Pepper excused herself to walk Happy out but she hadn’t come back. Rhodey had lingered, leaning back into a slouching chair, sipping slow-warming beer without any intent toward inebriation. The night was growing old, and quiet, and large around them, but Rhodey lingered. He’d stayed through dying laughs, and long-stares, and uncertain excuses. He’d smile at Pepper when she said that she couldn’t skip work two days in a row. He’d wished Happy the best when he made his escape.
But he lingered.
“You going to make me ask?” Rhodey asked.
Tony wasn’t volunteering anything. Everything that had happened was in the past and Tony Stark was not the sort of man that liked to get bogged down by his past. His choices and his mistakes were behind him now, and barring a repeat of the same, this particular set of choices-and-mistakes hadn’t changed his world for the worse. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” sounded almost like he didn’t have an idea.
Rhodey shifted so he could stare at Tony, so he could really lean into the disbelief. He wasn’t going to be satisfied with deflection and he wasn’t as kind as Pepper, he wouldn’t accept excuses and soft-shed-tears as any reason they shouldn’t have this conversation.
“I do not know what you aren’t asking me,” Tony said as the stare lingered. “We already covered everything you’d be interested in.”
“What would I be interested in?”
“Whether or not I slept with another man. We need to talk about that. We aren’t allowed to talk about how we had sex when I was—”
“Young, or at all, but every single time you find out that I glanced at another man you turn into a jealous wife. I get it, you want me to live a lonely life, lovingly longing for you but—”
“Do you hear yourself sometimes? Did you think about what you were going to say just now or did it just happen? That’s the best you’ve got? We’re not going to talk about the real fact that Steve Rogers had sex with Tony Stark because you think I’m jealous of people you sleep with?” Rhodey set his beer down, made a show of his disbelief. There was a scoff, and a mutter, and a great confusion of hand gestures.
“Not people, just men,” Tony said. “We don’t need to talk about who Steve Rogers had sex with, because it wasn’t me and she’s no longer here. It could not be less relevant.”
“I don’t believe that,” Rhodey said. (And everyone knew that the universe was deeply motivated by what Rhodey believed in.)
“Oh, I’m sorry. This is about what you believe, well by all means, lets hear what you believe is going to happen with Steve and me. I’m dying to know.”
Rhodey didn’t have a stone face, at least not one that was useful against Tony. They’d known each other too intimately, too earlier and for too long for all his attentions at neutrality to work. There was a raw nerve in Rhodey’s banter, an almost-confessed secret that he didn’t want escaping his mouth. Between his clenched teeth there were words that he wanted to say and didn’t. Instead he rolled his eyes, he said, “I didn’t want to talk about Steve. You say you didn’t sleep with him, that you don’t want to, that’s fine. You have a good thing with Pepper, she’s good for you. Stay with Pepper.” (That last sentence, especially, had more steel in it than necessary.) “Is it like she said it was?”
Tony could just imagine what she’d said it was like. How she must have crowed her successes and shamed their failures so thoroughly that no man felt there was any hope in trying. He fell back into his seat, relaxed into the realization of the inevitable. His day of freedom was coming to an end, and when he left this little room and burst this bubble, he would be back at the start with an idea of how great they could be and only a few ideas about how to get there.
(Not a few. Just one. One six-foot-one-inch-star-spangled idea.)
“The Avengers are perfect there,” Tony said, “literally perfect. They’ve never failed, I don’t know that they’ve ever come close to failing. They stopped everything before it even got started. They own the world, and they’ve convinced everyone that there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
Rhodey turned his beer in a slow circle, he let that marinate in the space between them. “That’s dangerous thinking. Even after New York? After aliens? After Thor, an actual God? There’s nothing to be afraid of?”
“Not with the right propaganda. Nettie made her world perfect; nobody is going to see what’s coming for them. Nobody’s even going to go looking for it.”
Rhodey sighed. “Are they happy there?”
Of course they were happy. Ignorance was bliss, and all of that. “Not that I haven’t enjoyed this lovely conversation, but I’m sure this is the last night I’ll get to sleep once everyone knows I’m back. I’d rather spend it,” he stood up as he talked, motioning backward toward his bedroom and bed and Pepper, “with prettier company.”
“That’s why we don’t talk about sex,” Rhodey said, “every time. Every time you call me ugly.”
Tony smiled, “I didn’t say you were uglier, I just said she was prettier,” but it was familiar argument, designed for short walks to the door and quick good-byes. Tony was grateful for it, and the escape it provided, and for Rhodey that provided it.
Steve had gone for a run two hours and sixteen minutes ago. He’d been working off the non-effects of the liquor, and working toward the will to pick his tired body up and carry it home. He was thinking-about how he felt about being turned down, and how he might be more interested in sleeping with a man than he’d thought he was. (And he knew, like Tony knew, like everyone that cared to know knew, that Steve was already very interested in sleeping with a man.) Maybe he could say it was experimentation, that the lingering disappointment was a missed opportunity with a special technicality that allowed him to sleep with a man who was also his wife.
Steve was thinking hard about how close he’d gotten, and how he didn’t want to stop and luxuriating in the confusion that was easy enough to untangle because anything else was admitting the creeping sensation in his gut. The growing certainty that the world had been set right.
And there she was, sitting on the little couch in his hotel room, with a trashy magazine hanging from her lax hand, taking up space in the real world like a living nightmare. Maybe there was a right way to respond, maybe there was a wrong way. “A miscarriage?” sounded more wounded than angry.
Steve dropped his hotel key on the table, pulled his phone out of the Velcro sleeve that held it on his arm. He dropped it without preamble, shifted his stance so taking up space as far from her as he could get without retreating. His hands were resting on his hips for lack of any place better to be. “I didn’t like it, but I didn’t have a lot of options.”
His wife dropped the magazine on the table in front of her, but she didn’t get to her feet. She said, “nobody really worried about where he was. There’s a history of alleged mental instability there, I guess. Better crazy than losing Captain America’s babies.”
“It worked,” Steve said, “people stopped looking for you, they stopped asking questions, they gave us space and quiet to concentrate on the real issue.” It wasn’t the argument he’d expected when she came back to find out what he’d done. (Of course, things had changed since then. An eternity had passed in that time, and he’d found himself changed from a worried husband to—to this whatever it was.) “Why?” he asked when the silence dragged a beat, when it was the only thing that he could think. When his hands were aching to reach out, to pull her off the couch and out of her self-imposed exile. He wanted to gather her up and hold her and reassure himself that she was totally and completely real.
His wife never cried, but there she was with red-red-eyes and tears on her lashes, looking every bit as exhausted as the man who had briefly taken her place, “I just needed it to stop.”
“What?” Steve demanded, “what did you need to stop? Because I was here, I was here without you, and you—you didn’t even try.”
Steve had seen shame on Tony Stark’s face, but not on his wife’s. He’d seen regret and he’d seen agony, but he hadn’t seen it this way. He hadn’t seen how it broke through her body, how it snapped at her joints and left her ragged and sagging and weak. He hadn’t ever been asked to watch her fix the broken pieces under her skin with her teeth clenched and her eyes full of tears because his wife was a mythical monster. His wife was made of unbreakable things, a dragon in human form, composed of fury and energy and unshakeable confidence.
He’d always known there was something beneath the surface, that if he could wait long enough, he’d find the parts of her that were only human. He’d waited, and she’d shared, and he’d reassured, and they’d built a life between them filled with their terrible secrets. But he’d never seen this.
“Tony,” he said with his voice breaking, “I don’t know what to do.”
“He’s not safe there,” she said after a pause, “he’s completely consumed by fear, and I thought it was irrational—I thought it was something that was done to him, that they’d neglected him and they’d used him, and Wanda—she—she—she reached her hands in, she stirred him up and he created this monster because he couldn’t stand it? He couldn’t stand being afraid of failing, of losing everyone that he loved. They don’t love him,” she cleared her throat, “they said all these things to me, about how they value him, about how they’d prefer him, but they don’t love him. They don’t want to need him. And I—” There she floundered, her hands curled into fists, her knuckles turned rosy and then white, and her stare lengthened into blankness. “I let them know how I felt about that.”
“I’m sure you did,” Steve said.
Tony ran her tongue across her lips, but she didn’t say anything. She waited a pause and started again, back at the point like she hadn’t had a single thought cross her mind about how she wanted to respond to him. “I got caught up in it, in trying to figure out how it got so bad. I got caught up in telling myself I was protecting him, and punishing them, and— Every time I saw that man that looked like you, I wanted to kill him. How dare he call himself Steve Rogers, how dare he say he was a friend? That he cared, that—”
Steve had met his wife at a bad time, when he was fresh off the realization that everything he’d hoped for in life had passed him by. He’d been a rotten man at the time, just stewing in his own anger and loss. Everything that had taken Tony Stark, the careless billionaire, and changed her into Iron Man had already happened to her. She was a woman at the end of her own transformation, stepping into his world as he started on his own. She had seen him at his lowest, when the ugliness of his own disappointment overcame him, but he hadn’t seen her in the same light. She had always been relentless. “But you fucked him,” Steve said.
“To make it stop,” Tony whispered. Not because the man had merit of his own, but because he looked like something that she loved, because he was shaped the same, and sounded the same, and maybe he smelled-and-tasted the same way too. Maybe it was just a harbor in a terrible storm, when the winds and the rain and the rising tide were all set to drag her down. There was desperation in how she looked at him.
(And there should be. And there shouldn’t be.)
Steve looked down, at his feet, at the floor, at anything but her. “I would have fucked him, the other Tony—he just—he kept stopping.” When he looked up his wife was half to standing, caught up between pain and jealousy so quick and bright it almost glowed in the dimness. “You were supposed to work harder to get home,” he said, “that was the plan, to make you remember that I was waiting.”
There were those tears again, “I know,” like surrender. Like defeat. “I’m sorry.”
Yes, well— “I didn’t know what to do, how to help you—and he said that you weren’t paying attention, and there’s nothing in this whole stupid world that you care about enough to make you pay attention when you’re angry. You just get angry and you don’t let go, and—it seemed like it would work, and it did but you were supposed to come home.”
“I was trying,” and it was true. It was the most truth that she had ever said to him. She had been trying when she dragged that man into her arms, she had been doing everything in her power. Because Tony had a house in Malibu, and a family she’d built herself, but she wasn’t safe anywhere but where he was. Natasha hadn’t called him a weakness because of Tony’s love for him, but because of her fear of living without him. “Steve.”
“You left me,” Steve said. And before she could apologize, or say his name, or say anything, he cut her off (and he left her alone with perfect, absolute cruelty) with: “I’m going to take a shower.”
Tony had left secrets for Nettie to find. He’d offered her the benefit of years of effort when he filled her project files with everything, he remembered from the suits he’d made. He had improved the arc reactor she was using, he had left her notes about updating JARVIS, and he had told everyone that mattered about the stone in Loki’s staff and the damage it could do. (Not that it needed saying in a perfect world, but he felt better for having said it.)
Nettie had secrets in his world. Tony could feel them, long after dark, laying in his bed with the sound of Pepper breathing like a lullaby to his left. He was blanketed in comfort, completely and totally surrounded by everything he needed to be happy. And he wasn’t sleeping, he wasn’t still, he was thinking,
He was wondering what it was that Nettie must have left him. And if he wanted to find it. If it would have been better to leave it unfound, to tell FRIDAY to destroy it before it could inflict it’s creator’s final act of destruction.
(Or maybe he wasn’t. Maybe he was thinking about the weary way Rhodey had whispered, I don’t believe that, like he knew how close Tony had come to losing his way. How he had never exactly looked forward to sharing space with Steve Rogers, but how he was dreading it now. How he had muscle memory of the man’s hands on his skin, and a pang in his heart to be the recipient of the intensity of his affection. Maybe Steve’s love, like his loyalty, was stronger than any force on this miserable mudball. Maybe it could raise the dead, and Bucky Barnes had died in a tragic accident until Steve Rogers woke up in the present century and the first moment of his waking had rewritten history entirely. Maybe the man was capable of anything, and Tony just wondered, if he were actually capable of— )
No. Pepper stirred at his side, grumbled in her sleep—stretched long and then pulled her knees up so they hit his leg and her hand was worming its way under the blankets to fist up in his shirt. Her voice was muddled with sleep, “we can go together,” sounded like it was an echo from a dream.
“I don’t want to go anywhere.”
“Liar,” Pepper sighed. She pulled at his shirt and he looked at her. Her hair was a disaster around her face, her eyes were blurry with half-sleep. “It’s after midnight. You had your day. I can go with you, to figure out what she left.”
But he didn’t want to go. He didn’t want to want to go. Tony couldn’t bring himself to tell her how much he wanted to stay right here, and he couldn’t, because no matter how he tried, he couldn’t stop thinking. “You have to work in the morning.”
“I don’t want you to be alone,” she said.
Nettie didn’t have the body for crying. Her lungs and her throat and her eyes weren’t made for the effort. Her hands were like hammers, coiled in fists so tight it was amazing she didn’t break her own bones. Her teeth were clenched, and her aching throat was swallowing against itself. She had been standing there, caught between sobbing and screaming, working on maintain a composure that she couldn’t quite manage.
Sooner or later she was always going to lose; she just would have preferred to lose where there were no witnesses. Steve Rogers had perfectly terrible timing, always showing up when he was needed and unwanted. There he was, fresh from a shower, wearing the jogging pants he’d walked in with, looking distinctly uncomfortable. (The man hated putting back on clothes he’d been wearing before a shower. He said it was a waste of his time. Why get clean and put back on dirty clothes?) There wasn’t a new mark on his body, there was no evidence of how he’d let a different Tony put his hands wherever he wanted.
“Tell me what you did, tell me how you let them know your feelings.”
“Please,” Nettie whispered.
But her husband had a spine of steel and a feral heart, and he wasn’t going to give just because he made someone cry. That’s what the biographers always got wrong, how they mixed up the definition of a good man with a saint. Steve was a good man because he tried so hard to be one, and because he didn’t care how tired he was, he just kept trying. But he wasn’t a saint, because he was flesh and blood just like everyone else. “I want to understand,” he said.
Nettie would have preferred anything else. She looked at her hands, and not at his face, and she thought of how that other man had looked at her the first time she laid eyes on him. How he’d been caught up in surprise, and outrage, and betrayal. The betrayal should have mattered more in the moment, because betrayal implied trust. Maybe Rogers didn’t trust his Tony enough to do the right thing, but he did trust him enough to bet his life and that should have been worth something. “I broke his arm,” she said, “to prove I could, I—” her aching throat was making her voice ragged, “convinced Rhodey that their Captain America didn’t deserve to be the leader. I took a suit and I went to Sokovia, and when they tried to bring me back, I—”
“Reacted?” Steve prompted.
There were tears on her face. She looked up at him, and dragged a breath into her heaving chest. “He didn’t fight back. He didn’t even try. And they put me in a jail cell,” at the end of a long hallway, so far underground there was almost no sound, and they’d turned out the lights whenever they wanted. They’d left her alone, and they’d done it to see if they could break her. “I deserved it, I—”
“Fuck,” Steve whispered. He didn’t wilt, and he didn’t fall, but it still seemed that he had no control over how he ended up sitting on the couch. He was pushing his thumbs against his eyes, working as hard as she was on how he wanted to react now. “Did they hurt you?”
“I was unconscious.”
“Unconscious?” Steve repeated. He was looking at her like he could see through her clothes, checking her over for wounds and aching places, and finding nothing at all but the armor she had chosen to wear. (An old T-shirt, a pair of jeans, a nice jacket to tie it all together.) “Show me?”
“Why does it matter?” she asked, “are you going to forgive me if I have bruises? Is it going to change what I did? Or how you feel about it?”
“I don’t know,” Steve said, and he didn’t. His body was a miracle of science, it didn’t scar, and it rarely bruised, and it never held on to wounds long enough to show them off. His history was a clean slate, and it gave the impression of a man who had never suffered. “Please?”
Nettie would rather have done anything in the world but show off the evidence of what she’d been doing in another world. There were a man’s hand prints on her body, and she didn’t want to see her husband’s face when he recognized them for what they were. And still—and yet, there she was, shrugging out of her jacket. There she was with bravado, like she was invincible, pulling her T-shirt off over her head. She was all set to unzip her jeans, but there was the slightest little noise.
A quick intake of breath, the sound of furniture being displaced, and Steve was suddenly so close to her she could feel the heat of his skin. His hands was hovering over the bruises on her side, how they matched the curve of his hand perfectly. He was staring at the starbursts of purple and blue that was leftover from fights-and-fucking and bad luck. He was cataloguing them as he stepped to the side. His fingertips traced the outline of an unlucky bruise on the back of her shoulder. This thumb scraped across the healing burn scar from Black Widow’s bite. “Why did you let them do this to you?” he asked.
“I helped,” she whispered.
“I’m so angry,” he said like he didn’t want to be. “I don’t even know if I have the right to be. God damn it, Tony,” sounded exactly the way it always did when he walked in on another one of her bad ideas. When he found her taking the beating she deserved, holding her place against an onslaught of whatever punishment she could manage and—
His hands folded over the bruises another Steve Rogers had left, and he turned her body to face his. Except he knew how to hold onto her without leaving marks, he’d perfected exactly how hard he could push, and grip, and hold. She was going to tell him how sorry she was, but her hands were pressed up against his chest and she was caught in a moment that seemed like it could drown them both. Steve didn’t pull away when she leaned up against his body, he didn’t ask her not to when she kissed him.
Steve’s arms went around her back, he pulled her off her feet. He kissed her the way he must have kissed the other Tony, with confusion, and desperation, and fury. She was weightless in his arms, reaching up to loop her arms around his back. He stumbled them sideways, and forward, until the backs of her legs hit the bed.
(It was nice of him to find a bed, when the alternative was a floor. Or a wall.)
She shoved at the waistband of his pants as he pulled at the waistband of hers. The button gave and the zipper tore and she was wiggling out of the jeans as he was stepping out his sweats. The bed was soft, and familiar, and welcome under her back as he crawled right between her thighs. Maybe the other Steve had been a brilliant rendering of the real thing, but she could tell the difference now. She could remember all the things about her husband that didn’t match up. The mint of his toothpaste, the smell of his skin, the fluffy length of his hair and the vague scratch of his unshaven cheeks. The motion of his body was different when it settled over hers.
“I could have lost you,” Steve said when they were all set to fuck out their differences. His hand was on her face, and there was no defense against how sincerely he looked at her. “God damn it, Tony. I could have lost you forever.”
“I know,” was the only excuse she had to offer. And maybe the other Tony had known too, maybe that’s why he had built a bridge, and why he had crossed it when there was almost nothing waiting for him on the other side. Because he’d been here, right here, covered up with the heat of Steve Rogers, and he knew exactly how safe it was, and he had still said no. “I know how to get back now,” she promised, “I won’t get lost again.”
Steve kissed her with the taste of tears between their mouth, and he blanketed her body with his own, low-and-close-and constant.
The important thing was that Tony wasn’t alone; Pepper was a few inches to the right, with her fingers laced through his. Her hand flexed, her fist squeezed his. They were stronger together than they could have been apart (and for that moment, like a memory, he felt as strong as he’d ever felt).
“Whatever it is,” she said quietly, “we can take it.”
Tony leaned forward just far enough to hit the blinking red light on the console. All the lights flickered, the display brightened, and a map materialized in front of them. The whole earth was spinning in a sedate circle, time was continuing with no real concern about what it was going to reveal, and then it zoomed in. They went from a global view, to a continent to a country to city in a seconds, settling on a little red dot that read:
“FRIDAY,” Tony said, “who’s the target?”
FRIDAY didn’t have the same sass as JARVIS or she might have offered him some remark or two about how he should have remembered it. Instead she said, “James Buchanan Barnes, sir,” as if she were regularly asked to repeat information that he had taught her all the time. “The Winter Soldier.”
“The winter soldier?” Pepper whispered, “why would she— Tony?”
Because Nettie lived in a beautiful world, where the Avengers always won and everyone appreciated and respected one another. She lived in a place where the violence in her chest went unanswered, and all her screaming and clawing couldn’t be let loose in the world. Nettie’s fear was as dangerous as a wounded animal, coiled up and waiting for an opportunistic predator to give her a reason to attack. She had to have known what he’d learn in his world, she had to have known what Tony Stark wanted to do to the man that had killed his Mother.
She knew what they did to the men that killed Yinsen.
She knew what they did to Obadiah.
She knew what they were capable of, all alone in their labs, she knew exactly what sort of thoughts a man had in the dark when he was filled up with his losses. But her world was made of rules and polite interactions and she’d married a man who loved Bucky more than he loved being alive. She’d been asked to live with it, but she hadn’t enjoyed it, and here she was giving him the option that she never-ever had.
The world might be better off without Bucky Barnes.
“Tony?” Pepper repeated, “what is it?”
Vengeance would be bright and hot and perfect. It would be a necessary punctuation at the end of an ugly sentence, and yet-and yet, there he stood. There he stood next to the woman he loved, thinking about the man he’d left behind, the one that tried so hard to be a good man. The one with flaws, and dark spots, and sneaky hands that made a man forget important things.
Steve Rogers wouldn’t like it, knowing what his wife left behind, knowing what Tony wanted to do. Steve Rogers would be disappointed, and he would understand, but that didn’t mean that he would allow it.
Tony didn’t relax, she sat on the bed with her legs crossed in front of her and her arms hugged around her chest. Her hands were splayed over the bigger bruises, protecting her bare skin from view.
Steve was laying on his back, thinking about how they needed to proceed.
“There’s a small,” Tony said like she hadn’t wanted to bring it up, like it was worse than everything else she’d said thus far, “very small,” she added, “possibility that I could be pregnant. It’s too early to know, it’s too early to even test—but,” she looked down at him, “it’s not likely. Nothing about you is ever very likely and you don’t seem to care that it’s statistically impossible. And you, you right here, you seem to understand that, but that other you, he seemed to genuinely have no idea that he should have been dead a thousand times before now.”
Steve rolled onto his side, he kept his hands and his thoughts to himself. He was watching how she clenched her teeth and how her fingertips were digging into her skin, how she was working through a nightmare happening inside her skull. It was a Antoinetta Stark breakdown in progress, a natural disaster contained inside her skin.
Sure, Steve had thoughts about how they’d all agreed that having a baby was the worst thing they could possibly do, about how Tony was as inclined toward motherhood as a sea turtle. Maybe she’d show up to the birth, but good luck to the baby in the aftermath because there was a whole world of things she hadn’t done yet and no reason to slow down enough to worry over a kid. Tony was terrified of becoming the man that raised her and Steve had never had the desire to procreate strong enough it was worth fighting over.
Steve had assumed there was time left. And when the men on the news told him there wasn’t, that Tony was getting older-and-older and less-and-less likely to be able to carry a baby he had accepted that things were meant to be.
“So, if you’re going to have to leave me, I’d rather we say our good-byes now,” Tony said.
“You don’t want a baby,” Steve said.
“No,” she agreed, “but if I already have one, it’s too late to stop it now.”
Steve pushed himself up to sitting, leaned back against the headboard and tried to imagine what the world looked like without her. It shouldn’t have been so difficult, he’d just lived through four weeks of hell, contemplating how he planned to proceed. Looking forward was just looking back and making predictions. Tony was his wife through sickness and health and better and worse, and all the other nonsense the Justice of the Peace had said. He’d signed his name on a line and secured his right as her husband to give opinions and stake his claim. “I don’t know what to feel about that,” he said. She was nodding along, bracing herself for the worst. “I know how I feel about you, I know that I love you, I know that you love me, I know that whatever happened, neither one of us is more to blame than the other.” His hand slid across the sheet, his finger brushed across a bruise low-low-low on her back and watched her skin flinch away from it. “I know they hurt you and I don’t know how I feel about that either.”
Tony sniffled, and licked her lips, and turned enough to see him. She was a miserable sight with red eyes and pink-spotted cheeks. “I know I love you,” she said.
Yeah. Well. Steve motioned her closer and she leaned back against his body. The shivering tightness of her muscles relaxed by fractions, like a coil coming undone. He rested his cheek against the top of her head, and she slid her arm behind his back. “I love you too,” he promised, “we’ll make it through.”