Chapter 1: "Lost"
I wonder why I bother
Hellooooo! So this will be 15 chapters. It will post once a week, on Fridays (barring disaster). I hope you enjoy it, it was a BLAST to write!
Don't look too closely at the timeline. It somehow happens after Dark World and Winter Soldier but before IM3. Or, I guess, IM3 just doesn't happen. If MCU can give the finger to their timeline, so can I :P
Fair warning, the rating will likely go up to explicit for both violence/injury and sexual content towards the end.
Steve slammed his hand onto the desk with a bang, making everyone flinch back. “Because I said so,” he grated out through clenched teeth.
Tony took a steadying breath and bit his tongue. Don’t say it, don’t say it, don’t say it. But, as usual, Tony’s mouth was on cruise control, locked to highway speeds of asshole. “You can’t tell me what to do. You’re not my real mom,” Tony quipped back, and Steve’s eyes flashed. Well, that was a new record. He managed to push Steve all the way into rage, and the other Avengers hadn’t even rolled their eyes and left the room yet.
“I don’t have time to explain myself in the field, Tony. You have to trust my command.”
“What if it’s a stupid command?”
“That’s not how a team works!”
“Well, I don’t actually remember signing a contract to that effect so…”
Steve’s jaw did that thing where it looked like there was someone behind him with an allen wrench screwing it tighter and tighter. He was just so full of himself. Tony had no control over his impulse to respond to dictatorial authority with sass, it just happened. Not that he felt that bad about it happening all over Steve, but he knew the rest of the team was getting sick of it. He wondered how long he could be an asshole before they decided the money and tech weren't worth it.
“I can’t do this right now,” Steve bit out and swept out of the room.
“Well.” Tony looked around at the gathered Avengers. “I feel a bit hard done by. I was all geared up for a lovely fight and now I’ve been left high and dry and unsatisfied.”
“At least you still have your hand to keep you company,” Natasha said, breezing out of the room after Steve. Clint chuckled, leaning even further back in his chair, feet propped up on the table.
Tony rolled his eyes and stood, pulling his phone out. “Whatever. I’m going to accomplish something actually useful.”
He walked out, headed for the stairs, flicking through the notifications he’d missed during the Avenger’s meeting/yell-at-Tony-fest. He felt the tension slip away as he entered his safe haven, the screens and lights flickering to life as he walked across the shop so his desk. “Hey, kids, how’s it going?” DUM-E and U waved their claws at him in greeting. Tony ran his hand over DUM-E’s chassis as he walked by, then settled at his desk in front of a vast bank of holoscreens. “Hey, U. Hit me. But don’t put any windshield washer fluid in it this time, I think I’m going blind.” The blender whirred to life behind him.
Tony poked around aimlessly on the internet for a while, then, once U had trundled over and handed him a cup of suspiciously blue smoothie, Tony settled into his latest project: gravimetric anomalies. Jane had handed the torch off to him and Bruce on that topic, feeling a bit rung out after her experiences in Asgard. Either that or she was too distracted by Thor being on Earth for once.
“I think we have a wrong variable in this equation,” Tony called out when he heard the door open.
Footsteps shuffled up behind him. “No, it’s just in the wrong spot - look.” Bruce pointed at the holoscreen and Tony started typing, fixing the equation. “You don’t have to purposely antagonize him, you know.”
“I don’t do it on purpose,” Tony muttered. “I piss him off just by existing.”
Bruce sighed, pulling up a seat to perch next to Tony. “You could at least try to tone it down.”
“I have limited mental resources. Putting energy into getting Rogers to like me sounds like a waste of them. Besides, he’d see right through a fake smile immediately. It’s fine.”
Bruce mumbled something to himself.
“It is fine,” Tony reiterated.
“It’s not, really. It causes problems when two members of the team can barely be in the same room with each other. Especially when he’s in charge and you’re…” Bruce trailed off.
“I was going to say Daddy Warbucks, but sure.” Bruce leaned back in his chair and stuck the lid of his pen between his teeth.
“Well, Annie, if he weren’t such a self-righteous prick, I might find it easier to fake it. If his horse were any higher, he’d need an oxygen tank. I don’t deal well with the Mr. Moral High Ground thing, especially when he thinks he’s my boss.”
“Hey, now. Be fair,” Bruce chastised gently. “Just because you disagree on some fundamental issues, doesn’t mean he’s being a prick. Besides, you give as good as you get on that front.”
Tony fluttered his eyelashes at his lab partner. “Flatterer.”
“Can we focus on the science?” Tony could see Bruce’s lips twitching though. For all of his seriousness, he really was a good sport.
“Well, now you’re just blatantly flirting.”
“Sorry, Tony.” Bruce shot him a wry smile. “You’re not my type.”
Tony grinned back. “Too much dick?”
“Too much of one.”
“Ouch, Brucie Bear.”
Bruce pointed at the screen. “That makes no sense whatsoever.” Tony fixed the error then started a new section of the formula, and Bruce followed along, pointing with his pen whenever he noticed something not coming out right. As they sunk into the science, Tony felt himself calming further.
It wasn’t like he enjoyed his temper flaring up at every team meeting, he just couldn’t help it. Working helped, however, and after a few hours they had twice as many holoscreens open and had eaten their way through an impressive amount of leftover Thai food. Tony waved his chopsticks at Bruce from where he sat on the floor. “But how do we get past the exponential distances? And there’s also -”
A blaring alarm broke through Bruce’s peaceful background music and they both leapt to their feet. “For fucks sake, we just had one,” Tony whined as they hustled out the door. “Don’t wait up!” he turned to yell at the bots, pulling the door shut behind him.
The others were already in the jet when he and Bruce hit the deck. Bruce climbed in and shut the doors, while the bots assembled the combat armour around Tony. As soon as the HUD flickered to life, JARVIS threw up the assemble info and Tony let it scroll by in his periphery as he and the quinjet pulled away from the tower.
They didn’t have far to go, a water treatment plant in Midtown, and Tony was the first to arrive, landing hard on the pavement with one fist down to stabilize himself while the jet rolled to a stop behind him. Nat, Clint, and Cap marched out of the back of the jet, Bruce hanging back and waiting for a Code Green. Tony flicked his eyes over to the still-scrolling briefing. Sewer - alien looking creature thing - attacked a city worker - etc etc.
“Alrighty,” he called. “Tag ‘em and bag ‘em? Perfect. Go team. Ready? Break!” He fired up the repulsors, but Steve held out a hand stilling him.
“Wait. We need a plan.” Even under the cowl, Tony could see that he had his grim Tony Stark, you go to your room, face on and Tony could feel his hackles rising in response.
“I am a plan, Cap. I’m looking at the footage from the city workers right now, this thing’s not that tough. C’mon. I’ll zip through til I find it, then I’ll chase it your way, you guys can shut it down.”
Steve was going to want to do that talking thing, which inevitably turned into that screaming thing, when Tony was around. “Look. If we don’t get moving on this I’m going to miss Say Yes to the Dress . Wait here, I shall deliver unto you a creepy sewer monster. Forty minutes or it’s free.” Tony blasted off, high into the air, then turned and dove, blasting the nearest manhole cover out of the way with his repulsor and descending into the sewer.
Everything instantly went dark and quiet. The passageways were wide here, in preparation for entering the water treatment plant, but the only light was from the arc reactor, and the only sound was the repulsors’ rush bouncing off the curved walls. “J, I’m going to need some kind of tracking for this thing - heat signature, breathing, try its cell and we can follow its Game of Thrones ringtone - anything.”
JARVIS was quiet for two heartbeats, then information started spewing up on the HUD. “It gives off an unusual infrared aura, we can trace it that way. I’ve uploaded the sewer map onto your screen.” Tony saw the little red dot flicker to life on the map.
“Thanks, J.” He turned at his next left, whipping through the tunnels at what would be breakneck speed if he weren’t wrapped in very agile metal. Cap and the spy twins were chattering away on the comm, apparently having descended as well, but Tony turned the sound down, disinterested and still burning a little hot from his earlier fight with Steve. It felt good to be flying, even underground, the tight turns and risky closeness of the sewer walls singing in his veins.
Tony whipped around one last corner and there it was. He pulled up, slamming to a halt, then hovered above the water, hands out in front of him threateningly with repulsors glowing. The thing spun at the sound of his arrival, facing him with its mouth open and its tail up.
It looked kind of like a crocodile, in the same way that a hellhound looked like a golden retriever puppy. It had rigid, jagged scales along its back and a wide, gaping mouth filled with angry, yellow teeth. Its thick, spiked tail whipped back and forth in its rage and it snapped its jaws, even as it backed itself against the wall. It roared.
“Hey buddy,” Tony tried. “There’s a good crocodile beast thing. I’m going to need you to go ahead and roll on your back, belly up and put that tail of yours away so I can deliver you to the proper authorities. What do ya say?” The beast gnashed its jaws, spraying orange spittle everywhere and feigned a forward rush, slamming its tail against the stone. “Okay, so I’m taking that as a no.”
The order from SHIELD was restrain, not kill, if possible. Apparently, they’d had a run of mysterious, alien creatures and they wanted a chance to study them. So Tony circled around to its left, trying to find an opening to stun it. He moved too close, and the thing lunged, jaws open. Tony dodged, yelping, and it missed, but a spray of orange liquid burst from the corners of its mouth and coated the armour. “Yikes!” Tony shot back.
“Armour integrity at 84%,” Jarvis intoned.
“Are you kidding me?! That thing can melt the suit with its spit?! Of course it can, just my luck. Divert power to offensive systems. Throw the integrity up on the HUD but only alert me if it falls below 30%. Oh, and run a scan while you’re at it, see what we can deduce about our toothy little friend.”
The crocodile thing had darted to the other side of the tunnel, and backed itself into a corner, trying to keep its threatening jaws between its fleshy sides and Iron Man. Tony shot off two quick repulsor blasts, but they did little besides push it further back against the wall and anger it further. It snapped and half-lunged, clearly too afraid to charge, but deeply uncomfortable with Tony’s presence. Another acid loogie could do serious damage to the suit, however, so Tony fell back a bit, thinking.
“Maybe if it calms down a bit, I can sneak up on it,” he mused out loud.
“Its heart rate is severely elevated,” JARVIS added. “It is in a heightened state of fear and likely cannot be easily contained while conscious.”
“Alright, let’s just - we’ll back off a bit, give it some space to mellow out.” Tony, still hovering, floated backwards until he was against the wall. He kept the repulsors charged, their high-pitched hum filling the small space, but lowered his hands, trying to look as non-threatening as an angry, glowing, tin can could.
The thing thrashed around in its corner, wide eyes never leaving Tony, but after a few minutes, when he didn’t move, it seemed to calm down somewhat. A few more, and JARVIS reported that its heart rate had lowered noticeably. “Alright. Slowwwllyyy,” Tony singsonged, as he slid along the far wall, curving around towards the beast’s side. It rolled its eyes after him but didn’t move. Its jaws had relaxed a little, still open, but not gaping.
The corner of one of Tony’s boots clanged against the stone and the beast darted forward. Tony moved back; it darted again. “Alright, now we’re cooking. Come on little beastie! This way!” Tony drifted backwards, moving sharply or making a noise every time it seemed to lose interest, and the crocodile lunged after him, sweeping its tail with a new kind of predatory glee. “Ooh yeah, I’m so edible, come give me a taste,” Tony taunted, moving faster now and drawing the beast after him. It splashed through the water after him, grunting and waving its jaws back and forth as it moved.
The thing was distracted now, feeling that it had the upper claw, and not worrying about protecting its weak points. “Load up a charge, enough to stun it and auto-target near the back legs, as close to the belly as we can get. Fire when I sa-”
An echoing clang from down a side tunnel broke Tony off. The beast spun, hissing again, trying to face Tony and the new threat at the same time. Tony heard yelling and then Cap, Nat, and Clint burst out of the side tunnel, fanning out to surround it. Steve dove straight for the beast, and Tony dove straight for Steve. He plowed into his side, knocking him away, just as the thing lunged and spewed its venom everywhere. “It spits acid!” Tony yelled, shoving Steve down into the water out of sheer frustration then rising up again to face it. “I almost had it, for fucks sake!”
“You disappeared!” Steve yelled back, churning up out of the water, spluttering. “How on earth were we supposed to know -”
“Guys!” Nat deftly leapt across the gap to the wall on the other side, but the creature turned sharply in the water, snapping at her. Steve and Tony both surged up, while Clint fired useless arrow, after arrow even though they merely bounced off the croc’s hard, scaly skin. Steve chucked the shield and it ricocheted off the side of its face. That got its attention. It spun back towards Steve and Tony, rocking up on its back legs and slamming its front down in the water, splashing wildly. The shield bounced back to Steve and he held it out in front of him, at least heeding the warning about the acid.
Apparently, Tony’s suit and Steve’s shield were enough to give the creature pause. It eyed them up for a moment, then spun back towards the spies, trundling through the water with frightening speed. “Fuck,” Tony hissed out. “Its venom is incredibly caustic!” he yelled at the spies in warning.
The two dodged out of its way, not having much they could hit it with anyway. Clint fired a few more arrows, but it twisted its armoured tail across its face and they bounced away, pointless. It snapped at one of the two, then the other, apparently having a hard time deciding which to eat first. Tony and Steve charged down the tunnel towards it, trying to draw its attention back to them.
It paused, its eyes rolling over towards Steve, and they all hung for a breath, then it lunged wildly towards Clint, opening its mouth and spewing bright orange venom at him. He cried out and bounced back, but some hit his foot, a stream of steam billowing up as it burned through his shoe. He kicked it off into the water, but Tony could see his face screwing up in pain as the acid hit his skin. “Hawkeye!” Steve called, and Clint held up a hand.
“I’m okay! Stings, but I’ll be fine.” He didn’t sound fine.
Nat chucked a shock disc and managed to get it in its armpit. It thrashed and screeched as the jolt ripped through it. That gave Clint enough time to stagger backwards into the corner. Steve flung the shield again and the croc turned towards him, spitting and raging. He darted out of its way, drawing it back and bringing its weak side nearer to Tony. He began charging up the repulsors again.
“Hawkeye!” Steve called again, and Tony looked up just in time to see Clint, leaning against the wall for balance, nock an arrow, take aim, and fire. It flew across the tunnel and right when the beast opened its mouth to take a chunk out of Steve’s side, it hit, shooting straight into its mouth and colliding with the back of its throat. It screamed, gagged, then fell with a mighty splash. A stun arrow, it was unconscious.
Tony wobbled on his feet, leaning to brace himself against the wall, panting. Steve was doing the same on the other side. Nat darted forward and wrapped her garotte around its mouth, tying it closed just in case it woke up. Tony could feel Steve radiating irritation - which he mirrored right back - but he didn’t say anything. Between the four of them, they wrestled the snoozing crocodile back up to dry land. It wasn’t long before a SHIELD van pulled up, took the creature, and left.
Tony didn’t wait for the others, he blasted off the second the croc was out of their hands and took to the sky. He was fuming, and he couldn’t exactly put his finger on why. He watched from above as Nat helped Clint into the quinjet, Steve coming in behind them. The back hatch closed and the jet took off. Tony took the long way home, hoping the rush of flying would help chip away at the tension resting heavy in his gut.
It was so frustrating having to stop every time and talk everything out. Tony was a scientist, he had an idea, so he tested it. He didn’t know how to communicate his plans to a team, and when he tried they always seemed to shoot him down. If only he could do this whole Team Save The World thing without the team part. Then at least it wouldn’t be his fault when someone got hurt. Especially when it was nothing more than glorified pest control. He didn’t miss the days of full on alien-incursions, but these little milk runs were starting to feel extra pointless - what was the point of the Avengers at all, if all they did was get cats out of trees and help little old ladies cross the street? Surely, that’s what Cap was doing in his spare time, anyway.
He banked hard to the left and zipped across the water, headed back for the tower. He avoided the hangar, even though he knew it would be empty by now, and shot straight through a porthole into his workshop. He gestured the armour open and stepped out, setting it to fly back to its case on its own.
The workshop was still covered in the evidence of his science marathon with Bruce, at least twenty holoscreens open, Thai food containers everywhere, old paper files spread out across the floor. Tony wandered through them, thinking, letting the numbers wash over him. It was late, and post-battle, Bruce would likely have gone to bed, but Tony’s brain was dancing and he needed to let it out.
He sunk to the floor, where he had been sitting before. It should work, it would work. It could work now, if Bruce weren’t such a worrywart. Everything was functioning, Jane had proven that, the question was: would they find anything? Tony pulled one of the gravimetric spikes into his lap and fiddled with it. He could set them up, calculate angles and distances for optimum performance. For the next twenty minutes, he worked his way around the lab, calculating, then setting up a spike, then recalculating when the numbers didn’t add up.
Tony was deep in thought, scrolling through his notes and thinking when the door flung open and heavy, patriotic footsteps stomped across the room. Tony took a deep breath and tried counting to ten.
“What the hell were you thinking?” Steve yelled.
Tony decided he’d better make it twenty. “Well hello there, Captain Capslock.”
Steve screeched to a halt, perplexed. “What?”
“You know, cause you’re always yelling.” Steve stared at him. He stared back. “Not my best, nevermind.”
“I didn’t always yell until I met you! Tony! What. Were. You. Thinking?!”
“What were you thinking? You swanned in all ‘Here Comes Captain America’ and pissed the thing off. I almost had it.”
“How was I supposed to know that? You didn’t say anything!” Steve looked five seconds from tearing his hair out, and his eyes were doing that dangerously bright thing, like flashbulbs ready to go off.
“Yes, I did. I said ‘I got this Cap, I’ll bring it right to you,’ but apparently your ears were too full of ego to hear me!”
“That’s not how teamwork works, Tony! We have to stop and think.”
“You may have to stop to think. I am a genius. I can multitask,” Tony said.
Steve’s teeth snapping together was audible, even from where Tony sat. “We have to make plans together. Or people get hurt.”
“If you had just backed off and let me handle it, no one would have gotten hurt.”
“You might have gotten hurt,” Steve insisted.
Tony snapped his mouth shut and dropped his eyes to the papers fanned out around him. Who gives a shit, he wanted to say, but he knew Steve would sigh and pinch the bridge of his nose, and spout some nonsense about Tony being a necessary part of the team and how pink and squishy he was so he needed to take care, more care than the others, so he held it back.
“...How’s Barton, anyway?” he tried.
“He’s fine. He’ll recover. Just a burn. It was nasty stuff though.”
Tony knew he should go check on him, apologize or something, though for what exactly, he wasn’t sure, but the science kept calling to him. He pushed to his feet and walked around the circle of dimensional spikes, running his hands over them, thinking.
“Aren’t those Jane’s?” Steve asked.
“Yeah, she lent them to us. Bruce and I have this theory, that if you change the scope, broaden it, they’ll do more than draw connections between the worlds that are touching during a convergence, they’ll show us all the worlds we ever could touch. All the places where the universes and planets intersect. There could be a billion places out there with people and knowledge we can’t even comprehend…”
“Isn’t this pretty volatile? I thought you and Bruce were working on this together?” The was a hint of something unpleasant in Steve’s voice.
“Seriously? I don’t need a babysitter in my own lab.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Sure it isn’t,” Tony snapped back. He flicked a switch on the spike nearest to him, turning it on. Steve remained quiet. Tony walked around the room, flipping them all on. Data. He needed data. One test, and then he’d have an idea of the range, of what kind of results it would spew out. Then he’d be getting somewhere. “It probably doesn’t even work…”
He picked up the controller and switched it on as well. It hummed to life, a flat line scrolling across the screen, numbers spewing out in the top corner. Tony twisted one of the knobs to the left. Nothing happened. He glanced over at Steve about to say, “See,” and noticed that all the pens on his desk had risen up into the air as if gravity no longer affected them. He looked down at the controller again and the lines on the screen were going wild. “Huh,” he said.
And then they were falling.
Chapter 2: "Landed"
I listen only to your breath
Steve hit the ground hard, instinctively tucking into a ball and rolling with the momentum. There was a loud crack and a sharp pain behind his eyes, then he came to a stop. He wrapped his arms around his middle and breathed shallowly at first, eyes squeezed shut, assessing the damage. There was pain, a lot of it, but most of it was the sharp-shock kind that would fade into a dull ache, bruises, then nothing, all within an hour or so. His head throbbed, and when he tentatively opened his eyes, everything spun until he snapped them shut again. Concussion. He let his breathing slow and steady, pulling air deeper into his lungs when it became clear his ribs weren’t broken.
On his next exhale, and with his eyes still closed, Steve tipped forward until one hand could brace on the ground. He dug his fingers in - dirt and rocks - and leaned his weight onto that hand. Gingerly, he pushed up to a semi-sitting position. Nothing shifted or snapped so he was pretty sure nothing was broken. The concussion was churning his stomach, even with his eyes shut tight, and he swallowed several times in succession to try and hold it off. Pain radiated across his skull and made it hard to focus on anything else, but with great effort, he wiggled each finger and toe and found nothing damaged. It’s not like it would be that bad if something were, but broken bones were a pain and needed to be set quickly for him, so they didn’t heal wrong.
When the rest of his body proved to be in one piece, Steve was forced to address the icepick throbbing in his head. He ran his fingers carefully over his skull and they came back wet. He blinked his eyes open the tiniest amount, gradually adjusting to the light. He could feel his pupils over-dilate, then start to shrink, as the concussion began to heal already. Within a few minutes, he had worked his eyes all the way open, and the pain had faded to obnoxious, but manageable, background.
The first thing he saw, when he lifted his chin, was a dark form huddled on the patchy grass and dry dirt a few feet away.
“Tony!” he called, shifting forward to brace himself on his forearms, testing his ability to stand. There was no answer. He huffed out a frustrated breath and watched blood drip from his chin to the dirt below. With monumental effort, he pushed himself up enough that he could half-crawl, half-walk over to Tony’s frighteningly still form. “Tony?”
Steve paused as the ground spun out from under his hands and pushed down the bile that teased the bottom of his throat. Finally, his hand wrapped around Tony’s limp ankle, and he dragged himself up Tony’s body. Without moving him too much, Steve slipped a hand inside Tony’s jacket, over his heart. He pulled back in surprise when his hand hit hard metal instead of smooth skin, then remembered the arc reactor. He could feel Tony’s chest shift up and down; he was breathing. It was shallow, but steady. Steve worked two fingers under Tony’s collar and found a pulse, thready, but Steve still let out a shaky sigh of relief. Tony’s heart - he didn’t understand it. He didn’t know how the reactor worked, or if it could break, or if CPR was even possible with a metal-filled hole in his chest. If his heart hadn’t been beating -
Steve broke off the train of thought. He checked Tony over as gently as he could and found no sign of injury. He was still unconscious though, so something must be wrong. Steve crossed his fingers and prayed there was no internal bleeding or spinal injury. He arranged Tony in what he hoped was a safe, comfortable position and took in their surroundings for the first time.
They were in a forest, or on the edges of one. The trees weren’t particularly dense, but they were large and old. The ground underneath was dirt, rocks, and hardy ferns, with the occasional patch of courageous grass wherever the sun broke through the ancient branches above. It was midday, which sent a wave of acidic anxiety rocking through his gut. It had been evening when the portal opened, so either Steve had been knocked out for quite some time - which he was sure he hadn’t been at all - or they’d somehow managed to hop timezones. It was a nice day, or it would have been if Steve hadn’t just been dropped two stories and slammed head first into a tree. As it was, he would have preferred that the cheery, summer sun be a bit subdued by clouds.
They were surrounded by nothing but nature - no people, no buildings, no paths. At least there didn’t seem to be any immediate threat. Steve sat back and leaned his forehead on his bent knees, encouraging his body to use its energy to heal the concussion. He needed to find help, shelter, a way to contact someone…
He jolted upright, knocking his headache loose again to rattle around his skull, and started pawing through Tony’s pockets, doing his best not to move him too much. He was rewarded with a sleek, thin StarkPhone. He pushed at the buttons, spoke to it, and even tentatively gave it a shake, but it remained solidly black and unresponsive. Frowning, Steve tucked the phone in his pocket. He was starting to feel a little stabler; the nausea was gone and he was no longer dizzy. His head still throbbed, but it was ignorable pain, and it would only fade further as the serum continued to work its magic.
Steve huffed out a frustrated breath, eyes on Tony’s prone form. He shouldn’t move him, he knew that much, but he didn’t have many options. He could wait for Tony to wake up, but if he was seriously injured, he needed help as soon as possible. He could leave Tony here and go try to find help, but he had no idea where they were, or what kinds of danger could lurk in the woods. The thought of leaving Tony here, unconscious and undefended, made his stomach churn again.
He could take Tony with him, and search for help. The other man didn’t weigh much and soon Steve would be back to mostly full strength. He could potentially carry him for several miles before it became too much, maybe half of how far he could make it alone in this state. The worry was that jostling Tony that much could do further damage than what was already done.
He scrubbed his hands over his face and winced when his headache protested his clenched jaw. Anger slammed into him out of nowhere and he glared at the man by his side. He wouldn’t be stuck here - wherever the fuck here was - alone, with a half-dead Tony and a jackhammer in his skull if someone had listened to him about messing with things he didn’t understand. “You’d better be alright,” he huffed into his hands. “Because I need to kill you myself.”
Tony didn’t respond.
“Fuck!” Steve allowed himself a moment to wallow in absolute rage and desperation before pulling himself together and slapping his Captain America face back on. Tony needed him to figure this out. He stood slowly, giving the world time to right itself, and walked in a careful circle around Tony, peering between the trees. The woods were beautiful. The massive trees bent their branches back down towards the ground in great, weeping waterfalls, small, shade-loving flowers turned their cheerful faces towards the sky, and the light dappled on the dirt floor, catching floating dust motes and fluffy pollen particles wafting around. Steve didn’t like it. It was eerily idyllic, like a fairytale wood. He half expected some witch or enchanted bear to come wandering between the trees.
When no magical beasts appeared, Steve made a decision. He’d walk away from Tony, in a straight line, as far as he could go without losing sight of him, then come back and do the same in another direction. Hopefully, he’d be able to spot something that would cue him as to which way to go. If there was nothing, he’d pick Tony up as carefully as he could, pick a direction at random, and hope.
He bent down and checked Tony’s pulse and breathing again. Still not perfect, but not worse. “I’ll be right back,” he said, then blushed, realizing how stupid that was. Steve picked a direction, one that looked a little sunnier than the others, and started to walk. Maybe he’d get lucky and find a clearing, with a building…. And a map. He rolled his eyes at his own silliness, then reached back and gingerly poked the back of his head. The blood had dried, crusting in his hair, but sealing the wound.
When Tony became a blurry shape between the trees behind him, Steve walked back, checked his vitals, then set off again. He repeated this over and over, finding nothing but trees every time. His wore no watch and the phone wouldn’t turn on, so he had no idea what time it was, but he felt it had been at least an hour. He had just reached the edge of his Tony-centered radius and was turning back when he noticed a dark figure in the woods, approaching Tony’s body.
“Hey!” he shouted, breaking into a run. He pushed back through the trees, despite the angry stab of pain between his ears. The black shape reared back, hands held up, and as Steve broke through the last branches, he saw it was a man. Steve fell to his knees beside Tony, pressing his hand to the prone man’s neck as he had so many times already. Nothing had changed, Tony was still alive, still out. He glared up at the man, heart racing, and man took several more steps back.
“I’m sorry, I was only checking on him,” the man said. He had a soft, sing-songy accent that Steve couldn’t place. “When I didn’t see you around, I thought he must be dead.”
Steve’s frown deepened. “What does that mean?”
There was movement amongst the trees and he peered around the man to find another person - a woman - wrapped in a similar dark cloak, also offering polite space and non-threatening body language.
“Are you okay?” the man asked, his eyes flickered to the back of Steve’s head.
“I’m fine, but my friend… he needs a doctor.”
Confusion danced across the man’s face. “Your mate needs care? He won’t wake up?”
“Uh, yeah.” Steve’s gaze darted between them. There was something deeply foreign about the way they spoke. Assuming some degree of language barrier, Steve decided to focus on the simple things and see if he could get Tony to a doctor. “He fell.”
The man and woman shared a look and the woman nodded. “Come with us,” she said. “You’ll have to carry your mate, but we’ll get you inside.”
“Thank you,” Steve replied, the gratitude springing heat up behind his eyes. He bent and scooped Tony into his arms as carefully as he could, then winced when Tony’s head lolled back. He tried to tuck it against his chest to keep it still, but it was awkward, trying to move efficiently without jostling Tony. The couple moved quickly and confidently through the woods, though Steve couldn’t see a path to follow. Tony was hardly a burden for Steve’s super strength, but he was deeply aware of how unresponsive the man in his arms was, and that was a heavy weight on his shoulders.
After about twenty minutes of walking, they broke through the trees to cleared land, and a dirt road, furrowed deep by years of use. The couple followed the road for a while, then turned up through a field with a low stone fence around it. Steve kept pace, leaving a short distance between them, just in case. A rare farmhouse grew to regular houses and finally opened into a small village. The streets were quiet, and the couple arrived at their home without running into anyone else. The houses were simple - stone and thatch - and the roads around them were merely dirt and rock. The village had a very old feel that Steve couldn’t quite place and it set him uneasy again, thinking of those fairy tale creatures. There was no way they were in America, this was Old World building.
The man pushed open the door and ushered the woman, then Steve, inside. The house was cozy and quiet. The door opened into a large, plain kitchen with wood slab counters and a stone floor. There was a large basin full of water, but no taps, and no electricity, as far as Steve could tell. There was a fireplace, and a sturdy looking table with long benches around it. The counter was covered with vegetables and a half-plucked bird of some kind, and, faced with the sudden prospect of food, Steve’s stomach growled.
The woman pulled a pile of furs and blankets from around the room and piled them in front of the fireplace while the man started bustling around in the kitchen.
“You can set him here,” the woman spoke, for the first time. She had the same unusual accent, but apparently spoke English just as well as the man - her husband Steve assumed.
Steve crossed the room and laid Tony out on the furs, brushing his hair out of his face as he settled his head down gently. His eyes were still closed. He looked so pale and breakable like this. All the manic energy that was Tony, gone. Temporarily, Steve said firmly to himself. He’ll wake up.
“What happened to your mate?” the woman asked gently.
“Tony,” Steve corrected, figuring their first names couldn’t do any harm. “I’m Steve, this is Tony.”
The woman nodded. “Lula,” she said. She pointed across the room to her husband. “Rick.”
“Thank you,” Steve said, honestly grateful, even if he still felt on edge. She nodded. “He - uh - he hit his head,” Steve explained, not sure how else to describe it. “We’re not from around here, we’re, um, travelling. And he fell and hit his head. I’m worried.”
If Lula thought that was insufficient, she didn’t show it. She merely nodded, then stood. “I’ll get you some water, to clean your wound.” She gestured to the back of her own head and Steve’s hand automatically went to the crusted blood on his. He suddenly realized how absurd it was that they were both injured and confused, wandering around the woods. Lula and Rick seemed remarkably understanding, however. Rick was doing something in the kitchen that involved a pot, vegetables, and the bird, and Steve’s stomach reminded him again how long it had been since he’d eaten, with the sewer, Clint, and then wandering the woods. Talking to Clint and Natasha in medical suddenly seemed like it had been months ago.
Lula returned with a basin of water. She set it by the fire, letting it warm for a moment. “Is there a doctor nearby?” Steve asked.
Lula’s eyes went to Rick, then back to Steve. She shook her head. Steve wasn’t sure if it was that there was no doctor, or that she didn’t understand, but either way, it didn’t look good for getting medical help out here. He sighed and rested his hand on Tony’s chest again, feeling the movement of his breath behind the hard edges of the reactor. He looked up and Lula was gazing at him sadly. When he dropped his gaze again, uncomfortable, she dipped her hand in the water to test it, then lifted the basin and offered it to Steve with a soft, hand-knitted cloth. While Steve washed the blood from his head she joined her husband in the kitchen, eventually coming back with a heavy pot and placing it over the fire.
When she leaned forward to hang the pot from the large iron hook on the mantle, her cloak brushed back revealing the inside of her wrist, and Steve noticed, stark against the pale white of her skin, a black tattoo. A word, in curving cursive he couldn’t quite make out in the flickering light. It threw him off immediately - it was so incongruous in this quiet, old-fashioned, stone and dirt village that she would have a tattoo. It was clean and clear too, not a rough job with ink and a sewing needle, professional. It worried him, as anything out of place would, but it also gave him hope. Tattoo artists meant technology, meant medical care. Even if she got it somewhere else, and moved here since, it gave him hope. Hope that was in defiance to a creeping, growing dread he was firmly avoiding. This place was just… wrong, in a way he didn’t want to look at too closely for fear it would send him staggering back into the woods, desperate to find the portal he knew wouldn’t be there.
Steve decided to brave a few questions. “Excuse me, but where are we?”
Lula and Rick shared a glance. “Deeborn.”
Steve had never heard of that place. He wondered if it was the name of the village, or the county, or what. “This is weird, I know, but where is Deeborn? Am I in America still?”
Rick shook his head. No surprise there.
“How far are we from New York City?” Steve tried. Another shake. “The United States? No? Um, somewhere in Europe? Paris?” The couple remained silent, looking increasingly confused and upset as Steve threw out place names, hoping for a bite, but nothing. Sensing they were getting uncomfortable with his questions, Steve stopped. It wasn’t helping anyway. Deeborn? It wasn’t familiar in the slightest.
The room fell silent save for the burbbling of the pot over the fire. Lula picked up her knitting, and Rick settled into a chair with a book. They seemed bizarrely calm about the two strange men stretched out on their living room floor, but Steve supposed panicking wouldn’t be much help anyway. He couldn’t seem to pull his hand away from Tony’s chest, needing to know that his heart still beat and feel the steady rise and fall of his lungs at work. He would wake up. Soon, he would wake up and then Steve could figure out what to do next. For now, they were safe and warm, and all he could do was leave Tony as still as possible and hope.
The air filled with the scent of cooking vegetables and warm spices and before long, Steve’s stomach was raging. He barely held back a moan of pleasure when Lula filled a bowl from the pot and handed it to him. While he ate, he watched the pair of rescuers. Now that they were absorbed with their food, he felt more comfortable staring without catching their notice.
Lula had shed her cloak as the room warmed, and underneath she wore a simple, straight-cut shirt and long pants secured at her waist with a wide tie. The pants were covered in many pockets, all in different colours of fabric, looking like several had been added or replaced over the pants’ lifetime. Her clothes looked home-made but sturdy, well-loved with many careful repairs. It was hard to judge her age, but Steve would guess early-to-mid forties. Her curly, brown hair had a few streaks of grey just starting to come in, and formed a wild mass around her face. Her face was lined, but most of them were from smiles, cheerful crinkles marking the corners of her bright eyes.
Rick was in similar attire, though his pockets weren’t quite as impressive. He had a quieter air than Lula. Steve wasn’t sure if it was because he was younger, or smiled less, but his face was smoother. He didn’t give an impression of being colder, or crueler than his friendly wife, but rather shyer and more reserved. Whenever he caught Steve’s eye he smiled cautiously, and whenever his gaze fell to Tony, his expression twisted with genuine concern.
And regardless of the unease and distrust Steve couldn’t help but feel in a strange place, there was one thing he had no doubt about: the way Lula and Rick felt about each other. Every time they caught each other’s eye, they beamed, and more often than not, he caught one beaming at the other behind their back. They orbited around each other, trusting each other completely, and moved easily alongside one another like they shared a mind and instincts. It was lovely to see, and Steve figured they must have been together for a long time to form a bond so strong.
The couple was quiet throughout their meal and Steve didn't feel comfortable breaking that silence. He stayed on the floor with Tony, which neither of them seemed to find unusual, and ate his soup hungrily. The meat was poultry, but darker than he was used to. The broth was simple but well seasoned, and Lula refilled his bowl several times before he held up a hand and indicated he was full.
“You can stay the night.” Rick was the one who finally broke their peaceful quiet. Steve jumped, startled out of thoughts of first aid and head injuries, trolling through every scrap of knowledge he had, wondering if there was something he should be doing for Tony that he wasn’t. With JARVIS and cell phones and people everywhere, he’d stopped making sure he had all this information stored in his mind, and the guilt was worming its way through his gut. If Tony didn’t wake up, and there was something he could have done…
He blinked up at Rick. “Yes, please. Thank you. We have nowhere else to go tonight.”
“We have a room.” Lula gestured towards the back of the small house. “You should move there, it gets cold at night.”
Steve nodded, taking the hint. Lula shuffled off down the hall and Steve stood to follow her, but she stopped and waited, even when he arrived at her side. He wanted to see the room first, before bringing in Tony, make sure there was a good place to set him down so he wouldn’t have to move him twice, but Lula waited, eyes first fixed on Steve, then sliding down to land on Tony’s body. Steve wasn’t sure if she didn’t want Rick left alone with Tony, or if she couldn’t believe that Steve would want Tony left alone with Rick, but either way, she didn’t move until Steve scooped Tony up in his arms and followed her down the hall.
The room was small, with no windows, but there was a vent that seemed to be leaking in warm air from the fireplace, and the door looked sturdy. There was no bed - Steve wasn’t surprised, the furniture in the house was sparse and well-used - but there was a pile of hay on the floor with masses of blankets, rugs, and furs laid out on top. Steve was hit with a wave of weariness at the sight; all he wanted was to curl up and go to sleep.
And maybe he’d wake up back in his bed at home…
Lula left them with a candle and a mug of water and disappeared down the hall. He could hear the soft murmur of their voices as they set about getting ready for bed themselves. Steve shut the door and latched it, then turned back to Tony. His skin had a bit more colour in it than it had before, and there was an occasional twitch in his jaw that gave Steve hope. Steve set the candle nearby, then tucked up next to Tony on the makeshift bed, sitting up with his back braced against the stone wall.
Tony… Steve was furious - absolutely furious. But it was all twisting up with guilt and fear. He wanted Tony to wake up more than anything, but he also wanted to stomp off and not talk to him for several days. This was all his fault. If he’d just waited.
But that was Tony. When they’d first met, Steve had thought the man behind Iron Man was selfish. Howard had been, and that had made it difficult to like him, though ultimately, Steve had. Howard had the drive to create - that he passed on to his son - but he wanted something back for it, every time. But Tony had surprised Steve, and, after the Chitauri and the time they had spent together since, it was clear Steve had been wrong. Tony wasn’t selfish, he didn’t want fame and fortune and recognition, but he was still almost impossible to work with. It wasn’t that Tony made decisions only for himself, as Steve had first thought, but he sure as shit only made them by himself and that drove Steve crazy.
Steve just wanted to go home. He wanted to be in their tower with Tony awake and shooting him that cocky grin, so he could ream him out for making stupid choices with his annoying science projects, and in a few days everything would go back to normal. That’s what he wanted… Steve let his eyes drift shut, thoughts of Tony and the portal, home and this wherever-it-was swirling around in his mind.
Steve was drifting into a half-awake, half-asleep doze, when movement beside him jolted him fully upright. “Tony?”
“Ugh,” Tony replied, and Steve let out a deep sigh of relief. He sat up and looked down at Tony, trying to make out his features in the dim light.
“Tony? Are you okay?”
Tony smacked his mouth open and closed a few times, breathing. “Yea-” he cut off sharply, slapping a hand to his stomach and turning onto his side away from Steve. Tony gagged, then dry heaved. Steve scrambled around by his side and came up with a bucket which he shoved at him. When Tony had emptied the bile from his stomach, he wiped his mouth and sat back, panting. “I’m okay,” he croaked out.
“You hit your head.”
“I gathered that.” He took a few slow breaths and his eyes drifted shut, leaning back against the stone wall behind him. He scrambled at his shirt for a moment, then pulled the collar down so the light from the arc reactor filled the room with a soft, blue, glow. It was so automatic, Steve wondered how often Tony used his own chest as a flashlight. Steve offered him the cup of water and Tony took eager but careful sips. “What happened?”
Steve tensed. “Your science,” he replied coolly. “A portal opened. We went through.”
There was a long silence. “Fuck.”
“That’s what I said.”
Tony managed a shaky smile. “Wow, I made Captain America swear.”
Steve cocked an eyebrow. “Wasn’t the first time. And I guarantee it won’t be the last.”
Tony finally had the sense to look a little guilty. “Sorry.” He propped himself up on his elbows and looked around the room, brow furrowing. “Where are we?”
“I have no idea. They keep saying we’re in Deeborn, but they either don’t know what country that’s in, or I’ve just never heard of it. They speak English, but it sounds odd. And they keep saying ‘mate’. Calling you my ‘mate.’”
“Australia?” Tony supplied helpfully.
Steve gave him the look he usually reserved for situations when he had to say things like, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you, son.”
Tony withered. “So not Australia,” he grumbled to himself.
“I have no idea,” Steve hissed. “They didn’t react at all to New York, or America, or any big city in the rest of the world that I could think of.” Steve’s heart was pounding too fast in his chest and he was trying desperately to ignore it.
Tony picked up a handful of the straw under him and let it fall to the floor in a cloud of dust. “Steve? Did you - uh - did you ask them… what day it is?”
A vice locked around Steve’s chest and tightened agonizingly until he was sure all his ribs would break. The air he sucked at wouldn’t go past the back of his throat, couldn’t seem to squeeze by his thundering heart. “I - I - hu -” Steve choked. Asthma attack, his mind screamed at him, where is your medicine? But he didn’t have asthma anymore, so why couldn’t he breathe?
A hand hit the small of his back and he started, turning to see Tony’s eyes wide and filled with worry, staring at him. “Steve, you’re panicking. You have to breathe.”
He stared back, not understand what Tony was saying. “P - P -” He wasn’t panicking, he was - asthma. Despite the warm evening, a shiver jolted its way down his spine and settled deep in his core, setting his body shaking. His stomach lurched, and he leaned forward. His brain started screaming RUN, and he didn’t know how to quiet it. The hand ran a few circles over his back, then slid up to his neck. Tony put gentle pressure there until Steve folded forward.
“Steve. You’re having a panic attack. Trust me, I know about these things. You’re okay though. We’re safe. Just try to focus on breathing and nothing else. Don’t think. Just breathe, okay?” Tony’s voice was steady and surprisingly close to his ear.
Steve tried to nod, but the pressure against the back of his neck was stronger now, so he did what Tony told him and breathed.
It took a few minutes, but his heart calmed and the vice around his chest started to loosen. “S-sorry,” he gasped out as soon as he had control of his vocal chords again.
“It’s okay,” Tony mumbled, clearly embarrassed.
Steve sat back up again, shaking the hand off his neck, and Tony snatched it back eagerly, shifting a few feet away.
“I don’t know why that happened,” Steve said, fighting off the blush that heated his neck and chest.
Steve stared down at his hands, pointedly not meeting Tony’s eyes. He said nothing.
“We’re going to get home, Steve. No matter where we are.”
Steve sucked in another uncertain breath and let his eyes fall closed. It wasn’t where that he was worried about.
It was when.
Chapter 3: "Mates"
Strange and beautiful are the stars tonight
To his surprise, Tony slept. He’d expected to be up all night, after apparently spending most of the day out like a light, but if there was one thing he learned doing all the dangerous superhero-ing, it was that being unconscious was exhausting. Still, he’d felt pretty awake, even after Steve had eventually drifted off, and toyed with the idea of sneaking out of their room to check things out himself. Steve was pissed, and holding back, no question. If Tony could just pop out, gather some info, maybe he could come back and wake Steve in the morning with answers. That was appealing, as much as the thought of stumbling around in the dark in a stranger's house wasn’t, but his body apparently decided for him, because in the next moment he was jolting awake in the light of morning. What had seemed in the dark to be a windowless room, actually had several small vents around the ceiling and the sun’s early rays bounced through, assaulting Tony’s eyes.
He groaned and threw a hand over his face, breathing through the surge of nausea that hit with wakefulness. It wasn’t as bad as last night, however, and after a moment he was able to blink his eyes open. The other side of the bed was empty, Steve was gone. Tony pulled himself to his feet, pausing for a while, halfway up, to let the room stop titling violently to the left, and eventually, shuffled down the hall towards the sounds of voices.
Steve was there, seated on a stool, as was a man and a woman Tony could only assume were the owners of the house. All three visibly relaxed when Tony entered the room. He shot Steve a glance, which Steve returned. The man pulled out a stool and placed it directly next to Steve’s, patting it and turning to Tony with a smile.
“Uh, thanks.” Tony shuffled the stool a few feet away from Steve, trying not to make it look too obvious, then sat.
“This is Lula and Rick,” Steve explained. “They’re the ones that found us.”
“Thanks,” Tony repeated. “Appreciate it.”
“You’re welcome,” Lula said, and Tony could hear the unusual accent Steve had mentioned last night.
Rick handed Tony food, bread with some sort of soft cheese spread on it, and a bright red pear. He ate as much as he could, but his stomach was still unsettled and the world still tilted on its axis every time he moved too much, so after a few bites, he handed the rest to Steve to finish. Steve shot him a worried look, but ate without commenting. Lula and Rick were clearly involved in some morning routine of cleaning and cooking. Steve leaned over and whispered, “We need to talk. Come for a walk with me?”
Tony nodded, pushing himself unsteadily off his stool.
“We’re going for a little walk,” Steve announced. “Have a look at the village. Is there anything we can do, or pick up for you while we’re out?”
Lula shook her head with a kind smile and gestured towards the door. Steve walked out and Tony trailed along behind, steadying himself with the doorframe when the ground wobbled under his feet. It was the first time Tony had seen the world they were in, besides a brief glimpse out the kitchen window, but he was too dizzy to take it in. Steve set off for a nearby copse of trees, and some semblance of privacy, but Tony only made it as far as the centre square before he couldn’t walk anymore. His stomach threatened to bring up the small bit of food he had in it and the world spun around him fast enough that his feet were having trouble staying on the ground. He found the edge of a bench with his hand and sunk down onto it, dropping his face into his hands and squeezing his eyes shut until everything calmed.
“Tony?” Steve arrived at his side, a fretful hand landing gently on the back of his neck.
“Alright,” Tony mumbled into his palms. “Dizzy.”
Steve made little, worried noises beside him, but Tony focused on breathing through it. When the world stilled enough that he could raise his head, he leaned back onto the bench and looked over at Steve.
“You need a doctor.” Steve was frowning.
“I’ll be alright. It’s just going to take some time. My kingdom for a fucking Tylenol, though.” Tony pressed his hand to his forehead and breathed a sigh of relief as some of the pain abated.
“You should have said something.”
“I was unconscious for something like six hours, Steve. Let's just be thrilled I can still talk, yeah?”
Steve grumbled something that sounded suspiciously like, “That’s not the part I was most eager to get back,” but Tony ignored it. Frankly, Steve had every right to be pissed off.
“So. Question one: where are we?” Tony asked, desperate to move the conversation away from himself.
“Not Kansas,” Steve said, deadpan.
“I’m a funny guy.”
Tony took a steadying breath, then turned to take in the village around them. Simple houses, simple technology, wells, no cell phones, no TV antennas, no electricity at all. Kids were playing on the grass with a simple hand-made ball. Parents stood in pairs nearby. No cars, no… no nothing. Tony’s hand immediately went to his pocket but it was empty. “Fuck.”
“What?” Steve asked.
“I lost my phone.” Tony tried his other pockets in vain.
Steve started rummaging through his own. “Oh, no, I have it. I tried to use it, but I couldn’t get it to turn on.” He came up with the phone and handed it over.
Tony tried the power switch, nothing. He popped the back off and his heart sank. “Battery’s fried. It’s a brick.”
Steve sighed. “I doubt we would have had service here anyway.”
“Excuse you, I have service everywhere.”
“Even -” Steve swallowed audibly. “Even in the past?”
Tony opened his mouth to reply when something bumped into his foot. He looked down, slowly and carefully, and saw the ball the children had been throwing around. He picked it up and a crowd of children appeared a short ways away, eyeing them uncertainly. A boy at the front of the group gave the two of them a curious smile and walked over. He held his hands out for the ball. Tony held it out then snatched it back, reaching for the child’s wrist instead. “Is that a tattoo?!” There was a smooth, black mark inscribed on the kid’s wrist, too perfect looking to be a marker scribble. “How old are you?”
The boy tipped his head in confusion. “No, it’s Jodi. I don’t know anyone called ‘Tah-two.’ I’m nine.”
Tony and Steve shared a look. “Who’s Jodi?” Steve asked. Tony tipped the boy’s wrist while he spoke and, he could now see that, indeed, the word written there was a cursive “Jodi”.
“Do you know her?” the boy asked. “Mark and Annalise already matched. My cousin in Notenton matched at four, can you believe it? I’m desperate to match, but mum says I can’t go to the fair until I’m eleven which is so unfair. What if Jodi is already allowed to go, and I’m not?”
“What fair?” Tony asked, trying to keep up with the boy’s string of consciousness style of conversation.
The boy ignored him. “I hope mum and dad say I can go there, when we do. I like it here, but I’d like to travel, if they’ll let me. I drew a picture of her, but it’s probably all wrong. Derek is fourteen and he hasn’t matched, but he says that you know what your mate looks like or you see them in your dreams or something, but I think he’s crazy. Is that true?” The boy gazed up at them, and Tony gaped back.
“Uh, I dunno, kid. What do you think?”
“I hope not. I want it to be a surprise. Can I have the ball back? We’re tied.”
“Oh yeah, sure.” Tony let go of the kid’s wrist and handed him the ball. He ran off back to his friends and the game started up again. He looked over at Steve who was watching the boy go, frowning. “What on earth was that about? And who gives a nine-year-old a tattoo?”
“Lula has one too.”
Steve turned towards him. “Lula has the same tattoo. I couldn’t read what it said, but she had one. Words on her wrist. He also said ‘mate’ again. Lula and Rick called you my mate before they knew your name.”
“What the fuck? Is this some kind of messed up arranged marriage thing where the kids get tattooed? It’s bizarre.”
“Hold on, stay here,” Steve said, eyes back on the kids, pushing himself to his feet.
Tony followed the movement with his eyes and everything spun. “Not sure I really have a choice there.”
Steve set off across the green. He crouched down in front of the kids, who all gathered over, but it was too far away for Tony to hear what he was saying. He let his gaze wander over the village again. There were a few couples leaving the village, one on a sort of tandem bike, and a few in carts drawn by the biggest mules Tony had ever seen.
It was an interestingly balanced seeming town. Women and men appeared to be sharing equally in child-watching, leaving town, and working on the small farms that surrounded the houses. A pair of women holding hands wandered by and gave him a smile. He waved back, gripping the edge of the bench for support when his head wobbled back and forth with his hand.
A moment later, Steve reappeared at his side. “They all have them,” he said, slightly out of breath.
Tony eyed him up and down. “What?”
“I said I’d teach them a new game. Kinda showed them a soccer sort of thing, but I kept my eyes open. They all have the tattoos, every one of them. And they’re all the same - black lettering, right wrist, single name.”
Tony’s stomach churned again, though he hadn’t tried to move this time. “That’s disgusting,” he spat, and Steve looked at him sharply. “C’mon, marking kids up? With names of their, what? intended partner? That’s weird as fuck. Parents bargaining their kids like products.”
“No argument from me,” Steve mumbled.
They spent the rest of the day on the bench, only going in when the children disappeared from the grass, and smoke started pouring out of the chimneys. People here only seemed to eat twice a day. Tony still wasn’t hungry though. The dizziness had only gotten worse as the day had gone on, and while he sipped water gratefully while they all ate, he could barely pick at his food.
That night, after Lula and Rick had gone to sleep, Tony asked Steve to help him back outside. “I might be able to tell something from the stars,” he explained. What little of dinner he ate hadn’t sat well, and the dark made him feel even more unsteady, so he leaned heavily on Steve’s arm as they made their way outside. Steve took him back to the bench they’d spent most of their days on, and Tony tipped his chin to the sky. His heart plummeted into his churning gut.
“Well?” Steve asked, looking at Tony instead of following his gaze up to the stars.
“It’s wrong…” Tony said, the words stuttering out with a shaky breath.
“Tony. What year is it? Tell me.”
“It’s not… it’s all wrong. Steve, we’re not in the wrong time… we’re not - we’re not even on Earth.” Nothing about the stars was familiar, a sheet of random holes poked in the black sheet of the sky. The night was perfectly clear, he could see them all and they were… wrong.
Steve was silent for a long time. “So… we’re in space? Thor…?”
“I don’t know. It could be another planet… or… another dimension.” Steve shot him a questioning look. Tony sighed. “My research with Bruce… we were looking at dimensional contact - worlds that touch even outside of convergences… It’s complicated. That’s what I was working on in my lab when you came down - Jane lent me some of her equipment. Basically, this could be another planet, or it could be Earth, but a different Earth, an alternate Earth with no electricity where all the stars are wrong.”
“And kids get tattooed.”
“Well, to be fair, that might not be a feature of the whole world, could just be the culture we’re in here. Who knows? People do some fucked up things to their kids in our world too.”
Steve shifted beside him. “Do you think we travelled in time too? Everything here just feels… the opposite of modern.”
“I have no idea. There’s no way of knowing. This Earth… the timeline could be completely different from ours. Ending up with a million things the same and a million things different. The worlds could touch at different places. It could be year 405,837 here, and it wouldn’t matter. We came through, that means we can get back. We just need to figure out how to make a new portal without the equipment.”
“Really? That simple?”
Tony chuckled without humour. “Yeah. Simple.”
They sat in the cool evening air for a while. Tony was starting to feel the stone seat of the bench rob his heat, and he scooted over a little closer to Steve. The serum apparently made him into a furnace as well as an endless pit for food. The self-righteous asshole-ness Tony assumed Steve had been born with, but the serum didn’t seem to have helped that any. As it was, he was grateful for the furnace quality now, pressing against Steve’s side. If Steve noticed, he didn’t say anything.
Tony knew they should go in, before he got properly chilled, but he didn’t want to move. He didn’t want to think, he didn’t want to worry. He just wanted to sit, with white noise in his brain, and ignore everything for a while longer.
Eventually, Steve broke the silence. “I’m scared.”
And all Tony could think to say was, “I’m sorry.”
Steve heaved a sigh, then stood. He pulled Tony carefully to his feet and led him back in. As soon as Tony laid down on the rugs in their room, he was out.
The next three days were pure torture. Tony’s head started to get better, then his health turned dramatically worse. He couldn’t sleep, he alternated between sweating and shivering, and he snapped every time someone spoke to him. He lay curled up on the bed in their room most of the time, feeling deeply sorry for himself and hating every moment that Steve spent hovering around him, trying to make him feel better.
Steve kept insisting they see a doctor, but it was absolutely futile. There were no doctors, Lula and Rick had made that clear time and time again, and Tony knew it would do absolutely no good if he did see one. “I just need some time,” he insisted, retching into the bucket that was his new best friend, brow broken out in a cold sweat.
“What if there’s internal bleeding?” Steve fretted by the door.
“There’s nothing they can do for me anyway. I’ll get better, or I’ll die. Leave me alone.”
Steve disappeared into the hall with a huff.
Tony gripped the edges of the bucket until his knuckles were white. His stomach rolled again and he gagged, then spat bile out against the bucket’s metal side. He sipped water slowly, not wanting to set off the nausea again. His whole body shook. He wiped sweat off his brow. He closed his eyes and imagined he was back home, in his lab, with his bots, with JARVIS, with the internet.
And painkillers. He coughed, then winced, the sharp movement hell on his raw throat. He hadn’t been able to keep down much food, so everything he threw up was acid, yet his stomach wouldn’t stop churning. And thinking about how shitty this all was wasn’t helping calm his body either. Steve was furious. He hadn’t let it out yet, but it was simmering there. And terrified. So was Tony. He wasn’t one to get particularly homesick, but he knew what it was like to be trapped somewhere, away from everything you knew, waiting to die. His hand automatically went to the metal disk in his chest and he ran a finger along the edge, around and around. He had scienced his way out of that one, he’d do the same here. It was possible, it had to be, to open the portal from this side - he just needed the right knowledge, the right books or person to help him. It had to be possible.
Steve showed up again a few hours later with a bowl of thin broth for Tony to ignore. He sat down on the rugs next to Tony, sitting back against the wall. “How do you feel?”
“Wonderful. This is better than that juice cleanse Pepper made me do. I feel like a whole new man.” He eyed Steve. “Find out anything interesting?”
Steve waved his hand dismissively. “Not really. Rick read some poetry out loud after lunch. It was lovely, but not really helpful for understanding this world anymore. It’s more confusing than anything. There were a few odd themes. Feeling alone or lonely seems to be considered a very childish experience and there’s a lot of talk of bonds, or the power of bonding. It’s very flowery though so -” he shrugged “- maybe I just don’t understand it.”
“They don’t have any other, more down to earth, books?”
“Nope. Just the one of poetry. It’s clearly very important to Rick. He wouldn’t let me see it, but he reads from it fairly often. I do wonder if he wrote them himself. No library here either, I asked. Literacy is pretty basic it seems, though the kids do go to school for a few years.”
Tony grumbled. “We should be doing something, instead of sitting on our asses, watching me throw up.”
“For once in your life, be patient.”
Tony’s patience lasted exactly three days and twelve hours.
He looked up from his overprotective cocoon by the fire to see Steve, Lula, and Rick all gathered around the basic in the kitchen, peeling vegetables, or darning their socks, or some other appallingly domestic shit. It had been raining for a few days and they’d all been stuck inside. Another wave of supreme irritation washed over him and he was on his feet and out the door before he even fully registered what he was doing. He shivered when the warm air of the fire was replaced with cool, evening crisp. He pulled his jacket tighter around himself and made for the edge of the village green. He could slip between two houses, and out into the field. Maybe there, alone, he could suffer in peace for a while. He made it all the way to the long stone wall between the houses.
“Tony!” Fuck. He stopped, trying to make it look like he wasn’t gripping the edge of the wall for support. Steve appeared around the corner. “What the fuck are you doing?”
“Just going for an evening stroll.” Tony turned and leaned against the stone wall, arms crossed.
“Why is everything a joke to you?” Steve hissed. His eyes glowed with barely contained rage.
Tony shrugged and the world lurched to the side. “Better to laugh than cry.”
“How dare you.” Steve’s voice was calm now, steady, and that scared Tony more than the yelling had. He advanced, burning, and Tony stepped back. “How dare you. You sucked me into this. You stranded me here. You pulled my entire life away from me, again. And now you’re risking your life? What if you staggered off into the field and passed out. I would never be able to find you. You’re going to do that? Leave me here alone? How dare you.”
Tony recoiled. “I wasn’t think -”
“No, of course you weren’t. You were just thinking about you. What you want. You can’t abandon me, Tony. I don’t care if you hate me. I do not give a shit right now how you feel about me. But if you leave me alone here, I swear - “ Steve cut himself off
“Steve. I’m sorry, okay? I wasn’t - I just needed to stretch my legs. I was going crazy in there. I didn’t think about it that way.” He paused, feeling the undercurrent of what Steve wasn’t saying. “I will get us home.”
“How can you know that?”
“Will you just trust me?” Tony bit out, and Steve’s face twisted, suddenly looking extremely slappable.
“How can I? You got us into this mess in the first place!”
“You weren’t supposed to be there!” Tony yelled, then swore and smacked his hand against the wall.
Steve reeled back. “Are you blaming me?”
Tony scrubbed his hands over his face. His head throbbed and he was suddenly exhausted. “Look, fine. I’m going back. I’m going to bed. I’m not going to die dramatically in the woods and leave you alone.” He started marching off towards the house. When he looked back, Steve was walking away, towards the trees. Well, fine then, he could be the one that got eaten by bears. Tony didn’t care anymore.
He stumbled back to the house and pushed through the door, instantly feeling guilty when Rick and Lula startled at his loud entrance. “Sorry.” They stared at him, as if they were waiting for something. He shut the door carefully behind him and stood in front of it. They continued to stare. “Are you okay?”
Lula’s eyes flicked back to the door. Rick’s mouth dropped open. “S - Steve?” Lula tried. She looked utterly terrified, and Tony’s heart kicked into double time.
“Wha - Is there something out there? Is Steve in danger? He just went for a walk, he’ll be back soon. We had a bit of a spat. Not unusual for us.”
“I don’t understand,” Lula said, eyes still fixed on the door as if she expected Steve to walk right through it. “I don’t understand.”
“Understand what? Spat? Just an argument. Everything’s alright.”
“I don’t understand,” she repeated.
Tony stepped forward, hands held out placatingly. “Don’t understand what? Is something wrong? Did something happen after I left?” Lula’s eyes snapped to Tony’s face then dropped to the hands he held out towards her. She recoiled violently, smacking into her chair and sending it rocking backwards, horror etched all over her face. She seemed unable to pull her gaze away from Tony’s hands.
“What are you?” she asked, her voice wavering with terror. “What are you?”
Tony backed against the door, pinned by the fear in her eyes. “I don’t - what do you mean? I’m Tony. You know me.” His voice broke into a squeak at the end. Why had Steve chosen this moment to strop off? He knew them better, he got these people better than Tony did. Tony didn’t know how to handle this.
“What are you?”
“I don’t know what you mean. I’m Tony.” He was pleading now, but her expression didn’t change.
“Get out.” The voice came from the other side of the room and Tony spun to face it. Rick was standing there, the huge kitchen knife in his hand, pointing it directly at Tony. His arm shook, and his voice was thready and uncertain, but the look in his eyes was clear. “Get out.”
“Okay.” Tony raised his arms up by his shoulders and backed up until he hit the door. “I’m going. I’m sorry. I’m going.” Keeping his eyes on Rick, Tony reached behind him and lifted the latch. He swung the door open and slipped around it, slamming it shut behind him. His head spun dangerously and he caught himself against the solid wood. After a few breaths, he was strong enough to push away and make for the edge of the trees where he’d last seen Steve. As he stumbled across the grass, he glanced back and saw Lula and Rick, clutched together, fly out of their house and make for the neighbour’s front door. Whatever it was they’d seen, whatever had upset them, everyone would know in a heartbeat. Tony and Steve were alone.
They could never go back.
Chapter 4: "Anna"
Somehow it all makes sense
Steve kicked a rock and watched it skitter away across the dirt. He’d never had so much trouble keeping his temper under control. He had one, sure, a bad one. But he knew when to reel it back and when to let it out. And the time for letting it out was when the team was in danger, when someone needed defending.
This wasn’t about defending someone from a bully, though. This was about one, infuriating, mega-genius asshole getting under his skin. Tony didn’t even have to open his mouth and Steve already wanted to slap it shut again. If he would stop making all the decisions, all on his own, for one second…
Steve slowed his steps, tipping his chin up to look at the web of bending branches above him. Could Tony not give him some time to walk off his anger? Besides, Tony was injured. He should be in bed - where he promised to go not five minutes ago.
“Tony, could you ju- “ Steve cut off as soon as he saw the look on Tony’s face. “What happened?” Tony looked petrified, pale and panicky. He all but collapsed into Steve’s arms. He was shaking. “You should be in bed.”
“That’s where I was headed before Lula and Rick went all Norman Bates on me!”
Tony shifted upright, but most of his weight was still on Steve’s arm. Steve led him over to a nearby tree and helped him slide down against the trunk. He gagged, but nothing came up. Steve crouched in front of him. “What happened?”
“I went back to the house, I didn’t do anything, I just walked in and they freaked out. Rick pulled a knife on me!”
Steve rocked back to sit on the ground by Tony’s legs. “What?”
“I know!” Tony wrapped his arms around his stomach. “I know I can be annoying, but fuck, that seemed a little excessive. Lula kept saying ‘What are you?’ They chased me out of the house. I saw them both running to their neighbours’ right after. Whatever’s wrong, we can’t go back.”
“Shit…” Steve kicked his heel into the dirt. “They didn’t say why? No explanation?”
“No. They went postal as soon as I walked in, staring at the door like it was going to eat them.”
“Okay.” Steve scrubbed his hands over his face. “Okay. We have to move on.” He glanced at Tony’s face, screwed up with pain. “We’ll rest here for a while, and then we have to find the next town. We’ll need food, and shelter. We’re in for a rough night, though.” He spared another glance towards Tony. He looked awful; the concussion symptoms seemed to be getting worse, if anything. The last thing he needed was a night in the woods. He was shivering again.
Steve shifted until he sat against the same tree, pressing his side against Tony’s, trying to share a little of his heat without drawing too much attention to it. Tony grunted but curled in towards the warmth. And if that didn’t show how badly off he was, nothing did.
“Maybe the next town will have a doctor,” Steve said lightly.
Tony coughed then gagged brutally. He shot Steve a sad attempt at a cocky smirk. “Maybe they’ll have a strip club.”
Steve clenched his teeth. “Would you stop being so dismissive?! I know you have the whole, ‘I’m better than medical help’ thing, or maybe it’s an, ‘I deserve to suffer’ thing, but for fuck’s sake, Tony. There could be bleeding. There could be bleeding in your head right now, and I -”
“It’s not the concussion!” Tony snapped, sitting up sharply then pressing his face into his hands and groaning.
“I recovered from the concussion after a few days. That’s not what this is. I know what this is.”
Steve’s stomach twisted. Had Tony been sick all along, even back at home? And not said anything? “What is it then?”
Tony was quiet for a long time, his jaw working, eyes fixed on his lap. “I haven't had a drink in five days,” he said, barely more than a whisper.
Oh. Steve let out a slow breath between his teeth.
“This is withdrawal.” Tony was tense against his side, braced.
“I didn’t know.” Steve felt like he should say more, but he didn’t know what.
“No one does. Last parting gift from dear old Dad, I guess. It’s not the first time I’ve had to dry out. It’ll suck for a few more days, but I’ll be okay. Don’t worry, I’ve been putting the fun in functioning alcoholic longer than you’ve known what a Teletubby is.”
“I still don’t know what a Teletubby is.”
“Have you learned nothing about the 21st-century? I just mean, since you were a kid - would have been a kid - whatever. I’ve been drinking for a long time. Your timeline is fucked up.”
“Look. It sucks, it hurts, I’m miserable, I’ll admit it. But they don’t have alcohol here - trust me, I checked - so give me a little time, I’ll be fighting fit before you know it.” He paused. “And now you know not to, you know…” Tony trailed off.
“Not to what?”
Tony turned his face away and dropped his voice. “Not to bother feeling sorry for me.”
Something twisted inside Steve’s chest. He shifted even closer. “I can still feel sorry that you’re in pain, even if you did it to yourself, Tony.”
“You’re not my real mom. You can’t tell me what to do,” Steve replied haughtily.
Tony huffed, and Steve wasn’t sure if it was a scoff or a laugh. He hoped it was the latter. As awful as it was that Tony was suffering from withdrawal - and that was a conversation that needed to be had back home - it was a profound relief that his discomfort was explained, and not life-threatening. The more he thought about it, the more the tension slipped out of his shoulders.
“Can you sleep for a bit? I’ll stay awake, and keep an eye out for bears, or whatever,” Steve said.
“Or villagers with pitchforks and torches.”
“Right. Sleep, you’ll need it. We have to start walking tomorrow, and I don’t know how long it’ll be before we find somewhere we can get food and shelter.”
The ease with which Tony gave in to the command showed just how uncomfortable he really was. He nodded, then slumped down against the tree. Within ten minutes, his cheek had slid from the bark to Steve’s shoulder, and his breathing had evened out. Steve was pretty sure it was the most Tony had slept since the concussion had worn off, though now he realized the insomnia had been more from the withdrawal than anything else.
So Tony was an alcoholic… A self-proclaimed “functioning” one, but still. How had Steve not noticed? He knew the man drank, he knew he drank a lot, but enough that it put him through days of illness when he stopped? That was a lot. It was terrifying. How often had Tony put on the suit drunk? Did he drive drunk? Build in his lab drunk? Would JARVIS stop him if it got too bad? Would he even call for help?
Tony was the most difficult member of the team, because he resisted actually being a member of the team at every turn. He spent countless hours in the workshop building things for the Avengers, he threw money at them like rice at a wedding, and he always showed up for an Assemble. But he hovered on the outskirts when it came to everything else, avoiding team meetings, skipping out on party nights and hangouts, and managing to have SI business every time they all sparred together.
If he was really, truly honest with himself, Steve hadn’t pushed on that front. As horrific as it sounded, even just to himself, he was mostly relieved when Tony didn’t show up. They couldn’t seem to get through a conversation without it devolving into yelling, and he didn’t want to spend every minute with his fellow Avengers resisting the urge to throw one of them out the window. So he’d let Tony keep himself out of the inner circle, probably even helped push him out there on more than one occasion, and it had never occurred to him that it might be making everything worse.
And now he had this horrible vision of Tony going home and drinking alone every night until he blacked out, while the rest of them ate popcorn and played poker. It was making him feel kind of sick. Tony was a member of the team, no matter how impossible he was personally, and they should have all been making space for him. “Get us back home,” he muttered to the dark trees. “And I’ll do better.”
It was pitch black by the time Tony awoke, the light in his chest the only thing breaking the endless dark. They didn’t speak, simply stood, dusted themselves off, and began to walk. Steve stuck close behind Tony, who held the collar of his shirt down, lighting the path. Steve was sure Tony was cold, but he didn’t complain and he kept up a good pace. Tony stopped once, staggered over to a tree and retched violently for a while, then straightened up, and set off again. Steve said nothing, though his instinct was to fret at Tony about pushing himself too hard - there was nothing they could do about it anyway, they needed to keep moving. If they stayed until morning they’d likely get found by the villagers, and it would take them that much longer to find a new town.
Steve focused on nothing but avoiding tree roots in the dark for a long time, but as grey dusk began to break through the trees, his mind started to wander. Right now, their goals were water, shelter, and food. They could live without food for a while, if they had to, but it was chilly at night, in a way that hinted the summer was nearing its end, and dehydration or exposure could take one or both of them down easily. Once Tony was feeling better, he was probably actually less susceptible to hunger and dehydration than Steve was. He was smaller, more used to going long stretches with neither food nor water, and he didn’t have a super-soldier metabolism to contend with. Steve was starving already and it had barely been ten hours since he’d last eaten.
Still, he could take it, he would take it. And Tony was sick, so if they found food, he should eat first. That being said, they shouldn’t try anything they found in the woods. This world was unknown, and while a lot of what they’d been fed already had looked and tasted at least somewhat familiar, it didn’t mean there wouldn’t be dangerous, but delicious-looking, things growing wild. They needed a town, where they could beg, borrow, or - in a pinch - steal, what they needed to survive. It wasn’t a pleasant thought, but being stuck here wasn’t pleasant in any way. The thought of dying here because he was too noble to nick an apple even less so.
A few more steps and the trees broke, revealing the cleared land of a large farm. The fields were weedy and stone-filled, and the stable roof was damaged in a few places, but there were chickens clucking around the yard and a dog asleep on the porch so someone definitely lived there. Steve and Tony cut across the field and made for the modest collection of buildings surrounding the main farmhouse.
“Do you think anyone’s home?” Tony asked.
Steve took in the dark, quiet windows of the house. “I don’t know.”
“Well. We have three options. We can knock on the door and hope it’s someone friendly that lives here. We can help ourselves to some water from that well, then knock on the door and hope it’s someone friendly - with the added benefit of being hydrated if they turn out not to be.”
“Help ourselves to water, grab a handful of carrots from the garden, and book it back into the woods on the assumption that it’s someone very not friendly.”
Steve thought about it for a moment. “I vote for the second.”
Tony shot him a glance, then nodded. Steve set off for the stable, skirting around the house, heading straight for the well instead. He heard Tony mumble behind him, “Voting, what a novel concept,” but he chose to ignore it for now. As soon as the water hit his lips, it was all Steve could think about. He hadn’t realized how thirsty he was until he tasted it. Next to him, Tony was dipping his hands into the bucket and drinking greedily.
“What are you doing?!” A woman’s voice. Steve spun and faced the end of a shotgun.
“Oh good, they have guns in this world,” Tony whispered next to him.
“What does that mean?” The woman asked, the shotgun pointing without waver at Steve’s chest.
Steve moved his hands into a submissive position as slowly as he could. “We’re sorry. We were lost in the woods. We were so thirsty, we couldn’t wait.”
He heard Tony move beside him and the woman’s eyes flicked to him for a second before settling back on Steve. “Do you have any weapons?”
Everything hung for an endless stretch of time while she considered them, shoulders tense and shotgun steady. Then, with a frown, it lowered. Tony let out a sigh behind him. “Thank you,” Steve said.
“I need to go back inside,” the woman said. “Come with me.”
Keeping their movements slow and obvious, they followed her. She led them into the house. It was nice, but shabby, like it had been impressive once, but hadn’t been kept up well. The kitchen was clearly the most lived-in room, large and clean. She gestured them to two stools on one side of a large wooden table, and she stood on the other. She radiated discomfort.
When she finally pulled her eyes away from them, they fell to a chair in the corner, and Steve realized there was a man in it. He was slumped to one side, his eyes unfocused and unblinking. He didn’t move, and when she stepped over to run her hand through his hair, he didn’t respond. She turned back towards them, eyes hard and jaw set.
“Who are you?”
Steve was so tired. No explanation was possibly going to make sense so he gave in and told the truth. “We’re travellers from another world. We came through a portal and we ended up here. We’re lost, and hungry, and tired, and we just want to go home. I’m sorry we took your water. We’ve been walking all night with nothing.”
“Another world…” the woman echoed, looking back and forth between the two of them. She slid a few steps to the side to stand between them and the man in the chair. Her hand was still clenched tightly around the shotgun, but at least it was pointing at the floor now.
“My name is Steve. This is Tony.”
She took a deep breath, then let it out, her shoulders falling away from her ears. She set the shotgun down on the floor. “Anna.” Her eyes shifted slightly towards the man behind her, but she said nothing. “You don’t -” She fell silent.
“Don’t what?” Tony pressed.
Something in her face shifted, a flash of fear, and she looked years younger. “You didn’t seem upset that I was outside alone.”
Steve and Tony shared a look. “Should we be upset?”
Fear was replaced by deep confusion. “Why wouldn’t you be?”
“We… weren’t upset,” Steve tried.
“I had to.” Anna stood tall, advanced a few steps. Her voice was laced with defiance. “I can go to the edge of the yard. I had to. He’s…” She glanced back towards the man again. “He can’t move and I can’t carry him. I have no choice.”
Steve tried to tease apart what it meant. It made sense, actually, in the way that it made absolutely no sense at all. It explained why they always saw adults in sets of two. Once you were married, or whatever they called it here, you weren’t ever allowed to be alone, for whatever strange reason. Anna’s partner was clearly disabled in some way. She was trapped here with no technology in this world to give him mobility.
“I understand,” Tony said, firmly. “You have no choice. You have to take care of yourself, your husband, your farm.”
“I think it’s very brave of you,” Steve added, and a flicker of something almost like a smile teased at the corners of her mouths.
“Yes, please. Thank you.”
Anna crossed the kitchen, wary eyes still locked on them, and dipped a chipped, ceramic cup into a basin of water. She held it out and Steve reached to take it with his right hand, the sleeve of his jacket riding up to expose bare skin. Anna jerked back, as if burned and her eyes went to Tony. “Your mate has no matemark. What is this?” Matemark. That must be the tattoos. Steve was starting to wonder if this arranged marriage thing was more complicated than they thought.
Tony huffed. “Why does everyone keep calling you my -”
Time for a gamble. “We are mates,” Steve interrupted. He stepped to the side, next to Tony, and, holding his breath, slipped his hand into Tony’s. Tony startled but didn’t pull away, snapping his eyes to Steve’s. Steve tried to send him a message with his eyes alone: play along. “We are mates, but in our world, we don’t have matemarks. We find our mates… other ways. Harder ways. But we want to know more. We want to understand.”
Anna’s eyes dropped to their clasped hands and she visibly relaxed. “You are mates.”
“Of course,” Tony lied easily, fingers twitching in Steve’s grip, and Steve swelled with relief. “We know it makes people uncomfortable that we don’t have matemarks, and we don’t want to upset anyone, so we were hoping you could explain it to us, see how different it is from our world.”
Anna’s eyes flicked from Steve to Tony, then down to their hands again. Finally, she began to explain. “You’re born with your matemark - the name of your mate - on your wrist. Everyone is born with one. I’ve never before met anyone who didn’t have one…” Her eyes dropped to their clasped hands again and Steve shuffled closer to Tony, leaning into his space, making a show of it. She went on. “Parents say they just know what their child’s name is to be. I imagine that’s part of the bonding magic, preparing them to be together before they’re even born.”
“So how do mates find each other?” Steve asked.
Anna’s brow furrowed. “Do you not have Matching Fairs?”
“Uh no,” Tony replied. “We do things differently. We have tindr.”
Steve elbowed Tony in the side, but luckily it escaped Anna’s notice. She blinked at them for a moment. “Matching Fairs, they’re large celebrations for finding your mate. They call out names, there are feasts, events, balls. It gets everyone together to help look. Most people get matched before they mature. Everyone is matched by their 18th year.”
“How is that possible? With so many people, all over the world, surely some people never find their mate?”
Anna visibly recoiled. “It’s not possible. Everyone finds their mate. Everyone.”
“But how?” Tony pressed.
Anna looked confused, clearly struggling to process the possibility that it might be hard. “Your mate is usually close. Most people find them early on at local Fairs. If you don’t you go to the county, then the nearest City Fair. I’ve heard of some people having to travel miles to find their mate, but by the time you are nearing your 18th year, and heading for the City Fair…” She shrugged. “Not many people are left looking. It makes it easier to find.”
“So every adult here is mated?” Steve asked.
Anna looked confused again. “Of course. It’s not possible to not be. All adults are mated. It’s not possible.” She looked back and forth between their faces and their hands again. “Where are you from that you don’t have matemarks? Who are you?”
Tony shot Steve a look. “What about older people? Surely some of them must lose their mates? What happens to them?”
“Lose?” She cocked her head.
“Um, die? There must be some unmated people who have lost their mates.”
The uncertainty in her eyes deepened, and Steve started feeling distinctly uncomfortable. Their play-acting at being mated was being belied by their ignorance on the topic. While Anna seemed barely able to comprehend them being from another world without the marks, anything beyond that was pushing her too far. Tony's hand was uncomfortably warm in his, and Steve wondered if he was feverish.
“You don’t - If one mate dies, so does the other. Is that not true where you come from? Do you not lose your children to matedeath?” To Steve’s surprise, she seemed almost enamoured by the prospect, instead of scared, and he wondered if maybe she’d lost someone herself.
“No… it’s not quite the same for us.”
“I -” Her face twisted with sorrow. She glanced back at her husband, still slumped in his chair. “I don’t think I want to know…”
“Thank you.” Steve leaned forward to take her hand in gratitude, but she flinched back and he stilled. “Thank you.”
“I don’t want you in here.” Her eyes flicked to her husband again. “You can stay in the barn, I’ll give you some food. But - please go in the morning. I don’t...”
Tony held his free hand up, waving away her concerns, and pulled Steve closer. “No problem. We appreciate everything you’ve done for us, really.” Tony shoved Steve over towards the door, and they hovered there while Anna bustled around the kitchen, shooting looks at them and her husband. Eventually, she presented them with a bundle, tied up in a cloth, and shooed them out of the house.
Steve and Tony hurried out of the door. They walked across the yard, headed for the barn. Tony held the bundle tightly in one hand, but his other was still wound through Steve’s. Steve tried to reclaim his hand but Tony pulled him close, gripping tight. “She’s watching us,” he hissed.
Steve resisted the urge to turn back and look, letting Tony pull him along until they were inside the barn. Tony immediately dropped Steve’s hand, then collapsed on a haphazard pile of hay in the corner. He was pale again, and a sweat had broken out on his brow, but he was walking more confidently and pulled open the bundle with interest. Steve let him have first go at the food, relieved he had an appetite, and dropped down cross-legged on the hay, a few feet away. Tony tore off a piece of bread and wrapped it around a slice of cured meat. Then lay the towel out flat between them. Steve’s stomach growled and he grabbed an apple and bit into it. It was sweet and juicy and he instantly realized how hungry he was. They were quiet for a long time, eating and processing what they’d heard.
“It’s why Lula and Rick freaked out - I came back without you. Then they saw the lack of marks. They’d never seen a pair so far apart before.” Tony said, once his makeshift sandwich was gone.
Steve nodded. “It explains a lot. The tattoos on the kids, how the adults always seem to be in twos. It’s bizarre, but it’s all making more sense now. You’re not allowed to go anywhere without your mate.”
“It’s sad,” Tony insisted. “Look at Anna, tied to her house, no friends, no family.”
Steve’s eyes went to Tony’s face, searching, but he couldn’t quite read his expression. “I think it’s kinda nice,” he admitted and the back of his neck heated. “I mean, obviously Anna’s life is very sad and I feel sorry for her, but in general… you don’t think it’s nice to know exactly who you are meant to be with? To be guaranteed there is someone for you, that you won’t have to be alone?”
Tony’s eyes finally met his and there was something twisted and unpleasant in them. “Really? No. I don’t think that would be nice. Spending my whole childhood knowing some poor schmuck was going to get shackled to me for life, all cause they lost the wrist-tattoo lottery? No thanks. Some people should be alone.”
Steve was stunned into momentary silence. “What? You think you deserve to be alone? Just so no one is forced to live with you? That’s… that’s messed up, Tony. If people are with you, it’s because they want to be.”
Tony’s eyes twinkled. He raised an eyebrow. “Oh, really?”
“Okay, well maybe that was a bad example. But, really, I know you think I do, but I don’t hate you. I find you… frustrating. But I’m glad you’re on the team. And of all the people I could be stuck here with…”
“That’s just because I’m the only person on the planet - our planet anyway - who could possibly get you home again.”
Steve shrugged.”Look, just because you and I don’t get along, doesn’t mean you can’t get along with anyone. You don’t have to be alone, if you don’t want to be.”
“Ha. If Captain America The Good doesn’t like you, what chance do you have with the rest of the regular old assholes in the world?”
Steve considered him for a long time, chewing. “You don’t really know me at all, do you?”
Tony’s eyes shot to his, intensely prying, then they dropped. He shrugged. “Maybe not.”
“That’s the first time you’ve eaten that much,” Steve pointed out, sensing the need for a subject change.
Tony shifted down into the hay until he was stretched out on his back. “Yeah. I’m feeling a bit better.”
“Good.” Steve ate the rest of his meal in silence, wrapping up some of the bread and cheese and meat for tomorrow, then he slumped down on the hay beside Tony, leaving careful space between them. The barn was warm with heat of the animals, and Tony was no longer shivering.
“Why do you think they’re not allowed to be apart from their mates?” Steve asked.
“Well, it’s not gendered control. I’ve seen pairs of women, men. No one seems to think it’s unusual for us to be together. Who’s controlling who? Most couples seem to be from the same class or region.”
They both fell silent, considering. There didn’t seem to be a clear answer. The people he’d seen just orbited around each other, and by the sounds of it, Lula and Rick had been more than offended to see Tony without Steve, they had been deeply disturbed.
Tony started squirming after a few moments, and Steve waited. Eventually, he spoke. “That was a good move, pretending we were mates. They clearly can’t handle the idea of unmated people here. She wouldn’t have talked to us, otherwise. Probably would have kicked us out.” He picked up a handful of hay and started twisting the strands together. “Or shot us.”
“We’ll, uh, we’ll have to keep pretending. Around people. If we want to get anywhere in this world.”
Steve’s stomach churned at the thought. He and Tony would have to pretend to be together, not just dating but mated. Never apart, orbiting around each other. He remembered the way Lula looked at Rick and wondered if he could convincingly look at Tony that way. “Yeah.” Tony’s moving hands caught his eye. “We’ll have to keep our wrists covered. That seems to bother people too.”
“Or…” Tony set his hay braid down and rummaged through his pockets. He came up with a Sharpie.
Steve cocked an eyebrow. “Really?”
“It’s too hard to keep our wrists covered all the time. At a quick glance this will at least give the impression of a ‘matemark.’”
“Okay.” Steve didn’t know why he was hesitating. It was just a little bit of ink, it would wash off. But it felt weird. Tony reached over and grabbed Steve’s arm and pulled it across his lap. He wedged the cap of the Sharpie between his teeth and pulled it off then pressed the tip of the marker to Steve’s skin, carefully tracing out the letters of his name. Steve’s breath caught and he watched, perfectly still, entranced while Tony wrote. It felt uncomfortably intimate, having Tony’s warm fingers holding his hand in place, the tickling brush of the marker tip. He didn’t breathe again until Tony released his arm. Steve held his hand up and inspected his wrist. It said “Tony” in even, cursive letters. “You have pretty handwriting,” he said, without thinking.
Tony burst into laughter. “Thanks. Years of boarding school. Do me.” He held the marker and his hand out, and Steve’s cheeks heated. He braced his wrist on Tony’s forearm and focused on the smooth swoop of each letter. It was tricky, with the give of Tony’s skin, the way it caught on the marker tip, and the result was shakier and smudgier than what Tony had done for him.
“Sorry,” he mumbled.
“Ah, well,” Tony said with a wink. “At least you’re pretty.”
The sudden easiness was setting Steve off-kilter. Tony had always joked around and flirted, but it always had a harsh edge to it, usually coming on the heels of some knock-down, drag-out fight between them. But Tony seemed resigned, at least, maybe even comfortable, being stuck here with Steve, and Steve wasn’t sure what to make of it. He was trying to formulate some kind of question, when Tony rolled over on the pile of hay, tucked his hand under his chin, and fell asleep.
Chapter 5: "Pretend"
I hope that doesn't sound too weird
Sleep hit Tony like a freight train. The insomnia of the withdrawal had apparently worn off, combined with the relief of finally admitting to Steve what his problem had been. He dozed most of the day away, occasionally drifting into wakefulness enough to hear Steve moving around the barn. He knew he was locking Steve inside - not able to go outside and risk Anna, or someone else, seeing him mate-less - but he didn’t care. He was so tired. When the light faded, Steve settled in beside him in the hay, and Tony didn’t wake again until a bomb went off in the barn.
Tony leapt up, heart pounding against the arc reactor. The barn was still standing, there was no fire, all was quiet again. “What the fuck was that?!”
Steve rolled over on the hay. “It was the donkey, Tony.”
As if on cue, an ear-splitting bray broke from the stall in the corner. Steve stretched. “We should probably get going. It’s still really early, but you slept all day yesterday and I don’t want Anna to come out to feed the animals and find us still here. She clearly wasn’t comfortable with us.”
Tony tried to breathe the pounding out of his chest. “Who the fuck would want an animal that makes a noise like that?” He took a swig from the water and started picking at the bread as the adrenaline rush faded. “Feels weird to dine and dash. I wish we could do something for her.”
“I think the best thing we can do for her now is leave her be. She’s clearly not conforming to society’s expectations, leaving her husb- mate alone. I think she doesn’t want any attention drawn to her.”
“Fair enough.” Tony wrapped up the remaining food and tied the towel in a knot around it. They hit the well again, each taking a long drink, but it was worrisome, not having anything to carry water in.
“I think that direction is our best bet,” Steve said, pointing. Tony followed his gaze. “While you were sleeping I was watching out the barn door and I saw a couple mule carts go by, heading that way. Pretty far in the distance, but it’s better than wandering around pointlessly, probably going in circles in the trees.”
Tony shrugged. “Whatever. My sense of direction is worse than a moth’s in a lighting store, so I’ll follow you, oh Captain, my Captain.”
Steve rolled his eyes but set off across the field. Tony glanced back towards the house as they walked. He thought he caught a hint of wide, brown eyes through the window, but he tripped over a rock and had to turn to face Steve’s back. Walking was slow, and boring. Tony was grateful that he’d been wearing his workshop sneakers when they came through, instead of his work, dress shoes, but he rarely walked this much in a day and before long his already unhappy feet were screaming.
He distracted himself from the blisters that were almost certainly forming on his heels by reciting the calculations he and Bruce had formed back in the workshop together, a few days and an entire world ago. He didn’t have anything with him with, nothing to write on, and though he was usually able to easily recreate any science he’d seen at least once, he was getting older and having their lives depending on his memory was nerve-wracking to say the least.
Tony got sucked into his mind as they walked, grateful to leave his body to trudge on while he soared with the stars. There was so much he didn’t know. Why had they come here? Why had they come here? Where even was here? Could he find a door back?
“Look.” Steve pulled him out of his cycling thoughts. Tony followed the line of Steve’s arm and saw a collection of thatched roofs peeking out of the trees - a village. They took a moment to freshen up the names they’d drawn on their wrists before they ran into too many people. Tony watched, dry mouthed, as Steve carefully traced the five letters onto Tony’s skin. It was uncomfortable, the pinch of Steve’s fingers holding his wrist still oddly overwhelming. As soon as he was done, Tony snatched his arm back, rolling out the joint and scowling.
They set off again, the thatched roofs growing closer, and with them, crowds of people, all in pairs. Tony drew up beside Steve, feeling suddenly uneasy. This town was a lot larger than Lula and Rick’s small village and Tony’s mind went to the drawn-on matemark on his wrist. But as they wandered the streets, no one seemed surprised to find travelers in their midst. Most ignored them, a few gave welcoming smiles.
“We need food and water but I have a feeling my black card isn’t going to cut it here. What should we do?” Tony asked.
Steve was quiet as they walked through the town centre. “There’s an inn. We can ask what our options are. Maybe we can do some labour for food or money. I’m sure we’re not the first broke wanderers to come through.”
“Hey! I’m not broke. I’m just… temporarily unwealthy.” Of all the things Steve could have done, he did the oddest one: he laughed. Tony turned to look at him and caught crinkles in the corners of his bright eyes.
“Welcome to the working class, Tony Stark!”
“That is the rudest thing you’ve ever said to me.” Steve laughed again and tucked up closer against Tony’s arm. When they got to the inn, he pulled the door open and stood back, holding it open for Tony, who cocked an eyebrow at him before breezing in. There was a couple behind the counter: a woman in a chair, and a man leaning against the wall by a row of key-covered hooks. The man smiled at them as they came through the door.
“Welcome! What can I do for you?” He had a similar accent to Lula’s but rougher around the edges, dropping consonants at the ends of the words. The same sing-songy quality was there though. It was pleasant.
Tony sidled up to the desk and grinned at the man. “Hi there! My mate and I -” He grabbed Steve’s arm and tugged him close. Steve stumbled against him and blushed. “- are from out of town and we’re a bit short of funds. Wondering what people do around here to make a quick buck. If you need any frisbee-shaped things thrown around willy-nilly or something.”
“Tony,” Steve chastised.
The man laughed. “You’re looking to work?” he asked, looking at them with confused curiosity.
“Yes,” Steve clarified. “We’re hoping there is something we can do in exchange for food and a room for the night.”
The woman spoke up from her chair. “Lynne and Helen could use a hand with a few things around the pub and they’ll feed you. We’re not full. If you do a good job for them, you can stay here for the night.”
“Thank you. Thank you so much. Could you point us towards the pub?”
The man gave them directions and they were just turning to go when Tony had a thought. He turned back. “Do you have a library?”
“Yes. Not a big one, but it’s across from the park. You can’t miss it.”
Steve dragged Tony out of the inn and off towards the pub, and it crossed Tony’s mind that Steve must be starving. He’d only eaten half of the food Anna had given them, which even in its entirety wouldn’t have been a full meal for Steve back home. Tony was used to going long periods without food, but Steve wasn’t, and Tony suspected the super-serum had ramped up his appetite, going by the tower’s epic grocery bills. Tony let himself be led and only half-listened as Steve negotiated labour for food. The owners of the pub must have seen how hungry they were because they kindly insisted that the two of them eat first and help later, claiming that they’ll get better use out of them fed.
The meal was simple, but delicious. Warm stew with soft vegetables served over a large piece of fresh, crusty bread. The stew soaked into the bread enough to flavour it with salty broth, but not enough to ruin the crisp crust. They also gave each of them a hard-cased flask and insisted they keep them. Steve filled his with water, but Tony found an interesting drink that tasted spicy and fermented but lacking the kick of alcohol. Tony ate more ravenously than he expected, and he and Steve passed the meal in silence. When their plates were clean, the couple led them around the building, pointing out things that needed to be fixed.
The physical labour was surprisingly nice. Tony was well-fed for the first time in days, and feeling stronger with every passing minute. His 16-hour sleep-a-thon at Anna’s had pushed away the last of the nasty withdrawal symptoms, and he was starting to feel almost himself again. Rehanging crooked doors, patching holes, and sanding wood floors were pleasantly mindless tasks.
The couple asked them to fix the rickety old fence next, but suggested they take a short break first. Steve pointed out that they could spend the break at the library, and Tony readily agreed. To Tony’s disappointment, the library turned out to only be one, small room in the city hall-type building. Steve chatted with the couple that seemed to serve as the librarians-cum-tourists information-cum-mayors? while Tony flicked through the literary offerings.
It was disappointing, mostly kid’s books, and also entirely in a new writing system. Tony started pulling things off the shelves, starting with the books clearly designed to teach young kids to read, then working up from there. Before long he had a big stack tipping precariously in his arms.
“Hey, Tony? There’s a bench by the green there. Why don’t you sit and read while I get started on the fence?” Steve suggested from the doorway.
Tony nodded, and Steve set off, Tony trailing close behind. They didn’t have to check the books out, the librarians clearly flummoxed by the concept. Steve crouched by the first fencepost, while Tony dove in, about twenty feet away. The writing system was an interesting one and Tony found himself sucked into the scientific satisfaction of picking it apart. The sun had sunk low in the sky by the time Tony was interrupted by Steve swinging down onto the bench beside him. He’d barely broken a sweat. “Find anything useful?” he asked, taking a long pull from Tony’s flask then coughing when he realized it wasn’t water. “What is this?”
“Closest thing they have.”
“Is it alcoholic?”
“No. Or at least not for someone with my biology. But it does burn.”
“No kidding.” Steve smacked his mouth open and closed a couple times, then wrinkled his nose and set the flask down. He looked curiously at Tony’s pile of books and papers.
“Okay, so yes. I have found some interesting things.” Tony rummaged through the precarious stack of books until he found a kid’s book called “Me & My Mate”. He flipped through it. “So according to their lore, God, or their deity, or whatever, splits each soul in half and sends each half down to earth separately. So every child born is half of a whole. When you find your mate, you find the other half of you. The glued at the hip thing isn’t from societal pressure, they legitimately don’t want to be apart. It’s all but painful to be more than a room or two away from your mate. And they’d never leave a building without the other, or be out of eyesight when outside. They just… don’t.”
Steve pondered that for a moment. “So Anna…”
“She isn’t just being a rebel, working outside while her partner is in. She’s in constant discomfort. She probably had to work excruciatingly hard to get as far as she does. It’s why there's a perfect circle of care around the farmhouse and everything beyond had gone to ruin. She really is shackled.”
“The thing is, for the most part, they don’t see it as a burden. It’s a deep, satisfying relief to be around your mate. It makes everything feel right. They see the world in pairs. They don’t even have the concepts that we have of individuality, privacy. To them, an individual is a couple. Unbonded kids are half-people because they haven’t found the one that completes them yet.”
“Wow. That’s - that’s wild. How do they see -” Steve cut off, and Tony looked up to see him staring at the book, open in Tony’s hands. “Did you get all of that from pictures?”
“Huh? No. The stories are simple, but they’re pretty representative of the culture.”
“But it’s not in English!”
“It is.” Tony looked back at the page, running his finger over the lines of text. “It is in English, it’s just a different writing system. A semi-syllabary. With a fuckton of diacritics, but who am I to judge?”
“You can read that?”
“Sure. It’s not that hard to pick up.”
“You learned an entire language -”
“Writing system,” Tony corrected.
“- entire writing system in a day?”
“Yeah. I mean I had to start with the ‘A is for Apple’ books. Or rather the ‘Square With a Crooked Hat is for Apple’ books. It took a few hours, but I got the hang of it. If I find anything cool, I’ll give you the TL;DR, yeah?”
Steve cocked his head. “I don’t know what that is.”
“Oh, uh yeah - internet… thing. Too long; didn’t read. It can be something you say when you don’t want to read something, but it can also mean, like a shortened summary. So I’ll summarize, if you like, what I find. For you.” Tony shifted on the bench, suddenly feeling uncomfortable for no discernable reason. He could feel Steve’s stare on the side of his face. Steve was silent, and after a moment Tony turned to look at him, unsure. “What?”
Steve shook his head. “... Nothing. So what else did you find?”
“Not much more than that. It’s just too limited. The entire library collection is basically what they’d need to teach a couple of years of basic school. There is mention of a university though, in one of the books that talks about what you and your mate can do when you grow up. Some couples go to study in the city - Sapstra. There would be more information there. The people here are all working class - they need to read well enough to get through an almanac, not multi-dimensional molecular physics. If I’m going to figure out how to get us out of here, I need as much knowledge as I can. I’m likely already going to have to re-invent the wheel to build the tech to open a portal, I don’t want to have to start with re-inventing fire if they already have that written down somewhere.”
Steve nodded thoughtfully. “Ok. So we need to find the university. Good.”
Steve was always better with a plan to stick to. Tony was pretty sure the man was allergic to spontaneity. But even Tony had to admit that there was something settling about progress. A university would have knowledge, and knowledge was Tony’s best friend. He had the building blocks of the science in his mind already, he just need the mortar to make them stick together in this world where everything was the same and not the same. He might also need some gravimetric spikes but how hard could those be to rustle up? He chuckled darkly to himself and Steve shot him a curious look, but he waved it off.
A minute later, Steve hopped up and crossed the field back to the fence and set to work again. Tony flipped through the last of his books, finding nothing notable beyond what he already knew about this world. He skimmed over the pages, letting most of his mind wander on the topic of gravimetrics and dimensional portals and matter transference. He wouldn’t have noticed the young man sit down beside him on the bench if he hadn’t cast a shadow across the book in Tony’s lap. He looked up.
The man was in his early to mid twenties and had a big mouth that looked like it was always curved into a warm smile. “Good evening.” He had a soft voice, that should have been nice, but set Tony on edge. He wasn’t very comfortable with small talk, let alone small talk in another world.
“Hey.” He tried very hard to look busy.
“Your mate is very handy, that must be nice.” The man said. Tony’s hand clenched around the book of its own accord.
“Uh, yeah, sure, he’s great.” The man’s brow furrowed as he stared at Tony, and Tony wondered if he was missing some cultural thing. The man pointed to another man, shorter and squatter, but around the same age, playing with a young girl in the field.
“Eric is wonderful with kids. I can’t wait until we can adopt our own.” He beamed. Huh. So adoption was a thing. Probably more of a thing, actually. The more Tony thought about it the darker his mind drifted. Matedeath - that meant if you lost one parent, you lost them both. They must have an awful lot of orphans here. The man’s presence was suddenly deeply irritating. “He’s so good at taking care of things.”
Yes, this was clearly some cultural thing, Tony decided. Like moms at the playground boasting about their kids. You talked up your mate to the people you met, proud and happy and more than a little egotistical. For all Tony knew, this was some mate dick measuring contest and this guy was testing him. Well, fuck, Tony knew from egotistical, he could brag with the best of them, even if it meant bragging about Steve.
“I know what you mean, we’re going to have hundreds.” Tony shot him a winning smile. “Steve is great with his hands, isn’t he? I could watch him put up a fence all day. Course he finds other things to do with them at night.” Tony shot a glance over to where Steve was working. He’d shucked his jacket, and his t-shirt was stuck to his back with sweat, the labour finally affecting him. He held an entire fence rail up with one hand while he rummaged around in a bag of nails.
Clearly not hearing the innuendo in Tony’s voice, the man laughed lightly. “I’m afraid Eric doesn’t do much with his hands, but he’s so wonderfully caring.”
Tony chuckled darkly. “Sorry to hear it.”
The man finally caught on, rumbling low in his chest and shooting Tony a look. Tony dropped his gaze back to his books, hoping his crassness would be enough to chase the man away. The shadow deepened and out of the corner of his eye, Tony felt the man lean in closer, looking at his stack of reading material. “Interesting choice.”
“Just trying to choose which books we’re going to get for our hundreds of adopted babies,” Tony muttered, properly annoyed now. “Not that we’re not going for it the old-fashioned way first. You never know, it’s certainly worth a try.”
The man’s frown deepened. Tony was opening his mouth to spout something horrifically innuendo-laden when a new, larger shadow fell across them both. “All done.” It was Steve.
“Hey, sweetheart!” Tony beamed up at him and Steve’s eyebrows shot for the clouds. “Sorry, gotta go!” Tony clapped the annoying man once on the shoulder. “Hope you and Eric get your little ‘problem’ sorted out.” Tony winked, and the man scowled. “Come on, love, let’s get these books back to the library and then you can ‘tuck me in.’” He gathered up his things, launched himself off the bench and hustled Steve off towards the library.
“What was that all about?” Steve asked.
“Ah, just making friends and influencing people. Fence is done?”
“What did you say? That guy looked pissed.”
“I was charming as always.”
Steve rolled his eyes. “Do you always have to be so smart-mouthed?” he asked, half joking and half exasperated.
“Me? You are accusing me of being smart-mouthed? Mr. Why Punch the Baddie When I can Quip First. Mr. on va voir? ”
Steve looked around sharply. “How do you know about that?”
“Your astonishing memory means you write very detailed mission reports.” He cocked an eyebrow. “And SHIELD’s firewall security is laughably outdated.”
“You read my mission reports?”
Tony shrugged, turning away so Steve couldn’t see the bit of heat he could feel rising into his cheeks. “Sure. You’re a gifted strategist. I learn a lot from them. I don’t know if you know this, but I read very fast. But that’s all beside the point. You dumped your helmet, you dropped your only weapon and then quipped, in French, all because you are the drama-est drama queen on the planet, and you have the gall to call me smart-mouthed.”
Steve gestured behind them. “That guy is still glaring.”
“He was an asshole,” Tony muttered, and there must have been something in his voice because Steve let it drop immediately.
“Fence is done,” he said, answering Tony’s previous question.
“Sorry I didn’t help,’ Tony tried, grateful for the subject change.
Steve shrugged. “That’s okay, you were working on more important things.”
“Ah yes, ‘See Spot Run’ is really where I should be applying myself.” They reached the library, and Tony dumped his books in a precarious stack on the counter. They turned back, heading for the inn, and Tony pulled a sheet of paper out of his pocket. “Did get one thing of interest, though. Keep it on the DL, I don’t think I was exactly supposed to pull it out of that almanac.”
Steve took the paper. “Oh! A map. Wonderful.”
“Don't have a problem with me stealing?”
Steve gave him a look then handed the map back. Tony tucked it carefully in his pocket. “Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do to survive.”
“Huh.” As they walked past the bench again, Tony could feel the man’s eyes on them, and he snuggled up close to Steve, suddenly fretting about fitting in. He’d had no trouble making jokes to himself at the man’s expense before, but now, with his nose extracted from study, he remembered that they were in a precarious position here. Steve’s shoulder bumped his. It was weird being so close together all the time. He felt hyper-aware of Steve’s position, and also hyper-aware of everything he was doing, as if Steve was always watching, waiting for him to screw up. He gripped the map in his pocket. They were going to a university. Tony would find the science. Tony would get them out.
The innkeepers gave them a single, silver key - of course - and when they pushed open the door to the room, it only contained a single, carefully made bed. Of course.
Tony sighed. He was exhausted, and he wished he was too tired to care about the circumstances of their upcoming night, but he wasn’t. It was awkward as fuck, hovering here, with Steve of all people, wanting nothing more than to strip down and fall face flat on the sheets and start snoring. But he was never allowed to turn off here. No alone time, no breathing space, no privacy. Just Steve. All the time.
Steve pulled off his pants and t-shirt, leaving only an undershirt and boxers on. Tony did the same, only, having no undershirt, he kept his t-shirt on, not wanting the glow of the arc reactor to keep them awake. There was a basin of hot water in the corner and they took turns cleaning up as best as they could, each suddenly finding themselves busy with the map, or some mundane task to give the other a bit a privacy.
There was a distinctly awkward moment where they both hung there, dressed enough for modesty, but not enough for actual comfort, and eyed the bed, neither wanting to be the first to breach the sheet-covered no man’s land between them. Tony was the one to give in. He’d shared his bed with tons of people he knew half as well as he knew Steve - time to activate Not Giving a Shit. He crawled in, pulling the blankets up to his chin and settled his head on the pillow. A moment later the other side dipped as Steve joined him.
All was quiet for a long time and he wondered if Steve was going straight to sleep but then the other man broke the silence. “I miss microwaves.”
Tony laughed. “You had only just gotten used to microwaves!”
“Yeah, but now I really miss them.”
“I’ll get you three when we get back home,” Tony joked, smiling into the dark that had settled fully around them at some point.
“So who was that guy at the park?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Some random bored guy. I was just being a dick. He wanted to boast about how wonderful our boyfriends were and I was trying to read.”
A thought occurred to Tony, and he rolled it around in his mind for a moment. “You know, I never thought that this might be weird for you - being stuck pretending to be with a guy, I mean. Sorry. If it is. Weird that is.”
“Tony, I’ve dated men as well as women. I don’t mind that.”
Tony blinked into the darkness in the direction he thought Steve’s face might be. That was a surprise. “You’ve dated?!”
Steve chuckled. “Ha ha. Yes, perish the thought that Captain America has sex.”
“Well, shit, that’s a concept. Do they ever make you wear the suit?” He winked, though there was no way Steve would see it in the dark.
“I - I don’t date people as Captain America. I’m just… Steve. I don’t even think most people recognize me out of the suit, really. I don’t have the same kind of publicity you do.”
“I don’t ask for it,” Tony bit out, then realized how sharply it had come out and winced. There was a brief, but tense silence.
“Most of it’s wrong anyway.”
“So you don’t mind being with a guy?” Tony couldn’t help but ask again. It was kind of blowing his mind that Steve had admitted to getting his freak on, let alone getting his gay freak on. How he found the time, between yelling at Tony and fighting sewer-based crocodile monsters, Tony couldn’t imagine.
“Not at all.”
“Just with me, then.” Tony let his smile creep into his voice and got a soft chuckle in return.
“Yeah. It’s just you I mind.”
“Okay, well as long as we have that settled.”
“Go to sleep.”
“Yeah. Okay. Goodnight.”
This is the end of Arc One! Thank you so much for reading, kudosing, and commenting! Arc Two begins next Friday!!
Chapter 6: "Revealed"
“I stand before this faceless crowd”
Tony wanted to leave for the city immediately, but Steve was able to convince him that they should proceed with caution. Transportation was clearly hard to come by and they had a good thing going here. After some lengthy grumbles about being stagnant when they could be making progress, and then even lengthier grumbles about the lack of coffee, Tony gave in. They spent the next few days working, chatting, and researching.
The work earned them money and they started amassing the things they’d need - packs, clothes, extra food. Tony read everything in the small library many times over, but the conclusion was always the same: they needed to get to the university. The map told them where the nearest institution was, a city called Sapstra, but it would be a few weeks of walking to get there on their own power. If they saved up enough money, they might be able to hitch a lift.
Sleeping side by side stopped being awkward after the first few nights, as they fell into a comfortable routine. They were usually both exhausted by all the physical labour anyway and dropped off to sleep right away. A few times, Steve had struggled to fall asleep, and a few times he’d heard Tony get up early and sit on the other side of the room, reading the map by the light of the arc reactor, but all in all, Steve slept well. Or, at least, no worse than he usually did.
They also got to know some of the locals in the town. Leanne and Helen were wonderful and continued to feed them for a shockingly small number of favours. The couple at the library got to know them too, as well as a few other pairs that were around during the day - a few of which had paid them in small, gold chits for helping them out with their own homes and gardens.
Some of the best info was from kids. The kids were largely unmonitored, allowed to roam the village in packs where the eldest watched the second eldest and so on, down the line. They played games and rode bicycles and loved talking to strangers. They also lacked some of the cultural hangups their parents had. Being unmated, they liked to speculate on what it would feel like, where they might go, and when it might happen. Merely by spending time with or near the gangs of children, Steve and Tony picked up a lot of interesting snippets of information. They stayed up late each night, side by side in the dark of their room, weaving the pieces into understanding.
“Matching fair,” Tony prompted one night.
“They seem to happen every few months,” Steve added.
“Start small, county level. Most villages and towns are small enough that everyone local has already found each other. They throw small parties to celebrate. So county-level fairs, maybe a couple hundred people up to a thousand. People write their matemark names down and they’re called out, grouped. Most of the kids don’t really know how that happens, I imagine every level does it a bit differently.”
“It’s not just an opportunity to match,” Steve continued. “They use it to celebrate too. And parents of matched kids meet to discuss their kids’ futures. Seems like parents get to pick where the pairs end up. Some kids go to live with their mate’s parents until they’re old enough, or their new mate comes to live with them. If they’re close enough sometimes they travel back and forth. But once a pair is mated, they’re never, ever separated. So much so that the concept isn’t even one people talk about. Once you’re mated, you’re one being.”
He could feel Tony nodding on the pillow beside him.
These little information dumps had become part of the nighttime routine. They didn’t talk or take notes during the day for fear their oddness would be noticed, but they both picked up different things, made different connections, and it was useful to go over everything so they were both always on the same page. Tony had seemed uncomfortable with it, at first. It had become clear to Steve that he wasn’t sure how to put his knowledge into words and these conversations had been an exercise in frustration for both of them.
Tony had started out skittering around, jumping from one idea to the next, dropping out halfway through a sentence then coming back with the second half of a completely different sentence. It had been a tricky process, but Steve had needed to slow him down, interrupt him constantly with questions, and rewind him back to fill in older thoughts constantly, until he started to get it.
Now, they mostly had it down, or at least Tony had stopped growling every time Steve interrupted him, which was close enough.
“I think it could work to our advantage,” Tony offered hesitantly.
“Yeah?” Steve tried to sound encouraging, pleased that Tony was sounding his ideas out instead of talking about them in Tony Code, or just going for it with no warning.
“Yeah… if there’s one coming up soon - as much as I hate to be stuck here picking not-apples and trimming rose bushes for much longer - if one comes up, people will be flocking there, we might be able to hitch a ride, or offer to chaperone some of the kids whose parents can’t go. It’ll give us cover for strangers with suspiciously smeared matemarks ending up in the big city, as well as possible transportation straight there.”
Steve thought about it. “It’s a good idea. We should find out when the next one is.”
There was a rustling beside him and Steve resisted the urge to turn his head, assuming Tony had turned to face him and wanting to avoid a nose-to-nose situation. “Really?”
“Yeah. Of course.”
“Okay. Good.” Something was radiating across the bed towards Steve, and he wasn’t sure what it was, but it made him uncomfortable. “We’ll ask tomorrow.” He rolled over to face away from Tony and slowed his breathing.
So far, to both their surprise, Tony had been much better than he had at pretending to be mated. Steve was always forgetting and wandering away, leaving Tony to trot after him, calling out some over-the-top nickname to remind him what they were doing. His left hand automatically reached out to wrap around his right wrist, as if he could feel the word transcribed there.
It was so absurd.
The thought of moving to the big city was making Steve more nervous than excited. He knew Tony was eager to get going - and fair enough, he wanted to go home now - but the sheer volume of people, and the less trusting nature that was inevitable in a city setting, was worrying. The people here weren’t looking for trouble, but a crowd of nameless faces? All it took was for one over-curious person to catch a proper look at their wrists, or for Steve to forget again and step too far away.
Steve fell asleep in the middle of worrying and woke up with an unpleasant twist to his stomach. Tony was still breathing softly, curled into a tiny ball on his side of the bed, so Steve slipped out and sat in the worryingly rickety chair in the corner, by the window. He wanted to go out to the outhouse, but he couldn’t be caught outside without Tony so he tried to ignore the pressure in his bladder. He wondered idly how actual mates dealt with all those things. Lula and Rick had always seemed to wake up at the same time, maybe something about the bond controlled things like that?
His mind inevitably wandered back to Anna. For the thousandth time, he wished there was something they could have done for her. If they were back home, Tony could build something for her husband - a wheelchair, something. As it was, there was nothing, and that weighed heavily on his mind.
Steve had only managed to push himself deeper into his unpleasant thoughts by the time Tony stirred, and he greeted him with a scowl which Tony returned automatically. A churning anger threatened to work its way up Steve’s throat and out his mouth, directed at Tony, but he did his best to tamp it down. It wasn’t Tony’s fault. Well, I mean, this whole thing really was Tony’s fault, but Anna certainly wasn’t. And there was no point in dwelling on it anyway. He sighed and pushed out of his chair, nodding towards the door. Tony followed him on auto-pilot as they took turns with the outhouse, then drifted back inside to freshen up for the day.
With their newfound riches, they’d managed to buy a few changes of clothing, razors, soap, and other toiletries. They washed their clothes every couple of nights and hung them by the window to dry while they slept. The clothes were simple and handmade, and it was beyond bizarre to see Tony in something that wasn’t either fitted cotton with a band logo on it, or thousand dollar Armani.
Once shaved and dressed, the two headed outside. It was a cloudy day, which wasn’t helping Steve’s sour mood any, and also likely meant a boring day. There weren't as many couples out in poor weather, looking for help. Tony generally seemed eager for those days off, but Steve didn’t like his hands idle - it made his mind spin.
Luckily, the gang of roving kids was still out and about, likely turned out by their parents to get some peace and quiet. Steve and Tony, in the guise of going for a stroll, wandered by them.
“Hey, Matthew!” Tony called to the oldest as they pulled up. Matthew waved. Steve and Tony had become fixtures here over the last week. Steve knew all the cool games - most of which he made up on the spot - and Tony taught them some pranks they could pull with a handful of nearly ripe bullrushes. It was worth charming the kids, even if it took a lot of time and energy; they were fonts of knowledge.
A few of them wandered over, probably hoping they had a treat to share from the bakery, or a new game to show them. Tony ruffled Andy’s hair obnoxiously. “Hey, remind me when you’re all leaving for the next Matching Fair,” Tony threw out casually.
“Well, some of us aren’t going,” Alexa said pointedly, pouting at her older sister. Nora was going, but Alexa wasn’t allowed to until next year.
Nora spoke up. “We leave in three weeks. I know that off by heart even though someone stole my Archer’s” She glared at her sister and Tony shot Steve a significant look. While the kids were distracted by the squabbling, Tony leaned in to whisper in Steve’s ear.
“The almanac. I completely forgot - it has all the dates for the fairs in it. They’re all like ‘the third Thursday, after the full moon, after the last grain harvest’ or whatever, but we have enough knowledge now that we could parse it out.”
Steve gave him a small nod to show he understood. They chatted with the kids a little while longer, then continued on with their walk, circling back around to the library. Tony grabbed the Archer’s Almanac again and the two of them set off for their favourite bench. It was weird how comfortable they’d become here. Sure, it was grating being stuck with Tony day in and day out, and it was exhausting feeling like they had this secret hanging over them, but the people here were nice, the jobs were easy, and it was beautiful. Steve had realized how much the pressure of modern life rang in your ears until you were free of it.
Though, he’d give his kingdom for a proper shower…
Tony opened the Almanac and tucked it, open, under the side of Steve’s thigh. He turned sideways on the bench, pulling out the notebook he’d half made, half bought, and a scrap of graphite he wrote with which inevitably had his fingers dark and shiny by the end of a research session. His notes were completely incomprehensible - Steve had tried to read over his shoulder a few times - as scattered and half-formed as Tony’s thoughts always seemed to be, but they made sense to him.
He’d been watching the stars, reading everything he could get his hands on, and talking to people and it seemed to Steve that he had a pretty good idea of the physical structure of this world by now. Steve felt uncomfortable that he didn’t have the same knowledge, but he had to be grateful for their evening info sessions and not push for something more. It was hard enough getting this stuff out of Tony’s brain and into his own, moving from cultural implications to physics, geology, math - the stuff Steve didn’t have much of a grounding in - was going to be practically impossible. Tony referenced the almanac, then scribbled in his book for a moment, graphite dust streaking across the page.
“It’s in five weeks,” Tony said, when the calculations were done. His face fell. “God, that seems like a long time. They’ll leave in three weeks, take a week and a half to travel there by donkey cart. Then there are probably a lot of things going on leading up to the actual event. I’m guessing the whole thing lasts a week or two. Make it worth all the travel time.”
“I guess the bright side is, that’s a lot of time to earn money. We could buy passage there, even if no one wants to take us.”
“Yeah. Though, to be honest, I think we’re getting close to tapping this village out. We’ve already done something for everyone, not sure they’re interested in our charity case any longer. As nice as they are, we’re still outsiders. Oh well, I can do boredom. Probably. Maybe. We’ll see.” Tony chuckled.
Steve squirmed on the bench, thinking. That was a long time, and the travel distance was starting to worry him. What if they waited, then couldn’t get a ride and didn’t make it on time? “Maybe we should leave now…”
The smile dropped off Tony’s face. “Seriously?” Tony hissed out. “I thought we had a plan?”
“We have the beginnings of a plan. I was just presenting other options. What if we wait too long and we can’t get a ride there? It would feel safer to at least be a little bit closer, if not in the actual city.”
“You just can’t let something go without having your say in it, can you?” Tony bit out.
“No. Don’t ‘Tony’ me like I’m five years old. You’re a control freak, Rogers, and it’s driving me crazy.”
Steve ran tense hands through his hair, trying to breathe out some of the anger that was building tension in his chest. “It’s not just you on the line here, Stark. We’re both stuck here, we have to agree on things together.”
Tony opened his mouth to speak again, then glanced around them, eyes settling on a couple on the bench that glanced their way. Tony’s hand circled Steve’s upper arm and he guided him roughly across the green and behind a shed, away from prying eyes. “I was the one that wanted to leave right away, but now that’s it’s your idea, it’s the way to go? What the hell?”
“I’m not saying it’s the definitive right choice. I’m just saying we should talk about it as an option.”
“Why do you always want to talk about everything?!” Tony exploded. “I love talking, don’t get me wrong, I can talk for hours - but about interesting things and with peo- with things that get me. I’m sick of explaining everything to you.”
“And I’m sick of you plowing through life at a hundred miles an hour spewing money and nonsense and expecting the rest of us to keep up. The world doesn’t revolve around you, Tony.”
“I don’t want the world!” Tony threw his hands up in the air then dropped them to his hair where they gripped, knuckles white. His voice broke painfully. “I just want to be alone.”
“Fine.” Steve spun on his heel and marched away, the rising tide of anger carrying him halfway across the back lawn before he realized how dangerous it was, walking away from Tony. He slowed his steps; he should really go back…
He turned and saw Tony’s retreating back marching off in the other direction. Steve sighed. He turned and darted into the woods. He could hide among the trees for a while, give them some much needed alone time, then they could meet back up here before returning to town for the night. Steve promised himself he’d be back to where they had split before sunset and trusted Tony to do the same.
For now - if he was going to get a rare hour alone - he pushed thoughts of Tony aside.
To his astonishment, it actually worked. He took a few moments to breathe in the musty chill of the nearly-Autumn trees and with each exhale let go of a little of what he was carrying. It was easier to pretend here, in the woods, that he was still back home on Earth, maybe on a mission somewhere, or camping upstate. Steve slumped down with his back against a tree, facing off into the deep forest. The sounds of the village were muted here, to almost nothing, and he shut his eyes and leaned his head back against the rough bark. He hadn’t realized just how trying it was, being tied to someone else twenty-four hours a day, until he was finally alone.
It had to have been well over an hour when Steve finally opened his eyes and sat up. He felt much better, even though he’d barely done anything but sit, and he hoped the time apart had helped Tony calm down too. Thinking of Tony sent a little jolt of panic through his gut. It was stupid, really, to split up like this without making a plan for reuniting. Instead of acting like teenagers, they should have talked and made a plan for where and when to meet. Steve sighed and tipped his eyes up to the dancing, green canopy above him. Tinges of yellow were touching the edges of the leaves - they should buy cold weather clothes soon.
Somehow, that thought was the most depressing one of all. Even though it hadn’t really been that long that they were stuck here, seeing the seasons change reminded him that time was passing, and they were here, trapped, waiting. He wanted to go home.
Steve hauled himself to his feet, brushing off dirt and dry leaves and stretched out his sore legs. He headed back towards the village, aiming for the yard they had exited through in the hopes that Tony would be waiting for him. But when he broke through the trees there were two figures standing there - the man who Tony had been making fun of on the bench, and his mate, Eric.
Steve sucked in a sharp breath and eased himself back in towards the treeline, hoping he hadn’t been spotted. Luck wasn’t with him, however, the man’s eyes flicked over and caught Steve’s. “Hey, Steve!” he called and began to make his way over. Both men kept their eyes on Steve’s, expressions falling a little as they came closer. Steve knew he was radiating tension, but he tried to school his face into something more relaxed. “I was looking for you guys, Randy is looking for a hand with… the…” both men’s eyes darted around, clearly looking for Tony and feeling uncomfortable that they couldn’t see him.
Steve shifted, jaw tense. This would be the perfect time to appear out of nowhere, Tony. “Oh yeah?” He forced as much casualness into his voice as he could. “Thanks, we’ll go ask him what we can do.”
The couple’s eyes searched on, their brows pinching in unison when Tony didn’t appear. They came back to settle on Steve, tight. Steve had the overwhelming feeling of being deep in the uncanny valley. Suddenly, those people he had trusted and lived alongside were looking at him as if he were other and that made them other to him too.
He drifted backwards a little bit, towards the perceived safety of the trees he had come out of. “He’s here… he’s just… resting.” His brain cast around wildly for a culturally appropriate reason for Tony to not be within his sight while outside, but he couldn’t think of one. They were too far away from the outhouse for him to be in there, and the trees were too far apart and open for him to be near, but hidden. He tried anyway. “He’s asleep, in the woods, but, uh.”
“What are you saying?” Eric cut him off, confusion twisting into concern and then fear. “Where is Tony?” He stuttered around the words, as if the very concept was foreign, and it was, Steve knew that now. They didn’t even know how to conceptualize the fact that Steve and Tony could be separated. There would be no way to explain it. And fear too easily turned to anger.
The two men started moving away from Steve, backing towards the village and the other people. Steve’s urge was to run, to turn and go like they had with Lula and Rick, and not look back, but he didn’t know where Tony was and he couldn’t leave without him. On impulse, Steve reached out and grabbed Eric’s arm, halting their progress. “No. Wait.”
Eric reeled back, trying to wrestle out of Steve’s grip. His eyes went wide when it became clear he couldn’t shake Steve off. Steve tried to keep his grip just tight enough to hold him, but Eric twisted hard, trying to escape and Steve’s hand tightened too much. Eric cried out and a few people looked over from the green. “Please wait,’ Steve begged. But it was too late, Eric’s mate pulled Eric to him, eyeing Steve with terror.
A few of the villagers ran over towards the commotion, and Steve’s heart kicked into overdrive. There was some panicky milling as they tried to figure out what happened then a communal hush as they realized it was an odd number of adults that were gathered there. “Tony…?” Leanne tried.
Steve held his hands up, placatingly. “Don’t panic. We’re just like you, we can just - we can go farther apart from each other than you can. He’s here, he’s close, we just don’t have to be within sight all the time.” His heart sunk as he could see his words were only making it worse. “We’re still mates,” he added uselessly. God, he’d screwed everything up and where was Tony.
“I knew there was something off about you,” Eric’s mate said.
“You’re not human,” one of the villagers said, and Steve could feel a scream of frustration welling up within him.
“I am. We are. We are the same as you. We’re not a threat.” Steve was practically begging now. He saw Leanne take a half step towards him and he reached out towards her. She’d always been nice to him - she liked him. “Please.”
She reached out a hand and gently took his in hers. He sighed with relief then choked when she used her grip to turn his hand over revealing the half-smudged sharpie of Tony’s name. It had been damp in the grass, and after a day in the humid weather it had partially worn off. She stared at it, then dropped his hand as if she’d been burned. As one, the group stepped back, leaving Steve alone, one side of a battlefield facing off against them all.
And as he’d feared, he could see the terror turn to rage, watch it ripple through the crowd as he became a threat all in one breath. They didn’t understand, and that made Steve something they didn’t want in their world. His hands twitched to reach for his shield but he knew it wasn’t there.
He needed to go, to get out of here, but he couldn’t leave without Tony. He staggered backwards, eyes skimming over the top of the angry crowd, searching. But Tony was nowhere to be seen. “I’m sorry,” Steve said uselessly. “We’re not -”
A hand wrapped around his other wrist and he jerked away instinctively, spinning to face the attacker and was met with terrified, brown eyes. “Tony.”
Tony grabbed his wrist again and tugged. “Run!”
Chapter 7: "Travel"
“I’ve heard it all so many times before”
They ran until the breath was ripping ragged out of Tony’s throat and he couldn’t take it anymore. He skidded to a halt, sucking in oxygen as rapidly as he could, hand braced against a tree trunk. Steve wasn’t even winded - asshole.
A few of the villagers had chased them for a while, almost certainly more to make sure they moved far away than any actual attempt to catch them. Tony had seen the fear and aggression in their eyes as he’d circled around through the trees to get to Steve. It was terrifying. He remembered the look Rick had given him when he’d brandished that knife. They acted like finding out they weren’t mated was like finding out they ate children. It was a deep, visceral, fear reaction.
Tony dumped their bags on the ground and sat down hard next to them. Steve circled back the way they had come for a ways - presumably to make sure they weren’t still being followed - then reappeared beside Tony. “Is that our stuff?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Tony huffed out, still chasing his breath. “I ran up to the room at the inn to grab it when I saw them spot you alone. I’d gone around the town and was on the other side of the library. I figured, nicely or not, they weren’t going to let us stay after that. And when I saw it was definitely not, I grabbed our stuff, and then you.”
“Good move.” Steve landed on the ground next to him. “They were so angry.”
“They were afraid. It was the same with Lula and Rick.”
“Guess the plan is shot to shit now, anyway.”
They sat without speaking, the only sound Tony’s gradually settling breaths.
“So. New plan…” Steve said delicately, and Tony could tell he was trying not to set off another fight.
“New plan,” Tony echoed firmly. “We have food, and clothes, and a little money. I guess we walk. We head for the city. If we find places to stop, places with hot food, and water, we can pay, and move on. Yes?”
“Yeah…” Steve sounded hesitant.
Tony hazarded a guess. “You don’t want to be around other people?”
“I’m a little shaken up,” he admitted. “I’m sure it’ll pass, but I’m not minding it just being us and the trees for a while. It’ll be a hard trip though.” He shot a glance at Tony.
“I can do it. So we walk. We have blankets and stuff, we can build little shelters if we need to. We’ll be fine.”
“You have to tell me if you need breaks.”
Tony opened his mouth to protest, to declare that he could do it, keep up, that he’d be fine, but he knew it wasn’t true. Steve could walk for miles longer than he could, and at a much faster pace. His shoulders dropped as he gave in. “I will.” Steve nodded once.
They rested for a while, took stock of their supplies, then set off, this time at a steady, but manageable pace. Steve let Tony drive their speed, keeping pace with him whenever he sped up or slowed down. When Tony stopped for a drink, or to sit for a while - usually under the pretense of studying a map he had memorized long ago - Steve didn’t comment, just flopped down beside him.
When the sun began to set, they set up the best camp they could, with what they had. It was nippy at night, but not dangerously cold, so they each wrapped themselves in a thick, wool blanket and found a sheltered spot to curl up among the tree roots. In the dark, Tony put his hand over the reactor to block out the light and gazed up at the stars. Not for their beauty - the eerie otherworldness of them prevented that - but because with the almanac and the meagre studying he’d been able to do at the library and outside at night, he was navigating by them. It was rough and rudimentary, but it looked like it was working, and at this point, all that mattered was that they were heading north-north-east. When they got closer, there would be roads to follow.
It was the first time in nearly two weeks that they’d been able to separate and they both took full advantage of it. Though they walked close together during the day, at night they drifted farther apart, each carving out their own cozy corner to sleep in. When they stopped for a break, Steve would often wander off into the woods a ways, reappearing when Tony called out that he was ready to move on.
Perhaps the best part was that Tony could now piss on his own schedule.
It was hard work, and Tony was tired. He wasn’t soft - he boxed and he sparred and he piloted the Iron Man armour, which was hard fucking work. He also frequently moved large equipment around his lab on his own. He was used to being awake for a long time and being physical for a long time, but this endless, mindless, dreary walking was a drain, physically and mentally.
Steve seemed to have slipped back into some wartime mindset and was just plowing through, quiet and focused and dedicated, but Tony was tired, and oddly enough, despite spending ten days wanting nothing more than alone time, he was lonely. He missed JARVIS, he missed his bots, he missed the comfort of knowing he could call the armour to him, anytime. He missed Rhodey and Pepper and Happy. He missed Bruce. He even missed the spy twins. In a twist, he kind of missed the way things had been with Steve before - petty banter and heated arguments instead of this awkward, forced comradery. At least then they had been honest.
But they both knew the consequences of not getting along now - two stupid fights, two towns they’d had to bail on. They had to stick together, no matter what. The freedom of the woods gave them the ability to spend some time moving, sitting, or sleeping alone - blessedly alone - but when it came down to it, they were still tied together, and when they reached the city, they would have to pretend again.
Tony ran an idle thumb over his wrist where the “Steve” had faded. They’d agreed to leave them for now, only fixing them up when they were headed into a town to try and save ink. This world had paints, but they’d be awkward and expensive to keep with them. The Sharpie was perfect, but it was limited and it scared them both that it might run out. Luckily, checking matemarks wasn’t a thing people seemed to do much, once you were mated, so at worst, they could pull their long sleeves down and just be really, really careful, now that they understood the risks.
After a few days of walking, eating dried meat and fruit, and spending every evening soaking blisters on his heels, Tony began building an unpleasant resentment towards Steve’s unshakable strength. The super soldier was clearly hungry, but any unlikely soreness that plagued his muscles would heal overnight while Tony got progressively sorer. He knew the sane thing would be to mention it, to ask for a day off, to shift some of his discomfort onto Steve merely by asking for his sympathy, but he was afraid.
He was intensely, painfully aware of how breakable he was compared to the other members of the team. Steve was obviously superpowered, Bruce was nigh invincible, he’d seen Natasha break both her ankles and walk it off, and while Clint was the clumsiest superhero Tony had ever seen, he never seemed to end up seriously injured. They all had decades of training, or genuine superpowers and Tony was a squishy human, who had spent the first four decades of his life coddled in affluent softness, and had only recently decided to wrap himself in high-tech tin foil and throw him into this heroing business.
It was terrifying and he loved it so much he was sure he’d break if they took it away. If he showed too much weakness, if he made it clear he was the bottom rung of a very tall ladder, with everyone else smushed up at the top, they might realize they were better off without him.
So Tony pressed on, his feet screaming at him by the end of day four, but he learned to ignore it. He knew he’d adjust eventually - as long as none of his weeping blisters got infected. They’d managed to refill their water flasks with comforting frequency for the first two days - a few times in a clear, cool lake they had to make their way around, then sneaking onto a farm to use the well, this time thankfully not ending up with a shotgun to the face - but day three yielded no opportunities for water, and by day four, they were both painfully thirsty. For the first time, Tony was grateful for the cooler weather since he would have lamented any loss of moisture to sweat. They both slowed down in the face of dehydration which might have been a bad choice, since it would just take that much longer to find water.
To Tony’s surprise, it was Steve that called for a break first. He disappeared between the trees for a minute, and Tony left him to do whatever it was he had to do. He was too uncomfortable to sit, knowing how hard it would be to stand up again, so he wandered around the area where they had stopped. The trees broke into a small clearing, and he couldn’t help but smile at the change of scenery. Tall grass waved serenely in the little pocket of bright green amongst the browns and yellows of the woods. A copse of familiar looking stalks caught Tony’s eye and he walked over to them. Tall, thorn-covered branches grew out of the ground, then folded over again to touch their noses to the dirt, and on each one a mass of juicy, pink berries.
“Steve!” he called, mouth wanting to water but failing. When Steve didn’t appear, Tony plucked a handful of the berries and set off back for the trees, only to bump into Steve coming out of them. “Steve.”
“Raspberries!” Tony held out his hand.
Steve’s brow furrowed. “Did you eat any of those?”
“How can we be sure they’re the same in this world?”
“We can’t. But there are notes about them in the almanac, the timing is right, and we ate berries that look exactly like this at Lula’s. They’re food, and they’re moisture. We need it, Steve.” And then feeling reckless, he looked up into Steve’s uncertain eyes. “Trust me.”
Something shifted in Steve’s expression, and Tony couldn’t quite tell if it was surprise, pleasure, or frustration, but after a moment he gave a sharp nod. “Me first. If they’re poison I have a better shot at surviving it.”
“Fine.” Tony held his hand out and held his breath. Steve ate two and waited. After a few minutes, and nothing had happened, they went to the bush and collected as many as they could, using a shirt as a sort of berry basket between them. Even though he was parched and verging on desperate, Tony resisted eating one, knowing it would likely take a while to see a result, but after an hour, and with a full shirt of berries between them, he couldn’t resist it any longer.
He picked up a perfectly plump raspberry and popped it in his mouth. It was sweet and tangy and oh god so juicy. After so long without water, it was torture to have the sweetness drying out his tongue, but the juice was moisture that his body needed. He ate them carefully, only using one at a time to stave off dehydration, aware that there was still a chance they were poisonous, and also that his tortured body might reject a sudden influx of new food.
It was still early, but by some unspoken agreement they settled down in the clearing with their bounty, lying closer than they had since they’d taken to the woods. They flattened out a circle of grass, then settled down in it like wild dogs - Tony’s head at Steve’s feet and vice versa. They both lay on their backs, looking up at the slowly darkening sky.
They didn’t talk much but the silence was companionable instead of tense for the first time in a long time. When an eerie howl broke out from deep within the woods, and Tony shifted a little closer to Steve, Steve was polite enough not to mention it. Tony fell asleep with his eyes full of stars and his ears full of the gentle rush of grass swaying in the wind.
Despite feeling like his mouth was full of dust, and his joints were rusted shut when he woke up, Tony had an odd kind of energy the next morning. The berries hadn’t caused any side effects for either of them so they ate with more enthusiasm now. The small amount of water, and probably simply the variety alone, was enough to get them up to their feet and moving again. After only a few hours of walking, they heard a familiar rushing sound and both pushed forward through the trees until they found the creek. It was small here and eighty percent mud, but they only had to follow it for a few minutes before it opened out into a vigorous, flowing stream.
Tony staggered down the bank and crouched low over the water, dipping his hands in. It was beautifully cool and refreshing. “Oh my god, this is the best water I’ve ever touched.” He filled his hands, then dipped his face to them to drink. “Or tasted.” There was a scramble of rocks and Steve appeared beside him, doing the same. They drank - too fast at first, then slowing when their minds took over the begging urges of their bodies - then sat back on the bank, gasping.
Once they felt human again, they set off walking, following along the creek. It got wider and wider as they walked, and when it broke into what one could reasonably call a small river, Steve stopped.
“You okay?” Tony asked.
Steve shot him a careful glance, then his carefully-schooled expression fell into one of deep longing. “I would really, really, like to wash properly for the first time in a long time.” His cheeks pinked a little, and Tony couldn’t help a chuckle.
“I’m completely in agreement there.” Eager, they both started shucking their packs and clothes right there on the bank. Steve, having been experimented on and then in the army, had exactly zero body modesty - Tony knew this from experience - so he wasn’t surprised when Steve stripped completely bare and marched out into the water without hesitation.
Tony, for all his dalliances, was less confident about baring all, especially with the arc reactor embedded in his chest. He moved more slowly, wondering if there was a way he could justify keeping some of his clothes on. They did need a wash, but it was only midday and they should get some walking in before nightfall so they wouldn’t have time to dry, and shoving wet clothes in your pack was a bad idea.
Tony finally shook himself and pulled his shirt and boxers off with determination, then stepped out into the water. Steve was a ways away, eyes politely diverted, rinsing his hair out with a bar of beeswax soap from their pack. Tony moaned when his hot, peeling feet hit the cool, fresh water, biting his bottom lip and trying not to sob. It was perfect and horrible at the same time and he wondered if he was ever going to be able to shove his feet back in his shoes after this.
It took him a long time to work his way into the water, the cold bite of the rushing water a bit too much to throw himself into all at once. By the time he’d managed to dip his hair in, Steve was done washing and he tossed the soap to Tony with a splash, then paddled out to the bank where he sat, half in the water, half out and tipped his chin up to the sky with a smile. Tony took the opportunity to shoot a few glances Steve’s way. His bare chest twinkled with water droplets, catching the midday sun between the overhanging willow trees and jesus christ that serum had done a good job.
Sure, Steve pissed him off, and being stuck here with him was less than pleasant, but it was the first time Tony had really taken the opportunity to objectify his teammate and damn. In another life, perhaps all their snapping and fighting and arguing could have turned into some really decent hate-sex, but this experience was definitely going to put the lid on that ever happening. Though, now that he knew Steve was into men, it was kind of hard to get the idea of out his head.
A certain part of Tony’s body agreed, and he was deeply distressed for a moment - worried he was getting some sort of Stockholm syndrome being stuck with one person all the time - before he realized just how long it’d been since he’d taken care of that particular need. They’d been stuck together, with no shower, and not enough time in the outhouse, then they’d been walking and Tony had been too tired. He wondered if that’s what Steve was up to sometimes, when he wandered off into the trees.
For now, Tony willed his dick into complacency. This water was too clear to get away with a surprise boner and it was awkward enough that they were practically bathing together. Later, he promised himself, later he’d take care of it.
Once he was clean, and they were both dry, they set off again. It was a struggle getting his feet back in his shoes, but he managed. They got a few hours of walking in, following along the creek, until the sun dipped low towards the horizon, and they decided to stop for the night. While Steve unpacked his bedroll and snacked on dried meat and raspberries, Tony snuck off into the woods for some alone time. Feeling his hand wrapped around himself was sweet relief and it didn’t take long to find release. He groaned as he came, his hand gripping into the bark of the tree he leaned against. It had been far too long.
That night, curled up only a few feet away from Steve on the banks of the creek under a willow tree, he slept the best he had since they got here.
The next few days went well. They passed near the evidence of a town, but skirted around it, then came back to the creek to keep close to the water. Rehydrating gave them both a burst of energy, as did dipping in the water every few days to clean off and refresh. Tony wouldn’t have admitted it for all the vibranium in Wakanda, but his little trips off into the trees to spend a little time with his right hand - or his left to mix things up - were helping as well, easing some of the tension from his shoulders.
Tony woke up early the next morning, and Steve was still breathing softly beside him, wrapped in his blanket. They’d gravitated back towards sleeping side by side, ever since their night in the raspberry clearing, and Tony was surprised to find it a comfort instead of an annoyance. Tony kicked his shoes and socks off, then rolled his pants up and dipped his feet in the nearby creek. They’d finally toughened up, adjusting to the punishing pace, trading out his blisters for callouses. They still hurt most nights, and most mornings, but it was the dull throb of muscle pain instead of the acute burn of tearing skin.
The water was still nice, though, and Tony splashed around, enjoying a little time to be silly with no one watching. He wandered down the creek, using the smooth, round, creek rocks to rub out the soreness in his arches, until he came across a log with a brightly painted turtle on it. At least, a turtle was the thing from home that it was most like. Intrigued, he moved closer, watching the unusual reptile sun itself. It had a turtle shell but it was arched up in the middle, like a piece of paper that had been pinched together, and it had six legs instead of four.
The ripples from Tony’s movements hit the log and it wobbled, dislodging the turtle which dove into the water, to his disappointment.
Then the log woke up.
It spun violently, spraying water into Tony’s eyes and snapping its jaws open. Tony fell backwards with a yell, landing on his ass in the cold water, then stumbling backwards as he tried to escape, and stand up at the same time. The creature reared up and turned towards him and Tony saw it was the same kind of crocodile beast they had faced in the sewer back home. He had no time to wonder what had brought it here, before he was surging backwards, out of the way of its terrible jaws.
He remembered too late that the creature could spit acid and as he dove to one side, it twisted to follow him, opening its mouth wide, and sprayed.
The hot bite of the creature’s bile seared into Tony’s thigh, burning through his pants in a moment and ripping into his skin. He cried out again, hands smacking to his leg as he twisted in pain. It whited out his vision and churned up his gut. God, it burned.
A hand hit his side once, then harder, slamming him down into the water. He came up, spluttering to see Steve, standing over him, yelling at the beast and waving his arms. When it shifted back a few feet, surprised, Steve bent and grabbed a handful of rocks, throwing them with Captain America precision into the thing’s mouth every time it snapped. It backed off again, half-lunged, got a rock to the face and ultimately decided they weren’t worth it, turning its spiked tail and trundling off down the creek.
Steve’s hands were instantly all over Tony. He shoved Tony roughly into the water, and he realized a moment too late that Steve was trying to wash the acid off. Tony fought it on instinct, but he had nothing on Steve’s serum strength and Steve held his body underwater easily, until Tony figured out why, and relaxed. Steve’s hands flitted over the wound on his thigh.
“Are you okay?” Steve didn’t give Tony time to answer, hauling him up to his feet and manhandling him back up onto the bank. “Take off your pants,” Steve said in a rush, face twisting with concern, eyes locked to the threads of Tony’s pants around his thigh. He shoved Tony towards the grass.
“Wow,” he joked weakly. “Bit forward, aren’t you, Rogers?” Tony fumbled with the buttons on his canvas pants.
Steve caught his eye and the frown softened to a smirk, the edges still curled back with barely disguised worry. “Well, I’ve been sleeping next to you for weeks and nothing. Don’t you think I deserve a little show?”
The words pushed a bark of laughter out of Tony’s chest. He knew Steve was trying to distract him by being silly, but hey, it was working, he’d take it. He finally scrambled out of his pants and sat down hard. The cold immediately began seeping into his butt, and he shivered. “You think this is good? At home I’ve got - I've got outfits and - ergh - props.” Steve guided Tony’s hands down around his thigh and squeezed them there until Tony was gripping on his own, then he ran his own lower, skirting around the wound, testing it.
The water had washed the acid off well enough that it wasn’t still burning through his skin, but the wound was angry and red and Tony tipped his face up to the sky to avoid looking at it. Steve manhandled his leg, doing painful things with wet fabric and his fingers. Every time the cloth disappeared, then came back, cool and wet, Tony sighed in relief, but then Steve would start picking and brushing again, cleaning the wound. As hot as the burn was, he was starting to shiver, from the combination of the shock wearing off, and the cold, wet grass under his bare legs. His hands lifted away from his thigh and wrapped around his middle unconsciously.
He looked back down, and Steve was looking at him intently, his fists braced on either side of Tony’s lap, leaning in to look closely at Tony’s face. “Yeah?” He knew his voice was kitten-weak, but he felt utterly drained, freezing cold and burning up at the same time, like a fever radiating out from his thigh.
“You’re shaking,” Steve said gently.
“C-c-cold.” A shiver shuttered up his spine, from the ground to the back of his neck, rattling his teeth in his head and jostling his leg painfully. He hissed. Steve disappeared for a moment then returned with some blankets and all the shirts from their pack. He helped Tony struggle out of his wet clothes and then into all the other shirts, first his own, then Steve’s larger ones on top, then had him lift his hips so he could tuck the blanket underneath his butt and wrap it over his legs, careful to leave the burned area uncovered.
Tony nodded. Steve ran his hands roughly up and down Tony’s upper arms, rubbing warmth back into them. Tony sighed out a breath, willing his body to still its quivering and sink into the heat of the extra layers. Steve seemed satisfied that the burn was clean enough and left the soaked towel over it, the cool water soothing. They sat in silence for a while, Steve changing out the towel every time it warmed too much.
Tony looked over at the creek. That was the same kind of crocodile thing they’d seen back in Midtown. What were the odds that -
“Steve.” The constant panic of being stranded in another world uncoiled itself from Tony’s gut like a waking python and wound its way through his stomach and chest, squeezing his lungs. “Steve.”
“What? What’s wrong?” Steve’s hands automatically went to the towel on Tony’s leg, but Tony stilled him with a hand vise-gripped around his wrist.
“It’s the same crocodile thing.”
“Yeah, I noticed.”
“There’s - how could it? Now - there’s no other way it could. Oh my god.”
Steve snapped his fingers in front of Tony’s face, drawing his attention to those cool, blue eyes, hard and focused on Tony. “Spell it out, Tony.”
Tony swallowed, sorting, organizing, filing his thoughts. He took a moment to compile everything into a mental Powerpoint so he wouldn’t miss anything.
Slide 1: “The creature came from here originally. Its burrow was in the creek, it fits in here. Now that I’ve seen it, some of the drawings I’ve seen in kids’ books make sense. It’s native to here.”
Slide 2: “That means that the one that came through, the one we saw in the sewer, it came through a portal, just like we did. But a natural one, not one we created with the spikes.”
“So… that means there’s a way to come through naturally? A place we could find a portal that already exists?”
Tony shook his head. “No way. I mean, not unless we’re unbelievably lucky. It’s too hard to trace with the exactly nothing we have equipment-wise. So we’d just be running around chucking rocks and hoping they disappear. And then hoping we got the right portal.” Tony ran his hand over his face.
Slide 3: “No. What it means is that we didn’t hop to another dimension because I ramped up the power on the gravimetric spikes. We ended up here because our worlds were already touching. We were in the middle of a convergence we didn’t know about.”
Steve could clearly sense that Tony was gearing up for something unpleasant. His jaw tensed and his hands clenched in his lap.
Slide 4: “I can’t be sure, but if we were in the middle of a convergence, it means the worlds had moved close enough to touch, which means they’ll eventually move apart again. Steve. There’s a good chance we’re on a time limit here for ever getting home again. It might already be too late.”
Chapter 8: "Solved"
“That dance around your head.”
It was a horrible night.
Steve didn’t sleep at all, and he was pretty sure Tony didn’t get much either. Of course, the weather decided that this would be the night it turned properly cold. Steve wasn’t at risk, but he was deeply uncomfortable, and there was nothing he could do about it - Tony needed all the blankets they had. Tony’s body had apparently decided that all energy reserves needed to be redirected to healing his leg, which left him unable to stop shivering. It was incredibly dark. They were tucked back in deep tree cover so they could hardly see the stars, and the light of the arc reactor was extinguished by several layers of fabric.
Steve listened to Tony shake and make uncomfortable noises for over an hour before he gave in, slid up beside him, and pulled him against his body. Tony was burritoed in layers of clothes and blankets and had no choice but to slot against Steve’s side, one arm wrapped around Tony’s shoulders, holding him tight. Tony tensed at first, then gave in with a sigh, tipping his face towards the warmth of Steve’s chest. It was a long, long time before the shivering subsided. Steve hoped that the still quiet of the form against him meant that Tony had finally drifted off.
This was where it could all go so wrong. It would take the mildest of infections to put Tony into deep trouble. They had no antibiotics - he would be stunned if this world even knew what those were - and no way to clean the burn beyond what Steve had awkwardly managed with a dirty towel and creek water.
Steve had seen too many strong men felled by stupid things back in the war. A bullet to the gut, sure that made sense, but a blood infection from a cut finger? Pointless. There wouldn’t be anything he could do, though, if Tony got sick from this. Steve was helpless, useless. He huffed a frustrated grunt into the dark then snapped his mouth shut when Tony whimpered beside him.
Despite the jokes and bravado, he knew it must hurt - a lot. Heck, even having Tony admit he was cold showed just how bad it was. Tony could have a harpoon stuck through his foot and still insist that he could armour-up and fight. And because of that, Steve felt like he always had to be stalking him, checking him for damage, forcing him to slow down and heal. Clint and Natasha knew the risks of letting an injury go unchecked, and they always took themselves to medical eventually. Tony would pour scotch down his throat, then over a gash the size of the quinjet, and suffer quietly, alone in his workshop until it healed on his own. Steve had tried to push it, tried to figure out exactly what it was about getting medical care that Tony was so opposed to, but Tony brushed it off every time.
And now… a time limit. It had never occurred to him that they might have a brief window for escape. Granted, he didn’t really understand the science at all, but Tony did, and Tony thought their chance was limited - maybe they’d even already missed it. To be stuck here forever… to lose his whole life all over again…
Tony shivered, one short, sharp, whole body shudder, and the movement travelled through his body and down Steve’s spine. How could they survive here? They could barely make it a week in a village before they outed themselves as mateless freaks. To stay, settle down, build a life? They’d be inexorably tied to each other for the rest of their lives. And then when one of them died and the other didn’t...
Steve stayed awake all night, holding Tony close and letting his thoughts circle darker and darker. When Tony eventually shifted against him and groaned, Steve released his hold a little and shuffled to the side, giving him some space. “How do you feel?”
“Ugh. Way worse than I should.”
The darkness had lifted somewhat, and Steve tipped Tony’s chin up to get a look at his face. He gave in to the touch for a moment, then shook it off, squirming awkwardly up into a half-sit, still encased in blankets. He was pale, but not ashen anymore, and he grimaced at the movement but didn’t fall back down. “I’m sure the lack of food and all the walking these last few days isn’t giving your body many resources to help you heal. You should eat something, if you can.” Steve held out the pack, and Tony rummaged around, coming up with dried mystery meat and the last handful of raspberries. He held them out, but Steve shook his head.
While Tony ate, Steve worked the blankets apart, manhandling Tony’s leg free. Tony shot him a look, but let him indulge his mother henning side, for now at least. The burn was an angry red splash across his thigh. Ragged and uneven, it looked like the worst rash imaginable. To Steve’s surprise, however, it did look relatively clean. Steve’s panicked wash out last night must have worked out better than he thought. Tony hissed when he tentatively poked the skin nearby, but last night he’d been nearly insensible with the pain, and today, he just looked deeply uncomfortable.
“How much does it hurt?”
Tony chuckled without humour. “Oh, you know. Like someone’s boring into my leg with a power drill.”
“Fuck.” Steve rubbed his hands over his eyes.
“I’ll be alright.” Even Tony’s bravado sounded a little shaken.
“We need something. Burns are risky, and they keep hurting for a long time. We need something to soothe it, something antibiotic to prevent infection. Tony, we need to go back to the last town. It was only a few hours walk behind us.”
Tony opened his mouth, snapped it shut, then leaned back on the heels of his hands, considering Steve. “We can get by on our own. There’s a plant - an aloe type plant. Leanne had some. They use it for cuts and scrapes. That would work. We might be able to find some?”
“Does it grow wild?”
“... I don’t know.”
“Yeah.” His shoulders drooped. “Okay.”
“Yeah, we should go back. We need food anyway. We can stock up, get some first aid stuff, then skedaddle again.”
Steve carefully folded the blankets back over Tony’s leg. “Before, you were the one that wanted to find towns.”
Tony shrugged. “I guess I’ve gotten used to us being on our own.”
Getting Tony dressed was awkward and painful, but they managed to wiggle him into his loosest pair of pants. The morning sun was bright and warm, and for now, the chill seemed to be banished. Steve filled both flasks with fresh water, took both packs onto his back, then helped Tony up, his bad leg between them. It was slow and awkward, Tony leaning heavily on Steve’s arm and half-walking, half-hopping, but they made progress. Tony was silent for the walk, teeth gritted tightly together and his eyes on the ground. Steve assumed he was focusing on moving forward so he wouldn’t have to focus on the pain in his leg.
When buildings appeared in the distance, Steve halted them. “This time, if we need time apart, we need to talk about it and organize it. Not blow up and storm off. That’s on both of us. Okay?”
“Yeah. I’m good though. Now.” Tony leaned a little heavier on Steve’s arm. Steve nodded then set Tony down and pulled out their pack, extracting the Sharpie from the bottom. Tony held his arm out, and Steve carefully traced over the faded letters on his wrist. Tony did the same for Steve, a little shakier than usual. They rose again, and pressed on, towards the buildings.
This town was clearly much bigger than the last. A small wooden sign on the roadside proclaimed it to be “Notenton”. People bustled in pairs down cobbled streets, hardly giving Steve and Tony a second glance. There were horses, or at least horse-like creatures, here as well, drawing carts and in small fields behind the houses. A few of the buildings boasted more than one story and the evidence of more advanced technology was everywhere. Steve stopped a friendly looking couple and asked about a doctor and they directed him to a building at the end of a long, twisted street. The small druggist had pots and jars and tablets of remedies, mostly extracted from plants, and to Steve’s relief, the aloe-like plant was one he grew. He sold them a small pot of green paste and gave them directions to one of the inns in the town.
Alone in their room - this time with a small attached bathroom instead of the outhouse - Steve dumped Tony out on the bed and started stripping him down without preamble.
“Geez.” He batted Steve’s hand away and worked his pants over the injured leg himself. “A little bedside manner wouldn’t hurt.”
“Sorry.” Steve applied the salve, keeping his touch as clinical and detached as he could. He already knew Tony was embarrassed by being fussed over, he didn’t want to make it any worse.
Another trouble with their fake bond became apparent pretty quickly. Tony had healing to do, and walking around was painful and pulled at the skin around the scabs, but without Tony, Steve couldn’t go anywhere. If they didn’t have to pretend to be mated, Steve could be out buying supplies, scouting the city, maybe even earning a little more money. As it was, he was as stuck here as Tony was. They spent the rest of the day relaxing in the room, Tony sprawled out on the bed and Steve in a chair by the window, trying to learn as much about the town as he could from his limited vantage point.
“God, I’m bored.”
Steve chuckled and turned away from the street to Tony’s still form on the worryingly small bed. “I can ask the crocodile to come back. That was pretty interesting.”
“Or you could entertain me.” Tony tipped his chin towards Steve and cracked an eye. A cheeky smirk floated across his face.
Steve was so caught by Tony smiling that he grinned back, wide and open. Tony’s eyebrows went up, but then he laughed lightly.
“How’s the leg feeling?”
“So much better. That stuff is amazing. I think I’m a little loopy on the lack of pain.”
“Well, enjoy the high. We’re going to have to move around tomorrow - get some supplies.”
“If we’re going to have to spend a lot of time sitting around, it’d be nice to have some books.”
Steve nodded, turning back to the window. “Yeah, we’ll see if we can find the library - if it’s not too far.”
The room fell silent again, but not for long. “What do you think the others are doing?” Tony asked, sounding hesitant.
The tower seemed a million miles and a million years ago. “Probably trying to figure out where we’ve gone.”
“I bet Brucie does the science, bless him. God, I hope no one else got sucked through.”
That was a horrific thought. “Could that have happened? Wouldn’t we have seen them?”
Tony shifted on the sheets and bit off a groan, his hands hovering over his thigh briefly, then falling back down. “Not likely. But anyone could have poked the buttons and gone through somewhere else. I assume all the spikes were still functioning.”
Steve tortured himself with that possibility for a while. They passed the rest of the day surprisingly comfortably. They chatted - Tony about his work back home, Steve about the lighter side of the war. Steve was surprised by how interested he was in Tony’s current projects. Some of the things he was designing and building for SI were incredible - revolutionary technology that was going to save lives. It was fascinating. And, stuck here, Tony was forced to slow down a little and explain. Steve stopped him every time he didn’t understand something and Tony backed up and explained. He seemed startled, at first, but it became clear that he was so pleasantly surprised to have someone genuinely interested in what he was doing, that he didn’t mind taking the time to talk it out. He also wasn’t being interrupted by a bot, or an AI, or something going “bing” every two minutes, either, which definitely helped him focus.
They both slept heavy and long, the light sleep of the cool woods apparently having caught up with them, and it was well into morning when they rose. Tony’s leg was a little better, and after another slathering of the balm, which Tony felt well enough to apply himself this time, they got him dressed and headed out into town.
They filled their pack with food, some to be eaten fresh, and some that would keep in case they had to leave in a hurry again. They bought some heavier clothes and an extra blanket since the nights wouldn’t be getting any warmer. Tony also bought some fire making supplies - little balls of wax and a flint starter. He also bought gunpowder, despite it being hard to find here. Guns seemed to be something that farmers had, but the city-folk were happy with their police force. Steve asked if he thought they ought to get a weapon too, but Tony was happy with the gunpowder. Steve wondered if it was to actually serve some purpose, or if Tony merely gravitated naturally towards chemicals that went boom.
After shopping, they found the library. Tony’s leg was clearly bothering him again, he winced when the fabric of his pants rubbed against his thigh, and his gait was hitching and uneven, but he was desperate for books, and Steve knew that the more he had to occupy himself, the longer he’d stay still to heal.
This library had a checkout system, but all they had to do was sign their names in a large book, which they did. Tony left with a huge stack of texts that Steve couldn’t read and a big smile on his face.
Back at the room, Tony spread his collection across the bed, pants off and freshly salved leg airing out, while Steve took up camp by the window again. A book landed in his lap with a thump.
“I thought you might like that,” Tony said.
“But I can’t -” Steve picked the book up and opened it. It was filled with charcoal sketches, mostly portraits and anatomy studies, but the occasional landscape or building. They were haunting and ghostly and beautiful. “I - thanks.”
“You’re into art, right?”
“Plus, no words. Though I could teach you, if you want. To read this, I mean. It’s not hard.”
Steve looked up and Tony was giving him one of his rare open, honest looks. “Thanks. But I think your time is better spent sorting this out. Even if I could read it, I wouldn’t be much use, not knowing what you’re looking for.”
Tony waved a hand as if it was nothing. “I’m sure you’d pick it up quick, Cap.” Then he looked up and met Steve’s eye, his expression shifting into unsure. He fiddled with the book for a moment, while Steve stared, feeling like there was something happening here that he couldn’t get a proper hold of.
“Um. Thanks,” he finally got out. Steve dropped his eyes back to the book of sketches and Tony let out a soft sigh and dipped back into his books.
They were silent for a long time before Tony made a squeaking noise of delight. “Good news!”
Steve looked up from his book. “Hmm?”
Tony had that manic gleam in his eye that usually meant he was about to spew nonsense at sixty miles an hour. Steve caught his wild gaze and held it, willing him to take a breath and think it through. “So it looks like the convergence with our world only happens once every hundred years.”
Steve spluttered. “Wha - what? Why is that good news?!”
Tony held up a finger. “Because. When it does happen, it lasts for almost a year - ten months - and based on these accounts, it usually starts in the summer and ends the following spring. It’s only fall now, we have plenty of time.”
“We have time?”
“We have time.”
“So the only constraint is getting to the Matching Fair?”
“Yeah, and that’s not really a constraint, is it? I mean it’ll be convenient, for blending in, but even seeing how less personal this town is compared to the last, I don’t think we really need to worry about it. I think we should beeline for the city, and then we have months to figure out the science, build things, whatever.” Tony tipped his head to the side a little, and Steve realized he wasn’t telling, he was asking. Tony was offering an option, talking it out, waiting for Steve’s input.
“Yeah. Yeah, that’s great. What a relief.” Steve let out a heavy breath and leaned back in his seat. They had time. They were going to make it home. “You’re right. Beeline for the city. If it looks threatening, we can hold back and wait for the fair, but in all probability we just have to get one of your feet in the university and they’ll feel the science radiating off of you and let you do whatever you want.”
Tony chuckled. “Not if they get a hold of my records from MIT.”
“Oh yeah? I assumed you would have been a perfect 4.0 the whole way through.”
Tony waved a hand dismissively. “Oh sure, I meant the other stuff. The fun stuff.”
Steve leaned back in his chair and cocked an eyebrow, suddenly feeling playful. “What ‘fun stuff’?”
Tony tossed the book in his lap aside and stretched out his good leg. “Oh you know, like the time me and my engineering graduate class took apart our professor’s car and rebuilt it around the flagpole. Or when Rhodey got so frustrated at me pulling all-nighters in the lab and forgetting about double dates that he physically pulled me out of the lab by my collar and someone thought we were fighting and called the police. That kind of stuff.” Tony grinned, proud, and Steve couldn’t help but laugh. Tony never talked about his younger years. It was… nice.
Tony healed over the next few days. The burn was still an angry red pattern over his skin, but he said it didn’t really hurt anymore, and his gait returned to normal. They started spending their days at the library, and their nights sleepily heavily in the safety, quiet, and warmth of the inn. Steve realized with some discomfort how easy sleeping beside Tony had become. They’d pretty much given up on modesty by now, and the varying sizes of beds often meant they were pressed up close. When Tony slept deeply, he was wild, all limbs and elbows and snoring in your face. Steve had simply… adjusted.
He’d wake up, shove Tony off of him, wash his face, get dressed, then toss Tony’s clothes at him until he stumbled out of the sheets, blinking and grumpy, holding out his arm to be re-sharpied. The lack of coffee had never ceased to be an issue for Tony, though the lack of alcohol didn’t come up again. Steve imagined that while the booze had been a chemical dependence, the caffeine was a psychological one that was harder to get over. Tony had managed to find his morning zip the few times out in the woods that they'd been woken by a worrisome howl coming too close, but the cozy ease of the inn meant he was a pouting, rumbling, snappy mess for the first few hours of most days. To his consternation, Steve was started to find it a little bit endearing. He tried not to think about that too hard.
They switched inns every few nights, to help maintain their anonymity, though some couples at the library were starting to recognize them. After a particularly long day with Tony’s nose in books and Steve feeling staggeringly useless, he suggested they go for a walk and eat out at a restaurant or pub that night.
They wandered through the streets, Tony walking easily on his own now, looking for a place to eat. Warm light and the plinking of string instruments spilled out of a doorway at the end of a quiet alley, and without a word, they both drew towards it. It turned out to be a pub, small, but packed with happy eaters. It smelled like spices and that fermented juice that seemed to get the locals happy and goofy, but had no effect on Tony. They shoved in, and Steve couldn’t help but smile at the friendly atmosphere. They ordered dinner, simple and hearty, and Tony ate more than Steve expected which pulled a little more tension out of his shoulders.
The two half-hearted musicians in the corner were soon joined by a full band and when the sunlight disappeared from the windows, they broke into a rousing set. The music was quick-tempoed and light and reminded Steve of Irish folk music. A few of the tables were pushed back to make a dance floor and the young ones in the group got up to dance. Everyone was singing and clapping and laughing, and Steve’s cheeks started to get sore from all the smiling. Tony got up to bring their dishes back to the bar and refill their drinks, but the crowd immediately expanded to fill the gap he had left. The room was already packed before they’d pushed the tables up and now everyone was elbow to elbow. Despite his Captain America aura and a few pointed looks, people filled in the spaces around him, and when Tony elbowed his way back through the crowd, there was nowhere left for him to sit.
“Sorry,” Steve leaned back to yell in Tony’s ear.
Tony grinned back mischievously. “That’s okay, we’re fitting in, right?” And he sat down on Steve’s lap.
Steve’s breath immediately froze in his lungs and his hands stilled, floating away from his sides, but not knowing where to go. Tony was warm and solid in his lap, curling in towards Steve’s chest to keep from pressing against the table in front of them. His face was turned towards the band, a faraway smile dancing across his face. There were lots of pairs around them doing the same, making space for others by only occupying enough for one, but Steve felt like there was a spotlight on the two of them. As if someone would see his red cheeks and lost hands and know right away that they were faking.
The worst thing was that Tony seemed wholly unaffected by the bizarre closeness. Sure they’d accepted a certain amount of inevitable touching at night, and after Tony had been hurt, Steve had held him to keep him warm, but beyond that, and the necessity of drawing on each other every morning, they didn’t touch each other much. When Steve thought about it, though, it wasn’t that Tony wasn’t a touchy person, he just didn’t touch Steve. Every time he entered the workshop, Tony seemed to have an arm slung around Bruce’s shoulders or a hand on his wrist. He hugged Rhodey constantly, and despite them being broken up for months, he spent an awful lot of time holding Pepper’s hand. He even touched Natasha all the time, which most people were too terrified to do.
Steve tried to go back over the last week and figure out what was new. Tony’s injury was the only thing that could be a catalyst for the change, and Steve couldn’t see why. And it was more than the touching. Tony was talking more, taking his time to work things out with Steve, grabbing an art book so Steve wouldn’t be bored; he was being… friendly…
Tony shifted on Steve’s lap and it sucked Steve’s thoughts sharply back to the present. Regardless of the reason why, he had a lapful of warm, well-fed, happy Tony and it was deeply uncomfortable, but it was also kind of cozy. Struck with a sudden boldness, Steve let his hands fall, one to Tony’s back and one to his knee. Tony didn’t move, or acknowledge the touch, and as the night went on, and he showed no signs of relocating, Steve settled deeper and deeper into what he could only call a “cuddle” in his head.
They stayed out way too late, spilling out into the street with the rowdy crowd at something horrible o’clock, then slept in. Tony insisted on a bit of ‘hair of the dog’ which involved filling both their flasks with the sharp drink everyone had been drunk on last night and sneaking it into the library with them.
They took over their regular table, spreading out books and pamphlets and papers that all meant something to Tony and nothing to Steve. Tony had explained some of what he was reading, but it had mostly gone over Steve’s head, and he urged Tony to stay deep in Science Mode. The faster he figured this out, the sooner they could go home, even if it all made Steve feel horribly superfluous.
As the day dragged on, the light thinned, and the other patrons disappeared. Steve hardly noticed them, absorbed in his modest stack of art books. Tony tucked the collar of his shirt under the bottom rim of the reactor and used the light to illuminate the books when the sun dipped too low and the candle on the table was no longer enough.
This evening, Tony was muttering to himself a lot, repeating “gravity” over and over, eventually abandoning his drink to scribble symbols furiously in his little handmade notebook. Steve was deeply absorbed by a new book of sketches when Tony leapt to his feet knocking everything on the table wild.
“What?!” Steve grabbed his flask before it could spill.
“I have it. I have the key. The thing. The key to the - the thing. I have it.”
“Right.” Tony crowded up into Steve’s space, shoving up against him on the bench and wrapping both his hands around Steve’s arm. “I have it in my chest, ” he hissed.
Steve’s eyes dropped to where the patterned blue glowed through his thin shirt. “The reactor?”
“Yes! I don’t think I even need all its energy output - that’d be enough to transport this whole damn planet back to Earth, which would be really inconvenient when it landed in the workshop and created a black hole. But anyway, it’s the battery I need to make an electromagnet strong enough, and large enough, to open a portal. And supplies, I need supplies. But all things we can get from the big city, I’m sure. I’ll have to wire myself up, I’ll need some sort of switch I guess, and we’ll have to find a weak spot, but that shouldn’t be too hard - maybe something to track the bending of the fields… I’ll need a book on magnetic fields here…physics, there’s not enough depth...”
“Tony.” Steve grabbed his arms and gave him a little shake to get his attention back. “TL;DR.”
Tony laughed out loud at that, giddy and euphoric. He took Steve’s face in both his hands. “We’re going home.”
“Oh god.” Steve’s breath caught, it all suddenly feeling so real. “When?”
“I still need to get to the university, but once we’re there, assuming I can get access without too much stealing… maybe a few days? A week?”
“Oh my god.”
Tony pulled the neck of his shirt down again, spilling soft, blue light in Steve’s eyes. “And this little baby is going to save us!”
A massive hand curled around Tony’s face from behind and tugged. He flew backwards off the bench, eyes wide, hands ripped off Steve’s biceps. The half-second it took Steve to process what was happening, was a half second too long. There was a sharp shock to the back of his head, and the world disappeared.
Chapter 9: "Persuaded"
“Stumbling from one disaster to another”
CW: This chapter is the first reason for the explicit rating and not for the fun kind of stuff. There's violence, injury, and graphic imagery in this one. Feel free to poke me on tumblr if you want spoilers or non-graphic details before reading.
Tony fought. He kicked out and squirmed, elbows, feet, knees, teeth anything. But they rammed a burlap bag over his head and pulled it tight, while a cord found its way around his wrists and bound them behind his back. A hand under each of his arms dragged him backwards and he struck out with his feet. A loud grunt and a painful jolt on his injured leg let him know his kick had connected, but the grip on his arms didn’t lessen.
“Steve!” he tried. There was no answer. Fuck, where was Steve? Why wasn’t he answering? Who were these people? They wouldn’t try to separate them, would they? He cried out again, half untempered frustration and half fear. “Fucking assholes! Put me down.” There was a sharp blow to the back of his head and he was fiercely reminded that only a few weeks ago he’d been throwing up from concussion. He slumped into the bindings, breathing through the roll of nausea, and let himself be dragged along.
He was unceremoniously tossed on a hard surface which started leaping and bouncing a moment later in a way that made it clear he was in the back of a cart. He shoulders screamed at the abuse, slamming against the hard floor. There was another body trussed up beside him, but he couldn’t tell if it was Steve or not, and there was no reply no matter how many times he called his name.
What seemed like hours later, the cart stopped and he was hauled out and dragged. He felt like he should have been counting turns, or memorizing noises and smells, like they did in spy movies, but the movement of the cart had been too wild and painful to decipher and all he could smell was the musty inside of the burlap sack and his own sweat.
Up a flight of stairs, down a hall, then Tony was dumped on his knees and the sack was ripped off. He sucked in fresh air, not realizing how oxygen-starved he was until he inhaled. When his head stopped spinning, he looked around. All the room contained was a large, sturdy, armchair, and a heavy wooden crate. There was a single window with iron bars over it, and a fireplace that was crackling away merrily, in stark opposition to the harsh emptiness of the rest of the room.
The other person was deposited in the chair and Tony let out a groan of relief. “Steve!” Steve’s head lolled against his chest, slumped in the chair. He was unconscious. “Fuck.”
Tony finally got a look at the people who had taken him. There were three men and a woman in the room, all dressed in crisp, blue uniforms with gold badges pinned to their chest. They looked like some sort of police or military. “Who the fuck are you! Where the fuck am I? What the fuck did you do to Steve?!”
“He’s loud,” one of the men said, lip curling into a sneer.
“I’ll show you loud,” Tony muttered under his breath, eyes flicking back to Steve. Please wake up, please wake up.
“Good. Then he won’t have any trouble telling us what we need to know.” Their accents were a little different from the ones he had heard before, longer vowels and cut-off the consonants at the ends of their words. Tony wondered how far they had travelled in the cart.
One of the men drew closer, and Tony recoiled back onto his knees. One hand went to his chin, gripping it too hard and tipping his face up and away from Steve, the other to his chest, fisting a handful of his shirt. Tony waited for the pull, the hit, the yell, but to his surprise the man yanked his shirt down, revealing the arc reactor. “How does it work?” the man snapped.
Tony gaped at him, confused. This was about the reactor? He was sure it was about their fake bond. His eyes flicked to Steve again, but he hadn’t moved. “What the fuck?” he hissed out.
“How. Does. It. Work?”
Tony writhed in his grip. “Fuck off.”
The fingers on his chin tightened. “You’ve trapped magic in your chest, how?” He rapped a knuckle against the glass surface of the reactor, and Tony recoiled, nauseated. Don’t touch it, don’t touch it, please don’t touch it. He felt the blood draining out of his face and pooling in the bottom of his stomach, hot and acidic. The small burst of relief that came from realizing they didn't know about the fake mating was dwarfed by a massive wave of panic. They wanted the arc reactor. This was Obie all over again. They were going to touch it, they were going to take it. They were going to rip his heart out of his chest. His eyes found Steve again, pleading silently with him to wake up.
The woman appeared at his side, blocking his view of Steve. She tucked close against the man’s side. Perfect, they were evil, police mates out to steal his arc reactor. Tony faked a confidence he didn’t feel. “Look, the whole intimidating, tie me up, and demand things from me schtick doesn’t really work so well anymore. I’ve been there, done that. Done it once with a car battery strapped to my chest and once with a stylish Dora the Explorer watch. You can’t really top that.” The couple stared at him. “You don’t even know what either of those things are.”
He was expecting the slap, but it didn’t make it hurt any less. He spat, thankfully blood free, and stretched his jaw out.
“He’s not going to answer,” came a new voice from the back of the room.
The woman grinned at Tony, sharp shark-teeth guarding the gaping cave of her mouth like so many stalactites. “We have to at least give him an opportunity to keep it simple.”
“No, we don’t.”
“You’ll get your chance,” the man with the hand on Tony’s chin said. “I don’t think he wants to tell us.” He leaned in closer. “Did you trap a demon in there?” Another rap and a low, rumble started in Tony’s chest.
He growled at the man, “Touch my fucking chest one more time and I’ll bite your hand off.” That slap, he hadn’t seen coming. The man stalked off to the other side of the room, while Tony shook sense back into his head. The group of four muttered together for a while, too quiet to hear, and Tony’s attention went back to Steve. They must have hit him really hard to knock him out that well and that was a concern in and of itself because no one here had any way of knowing what extremes Steve could take. That information, at least, they’d managed to keep under wraps.
“Fine, they’re all yours,” the woman said to the other couple. “Don’t damage the cage, though. We don’t want to let it out by mistake.”
Wow. They really did think he’d trapped a demon in his chest. Huh. That was - really, that was pretty cool. Fuck knows he wasn’t ever calling it a “glorified pacemaker” again, this was his Demon Cage. The woman and her mate slipped out of the room, leaving Tony and Steve alone with the other couple.
“Is this the part where you try and beat it out of me?” Tony asked, hoping he could keep up cocky long enough for Steve to wake up. “Cause I gotta warn you, my stamina is epic - just ask my mate there - and this cage is pretty sensitive. You never know. Might crack it by mistake and then demons everywhere. And you know you can never properly get demon out of the carpet. Stains like a bitch.”
To his surprise, the couple ignored his ramblings. They popped open the lid of the crate and started rummaging through it. They came up with a huge handful of bindings between them - thick, braided leather straps that made Tony despair. They looked strong enough to handle even Steve’s superstrength if they had him tied tightly enough.
And of course, they knew what they were doing. They strapped his limp body to the chair, hitting all the pressure points to give Steve as little leverage as possible. If they’d been on the start of their journey, and Steve had been well-fed and at the peak of his strength, he might have been able to break them, but now, Tony doubted it.
The man Tony decided to dub Moe, crossed the room and grabbed a bucket from under the window. He shot a look at his partner - Larry - then dumped the contents of the bucket over Steve’s head. Steve shook awake, sputtering the water out of his mouth, and stared around the room, wild-eyed. He struggled hard against the restraints, but, though they squeaked ominously, they didn’t break. Finally, his eyes fell on Tony and all the fight went out of him. He slumped in the chair, eyes fixed on Tony’s, brimming with grief.
I’m okay, Tony mouthed, and Steve gave the smallest of nods. “They want the reactor,” he added out loud, and Steve’s eyebrows shot up.
“You’re going to teach us how to use the magic and how to trap a demon. You will. We’ll squeeze it out of you.” Moe leaned over Steve’s chair and took his chin in his hand. What was with these people and grabbing chins? “We’ll squeeze it out of you using your mate.”
Tony’s blood ran cold. He opened his mouth to tell Steve no, he wouldn’t, he’d find a way, he’d show them the reactor, whatever it took, but Steve said, “Tony,” low and calm, like he was asking if there was any coffee left in the pot.
“Steve you can’t. They’ll -”
“Hey. Serum,” Steve offered a shaky smile. “I can take it.”
Moe and Larry laughed, like someone being able to take it was the funniest thing they’d ever heard, and Tony felt like screaming and breaking things. Preferably their asshole faces.
At first, there was no finesse. Larry and Moe took turns essentially beating the crap out of Steve. It was rough, and bloody, but it was superficial and Tony knew Steve was okay. They shared a look whenever they could, Tony holding Steve’s gaze every time Steve met his, because if Steve was going to suffer through this for both of them, Tony wasn’t going to look away.
When the two men realized that what they were doing was having little effect, they ramped it up. Larry sliced Steve’s shirt off and tossed the rags aside. A metal tool with a sharp, bowl-shaped end came out of the crate next. Moe pressed it against Steve’s chest, and Steve took several rapid breaths in a row, then held it as Moe dragged the tool down his side, scraping skin off as it bumped over every ridge of his ribs.
Tony bit his lip to keep from screaming. It was nauseating, watching them rip Steve apart and being able to do nothing. Even if he was inclined to give in to their demands, he had nothing to offer them.
The two men continued shredding Steve’s body until Tony realized that the only light in the room was coming from the fire.
Moe went to the crate again, and Tony whimpered, terrified of what was coming next, but when he pulled a spool out of the crate, Tony’s heart skipped a beat. Copper wire. It was beautifully thin and practically glowing with conductivity. Tony wanted it. He was slammed with a wall of guilt when he realized he was coveting their torture implements - or whatever he planned to do with that stuff - but with the power of the arc reactor, that wire, a bit more knowledge, and a few other supplies, he could do it, he could get them home.
A pained noise from Steve brought him back to the present, and he watched as Moe tossed loose coils of the wire into the fire in a vaguely threatening manner, while Larry dragged a line of chain and a lock out of the crate. He crossed the room to Tony, slapped him upside the head again - presumably just for fun - then bound the chains around his ankles, locking him to a ring in the floor.
“Have a good night,” Moe said, grabbing his chin again, grinning cruelly. “Maybe in the morning you’ll feel like cooperating.”
“Fuck you and your chin fetish,” Tony spat out. Okay, that slap had him spitting blood, finally.
The door slammed shut with a heavy clang. Silence followed, neither speaking, Steve’s eyes shut, head tipped forward, Tony’s pinned to Steve, unable to look away.
“Steve…” He hadn’t even realized he was saying it until Steve’s eyes snapped open and he met Tony’s gaze.
“Hey.” Steve swallowed heavily. His voice was rough and ragged. “I’m okay.”
“Don’t you dare!” Tony burst out with a sudden wave of misplaced anger. Steve’s eyes went wide, but he said nothing. “Don’t. You’re not okay. Just be - just be not okay, Steve? Please?” He wasn’t sure why it mattered so much, but it did. Like if Steve wouldn’t admit to being in pain when there were fucking tracks dug in his chest, how could Tony ever trust him to be honest? What if things were really bad and Steve wouldn't tell him?
“Sorry.” Steve’s expression softened; he wouldn’t let Tony look away. “Tony. I meant I will be okay. They didn’t do any permanent damage. I’ll heal. Yes, it fucking hurts.” He chuckled softly. “I wasn’t trying to - well, maybe I was. Sorry.”
Tony let a harsh sound rip out of his chest, all too similar to a sob, but mixed with enough sheer frustration that he thought he had masked it alright. “Those fucking assholes. Who do you think they are? Police?”
Steve gave a half-shrug, restricted by the ropes, then winced. “Seems like. Something like that.”
“Alright. Well.” Tony looked around the room. “I’m going to get us out of here.”
A smile broke across Steve’s face. “I don’t doubt it.”
And that lit something warm and flickering deep in Tony’s gut. He looked away, feeling the heat make its way to his face. Steve did not need to see him blushing. Especially since he was still tied up, and they were both bleeding, and it was all too weird.
A sharp tug on the chain at his feet showed that Tony could get a couple of feet of slack. The captors had dumped Steve and Tony’s packs in the corner of the room, by the door, after digging through them and finding nothing that interested them. He had a goal. “If I can just -” he wriggled awkwardly across the floor, dragging the chain along with him. After a few feet, his shoulder was screaming in agony and he stopped for a moment, rolling onto his side to ease the pressure. He looked up and his heart skipped a beat. Steve was slumped in the chair, neck and shoulders completely lax.
“Steve?!” Tony tried pointlessly to struggle towards him but Steve’s eyes shot open again and Tony’s heart restarted. “For fucks sake.”
Steve gave his head a little shake. “Sorry, I -” Steve sucked in a painful sounding breath. “Is it… is it okay if I sleep for a bit? I think all my energy is going towards recovering from this and I can’t -” He choked off.
“God, Steve, of course. Sleep. I’ve got this.” Steve nodded gratefully, then slumped into the chair again, making “sleep” look a lot like “passing the fuck out from pain”.
Tony grit his teeth and started wriggling backwards again. If Steve could get melon-ballered and last this long without passing out, Tony could deal with a little back pain. There was a clink and a tug on his ankles as he ran out of chain. Shit. Two feet too short. He wasted some time squirming around and tugging and twisting, trying to get close enough, but to no avail. He sat up and looked around the room again. There had to be a way to - there. A set of tools for the fire. The rack was all the way on the other side of the room so he had to awkwardly caterpillar his way back across the hard wooden floor. He tried knee-walking - or rather, knee-shuffling - for a while, but that was even worse.
He had to fall onto his side and shift around, reaching blindly for one of the pokers with his hands behind his back, but eventually, he managed to get his fingers around it. Moving back with the poker in hand was even worse, and the fire was low and the room dark before Tony made it back. The next part was going to be disgusting. He dropped the poker on the floor and squirmed around until he could get the end in his mouth. It tasted like soot and metal and dust, and he had to stop and spit on the floor a few times before he could get a good grip.
It was uncomfortable, and tricky, and almost certainly embarrassing as fuck. He was briefly, guiltily, grateful that Steve was asleep because this was not a memory he wanted in anyone else’s mind but his own - and he had plans for how he could erase it from there too, once he had his hands on alcohol again. Finally, after enough tries that he lost count, he hooked the edge of the poker on the fabric of the backpack and, wriggling backwards, pulled it towards him. To his immense relief, the closest pack, Steve’s, was hooked over the farther, his, and with one tug, he brought them both within reach.
Tony took a solid half hour to lie still on the floor after, recovering. It didn’t matter that it was too dark to see; with his hands behind his back he had to do everything by feel anyway. Luckily, he was very familiar with the contents of both their packs, and he was able to rummage through them confidently, sorting out the things he thought might be useful and packing the rest up again. He carefully laid out his notebook, his flask, a small knife, and a piece of dried fish.
He ate the fish and drained his flask, placing them on the floor then twisting around until he could grab them with his teeth. He wanted to offer Steve some, but he was still out cold, and even if he weren’t, Tony had no idea how he would get it over there. He had to settle for busting them out of here soon.
Using only touch, Tony flipped through his notebook until he found the folded paper packet tucked in the back. He worked it open delicately, making sure not to spill the contents, then, holding his breath, tipped the paper over his empty flask, filling it with the heavy powder. He screwed the top on, then tucked the flask in the back of his pants. Everything else went back in the bag, except for the knife, which he managed to wedge in his shoe - only having to stop and bite his tongue hard from the pain of leg cramps twice - and the poker. He shuffled back across the floor and tossed the packs back where they were, this time with the straps tied tightly together so they couldn’t be separated.
The biggest risk was tucking the poker against the wall near where his chains were locked. He hoped the dark iron would be hidden in shadow. The sun was just breaking through the barred window when he finally got himself back in position. An hour or so later, heavy footsteps thumped down the hall.
“Steve,” he hissed. Steve didn’t move. “Steve!” His head shot up, panicked, then his eyes fell on Tony. He took a few shaky breaths. To his credit, his chest looked a little better already, there was a bit of colour back in his skin, and his shoulders rolled back into a more normal position. The sleep had been a good idea. “On their way,” Tony said hurriedly, hoping to give Steve time to brace himself, but having no time to tell him more, or warn him as to what he was planning. Halfway through the next breath, the door flung open.
Larry went straight to the fire, stoking it up with a fire fork that lay on the hearth, but thankfully not noticing the empty slot on the rack of tools, then he and Moe fell into quiet discussion. Steve’s eyes stayed on Tony’s, and Tony tried to feed him some sort of strength, some modicum of will, through his gaze alone. Larry went back to the fire, and Moe started shifting Steve’s restraints, spreading a few straps to his wrist and the rest up to his elbow, revealing a strip of smooth skin on his forearm.
Larry pulled on a heavy leather glove and bent to the fire. When he stood, he clutched the roll of copper wire, now black with heat, in his glove. Steve’s jaw clenched, and he struggled uselessly as Larry approached him. Tony’s heart stopped as Larry leaned over Steve’s chair. From his spot on the floor, Tony couldn’t see anything but Steve’s face, but Steve bit his lip until it bled, and a harsh cry ripped out of his mouth. When Larry stepped back, a long run of the hot wire was threaded under Steve’s skin. Steve’s breath came in short gasps. Moe reached out and snipped it off with clippers. Tony retched, acid boiling up in his stomach. Larry turned towards him, as if he’d forgotten he was there, but this time he turned his body so Tony could watch helplessly as he pushed the tip of the wire into Steve’s wrist and eased it up as far as it could go. Steve’s hand twitched wildly. Tony could see smoke rising up and hear the gut-twisting sizzle of melting skin.
“Stop!” he cried, but when he offered them no more than the plea, they continued. Moe pulled another coil from the fire and another stretch of wire burned its way up Steve’s forearm. Tony knew Steve, he knew he could take pain, but he was at his edge. Tony had wanted to wait until later in the day, when whatever town lay outside this building would likely be quieter, but he had one shot to take, and he had to take it now. Steve’s breath broke out in an agonizing gasp, and Tony surged up against his chains. “Fine! I’ll show you.” Larry didn’t stop right away, pressing the wire further. “Hey! Stop! I said I’d do it.”
The man finally stilled, turned. “Just making sure you mean it.”
“I mean it,” Tony growled, his eyes not leaving Steve’s face. This was his only chance, he couldn't fuck it up.
The two men shared a glance, then Moe walked over to the door and pounded on it. A few minutes later, the original couple from the other day walked in, hand-in-hand.
“Apparently, you’re ready to help us.” The woman’s eyes skated over Steve, hitching with a disgusting smile on the wires that protruded from his forearm. Steve was still making small noises of pain with each breath, and Tony tamped down his growing panic, focusing instead on how badly he wanted to bash this woman’s skull in.
“I am.” Tony shook his bonds behind his back. “But I need to be free to show you. The demon - I need to use magic to control it, and I need my hands and feet for that.”
They looked entirely unconvinced, but also like they knew they could take him, so they didn’t really care if he was lying. The man - who Tony had no choice but to call Curly - moved to stand beside Steve, resting a hand threateningly on the top of his head, eyes fixed on Tony, daring him to try something. Larry pulled a key out of his pocket, undid the shackles on Tony’s ankles, then took a knife to the bonds around Tony’s wrists. Tony held his bound wrists out away from his back and arched his back a little, hoping that the loose drape of his shirt would hide the flask jammed in the back of his pants.
Once free, Tony made a show of stretching his shoulders out and groaning with pain - fuck, it really did hurt - then rubbing at his ankles. Rolling his eyes, Larry went to stand by the fireplace, joining Moe and Bitchface (Tony had run out of stooges), waiting for Tony to wow them. Tony let his eyes drift over towards Steve, and when their gazes locked, they held. Steve looked broken - scared and horrified and hurt. He had dried blood in his hair and splashed over his cheek. His fist was clenched over the arm of the chair, hard enough to splinter the wood. He silently begged, pleaded with Tony, but for what, Tony didn’t know. Maybe not to do something stupid - maybe to do something stupid.
Tony tried to tell him, “Close your eyes and turn away,” with telepathy. Steve tensed a little, clearly sensing something, but with no way to protect himself. Tony pulled himself to his feet, intending to play up his weakness, then finding he wobbled entirely naturally anyway. His whole body was angry and throbbing and twisted with the agony of being tied in an awkward position for so long.
He took a few steps towards the fireplace, then pulled down the collar of his shirt revealing the arc reactor. All four kidnappers moved towards him, their eyes fixed on its blue glow. Tony slid his thumb around the edge a few times, pulling them in even closer. He stumbled to the side, making the movement look natural, but carefully putting himself between the group and Steve. They all stood with their backs to the fireplace, eyes on Tony’s chest.
Tony hit the tiny release on the casing, and the reactor popped forward. The group recoiled as one, then shuffled forward again, spellbound. While Tony pulled it out of his chest, teasingly slowly, he slid his other hand around behind him. He hoped Steve was watching without giving anything away. His fingers hit the edge of the flask and after screwing the lid almost all the way off, he slipped it free of his waistband. There was a moment of perfect stillness while he judged the weight and angle, then he slammed the reactor back in its casing and threw the flask into the roaring fire.
In that moment, Tony learned two things. One, that the gunpowder in this world was several times as volatile as at home, and two, that his flask had not been quite as well made as he suspected. Thankfully, in this instance, both those things worked well for him.
The flask exploded, showering the room in shrapnel. The group of kidnappers screamed as they were riddled with tiny broken pieces of metal. But Tony was ready. He had flung himself to the floor, out of harm's way, but rose up now, whipping the knife out of his boot. He wanted to free Steve first, but in a split second he calculated his options and went for the poker instead. Curly was farthest from the blast and shook off the shock first, charging at Tony. Tony swung the poker hard and caught him on the side of the face, dropping him to the floor. He flew at Steve, running the knife roughly down the bindings of his right hand then dropping the knife in his lap to turn and swing the poker again.
Moe dodged, but Tony brandished the poker threateningly, and he hesitated. Beside him, Steve flexed hard and popped the damaged bindings on his right arm, then snatched up the knife and freed his left. Moe charged again, and Tony stabbed towards his middle, making him jump to the side. Bitchface flew in out of nowhere and plowed into Tony’s side, bringing him to the floor. He didn’t train with Nat for nothing, though. He used her momentum to roll her right over him then swung the poker hard and smacked her across the back, winding her. She dropped to the floor gasping, and Tony turned just in time to see Steve rise up, finally free of his bonds, grab the chair by its arm, and swing it, as easily as Tony swung the poker, into Curly. Larry got up again but a Steve punch to the face dropped him again, and they had a brief window where all four assailants were downed.
Tony scrambled across the room, grabbed Steve by the arm, and dragged him towards the door. He dropped his other hand long enough to scoop up their packs, then shoved them both out of the room. The door swung shut behind them, and Tony turned the key, thankfully left in the keyhole, from the outside, pulling it out and shoving it in one of the packs.
Steve could barely stand, tripping over his own feet and leaning heavily on Tony. They half-fell down the stairs, wound around each other, the packs banging against Tony’s thigh with every step. At the bottom of the stairs, they faced the front door.
Tony grabbed Steve’s upper arms and faced him fully, waiting until his eyes focused. His ears were still ringing from the explosion. “Steve. You have to go.”
“What?” Steve looked at the door, then back at Tony.
“You have to go, I - look I need some stuff that they have here. Tools, supplies - for our portal home. And you’re too hurt, we’ll both get caught. But, look, they’ll never expect us to split up. It’s unheard of for them. They’ll know I’m here, and they’ll believe you are too. I can use it to my advantage.” Tony gave Steve a cocky grin. “Plus, if they piss me off, I have a demon in my chest.”
“No. No, Tony, we can’t split up. We have to leave together. We can’t - we can’t. I can’t leave you here.”
“Steve. We need this stuff and I haven’t seen it anywhere else.”
“But there’s no way it’s only the four of them. There’ll be more. You’ll get caught again.” Steve’s hands clenched on Tony’s biceps.
“I won’t. I promise. Go. Outside of the city - wherever the fuck we are - recover. Here.” Tony fumbled with the packs until they separated. He shoved Steve’s in his hands. “You’ll slow me down. Go. I’ll catch you up. We’re going to Sapstra together.” He gave his hands a little shake until Steve looked him in the eye again. “We’re going to Sapstra together. I will find you. I have a plan. Trust me?” It was low, he knew, to beg, but he didn’t have time to explain everything. Steve stared at him through two, long, shaky breaths then nodded. “Thank you.”
Tony pushed Steve towards the door, and he stumbled, but caught himself, gave Tony one last look, then plunged through the door and took off running.
Tony swallowed hard, feeling as though he’d been dunked in ice water. He let himself take three heartbeats to mourn the loss of Steve beside him, then slipped down the hall, pulling the pack onto his back.
Chapter 10: "Found"
“In the silence of this whispered night”
CW for some injury and mild gore - if you made it through last chapter, you'll be fine with this one :D
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Steve was trapped again. Dark, oppressive walls pressed in around him. He couldn’t see, he couldn’t hear, he could barely breathe. He struggled violently, half shouting Tony’s name, and tumbled out onto the ground. He took a few steadying breaths, scrambling back and taking in his surroundings. A hollow in a tree - he’d shoved himself in and passed out from pain.
He’d made it about half a mile away from the kidnappers, thankfully managing not to run into another soul on the way (or two souls, as the case may be) before he had felt unconsciousness looming and tucked himself away to hide. The sun was high in the sky now, so he must have been out for several hours. The headache had faded, but there was still a pervasive ache in his muscles. To his horror, two wires were still woven under the skin in his forearm, and the serum had healed over them, locking them in. He’d managed to rip one out, if the trail of blood was anything to go by. It was going to be horrific to get rid of the last two, though, and at the moment, he couldn’t face it.
Pulling his sleeve back down, he pushed himself to his feet, catching his balance against the tree. His ankle screamed in pain - it might be broken - and his fingers felt stiff and graceless. His body was a mess of pain, taut healing skin, and itchiness. The shirt he’d managed to dig out of his bag while he ran was soaked through with blood in a few places.
And Tony was gone.
Steve rubbed a hand over his eyes and remembered Tony’s face when he told him to go. As much as he trusted that Tony had a plan, he was still worried about him, deeply worried about him. The worst part was that the only reason they’d had to split up was because Steve was too weak - a liability.
He wallowed in self-pity and worry for a few minutes then mentally slapped himself around. The only way to help Tony and get out of here was to heal up and regain his strength. He stepped away from the tree, taking in the area. There was a rough dirt road cutting through the trees, and he’d barely made it a few feet off the path before he’d collapsed. He was lucky he hadn’t been found, really. He could see why he hadn’t gone further, though. The ground began to angle up sharply about twenty feet off the path, then rose up into a steep hill, that broke into a treacherous mountain. It wasn’t immensely tall, but it was oppressive and threatening, looming over him, and it continued on in a long range, disappearing into the distance. They had been able to see the very edges of a mountain ridge from Notenton, and Tony’s map assured them that they had to pass through it to reach Sapstra. So, in a way, their kidnappers had saved them several miles of their journey - though now they were injured, tired, low on supplies and separated. Other than that, everything was great.
Steve opened his pack and looked through it. He had food - some of which he ate immediately - and his flask. He pulled it out and sucked at it gratefully only to spit and splutter when he realized it wasn’t water, it was still filled with the fermented drink from the library. The pub, the library, all seemed so far away now. Bracing himself, he finished the juice - it was rough on his mouth and throat, but it was at least somewhat hydrating.
He had two choices. He could stay near the path but walk a ways further to put some distance between himself and the place they’d been held captive. It put him in more danger of being found alone, but it also gave him his best shot at reuniting with Tony as soon as possible. The other option was to move away from the road, head up the mountain. He could try to find water, shelter, and most of all, hide himself from other people. The thought of missing Tony made his gut clench, but he really didn’t have a choice. He was still hurt badly enough that he would have to sleep again soon, and he wouldn’t be safe spending a whole night this close to the road, let alone being here during the day.
With a resigned sigh, Steve hiked into the trees, pointing his nose up the mountain. The going was slow, and getting slower with every step. The ground rose so quickly that after only an hour he was scrambling as much as he was walking. His arm throbbed with every beat of his heart, reminding him that there was still cruel metal woven under his skin. He wasn’t worried about infection, thankfully, but he knew the longer he waited, the worse it would hurt. And yet he couldn’t bring himself to stop and do something about it.
One foot in front of the other. He pushed himself along, mind a blank buzz of white noise, every nook and cranny looking like a feather bed. He was on the verge of collapsing into the next clear patch of ground he saw, when a tiny burbling noise pulled him back into sharp consciousness: water.
The terrain abruptly changed from dirt and trees to rocks. The air smelled like snow in a worrying way, and he took the time to stop and pull on a second shirt before he had a chance to feel the chill. He followed the sound of the water and found a small creek spilling up out of the rocks. There were few pools, more of a miniature waterfall than anything, so it was tricky filling his flask, but after drinking deeply, with his lips pressed desperately against the stone surface, sucking the water in, he realized he could cup one hand under the trickle and tip it into the flask.
It took a long time, but with water on hand he felt stronger already. The new terrain was less sheltered, but looking up at the rising mountainside he realized that it offered the promise of something even better than trees - caves. He could already see their dark mouths dotted around the rocky ledges. If he found a cave - one with no venom spitting bears or whatever in it - he could enjoy a relatively safe night.
The thought gave him an extra burst of energy, and he steeled himself and continued on. It wasn’t long before he spotted a dark opening ahead and made it his goal. The air inside was damp, but the floor was dry and covered in soft moss and pine kindling. There was no sign of recent animal activity, beyond the pair of small, darkly-feathered birds that had made a spit and pine needle nest plastered to the wall. Their babies popped their mouths open and peeped violently when Steve’s shadow passed over them.
It was pitch dark, and Steve instantly missed the soft glow of the reactor, but it was also quiet and felt safe. Steve slid his back down the wall until he sat. He intended to check over his wounds, but a moment later he was startled awake by a loud noise.
It was a voice, and that realization put him on instant high alert. He crept to the edge of the cave and listened. The voice was muttering low, then occasionally bursting out louder and on the next burst he realized he recognized it.
“Tony!” He ran out of the cave and followed the sound. Tony was in a low dip in the mountainside, bent beside a large creek Steve hadn’t noticed when he’d staggered up to the cave, exhausted. He was gesturing wildly, then dipping his head to drink and wash his face. “Tony!” He didn’t respond.
Steve pulled up closer and called his name again, dropping to a walk. Tony didn’t turn, but waved a hand in the air towards Steve. “Be QUIET, Fred,” he said. Steve slowed his steps. Something wasn’t right. He cast his eyes over the treeline, the horizon, up the mountain, looking for a threat Tony might be warning him about.
“Tony?” he asked softly, shifting closer.
“Fred. I really don’t have time for this.” Tony dipped his head to the water again, then turned to face Steve.
There was something horribly, terribly wrong.
Tony’s hair was long and wild, chopped off haphazardly in a few places, he had a full beard - though he’d shaved only two days ago back at the inn - and he had a long, jagged scar ripped across one cheek. “...Tony?” Steve’s breath stuck in his chest. It was definitely Tony - the voice, the eyes, and the subtle outline of a hard circle in the middle of his chest, hidden by layers of clothing. But this wasn’t the Tony he had left alone less than two days ago. “My god, what happened?” Steve shifted closer, but Tony’s eyes had gone wide, and he staggered backwards a few steps.
“Who…?” Tony asked.
“It’s me, Steve.” Steve stopped moving, held his hands up non-threateningly. “Steve Rogers. Captain America.”
“I don’t -” Tony’s eyes darted around. “I don’t know what that is. What have you done with Fred?”
“Who is Fred?’ Steve asked.
“I’m Fred,” Tony said.
There was a worrying twist to his expression, a blankness in his eyes that made Steve’s heart clench. How could he have changed so much in such a short time? Had the kidnappers done something to him? Caught him alone and messed with his mind? Maybe they did have control of magic, maybe Tony wasn’t the first person they’d tried to steal a demon from. “Tony?” Steve shuffled closer. “What happened?”
“I’m Fred,” he repeated.
“Okay…” Steve wasn’t sure if he was supposed to play along. “Fred… what happened?”
Tony gestured towards the water. There was a woven net, braced on the bank with a few heavy rocks, the rest of it floating out into the water. “You probably scared the fish. You’re very. Large.” Tony leaned towards him, voice dropping low and conspiratorial. “They like words, but they don’t like shadows. You are one big. Shadow.”
Steve stared at the net. When had Tony had time to get a net, to grow a beard, to get a new scar? It was so wrong. The way Tony was talking was wrong. The fact that he didn’t know him, that he hadn’t reacted to seeing him again, it was all wrong. And who was Fred?
Tony’s explanation of universes and dimensions floated back to Steve, from a hundred years ago under a blanket of strange and beautiful stars that didn’t belong to them. There were countless other worlds, and some of them were copies, in part or in full, of our world. They hadn’t met anyone familiar before, but in a world of millions, or billions of people, what were the odds they would? Maybe this world had a Tony of its own, a Steve of its own. But they were different.
This Tony wasn’t just different. He was broken.
Steve found himself clinging to the thought, desperately hopeful that this wasn’t his Tony. That his Tony was still out there and was still his, that he wasn’t suddenly even more alone than he had been before. The one, massive, pressing, neon-sign reason why this couldn’t be this world’s Tony was that he was alone. He had no mate. Steve longed to check his wrist for the tell-tale sharpie lines, but Tony twitched away from him when he moved closer, and he didn’t dare touch.
“Ton- Fred? How long have you been here?” Steve asked.
Tony - or Fred, whoever he was - looked Steve in the eye and nodded. “Forever.”
“You live here? On the mountain?”
Tony looked around, shifting to the side to peer behind Steve. “Where is your Fred?” he asked.
“Excuse me?” Steve followed his line of sight. There was nothing there.
“Where is your Fred?” he repeated, tapping one finger against his right wrist.
“Oh, you mean my mate? My mate is called Tony, he’s missing. I’m trying to find him. Do you know where he is?”
Tony’s brow scrunched. “Tony is… my mate,” he said cautiously, like he wasn’t sure if that was right.
“Uh, no. Tony is my mate.” Steve’s head was pounding now, and he could feel the wires in his arm biting against his skin. He wouldn’t be able to stand much longer without a break. All the walking had taken a lot out of him.
Tony tipped his head and regarded Steve with curiosity, then opened his mouth to speak, but before he got any words out, he was interrupted by a thrashing and splashing from the net. Tony clapped his hands together and hustled over to the net, pulling the fish out of the water with delight.
Tony - Fred, Steve kept correcting in his head - took the fish and walked off, so Steve followed. He disappeared between a crack in a rock, and Steve was surprised to find that it led to a sizable cave that Fred had clearly been living in for some time. There was a fire pit that vented out a hole in the ceiling, rugs and skins scattered around, and various detritus of living. It was clear that he had stolen clothes and utensils from town.
Fred was already crouching in front of the fire and laying the fish out on a flat board. He snapped open a knife and started descaling it with expert precision. He didn’t seem to mind Steve’s presence and the cave was warm and safe, so Steve slumped down against one wall and watched.
He didn’t just look like Tony, he acted and moved like Tony too. Eroded by what seemed to be a long time alone in a cave, sure, but he had these little mannerisms that made Steve feel like he was on a boat in rough seas. When the fish was cooked, Fred tossed some on a rock near Steve, and he ate it gratefully, not realizing how hungry he was until the fatty flesh hit his tongue.
“Fred?” Steve asked.
Fred cocked his head in Steve’s direction.
“Is it okay if I stay here tonight?” Steve felt uncomfortable being around the Tony that wasn’t Tony, especially since he was clearly confused and unpredictable, but the cave was dry and safe and warm, and the food and nearby water was too good to resist.
Fred watched him for a minute, with the same face that Steve had seen Tony wear so often when coming up with a wild plan he wasn’t going to explain to anyone. It was funny to see that it was universal, but it also made him miss the real Tony, his Tony, with an ache that settled deep in his gut.
All the water he had downed so quickly caught up with him, and Steve stumbled out of the cave and back into the light. It was bright, late afternoon sun. He wandered away a bit, looking for a place to relieve himself while getting a lay of the land at the same time. He started to work his way down the mountainside and towards the treeline again. After the food, he found the mild exercise was actually clearing his head nicely so he continued to push out, re-energized and comforted by the knowledge that he had somewhere safe to hide.
After about twenty minutes of walking, he hit a long ridge, just above the treeline, where the rock jutted out and gave him a stunning view of the countryside. He wasn’t sure which direction he was supposed to be moving in, being taken to the police headquarters - or whatever that had been - had completely thrown off his sense of direction, but the view was incredible. For the first time, he appreciated the beauty of the place they were in. Behind and above him, the mountain jutted up, white snow glowing on its peak in the sun, and below, acres of vivid orange and yellow autumn trees, broken by the occasional evergreen.
The road cut through the blanket of trees and as Steve watched, he saw a dark figure making its way along it, staying close to the edge of the trees. In another moment, the figure passed into the waning sun and Steve’s heart stopped. That was his Tony. The right clothes, the right pack: his.
Steve launched himself into motion, flying down the hill, his breath soon catching roughly in his throat as he pushed himself to his max speed. He burst out of the trees. “Tony!”
Tony turned sharply towards his voice and there, there was the look he didn’t get from Fred, the full-body relief, the three quick steps staggered in his direction. Tony opened his arms, and Steve flew into them, scooping him up into a hug before he realized it was the first time the two of them had hugged properly - ever. His discomfort evaporated the second Tony latched his arms around Steve’s shoulders and buried his face in Steve’s collar.
They hugged for a long time, silent, but both aware of what wasn’t being said. Being apart had felt scary and wrong, but they were together again. When they parted, Steve tipped Tony’s chin up and gave him a once over. He had a dark bruise peeking out of his collar, and one of his eyes was black from the kidnappers' multiple strikes, but he was in one piece.
Tony grinned. “Told you I’d find you.”
Steve broke into a returning smile. “I think you’ll find that I found you.”
“You gotta take the credit for everything, don’t you?” Steve pulled him back into a fierce hug. Tony seemed to sense after a moment that there was something deeper than their separation haunting Steve. He pulled back and took Steve by the shoulders, brow creased with concern. “What is it?”
“Let’s get off the road. I’ll tell you everything.” Tony followed him to the treeline and they started to climb. As soon as they were safely surrounded by trees, Steve pushed Tony to talk first.
“It was actually easier than I thought. I went straight down to the basement and found the storeroom - loaded up with whatever I could. Eventually, the screaming drew people in, I don’t know who, but I heard footsteps going up the stairs and figured they’d bust the stooges out any minute so I broke a window and climbed out the back of the building. Ran into a couple of women on the way out of town and one of them screamed and whacked me with her walking stick.” Tony gestured to the bruise on his neck, and Steve winced in sympathy. “She should go for the majors, she’s got a good arm. Anyway, I managed to get away, and they didn’t seem inclined to chase me. I didn’t run into anyone else. Figured you’d come this way so I’ve been walking up and down this road for over an hour looking for signs of you.”
He held out his hands and let Steve fret over his scraped knuckles from the broken window, then pushed him away gently. “What about you?”
“I’ve mostly been sleeping since then, healing, but - Tony I found something - someone.”
Tony’s eyes snapped to his. “Someone? Out here? Are you okay?”
“Yes. He’s - he’s not the same… Tony, he’s alone. And -”
“He’s alone? No mate? How is that possible? I thought that wasn’t possible.”
“I thought so too, but it probably explains why he’s living out here - to avoid persecution. But Tony. He’s - he… he looks just like you. He is you. He’s the you from this world.”
Tony gaped at him. “Me? But…”
“He’s even got the arc reactor, or something like it. There’s something under his shirt and he - he looks exactly like you. I thought he was you. But then… then he didn’t know me.”
Tony was quiet for a long time as they walked. “He’s alone. The me from here... He didn’t know you?”
“No.” Steve decided it was better to warn Tony as much as possible before he saw for himself. “He calls himself Fred. Though he also called me Fred a few times. And he has said that both Tony and Fred are his mate at different times. He seems very confused.”
“He called you Fred? And thinks Fred is his...?”
“No, no not like that. I called to him when I first saw him, and he said ‘Fred, be quiet.’ I don’t think he actually thinks I’m Fred. He seems pretty sure that he’s Fred, but… Tony, there’s something wrong with him. He’s not… right. I wanted to warn you. He has a nice cave and food he’s willing to share. We should go see him, stay there for tonight. Maybe you can get more sense out of him.”
“Either that or I’ll traumatize him so badly he’ll try and kill us. Meeting your twin is a bit of a daunting prospect, and I’ve been prepared for it.”
Steve shrugged. “I guess we’ll see.”
The climb was a slow one, but they were going straight up this time, unlike Steve’s original climb, so it only took a little over an hour to bring them back to Fred’s cave. Steve hovered outside the entrance, suddenly nervous. They discussed it and decided that Steve would go in first and warn Fred. The inside of the cave was warm, and Steve found himself breathing a sigh of relief, despite the tension.
“Hey, Fred, it’s just me,” he called out.
Fred considered him for a moment. “Okay,” he said.
“Fred… I brought my mate with me, but I wanted to warn you. It might be a bit startling because you and he look really, really similar.”
Fred stared at him in silence, then shrugged. “What do we look like?”
Steve opened then closed his mouth. That was - well. He had no mirror out here. Who knew how long he had been living rough. There was every chance that he would have no idea what he looked like. Steve turned back to the mouth of the cave and beckoned Tony in.
“Fred, this is my mate, Tony. Tony, this is Fred.” Fred rose up and crossed the cave towards Tony, eyes wide. Despite not seeming to know what he looked like, Fred clearly saw something familiar in Tony. He reached out hesitantly and touched Tony’s cheek, as if testing that he was real, then dropped that finger to Tony’s chest, hovering lightly over the surface of the arc reactor. Tony reached up slowly, and pulled down the collar of his shirt, revealing the blue glow. Fred’s eyes widened reflecting the light, then he took his hand back, and revealed his own.
It was different, but not as different as Steve had expected. It was still blue, and still glowed. The casing was gold instead of silver and the blue was darker, but it was unmistakably an arc reactor. Fred put his clothes back in order quickly and moved away a few feet, their silent identity dance apparently done. Fred watched Tony intently for a few moments before saying, “Are you my mate?”
Tony’s brow creased. He pointed at Steve. “No. I’m Steve’s mate.” Hearing those words drop so casually out of Tony’s mouth, in a place where everything was so fucked up that it didn’t really seem to matter if they kept up the pretense or not, bloomed something warm and possessive in Steve’s chest.
Fred nodded slowly, like he was agreeing for their benefit and not because he was sure it was true. “Okay.” He tossed another piece of cooked fish across the cave, then scuttled away into his corner. Steve picked up the fish and drew a stunned Tony towards the wall, then sat them both down.
He pushed the fish into Tony’s hands and followed it with the flask. Tony drank deeply, then again when Steve assured him that there was more nearby. He picked uneasily at the fish though.
The fire warmed the cave quickly, and soon Steve was sweating. He pushed the sleeves of his shirt up, still focused on Tony and the uneaten fish in his hand. Tony’s eyes drifted his way then widened.
“What the fuck, Steve!” He grabbed Steve’s left wrist and tugged his hand into his lap. Ah, yes, the two lengths of wire that were now deeply embedded in Steve’s arm, the skin having spent the two days healing over them at super soldier speeds.
“Ah, uh, yeah. I got one out, but I sort of forgot about the others.”
“Well, not so much forgot as, uh, couldn’t…” Steve swallowed. “Couldn’t face it.”
“Steve, we have to get these out.”
“Okay.” Tony repeated the word to himself a few times then set his meal aside and manhandled Steve until he was sitting with his back against the wall of the cave. Tony sat cross-legged in front of him, their knees pressed together and Steve’s arm draped across his lap. His face was pale and twisted, but he swallowed hard and took a steadying breath. Tony pulled his bag over and rifled through it, coming up with the pair of pliers and a pair of snippers he stole from the kidnappers. “This is going to hurt like a bitch,” he warned.
“I know,” Steve repeated. He pulled an extra shirt out of his own pack and wrapped it around his hand, giving himself something he could squeeze other than Tony’s breakable arm.
Tony inspected the wound for a moment. “I think - ugh - I think the best thing is for me to cut the wire in a few places and pull it out in small pieces. The cuts will hurt, but I think overall, it’ll be better this way.”
Steve closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the rough stone. “Whatever you think is best.”
Tony made an odd, pained noise, then Steve felt fingers brush over the skin of his forearm. Tony gently worked his way along, finding the edges of the wire. “Okay, brace yourself.”
The first snip pushed a harsh cry out of Steve’s mouth, but he clenched his teeth together and held back the next one. Tony worked quickly, probably figuring it was better to make the cuts as quickly as possible so all the pain would meld into one and be over sooner. Steve could feel blood dripping down his arm, and Tony brushed his palm across his skin more than once to clear his view of the wire. Steve kept his eyes closed, figuring this was one of those instances where remembering how it felt would be bad enough, let alone what it looked like.
When he had cut the wires into one-inch sections, Tony gripped the end of one and pulled. It was agony, even worse than going in. Steve deeply regretted not pulling them all out the first night, while he was still delirious with pain. They only got worse as Tony moved along, having to dig the pliers in to catch an edge of the wire. Tony worked quickly and Steve could hear his breath coming in sharp gasps, where Steve had given up on breathing entirely.
“That’s one,” Tony grunted out when he finished with the first wire. “You okay?”
Tony didn’t sound okay himself, but Steve gave a sharp nod, keeping his eyes closed and his head pressed back. Tony worked his way through the second wire, then dropped the pliers with a clatter. Steve’s arm was on fire but it had all melted into one band of burning pain, and he had barely even felt the last few tugs.
He finally forced his eyes open and looked down. He didn’t make it to his arm, however, because Tony caught his gaze first. He was gaunt and pale, his mouth hanging open and his brow twisted. He was shaking slightly and looked agonized and disgusted and halfway to passing out. “Tony?” Steve prompted gently, and Tony crumpled.
He tipped forward, grabbing two handfuls of Steve’s shirt and pressing his forehead between them, over Steve’s heart. “I had to watch them put those in,” Tony choked out, his voice barely more than a whisper.
Steve’s arms came up automatically, wrapping around Tony’s shoulders and holding him close. He knew he was likely bleeding all over Tony’s shirt, but he didn’t care. He pulled Tony forward until he was practically sitting in his lap and they held each other for a long time. When their breathing had settled into matching, easy rhythms, Tony pulled back, keeping one hand wound into Steve’s shirt. His eyes were dry, but he was still pale and a little shaky.
“You okay?” Steve asked, and Tony choked out a sharp laugh.
“You’re asking me if I’m okay? You’re the one that got butchered.”
Tony’s eyes snapped up to Steve’s and held. “Yeah, I’m okay.”
Tony settled back, sitting more conventionally beside Steve, but Steve kept his good arm firmly around Tony’s shoulders. Tony pulled Steve’s left across his lap and rinsed it off with water from the flask. The bleeding had mostly stopped already.
Steve watched as Tony’s eyes drifted across the cave to settle on Fred’s curled up form. He was asleep - his closed eyes and slack mouth visible in the flickering firelight. Tony’s jaw tensed as he watched the other man sleeping.
“What - what does his matemark say? Who is his real mate? Do you… do you think they died?”
“I - I don’t know. He’s been wearing that shirt the whole time, I’ve never seen his wrist. If they died…. Anna said - wouldn't he die too?”
“That’s what we thought. But… maybe… maybe the reactor, or… something…” Steve could feel Tony’s whole body tensing tighter at the thought.
“Wait here,” Steve whispered.
“What are you -?” But Steve didn’t give him time to finish. He pushed away from the wall and padded across the cave, as quietly as possible. Fred didn’t move. Steve reached out and, as slowly and gently as possible, lifted the cuff of his shirt to reveal his right wrist.
It was blank.
Well, it wasn’t blank, but he had clearly been born with a blank wrist. There was a stark white, raised scar, clearly carved into his wrist from many repeated scratchings with a too-dull implement. Four shaky letters: FRED.
Steve recoiled, letting Fred’s shirt fall to cover the mark. He stumbled across the cave and fell down beside Tony, pulling him close again. Tony had pulled one of the blankets out of his pack and he wrapped it around both of them.
“Who is it?” Tony asked. “Steve. What did it say?” Steve didn’t know what answer Tony was hoping for, but the one he had didn’t want to come out of his mouth.
“He - he doesn’t have one,” Steve finally said, voice rough and pained. “He… Tony, he carved the name Fred on his wrist himself. Until it scarred. He has no one.”
Tony was silent, but pressed closer to Steve’s side. As the light from the fire dwindled and the cave cooled, they slid down the wall until they were curled up on the ground, wrapped around each other in a cocoon of blankets.
Fred had confused himself during his time alone in a world of soulmates. He had felt the lack of a mate deeply enough that he had carved it into his skin, messed with his own sense of identity, but if their experience here taught them anything it was that no one born here was without a mark.
And that meant that this Tony was in the wrong world too.
That finishes off Arc Two!! Next week we start the third and final Arc :D Thanks for all the lovely kudos and comments <3 <3 <3
Chapter 11: "Fred"
“In your eyes I see that perfect world”
“Steve is your mate?” Fred asked Tony for the millionth time.
“Yes,” Tony hissed, hands clenching in his lap. “Steve is my mate.” And, he thought, he’d better get his ass back here soon, or I’m going to be guilty of an unusually suicidal kind of murder.
Fred made an unpleasant humming noise, staring at Tony. For some bizarre reason, Tony’s double had decided that Steve being Tony’s mate made him Fred’s mate too. Or instead. The logic wasn’t clear, but the leap was clearly being made. And Tony didn’t like it. Fred put Tony’s back up something fierce. Steve seemed to pity him, or at least find him entirely unthreatening, but he also didn’t seem to notice the considering way that Fred watched Steve.
There was a rustling by the entrance, and Steve reappeared, still damp from his dip in the creek. He shot Tony an everything okay? look, apparently seeing something dark in his expression, but Tony shrugged and shook his head.
Steve rummaged around in their stuff, sorting through his clothes, and Tony stood and crossed the cave to sit by him. They’d long since abandoned modesty around each other. Tony watched Fred, while Steve got dressed then sat down next to him. “What’s wrong?”
Steve held out the sharpie and Tony took it, pulling the cap off with his teeth. Steve’s arm settled across his lap. “I just don’t like him. He gives me the screaming heebie jeebies.” Tony steadied Steve’s wrist with his hand and began to write.
“Well, that’s fair. It must be weird to meet a copy of yourself.”
It wasn’t until halfway through tracing the N that Tony realized that they really didn’t have to do this anymore. Fred was way too out of it to even care that Steve and Tony had spent an entire day apart, let alone that their matemarks weren’t real. The fact that they were doing this in front of him and he couldn’t care less proved it. So why were they bothering? Tony paused his lettering and opened his mouth to suggest they save the ink, but he found the words wouldn’t come out.
Steve didn’t seem to think it was odd. His arm rested heavily across Tony’s lap, leaving two little damp spots where the water was still collected on his skin. Something had broken between them, some last little piece of reserve. Tony had cracked it the night he had brazenly sat on Steve’s lap at the pub, and it had shattered the second they were reunited after the kidnapping.
Instead of stopping, Tony touched the marker to Steve’s wrist again and continued. “It’s like, at times he’s nothing like me, and then there will be a moment where it’s like looking in a mirror.” Steve hummed a sympathetic noise and took his freshly marked arm back. He held out a hand and Tony offered him the sharpie and his own arm. Tony’s voice dropped. “He’s so alone.”
Steve’s fingers clenched around Tony’s forearm and he paused, pen an inch from Tony’s skin. He looked up and caught his eye. “You’re not alone, Tony. Not here, and not at home. Do you -?”
Tony shrugged when Steve cut himself off. “Sometimes, I guess. I know I’m not a good team player, I never have been. I’ve never had to be.” He shrugged again. “People leave. Whatever.” He wriggled his hand a little to remind Steve to write, but Steve’s eyes didn’t shift from Tony’s face and the marker stayed where it was.
“Tony.” Steve’s voice was heavy, and Tony kept his eyes fixed on his own arm as long as he could, before the draw of Steve’s gaze was too strong and he lifted his chin to meet it. “You’re not alone. I’m sorry if I ever made you feel that way. You’ve got me, now. No matter what.”
Tony swallowed hard and fought the intense urge to rattle his fingertips on the glass cover of the arc reactor. “Okay.”
Steve watched him for a moment longer, but apparently was satisfied with Tony’s answer because he dropped his eyes down to Tony’s arm and traced out “STEVE.” Tony’s eyes couldn’t help but drift back to Fred. After four days in the cave, they’d managed to pull some of Fred’s story out of him, though it was confused and contradictory, and he and Steve often spent time in the dark night, pressed close together in the increasingly frigid night air, piecing together Fred’s story into some semblance of sense.
He had been here for at least a year, based on his description of seasons, maybe longer. He had been outcast and threatened out of several towns before giving up on people and coming here. He’d spent some time hiding out in the village they’d just come from - where the police building was - and had even managed to break into the library a few times to steal books, but had eventually been caught and attacked. He had a vicious scar on his stomach where he’d been stabbed. The sight reminded Tony, with a rush of anxiety, how easily fear turned to aggression and how afraid people were of the unmated.
Fred had managed to get out with a few books - part of his collection of bizarre and wonderful things that he kept squirreled around the cave - but they weren’t particularly useful for their escape, though they had learned a bit about the geography of the place - called Ashting - and more about its people.
“Demons,” Fred had said once, apropos of nothing.
“What?” Steve asked gently, always having more patience for Fred than Tony did.
“Do you think I’m a demon? Usually, I’m pretty sure I’m not, but sometimes I wonder if maybe they’re right.”
“If who’s right?”
Fred waved a vague hand, then fell silent, and Tony assumed that was all they were going to get out of him, but a few minutes later he dug through a pile of things in the corner and came up with a book. At first, Tony was excited, hoping it was one of the last pieces of the puzzle he needed to build the portal home. Fred handed the book to Steve, who thanked him and handed it to Tony. Steve had learned a little bit of the writing system - his memory was incredible so he could learn it quickly if it was explained to him - but he was still slow at actually reading it and deferred easily to Tony for that. Tony opened the book and frowned. It wasn’t useful, just local lore and mythology. He flipped through it and the word “demon” caught his eye.
“Huh. This might have been on topic,” he told Steve. “It talks about demons.” Steve shot him a questioning look so Tony began to read. “Demons,” he read, “are creatures who thrive on the magic released by the death of an unmade bond. A demon steals children who have yet to bond and kills them, breaking the bond. They then consume the magic released when the bond breaks which kills the dead child’s bondmate.”
“Yikes. Guess that’s how they explain matedeath.”
“There’s more.” Tony read on, “Demons can take any form and often stalk their victims for a while until they get hungry and make a kill. The older a child - and therefore the stronger their potential bond magic - the more powerful the magic released and the better the meal for the demon. Demons often take the appearance of a human to trick communities into letting them near their children. The one thing a demon can’t replicate, however, is a bond. Like animals, they have no bondmate. Two demons may try to trick you into thinking they are bonded, but the lack of matemark and lack of connection to their fake mate ultimately reveals their intentions.”
Tony and Steve were silent for a moment as it sunk in. Then Steve met Tony’s eyes. “That’s why they were always so scared of us, why they chased us away. They thought we were demons after their children.”
The knowledge weighed heavier over Tony than it should have, adding on to a pressing, painful doubt that had been building since they came to the cave. Fred had been here for over a year and he hadn’t found a way out. As far as Tony could tell, his reactor would be as useful as Tony’s, and Fred knew that, but he hadn’t been able to act on it. He couldn’t get the supplies, or build the device himself. Tony knew, objectively, that the main reason for that was because Fred was alone, and couldn’t fake mating long enough to get what he needed the way Tony could, but still, it was frightening.
Beyond the heavy doubt that had settled over him that day, Tony also found himself gravitating more intensely towards Steve. They slept curled up in a ball in the cave - half for warmth and half for comfort - and they usually sat close enough to touch. For the first time in a long time, they could be apart, have alone time, and neither of them seemed to want it. Tony knew he didn’t, and if Steve did, he neither asked for it, nor seemed annoyed by Tony’s barnacle impression. In the face of Fred, and the horrific prospect that they might be stuck here as long as he was, their closeness felt needed. Tony saw how broken and scared and lonely Fred was, and he knew that if they didn’t make it out, all he had was Steve, and all Steve had was him.
As uncomfortable as he made Tony, Fred was a valuable resource. They had the same mind, had both learned to read in Ashting, but had slightly different backgrounds from their respective worlds, which meant they made slightly different connections. Fred had read quite a bit in his time at the library, even if he hadn’t made it out with any useful texts. Over the next few days, Tony spent his time going over every scrap of knowledge and every possible plan for escape with Fred for as long as he could stand it, then joined Steve outside for a break.
If Steve wasn’t pressed up against Tony’s side while he worked, he was outside the mouth of the cave, sitting on the rocks in the sun and resting his damaged body. It was worrying, how long it was taking him to heal, and Tony kept a close eye on him. Apparently, the serum could only go so far when Steve was underfed, under-rested, and over-tortured. The marks on his side healed nicely, but his arm refused to return to normal, the angry red lines staying vibrant and scabbing intensely with no further sign of healing.
Tony leaned back against the rocks, picking at his nine thousandth meal of dried fish, and watched Steve wash his wounds in the creek.
“He wants to come with us.”
Steve paused, his shoulders going tense. “Fred wants to come with us?”
“Yup.” Tony popped the “p,” scraping a mouthful of fish off the skin. “He knows we need to make it to Sapstra, and he wants to come. He’s going to pitch a fit if we leave him behind.”
Steve shot Tony a look. “We can’t leave him behind.”
“Steve, he’s alone. We can’t pretend to be mated in a threeway. He’ll make it impossible to be around other people. How can we take him with us?”
Steve shrugged. “We’ll have to stay off the paths, travel through nature. If we need to go into town, you and I will go and we’ll find a place to stash him.”
A thought curled through Tony’s stomach, bringing with it a wave of acid. “He’ll be the one we leave behind though, right? I mean, if we go into town you won’t - you won’t take him in with you? I mean, he’s not that trustworthy to leave behind, so maybe it makes sense...”
“No way.” Steve caught his eye and held it. “We stick together - you and me.”
Tony nodded gratefully, trying to make it look like his sanity hadn’t been riding on that answer.
“What does he think of your plan?” Steve asked.
Tony nodded idly. “Yeah… as much as he can understand it before his mind takes him elsewhere, he seems to agree that it will work. I need a few high-level physics texts, to make sure I’ve got a few things right, and I need some historical astronomical data to figure out how to get the right door open. The wire and tools I stole should be enough to actually build the thing, along with a few iron spikes, which shouldn’t be too hard to find. I’ll need fire.”
Steve stared at him for a long moment. “Sounds simple enough.”
Tony laughed without humour. “It does, doesn’t it?” he murmured.
“And you can control where it opens? Which world, I mean.”
“I think so. That’s the tricky bit, to be honest, but we’re puzzling it out. I could have done it with the old setup back home, but that system wasn’t supposed to open a portal, it was just supposed to show which ones could be opened so I hadn’t bothered to set any parameters.”
“I didn’t know that,” Steve said, straightening up from the creek. “I thought you meant to open a portal.”
Tony shrugged. “I didn’t bother explaining.” He dropped his eyes to his hands but Steve’s gaze was intense, like sunlight through a magnifying glass, on the side of Tony’s face.
“I like it when you explain things to me,” Steve said softly.
Tony shifted on his rock, suddenly feeling it digging into his butt in two hundred places. “I know.”
They holed up in the cave for three more days. On the third day, when Tony went to replace the ink on Steve’s wrist, he reached over and ran a gentle finger over the healing marks on Steve’s forearm. They were finally starting to look better. “It’s a good thing,” Tony said as he wrote, “that they decided to do that to your left and not your right. There’s no telling what they would have done if they’d found out our marks weren’t real.”
“Probably shift from assuming that was a demon -” Steve tapped a finger against the glass of the arc reactor “- to assuming we were.”
Tony nodded in agreement, realizing with an odd sort of comfort that it didn’t bother him when Steve touched the reactor. “So, lucky, I guess.”
“Yeah.” Steve took the marker back once Tony had finished and pulled Tony’s arm across his lap. “We have to leave soon.”
It was two more days before Tony could find the energy to agree that it was time. It was hard, once they’d found a place of relative safety and comfort, to decide to push out into the wild world again, but they had no choice. The date of the Matching Fair was rapidly approaching, and they were still many miles from the city. Travelling with Fred would likely be slower, and Steve and Tony were both tireder and weaker than the last time they had travelled far on foot.
Beyond all that, the weather had turned sharply and the nights outside the cave were suddenly bitterly cold. Midday was still tolerable, but each day they waited, the sun felt farther away, and more than once, Tony had stepped out of the cave in the morning and smelled the bright crisp of oncoming snow.
It took quite a bit of explaining, but Fred was fully on board to travel with them. Steve and Tony packed their bags, loading them up with as much food as they could carry, and refilling their one flask as full as they could. Fred had containers of his own, and rolled up clothes, food, and his meagre possessions in a blanket and tied it onto his back with two, long straps of leather.
They set out the morning of the next day, getting a start so early that the sun was barely pushing away the grey haze of dawn, and their breath came out in smokey bursts, hot in the cool air. Walking was hard this time. Tony’s feet were quickly exhausted from scrambling over the rocky terrain. They stayed up in the mountains where they could see the path of the road and follow it, but remain out of view of anyone who might travel along it, and where water was plenty in small creeks and springs. It was rough and hard, but it was safe, and to Tony’s surprise, with his laser focus honed in on putting one foot gingerly in front of the other, time flew.
They were stopping for lunch before he knew it - dried fish, what a novelty - and the sun was high in the sky, but Tony could barely feel its warmth. Their path had taken them further up the mountain, drifting slowly higher as the rocky terrain inadvertently guided their path. The air was crisp, and above them, much closer than it had been before, was the stark white of snow. Walking had worked up a sweat, but every time they stopped, the cool air chilled Tony’s damp skin, and it wouldn’t be long before he was shivering.
The next few days went on drearily in the same routine. Steve and Tony slept in a lump, wrapped in all their blankets and tucked into whatever corner they could find. Steve was a furnace of body heat, and Tony had long ago given up on being embarrassed by taking advantage of it. Steve never said anything, but Tony suspected that he drew comfort from having Tony that close, at least if the few times Tony had gotten up in the night were anything to go by. As soon as he’d slithered out of Steve’s grasp, the other man had frowned and reached for him, even in his sleep. Fred slept nearby, but on his own, claiming that his mate, who was now alternatively “Fred,” “Tony,” or, much to Tony’s annoyance, “Steve,” would be jealous if he was too close. Fred didn’t seem much bothered, used to the cold from living in the cave, and in possession of some incredible furs he snuggled down in.
In the grey light of dawn, they would rise, pack up their stuff and start walking. They stopped twice for meals, and once again for a short break each day, then as the sun began to set, and walking became treacherous in the low light, they would settle down for the night. As the altitude increased, the oxygen thinned, and Tony found himself winded by the exercise earlier and earlier each day, unaided by their fading food stores leading to tight rationing.
The days began to blur together, the nights getting colder, the morning air sharper, the ground rockier underfoot, but otherwise every day was the same - walking.
Tony woke early one morning, all quiet, save for the man beside him breathing softly. It was still pretty dark, and he was loathe to leave the cosy cocoon of blankets and Steve, but his bladder screamed for relief insistently, and eventually he gave in, pulling his face out of Steve’s chest and wriggling out of the blankets reluctantly. Steve made a small noise of frustration but didn’t wake. His first step out onto the ground revealed that the weather change they had been dreading for weeks now had finally hit. The whole clearing was dusted with a light layer of snow.
Tony tugged off his shirt, wrinkled and itchy from too many days of sweating in it, grabbed a fresh one out of his pack - or at least as fresh as was possible out here - and padded off into the woods to empty his bladder in peace.
He tossed his new shirt over a nearby branch and let the cool morning dry his bare chest and “air him out” a little while he watered a nearby tree with a sigh of relief. He suspected all three of them smelled rank, but after so long, he couldn’t smell it anymore. His nose had taken self-protective measures some time ago and given up completely on functioning. He rested a hand against the tree and leaned forward, running his other palm over his chest. He felt sticky and gross and itchy, especially around the reactor where the skin over his scars was already prone to cracking and breaking.
A small grunt to his right had him spinning sharply, one hand automatically coming up, palm out, threatening with a repulsor he no longer had. Two beady black eyes peered out from between the trees. Tony lowered his hand. It was a goat. Or at least the nearest they had to a goat here. It was huge, its lowered head nearly even with Tony’s chest, and it was watching him warily. Tony stepped forward and the light of the bared arc reactor caught its face.
“You little shit!” It had Tony’s shirt in its mouth and was chewing contemplatively, the beige fabric disappearing between its jaws as they worked. “Give that back!”
The goat tilted its head, still chewing, and rolled one eye at Tony, showing the white.
“Fuck you! I only have like three shirts. Give it back.” Emboldened by rage, Tony stepped forward and grabbed one of the shirt’s sleeves, tugging. The goat chewed on, unaffected by Tony’s vain attempts to reclaim his property. Tony gave a short scream of frustration and advanced on the goat further. It stepped back at this, and for a moment, Tony thought he was gaining the upper hand, but then it brought its chin to its chest, pulling the shirt taut between them, and brandished its horns threateningly at him.
“Argh! Fuck. You!” Tony had never wished so desperately for his armour before now. He’d show this stupid, shirt-eating asshole what Iron Man could really -
“TONY!” There was a loud crash of breaking branches, and Steve burst through the trees, nearly colliding with Tony in his rush.
“He stole my shirt!” Tony yelled, trying to tug the shirt without angering the goat further and risking a charge.
Steve screeched to a halt, stunned, and stared at the two of them, mouth open. There was a full beat of silence where Tony glared at the goat, Steve stared, slack-jawed, at the two of them, and the goat continued to chew.
Then Steve exploded into laughter.
Tony had never heard him laugh so hard, ever. He wrapped his arms around his middle and doubled over, his eyes wet and his breath coming in great heaving gasps between peals. Eventually, he made no sound at all, still trapped in the apparently inescapable mirth of the tableau before him, but so out of breath that his laughter was merely a silent contortion as he fought for breath.
Tony failed to see the humour in the situation.
“You know what? Fuck you too. This is my shirt and this little jerkwad has no right to eat it.” Another inch of sleeve disappeared into the goat’s mouth. “What kind of nutritional benefit does a shirt even have? You’re going to get scurvy anyway, you mountaineering, bearded, dickhole! I hope you - whoa!” Apparently sick of Tony’s yelling, the goat dropped its head again, waving its horns with a new vigour. Tony took a few steps backwards until he bumped against the solidity of Steve’s chest, and a hand wrapped around his bicep. It didn’t seem to be quite so funny anymore.
“Let the shirt go, Tony. It’s not worth getting gored over.”
Tony sighed. “But it’s all I have,” he said quietly, petulantly. Steve eased him back, away from the goat, until he let go of the sleeve, letting the goat have it. The goat smirked at him, victorious. “You know what -?!” Tony started, but Steve tugged him away, pulling him back into the woods until the goat disappeared into the dark with its prize.
“Fuck,” Tony huffed out, the word mangled by his suddenly chattering teeth. He looked up at Steve, who, for some reason, was staring down at him, and sighed. “I don’t like goats.”
“Or donkeys,” Steve supplied helpfully, letting go of Tony’s arms and tugging at his own shirt.
“Or fish. I’m so sick of fish.”
Steve pulled his shirt over his head, then dropped it over Tony’s, tugging it down until his arms popped through. “Trees.”
“Rocks,” Tony added, shooting Steve an unamused look, but snuggling into the shirt anyway. When he ran his hands over it, he realized it was Steve’s original shirt from home, the long-sleeved tee he’d been wearing under his jacket when they got sucked through in the first place. It was worn now, and faded, but the synthetic fabric felt like the future, and Tony was instantly, and deeply, comforted by it. It was a bit too big, already Steve-sized then stretched out by abuse and a lack of washing machines, and Tony tugged the long sleeves over his hands. It was warm, making Tony realize just how cold he’d gotten, wrestling with the goat.
Steve was looking at him with a strange light in his eyes, and Tony shifted under his gaze. “Now you don’t have a shirt,” Tony muttered.
“I have others,” Steve said lightly.
Tony felt strongly that he was being patronized and should probably refuse to take it, but he supposed that it was fair, considering he just had a temper tantrum over a goat. Plus, Steve’s shirt was really warm.
They hiked back to the camp together, Steve walking behind with two fingers resting lightly in the small of Tony’s back, either recognizing that Tony needed the contact, or needing it himself. When they reached the clearing where they had set up camp, Tony skidded to a halt, making Steve bump into him from behind. “Wha-”
“Where’s Fred?” Tony asked, voice going flat.
Steve peered around him. “Dammit.” He grabbed another shirt out of his bag and pulled it on, then started throwing things into his pack. Fred’s stuff was gone, as was Fred.
They worked quickly, shoving things in their bags and pulling on extra layers, then grabbed everything and charged up, away from the treed outcropping onto the rocky mountainside. About twenty feet away, was Fred’s dark shape, halfway up a steep climb, heading towards a scraggly bush that boasted a crop of dark berries. They’d burst out onto a steep, exposed side of the mountain, snow-covered and wild with wind. They called to Fred, but he either didn’t hear, or didn’t care, pulling himself up the ledge towards the berries.
Steve and Tony picked their way over to the bottom of Fred’s ledge. “Dude, come on, you’re going to fall, it’s not worth it,” Tony called up. But Fred continued to climb, Steve walked around the corner of the ledge, gazing up at the mountain, the wind sending his hair whipping around his face.
“Why doesn’t this idiot listen to anyone?” Tony griped. “Okay, even I can recognize the irony in that. And if you think I’m going to learn some great life lesson after being thoroughly annoyed by my double, I can assure you that -”
“Tony!” There was a loud cracking sound, and Steve flung himself at the ledge. He scrambled up six feet of sheer rock in two seconds flat, wrapped his hand around Fred’s ankle, and pulled hard. Fred yelped, and they both came down, Steve landing on his feet and catching Fred, then shoving him upright, ahead of him. “Run!”
A second crack, even louder, and Tony, stumbling along behind Steve and Fred, turned back and could finally see what Steve had seen. A hollow, black line had formed in the snow, well above them on the mountainside. The gaping fissure grew, and the snow below it was suddenly on the move, sliding over the rock, gaining speed and drowning rocks and the occasional lone tree in a violent, rumbling tsunami.
Tony tripped, and caught himself on his palms, shredding the skin, then staggered up to his feet. Steve had stopped and half turned to go back for him, but Tony caught up in a few strides, grabbing a firm handful of Steve’s shirt so they couldn’t be separated. They flew down the mountain, making a break for the lower sections where the trees grew thickly and the steepness levelled out. It was dangerous and out of control, running at top speed among the rocks, and Tony’s ankles screamed in agony as he twisted them on every other step, scrambling over the uneven rocks.
The avalanche gained speed, rushing towards them with a terrifying whoosh. Steve guided them to the side, pushing them back the way they came, but out of the path of the snow. Tony’s heart pounded against the case of the arc reactor, and his breath was little more than ragged, burning gasps, but he kept his grip on Steve’s shirt and trusted him to drag them all to safety.
After what felt like hours, Steve finally slowed, and Tony collapsed, dropping to his knees, his hand falling from Steve’s arm to his knee, keeping the contact so he couldn’t be left behind, but unable to stand any longer. Steve let go of Fred, who also tumbled to the ground, then his face filled Tony’s vision as he crouched in front of him.
“You okay?” Even Steve’s breath was short.
Tony nodded, not able to speak yet.
“It broke the other way, we’re clear, but we’ve lost so much time and tons of altitude.” Steve sighed, shifting back to sit on the ground, chest still heaving. They all slumped in a heap, letting it sink in that in one wild flight they’d lost days of careful walking - and likely days of physical well-being. In their current state, it would take a while to recover their strength and they’d all be beyond sore tomorrow. Fred muttered to himself, under his breath, apparently having some intense argument with his imaginary mate.
Tony’s throat burned with his ragged breaths, the cold air not helping the rough scratch any. He looked around them and his heart fell. They were still so far away, and the avalanche almost certainly blocked their path above. They would have to walk back down and follow the road instead. If they stayed in the trees, they’d lose their way immediately and likely end up wandering in circles instead of making progress.
No one felt like speaking as the heavy weight of what they were facing fell over them. Then, Tony caught movement and saw Steve’s head come up, tilting to the side in curiosity. Tony opened his mouth to ask what it was, but then he heard it too. A distant rumble, breaking into the more familiar rhythmic chug and hiss of a steam train.
Chapter 12: "Escape"
“And that second of a shooting star”
They found the train tracks without much trouble. The train itself was still well off in the distance, heading their way, so they hung back in the bushes, waiting. Based on their map, the train was almost certainly heading towards Sapstra, if not immediately, then eventually, and even if it wasn’t direct, it was much faster and more comfortable than walking. Now, they only needed to wait, and hope that there was an open car and that it was going slow enough to jump on.
The train chugged into view, and Steve’s whole body heaved with a sigh of relief. It was a lumber train, with open-sided cargo cars, and the risky weather meant it was picking its way carefully down the tracks. They let the first few cars go by, watching carefully for people, but besides the conductors up front, the train seemed empty. They hustled down to the tracks, and Steve helped Fred then Tony up into the car, jogging easily beside the mellow-paced train.
For the first time in a long time, travel felt easy. Tony got out his map and though it didn’t have the train lines drawn on it, between the three of them, they were confident that they were heading in the right direction. Fred estimated about 9 hours before they’d be getting close to the city, so they sprawled on the wooden floor of the train car and let the steady rattle and hiss of the train lull them to sleep.
Steve woke to Fred shaking his arm, and he sat up, following the direction Fred pointed in, to see, off in the distance, the roofs and peaks of an approaching city. They’d made it to Sapstra.
They rousted Tony and tumbled out of the train before they got too close and risked being seen. They walked the rest of the way, keeping an eye out for a safe place for Fred to hide and for them to huddle down at night. It wasn’t long before the perfect place presented itself. Only about a mile out of the city, a ramshackle farm had clearly been abandoned for better pastures, or maybe a job in the city. The farmhouse had completely collapsed, but one of the barns still stood strong and sturdy, doorless, but with four solid walls to hold the cold at bay.
Tony was eager to get into the city and confirm that they were in the right place, so they left Fred to set up camp in the barn and hiked the rest of the way into town.
They must had made some miscalculations on the date because, to their surprise, the Matching Fair was clearly already in full swing. The streets were crawling with people of all ages, all in their brightest, fanciest clothes. Decorations hung from every balcony and stair rail, and every public square rang with live music. The air was one of excitement and wonder.
Steve and Tony naturally gravitated towards each other, their hands weaving together between them so there was no risk of them being parted in the pressing crowd. At last, they turned a corner and in front of them, looming large and impressive, was the university, and under a glimmering golden dome, the library.
Tony pressed tight against Steve’s side. Steve couldn’t remember when touching Tony constantly became normal, but the thought of him drifting out of reach was a stressful one. They’d been so long without being around other people that Steve found his eye dropping nervously to his wrist every couple of minutes, pulling his sleeve down to cover it, then pushing it back up again to make sure the ink wasn’t rubbing off. Tony must have noticed because, eventually, with a sigh, he changed sides, releasing Steve’s left hand and grabbing his right instead, holding it firm so he couldn’t fuss.
The library was massive, and it took them both a while to find the section they needed. Steve felt like a sore thumb, their rough clothes and dirty faces standing out in a crowd of quiet, clean students. Then Tony gave a squeak of triumph and dragged Steve down a long aisle to what Steve could only assume was the correct area. Tony immediately started pulling books down, stacking them in Steve’s arms and muttering to himself.
This library trip ended up being much like their last, except this time Steve didn’t let himself get caught up in art books. He was on guard. Tony kept his reactor carefully hidden under two layers of shirts, but Steve watched anyway, eyes on the crowd, back to Tony who in turn had his back to the wall. Steve wouldn’t be caught unawares again.
It was boring, and it was tiring being on edge all day, but Steve kept at it. Every time he started to droop he remembered how it felt to watch Tony being tugged away from him in Notenton, with a hand over his mouth - his wide eyes, hands reaching uselessly towards Steve. The jolt of adrenaline from the memory kept Steve on high alert. In a lot of ways, however, Sapstra was pretty anticlimactic. It was Tony’s time to shine now, Steve was merely an escort.
When the light dimmed, they packed up their stuff and headed back out to the barn. It was a long walk in the growing dark, and a nerve-wracking one. Steve couldn’t help glancing behind him every now and then, sure he could feel the presence of someone behind them, following. But there was nothing.
Tony’s mind was clearly still in the library, and he weaved and tripped, eyes glazed over and lips muttering softly to himself. Steve wrapped an arm around his shoulders and led him across the overgrown field to the barn.
Fred was still there - thankfully - and the barn, while filled with more holes than swiss cheese - was warmer than any of the last several nights had been, up in the mountains. Fred’s survival skills had come into play, and he’d apparently spent the day clearing a fire pit for them and surrounding it with heavy bricks. Tony used his firestarter to get them going - the hay acting as the perfect kindling for the meagre pile of logs Fred had collected.
In the flickering light of the fire, Tony began constructing the portal device. Every now and then he pulled down the collar of his shirt to light the pages of his notebook more clearly, but it clearly made him nervous, his eyes flicking up to catch Steve’s every time he did it.
Steve drifted off well before either of them, falling asleep to their soft voices arguing about voltage, then waking again as Tony’s heat pressed in against him. It was warm in the barn, Tony could have slept on his own, but Steve was grateful when his arms were suddenly full of the sleepy engineer. “Get anywhere?” Steve murmured, manhandling Tony’s limp body into a more comfortable position in the hay.
“Mmm,” Tony hummed against his chest. “Getting there.”
Fred tipped his flask over the fire, and they were plunged into darkness.
The next week continued in much the same way. Steve woke with an armful of Tony, vibrated nervously at the library while Tony read book after book and made little noises of satisfaction, then watched him tinker at night, melting silver in the fire then using it to bond bits of the copper wire together. He didn’t ask for an explanation. He knew he probably should - if anything happened to Tony there was a very slim, but real, chance that he could finish the work and open the portal himself - but the time it would take Tony to explain also seemed like a waste. He’d have to start at the beginning, with the basics. And there was a reason Tony was a genius. He saw these things in ways no one else ever could. He could spend days explaining it to Steve - and Steve knew now that if he asked, Tony would do just that - and Steve still wouldn’t even come close to having the same concept of it that Tony did.
It was scary, trusting Tony with their rescue, but Steve did.
Despite the happy bustle of the city, this time there were no pubs with live music, or dinners at restaurants, or fermented juice for them. They were tired, dirty, scared, and beyond ready to go home. Fred had withdrawn even more, refusing to talk to either of them unless it was about the portal device, and then, rarely seeming to agree with Tony’s plan.
Steve couldn’t tell if their arguments were over actual concerns, or if Fred was getting cold feet as they approached their escape attempt. He seemed to be getting less and less connected with reality, talking to himself more and more, waking in the night, and getting upset about the barn being different from the cave.
Steve could see that Tony was reaching the end of his tether, but there wasn’t much he could do. So he settled for being there for whatever Tony needed, in any way that he could be. It wasn’t much but when Tony tossed aside his notebook and rubbed his hand over his face, Steve pulled him into conversation, or pulled him between his knees and rubbed his shoulders until the tension faded out of them.
Two weeks after they had made it to Sapstra, those small comforts were no longer enough. Tony and Fred had been engaged in tense but quiet muttering for several hours when Tony suddenly exploded. He leapt to his feet, yelling something about controlling the gravitational field production and flew out of the barn. Steve rocketed after him.
“Tony,” he called, jogging lightly to keep up with the dark shadow that was disappearing into the night. The shadow stopped, all sharp lines and clenched fists.
“I can’t do it.” Tony’s voice was agonized, broken.
Steve reached his side and pulled him into a hug without hesitation. Tony melted into the embrace, his arms limp at his sides and his face buried into Steve’s chest. For a moment, Steve just stroked his fingers along Tony’s spine in silence, waiting until he felt the man slump in his arms and heave out a sigh. “What’s wrong with it?”
Tony leaned back and stretched, popping his shoulders and back loudly. “Five, ten, graduate student, or ‘I have all night’?” Tony asked.
Steve thought about it. He didn’t want to take up too much of Tony’s time, but sometimes talking it out helped him work through a problem. “Start with five.”
Tony looked at him, and in the dim light of the full moon and the reactor, Steve could see a saucy smirk twitching at the corners of his mouth. “Wire, plus iron, plus power, equals magnets!” he said condescendingly.
Steve raised an eyebrow. “Har, har. Okay, give me ten-year-old, then.”
Tony chuckled then held his hands out in front of him, as if he were manipulating the holoscreens back home and began to explain. “Okay, so the gravimetric spikes back home, they were designed to identify and contain gravimetric anomalies, but Jane altered them, so they could create anomalies instead. Bruce and I were using them to do their original task - identify - but we were pushing it beyond the original scope, creating a map of gravitational fields so we could plan out all the worlds and all the dimensions that overlap, or touch or converge, beyond just the ‘Nine Realms’ Thor always dithers on about.”
Tony took a deep breath, eyes flickering to Steve’s to make sure he was still following. “So, when I turned it on before, I was intending to only make it identify and map those things, but instead, it was still doing what Jane had set it up to do - control them. I was pissed and distracted and I didn’t change all the settings I should have.”
The words hung heavy between them, and Steve reached out and squeezed Tony’s elbow, a small gesture of forgiveness. If he was honest, he had come to be deeply grateful that Tony had pulled him into this, because if he hadn’t, Tony would have ended up here alone. He would have ended up as lost and broken as Fred, and that thought made Steve’s chest tighten painfully.
Tony’s next breath was less steady. “So, we need a way to control the fields - that I have down already. I can build a massive electromagnet that can mimic a gravitational field enough to bend spacetime just a little bit and give us a chance to pop through. If my calculations are correct, we’re close enough that it shouldn’t be hard. Fred did the same math, a year ago, and a convergence on his world is overlapping - thank god. I had thought we might have to leave him behind with the magnets and hope he could do it on his own with his own reactor. But then how would he…” Tony cut himself off with a sharp look up at Steve.
“Anyway, it looks like we can all go home at the same time. Only now, Fred and I can’t agree on how to pin down which world we’ll be coming into. I know I can control it through small adjustments in the electrical output, but there’s no way to know when we’ve got it right. We’ve gone over satellite tracking, differences in the magnetic poles, fucking astronomy. It just won’t work.” Tony crumpled back against Steve’s chest, apparently trusting that he would catch him and keep him from continuing a path to the ground. Steve shifted a leg back so he could support Tony’s weight leaning against him and thought.
But he had no idea where to even start. Tony’s explanation was a good one, He felt like he almost understood, but if Tony and Fred couldn’t sort it out between two mega geniuses, then how could he hope to help? No, if Tony talking through it wasn’t enough, there wasn’t anything else he could do. “I’m sorry,” he breathed out against Tony’s hair. “Don't give up.”
Tony mumbled something into his chest that Steve hoped was, “I won’t.”
After standing in the fresh air for a while, Tony heaved a sigh and set off back for the barn, Steve in tow.
He didn’t sit back down with his notebook and his twin. Instead, he curled up alone in a pile of hay and flung his arm over his eyes, oozing stress. Steve opened both their packs and pulled everything out, intending to take inventory of their food and decide what they needed to buy the next day, but at the bottom of Tony’s bag his hand closed over something hard and foreign feeling.
“Mmm?” was his only answer.
“This is probably stupid, and I’m sure you’ve thought of it already. It’s broken, but would this help?” Steve held the damaged cell phone aloft. Tony’s eyes fixed on him, first squinting in the dark, then brow furrowing as he thought it through. Then they widened.
“Oh my god, Steve. The phone. It’s the battery that - With the - the gps. It wouldn’t - but we could. Fred!” Fred started awake from where he’d slumped next to the fire. “The battery exploded, but we could use the gps receiver to -”
Fred’s eyes followed where Tony was pointing, and they widened, a mirror of Tony’s. “Yes.” Fred leapt to his feet. “That - we can. It wouldn’t - but then…” Tony was nodding along in agreement, while Steve stared, watching the two men dance around the same idea.
“Steve.” Tony’s eyes met his, the blueprints faded from in front of them as Steve felt his entire focus settle on him, powerful and overwhelming. “You did it.”
Steve wasn’t one hundred percent sure what it was he had done, but both the engineers were wild with excitement and immediately exchanged any hope of sleep for continuing to work. They dismantled the phone and put it back together several times. Once, when Steve woke to excited chatter, he saw Tony sitting with the arc reactor hanging out of his chest, several wires running from its heart into the phone. It made his breath catch, seeing Tony looking so vulnerable.
When Steve woke next, Tony and Fred were gone. There was an intense, overpowering, moment of panic, then he heard their voices outside the barn. He pulled himself to his feet and followed the sound - perhaps a little faster than necessary - breathing a sigh of relief as soon as they came into view. They were arguing - again - this time apparently over the placement of a series of iron railroad spikes wrapped in bright copper wire. The spikes they had bought in town a few days ago, but this was the first time Steve had seen them put to use.
Steve crossed the grass, rubbing sleep out of his eyes. The two of them had made an insane amount of progress in the night. Tony was opening his mouth, clearly ready to slip into full on rage mode, so Steve rested a hand on his forearm and whispered, “Tony.”
Tony’s mouth immediately snapped shut, and he huffed a hard breath out of his nose. “If they are too close together, we could short out the phone,” he said, overly carefully.
Fred tipped his head to the side. “If I am too far apart -” he paused “- if they are too far apart, the field will be too weak.”
Tony sighed. “We have to math it, don’t we?”
After half an hour of working in Tony’s notebook, they came to an agreement. The spikes were shifted, and the work with the wire resumed. It hit Steve hard, and out of nowhere, that they were shockingly close to going home. From what he could gather, the device was almost done, and once it was, there was no reason to stay. They didn’t have to wait for the right date, or the right time, presumably, they could just turn it on and go.
It should have been exciting, but instead, it was terrifying. The knowledge settled heavily in the bottom of Steve’s stomach. Steve watched, the discomfort growing, as Tony and Fred finalized their creation. Copper wires ran around all the spikes, forming a sort of low fence, in a complicated pattern that clearly made sense to them. The ends came back to a tangled mess of copper, silver, and the partially dismantled phone, ending in a thin circle of metal that Steve had seen them testing on the arc reactor earlier.
As the sun hit its highest point in the sky, Steve could see they were nearing the end of their preparations so he went back to the barn, packing up all their stuff and making sure the fire was fully extinguished. Fred already had his pack on his back. Steve dumped the other two bags near Tony’s feet.
Tony and Fred went over all the wires one more time, then Tony popped the reactor out of his chest, still bound to the casing with a heavy wire, and snapped the new backplate on, effectively wiring himself up to the phone, and the spikes. He turned the phone on and started typing.
Steve hovered nervously nearby. Finally, unable to stand the tension anymore, he slid up behind Tony and asked, “So how will this work?”
Tony was silent for a moment, finishing his typing, then he looked up, his eyes settling on Fred. “We put Fred in the circle, I use this program -” he waved the phone “- to pinpoint his world and zap. The portal will stay open for twenty seconds, then close.”
“Put Fred… is it really safe to send him on his own? We don’t even know if it’ll open in the right place. What if we’re sending him through somewhere horrible?”
“So, what, it’s better if more of us go through to somewhere horrible?” Tony muttered, clearly not really meaning it.
“Tony, come on, you know he’s getting worse. It might confuse him too much, and he wouldn’t know how to come back if it were the wrong place. I want to know I’m sending him home, or at least somewhere safe where they can look after him properly.”
“I know… look, I have to control the portal from the outside. That means… that means you’d have to go through with him, make sure he was okay, and come back. All in a very short period of time. I can keep the portal open, but then if you move too far away from where you came through, when I reverse it, it won’t bring you back. You’d be stuck there. And I’d - I’d be here.”
Their eyes met, tight and tense. “We could take him home with us?” Steve offered, knowing it wouldn’t work, even as the words were coming out of his mouth. Tony’s eyes flicked over to his copy.
“He wants to go home. He’s willing to take the risk.” Silence fell between them.
“I’ll come back. But I have to see him home,” Steve said firmly, eventually.
Tony’s jaw ticked, but he nodded.
“Are we ready?” Nerves bounced in Steve’s stomach. He couldn’t believe they were really here and it was about to be all over, for better or for worse.
“It’ll be twenty seconds. If you’re not there in twenty seconds, it won’t take you back. I can cycle it again, but no guarantee it’ll open in the same spot, okay?” Steve nodded. “Fred?” Tony called out. “You ready?”
Fred stared forlornly at the circle of spikes for a moment, arms clasped around his pack, then he nodded. “Ready.”
Steve beckoned Fred over and urged him into the middle of the circle, turning back towards Tony, something heavy between them. “Is it going to work?” Steve whispered.
Tony smiled, scared, but real. “On va voir.”
Steve barked out a surprised laugh then leaned in, wanting to pull Tony in for a hug, but the wires coming out of his chest made that impossible. But when Tony shifted towards him, just a little bit, Steve took a last step forward and pressed his lips to Tony’s instead. It was quick and chaste, just a brush of lips, but it was all Steve could do. He needed Tony to believe him when he said, I’m coming back for you, and words wouldn’t cut it. When he pulled back, Tony’s expression was unreadable.
Steve turned back to the circle, grabbed Fred’s arm, and pulled until they were close together. Tony gave him one last look, then pressed a finger to the phone screen. There was a shimmer and a crackle of static electricity over Steve’s skin, then the field disappeared and he was in a room filled with long, equipment-covered tables. It looked kind of like Tony’s workshop, but less expensive, less sleek and modern, more like an office building than a state-of-the-art lab.
There was a woman in yellow pants and a black leather jacket with black hair cut in a short bob sitting on a stool in front of one of the tables, peering into a microscope, but she reared back in shock when Steve and Fred came through the portal. Fred moved towards her, his hand a vise around Steve’s wrist, and for a heart-stopping moment, Steve thought Fred was going to try to keep him here, that he would have to fight to get back in the portal alone, but then the fingers relaxed and fell away and Fred was stumbling across the floor towards the woman.
Tony had said twenty seconds, then he would come back, so Steve counted in his head as he watched Fred make his way out of the circle. The woman clapped a hand over her mouth and took a few unsteady steps across the room. “...Tony?” she asked, eyes going bright, and Fred crumpled onto the carpet. She caught him halfway, wrapping her arms around his shoulders.
She looked up at Steve, wild for answers, but all he could do was give her a sad smile before the air buzzed again and the room disappeared.
He was back in Ashting, Tony stared wide-eyed at him from outside the circle. “Did it work?” he asked, breathless.
Steve stepped out of the circle and nodded. “It worked. He’s home.”
“Okay. Okay. Amazing. Good. We did it, wow. You’re here.”
“You did it.” Steve took Tony’s wrist in his hand. “Now get us home.” Something shifted in Tony’s body language, and Steve tensed in response, his fingers tightening around Tony’s wrist. “What?”
“So. There’s a thing I may not have mentioned.”
“Tony.” Steve dropped his clenching hand away before he could hurt the other man. His heart was pounding in his chest. He knew that tone of voice. “What is it?”
“Okay, Steve. Everything’s going to be fine, but see, the reactor needs to be here with the phone to activate the portal, but I need to be in the circle.”
“Tony you’re not -”
“I need to leave the reactor behind. If I get in with it in my chest, it’ll implode as soon as I activate it. If we’re lucky we’ll turn this whole world into a black hole, if we’re not we’ll turn every world into a black hole.” Tony took a deep breath. “So I need to leave it behind. I’ve already rigged it so we’ll have ten seconds to get in the circle before it opens. It’ll work.”
Steve stared, open-mouthed. The reactor was Tony’s heart, it kept him alive, how could he leave it behind. “Won’t that kill you?” His voice didn’t sound like his, it sounded like the voice of a pack-a-day smoker.
“Not right away,” Tony said, fake cheerfully, fear twisting through his words. “Look, I’m 90% sure we’ll end up back in the lab. There’s a drawer, under the stand for the Mark IX. It looks like a wall panel, but if you push it, it’ll open. There are several backups in there. You just have to -” Tony pulled the reactor away from his chest and pointed at the place where the cable from the back connected to the casing inside his chest. “Plug there, pop in. Good to go.”
“You can’t do that! What if we don’t end up back at the tower?”
“It’s the only way. Seriously. I’ve been over it and over it. Trust me, if there was another way, I would have found it. We won’t be leaving anything dangerous for these people to get their hands on, it’ll be fried completely without me there to control the voltage. But, I promise you, it’s the only way.” He settled one hand on Steve’s shoulder, then slid it up to the back of his neck. “Steve. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, but I knew you would push to find another way and - there just isn’t one. Please. I need you to trust me on this.”
Steve looked in his eyes, and he knew it was the truth. “I do. Trust you. I just - I can’t -” Steve shook his head. There was no other way - he would have to do whatever it took to save Tony. “Okay.”
“If we don’t land in the workshop, you get to a phone, you call Bruce, you tell him to get Thor to fly it over. JARVIS will open the drawer for him in an emergency.”
“Okay.” Steve’s voice shook. He nodded. “Okay.”
Tony met his eyes, and Steve could see the fear there. “So. I’m going to take it out, we get in the circle right away, if I can’t - if I can’t stand, you grab me, we go through. I might pass out, or start to breathe funny. Don’t try and do anything about it, just go straight for the drawer. Plug in, push. Got it?”
“I’ve got it.”
Tony sidled up next to Steve until he was pressed against his chest. Steve picked up their packs, then hooked one arm around Tony’s back, holding him up, grounding him, a promise that no matter what happened, he would get Tony through.
Tony reached into his chest, grabbed the cable, and pulled.
Chapter 13: "Rejected"
“It’s all a dream to me now”
This landing was distinctly less intense than the last, though Tony was basing that on accounts Steve had giving him. For him, last time had been a sharp pain then waking up in Lula and Rick’s house, days later. He maintained consciousness this time, wrapped in the protective cocoon of Steve’s arms. They tumbled out onto a hard surface and for a moment, hung in tense silence.
And then the pain hit.
It took a moment for his body to register the loss of the electromagnet, but then his heartbeat went into wild overdrive, and he slumped in Steve’s arms, fighting to suck in breaths while his body went haywire. All the blood drained out of Steve’s face, but true to his word, he set Tony gently on the floor and scrambled for the drawer. Tony’s vision blurred and all he could focus on was the pounding in his chest, the sharp shudders of pain wracking his body. Hands touched his chest, moved him around roughly, then cupped his face.
His heartbeat slowed. It took a while, but his breath came back, his vision cleared, and he could see the blue glow of the reactor in his chest. He pressed a hand over it. Thank god. It was the fastest he’d ever gone down from taking it out. If they hadn’t landed here - Thor or no Thor - there wouldn’t have been enough time.
When Steve carefully released his hold, Tony peered up from the floor, and his heart sang with joy at the sight of lab. The lights were dim and the windows were dark, but the floor was covered with papers and empty Thai food containers, and all of Tony’s pens were on the floor. His bots sat on their chargers, U still covered in flecks of blue smoothie.
“Did we make it?” Steve asked a painful hope cracking his voice.
Tony stood and took a turn around the room. Everything looked right; everything looked exactly as he had left it three months ago. “JARVIS?” he tried.
Relief flooded Tony’s stomach. “J, do a scan. Are Steve and I in the right universe?”
JARVIS did the electronic equivalent of humming. “I do not have access to any tests or scans that would reveal dimensional travel, however, your scans show no significant difference from normal, besides a worrying change in body fat percentage and muscle mass.”
Tony walked over to his computer and flicked the screen to life. Everything was how he had left it. There was no way it could be a coincidence - they were home. He turned to Steve with a grin. “We made it.”
Steve returned his smile, then took the few steps forward needed to wrap Tony in a hug. They clung together for a long moment, revelling in the feeling of freedom.
“Wow. Am I interrupting something?” They broke apart and spun towards the door as one to face Clint. He was holding a popsicle and staring at them with eyebrows raised.
“Clint, oh my god, I can’t believe it.” Steve stumbled across the room and gathered Clint up in his own hug. Clint made a huff of surprise, caught Tony’s eye and gave him a significant look of confusion, then he coughed. He shoved Steve away.
“Good god, you reek! Did you land in something in the sewer? Geez man, take a shower.”
“The sewer… what?” Steve turned back to face Tony, brow creased with confusion, and suddenly, everything clicked into place.
“Steve. The Thai food, the pens, the sewer. Look at Clint’s foot.”
Steve’s eyes dropped to the floor then his mouth fell open. Clint’s foot was still wrapped in a heavy layer of bandages, and he’d pulled a large purple Hulk sock over the toe. “Oh my god. How long - how long has it been?”
Clint stared at both of them in turn. “How long has what been?”
“How long have we been gone?” Tony clarified. “It can hardly have been more than a couple days here.”
“Gone?” Clint’s brow crinkled.
“When did you see either of us last?” Steve asked.
“Uh, I saw Cap about eight hours ago, in the afternoon after the sewer mission. You checked on me then said you were going down to ‘tear Tony a new one.’ Guess I haven’t seen you since, but I’ve been busy trying to convince Banner to give me the good stuff for this burn.” He winked.
“Eight hours….” Steve turned to look at Tony again.
Three months in Ashting had been eight hours here. That was all. No one had missed them, no one had looked for them, no one had even known they were gone. They could have been trapped for a year and the team would only have just been starting to worry.
“You guys look awful,” Clint said, sticking his popsicle back in his mouth and talking around it. “What happened?”
In the end, in order to save telling the story twice, Steve instructed Clint to wake everyone up and meet in the common room. Steve went up to his room to shower, while Tony simply hopped in the workshop bathroom, not wanting to be in his clothes any longer than necessary. The hot water was almost too decadent, scraping away three months worth of dirt, blood, and sweat. He kept scrubbing - putting rinse and repeat to its limits - until the water that swirled down the drain shifted from grey to clear.
Tony grabbed spare clothes from a cupboard he kept stocked for spills, burns, and other lab accidents and pulled them on. He took a moment to greet DUM-E and U, asking for a full diagnostic report from JARVIS while he did so. More to listen to his voice than anything else. Satisfied that they were fine - and uproariously happy to see him even though it had only been eight hours - he headed upstairs, still rubbing a towel over his hair. When he entered the room and found Steve already there, he let out a sigh of relief, not realizing how nerve-wracking it had been, being out of his sight, until he saw him again. They both had their packs with them, setting them, as subtly as they could, by their chairs.
Most of the day was lost to their story, and then to the inevitable deluge of questions after. By six o’clock everyone was starving and stiff from sitting and talking for hours on end. Bruce and Nat volunteered to make dinner, while Thor and Clint continued to question Steve and Tony. Tony could tell that their experience lacked punch with the others. It felt like they were recounting a dream to their friends, not the reality of their last three months. It was clear that only being gone one night, yet having months of stories to tell, was something the others simply couldn't process. Not that they weren’t trying, not that they had ever once suggested that it hadn’t really happened, but it just wasn’t real for them.
It was so real for Tony.
His joints ached, his fingernails were torn nearly to the beds, he’d lost weight - most of it upper body muscle, all the walking had kept his legs rock solid - and the constant ringing buzz of electricity in the tower was boring into his skull. When he sat, his hand would drop automatically to the rough, pocked scar on his thigh.
Steve looked equally uncomfortable and exhausted, twitching at every loud noise and rubbing his hand over his face every time the attention was off him. They both made it through dinner, but when the spaghetti and meatballs were done, they shared a look across the table and staggered to their feet in unison.
“Bed,” Steve said, and everyone nodded in sympathy.
There was a moment where the whole world twisted and tripped under Tony’s feet. Steve turned away to walk down the hall to his rooms, and Tony was faced with the elevator doors for the penthouse, alone. For the first time since they’d gone through this portal, for the first time in over three months, Tony was going to sleep without Steve within eyesight. And for the first time in over three weeks, without Steve right there beside him.
Steve didn’t look back, he just disappeared down the hall, his pack dangling from one hand, but Tony stood in front of the elevator doors for a long time, staring at the space Steve had just vacated, before JARVIS gently prodded him to head up.
The bed was too soft and too big and too empty, so Tony took a blanket and curled up on the floor. He was exhausted - it felt like every molecule in his body was exhausted in its own way - but sleep wouldn’t come. The room was loud, and huge, and the shadows that danced in the light from the arc reactor were the wrong shape.
Whenever he managed to doze off, he’d startle awake again, only a few minutes later. And now he had the sharp, green letters of his alarm clock to prove it.
“JARVIS? Shut off all non-essential electronics in the penthouse. Disconnect all speakers, cameras and microphones, unless you need them to function.”
There was a brief pause, then the silence deepened, bringing with it core-deep relief and the realization that the silence he’d been in hadn’t actually been silence at all. The light from the clock flickered out, the hum from the speakers ceased, and a new depth of dark settled over the room. Tony closed his eyes and imagined that the floor under him was the bottom of the cave and the edge of the bed he had pressed up against was Steve’s back, and that everything was okay. He finally fell asleep.
Tony woke up, still in the dark, shocked awake by a surge of hot acid roiling in his stomach. He staggered to his feet, the blanket getting tangled around his ankles, and stumbled to the bathroom just in time to fall to his knees in front of the toilet and retch. Everything came up from dinner, and when that was gone, he vomited bile until his stomach muscles were too exhausted to cramp anymore.
He sat back on his heels, slumped against the vanity, and found his breath again. His eyes were hot and his cheeks were wet. His throat burned, but the thought of standing up to reach the tap was horrifying. He wiped his face with a tissue and sat on the floor for a long time, just breathing.
He’d forgotten how hard it was for a body to adjust to food again after so long without. The cheeseburgers he’d wanted so badly after Afghanistan hadn’t stayed in his stomach for more than a few hours, and it was weeks before anything but broth and simple smoothies would. He should have remembered.
After nearly an hour on the floor, Tony managed to haul himself to his feet, brush his teeth, and rinse his mouth. He sipped water carefully, thinking soothing thoughts towards his poor, abused stomach. There would be no more sleep for him tonight, of that he was sure.
The penthouse felt oppressively huge, though the new silence was nice, so he pulled on a few extra layers of soft clothing, wrapped a blanket around his shoulders and headed for the elevators.
He started low, feeling for some odd reason like he needed to wander through the rooms of the tower, alone. The gym was vast and still, all the equipment lined up like soldiers across the hard floor. He’d have to train again, build his strength back up. He hadn’t flown the suit since the crocodile in the sewer. He’d be rusty, and it would show if he didn’t fall back into training hard. The pool was still as well, soft, blue lighting under the water casting dancing shadows on the ceiling. It smelled like chlorine, which he found surprisingly comforting. It was strong and real and grounding. A smell they hadn’t had in Ashting, purely home.
And being alone, that was purely home too. He walked through the garage, the empty apartments, the home theatre, even stuck his head out onto the balcony and sucked in the sharp bite of exhaust and pollution. His tour wasn’t something to kill time in the long night anymore, it was something he had to do.
He saved the common space for last, knowing he would want to end there, probably spend the rest of the night there, but when he finally pushed through the doors after his tour, he found the room already occupied.
Steve sat on the couch, facing the TV but with his head tilted back to look out the window beside it instead. His feet were up on the cushions, legs bent and knees close to his chest. He too had a blanket wrapped around him. Tony couldn’t see his face, but his body language screamed discomfort.
“Hey,” Tony said softly, feeling suddenly awkward about interrupting, about being alone together, back in the real world. Steve spun around, and now Tony could see, his face was pale, skin clammy, chapped lips bright. “Dinner not sit well with you either?”
Steve chuckled darkly. “Not at all.”
“I thought you might be immune to all that, super soldier and all.”
“Unfortunately, no. I can’t get food poisoning, but my body can still reject spaghetti and meatballs it hasn’t had in three months.” Steve hooked his chin over the back of the couch and peered at Tony. “You alright?”
Tony shrugged. “Yeah. As you said, it’s just spaghetti rejection. I forgot about that.”
Steve cocked an eyebrow.
“Afghanistan. It happened then too.”
“Oh.” Steve’s eyes dropped to where his hands were twisted in the blanket over his lap. “Sorry.”
Tony had no idea if he was apologizing for bringing up Afghanistan or expressing sympathy for their shared condition, so he said nothing. He rounded the couch, and Steve tucked his feet up a little in what felt like an invitation, so Tony sat. Three months ago, this would have been upsettingly close together, and now, it was painfully far apart.
Tony had the urge to reach out and rest his hand on Steve’s ankle, to connect them again, if only for a moment, but Steve sighed and turned back to the window and Tony lost his nerve. He tucked into the opposite end of the couch, curling his legs under himself and holding the blanket close. They were quiet for a long time.
“Do you think he’s going to be okay?” Steve finally asked, breaking the silence.
Tony swallowed. He knew exactly what Steve meant. “No.” He tugged the blanket closer around his shoulders. “No, I don’t think he’s ever going to be okay.”
He must have let a little too much of something seep into his words because Steve turned sharply to look at him. “Tony… you’re not alone.” He repeated the words from the night they had reunited, in a damp cave with Fred.
I feel alone, Tony’s brain helpfully supplied, but he didn’t say it. He said, “I know,” short and sharp, and shifted more tightly into his corner of the couch. In the silence that followed, Tony struggled with his thoughts, trying to formulate them into words that he could bear to say to Steve. “It -” he started and Steve turned back to him, curious. “It feels kinda like it was a dream… but also not.” It was the best Tony could do.
Steve’s expression twisted, then crumpled. “I wish it felt like a dream,” he bit out, hard, harsh, and Tony recoiled a bit, disappointed for a reason he couldn’t quantify.
He flailed about mentally, trying to find a topic for conversation that wasn’t painful. They’d managed it in Ashting all the time. When things were bad, they’d talk, they’d laugh, they’d banter. But he couldn’t remember what any of those conversations had been about, and the harder he tried, the more they slipped away.
Steve saved him. “I still can’t believe two Tonys both got sucked through into the same alternate dimension.” He smiled to show it was affectionate disbelief. “You just can’t help yourself, can you?”
It was so similar to the words Steve had spoken so many times in the first few days at Lula and Rick’s, but it was said with such softness, and without any of the accusation that used to lace through every one of this words. Tony ran his tongue over his chapped lips and sighed. Then he shrugged, smiled. “Guess not.”
“Or maybe you were drawn there. It wasn’t you at all. Ashting didn’t seem to have a Tony of its own, after all. That dimension probably pulled you both in out of jealousy.” Steve winked, and Tony found himself breaking into laughter.
“Get your very own Tony Stark!” Tony joked. “Order now and get bonus daddy issues, alcoholism, and narcissism for free! Four easy payments of gravimetric anomalies.”
“Tony,” Steve chastised gently.
“One hard payment of having your skin scraped off by a maniac,” Tony mumbled.
“Tony.” It wasn’t gentle anymore. “I don’t blame you for this.” Steve shifted in his seat as if he was going to move closer, and Tony looked up sharply. Steve fell back down against the couch, and disappointment pooled in Tony’s stomach.
“Maybe. But I don’t. You saved my life - we saved each other. We made it out. Nothing else matters.”
Tony opened his mouth, then closed it again. He didn’t know what to say. Steve was still staring at him, and he couldn’t hold that intense gaze so he dropped his eyes to his lap again. “Thank you.”
“Besides…” Steve took a heavy breath. “I never realized before what an effect I was having on you. I didn’t see how much I wasn’t treating you like a member of the team - or if I did see it, I didn’t care enough. I found you difficult to read, confusing and impulsive, and that made you hard to protect. And for me, being a good leader is about protecting your team so they can do what they do best. But every time I tried to protect you, it seemed like you would get angry at me. I think I get it now, though. Tony, I’m sorry if I ever made you feel like you weren’t a needed, valuable, trustworthy member of the Avengers. I’m sorry if me putting pressure on you is what made you feel like you had to prove something to me with the spikes, in the first place. We couldn’t do it without you, and not for the money or the tech. You.”
Tony’s cheeks heated without his permission. He mumbled out some vague thanks, or humble dismissal, but when Tony caught Steve’s eye again, this time, he couldn’t look away. He wanted to grab Steve and shake him and yell, why did you kiss me?! But there was an acre of couch between them and they’d both spent the last hour throwing up and the hum in the room was so oppressive. So they sat there instead, eyes locked, in the growing light of the dawn.
Eventually, Steve broke the stare and reached for the remote, saying something off-hand about missing baseball. Tony shrugged and let him choose whatever he wanted. He didn’t watch, staring unseeing at the TV screen while his mind rolled around and around in formless torment.
The next two weeks only increased the distance between them. There was this undefinable pressure from the other members of the team - surely unconsciously placed, but there all the same - that pushed them both to shift back into the roles they’d filled before. Tony bent to it more than Steve, it seemed. Tony felt the old urge to snip back when Steve made sweeping generalizations, and an unfair anger settled in his gut when Steve ignored it instead of taking the bait like he would have before.
At first, there had been little unconscious touches and glances between them. They stood close together, naturally, and chose seats side-by-side. But it garnered intrigued glances from the team and the discomfort of that wedged between them and inflated their personal space back to the size it was before.
But for all that they shifted and adjusted and drifted back apart, Tony felt like an actor on stage, performing the role of Tony Stark. He felt like a square peg in a round hole, the Tony he was now not able to slot back into the space that the Tony he was before had left. It was a cold, lonely, unpleasant place to be, and even the projects in his workshop weren’t bringing him the comfort they usually did.
His friendship with Bruce was awkward and stunted. He pushed Nat to help him get back into shape, but rebuffed every attempt on her part to talk, and he could see how much that hurt her. Every time he was in the same room as Steve, his left hand would automatically snap to his right, curling around his wrist and over the space where the sharpie had faded to a ghost of Steve’s name. If Steve noticed, he didn’t say anything. If he noticed anything about Tony, he didn’t say anything. Steve was stoic and quiet and every inch Captain America around the others. And he might have been avoiding Tony or, if he wasn’t, was just completely indifferent about making time to see him.
The only thing that had brought a real smile to Tony’s face since they got back was his first flight back in the suit. Feeling Iron Man assemble around him had been more like coming home than falling back through the portal had been. The second the faceplate snapped down, the repulsors burst to life and he was off. It had been thrillingly similar to his first flight, back in Malibu, so many years ago. He shot across the city, spinning through the air, then dropped low over central park, catching himself before he brushed the top of the trees and shooting up again.
He had JARVIS blast music loud enough to fill the entire helmet and flew, pointlessly, directionless, for hours. When his feet hit the hangar again, back at the tower, he was sore, tired, and out of breath, but verging on something that felt a little bit like happy.
To everyone’s surprise, while Tony went right back into active duty, Steve did not. He asked Nat to take over leading the team for a while, and she agreed without hesitation. The Assembles had calmed down - the convergence was over now, having only lasted a few days, despite being a year in Ashting, and the strange beasts coming through stopped - but there were always other threats cropping up and for now the Avengers team was down a man. They worked - Nat was a great leader - but it wasn’t the same, and Tony knew everyone could feel it, and he felt the weight of that on his shoulders, as if it were his fault that Steve needed time off.
Steve assured everyone that he wasn’t retiring for good, he just needed time to recover. Tony rarely saw him alone anymore, but the few times that he did, Steve made a point to reassure him that no one would think any less of him if he took time off too.
And now, Tony knew that was true. Even before Steve’s speech to him that first night, if he’d brought anything back with him from Ashting, it was an odd clarity that he didn’t need his suit, or his workshop, or his money to be a valuable member of the team. Even if Steve could barely look him in the eye, he respected Tony, of that Tony was sure, and that was worth its intangible weight in gold. But the old Tony would never have taken time off, would never have shown that it was all getting to him, would never have stopped running and flying and babbling and blowing things up long enough to let the pain really sink in.
And the old Tony would have taken any pain he did feel and he would have drowned it in the bottom of a bottle.
He nearly did, many, many times. He pulled out secret stashes and opened liquor cabinets and hovered the mouth of a bottle over his glass of smoothie more than once. He smelled it, he licked a drop off the edge of a lid of scotch, he scraped his nails through the paper of a whiskey label. But he couldn’t bring himself to take that first sip. Every time he thought about it, he remembered his confession to Steve, a hundred years ago against a tree in the woods, breath still ragged in his throat from running out of Lula and Rick’s village. He remembered how Steve had lit up with this pleased little smile when Tony had first eaten again at Anna’s barn. He remembered what it felt like to fall asleep with Steve’s heartbeat under his ear. He remembered the press of Steve’s lips against his as the world crackled with the opening of the portal.
And he put it back down.
Booze was for numbing, for hiding, for forgetting, and Tony, horrifically, didn’t want to forget. He wanted to crawl inside his memories, and stay there forever. He felt deeply homesick, then deeply guilty for feeling that way. Because he didn’t want to go back, he didn’t want to drag Steve back; Ashting had been an endless ocean of fear and pain and worry. But he had left something there and it was something he needed.
Look... I'm really sorry. This chapter had my beta beating me to death with a pillow so I have a feeling there's going to be some feelings that need to be let out in the comments. Just... do what you need to do, let it all out. We have paper bags and more pillows. My body is ready for your rage.
There's only ONE MORE WEEK!! (So you don't have to suffer in this pain for much longer. This *will* have a happy ending. Eventually. I promise.). Next week will be the final chapter AND the epilogue. I can't believe it's almost done. Thank you so much to everyone who has been reading along, commenting, kudosing, sending me pms full of screeching. I love you all so much and I love this story even more for getting to share it with all of you! <3 <3 <3 <3
Chapter 14: "Together"
“If we're lost, then we are lost together”
Steve was pretty sure he’d only slept about ten hours total in the last two weeks. Instead, each night, he lay awake in the dark and finally let his mind go where it threatened to go all day long.
Coming home was incredible. Seeing all the people he had missed, knowing his life was still here, exactly as he left it. It was a kindness of the universe, it seemed, that no time had passed in their absence. It could have just as easily gone the other way, depositing them both into a world that barely remembered their names. But no, here he was in his own bed, and nothing had changed.
Except that he’d brought something back with him that he couldn’t shed. The kiss he’d given Tony before leaving with Fred had been nothing more than a promise that he would return, but as soon as they’d rolled back into the workshop, Tony wrapped in his arms and trusting him with his life, Steve had realized something like a shock of electricity to his chest: he was in love with Tony.
It had built slowly, born out of little things. The way Tony used his chest to see in the dark, how he had learned an entire lang- no, writing system in one day and brushed it off like it was nothing. The way he looked at the stars, even when they were foreign. The way he looked at Steve and said, “I will get us out of here,” and Steve knew that he would. That he hadn’t hesitated to hand Steve the keys to his heart and trust him to put him back together again when he was broken. Steve had pushed the new arc reactor back in, watched it light up, and when the joy of returning home was dwarfed by the crashing wave of emotion he felt for the man in his arms, Steve knew he was done for.
But home was different from Ashting. At home, he couldn’t pull Tony into his arms at night under the guise of keeping warm. At home, they didn’t only have each other to talk to, to rely on, so Steve had to be careful again, not to say anything that would push Tony away. At home, Tony stopped being his partner and went back to being his teammate.
Tony seemed perfectly fine with going back to the way things were. He trained with Nat, he flew the suit again, he built, he laughed, he blew things up. Like a rubber band being released, he snapped back into place.
Steve couldn’t do it though. Alone in his room the first night, he’d picked up his shield for the first time in three months, and it didn’t feel right. It felt heavy and unbalanced and so was he, weighed down by feelings he couldn’t control. So he handed leadership off to Nat, and he grieved. Grieved in a way even he didn’t understand, but knew he needed to do. The others were worried, watched him closely, knew he was damaged, but they didn’t know why. And all Steve knew was that the only thing he could think about was Tony and how much he felt he had lost.
Tony sought him out a few times, but it was too painful being around him, so he pushed him away. He could see the hurt that caused, knew that Tony had hoped for an easier friendship between them after everything they’d been through, but nothing about it was easy for Steve. The reaction on Tony’s end seemed to be to snap back into their old antagonism instead. He grumbled and joked and sighed when Steve asked things of him, then looked sullen and disappointed when Steve let the jokes fall flat, turned and left the room instead of fighting back.
So Steve was left to lie awake in his bed at night and remember with perfect clarity every moment he had watched Tony, held him, touched him, followed him, worried about him, during their three months in another dimension. He cursed his super-powered memory for not allowing those things to fade. Maybe if he forgot, the hurt wouldn’t be so close to the surface.
When light broke through the window, Steve rose, going through his morning routine on autopilot. He stepped out of the shower and rubbed a towel over his face. That was one thing he was definitely grateful to have back - hot water and soft towels. He braced his hands over the edge of the counter and leaned forward to stare at himself in the mirror. He looked the same as before. The marks and scars from his injuries had all faded before they’d even returned home. He’d had a proper shave and a haircut. It was like it had never happened. But it didn’t help him forget.
His eyes dropped to the reflection of his wrist in the mirror. There was still the barest smudge of something and when he lifted his arm and inspected it he could see the faint hint of letters still scrawled there. They had rewritten those words so many times over the three months, the ink was taking a long time to fade. “Tony” - he could just make it out and it hit him hard and fast, his throat closing hot and tight at the rush of emotion that burned in his gut.
The ritual of drawing on each other had become such an important part of their day, even after the weather had turned cold enough that their long sleeves had hidden their wrists, even in the relative safety of the cave, they had done it. It had become more than a safety measure. It morphed into a reaffirmation of their identities - in the face of what Fred had gone through - and of their connection to each other, because they weren’t going to get out alone.
Steve rubbed his thumb over the faded ink, so pale now that he might just be imagining it after all. Wishful thinking. He did wish. He wished Tony were here by his side, holding his wrist and tracing the letters again. He wished he could share his feelings, or at least share body heat in the middle of the night again. He missed having a partner, a second half. Tony had become that for him, holding up the side of him that needed support, and now that support had been kicked out and he was unsteady and off balance.
His hand was still wrapped tightly over the barely-there mark on his wrist when he padded out of the bathroom and into his bedroom. His clothes felt weird - too soft, too clean. He was used to stiff, hang-dried cottons and layers. Here, JARVIS kept the room pleasantly warm no matter what so he had no need for anything more than a t-shirt. He felt bare and exposed. Like, all Tony would have to do was look at him and he’d see - see the unwelcome longing.
Tony was trying so hard to push things back to the way they were, egging Steve on in meetings, banter turning from warm and friendly to cool and anger-laced. But Steve couldn't do it. He couldn’t hide how he felt so he just hid instead.
Steve slumped into his office chair, swinging back and forth idly and staring at the huge picture window next to his desk. His pen cup perched on the end of his desk - four pens, a highlighter, and a black sharpie. He plucked the marker out of the cup and rolled it between his fingers. It was crazy to think how important that one little thing had been to them out there, but here you could buy a 10 pack at the corner store. He should offer to advertise for them - they’d saved his life after all.
Steve popped the cap and the smell rocketed him back to a pile of hay on Anna’s barn floor. It had been so awkward back then, touching Tony, even just being that close to Tony, and now it was all he wanted.
It was weird - he knew that - and it was unhealthy, almost certainly, but he pressed the tip of the marker to the inside of his right wrist and traced over the faded letters. His left hand stuttered awkwardly, but as soon as the marks on his skin were strong and dark again, he felt something in his chest release, as if one of his lungs had been too tied up in anxiety to function properly until now.
“Captain? Agent Romanoff is on her way to see you.”
Steve startled back in his chair and grabbed the edge of the desk to steady himself. He’d completely forgotten about his meeting with Natasha. “Thanks, JARVIS.”
Steve tossed the marker back in the cup and scrambled through his drawers until he found a watch some politician or committee had given him as a gift. He buckled it with the large face tight over the words on his wrist. He could probably still scrub it off in time, but he didn’t want to, and in this moment, he didn’t care how silly or childish that was. He was just pulling on a light sweater when Natasha knocked softly then pushed through the door.
“Hey, Cap. How are you?” Natasha tossed her tablet on the table and pulled Steve into a hug.
“I’m alright.” Steve resisted the urge to fiddle with the watch. Nat raised an eyebrow at him but didn’t push the issue.
They both sat at the small bar table in Steve’s living room, perched on ridiculously high stools, and Nat pulled up a few documents on her tablet. They went over strategy together, discussing team formation, emergency protocol, and Assemble streamlining. Steve fought to keep his attention on the plans in front of him, and on Natasha’s voice, but he kept realizing that he was focusing on focusing, instead of actually listening, and he’d have rewind over the conversation to pick up the thread again.
He’d been staring too long at a tower attack defense plan, when he felt Nat’s fingers close over his hand. He looked up and realized he had clenched his left into a fist while he flipped the pages with his right. He relaxed under her touch, letting her slip her fingers between his until they held hands.
“Are you okay?” she asked softly. When he didn’t answer she gave his hand a little squeeze until he met her gaze. “Steve, it’s okay to not be okay.”
He sighed, twisting his hand flat so her palm rested on his. The contact was nice, even if it wasn’t the hand he missed. “No. I’m not okay. You’re right.”
She switched the tablet off and pulled it back across the table into her lap. “We’ll do this another time.”
“It’s fine, this is important. I have to -”
“Yes.” She cut him off with a stern look. “But it will still be important tomorrow. We got a lot done, we’ll get there.”
He was too tired to fight so he merely shrugged and leaned against the table, dropping his chin to his folded arms. Nat stood, pressed a kiss to his cheek and walked into his kitchen. A few minutes later the kettle started whistling and he heard the clink of ceramic.
Natasha returned with two steaming mugs of tea and set one down in front of him. She stayed with him for a few hours, keeping the conversation light. It was incredible, really, how good she was at judging what a situation called for. Her stories of junior agent shenanigans at SHIELD occupied his mind much more easily than the strategy briefs. He let himself get sucked into her voice for a while and pushed everything else away.
When she kissed him again and walked out of the apartment, he was feeling unusually energized. Generally, spending time with the others was exhausting - either because it was so much effort keeping track of their quick-paced, multi-part conversations, or because he was putting every ounce of his energy into pretending he wasn’t three seconds from flinging himself into Tony’s lap.
He decided to seize the energy and go down to the gym to run. Of course, the gym was occupied when he got there. And, of course, it was Tony that was occupying it. He and Clint were in the ring, gloves on and shirts off, boxing. Bruce stood outside, leaning against the ropes and calling it every time one of them cheated, which kept him busy. Clint and Tony were absorbed in their fight, but Bruce shot him a little wave which he returned.
Steve chose a treadmill, acknowledging that he wouldn’t have enough focus to work with the bags with Tony in the room. If the treadmill he chose happened to face the mirror that covered one long wall of the gym, giving him a perfect view of the boxing ring, well that was just chance.
He watched Clint and Tony duck and feint and hit. Ashting had been hard on Tony’s body, harder than on Steve’s, but he was already looking better. Long shorts covered the burn Steve knew was permanently memorialized on his thigh, but his upper body muscles were regaining their definition and his ribs had disappeared again. They’d both struggled with the food at first, but their stomachs had adjusted, and they were both eating with the team again.
Or rather, Tony was eating with the team, and Steve was pushing food around on his plate with the team. He still ate, he had to, but constant smaller snacks, instead of big meals. The low-level anxiety that constantly twisted his stomach into a knot made anything more seem impossible.
But Tony looked strong again, and beautiful as always, and Steve couldn’t keep his eyes off him. Bruce might have noticed his intense gaze fixed on the mirror, but Steve couldn't bring himself to care. Clint got a good shot in and Tony held up a hand, staggering back with a smile threatening his lips.
“Alright, alright. This old man needs a break,” he said, his voice carrying easily across the quiet gym.
Steve felt an unpleasant stab of jealousy that Clint and Bruce got to be with him, play with him, smile with him, and Steve was stuck on the sidelines. He knew he was the only one to blame, he had benched himself, but it didn’t make it any easier to be on the outside looking in. Not too long ago he had been the only one Tony trusted, the only one Tony laughed with, the arms Tony fell asleep in at night.
It was like mourning a breakup for a relationship that had never been real. He barely knew how to understand it himself, let alone explain it to his friends. But grieving was just a matter of time; if he pushed on, kept trying, eventually the pain would fade and he would settle into his old life again. Maybe he and Tony could even come to a truce, be friends.
Tony grabbed a water bottle, then leaned over the ropes, chest heaving. Clint and Bruce struck up conversation while Clint retaped, but Tony was alone on the other side of the ring. He sipped his water bottle and stared off into the distance. Steve had a clear line of sight of Tony in the mirror, but Tony had his side to the mirror, facing Steve’s direction instead so Steve was able to watch him openly without giving it away. His eyes curled over Tony’s shoulders, his hip, the goatee he’d recovered after only managing rough stubble in Ashting. Steve’s feet caught a little on the treadmill, and he dropped his eyes to the belt for a second, finding his balance again.
When he looked up, Tony’s gaze had shifted, from blank to pointed, and Steve realized with a heart-stuttering stomach drop, that Tony was looking at him. Tony’s gaze was direct, and he hadn’t noticed where Steve’s eyes were fixed on the mirror, so Steve was able to watch Tony watch him.
Tony’s brow was twisted, his mouth pulled into a frown. His eyes were filled with sadness and a soft faraway look that felt like wistfulness. He dropped his chin to his arm, sucked at his water bottle, then dropped it the floor. He blinked across the room and sighed.
Steve’s stomach dropped down into his feet, and he had to take a moment to focus on his pace so he wouldn’t fly right off the treadmill. Tony’s look was so intimate and sad and longing, and Steve couldn’t figure out what to do with that. Tony had settled so easily back into life at the tower that Steve had assumed he wanted everything to go back to the way it was, but something in that look was so open and raw that Steve couldn’t believe anymore that Tony didn’t want something from him. But he didn’t know what to do about it.
Clint called Tony back in for a rematch and as soon as the focus was away from him, Steve shut off the treadmill and slipped out of the gym. The only sweat he had managed to work up was the stress sweat at the back of his neck, thinking about Tony looking at him that way, so, instead of taking another shower, he went up to the common room and collapsed on the couch. He stretched out, sinking down into the cushions, rolling out his ankles and popping his joints until he was comfortable. He tugged on the blanket tossed over the back of the couch until it tumbled down over his legs.
There was nothing good on - there was never anything good on - so he switched to the infomercial channel and let his mind go blank, occasionally checking in to be astonished by the sorts of things people were willing to pay money for.
He knew he was drifting in and out of sleep because every time he opened his eyes, they felt heavy, and the commercials had skipped from a yogurt dispenser to a burger assembler with no clear transition. He must have been out for a while, when a hand closed around his forearm. Steve startled awake, then scrambled off the couch and to his feet when he realized that the hand around his arm belonged to Tony.
Tony stared at Steve’s arm, eyes wide. Steve followed his gaze and saw that his watch was off and in Tony’s hand instead. The red impression on his skin showed that the watch had moved up his forearm in his sleep and exposed the bottom of the sharpie. And now, Tony had chosen to reveal it fully. Reveal his own name on Steve’s wrist.
Steve tried to take his arm back, cheeks heating, but Tony’s fingers tightened, forcing even more adrenaline into Steve's bloodstream. Excruciatingly slowly, Tony brought his right hand up and pressed it, palm up, alongside Steve’s so their wrists were side by side. On Steve’s wrist, the marker was dark and clear, on Tony’s, it was long faded to a mere shadow of what was once five letters. Steve waited, silent. He wanted to know what Tony thought of it before he tried to explain himself. To be honest, he couldn’t really explain it anyway. He thought back to the look Tony had given him in the gym; maybe he already understood.
But Tony wasn’t speaking either. He was just standing there, staring at their wrists, holding Steve’s in a death grip, his knuckles whitening. Steve cast around for something to say, some way to break the tension, but all his mind provided was a clear image of Tony laughing, waist deep in water in the woods of Deeborn, whining half-heartedly about the cold while Steve did his best to splash him. And then the deadweight of Tony in Steve’s arms after they fell through the portal. The heart-stopping fear of seeing Tony sprayed by the crocodile. The way he lit up when he figured out the reactor would get them home. Their fingers woven together in the dark of night when no one would blame them for taking comfort in each other’s presence. His mind was a whir of Tony and no words for it.
Tony’s eyes moved from their arms to Steve’s face, flicking back and forth between Steve’s eyes as if he was reading them as easily as the foreign writing in Ashting. Then he dropped Steve’s wrist and held up one finger in a “wait” gesture, taking one step back and grabbing the bottom hem of his sweater. Steve watched, heart racing, wanting to speak, to ask him what he was doing, but paralyzed.
Tony pulled his sweater over his head. It took a moment to register, but in a heart-stopping rush, Steve realized that the shirt Tony had been hiding under his sweater was the one Steve had given to him after the goat, washed and mended, but definitely his. In the small breast pocket sat the sharpie from Ashting, dirty and scratched, the words on it faded to nothing from overuse.
Steve opened his mouth, but no sound came out so he hung there, urging his vocal chords into action to no avail. Tony pulled the marker out of his pocket, popped the cap with his teeth, like Steve had seen him do so many times before, but this time, instead of touching the pen tip to Steve’s skin, he brought it to his own, awkwardly tracing out the five letters in shaky, imperfect lettering, just as Steve had done that morning. Tony set his wrist beside Steve’s again, the edges of their names touching.
Steve stared at the words, a kaleidoscope of vibrant emotions shifting and crashing in his chest. When Tony’s eyes moved up, Steve followed them, until their gazes met and held.
“Tony,” he choked out. What else could he say?
“I’m lost without you,” Tony said, plain, simple, forthright, and Steve surged forward and kissed him. Tony gave completely to the kiss, melting into Steve’s body, parting his lips under the onslaught, welcoming Steve in to taste him. His hands found Steve’s hips and drew him closer, his grasp almost desperate in its eagerness. Steve cupped Tony’s face and let everything he had been feeling in the past two weeks pour from his body to Tony’s, not able to put his need, his desire, into words, but needing Tony to know.
Steve’s mind shot back to a sketch he’d seen in one of the books he’d taken from the library in Notenton. It was of two indistinct but vaguely human shapes, pressed chest to chest, with a vivid white glow bursting out from between their hearts. When Tony leaned into him, his weight solid and steady against Steve’s chest, it fractured and split the light from the arc reactor until you couldn’t tell which of their bodies it emanated from. “Bond-Light,” Tony had told him the sketch was called, and right now, in this moment, Steve understood what that meant.
They tumbled to the couch, half sitting up, half sprawled out, a mess of tangled limbs and dancing tongues and eagerly exploring fingers. He could feel the need radiating off of Tony, the way he pushed closer, even though there was already no space between them. How had he not seen? How had he wasted two weeks forcing space between them when it was so clear now how much Tony needed him too?
“I can’t sleep without you,” Steve admitted against Tony’s warm neck.
“I hate being alone,” Tony confessed, breathing the words into Steve’s mouth. “It’s been so hard pretending to be okay.”
“I need you.”
“I love you.” Tony’s voice was strong and clear and confident, and the heaviness that had settled in Steve’s core since the first night he had turned alone for his empty room finally cracked and broke. Tony took two handfuls of Steve’s shirt and leaned forward until his forehead pressed over his heart, a pained noise leaking out. It was so much like that time in the cave, after the wire, and Steve’s arms came up to wrap around Tony’s shoulders instinctively. They stayed that way for a long time, holding each other, letting the comfort of touch leech into their cores and chase the ice of the last few weeks away.
Tony sighed again, tight and unhappy, and Steve leaned over to bury his face in Tony's hair, murmuring that he loved him too, over and over. Tony’s chin lifted, pain-pinched eyes meeting Steve’s. “How are we going to get through this?” Tony asked, cracked voice barely more than a whisper. Steve tipped Tony’s chin up and dipped down until their lips met in a featherlight kiss. He was sure now that they would, as long as they had time and each other.
Epilogue is going up later today!!
Chapter 15: Epilogue "Marked"
“I want all the world to know that your love’s all I need”
Tony had been awake for hours, but instead of getting up, he curled around Steve’s back, letting his chin rest on Steve’s shoulder. Steve slept like the dead until Tony got up, then he’d spring awake like a Tigger on speed. Tony only needed four or five hours; Steve needed seven. So, Tony stayed and watched him sleep.
It was a year since they’d returned from Ashting, and Tony no longer felt like he was missing a piece of himself. Steve had taken over leading the Avengers again only a few weeks after Tony had caught him with a freshly written name on his skin. For Tony, it turned out that thing he had left behind in that world had been Steve, and as soon as he had him back, everything was right. He hadn’t realized until he’d seen his own name, so tenderly kept alive, that the pain of his return had been entirely locked up in losing the closeness they’d shared.
Until that night, Tony had thought that the idea of having his name stuck on someone’s skin - being stuck with him - was a stomach-churning one. But, seeing what Steve had done, seeing that, given a choice, Steve chose him, wanted to own him and belong to him in turn, wanted to share a connection that no one else could ever come close to, had turned nausea into euphoria. The people of Anna’s world had no choice who they were bound to, but Steve had chosen him, and he chose Steve - every day, he would choose Steve all over again.
Steve lay on his side, turned away from Tony with his arms stretched out in front of him. Tony snugged one of his arms up under Steve’s elbow, then stretched it out alongside Steve’s so their hands met on the edge of the mattress. Tony prodded Steve’s hand gently until it flopped open revealing the dark, curving lines of ink there. Tony remembered the day they had gone to get their tattoos with a smile. The artist had snapped her gum and arched a perfectly groomed brow when Tony and Steve had held out their wrists and indicated that they wanted a copy of what was already there.
“We don’t recommend getting people’s names,” she’d said to Tony, looking wholly unimpressed. “I know you love your boyfriend and all, but this is permanent.”
Tony flashed his most charming grin over the counter at the woman. “He’s not my boyfriend.” He shot Steve a cheeky look, up from under his eyelashes, and got a brilliant smile in return. “He’s my soulmate.”
“Whatever.” The woman had rolled her eyes through Steve’s laughter and shoved the waiver across the counter for them to sign. Steve had to get his redone four times before the serum stopped healing it.
Everyone had reacted much in the same way, thinking they were crazy. But they hadn’t done it for the same reason that most people got a name permanently etched onto their skin. It wasn’t a promise to a lover that they would be together forever. Sure, they were happy now - incredibly happy - but neither of them was crazy enough to ignore the fact that it might not last. Sometimes relationships ended, even the most wonderful ones, they both knew that.
No, it wasn’t about predicting the future, the tattoos were about their thankfulness for the past, and that would never change. Those words had saved their lives. They’d saved each other, countless times, and they wouldn’t have made it through without the ritual of drawing on each other’s skin every morning. Before the permanent ink, they’d both struggled whenever the sharpie faded. Tony knew the healthy thing might have been to push through it, get over it, forget it, move past it. But something like what they’d gone through in Ashting made a lasting impression, no matter how hard you tried to forget, and they both wanted a reminder of what they’d survived. Together.
Even when they were fighting, even when Tony was so mad at Steve he felt like chucking him off the roof, he looked at those five letters and they made him feel safe.
Like right now.
He sighed and looked down at the sprawl of muscle and limbs beside him. Three hours they’d gone at it last night. Three hours of talking in circles and raising their voices and pacing around the penthouse. Three hours until they’d packed it in, curled up in a warm tangle, and gone to sleep. Because, while they completely ignored the advice that you should never go to bed angry, no matter how hard it got, the one thing neither of them would ever do again was walk away.
Steve stirred, his eyes fluttering open. He reached out with his left hand to where their rights were clasped together and ran a finger over Tony’s tattoo.
“You’re still wrong,” Tony said, a little more bite than he intended leaking into his words.
Steve rolled his eyes and frowned, tipping on his back to look up at Tony. “Really? We’re starting in on this and I haven’t even had my coffee yet?”
“Why do you even drink coffee? The caffeine doesn’t affect you.”
Steve tugged Tony down into a hard kiss. “Because you drink coffee every morning and I like doing things with you.”
Tony slammed his forehead into his favourite spot on Steve’s chest and groaned. “Oh my god, that was so sappy I forgot what we were fighting about.”
“Moving the team to your compound upstate.”
Tony frowned against Steve’s skin. “Oh yeah.” He pulled back to glare at him. “Well, if you’d just get your beautiful head out of your perfectly sculpted ass and admit that -” he cut off with a yelp as Steve held him tight and twisted, spinning them until Tony lay on his back. Steve loomed over him, intense eyes fixed on his.
“I love you.”
Despite his poor history with making these kinds of judgements, Tony sensed that this was not one of those moments where you crack a joke. He brought a hand up to cup Steve’s jaw, rubbing idle circles across his cheek with his thumb. “I love you too.” Steve didn’t move. His brow was twisted painfully, and Tony reached up to smooth it out with the pad of his finger. “Dream?” Tony prodded gently.
Steve let out a shaky breath then nodded, sinking down to bury his face in Tony’s neck.
“The wire or the croc?”
“Lula and Rick’s. Only, you didn’t wake up this time.”
“I’m here.” Tony pressed soft kisses against the side of Steve’s face and ran light fingers down either side of his spine.
“I know.” Steve nuzzled further into Tony’s neck, his breath hot against the bare skin there. They lay that way for a long time, Steve’s weight holding Tony safe against the sheets. Steve shifted his hips and their bare skin brushed together. Blood rushed south, and Tony gave a needy little moan, arching his hips up, searching for a little more friction. Steve obliged, rolling against Tony, letting their now hard cocks slide together. Steve’s hand dropped to Tony’s thigh, curved around it and urged Tony to lift his knee and let Steve settle deeper into the space between his legs.
“Tony -” Steve gasped. “Please.”
“What do you want, love?” Tony’s voice was hardly any stronger than Steve’s, the rocking of their bodies together enough to tease but not to satisfy.
“I want to feel you.” The hand on Tony’s thigh slid higher, hiking Tony’s leg up with it. Steve’s fingers brushed over the curve of his ass. “I want to be inside you.” The words were whispered into the sensitive skin of Tony’s neck, and he shivered at the puff of air, and at the sentiment. Steve didn’t ask for things very often, preferring to let Tony’s expansive imagination steer their sex life, which made it all the more erotic when there was something he wanted.
“Yes.” Tony arched his hips up, letting Steve’s fingers slip higher, find his hole and tease it. “Please.”
Steve’s weight remained pressed over Tony. He felt warm, and safe, and trapped, held in the cage of Steve’s arms, and he knew Steve would protect him from anything that threatened them. Steve braced himself with one elbow beside Tony’s head, keeping their chests close. He scrambled beside the bed and came back with a bottle of lube. Slick fingers returned to Tony’s ass, and he bit out a gasp when one pushed past his rim. When Steve got like this - needy and wild and a little broken - he got pushy too, bringing Tony to the edge of his limits before pulling back. He canted Tony’s leg up even higher, hooked over his waist and slid his finger deep inside Tony’s body, curling it until he found the magic spot.
A burst of white-hot pleasure broke in Tony’s core, and he arched up into it, letting every whimper, groan and cry that pushed up his throat out against the skin of Steve’s shoulder. Tony’s hands slid up Steve’s sides, his fingers unerringly finding the places where Larry had ripped him to shreds, though the scars had long since faded. Ever so softly, Tony brushed his fingers up those lines, as if he could put back together what had been taken apart. Steve shuddered under his touch, his lips finding Tony’s neck again and sucking what would be a dark bruise into the soft skin.
Tony always felt electrified in this moment, wired up and ready to shock. The static between them crackled and charged, every brush of lips and press of fingers bursting into fractal patterns on their skin. Another finger pressed in beside the first, and Tony’s breath abandoned him. “Steve…” he whined, twisting into the touch, needing more, but not ready for it yet.
“I love you,” Steve whispered again. He rocked against Tony’s hip, sliding his cock along the smooth skin on the inside of Tony’s thigh and leaving a teasing wet line in its wake. Tony wanted the stretch and drive of that cock inside him. He wanted to bring Steve to the edge and hear the broken noises he made when he was tipping into paradise. Tony wanted to make Steve cry out a thousand times in pleasure for every time he had cried out in pain in Ashting.
When two fingers slid in easily, and Steve had tortured Tony into incomprehensible babbling, Steve shifted, lined up and pressed inside. It was - god - it was too much, but Tony didn’t care, he needed it. He fisted one hand in the sheets and held Steve’s neck in a death grip with the other. When Steve’s cock brushed against his prostate, Tony keened, lightning crackling up his spine until his hair was on end and his skin broke out in goosebumps.
“Oh my god,” he breathed out, half words, half choked-off groan. Steve was beyond words, his face bent to Tony’s chest, licking a hot line across his collarbone and pushing deeper, impossibly deeper. When he was fully seated, they both hung there for a moment, panting into each other’s mouths, eyes locked together. Those blue eyes on his were all Tony needed. No matter where he ended up now, he knew where home was.
Steve pulled back a little then pressed in again, and they moaned in unison. Steve’s free hand snapped to Tony’s thigh again, drawing his body up to meet every thrust. It would never fail to send a jolt of arousal through Tony’s gut when Steve manhandled him, pulled him into position, and moved his body the way he wanted. It was a heady, room-spinning kind of trust to be moved in that way. And Steve moved him. He slid his hand even lower and pulled Tony up more fiercely with every thrust of his hips, and that angle was slamming the head of his cock against Tony’s prostate.
Tony moaned, dropping his hands to Steve’s biceps, arching his back up to match the rhythm of their bodies. Abruptly, Steve stilled. Tony was about to protest, when Steve’s strong hands wrapped around his middle and they moved, Steve gripping Tony close and spinning until he was on top.
Tony settled onto Steve’s lap, sitting up with his bent knees on either side of Steve’s ribs, and his hands braced on his chest. The new position pushed Steve even deeper, stretching Tony open. He could feel Steve’s balls pressed against his ass and fuck every inch of him. He rolled his hips forward, testing, and felt the electric charge start low in his spine and crackle up.
“God, you feel so good.” Tony’s eyes had drifted closed, but he opened them now, and fixed them on Steve’s. Steve’s hands spread wide over Tony’s knees and slid up, covering his thighs. His right twisted so his fingers could dance over the shiny burn that still marred Tony’s skin. It felt like a trophy now; he won it on the way out of hell. Tony wrapped his fingers around Steve’s forearm, brushing his tattoo against the invisible lines where he’d ripped wire out of his skin. He used his grip to brace himself and rocked up on his knees until the head of Steve’s cock caught his rim, then sunk down again.
He was gloriously full, awash in the sensation of Steve inside him, so much that he had forgotten about his own cock until Steve’s hand wrapped around it with a firm grip. Tony stuttered forward, half-thrusting into the grip, hunching forward in surprise. One touch and he was two seconds from coming already. “Harder,” he croaked out, voice wrecked.
“Tony -” Steve broke off, unable to resist pushing up with his hips as his grip tightened. And Tony knew what Steve wanted. He rocked his hips forward, finding the perfect pace to thrust his cock through the slick ring of Steve’s fingers, then push his prostate back against Steve’s cock. He knew it was too shallow for Steve, but desperate need built with every movement until he was panting and begging and losing his rhythm, only to have Steve brace his feet on the mattress and pump up into him. And Tony was gone. He tumbled over the edge, pulsing over Steve’s fist and dripping onto his chest. And fuck if that wasn’t the most beautiful sight in the world.
Steve gave him no time to recover, locking both hands - one still slick with Tony’s come - around Tony’s hips and holding him up so he could pound up into him relentlessly. It was an earthquake tearing through Tony’s body. He was still shaking and wild from his orgasm, his cock leaking, while Steve took him and used him, not trying to hit Tony’s prostate anymore, but hitting it anyway, until Tony saw stars. Tony’s body folded into Steve’s grip, hands slipping forward on his chest, unable to find purchase. He was gone, it was so much, Steve was so much.
“I love you so much,” Tony choked out, each word broken off by a wild thrust from Steve. Steve’s hands clenched - his body clenched - and he pulled Tony to him, holding him too tight against his chest. His free hand dropped to where they were joined, brushing his finger along Tony’s fucked out hole. When Tony cried out and clenched down, Steve broke into a litany of filthy words, squeezed Tony to him and came. He pulsed, deep in Tony’s ass, the throbbing of his cock inside him making Tony grind down into the sensation, breath abandoned, thought abandoned, caught on a live wire whiteout.
It felt like another year passed before either could move again. Tony was flushed and sweaty and high on Steve. Their mouths found each other and met in a sloppy kiss that was more panting against each other than anything else. Steve pulled free gently, then cuddled Tony close, snugging him in against his chest and pressing a series of kisses into his hair.
“Love you,” Tony said, burrowing his nose into Steve’s shoulder.
“Love you too.”
“You’re still wrong about the compound, though,” Tony reminded him lightly.
Steve laughed and rolled off the bed, pulling Tony up with him, then pressed a brief kiss to his lips, ruined by the adoring smile he couldn’t seem to contain. Tony melted against him, drawing warmth and safety and rightness into his chest. Steve held him tight. “Coffee first. Fight after.”
Well. Here we are! This is the end. I hoped you enjoyed. Thank you so much to everyone who read, commented, kudos, screamed at me, pm-d me, told your friends, or came here just for the goat and were sorely disappointed. This is has been so much fun to share. I wrote this back in August and I can't believe it's a new year and now I'm saying goodbye to it.
If anyone is curious, the chapter summaries are from the song "Lost Together" (where have I heard that name before??) by Blue Rodeo. The song wasn't the original inspiration for this story, but damn does it fit well. The original inspiration was actually the Angel episode arc "There's No Place Like Plrtz Glrb," by the way, so shout out to all my fellow Angel lovers. Pretty sure there are some easter eggs in there, if you spotted any.
This has been some kind of ride. Thank you, I love you all! Til next time!!!! <3 <3 <3
EDIT: Now with amazing art from Hayluhalo!! Go check it out and show them some love!!