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A Question of Mortality

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“Steve,” Tony’s voice was filled with laughter as he pushed weakly against Steve’s chest, “I really have to go.”

Really really?” Steve countered sulkily, keeping his arms around Tony’s waist as they swayed at the edge of the sidewalk, undoubtedly pissing off a dozen different commuters as they hurried on by. Steve couldn’t care less. “Japan will move on without you.”

“I’m gonna miss my flight,” Tony whined, looking up at him with an attempted glare. It didn’t really work. He looked far too cute, with his nose and cheeks both pink from the freezing cold and his wool coat zipped up all the way to his mouth, shrouding him in fabric. He extracted Steve’s arms from around his waist with leather-gloved hands and took a step back, wrinkling up his face when he was subsequently exposed to the harsh wind. “God, why do you have to be so irritatingly warm?”

Steve just shrugged smugly and held his arms open. “Well, no one’s stopping you from staying here,” he said, although Tony raised a disbelieving eyebrow.

“Pepper might disembowel me, but sure.” He shook his head and then laughed once more, dipping forward and kissing Steve again, his face freezing against Steve’s. They’d been walking through the city for nearly an hour, window shopping for gifts they were going to buy for Christmas, but now Tony was due for a business trip and Steve had to go back to the tower alone. Excursions abroad for StarkIndustries business weren’t that uncommon, although it had lessened over the last year or so as Tony stepped back further and further from the CEO elements and become more invested in R&D. Steve definitely preferred that. Not only did it make Tony happier, but it meant that he didn’t have to be on the other side of the world for extended periods of time.

“I’ll only be gone a week,” Tony mumbled into his mouth like he’d read Steve’s mind, breaking off and looking up at Steve with a soft smile. “It’ll fly by, I promise.”

Steve just grumbled something unintelligible, kissing Tony’s forehead again before nudging him backward. Happy had stopped off at Wendy’s, so Tony was just gonna take the two-minute walk and meet him there. “Call me when you land,” Steve said, “and be back in time for Christmas or I’ll be having words with Mr. Kobayashi.”

Tony was looking at him fondly as he slowly backed off down the street, and Steve had half a mind to tell him to face the way he was walking so he wouldn’t slip—but if he did that, then he wouldn’t be able to see Tony’s face. He decided against it, instead just smiling dumbly at Tony as the man walked further and further away. You’d think after two years they’d have settled down a bit, stopped acting like lovesick teenagers in public. But apparently not. It drove Bucky mad, honestly; he always asked how they kept it up. Steve didn’t really know what else there was to explain other than that he just really, really loved Tony, and Tony really, really loved him. It was that simple.

“One week,” Tony promised, finally turning on his heel and starting to walk away properly, but continuing to keep his head turned in Steve’s direction. He waved. “Love you bunches!”

Steve himself decided he should probably start looking for a cab rather than just standing around watching Tony, so he glanced into the road and held up a hand. “One week,” he agreed with a nod, “I love you t—”

Out of nowhere, Steve suddenly found himself cut off by a sharp, ear-piercing bang, and the realisation that it was the sound of a bullet leaving a chamber took less than a second for his brain to process. Steve’s eyes moved of their own accord, primal instincts kicking in as he scoped out the danger. He saw it instantly. A man at the edge of the road, gun in hand, eyes wild, whole body shaking. There were no bodies immediately next to him, which meant it hadn’t been a mugging or fight of any kind. “FOR RACHEL!” He screamed hoarsely, and his eyes somehow found Steve’s on the sidewalk. Like he’d been watching and already knew that Steve was there. He flailed his arm frantically, gun waving through the air. “THAT WAS FOR RACHEL!”

Steve stared at him for a fraction of a second, and then he turned away, mind already on other things, more important things. He looked for Tony in the screaming crowds.

He laid his eyes on a body.

This all happened in no more than a second.

Across the road, the man was still shouting things, and Steve didn’t hear a word of it. He took off running, barging past people, slipping in the slush under his feet as he narrowed the distance down and down and down and down. The body on the floor wore the same coat as Tony, buttoned up to the throat, ending at the top of his thighs. A gloved hand rested, relaxed, upon the icy concrete.

The bullet might not have killed him. It might not have killed him.

Steve ran until Tony was right under his feet, and then he sank to his knees slowly, hitting the unyielding sidewalk with a dull thud. There was a commotion across the street as someone or another wrestled the shooter to the ground. Beside Steve, someone asked him a question. He let it drift over his head, meaningless.

He laid his hands, gentle, on Tony’s shoulders. Looked at the almost perfect red circle painted on his temple. He was lying on his side, but Steve could see the crimson as it began to spread through the grey snow below his head, like a perfect halo dampening his dark curls. Exit wound was always bigger than entry.

“Tony,” he declared, numb.

His eyes were still open when Steve turned him, pulled him up into his arms. The ghost of his smile stuck to his mouth. A memory. “Tony, wake up.”

Tony rested peacefully in the warmth of Steve’s embrace, his head tucked up into Steve’s chest. He could almost have been sleeping.

Funnily, the only thing Steve could think was, why?

He could feel his arms start to shake, but he didn’t want to jostle Tony too much. He didn’t know what was happening. This wasn’t real. This wasn’t… a minute had passed since Tony had been telling him he loved him. A minute. He couldn’t be alive and then dead like that. That’s not what happened.

He gripped Tony tighter. Looked down at his lover, who gazed back at him, empty. His soul had gone elsewhere, to a place Steve couldn’t pull him from. His body, underneath Steve, was still warm. Of course it would be warm. Steve had made sure he wrapped up properly before they went out—Tony got sick easily and Steve didn’t want him to have a cold over the Christmas period. It always made him grouchy.

This made no sense. “Tony, sweetheart, please, come on,” he tried weakly, like a child. Like a dying man. He gave the unresponsive body a gentle shake, and expected Tony to make a fuss, maybe cuss at him for waking him up. He wasn’t exactly a morning person. “Come on, wake up.”

There was the sound of ambulances, distant in the air. People were crying. He could see them in his periphery. Across the street, it was silent. Pressed up against his chest, Tony was silent too.

He was dead, Steve realised, feeling somewhat detached from it all. Just like that. He was gone.

Slowly, Steve curled his arms around Tony’s shoulders tighter, tucked him into the warmth of Steve’s embrace. Tony hated the cold. He’d hated the cold for years, ever since they’d first met, he wouldn’t step foot out of the house after November without gloves and scarf. Steve didn’t want him to be cold now. He didn’t want him to be uncomfortable.

Steve held him close, nose to nose, rocking them gently on the street until the paramedics came and took his body away.

 

 

*

 

 

Natasha found him and brought him back home. She and Bruce took him into the bathroom and removed the bloodstained clothes off his back, washed the red from his skin. They were crying. Steve didn’t think he could remember how to cry, so he didn’t.

They’d found out what had happened. He wasn’t sure how, but they did. It was probably on the news. Someone with a camera filming it all. Steve doesn’t remember much, if he’s being honest. He barely even knows how he got back to their bedroom, or how he got the cut on his forearm, or what Thor said to him when Natasha guided him through the door, or anything.

He didn’t feel real.

“It was a clean shot,” Natasha declared, her voice more hard and even and lifeless than it had ever been before, and if Steve had cared, he would have known that was because she was falling apart at the seams. “There was no pain, Steve. None at all. The last thing he saw and thought of was you.”

Steve said nothing. Instead, he went and took a shower.

Four days, three hours and 17 minutes ago, they’d been out on a date, and Tony had been playing footsie with Steve under the table, and Steve had told him with a laugh to quit it, and they’d talked about the fact that Doctor Strange had nearly gotten his ass kicked by a magical warlock kid in their last battle, and then Steve had taken them both home and they’d made love.

Three days, 9 hours and 3 minutes ago, Tony had been in the kitchen making lunch while on-call with Rhodey, and Steve had come in to make himself some toast, and Tony had kissed him absently in his form of greeting and then gotten on with arguing with Rhodey over the best Star Wars film, and Steve had watched him until he’d gotten bored and stood up to wrap his arms around Tony’s waist and kiss his neck, and Tony had grinned at him and called him antisocial and then stuffed the wooden cooking spoon in his mouth and asked him to tell him if it was too spicy.

Three hours ago, Tony had been lying on the floor of the sidewalk with a hole in his head, while Steve held him up in his arms and begged him to wake up.

Bruce came into the bathroom and pulled Steve out of the shower after JARVIS failed to persuade him to, and he dried Steve off and wrapped him in a bathrobe and then asked him if he wanted to go to the communal area where everyone else was. Steve wasn’t sure whether he said yes or no, but it must have been the former, because then he was on the couch surrounded by his team, every last one of them silent.

It felt like there was a gaping wound right in the middle of Steve’s chest. He didn’t even know what to do with himself. How to act. None of them did.

This wasn’t right. Tony wasn’t just dead.

“We’ll need to arrange a funeral,” Clint said dully, at some point in the night, “he’ll… he’ll have had contingency plans, a will, too.”

Bruce looked up through watering eyes, taking a moment to compose himself before using his voice. “JARVIS?” He asked softly.

There was a pause. Then, “Sir has everything arranged in the event of his death. His will is indisputable. Ownership of the tower and all his assets will pass to Captain Rogers. The company will be left with Miss Potts.”

Steve replayed the moment in his head. A few seconds. That was all it had been. A few seconds between life spinning on, same as ever, and the entire universe suddenly collapsing in Steve’s hands. JARVIS was saying these things, and objectively, Steve knew Tony was dead. He’d watched it. He’d put his fingers against Tony’s neck and felt nothing underneath, no pulse, no life.

But… but Tony had been laughing at him hours ago. Kissing him. One week, he’d said. One week and he’d come home again.

Now he was in a mortuary somewhere. Steve didn’t even know where.

He was never coming home.

“Who was the man,” Steve heard himself asking, his voice flat, “the man who killed him- what was his motive?”

Clint and Natasha had gone over to the precinct where he’d been detained after the murder to interrogate him, and when Steve asked, it was Natasha who spoke. “Elliot Redford. His wife had cancer and they couldn’t afford it. He applied for the Stark Apprenticeship program because of the health insurance benefits, but didn’t make it through the interview process.” She swallowed, shook her head minutely. “He blamed Tony when she died.”

Beside Steve, he watched Thor’s face as it cracked. “So our friend is dead because this man could not handle his own grief,” he snarled, anger layered over his mourning. Thor and Tony had always been close. “Now Steve is in the exact same place because that fucking scumbag wanted—”

“Thor,” Bruce said soothingly, a hand going to Thor’s shoulder, but the God wasn’t finished. He stood in his fury, tears slipping down his cheeks. He was the only one who seemed to know how to express his emotions. Steve couldn’t even look at him. There was something terrible beginning to lurch in his stomach, a tension forming over each line of his body. He could feel Tony's weight in his arms. The memory of his empty face was inescapable. It couldn't be real. Steve just wanted to run from it, as far and as fast as he could, he wanted to curl up and sob until he woke up and everything was back to normal again, and more than anything, he wanted Tony to just come back. Wherever he'd gone, Steve wanted him to come back home. To Steve. To his team. Where he belonged.

He was going to break. He could feel it-- any moment now, he was going to shatter like glass. The tidal wave was coming, and it was about to drown him.

“We should kill the bastard where he stands,” Thor gritted, pointing a finger out of the window into the dark New York night, “we should do to him what he did to Tony.”

Blood. There was blood all over his hands, Steve could still see it, even though the water had washed it off. Tony’s brain matter was smeared over Steve’s jacket, which was now neatly bundled into the washing machine, ready to be swept away. His life had simply come and gone. Just like that. Tony Stark was just another speck in the universe, and life had disposed of him- his brilliant mind and his beautiful face and his boundless heart- like it was nothing at all.

Steve stood swiftly. Everyone turned to him. Thor went quiet.

He left the room.

 

 

*

 

 

"Christ, Tony, are you okay?" Steve rushed over to him in the workshop, hearing Tony's string of cusses and immediately feeling the panic flare up. "Where are you hurt, how deep did it--"

"I'm fine," Tony said as soon as Steve was there, holding his hands up, "I'm fine, sorry, the beams just got pushed out of place and fell over. None of them touched me though." He waved a hand to the pile of huge, heavy-looking steel beams behind him, now getting dutifully sprayed with extinguisher fluid by DUM-E. "It's all good, sweetheart. You came in at a bad time is all."

Steve eyed the metal, feeling the fear still swirl in his gut. He'd walked in just as he'd heard the most tremendous of crashing sounds, underlined by Tony's panicked yell, and his mind had instantly jumped to a dozen terrible things, dropping the coffee and plate of sandwiches at the entrance as he'd sprinted over. The jitteriness that still held on from last night's bad dreams probably didn't help the situation, but even though objectively, Steve was now looking at an unharmed Tony, he was wracked with the irrational fear that something may actually have hurt him all the same. 

He lifted his hands and delicately tugged Tony's jaw toward him, checking for injuries with fingers that he kept soft. He looked in Tony's eyes, then moved down his body. He was wearing his usual attire; tank top and sweatpants, and there were no tears or rips or patches of darkness to indicate blood. 

Tony's hands settled against Steve's. "I'm okay," he said again, his voice earnest, "look at me Steve. Nothing happened. Just an accident."

Steve took a second to recalibrate, then let out a small breath, nodding his head. It was all alright. "Scared the shit outta me," he mumbled, his arms wrapping around Tony's shoulders to pull him in for a second, before adding with a slightly embarrassed mumble, "I threw your coffee at the wall."

Tony shuffled his head against Steve's shoulder, checking out the brown splashes that now lined his wall. He huffed. "DUM-E's on it. And, by the way, I wouldn't ever die from a lab accident anyway. My demise will come only from some fantastical, universe-saving sacrifice, alright? Nothing less. I promise."

Steve snorted, kissing the crown of Tony's head, and then ducking down to lay one on the man's mouth as well. "You're not ever gonna die," he said simply, before pulling him in the direction of the exit, "not even of old age. Now come on, I'll make you another coffee. You need a break anyway."

 

 

*

 

 

No one came after him again that night. They thought it was best to give him space, no doubt. JARVIS would be giving an hourly report of his wellbeing to someone in the tower so that they knew he wasn’t hanging himself in the bathroom, but apart from that, Steve was alone.

He looked around their room. His and Tony’s room. Everything was dark. He hadn’t turned on the lights.

This was his home—this bed underneath him, the chest of drawers cluttered with physics books and Tony’s tablet, the pictures that lined the walls; ones of him and Tony kissing under the Eiffel Tower, ones of the team, all of them passed out on the sofa in various states of injury and undress after a particularly tiring battle. It was still messy, because he and Tony had left in the morning and Steve usually tidied everything up in the evening when he got back in. Tony’s notebook and pen were strewn on the bed next to him. The pen was uncapped.

Steve stared at it.

The lid was on the top of the pen, as opposed to the nib. If Steve were to guess, Tony must have been writing out a list of things to buy while he and Steve were out shopping, chewing on the lid while he thought. Then Steve would have called him down, told him they needed to go, and Tony would have sighed and dropped the pen and notebook back down on the bed, intending to come back to it later.

Later. Unfinished. He’d never made it home to put the lid back on.

He’d never made it home.

He wasn’t coming home.

No matter how hard Steve tried, suddenly the air wouldn’t come. Something blocked his throat, a hand, a vice, a noose, and he just stared at the pen blankly, wondering what the hell he was supposed to do now. How he was supposed to go forward from here. He’d just lost everything, again, and yet the world hadn’t fallen apart around him. It was still going on. Time was passing and people were existing, and reporters were describing every detail of how Tony Stark had been murdered on the streets of New York, and Steve was just stuck here. Looking at Tony’s pen. Looking at every part of Tony’s life around him in this room, frozen in time, on pause but never to be resumed. It was a lived-in space. It was a room that Tony had been supposed to come back to. Nothing was packed, organised, neat in the face of a foreseeable ending. It was just like every other bedroom someone came back to every day.

Steve choked. Stumbled over to the sink in their en-suite, wondered whether he was going to throw up his guts. He didn’t. He just choked. His body didn’t know what to do, how to respond—was this poison? Was the pain an injury? Should it raise his temperature to burn off the pathogens?

His hand cracked the ceramic, and he looked at, kept clenching until the cracks splintered, turned to shards into his hands. It pierced his skin. He wished he could feel it, but it was a nothingness in comparison to the agony that was going on under his chest. Someone was ripping out his fucking spine. Someone had stuck a hand through his ribs, rummaged around until it had found his heart and then just crushed it.

He wanted Tony. He wanted Tony to make this better, to sit with him, rock him back and forth like a child in the way he only did when Steve was completely distraught, with his hands around Steve’s neck, his jaw, a soothing voice in his ear saying, “it’s alright baby. It’s alright. I’ve got you.”

The gunshot rang out in his ears. A single, blinding strike. Elliot Redford had a good aim. It was one bullet, one man, and he had single-handedly murdered Iron Man and destroyed Captain America. All in three seconds.

“Tony,” he whispered, like saying his lover's name would bring him back. He sank to the floor, still holding to the piece of sink that he’d ripped off the wall. “Tony, Tony, Tony, Tony…”

He wasn’t sure how many times he said Tony’s name. Until words wouldn’t come anymore. Until his voice had given up. The bathroom was as dark as the bedroom. He sat and stared at the rim of the bathtub for a few hours.

He didn’t know what life was any more.

Tony’s weight in his arms, the tuck of him against Steve’s chest as he’d cradled him on that street, the slack face… it could all have been indicators that Tony was just sleeping. Steve could live in that delusion for a little while, right? He’d just been asleep. Or maybe it was Steve who was asleep, having a horrifically realistic nightmare, and he was going to wake up and Tony was going to be there, and when Steve started to cry, Tony would shush him and rock him and stroke his hands through his hair and tell him everything was okay. That it was all okay. That he wasn’t going anywhere.

Steve would take anything over this. Anything.

Back in the bedroom, Steve’s morning alarm went off. It was five in the morning. Yesterday, Steve had been going on a run right about now, Tony grumbling about the early hour in the same way he did every single day.

He stood, slowly. The world was cloudy. His eyes hurt, and he realized he must have been crying.

“JARVIS?” He said, gripping to the wall for support. His mind was offline, so he was not sure what force was compelling him just then, but whatever it was, it decided on a plan of action and stood him up straighter, forced his eyes into focus. 

“Yes, Captain Rogers?” The AI was soft and gentle, and his voice was layered with its own kind of grief. Steve did not doubt for a second that JARVIS was in whatever kind of pain that an artificial intelligence was capable of feeling.

“I’m your primary user now, correct?”

A small pause. “Correct.”

“Then I need you to keep telling everyone that I’m in the tower.” Steve walked out of the bathroom, surprised his legs were still working. It felt like his body was trying to lug around a dead brain. “I need you to tell them I’m sleeping and that I don’t want to be disturbed.”

“Captain,” JARVIS began, sounding concerned, “why are you asking me to lie to your friends?”

The thought came easily. It had come for the first time about an hour ago, simple and obvious. He thought about it again as JARVIS asked him the question. “Because I need to get him back,” Steve declared, “and I need them to not try and stop me.”

This pause was long, stagnant. Steve told his arm to extend, stretch out, grab one of his sweaters from the closet. The arm managed to perform the task almost perfectly.

“Sir is dead.” The words were the ones of every automated program, but the grief held underneath them was that of a child who had just lost his father, a life, a whole reason for being.

“I don’t care,” Steve made his feet take steps. They brought him to the door. “I just need you to tell them I am at home. That’s an order.”

“Orders can be circumvented if I believe it is in your best interest to do so,” JARVIS informed him.

“You’re a fucking robot,” Steve responded, and he tried to keep his voice level, he truly did, but the low bubble of rage seeped out anyway, “your job is to follow orders.”

“And as a robot, my most fundamental code is designed around Asimov’s three laws,” JARVIS said, not rising to Steve’s insult, “the second of which states that I must obey orders only if they do not conflict with the first law. And that is to make sure no human comes to harm under my supervision.”

“Then why is Tony dead?” Steve spat.

 The words rang out as sharply as the bullet had. He wanted to suck them back into his mouth as soon as he’d said them, because they suddenly became real, because saying them meant all of this was something he needed to accept now, and he refused to do that. He was still in battle mode, he’d decided. He was still fighting. Once that will was gone, he had no idea what would become of him, so he needed to continue on with his fight against time, the universe, everything.

It was that or sit on their bed and think about the way Tony’s blood had leaked into his lap, or about his eyes, and their vast blankness, void of all the emotion that made Tony the person Steve loved. It was that, or be consumed by the memories until they killed him.

“Some things are out of my control,” JARVIS responded, and Steve had forgotten he’d even asked a question until he heard the answer what felt like a lifetime later, “and I will regret that for the rest of my existence.” His words resonated, and their sorrow sat, as still and poignant as the final note in a ballad. Steve wished JARVIS had a physical form that he could turn his back on, but the computer was everywhere. He was as inescapable as this new world that Steve was now trapped in, the world without Tony. “But Captain, you must know that I will not allow another human under my care to come to harm when I do have control over it, so I must insist you inform—”

“I’m not going to go and jump off a god damn bridge,” Steve growled, and his fist bent the doorknob as it curled tighter and tighter, “I need fresh air, and I need— I need to be alone. Please, just don’t tell them I’ve gone. I know they’ll come after me. I can’t… I need to think.”

There was a long silence, only Steve’s breath filling the room that he had turned away from. He didn’t think he could bear to look at any of it.

“You will not harm yourself?” JARVIS asked, and it was more of a plea than a question.

“No.”

JARVIS was quiet as he ran through numbers, variables, outcomes. His program told him that Steve was trustworthy. His code allowed him to see how the variable of Tony’s death may skew that. His judgment allowed him to decide on which was the stronger motivator.

“Very well,” JARVIS conceded in the end, and Steve thought briefly of how the otherwise perfect AI had developed the one most fatal human flaw—trust. “But please, Captain. Do not do anything rash. Causing pain won’t change things. Revenge won’t stop what happened.”

JARVIS must have thought Steve had been thinking of going to the man responsible. Admittedly, it had crossed his mind. Just walking in and snapping his neck. Or maybe making it hurt more, making him scream, pulling the pain out of his own chest and forcing it into the man who had created it.

But JARVIS was right. That would not make a difference. He was an irrelevance, a speck in this huge equation.

“I know,” was all he said, and then without another word, he pulled the door open and made his way out of the building.

 

 

*

 

 

The Baxter Building’s official hours were from 9 to 5. When Steve arrived, it was 4:45. This did not stop him.

He triggered the alarm purposefully as he forced his way into the lobby, because it was just an easier way of getting what he wanted. After that, all he had to do was wait for a member of the Fantastic Four to get from the penthouse down the ground floor.

He made sure not to think of anything else other than the immediate. He did not think of going back home again after all of this. Of the fact that this was all so horrifically, disturbingly wrong. He didn’t think of 24 hours ago, when everything had been perfect and normal and Steve had been in love, thinking idly of the future as if it were a certainty.

He thought of none of it now. There was just this.

“Steve?” Susan Storm’s gentle voice was soft, but concerned, and Steve’s eyes turned to the elevator where she had just appeared from, “what are you doing here?”

“I need to speak to Reed,” was all he said, praying desperately that the man was here, “now.”

Susan took him in. He hadn’t washed the blood off his hand from where the sink edges had punctured the skin. He was shaking. He didn’t even want to think about how his face looked.

She, like everyone else, would undoubtedly have seen the news. She’d have seen the footage of Steve Rogers, on his knees, holding tight to the corpse of his lover. That was probably the only reason she humoured him.

“He’s upstairs,” she informed him, looking at him with a face full of tragedy, “Steve, I’m so—”

“Please don’t,” Steve said, and then for good measure, he repeated, “I need to see Reed.”

She licked her lips. She was in a loosely-bound dressing gown which revealed light blue pyjamas underneath. He would have felt terribly guilty about all this, had it been any other day. As it was, he realised he couldn’t have cared less if he’d tried.

Susan took another three seconds before she gestured to the elevator. “I can guess what this is about,” she said softly, “and you’re welcome to talk to him so he can explain why you won’t be able to do it. I can’t tell you how sorry I am, Steve. But we can’t help you.”

Steve just stared at her, breath coming short. He must have looked unhinged, stood there in his sweatpants and loose shirt stained with flecks of his blood, the shattered remains of the ground-level window of the Baxter Building behind him. He wondered if she was scared.

“Thank you,” he choked, and then walked over to the elevator without another word. He could feel her eyes on his back as he moved, and pondered on what it was she was thinking. Maybe she was debating whether she should call Steve’s team. Or take him down herself.

But there was a jacket in his laundry basket covered in Tony’s blood. His DNA was under Steve’s fingernails, from where his hands had pressed hopelessly into the hole in his lover’s head. He couldn’t look down at them, because it would make him vomit. Nothing else mattered except those facts; the simple things that made up a bleak, dark picture of what life was going to become for him. Nauseating. Horrific. Susan Storm could be terrified of him, and she could try and kill him if she wished, and Steve wouldn’t care, because this whole world was wrong now, and so Steve needed to set it right, using whatever force necessary. At some point during sitting in the bathroom and walking out of the door of the tower, he had irreversibly made up his mind. He would not stop now.

Reed was waiting for him when Steve arrived. His posture was wary and his face concerned. Susan must have already told him he was here. “Captain,” he began, voice croaky from sleep, “what are you doing—”

“A few months ago you took a Chronal Energy Distorter back to the Baxter Building after confiscating it from the Tescillian Race of super-assassins who’d been trying to erase The Avengers from history,” Steve cut in firmly, voice level and unmoving as he reeled off the facts. He could be strong in this. “When I asked what it did, you said it was a time machine. I need access to it.”

Richards said nothing. His hair, usually well-kempt and slicked back, was fuzzy and irregular. He leaned heavily onto his left side— Steve remembered hearing of a fight between the Fantastic Four and Victor Von Doom a few days ago. He filed the injury away quietly.

Steve waited for a response, but Richards remained voiceless. And Steve could only wait so long. “I need access to it,” he repeated, harder this time, “now.”

“That won’t work,” Reed told him, and the words split through whatever modicum of determined hope Steve had been holding onto, damning him to hell, “Steve, I’m so sorry—”

“Why the fuck not,” Steve cut in, his voice low, edging on hysterical as he tried to breathe, “I can go back and this never needs to happen. This can be a dream. This can be gone in a minute if I just went back—”

“Let’s go to my lab,” Reed walked forward, slowly, nodding his head solemnly over to Susan who was now stood somewhere behind Steve, watching them both with sorrowful eyes, “it will be easier for me to explain things there.” He settled a hand gently on Steve’s arm and attempted a smile. It didn’t work.

Steve followed Reed as the man guided him back into the elevator he had come from. “Go back to bed, love,” Richards murmured quietly to his wife as they moved past her.

“Are you sure you can handle—”

“I’ve got him.” Reed’s fingers squeezed reassuringly around Steve’s arm, and Sue didn’t say anything more as they made their way into the elevator. Steve heard her sniffle. She hadn’t known Tony well—at least not as well as Reed had. Maybe it was Steve who was upsetting her. He could imagine that watching someone fall apart like this would be difficult to watch. She must pity him.

He didn’t even have the energy left to hate that.

The ride down to Reed’s lab was silent, eerily so. Steve listened to his own heart as it beat like a drum in his ears. He was so exhausted from the constant bombardment of adrenaline, of the sheer weight his emotions were pressing into him, that he wondered whether his body was just going to collapse soon. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he wished it would. He wished it would shrivel and die, let him escape this nightmare and go back to a place where Tony was alive and happy and smiling at him. Where everything was back to normal and nothing hurt.

“Steve,” Reed said, and he blinked and realised that the man was waiting for Steve to step out of the elevator and follow him further into his laboratory. Steve told himself to move, staring vacantly at the place as he walked into it. He’d never been here before. He couldn’t say he knew Reed Richards or any of the Fantastic Four particularly well, to be honest— it had always been Tony who’d visited, so that he could hash out something or another with a fellow scientist or just go and harass Johnny for an hour or so.  He wondered, idly, how everyone else was dealing with this. Had Johnny Storm seen the news? Had he watched them cart Tony’s corpse away and sat, devastated, on his couch at home?

In the recesses of his mind, he knew that the entire planet was in mourning right now. Their favorite hero was dead. People were calling for Elliot Redford to be executed. They were making pop-up shrines in the streets, coming out in their masses, and absolutely fucking none of it mattered to Steve. He hadn’t turned a single electronic device on since they’d pulled Tony’s corpse from his arms. It didn’t matter what the rest of the world was feeling- they weren’t the ones going home with the knowledge that the love of their life had been murdered on the street twenty feet from where they’d been stood, watching the whole thing go down.

Steve, for once, was going to be selfish about this.

Reed Richards’ lab was cold—that was the first thing Steve noticed. It was steely and filled with large mechanisms, technological pieces and strange devices. There was no couch in the corner of the room, but instead a long, clinically white table with four stools tucked underneath it. Everything was neat, ordered. Steve hated it instantly. But when Reed pulled out a stool for him to sit on, he did so without complaint, watching the other man as he pulled a pen and paper from his desk and then brought it back to the table.

He sat down beside Steve, quiet for a moment. Steve didn’t fill it with anything. It hung in the air like a disease.

“I can’t imagine what you’re going through,” is what Reed said in the end, so very quiet, “I… I just can’t. Tony was a friend. I’m devastated, compared to you, I barely even knew him.”

“Then let me go back and fix it,” Steve said, staring at Reed, “let me put it right.”

“I can’t.”

“Why?”

“It—” Reed sighed, running tense hands through his hair. He shut his eyes. “It would tear a hole in the timeline. You’d go into a temporal loop that you could never escape from and the whole of reality would collapse around you, to put it lightly.”

Steve made sure to remain very, very still. One twitch of his hand would end with it going through the table. His body was not his own. It had torn itself away from him, and he struggled to keep control. “Explain,” he ordered.

Reed brought the pen up and uncapped it, then drew a line. “This is the timeline,” he began, “before yesterday. Before it all happened. Of course, in reality, thousands of branches were being made with every decision you took, but that’s irrelevant. We only need to focus on two.” He drew a V shape at the end of the line with an unsteady hand. “The timeline where events conspired to mean that Tony lived,” he pointed to the top diagonal line, “and the timeline we are on, where he died.” He pointed to the bottom.

Steve looked at it. “So I’ll just go back and put us on the other one,” he said, and it was so easy to him. He didn’t understand why Reed was looking at him like Steve was breaking his heart.

“That’s not how it works,” he told him, every line of his body gentle, soft, as if Steve was just another frightened civilian, “if you went back and changed it, the two timelines would collide with each other. They would not diverge like this,” Reed waved to the crude diagram, “they’d just—they’d crash into one another, and it would be because of you. If you saved him, and then you travelled back to the present, you would be trying to exist in two timelines at once. One where Tony died and you went back to save him, and one where Tony never died at all.” Reed’s face creased, and he shook his head as he started swirling the pen in a circular motion, creating a scribbled black void in the centre of the diverging line. “You’d rip yourself apart, Steve—caught in an eternal paradoxical loop. It would be worse than death. You’d be conscious, but your body would be… God, I don’t even know. And the rest of reality would collapse alongside it. There is a reason time-travel has been universally banned. People cannot bring two realities into one. Even the Tescillians that brought this thing to Earth,” he gestured behind him, over to the corner where that strange alien chamber lay, silent and inviting, “even they knew as much. They’d never intended to go home alive, because they knew they couldn’t unless they wanted to tear a rent in the universe.”

Steve processed the information. All of it. He acknowledged the obstacles, he noted the machine that Reed had now identified to him as the one he would need to use, and he assessed the risk. “So if I were to die there,” he said slowly, watching Reed’s face fall, his mouth open as if to begin his rebuttal, but Steve just spoke over him. “If I were to die there, like the Tescillians were intending on doing after getting rid of us… things would be okay?”

“Steve,” Reed warned, “no, that is not what I—”

“You just said it, Richards,” Steve glared at him, his hand curling into a fist on the table, pulling at the fresh scabs over where the porcelain had cut him earlier. He felt his blood as it began to wet his skin once more. “Would that work?”

Richards said nothing, mouth opening and shutting like a goldfish, caught between telling him the dangerous truth or trying to lie his way out of it. But Steve knew he was a good man. And he also knew that Reed would not be stupid enough to attempt the latter.

“Yes,” the scientist breathed in the end, and something big and cavernous burst open in Steve’s chest at the confirmation, “you could… you’d eliminate the double-crossing of timelines. But Steve, you can’t do that. You would cease to exist—”

“I’d be alive in the right timeline,” Steve said quietly. I’d be alive where it truly mattered. With Tony.

“There are no right or wrong timelines, Steve. You’d still die,” Richards pressed, shaking his head, “your past self is not you. He wouldn’t feel it. You’re two separate entities and it would still kill you. No, Steve, this is not something you should—”

But Steve was no longer listening. Reed’s words didn’t matter anymore; he’d said enough. There was a way to save Tony and keep the universe from collapsing. All Steve had to do was die.

It wasn’t even something he needed to consider.

His past version—the one who he had been before everything had gone wrong—would live on. No one would need to mourn him. The universe would right itself, and Steve would simply blink out of existence like he had never been there at all. A glitch. Wrong connection, temporary interference, whatever. It didn’t matter.

Reed was still talking. Steve knocked him out. Swift blow to the head that would have been easier for him to block had he been expecting it. Steve, however, moved fast when he wanted to. He kept the man from landing heavily on his side, instead settling him gently against the table, and then made his way over to the machine on legs that finally seemed to be cooperating with him. Now, he had a goal in mind. There was a point to his actions where there hadn’t been before, and his body welcomed it.

The distance between himself and the machine shortened, until finally he was able to settle a shaking hand on the frame, leaving a clichéd bloody handprint on the metal as he did so. He stared at the contraption, unmoving.

People didn’t expect Steve to be particularly smart. He’d noticed it a lot in his time, and in everyone’s defence, he hung around with some of the quickest minds on the planet and so it was easy to regard the simple soldier as nothing more than that. Capable of hitting things when they needed to be hit and making tactical decisions on the field, but nothing more. In reality, however, spending all that time with scientist had paid off. If it wasn’t Bruce talking about biochemistry as he made his morning cup of tea, or Jane describing how she’d set up her latest project, it was Tony talking to him about robotics, about physics, about engineering or whatever it was he’d been focusing on that day. Steve spent half his life in Tony’s workshop watching him work, helping him out when he needed it. He knew how things worked down in places like these.

Tony had always known that. He’d never let anyone try and imply Steve was anything less than a genius. Steve had always been sheepish when Tony brought it up though, shaking his head and putting himself down quietly before hastily moving the subject on.

Here, now, he didn’t have time for the self-deprecation. He looked at the large machine in front of him and quietly analysed it, mentally broke it down, figured out how to get it to work. He knew that there were about ten other people on the planet capable of that. One of them was quietly unconscious about fifteen feet behind him. It ultimately wasn’t that hard, however. There was a pad on the side of the metal frame, and a screen directly above. Date, time, coordinates. The Tescillians were a diverse race, and so after a few minutes Steve located the microphone that processed his speech and consequently began translating all the numerals and letters into English. After a brief search on his phone, he found the coordinates of the street.

It barely took ten minutes for Steve to set the whole thing up.

He’d come close to death many times in his life. Sometimes it happened too fast to scare him, but other times, when there was waiting involved, he would always feel fear. He would always wonder what he was heading into— another life, another chance, or just the dark void of nothingness. Now, though, it didn’t cross his mind. He had minutes left to live. It didn’t matter. He was only alive in body. Every other part of him had died on that sidewalk with Tony 16 hours ago.

There was no coming back from something like that.

He spared a glance back to Reed, still slumped against the table. He would feel no guilt—this would not ever have happened. Clint, Nat, Thor, Bruce, Sam… none of them would mourn for him, because he would still be alive. Just not him him.

But that was okay.

He stepped into the machine and looked to the small control panel, trying to find the one that would shut the chamber door and catapult him back in time. They liked to overcomplicate things, did the Tescillians. A lot of buttons for relatively few actions. He found what he was looking for a second later, however, and without a second thought, he pressed down on the panel.

But his hand stopped an inch away from the button, and he sighed as his brain immediately made the connection. “Susan.”

“I won’t let you do this, Steve.” She looked at him from the elevator, her hand extended, forming the small force-field over the edge of the panel and barring Steve’s escape. She was still in her nightgown; hair flowing over her shoulders and eyes flecked with little bits of sleep. Her icy stare didn’t waver. “You’ll destroy the universe.”

“I’m not intending on coming back here,” Steve informed her simply. He wished she could have just waited another few minutes before letting her curiosity get the better of her and coming down to investigate. He didn’t want to waste any more time.

Her face was pained. “I still won’t let you do it. You’re going to kill yourself.”

“No. I’m going to correct the timeline.”

“That’s not how it—”

“—works, yes, I know. But it will be a world where Tony’s still there, and I’m still with him.” Steve swallowed. Suddenly his voice was weak. “I have a chance to take all this back. Nothing in this universe will stop me from using it.”

“I can,” her face hardened, “Steve, get out of the chamber.”

“No.”

“Then I’ll force you out.”

“And I will keep coming back and trying until one day I succeed,” Steve gritted out, shaking his head as he watched her. “This isn’t about me wanting to kill myself. If that were the case I’d have just picked a bridge. This about me wanting Tony to live.”

Susan looked at him for a good long time, both of them gazing at one another from across the room. She was now Steve’s last tether to this place. He would already be gone if she hadn’t halted his progress.

“You’ll die,” she said quietly, “your past self, he’ll live on, but you will die, Steve.”

He nodded, smiling at her. “I know,” he answered, “but I don’t think I’d last very long here without Tony anyway.” When she refused to waver, he just sighed. “Susan, you don’t need to worry about me. I’ll go back and save Tony, and you will never even remember this. It’ll all turn out fine.”

Her chest heaved with a sharp, shaky breath. “I will still have let you do this,” she snapped, “whether I remember or not, I will still have sat back and watched you kill yourself. This isn’t right, Steve.”

“That’s the point.” He waved a hand. “I’m fixing it. And it won’t matter if I die, because I will never have existed in the first place.”

Susan exhaled in frustration. She didn’t know what to tell him.

“I don’t belong here,” he murmured, “this isn’t my world any more. If I go back now, I will fix everything. But as things are… well. The world can’t live without him.”

“You mean you can’t live without him.”

He thought of Tony’s morning smile. His frustrated frowns. He thought of how Tony always greeted him with a kiss on the cheek when he slipped by him in the kitchens. The way his voice drawled in a New York accent, or how it went softer if he spoke French, Italian. He thought of their first anniversary when they’d been trapped in a cave and wondering if they’d ever get out, and Tony had drawn a love-heart in the dust and told him sadly about his plans for the night, now ruined by their impending doom. He thought about the way Tony could shout at him so hard it felt like glass might shatter, and how he touched Steve like he was the most reverent thing in the world, and, strangely, he thought about the weird mole on his shoulder that Steve always checked up on every few months to make sure nothing funny was going on with it, because you could never do any harm in monitoring those sorts of things.

He smiled. “That too.”

Maybe it was in his eyes, or maybe Susan just knew that she would always be fighting a losing battle. When Steve Rogers set his mind on something, he did it. But her face crumbled, and she sighed, short and filled with grief. Steve looked at her, and she looked at him. He nodded. “It’s gonna be okay,” he said softly, and he meant it. “I’m gonna be okay. This is what I want.”

In the windows, the first drips of light began to shine over the city. It looked like it was going to be a sunny day. Cold, but bright. They said on the news that they might even get a white Christmas this year.

She dropped her hand.

Steve pressed the button.

 

 

 

 

He was there, on the sidewalk where it had all gone down, and he saw Tony three feet away. Tony hadn’t spotted him, his eyes still fixed on Past-Steve’s back as he hailed down a cab to drive him back to the tower. Across the street, Redford was already aiming his gun.

Steve took two steps forward and turned, positioning himself in front of Tony and grabbing the man’s shoulders so that he could spin him around. This wouldn’t take long. But in his last moments, he wanted it to be Tony’s face he saw.

Sam sometimes warned him about making rash decisions in the heat of his emotion, always saying he would regret it later. But this was not something he would ever do differently, if he was given the choice. Whether it was a day or a decade between Tony dying and Steve discovering he could change that, Steve would always choose this path. Always.

It was a world with Tony or it was no world at all. It would always, always be that way.

The man turned under his grip, eyes wide in surprise. Tony’s soul spilled out through them, the animation behind the irises fantastic and beautiful, the emotion dancing, fluid, in motion.

Steve smiled.

There was a bang.

And then he was gone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Steve,” Tony’s voice was filled with laughter as he pushed weakly against Steve’s chest, “I really have to go.”

Really really?” Steve countered sulkily, keeping his arms around Tony’s waist as they swayed at the edge of the sidewalk, undoubtedly pissing off a dozen different commuters as they hurried on by. Steve couldn’t care less. “Japan will move on without you.”

“I’m gonna miss my flight,” Tony whined, looking up at him with an attempted glare. It didn’t really work. He looked far too cute, with his nose and cheeks both pink from the freezing cold and his wool coat zipped up all the way to his mouth, shrouding him in fabric. He extracted Steve’s arms from around his waist with leather-gloved hands and took a step back, wrinkling up his face when he was subsequently exposed to the harsh wind. “God, why do you have to be so irritatingly warm?”

Steve just shrugged smugly and held his arms open. “Well, no one’s stopping you from staying here,” he said, although Tony raised a disbelieving eyebrow.

“Pepper might disembowel me, but sure.” He shook his head and then laughed once more, dipping forward and kissing Steve again, his face freezing against Steve’s. They’d been walking through the city for nearly an hour, window shopping for gifts they were going to buy for Christmas, but now Tony was due for a business trip and Steve had to go back to the tower alone. Excursions abroad for StarkIndustries business weren’t that uncommon, although it had lessened over the last year or so as Tony stepped back further and further from the CEO elements and become more invested in R&D. Steve definitely preferred that. Not only did it make Tony happier, but it meant that he didn’t have to be on the other side of the world for extended periods of time.

“I’ll only be gone a week,” Tony mumbled into his mouth like he’d read Steve’s mind, breaking off and looking up at Steve with a soft smile. “It’ll fly by, I promise.”

Steve just grumbled something unintelligible, kissing Tony’s forehead again before nudging him backward. Happy had stopped off at Wendy’s, so Tony was just gonna take the two-minute walk and meet him there. “Call me when you land,” Steve said, “and be back in time for Christmas or I’ll be having words with Mr. Kobayashi.”

Tony was looking at him fondly as he slowly backed off down the street, and Steve had half a mind to tell him to face the way he was walking so he wouldn’t slip—but if he did that, then he wouldn’t be able to see Tony’s face. He decided against it, instead just smiling dumbly at Tony as the man walked further and further away. You’d think after two years they’d have settled down a bit, stopped acting like lovesick teenagers in public. But apparently not. It drove Bucky mad, honestly; he always asked how they kept it up. Steve didn’t really know what else there was to explain other than that he just really, really loved Tony, and Tony really, really loved him. It was that simple.

“One week,” Tony promised, finally turning on his heel and starting to walk away properly, but continuing to keep his head turned in Steve’s direction. He waved. “Love you bunches!”

Steve himself decided he should probably start looking for a cab rather than just standing around watching Tony, so he glanced into the road and held up a hand. “One week,” he agreed with a nod, “I love you t—”

Out of nowhere, Steve suddenly found himself cut off by a sharp, ear-piercing bang, and the realisation that it was the sound of a bullet leaving a chamber took less than a second for his brain to process. Steve’s eyes moved of their own accord, primal instincts kicking in as he scoped out the danger. He saw it instantly. A man at the edge of the road, gun in hand, eyes wild, whole body shaking. There were no bodies immediately next to him, which meant it hadn’t been a mugging or fight of any kind. “FOR RACHEL!” He screamed hoarsely, and his eyes somehow found Steve’s on the sidewalk. Like he’d been watching and already knew that Steve was there. He flailed his arm frantically, gun waving through the air. “THAT WAS FOR RACHEL!”

Steve stared at him for a fraction of a second, and then he turned away, mind already on other things, more important things. He looked for Tony in the screaming crowds.

The man was stood there, seemingly gaping aimlessly in front of him. It was obvious that their attacker was aiming for him now; Steve could see it in the aim and trajectory, and the gun had definitely fired. His heart plummeted. “TONY!” He screamed, wrenching himself forward and sprinting toward his lover in terror. Every other thought slipped instantly from his mind, focuses solely on this one thing. If Tony had been hit in the chest, he could—

But suddenly Tony seemed to snap out of himself, throwing his body sideways and taking cover behind a car just at the same time Steve skidded to a halt and met him, arms coming up and throwing themselves in a protective shield over Tony’s body. The shooter was shouting something garbled and desperate from across the street, but that wasn’t Steve’s immediate concern. He grabbed Tony’s shoulders, a hand going to cup the man’s face. “Did he hit you?” He blurted urgently, tongue thick, panic-stricken. Tony had just been stood there. “Are you hurt, Tony, did he—fuck—” deciding it was going to be quicker to analyse things with his own eyes, Steve grabbed Tony’s body between his hands and searched for an entry wound, looking for tears in his coat, dark patches of blood. He couldn’t see a wound. At least that meant there was nothing imminently serious.

Tony was looking at him like he’d seen a ghost. “You…” he began, but then his face turned baffled, “I saw you,” he said, and there was pure incredulity in his voice.

Steve didn’t have time to try and process Tony’s shock-fuelled words. He just pressed a frantic kiss to the man’s cold forehead, thanked God for their luck, and then slid around the side of the car in order to deal with whoever it was that had decided to try and shoot Tony Stark in broad daylight.

 

As it turned out, it hadn’t been terrorists responsible. No robots or evil monsters crawled out of the alleys immediately afterward, signalling the beginning of a fight. It had just been a man, driven mad by his grief. He had seen Tony walking down the street and he had taken a shot. For Rachael, he’d said. That had been his wife. She’d died of cancer.

They only found all of this out after Steve had restrained him and dumped him at the police station. He’d mostly just been crying for the first few hours, unable to handle everything piling up around him. Had things been a little different, Steve may have felt sorry for him. As it was, he’d just had to restrain himself from slamming the man’s head into a wall until something caved. He’d nearly killed Tony. Right then and there on the street.

The thought was… incomprehensible.

He shuddered and closed his eyes as hot water sluiced over his shoulders. Tony was in their room, having pushed back the trip by a few days while they sorted all of this out, and Steve was taking a shower to get the grime of the police station off him. He’d remained there for a few hours, watching in on the interrogations with quiet intensity that he wished would burn through the mirrored glass, just so that Redford would squirm. He hadn’t ultimately been able to do much though, and so eventually he’d headed home, back to Tony, whom Happy had escorted back to the tower as soon as he’d arrived on the scene. Steve had made sure to do a proper examination of him once he’d dealt with Redford, but Tony genuinely hadn’t been touched. In fact, nothing had. Forensics hadn’t found a bullet embedded anywhere, so for whatever reason, Redford must have shot straight up in the sky.

Still, though. Tony had been pretty much silent ever since, his gaze unfocused, mind somewhere else. Steve was worried.

He turned off the shower and stepped out, drying himself off hastily and then wrapping the towel around his waist before he slipped back into the room. It was getting dark as the winter evening shrouded New York. Tony was stood watching the city from the window, hand curled around a glass of whiskey. It had been a long day.

Slowly, Steve wandered over to him, making his steps known as he moved. Tony didn’t turn fully, but his body shifted, one of Steve’s baggy shirts sliding over his shoulders, revealing skin. Steve’s eyes were drawn to it. He checked briefly at the mole sat just above his shoulderblade. It never did any harm to monitor that sort of thing.

When his hand settled gently against Tony’s waist, the other man shivered, but he leaned in heavily against Steve’s side. Steve held him, his mouth pressing up against Tony’s temple. His skin was warm, and Steve savoured. Today had been too close, and Steve could feel the anxiety crawl over his back, as it would continue for the next few days at the very least. But this wasn't about him. It wasn't him who'd nearly died today, after all.

“You okay?” Steve asked, voice not even anything above a breath as his finger trailed up and down Tony’s ribs.

Tony said nothing. Just watched the city skyline, face illuminated by the last vestiges of light. His fingers found Steve’s and he wrapped them up tightly together. Steve noted that his pulse was beating hard, throbbing like a wound.

“I saw you,” he repeated, the same and only words he’d spoken since that shot had rung out, “I… it was only for a fraction of a second, I don’t… but it was you. I’m sure of it.”

Steve frowned, leaning back a little and looking at Tony’s face. It was creased up like he was staring at a puzzle he just couldn’t solve. “What do you mean, sweetheart?” He asked.

“He shot me, Steve,” Tony’s voice was hoarse, as if he’d been talking all day as opposed to his uncharacteristic silence, “that man, Redford, he shot me. He didn’t aim it above his fucking head. As soon as you’d disappeared, I saw the gun, and it was nowhere near the sky. He couldn’t have moved it that fast, I—I don’t—” Tony broke off, letting out a shaky breath. “I know what I saw. But it doesn’t make sense.”

“You’re in shock, honey.” Steve was concerned now, cupping his hand around Tony’s face and moving it delicately until Tony was looking up at him. “I wasn’t there. I wish I had been, but I wasn’t. He just missed you.”

Tony leaned in close. “Then where’s the bullet?”

Steve stopped. It’d been playing on his mind too, he couldn’t deny it. But there could have been a number of explanations. “It was probably just a blank,” he supplied, “Redford must’ve forgotten about it, or maybe he’d fired it off just to scare you.” Tony still didn’t look convinced, but he nodded his head slowly all the same. He’d undoubtedly come to the same conclusion himself.

Gently, Steve pulled Tony away from the window and over to the bed. “Let’s just relax,” he said softly, “forget about it. It’s over. You’re safe, and he’s gonna be in jail for a long fuckin’ time. It’s gonna be okay.”

Tony looked like he might debate it for a moment, but then he just nodded, forcefully shaking the thoughts from his head as he fell onto the bed. They put their pyjamas on hastily, and then Steve pulled Tony back into his arms the moment they were done. He still felt shaken. They’d been so lucky today. A single different variable in the equation and everything could have gone very differently. He barely even dared to think about it, instead just holding Tony a little tighter and pressing a kiss into his shoulder, letting the heavy relief wash over him. “M’sorry,” he mumbled as he pressed Tony close, tried to block out the intrusive thoughts from his mind, “I should have seen him.”

“Steve,” Tony sighed, “it was a spontaneous thing, the guy admitted it himself. He saw a shot and he took it. You could never have known.”

Steve just huffed, letting his fingers play across Tony’s midsection. His back rested against Steve’s chest, their legs tangled together in front of them while JARVIS played something innocuous on the TV. “Shows I was right earlier though,” Steve added quietly, “you should have stayed a little longer.”

Tony laughed, and the sound felt so damn relieving in his ears that Steve couldn’t help but laugh too, rocking Tony sideways and kissing up his neck, savoring the sensation of the pulse beneath his lips. Tony moved his head until he could kiss Steve properly, and they stayed like that for a while, just allowing themselves the reprieve of one another. Steve refused to think of any more what-if’s. That way would lead only to madness.

Eventually the kisses grew more heated, more meaningful, until Tony’s hands wrapped around Steve’s neck and pulled, dragging him down on top of Tony as he lay down on the mattress. They kissed like that for a while, until Tony made a small noise and then broke off, shuffling uncomfortably. “One sec,” he muttered, and then shoved a hand under his back, pulling out his notepad and pen from underneath him. He made a motion to toss it to the side, but then paused half-way, bringing them back in.

Quickly, he capped the lid back onto the pen, then shoved them away thoughtlessly. “That’s better,” he said, smiling up at Steve.

 

 

*

 

 

Later that night, Steve woke.

He wasn’t sure what time it was. Early morning, maybe. Beside him, Tony was fast asleep, snoring gently at his side as his arms extended out in front of him, reaching for something invisible. The light from his reactor shone a delicate blue into the room.

Steve wiped the tears from his eyes and willed himself to stop shaking, instead reaching out blindly for Tony, draping his body across the back of the other man and wrapping his hands around Tony’s waist. He breathed, and breathed, and breathed again, trying to ground himself to where he was. What he now knew, with absolute certainty. He wasn't sure why and he didn't know how, but he was sure of it all the same. 

Tony hadn't been in shock. He'd been right. 

Steve had been there.

Some dreams felt real. But whatever it was he'd just seen in his sleep was no dream. It had been... something else. An insight into another, far more tragic reality. He just knew it, down to his very bones. Every element had panned out in vivid detail, although already the specifics were fading from him like smoke in the wind. Steve was ultimately glad of that. It was a could-be world that he’d rather stayed forgotten, lost, just as his alternate self had intended. He found his mind settling on Elliot Redford, and for the first time since laying eyes on him, Steve felt something for the man that wasn’t just pure hatred. After all— it appeared the grief had driven Steve mad, too.

He shut his eyes and buried his head into the crook of Tony’s neck, just needing to feel him there. Deft fingers wrapped around Tony’s wrist, felt his heart. Slow, steady, real. Tony had died. Steve had followed shortly after. But they were both alive in the here and now. Whatever that had been, whatever alternate reality Steve had just seen… it was gone. It was over. It never had been at all.

He came to the conclusion that Tony would be better off not knowing what Steve now knew. It’d save them an argument, for one thing. And it’d save Steve having to refuse to promise Tony not to do that again, if the situation ever occurred.

Because he knew that would. In a heartbeat.

He tried to focus on the details, but they were already too far away for him to reach, whatever temporary link or final waves of frequency having dissipated for good. Underneath him, Tony shifted a little, aware of Steve’s movements. He hummed, mostly asleep. “You okay?” He slurred.

Steve nodded softly against his neck, remembered the flash of a memory that wasn’t quite his—the last thing that a version of Steve Rogers had seen before he’d died. It had been Tony’s eyes.

“Yeah,” he murmured with a note of finality, kissing Tony's cheek before settling back into the pillows, “Just a dream, was all.”