Tony takes a step forward--
--and then he's somewhere else.
He's still in the Tower. The basic architecture is the same -- but the furniture's different. Less comfy, more stylish. The Avengers pictures are gone from the walls. Everything is glass and steel; the brickwork's gone. It looks almost like the way the place did before he redesigned it for the team the first time, back when the mansion had been ruined and the team broken, back when he'd thought he was going to live here by himself. It's cold, remote, lonely.
The thought drifts through his head: That'll be your life after Steve finds out.
At any rate, this definitely isn't how the Tower looked ten seconds ago.
Tony fucking hates time travel.
"Intruder alert," a synthesized female voice says. She sounds almost cheerful about it. The voice sounds familiar, but also like something he hasn't heard in a long time; he's pretty sure he's used that voice for an AI before.
"Intruder in the penthouse," the voice repeats. It sounds surprised. "Scans say the intruder is you, boss."
It's the boss that tips him off.
"Friday?" Tony says, astonished, because dear God, there's an AI he hasn't had in quite a while. Years. He'd always been fond of her.
"That's my name, boss," Friday chirps, just as happily as ever. Just like he remembers her.
This can't be right. He hasn't used Friday in years -- and he never used her after he built Avengers Tower. These two things never coexisted.
Tony stares around the room, and there's really only one explanation for this, isn't there?
Tony hates dimensional travel even more than he hates time travel. He fervently hopes for no zombies or vampires in this universe. It's not like his day wasn't already bad enough. That, and he has a universe to get back to. What happens if the incursion timer in his palm starts counting down while he's here?
He has more immediate problems, though: if he's standing here in the Tower with Friday talking to him, there's a really good chance the Tony Stark of this Earth is going to turn up soon.
"Friday," he ventures, "where's the other me?"
There's a long pause, like Friday's now trying to decide whether to respond to him as her creator or an intruder. Tony suspects that means his other self has no idea about the multiverse, since Friday clearly has no set contingency plan for dealing with it. Great. It's going to be a fun night for everyone.
"Turn around," a voice -- not quite his own, but close enough to be eerie -- says from somewhere behind him, and there's the familiar high whine of a repulsor charging up. Goddammit. Tony puts his hands in the air and turns around.
The man he sees both is and isn't him. He's at least a decade older and several inches shorter; his face is subtly different; and his eyes are, disconcertingly, a warm brown. He's wearing old, faded jeans, an AC/DC shirt, and there's a repulsor gauntlet on his right hand.
Well, that's pretty definitive.
"I come in peace," Tony offers.
His other self snorts in derision, but the gauntlet is still raised and he's still staring. It's not quite like looking into a mirror, but he knows how he'd have to think to get his own face looking like that. This world's Tony Stark is a little intimidated, but he's covering hard -- if they weren't the same person, Tony would never have known.
"Going to tell me you're from another world?" the other Tony says. "What are you, an alien playing a trick? If so, you should have done your research." He squints, taking in the obvious physical differences. "You really should have done your research, because you're just embarrassing, honestly. I feel bad for you. I'm cringing inside." He points at the RT, which glows placidly from under Tony's yellow t-shirt. God, Tony wishes he still had Bleeding Edge in his bones. "In addition to everything else you got wrong, I yanked out the arc reactor a couple of years ago, and it never looked exactly like that in the first place. Nice try, Asgardian."
His shirt is flush with his chest, the dark fabric un-illuminated. Tony is briefly, viciously jealous.
Tony gestures at himself as well as he can with his hands in the air. "I'm flattered that you think I'm divine, but no. I'm from Earth. Just another version of it."
The raised eyebrow that statement elicits says he's not buying it. "Another Earth where you still have shrapnel in your chest?"
"Pfft." Tony exhales a denial, and he wonders just how far out this guy is from Afghanistan -- or his version of it -- for that to be his first thought. "That was twelve whole years ago. I've moved onto irreparable brain damage now." He smiles, because what the hell, it's been an entirely fucked-up day. "It's what all the cool kids are having."
The defensive hand lowers; the repulsor dims. "Brain damage?"
"I'd love to tell you all about it," Tony drawls, "but I kind of have an itty-bitty bit of complete and total amnesia surrounding the experience." It looks like that trick where he can discomfit people by being excessively charming works on himself, too. "Oh, come on, Tony, don't look at me like that. Surely you've met yourself from another universe before. Things are different where I'm from." He feigns surprise, fingers near his mouth. "Or is this your first experience with the multiverse? Don't worry, sweetheart, I'll be gentle." He bats his eyelashes.
The other Tony snorts again. "Jesus, and they tell me I'm annoying." He flexes his gauntleted hand, an unfinished threat. "Cut that out."
Abruptly the game no longer seems like any fun. He's somewhere else in the multiverse. He wants to go home. Well, he doesn't actually want to go home, because home is quiet corridors and Steve's sleeping breaths and the heavy weight of his guilt and the worst thing he can ever remember doing.
(He thinks "remember" is the important qualifier there.)
Steve will never, ever forgive him.
The knowledge stings at his eyes, burns his throat raw and bitter. Every minute from now until the inevitable day when Steve will discover the lie is borrowed time, and the fact that Tony and the rest of the Illuminati need every second of it doesn't make this any easier.
He deserves to go back. It's where he belongs, anyway. It's the grave he's dug himself.
"Look," he says, and he splays his hands wide, palms-down. Not a threat, the gesture says, and he hopes the other man recognizes it; he has twelve years of muscle memory, twelve years of wearing armor, and the gesture carries meaning. If he were suited up he couldn't shoot anyone with his hands held like this. "I'll level with you. I'm not here to conquer your planet or anything like that. I have had a really, profoundly awful day and I would very much like to go home, so I would appreciate it if you or Reed--" there's not even a flicker of recognition-- "or whoever was responsible for opening an interdimensional portal in the first place could kindly open another one."
The response he gets is a dubious stare.
"I know you could turn me over to SHIELD or SWORD or whatever you've got," he says, and his counterpart looks incredibly suspicious at "SHIELD" and completely clueless at "SWORD." "They'd be interested in a guy from another Earth. I get it. Really, I understand the impulse." He gives the other Tony a thin smile. "But I'm asking, from one Tony Stark to another: just let me go home. Please."
The other Tony smiles broadly; it's a dissembling smile. "I'd love to," he says, "but there's just one small problem."
Oh, God, Tony thinks. That means he has no clue how he did this.
What if he's stuck here forever? People who lucked into dimensional transit probably don't have the tech to replicate it, and he needs to get home, now more than ever. The Illuminati need his help. He pictures himself stuck here, watching the counter on his hand tick down to the next incursion, handed over to this world's SHIELD, locked up and left to rot while his own world burns--
Breathe, he tells himself. He can do this. If no way home exists yet, he can build one.
He sighs and runs his hands through his hair. "Let me guess, you were fucking around with something you didn't understand? Unknown alien technology?"
"Excuse you," his other self shoots back, "the Tesseract has been known alien technology since the second world war, and I have a pretty good idea what--"
Tony frowns. "What's a Tesseract?"
"You don't have one of those?" Rolled eyes and artificially-careless waving hands make it clear he is being humored. "Powerful alien artifact, yadda yadda yadda. Punches holes in space."
Tony wants to laugh, because as recent events have shown, he really is not to be trusted with the Space Gem. "Yeah, yeah, I had one of those." Until this morning. "Kept it in my sock drawer. Purple gem, about this big?" He holds up his thumb and forefinger.
But no, if the confused furrow of brows and shaking head are any indication, this is something else entirely. "Glowy blue cube." His counterpart mimes something roughly palm-sized.
Huh. Well, it's not like you can't pull that trick with a Cosmic Cube, but punches holes in space wouldn't have been Tony's first description of its powers, and his explanation would probably have namedropped AIM.
It doesn't really matter what it is, in the end; right now he only cares that it brought him here and he wants to leave.
"Okay," Tony says. "So you have, just so I'm clear on this, either your universe's Space Gem or a Cosmic Cube, as I would understand it, and you decided to have some fun with portals and now you're in way over your head, as evidenced by, well, me."
Other-him's gaze wanders about the room and settles somewhere above Tony's left shoulder. "Mmmmaybe." His face furrows into a very familiar defensive glare. "I don't have the actual Tesseract; give me some credit. That's still on Asgard. Tesseract-derived technology has been a growing field of research, and it should have been perfectly safe. It is safe," he amends. "The portal was... unforeseen."
"Yeah," Tony says. "Boy have I heard that one before. For my entire adult life."
"You're, like, twelve," his other self scoffs.
"Hey!" Tony says. "Just because you're decrepit is no reason to be insulting. And I'm thirty-three, you bastard." He knows that the late, lamented Extremis shaved a few years off his appearance, but not that much.
The other man looks unimpressed. "Well, you still can't have been Iron Man that long -- assuming you are, of course, Iron Man."
"Since I was twenty-one," he says, and he has the distinct pleasure of watching his counterpart's jaw slacken. "We founded the Avengers the year after. Believe me when I say I've been at this a while."
The man's brown eyes are wide. "What do you mean, you founded the Avengers?"
That is a very strange objection, Tony thinks. But at least they have the Avengers in this universe. He's never really liked the ones that don't.
"We founded the Avengers," he repeats. "Over a decade ago. Loki was -- God, I don't even remember what he was up to. Something. And we banded together to stop him. We decided to stick together afterwards. That was me, Bruce, Thor, and of course Hank and Jan." The other man just looks completely blank at the last two names. "Jan named us," he offers, and there's still no reaction. He finds the thought of a world without Jan Van Dyne inestimably sad. "Anyway. Seeing as how I had that mansion on Fifth that I wasn't using for much anyway, I gave it to the team." He shrugs. "We've had a lot of different members over the years, and I'm usually one of them. Avengers founding member, benefactor, quartermaster, and team co-leader more often than not -- that's me," he concludes.
Not that he's going to be an Avengers anything when Steve finds out what he's hiding.
"Huh." Other-him rubs at his chin contemplatively. "That's really not the situation here." Something dark flares in his eyes, tangled and pained, and Tony wonders if he's a fuck-up in every universe.
"We formed three years ago." And wow, that's recent, especially for how old he looks. "I built the suit four years before that. We were originally founded and funded by SHIELD. And the team was different. Steve, Thor, Bruce, Clint, Natasha. You know all those people in your universe?"
Tony struggles not to react when he says Steve. Of course this universe has a Captain America. He's an Avenger like any other. No, he corrects himself, not like any other. He's never been just another Avenger, not to any of them, and certainly not to Tony. He's always been something more. Not just a name in a list, the way this man says it. He's always meant something. "Yeah." The word scrapes at Tony's throat. "They've all been Avengers."
"They didn't want me on the team at first." His voice is nearly emotionless, like he's reciting history. "I was anyway, though, up until recently. A couple months back. I... recused myself, you might say. I'm not an Avenger anymore." He closes his eyes briefly. Tony wonders what the hell happened.
He must decide that Tony's not an immediate threat, because he begins to work the gauntlet off his arm, like he'd much rather distract himself with some activity. The metal comes off in full plates, with the long slide of a glove, Tony notes; it doesn't sink into him, and the skin underneath is bare -- there's no undersuit, golden or otherwise. For all that it looks like it almost could have been Tony's Extremis armor, it doesn't assemble like it; Tony sighs inwardly and revises his estimate of the tech level downwards.
"The team's not here, then?" Tony ventures. Even when he hadn't been on the team, he'd still had a room kept open for him at the mansion.
There's a long, considering look -- still strange, Tony thinks, with those eyes that aren't his -- and then his counterpart drops the gauntlet on the nearest table, still holding his gaze.
"The new team's got a facility upstate. Cap's still leading them, as far as I know." His gaze is a little bit wary; he's clearly not quite sure about Tony yet, even though he's abandoned his only weapon.
"And the current team is?" Tony prompts, while trying to slot this into his own version of the world.
Three years into the Avengers, he'd hardly seen anything yet. Hell, it had only been a little bit before then that he'd taken a break -- along with the other founders -- and left Steve riding herd on Clint and the twins. But judging by the expression on his counterpart's face, it doesn't look like the split was that amicable.
The other man sighs. "Steve, like I said. Natasha, still. Sam. Rhodey. Vision. Wanda."
That is a fucking weird team. Oh, tactically, it's fine. A little short on heavy-hitters, sure -- he'd be happier adding Thor or Carol -- but it's full of fliers, and of course he's always liked working with those setups, if only because then he's not the only person who can catch Steve when he has the urge to swan-dive from inappropriate heights mid-battle. That part of the team composition is unremarkable. No, the problem is that it's clearly this universe's analogue to Cap's little quartet, but-- "How the hell did you get Wanda Maximoff on a team without Pietro inviting himself along?" he wonders. Maybe in this universe he still objects a lot to Wanda-and-Vizh, Tony thinks.
His counterpart's eyes sag shut. "Pietro's dead."
Tony recognizes the unspoken and it's all my fault very, very well.
"So I'm terribly sorry," the other man says, chin coming up, his words twisted in a sudden vicious snarl, "if you're having a bad day--"
Tony stares him down, matching fire with fire. "You have no clue what I have done today. Don't even start."
This morning he'd stood with the Illuminati on a mountainside in Pakistan, under the sickly red sky of an incursion zone, and he'd watched the Infinity Gauntlet, their last hope, break apart in Steve's hands. This afternoon they'd screamed at each other about ethics and morality and necessary evil. And this evening--
His hands curl into fists and he might not have the armor but he can still throw a fucking punch with the best of them, because once upon a time someone insisted he should learn to fight without the suit. Not that that will help when Steve remembers, but he can definitely deck a baseline human.
And his counterpart... backs down. Huh. His eyes dart away. He lowers his jaw and steps back. He swallows hard.
Tony wonders what the hell his own face must look like right now.
"Okay. The waving hands and carefully tilted palms are clearly meant to placate him. "Okay. Sheesh. So we've both got some sore spots."
Tony takes a breath, and, with effort, another. He unclenches his fists. "Right." Another breath. "Show me to your workshop."
"Eager much? I think that's at least a third-date kind of activity," other-him retorts, and what do you know, he has that same exact smirk. Tony likes it better on his own face.
"You don't want me here," Tony points out. "I don't want me here. I may not be Reed Richards, but I can still hack together a halfway-decent interdimensional portal, thank you very much."
There's a moment there where they're caught on a precipice; Tony can see the thoughts play across the other man's face, in the slight narrowing of his eyes. He's making the decision right now.
"Come on," Tony says. "If I were going to do anything to you I'd have done it already." He lets his gaze fall on the abandoned gauntlet. "Or do you think I don't know how to fire that?"
The question earns him a considering look. "A threat?"
"An observation." Tony summons up a smile. "And, hey, I'll fix your portal for free. You don't get an offer like that every day."
"Fine." His counterpart scoops up the gauntlet, turns and heads for the door. "Downstairs, then. And you can tell me who Reed Richards is on the way."
Even in this universe, the workshop's still in the same place, and on the way Tony establishes that his counterpart knows nothing about the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, or any other group of superheroes that Tony can name. No mutants whatsoever. "Inhumans," oddly, merits an "I'm pretty sure SHIELD would have to kill me if they knew I knew," so whatever Black Bolt and his family are up to, it doesn't sound anywhere near as open or organized as at home. Also something about this iteration of SHIELD sounds awfully sketchy; it's not that his other self says anything in particular, anything concrete, but it's not the way that Tony'd clearly be joking if he mentioned Fury or Hill wanting to have his head on a platter. He guesses he's never been the director of SHIELD in this universe.
No superhero teams other than the Avengers. No real cosmic players to speak of, or at least none that have found Earth yet -- and, honestly, Tony's pretty glad to hear that, because he imagines that Thanos or Galactus could just flatten this place in an instant. The total number of non-baseline humans on this world can possibly be counted without him even taking his shoes off. Half the Avengers he names don't seem to exist.
It sounds... lonely.
Tony suspects a lot of that impression is owed to the fact that the Tower is empty.
"You live here by yourself?" he asks, as the elevator opens.
He expects a yes -- it would go with the pervasive sad solitude of the place, but, surprisingly, his other self shakes his head. "Nah, Pepper's in Beijing this week. Don't worry, you're not interrupting date night."
Tony stops dead in the hallway, because date night? "You and Pepper--" he begins, astonished.
His counterpart stares. His eyes are huge. "Yeah, of course, me and Pepper. For years." He frowns. "You're not with-- you don't live with Pepper?"
"I definitely do not live with Pepper," Tony says, barely holding back laughter. He knows it's not funny, but he has had a day. "We're not together. And there's no team right now -- I was planning on assembling a new one literally tomorrow -- so the only people living in the Tower these days are me and Steve."
The other Tony blinks a few times. Somehow his eyes go even wider. "Steve? Like Captain America Steve?" His voice is high in surprise.
"Yes," Tony says, annoyed, "exactly like Captain America Steve, what's so strange about-- oh God." That must have sounded like-- he reaches out, flailing, and grabs his counterpart by the upper arm. "No. No, no, no. We're not-- he's not-- he wouldn't. Ever. He just lives in the Tower. With me. Not-- not with me. You know what I mean. We've been roommates for years, on and off, teammates, best friends for years, obviously, but I mean. He wouldn't ever want-- it's not like that." He shuts his mouth. "I-- I should probably stop talking now."
Given how well he can read his counterpart, his counterpart can surely do the same, and he might as well have I'VE BEEN IN LOVE WITH STEVE ROGERS FOR YEARS written on his forehead. He thinks sometimes that everyone but Steve has noticed. And Steve's not interested. He knows Steve's not interested. And even if he were, well, Tony is not so much of an asshole that he would date someone while lying to their face. Being Steve's friend is going to be hard enough.
"Uh-huh," other-him says, eyebrows raised, and he looks down to where Tony's still got his fingers wrapped around his arm in violent denial. "You definitely look like a person with no romantic interest whatsoever in Captain America. You're really selling that. Good job."
Tony drops his hand.
"You're telling me you've never even thought about it?" he tries. He finds that hard to believe. He can't really imagine his life not containing him pining after Steve. It's a constant. He's been pining after Steve since before he ever met him, although admittedly the pining had been different before he'd known him.
There's a shrug, careless, as if it's not one of the most important relationships in Tony's life they're talking about. "If the question were 'would I hit that?' then, sure, yeah, I mean, have you seen him? But a relationship?" He shrugs again. "Even if I were single, he's either way too young for me or way too old for me. Maybe both at the same time."
Tony frowns. "Too young? How old is he?" He gives his counterpart a considering look. "Wait, how old are you?"
"I'm forty-five," the man says with a glare, like he's daring Tony to make something of it. Tony declines. "I'm assuming that in both our universes the same Once And Future Cap thing happened--" Tony nods-- "and, okay, so now he is, subjectively, thirty-two. SHIELD found him about four years back."
"SHIELD found him?" Tony asks, in disbelief.
His counterpart cocks his head. "Yeah, who do you think should have found him?"
"Me," Tony says, and the sheer possessiveness in his voice startles him. "Me and the rest of the Avengers," he amends. "We fished him out of the ice. I was literally the first person who talked to him in this century." His stomach twists; he's always thought of that day as the best day of his life, and God, what has he done to Steve? What the hell has he done? "He's older than me, actually, even subjectively. Thirty-six now. It was eleven years ago, when we found him. We've-- we've been friends ever since." He frowns, because that doesn't feel like the right word, not at all.
The other man studies him, thoughtfully. "You get this really freaky intense look when you talk about him, you know that?" And then he shrugs again. "Well, that's enough homoeroticism for me for the night. Come on. Workshop's over here."
He turns, and Tony follows.
He can't really imagine Steve not having been there for him at all. But he might as well get used to the idea, because that's clearly what's going to happen when all the lies come undone.
His other self's workspace is nice, if not quite as advanced as his own. There's a collection of suits in cases along the walls. None of what Tony would call his early armors are represented -- no skin-tight gold mesh, no nose armor, no roller skates. Shame. He liked those skates. He wonders if other-him ever even developed any of those suits. He's had less time as Iron Man, after all.
The entire space is organized -- well, the way he would have organized it. The displays are all holo, arranged just where he would have set them; the actual tools are halfway across the room, by the armors. While his counterpart brings up the screens, Tony takes this opportunity to check out the suits in detail. He does appreciate a good suit of armor.
There's a briefcase next to the row of armors, and Tony brightens and puts his thumb to the lock. He's been thinking about a briefcase again, or maybe some kind of backpack, for the black and gold armor, now that he's not storing the armor internally. The briefcase flips open, and Tony sees a brief flash of red and silver as the metal floats up and wraps around his arm, and wait, he wasn't expecting automated assembly--
"Friday, armor shutdown!" The command is snapped out from across the room.
"You got it, boss," Friday says, and metal rains down from Tony's arm as the override takes effect.
Even through holographic screens, the glare -- it looks almost blue, almost normal through the light -- is withering. "I swear to God, I turn around for ten seconds and it's chaos. Do I need to put a leash on you? Do I go to your lab and touch your things?"
"I bet you would," Tony points out. Because they are, after all, Tony Stark.
"I--" There's a contemplative head tilt. A shrug. His counterpart rubs at his beard with two fingers. "Yeah, okay, I probably would. But that doesn't mean it's a good idea. What the hell were you planning to do, anyway? There's no way that suit will fit you."
"I just wanted to see it. I didn't think it would put itself together," Tony says, a little sheepishly.
There's another stare. "How the hell do you get your suits on, then?"
I used to keep them inside my bones, Tony doesn't say.
Throwing his hands in the air, other-Tony walks through the holographic screens in a burst of light that sends equations playing over his skin. He stalks to the nearest table and pulls out a chair. "Sit down while I get you the data. Don't touch anything."
"Sir, yes, sir," Tony says, sitting down, and while the line's not as effective on him as it is when he's sassing other people, he still gets something like a laugh, so he guesses they're okay now.
The limited-access user account his other self grudgingly sets up -- after passwording out voice, fingerprint, and retinal access to his own files, nice move, self -- contains only the portal data. Tony doesn't see anything resembling the current presence -- or even the remnants -- of Extremis links in the OS or filesystem, and he wonders if this Tony Stark has ever had Extremis, if this world even has it. He's not going to ask.
The portal generator itself sits in the corner. Singed wires and the warped and melted glass hint at its former sleekness.
The power source, his other self says, is a miniaturized arc reactor; Tony figures out pretty quickly from the specs that it's near enough to his RT in terms of energy output that he can sub in pretty much everything he would have done if he were wiring it straight to himself, which he would have considered if he wasn't the one needing to go through the portal. Some people might have called that reckless self-endangerment. Some people aren't here right now. Some people aren't going to care what he does with himself any longer, soon enough.
The spinning hologram of the arc reactor is impressive even in virtual space, even as blueprints. He tells his counterpart so, and the other Tony laughs, pleased, opens up a desk drawer, and tosses him something blue and glowing.
"Used to have to keep a lot of spares around," he says; his fingers tap at his chest as Tony turns the reactor over in his hands and thinks about how he can wire it up. "I got into the habit and I suppose I never really got out of it."
"It's nice work," Tony says, a little grudgingly, because it's not like Tony Stark in any universe needs a bigger ego than he's already got.
The other Tony grins, bright and cheerful. "Thanks. Built the first one myself in a cave in Afghanistan."
Tony stares. He'd been thinking of this as the endpoint of this man's technology, but if it's near the beginning... "This is the only thing you ever had in your chest?"
"Well, there was an electromagnet running off a car battery first, as a stopgap, but basically, yeah." His other self frowns. "Stop looking at me like that. You're freaking me out."
Okay, Tony's really jealous now. "I had to wear the entire fucking chestplate. And charge it from a wall socket. And then there was the artificial heart, and then the other artificial heart, and--" He stops. He doesn't want to talk about what Extremis did for him. He can't remember most of it, anyway.
"That's rough," other-Tony says, and then his gaze goes to the arc reactor. "So you think you can work with this?"
That appears to be the extent of the sympathy he's getting. That's fine; that's really all the sympathy he wants. He thinks maybe his other self isn't great with people. Or maybe just him.
"You bet," Tony says, and he pulls up a blank CAD file and gets to work.
Two hours later Tony's putting the finishing touches on the prototype; other-Tony gave up helping when it became clear that Tony knew exactly what he was doing and he was going to go fast. He asked a couple questions and mainly took a lot of notes; it's clear that he's aiming for replication here.
It's not going to be the best gateway to another universe Tony's seen, but it'll be enough. And he'll have to leave it behind. He's going to leave them access to the multiverse. He doesn't particularly want them to get themselves flattened trying it out, but there's no other way to get himself home. Still, he could get into a gigantic mess with this.
"Do me a favor and don't play with this when I'm gone," Tony says. "Trust me, you do not need the trouble."
He considers wiping the files, but he's not that much of a jerk. Besides, he's sure his counterpart will mess around with the portal anyway. He would. But then, he's also gotten the impression that in his own universe they've got more practice handling threats at higher power levels.
"You realize I'm going to ignore everything you say."
"Yes," Tony says. "But I thought I should at least try."
He understands himself far too well.
The countdown in the corner of the closest screen informs him that the data upload for dimensional transit will complete in half an hour.
"So," his counterpart says, clapping his hands together, walking back and forth across the floor, "what do you want to do until you leave?"
Tony spins in the chair and watches him pacing.
Nothing. Tony doesn't want to think about this, doesn't want to be here, to be anywhere, to think about the future. "Well." He leans back in the chair and lets his mouth tilt up in a smile. "You'd veto Spin The Bottle, I'm guessing." Maybe if he's irritating enough he'll be left alone.
"I wouldn't say no to Truth Or Dare," his counterpart says, and then, lightly, like it's a joke: "You could tell me what the hell you did today that has you looking like you've just come walking off a battlefield. I can see you, you know."
The thought of telling anyone the truth is terrifying.
"That does not sound like a fun party game," Tony says, dryly, and his heart pounds in his chest.
Other-him spreads his hands wide. "You know, they say the truth will set you free." He smiles a little. "Come on. I know you. You want to tell someone. You'll never see me again. I'm the perfect one-night stand."
Tony raises his eyebrows. "You said no to actual makeouts with your alternate-universe self but you'd rather we bare our hearts to each other? You're a weird one."
"You should know."
"You wouldn't understand what I've done," Tony says, grasping for an excuse, but he knows as he says it that he's already falling for the idea, engaging with the premise, and he knows his other self knows it too.
His protests earn him a thin smile. "Try me."
His other self boosts himself up, now sitting on the edge of the workbench, a few feet away. His feet are propped up on a half-open drawer. It has to be awkward, but he looks casual about it, like he's the kind of guy who's always sitting, or maybe even standing, on a desk.
Tony sighs and meets the other man's eyes, dark and intense and so unlike his own. "Have you ever done something horrible, the worst thing you've ever done, but for the right reasons?"
The laugh that elicits is ugly, a low and bitter sound. "You're describing my entire life." He can't meet Tony's eyes now, Tony notes. "But the worst thing... yeah." He looks up, his gaze twisted in sorrow and guilt. "That's why I'm not on the Avengers anymore."
He shrugs. "I'm probably not saying anything new anyway, am I? Whatever I've done, you've probably done. You've heard of all the Avengers on my world. You've probably... had your own catastrophic AI failures."
"I have," Tony agrees. He's made multiple LMDs of himself that have tried to murder him. And then there was that fiasco with the Living Armor. "My suit developed sentience once. Worst boyfriend I've ever had."
"Look," his other self says, mouth twisting in annoyance, "I'm fucking trying to be serious here--"
"I'm not joking," Tony says, indignant. "It was jealous of my girlfriend. It flew me to a desert island and tried to murder me because it decided that I should die if it couldn't have me. Then I had a heart attack and it ripped out its own heart to save me. It was really not a good time."
His counterpart blinks a few times, then sighs. "Maybe you've done this then. I-- I was trying to invent a benevolent AI and I made a killer robot instead. Named him Ultron." His eyes are wide, roving over Tony's face in search of recognition.
Tony gapes. He literally gapes. He's pretty sure his jaw is hanging open. Oh God. No. "You didn't," he says, and that's all he can manage.
"Yes," his counterpart says, with a bleak twitch of his lips. "I'm pretty sure I did. Me and Bruce, but mostly me."
Tony shakes his head, because it's not true, it isn't, and dear God, he wouldn't. Hank was-- okay, Hank's been through some rough patches but Hank was unstable. Tony shuts his eyes. He wouldn't have done it himself. Would he? It wasn't like Hank had meant to do it. Ultron had gained sentience fast and then wiped Hank's mind; he hadn't even known he'd made Ultron at all, not until after the team had met Vision. That was what Hank had always said.
Those mindwipes, Tony thinks, wretchedly, they're sure going around.
He wouldn't have done it himself. He wouldn't have. He has limits somewhere. He hopes he does.
But clearly in another universe he would have done it.
"I didn't," he rasps. "It wasn't me. It was Hank. Pym, not McCoy," he clarifies, stupidly, even though the names mean nothing here.
"How nice for you." The other man's voice crackles, ice-cold.
Tony wants to stand up and shake him. Instead he drops his hands to the armrests of the chair and grips it, white-knuckled. "What the hell were you thinking?"
"Like you said," his counterpart says. He kicks the drawer that he'd been resting his feet on until it closes with a bang, and he doesn't look up. "I did it for the right reasons. I wanted to create true AI, something that could keep humanity safe. So we could all stop fighting. So we could all go home. You're not going to tell me that was a bad idea, are you?" His voice is nearly emotionless. It's like there's something else there, something under it, and Tony doesn't know what.
But it's a good reason. It sounds like something Tony could have done, and that thought is frightening. He can't answer that. "It got out of control, didn't it?"
"Not sure it was ever really in our control to begin with." His counterpart shuts his eyes and rubs his hands across his face. "We'd raided a Hydra base and found Loki's scepter, and I combined the stone -- it was a storage matrix for code -- in it with some code I had lying around for an AI project." He pauses when Tony clearly doesn't recognize the stone in the scepter. "It's like the Tesseract," he adds, "but it has... powers over people. Mental coercion. I thought the code in it would be... helpful."
If the Tesseract is their Space Gem, then this-- oh no. "You built Ultron out of the goddamn Mind Gem and you still have a planet left?" Tony asks, incredulous.
The other Tony stares off into the distance, not focusing. "Not for lack of him trying, I assure you." Tony's seen that look on himself and it makes him want to put his fist through the mirror. He's seen it when he thinks about what he's done. What he's sacrificed. What he's done to other people's lives. Who he's killed.
Something about this doesn't make sense. Oh, it's a good reason to build Ultron, but it's not the immediate motivating force. It's not the spark that lights the fuse. It's like how he could have, himself, started weapons development to protect the planet at any time -- but he wouldn't have until now, until the incursions forced his hand, until the mindwipe set the clock ticking. He needs to build bombs now, to save the Earth from incursions, now before Steve can stop him.
He hates himself sometimes.
But he knows himself. He wouldn't have built Ultron without a push. And why not get everything out there? Why not make himself bleed? His other self wanted this.
"So," Tony asks, leaning forward, "why'd you really do it?"
Other-him blinks. "What?"
"There was another reason," Tony says, and when the silence stretches, he adds, "Hey, you were the one who thought we should have a heart-to-heart. You said you knew me. That goes both ways."
"You won't understand," other-Tony says, head bowed, his voice barely rising above a whisper. "You're just as horrified as they were already."
"I'm very understanding," Tony says, and he tries a smile.
His counterpart fixates on the smile like it's some kind of lifeline. Like he trusts Tony. And then he looks away, looks down, twists his hands together, takes a breath, and looks up.
"I had a vision," his other self says. "I needed to keep everyone safe. I-- I hadn't done it. And--" he pauses, the quirk of his brows indicating he's saving the most dramatic reveal for the end-- "Captain America was dead at my side. And I couldn't save him. It was all my fault."
Tony can't help it. He starts laughing.
The thing about living his life in the public eye is that there are always watchers. Records. Cameras. He may have no memory left of what he is reliably assured was the worst day of his life, but he's seen it. He's seen himself sobbing through the funeral. He's seen grainy helicarrier security footage, visual-only, of him spending a good twenty minutes crying next to Steve's corpse. He kind of wonders what he'd said. No one will ever know now.
He knows it was all his fault. He's read everything about Registration, and he knows he meant it to be his fault. He knows the world was supposed to hate him. He knows he was supposed to take the fall, so no one else would get hurt. And he'd tried. He'd done everything except take a bullet.
As it turned out, that was the one thing he'd needed to do.
His other self is looking at him like he's a heartless monster.
"Sorry," Tony says. "Sorry, I just--" He swallows hard. "Where I come from, that's not just a vision. He-- he died, and it really was my fault."
Other-Tony stares. "You said he was living with you."
"He is," Tony says, and he realizes death is complicated for Avengers. "He was dead for about a year. He came back." He coughs. "I don't remember any of it it personally. That's the period my amnesia covers. But they tell me we were arguing. Fighting. Trying to hurt each other. I just... won a lot more thoroughly than I ever wanted."
"That's not winning," his other self says, and he looks like he wants to be sick. Tony can't argue against that.
Christ, if he'd thought building Ultron would have kept everyone safe -- if it would have kept Steve safe he'd have done it in a heartbeat. It might not have even been that much worse than some of the shit he really did do. For fuck's sake, he'd apparently cloned Thor.
He doesn't have a lot of reason around Steve, sometimes. He knows that.
"Yeah," he says. "Tell me about it."
"I can tell you what happened here," other-Tony says dully, "which is that I built a monster to protect the world and a lot of people got hurt. People died. Pietro Maximoff died. So whatever you did, I'm sure I can relate."
Tony just looks at him, and he sees a man on the edge, suddenly. His hair's in disarray. He's got a fair amount of stubble. The jeans are worn. His shirt's dirty. And he's not in the way he gets when he's on a manic engineering high and can't be bothered; no, he just doesn't care. He hasn't been taking care of himself. He's letting the world pass him by. He's been dwelling on his own misery. He's-- God, Tony wonders if he's been drinking. It's not like he's sober in every universe.
"If that's why you exiled yourself from the team, you should go back."
"You should go back to the Avengers," Tony repeats. "Look, I'm not new to this. They want you there."
"I highly doubt that," his counterpart says, but he looks like he's remembering something. His eyes are full of an awful longing, and Tony knows he misses the team too.
"I'm not really the guy for this speech, just so you know. This is more of Steve's kind of speech," Tony says, and he remembers talking to Steve after Steve came back to life, when Steve was trying to get him to join the team again, when he was telling Steve that all he could see were his mistakes. "But I've been on the receiving end of it, so I'll do my best."
His counterpart smirks. "The receiving end, huh? Is it better with him? Does he gaze soulfully into your eyes?"
"Oh, fuck off," Tony snaps, and that is definitely not how the speech starts. He realizes that Steve sort of had been gazing into his eyes at the time, but other-him makes that sound weird. He guesses maybe you had to be there. He clears his throat. "Right. Anyway. Bear with me here, because I know it's hard to believe, but it's not your fault."
"I built Ultron."
"Yeah," Tony says, "and I know the Avengers. The only one who blames you for that is you. You look at yourself, you look at the team, and that's all you can see -- the times you failed them. The mistakes. But I swear to God, they look at you and they don't see that. I know you think it's your penance, it's what you've earned, but they look at you and they just wonder why their teammate -- their friend -- is hurting them by not coming back." He swallows hard. "This is what I know about the Avengers. They forgive. They forgive it all. Hank made Ultron. He was still an Avenger. Hell, like I said, I got Steve killed and half the world hated me for it and he looked at me and told me he wanted me on the team."
His counterpart is silent for a long while.
"But you don't think Steve will forgive you now," he says, very quietly.
"I'm not stupid," he says. "I can see your face when I say his name, when you say it yourself. Whatever you did, you did it to him, and you think it's worse than getting him killed."
Something twists in Tony's chest. "Getting him killed was awful, but at least it was accidental. And when it came down to it, it wasn't my finger on the trigger. This was on purpose. This was at my command." He sighs. "I wiped his mind."
His counterpart stares at him, mouth parted in shock. "I think maybe you should start from the beginning."
The actual story, Tony thinks, is pretty simple, and there's the tragedy of it.
"The Earth's in danger," he says. He stares at his hands, gesturing like he can convey the cascading destruction of the multiverse between them. "My Earth. Your Earth. Everyone's Earth. They're appearing in each other's skies. They're... colliding with each other. Two at a time." He brings his palms together; the mock-incursion is a slap, echoing in the huge workshop. "And as far as anyone on my Earth knows -- that would be six of us who know -- the only way to save your own Earth is to blow up the other one. They're not all populated -- we haven't seen a populated one yet, but... we're just lucky so far." He sighs. "I haven't made weapons in years and years, but I-- I have to build bombs. We had one peaceful solution, but it's gone now. We need time to figure out what to do. I'm not-- it wasn't easy, okay? But it's the right decision. It's awful, but there is literally nothing else left."
It's not like he gets to keep his hands clean. No, that's only for Steve.
He glances up. His counterpart's face is pale. He's biting his lip.
"You're saying," he says, the words slow and deliberate, "that if one day you looked up and you saw another Earth, a populated Earth -- this Earth, you'd--"
"I don't know," Tony says, and fuck it all, he doesn't. "I don't-- I don't want to. I'm not sure I could." And isn't that just what Steve said? And look what he did to him for it.
His counterpart's jumped off the desk and he's pacing the floor, animated; he stabs a finger at Tony, an accusation. "I don't know how long you spent in the arms business, but as someone who spent twenty years in it, here's a tip: you build it, and someone's going to pull the trigger." His gaze is fierce. "You better think real hard about whether you can live with that."
Tony looks at him intently, at the near-frantic restless movements, and he realizes his other self is just as scared as he is. It's no wonder -- he's told him his own Earth is doomed. "You don't have the technology for planetkiller bombs, do you? Never built one? Never seen one?"
"Not atomics," Tony says, appalled. "You want to kill both planets with the fallout from dirty bombs? I'm talking matter/antimatter."
"We're not, uh." His counterpart looks a little embarrassed, and he backs off. "We're not there yet. So whatever you're planning on figuring out, I'm hoping you're planning on saving the rest of the universe."
"Working on it," Tony says. "Smartest people on the planet, all working on it." He grimaces. "Steve kind of got in the way."
"Ethically, you mean," his counterpart says, and oh, yeah, he understands perfectly. "Objected to the bombs?"
"Yeah," Tony says. "So I-- so he-- he doesn't remember now. He won't remember that the Earth is even in danger. As of a few hours ago." Other-Tony isn't hiding his lack of faith in this idea, the curl of his lip almost derisive, and Tony digs his fingernails into his palms. "Look, it was a hard decision, believe me, but it was the right one."
"And you're planning on, what, lying to him?" his counterpart asks, flippant and brash, one arm flung in a wide, careless gesture. "Leading the Avengers together? Continuing to gaze lovingly at him and--"
"Shut up," Tony snarls, because he really does not need to be reminded of everything he can never have.
"Advice from one liar to another," his other self says, with a wretched, awful smile. "Tell him. They always find out eventually."
"I know," Tony says, because that was never in doubt. "I know he will. But as long as we've got the bombs by then, as long as we've got some kind of planetary defense, I'll have done my part, and it doesn't matter what happens to me." He repeats it in his head. It doesn't matter what happens to him. He's earned this. This is what he deserves.
"What happens if you tell him right now?"
"Tell him right now," his counterpart says. His gaze has gone to the portal countdown on the nearest screen, but he's still talking. "The minute you get back. You walk into his bedroom--" he doesn't even smirk this time-- "you wake him up, you tell him what you told me. You tell him what you did. You tell him, I don't know, you tell him you think you can find another way. You tell him you made a call and it was the wrong fucking call. You tell him you wiped his mind and you are so sorry. And then maybe you tell him you have a massive crush on him because seriously, have you even seen your face, this is pathetic."
"I think I'll skip that last part," Tony says, automatically, and then he actually considers the rest of it. "You know, this isn't actually the first time I wiped his mind. I did tell him afterwards then."
Other-Tony brings his gaze back and just stares, horrified. "Jesus fucking Christ, I never want to visit your planet," he mutters. "And what did he do when you told him?"
Tony thinks back to Mentallo. "He was mad at first. We talked. We made up. Shook hands. We were good."
"Then you'll be fine," his counterpart says, swinging his arms wide. "Fucking tell him already."
When he says it he makes it sound easy, like there's not over a decade's weight of friendship, forged and reforged over lies and mistakes and broken promises. He says it like he doesn't understand the stakes, and he can't possibly. But that doesn't mean he's not right. It feels like the right thing to do. Morally, if not pragmatically. Steve would be proud. If Tony tells Steve now maybe Steve can help him find another solution. And he wouldn't have to lie to him. He wouldn't have to live with this weighing him down.
His counterpart shouldn't have to keep carrying those burdens either.
Tony lifts an eyebrow. "I'll tell him... if you call your Steve and tell him you want on the team."
"This is emotional blackmail," his counterpart says, but he's smiling. Faintly. But it's there.
"Yeah." Tony laughs. "We're good at that. As you know."
"Five minutes, boss," Friday says.
His counterpart slants him a look. "Anything else you want to tell me before you go home? Words of wisdom from your universe?"
"Yes," Tony says. "You should seriously consider adding roller skates to the armor."
This merits a full ten seconds of laughter. And then he figures out Tony isn't joking.
The portal shows the Tower, his own Tower, as the nearest screen confirms a dimensional match between him and the universe on the other side, and Tony sighs in relief.
"Earth-616," he says, holding out his hand. "Look me up sometime, assuming you don't kill yourself with the multiverse after I leave you a working dimensional portal generator. I throw a hell of a party."
The other Tony returns the handshake. "Earth-I have no idea, and I'll consider it. But we got a deal, right?"
Tony smiles weakly. "Yeah. We got a deal, Avenger."
His counterpart shakes his head a little at the address. "Same to you. Have a good trip."
Tony nods, turns, and steps into the portal--
--and he's home.
Time to get it over with.
When Tony walks by Steve's quarters, Steve's still asleep. He's on his back in the middle of the bed, covers pulled up to his chest. His ribcage rises and falls, slowly, in a predictable, easy rhythm. His closed eyes twitch; his pale eyelashes flutter. He's dreaming.
He is, in short, exactly as Tony had left him.
Tony doesn't have to do this.
It's not like he doesn't lie to himself all the time.
But his counterpart was right. Steve will find out eventually. It will be better this way.
"Wake up, old man," Tony says.
Steve pushes himself up and squints into the light where Tony is standing, his hand shading his eyes. "Nhhmmm?" he mumbles, and Tony has a brief frantic moment of wondering how much Steve has lost, God, what if he doesn't remember him, what if he's lost it all--
Steve's face brightens in recognition. At least there's that.
"Steve," Tony says. "I have to tell you something." And he does.