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hold your breath (now let’s go save the world)

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Recovering from a stab wound, starvation, and dehydration was a real pain in the ass. Who knew, right?

It had been a week since Tony had arrived back on Earth, since his friends had sedated him — those assholes, he was going to hold this over Bruce forever — and confined him to bed. Then they had flown off to confront Thanos only to find out that he had destroyed the stones. So all of that was a whole load of useless. Maybe it was fortunate that he had been unconscious for the most part of that mess, otherwise he might have died from sheer frustration and anger.

Now, he was still weak, still mostly stuck in bed, but his brain was whirring at top speed as always. There were holograms projected around the room as he worked, as he came up with ways to help keep the world in one piece, to help as much as possible to make up for having half the population disappear. People in all kinds of jobs had vanished and there was only so much current technology could do to make up for it. So Tony was pushing ahead of the curve and coming up with ways to solve the sudden people shortage. If that meant he didn’t have to think about who specifically were part of the shortage, all the fucking better for it.

Even as he worked, in the back of his mind, he was still wincing at that histrionic reaction he had to Steve pushing him for information in that conference room. He had basically gone through a rapid meltdown; ripping out his IV, shouting at Steve, getting up in his face and calling him a liar, accusing him of not being there when Tony had needed him. He had even ripped out his arc reactor and shoved it into Steve’s hands.

God, he was such a drama queen.

Because, okay, he did kind of blame Steve for not being there, but in the end, he knew it had been on the both of them. They had both let the team down, let the whole world down.  

They should have been together, like Steve always said. Instead they had fucked up spectacularly, individually, in two separate locations.

Tony gritted his teeth and tried to focus on his project of creating a more efficient way to manage water and electricity supplies, with less human involvement.

“Tony, you’re supposed to be resting.”

Damnit, it was like his stupid obsessive background thoughts had summoned Steve. Not that Steve’s visit was a surprise. Ever since they got back from the trip to kill Thanos, Steve had been switching between silent misery and hovering by Tony’s bedside, sometimes combining both at the same time to change things up. What joy.  

Steve drew nearer and even bent down to pull the pile of blankets higher on Tony’s chest so they covered his neck too.

Yes, Bruce had said that Tony had to keep warm but this was ridiculous. Tony swatted at Steve’s hand weakly, but didn’t otherwise deign to look at him.

“I’m in bed, I’m resting,” Tony pointed out, never looking away from where he was swiping at his holograms.

“You’re in bed and working,” Steve disagreed, because he could never leave well alone.

Tony replied in his most annoying, flippant tone, “No, this is what I do for fun in bed.”

“Well, that’s disappointing.”

Finally, Tony turned and stared at Steve. “What?”

“I mean, it’s a little disappointing,” Steve said with a shrug, with that annoying gleam in his eyes which Tony just knew would mean that Steve was going to piss him off. “I expected something more exciting when it comes to what you do for fun in bed.”

And there it was. How dare Steve be cute with him? Tony was still mad, didn’t Steve get the message?

“You imagine what I do in bed a lot?” Tony asked, his mouth moving without his brain’s permission, because he definitely did not authorize it to go into flirty mode.

“Depends on how you define ‘a lot’,” Steve replied immediately. It had been such a long time since they had this, this quick and easy banter between them that used to come so easy, that Tony had missed for so long even when he was so angry. Almost without thought, Tony opened his mouth to automatically continue this line of conversation—

No,” Tony snapped, for a moment unsure if he was directing that at Steve or himself, before he rallied. “Stop. We’re not doing this. I’m still angry at you. I’m seething mad still! You can’t just come in and do whatever the hell you’re doing and expect it to be okay.”

Steve looked down, his long lashes blocking that flash of pain Tony had seen. “You’re right, I’m sorry, Tony. I know I wasn’t there for you when—”

Oh god, Steve wanted to talk about this now. The flirting was just a distraction, Tony should have known. They were going to have to talk things out, and talk about their feelings. And Tony was just… he just couldn’t. He wasn’t ready.

“Wow, I feel dizzy,” Tony announced, maybe a little too loudly with how Steve startled.

“Are you okay?” Steve asked, eyes snapping up, wide and panicked.

“So dizzy, I can’t even see straight, please call Nurse Banner A.S.A.P.,” Tony insisted, feeling a pang of guilt but pressing on.

Steve frowned at him, looking a tad sceptical now, but he left to get Bruce.

Phew, that was a close one.

-

Steve didn’t try to talk to him about it again for another week.

When he did, Steve lulled Tony into a false sense of complacency first by bringing a very small amount of solid food with his usual fruit juice. They were introducing food very, very slowly into his system. What Tony had in front of him was only considered solid food because it wasn’t being poured into Tony intravenously or come in a glass, but it was really too mushy to be called solid in any sense. Tony would have much preferred a cheeseburger, but apparently, that was out of the question. So he was stuck sitting up in bed, eating this thing masquerading as food.

Steve had brought another blanket to drape over Tony’s shoulders, which was his standard practice now and okay, it was kind of nice since it was a little cool once he sat up. Tony mumbled a thank you, working on his next project while putting food into his mouth without much thought. 

Tony had just stuck a spoonful of mush into his mouth when Steve spoke up, “Tony, I think we need to clear the air.”

He was talking in such a stilted way, like he was trying to be so careful with Tony’s delicate emotional and physical state. Ugh, no can do.

Tony dropped his spoon into the bowl with a clatter, causing some brown mush to splatter onto the overbed table. “I’m feeling faint!”

Steve frowned and he opened his mouth, except Tony just dropped straight back onto his bed in a dramatic swoon. He let his head flopped off his pillow and kept his eyes closed.

There was a brief silence, before he heard a loud sigh from Steve.

“I guess I’ll get Bruce,” Steve said and left.

After a moment, Tony cracked an eye open to survey the empty room. That was a little surprising. Tony hadn’t really expected that to work. He thought it would just piss Steve off that he was so blatantly avoiding the conversation and maybe they could get into a round of yelling at each other. How else was Tony going to get his blood pumping around here?

But clearly Steve was giving Tony some leeway for reasons that weren’t clear yet, to the point where he was accepting questionable fainting ploys. Tony wondered how long he could get away with this.

-

The next time, Steve marched right into the room when Rhodey was visiting and the determined expression on his face gave away what he wanted to discuss even with other company present in the room. Tony was a futurist; he didn’t need Steve to say a word to know where this was heading.

Tony flopped onto his side and said, “My eyesight is blurry, I’m definitely going to pass out.”

Rhodey jumped up from the chair by the bed and touched Tony’s face, trying to examine his eyes. “Tones, what’s up? What happened?”

That killed Steve’s third attempt dead in its tracks.

-

The thing was…

Tony knew he was being ridiculous. But he couldn’t seem to stop.

Everyone was working round the clock and exhausted. Pepper was trying to hold Stark Industries and all their remaining employees together, trying to ensure crucial S.I. tech was still supplied where needed. Rhodey was putting out fires around the world, flying out in War Machine regularly, while Okoye led Wakanda in lending assistance where possible. In the Avengers compound, Natasha coordinated all efforts between the team and even key leaders across the world to maintain peace as much as it was possible.

Unfortunately, Thor had sunk into a deep funk and was holed up somewhere with the remaining Asgardians, no longer taking anyone’s calls. It wasn’t long before Team Space People had headed back out to gauge how the universe at large was doing. Probably everywhere was a hellhole like Earth now; probably some places were in worse condition.

That left Steve and Bruce to help with Tony’s recovery. To Tony’s surprise, Steve took over the bulk of the care. He didn’t do it in a self-sacrificing, long-suffering way. Yeah, sure, he teased Tony sometimes, asking when Tony was going to walk it off, because that was just how the both of them rolled. But otherwise, he seemed to encourage Bruce to go talk to Nat while he kept Tony company, brought him things when Tony couldn’t get to them, helped Tony to the bathroom, checked the room temperature, kept him fed, helped change his bedclothes. It was…weird. Weird in a nice way that Tony didn’t want to think about at all.  

Most of the time, Steve didn’t try to initiate any serious conversation. It was just discussions on how to keep the world running, topics that skirted around the various elephants in the room. There were a lot of silent moments, quiet as they both stared into the distance, trying not to drown in their failures.

But once every few days, Steve would try to bring up their unresolved issues and regardless of what every therapist had ever said to him before about open channels of communication for healthier friendships, Tony just couldn’t.

So when Steve said, “About that letter I wrote—”

Tony covered his eyes, a little dramatically. “My fatigue is overtaking me.”

“Your fatigue is overtaking you, really?”

“F.R.I.D.A.Y., call Brucie, please. I need medical assistance for my overtaking fatigue.”

“…you’re ridiculous.”

But Steve never pushed back too hard, so Tony figured they were good to continue as is.

-

One day, Steve walked in and said with a quiet smile, “Look who I brought.”

Tony turned his head to see DUM-E wheel in behind Steve, letting out a series of excited and happy beeps. DUM-E wheeled closer in a hurry, banging into the side table loudly and clearly not noticing.

“What? You know you’re not meant to be out of the workshop,” Tony said, stunned.

DUM-E just beeped loudly and put down his clawed arm, smacking Tony in the shoulder before gentling his excitement so that he could stroke his claws lightly over Tony’s chest. Unable to suppress his smile, Tony reached up and squeezed DUM-E’s claws, patting his struts.

“You’re a troublemaker,” Tony murmured, before looking to Steve. “And so are you. You know he’s going to want to come here every day now, right?”

“So he’ll come here every day,” Steve said with a shrug.

DUM-E let out a loud happy beep at that.

Tony shook his head but smiled. “I guess he will.”

-

Tony knew he was thawing out towards Steve, knew he couldn’t hold onto his anger for long. But that didn’t mean he was ready for that talk.

“I just wanted to talk about—”

“I’m feeling unsteady on my feet, I think I’m going to pass out.”

“You’re lying in bed, Tony.”

“Which means if I’m feeling unsteady on my feet while lying in bed, it must be a big deal.”

That earned him the biggest eyeroll he had ever seen. It was pretty impressive.

-

Steve held out a plain envelope. “I wrote another letter. You could just read the letter, when you feel like it.”

Tony frowned at it like he had never seen envelopes before in his life and made no move to take it. “You couldn’t write an email, you heathen?”

“I’m almost a hundred years old, don’t ask me to use your fancy, modern technology.”

“Uh huh, I must have imagined all those mission briefings you sent via email then.”

Steve didn’t reply this time, just continued holding out the letter.

Tony continued casually, “Oh, didn’t Bruce tell you? He’s banned letter-reading as part of my recovery plan.”

“Reading letters…is banned from your recovery plan.” Steve finally withdrew his hand holding the envelope, and folded his arms. Tony used to secretly call that pose the Captain Nag-merica stance. Well, not so secretly sometimes.

“Yep. Something about my blood pressure. Letters are just bad for my health,” Tony said, completely unrepentant.

“And if I ask Bruce this, he’ll agree?”

“You know he’s got my back,” Tony said smugly.

Surprisingly, Steve smiled, even if it looked a little hapless. “Yeah, he does.”

Tony looked away, trying to tamp down on whatever inconvenient feelings were threatening to surface.

By this point, Tony knew that he was doing this to be stubborn for stubbornness’ sake.

-

When Tony received an email, with the subject title, “Please, I want to talk about this”, Tony felt a bit warm knowing that Steve was clearly titling the email so that it wouldn’t take him by surprise. But not warm enough to read the email. He sent back a new email that just said, “I’m passing out now, oh no!”

Okay, so maybe he was doing this because it was a little funny as well.

-

They were in the middle of physical therapy, Tony working up a lather trying to restore strength to his muscles, when Steve said in that quiet, contemplative way, “Tony, I’m thinking—”

“Oh no, I feel a faint coming.”

“Wait, I wasn’t—”

But it was too late, Tony had let his legs go out from under him and collapsed dramatically. He would have hit the floor — he really hadn’t thought this through — except Steve leapt forward and caught him in his arms before lowering him down gently. Okay, now they were in a precarious and awkward position where Tony was literally lying in Steve’s arms. What kind of futurist was he? Or maybe he was in this position because he was a futurist. Damnit, brain. Tony tried to ignore Steve’s strong arms around him, his warm breath on his cheek, but it was hard because he had his eyes closed in his pretend swoon and he couldn’t focus on anything else but the feel of Steve’s warm and hard body against him.

“I was just going to say that I’m thinking of moving back into my rooms,” Steve said quietly, after a soft sigh.

Tony cracked an eye open. “What? Where have you been sleeping all this while?”

Steve raised his eyebrows at Tony and replied, “In one of the guest rooms.”

“Well, that’s stupid. Of course you should move back into your rooms. What are you waiting for?”

There was a short pause before Steve said with a soft smile, “Apparently nothing.” Then he continued with a smirk, “Since you’re not actually passed out…”

“Oh, that was just a short recovery. I’m passing out again now, bye,” Tony closed his eyes and let his head loll back.

He felt Steve’s chest rumble with a quiet chuckle. Strangely, they kind of sat there for awhile, with Tony cradled in Steve’s arms. They didn’t say anything and didn’t move.

It was kind of nice.

-

One day, Steve didn’t turn up in the medbay. Tony didn’t notice at first, because he was finally letting a niggling idea he had play out on the holograms in front of him, and this new work took up all morning.

When he finally stopped, turning around to ask Steve if it was lunch time yet, he realized that it was past noon and Steve wasn’t there. He hadn’t been there all morning and Tony was only really registering that now that he was emerging from his haze of scientific progress. 

It wasn’t that Steve was with Tony every second of every day, although it felt like that sometimes. It was that if Steve wasn’t there, then usually he arranged for Bruce or Nat to check in on Tony. Not seeing anyone for half a day was pretty strange.

Tony laboriously got out of bed. He was actually in much better physical condition now, steadily gaining weight and muscle again. But he was still a little shaky on his feet and he leaned on the walls as much as he could as he made his way out of the medbay to the elevators.

F.R.I.D.A.Y. had said Steve was in his rooms and hadn’t left all morning, not even for his morning jog, so that was where Tony headed, even as he told himself he was being too needy. No one was obliged to visit him every day, he was being ridiculous.

But there was also no harm in visiting Steve instead and talking to him in different surroundings. It was nice to be out of the medbay anyway.

When Tony knocked on Steve’s door, it swung open a crack, not having been locked. He nudged the door open and inched into the room, feeling a little like he was in a horror story, walking into his doom.

The living area was empty, so Tony called out quietly. There was no answer so he made his way slowly to the bedroom door, which was left ajar. He leaned against the door frame and looked in.

Steve was on the ground beside his bed, curled tight with his face buried in his raised knees. The room was a wreck of torn bedding and broken furniture, like someone had destroyed almost everything in determined, mad anger.

That someone being Steve.

“Steve,” Tony said, voice barely above a whisper.

He heard Steve draw in a sharp breath. His shoulders shook and then stilled. Lifting his head, Steve ran a quick hand over his face, before looking up, eyes not meeting Tony’s gaze. His face was drawn and still wet with tears, which just broke Tony’s heart.

“I’m sorry, I forgot… I lost track of time,” Steve rasped out, voice hoarse from crying. “I think, I forgot to tell Bruce or Nat. I— I’m just—”

Tony had made his way towards the bed while Steve mumbled, and sank onto the mattress, legs almost touching the side of Steve’s shoulder.

“What happened?” Tony asked.

Steve looked up, eyes reddened, wearing a twisted smile. “You know what happened.”

“The world got fucked up,” Tony whispered, nodding.

“And we lost… we lost so much,” Steve said in a hoarse voice. He visibly tried to draw himself together, straightening his shoulders. “Some days are just harder than others. I just need a few minutes.”

Tony reached down and squeezed Steve’s shoulder. “Or…you could take all the time you need.”

“No, I’m just, I don’t—”

“Steve, it’s okay,” Tony said, trying to be comforting but feeling helpless in the face of Steve’s visible pain. They’ve had miserable days together, but never so obviously. Never with tear tracks on Steve’s pale cheeks.

Steve looked up with despair in his eyes. “It’s not. It’s not okay.”

Then he bent over himself, shoulders heaving in silent sobs.

Tony’s heart cracked at the sight, felt his stomach bottom out. All that shouting, all the pretend fainting, was washed away with the sight of Steve breaking down in front of him. God, he had been so selfish and immature.

Tony drew his hand up from Steve’s shoulder to palm the back of his neck instead. Then he pulled Steve in, pulled him closer, until Steve was pressed against his thighs. As if by instinct, as if needing this so badly that there was no hesitation at all, Steve twisted around and wrapped his arms around Tony’s waist, buried his face in Tony’s stomach. It was an awkward position, with Steve still on the ground and twisted at the waist so he could cry into Tony’s sweatshirt. But Tony only parted his legs to pull Steve closer and bent down as well so he could get his arms around Steve’s shaking shoulders.

He hugged Steve, hugged him as hard as he could, held him as tight as he could, and closed his eyes against the tears that burned against his own eyelids. It was like feeling and seeing Steve cry broke his own dam of pain and tears. He had been trying so hard to move forward, move on, but now the memories rolled out, memories of the kid, that bright young face, smiling up at him, the way he said, “Mister Stark,” the way he crumbled to nothing in Tony’s arms.

Tony held Steve close and cried as well.

Eventually, they cry themselves dry. At that point, Tony felt more than he heard Steve whispering into his stomach, “I’m sorry, Tony. I’m sorry, I wasn’t there, I wasn’t there when you needed me.”

Shaking his head against Steve’s blonde one, Tony said with pained sincerity, the tears having washed away his urge to clutch at his anger, “I’m sorry too. I wasn’t there for you either so I think this one is on both of us.”

Steve looked up shakily, half-dislodging himself from the hug so he could stare up at Tony with misery in his eyes, determined to shoulder all guilt for what happened. “No. You called me a liar, and you’re right. I wasn’t there, and I wasn’t there because I didn’t tell you about your parents. It all started there. I was afraid, and I was a coward.”

It was everything Tony had wanted to hear after Siberia, and nothing he cared about anymore. Tony cupped Steve’s precious face between his hands and rasped out in a broken voice, “Don’t. Don’t, Steve, don’t take it all on you. We both fucked up. It doesn’t matter anymore what was said or what wasn’t said. We both fucked up and we have to live with that.”

“I don’t know how,” Steve cried, tears spilling again, the vision of a broken man.

“We do it together,” Tony said with sudden conviction, because in a moment of shining bright clarity, Tony could see that it was always meant to be this way with the two of them. They were always better together than apart. “We can do this, together.”

For the first time since Tony walked in and found Steve on the ground, he saw the tentative, helpless flicker of hope in those beautiful blue eyes.

“Together,” Steve repeated, hands coming up to press Tony’s palms tighter against his face, like he was afraid Tony would let go.

Maybe it was because Steve still looked so sad and wrung out, maybe it was because everything was terrible but here was this good man in Tony’s arms, here was this vibrant potential between them that still existed despite everything else that no long existed… Maybe it was because Tony was just so sick and tired of missed opportunities.

Tony leaned down and kissed Steve on his lips. He held Steve’s upturned face in his hands and tilted his head for the best angle, pressed closer. It wasn’t the best kiss, not at first. It was a very wet kiss with their respective tears, and Steve’s lips were lax and awkward against Tony’s. For a moment, Tony wondered what the hell he was doing.

Then Steve shifted, shifted and pressed up with a desperate gasp, and the world tilted onto its right axis again. Their arms wrapped around each other as they kissed and kissed, lips parting and hands clutching as they poured out all their repressed longing and feelings.

But Tony’s ever-working brain threw out a thought and Tony just couldn’t let it be.

He pulled back, feeling almost a physical pain at their separation. Steve followed him, tried to continue the kiss, but Tony held him back with a hand to his shoulder. Steve’s expression sank again as he stared at Tony, obviously waiting for a rejection.

“I just needed you to know that this isn’t because…because of grief,” Tony explained as he tried to catch his breath. “And it’s not something casual or convenient, to just take our minds off what happened.”

Steve blinked and shook his head with a growing smile. He reached up and took Tony’s hands between his, squeezing gently. “Tony, nothing between us could ever be casual or convenient.”

Tony blinked and thought about it. “Good point.”

“And maybe it hasn’t been obvious to you, but everyone in the team has been telling me to man up and talk to you about how I feel about you for years now. It was part of what I wanted to tell you, but you kept ‘fainting’ on me,” Steve said, a little wry.

Tony was a total idiot.

“Right, if it’s the feelings I think you’re referring to, it’s mutual,” Tony said, feeling a little stunned as he stared into Steve’s face.

It was like watching the sun rise on a clear blue skyline, seeing the happiness creep across Steve’s face, seeing the smile that came to life on those soft lips and clear gaze. Damn but he looked gorgeous even with his reddened, slightly puffy eyes.

“I’m so happy to hear that,” Steve murmured, leaning forward again.

“Yeah, good talk,” Tony replied and met him halfway.

-

Later, much later, Tony lay with his head pillowed on Steve’s chest, drifting as he felt fingers comb through his hair.

“I should go find Nat, tell her I’m not joining the conference call later today.”

Right, that would be the weekly check-in that they had, across Earth, and across star systems. While Tony wanted nothing more than to just lie here for another week, safe in Steve’s arms, he knew he couldn’t.

They had work to do.

“You know how I said we were going to do this together?” Tony asked, words mumbled into Steve’s bare skin.

“Yes, what about it?” Steve’s voice was steady when his spoke, but the way his hand froze in Tony’s hair told a different story.

Tony sighed and pushed himself up so he could look Steve in the eye. “We should go to that conference call. I have an idea for what we’re going to do together.”

Steve’s lips quirked up. “You really want to tell everyone what the both of us are going to do together?”

“I can’t believe I’m the one saying this, but get your head out of the gutter, soldier boy. It’s time to be serious, I know, I know, I really can’t believe I’m saying this,” Tony huffed. He bent down and kissed Steve lightly on the lips, then pulled back and looked him straight in the eye. “There might be a way we can reverse what happened.”

He didn’t even need to elaborate on what he was talking about.

Steve stared up at him, open-mouthed. “Tony, are you saying… Are you sure?”

But even if he wasn’t, he could see the hope and confidence filling Steve’s beautiful face. Even if Tony wasn’t sure, Steve was sure for him, and fuck if that didn’t mean Tony was going to have to be sure about this.

“I’m about…97% sure. There’s an idea I’ve been working on. It wouldn’t leave me alone and I think I’ve cracked it this morning,” Tony said, thinking back on the simulation he had ran in the medbay.

Steve leaned up and pressed a kiss to Tony’s cheek, the casual affection causing Tony’s stomach to swoop much more than the moment deserved. Get a grip, stomach. Steve squeezed Tony’s shoulders, as if trying to instil confidence where he could sense Tony’s own wavering. “Let’s go talk to the others then.”

-

“I’ve been keeping tabs on Insect Guy and the people who helped make his suit, Hank and Hope Pym,” Tony explained, directing the holograms so that they all flashed across the wall.

“He’s Scott, and he also calls himself Ant-Man,” Steve pointed out.

“Yeah, that’s what I said.” Tony nodded along, barely registering the names because they weren’t important really, and pointed to a sharp satellite image of the rooftop of a building. “F.R.I.D.A.Y. alerted me of this earlier, but I only really looked into it today. Before— Before what happened, Scott, the Pyms, and an unidentified woman were working on this machine on this rooftop.” The projected hologram zoomed in so they could get a clear image of a van with the people standing near it. “Scott in his Shrinking Suit disappears into this machine. The others unfortunately join the other half of the world’s population and turn to dust. From my scans of the readings put out by this machine, I believe Scott went into the Quantum realm.”

“Tony, if this is going where I think you’re going, that’s just crazy, you know that right?” Bruce interjected, folding his arms nervously.

“It’s not. I’ve solved it,” Tony said in a matter-of-fact tone.

Bruce shook his head. “Just like that? What, you figured out the impossible while flossing your teeth?”

“No, I figured it out while drinking breakfast, which was a glass of OJ because you still want me to go slow, thank you very much. And yes, I figured out the impossible.” Tony gestured and a 3D simulation of what he worked on this morning was projected from the holotable.

Drawing closer as if he couldn’t help himself, Bruce stared in wonder at the simulation. “An inverted Möbius strip.”

“Yep.”

“So you factored for—”

“You know I did.”

“But did you consider—”

“Already on it.”

Natasha cut right in. “Boys, much as we love standing around, watching the two of you indulge in science babble… Actually, wait, we don’t. Was there a reason you wanted all of us here, even those across the galaxy, to listen to all this?”

Carol chimed up in a drawl, “Oh, were we meant to be listening? I was already doing something else.”

“Yeah, same here,” Rocket muttered, mostly out of frame as he hammered at something on the ground.

Rhodey sighed, ignoring the chatter. “Tony, what’s this about? I don’t have much time before I have to talk to the President.”

Before Tony could open his mouth, Bruce blurted out, “He’s talking time travel. He’s solved time travel.”

That caused everyone to stop, all sound to cease. Natasha got up from her chair, leaned forward on her desk and asked with quiet, desperate hope, every word enunciated deliberately and carefully as her eyes bored into his, “And what does that mean for us? Do you mean we can fix…all of this with time travel?”

Tony took a deep breath, knowing he could be dooming them all to further heartbreak and no results, but knowing they had to try. “Essentially, yes.”

The room erupted into noise, into voiced opinions, some excited and confused, some disbelieving and questioning.

“Everyone, simmer down.” Steve’s sharp voice cut over the din. He had his hands on his hips, and he looked around the room. “Let’s hear Tony out.”

Tony exchanged a nod with Steve, before turning to everyone. He explained, “We can’t use time travel to change the past, because that would just start an alternate timeline, leaving our current timeline unaffected. Our best hope was always to get the Infinity Stones and restore what Thanos took from us, but he’s destroyed the stones. The stones are gone right now, in our current point in time, but they still exist in the past. So the only way to get the Infinity Stones again is for us to time travel to the past, and bring them back to our present.”

There was a momentary silence. Then it was broken by Rhodey saying, “You know that sounds crazy, right?”

“You’ve got a talking raccoon here, and you think this sounds crazy?” Tony asked, raising his eyebrows.

Rhodey thought about it and shrugged. “Point.”

“Where’s the talking raccoon?” Rocket asked the room in general, which everyone ignored.

“It could work,” Nebula said in a quiet voice, support from an unexpected quarter. “If we bring the Infinity Stones back to our present time, it can restore what was lost.”

Steve stepped closer to Tony and said with a searching, intense gaze, “You brought up Scott earlier. Is he related somehow to this time travel?”

“Yep. Or rather, the machine he’s in is related to time travel. We can use the Quantum realm to travel through time and exit at a certain point in the past to retrieve the Infinity Stones. Once we have the stones, we’ll come back to our present time through the Quantum realm. So we need to figure out how they’re getting into the Quantum realm,” Tony explained. “We need that machine they used and we need to see if we can get Scott out.”

“Sounds like we know where to start then,” Steve said, clasping Tony’s shoulder and smiling at him like Tony had already saved the world. In the face of that optimism, Tony was hapless to do anything but smile back.

From behind them, through the holographic projection, Rhodey piped up, “So that’s a new development.”

“I prefer the yelling, it was funnier,” Carol said.

“Oh, I’m sure there’ll still be yelling,” Rhodey muttered.

Tony turned his head and looked at Rhodey, then pointedly looked at Carol, raising his eyebrows. He knew that kind of bantering tone from Rhodey anywhere, and there was absolutely something going on between the two of them.

Rhodey shrugged, refusing to be fazed, and asked, “Okay, so, what does this all mean for the rest of us anyway? You guys must have included us in this conversation for a reason.”

Tapping his chin in thought, Tony turned back to the inverted Möbius strip on display. “I think what it means is… you guys had better get back here. We’re going to need all hands on deck if this is going to work.”

-

It turned out, getting Scott out wasn’t hard and nailing the nitty gritty details of time travel wasn’t hard either, even if Scott provided no actual input on it. All the guy knew about time travel was just nonsense gleaned from Back to the Future.

Where it was stumping them all was when to get the stones. There was a whole timeline drawn up, but it didn’t make it easier for them to figure out how they were going to get them all with the limited supply of Pym Particles that they had. Tony and Nat were now lying flat on the conference table, like that would help their poor aching brains. There wasn’t enough space for Bruce, so he was flat on the ground instead, half under the table. Sitting by the table, Steve leaned forward and rested an arm on Tony’s thighs, the casual contact still new enough that it sent a thrill through Tony. Just as casually, Tony rested a hand on top of Steve’s forearm, which earned him a smile.

When Natasha nudged him in the back with her elbow, he looked over his shoulder to see her grinning obnoxiously at him. Tony rolled his eyes at her and turned away so he was facing Steve once more.

“So that Time Stone guy,” Natasha started, getting back on track.

Bruce interjected, “Doctor Strange.”

“What kind of doctor was he?” Natasha asked.

“A very arrogant one,” a new voice spoke up.

Tony and Nat both sat up quickly. Okay, Nat sat up quickly while Tony lifted his head with mild curiosity.

When Tony saw the glowing circle, he sighed. “You know we have a perfectly good door. It’s got doorbells and everything.”

“This is faster,” Wong said with a shrug, coming further into the room to allow Carol and Rhodey to step through the portal behind him.

“That’s pretty useful,” Carol said, looking back through the glowing gold circle that showed the Sanctum on the other side.

Carol and Rhodey had gone to fetch Wong, as Nat thought it was a good idea to get some expert opinions to weigh in on all the time travel they were going to have to do.

Turned out, the expert opinion wasn’t too impressed with their plan.

“There are too many variables. Even with the Time Stone, care is taken to only go back a few minutes or to at least keep it as simple as possible. You’re proposing to go back years, with different teams, to different planets even. It’s bound to go wrong. This is every terrible story that the Ancient One has warned us of before,” Wong scoffed.

Carol snapped, “So because maybe it’ll go wrong, it’s better not to try to save half the population of the whole universe?”

“You already tried,” Wong said, unflappable and practical, even as his eyes burned with anger. Tony wondered who Wong had lost. “You went after Thanos, but it didn’t achieve anything.”

“If we have a chance to set this right,” Steve started.

And suddenly, an epiphany lit up Tony’s brain like lightning streaking through the inky dark sky, illuminating everything.

He knew what they needed to do. He knew how to solve this.

“That’s it,” Tony murmured.

Wong was still talking. “It’s a chance to risk the rest of the universe. A huge risk that could—”

Tony spoke louder, “I’ve got it.”

“You don’t ‘got it’, that’s why we’re all here trying to figure out how we’re gonna get it,” Rocket pointed out with a huff.

No,” Tony cried out, loudly enough to finally draw everyone’s gaze to him. “I’ve figured it out. I know how to get the stones.”

“How to get the remaining three stones?” Natasha asked with hope in her voice.

Tony shook his head, a manic smile on his lips. “Better than that. How to get all of them at the same time.”

“What are you thinking, Tony?” Steve asked, his voice thrumming with anticipation, as if he knew what Tony was about to say would be a game changer. Tony looked up into Steve’s blue eyes, saw the confidence and belief in him, and knew they were in sync, on the same page again when it counted.

Tony gestured at the stones in the hologram as he looked around the room and explained with growing excitement, “Wong is right; we are planning to go too far back and splitting up the team to travel to other planets overcomplicates everything. It’s a solution ripe with opportunities for something or everything to go wrong. However, we can choose a much closer time to go to, which has all the stones in one spot. Not years back, but weeks. Just go a few weeks back, to an isolated, almost empty location.”

His eyes were locked onto Steve’s now, watching the light dawned for him as well because they didn’t always need words to know what the other was thinking.

“Go back to right before Thanos destroys the Infinity Stones,” Steve concluded, excitement lighting up his face, as if he already knew this would work, knew to the core of his being. And his confidence buoyed Tony up like nothing else could. Steve continued, “Thanos had all of the stones with him when he left Earth, after he dusted half the universe, and he took them to that planet he settled down on to use them one last time. We need to go to that point in time.”

Rhodey was nodding slowly as well. “He didn’t have any reinforcements with him. If we catch him off-guard…”

“We go completely prepared, as a single team, and coordinate our attack on him. We’ll get Thor back here as one of our big guns,” Tony said, before gesturing at Carol. “Hell, we’ll have Star Power here with us this time, that will make a big difference.”

Carol smirked. “You know it will.”

Rubbing his chin, Wong conceded, “It’s simpler, less messy, and doesn’t go too far back in time. It could work.”

“Avengers, we have a plan,” Steve said, straightening up and looking each one of them in the eye, smiling at what he saw in their gazes. “Let’s do this.”

-

With all of them together, Thanos never stood a chance, not when he was injured, not when he wasn’t expecting them to be waiting for him on his so-called retirement planet.

This time, Thor went for the head and the vindication in his eyes made Tony think that he wouldn’t be climbing back into the bottle.

They brought the Infinity Stones and the damaged gauntlet back to their present time through the Quantum realm. While Tony made a new gauntlet out of nanotech, there had been some debate on who should wear it. In the end, Bruce had insisted he had the highest chance of surviving the snap based on the gamma radiation from the Infinity Stones, and he had the best justification out of everyone, so he had won that argument.

Once the gauntlet was done, they took a trip to space.

They stood in the dust on the planet Titan when Bruce wore the new gauntlet made of Tony’s nanotech, and he snapped his fingers. It was horrible and frightening, the Hulk emerging instantly to absorb the damage and roaring in pain as he did. But the Hulk survived, as he always survived, even though he was badly injured and would need time to heal.

Tony straightened from where they were all huddled around the Hulk’s prone, groaning form, straightened and turned around because…

“Mister Stark, what happened?” It was Peter. Peter, full of life and earnest confusion, was running up to Tony, whipping off his mask in a moment of shock. “I just got up and the others were there, they’re pretty confused too, and you guys were all standing around here, oh shit, is the Hulk going to be okay? What happened to the Thanos guy? Did we… did we lose?”

It was Peter. Peter was alive. Tony felt his legs weakened with relief and sheer joy as he drank in the sight of an open-mouthed, puzzled Peter Parker. His fingers trembled as he reached out.

“No, we won,” Tony whispered, and pulled Peter in for a hug.

He could feel Peter return the embrace in confusion, tentative at first before going for a big squeeze. Then he heard Peter murmur, “This is nice?” The mixture of confusion but surprised happiness in Peter’s voice had Tony bury his face in Peter’s hair and smile, ignoring the tears welling up in his eyes.

It was better than nice.

Tony knew then that everything would be okay now.

Later, Doctor Strange would open up his shiny gold portals so that they could take the express way back to Earth. The Guardians went their own way on their spaceship, and Tony could admit that he was going to miss Nebula.

Later, Steve would cry without reserve as he embraced Bucky, Sam and Wanda, thumped them on their backs and grinned with pure happiness every time he looked at them.

Later, Tony would fall into Steve’s arms, not a fake swoon anymore but in real relief and giddy amazement that they had won. That they had done it.

Later, Tony would talk to Doctor Strange, and he would ask with a bit of smugness, “So that was the one chance in 14million you saw where we won, right? You knew we were going to lose all the stones to Thanos one way or another, and you needed my big brain to figure out the time travel.

Doctor Strange paused, and shook his head. “Let’s just say that maybe I should have looked at a million more possibilities. Congratulations, you’ve defied the odds.”

Tony stared. “What do you mean by that?”

Something in Tony’s tone must have caught Steve’s attention because he stepped closer and curled an arm around Tony’s waist, as if in show of support against Strange of all people. But the move worked, because Tony felt himself relaxing against the familiar strength of Steve’s hold.

“There were some possibilities that I didn’t consider which have led to better outcomes than I ever expected,” Doctor Strange said, looking between Steve and Tony meaningfully, before sweeping away with his red cape flapping.

Tony and Steve exchanged looks, perplexed.

“Fucking magic,” Tony muttered. “I hate wizards and their cryptic comments.”

Steve shook his head and smiled. “It doesn’t matter anyway. We did it, Tony.”

Tony thought back to Peter, at home with his aunt, alive and well. He thought back on all the people they had brought back, of Thanos’ plans thwarted. He looked into Steve’s eyes, feeling his own cheeks warm with pleasure at the fondness and affection directed at him.

He leaned up and kissed Steve in lieu of an answer, because he knew he didn’t need to say anything for Steve to know that he agreed. They had done it.

They had saved the world.

“Do your face-mashing somewhere else,” Wong ordered as he walked by.

Tony rolled his eyes and called out, “Thanks for killing the moment.”

“The Sanctum isn’t for your moments, go home.”

At that, Steve grinned. “Yeah, let’s go home.”

So they did.

-

THE END.