, a knee jerk reaction to the vulnerability he saw behind those deep blue eyes.

"Yes. I guess so. Would you like to kill a cow to celebrate?" He teased gently. "We could have another barbecue."

Tony laughed. "I don't want to literally follow in the Latverian's footsteps."

"Good. Can you imagine what our wall would look like? Spare bits of Iron Man armor, old star-spangled chainmail, pieces of alien ships stuck in it here and there..."

"Our wall sounds like a junk pile."

“You’re the architect, not me.”

“No, you’re wrong about that.” Tony brushed his fingers through Steve’s hair. They were reverent and gentle. “Whenever things have changed, we’ve always done it side-by-side. You’ve always been there, laying down the next layer with me.”

“And I always will be," Steve promised.

 

7

“Wake up, old man.”

Tony was just sitting on the edge of his bed. The light was still soft and young through the window, catching his tousled hair in a way that made it look brown, not black. The untrimmed goatee and dark circles under his eyes betrayed more than one sleepless night.

For the briefest of moments, the dream lingered in his mind, and his hand quested outward, as if to catch Tony and draw him close.

But then he caught the sight of wrinkles and age spots, and the reality of the situation came crashing down on Steve’s shoulders. He had been young when Tony had last seen him. But now the serum was gone.

Weeks he’d searched for the man, only for Tony to turn up now that he was old and frail. Steve would have punched the engineer like he had that day in the workshop, but the ache in his back froze him mid-shift.

“What are you doing here?” Steve asked through grit teeth, hating that Tony was seeing him like this.

If he found the aging a shock, it didn’t show in Tony's eyes. Perhaps Steve shouldn’t have been surprised. All he saw was grim determination on the engineer’s dark features. The man had his mind set on something…

“I need the time gem.”

“I don’t have it.”

“I think you do,” Tony said. “I saw it that day in the lab.”

“So?”

“So I think it’s tied to you somehow.”

Steve scoffed at the notion. “And why would that be?”

“Because Strange’s wipe should have lasted indefinitely. It wasn’t like the memories were covered up. They were removed. But if the time gem became linked to you, its influence could have worn away the spell. It might have given your past state of your mind a link to the present.” Tony studied him with a shrewd look. “Have you had memories that didn’t seem whole? Memories you couldn’t place? Memories that seemed to be coming from a different time?”

Steve thought of the constant itch, the darkened forms that he hadn’t been able to place, and the bright yellow burning –- yellow, or had that been how the white-hot glow of orange had appeared?

“And then there’s the fact that you’re so spry for a ninety year old.” Tony said.

“Healthy eating and exercise.”

Tony stood, ignoring Steve’s pithy reply. He started opening the drawers of the bedside table, feeling for false bottoms. “We lived through an incursion recently by a fluke. Did you know that?”

“So your bombs failed?” Steve asked, hoping every ounce of malice in his voice sunk under Tony’s skin.

For all he could see, Tony just shrugged it off. He slid the drawer shut and straightened up. “We couldn’t go through with it. Most of us anyway.”

“So you’ve done it then.”

Tony didn’t look at him. “Yes and no. Namor did. And then Thanos and his generals picked up helping him where we left off. But I built the bombs.”

Steve frowned. “You had Thanos imprisoned.”

“The operative word being had. Namor changed that.”

Steve was silent for some time. “And the time gem, Thanos wants it for some reason?”

“No. I mean, Thanos would want it regardless of any reason. But that’s beside the point. I need it.”

“Why?”

“Because I promised you I’d find a way to fix things.”

For a few moments, Steve held his tongue. That promise was still fresh and raw alongside all the other exhumed memories, and it hurt to remember that day. “Because up till this point, your solutions have been so brilliant.”

Tony didn’t so much as wince at that. But he didn’t object, either.

“When Thanos does it, it’s wrong. But when you do it, it’s somehow justified? Is that it?”

“No, just necessary.”

“And what gives you the right to make that decision?”

Acid suffused Tony’s voice. “Doing nothing is still making a decision. And doing nothing ensured mutual destruction. What right did I have to ignore that like you?” He turned away for a moment, burying the bile. When he spoke again, it was flat and clinical.

“I catalogued over fifty Earths. On thirty eight percent of the worlds with Avengers, you were part of the team assembled to find a solution. All but one of those Earths were destroyed in non-aggressive incursions. The single outlier was destroyed by black priests. You’re a constant Steve. A weighted one," he turned, glaring. "You want to look me in the eye and tell me I was wrong?”

Yes. Yes Steve did. Whether it was true or not.

Instead he said, “It’s not right.”

“Nations lack the capacity to prefer a noble death to morally ambiguous survival.”

“Quoting Niebuhr isn’t going to absolve you of anything.”

“His ideas came out of your war.”

As if that meant Steve had to agree. His mouth thinned with anger. “He also said, ‘no act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of others as it is from our own.’”

Tony’s eye's narrowed. And for a moment they were back on the docks, arguing about the war, accusing each other of Bill’s murder. Steve’s stomach turned as he realized that nothing had changed –- not really.

“I knew this would happen. I knew you wouldn’t be able to change your mind.”

“Clearly,” Steve said, voice as cold as he felt. “You had contingencies for that too.”

Once, Tony might have flinched at that. Steve had seen it in the first months after Tony’s mind wipe when the civil war was brought up. But now, the way he still stood cock-sure and arrogant, it made Steve’s blood boil.

“I didn’t want to, Steve. But you forced my hand. So I tried to make the best of it. This was my gift to you. This was me building a high road for you to take, so you didn’t come to a dead end -- so that you didn’t have to choose.”

“So your ‘gift’ was a lie.”

“But weren’t you happy?”

Steve closed his eyes, took in a deep breath, even as his heart felt like it was tearing to pieces, half infuriated, half devastated.

It had been good. Too good to be true. He should have known. Should have seen it.  He had thought that all along they’d been building something together--

“You’re a monster, Tony.”

“And you’re a coward.”

Tony started to search through the boxes under the bed next. Steve heard the rustle of papers, smelled stale air freed as lids long ago closed were opened. And all Steve could do was lie there, aching for what he’d lost, or perhaps what he’d never really had.

“We’ve been using Reed’s portal tech,” Tony said. He hesitated, as though unsure if he wanted to tell Steve more. “Using it as a window into other universes. And the farther away from us spatially, the farther back we’re able to see. But what we’ve catalogued has never been far enough back to tell the cause of the incursions. If I had the time gem, though,” he said, his look pleading as he met Steve’s gaze. “I could warp the effect. Look father back.”

“I don’t have it.” Steve was tired and defeated. He wanted Tony to leave. He wanted to be alone.

“The key is you.” Tony insisted. “It disappeared in your hand, and it reappeared there. I need your help.”

How it must have galled him to confess that.

“To what end?” Even if Tony had the best intentions, what could he do? “We saw what happened last time. They don’t work on other universes.”

“If I can verify the root cause of the incursions, then I can stop it,” Tony said, his vague words gouging at an already open wound.

This thing that Tony had been building over the last few years, it wasn’t a fortress or a road or anything resembling a true relationship. It was a façade, meant to keep everyone out of his machinations. It was a sandbox where he could keep Steve without fear of interference. There was no trust here and all that Steve had given Tony had been misplaced.

His stiff muscles strained as he push himself up in the bed.

“No,” he said resolutely.

“No?” Tony said, blinking as though he had expected Steve to give in and hand over what he wanted.

“No, you don’t get to solve this. You’ve tried and failed, and you belong in a cell. Get out.” Steve reached a wrinkled hand over to the nightstand for his phone. He’d call Hill, or Carol -– someone to remove this miserable shell of the man he’d once loved.

“Steve--”

One of the engineer’s calloused hands caught his wrist, holding it firm, a parody of happier, intimate moments. The grip was tighter, Tony’s eyes wider. The other man was so close, and it was all so wrong, this caricature of his Tony.

There’s always a way.” He said, his voice a mockery of Tony’s that night in the bar. “Always a way to justify the weapons, always a way to justify the killing. Nothing has changed about you, Tony. You’re still a merchant of death deep down at your core.”

Tony’s face didn’t move, but this close, Steve could see how brittle the calm was.

“I never wanted anyone to die. It was the city or the planet, New York or Hala.The knot in Tony’s throat bobbed. “And when it came down to the line, I picked home. You were a soldier, Steve, is the desire to protect home really so strange?”

Steve closed his eyes, weighing his soul. I don’t kill because it’s convenient. I don’t kill because it serves some greater good. “This isn’t war. Neither world fired the first shot.”

“No, that’s where you’re wrong. There was a beginning. With the gem, I can find the origin. And then I can fix it. I can put a third option on the table.”

“And this third option is--?”

Blue eyes locked with blue eyes, and Tony bit his lip.

Steve wanted to curse the man.

Trust. Tony was demanding his trust after systematically dismantling every shred that Steve had ever given to him. The half of his heart that still loved Tony told him to give in –- that he wanted this, to trust Tony in some capacity again.

And yet, if Tony had something up his sleeve that could turn things around…

“If what you’re saying is true…” Steve fumbled with the words, the weight of choosing them heavy. “I need something more than a promise this time.”

Tony’s brow creased. And then he looked down, fiddling with something in his palm. “A trade, then,” he said, extending a red gem-like node to Steve. “It warns of imminent incursions. But it's also the key to the cubes I gave you. Find Reed, and they'll unlock. And if I’m right, then it will never light up again.”

“How?”

Tony smiled. “It’s all on the records I gave you. As for the leftover bombs, Reed knows how to dismantle them.”

“Reed? What about you?”

Tony shrugged.

Something clenched in Steve’s stomach, and he suddenly wanted to grip Tony’s hand tight. “Are you coming back?”

Tony drew close then, hesitated, before kissing Steve, light and brief, as though he didn’t belong so close. “Who says I’m going anywhere?”

It was another damned lie. Steve was as certain of that as he was of his own name.

He didn’t care. Not about the lies between them. He forced himself not to. But there was one truth he did want out of Tony. “And no one else dies?”

“Nobody else.” Tony agreed.

That would have to be enough, Steve thought sadly. He closed his eyes, calling up the memories of Wakanda, of the heat and the sun, looking for that familiar yellow-orange glow.

Something warm and heavy coalesced in his palm. As he held it up, he felt the way the orange stone thrummed with life and energy, as if it had a heartbeat entwined with his own. And he realized that in a way, it had been ever since the shattering.

In a way, it was like giving another piece of himself over to Tony.

“A trade then,” he said.

Tony stared at the gem hovering above Steve’s palm, a look of resolution and fear there. He took it, his large calloused fingers closing around the yellow-orange glow. “Thank you.”

Steve watched as the light faded, felt the ebb of the stone diminish. Exhaustion sank into his bones, and Steve felt so tired, overcome with a lethargy more potent than any he’d ever felt before. Perhaps Tony had been right about the stone’s effect on him.

“Steve,” Tony’s eyes filled with worry.

“Just go.”

Tony hovered, caught on the cusp between fleeing and taking Steve’s hand again. Steve didn’t think he could bear the have the other man touch him.

“Go,” he barked.

And so Tony did.

***

“The time gem? That’s the ‘tech’ he wanted?” Reed shook his head.

“He said he wanted to find the origin. But it sounds like he already knew.” Steve said. He felt disgust roiling in his stomach, and the anger bubbling up again –- that Tony had used him, spit all over his trust again, and Steve had no one but himself to blame.

Steve fished the little red implant out of his pocket. “But this hasn’t lit up since. So he’s done something.”

“That’s his?” Reed reached out to take it from Steve and inspect it more closely. “It looks different than the standard implant—“

As Reed’s fingers brushed over its smooth surface, a grey mist began leaking from beneath the red gem, just as it had with the data cubes.

Tony didn’t look as grim in this one. But he still looked tired.

“There’s a concept of branching universes,” he said, “that each decision causes millions of billions of minute differences that all splinter into their own. Spatially, I’m not sure the multiverse can handle that. But there are key events -– key branches that distinguish were one universe turns right, and the other left. And with time travel, we know the tree, as it were, can be pruned back, can be shaped differently.

“If I go back, and stop the rogue planet capture, I stop the mass transfer that was made possible through the tears. The time gem can’t affect other universes, but it can prevent our universe from ever starting the cascade of unnatural deaths.”

Steve grimaced. Of course. The gems couldn’t work outside of their native universes. Tony could only manipulate events within their own timeline.

The ghost of a smile crept across Tony’s lips. “Something occurred to me recently, though. What would happen if you trimmed off a twig before cutting back the branch? If you transplanted it, could it thrive?

“Oddly enough, I have you to thank, Steve. Or you regaining your memories, at least. I was thinking of how the time gem was able to knit your old memories back in. And I started wondering if the same could be done with a planet.

“But how to go about transplanting…that’s the problem.” Tony went on. “That’s what I’ve been stuck on. Unless I can splinter the current timeline from the past, Earth-616 is erased from the rogue planet impact onward. And then I realized the time gem’s limitation could also be the key. It only works in this universe. And we have a machine on the moon that was able to put a whole planet out of synch with the 616 universal frequency. So if I were to switch the frequencies of Earth and the rogue planet before going back and altering the timeline…”

Tony trailed off and Steve realized he was holding his breath.

“I know what you’re thinking Reed. Modifying the frequency of that much matter will take a lot of energy –- but I have that too.”

“The rogue planet--“ Reed said in unison with the recording.

“It’s an energy source.” Tony said, looking pensive. “The new timeline will have an Earth and a rogue planet that are mutually destroyed. Meanwhile, the current timeline’s rogue planet should be erased as well since it will be under the influence of the time gem. But our Earth will be unaffected due to the misalignment of its universal frequency. This creates a paradox of sorts, a time line with an earth that exists just slightly out of synch with its universe, but has no fourth dimensional link to a three dimensional space. It also creates a universe with no Earth."

Tony tapped at one temple in thought. "It’s possible that the newer timeline could overwrite the old. But I have a hunch that it won’t. What I’m counting on is the observation I made at the beginning of these logs. All of the tears and thinning of the space-time seem to be a by-product of the universe trying to reconcile itself.”

Tony smiled. It was a shade of the arrogant smirk Steve had once seen all the time. But it was closer to the old Tony than anything he’d seen in ages. “Remember how I compared the universe to an organism? I’m hoping that when presented with the two compatible timelines, rather than maintain both, the lowest energy reaction will be to stitch the two together, like DNA being ligated after repair. Stitching means mending. Mending means no tears. Without a rogue planet and without tears allowing unwanted mass transfer, we never have an incursion.

“There’s just one catch. I have to go into the past-timeline to let the collision between earth and the rogue planet occur. I need to create the alterations as close as possible to the crossover of timelines, which means just before we initiated the rogue planet's capture. So when the stitching occurs, I’ll only be present in the timeline that will be ending, and I’m not sure what that entails. But I also don't exactly have a way to test the scenario out...or another option."

Tony straightened up in the recording. “But I promised I would fix this. So here I go. Wish me luck, gentlemen.”  

The image disappeared, and the mist began to curl outward, dissipating.

After several minutes of stunned silence, Steve cleared his throat. “Is what he proposed plausible?”

Reed rubbed at his eyes, as though nursing a headache. “With an Infinity Gem? Yes, I suppose he might have pulled it off. That’s a lot of faith to put in an observation though…”

“Tony always did prefer to do his testing after release.”

“Yes.” Reed agreed. “I think we ought to do some follow up work.”

***

Steve fiddled with the lock on his helmet when he heard the hiss of the airlock pressurizing. He hadn’t been on the moon base in months, not since they had helped with building the world-capturing machine. Reed was absorbed with the cuff on his wrist that kept beeping as new readouts became available. The scientist looked utterly amazed.

“That confirms it. Our local space has a slightly different resonance than the rest of the universe. We are slightly older than the universe we were grafted into. It’s amazing…”

A dial at the top of the door beeped as the arrow moved from red to green, indicating that they’d equalized pressure with the control room. The doors slid open and Reed and Steve removed their helmets. As they stepped out into a moderate sized room, motion detectors picked up their presence, and the lights in the room came on, illuminating rows and rows of instruments and monitors. One wall was a single sheet of glass, overlooking gray lunar soil and a web of steel, the support structure of the machine. In the distance, Earth hung suspending in space like a large blue-green marble.

As he scanning the control room, it was hard for Steve to join in Reed’s enthusiasm. He hadn’t expected Tony to still be in the machine’s helm, but the engineer’s absence was still a bitter disappointment.

Half of him wanted to curse Tony for being a fool, for gambling everything, and for lying every inch of the way. The other half of him wanted to cry and kiss the man –- to apologize for the doubt and for his obstinance. If Tony had been there when they walked in, Steve wasn’t sure he would have known which response to pick, or even how he could convey any of it adequately. All he knew was that he wanted to talk, if only one last time, and a growing dread that he would never get the chance was creeping over him.

If I could go back knowing what I know now, I would make it different.

Reed came to a spot on the far side of the control room. “There was a tear here.”

“Where?”

Reed pointed to the floor. “This corner. Look at the floor.”

It was so subtle, even looking for it, Steve almost missed it. The floor of the control room was laid with black and white tiles. Where Reed was pointing, a six inch long anomaly ran through the squares, stunting them into rectangles.

“What does it mean?”

“It’s a seam. It means the fit wasn’t perfect.”

“Was it dangerous to be here during the mend then?”

Reed kept looking at his wrist as the computer continued to take readings around the anomaly. When he spoke, his words were careful and deliberate. “The reconciliation may have been difficult at this spot due to Tony’s entanglement in both timelines. It might have been a confounding variable in the stitching.”

“Resulting in what?”

“I’m sorry, Steve. But I don’t know.” Reed looked helpless. “The sealing of the tear might have done any number of things. He might have been pulled through into the slip space, or he could be in another universe. He might still be in this one, or he might not exist at all. We don't have a very good understanding of the closure process, and I have no idea what effect the time gem might have had on the process.”

Steve felt something bitter in his chest. It had been months since he had handed over the time gem, and all this time there had been no sign of Tony. Steve had hoped for the best, but he had also feared the worst.

It was the courthouse steps all over again, only with the roles reversed.

He could be in another universe.

He latched on to that thought. Steve had seldom felt so small as he did hearing that. But it was some sort of hope.

Only, how could he find Tony amidst a multiverse if he didn’t want to be found?

And then Steve remembered another machine Tony had built.

***

The portal in the belly of Avengers Tower sat silent.

Steve’s fingers tightened around the cane in his hands ever so briefly as he sat, remembering the day Tony had proposed the idea, how Steve had fought for him to work on the old quinjets. It was fortunate Tony had been able to talk him into newer tech.

With a deep breath, Steve squared his shoulders and pressed a hand down onto a palm shaped interface.

Power hummed beneath Steve’s fingers and a holographic display flickered to life in front of Steve’s face. The device hadn’t been turned on in months, but it still seemed eager to please. A voice with aristocratic inflection, faintly female chirruped, “Handprint acknowledged. Welcome, Captain Steve Rogers. Where would you like to go today?”

“I don’t want to go anywhere,” Steve said gruffly, one of the laser bots Tony used for Quinjet repairs beeped at his feet. “I want to send an automaton to leave a message. Can you program one to do that?”

“Of course. Can you specify coordinates?”

“The eastern edge of The Pond in Central Park.” Steve said. “Carved on the southern rocks facing the water.”

“In this universe?”

“In every universe.”

The machine did not respond right away, as though computing the enormity of that command. “And what message do you want programmed?”

Steve closed his eyes, aching for the sound of Tony’s laugh and the scratch of his goatee on Steve’s cheek. He missed their conversations and the way Tony couldn’t resist trying to fix everything. What message could fully describe how much he yearned for the man? What could convince Tony that it was worth returning? How, he wondered, could he convey that he was willing to put aside everything that had happened?

And then he knew.

He cleared his throat. “Message reads: Come home. Our wall is not done.”