"After the Civil War came Reconstruction," Reed said. "The age of unchecked heroism is dead."
"With malice towards none, hmm, Reed?"
"It's a place to start," Reed said, in that matter of fact way that Tony found unnerving at times. "It's a shame it became messy towards the end."
Tony frowned at Reed's comment. Both men were in one of Reed's laboratories in the Baxter building on the top floor. An expanse of white walls, two ergonomic chairs on opposite sides of a broad, squarish column with the screens of computers embedded in its structure. Reed was scrawling an equation on the wall, working out neat sums, each number and symbol its own word. The words spelling out a language, a hypothesis, a theory. Tony took it in and recognised it as the equations and variables referring to psychohistory.
Messy, Tony thought as images of him fighting Peter, Luke, and Steve filtered through his data fields. The faces clear, stats on their bodies, fighting styles, strengths and weaknesses played out in front of his eyes via Extremis. Each name squeezed the vice that had his heart in its grip, and at the thought of Steve, Tony almost couldn't breathe. Messy. Coming from any other person the observation would have been considered unfeeling, but this was just... Reed. Logic and its cold hard angles appealed to him. Something as simple as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, as stark as black sums on whiteboard.
"It won't be easy, Reed," Tony braced his hands against the desk, looking at the notes on the legal pad before him, seeing nothing but numbers and lines knowing that Reed used the science to predict trends, to dictate where society was going to go before the exodus of humanity got there. "Getting people to come back on side, trying to roust the rest of the superhero community again. And perhaps..." Tony paused, pinching the space between his eyes with his thumb and index finger for a brief moment, trying to stave off the headache, ignoring the data feeds playing across his eyelids and focused on the now. "Perhaps it shouldn't be."
"The others will come around, when they review the variables, they will see that the outcome was never in doubt. That order trumped civil disobedience. The government's backing the SHRA, it was only a matter of time. Of course, what with you, Pym and myself, we've seen the future, its dimensions. There's the beauty in the logic, Tony-"
"Reed," Tony sighed. "People aren't driven by logic as much as emotion. In many ways, emotion is its own logic. It's freewheeling, immediate and damning. For better or worse, we need to come together, to put this behind us, we need -"
Tony broke off at Reed's unchanged expression of polite interest. He just did not understand. It was easy for him to be flippant because he suffered no loss. Estrangement yes, but no true catastrophe, akin to having one's corner of the world suddenly become Stygian black as a direct result of his actions. It was an existence where all you could do was grope blindly, place one foot in front of the other, half hoping that the next step was on solid ground, or one where you stumbled into the void, and hoped to be swallowed, to be numb. No, Reed was lucky, in that he emerged unscathed because Sue came back, and Reed had his family unit again. It was easy for him to imagine that everything would work out in the end like a ...rule, such as the law of gravity. What goes up, must come down. Life wasn't that predictable, nor was it that kind. Emotion, he wanted to say to Reed, drove people to madness. The notion of feeling was its own neurosis, demanded its own logic.
"We need to move on," he said.
"Absolutely," Reed agreed, as he continued jotting his equation across the expanse of white board scrawling the infinity sign, before he drew his brows together in slight annoyance and erased it with his fingers. "People tend to be a suspicious lot. They cleave to their imaginings, cling to their talismans and -"
Tony brought his hand to his mouth as he absently stroked his lower lip with his thumb. Reed in his own way, had gotten to the heart of the matter, but wouldn't give the discovery the weight it deserved, because Reed was like that. He came up with impossible theories before breakfast. Assimilated, understood, then moved on from things that never held his interest. But...
"Yes, a talisman, a... symbol."
"What you said. We need a talisman, a symbol."
"Ah, like Steve."
It was amazing, Tony thought, how the wound never seemed to heal. Just when you thought the cut might start repairing itself, the sutures were yanked, leaving it gaping and bloody and aching. The world was the same, kept on spinning, a whirlwind of sadness, and for a moment, in his mind's eye, he saw Steve, eyes flinty with resolve behind the mask of his cowl, his shield a signal of defiance and intent before him.
"Steve," Tony said, wondering how his heart could break again and again at the sound of the name. How his voice could be so calm, his tongue forming the syllables, the last 'e' tearing from his mouth like a hook, and he might have tasted blood. "Reed, Steve is dead."
"In this dimension."
God, Tony thought, save me from madness. "No," he said.
"There's a certain beauty to it," Reed continued. "You need Steve, so we get Steve. We've learned our lesson from cloning Thor. You can't make an original, so you get another original."
"We both know about the theory of multiverses, we've both experienced it in some degree. We could use the principles of the Level III Multiverse theory and just rip another Steve and... deposit him here."
"The Multiverse theory," Tony mused, drawn to the science of it. "It's the most sensible and doable."
"Hmmm," Reed nodded his agreement. "We know the hypothesis. It's basic quantum physics, taking into consideration the notion of multiverses and their entangled entities. There's a large, perhaps infinite number of universes, any everything that could possibly have happened in our past - but hasn't- has occurred in the past of some other universe or universes."
"Like you without Sue?"
"Unthinkable." Reed shook his head, and Tony allowed himself a little smile, but quickly sobered up as Reed went on. "We'll have to assume that the universes branched off around 1916, since the subject -"
"Steve," Tony said.
Reed only gave a curt little nod and continued speaking. "Since Steve was born on July fourth, 1917."
Reed stood at his white board, and stretched his torso across the lab to the desk where the phalanx of computers were located. With quick moments across the keyboard, he called up a diagram that Tony recognised as The Multiverse Structure . Tony recognised the theory, the projections.
Another tap of keys, and an animatic hologram this time; three dimensional, about a metre across. At first blush, it seemed to be an outline of one of those mobiles with brightly coloured globes that could be found hanging over Franklyn's crib. The top level was a point, then split into two lines. Each line split into two more lines, and then two more lines. At the end of each line was a sphere, and each sphere represented a different multiverse. There was a sense of balance with the four spheres on each side of the equation, their own scales of cosmic balance. "The schematic illustration of splitting as a result of a repeated measurement," Reed said unnecessarily. Tony shoved his hands in his slacks and rocked on his heels for a minute, just thinking.
"Before we can decide on a world, we need to know what we're looking for."
"A Steve." Tony said.
"Right," Reed said, and Tony heard him drumming on the keyboard again, and the model disappeared as various images flashed across the hologram. Tony blinked, at the image of a tall blond man, bare chested, long blond hair parted and tied in two pony tails. "Universe 1602, known as Rojaz. No that will not do," Reed shook his head, only for that image to disappear, and there was Steve, in his uniform, fighting alongside Storm, Spider man and The Incredible Hulk? "No, too wedded to the personality dysfunction that had him on the opposing side in the first place."
"Reed," Tony felt faint, but focused on the diagram before him with grim intent, because he could not be weak. "How did you find time to do this?"
"The realities of the neither nor," Reed kept staring at the model, tapping in various equations for the multiverse, the various angle brackets and vertical bars as the relevant Dirac notations flashed at the bottom of the hologram. "I used the notion of Plank and the constant h. The basic principles, when energy must come in integral multiples -"
"Plus we know that any situation is a blend of every possible option of what might happen and what can happen."
"The wave function, light and atoms can sometimes act as a particle and as a wave, yes. I know that."
"Well, yes. You could build one just like it if you wanted." Reed continued, too absorbed in what he was doing to be bothered by Tony's curt tone. "What about this one?"
With avid interest, Tony and Reed watched as this Steve's life flashed before them. A frail teenager with a lame leg, him going to the recruitment office. It was Steve live in colour, but not. Tony watched, fascinated as this Steve climbed on a rocket, before an explosion of shrapnel and light. Fast forward to fifty seven years later. There he was, shield in front of him and -
"This is the perfect Steve," Reed murmured as he stroked his chin, deep in thought. " All other possibilities have suddenly disappeared."
Tony was still benumbed as he took in this Steve. He was... patriotic, very government oriented, quite... Heard the chatter of Reed's voice as one scientist to another, as Reed said the unthinkable, the... undoable.
"-deposit him, here. He'll be free from the misgivings that this Steve had, and - you can guide him."
He should protest, Tony knew. Should turn away from the... wrongness of it. He couldn't have Steve back, not his friendship, because once they took sides, took up arms against the other, they shed their hold on each other. But-
"We'll just get a Steve," Reed said, as he still drummed away at the keyboard, his eyes now narrowed in thought as he kept typing. Each tap of the finger on a key was an echo in Tony's ears, as time slowed, as his brain processed the parts of it. On one hand, it was wrong, it was... almost profane but on the other hand it was -
"We give this Steve the shield, and begin reconstruction. Have him as the face of your Initiative or any new superhero teams that you will putting forward. It's beautiful in its simplicity."
Tony tore his eyes away from the computer, and for the first time he understood temptation, the seductive siren song of it. How it made the blood surge and roil in his ears, almost obliterating all reason. He looked outside taking in the view of New York. His city, their city, the city that its heroes swore to defend, the place that Steve loved, where he- and Tony ripped that thought from his mind, because it never helped to reflect, to... mourn. Regret demanded self flagellation, the unbearable weight of a hair suit.
"It's logical. A talisman to hold fast to. A light inside the gloom."
It rained, it was right it should rain. Not the torrential squall of it, but a steady stream of tears dropping from the sky, drenching everything in its misery. Cold, miserable, as it made their faces wet. Even nature knew there was cause to wail.
"This country needs a Captain America," Tony said, as he looked at Clint clad in the suit. Almostcap but not Cap. "Especially now. Can't you see how soothing it would be for people... knowing that Captain America will live on?"
" 'People' ?" Clint spat, as he pushed the cowl back from his face. Sandy haired, blue eyed Clint, not Cap but almost Cap. "Or you, Tony?"
Then Clint turned away, the scale mail of the suit wet and dark in the rain, his voice sure and strong.
"You don't know how to handle it, do you? The grief. The pain. The loss... So you reached for the thing you know best... You tried to make a deal. Tried to strike a bargain that would make it all go away. And you can't."
A light inside the gloom.
"Do you think..." Tony began, his eyes following the equations and vectors scrolling across the screen, noting the simulations. Each line, a summation of a different universe. Each equation, a step closer to reconstruction.
There were a lot of things Tony told himself, and would tell himself.
Steve did not realise that at times, politics trumped everything else. You had to either embrace change or get swept up in it.
You're a good man Tony, but you've always thought that you knew best by virtue of your genius, and once you decide, that's it.
No, Steve, Tony thought. I don't know best, I just look at the variables and decide what's best at the time. I'm a futurist, a Cassandra. I foretold the future, couldn't save you from ruin. I tried compromise, and it was talking to the wind. It's different now, will be different now. I can save others, I can rebuild.
Steve, Tony knew, had been a soldier. A very good, nay, exceptional soldier, but he never made policy. Only followed. Tony Stark was now the Director of SHIELD, and for better or worse, he made policy.
A light inside the gloom.
Reed was right about a lot of things. Chor was a mistake. Never clone an original, just go out and get another one.
Tony closed his eyes, knowing what his answer should be. "Do it," he said. "We'll go with this Steve Rogers from multiverse 1610."
"Of course," Reed shot Tony a look over his shoulder, his expression pleasant. "I think I can have this done by Thursday. "
This man wasn't his Tony Stark, Steve thought. Just as how this was not his time. Same city profile, sure, but the air was different, and the water tasted almost the same.
This was not the Tony he knew, with laughing eyes and an ease in his body, always on the look out for some other amusement that might at times include making a pointed comment in his direction. This Tony was a tad older, his face whittled down to sharp cheekbones and eyes. Instead of having the distinctive smell of chemicals and drink, this Tony smelt of starch, metal and coffee grounds. His hair was cut short, not due to the ravages of sickness, but to control the bounce of a curl that might have made him a bit of a sissy, what with his long lashes and a mouth that might be considered soft if it weren't in a hard line. He was also... sober.
No, Steve thought. Not really sober, not with that look in his eyes, wild and fevered as if -
"-and that's it," this Tony finished, his head bowed, fists resting on the expanse of the table between them.
From what Steve could gather, they were in the Director's office. Tony Stark was the Director of SHIELD. Huh. Steve did not know whether to be horrified or bust a gut laughing at the thought, but that was for later. This was now. The wall behind this Tony was covered by a grid of screens, each monitor flashing, being fed by various satellite images and streamed. The information either breaking into images or texts or both.
It was nice to know that this world took its security seriously.
"So," Steve said, as he leaned forward, his fingers linked around the styrofoam cup, feeling the heat of the coffee against his palms. "There was a war against Registration, and your side won."
"The right side won," Tony said, as he pushed himself from the table, jamming his hands into the pockets of his dark slacks. Steve saw the shadows that flickered at the edges of his eyes. He had waged a war, and his eyes spoke of the cost. The corners of the mouth twitched, and it was almost a hisTony smile, but there was no hint of true amusement.
"Yes, I-" Steve dropped his gaze from Tony's mouth, and focused on the details of the dossier spread before him, each picture and file on display, like a fan of cards shown by a croupier before they were shuffled and dealt.
"I see that," Steve repeated. "Registration does make sense in light of a lot of things. A government should protect its people-" and wasn't that odd, that this Tony should be on the side of Registration, when the other Tony expressed nothing but his disdain? "- from a lot of things. Against all Enemies, foreign and domestic."
"Yes," Tony nodded. "That's what the SHRA is designed to do. There will still be superheroes and meta humans, but they will be trained, sourced. Paid. Registered. With programmes like The Initiative-"
"I understand that, but I don't understand why I'm here? How did I get here?" Steve spread his hands, careful not to spill coffee across the files. "One day, I'm in my time, well- in a time that might be mine, and I- this is crazy. This is some Buck Rogers stuff, it's unbelievable."
"Considering what you've told me," Tony smiled and -bittersweet - was the word that came to Steve's mind. In that moment, he knew, Tony was not here in this room with him, not at all, and he almost dropped his eyes, because the memory seemed almost private. Tony blinked, and his eyes were suddenly clear, and on Steve. "You awoke from an ice floe fifty seven years after the war."
Steve felt a blush creeping along his neck, his ears. Self consciously, he rubbed the nape of his neck. "Yeah," he drawled, wondering if the story would ever sound normal to anyone's ears. "I woke up, joined the Ultimates a couple years ago, and well... I've been there since. I-" at this he tilted his chin, and looked Tony in the eye. "I- ? You said - you can help me get back to my time?"
"I'm sure I can."
Ah, this was one thing that both Tonys had in common, Steve thought as he now saw a spark of amusement in his eyes. They never lacked confidence in their abilities in anything.
"Since I know there's no such thing as a free lunch," Steve tilted his head, narrowed his eyes. "Is there anything I can do to earn my keep while I'm here?"
"Can you throw a shield?"
"Okay troops! Split on my command! Carol, aim for the torso, go!"
Carol did not answer over the communicator, just gave a quick, sharp nod as she took to the air, gaining enough height to get her bearings. Below them was the sleepy town along the jagged coast. The sky was still flushed with the streaks of dawn, and there were no boats hauling the first catch of the day. Small mercies, by now Tony had learnt to appreciate them. Really-
"Ow!" Tony heard Carol suck in a breath, saw as the sweep of tail caught her blind, right in the sensitive spot under her ribs.
"Carol!" Steve barked, "are you down?"
"I'm on it, Cap," a shake of her head, clearing it, and focusing on the monstrous creature below. It seemed to be a cross between a giant eel and seal. Its body was three metres high, its neck eight metres long. It thrashed about in the water, and powerful waves heaved and frothed in its wake. Carol pushed herself to about half a kilometre up, before angling her body, and using her legs to push the air behind her, her fists in front of her like a battering ram as she plowed at the monster's torso.
"Tony, on my mark, go!"
"Done," Tony quipped as he splayed the fingers on his gauntlet and aimed low. "According to the data, we have two miles of sea beneath, we might be able to slow this bad boy a tad."
"Yeah?" Steve's voice was in his ear, sounding a bit younger than he remembered. Tony absorbed the data feeds, Steve was on the ground moving. His shield in front of him, his lips pulled from his teeth in a grimace, his eyes grim and dark with determination as he focused on his target. With an ease that Tony could only marvel at, Steve did a somersault, legs pulled towards his body as he avoided the sweep of the monster's tail. There was the blur as Steve's shield whizzed past Tony, hitting the broad neck of the scaled monster with a sharp 'twang' before it boomeranged back to Steve's hand, his grip on the leather hinges of the shield sure. His voice not even winded, just that familiar baritone that Tony remembered as Steve continued barking orders, "Widow, can you use your stings to neutralise the target?"
"As you wish."
"If only you were this pleasurable to work with, you would have probably still lived in my world."
"I beg your pard-"
A long, sonorous blow of a horn, and suddenly the monster stilled, as if in a trance. Two short, sharp bursts, and it turned from the seaside village, slinked towards the brine, then with a mighty splash, the froth and swirl of the sea as if in a sudden storm, it sank into the sea, leaving nothing but welts on indentations in the sand to prove that it was there.
"What in the-?" Tony heard Carol's voice trail off, and he looked up. Saw the familiar shape as it leaped from the water, and sped toward shore. Goddamnit, he thought as he flew to shore and landed before Namor did. This was too soon.
"As usual, can never leave well enough alone."
Namor descended to the sandy shore, the wings at his ankles making the landing so delicate that Tony half expected him to do a plié. His head and shoulders thrown back didn't hinder the image either.
"Namor," Tony tried his best to keep his voice even. "We were just ridding the town of a -"
"You dare to lay a finger on one of my subjects, Tony?"
"It was terror-"
"Yes and it will be punished, and-" his voice trailed off. Tony knew what Namor was looking at when he saw his eyes narrowed in distaste. Sighted the man in the iconic costume, as he hitched his shield on his shoulder, nodding solemnly at what Wonder Man was saying to him in the distance. The movement so reminiscent of their Steve, that it made one pause.
"What imprecation is this?" Namor's voice was hoarse with his anger. "The real Steve Rogers-"
Lightening quick, Tony felt the pressure of the armour as it tightened around his throat; him being lifted off the ground, despite the sheer tonnage of his suit. Jesus, he forgot how quick and strong Namor could be.
"You dare? Replicating Thor wasn't enough for your ends so you dare to repeat the process with Steve Rogers too!?"
"Put him DOWN, Mister!"
Steve's voice was as distinctive as a clarion call. The shock of its sameness was enough for Namor to release his hold, and for Tony to crash to the ground, the Extremis instinctively protecting him from the shock of landing. From his vantage point, Tony saw Namor flinch, as he heard the clipped notes of Steve's voice. What he would have sounded like, all those years ago, before his accent got softer, more fluid the longer he lived.
"This isn't.. Steve." Namor whispered. His features were still in a tight mask of disdain as he held the seashell horn to his chest. Only the almost imperceptible tightening of his fingers around the horn were his only give away. Tony then found himself the recipient of a blistering glare, as Namor's mouth thinned into a disapproving line - well, more disapproving than normal.
To Steve, he only nodded. Then a blistering glare at Tony before he turned away, and took to the air. Executed a high, tight double somersault before plunging into the sea, leaving nothing but a mere ripple as he cut through the water. This wasn't over, Tony knew. This wasn't over by a long shot.
"Captain America? It seems the rumours of his death have been greatly exaggerated-"
"Is it the real Cap? Or just another clone? Sources say-"
"The death of Captain America? Then a new Captain America? Co-incidence or conspiracy?"
"Oprah, Captain America is... well, he's a symbol of what we all wish to be. A steadfast belief in-"
"Captain America supports the SHRA. We have it confirmed by SHIELD that he will be throwing his full support behind the SH-
"Wow. You did it," Carol pursed her lips as she turned the TV to mute. Both of them were in Tony's office, a fairly nondescript room, with the oversized SHIELD logo in the background and various trappings of the office. A flag pole in the corner, a grid of screens to the far side of the room. Both were separated by a desk the size of a small lake, scattered with various dossiers across its surface.
Tony sat in his chair, as he rested his chin on his linked fingers. Today, she was in her full dress uniform. Normally, she'd be tromping around in her superhero get up - and he smiled at that thought- but she had a closed hearing for the SHRA today, and was appropriately dressed. From her hair done in a sleek bun, to highly polished dress heels. "You got the MSM to buy into this Captain America."
"Yes, Steve has-"
"Is it really him, though?"
"You, Reed and Pym cloned Thor," Carol cut in, as she spun around to face Tony, her eyes absolutely glacial. "What's to say that you haven't done so to Steve? Took clippings of hair, and nails and just -"
"I wouldn't-" Tony dropped his hands, pushed himself away from the desk as he left his chair. "I wouldn't, not with Steve. Not-"
"Just made him better?" she finished.
"You have spoken to him, you -"
"I never knew Steve when you guys fished him out of the ice," Carol's lips were curved into a half smile, and Tony noted the pale pink lipgloss she wore. "When I joined the team, he was already a legend... twice over. But when you got to know him, he was just... Steve."
Tony briefly rubbed a hand across his eyes, the other hand splayed against the surface of his desk, feeling the grit and ache behind his lids as he absently picked through the data feeds. Lord, he was tired. "Yeah," he said, on a exhale of breath. "He was just... Steve. This Steve- can be just Steve, too."
"You didn't clone him, then?"
Carol just gave him a long, hard look. Then sighed. "God help us, but I believe you. But Tony, if this isn't a cloned Steve, nor a-" she stopped. "The less I know, the better. But I will only ask you this once. Do you know what you're doing?"
"I hope so," she said with a short, sharp nod. "You tend to pave various highways to hell all in the name of good intentions, Tony and- well. Just... not this time, okay? We can't afford another loss if you do."
Then she was gone, tapping out her exit on sharp heels, and Tony heard the echo of them as she walked away.
"Today, on Capitol Hill, Captain America decided to put forth his support for the Super Human Registration Act, also known as the SHRA-"
"It's not Steve," Bucky glowered at the screen, his elbows resting on the scarred surface of the table.
"He fought like him, sounded like him." Natasha said, as she toyed with her pasta and olive dish.
Bucky only grunted. They were in his little apartment. It was formerly Steve's place, but after his... death, Bucky moved in, because it seemed like the right thing to do. Besides, it was a comfort to be in a place where Steve had lived, and besides that... interloper was not Steve at all.
"None. Although he said something strange, about if I had been a bit more pleasurable to work with, I'd still be alive in his world?"
"You're pleasurable enough."
Natasha smiled at him, her mouth and eyes soft. He placed his hand over hers, and for a brief, shimmering instant, sitting at their small, table eating pasta and watching TV, their lives seemed relatively normal. Just a ordinary couple, sharing a meal and catching up with the news of the day and each other. Too soon, the moment was over, they turned their attention to the television, and focused their attention on this new Steve.
"Will there be anything else, Mr Rogers?"
"No, no thank you, ma'am. " Steve said, as he hitched his shield on his back, with the same casual shrug like a kid with a slightly too heavy knapsack. "So, this is where I'll be living."
"It's Stark Tower, and I'm Pepper by the way."
Steve smiled at her. This Pepper seemed to be more girl Friday than the invisible secretary that Tony had back in their world. She was dignified yet fragile: sad green eyes, red hair bound in a bun, its severe style softened by tendrils that fell around her ears. The black, severely cut suit didn't hurt his impression of her being a woman in mourning. "I'm Steve."
"I know," Pepper smiled, and it seemed strange on her features somehow. Like the children in the orphanages after the war, they would get food and toys, and tried to smile, but their lips forgot how, their eyes limpid and empty with loss. Unwittingly, his heart went out to her.
"So, I'm living here - with Tony, I mean. But not - in that way."
Pepper only laughed, it sounded pleasant to Steve's ears, although a tad rusty, as if she hadn't laughed in a while. "It's just until you get accustomed to this time. To... everything."
"I don't want to get accustomed to this time though," Steve shook his head, as he took in his surroundings. It figured, in whatever universe Tony found himself he was a man of his creature comforts. A view of New York that grabbed him by the throat and made his eyes water from the sheer scope of it, with the river and Upper Bay but... no Triskelion, and it was strange, Steve thought. How the brain and body adjusted to whatever was thrown at you while the heart took an age to get there. Unconsciously, he clenched his fists, seeing the sunset washing the city in its roseate tones, and knowing that it wasn't his New York.
New York, New York, New York. A city so nice they named it... thrice?
He bit his inner cheek to keep from laughing, because if he started, he might never stop.
"SHIELD took the specs for your new uniform; that will be dropped off here in the morning. There's the internet if you need it, and well - if you change your mind, we can get you a body man or -"
"Someone to just... trail me like some sort of... valet?" Steve shook his head, horrified. "No, ma'am. Not at all."
Pepper gave him a little smile as she tapped in the information on one of those square phones with numerous buttons and a huge screen. Her thumbs skimmed across the buttons in a blur of white and red. It was still a novel experience for Steve to see a woman working outside the home. The war required women to work, but making rivets in factories wasn't the same as being a right hand man to this sprawling enterprise. This Pepper, who smelt like flowers on a warm spring day and wore pretty high heels with red soles.
"Tony's told you about 'Captain America' and the 'no guns' rule, I trust?"
"Yes," Steve raised his eyebrows. "It's a strange request, but-"
"It shows skill and restraint," Pepper answered, still tapping information into her device. She lifted her gaze to Steve's, giving him a half hearted smile. "Captain America doesn't use guns."
Steve still could not wrap his mind around that, not at all. "So this Captain America," he asked, "what was he like?"
"I -" Pepper's eyes landed everywhere but on Steve's face and he took note. "He was, a good man. He -" she paused, eyes were bright. She opened her mouth, and her lower lip wobbled a bit, before she shut it. Then said, in a voice that was edged with water, "He didn't use guns, that's all you need to know right now."
Steve was tempted to push for more, but instinct told him to back off for now. With that in mind, he only gave her a short, sharp nod. He was annoyed enough to let the quiet stretch out, to hang on their heads and shoulders like an itchy wool coat on a blistering summer's day. If anyone was going to keep the conversation going, it would be her.
"That's it. Tony tends to come in when he does, so... yes."
"I'll be practising with the others, and the Fifty State Initiative?"
"Yes," Pepper said, as she tucked the phone into the handbag that swung off her shoulder. "It's been nice meeting you, Steve. I hope I'll see you if you come out to California."
"I'm... going West," Pepper said in that way that women did at times when they were trying to keep their composure, by blinking her eyes rapidly and laughing to disguise her tears.
"I hear California is pretty," he said. "I've never been."
"It's... Tony spent some time out there, when he got sober, so it means something to him and -" Pepper broke off, smiled again, and offered her hand. "It's been nice meeting you, Steve."
Steve shook it gently, feeling how fragile and fine the bones in her hand were. "My pleasure, ma'am."
Pepper turned on her heel then, and made her way through the door into the passage, her head held high, her walk purposeful. He admired the rich red orange of her hair, and the pale column of her neck, half wishing that he could draw. There was something about her wounded air that made her -
Pepper still stood at the entrance of the door, her back turned to him, her hand pale, against the highly polished elevator door, save for the deep blood red of her nails. "In your other world... the one that you're from. Pepper and Happy...were they...?"
Steve frowned, he knew the question was important, but he didn't know the answer. There was no shame in not knowing, but... "They were fine," he said, keeping the facts as general as possible.
Pepper's hand flew from the elevator door to her mouth, but Steve heard her choked sob. Before he could ask her what was wrong, she strode away, the elevator doors closing with a ping.
"Rumours are rife on Capitol Hill that the SHRA will be enforced... To find out what this means for the Superhero community, we're joined by-"
"Tonight, on Larry King Live, we have a special guest, The Director of SHIELD, Mr Anthony Stark. Director -"
"Call me Tony, please. It's always a pleasure to be here, Larry."
"Tony, the SHRA is your baby. It made its way through the Hill, walked through by Senator Dickerson himself. He brought all his considerable influence to bear -"
"Now, now Oprah. You have to understand how this law makes superheroes accountable, especially after that regrettable incident in Stamford..."
Hank Pym turned away from the computer, minimising its browser window as he turned to Reed, who was busily typing equations into his small laptop computer at his desk, barely giving Hank a glance.
"Amazing, isn't it, how Tony's been able to be the face of the law, making it acceptable?"
"It's just Tony," Reed murmured. "If nothing else, he's comfortable around the press, that's what he does."
"And this Steve? Do you think he'll be able to unite the superhero fractions behind the SHRA?"
"It's worth the effort, if he could," Reed absently tapped his chin with his forefinger. "Of course, some people are up in arms re: Tony and Steve. But the public has bought into the plan, and they are at peace. "
"Some people, like who?"
"The Falcon, Winter Soldier, and one or two other members of The New Avengers. The rifts will heal, like they always do."
"Hmmm," Hank bit his lip thoughtfully. "We will see."
SHIELD HQ, 19:00 hours
Tony hated this time of day, when it was late enough to know that another block of time had passed, and he felt as if he accomplished nothing; yet it was too early to call the day a loss, so he kept plugging. He was in his office, just standing there, looking at the grid of screens at the wall, processing the data through Extremis. There was a situation off the coast of Macau that he would do well to keep an eye on. The situation with North Korea was still delicate, and mentally, he relayed instructions to the pilots off the coast.
Genosha might have a bit of a problem and he-
Sell, sell, sell. Offload all stock invested in Time Warner, transfer and spread across -
Nick Fury still off grid, missing in action and Jesus, Nick where are you?
Then he tapped into the Extremis fascicle, reached out and patched into Carol's communicator. "Anything I should know about?"
"No, it's all quiet here, the coast is clear." Carol laughed, as she shook her hair away from her face. Tony got the impression of chairs and people in the background, and he knew that Simon could only be near by.
"Well if you need-"
"We're okay, Tony," her eyes and mouth were soft. "Just go home. Rest."
Tony only shook his head, not wanting to taint Carol's mood with his musings, so he did the next best thing. "Have an extra tonic water for me," he said, "and if you can't be good -"
"Night, Tony." Carol clicked off her connection, leaving Tony to wonder-
"No Sir, you can't just waltz in here. Director Stark has left explicit orders not to-"
"Oh, he'll see me."
Tony sighed, turned away from the monitors and braced himself as James Barnes pushed his door open and strode into the room, Tony's secretary tagging behind him, her eyes pleading, and Tony only waved her away. "It's okay, Amanda."
Amanda gave a stiff nod, her glare was sharp enough to cut cloth, but James didn't notice.
"What's this I hear about you and that damned Steve-"
"Barnes," Tony greeted, because Barnes and himself had never been close enough for him to call him Bucky. The only thing he and James Barnes had in common was Steve - that Steve and he was gone.
Barnes was livid, his face flushed with it. Tony could feel his glower, his rage almost incandescent, flaring off and into the air around him like sunspots in an active cycle. As a nod to some sort of civilian identity, James was in a suit, his hands gloved. He looked less like the Winter Soldier and more like an executive who did more time in the wilderness of expensive restaurants wooing the various denizen on Wall Street, instead of someone who intimately knew the phrase 'wet works' and what it meant.
"It should have been mine. Or even if not... it belongs to Steve."
Well, for an opening salvo, that sure got his attention. Tony rubbed his temple with his index and forefinger, knowing that his day was a loss, no doubt about it. Because civility demanded it, he asked the question anyway. "What are you talking about?"
"The shield, the uniform."
Tony gave a bark of laughter, half wishing that he still drank, because a shot of whiskey would have really worked for him right now. Tony opened up the Extremis, and placed the directorate on amber alert. If he were going to taken down by James Barnes, at least he'd make his escape uncomfortable. Those were not great odds, but then, life was a crap shoot at times.
"What makes you say that?"
"I knew Steve better than you, longer." James said, through gritted teeth. They both knew it was a lie, because Tony had a decade of knowing Steve to James' four years. But Tony allowed him to have that hit, because in a world post Steve, everyone who knew him should be allowed to keep their memories, without someone else treading on them. "I knew the man he was and -"
"You'd have wanted the identity of Captain America?" Tony's smile was wry with his amusement. "After your tangles with the Red Skull and the cosmic cube? No."
"Does this Steve know? Does he know what you did? What happened? Or are you just feeding him re -"
"That," Tony's voice was glacial, the thin veneer of civility between them cast aside like a threadbare rag. "Is none of your concern." Without Steve as a buffer, their mutual apathy was there for all to see. At least, Tony thought, it was honest.
James' eyes were frigid, his lips twisted into a sneer. "You killed Steve, and you're having this puppet Steve doing your will in his name. You're using Steve's legacy for your ends, Tony. This is all of my concern." With one step he got into Tony's face, and as much as he wanted to move, Tony stood his ground. James wouldn't dare, not while the entire offices were swarming with nanotech cameras and SHIELD agents armed to the teeth. He wouldn't dare. Would he?
"You're not a hero, the SHRA and its permutations shouldn't concern you."
"But it does," James smiled, and there was a cold amusement in it. "Funny how that happens."
Steve was in his suite of rooms at Stark Tower. He sat cross legged on the bed, the mac book balanced on his knees, his features darkened by his scowl as he scrolled through various internet pages. There was a stack of legal pads and a packet of pencils on the bed beside him, the first of the pages already had key terms like 'Capes' and '42' and a few jottings from an online publication called The Frontline but...
Something was wrong. Not that he didn't trust Stark, but... something wasn't adding up.
Steve raised his head, half surprised to see Jarvis at the door, with a sterling tea service in his hands, complete with napkin and covered dishes.
"Jarvis. Hey," he smiled at the butler. He liked this Jarvis who looked at him with kindly eyes, and not in a way that made him want to throw a shroud over his body, or fashion his pencils into a cross like... the other Jarvis he knew. "It's that time already?"
"Yes, it's high afternoon, I thought you'd like some lunch?"
"Sure," Steve said, taking in his surroundings. The bed was enough to have one of those orgies his Tony would go on about, the ceiling to floor window with the view of the city Steve had no business taking for granted, and the carpet under his feet, the colour of strewn hay.
"Just put it down anywhere, please." Steve tried to mind his manners. He heard the subdued clink of the silver service on the beside table, and looked up to see Jarvis standing there.
"Your research is going well, I trust?"
Steve placed his hands on either side of his neck, and slowly rolled his shoulders, feeling them tense under his own hands. He'd been in this position for a while now, hunched over the laptop like a-a typist.
"It's going," he gave Jarvis a small, lopsided smile. "It's just that... there's so much information about, but nothing that clicks."
"Ah, well, there's nothing for extensive research like a good library.The feel of paper under your hands, don't you agree? Modern technology has a way of making things sterile."
"Yeah you just might have a -" and Steve's thought was cut off by the blare of his communicator. Already, he was up, the laptop upended on the bed, his notepads and pencils tumbling to the carpet. Steve grabbed his bag and shield and was half way through the door, when he stopped and turned to Jarvis, his face flushed with guilt. "I'm sorry, about the... food." Steve shook his head. "If you'd just put it in the fridge, I'll warm it up and have it when I get back. I -" at Jarvis' look he shrugged. "I gotta go."
It was almost the same, Tony thought as he imagined that he could feel Steve's arm and body though his armour. But it wasn't, what with Steve's hand awkwardly thrown around his shoulder, and, his cowl had no wings. With a pang, Tony turned his attention to the wreckage below, scanning midtown Manhattan.
"What's going on here, Stark?"
Tony yanked on his data feeds, tapped into his satellite feeds, and using his HUD, scanned the area. So far, he could see nothing but the surface of the roads that were ripped apart, the thick underground cables for electricity and internet split and bloated. There were torn down power posts, over turned traffic lights. This side of Manhattan was torn asunder, as if an ill tempered god decided to show his displeasure. The din of people as they scrambled, running away from the explosions. Undeterred, Tony powered on, just following the wreckage, a sign post to where the centre of activity was. Tony veered a sharp right, feeling the gforces pushing Steve against his armour, stunned at the sight in front of them.
"Oh, you've got to be kidding me," Steve said.
There were a half dozen robots, about four metres high, their gauntlets open, humanoid fingers splayed as they were firing wild, bolts of energy everywhere.
Tony only frowned as he got more height, scanning the scene below, as they were overhead one of the robotic forms. "What the...? Seriously?" he exclaimed, the forms were an uglier version of his silver and red Centurion Iron Man model. "That's a design from my old armour!"
A blur of blue and red whizzed past them, the sharp cry of a huge bird and another form sped by in a blur and Tony resisted the urge to slap his forehead and groan. Not today, please? Not today.
"I'm going in," Steve said, as he allowed his arms to fall, plunging away from Tony, holding his shield before him like a sort of boogie board as he cruised on the currents of air, before landing on the machine's shoulder.
"Geez, the next time Gigantor shows up, that's it, I'm leaving New York." Spiderman quipped, as he blasted his webbing both at the robot's sensors and its legs, causing one of the robots to trip and fall. "Go, go, power rangers!"
Steve made great use use of the fallen robot's shell by leaping, running and somersaulting over the mechanical hills and peaks. Without a hitch in stride, Steve jumped, and landed on another robot's gauntlet. The robot swung its arm in a wide, sharp arc to shake Captain America off, only for him to pivot, and throw his shield at the juncture between the robot's neck and shoulder.
The robot's circuits started to short, causing sparks to arc and spits of electricity to sizzle on the air. Steve ran along the robot's arm to its shoulder, and jumped off into nothing but air and sky - before Falcon swooped into save him.
Tony sighed, as he brought up Peter and Sam on the database, and found their status as still rogue. They hadn't signed up to the SHRA and -
"You know what they say, the bigger they are, the harder they fall." There was Luke Cage, legs spread for maximum centre of gravity, as he linked his fingers together, swung his arms across his body, and in a graceful arc reversed the motion, connecting with the robot's leg with a deafening CLANG.
Tony threw his arms out in front of him, opened the repulsor rays on full tilt, the robot's head spun around on its body with the speed and unsteadiness of a top. Uh oh - another robot now had him in his sights, and before Tony could swerve to the far right, there was a loud THWUP! as its head rolled off its body, courtesy of the flying disc with the star on it.
"Four down and two more to go, triple bonus points for the first one to to get two in one go!"
"Go? Triple bonus points? What?"
"Oooh, ooh! oooh me!" Two thick shots of webbing, each shot landed smack on the robots visors, and with a yank, their heads knocked together with a mighty HWUNG! Tony finished them off which short sharp blasts to the vulnerable region of their chest plates.
"Hey, no fair!" Spiderman grumbled. "But you were always a douche, though."
"Yes, the area has been contained," Tony said, trying to keep the weariness out of his voice, because he was being interviewed by the local news anchor, and it was not politic to get on the wrong side of the press. He also believed in a healthy fourth estate, but still, this man was cutting it fine.
"Mr Stark, we have reports that you fought side by side with Capes who still haven't signed on to the SHRA? Isn't that fraternising with -?"
Tony gave a weary sigh. "Lives are more important than politics, Greg, wouldn't you agree?
"Yes, but Mr Star-"
Steve turned his attention away from Tony to the small cluster of heroes before him. One he vaguely knew as Spiderman from his world, although in this world he seemed a tad taller. The tall, bald headed black guy Steve had no reference for. He only knew that this guy was a head taller than him, and had about two hundred pounds on him, and Steve felt the shadow thrown across his face. That alone made Steve pause. It was rare that he ran into people who were taller and bigger than him. Before he could get into that, however, his attention was drawn to another black guy, about an inch shorter than him, and his bearing was similar to a guy he knew... but this man wore a costume with wings, and it was red and white. His face was partially covered with a white cowl, and -
"Steve, is that you?"
"I'm Steve, but I can't say I know you," Steve said, as he shifted to the balls of his feet, alert to whatever might happen.
"Man, you look like him..." Falcon's eyes narrowed, as he picked his way through the debris to get a closer look at Steve. "But you sure as hell aren't him, because you wouldn't be doing what you're doing. What the hell did Stark do now?"
"I-" Steve was saved from answering as Tony landed beside him, and he still couldn't get over the fact that this Tony's armour was sleek, and actually human sized, and he didn't need the assistance of twelve men to get him into the suit.
Tony lifted his helmet from his head, held it under his arm as he took in Falcon, Luke and Spiderman. "You guys are disobeying the law," he said.
"We just saved lives," Luke's voice was an ominous rumble, as he took two steps towards him. "Or is your-"
"Luke," Tony began. "You know that if you're not registered, the full weight of the law will be brought against you to bear. He-"
"I can't believe you man," Luke was in his face now. "It's not bad enough that you back the law. You brought this on us and this -" he swung a hand in Steve's direction, and Steve swore that he felt the currents of air behind it.
"Hey, c'mon, easy big guy -"
"We don't need a piece of paper to do this, to save people the way we want to!"
"After the civil war," Tony said, knowing that he risked coming off as condescending but it was a chance he had to take. "The United States had to go about -"
"Reconstruction. Jim Crow. You see how that worked out. " Luke cut in. "I thought you were a futurist, Tony, not a goddamn reactionary."
Tony swallowed his anger, intensely aware of the cameras on them. It would not do to scrap with former teammates, nor would it be great publicity for The Director of Shield to -
"C'mon Sam, for all we know, Stark might have sent those suits of armour to draw us out and -"
"You think that little of me?" Tony's voice was so frigid, Steve swore that the temperature dropped a few degrees. "After everything?"
"You backed the act!" Luke spat. "You-"
"Hey," Sam stepped between both men, his hand splayed against the immovable bulk that was Luke. He gave Tony a sharp glare before turning his attention to his teammate. "Stark isn't worth it Luke. He was never worth it."
Luke stomped away over the debris, crushing a discarded robot arm underfoot.
Steve stood to one side, watching the conversation with interest. There was a lot of emotion here, so intense it sparked, made the hairs on his neck stand and shiver.
"There's another news station for another interview," Tony cut in, his voice as smooth and cool as glass. "When I get back, you need not to be here, or I'll be forced to arrest you. Steve, I'll see you in five."
Steve only nodded, not wanting to go just yet, because there were undercurrents of something here, that he was not yet privy to.
"You know," he began, after Tony left to do another interview. "The SHRA is the law. It doesn't prevent you from doing what you think is right, it only makes it legal."
He found himself at the end of a long and searching look from Sam. "You believe that, Rogers? If so, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you."
"I've read the law, and -"
"You want to know why we're against the law?" Sam said, and Steve found himself saying, "Yes."
Sam's smile was wry, even bitter. "Be on the look out, I'll contact you shortly."
"Yeah?" Steve said, curious about this man and his rag tag crew of outlaws. He just couldn't wrap his head around the fact that people would go against a government ruling. It was just... nihilist.
"Yeah," Sam said. "We need to be going, since Stark will be back shortly. We don't need to show our hand just yet. Stay sharp."
They landed on the roof, and without a saying a word, Steve broke from the half hug and fly embrace. Even though they had done it twice, it was still new, as Steve still didn't know how disembark fast or easily enough.
With unabashed interest, Tony watched Steve as he padded towards the roof's edge, drawn to the view. Below them was the dizzying vista of New York and the blue strip of Upper Bay in the distance. There were buildings that were at least ten meters below Stark Tower, but at ninety three stories high, it was a good view. Steve stood near the edge of the roof, shield on his back with the star, legs astride, arms on his hips. It was a unselfconscious pose, a king of the hill, pleased with what he saw before and below him.
For the first time, Tony took in Steve's outfit. Per the terms of their agreement, Steve insisted on designing his uniform, or using the design from his other world. It was... different, the predominant blue of the original costume was there, albeit dulled. There was a star on each shoulder, a utility belt, a stripe of light grey along the sides, from armscye to waist. Even his boots seemed strange, although they were laced up army issue instead of the swash buckling boots that Steve had with his costume.
"New York," Steve gave Tony a grin. It was the first time that Steve had smiled since they knew each other, and there was a catch in Tony's throat at how achingly young Steve seemed. His eyes were the same blue as... it was painful to glance at him, as mad and blinding as staring at the sun overhead, but Tony couldn't look away. "It's just... God's city."
Steve's good mood was infectious, and for the first time since this whole endeavour started, Tony smiled. "I know people who might disagree with you about that."
Steve gave a good natured shrug. "Then they've never lived here. We're what? Ninety stories up? Yet you can still feel its buzz. The neighbourhoods, standing in the stream of a fire hydrant on a hot day. Even the modern New York where I'm- where - well, they have fantastic hot dogs. You bite into them and it's like..."
"A heart attack waiting to happen."
Steve rolled his shoulders, and Tony noted the lack of scale mail on his suit, it was just...sleek. If he touched it, his fingertips wouldn't snag on scale mail, they'd slide along the specially treated material, as smooth as the tight skin of a drum. The design for the uniform was polished, modern and designed to serve the following purposes: a military uniform, an armoured suit and the costume of a super soldier. There were seams and pockets, for practicality, and on many levels, Tony approved of the design. Here was a Steve for this time- with accompanying garb- and Tony only closed his eyes. It was ironic, for a man like himself who chased the future, and courted the bleeding edge with a fervour that the newly saved gave to their religion, how he missed the classic lines of Steve's suit. And those silly wings.
"You only live once, right?" After he said this phrase, the brilliance of Steve's smile dimmed a bit. "Jeez," he shook his head as if remembering a private joke. "It sounds like something Tony would say."
It was not the same.
Tony frowned. It was the first time in a long while that he had the chance to actually design tech, to look over various plans. It was evening, and he was at Stark Tower for the first time in what seemed to be eons. He paced in his living room, took in the maple coloured hardwood floors, the heavy roiling skies that pressed against the expanse of glass. Looked at the walls with the intricate brickwork. Instead of life sized pictures of the Avengers, Tony had replaced them with neutral shots of various bits of machinery magnified to the point of distraction. He walked through the rooms, sat on the sofa, placing his hands on his thighs, and just absorbed his surroundings. It was as if he had been on vacation, and now he was back home, downloading his life.
Aware that he was alone, Tony tapped into Extremis, leaned into the sofa, and opened himself to the scrolls of information.
Every time he did this, there was the hitch of breath, as he just opened his eyes. Felt himself lit up as if he were being booted. His consciousness not really his own - not any more- just a presence as he slipped into the protocols and algorithms that made up the data. There was a bare sort of beauty in this, where the mind went beyond the mutter of newsfeeds, the pixelated features of video, and the waves of audio. His mind flickering at each byte, each turn.
At this level, there was the bubble of information feeds, settling into a gentle hum as they reached out to each other. Tony thought that he might have known how Stephen Strange felt, as he soared along the digital plane, where his realm was just levels of data. They were just ghosts, escaped from their shells.
"SHRA bill has now become law. All superheroes caught on the wrong side of it will be persecuted to the fullest extent ..."
Dow Jones dropped forty points today... the President has assured-
Director Stark has done it, he's saved us all....
And the.... err.... ak...0010
Wait a minute, that wasn't there before, a spot on the information matrix, it was as if that spot was covered by a -
An absence, a void where there shouldn't be a void, as if information were being blocked.
No, this was irregular, and.. Tony focused, tried to scroll through, freeze, frame, hold. It was akin to trying to find a clear signal in a sea of white noise. Or using a compass in a highly magnetised area, where the needle spun with a crazed vigour.
There was pressure against his eyes, and although he was dimly aware of the leather against his back and thighs... Tony wasn't there. He was on the chase for bits of data, that seemingly danced ahead of him, before disappearing into the -
Sensation of warmth, broad palm flushed against his cheek, the croon of that almost oh so familiar voice in his ear.
"Tony, Tony. Are you okay? Snap out of it. Easy..."
It was easy, how the solid warmth of a hand anchored him to the present, and inch by inch, Tony let go, shutting down fields, and his eyes fluttered open, and there was Steve.
"Hold your head back, no let it stay there."
Tony moaned, and swallowed, if he didn't know better, he'd swear that he could taste blood and mucus at the back of his throat. With great care, he turned his head to Steve, his cheek resting on the back of the sofa, and he could feel Steve's breath as it ghosted across his face, felt the pads of his fingers along his cheekbones. Steve was close enough for Tony to get a whiff of leather, the oddly sweet tang of linseed, with the base notes of Irish Spring. Tony tried to close his eyes just to absorb the touches, if he just focused on his data feeds and modulated Steve's voice just a touch, he could - he might do- but Steve wasn't having it.
"Your pupils are dilated, it could be shock," he said, and Tony felt the slide of Steve's index and middle fingers along the sensitive skin of his neck, as they found his pulse. Tony could only swallow, because it felt good just being fussed over, by someone with no ulterior motives.
"Steve it's okay-"
"Shut up, Tony. Let me see."
Despite himself, Tony smiled. It might have almost been like old times. Steve was here, the bonds of friendship, and God, he had missed this. He raised a shaky hand and wrapped it around Steve's wrist. Steve still sat there, his face thrown into shadows by the setting sun outside the window. In this light, his lashes and hair were flaxen, and he didn't seem so young. His mouth was crooked in that half smile that Tony knew well, half concern, half censure. It was selfish and foolhardy, Tony knew as he closed the space between them, and pressed his lips against Steve's. Half hoping the seam of Steve's mouth might open and let him in and -felt the push of splayed fingers against his chest as a warning.
"Stark." Steve's voice had enough of reproach for Tony to realise what he had done and oh shi-
Tony leaned back, hands on his thighs, and closed his eyes. Stupid, stupid, stupid. But there were situations that you couldn't tapdance out of even if you tried, so Tony gritted his teeth, and took the hardest but fastest route. He felt Steve as he left his space on the sofa, heard his footfalls on the hardwood floor as he crossed to the edge of the room.
"I'm- sorry," he said. "I thought you were-"
"Someone else? Yeah, I get that." Steve replied. "I didn't realise you- I mean."
"It was him," Tony said, looking at Steve, leaning against the brick wall on the opposite side of the room, and Tony couldn't blame him for putting distance between them both. I am enough of a mess, Tony thought, I'd put distance away from me if I could. Sooner or later, he'd have to accept- "He was... it didn't matter because it was him."
"I assume... this person died?"
Tony could only nod. It was hard enough swallowing around the lump in his throat, but to speak too? The effort might have unmanned him, so a curt nod it was.
"Who was he?"
Tony still couldn't speak, as he called up the data fields, and flipped through images of Steve. The goofy grin when watching old black and white movies, the disagreements, but it didn't matter, because they always got over, or through it, always got back on mutual ground.... until now.
"He was... I can't say." Tony blinked his eyes against the prickle of tears, and willed them away, because indulging in grief wasn't worth risking the SHRA if Steve knew the entire story.
"I can understand that," Steve said, his voice clipped. "But I'm not him, and what you did back there wasn't fair to him... nor me. I've been used like that before, and I won't be again. Understood?"
Tony nodded, and yes, this Steve was different. Voice a little sharper, face a bit younger, had he been always this intense?
"I'm sorry, I lost it back there. It's been... difficult. When you fight wars you don't know how much you've lost, or what you can lose -"
"Until you do," Steve nodded. "I remember wanting to fight for my country so badly, I could taste it. War was burnt rubber and steel, because I worked in a factory with dames - women."
For a brief spell, they were comrades in arms, having a macabre sort of shop talk. A baring of the wounds so to speak, and sharing the stories about how they came to be. It was a good moment, and Tony sighed, drawing an odd strength from it. But, there was something he had to know.
"You don't draw?"
Tony's laughter was edged with tears as Steve shook his head. "No, I can barely draw a straight line."
Steve hitched his knapsack on his shoulder, his eyes scanning his surroundings. It was dusk, and the night was held at bay by the glow of street lights. There was nothing but Brownstones here, with curtains drawn against the night; the flickering of televisions through their semi transparent layers. There was the thump thump thump of music on the air, and whoops of laughter in the distance. Steve allowed himself a small smile, in that he recognised the neighbourhood. It might have been racially and ethnically diverse now, but there would always be boys running pell mell at this time of the evening, their mothers calling them inside for dinner. New York, Steve shook his head. He'd never live anywhere else.
Without breaking a step, he double timed it up the stairs, and knocked on the door the way he had been directed to, only to step back as Sam descended from the night sky and landed lightly in front of Steve.
"The note from your carrier pigeon made me interested."
"If Redwing is a pigeon, then you're carrying a mighty big dinner plate on your back."
Steve had to admire a man who could keep his sense of humour when there was a sense of ... something coming towards them. He didn't know what, but still, Steve appreciated it. "You're all right, Wilson."
"Right back at you Rogers, call me Sam."
Then because this moment couldn't get more surreal, they shook hands. It was thrilling, Steve thought, to get back to the ground again, so to speak. As much as Tony's mansion had its moments, it tended to be on this side of sterile.
"Well, come on in," Sam pushed open the door. It creaked, a far too loud cry in the late evening, but Steve followed suit anyway.
Once in, Steve dragged off his cap, and ran his hand through his hair, as he took in the room before him. It was dark, but Steve's vision was keen, and he could see a hulking figure in the corner, as well as two slighter, leaner figures. Instinctively, he shifted his weight to the balls of his feet, battle ready for whatever, before a wide beam of light cut through the dark like a blade. Around the table were two figures, one seemed to be ... Spiderman, if he remembered the costume from his time right, and the other figure was bigger, with arms the size of Christmas hams, his features unyielding as if he were carved from dark brown crystal. Ah, Cage, he recognised him from the fight with those robots the other day.
"Luke, Peter, it's fine. He came alone."
"How did you-?"
At this Sam smiled. "I have my ways. But you came alone, Steve. Thanks."
"Wow," Peter piped up. Steve heard the scrape of a chair against the board floor, and watched as Peter walked around him, felt him poking at his bicep with a finger. "It really looks like Cap."
"Hey." Steve said.
"Tony Stark got his own Stepford Ca-"
"Not now, Peter," Sam said. "There are more pressing things to discuss."
"The SHRA law, the one that you lent your name and face to." Peter's voice was cutting.
"It's for your own good," Steve said, immediately wishing that he hadn't said that, and pushed on. "There's nothing wrong with registration, of handing your identities to the government if you aren't doing anything wrong."
"Obviously, we're wasting our time here," Luke growled, as he folded his arms across his chest. He had not moved from his place at the table.
"Calm down, Luke," Sam said, and turned to Steve. "Listen, I know that you think you're doing the right thing, and Tony Stark can be a pretty convincing guy. But we can't sign on to the law, it's a matter of principle."
"Okay," Steve nodded, as he looked at Sam. Truth be told, he only came here tonight because this Sam reminded him of the Sam he knew back in his world. Pretty straight forward, no hidden agendas, and so far Steve's instincts hadn't led him wrong. "I'm listening."
"Well, this law... it requires us to register, and -"
"I can't walk it back, once it's a law-"
"We aren't asking you to walk it back, we're just asking you to use the visibility that you have to question the veracity of the law."
"Because," a voice came from the shadows, and it was gritted, as if the person had been carrying around a huge mad for sometime. Steve narrowed his eyes as the person stepped out of the gloom, clad in black, his features contorted in anger. "We have intelligence that leads us to believe that it isn't all that it's cracked up to be."
"Who are you?" Steve asked, taking in the man before him. He was dark haired, about five foot nine, solidly built. The dull sheen of metal between his glove and snug black sleeve snagged his eye. Sloppy, Steve thought.
"That's not important right now."
"Where I'm from, Mister, we have names. You know mine, so I'm at a disadvantage here. Give me something to work with."
The man's lips twitched, and the briefest moment, Steve thought he saw a glimmer of sadness in his eyes, before they became flat and hard once more. "Have it your way," he said. "Call me James."
"Hey, guys? Sorry to interrupt the meet 'n greet, but I feel the ol' Spidey sense tingling."
In a blink, the light was off, throwing the room into a cloak of darkness so deep, so all consuming, Steve felt his breath catch in his chest.
There was a time to speak, and this wasn't it, as Steve saw a beam of harsh light scything through the darkness of their surroundings. He could feel the displacement of the air above and around him, and saw a lumbering humanoid shadow the size of three football fields as it floated above the little shack. There was the whisper at the edge of the air, the pulse of light around him, the bottoming of his stomach as -
The row of Brownstones exploded, into an inferno of noise, light and heat, and Jimney Cricket, weren't they just there? How did they get here on the knoll of a hill and -
"Suspected hideout of Rogue Superheroes terminated. Scorched earth policy, three hundred meters."
Whispers in water, sensation of floating in open space, until suddenly, Steve tumbled out of the void, and found himself face down on the earth. Tasting the scorch of rubber, charred wood and iron. Jesus, it was as if -
"War," Sam's voice trembled. "They've declared war."
Steve could only look at the area below them. An instant ago, it was a neighbourhood, with shabby brownstones, the air alive with the barking of dogs, crying of children and the twang of music. Not this expanse of charred ground, and kindling. No hill, no trees no buildings.
Not now, as the terrible stillness of death and destruction rolled in, as sweeping and consuming as a tidal wave. Suddenly Steve was there, when he heard the squawk of the announcer over the radio, when it was announced that America had been drawn into the war. But it was on his turf, in his country. There had been people there, below him.
"Good work, Ty," he heard Luke murmur. "You really got us out of a tight squeeze. You too, Tandy."
"Oh God, what did we just see? What did they do?"
The soft, female voice shook Steve from his shock, and it was far more effective than a slap. Steve got to his feet, and came face to face with a teenage girl. Her hair silver in the dim light, her face pale with a white circle around her left eye. Tandy was about the height of a fairy, and as slender as a wish, clad in nothing but a white unitard. If if weren't for the fact that she seemed so horrified, Steve might have frowned on the suggestive cut of the suit across her breasts and down her stomach, past her navel.
"The SHRA in effect and its enforcers." Sam's voice was grim. "This supports the intelligence we've gotten, but -"
"Not here, not in front of him."
Steve turned around to the voice, and was surprised to find a face glowering from him in the folds of the cloak. There was the thrum of darkness around its power, and Steve began to feel ill, almost nauseous.
"Tyrone, no," Tandy murmured, as she brushed past Steve, lit daggers shot from her hands into the almost corporeal darkness of Tyrone's - it was Tyrone's- cloak. All at once, Steve felt much better, as if a pressure had been lifted from his head and shoulders. Tandy walked in, turned and stood there in the shadows, Tinker bell in a cave.
"We have to go," James' tone was clipped. "Time grows short. I'll find my own way." A flash of steel in the darkness, and then he was gone.
"Yeah," Sam nodded, his eyebrows beetled into a frown. "I'll find a way to contact you in the next twenty four hours, Steve."
"To find out what you can, and decide what you're going to do. This time, if you're going to fight, do it on the side of the angels. Do some research, then find us."
Sam, Luke and Peter stepped into the void that was Tyrone's cloak, its edges almost diaphanous layers as it fluttered on the air.
"I hear the library is a good place to start." Sam smiled.
"You need to take a look that cut on your arm," Tandy's eyes were kind, as she held up her hand, silver white with a bright nimbus of light. "Ty's cloak tends to stop a lot of things, but sometimes... projectiles get through the outer edges."
There was a tug and twist as the air warped around Steve, and suddenly, the pressure slackened, as if an elastic band had snapped. With a blink, the group was done, and Steve was left alone, on the knoll of the hill.
Something was wrong.
Tony wasn't one for 'hunches' nor was he superstitious, but when he saw Maria Hill leaning against his door as he landed on the deck of the SHIELD helicarrier the next morning, his hackles went up.
"Director Stark," she greeted. The pitch of her voice was even, almost as smooth as cream. "A word?"
"Ms Hill," Tony greeted. Hill might have been many things, but frivolous wasn't one of them, and he nodded, as he collected the stacks of paper from Amanda at her desk. Why the department still insist on paper memos was beyond him, but he collected them anyway.
As soon as the door closed behind them, Maria leaned her shoulders against it. For Maria Hill, this was as close to exhaustion as she got, so Tony only raised an eyebrow in question.
"Are we in a secure space?"
Tony opened Extremis, called up the scheme of his office, scanned and scanned again. He reached out, and was still astounded to discover that the void was still there, and it had expanded by a few millimetres.
Tony focused, or tried to, frame, freeze, hold, only for the bytes to dance on the edge of the void, and he heard that crackling noise again, the harsh, hollow static of something that might reminded him of the old dial up internet lines. Op... a.... l....
The speaker phone interrupted Maria, as Amanda's voice rang out in the room. "Director Stark," she said. "You've an appointment with the Secretary of Defence in an hour. Your transport is ready and waiting."
"I ... am not aware that I had an appointment with the Secretary of Defence?"
"It's urgent, I've been told. Your transport is ready to go, Director Stark."
"Okay," Tony said, looking at Maria, and she only shook her head.
"It's too late," she said.
Department of Defence : The Pentagon, outside Washington DC
As Tony made his way to meeting with Secretary Kooning, he found himself grabbing at bytes of newsfeeds with a frenzy. There was nothing there. Desperate, he reached out and scanned for police files, various lower levels of FBI and CIA signals. Nothing grabbed at him.
They were just outside Secretary Kooning's office. While he subjected himself to the customary security search, Tony pushed out the Extremis this time, trying to open himself to crunching as much data as he could, and felt his body strum with the streams of information downloaded, and felt the smudge of the void. It was still there, it had not grown, but it hadn't shrunk either. It was ominous.
"Tony," Secretary Kooning stepped from behind his desk, and met him halfway across the room. A firm handshake, a civil exchange. It was amazing what the SHRA law actually did, what with people on the Hill literally beaming from ear to ear. Politics made strange bedfellows, and the fact that he and Kooning were on side, made for the strangest bedfellows of them all .
"Secretary Kooning," Tony greeted. "I got your request."
"Sorry for getting you here on such short notice, Tony, but I thought you'd like to know - care for a drink?"
"No, no thank you."
"Please, have a seat. I'd ask about the wife and kids if you had any."
"Good one," Tony sat down in the armchair, wondering at the flash of alarm in Maria's eyes, and just the rushed meeting.
"Well, lets eighty six the pleasantries, shall we?"
"I'm surprised that you hadn't got word as yet, but I hear you've been in meetings."
"Brussels has expressed an interest in how we got the SHRA to be walked through. The Europeans mightn't accept it though."
"Yeah, Europe, they do things differently there."
"Tell me," Tony said, as he shifted at the edge of his seat.
"There was an incident at 03:30 this morning. The Sentinels destroyed a tenement in Bed-Stuy. You won't get that on the newsfeeds."
"Sentinels? Why are sentinels doing- " Tony stopped, and felt suddenly lightheaded and queasy. "The SHRA was passed so that there would be no Project Wideawake."
"They did that as a part of Operation Scorched Earth."
Something was not adding up, Tony thought, as he tried to track through the data. Quickly he scanned through the files, found nothing about this operation as he tried to stream as much information as he could. For the first time since this whole mess started, Tony felt a frisson of fear.
"That's only done if-" Tony steepled his fingers against his lower lip, deep in thought. There were reasons for this being done, and each reason was seven levels of scary.
"I got a document that came across my desk today, " Kooning's voice was matter of fact, as if he were telling a story over dinner. "It's a white paper, just all conjecture, mind. The SHRA will make conscription mandatory for Superheroes."
"No," Tony shook his head. "That wasn't the plan. It was supposed to be about accountability, not-"
"The thinking in the Pentagon is, it would be less casualties for soldiers, more success in military endeavours abroad. By signing on, they give their bodies over to experimentation to build a host of new next gens."
"Jesus," Tony breathed. "No."
It wasn't happening. It couldn't happen, because it would mean-
"Not like this," Tony's voice was barely a whisper, feeling almost light headed at the revelation. If he hadn't been sitting down, he might have been on his knees. On instinct, his mind called up Steve's face, the ruins of the mansion, the words exchanged. Steve standing, shield held across his chest as defence, his voice stern. The Registration Act takes away any freedom we have, any autonomy. You don't know who could get elected, how public sentiment might change. Tony remembered his exasperation towards Steve, the fact that he would not come on side. That's your problem, Steve. You're always looking at the past. I look at the future, it's what I do. And believe me when I tell you that your way is a lot more likely to get us put into camps than mine.
Tony blinked, and he was still here, it was still real. "I supported the SHRA," he was able to keep the anger from his voice. Just. "I put my face and name to the act, to make this not happen."
"We have to break eggs to make an omelette, as they say on the Hill." The rancour in Secretary Kooning's voice was palpable. "You've been SOD before, Stark, you know their thinking. They can own them, profit off them regarding licensing rights, make them some sort of indentured servants to the government. They can control the Capes' powers if and when they chose. Their own living weapons of mass destruction. Think of the billions saved in manpower-"
"But the Fifty State Initiative-"
"Don't you see the thinking Tony? Why have one if they can have both? Operation Wideawake will be on stream in due course. "
Tony landed on the roof, let himself in, his brain streaming data as fast as it could. Frantically trying to drag feeds that might have told him what was going on, hitting the fucking void. God, he told himself as the elevators opened, and he was in his suit and tie, his armour and underarmour tucked away due to Extremis, just - and suddenly, Tony was aware of running water.
Curious, he followed the nose to the guest bathroom on the split level floor, and knocked on the door.
"Come in," Steve called out, and Tony pushed the door, taking in the scene. Basic bathroom outlay, with wet shower, and a generous basin and counter, the smears of blood marring the sea of pale marble titles that made the floor. Steve was there, first aid kit open, and placing pressure on what seemed to be a wound on his arm.
Before Tony could step to him however, an assorted pile of magazines and books caught his eye. Life, Time, Reader's Digest... colour photographs of Steve, this timeline's Captain America.
"You were smart, I'll give you that," Steve said, his lips curled into a sneer of disgust. "You somehow managed to clear his name and involvement in the fight over SHRA on all electronic information. The internet, even online caches and memory banks. You redacted Steve Rogers."
"People forget their heroes quickly enough," Tony explained, wondering how all of a sudden, his words seemed hollow. "It seemed best, we couldn't mourn for too long, we had to heal. To start the process of reconstruction. That's why... we took down the statue." It cost him to keep his voice even, but he did so. "As long as we found a living Steve, it didn't- we had to rebuild."
"With malice towards none," Steve recited, and his voice gave the words the resonance they deserved. "With charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations. Jesus, Tony-" and the laugh was acerbic. "You are no Great Uniter."
"I know that," Tony said, as he crossed over to where Steve was, half leaning, half sitting on the counter. "Here, let help you."
"I don't need the help."
"Probably not," Tony opened the drawer, and took out something that looked like a sheet of grease paper, hygienically sealed like a band aid. "Instead of sutures, this actually helps your skin heal faster. It's something I whipped up." He said, smoothing it on Steve's arm.
"Tell me," Steve said.
"Tell you what? How the film utilises oxygen to help speed healing of the skin by delivering oxygen to the surface ski-?" Tony raised his gaze from his handiwork on Steve's arm, taking in its thickness; feeling the muscle under his fingers, only to look in Steve's eyes - and God - they were the same blue. But they were fierce in a way Steve's never were, and the odd, distinctive clipped tones of his voice came to the forefront now, as he demanded:
"Tell me everything."
When Steve charged Tony to tell him everything, he expected scrap books, old pictures, or some sort of memorabilia. Something like, Steve was here. This was Steve's old baseball.
Instead, he got Tony going into the living room, and because there was nothing else to do after cleaning up his mess and the first aid kit, Steve followed him. He didn't expect Tony to stand in the middle of the room, facing the ceiling to floor window, his arm out, the blue of his eyes a thin ring around dilated pupils. Steve suddenly realised, there were many things about this Tony he didn't know. But now wasn't the time, as the windows became opaque screens, the view of New York stepping back for this event, and somehow Tony was throwing images up from his... mind.
Steve stood in the middle of the room, watching two things at once: the memories of a friendship, and the life he could have had if he had been born in this branch of the multiverse.
There was Wasp (Jan? She looked different), Hank, Thor and a hulking grey iron suit, as they hovered over that Steve, unconscious, torn from his cybergenic freeze. Tony getting hints from Steve in terms of hand to hand combat, in his fancy suit. A disagreement over... armour? Were those... wings on that Captain America's suit? The tentative reaching out over a cliff, the sea in the background, a lovely day. This Steve drew, and the images flowed faster. The day the team broke up. Explosions on a raft, Steve's hand on Tony's shoulder as they looked at the smoking ruins in the distance.
A swoop as they saw the exaggerated spiky design of the Sentry's Watchtower from the quinjet, and Tony's smile at Steve, eyes soft, as he said, "You're right, it was fate that brought us together " and that Steve only nodded, and turned his attention to the scene before them. The moment was fleeting, but electric.
SHRA as Tony got slipped the information by Nick Fury (he was white?), the flashing lights announcing the bill in Times Square, in livid neon. The news of the act broadcast.
Sides taken, fights raged.
The last exchange of words both of them had, with Steve in a cell.
Tony's face reflected on his helmet, his features grim, his eyes stormy.
It wasn't worth it
It was more than images, Steve knew, as he stood there in the living room, still holding his arm. It was an homage, a strange sort of elegy. Soon, the colour movie stopped, the last frame being Steve's face. It must have been fresh from a mission, sometime ago, because he seemed younger. His eyes weren't so weary, as they were towards the end, his lips crooked into a faint smile. Steve's cowl was off his head, and he seemed tired, but happy.
Steve turned his head away, because there was something too intimate about that picture, and the utter longing in Tony's eyes made him uncomfortable, as if he shouldn't have been a party to something so secret.
Tony lowered his hand, and with a shudder, his eyes cleared. Steve looked this time to see that they were blue again, and grim.
"Steve was right," he said, tucking his hands into his pockets as the window cleared, and it was the view of New York, festooned in a grid of light and flashes of colour. "The SHRA is wrong, Steve."
"Yeah, I saw that with my own eyes last night. These big robots blasting this neighbourhood to hell." Steve clenched his free hand into a fist as he tried to will the rage away. "I just- I just can't stand by the act any more. Not if the government is going to do -that to its people."
"You saw the sentinels?" the alarm in Tony's voice was enough to make Steve pause. "I've been trying to get information and -"
"When your eyes went blind that time, and your nose started to bleed? That's what you were doing?"
"It's Extremis," Tony explained, in those sharp, short impatient tones that Steve knew well. "It just feeds me the information through my nervous system, it's like...""
"Being plugged into a machine."
"Yeah," Tony said, "I've been trying to get data, but I just keep getting blocked, probably if I pushed, like a sort of augmentation, like... a voice through a bullhorn, I could-"
"This might be the only way of getting plans, systems, outlays..."
Steve frowned. On one hand Tony was right, on the other... "We're doing this safely, or not at all. I have no time for martyrdom in the field, Stark."
Tony's eyes and mouth hardened, and Steve was glad for it. Wounded hearts he couldn't deal with, but hurt pride? He was on a surer footing. "Is there anyone you can have as a safety, so if your brain threatens to go to soup, that someone can make that not happen?"
"Reed Richards, he's only ten blocks away."
The SHRA bill is now law. The government has generously offered a grace period of thirty days for all superheroes to come clean.
"Come on now, Bill, how is this no better than the Jews registering and wearing identification? I hate the ramifications of this law. Is this what America is becoming? When will it be our Kristallnacht?
If you do no wrong, I can't see why you'd go against this law. If you go against the SHRA you go against Americ-
"Jeez," Peter shuddered as he clicked off the remote. "It's not even like six degrees to Godwin. It's just straight... Godwin." He shivered.
"It's bad," Luke agreed.
They were in another one of their hideouts, an abandoned Starbucks this time, after the attack a week before, they had to be even more careful. Peter scratched his chin, and sighed. This SHRA was a load of... he thought, as he looked at the rest of his team-mates. Daredevil and Maya were well... talking to each other by an abandoned counter. The Falcon and Winter soldier stood to one side in the far corner, their voices low and urgent. There were other pockets of superheroes fighting the SHRA, but for security reasons, all of them couldn't be under one roof.
There was a tap on the door, and everyone now knew the drill. Fade into shadows, while Peter scudded across the ceiling and went to peek through the slats above the door before opening it.
"Hey, it's ..." he paused. It didn't seem right to call this Steve cap. The Cap he had known had the air of an older, kinder uncle, whereas this Steve was all of the intensity with none of the easy nature, so not an elder statesman of the rest of the Superheroes. Peter cleared his throat, and said, "It's Steve, and he has company."
"Do you think he turned?"
"No, I don't think so," Sam said, "but the rest of you stand by Cloak, are we clear?"
Peter aimed his webbing at the far right corner of the door, pulled it just a fraction, and it was Steve, his arm around the waist of another man, as if... supporting him, the front of the other person's shirt spotted with blood.
"Steve, come on in," Peter greeted from his position on the ceiling. He knew that guy, from his dark hair to his-
"Is that Tony Stark?" he said, horrified, and Tony raised his head, only for Peter to realise that he was bleeding from his ears and nose.
Steve didn't answer, and only stopped as he found himself at the business end of what Peter recognised as a Beretta. "Not one step further."
"James," Steve said, and Peter could only admire the calm in Steve's voice. He had his hands full with Tony, and looked at Winter Solider, his gaze unflinching. "You might want to put that down, son. Or else someone will get hurt."
"Do you know," James said on a hitch of breath. "Do you know what he did? What an abomination you are?"
"Guys, now is so not the time to be doing this-"
"I know," Steve said. "I know, he showed me. I'm sorry, but now isn't the time for it..." and Peter heard the audible lump in his throat as Steve swallowed, " Bucky. We have a situation here. We need to hit the mainframe of where the Sentinels are located and dismantle the system. There isn't any time to lose."
"We have what, two weeks to turn ourselves in for this SHRA nonsense?" Luke snorted. "Yeah, we know."
"No, not two weeks. That's just a ruse," Steve's voice was brittle as glass. "We have forty eight hours to shut it down. To hit four states all at once."
"What?" Sam pushed forward, past Luke and James, to stop in front of Steve, and James put away his gun. "How do you know?"
Steve only angled his head towards Tony. "I don't know the technical details, but he hacked into a... something. Started to go into great distress, but before he went under, he deleted the lists and identities of the superheroes that got listed, and wiped out everything else."
"So you're saying -?"
"Tony Stark was the former Director of Shield. As of now, he's a wanted man."
"So he's now on our side?" Sam's voice was acidic. "And you believe him ? Is Tony Stark Steve Rogers' blind spot, whatever the universe?"
Peter saw the tension in Steve's shoulders, his jaw clenched as he ground out, "I only know my universe, and no, we're not like that. And yes, I believe him. We have thirty six hours to plan and execute. Or are we going to stand here jabbering like church ladies at a shotgun wedding?"
"So," Steve said, as Tony found himself seated on a stool in Reed's office, as Reed stuck electrodes to Tony's temples and spine. They were at the Baxter building and Reed only half muttered calculations to himself. Tony's shirt was shucked to one side, and his skin was goose bumped from the chill in the air as he lay face down on the bed that Reed provided. "You say that you can just... download information to your nervous system and it's just there, for the taking?"
"Why did you do it?"
"What do you mean?"
"I get the fact that you were dying, but why Extremis?"
"Why not?" Reed interjected, "it made Tony better, possibly even post-human. It's a more efficient way of living. Of breathing, the possibilities are -"
"Frightening," Steve said. His face was free from the cowl, his hair furrowed with lines as he'd tried to finger comb it, but to no avail. Tony saw the censure in Steve's eyes. Huh, well at least both Steves were alike in that aspect.
"For a guy who submitted himself to the super soldier serum, you shouldn't talk," Tony snapped, and he belatedly realised that that was still a sore spot.
"I did it for country, for- well, something bigger than me. At times- " Steve dropped his eyes, and Tony watched as Steve closed his gloved hand into a fist. "I think the choice was bigger than me, and I might never understand the ramifications. You, on the other hand -" he raised his gaze to Tony. "You are some futurist -"
"And the future lies in post-human existence, Steve. The human body as it is is an inefficient machine, Extremis - "
"Is now online," Reed interjected, as he stretched his arms to flick on the monitor, a hulking monster of a big screen. It might have been the size of a cinema projector. Steve hitched his shield on his back, folded his arms, and scowled at the screen.
"What are we looking at here, Stark?"
Ah, they were back to business now, and Tony cleared his throat, as they saw the 1s and 0s scrolling across the screen. "All this," Tony explained to Steve, "is just... purely data level. All the internet and user interface is just... to make us feel less lost amongst the data. The web pages we see give us something to relate to, just words and images laid out in easy to understand pictures. But all computers just work on data, once you know the language, you can travel anywhere."
"For the past few months, I've been trying to riffle through files on just ... anything. As Director of SHIELD it's imperative that I know everything -"
"No man can do that, Tony."
Tony only smiled. "No, you're right. But Extremis is a step up from doing so. But yeah, for the past few months I've been streaming files, but keep stumbling on something like... a smudge, a void. It's as if something doesn't want me to get in. Like..."
"Blocking your signal, retarding your ability to communicate, making you deaf and dumb, so to speak?"
"Yes," Tony said.
"So you and Richards -"
"We'll be connecting Tony to the Electroencephalographic Resonance Modulation and Amplification System.... or ERMA for short." Reed gestured to a sleek black box, no bigger than a standard radio. "It operates along the same principles of Professor X's Cerebro," Reed said over the skitter of fingers on the keyboard. "It will do what Tony needs to do, he can observe the exchange of protocols at varying levels without interfering or damaging the relationship of tasks at another level. Theoretically, Tony should be able to tweak the data streams, and grab at information without being flagged. The only drawback is, with the amount of information being thrown at Tony... at this level it's comparable to drinking water from a fire hydrant. The only thing to be concerned about is the feedback."
"Yes, but we can handle it," Reed waved Steve's question away, and Tony found himself biting his tongue to prevent himself from grinning at Steve's scowl. "Tony," Reed said, as he pressed the combination of keys that triggered the command to begin. "It's time."
It never changed, it was as if he walked to the edge of the earth, took that last step and tumbled from consciousness into the beyond. Only with Reed's contraption, the feelings were more immediate, his senses hyper alert, his brain expanded beyond. Data streams washed through him like waves, and he felt the thrum of information chattering to him. The edge of the void was still there, bits of bytes scattered, broken, but at this level Tony could scry pieces of information. Hear the ghosts of what it was trying to tell him, to piece together, to build -01000110 01110010 01101111 01101101 00100000 01110100 01101000 01100101 00100000 01101000 01101111 01101100 01111001 00100000-
Lo, see the planet of blue, third from the yellow sun. Bask in sll its offerings. It lays before us, the last refuge in -
Project Wideawake, the government has done it for -
California, New York, Nevada, Texas. Co ordinates are as follows-
Personnel as ..no, intruder alert. Scan, refine search -
"Turn it off, Reed, turn it off now."
No, Tony wanted to say, no. Steve just... wait. Just one more task. Backing out, dragging down files for Superheroes and their secret identies, delete. Undo -
"I'll hold him, you just rip those things off! Now!"
With a shuddering breath, Tony's eyes flew open, his body arching off the bed and -
"Easy, there soldier," and Tony gasped as he regained consciousness, his hand wrapping around the wrist that held him fast. "Just, move slow, easy. You dozed off."
It was Steve, and despite the brusqueness of his tone, Tony was aware of Steve's solid bulk, and for a minute, he leaned against Steve's shoulder, just trying to absorb... everything.
Slowly, Tony came back to himself, they were in one of his warehouses on the far side of New York, the air heavy with the smell of newly pressed paper, the concrete floor cold and hard under his seat and thighs.
"God," he said, as he tried to to clamp down the tremor in his voice. "I had the strangest dream, as if ... I became a fugitive."
He was rewarded by Steve's laugh, and as soon as he was able to sit up on his own, elbows resting on his knees, Steve moved away, towards a carpet of what seemed to be... maps.
"So, what's he like?"
"Who?" Steve said, as he pored over the various maps set out before him, and there were the pieces of a geometry set scattered on the maps. Was that a... divider and a slide rule?
"Your Tony Stark," Tony shrugged. "It just occurred to me that despite everything, us actually fighting side by side and - I don't know much about your verse, and the characters there."
"Tony is-" at this Steve shrugged, his face gave nothing away. "Tony."
"But is he - I mean. Is he ..." and God, this question sounded pathetic. "Is he happy?"
Steve looked up from his maps, he sat back on his haunches, and placed his hands on his knees.
"If he isn't happy, he's having a good time being sad," Steve said. "The thing is, Tony is... well. Tony. He's a man of extremes. He thinks too much, despite wanting the world to believe otherwise, drinks too much, and probably feels too much. He thinks that by playing Superhero he can become virtuous."
"How shades of Aristotle."
"What do you mean?"
Tony shrugged his shoulders, lost in thought. "Aristotle thought that if a man played at being good long enough, he could be a hero."
"Is that why you put on the suit and play at being a hero? You think that if you practise long enough, you might be one too?"
Steve could barely stand up, his uniform in tatters. His body was scored by cuts, his features were twisted with anger. "You really think I'm going down---" his breath hitched "-- to some pampered punk like you?".
It was another source of amazement how the wound still throbbed after all this time. The question didn't deserve an answer, but Tony gave it anyway.
"Probably," he said.
minus 2 hours, 30 minutes to strike
Have you seen this man? Anthony Edward Stark. Height, 6'1, hair black, eyes blue...
"Right, Tony, have you worked out the variables? We're going to be broadcasting soon."
"I can't believe we're doing this via psi links." Tony shook his head as his hands skimmed over the computer keys. Jesus, Steve had him typing code by hand. He hadn't done this since grade school.
"You can't go online Tony, because you're all The Fugitive remember? Jeez, you're like, wanted off line and online? I don't know if I should admire or laugh at the fact that you're such a d-"
"Stand down, you two." Steve interrupted them both. They were in another hideout, it was in a house this time, somewhere in Queens. They were in the kitchen, the curtains drawn against the night. Peter, and Tony were seated around the dinner table, while Steve stood by the fridge. Instead of the table being spread with the remains of a meal, it was covered with maps, two i-books and various paraphernalia that belonged to Tony, an incongruous offering on the cheery bright red gingham table cloth.
"Now is not the time, son." Steve shook his head, and Peter was silent.
"Professor X," Steve said, his arms tucked into the pockets of his combats. "Are you there?"
No need to shout, Steven. We're here.
I'm here, at your beck and call, Captain.
"Thank you, ma'am." Steve said, ever so politely. As much as this situation seemed suicidal, and although Tony had a one way ticket to number 42 at the end of this little adventure, it might have been worth it just to feel Emma's dismay at Steve's dismissal of her throaty purr.
"Team Alpha, are we up?"
"Here, hey, what's this anyway?"
"Team Alpha?" Steve repeated, sounding more like a teacher maintaining discipline in the classroom instead of a team leader commanding the troops.
"Here." The voices were a chorus in their heads.
Tony's hands stilled on the keys of his PC, as he watched Steve work, arms folded across his chest, his eyes steeled with resolve. If he squinted hard enough, and long enough, it might have been the Avengers again. Almost. For the next few minutes, Steve stood there, not moving, as he made sure that the six teams were online, by way of the psi link that Charles and Emma were maintaining. His orders were clear, concise. The Professor threw up the maps in everyone's minds as seen through Steve's eyes as he went through the plans.
"We have a window of thirty minutes to strike. According to the intel, these are where the Sentinels are. James' information confirms the important networks as New York, Texas , Nevada and California at least. We have the heavy hitters for those. As soon as you decimate those, we go on the offence. Tony and Reed have a ten minute window to destroy these things with the viruses they've ... built, is it?" Steve asked, looking at Tony.
"It doesn't matter," Tony said, because really? Now wasn't the time to be arguing over semantics.
"That covers it then" Steve finished, "except for one thing."
The air hummed in silent question.
Tony shifted in his seat, himself too wondering at that one thing.
"When I signed up for Operation Rebirth all those years ago, it was... different." Steve began, as he moved away from the table, stood in front of the fridge. "You believed in government, that it wouldn't ask any more from you than you were willing to give."
"Hey," Peter whispered to no one in particular. "He's giving his St Crispin speech. I didn't think that this guy would have it in him."
"No," Tony murmured. "He isn't giving a speech."
"The government was supposed to protect you. Us. Men in power were supposed to think, to make plans to avoid war from happening, and if it happened, you fought, not because you wanted to, but because you had to. I don't know what happened," Steve murmured. "I just know that -" the air was charged, as if the world might have been waiting for this moment, to sear it into the senses with ozone and lightning.
"The SHRA - as it is now, it's wrong. I do still believe in the coda of against all enemies, domestic and foreign, but the SHRA isn't right. I know that the next war will be genetic." Steve unfolded his arms, held out his arms before him. Splayed his fingers, a strange sort of supplicant clad in battle armour and cowl, with a shield on his back. "I am -" at this he gave a hollow, bitter laugh, "its symbol. I-"
Steve took a breath, and Tony knew that Steve wasn't here. Probably, Tony thought as he continued to compose his code on the keyboard, probably - "I still believe in government, and being accountable to it, but it's another thing to allow our government to atrophy our collective conscience. Back in '44, our enemies were a bit clearer then." Steve swallowed. "You'd hit where needed, brought justice, kept the peace - but it's not so straightforward now. We fight the SHRA not because we want to, because because we have to."
Tony saw Steve blink, and shook his head. "Professor, Miss Frost," he said. "You can sign off now, give me a minute."
There was the murmur, the disconnect as both telepaths left their minds. A tiny 'click' as if they'd closed a door. Peter stood up, and started to drift towards the kitchen exit.
"I have to see MJ," he said, his eyes luminous in the half light. "If anything happens, I just want her to -
Steve gave Peter a sad half smile,and Tony wondered what that was about. "Go," he said. "Just don't get caught. "
Peter nodded, and soon he was off in the inky night, leaving the two men alone in the kitchen.
Silence was, Tony thought, the muted ticking of a kitchen clock, the dead air of a house down for the night. He might have even heard the creak of the boards as they contracted from the chill of nightfall.
"Why didn't you do away with the books from the libraries?"
Tony raised his head at the question, and stopped tapping at the keys. "What do you mean?"
"You know what I mean, Tony," Steve said, as he placed his hands on the surface of the desk, the table cloth rumpled under his gloves. "Everyone - Jarvis, Sam - they told me to go to the library. You left the books there, the magazines... as if you wanted to get caught."
"No," Tony leaned back in his chair. "That wasn't the reason. Have you ever heard of participatory panopticon, Steve?" Steve only shook his head. Tony linked his hands in his lap. "It's a term coined by a futurist called Cascio. Its the proliferation of photographic and video content accessible through the world wide web and other internet sources. It's... " Tony paused. "It's human activity all over the world, coming together to form a sort of spiritus mundi,people creating and feeding on each others' memories. Thoughts. When Captain America- when Steve died, the world went mad. There were people mourning in the streets, online. The audio feels, the newsfeeds, it was... pornographic. People lamented, then posted and created communities, got sad again. Captain America was gone." Tony dropped his gaze to his hands, then raised his eyes to Steve's.
"They showed him getting shot, going down. Just as you thought hearts started to heal, the stitches would be ripped open again. Tears were dried, only for them to start again. It was the personal data of multiple individuals synthesizing as a collective whole. The world," Tony laughed, and there was no humour in it. "Had gone mad. In order for us to move on, we couldn't torture ourselves with audio or video feeds, or people having sightings of Cap and --- to remember would just allow the hurt to fester, the wound to remain unhealed. If I could have done it, I'd have ripped my own data feeds, and not think. Every thought, a memory. Every memory an image. It would have driven a self flagellate to... I... pulled the plug."
"So the books, they were-"
"I couldn't prevent people from remembering Steve, for what he stood for, but I could make it that harder for them to find, to ferret. But if they wanted to, the tools were there. Despite what Sam and co think, I'm not a fascist."
"No." Steve said carefully. "You're not. There's a moral dubiousness to your actions, but you're not a fascist."
"Thanks, I think." Tony laughed. Steve did not.
"The SHRA. Did you know, Tony, did you even have an inkling?"
"No," Tony whispered. "I knew about Operation Wide Awake as something that would have happened if there had been resistance. I thought if I ran with it, if I treated the powers that be in good faith-" he stopped. "It almost drove me to drink, the entire thing."
"How long have you been sober?"
For the first time that night, Steve smiled, and there was genuine amusement behind it. "A sober Tony Stark. How you like them apples?" Then the brief flame of amusement was gone, and the mood grew sombre. "War is loss, Tony. I know what you mean by assuming the powers that be would act in good faith."
He took a step back from the table, and tugged at his gloves, his features remote.
"Steve," Tony raised his hand, wanting to say something, to -
Gentlemen, are we ready?
And the moment was gone.
The earth roiled and shook, almost causing Steve to lose his footing; only for the ground to fall away from him, his shoulders braced by strong arms, and he felt a tendril of hair across his face. Smelt the whiff of plastic from the beam of a sentinel just singing his boot.
"Need a hand, Steve?"
"Carol, thanks." Steve shouted over the din. "Have you gotten any confirmation re: Nevada?"
Nevada neutralised, darling
"Ah, thank you, Emma," Steve shook his head, although the psi-links were important, he preferred the mini communicators in his ear any day. Although he was aware of the psi ops in his world, this was a bit too woo woo for him. But a good general worked with the tools that he had.
"You need to get me to the Baxter building," Steve shouted. "Tony said that he'd meet me there."
"In the middle of a fight?" Carol's voice bubbled with her laughter. "Just when this was going so well, too."
"Tony needs to uplink his virus and Reed's machine is nearest and has the most range. I need to cover him. So you're in command now, can you handle it, ma'am?"
"Oh Steve," Carol laughed as she veered a sharp left, towards the Baxter building. "You sure know how to show a girl a good time."
"I try," Steve said.
Tony hurried through the door of the first floor of the Baxter building. Reed made the building recognise his fingerprints and retina scans. Good man. As it was, he couldn't use the new suit powered by Extremis, because Peter was right, both online and in the real world, he was a wanted man, and had a room suited and booted at 42.
He checked the time, as he punched the codes, keenly aware of the clock. Steve should be here; since this Steve like the other Steve prided himself on time management. Tony hurried into Reed's office, and he was the sort of man to still have his computers on, since he devised a way to run his computers on 'cold energy' a source he was still tweaking.
Reed Richards was a scarily smart man, Tony mused as he hacked into the computer, bypassing the passwords, opened the files for - ah, yes.
"Tony, what are you doing here?"
"Hank?" Tony saw his reflection in the computer monitor. "Aren't you supposed to be with Jan, in Engl- Hank?"
Tony found himself at the business end of what seemed to be a cross between a gun and plant life. The munitions vendor in him had to admire the gun's sleek barrel, but he had to snort at the fussy filigree decoration along its grip. It was smiliar to the decorative handle on a foil.
"You know who I am, who we are. We sensed your trace when you were trying to skirt information. Stand up, and step away from the computer, Tony. Turn now, facing me. You know how I would hate to destroy data."
"You're not - you're a -" at this Tony swallowed, and did as he was bid . "A...Skrull?"
"You sound surprised. As someone who's given your body over to something post-human, can't you appreciate that we are the next stage of evolution?"
"Ha-, if you're a Skrull, where's Hank?"
"That's none of your concern, Tony."
Tony shook his head, no, that couldn't be... "Who else is a Skrull... Reed?"
"No," the not-Hank smirked. "That would be telling."
Tony raised his fists to shoulder height, his breath hitching through his teeth. "How... Were you behind the passing of the SHRA? Why?"
"To turn hero against hero, brother against brother. When the earth was weakened, to attack. We're the next stage of evolution. The next revelation. You can't stop us you- ARRGHHH!"
The Skrull screamed as Tony opened his fists, fingers splayed wide as the repulsor beams from his armour pummelled the being in its stomach. The force and pressure of the beams pushed him up and back, through the reinforced glass and about forty two floors below. Shit, he had used Extremis, and his presence on grid was lit up like the disco ball in Times Square on New Year's Eve. There was nothing for it, as Steve needed to be here in five minutes or -
A figure somersaulted through the shards of glass, shield up as defence and offence, a thump as Steve stuck the landing before scrambling to his feet. "What was that? What happened here? Where's Reed?"
"Nothing, and Reed is on his way," Tony replied, his hands flying across the keyboards, his mind quickly sliding into data and code as if he hadn't been interrupted. "Over here, Steve."
Steve came loping over, and inadvertently stood on the disc shaped area that Tony needed him to do.
"Just one more minute," Tony said as he uploaded the code. "I'm just launching two programmes. It's not a virus per se as much as it's a code for the Sentinels to seek and destroy each other."
"And the other?"
"It's a programme that runs on the principles of wave packets. It's a short burst of waves that travels as a unit.. it's a long story." Tony looked up from the monitor, and gave Steve a watery smile. "I'm sending you home."
"But," Steve made to move, found that he couldn't. "I promised that I'd fight, I've never turned away from a fight, and I'm not starting now."
"I know," Tony tried to speak around the lump in his throat. "I know, but I lost one Steve because of the decisions I made, and I'll be damned if I lose two. Because I thought I was right, when I was wrong. And this -" Tony shook his head. " What Reed and I did... taking you from your time... and that speech you gave. You had a ready excuse to blame me, but you didn't."
"No, listen. You have your Tony, and who knows, you two might become friends. You might probably get to- oh, I don't know, share a beer or-." and Tony knew that he was rambling, because it took five minutes for the signal to lock on Steve's particles, to oscillate them and transport him to his time.
"Or see him get sober," Steve said, as he held the shield away from his body, dropped it to the floor where it landed with a clang. "I guess I won't be needing this any more. Give it to James."
"He doesn't want it," Tony shook his head.
"No, but he'd rather be carrying the burden than seeing the uniform and the shield on anyone else. That's just his way." Steve's voice grew fainter, his corporeal body dissipating, becoming more transparent.
"I'm sorry," Tony said again. "I should have talked, I should have spoken earlier about the SHRA. We should have done it together, if I'd been more open, if I had just been honest. If I had, you'd have still been ali-" his voice broke as he realised -he was speaking to the wrong Steve.
Steve gave a short, sharp salute, as the particles in the air sped up and around him. Then suddenly, he was gone.
Tony stepped away from the keyboard, his eyes taking in the discarded shield.
He felt the rush of the golden underarmour on his skin, the cool sleek metal encasing his body, the helmet slotting over his face. Tony looked outside, wincing as the structure of Baxter building shook at the BOOM of the sentinels as they turned on each other.
Picking up the shield, Tony kick started his jet boots, hovered over the floor in the lab, listened the rustle of machines in the lab as they told their secrets to each other and him. There wasn't enough time to mourn, not now. He had a fight to get to.
A lingering glance at the spot where Steve had stood, and Tony shot off into the night.
Steve found himself convalescing in the garden at the Ultimates mansion, per doctor's orders. It was spring, the sun pleasant, and the breezes blew gentle kisses on his exposed skin. There was enough shade by the trees to make it cool, bright enough to read his papers, yet not too bright to be a glare. The area was primped for him for rest; a raised patio, with comfortable chairs and the table spread with newspapers, fruit, a pitcher of lemonade with accompanying glass.
"So, Skrulls, eh?" Sam raised an eyebrow as he stared at him from the opposite side of the table. "Heavy."
"They are similar to the Chitauri in that they adapt, but they don't eat people," Steve said. "I didn't get the rest of it, because I was in the trenches, so to speak."
"Steve Rogers' excellent adventure," Sam laughed, pushing his chair away from the table. "Sorry I can't stay to hear more. I have to catch a flight to Australia in two hours, and-"
Steve gathered his papers together. "Thanks for stopping by, Sam."
"Have you seen Nick?"
"First one to stop by, debriefed me personally, seemed sad about the lack of next gens in that world."
"Ah, Nick. That's like... his... thing isn't it? I'll send you a postcard."
A short sharp salute, and Sam tripped down the steps, neatly side stepping an already tipsy Tony Stark.
"Steady, there, Sam." Tony held an arm out, as if trying to regain his balance. "I didn't realise you now came in a matched set?"
"It just means that you've had a tad too much to drink, Tony. Again. "
"Tch, one can never have too much to drink. You really should come and work for me, old boy. You're smart, good looking, and it would get on Fury's tits. If he had tits, that is."
Sam only shook his head. "Hah. With an offer like that, how can I refuse? But I'm afraid the answer is still no, Tony. See you around, Steve."
Sighing, Steve shuffled his papers together as Tony ambled up the platform's raised steps. He was still Tony, Steve thought, with a highball glass in hand, and wearing his suit as if it were an old sweat shirt and jeans.
"Steve, I brought you a gift." Tony thrust the glass towards Steve, and puzzled by his mood, Steve took the glass, felt the chill of the drink against his fingers. Heard the clink of the ice against the walls of the glass.
"That's...you didn't have to, Tony."
"Milk of human kindness, that's me."
"Ah, ah, ah. Be nice. Gift." Tony said, as he slumped in the chair that Sam deserted, stretching his legs in front of him, crossing them at the ankles.
Steve placed the highball glass on the table between them, shuffled and folded his papers, and started to read the sports section.
"So," Tony said after a while.
"What was I like? Was I dashing and debonair, or -"
"You were sober."
"On purpose?" Tony visibly blanched. "Bad form, old boy, bad form."
"But there's something else," Tony said, and Steve lowered his paper. "Oh?"
"You were very careful during debriefing. Nick is charging at windmills for the next gens, Reed and Sam just wanted to know about science and sentinels and societies -"
"And you wanted to know if your multi universe self was dashing and debonair."
"I'm sober," Tony sighed, and he sounded like a man in mourning over a lost love. But quick as a stitch, he threw off his mood, and reached for the glass on the table in between them. "Do you mind?"
"It was a gift."
"You said I didn't have to."
Steve gave a slow, solemn nod. "So I did."
Tony took a sip from his glass. Steve appreciated the fact that Tony was comfortable with allowing the silence to spin out, because -
"We tried to see if we could pin point where you were, but there was the slight problem; a motion in one universe makes a star go nova in another."
"What are you trying to say?"
"It's all quantum physics," Tony raised his glass in a mock toast. "A beastly science. Nature as she is -absurd. The upshot is this: your Tony Stark sent you home by way of a wave packet, and something else probably went wrong somewhere. It's all cosmic balance and scales. Richards is the best one for telling it, since he got tapped for identifying the N zone when he was sixteen, but I digress. We couldn't find you, and Reed didn't want to risk damaging other timelines. We had to sit it out until you came home. Terribly frustrating business, that."
Steve tried to wrap his mind around what Tony was trying to tell him, and no, it still didn't make sense.
"Tony might have destroyed a planet... just so I could get back here?"
"I know," Tony shook his head in wonder. "There's just no way for me to compete, is there? If he weren't me, I'd be most put out."
Steve could only blink.
"Come on, Cap," Tony gestured wildly, the liquid sloshing against the edges of the glass. "Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world."
"We're not talking about Santa Claus, Tony."
"I died," Steve whispered, looking at the papers before him, seeing only a blur where the print was. "In my alternative time he- me, I died."
"That's a hell of a non sequitor."
"Just listen. In this universe I went to-" and Steve's laugh was shaky, because Tony might not believe him, but - "I died. This Steve, fought with this Tony and- he died. Fighting against the government and for what he believed in. And Tony won but he didn't. We were gearing for this fight and he sent me back-"
At this Steve stopped, lifted his eyes to Tony's. "He sent me back."
"I read this story once," Tony began, dropping his gaze from Steve's own, frowning at the contents of his glass. "There was an undertaker, called - well it doesn't matter does it? -who had a family in the basement, and he'd visit after work. It was a good life, he'd come home, help the children with their homework, then make love to his wife. A good life." Tony's voice slurred at the edges of his words. Steve wanted to nudge Tony along, but on the other hand -
"Until one day," Tony continued, "someone peeked through the window, and found that his wife and children belonged to other people. You see, they'd handed these bodies over to the undertaker for burial, but Sir Creepo was playing 'happy families' with them instead. He was rumbled, and because he couldn't not see himself living without his family, he flooded the house with gas and struck a match. BOOM." Tony made a motion with his hands, waggling his fingers with his free hand as he breathed the last word.
Steve folded his arms across his chest, wondering what the moral of this story was.
"Your Tony," Tony explained. "Unlike that creepy undertaker chap, didn't keep you in the basement, nor did he wait to get rumbled. To make this long, long story short Tony saved himself. Good show."
"By destroying another planet."
"Theoretically. But it was cancelled by you coming here, so cosmic justice wins again."
Steve ran his finger along a folded section of his papers. The wind was picking up, and their pages started to flutter.
"There's something else, isn't there?"
Steve raised his eyes from the paper and looked at Tony. "I don't know if I want to hear another one of your stories."
"I was saving up that one," Tony admitted with a grin. Steve wished he could return the smile, share the moment, but...
"I've never really thought about it," he admitted. "When I signed up for Operation Rebirth, to die for my country was a given. But to go against my government, to - Steve's death. It might have made me a - "
"Heretic?" Tony supplied the word, and Steve could only nod with mute gratitude.
"Steve," Tony sighed.
"I can't say it, I still can't. But if I can't believe in the government or the flag or the principles, what can I believe in?" Restless now, Steve pushed himself from his chair, and walked toward the edge of the patio. He leaned on his elbows, looked out and saw nothing.
"I believe in the gospel of wine, women and song myself." Steve heard the scrape of chair against the wooden floor, and turned around, resting his elbows on the railing of the patio. Tony was on his feet, and ambled towards Steve, each step exaggerated as if he were afraid of topping over.
Steve did not move from his spot. Tony stopped in front of him, and gave him a long, hard look. "Your problem is," he started, wagging his finger, "you're wrestling with angels, and you might lose. The next war for Fury and SHIELD is genetic, it's always been. The next war for you...is allegiance. Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, Cap." Tony smiled, his eyes a tad too sharp for him to be completely blotto. "You're finding out that probably... you don't fit that label just yet."
There was nothing to say to that. So Steve said the only thing he could, scrubbing his face with his hands. "God."
"I'm not that drunk to say, 'Yesh', I mean yes. You seem a bit under the weather, Captain." Tony held out his glass. "Drink?"
"No," Steve waved Tony's offer away. "I just need a minute."
"Take your time. I must dash," Tony drained the rest of his drink, turned on his heel as he moved towards the table, leaving his glass there. "I have things to see and ladies to do. You know what that's like."
Steve watched Tony as he walked towards the edge of the patio, and stopped. He was getting ready to descend the steps, his arms outstretched as if he were going to do tightrope walking for the benefit of an audience. Only for Tony to do a half turn and raised his eyebrows as he asked, "Not unless you needed to argue the merits re: patriotism some more?"
"No," Steve shook his head, humbled at Tony's offer. "Not today."
Tony gave a jaunty salute as he manoeuvred his way down the steps, and started to make his way along the gravel path. For a minute, Steve stood there, watching as Tony took his phone from his pocket, ready to call anyone. Steve pushed himself from the railing, took a couple steps to the edge of the patio and didn't move, only said, "Tony, wait."
Tony stood there, phone in hand, thumb hovering over its keypad as he angled his head in Steve's direction. "Steve?"
"Ask me again tomorrow. I'll say yes."
For a split second, Tony looked confused, then he smiled, raising his mobile as he would a glass, making some sort of toast. "Tomorrow, then. If you're still here, and not swallowed by a wormhole or something."
"Or something," Steve said.