In the end it took Tony four and a half months to get back to Earth.
He was a little embarrassed, to be honest. Titan was a wasteland, but it was a wasteland full of some of the most interesting garbage Tony had ever seen. There was more than enough spaceworthy junk lying around to string together a spaceship. He built the first Iron Man suit in a cave with a box of scraps, after all.
According to Friday, Titan’s day was 31 hours long. “I always wanted more hours in the day,” Tony said. “Talk about ‘careful what you wish for’, right?”
But even with 31 hours, keeping himself alive took up too much time: there was so much stupid scavenging for food and water, and then sometimes he had to sleep too, which was annoying, but eventually he decided he was as ready as he’d ever be. Assuming lightspeed worked the way it seemed to, and if his calculations were correct, he’d only be in transit through space for a couple of hours. All that stood between him and home was the vastness of space and a trip in a broken down ship put back together by someone who hadn’t even finished his astrodynamics degree.
It wasn’t until moments before liftoff that Tony allowed himself to wonder, for the first time, if there was anything to go back to at all.
He started getting satellite pings as he cruised past Jupiter, but Tony knew it would take years for derelict satellites to fall out of orbit, so he didn’t release the breath he didn’t know he was holding until he heard over the commlink, “This is NASA ground control to unidentified alien spacecraft, please state your name and intent.”
“This is Tony Stark,” he said. “I’m in an alien ship, is everything okay down there?”
There was a silence.
“Ground control, do you read me?” Tony said. “I know that last round of negotiations on semiconductors for the ISS was brutal but I feel like we can get bygones be bygones, can I get a thumbs up or a thumbs down on Earth being in one piece?”
Another voice came on the line. “Mr. Stark, is that really you?”
“Hi, yeah, do you want my birthday and social security number, too?” Tony said. “I think the answer to my security question is ‘red Lamborghini’, hey, look, I have a spaceship I’m gonna need to land somewhere, can I talk to whoever’s in charge?”
“We don’t have any operational landing sites,” the second voice said. “How big is it?”
“You don’t have any operational landing sites?” Tony said. “What the hell is - ”
“It hasn’t been a priority,” the voice said.
“Look, I have an airstrip at my base in upstate New York, is upstate New York still there?”
He was joking, but the person on the other end of the line replied, “It’s there. You’re clear to enter the atmosphere and set down on your base if you’re able, Mr. Stark. NASA out.”
“Thanks for the warm welcome,” Tony grumbled. “All right, Friday, begin landing sequence and comm the base, let ‘em know I’m coming in, stage two deceleration, thirty seconds - ”
His landing was smoother than the last time he’d plopped a spaceship down on a planet, which just went to show that you could learn anything you set your mind to, and he was barely even shaking by the time he unfastened his seatbelt and headed for the hatch.
“Friday, start running scans on all the news reports I missed, get me an update on the state of, uh, everything, I guess, and get Pepper on the line, she probably thinks I’m dead, man is she gonna be pissed,” Tony said, pushing open the hatch and climbing down the ladder. Earth’s atmosphere pressed down on him: after weeks in a lower gravity environment, he felt a little wobbly, but it wasn’t anything he couldn’t get over with a little resistance training. He’d come back from worse, after all. “Is there anybody at the base?”
“Three heat signatures approaching from section 3, sir,” Friday said in his ear, and as Tony looked up to see two familiar forms barreling toward him and a third a few paces behind, he felt something that he would have recognized as being close to happiness if he’d had the energy.
“Hey,” Tony called out.
“Get your hands up!” Steve yelled as Natasha raised an AK-47 and Bruce rippled Hulk Green for a second before fading back to Bruce Pink.
“Careful where you point that thing, I’ve had a long day,” Tony said.
Steve’s pace faltered. “Tony?” he said.
“In the flesh,” Tony said, mustering up a grin as they skidded to a stop in front of him. “Hi. I was in space. How are you guys?”
“Tony,” Bruce said, and threw himself at Tony. “We thought you - ”
“Yeah, I almost did, a couple times,” Tony said. “Good to see you, buddy, is the rest of the gang here too?”
“Where were you?” Steve said.
“Place called Titan, wouldn’t recommend it as a vacation spot, so did you guys get pardoned, or - ”
“Something like that,” Natasha said, lowering her gun slowly. “What happened where you were?”
“Lotta people, uh,” Tony said, “didn’t make it. Thanos was - ”
“You saw Thanos?” Steve said. “When? Recently?”
“Months ago,” Tony said. “Right after it all started, not since - was he here too? What did he do? Where’s the rest of the team?”
Everyone looked away.
“Rhodey’s in Washington,” Bruce said, “and Thor’s off-planet.”
“And everybody else?” Tony said, fighting off the sick feeling in his stomach.
“They’re gone,” Steve said, meeting Tony’s eyes. “Half of everybody’s gone.”
Tony blinked. “It worked.”
“Yeah,” Steve said. “It worked.”
The grass was suddenly wet under Tony’s knees. “Tony,” Bruce was saying, “Tony, can you hear me?”
“It’s the gravity,” Tony said, his voice coming from very far away. “I’m still getting used to the gravity. It’s just the gravity.”
Tony’d had plenty of time, back on Titan, to think about things, but for the most part he’d stayed focused on the here and now: finding something for dinner. Figuring out which wire went into what port. The look on Peter’s face as he - no, nope, not that one, not if he could help it, not when he was awake.
He was a genius, but he’d had no idea what he’d been witnessing, when it happened. He knew Thanos had said he wanted to wipe away half the galaxy out of existence, and he’d seen almost everyone in front of him fade to nothing, but there were some things that even geniuses couldn’t process, and it turned out that 50% of humanity dying all at the same time was one of them.
Pepper was crying before she even got off the helicopter, and Tony held her for as long as she’d let him, listened as she vacillated between yelling at him and leaving snot on his shoulder. Bruce checked his vitals when he could get past Pepper and declared him “fine, considering”, and they all took turns filling him in.
“The first few weeks were ugly,” Natasha said.
Tony could imagine; he’d had a few ugly weeks of his own that he’d rather not reflect on, thank you very much. On Titan it was a vast and choking silence, but on Earth it had been mass chaos, and only exhaustion had ended it, because eventually, it turned out, people were just too tired to panic and despair and had to start living again.
On the one hand, the US was under martial law, boo, but on the other hand, the President was gone, which even his own party admitted was something of a blessing, so yay? Rhodey had gone to DC to plug the gaps in the Air Force’s chain of command, and Pepper had stepped gracefully into a sort of symbolic mayorship of New York City, ensuring that supplies were making it into the city, sending folks where workers were in demand and matching children with families. Steve and Natasha and Bruce were going wherever people were needed, which was everywhere, really.
“So,” Tony said when they petered out, “what’s the plan?”
Steve and Bruce and Natasha all glanced at each other. “We have a few things we’re working on,” Bruce said cautiously.
“Rhodey’s talking to the department of defense about our funding,” Natasha said.
“And NASA’s still in emergency mode,” Steve said, “but in the meantime we’ve been talking to Wakanda about a few options.”
“So what you’re telling me is you don’t have a plan,” Tony said.
“We’re working on it,” Natasha said. “Do you have a plan?”
“Plan’s probably too strong a word,” Tony said. “I have an idea, with a little water and sunlight and once I get over space lag it’ll become a plan - ”
“What is it?” Steve said, perking up.
“Wait,” Pepper said. “A plan for what?”
“A plan to find Thanos,” Tony said. “A plan to fix this.”
“Tony,” Pepper said, “we’re just trying to keep everyone alive. There’s no fixing - ”
“Are you serious?” Tony said. “I didn’t fly all the way home from outer space to sit around.”
“Sit around?” Pepper said, rearing back. “Is that what you think I’ve been doing? We’re all working around the clock to make sure people are getting enough food, keeping the water system working - ”
“Okay, okay,” Tony said, holding up his hands in defeat, “bad choice of words, I get it, but back on Titan, with - with the others, we almost had that gauntlet off his hand, we can do it again, we just have to - ”
“Tony,” Pepper said. “We’re still just trying to pick up the pieces, all right?”
“No, it’s not all right,” Tony snapped, and Pepper stepped back, startled. “Sorry. Jesus, Pep. I’m sorry. I haven’t - ”
“It’s okay,” Pepper said, pressing her forehead to his. “It’s okay, I know. It’s - ”
“Yeah,” Tony said.
“Let’s go home?” she whispered, and Tony just nodded. Bruce hugged him again (“You stink, man, what’s that about, I know they have showers in space”) as they headed toward the door, and then it was just Steve, leaning against the wall and staring at him.
“You hanging in there?” Tony said.
Steve shrugged. “We’re getting by. Listen, about - ”
“Look, all things considered, I don’t think it really matters that much,” Tony said.
“I’m glad you feel that way,” Steve said. “But still. I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, me too,” Tony said. “I was gonna call you, actually, but then I ended up having to go to space.”
“Bruce mentioned,” Steve said. “So you really carried that old flip phone around with you?”
He was smiling, just a little bit, just enough that you wouldn’t notice if you didn’t know him well, and Tony was momentarily surprised that he still considered himself someone who knew Steve Rogers well, but he said, “It wasn’t good for my image as a tech industry leader, but yeah, just in case of a rainy day. Or an alien one, I guess.”
Steve smiled for real that time and stuck his hand out. “I’m glad you’re back.”
“Same to you,” Tony said, and shook his hand, and then Steve was gone.
New York still wasn’t quiet.
Tony doesn’t know what he expected, but if he thought the streets would be empty he was wrong: New York was full of people, people who still honked their horns too much and talked too loudly on their cell phones and glared at anybody who walked too slowly. Traffic didn’t even seem any lighter.
But Tony could feel the weight of collective grief pressing down on the city as much as he could feel the increase in gravity, a physical, aching pressure in his bones. Everyone looked a little bit lost, like their own neighborhood had been rearranged overnight and they’d stepped out their front door onto a totally different street.
Most people didn’t know about Thanos, and nobody who did was particularly concerned about convincing anyone of his existence; there were more than enough theories to go around. Many people were sure it had been aliens; many others knew for certain that it was the Rapture. The Catholic Church’s official position was that God had taken the worthy and left behind the sinners; Tony wondered vaguely if that position would have been reversed had the pope himself not faded, ashes to ashes and dust to dust, on the altar of St. Peter’s. Fox News - because of course fucking Fox News was back up and running - aired debates on the topic daily.
There were mostly bad days for a while, and some were worse than others - the day Tony went to see Peter’s Aunt May and confirm for her what she’d already assumed; the day he flew out to see Clint, who’d lost his wife and was focused on nothing but making sure his three kids were fed and bathed and put to bed safely at night; the night he finally went through The List, as everyone called it, uppercase letters heavily implied, and read off Happy’s name, and Wanda’s, and Sam’s, and noted the absence of Vision, who never officially existed at all. Barnes was there too, and Tony, who’d once tried to murder the man with his own hands, couldn’t even bring himself to be grateful for it.
Pepper was busy - running an entire city was apparently a full time job - and everyone seemed to have been getting along just fine without Tony Stark, so for once in his life Tony Stark had to figure out how to occupy himself.
He flew out to DC to meet with Rhodey and the new President and the people at NASA to talk spacecraft and defense systems and even weapons, for the first time in a decade. He spent hours in the lab with Bruce, going over new alloys that could withstand direct solar exposure, taking apart every piece of tech Tony brought back from Titan, coming up with and discarding plans for superbots (because apparently some people never learn). He spent weeks at Stephen Strange’s Greenwich Village brownstone, trying not to set off the supernatural boobytraps that the sorcerer had left behind, scouring Strange’s files for everything he could find on the Infinity Stones.
He wasn’t hiding any of it from Pepper, because failing to tell somebody about something was not, in terms of the dictionary definition of the word, hiding something, but it turns out he’d been right to forget to mention it because one night Pepper snuck up behind him in the lab when Master of Puppets was playing too loudly for him to hear her until she said, “Is that a rocket?”
Tony cut the music and minimized the holo. “It’s a bunch of things.”
“But one of them is a rocket,” Pepper said. “To go to space.”
“What can I say, I got bit by the travel bug.”
“You still want to find him,” Pepper said. “You want to go after him.”
“Uh,” Tony said. “Yeah. He killed so many people, Pep, I can’t just - ”
“I can’t believe this,” Pepper said, “I can’t - I mean, I should believe it, because it’s you, and you can never leave anything alone - ”
“Why should I leave this alone?” Tony said, throwing his hands up. “There’s nobody else who can do it. Everyone who’s gone, everyone who’s not gone, they all need me to do it.”
“No, we need you to help get the world up and running again,” Pepper said. “There’s so much to do here, I can’t understand how you can focus on - on revenge!”
“It’s not about revenge,” Tony said. “How do we know he’s not going to show up and do it again? You want me to sit here and not try to figure out what to do if he comes back?”
“What makes you think you can stop him when you couldn’t the first time?” Pepper burst out.
There was a long silence.
“That’s fair,” Tony said finally.
Pepper winced. “Tony - I didn’t mean - ”
“No, no,” Tony said, “it really is. You’re completely right. I failed. And that’s why I have to keep trying. I owe it to them. I owe it to everybody.” He spun back to the holo and turned the music back up. “Which is why I have to get back to work.”
He stared at the screen until he heard Pepper leave.
“So I’ve been thinking,” Tony said.
“I rarely get a good feeling when I hear you say that,” Bruce said, pushing his glasses up his nose.
“It’s about the gauntlet,” Tony said. “Thor said it was specially designed to harness the power of the stones, that it was the only thing that possibly could. So that must mean that the gauntlet itself contains the energy signature of all six stones.” Tony picked up a power converter from the desk next to Bruce and tossed it up in the air. “Nothing else in the entire universe would register that kind of signature.”
“Sure,” Bruce said. “But even if we could develop a way to trace it, we don’t know anything about half the stones.”
“But,” Tony said, “we do know about three of them. And as far as we know, those three have never been used at the same time in the same place.”
“So,” Bruce said slowly, “if we can track the intersection of those three energy signatures and extrapolate the rest...”
“Then we can find the gauntlet,” Tony said.
Bruce swiveled to look at him. “So now we just have to figure out how to track it.”
“A few years ago I didn’t know how to fly and you didn’t know how a gamma radiation explosion would affect the human body,” Tony said. “Things change.”
“Isn’t that the truth,” Steve said, coming up behind Tony. “Anybody want pizza?”
Tony raised an eyebrow at the boxes in Steve’s arms. “You get pizza delivered from the city all the way out here?”
“I have a guy,” Steve said.
“He has a guy,” Tony repeated. “Of course he has a guy, it’s the end of the world but Steve has a guy. I’m just glad it wasn’t the end of pizza, I would have paid a million bucks for a slice of this back on Titan.”
“I don’t think my guy delivers there,” Steve said.
By Christmas, tourists had returned to New York, and apparently even the apocalypse didn’t stop tourists from thinking Times Square was the cultural center of the city. People were surprisingly resilient: the survivors had, by and large, pretty much picked up and gotten on with things as best they could, and apparently “as best they could” meant “taking pictures with guys in knockoff Iron Man costumes in front of Olive Garden.”
The Infinity Gauntlet had made its choices at random, as far as anyone could tell, which meant that on the macro scale there were still people who knew how to do everything: engineers and teachers and snow plow drivers, and at this point most of them had dragged themselves out of bed and gone back to work, even at the upstate New York New Avengers facility.
The base was dark - most of the former SHIELD agents and Stark Industries had gone home for Christmas to whatever family they had left - but the road was plowed and all the lights were on in section 3, including a single string of twinkling lights that adorned exactly one side of the living room’s big south-facing window.
“Love how you’ve decorated for the holidays,” Tony said as he entered off the balcony.
“When I bought it at CVS I thought I would it be longer,” Bruce said, frowning sadly at the display.
“Well luckily for you, I come bearing gifts.” Tony tossed a holoprojector onto the bar and called up his plans.
“Are those… space suits?” Steve said, stepping closer to peer at the holo.
“Bet you never thought you’d have your very own space suit when you were a kid,” Tony said.
“When I was a kid I wasn’t convinced I’d ever be able to afford to live in an apartment with electricity. At this point it’s hard to surprise me,” Steve said, spinning the hologram around. “What are they made of?”
“Same materials as my latest armor. Ever since the Chitauri I’ve been working on spaceworthy designs. These suits’ll keep you alive and breathing in space, they protect against 90% of radiation, and you each get your own color combo.”
“How thoughtful,” Natasha said. “Our very own Santa Claus.”
“I have the red suit, I can fly, what do you expect?” Tony said, pouring himself a drink. “So what’s for dinner, do we have a Christmas feast going or what?”
“Are you staying?” Bruce said.
“Yeah, of course I’m staying, why wouldn’t I be staying?”
Bruce glanced at Natasha, who said, “Shouldn’t you be with Pepper?”
Tony shrugged. “She had a thing. Charity, orphaned kids, you know how it is.” Again, the line between “lying” and “failing to mention” came in handy: the fact that he and Pepper had hardly spoken in weeks wasn’t exactly a cheerful subject for Christmas dinner. “I don’t cook, I know, shocker, but I can pour drinks while somebody else cooks.”
They didn’t have much in the kitchen - milk, cereal, a ton of pizza rolls because Totino’s had miraculously experienced basically no disruption to their supply chain - but Tony pulled it all out and grabbed paper plates and, slowly, they gathered around the table.
“Very traditional,” Bruce said, lifting a pizza roll in toast.
“Just like Jesus would have wanted it,” Tony said, pouring himself another scotch.
“At least there aren’t any rats,” Steve said.
“Or wigs,” Natasha said, and Steve shook his head and chuckled.
“Rats?” Bruce said, just as Tony said, “Wigs?”
“Last Christmas,” Natasha said, glancing at Steve, “we were in - ”
“Bangkok,” Steve said, “in this little apartment where the staircase was - ”
“Completely destroyed,” Natasha said. “We had to climb up and down a ladder out the back window, but it was cheap and most of us had lived in worse, so we made it work, but - ”
“But there were these rats,” Steve said. “Big rats, and Sam hates - Sam hated rats, and he kept saying - ”
“‘How the fuck are they even getting up here?’” Natasha said, in a passable imitation of Wilson. “‘There’s no stairs! We can barely get in!’”
“So on Christmas, Wanda brought home a chicken, and Sam’s cooking it in the kitchen and all of a sudden this rat runs by,” Steve said, “and it’s holding - ”
“It’s holding a wig,” Natasha said. “One of Wanda’s, because she never wanted to dye her hair, so we had a couple of them, and it was this bright blonde wig and this rat is just dragging it - ”
“And Sam takes one look at it and goes, ‘If this rat thinks that just because he’s dressed up he’s getting my chicken, he’s gonna be disappointed!’” Steve said, and he and Natasha looked at each other and burst out laughing, a real deep-down belly laugh like Tony hadn’t heard from either of them in - well, in years, it turned out, and before they knew it Tony and Bruce were laughing too, and laughing was just across the border from crying but it was Christmas, and they were together, and somehow, tonight, that was enough.
By the time Tony got home that night the penthouse was dark. He landed soundlessly on the balcony and slipped into the bedroom, where Pepper was curled up on her side of the oversized bed.
“You could have made an appearance,” she said, her voice icy as the sheets as he crawled in next to her.
“Nobody wants to see me,” Tony said. “I just remind everyone of how I couldn’t stop - ”
“It was a bunch of kids who lost their parents, Tony,” Pepper said. “They don’t give a shit about your God complex. Seeing Iron Man on Christmas would have made them happy, it would have made them feel safe.”
Tony stared at the ceiling, and he didn’t know if it was the months they’d been apart or the end of the world but somehow they didn’t speak the same language anymore. “I didn’t keep them safe before.”
“Have you ever stopped to consider that maybe not everything is about you?” Pepper twisted in the sheets, pulled them a little more tightly around her.
“Merry Christmas,” Tony said quietly, and Pepper didn’t reply.
If anybody noticed when Tony started spending his nights at the base rather than in the city, they didn’t say anything.
There was coffee in the pot every morning when Tony woke up and plenty of pizza rolls and nobody gave Tony a hard time about being up at weird hours because everybody else was up at weird hours too.
“Oatmeal?” Tony said. “I gotta say, Cap, that’s a pretty boring midnight snack.”
“I’m looking for something a little more filling than yours,” Steve said, glancing pointedly at the glass in Tony’s hand. “Also it’s not midnight.”
“Midnight, four in the morning, what’s the difference?” Tony said. “On Titan it was light for almost twenty hours a day, so I’m kind of over the whole day and night thing, not that I was much of an adherent in the first place.”
“How far away was it?” Steve said.
“What, Titan? About seventy light years.”
Steve took a thoughtful bite of oatmeal. “I have no idea how far that is.”
“It’s so far that I can’t think of anything to compare it to,” Tony said. “And I’m a genius, I can think of anything. With the technology we have on Earth it would take centuries to get back from there. I made it in six hours.” Tony shook his head. “I knew we weren’t the only ones out there, but man, we aren’t even close to the top of the food chain. We’re like galactic flyover country.”
“Not according to Thanos,” Steve said. “You’ve been researching the other stones, right?”
Tony shrugged. “Much as I can. Strange’s stuff is a little thin on a few of them, but yeah, I’m building up as clear a picture as I think we’re gonna get here on Earth.”
“One of them controls time, right?”
“I can see where this is going,” Tony said, “and no, I have no idea if we can use it to turn back the clock. Strange did it, but never over a period of months. It’s probably impossible.”
“That’s never stopped us before,” Steve said.
“Took the words right out of my mouth,” Tony said. “Well, if you’re getting up, that probably means I should be going to sleep.”
“Probably,” Steve said, and Tony threw back the rest of his glass and wandered back to his room and laid awake until the sun came up, and then he got up and started it all over.
It took Tony a couple weeks of living full time on the base to realize that Steve spent a lot of his evenings somewhere else.
Tony wasn’t keeping tabs on the rest of the team, but generally he knew where they were: Steve spent a lot of time with the National Guard, and Bruce was consulting with a number of different labs that had lost their lead researchers in the middle of dangerous experiments, and Natasha seemed to be single-handedly managing most of New York’s remaining politicians, and Tony knew all of that because they told him.
But Steve never talked about where he was going when he took off after dinner, and nobody ever asked, or at least Tony never asked; he and Steve were as on as good a terms as two people who’d once tried to kill each could be, but if he didn’t want to talk about how he was visiting a girlfriend in the city or going for long depressing walks in the woods by himself or whatever, Tony wasn’t going to push it.
So when he was taking a test flight in his newest suit one night that just happened to be around the time Steve usually left, and if he just happened to notice Steve getting on his bike and taking off toward the city, that wasn’t anybody’s fault, right? And anyway, he’d been meaning to head back to his lab at Stark Tower to get that thing that he’d left there when he’d packed up in a hurry, so really, he wasn’t following Steve, he was just going in the same direction almost entirely by accident.
Steve made it to New York in half an hour - turns out Captain America doesn’t follow posted speed limits, now there’s a surprise - and took the George Washington Bridge into the city. Tony would have lost him in traffic without Friday’s tracking assistance, which was useful but admittedly made it difficult to maintain the illusion that this was all a coincidence, and soon Steve was across the East River and into Brooklyn.
“He’s pulled into the parking lot of a high school, sir,” Friday said. “I believe he’s entering the school gym.”
“A high school?” Tony said. “I know he’s not actually a hundred, but I expected him to date a little closer to his age range - stealth mode, Friday, there we go - ”
It was almost 8 pm, and the school was quiet and dark, all the lights off except for the gym; Tony dropped down until he could hover just outside the windows.
The gym was crowded. One set of bleachers had been pulled out, and there were kids - teenagers, actually - everywhere, clustered in small groups, sharing ear buds and bursting into laughter that Tony couldn’t hear through the plate glass windows. Down by the door there was an older woman scooping food onto plates, and a group of girls was practicing what Tony could tell was going to be a very impressive dance routine once they got their timing down, and out on the basketball court in the middle of it all was Steve. Somebody tossed him the ball and he took a shot and missed, badly, but from the way the kids laughed Tony had a feeling it was part of a routine. They passed him the ball again, and he dribbled between his legs in the blink of an eye and passed it back twice as fast, but he never made a single basket.
It was as mesmerizing as it was baffling. Steve played for a while and then jogged off the court and came back with an armful of Gatorades that he handed out to the rest of the players; after that he helped the woman who’d been serving dinner clean up, and then he climbed up into the bleachers and sat in the middle of a group of girls who all had textbooks open on their laps.
Over the next hour most of the kids filtered out, waving to Steve or giving him high fives on the way out the door. Tony hovered until the last kids were gone and Steve turned off the lights and headed out to the parking lot, where Tony dropped down to wait for him.
“So when did you notice me?” Tony asked as Steve walked up to him.
“About half a mile from the base,” Steve said dryly, pulling out his keys. “Might want to work on your stealth tracking.”
“I’ll have Friday make a note,” Tony said. “So is this like a Big Brothers Big Sisters thing? Who’s in charge here?”
“Nobody’s in charge. The kids just show up.”
“But why - ”
“They don’t have parents anymore,” Steve said. “We could get them placed, there are people willing to take them, group homes, but this is where they grew up, their friends are here, and you can’t really make 16 year olds do anything even under the best of circumstances, so - ” Steve shrugged.
“So they’re alone?” Tony said.
“They come here so they don’t have to be,” Steve said.
“And why do you come?”
“Same reason,” Steve said shortly. “You done with the interrogation?”
Tony opened his mouth, then closed it. “I wasn’t - ”
“I know.” Steve shook his head. “But if you wanted to know where I was going, you didn’t have to follow me, you know. You could have just asked.”
“Talking can get weird,” Tony said. “Stalking’s much easier.”
Steve laughed and pulled on his helmet. “See you at home.”
“Sure,” Tony said, and watched him ride away.
“So I’ve been thinking about space,” Bruce said.
“That’s cool,” Tony said. “Pass the salt?”
“I thought you were on a low-sodium diet,” Natasha said.
“Wow, and you know what is not helping me hit my diet goals? All the judgment I’m feeling in this room,” Tony said, catching the salt shaker as Natasha whipped it across the table.
“We’re planning to go there, right?” Bruce said. “Space, I mean.”
“Unless Thanos starts returning our calls, I’m assuming we’re gonna have to.”
“There are a lot of people out there who might want to help us,” Bruce said. “People he did this to, people who want to find him.”
Tony raised his eyebrows. “You got contacts out there?”
“Not exactly,” Bruce said. “But the Other Guy might. He was… kind of in charge, most of the time we were there.”
“Think we can get him to share with the class?” Steve said.
Bruce pushed his pasta around his plate uncomfortably. “That remains to be seen. I think he’s… pissed.”
“Isn’t he always pissed?” Tony said. “I thought that was, like, his whole thing.”
“It used to be,” Bruce said. “Until he decided he doesn’t want to come out anymore.”
“When we go and knock on Thanos’ door, I’m not sure he’s gonna have much of a choice,” Tony said.
Bruce shrugged. “Let’s hope not.”
Tony was about to open his mouth, because “let’s hope not” wasn’t exactly what you wanted to hear from the guy who was ostensibly in charge of the Hulk, but Bruce continued, “But even if he did, we’d need to be able to communicate with other planets.”
“You know what’d be real helpful right about now?” Tony said. “Having a friend from outer space. Oh wait, we do.”
“I’ve sent Thor like a million Facebook messages,” Bruce said. “I don’t think he’s checking them.”
“Thor is the only person in the entire galaxy who uses Facebook messenger as his primary form of communication, and even he doesn’t actually use it,” Tony said.
“There’s got to be a better way to reach him,” Steve said.
“We’ll add it to the list,” Natasha said.
“What list?” Tony said.
“The list of problems we don’t know how to solve,” Natasha said. “It’s long.”
“Can we add a low-sodium dinner that actually tastes good?” Tony said.
The thing about the end of the world was that it could hit you when you weren’t expecting it.
Tony woke up every day with an acute awareness of it, and usually a hangover, too, but he didn’t have moments where he suddenly remembered, because he never forgot. The change in the world was like a second heartbeat thrumming in Tony’s ears, so constant and unavoidable that he could almost ignore it for seconds at a time, then minutes, and eventually hours -
- until, suddenly, he couldn’t.
It was a mis-sorted file, of all things: a scribbled down idea for a Spiderman suit with a grenade defense system embedded in the shoulder pads and suddenly it was on projected in his lab, larger than life, with all of Peter’s stats floating next to a picture of the kid.
“Delete file,” Tony said.
The image flickered and disappeared.
“Friday, go through my records and remove everything related to Peter Parker,” Tony said.
“But sir,” Friday said.
“I’m sorry,” Tony said loudly, pushing away from the desk, “did it sound like this was a conversation? Delete it all, now.”
“Yes, sir,” Friday said.
Tony crossed to the bar and poured himself a drink. He threw it back with a scowl, because Jesus, he was acting like a goddamn caricature of himself, and when slammed the glass down it didn’t even crack. Pathetic. He swept his arm across the bar and knocked everything off until it shattered satisfyingly on the floor.
“Targets,” he said. “Set ‘em up, Friday.”
His latest gauntlet prototype was built to work in zero G and mask its own heat signature, but all it needed to do now was break things, and it did that just fine: targets, but also desks and lab tables, those spinny chairs Bruce preferred, a speaker, a model of a miniaturized jetpack, two windows, something that on second glance definitely belonged to Bruce, sorry about that Bruce, and look, Tony designed this place, it’s not like that wall was load bearing or anything -
Tony didn’t lower his hand; across the room, a whiteboard burst into interestingly small pieces. “You need something, Cap?”
“What the hell are you doing?”
“Stress tests,” Tony said.
Glass crunched as Steve took a step forward. “Looks like you’re destroying your lab.”
“Destruction is a necessary part of the creative process.”
“Is there a version of the process that requires in a little less clean-up?”
“Hey, how many miles did you run today, Steve?” Tony said. “Twenty? Thirty? You get any further from what you’re running away from? Cause when you do, that’s when you can come in here and tell me how to act.”
He turned back to his targets and hit one with a beam so bright that it flooded the whole lab with light in the second before it exploded.
“You probably forgot this,” Steve said after the echoing blast died down, “but I lived through the end of the world once before. It was only my world that time, which was admittedly a little different, but I learned a few things about what helps and what doesn’t.”
“Is this a pep talk? Am I getting a certified Captain America lecture right now? This is a dream come true.”
“I’m trying to tell you that if you get tired of blowing things up and want to try something else, there are people here who would be willing to talk,” Steve said.
Tony whirled around. He didn’t realize he was moving forward until his hand was at Steve’s throat and Steve’s back was against the wall. “Don’t come down here and try to tell me how to deal with this. You have no fucking idea what it was like to - ”
Steve grabbed his wrist and twisted, and then it was Tony’s back to the wall and Steve’s elbow across his chest, pinning him like he was a paper doll. “It might be hard for you to believe, but I do have an idea what it was like, Tony. We all do. And you can deal with it however the hell you want, you can smash things as much as you need to, but I won’t let you hurt yourself doing it.”
“Hurt myself?” Tony said, laughing. “How the hell could I - ”
Steve grabbed his wrist and pulled it up, and - oh. The prototype gauntlet had gouged into his palm. Blood ran down his forearm and dripped onto the floor.
Tony wrenched his hand from Steve’s and twisted his bloody fingers into the front of Steve’s t-shirt. “You don’t need to worry about me, Cap. I’ve been the one picking up the pieces for as long as I can remember. I’m used to it.”
“I never said I was worried about you,” Steve said, narrowing his eyes. “Should I be?”
Tony was opening his mouth to say something that, seriously, it was gonna be good, it was gonna cut Cap real deep, but then -
- but then Steve leaned forward and kissed him, a press of lips so quick that Tony would have thought he’d hallucinated it if not for the hint of a flush on Steve’s cheeks when he pulled back.
“What the hell was that?” Tony choked out.
“Just wanted to surprise you,” Steve said, his gaze guarded.
“Mission accomplished,” Tony said, and pulled him in again.
Their mouths met messily, too much teeth and not enough caution. Steve kissed like he fought, a master tactician, every swipe of tongue designed to inflict as much damage as possible. Tony was almost sure he could taste blood.
Steve still had Tony pinned up against the wall, so Tony used it to his advantage; he slipped a finger through Cap’s belt loop and used gravity to pull him down until he could get some friction and oh, yes, Howard’s files had been correct, the Vita Rays definitely hadn’t an adverse effect on -
“Hang on,” Steve gasped, and a gap opened up between them as Steve wrenched himself away.
“Well,” Tony said into the silence, “that was - ”
But Steve put up a hand. “Get yourself cleaned up.”
“What?” Tony said. “Oh, my hand? That’s - ”
“Just do it,” Steve said, backing away. “You should - ”
And then he was gone.
“Damn it,” Tony said, letting the back of his head slam against the wall. “Aaaand now I have to clean all this up. With a hard-on. Fantastic.”
“You have my sympathies, sir,” Friday said.
Kissing a friend was something Tony was familiar with.
Kissing an enemy was something Tony was also familiar with. (The 90s were a weird time.)
Kissing somebody who had once tried to kill him but now made sure he got first dibs on the only halfway decent meat lovers pizza that had survived the apocalypse was… new, even to Tony, who prided himself on having done everything, most of it twice.
What did you say to the friend-turned-traitor-turned-sorta-friend-again who you made out with and then thought about afterwards in the shower during an embarrassingly speedy orgasm?
“Smoothie?” Tony settled on.
Steve paused, just for a fraction of a second, and then crossed the threshold into the kitchen. “I’m good,” he said, opening the fridge.
“You sure? Because I can make extra, no problem.”
“Yup,” Steve said.
“If you say so,” Tony said. “I might make it anyway. I can leave it in the fridge for you, even - ”
“Tony,” Steve said, slamming the fridge shut.
“What!” Tony said. “I’m being normal, I’m being a normal person offering you a normal smoothie, it’s not like I only make smoothies for people I’ve kissed - ”
“Oh my God,” Steve said, pinching the bridge of his nose.
“Sorry, sorry, are we not mentioning it?” Tony said. “Is that the route we’re going? It’s just that I find it can be weirder not to talk about it - ”
“All right, let’s get it over with,” Steve said. “Go ahead.”
“Go ahead what?” Tony said. “I just offered to make you a smoothie. Was there a follow up?”
“You’re going to give me a hard time.”
Tony was genuinely baffled, which, if he did say so himself, was rare. “Why would I do that?”
“Because I kissed you.”
“Uh,” Tony said. “Yeah, I was there. I recall. Vividly. Pretty sure it was mutual.”
“But I started it,” Steve said.
“And I participated,” Tony said. “Enthusiastically. Are we really going to do this?”
“Do what?” Steve said, exasperated.
“This thing where we pretend it shouldn’t have happened because it’s awkward, et cetera et cetera, or can we skip right to the part where we do it again?”
“Is that an option?” Steve said faintly.
“Yeah, fuck this,” Tony said, and then he crossed the room, pulled Steve down by the neck, and kissed him.
“We shouldn’t,” Steve said around Tony’s tongue, “in the - ”
“Kitchen,” Tony murmured, “agreed, my room or yours?”
“Yours,” Steve said, “closer, it’s - ”
“There’s that strategic mind they’re always raving about,” Tony said, pulling Steve into his room and yanking off his shirt all in one extremely smooth motion.
“This is crazy,” Steve said.
“Sorry, are you talking to me?” Tony said. “I can’t hear you because I’m distracted by, um - ” and he waved at Steve’s shirtless chest, “ - that. It’s not that crazy. We’ve both done crazier things. You crashed a plane into the ocean once, that was crazy.” Tony slid his hand into Steve’s hair. “But I can think of a few crazy things we can try, if you’re interested.”
“That was cheesy,” Steve said, pushing him toward the bed.
“Lies,” Tony said. “That’s defamation, I am not cheesy, I’m extremely suave - ”
And then, and this worked out for everyone involved, Steve shut him up for a while.
Steve was still there when Tony woke up the next morning.
That was cool. It’s not like Tony wanted Steve to hit it and quit it. Right? He hadn’t really thought much about it either way, but now that he was thinking about it, he was totally fine with that. It wasn’t a big deal at all -
“Morning,” Steve said, blinking awake and effectively interrupting Tony’s slight mental breakdown.
“Hi,” Tony said. “You stayed.”
“You said I could,” Steve pointed out.
“Yeah, but I kind of thought you’d sneak out in the night anyway.”
“I seem like someone who sneaks out in the night?”
“I don’t really know what you seem like,” Tony admitted. “I tend to sneak out in the night, maybe I’m projecting.”
Steve rolled out of bed. Ah, Tony loved the view of supersoldier ass in the morning. “You didn’t sneak out last night.”
“We’re in my room,” Tony pointed out.
Steve pulled on his briefs, which was mildly disappointing. “You coulda found a way.”
“I can, and I have,” Tony said. “So do you tend to sleep with people you hate? Because I gotta say, that’s not healthy.”
“I don’t hate you,” Steve said.
“No, it’s a good thing,” Tony said. “Hate sex is totally hot, everybody knows that - ”
“Tony,” Steve said. “I don’t hate you.”
“Yeah, I don’t hate you either.” Tony blew out a breath. “But I’m trying to give you an out here, Spangles. You sure you don’t want to take it?”
“An out?” Steve said. “Sorry, did I miss the part where you traded me for a milk cow? I’m pretty sure I can get out whenever I want.”
“Well, sure,” Tony said. “I just thought - I don’t know what I thought. I’d still be down if it was hate sex, for the record.”
“I know you would,” Steve said. “See you at breakfast?”
“Make me a smoothie,” Tony yelled after Steve’s retreating form, and Steve ignored him.
“I have good news and I have bad news,” Tony said. “Which do you want first?”
“I think we could all use some good news,” Bruce said.
“Isn’t it usually better to start with bad news?” Steve said, frowning.
“Psychologically, yes,” Natasha said. “But in this case, we might want to break the streak.”
“Then again,” Bruce said, “if we finish with bad news, we’ll just start a new streak - ”
“Guys, a little focus, please?” Tony said. “You’re worse than my board of directors. The ship I brought here is ready to go back to space.”
“Really?” Bruce said. “But what about the fuel issue?”
“So remember how when we strung together the elemental byproducts of the fuel left over in the injector when I got here, and there was - ”
“Almost a minor nuclear meltdown?” Bruce said. “I remember.”
“Me too,” Steve said dryly.
“Well,” Tony said, “it turns out, if you depolarize the non-carbon components at infra-low temperatures, you can - ”
“Neutralize the extra energy!” Bruce said, his eyes lighting up.
“Uh, yeah,” Tony said. “Kinda stole my thunder there, big guy.”
“So you made more of the fuel?” Steve interpreted.
“About one picosecond’s worth, yeah,” Tony said. “A ship that size, we need enough to leave orbit and then some, which, at the current rate of production, would take… about thirty years.”
“That’s the bad news, I’m guessing,” Natasha said.
Tony pulled the cork out of a bottle of scotch. “I have some calls out to the leading chemists, but messing with alien fuels at the subatomic level isn’t exactly something they teach at MIT.”
“Do you think if we reversed the charge immediately after cooling, we could speed up the re-integration process?” Bruce said.
“I think we’d have to use nuclear energy to find out. Wanna go try?”
“Definitely,” Bruce said.
Tony threw back his scotch and grabbed the bottle. “See you kids later. We have a nuclear reaction to get to.”
“You wanna leave that here?” Steve said, looking meaningfully at the bottle of scotch.
“Uh, no,” Tony said.
“Because I get anxious if it’s not in arm’s reach?”
Steve crossed his arms. “I get that functional alcoholism is part of your whole schtick, but - ”
“I’m sorry, my schtick?” Tony said. “I don’t have a schtick, I’m having a drink because I’m a grown man who enjoys a celebratory glass of hundred year old scotch once in a while - ”
“More like a bottle,” Steve said.
“ - which is entirely my business, and by the way, I just managed to modify an alien spaceship to break atmo using depolarized non-carbon based fuel, so clearly I’m doing perfectly fine.”
“How many have you had today?” Steve said.
“Are you serious?”
“Are you seriously drinking before you go back to work on an unstable nuclear experiment?” Steve said, throwing up his hands.
“You worry too much, Cap,” Tony called over his shoulder as he headed toward the lab. “It’ll age you prematurely, you’re gonna start looking 150 ahead of your time.”
Natasha turned to Bruce. “Well, that was the shortest honeymoon period in recorded history.”
“The shortest - ” Tony whirled on Steve. “Did you tell her?”
“She figured it out,” Steve said.
“There are four of us,” Natasha said. “It wasn’t that hard.”
“Unbelievable,” Tony said.
“Any luck speeding up the fuel production?”
“It’s the most complex atomic process I’ve ever seen. An entire lab’s worth of chemical engineers wouldn’t be able to even understand the equations in a semester of study.” Tony glanced up from his holo-keyboard. “Give it a couple days, I’ll figure it out.”
Steve snorted. “For once, I hope your arrogant bullshit is right.”
“I’m going to take that as the compliment I know it is not,” Tony said, spinning to face Steve. “You need something?”
“Just coming to see if you’re mad about Natasha knowing about what happened,” Steve said.
“Cap, my life has been front page news since I was in utero, I don’t care who Nat and Bruce think I’m playing hide the sausage with,” Tony said. “If I was going to be mad at you, there are plenty of other things I’d focus on.”
“Like the fact that you apparently think I’m an alcoholic?” Tony said. “A couple other things, too, but we’ve agreed not to dwell on them and I think that’s been going pretty well for everybody.”
“I didn’t really mean it as a criticism,” Steve said. “If I could get drunk, I’d probably be an alcoholic by now too.”
“Well that got dark fast,” Tony said.
Steve stepped forward until he was pressing up against Tony’s thigh. “Maybe just don’t drink around things that could blow up the whole state?”
“I don’t. Usually. But I’ll make that always. Just for you, special favor.”
“So if you’re not mad that Natasha knows,” Steve said, “does that mean...”
Tony slid a hand around Steve’s waist. “What do you want it to mean?”
“I was hoping it meant last night wasn’t a one night only kind of thing,” Steve said.
“I think we can probably make some kind of arrangement,” Tony said, pulling until Steve leaned down and kissed him.
Steve, presumably on purpose because he was an asshole, waited until the exact moment that Tony was too turned on to manage anything beyond basic differentiation to pull back and say, “I should let you get back to work.”
“Mean,” Tony said. “You’ll pay for that, Rogers.”
Steve backed away with a shit-eating grin. “I look forward to it.”
Another Monday, another congressional hearing.
“Mr. Stark,” the Congressman from Connecticut said, “what can you tell us about your time away from Earth?”
Tony leaned forward until he was too close to the microphone. “I was in space.”
“All right,” the Congressman from Connecticut said, smiling benignly, “then what can you tell us about space?”
Tony leaned forward again. “It’s big.”
“According to your report,” the Congressman from Florida said before his colleague could continue, “you spent more than four months on a planet you call Titan.”
“Uh, I don’t call it that, that’s what it’s called,” Tony said.
“And you learned that from...”
“Aliens,” Tony said. “And one half-alien half-human.”
“Mmm,” the Congressman from Florida said. “And was it a coincidence that you left Earth less than a day before the Incident?”
“I left Earth on a spaceship that had shown up to steal a rock that eventually made the Incident possible,” Tony said. “So I’d say only an idiot would think that was a coincidence.”
There was a ripple of muffled laughter in the room. The Congressman from Florida blinked several times in rapid succession. “Mr. Stark, is it not true that per the Sokovia Accords, you were permitted to retain your Iron Man armor and the right to use it in exchange for your agreement to operate in a law enforcement capacity only under the direction of the UN or its delegates?”
“I’m sorry, but do none of you have Twitter? There was a spaceship over Washington Square Park. The Sokovia Accords expressly allow for immediate response in an emergency, and anyway they’ve been suspended, so is this really a good use of anyone’s time? I’m sure you all have better things to do than ask me the same questions I’ve answered a dozen times already - run the country, maybe?”
“Half the country, Mr. Stark,” the congressman from Connecticut said icily. “And the suspension of the Sokovia Accords is under review, which you and your colleagues - ” and here he glanced at the first row, “ - may want to keep in mind.”
“If it is really the case that the Incident was caused by an alien, as you claim,” the Congressman from Texas said, “and if you were aware of the threat to Earth, then why weren’t you able to stop it?”
“As I testified a few months ago, there were factors outside of my control - ”
“Ah, yes,” the Congressman from Texas said, glancing down at his notes. “You’ve mentioned. I just find it interesting, Mr. Stark, that you managed to be away from Earth and the resulting catastrophe.”
Tony stared at him. “I’m sorry,” he said, “are you trying to say you think I caused this?”
“I’m sure I’m not,” the Congressman from Texas said.
“Because as much as I appreciate the implication that I’m that powerful, you’re barking up the wrong tree,” Tony said. “We need to focus on what we do now, because what we learned last year is that Earth’s defenses are weak. You’re right, I couldn’t stop him, but I’m doing everything I can to stop it from ever happening again.”
“And I’m sure the American people appreciate the effort,” the Congressman from Texas said. “Unfortunately, Mr. Stark, it is much too little too late.” He glanced left and right. “I think that’ll be all for today. Thank you for your time.”
The door to Tony’s suite creaked open. “Hey.”
Tony blinked his way back to consciousness and immediately regretted it. In the time since he’d gotten home, he had thrown back several dirty martinis, set off a minor controlled explosion, eaten a handful of Totino’s pizza rolls, thrown up a handful of Totino’s pizza rolls, sent several ill-advised texts to Pepper that Friday had hopefully deleted off her phone before she saw them, and, apparently, passed out facedown on his bed. “What?”
Quiet footsteps, then a dip as Steve lowered himself onto the bed. “Just thought I’d say hi.”
“Success,” Tony said. “Anything else?”
“So you’re just gonna sit there in the dark?”
“Do you want me to leave?”
“I honestly don’t give a shit.”
“That’s what I thought,” Steve said; the bed shifted as he rearranged.
They laid in silence for a while.
“You don’t have to stay,” Tony said into his pillow.
A hand carded through Tony’s hair. “I know.”
“As long as you know,” Tony said, and his head was pounding and his stomach was churning but eventually, and to his complete surprise, he fell back asleep.
“I had lunch with Pepper today,” Natasha said.
Tony dumped his blender into the sink with what was perhaps, in retrospect, a louder than necessary clatter. “Oh?”
“Nothing to do with you,” Natasha assured him. “She thinks someone in her chain of command is redirecting government supplies to the black market and she asked me to look into it.”
“Is she right?”
“She is. But she won’t be for long,” Natasha said.
“Atta girl,” Tony said. “So how’s she doing?”
“Fine,” Natasha said. “I didn’t tell her you were sleeping with Steve, but I’m sure I could let it slip if you wanted. As rebounds go, he’s pretty impressive.”
“He’s not a - ” Tony started, and then cut himself off when he saw Natasha’s smirk. “Fuck you. We’re not having this conversation.”
“Aren’t we?” Natasha said. “Because it kind of seems like we are.”
“I’m not sleeping with Steve to make Pepper jealous.”
“I never said you were,” Natasha said. “In fact, I have a different theory.”
“Yeah,” Natasha said. “I think you actually like him.”
And Natasha smiled, turned on her heel, and headed down the hall.
“You come up with that all on your own?” Tony called after her.
“Deflecting with sarcasm,” Natasha said over her shoulder. “Very creative.”
“Steve, I don’t bend that way,” Tony said, gasping for breath.
Steve pushed his hair out of his face and looked up at Tony with a grin. “You can try.”
“You are gonna kill me,” Tony groaned. “I’ve been stabbed, blown up, poisoned, and sent to space but you and your 99 year old libido are going to be the last straw, I swear to god - ”
There was a crash of thunder so loud that the whole base shook. Tony turned to Steve with wide eyes. “Speaking of, is it just me or did that sound an awful lot like…”
There was a scramble for clothes, and by the time they made it out the door Bruce and Natasha were already out on the lawn exchanging hugs with, yup, that was Thor.
“Long time no see, Point Break,” Tony called out, and Thor whirled around.
“Tony!” Thor yelled delightedly. “We thought you were dead!”
“I could say the same to you,” Tony said, graciously allowing Thor to scoop him up into a hug because he absolutely had a choice in the matter. “Oh, wow, you really are a raccoon.”
“He prefers rabbit, actually. Raccoon is considered a bit rude,” Thor said, setting Tony down. “Rocket, this is Tony Stark. He’s another Avenger I thought was dead.”
“You the one with the cape?” the raccoon said, squinting up at him.
“Uh, no,” Tony said.
“Got bit by some kind of insect?”
“He’s got a suit of iron,” Thor said.
“Oh,” Rocket said. “One of the boring ones.”
“Uh,” Tony said.
“What have you been up to?” Natasha interrupted. “Any news?”
“The universe is in a terrible state,” Thor said gravely, leading the way into the compound. “Thanos’s reign of terror was incomprehensible in its magnitude and has left destruction at a scale unknown in all the millennia of memory of my people. Oh, when did you get a Keurig machine?”
“Couple weeks ago,” Bruce said. “We decided it’s more convenient than making a whole pot. Any idea where Thanos is?”
“We got a couple of leads,” Rocket said, springing up onto the counter and grabbing an apple; Tony winced at his bare feet. “All signs say that he’s in the Kree empire, but somebody insisted we visit Earth and see if anybody wanted to tag along.”
“It was me,” Thor said. “I was the somebody.”
“Tag along?” Tony said. “To the, sorry, was that the Kree empire - that sounds made up, by the way - to hunt down Thanos? I’m in.”
“Wonderful,” Thor said.
“Hang on a second,” Steve said.
“Hang on what?” Tony said. “Now that Thor’s here we don’t need the fuel for the ship, we have the Bifrost - ”
“Thor, can you really take all of us?” Steve said.
Thor considered it. “Almost certainly. There’s the slight possibility that someone could get lost, but - ”
“Details, details,” Tony said. “When do we leave?”
Thor looked up from the selection of K-cups. “Three days. What’s left of Xandar’s Nova Corps is meeting us there, along with a few Asgardians, some Ravagers, and the High Priestess of the Sovereign.”
“I have no idea what any of that means, but I’m excited,” Tony said.
“Me too,” Natasha said. She glanced meaningfully at the raccoon, who was leaving little bits of apple all over Tony’s quartz countertops. “Rocket, we have some bad news.”
Rocket glanced around at each of them suspiciously. “Oh yeah?”
Tony cleared his throat. “I was with your friends on Titan. They didn’t make it.”
Rocket took another bite; the apple sprayed literally everywhere. “Yeah, I heard. We ran into Nebula when we were looting Xandar.”
“Looking for supplies,” Thor said loudly. “It wasn’t looting. We weren’t looting.”
“I was looting,” Rocket said. “She told me they bit the dust.” He looked down at his apple core and inspected it for any fruit that was left. “Did they, uh - did it seem like it hurt, or - ”
“It was fast,” Tony said quickly. “I don’t think they even knew what happened.”
“Lucky them,” Rocket said, jumping off the counter. “You said you got a ship here?”
“More or less,” Tony said. “I put it together from wrecks on Titan.”
“But we don’t have enough fuel to get it out of our own solar system, much less all the way to the Kree empire,” Bruce said.
“I can take a look,” Rocket said, following Bruce and Natasha toward the hangar. “I’m gonna need some fuel cables, the biggest battery you got, and a pair of women’s underwear.”
“He doesn’t need that last one,” Thor called after them. “Tony, it’s good to see you, but you look like our arrival interrupted you in the midst of a personal moment. Is Ms. Potts here?”
“Uh, no,” Tony said, while Steve looked around the room innocently. “No, we’re not - nope. Just me. All by myself. Cue Celine Dion.”
“A private moment, then. No shame in that, friend!” Thor clapped Tony on the shoulder. “I would shake your hand, but it seems that perhaps I better not. See you in the morning.”
“Yeah, night,” Tony said, waiting until Thor had disappeared down the hall to turn to Steve. “How come he thinks I was having sex but didn’t think you were?”
“You have sex hair.”
“You’re just telling me this now? Wow, thanks for looking out,” Tony said. “So Rocket’s actually a raccoon.”
“Did you think we were making it up?” Steve said.
“I guess I thought he was maybe raccoon-like?”
“I’m not sure we could have been any clearer than ‘he’s a raccoon’.”
“Yeah, that one’s on me.”
Thor’s plan went something like this:
- Go to the Kree Empire
- Find Thanos
- Hit him in the face this time
“And what makes you think it’s gonna work this time?” Natasha asked.
“Did you not hear step 3?” Thor said.
“He won’t be expecting us,” Rocket said. “And this time we’ll have a little help from a few actually advanced species.”
“Hey, now,” Tony said.
“No, he’s right, Tony, we are crazy behind,” Bruce said. “It’s like the stone age around here. It’s embarrassing, actually - ”
“All right, we get it, thanks for the planetary loyalty,” Tony muttered. “What about the time stone?”
“We’ll destroy it, along with the rest,” Thor said.
“What if instead we used it to turn back time and bring everyone back?” Tony said.
“The stones are not to be trifled with,” Thor said. “It was foolishness to think they could be hidden or protected, and we paid dearly for our arrogance.”
“Strange’s people protected the time stone for generations,” Tony argued. “We could use it just like they did.”
“If we had any idea how it works,” Natasha said.
“And since we don’t, we could end up disrupting the entire space-time continuum,” Bruce said, looking uncomfortable.
“Or rip a hole in the fabric of the universe,” Thor said. “It’s too dangerous.”
“Just give me some time with it,” Tony said. “A few days, and if I can’t figure it out, you can blow it up.”
Thor laid a hand on Tony’s shoulder. “I understand your urge to change the past; there is part of me that wishes to do the same. But stronger men than us have failed to control the stones and have instead allowed the stones to control them. I will not allow you to join their ranks.”
“We could bring everyone back,” Tony said. “Isn’t that worth a little risk?”
“And how far would you go, Tony?” Thor said. “You’d turn back time and stop Thanos. But what about before that? Would you undo Ultron? My brother and the Chitauri? Your kidnapping? How much of the world will you take apart and remake according to your own vision?”
“As much as I need to,” Tony said.
Thor narrowed his eyes. “Then maybe you should stay behind.”
“He’s got a point, Thor,” Rocket said. “If the wizard used it, why can’t we? We’ll test it out, no harm no foul - ”
“I’m not sure it’s entirely up to us,” Natasha said. “If we take down Thanos with help, everyone who’s involved could want a say in what happens to the stones.”
“So we might be about to start a whole new war,” Bruce said.
“Which is exactly why we should destroy them immediately,” Thor said.
“That’s just like a monarchist to make a unilateral decision for the rest of the universe,” Tony said.
“Enough,” Steve said. “Thor’s right - the stones are dangerous. We’ve seen what they can do, and we don’t want to see it again. Tony, we have to destroy them.”
Tony looked around to ascertain that, yup, no one except Rocket, an actual raccoon, was on his side. “Fine,” he said shortly, holding up his hands in forced surrender. “If that’s how it’s gonna be, that’s fine. I’ll keep myself out of trouble so nobody has to worry about me becoming a time traveling supervillain. Let me know when you figure out a plan.”
“Tony,” Bruce said, but Tony was already gone.
Tony was embarrassingly deep into AC/DC’s catalogue when Steve turned up in his lab and said, “Friday, can you turn that down?”
“I know what you’re thinking: what are the kids listening to these days?” Tony said.
“It all sounds the same to me,” Steve played along.
“That’s a lie, Natasha told me you love Hamilton.”
“I’m not ashamed of loving Hamilton,” Steve said. He leaned against the table that held Bruce’s optimistically-expandable spacesuit and looked at Tony seriously. “Nobody thinks you’re going to turn into a supervillain.”
“Uh, newsflash, Cap, yeah they do,” Tony said. “Even I think that sometimes. But if you’re here to tell me I have to stay behind on our little tour of the Kree empire, we’re gonna have a problem.”
“I’m actually here to tell you that we all agree that we want you to be there, as long as you can agree you’re not going to do something reckless.”
“Something reckless? You mean something like, I don’t know, flying a plane into the ocean? Oh, or maybe something like getting thrown out of a helicarrier? No, no, what about taking on a giant purple maniac with your bare hands? Spare me the hypocrisy, Stars and Stripes,” Tony said, spinning away from Steve.
Steve grabbed the back of his chair and spun him back, hard. “Do you think I don’t think about taking the stone and undoing all of it? You don’t think I’ve thought of that every day since we knew it existed? There’s nobody in the world who knows more about what it would mean to turn back time, Tony. I lost 75 years of it. I know exactly why you want to do it.” He leaned back. “And that’s why I don’t want to be able to. People aren’t supposed to be able to rewrite history so it turns out the way they want it to. We know what happens when one person holds that kind of power.”
“I don’t want that power,” Tony said. “I just want to fix this.”
“I know,” Steve said. “But that would mean letting that kind of power exist.”
“Tony,” Steve said, looking pained. “Please. Please don’t make me - stop you.”
“Is that a threat?” Tony said.
“I don’t want it to be,” Steve said. “I’ve lost a lot of people, Tony. I don’t want to lose you too.”
“But you will, if you have to,” Tony said.
Steve didn’t reply.
Tony cleared his throat and spun away. “Got it.”
Steve laid a hand on Tony’s shoulder. “I - ”
Suddenly, an alarm wailed. Tony glanced up at the ceiling. “Friday, is that what I think it is?”
“Call’s coming in from the police, boss,” Friday said. “They’re hoping the Avengers can make an appearance.”
Tony looked at Steve. “So am I still on the roster?”
“You are if I am,” Steve said.
“In that case,” Tony said, standing up, “let’s assemble.”
The Fed had gotten a hold on inflation, the UN was issuing proclamations about world peace, and Totino’s Pizza Rolls had effectively destroyed all the goodwill they’d developed in the immediate aftermath of the Incident with an extremely ill-advised Martin Luther King, Jr. Day tweet.
All of which to say: things weren’t back to normal, because normal didn’t exist anymore, but everyone was starting to figure out what “new normal” happened to mean for them.
And that included the nutcases.
“I’m gonna take a second to remind you,” Tony said, “that just because we’re no longer under martial law does not mean you’re free to try to take over the world.”
This particular nutcase was a CalTech grad student whose formula to speed himself up so he could get through his experiments faster had gone predictably sideways. He moved fast, that was for sure, but he didn’t seem to have much in the way of control, Tony thought as he darted across the road and slammed in a wall. The building shook, but the plaster and dust didn’t even have time to fall before the Speedster (name courtesy of Twitter, ugh, Tony could have done so much better) raced back into the middle of the street.
“I’m not trying to take over the world, I’m trying to save it!” the Speedster barked. “Just leave me alone with my project, I’m not going to hurt anyone.”
“Tell that to the head of your department,” Tony said. “Oh wait, you can’t, because you put her in a coma when she tried to shut down your lab.”
“That was an accident,” the Speedster said. He ran up a wall and perched atop a three-story building before Tony could blink; damn, he was fast. “She doesn’t understand what I’m trying to do.”
“Why don’t you come down here and explain it to me, then?” Tony said. “Team, sit-rep?”
“I’m ready,” Thor said from high in the atmosphere. “Shall I join the fun?”
“Sit tight, Thor - there are civilians in that building,” Natasha said from the Quinjet.
“I’m on it,” Steve said. “Bruce, any luck figuring out his power source?”
“He’s using anti-matter reactions to accelerate his own atomic signature,” Bruce said; Tony could imagine his furrowed brow as he peered at the guy’s laptop. “It’s incredibly unstable - if I’m reading this right, he could blow at any moment.”
“I’m sorry, blow?” Tony said. “Am I about to get painted with pieces of this guy?”
“That might be the best case scenario, actually,” Bruce said. “It looks like he’s been trying to phase through matter, which could result in way bigger explosions, and - oh. That’s interesting.”
“What’s interesting?” Tony said.
“He thinks if he goes fast enough, he might be able to… turn back time,” Bruce said slowly.
“Fascinating,” Thor said darkly.
Tony ignored him as the Speedster darted down the side of the building and into the middle of the street. “I just want to be left in peace!” the guy yelled.
“I’m afraid it’s too late for that,” Tony said. “You may want peace, but you’ve run several unauthorized experiments, blown up a lab and given yourself some pretty wild powers. We’re the Avengers, we know where this story is going.”
“You wouldn’t be making fun of me if you knew what I could do,” the Speedster said. There was a blur and a crash; he’d crossed the street and slammed into an empty police car at full speed. The car crumpled like it was made of aluminum. “You would be begging for my help!”
“His work is actually pretty impressive,” Bruce said in Tony’s ear. “Totally insane, of course, but impressive.”
“I’ve got a lock on him,” Natasha said from the jet. “If we’re gonna talk him down, let’s do it soon.”
“Kid, look,” Tony said, hovering until he was just out of reach of the guy. “I don’t want anybody else to get hurt. I don’t think you don’t want anybody else to get hurt. We’re on the same page. But what you’re doing right now, it’s dangerous. You need to think about what you’re risking.”
“I can save them,” the Speedster shouted. “I can bring them all back. That’s worth the risk!”
The bottom dropped out of Tony’s stomach, and it had nothing to do with the fact that he was flying. “Listen,” he said, his voice a little hoarse, “there are a lot of people here who understand why you’re doing what you’re doing. You lost people. I did too. But this - destruction and violence, messing with things you don’t understand, it’s not the way to move forward. Why don’t you turn off whatever’s giving you superspeed and we can talk about it?”
“I’m done talking,” the Speedster said. “You want to stop me? You’re going to have to catch me.”
And without warning, he was gone.
“Shit,” Tony said. “Where did he go?”
“He’s circling the block and headed back toward his building,” Natasha said from above. “Cap, is everybody out of there?”
“Building’s clear,” Steve said. “I’m coming down from the third - ”
There was a crash, and Tony spun in the air just in time to watch as the building Steve was in exploded. Concrete and plaster rained down as the three story structure collapsed in on itself, its load-bearing beams and foundation turned to dust by the force of the Speedster’s impact.
“Thor,” Tony said. “Stop him.”
“Finally!” Thor yelled joyfully, and with a crack he slammed into the street right where the Speedster had emerged from the other side of the building. The Speedster ran into his chest at full speed and - well, anyone else who got hit with that kind of speed would have folded like paper and probably suffered some kind of irreversible internal bleeding, but this was Thor, so the kid bounced right off his chest and fell on his ass, stunned.
“Steve,” Natasha said in all of their ears. “Status?”
Tony was crashing through the debris without waiting for an answer. “Friday - ”
“Northwest corner, sir,” Friday said, pulling up a heat map of the building, and Tony slammed through a concrete wall and dug through the rubble and pushed a fallen beam out of the way and - there was Steve, covered in a thin film of plaster dust and curled up under the shield.
“Took you long enough,” Steve said, coughing weakly.
“You asshole,” Tony said, lifting what used to be a ceiling off of Steve. “I thought you were dead.”
“You of all people should know I’m not that easy to kill,” Steve said.
“It’s a little funny,” Steve said, holding out a hand. “Thanks for digging me out.”
“Let’s try not to make a habit of it,” Tony said, pulling him to his feet. “Thor, we get him?”
“The threat is contained,” Thor said. Specifically, the threat was being held up by the collar of his shirt, his legs bicycling fruitlessly in the air. “This was fun. Like old times!”
“Yeah, I’d really been missing getting buildings dropped on me,” Steve said.
“SWAT’s on their way in to collect him,” Natasha said. “Anybody want to grab In-N-Out on the way home?”
“Not if it means we have to have the Shake Shack argument for the millionth time,” Bruce said.
“It’s not an argument when one side is obviously wrong,” Steve said.
“Wow, is this never speaking about it again?” Tony said.
“Rabbit!” Thor boomed. “Come quickly!”
Rocket skidded out of the maintenance closet he’d turned into a bedroom. “You get your bad guy?”
“Of course,” Thor said. “But more importantly, we brought you something. It’s called… a milkshake.”
Rocket took the proffered cup. “Thanks, I think?”
“It’s one of the best things about Midgard. Other than its people, of course,” Thor said quickly.
“Nice save,” Natasha said.
Rocket pulled the lid off the milkshake and, in another ‘so you think you’ve seen it all’ moment for Tony, downed half of it in one gulp and dragged his arm across his mouth. “Not bad. Be better with booze, but not bad. I got your fuel issue sorted out, by the way.”
“I’m sorry, what?” Tony said.
“I noticed you guys don’t have a heavy ion fusion generator,” Rocket said. “That not been invented here?”
“Not exactly,” Bruce said faintly. “Can you show me how?”
“Sure,” Rocket said. “It’s gonna cost you, though.”
“We brought you the milkshake,” Natasha said.
Rocket looked her up and down. “Can you get me another one?”
“If you get our ship to the Kree empire, sure,” Natasha said.
“Yeah, okay,” Rocket said.
“Told you In-N-Out was a good idea,” Natasha said as Bruce, looking a little stunned, trailed after Rocket and Thor toward the lab.
“I’m pretty sure Bruce considered writing his dissertation on the theoretical possibility of heavy ion fusion,” Tony said. “Now a raccoon is going to teach him how to do it.”
“He’ll survive,” Steve said, snagging a few fries from Tony’s bag. “Nice job distracting the kid earlier until we could clear the building.”
“Well, it’s not so hard when you’re talking to a slightly nutso mini-me,” Tony said. “So was that guy a set up?”
“Yeah, we flew cross-country and fed him some lines,” Steve said. “It’s all actors out in California, right?”
Tony blew out a breath. “Do I sound like him?”
Steve chewed a fry thoughtfully. “You’re less super-villainy, but more likely to actually pull it off.”
“Damning with faint praise,” Tony said. “I guess I deserve that. So aren’t you gonna ask me if I learned my lesson about taking on a power I don’t know how to control?”
“No,” Steve said.
“Well, good, because I didn’t,” Tony said.
“I didn’t think so.”
“But,” Tony said, “in this case I guess can see where you’re coming from. The Infinity Stones shouldn’t have ever been used. Giving anybody the chance to use any of them again - that’s just asking for it.” He took a long swig of milkshake. “Even though I think I could make it work.”
“I know you do,” Steve said, smiling ruefully.
“I’m just letting myself get outvoted this time. Don’t expect it to become a regular thing.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Steve said, leaning forward. “Tony?”
“Yeah, why not,” Tony said, wrapping an arm around Steve’s waist and pulling him closer. “Hey, so, I didn’t love it when a building fell on you earlier.”
“That’s the most romantic thing you’ve ever said to me,” Steve said seriously, but by the time Tony kissed him he was laughing.
“So we’re actually doing this,” Bruce said.
“Did you really wait until you were strapped in to ask that?” Tony said.
“I’m just confirming!” Bruce said, looking down at the panel in front of him. “Which one of these is the fire extinguisher?”
“Third from the top,” Natasha said, pointing to it. “Next to the ejector.”
“That doesn’t seem smart,” Steve said.
“Not my design,” Tony said, holding up his hands. “I stole it from an alien planet, I don’t want to hear any whining if you get ejected while you’re on fire, hey, Rocket, are we a go?”
"I think so,” Rocket said.
“You think so?” Tony said. “Love the confidence, buddy - ”
“It’s not my fault you people haven’t ever gone to space before,” Rocket said defensively.
“I’ve actually gone to space,” Bruce said.
“Me too,” Tony said. “Not on purpose, so much, but - ”
Thor banged on the side of the ship. “Time to go!” his muffled voice said, and gave them a thumbs up.
“Yeah, we know,” Tony said, typing in the coordinates and starting takeoff procedures. “Ten seconds. Apologies in advance if we blow up. Hey, is everybody ready?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” Bruce said.
“All systems go,” Natasha said.
“Let’s do this,” Steve said.
“In that case,” Tony said, “we have liftoff.”