The knock at the door is unexpected. There are only a handful of people who know that Steve and Tony are here, in their lakeside house that’s effectively in the middle of nowhere, and all of those people would also know to call or at least send a message before coming over.
FRIDAY hasn’t chimed in with an alarm, though, so Steve gets up from the reading nook and winds his way around the living area for the front door. Trepidation knots in his stomach as he does so, and Steve takes a half-second to brace for the worst as he pulls the door open.
Steve had been ready to ask: Where’s the fight this time? But the two men standing on the porch would be unusual battle heralds, if at all.
Grant lifts a hand for a small wave. Bucky, on the other hand, nods and says, “We match now.”
Steve barks a startled laugh. Of course Bucky would go for that first, without care for awkwardness. Steve automatically touches his left arm, which is no longer in its sling, though the hand that peeks out from the cuff is stiff and dark.
“Come in,” Steve says, drawing the door open wider. “It’s great to see you.”
“Hope we’re not bothering,” Grant says, following Bucky into the house.
“It’s no bother, really.” Steve urges them to make themselves comfortable in the living room, which hasn’t seen many visitors since they’d finished the last touch-ups. “Please, sit.”
Bucky takes a chair, though he eyes Steve’s arm curiously. “Not still hurting, I hope.”
“No, it’s dull by now.” It’s an unusual injury, so Steve pulls back the sleeve a little to give the others a look. “Got hit by a cosmic weapon, similar to the Tesseract. Though I’d appreciate it if you don’t talk about it in front of Tony, he’s a little...” He trails off, and the others nod.
The power stone could’ve done much worse. Thanos meant for it to do much worse, hence Steve’s getting in the way and Tony’s... well. Over the years Steve’s seen Tony angry, worried, pushed to the limits; but that was the first time he’d seen Tony go quiet and deadly, and almost completely silent on comms as he joined the others in making the final hits on Thanos and his army.
That was weeks ago, before the smoke started to settle and the rebuilding could start. A part of Steve still feels that he should be part of those efforts, but that comes up against the stone wall that is Tony, who’d insisted that Steve take time to recover. Of course, that meant that Steve had a reciprocal duty of making sure that Tony also takes time to recover, and that whatever brilliant idea he gets in the interim is to be sent to one of the many, many other geniuses out in the world who are part of the post-invasion clean-up.
For now, Steve and Tony stay here, at the lake house. It’s been peaceful.
They haven’t had many visitors. Just Natasha, Sam, and Rhodey, and that one memorable time Peter proved unable to take Tony’s disappearance at face value and detective’d their location just to make sure that they’re okay. Bucky and Grant may be unusual visitors to add to that list, but it is still nice to see them, and the house is presentable. It must be almost a year since Steve saw them last, and that only a handful of weeks after Peggy’s passing. This should technically be a celebratory visit, what with Thanos gone and Earth saved, but the post-battle fog is persistent in subdued ways.
“Do you want coffee?” Steve says. “I’ll be right back.”
There are only a few places Tony could be, and Steve finds him on his first try. The lake house has a fraction of Stark Manor’s expansiveness, but it is compact and functional and wholly theirs, and Steve needn’t rely on FRIDAY to let him know which obscure wing Tony is holed up in at any hour of the day.
Today, Tony’s up on the roof, fiddling with the array. By the time Steve’s climbed the stairs to fetch him, Tony’s already coming out of their bedroom, having switched out the usual tank top for a shirt that he’s tugging down into the place. He’s only slightly disheveled, his mussed-up hair being a lower priority than checking that the chain bearing his rings is tucked safely into his shirt.
“Who is it?” Tony asks.
“Bucky and Grant,” Steve says.
Tony starts a little. “Okay. Sure, why not?”
They go down to the kitchen, where Tony gets coffee and snacks, and Steve sets up the tray. It’s a dance that’s becoming more familiar with each iteration, and this time Tony only makes an annoyed sound when Steve takes a two-second pause to kiss the space above Tony’s ear, where the dashing grey has started to show.
“I’ll start dyeing it again,” Tony says.
“You can, if you want,” Steve says. “You’re handsome no matter what.”
“Why Rogers, are you hitting on me? Sadly, I must decline, for we have guests.”
Tony carries the tray out of the kitchen, and Steve follows close behind. Steve is more than happy to carry the tray himself, seeing as his strength and balance are just fine, but Tony needs little wins like this every day – more when they’d first moved here, and less so as time went by. It’s sweet, and Steve’s happy to let him have it.
Out in the living room, Grant is by himself. He’s studying the framed photos on the wall – of friends, family and places of interest – though he returns to his overstuffed chair when he sees their approach.
“Bucky wanted a walk,” Grant says. “He’ll be back in a while.”
“Can’t blame him, with the views,” Tony says. He pours the coffee out for four, and settles on the couch next to Steve, their sides brushing. “You’re looking good.”
“So do you, both of you,” Grant says. “And this place, it’s really something.”
There’s some small talk, brief and light. Steve and Tony describe some of work they’re doing on the house. Grant tells them of how he’d been staying low with Bucky after the evacuation from New York. Grant asks about Fury and the other Avengers; Steve and Tony tell him of how Thor’s left with the Guardians of the Galaxy, while Natasha has taken the Avengers reins (supposedly temporarily, but they know better).
Then Tony says: “You came here for something, didn’t you?”
“Tony,” Steve says.
“He’s right, I did.” Grant lifts a hand, removing the spectacles from his face. A simple gesture, but Steve’s never seen Grant without the thick lenses, and now he sees just how much they distort the shape of his face and eyes and cheekbones. Something else has changed, too – in his body language, the way he holds himself. Grant smiles sheepishly, and scratches a finger against his beard. “I need to tell both of you something, but it’s a bit much.”
“Try us,” Tony says.
“You can test me all you like,” Grant says. “My fingerprints, DNA, anything you need.”
Steve sits up a little straighter, wary.
“My name,” Grant says, “my real name, is Steven Grant Rogers, born in 1918 to Sarah and Joseph Rogers. I’m from a parallel universe.”
There’s a few seconds of silence. In this silence, Grant looks from Steve to Tony and back, his mouth politely shut as he lets that sink in. Tony, of course, must be busy leaping to greater conclusions far beyond Steve’s understanding. But Steve can only stare at Grant: a man he’s somewhat friendly with and has known for years and was uneasy with for a great chunk of those years until he forcibly smashed that feeling down, down, down for Peggy’s sake, and now—
“Let’s do the, uh…” Tony clears his throat. “The fingerprint thing first, how about that?”
Grant holds his hands up helpfully.
Steve stays on the couch while Tony gets up, fetching his tablet and pulling a holographic screen down from the ceiling. They scan Grant’s hands, and there’s not even time for an inhale before FRIDAY’s helpfully chirping the results.
Grant’s blue eyes hold Steve’s steadily. He’s an old man, but still an old man braced for a fight, or worse.
“You’re me,” Steve says flatly.
“A version of you,” Grant says.
He’s a version of Steve who got the dance, and married Peggy, and lived out that life all the way through. Steve feels… hmm. Actually, he doesn’t know how he feels. Anger would be something, or even a sense of betrayal at the long con of a lie by people he trusted. Because Peggy definitely knew; it explains everything she’d done, all the ways she’d tried to keep Grant out of sight, all that discomfort around Steve that he had never been able to fully explain. The bad jokes about Peggy having a type were not just jokes.
It’d definitely make sense for Steve to be angry, but he can’t muster it. There’s an empty space where emotion should be, let alone any reaction to be borne from that emotion. Perhaps this is shock, or Steve just doesn’t understand the full ramifications just yet.
Or perhaps Steve’s just that exhausted from the months-long battle against Thanos, through space and across planets and through too-many close calls. If there are time-bending sorcerers and raccoons who swear and women who have the power to fly through space at the speed of light, why couldn’t there be a parallel universe Steve Rogers sitting in his house right now.
“Sorry,” Tony says, breaking the silence, “I’m mentally listing of a dozen or so theoretical physicists who are about to shit their pants in the next 48 hours. A parallel universe, you said?”
“Yes,” Grant says. “And I need to go back to my universe, but my equipment is, uh…”
“Oh my god.” Tony sounds breathless. “Yes, gimme.”
Tony’s excitement is genuine, but Steve wonders if his animated puttering around – hands dancing in the air and cooing as Grant takes out the equipment that needs fixing – is entirely genuine, or an attempt to fill the space with energy while Steve remains a statue where he is.
“Nanotech,” Tony says, nodding. “But this is…”
“Pym’s work,” Grant says.
“Yeah, he can never know I’ve seen this, even if it is from a parallel universe.” Tony kneels next to the coffee table, and he and Grant spread out the handful of unfamiliar-looking pieces. “So Hank Pym exists in your universe, huh?”
“Almost everyone here was there as well: you, the Avengers, Thanos, all of it. I… went into the ice as well, and came out to become part of the Avengers, but events in my universe played out rather differently.” Grant lifts his gaze back to Steve. “I owe you an explanation.”
Steve shakes his head. “You don’t owe me a thing. You’re not me.”
“I… yes, that’s true,” Grant says slowly. “We are the sum of our experiences.”
Tony, though, doesn’t read the room or is just being contrary, because he says: “He’s still kind of you, though.”
“No,” Steve snaps. “I would never do what he’s done.”
Grant nods, small and accepting. “I know. I’m sorry. We tried to find you in the ice. We spent years searching, and all that time there wasn’t anything going on between Peggy and me, it was only after—”
“I’m not talking about Peggy.” Steve swallows, as a warm rush of anger finally rises up his neck. “What happened to Tony in your universe?”
Grant pauses, and in the weight of that pause Steve knows the answer. “He died. In the final battle with Thanos. He made the call that saved everyone.”
Steve’s immediate thought is: yes, that’s definitely something Tony would do. Tony’s made that choice over and over again – flying into the Tesseract portal, connecting his brain to Ultron’s virtual space, rushing head-first into Thanos’s reality-warp, and more. Terror gripped Steve every single time, but it was terror wrapped up in a fist and set aside, for there was a battle to fight and people to save. And by the time each fight was won, Tony’d be found battered but safe, so the terror of losing him dissipated without taking full root.
Now, though. Now, in the house that is theirs, with nary a hostile in sight and the battle long won, that terror digs deep. Steve hears Grant’s words and feels the truth of them settle in his head, in his gut, in his bones.
Tony is dead. Not his Tony, sure, but a Tony. This man’s Tony. He died and did not come back and will never come back.
The universe tilts a little. It grows cold and gray at the edges. There is a place where Tony no longer is.
“Steve,” Tony says, his voice muted as though coming through a curtain of water. “Steve.”
Steve blinks. Tony’s back next to him on the couch, a hand curled around Steve’s arm, squeezing. This is Tony, who’s alive and whole and Steve’s. His eyes are startled and worried.
“Hey,” Tony says softly. “I’m here. I’m not going anywhere.”
There is a lead weight in Steve’s chest, narrowing the give of his lungs. He tries to nod, to let Tony know that he hears him and understands, but he can’t move. His neck’s stiff, unyielding.
Grant’s face is exceedingly, excruciatingly gentle. Understanding.
“How.” Steve grits his teeth, forcing his voice out through a too-thick throat, “How could you let him?”
“There was no ‘letting’,” Grant says. “When Tony makes a choice, he acts come hell or high water.”
That’s true as well. Steve knows this as well as he knows everything else about Tony, but it’s a jagged piece of truth now, ill-fitting in Steve’s head. He tries to steer his thoughts elsewhere by sheer force of will, away from sudden mental images of Tony’s body, lifeless and cold as in the worst of Steve’s nightmares. Steve latches on to a new thread, desperate and aware of it.
“But you still… you did this,” Steve hisses. “You came here. That’s your world – your life you’d shared with him, and you left it?”
Grant swallows. “Me and my Tony, we were never like… this. Like you.” Steve must look perplexed, because Grant continues, “We were never together.”
Steve’s eyes must be bugging out of his head. “But… how could you not? He’s—” Tony. Beautiful and brilliant and wonderful and makes everything make sense.
“Events played out differently where I’m from,” Grant says. “There was never any—”
“But it’s Tony!” Steve exclaims.
“Steve,” Tony says. “Maybe I’m an even bigger asshole in his universe.”
“I don’t care!” Steve roars. He jumps to his feet, propelled by the hammering of his heart, which is panicked and fearful and angry. Grant is just a small old man hunched over in a chair, his eyes far too calm, and Steve wants to hurt him. Steve could hurt him.
It is with shaking legs that Steve walks away, from the couch and Tony’s reaching for him. He manages to get the front door open, his ears filled with white noise and maybe Tony’s calling out to him, and once outside takes off at a run.
Steve eventually finds a spot by the lake, where he sits and watches the slow start of sunset. His legs burn from the run, but he’d had enough sense to double-back, not getting too far from the house.
Tony finds him, because that’s what Tony does. Steve hears his approach, but Tony doesn’t say anything. He just makes himself comfortable on the grass next to Steve, hugging Steve’s right arm like the pillow he sometimes uses it as, and rests his head on Steve’s shoulder.
It is quiet. Tony breathes with Steve, his presence a warm balm.
Steve doesn’t believe in fate the way he’s usually heard it described. Justice and fairness are what people make of it; a never-ending battle that needs to be fought. Bad things can and do happen to good people, and sometimes evil people get off scot-free. Any sense that can be read in the unfolding of the universe is either random, or the result of choices that have been made by those living in it.
But sometimes, in moments of peace and gratitude, Steve looks back on his life feeling that there’s an eerie order to the sequence of events that brought him to where he is. He’d become Captain America again, but in the 21st century and at the forefront of protecting the world against foes he’d never imagined, and with the love of his life by his side.
Steve reckons he would’ve been fine if he’d never gotten the serum – though perhaps frustrated and unfulfilled – and he would’ve been fine if he’d never gone into the ice, or died in the ice, or died in the many, many chances he’d had all over the place. But none of that happened. Instead, he’d found his way to new purpose, and to Tony.
He’d known that his life hinged on incredible odds. But apparently, those odds were even more incredible that he’d realized.
And more fragile.
Steve looks at Tony. His husband and best friend, who returns the gaze evenly, his brown eyes large and watchful and wonderfully fathomable. Even as their relationship solidified and settled, Steve knew better than to ever take it for granted. The fact that that relationship is even more precious that he’d ever imagined – it unsettles him.
“You want to talk about it?” Tony asks.
“Not really,” Steve says.
Grant had said that their universes are similar enough for there to have been Avengers and the Thanos battle in both. But not similar enough for him and his Tony to have had this.
A sudden thought grips Steve. “Tony.”
“You know I love you, right?”
“We’re married, Steve.”
Steve and Grant are similar enough that the other man married Peggy, and their love was strong enough to withstand the risk of what they were doing, and the secrets they had to keep. Whatever events played out differently in Grant’s universe, he’d also gone into the ice; his love for Peggy must have stayed with him throughout, and reblossomed years later.
“I’m not—” Steve turns to Tony, urgent. “Him and Peggy – that’s not me, all right? That’s not—”
Tony nods, but Steve’s brain is a little out of whack, and he can’t quite read Tony’s expression as accurate as he usually does. “I know, Steve,” he says.
“Do you? Do you really? Because you’re – you’re everything – I can’t—”
Steve realizes that he’s crying. Hot tears, shameful and angry, track down his cheeks and get in the way as he fails to explain that Tony’s his lodestone, that Tony quiets the noise in his head when he needs it, that Steve would rather lose his remaining arm than have Tony ever even for one second think that Steve has any remaining regrets with Peggy.
Tony’s a genius, and he would’ve caught on to the implications of another universe that’s stacked with different choices, but understanding isn’t the same thing as knowing. Steve needs Tony to know.
“Steve.” Tony holds Steve’s face in his hands, keeping them eye to eye. Steve choke-hiccups behind his closed mouth, but he tries his best to return Tony’s gaze through blurry eyes. There’s a moment where Tony presses his lips together, in a struggle to keep his composure, following which his jaw takes a determined jut. “There are few things in this whole damn universe that I’m surer of than how you feel about me. And I know you feel a lot. Like you’re gonna fucking burst with it.”
Steve nods rapidly. Yes, yes, that’s it.
“So believe me, okay?” Tony says gently. “I know. I’ve known. Rock solid.”
Steve can believe him. He has believed him for years; it’s just that Steve wavered for a second there, and let himself wonder if he hadn’t done enough. Steve just needs to focus, and remember what it’d felt like to wake up this morning with Tony beside him, the weight of the years they’ve spent together cozier than any blanket.
“Hey.” Steve brushes his fingers over Tony’s cheek, where a stray tear or more have slipped free. “No. Why?”
“You’re hurting,” Tony says simply. “You hurt, I hurt.”
Steve takes a deep breath, willing himself steady. “Okay.”
“No,” Tony says with a laugh. “That’s not what I meant. Don’t shove that down, okay? Feel what you feel, it’s cool. I just want you to… you know, share it with me. ‘Cause that’s what we do.”
Steve nods. “That’s what we do.”
It would be nice to feel relief at this point. Tony’s with him, and he knows how Steve feels, and he’s way too smart to be disturbed by the reveal of Steve’s doppelganger. Hell, Tony’s too smart to be disturbed by the reveal that he’d died in a parallel universe.
Steve’s not that smart, though. He may have made a career out of compartmentalization, especially in those first few years out of the ice when he’d shoved inconvenient feelings out of the way until something snapped, but that was before Tony. That was before Steve finally got his feet underneath him, settled and stable inasmuch as an Avenger can be.
This can’t be compartmentalized. Somewhere out there a Tony has died. There may be others – Steve knows enough of multiverse theory what with his being married to Tony and all – but this is the first confirmation of such a thing. It is a reality, and it actually happened.
Tony is solid under Steve’s hand. Steve drops his head to Tony’s collarbone, breathing deep, while Tony wraps his arms around him and holds him tight.
Tony is here. But there is also a Tony who will never again be where he was. Steve shouldn’t grieve, because that loss belongs to someone else – the man who’s him not but him. But in a way, that loss is Steve’s too, now, if only because he knows about it.
Steve hums at the sensation of Tony’s fingers sliding through in his hair. It feels good, and almost as good as the rise and fall of Tony’s chest under him. (Grant’s never had this.)
“We should head back,” Tony says. “It’s going to be dark soon.”
Steve would rather stay here, but he can’t fault that logic. He lets Tony pull him to his feet and back to the house, Tony’s hand in his all the way. Even so, Steve’s steps grow slower as the house itself comes into view, some of the lights already switched on for the evening. Bucky’s car is still parked down out front.
“I don’t want to see him right now,” Steve says.
“Sure,” Tony says. “We’ll go up the back.”
Tony leads the way into the house through the kitchen, then up to the first floor where he deposits Steve in the study. Tony kisses him before going back down, and promises to bring dinner up. Steve feels a pang of guilt, even as he’s pleased that Tony knows him so well.
Steve goes to bed early, but his sleep is fitful. He wakes up a few times with his breath short, but whatever images in his head responsible for said waking are gone before he can study them. He takes Tony’s pillow, holding it to his chest and breathing it in, but the restlessness is persistent.
He’s awake when Tony finally comes up. The room is dark but Steve tracks Tony’s movements around the room – changing out of clothes and brushing his teeth – up until Tony climbs into bed. He doesn’t go under the covers, though. Instead he sits there, cross-legged, and says, “Lights up 20%.”
Steve smiles sheepishly. “Are they still in the house?”
“Bucky’s gone home,” Tony says. “Grant’s in the guest room. You okay with that?”
“It’s your house, too. You can invite anyone you want.”
Tony rolls his eyes. “You are allowed to be uncomfortable, you know.”
“Doesn’t matter. Multiverse theory is a big deal, I get that. You’re excited.”
“Steve.” Tony, clad only in boxers, is twisting his fingers idly into the chain hanging from his neck. He doesn’t do it often, what with the rings usually being tucked away under clothing, so it’s always a thrill to see him do it. Tony reaffirms his world by touch, and in this case the physical symbols of their promise to each other. “Which part about him bothers you the most?”
“I’m not bothered—”
“You are. You reject him and his choices—”
“Are you defending him?” Steve asks in disbelief.
“We don’t know him, is what I’m getting at,” Tony says patiently. “We’ve only ever known him as Peggy’s husband, an uninteresting, unassuming guy who’s been keeping to the shadows, and especially the shadows of you, because of what everyone knows about what you meant to Peggy a long time ago. And now it turns out that he is a version of you, and that’s got you thinking that what he’s done reflects on who you are.”
“Doesn’t it? Even if he’s an evil mirrorverse version of me—”
“His beard’s not menacing enough.”
“—he’s still a living example of what I could be, under different circumstances.”
“Sure, but those circumstances count for a hell of a lot more than you’re giving credit for,” Tony says. “The thing is, you are way, way kinder with other people who’ve been through hell. It’s only because he’s a Steve Rogers that you’re holding him to some impossible standard.”
“I’m not impossible.”
“Sure,” Tony says slowly, “but you are the result of a very specific and particular series of events that can’t be replicated, even in the multiverse. He, on the other hand, went through a very specific and particular series of events that pushed him so hard, that he jumped into another universe in search for something he couldn’t find in his own. What gets a man to state like that? We can’t know, because we weren’t there. I’m not going to measure you against anyone else – not even a parallel universe version of you.”
Steve already knows all of this, having had the time to think it over while Tony played tinker toys with Grant downstairs. But it sounds different coming from Tony than it does from the angry churning in Steve’s head; there goes Tony’s enormous heart leaping to the rescue.
“A man needs our help,” Tony says. “And you like helping people.”
“Most people,” Steve says begrudgingly.
“Would you like to know when he came out of the ice?” Tony’s mouth quirks when Steve jolts in surprise. “Twenty-twelve. Literally just before Loki first came to get the Tesseract.”
“But then… did Afghanistan still…?”
“Yep, that still happened in his universe,” Tony says with a nod. “But he wasn’t there for that. He wasn’t part of that Tony’s rescue team, he never worked with Rhodey, he never even met Tony before he became Iron Man. Matter of fact, would you like to know who his Tony does get together with?”
“Didn’t occur to you, did it?” Tony’s grinning, the bastard. “You’re such a romantic, you think we’re inevitable.”
“I don’t think that,” Steve says weakly.
“Aww.” Tony leans down, taking a slow kiss that Steve is only absent-mindedly able to kiss back for, what with his mind busy trying to parse his statement. Tony stretches out next to Steve on his stomach, his body a warm line of heat against Steve’s side. “You’re the sweetest.”
“Is it Rhodey?” Steve asks. “Was he with Rhodey?”
“Actually, Pepper. They got together before Grant and his Tony ever met. Had a daughter, too. Brilliant kid, is what I’ve been told.”
“That’s… huh.” It takes some mental gymnastics, but Steve can kind of see it. Pepper’s always tried to keep a professional distance from Tony – at least, while she still worked for him – but the friendship and loyalty between them goes deep. Depending on how involved Pepper is with the Avengers and Tony’s Iron Man career, their relationship could evolve.
Tony nudges Steve with his elbow. “You jealous?”
“No,” Steve says.
“If their Pepper is similar to ours, and their Tony the same, then it can’t have been easy to make work. So it must have been worth it.”
Tony blinks slowly. “You were practically frothing at the mouth when you found out that the other you got together with Peggy, but you’re okay with other me being with Pepper?”
“It’s – it’s different,” Steve says, discomfited. “As long as that Tony was happy, then it doesn’t matter who he was with.”
“See, this is what I mean about your double standard.”
“It’s not a double standard to want my favorite person in the universe to be happy!”
“Multiverse,” Steve grumps. He’s still scowling when Tony kisses him again, soft and gleeful. Another kiss is enough to firmly lure Steve in, and they make out for a while. It’s with Tony’s touch on his sides and arms, and Tony’s breath between Steve’s lips, that Steve feels the knot between his shoulders slowly unwind.
Tony eventually draws back to say, “You do get the point, though? Me and you, we’re together because we made it happen.”
“We did the work,” Steve says with a sigh. “Yeah.”
“Hey, no, c’mon. This is special, Steve.” Tony trails a hand up Steve’s face, the touch so gentle that Steve’s eyes flutter shut with it. “There could still be a billion other universes out there where those versions of us are together, but what they have still wouldn’t be what we have. They can’t feel what we feel. Okay? Work with me here.”
“You are the smarter one,” Steve admits.
Tony hums. “Sometimes. Most of the time. Okay, sometimes.”
They resume kissing, gentle at first, but only until Tony presses in, open-mouthed and suggestive. The heat builds between them, leading to the greedy hands and mouths, and their few scant pieces of clothing being discarded.
Steve’s one functioning hand means he’s less helpful during prep, but he climbs on top of Tony once he’s ready, Tony’s legs wrapped around Steve’s torso as he slides on home. Tony’s hands tangle in the hair at the base of Steve’s head, digging in as he gasps and tries to pull Steve as close as is physically possible. There are many, many wonderful things Steve loves about being with Tony, so numerous that he could never count them all, but one item that’s pretty high on that list is the satisfaction of being inside him when Tony comes.
After they’re done and sated, they lie there together, shoulders to arms to thighs touching. Steve regains his breath and looks over at his husband, who has the loveliest, laziest smile.
“So, the other Tony had a kid,” Steve says.
“Is that something you want?”
Tony’s eyes go from sleepy to alert. He’s barely moving a muscle, but he somehow radiates the energy of a man who’s squirming intensely. “Could’ve just as easily been an accident. For them.”
“Doesn’t mean it didn’t work out,” Steve points out. “We could. If you want.”
There’s a few seconds there where Tony seems to not be breathing. “Is that something you want?”
“With you? Yes. I hadn’t thought about it before, but now I have, and it sounds like it could be…”
“We do terrifying things all the time, Tony. But this would be the good kind of terrifying.” Steve reaches over to fix the chain along Tony’s chest. He pauses with his fingers on the rings, settling them in the space where the arc reactor used to be. “We don’t have to decide yet. But we can talk about it.”
Tony swallows. “Okay.”
“Love you,” Steve says.
Sleep is a little easier after that, but Steve still wakes up early, his body thrumming with extra energy to be burned off. He gets up for a run, which ends up being a little longer than his usual runs, so the sun is up in the sky by the time he returns home. After a shower and change, he goes down for breakfast.
The kitchen is empty, but Grant is having breakfast at the dining table. He glances up at Steve’s arrival, and smiles a little, just in greeting.
Steve takes a breath and brings his breakfast to dining the table, joining him.
“Morning,” Steve says.
“Morning.” Grant returns his attention to his meal, seemingly not needing or interested in small talk, which is a relief.
Steve is halfway slathering his toast with butter when he realizes that Grant’s doing the same. In fact, Grant moves with the same diagonal swipe of knife to bread, blade side tilted at an angle. Grant seems to notice what’s happening just as Steve does, and for a moment they are both frozen with awkwardness.
“Do you agree to mutually ignore that?” Steve says.
“Works for me,” Grant says.
They resume with breakfast. They eat. It’s still a little awkward, but Steve turns the TV on and they watch the news. There are some small soundbites of the Avengers involved in the worldwide clean-up, including brief footage of Natasha and Rhodey in the city.
Steve doesn’t want to ask Grant anything. At least, Steve didn’t want to ask yesterday, or last night, or even this morning. He’s trying to take Tony’s advice to heart and not let the facts of another universe bother him.
But Grant has paused in the drinking of his coffee, enraptured by what’s playing on TV.
“Is Clint alive in your universe?” Steve says.
Grant starts a little. He still isn’t wearing the glasses Steve’s always seen him wear; maybe he never needed them. “Yes,” he says. “But Natasha isn’t.”
It’s quiet again. The news moves to weather and sports, and smaller stories of human interest.
“How did your Tony die?” Steve blurts out.
Grant looks at Steve for a long moment. Steve keeps his face as placid as possible, though he’s probably doing a poor job of it.
“Gauntlet,” Grant says. “All six stones. He snapped it to destroy Thanos and his army.”
“All six. All six?” Steve realizes he’s going a little loud, and brings his volume back down. “Tony wielded all six.”
“That’s not how you did it, right?”
“It was three to three, through the first wave,” Steve says, still a little dizzy at the thought of Tony under the cosmic strain of all six infinity stones. “Thanos had soul, reality, power. We had time, space and mind. So we were roughly evenly matched until Danvers got the reality stone from him – wait. Does that mean in your universe, Thor and Loki didn’t use the Tesseract to get to Earth before Thanos and warn you? Does that mean… Vision?”
Grant nods. “Yes to both. We tried to protect Vision but… Thanos got through.”
“Right.” Steve exhales. “Right. Sounds like your war ended quicker, at least. Grab the gauntlet from him and snap.”
Grant coughs. “No, not really.”
Steve eyeballs him. The beard makes it slightly harder to tell, but Grant seems to be making the very same face Steve uses to throw people off and make them second-guess the intent behind what he’s saying. It’s an invitation to project on him and see what they want to see, when usually what they want to see is a Steve Rogers who is agreeable and simple.
“Yeah, how about you don’t do that,” Steve says.
Grant winces. “Sorry. This is, uh. Usually people don’t pay attention to me, so it’s kinda strange now that you know.”
“You’ve had to pretend to be someone else for decades. You should be used to ‘strange’.”
“Being someone else? Sure, that was hard, then easy, then hard again when you came out of the ice, but it never ever stopped being strange.”
Steve huffs under his breath. His eye is drawn down to the guy’s hands, and the wedding band on his left hand. Steve feels abruptly feels naked without his own wedding band, which was destroyed in the power stone blast. Tony’s promised to make him a new ring and has been pretending to procrastinate on it. In return, Steve’s been pretending not to know that Tony’s building a full prosthetic for him instead, with the wedding band built in to the hand itself.
“Peggy was happy with you, though?” Steve says. “Despite all of that?”
Grant looks away at the middle distance, thoughtful. “I tried to make her happy. I can only hope it was a decent attempt.”
Steve understands that, too. He’s always trying his best to make Tony happy, and although he thinks he’s doing an okay job thus far, he can never rest on his laurels. It’s all day and every day, just as he promised he would.
They’re interrupted when Tony bursts into the kitchen, in a band shirt and goggles that are halfway up his head. He has a slightly-manic wideness in his eyes that tells of incredible work being done only a few yards away.
“You!” Tony points at Grant.
“Yes, me?” Grant says.
“This!” Tony waves a metal contraption at him, the piece resembling and even sounding like a bracelet when he moves it back and forth in the air. “This quantum tech wasn’t designed to jump across parallel universes. This was designed for time travel.”
Steve puts his cutlery down with a loud clunk.
“Uh,” Grant says. “Well. It felt simpler just to describe myself as coming from another universe, because it’s… true? This isn’t my universe.”
“A parallel universe isn’t the same as a branching universe,” Tony says.
“They’re not?” Grant says.
Tony’s practically bouncing on his feet with excitement. “When exactly did you come from? Not where. When.”
“Twenty twenty-three,” Grant says.
“And you jumped back to be with Peggy?” Tony says.
“Did you go back in time and change things,” Tony continues, “thus causing this branch timeline to splinter off in the first place?”
“Wait.” Steve slowly rises to his feet, comprehension dawning. He stares at Grant, who’s looking even more sheepish. “Are you actually me?”
“Well,” Grant says. “I went back to 1947 and it’s not like I could stand by while things—”
“What the hell,” Steve hisses. “You said that you’re from a parallel universe, that’s—”
He’s cut off by Tony’s darting around the dining table and throwing his arms around Steve’s body. No one could call it a hug, not when it’s more accurately described a very determined body lock, Tony’s arms cinched tight enough to squeeze a decent amount of air out from Steve’s lungs. Steve could resist, except it’s Tony, whose stubborn determination can override brute strength.
Steve gives in. He takes two slow breaths that he releases in controlled exhales, and lets his body relax with the motion.
“Feeling better?” Tony says.
“Yes, thank you,” Steve says.
Tony lets go and Steve sits back down. Tony stays where he is, though, arm looped over Steve’s shoulder as his attention returns to Grant, who’s watching them in mild amusement. Steve has another flash of belated realization that Grant’s identity explains every single time he’d looked at them weirdly, especially during those first few months of their coming out. Steve had assumed that Grant was homophobic, but that turned out to be far too simple an explanation.
“So,” Tony says. “Why’d I create time travel in the first place?”
“You assume that it’s you?” Grant says.
“Obviously it’s me.” Tony looks down at the piece of tech still in his hand. “And… Hank Pym?”
Grant smiles a little. “Yes, it was mostly you, but using Pym Particles, with Bruce on assist, and following Scott’s idea.”
Tony stills, his eyes darting to Steve’s at the mention of Bruce. Tony’s energy wanes a little, but he picks himself up with a too-loud, “Scott, really? Oh, all right.”
“What happened was that we lost,” Grant says. “Thanos got all six stones, snapped his fingers, and destroyed the stones so no one else could use them. We figured the only way to undo the snap was to go back in time, borrow the stones and snap it again ourselves before returning the stones when they came from. We managed to do the unsnap, and I was the one who sent the stones back.”
“And stayed,” Steve says. “You were supposed to just send them back, and you stayed.”
“Maybe it was wrong, I don’t know,” Grant says wearily, as though this is an argument he’s had many times, whether with himself or with others. “But after I dropped off the last stone, I realized… I could stop Hydra. I could save Bucky. I could find you, bring you back earlier. I didn’t try to change things right away, but when small changes stuck, I thought… why not. I was already doing it, I could keep doing it.”
“Save Bucky?” Steve says slowly.
“In my universe, Hydra had him until 2013. Hell, in my universe, Bucky was, uh…” Grant sighs, eyes skittering away to the tabletop. “Hydra had Tony’s parents assassinated in the 90s.”
Steve looks at Tony sharply. Tony’s face twitches through a few different emotions – confusion and thoughtfulness among them, but no anger. At the end of it he nods a little, as though it makes sense that that would/could happen.
“No wonder I’m a bigger asshole in your universe,” Tony says.
“You’re not,” Grant says.
“Ah,” Tony says, “so I’m an asshole whether or not I lose my parents at a young-ish age.”
“Tony, no—” Steve says, at the exact same time that Grant does.
Steve and Grant look at each other.
Tony laughs, which breaks the moment and has Grant ducking his head, almost embarrassed.
But Steve doesn’t share that embarrassment. He’s too busy realizing that this may be the first time since Grant came here (or since Steve met him at all, really) that he’s glimpsed who Grant really is. It’s one thing for Grant to say that he’s also Steve Rogers, but Steve’s only ever seen him hidden behind a carefully curated, though not exactly physical, mask. That’s another reason why Steve’s read Grant as a fake all these years – every action or word from him, no matter how small and harmless, were so guarded.
Yet Tony just called forth a genuine reaction from him, unmeasured and uncontrolled. For the first time Steve thinks: ah, there he is. That’s a Steve Rogers who’d lived a half a life the same as Steve’s own, but through that second half he’d known and befriend and was affected by a Tony, even if they hadn’t… done all the rest of it.
Steve wonders, though. Grant’s ears look a little pink, maybe.
Tony taps his fingers on Steve’s shoulder. “You’d be tempted, too. If you were in the past and could change things for the better.”
“Not when I have you to come back to,” Steve says.
“But if it’s branching, and you can still traverse the timelines thanks to a GPS…” Tony shrugs. “Tempting.”
“I thought we weren’t going to measure me by my doppelgangers,” Steve says.
“Fair point,” Tony says. “Grant?”
Grant lifts his head. “Yes?”
“You finish breakfast, then join me in the garage,” Tony says, pulling away from Steve and towards the door. “Your suit needs tweaking. That sound good?”
“I’m done, actually,” Grant says, looking at his plates.
“I’ll clean up,” Steve says. “Go ahead, it’s fine.”
It’s long after they’re gone, and Steve’s done with breakfast, and all the plates and cutlery washed and dried, that Steve does double-take.
“Two thousand twenty-three?” Steve says to the empty kitchen. “How long did it take them to defeat Thanos?”
For the rest of the morning, Steve catches up with household chores. He hasn’t quite gotten the hang of gardening yet, but it’s an interesting project and it keeps him outside for hours at a time. When the sun’s just passed its zenith, he comes inside for lunch.
Most of the kitchen is automated because Tony won’t have it any other way, even when living in the middle of mostly-nowhere. Today there’s soup, bread and pasta, which Steve serves for three on a tray, and carries out to the garage.
As with the kitchen, Tony’s garage isn’t ‘just’ a garage. It’s a workshop in deceptively pedestrian packaging: genuine timber around a state-of-the-art pre-fabricated unit that’s not unlike Tony’s workshops in the Avengers headquarters. There’s actually an underground tunnel that connects the garage to the house, but Steve prefers the scenic route of a small pebbled path that winds around a cordoned-off area that will one day be a vegetable patch.
When Steve usually visits the garage, Tony has his rock music blasting at high volume. Today when Steve enters the place, there’s still rock music playing, but at a more reasonable volume. Steve doesn’t see Tony and Grant at first glance, though he does spot Grant’s quantum tech on a bench.
“Lunch is up!” Steve calls out.
“We’re in here,” Tony calls back.
The garage has a bathroom towards the back, because that’s only sensible. When Steve approaches it, he sees that the door is wide open, and that Grant and Tony are standing by the sink. There are scissors and shaving cream arranged by the taps, and Tony is wielding a razor up against Grant’s foam-wrapped chin.
“You setting up a barber shop in here now?” Steve says.
Without taking his eyes off his work, Tony replies, “The most expensive and exclusive barber shop on the Eastern seaboard.”
Tony moves the razor in a careful arc up Grant’s chin. Steve’s always known that Tony has elegant hands, but there’s new beauty in watching him shave someone else, his movements careful and precise. Steve touches his own chin, wondering how long it’ll take to grow out something for Tony to shave.
“There we go,” Tony says. “Rinse out, and don’t forget my tip.”
Grant does that in the sink, and when he stands back up, Steve feels a chill tickle up his spine. That’s Steve’s face, all right, just much older. That beard must have been there for a long time because Grant seems just as surprised at his own reflection.
“Looks good,” Grant says. He smiles as he picks up a towel to dry his face off. “Thanks, Tony.”
“No problem.” Tony raises an eyebrow at Steve. “At least we know you’re gonna still be handsome sixty years from now.”
“Very important information,” Steve says.
They have lunch in the workshop, all three of them. The atmosphere is more relaxed than it had been at breakfast, but that’s mostly because of Tony, who talks animatedly on such topics as quantum mechanics, testing the presence of actual parallel universes, and the ethics of using tech that technically doesn’t have an inventor in their universe.
In between, they discuss the differences between their universe and Grant’s. Steve’s honestly curious on the changes Grant made, and Grant’s curious about how various fights in their universe went down. It’s lively and interesting and melancholy in turns, and Steve can easily spot areas where Grant subtly but deliberately steers the conversation away from.
Grant doesn’t say it out loud, but Steve (and Tony, probably) can tell that things went bad in his universe, even before Thanos came to Earth. There’s a blank spot in Grant’s chronology, between the drafting of the Accords and the arrival of the Maw’s ship in New York. Grant does talk at length about the interim between the two snaps, though: five years of decay in a post-apocalyptic universe.
“It’s not even clear if the resnap was the right move to make,” Grant says. “It did feel right at the time, but in the aftermath… The universe had five years to mourn and move on, and we were bringing everyone back?”
“Of course it was the right thing to do,” Steve says. “If you have the means to undo a hurt, you should take it.”
“Well,” Tony says slowly, “that’s not exactly undoing a hurt. It’s more like removing a bullet that’s been stuck in you for years. You’ve started to heal, but you have to rip the wound open all over again on the off-chance that it could heal better the second time.”
“You’d rather leave billions dead?” Steve says.
“Didn’t say that,” Tony says. “It’s just not as straightforward a choice as it seems.”
Grant nods. “But it’s the kind of choices we have to make, one way or another, as Avengers. And we take whatever lands after.”
“Technically, you didn’t,” Tony points out, though he’s smiling. “You time-hopped, missed the fallout.”
“This is fallout, too,” Grant says, hands open to indicate where he is. “This whole branching timeline is fallout of our playing with time travel. I don’t claim to have stayed here purely out of altruism—” he smiles when Steve snorts faintly, “—but I can’t regret taking the chance to change things for people I care about. Sure, my universe will always be the way I lived it, but I’m okay with stacking the odds in at least one other universe.”
Tony’s propped his chin on one hand. He’s smiling a ridiculously fond smile, while his eyes flicker from Grant over to Steve. “Sounds like a guy I know.”
Steve huffs. “Are you implying that I cheat?”
“Implying is for weaklings,” Tony says. “I’m stating definitively that you cheat.”
Steve starts to protest, but Grant’s the one who says, “It’s not really cheating, though. It’s… acting with all the tools available. Making the most of preemptive knowledge.”
“And good intentions,” Tony says. “Of which yours are, of course, the bestest intentions of all.”
Grant coughs. “I didn’t say that.”
“But then, why would you want to go back?” Steve says.
“Closure,” Grant says. “The team needs to know I returned the stones safely. And that they’re going to need a new Captain America.”
“You could’ve done that earlier,” Tony says. “It’s been a while since Peggy passed.”
“Just wanted to make sure that you guys beat Thanos.” Grant huffs a little under his breath. “Bruce said I could take as long as I needed, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean this long.”
“We make a choice, and we take whatever lands after,” Steve says. Grant meets his eye and nods.
“Well,” Tony says, “you can go whenever you’re ready. The suit and GPS are ready. The departure coordinates are still in there and—” he leans over, flicking at a holographic screen just behind them, “—they fit the tunneling model. You can return exactly where and when you came from.”
“Wow,” Grant says. “That’s good, thank you.”
“Will you come back?” Steve asks.
“Not sure.” Grant sounds sanguine. This has been a long time in the making, and he’s ready. “I’ve been putting my goodbyes together.”
Tony puts a hand on Grant’s. “Whatever you decide, I’m glad to have known you, Steve.”
Grant starts a little, eyes wide as he looks at Tony. Steve shouldn’t stare at Grant, or try to make sense of the conflicted flickering in his watery blues, but he can’t help himself. Steve’s had years of gladly giving in to the magnetic pull Tony has over him – the glorious star in Steve’s universe – so he easily recognizes the same impulse in the other man.
Or it could just as easily be that Grant’s missing a good friend he’d admired, who’d given his life to save the universe, leaving behind a wife and daughter and a whole world to mourn him. Maybe.
“I’ll call Bucky,” Grant says. “He can pick me up.”
“Sounds good,” Tony says.
After lunch, Steve clears up their plates and heads back to the house, leaving Tony and Grant to work on final tweaks on the quantum tech. This gives Steve a little time to think, so that when Grant returns to the house to pack his things, Steve’s decision has been made.
Grant’s still gathering his bag when Steve knocks at the guest room door.
“Hey,” Steve says. Grant looks up, but his eye quickly drops down to Steve’s hand, and the large canvas bag he’s holding. “You mentioned that your shield was broken in the final battle. Thought you could use mine.”
“Oh!” Grant exclaims. “God, no, I couldn’t—”
“I can’t use it anymore.” Steve shrugs his left shoulder, that arm still hanging awkwardly by his side. “Tony’s been trying to find ways for me to keep it, but whatever he comes up with, it’d have to involve modifying the shield itself. I kind of prefer the idea of the shield staying the way it is, being used the way it’s always been.”
He hefts the bag over and lays it out on the bed. He hangs back when Grant unzips it, revealing the topmost red and blue stripes of glinting metal. Grant’s hand lingers on it for a long moment, but he still sounds reluctant when he says, “You’ll need a shield.”
“Believe me, I have a lot of options,” Steve says. “And I owe you.”
Grant’s head snaps up. “No, you don’t.”
“This timeline exists because of you. Look, I’m not saying thank you,” Steve says wryly, which has Grant laughing under his breath, “I’m just saying… you should take the shield, and make sure it gets put to good use.”
“I… can do that.” Grant carefully zips the bag back up. For a moment he seems much older, lost in his thoughts – or memories, maybe. His voice is very quiet when he says: “I did love my Tony.”
Steve inhales. “Oh?”
“Not the way you love yours,” Grant says. “But there was a… a spark, of something. We were friends, but not close enough somehow. There was always a barrier between us, I couldn’t get through it, or he couldn’t, or it was just… I don’t know. But we cared about each other a lot, even when we pissed each other off. He inspired me and infuriated me and made me question so many things I thought I knew about myself. It was only when it was too late that I realized how important he was to me, even if I didn’t really understand how on earth he got so under my skin…”
Steve can only listen, and nod along.
Grant presses his knuckles to the space under his eyes, which are a little bright. He continues, “When I first saw you and Tony together, I thought – what? What is that? Why is that? And then… oh. So that’s what was going on between me and Tony. Except the two of you had the chance to let that spark catch on.”
Steve swallows the urge to apologize. Grant’s made peace with his life and the things he’s done, and found if not a safe or typical happy ending, then at least an ending where he’d done the best he could.
“So there’s that,” Grant says. “I’ve told you before, right, about how happy I am for you two? That’s always been true, it’s just a… deeper kind of true.”
“I’m getting that,” Steve says. “I’m glad you told me this.”
“Nice to finally tell you, too, actually.” Grant grins, the relief there genuine despite said grin being a little shaky. “That’s another thing I hoped to do before I go.”
It occurs to Steve that he could feel sorry for Grant over a great number of things: how things played out in his universe without the stacked deck, or for whatever Grant thinks was missing from his friendship with Tony. But pity doesn’t feel like the right response. Grant still had a life with Peggy, and a relationship with Tony and the other Avengers he clearly treasures, and he’d found gratification in chiseling his way through another timeline’s history.
This is a man with a thousand ghosts, but he’s also a man who’d found peace with said ghosts. He’s accepted his life, flaws and joys and regrets and all.
Steve believes he’s doing okay with his own life, but he has his own share of mistakes and regrets that he can’t (hasn’t?) let go. It doesn’t matter that in Grant’s universe they’d lost so badly they’d had to resort to time travel; Steve’s the leader of the Avengers here, where they’ve lost Clint and Bruce and so many others, and where they hadn’t taken the fight off Earth as quickly as they could have.
That is what Steve has to live with, and he hopes he’ll be just as at peace with all of it at his end, wherever and whenever that’ll be.
It’s a shame to have to say goodbye to Grant just as they’d finally gotten to know him. But sometimes that’s just the way of the world, and of the multiverse.
When Bucky arrives to pick Grant up, Steve takes one look at him and says, “You knew who Grant was the whole time, didn’t you?”
“Guilty as charged,” Bucky says. “Not a bad trade-off, though.”
“Yeah,” Steve says. “Can’t argue with that.”
They put Grant’s things – including the shield – in Bucky’s car, and it’s time for goodbyes.
Steve’s never been comfortable the handful of times Grant’s hugged him, but even the knowledge of who Grant really is doesn’t help much with their latest attempt. Steve tries, really he does, but he only manages an awkward back-pat before Grant’s drawing away and saying, “Yeah, it’s—”
“Yeah,” Steve agrees. He offers his hand, though, which Grant shakes. That’s much better.
There’s no such discomfort with Tony, though. Their hug is easy, and Grant closes his eyes into it. When they pull apart, Tony comes back in for a spontaneous kiss on Grant’s cheek. Grant jumps a little, but seems to like it.
“You take care, yeah?” Tony says.
“I’ll try my best,” Grant says. “So, uh. Thank you. Both of you.”
Tony settles by Steve’s side, Steve’s arm around him, as they watch Bucky and Grant drive off. The gravel crunches underneath the tires until they reach the earth road, and then it’s not long before the car’s disappearing into the thick of the trees, taking with it the rumble of an engine that has nothing to do with their lakeside house.
“Tony,” Steve says. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
“You want to test if you can still fuck me against a wall?”
Steve huffs a laugh. “I’m game for that, but mainly I was thinking that we should destroy all the information you’ve gotten about time travel.”
Tony groans. “All of it?”
“All of it.”
“All all of it?”
“Maybe only the parts that are really dangerous.”
“Okay, all of it.” Tony shifts his weight over to lean against Steve, with a thumb hooked in the back of Steve’s belt. “Damn. It’s not every day you learn something completely new about the nature of reality.”
“True. It’s more like every other month.”
Tony lets out a long sigh, and turns under Steve’s arm to tuck himself against Steve’s chest, chin propped up on Steve’s sternum as he looks up at him. “That’s terrible.”
“You need to be nice to me. I died to save the universe in an alternate timeline.” Tony says that lightly, a tease that he knows won’t sting as much as it did.
But Steve can only brush his knuckles along Tony’s handsome face and say, “Okay. I’ll be nice.”
Tony’s eyes widen a little. Steve smiles at him, content and pleased and proud. So what if Tony’s a big fucking hero in another universe? He’s a big fucking hero in this universe. Steve doesn’t have to say this out loud, because Tony sees it clearly enough.
Tony exhales shakily, and drops his forehead to Steve’s chest, as though to soothe a sudden headache. “Oh my god,” he says, voice muffled. “This is the man I married.”
Steve smiles against the top of Tony’s head. A sense of calm washes over him, and he stays with it, basking in Tony’s presence and the knowledge they’ve gained over the past two days. Their universe isn’t perfect – the cost of fight with Thanos was far higher than it needed to be, stacked deck or not – but it’s theirs to keep and remember and protect. Steve didn’t need another reason to appreciate what they have, but it’s nice to get one anyway.
Next on their agenda: the rest of their lives.