Not All Those Who Wander
Everything happens somewhere. There is an infinite number of timelines, an infinite number of possibilities; the forks in the road are innumerable. The point isn't that a butterfly wing here may cause a hurricane there. The point isn't that a coin, randomly dropped on the street, may change history, or a history.
The point is that the coin may land so that either heads or tails are showing, any number of times in any number of universes. Random? Perhaps not. I do not know.
"Are you going back?" the Ancient One asked. I thought she meant back to my present, obviously.
The time stone was the last one, and I'd just returned it. It was supposed to be an easy mission, in and out. But now I lingered, reluctant to leave. I had no idea why. Maybe I wanted someone to guess what I was about to do and say something like oh-no-you-can't-do-that-it's-insane. Just, stop me before I make another mess. Then again, that would have probably just made me more determined to do what I meant to. I took all the stupid with me when I started on this journey, after all.
"Yes," I answered, aiming for ambiguity.
She looked at me sharply. "How far back?"
That was just it: I wasn't sure. "Haven't decided yet," I said, and added, "ma'm", just for good measure.
One of her eyebrows twitched. It looked suspiciously like amusement.
I was so damn tired. I'd been trying to hold myself together ever since Tony's funeral. Going back to the last place we visited together hadn't exactly helped with that. Camp Lehigh. There was too much of my history, our history there.
I just want to see him one more time. From afar, was the first lie I told myself when this insane idea came into my head. Everything hurt. Yeah, we'd won. I knew how one felt once a battle was over; this wasn't my first, after all. This time I'd skipped the giddy happiness and the life-affirmative sex that sometimes comes straight afterwards. Quietly, I slipped right into the hollowness phase; it was like coming home. We'd won. I felt nothing. It was over. Still nothing. And then, when I stopped feeling nothing, I wished I still did. Feeling nothing had been a bliss.
Just to talk to him, just once. That's all I mean to do. That was the second lie, and, as these things happen, not as easily discernible. Just a short conversation.
You do know you can't affect the present you came from? That was what I expected her to say to me. I did know, too.
What she said instead was: "Were you tempted? To try and use the stones?"
I shook my head. No, I hadn't been tempted. Not because I'm a paragon of virtue or anything, but because...
"It wouldn't have worked." Because Bruce had already tried it with Natasha, and failed. You couldn't undo death, not even with the help of the Infinity Stones. No, both of them were lost to us. Once again I felt untethered, once again the people I wanted to see most were in the past. Not unreachable, exactly, but, in a way, untouchable. "And even if it did work, it wouldn't have been real." It wouldn't have been him. I didn't want something I perhaps could have created with the help of the stones, if I tried hard enough – something built from spun sugar.
"Good," she said. And, "Is it worth creating yet another timeline, though? What you mean to do?"
But Bruce said new timelines came into being all the time. What did it matter? Every major decision, every significant point in time, created a divergence. In one timeline a war started, perhaps; in a parallel one, it didn't. Things like that. Even personal decisions can have a diverging effect. Not what you had for breakfast, I suppose, but something that created ripples in your personal universe.
The thing is, we can never know what trivial thing we do can create ripples.
As a result of all this, as far as I could see, the universe had more lose ends than a sweater Wanda once tried to knit. (Don't ask.)
Something in my brain decided to interpret the last part of The Ancient One's question as a what do you mean to do?
I wasn't going to spew I love yous a him. I'm no good at that, words come with difficulty. I couldn't even hug him; we never really got there. I could find him, a month ago. So that he doesn't know it's another me. I could try to tell him that he is important to me. Just so that he'd know, just that. Because I never did tell him that while he was alive. So, is that worth creating yet another timeline, just to get that off my chest? It would create a separate timeline, I suppose, but it wouldn't be significantly different from ours. It would change nothing, technically. So why not?
The thing was, I didn't want to change any part of his life, even if I could. What would I do, go back to 2014 or 2015, back when he wasn't with Pepper at the moment, and convince him to take a chance on me? Create a separate timeline, so that I could take away his potential wife and daughter from him – from that version of him, at least – for my own happiness? Even if it could work?
I shook my head no at her question. It wasn't that it wasn't worth it; it wasn't a worthy thing to do.
And yet, I couldn't go back to the present and just live on, in the world where he wasn't. I wanted to at last be in the same world as him. Just the fact he existed would make it easier.
She must have grown tired of me just standing there, mute. I know I would have.
"Do you actually know what I will do next?" I asked, spurred on by a bout of curiosity and something Bruce had told me about her.
"Would," she said. "Could. Might," She touched the amulet around her neck which now held the time stone again. "Yes. I see it all."
I opened my mouth to ask something; closed it. Thought about what I was going to say. "Is there any scenario in which this doesn't turn out to be a disaster? Apart from me just going back to my own timeline."
"You have no guarantee that that would not be a disaster." She had a no-nonsense way of speaking, but at this instant she sounded almost mild.
"True enough. You're not going to tell me anything, are you?"
At that moment I figured why I was delaying my departure. This was a decision I didn't know how to make. The needle of my moral compass was spinning uselessly. It didn't feel as if there was a right answer, or even a right question. The direction my heart was leaning towards was something my mind warned me against. Her last words struck resonance with me – maybe just because it suited me to believe what she said. But there was nothing in my present left for me, no unfinished business, no fight left to fight. There would be the aftermath, a lot of work, a lot of things to set right – but what was wrong with the world – my world – couldn't be rectified in any way. I had friends, yes, but I didn't know how you went from putting all your strength into one thought, one idea, one fight, into standing perfectly still. Basically, doing nothing. I could think of a way – and that way would be being with a person; starting something, sharing something. Bucky always said I was a hopeless romantic at heart, even though I don't really see it. But those thoughts brought on nothing but anguish. And, stubbornly, if it couldn't have that, if I couldn't have him, my heart wanted nothing at all.
To float endlessly in the quantum realm, trapped in an eternal second. I could cut my tethers and stay there, stretching on forever. But thinking about that was just a moment's indulgence.
Her touch on my cheek surprised me. It felt more as if she was flicking away a breadcrumb than anything else, but for a moment it was there, and it felt solicitous if you squinted. She said, "You're tired. I understand that, you know. I'm tired too." It sounded brisk and matter-of-fact. "Tell me, Captain, what would you want? If you had a choice?"
My voice sounded bitter in my own ears. "To have a life. Like he always told me to." A whole life, with him; but even with the power of navigating time at my fingertips, I couldn't think of a way to do it that wouldn't rob him of the future he could have with his family. It would be self serving and manipulative, to go there at some point in time, and just pull him away, knowing what else he could have.
I think she must have guessed the gist of it, somehow. That, and she must have seen who I kept going to in all those futures that didn't take place, branching out from that point in time.
With the technology we have, we can move back and forth through the past, in our own timeline, Bruce had said. We can also create new timelines, diverging from ours. But we cannot move between existing timelines. Perhaps it's possible, but I can't think how.
"There's something I can do for you," she said then. "But you will have to do the rest yourself."
The coin dropped.
I landed in Central Park. I changed into civvies in the bushes and put on a pair of sunglasses. I scanned the area and I spotted him at once. On a bench, laid back, hiding behind his shades, a phone forgotten in his hand. Before my mind could process this fully, my eyes were already boring into him, drinking him in, cataloguing, storing the sight for later. The way his head was tilted backwards, the line of his chin. I was inhaling his face, to keep forever in my heart. I knew this couldn't last. I knew I'd been granted one last look, one last chance to gaze at him, and yes, this was how I wanted to remember him forever: sunbathing in Central Park, gloriously alive. I expected to be snatched back to my own timeline any second.
The rhythm of my own heart was choking me, and I thought I knew what it was, I never forgot: an asthma attack. But then I remembered: no, no, all I need to do is breathe. The heart refused to slow down, though. My fight-or-flight response kicked in, and my feet acquired a brain of their own. Before I knew it, I stood there, next to his bench. I thought I was going to crush him to my chest when I got near, but then all I could do was stand there like a log, doing nothing.
I think it was a barest whisper, but he must have heard me. I saw his eyes snap open. He tore the sunglasses off, staring at me for a barest second, and then he was jumping to his feet. Getting into my face.
"Who the fuck are you?"
A million thoughts flashed through my head simultaneously. I knew nothing of that timeline. When was this? Tony looked about the same age as in my present, back while he still was alive. What was this timeline like? Did he not know me at all? That was... devastating. The little history we managed to have in between our misunderstandings and fights – and in this timeline, none of it happened? Some of the defining moments of my life, erased. Maybe here I never got defrosted, maybe... Infinite possibilities bloomed before me, and there, intertwined with the sinking feeling, I suddenly felt a glimmer of hope. It was sharp-edged and jagged, and hell, it hurt. New chances and new beginnings always do. At least I could work with that. Do things right this time around.
And then: Is it possible he survived the last battle because he didn't have me in his life?
But – no. He knew me. He wouldn't be getting into my face so aggressively if I was just a random stranger. "Answer me," he ordered. He was... moving, breathing, bristling at me, and it was a miracle.
"Tony." That was all I was managing to say to him. I pulled my own shades off. Only by the cold breeze on my face I registered there were tears streaming down it.
"You're dead," he informed me, which explained a few things. Then he stopped, stared hard into my eyes. "Shit," he said. "Shit! It is you, isn't it? Somehow it's you. But that's impossible, it's impossible because you went and died, I saw you die..." He'd cranked it up to 45, but now his breath hitched and he gasped a little and his right arm flew up towards his chest.
No! I thought frantically, ready to catch him if he fell, ready to perform CPR, but The Ancient One wouldn't do this to us, surely – she wouldn't send me to a timeline where Tony is alive only to have him suffer a cardiac arrest upon seeing me.
Somehow, my hands were on his shoulders, steadying him. He had gone pale and he suddenly looked older. "Tony are you all right?"
At the same time he was saying "Steve, how the fuck?"
"I'm from a parallel timeline," I managed. "Will you sit down, please?" The last time I was this close to him in a similar fashion, afraid he was going to faint on me, was when he got out of that space ship with Nebula. I had no more control over the situation now.
"And you, what – you thought it would be a great idea to just walk up to me in Central Park, just like that, and give me a heart attack?"
I removed my hands from his shoulders, but I still kept them close, just in case. "Sorry," I said automatically, a tad devastated at his reaction. He stopped, then, passed a hand over his face. "God," he breathed, as if coming back to his senses. "Will you forget I said that? Just... Forever. Please. Yeah, I think I'm going to sit down, now." He did so, heavily, but his breathing was getting back to normal. He didn't seem to be in any immediate danger.
I sat down too. I couldn't look away from his face, and he seemed to be feeling the same, so we just sat there for a little while, staring at each other.
"Is it really you?"
I nodded. "I mean, I'm not the Steve you knew, exactly, but..."
He waved his hand impatiently. "I know how it works." He was sitting still, but he was drumming his fingers on the bench between us in a frantic rhythm. "And, in your timeline, we lost? Won? What?"
"We won the war," I said. I could still hear tears in my own voice, but I don't think anyone else could. "We lost..." We lost you. "A lot," I finished lamely.
"This wasn't supposed to be possible," he said. "Strange said there was only one future in which..."
I knew exactly what he was talking about. Tony had told me – my Tony, I mean, the one from my own timeline.
"Strange meant the futures that..." I began, but:
"...diverged from that exact point in time onwards," he interrupted. "Yeah, I know, I'm figuring it out as I go, I just..." He rubbed his forehead, glistening with sweat.
"Our timelines must have separated earlier."
"I know," he snapped again, impatient. Then he apparently bit his tongue, shooting me an apologetic look.
"It's okay," I said. "Do you need a glass of water or something?"
He ignored my question. "You know," he said conversationally, "I kept telling myself it was the only way – your death, I mean. It's a piss poor comfort, but you know... The only way we could save the world. One has to save the world, it's not as if you can opt out. And now I see there had been other ways, evidently so, and," he waved his hand in my direction, "they didn't involve you dying." His voice had started casual but by the end it had gone bitter around the edges. He shook his head at me.
I'd expected I'd be all quivery when I started talking to him, but he was the one that looked shaken. My focus seemed to have returned to me after days. And me – I felt like I could tackle anything at all. I was here, and I was talking to Tony. That meant everything.
He took a deep breath. "Steve," he started again, with some apparent hesitation. Still, there was more than a hint of warmth in his voice. I looked up, met his eyes. His use of my first name nestled inside my chest, precious, even though I couldn't tell him something like that. "I am glad to see you, you know." His voice was low. Everything about him seemed a little dampened to me, coming to think of it, a bit quieter than what I was used to, with Tony. Was this the toll of the war or was he like that in this timeline, I wondered.
"I know," I said.
"I mean it. Disregard the shit I've been saying. Please. Maybe I don't sound it, but I'm so happy I could just... I could hug you an sit here cuddling with you while the world goes to shit." His lips were twisted with wry humor, but there was something vulnerable, hidden in his eyes.
"I'm good with cuddling," I quipped back, actually meaning every word, and thinking: if only he did too. We both stayed on our respective ends of the bench, obviously, but just sitting so close to him was glorious enough.
"Listen, though," he said. "Are you in a hurry? I mean – what are you doing here? Are you on a mission or...? Did you need me to do something for you?"
I shook my head mutely and felt a smile tugging at my lips. My first, incoherent thought had been that I'd been sent here just for a minute, just to see him. But, coming to think on it, that made no sense. Why would the Ancient One do that? No. I was now coming to believe I was here for good. I did say I wanted a life. And she said she could help me with that. It made sense.
New beginnings. As I said, they always hurt. I know a thing or two about new beginnings. Still, I thought, maybe this actually is a chance to do things right this time around.
"I think I'm here to stay."
There had been a tension in the lines of his face – there almost always is, with Tony – but now a part of it started bleeding away, slowly. It was a most beautiful sight.
"Really?" he said, and I didn't believe the wryness of his smirk for one second. I think he knew it.
I hummed something noncommittal, but I couldn't stop smiling with my eyes.
I was still devastated, of course. The man I loved had died, and he was still dead, and that was going to stay that way, that was final. This wasn't him, exactly. But, still, in a way, it was, and I got to talk to him, and I got to laugh with him again, and suddenly, the world was back, bright in technicolor, and I could fill my lungs with air to bursting once more.
Tony being Tony, he jumped to the next topic without much preamble. "Know that tiny donut shop on the corner of STREET and STREET? Does it exist in your time, too?"
I did indeed know it, and I said so, so we got up and went that way, because, "I can't process this without food," Tony said. It was so like him, again, that I could barely cope with the happiness that hummed inside me. It immediately made me feel guilty.
As we were nearing the establishment, I looked around, noticing the small differences from the New York I knew – here a store front was painted green, not blue; over there, a fancy flower shop stood in place of a bookshop where I'd bought something once. And since I was paying so much attention to the details and not the big picture, I only then realized where we were.
"Hey," I said, "do you want to get shawarma instead?"
My own hunger hadn't even registered with me before I started eating, and then it felt like I hadn't put anything in my mouth since we were here last, in 2012. Tony was no better, and only when we ordered seconds did we really get to talking.
"You do love this place," he commented. I nodded. I was a bit sentimental perhaps, but what I actually loved about the place was the current company, and that's the plain truth.
"I died, didn't I?" he asked then. "In your time." He must have read the truth in my eyes, because he nodded to himself. "How?"
"Heroically," I said without hesitation, and he just snorted.
"I meant... never mind."
Can we talk about something else, I wanted to say, because the last thing I wanted was to think about his death, now that this other Tony was sitting here with me. Still, I could see the urgency in his face – not eagerness, exactly, but something that told me he wouldn't be at peace until he found out. And for better or worse, there was no way I was saying no to anything he wanted right at that moment.
"You... he wielded the gauntlet – a gauntlet, actually, an Iron Man gauntlet with the infinity stones." He didn't look surprised, he just nodded, so I figured he knew about the thing. "You snapped Thanos and his army out of existence." The pain at the memory was still sharp, and I welcomed it. It was there so I didn't forget what my Tony did for us all and how he went. Not that I could ever forget, but I was already afraid it would be so easy to lose myself in this new timeline, this new Tony; the pain would die down, and that couldn't be allowed to happen. That would be the ultimate betrayal.
"So I saved you?" he said.
I nodded. "You saved all of us." He did, something in me corrected.
"In my timeline, you wielded the gauntlet," he told me.
No, I wanted to say, that was this other Steve, the one that was braver, maybe, or quicker, or worthier than me. "I figured."
"I tried to get there first," Tony added.
"I don't doubt you did." Just like I'd wanted to get there before Tony did, during our battle. I'd always rather have it be me and not Tony, but hey, we can't pick those things, I suppose. We were where we were. We'd both wanted death, but when we couldn't have that, perhaps now we could have a life instead.
"It's good to know, you know," he commented after a bite. "That somewhere out there I beat you to it." The show of impudence was barely holding together, but Tony was giving it his best shot. His hand was frantically toying with the salt shaker. Here, his nervous ticks were showing way more; either he didn't care to hide them, or this was all too much for him. It was almost too much for me. Let's talk about something else, I was going to say as I touched his hand to steady it, to stop the insane salt-shaker pogo-dance.
At that moment, though, he looked up sharply, right into my eyes. "I never forgave you, you know."
Despite myself, I snatched my hand back a quarter of an inch. My throat was suddenly dry. "For Siberia?"
"What? No. Not for Siberia." He looked taken aback. "For dying. I never forgave you for dying. I'm not going to, either."
"That... wasn't me, exactly," I said, and I'm afraid I sounded more distant than I meant to. I had no idea what happened here. The disbelief in Tony's voice when he said no, not for Siberia made me wonder if, around here, perhaps it hadn't been such a big deal. maybe we were possibly just better at sorting it out. Maybe we even managed to talk about it once or twice.
"You just keep going on about that." He rolled his eyes.
"This is exactly the second time I mentioned it."
"Yeah, yeah, but you keep flinching and wincing and blinking at me every time I say 'I' or ’you’. I know you, you see. I suppose you can consider it a philosophical matter or whatever, but for all intents and purposes, for me – you're you. If we did a DNA check now, it would show it's you." I just sat there, wondering if he were right, but in my heart I felt he wasn't. "And yeah," he went on, "I know our timelines diverged for some reason, but it doesn't necessarily have to have anything to do with something you and I did. Statistically speaking, it probably doesn't. You've probably lived a very similar life to what Steve had here. See, you even had the Civil War – which, by the way, why bring it up now?"
I shrugged. "I still keep thinking about it."
He shook his head. "You're just... You know what, let's get back to that later. But we'll definitely talk about it. What I'm saying is, I choose to consider you you and I choose to believe you've been given back to me, somehow, because otherwise..." He took a deep breath. I knew Tony's face. I knew it was about to crumple, and I knew he was not going to allow it, and if he couldn't stop it, he was going to resent me just a little for seeing it. I took too big a bite, then started fishing about for a napkin, to give him a chance to get himself together. He shot me a grateful look. "Otherwise," he went on after a second, "I could as well be in the corner, crying into my falafel all over again." He said it lightly, in that way he had when he wanted to tell the truth and also to pass it off as a joke. I didn't know what to say, so I didn't say anything. I just ran my fingers through my hair. I wanted to take his hand, but I wasn't sure if he would appreciate that.
I wanted to know where our timelines diverged. And why. It may have been a matter of philosophy, like he said, but for me it was a burning personal question, even though I couldn't really say it was entirely rational. It was as if, if I could find out how long time ago it happened, I could gauge whether his Steve was really like me; whether this Tony was essentially the same Tony that died on me two weeks before.
"Okay, let's try to find out when the divergence was," I said slowly. "You went to space after Thanos. We lost. You came back, with Carol and Nebula. Right?"
He was nodding along, but seemed too impatient to let me finish. "Yeah, yeah, I had my meltdown and stormed off, and then you fucked off to kill Thanos, much good it did, but whatever, you got back, we proceeded to fuck each other's brains out that night, and then tomorrow, we came here for shawarma and actually talked, and we reconciled for good, and then... What? What is it?"
I couldn't move. My heart was doing its best to choke me again. When I could finally speak, the best I managed was, "We what?"
He figured out at once what I meant. He arched an eyebrow, gave me a contemplative look. "We didn't, in your timeline?"
The gurgling in my throat must have sounded quite intelligent.
Mutely, I shook my head. The jealousy I felt was momentous and sharp, and directed solely at my alter ego. He got to have what I'd wanted so badly and what I could never have had. But that feeling was quickly trumped by a deep sense of inadequacy. Inadequacy to replace this timeline's version of myself. Tony kept insisting we were the same person, his Steve and I, more or less, but now it was clear we weren't. This place's Steve must have had something I don't. "We were... together?" I asked, trying to be casual about it, but suddenly hungry for information. "You," I corrected quickly. "I mean the two of you."
Tony continued with his own line of thought for a moment longer. "Really, not even once? Yeah, well, there's your divergence, then, there's..." My question seemed to register with him, then. He shot me an unreadable look. "No, well, we weren't together. We were good friends who shared an occasional fuck, for fun and comfort." It sounded so natural, the way he said it, and also entirely impossible. He paused, gave me a concerned frown. "You all right, there?"
Five years, I thought. Everything else aside – because I had to put it aside, I couldn't deal with the question of them having sex right then – that meant they made up five years earlier. This Steve had had five years more with Tony. Or, well – maybe not with, but... They must have talked. Occasionally, at least. Tony said they'd been friends. Did they do friend things, I wondered hungrily? Like what? Lead the support group together? I could hardly imagine that. Played basketball? Cooked dinners for Natasha and the others? (Oh, Jesus. I couldn't think about Natasha now, either. I couldn't.)
Am I all right? How could I be all right? I nodded automatically in response to his question, though. "Just surprised." Jealous. Confused.
For a moment, I allowed myself to get lost in fantasies of what if.
But, whatever they did, I knew one thing for a fact: his Steve must have loved him. I couldn't imagine a universe in which it would happen otherwise. A few constants must exist. And, if Steve loved Tony, and if they had sex occasionally, but still weren't together, it had to mean one thing: Tony didn't love him back.
Disappointment was there, alive inside me, despite myself. Of course he didn't. He always loved other people. Why did I think it would be different here? But then – there must be variables too. Why did the Ancient One send me here, after all? Was this perhaps the only timeline where Tony was alive? No, impossible. So, maybe something else differed.
Because, if they actually did have sex from time to time, even if there was nothing else between them, it had to mean he wasn't... I took a deep breath. I had to know this. "Tony, are you married?"
First he laughed out. It was a bit too explosive, and sounded almost painful. "Me? Nah." I felt bad for being happy to hear that. What kind of person was I?
Then he said: "So, I'm married in your timeline, eh? To whom, exactly?"
I swallowed a clump of mixed feelings. "Pepper."
"Pep, really? It actually worked in your universe?" There was, of all things, a note of semi-amused incredulity in his voice.
Oh my god. I didn't think this through.
It must have been the shock of seeing him that made my mind reel this way. Thinking was hard. All my emotions seemed to be stuck in my throat, and I had difficulties putting one thought next to another.
I didn't think this through, none of this. I just jumped in and started talking about it without taking into consideration what it would do to him. It was going to hurt him, it might possibly eviscerate him. My first instinct was to cover up a part of the truth, to blunt the edges, but I'd learned my lesson, of course. Still, the thought of how deep this was going to cut tied my own gut into knots.
Tony'd always wanted children. I'm not sure if he even knew it, consciously, before we first visited Clint's farm, that long-ago day in 2015. But I still remember the fierce wistfulness in his eyes. They seemed to say: This. All of this. I want it. I was sure it would be no different for this Tony, at all.
The irony was an asshole, as per usual. My Tony who had had his cottage by the lake, his family, his little girl – he was dead. Knowing Tony, any Tony, I was sure that this timeline's Tony would have traded his life for the possibility of Morgan growing up with her dad, back where I came from. Well, for better or worse, there's usually no one to bargain with. Universe consistently refuses to haggle.
He was giving me that sharp look of his, so I said it before he could: "There's something I haven't told you."
"There's something you haven't told me," he echoed, as if that was exactly what he was going to say anyway.
I pulled my wallet out of my back pocket and passed him the photo I'd begged from Pepper for keepsakes, on the day of Tony's funeral. On it, both Starks really looked alike, too. She was sitting on his shoulders; age two.
Tony stared at it for a time. His lips moved almost mutely, and if not for the serum, I wouldn't have been able to hear his faint whisper: Oh my god, honey.
"That's Morgan," I said quietly when he finally raised his eyes to look at me. Calling them misty would have been an understatement. I had a stone in my chest and all I wanted was to go to him, hold him, but I didn't think it was me he wanted. "Morguna," I went on. "My Tony used to call her that. That's how she pronounced it when she first started talking..." My Tony had told me that story during one of the short breaks in planning and plotting, after he finally came back to the Compound. At that point, I'd wished I could pack him up and just send him back to his family, everything else be damned. But we needed him and, in the end, he'd made his choice.
"Morgan Stark," he repeated slowly, savoring the pain of every syllable. Can you miss someone you've never met? Miss them so much it made you fall apart on the inside? Tony could. "Tell me more," he murmured.
I did. I told him everything I knew. My Tony sometimes slipped a reference here and there – Morgan always says this, wanna know what Morgan did this one time... And when I showed an interest – because she was his, and I loved hearing him talk about things that made him happy – he talked more. Now I tried to remember every tidbit. This other Tony drank them all up.
When I've finally fallen silent, he shook his head, as if in disbelief. "I could have had all that," he said quietly.
I couldn't stand to see him in pain. "Maybe, if you called Pepper and talked to her, maybe you could still..." I began, clawing my heart out from my chest, tossing it in the dirt and casually stepping on it so that Tony wouldn't notice it was there at all.
He seems to snap out of it then. He raised his eyebrows in that way of his that looked more like a frown. "Yeah, no. Pepper and I are not together for a good reason. In this timeline at least." And you can't recreate people, stupid, he didn't say; very loudly so. Children are not bowling pins. They aren't interchangeable.
"Steve... How come you're here?" he asked me then, and while it didn't sound like a reproach, I heard an echo of it in my own conscience. I understood what he meant. Here, and not there, with her...
This conversation was like cutting myself open and showing all the bloody bits to Tony. All the things that hurt. Wasn't there supposed to be relief? All I had was grief and more grief. Maybe the relief would come later.
"My Tony and I, we... weren't all that close," I said wretchedly. "Well, in the end, we were, I suppose, kind of. And it would have gotten better, I think, but..." I swallowed. I never forgave myself those last five years, really. I kept telling myself it was his decision and not mine, but I suppose I'm cursed to forever wander: if I'd tried to talk to him earlier, tried to clear the air, would he have let me be a part of his life? I wouldn't have wanted anything from him, I just wished I'd seen him enjoy some simple happiness.
I told him.
"Five years? Really?"
"You let me stew in my own juices for five years?" I looked up at him, hearing his tone. His smile was wry, self-deprecating. "I let you stew in yours?" He must have seen something in my face, then, because he leaned forward, touched my hand. "Hey." Even amidst all this, I relished the intimacy. This... just this could be enough for me, just an occasional touch and I could be happy. I wasn't going to pressure this Tony, or myself, for anything more. I just wanted to get to know him, if he let me, and maybe offer him something that I dubbed 'tender friendship' in my head. What I wished I'd thought to offer my own Tony earlier. "Hey, bug guy, you all right?"
I nodded. Then, in the interest of honesty, I shrugged.
"So," I said, deciding to go back to what we'd been talking about. "I actually only saw her twice – once when we went to see Tony about time-travel, and then at the... funeral." A part of me was disbelieving all this, because here I was, talking to Tony about his own funeral, more or less. "Morgan's got Pepper and Happy and Rhodey and Peter." All more adequate choices than me. "And I..." I was too broken hearted to pretend I had a life I still wanted to live in that time. I wouldn't have been much use to anyone.
"And you're here," he finished for me, gently. That seemed to give him another idea, though, and in that he was also exactly like my Tony – one moment he could be pensive, and all of a sudden, an idea later, he was all action, all at once. He lit up with a sudden onslaught of inner energy. "How are you here, exactly, by the way?" All of a sudden, it seemed like the most pressing question in the world. "Steve?" he demanded. "No, wait." He jumped up. Beckoned. "You can tell me on the way."
I also got to my feet. Laid a palm on his biceps to slow him down, fully expecting him to shake it off, but it stopped him in his tracks instead. He looked back at me, expectantly. "Tony?" I said softly. "Where are we going?"
"Somewhere not here," he said. "I need you tell me how you managed to slip from one timeline to another. Also, do you have more particles on you or do I need to call Scott Lang?"
I saw nothing was going to slow him down for more than two seconds, now, he was in that mode, so I just followed him.
How I slipped from one timeline to another? Of course. Of course he would want to do that. Of course he would try to figure out how to go to his daughter that wasn't his daughter and offer his paternal services, so to say.
"I don't think you can do it," I said. I knew it was no use, but I said it nevertheless.
"Oh, just watch me. So. How did you get here?"
I told him about the Ancient One from my past, and how she opened the passage through the quantum realm for me. Tony looked disappointed. "I hoped I'd perfected that GPS system in your timeline. Oh, well. I guess we'll need to find either that Ancient One person or Strange."
If he tries to come over to this timeline, only grief can come out of it – and doom. Those were her exact words, and then she refused to say anything more on the subject. I finally managed to get Tony to slow down enough to hear me out, but that was only a bit later, after he'd got tired of grilling me for answers. By that point we were aimlessly walking up and down Bleecker Street. I repeated her words. The Sanctum Sanctorum was shut tight, anyway, at least for us, and no one was answering Tony's phone calls. Stephen Strange's photo hung uselessly on the screen of Tony's phone, as it rang and rang. "I hate the asshole," Tony said without much steam left. He was done with frustrated yelling, and now he just looked tired.
"No you don't."
"No, I don't, but he could at least answer his phone."
"Maybe if you weren't yelling abuse at his windows..."
Our eyes met, and for a moment we just stared at each other, almost amused despite everything. It was the two of us, the way we always were when we weren't at odds. In that moment, staring into his eyes, I thought my heart would explode. It had thought it wouldn't experience an easy moment like that, with him, ever again; it hadn't been ready.
Tony sighed. "God, Steve, I missed you."
I couldn't look away from him. "I missed you, too."
The moment came and went too quickly, and the reason we were on the street came back to us. He wasn't going to get any help here; no one would open a handy portal and send him over to be a dad to a little girl in need of a Tony Stark. I knew I was supposed to dissuade him from that course of action anyway, but my heart ached for him instead. Let's face it. Whatever he decided to do, I was going to be there for him.
He apparently decided to drown his feelings with words. No one was surprised. "Steve? Do you believe all that bullshit, by the way – grief and doom? What's it supposed to mean anyway? It sounds like a couple of second-rate villains – Mr. Doom and Dr Grief." He was obviously babbling in order to hide his own Dr Grief, but I smiled nevertheless.
"I suppose the Ancient One knows what she's talking about," I said dutifully. "She sure knew how to get me here."
"So, it's all right for you to hop around the multiverse, but for me it isn't? Don't get me wrong, I'm glad you decided to hop over to here."
I shrugged. "Look, Tony," I said. "I wish I knew what to tell you. I was offered a chance and I jumped on it. I didn't ask too many questions. I should have, I suppose." I shrugged. "Maybe I'm of no consequence any more. Maybe I'm done. Maybe I can't change anything significant any longer..."
"Oh, horseshit, Steve. Sounds like you're talking destiny and predetermination. Didn't think you believed that."
"I don't, but I do believe in nosy, meddling sorcerers, I suppose."
"Yeah," he echoed with a small smile. "I can believe in nosy, meddling sorcerers no problem."
He looked tired and overstimulated, so I dragged him off to a nearby park and made him sit down on a bench. It was early evening already, the air was warm (it was early June there, I found out later), and I had Tony with me; for the first time that day I thought: I could do this. This. Coming here, staying, getting to know Tony again. Living an uncomplicated life, if there is such a thing. And then I immediately felt guilty, because next to me I could feel him sinking.
"I basically just wanted to go and take care of my kid," he told me. "How's that bad? How can that be such a wrong thing to do?" And then, without waiting for me to reply (thankfully, because what could I say to that?), he went on: "And I know she's not mine, exactly. I do know. But I didn't want her to be left alone. I know she needs her dad. I wanted to be there for her, even though, technically, I'm not him. And now I'm being forced to just... abandon her."
"Everything happens somewhere," I said, not even stopping to think. "Somewhere out there, a Tony is alive, and he comes back home to a Morgan, who is waiting for him."
He nodded quietly. And then, after a pause: "I'm going to try and get over there nevertheless, though."
He gave me a suspicious look. "Do you know something I don't?"
I shook my head. "Just you. If I had anything on the subject, I'd have told you already."
"Despite what the Ancient One told you?"
I watched a stray flicker from a streetlight toy with his hair for a moment because I liked fiddling with concepts like light and shadow and because it's been years since I'd had the luxury to let myself get distracted by Tony's hair.
"That's what I just said," I said.
He was silent for a time. "Steve?" he said then, quietly. "Why are you here?"
I stared straight ahead, resting my chin on my hand, not looking at him. "Why are you asking me that?" His question was perfectly normal, everything considered, but I didn't know how to answer. I wasn't sure if this was me, throwing myself at his feet and crying 'save me', or was it the other way around.
"Look at me, you big ass," he said, tugging at my upper arm, so of course I did. I loved how handsy he was – I imagined he was that way with his Steve, because they were closer, they were these good friends (friends who could touch and kiss and have sex, apparently, and that kind of friendship was something I couldn't understand in my heart, but no one asked me to understand).
He was glaring at me, but he wasn't extremely serious about it. "Why are you evading my question? Why are you here?"
I compressed my lips in frustration with myself because I didn't know what to tell him without falling into trap of addressing my own Tony instead. He was the one who was supposed to be hearing this, only it was too late. But, thinking back, I hadn't been good to this new Tony either. In my attempts not to use him as a handy replacement for my dead friend, I'd been keeping my distance, not saying anything much. He was doing quite the opposite. I remembered how he said he'd cuddle with me, that he could go cry in a corner. How open he'd been about his feelings about the kid he didn't really have. He'd included me as if that was the most natural thing in the world. He'd been wearing his heart on his sleeve in some kind of flag-waving emotional defiance. He stubbornly refused to view me as a stranger.
So, why was I here? I owed him an explanation.
"I..." I faltered, then gathered my courage. It was time for honesty. Essentially, I'd been doing this for years, with the support group I lead, or at least I'd been teaching others to do it. Just tell it how it is. "I loved my Tony." I paused, not quite looking at him. There, it was said. No trumpets, no drumbeat. Suddenly it was easier than I'd thought it would be. As if I've already crossed some kind of line, and from that point onwards it was just your everyday battles. I made myself raise my eyes and added, "I was in love with him", to avoid any kind of confusion. At that, he met my eyes sharply, but I just held his gaze. Steady. "He never knew, of course. I know that's not how it was between you and your Steve, but, eh, it is what it is. I just want you to know that I'm perfectly aware you're not him. I'm not here to... to use you as a substitute."
"God, I got that," he breathed. "All you do is keep saying he and I aren't the same person. I got it." He sounded somewhat irritated with me, of all things. And while that's not exactly unusual, there also seemed to be a tinge of something else in his voice. A hint of hurt? Perhaps. As if he was saying You wanted him. Not me. I get it.
Way to bungle this, Rogers. "It's not like that at all," I said quickly. "I do want to get to know you better. That's the... That's the whole point." Of me being here, I wanted to say, where I have no idea what I'm doing. He wasn't the Tony I knew, but he was Tony, and I was sure of one thing, if nothing else: I liked him a lot. Still, saying it so that he would understand seemed to be a challenge. "I would like to spend time with you," I tried again, lamely. "If you want, that is. I never... We, Tony and I, we never really did that, and maybe that's what almost cost us... everything. I..." I was aware I was not doing a great job here. "Tony, I..."
Where there are too many emotions involved, either his or someone else's, Tony tends to get uncomfortable. I knew it, understood it; I'm like that too. But, where I would fumble for something appropriate to say and end up with a cliché, Tony usually tries to go for the opposite of appropriate in order to defuse the situation. "No use, Rogers," he inserted, and grinned a variant of his tense, too bright TV grin, "I'm not jumping into bed with you."
I didn't have it in me, right then, to grin back and say 'never say never' or to make some other attempt at quippiness. But I did do my best to smile at him. "So, to answer your question," I went on, "as I said, I loved him." For some reason, my own words gave me strength. Or, if not strength, then at least some kind of emotional insubordination that doubles as strength for me. I could take stubborn pride in my own unrealistic feelings.
The idea of just moving on, living on, had been unbearable after Tony's death. I'd already been trying to learn how to move on from my own past; it took me years. And at last I'd realized Tony was it; he was my way of embracing the future – or that was what my stupid, unreasonable heart wanted, at any rate. But that wasn't something that could have happened anyway, not in our universe. "And he died," I echoed my own thoughts. "And I was supposed to do it again, try to move on again; I didn't think I had the stomach to do it. So I happened to be talking with the Ancient One, and somehow she jumped on board of the save Steve Rogers train, and she brought me here. So, I suppose I'm here because doing anything else just didn't seem plausible. Does that make sense to you?"
This was probably my longest speech ever, including my inadequate attempts to boost the team's morale before battles. Even Tony had stopped trying to make light, and now he just nodded.
"Yeah," he said, patting my arm earnestly and a bit awkwardly. "Yeah, it does. It makes a lot of sense."
I decided to shut up for a bit, for both our sakes.
Later on he told me he was actually trying to ask me why I was there, in that particular timeline, and not one of the numerous others. From my present perspective, I can only guess the Ancient One knew there was a Tony here who'd lost his Steve, and couldn't handle it; and I was a Steve who'd lost his Tony, and wasn't doing any better; so she figured she'd do a bit of matchmaking. All in all, I suppose you could say the universe conspired to save us both.
"Do you need a place to stay? No, scratch that, I know you do. No, Steve, shut up, you don't get a say."
I hadn't been going to protest too loudly anyway. Nowadays, as it turned out, Tony lived in a huge two-level apartment in Lower East Side, and when I say a two-level apartment, I of course mean he had two whole topmost floors to himself. The penthouse was where he lived. The lower floor was his workshop. I missed the tower terribly for all of two seconds and I was glad to see again some of the furniture from Tony's floor; those armchairs were old friends, really. But then I told myself, quite firmly, that none of that mattered. The tower had been home only because Tony and the others were there. It's very useful to consider a person your home. That makes it quite portable.
Tony had been increasingly restless on the way, and I couldn't stand to watch him fidget any longer. What I said was: "I think I'm going to call it an early night. See you in the morning?" What I meant was: "Go, fiddle with your quantum GPS. Try." The relief on his face when I said I was going to sleep stung for a moment. But this was Tony. When he gets an idea in his head, he can't help it. He can't keep away.
Was he going to discover a way to go back to my timeline? I had no idea. I doubted it, but then again, he solved the last unsolvable problem too. Did I root for him to succeed? I wasn't sure. I thought it was courting disaster, but Tony and disaster had had a long and painful courtship, and sometimes one came out on top, and sometimes the other. I felt stretched thin and very old at that moment, like people in their 30s sometimes do, and I didn't know anything for sure any longer. No, scratch that. I knew one thing.
"Tony?" He was walking away, but now he turned.
"Whatever you're making, make it for two."
His eyes went wide. I don't think that was the reaction he was expecting.
"If you'll have me, that is," I added. Wherever you go, I go was strongly implied.
"Okay," he whispered. "All right."
Tomorrow morning he emerged rough-haired and wild-eyed, so I of course figured he hadn't gotten any sleep. I'd just been cooking some eggs for breakfast, hoping to trick the sick feeling in my stomach into thinking it was just hunger. I'd woken up, alone in the penthouse, and started thinking it had been a mistake to come here, and how Tony surely didn't want me to stay.
"Hey," I said, and I think I sounded guarded despite my attempt at some kind of casual cheerfulness.
He was standing in the middle of the kitchen floor like a lonely island, just newly emerged from the sea. The instant I saw him, I wanted to go to him, ask him if he was all right, if he'd slept at all. But: "Steve, I'm sorry."
I blinked. "Tony?"
He threw himself into a chair. "Is there coffee? Tell me there's coffee."
In response to his wail, I poured him some and selfishly lingered by his elbow as he drank. I had a feeling this whole foray had been a mistake and that Tony was going to tell me this friendship couldn't work. I wasn't his Steve, and he surely didn't have the stomach to get emotionally invested the second time... So I just wanted to be close to him for a little while longer. When I sneaked a look at his face, I saw he was watching me with an almost-tender smile.
"In case I haven't made it clear," he said, "I'm extremely glad you're here."
Looking at it rationally, he had, actually. Plentifully so. It was just me – insecure when it came to him, as ever. He was more expressive about it, too, than I could picture my Tony ever being, but I suppose that's what happens when people die on you. He'd lost his Steve, I'd lost my Tony. I expected we both had things we regretted not saying. Doesn't everyone? We couldn't afford to repeat that mistake.
Still, his words were a balm. I let a smile spread over my face, unchecked.
When Tony died, I'd stopped smiling, but yesterday and today I realized the necessary muscles were still in a working order.
"Me too," I said, touching his elbow for a moment. I allowed myself that small liberty, and he didn't really seem to mind. "Why are you sorry, though?"
"It's weird," he said, seemingly inconsequentially. "Everything's happening at the same time; yesterday was crazy. You sure can appreciate that, right?"
"Pretty crazy, yeah," I admitted.
"The thing is, I'm not the greatest when it comes to processing emotions, you know? You came back to me, and then you told me about Morgan" – his voice wavered for a split second, then got back to its metaphorical feet – "In any case, I've been thinking. A lot. Wanna know what I figured out?"
I leaned my hip against the kitchen island and looked at him intensely. Probably too intensely, in all honesty. "Yes." I can be very verbose when I want to, you see.
"What I figured out is, I'm being an ungrateful dick here. So, what I've decided is, I'm not going anywhere. I'd love to have a kid, and I'll love her forever even though I've never met her. But I don't think that's my story, over there, with her. It's not really my life. Even if I solved the interquantum travel, which by the way I haven't. What I think is..." He paused. "Well, this is surprisingly difficult to say, having in mind I've been talking to you in my head all this time, but – Steve, you died. Or, your alter-ego did, whatever. And now you're back. You've been given back to me. I've somehow gained this wonderful second chance, and I'm not going to waste it. But," he paused, grinned. "I'm still not jumping into bed with you, just to keep it clear."
"Who says I'd jump into bed with you?" I retorted, this time managing to grin back. Partly, it was a lie, and partly not. There were other muscles besides the ones needed for smiling that stirred back to life in his presence. But I was used to wanting Tony. The desire always smoldered somewhere inside me when he was present; it was an automatic reaction by now, as was keeping it in check, always. But the only thing my heart wanted right now was to bask in his presence; to look, maybe to touch a bit, and to become accustomed to the idea of being around him. And my mind was crystal clear on what it wanted in turn: get to know him, it said. This is not your Tony, and if you want to have an honest relationship, romantic or platonic, with this Tony, you need to get to know him and to be sure it's him you want.
Tony gave me an unimpressed look. A bit too unimpressed, as if he needed to compensate for his moment of vulnerability. "Right. I think your breakfast needs you, by the way."
Oh, god. The eggs. I wasn't an expert cook at the best of times, but I could usually make scrambled eggs, as long as, unlike now, I remembered not to leave them sitting on the stove indefinitely. I started stirring frantically, but even though the heat had been very low (someone told me that was how you made eggs buttery and soft), they had turned into something dry and even gummier than usual. Tony peered into the pan over my shoulder. Sniffed.
"Whatever you are making," he declared flippantly, "make it for two."
I couldn't stop smiling at the eggs.
We spent most of that day in conversation. First we sat in the kitchen for a longest time and talked, then we went for a walk and found a place to have lunch, and then we came back home for coffee, and it was as if we would never run out of things to say to each other.
We both wanted to hear the other's story; we compared them obsessively. It was still important to me to find out where and when our universes diverged, and Tony jumped on board enthusiastically enough. In retrospect, I think I was dealing with everything by trying to rationally gauge how much of my Tony was in this new Tony, as I've mentioned already. How much their lives differed, how much they differed. Okay, they weren't the same person now, but had he been the man I fell in love with ten years ago? I wanted to find out. It didn't change anything; I expect it simply gave me an illusion of control over the situation. And he... for him I don't think it was that. He was ever convinced we were basically the same people as our counterparts in other timelines. Did we talk once during those five years or every day? He thought it affected our relationship, sure, but not the essence of who we were as people. And, put like that, I couldn't even disagree fully. I think he was basically fascinated with the whole concept, though, and keenly curios to hear my story just because it was mine. I suppose his motives were purer than mine in that respect.
From his words I concluded I'd landed a bit in the future, compared to my own timeline. This was 2024, and the final battle with Thanos had taken place a year and a bit ago.
We never really figured out why our timelines diverged – were the things we did the cause or just the consequence? – but we did find out that the progress of Tony and Pepper's relationship was one significant difference between our universes.
To hear Tony tell it, it was way rockier here than what happened back in my timeline, at least as far as I knew. Not that my Tony ever really confided in me. But around here, they had a bad break-up right before the debacle with Ultron. After it was done, Tony did try to go back to her, but it pretty much exploded in both their faces. Honestly, it could have happened like that back in my time as well. How would I know?
But after he got back from Siberia, Pepper was there for him. They got close again, but they weren't together.
"And then I asked her to marry me, so that we would have something to tell the press when Peter refused to join up," he said. "It was a joke."
"She didn't think it was funny," I guessed.
Tony shrugged. "She just rolled her eyes and said, Classic Tony Stark. No, thank you."
"And that was that?" I was getting engrossed in the story, because there seemed to be something more to it.
"Well..." Tony began. "I then asked if we could tell that to the press we were engaged nevertheless, and later we could just break the engagement, and it would be just another scandal, who cared..." But then Tony noticed Happy was frozen in place. "He just stood there, trying not to scowl. It was so obvious something was wrong, but for the life of me I couldn't figure out what." Tony kept pressing, and in the end Happy said how it wasn't cool, and that proposals weren't jokes. "He was being so weird about the whole thing."
"Did he have feelings for her?" I asked, because I'd learned quite a lot about people and their reactions in that support group, as I mentioned.
"See, even you saw it coming. It was only me that was too self-absorbed to notice anything."
"I think he probably did his very best to hide it," I said gently.
"Yeah, and I love Happy, and he's my friend, and I know what he likes to eat, and I know all his favorite TV shows, and I never once thought he might be in love with someone, let alone with Pepper. It never even crossed my mind."
"So, what happened?" I prompted.
Tony rolled his eyes at me "So, Pepper figured out what was going on, obviously."
"Did she let him down gently?"
Tony gave me a triumphant look. "See, even you aren't immune to assumptions. No, actually, she invited him on a date. Or, to be precise, she told him a time and place and to be there. When I teased her later, she said that was what you did with friends. One date, precisely. A fair chance."
He was looking at me with a hint of glee in his eyes, waiting to see what I would say next. And I was sure about one thing: Anywhere, in any universe, Tony loved his friends. He wouldn't be looking forward to telling me the story unless it ended well.
"It worked, didn't it?" I asked with a smile. "They ended up together."
He looked disappointed that I'd guessed it, but it passed in a second. He smiled back. "Yeah. Turns out, he'd been carrying a torch since 2008, and she never even thought about him in that way before that day. And somehow it worked."
"So what did you tell the press that day?"
He shrugged. "I ended up donating a bunch of money, so we announced that. No biggie."
"Are they still together?"
"Married for years," he said with some satisfaction.
"Well, there you go," I said. "It's a pretty big difference. The whole sequence of events. That's your divergence."
He shook his head, somewhat vehemently. "You're wrong. That's not the cause, that's a consequence."
"You can't know that," I said.
"No, I do know that, because, see, the reason Pepper and I couldn't be together was..." He stopped, took a deep breath. "Huh," he said then, "I sure stumbled straight into this, didn't I. Okay, then, whatever. I suppose I should tell you anyway. Steve?"
"What if I hadn't been exactly forthright with you?"
I waited. He waited too. "Well," I said patiently, "do you want to be forthright with me now?"
"I suppose I tricked myself into getting to this point, so that I'd have to tell you. I won't back off now." He tried on a smile. It didn't quite work, so he went on. "So, when I said Steve and I were just sort of friends with benefits, occasionally?"
My heart constricted. "Yeah?"
His eyes had gone big, and turned inwards somehow. I wasn't under impression he was talking to me, exactly, at that moment. "He was friends with benefits. I was... in love with him."
I laughed. I shouldn't have, judging by the hurt look Tony shot me, but it was mostly just a strange relief on my part. "He loved you too," I said quickly and with a smile. As if it was a matter of course. As if it made things better in any way.
Then it hit me – how tragic it was, then, because they could have had those five years, happy and together, and they didn't.
Tony frowned. "No," he said firmly. "He didn't. Not in that way."
Okay, maybe I'm wrong. I was, after all, the one insisting we weren't the same people across the timelines. Maybe his Steve had been indifferent, like he seemed to think. Still, it would be easier to believe just about anything else in the world. "Did you guys talk about it?"
He shook his head. He was trying not to appear desolate, I could tell, but his eyes looked wounded. I needed to go to him, and I also needed to think before I spoke and to not say things I wasn't absolutely sure of.
I offered my hand, palm up on the table. "Give me your hand," I said.
"So that I can hold it?"
He smiled at that and acquiesced. I took his hand in mine – it was a bit smaller than my own, but wonderfully firm and warm and his (I'd always loved the way Tony shook hands). I covered it with my other palm, tenderly, like a little bird. It wasn't the way a friend would comfort you, but it wasn't exactly the way a couple would hold hands, either. It was somewhere in between, and I it was a perfect reflection our relationship at that moment in time.
"My things," I said, following my own line of thought. "Did some of them survive the battle or was everything at the compound totaled?"
He shot me a surprised look, but whether because of the apparent non sequitur or because I'd slipped with the pronouns, I didn't know. "What?"
"Are there any of Steve's things left?" I amended.
He nodded. "I think so. Some."
"Did you ever look at them?"
At that, he shook his head mutely, and I could read every ounce of grief in his face for a moment, before he wiped it like a blackboard. "Do you want something?" he asked noncommittally.
"I want to take a look. I can't be sure because of the divergence, but maybe I want to show you something. You game?"
He considered, then nodded. "With you there I suppose I can finally do it, yeah."
He was looking for closure. I hoped to show him something better.
I found them in a box of stuff from the other Steve's closet: my sketchbooks and journals. Or – well, not mine, exactly. They used to be arranged by date, but now they were all jammed together into a waterproof box, like all our other things from the Compound were.
I found my earliest journal. It was from the time we all lived in the Tower, a bit after the battle of New York. I thumbed through it until I found the first, lovingly detailed sketch of Tony's face. I used to sketch all of my friends, on many occasions, mostly when we were all sitting together. But this one I'd done partly from memory and partly based on a group sketch I'd done earlier. On it, his smile was startling, unguarded, the way it was sometimes in those days. I'd caught the moment perfectly. I always liked that sketch, even though my style has changed considerably over the years, hopefully for the better.
I passed it to Tony.
"Oh," he said, surprised and pleased, I thought. "Nice. I didn't know about it."
"You weren't supposed to know," I said simply.
He frowned slightly, as if preparing to ask me something, but I just went on thumbing through the journals. I showed him one sketch after another, through the years. From them, you could see how I got to know his face better, how I got more skilled at catching those fleeting expressions in his eyes. There was a drawing of him fighting an Ultron-inhabited suit with an ice-pick. Done after the fact, obviously, in rough, quick, vehement strokes.
"What's this?" he asked.
"Form that party," I said, as if it'd been a normal party, as if nothing happened at that party apart from a few drunken shenanigans.
"You were furious with me, back then," he said.
"And you were angry right back," I replied. "I still thought that," I indicated the drawing, "was hot."
He laughed. I could tell he was pleased.
After that one, the drawings got less frequent, and what there was, was done mostly from memory. The lines got vaguer, more general. Tony had left The Avengers.
"I'd been so spectacularly depressed when you left," I said.
If we were correct in our assumptions, it was still us, back then – I mean, the divergence hadn't happened yet, so when I said I or you, it had really been me and him. Still the fact that this was a different timeline and a slightly different Tony made it easier to say those things somehow.
He arched an eyebrow. "Yeah, you mentioned it," and then. "Or – you know, he did. Later on, when we talked. So, I'll tell you the same thing that I told him: You could have called too."
"I'd wanted to. I didn't think you'd want to talk to me."
"Lose the self-pity, Steve", he said. "it doesn't suit you."
"Well, you could have said something too. I did say I was going to miss you. You brushed it off."
He was silent for a longest minute. "I didn't think you meant it," he said then.
"Oh, I meant it," I told him, without raising my eyes, searching on. There was a two-year gap in my journals, and then, when they re-started, I saw entries and notebooks I didn't recognize. Reading them would have felt like an invasion of privacy; I wanted to do it so fiercely it hurt. To see the thoughts of that other Steve, the lucky bastard who'd had Tony to himself during those five years, who had some real history with him.
"I don't want to read what he wrote," Tony said firmly. "If that's what you had in mind."
I shook my head. "No... I'm tempted to, sort of, but I won't, of course."
"The journals are yours," Tony said. "Do what you want."
I shook my head. This Steve looked like some giant to me, some hero, not... myself. And at the same time, I remembered writing all those earlier entries. It had been me.
"We can keep them – or burn them, if you want. You decide, I mean. But do you want to look at the drawings?" That was somehow different. The drawings were also intimate, perhaps as intimate as the writings, but they were drawings of Tony and, I thought, intended for Tony, in a way.
He thought for a moment, then nodded.
In those later years the drawings of him became more frequent again. The first few were done in a few sharp lines, fierce strokes of pencil almost damaging the paper here and there.
"You fought often?" I asked.
Tony nodded. "In the beginning. Or – well, not fought, not so much. I provoked. He stood there, taking it."
I smiled to myself, but he saw.
Some of the sketches made me blush. Most of those were pretty vague, with sheets draped over the key bits, the way I usually do it, but even the full nudes were done very tastefully. But, the artist was, after all – me.
In any case this wasn't what I would have expected. This felt bold and cheeky. "You sat for these?" I asked, even though I was pretty sure that wasn't the case.
Tony shook his head. "He must have done them from memory."
"You angry at him? For drawing you like that?"
He was running a loving finger over a drawing. Now he looked up at me, incredulous. "Angry? These are lovely. But they are still not the proof of what you wanted to prove, Steve."
"Oh, he loved you," I said without a moment left of doubt. "I know he loved you because I loved you. Back then, he and I were the same person. And when our timelines diverged... He and I are still enough of the same person for me to know, by all these" – I indicated the drawings – "that he never stopped loving you."
Tony breathed for a minute. I thought he was bracing himself to say something important, but what eventually came out was, "I think I saw a coffee machine in one of the boxes. Wanna come hook it up?"
"Sure," I said, and while we walked over to the other nissen hut that was filled with our salvaged stuff, I laid a palm on his back, just for comfort, and he leaned into it slightly.
A bit later, we'd unpacked some things and managed to make coffee.
"That early, huh?" he said, almost casually. We were sitting on the boxes, sipping coffee. "When you fell for me."
Back in 2012, actually. If I'm to pinpoint the exact moment, I'd say something twisted in my gut the moment he started rotating that turbine, risking his life to prop the helicarrier up. What can I say? I'd always had a soft spot for the brave and the mouthy.
I shrugged. I knew it was another of our wish-you'd-told-me situations. "Feels like forever," I shot back in the same tone or voice, or tried.
"Wanna make a pact?"
I nodded. I already knew what he was going to say. "Yeah. We start telling each other things."
I was cradling my mug to my chest, apparently. I only became aware of it because of the way he was looking at me, and it. It was one of our old mugs, from the set that we had back in the Tower. They were made of cheap white ceramics, with our symbols on them – a set of six mugs, sent to us by a fan. They were kind of tacky, and we all loved them.
"I hate seeing this place reduced to ashes," I said, looking away. Toyed with the mug, watching a spear of late afternoon sunlight touch the purple target symbol on it. "How's Clint, by the way?"
"In counseling. He's not doing so bad."
"Steve," Tony said, tentatively. "We can rebuild, you know? I never had the stomach to even come here before, but now that you're here – maybe we can do it? You know, together and all that."
I did my best to smile. "We could do that." It was depressing. I'd lost one house too many – so had Tony, I suppose. I'd thought I'd get used to the feeling of uprootedness. I loved people, I loved my friends, I loved Tony. I was happy to make my home wherever they were, but I had to admit something to myself: I felt this dull longing for a place I could come back to, years later, and still have it be there, unchanged. I teetered wildly between wanting to scrap together all the memories stuffed into the boxes around us and take them with me, and locking this place, tossing out the key and trying to do what I came here to do – start a new life. A clean slate.
I tried to cover it all up by rummaging around in a box, but the random things I saw just made it worse. And then I found the mug with Natasha's symbol on it. In my timeline Clint had broken it years ago, but here it was whole; it was the last straw. There was no use trying to hide it, and besides, we'd just made a pact. I just looked at Tony and shrugged, feeling helpless. I tried to smile through the tears.
Tony was saying, "It's okay to still grieve. Both for Nat and... him. And everything. I still grieve. It's..." I did agree, and I was about to say something in that vein, but he looked at me sharply. "Wait. Steve? How long ago was it for you, exactly?" He hadn't asked me that and I hadn't thought to mention it, or maybe I failed to mention it on purpose, trying to avoid just this.
"Two weeks," I said dully. There were the eleven days between the battle and the funeral – the funeral actually being laying of the ashes – and you could give or take a day or two spent in the quantum realm, taking the stones back to their proper locations, etc.
"Two weeks what? Two weeks since..."
"The battle with Thanos."
"Two weeks?" He put his arms around me, then. Abruptly, from behind. It startled me; his warmth startled me. I wasn't used to being hugged. Nat was the last person that had given me a hug, and the fact that I knew exactly when and where it had happened just proved my point. So I just stood there like a log, feeling the warmth of his stomach and chest against my back, and thinking how I was going to fall apart any second now.
"You idiot," he said. "And me idiot, for not thinking to ask. Why the hell did I bring you here?"
I reminded him that I'd brought him here, but he just shrugged it off.
"Let's go get some ice cream and wrap ourselves in blankets and watch movies. Jesus, Steve. You need to rest."
It was strange. People did occasionally tell me I needed to take it easy or rest or whatnot. I mostly shrugged it off. But apparently Tony's words had the innate ability to make me want to listen. I was temped to let him do it. Go on, wrap me in a blanket. Bring me tea.
But if I ever let it actually come to that, I thought, I was going to come undone. Sometimes it seemed I only held myself together by avoiding comfort, avoiding other people's compassion. I could only take it in small installments. It would start melting the grit that held me together, and if that happened I was going to fall apart. I couldn't do that to Tony.
We did go home, though, despite my protestations that I was going to be fine in a minute. I lingered a longest time with Tony's mug in my hand. When my Tony came back to the Compound and we all started brainstorming, he found it in the kitchen. He commented that he couldn't believe we still had the old thing and how it should have been thrown out years ago, were we Avengers or garbage collectors, and then he proceeded to drink from it and only it for days. Here and now, I put it down. I was happy to have a Tony to take with me, instead; I didn't need a mug as a keepsake. In the end, we brought only Nat's mug home with us, as an act of defiance against oblivion. We used it almost every day thereafter and always remembered Nat when we did so.
And we did watch a movie. I picked a modern drama that Tony secretly enjoyed even though he shat on it all the while. And I didn't tear up at all, not even once. I considered it a victory.
Later that day, seemingly out of the blue, Tony said: "He loved you, by the way. In case you had any doubts. He did."
And those few words were enough to turn me to dust.
I closed my eyes and sighed. "I know you loved your Steve. Or, well – you loved each other. Me and my Tony... we just weren't like that."
"I'm telling you."
"He had a wife and a kid," I said quietly. "You know that."
"And he loved them," he interrupted. "I'm sure of it. And he also loved you. You can't tell me otherwise. He was Tony. Whatever else is or isn't true about a universe, it's true that Tony loves his Steve, in whatever manner."
Just like I couldn't imagine a world in which Steve didn't love his Tony. I wanted to believe it. Maybe we were just subjective, and blind, but it actually made me smile.
Seamlessly, Tony and I slipped into living together. I did ask him if he wanted me to find a place of my own, but we both knew the question was half-hearted. I really didn't want to be away from him. I know I clung to his presence for comfort, and I was aware that at that point it had more to do with grief than with love. Still, it was in concord with what I thought we both needed – to spend time together and see where it would take us. Tony was quite enthusiastic about the prospect himself. He was a bit more vocal about his emotions than my Tony had been – but, then again, even my Tony had been slanting that way towards the end. He'd told me things I couldn't imagine him saying aloud back in 2013 or 2014. Maybe the too many years we'd been apart had allowed him to change. I still beat myself up for not being there to see it happen.
In any case, we took what felt like a vacation. A time for ourselves – for the first time ever, it felt like. I think Tony was giving me room to grieve. Me, I was giving him the time to adjust. It worked for both of us, I suppose. We went for long walks, and if the mornings were nice we went jogging together. We watched a lot of movies, ordered a lot of takeout, and, more than anything else, we talked. Never before had we taken the time to really talk to each other. It seemed the topics would never run out. Our past, our childhoods; parents, teachers, first crushes. Heartbreak. Loss. Pets. Everything. We removed layers upon layers and did our best to bare ourselves for each other. We got better at it with time, too.
We did all this in a mostly platonic manner. We did touch more than friends usually do, and infinitely more than I ever did with the Tony from my timeline. If one of us grew sad, hands on shoulders became a staple. While we watched movies, we'd sit quite close together. Still, all of that came gradually, and it took time. It began with our elbows touching on one of our movie nights, and then, suddenly, it was the knees too. It was magnificent. Flustered, I tried to apologize and scoot away. Tony just rolled his eyes at me and said, "Whatever you want. But don't try to tell me it doesn't feel nice."
That was all the encouragement I needed. "It feels great," I said with complete honesty. The points of physical contact were brightly lit in my consciousness. It was as if warmth and life radiated from them, waking me up, melting me down.
"Then shut up and watch the movie."
We both scooted closer, and now we were tightly pressed against each other, side to side.
It was still very early for us and there were many things we hadn't told each other yet. And, when it was about Tony, my curiosity tended to win over my tact. "Did you often sit like this with your Steve?" I asked before I gave it much thought.
He stilled, and stayed like that. "Not really." The infinite sadness hiding somewhere deep in his tone almost undid me.
I'd always imagined that their relationship, whatever it was, had this air of casual physical intimacy. I'd obviously imagined wrong, as per usual. What I'd taken for ease in Tony's manner , right then, was probably deliberately done. It can't have been easy for him either to ask for intimacy. I know that sometimes, even later on, I had to convince myself to touch him, not because I didn't want to but because everything in me still had to get used to the idea that he also wanted that. From me. Me. But gradually it became easier, and then we stopped thinking about it entirely. Still, as I said, it took time.
A lot happened during the following six months. What I want to say is, we didn't just mope around and talk about our feelings and watch movies, although there was quite a lot of that, too, actually. Ice-cream as well. What can I say, clichés are often clichés because they work. But we also reconnected with our friends, many of whom had drifted apart, wrapped in their own, individual cocoons of grief.
A couple of weeks in, I'd also started feeling increasingly useless, and restless, so I kept talking about finding a job until Tony snapped, Like what, go tell them you're Captain America come back to life, so will they please let you do some waitressing for them? The conversation did open a can of worms. I had no ID and no legal status in this universe, unless being dead counted. In the end we swallowed our distaste and reached out to the reformed SHIELD; and (after some genetic testing, because, unlike Tony, they weren't about to gaze deeply into my eyes and declare it was really me) they promised to help us. In the meantime, I'd started volunteering in a soup kitchen. Tony teased me incessantly about my do-goodery (his words) and scoring points for the afterlife (also his words, but then he winced at them, so we moved on), and then declared he'd come with; he protested I spent too much time away from him and that he was bored. The very first time he tagged along, though, we got recognized. Someone took a picture, and it of course went viral. There were wildest speculations about me faking my own death and whatnot (on a battlefield, apparently, with more than a hundred witnesses, because that's how good I am at deception), and about Tony cloning me. In the end we had to hold a press conference, with Tony rambling something incomprehensible about quantum and laws of probability. He admitted to me later that it was mostly utter gibberish. Everyone nodded along sagely, though, pretending to get it. As it turned out, in a world where half the population turned to ash and came back five years later, it wasn't such a big a deal for one more person to get resurrected. We didn't mention diverging timelines and me traveling from one to another. No one would have believed that.
During those months, ever so slowly, I was tumbling headfirst in love with Tony, this Tony, living and breathing beside me, snapping at me, joking and casually flirting with me more and more as we lived on and talked and hung out with an unprecedented ease. We cuddled a lot, towards the end of that period. We used to regularly fall asleep on the couch and wake up hours later, bleary and achy, wrapped around each other more often then not. He seemed perfectly happy and comfortable with that state of affairs, so I was not going to pressure him into going any further, obviously. But I was going insane with desire. It had almost disappeared for a while, brought low with my processing of grief, but then it came back, and with a vengeance. Just his hand on my arm or a comfy bump of knee against knee made me light up. His constant physical closeness made me burn for him. Having him there and not being able to touch him the way I wanted to, to run my hands all over him, feel the geography of every muscle under my fingertips, not being able to make him truly mine and kiss him into oblivion – it drove me crazy. But I just sat there and breathed through it and enjoyed every second of that torture, because how could I not enjoy cuddling with Tony?
One evening I had an especially hard time of it. He was sitting pressed against my side, with my arm around his shoulders. I could smell his hair and I'd turned my head slightly to the side so that it would tickle my nose. That was the closest I dared come to touching my lips to the top of his head, which was what I actually wanted to do. I was giddy with his closeness and warmth, so much so that my head swam and I couldn't connect the dots of my own thoughts. I noticed I was rubbing his shoulder with my thumb, softly. He was relaxed against me, molten, tired from the day. His glasses had slipped down his nose and I knew he couldn't be bothered to put them back up. He raised his eyes then, tilting his face towards mine to tell me something, but all I could think about was the movement of his lips. I wasn't going to say anything – I was never going to say anything. I thought he was happy with what we had. He seemed at peace and I didn't want to spoil it.
"Jesus Tony," I whispered, only partly aware words were slipping out at all, "if I could have just one kiss, just one, just to see what it's like..."
It was the sudden tension in his body, so close to my own, that clued me in: I'd actually been speaking aloud. Shit. He moved away from me, then, turned to look me in the face. He was now staring at me with those big eyes behind those big glasses, and I didn't know what to do
For a moment there, it seemed as if he was going to say something else, but then he said, "Okay." It rang weirdly; I could see the lines of his body, still taut as a violin string.
"Okay?" I repeated, not sure what was going on. "Okay what?"
"Okay," he said. "Kiss me. If you want to." I knew that expression of his. It reminded me of that one time, years ago, when he'd been experimenting with a suit's tolerance of high voltage charges. Thor was helping. After a less than successful try, Natasha and I were coaxing Tony to let it go for the night, but he'd insisted on tampering with it some more, and then he'd turned to Thor and said hit me. That was what his kiss me sounded like, now. Even though I'd be the first to admit a certain kind of electricity existed between the two of us, this was hardly what I'd had in mind.
"What? What's the problem now? Go ahead." There was a vaguely defiant look in his eyes.
"Tony, you don't even want this," I said. "Obviously. And that's okay." I was tired and, ridiculously enough, overwhelmed with sharp nostalgia for our life from two minutes before, before I'd said something immensely stupid that now couldn't be unsaid. I missed the easy, unthinking touches that suddenly seemed unattainable. I couldn't have them back. Even though barely a foot separated us, Tony was a million miles away.
"I don't... want this?" He laughed – with a hint of bitterness, I thought. "Oh, I want it, Cap, never fear." The bitterness seemed to be directed entirely at himself, as far as I could tell. But Cap cut me to the bone. I hadn't really been Cap to him since I came to this timeline.
Still, that was trivial, I told myself sternly. How could I worry about nicknames when Tony was in obvious distress. Gently, I took both his hands in mine. He let me, or, more precisely, he didn't resist. "Tony," I said in my best steady voice and squeezed his hands softly. "Tony are you nervous?"
He frowned, mildly incredulous. At least it snapped him out of the funk he'd been in. "Why would I be nervous?"
Really, why would he? He was supposed to be the experienced one. I, not so much. I'd had just a few partners in my life, but mostly I was just fumbling around blindly. And he'd slept with Steve, his Steve, so this wasn't really a completely new territory for him, while I could approach the Tony from my timeline only in my dreams.
In any case, he'd sounded almost normal when he said it. And then he added: "I just didn't think I'd be up for being this friends-with-benefits thing with you, not again, but you know what, why the fuck not. We're friends. We can have benefits. Right?" He smiled at me, and it was just a little tense, just a little on the brittle side. Still, it seemed genuine enough.
Friends with benefits? Friends with benefits? I should have known. I mean, I should have known he wouldn't be able to just get over his Steve and move on. He needed this, I supposed. He was understandably nervous, but he obviously needed me, needed touch, comfort; I should be there for him. But, oh god, I couldn't do that. I thought I was doing a good job of hiding my emotions, but he was peering into my face, frowning. I was on my feet, then, before I realized what I was doing. I needed air. I needed to be out of there. I'd come back later, I'd apologize, I'd explain. But right now I needed to be away from Tony, to sort through my emotions and find some acceptable ones to slap on the surface of this mess that was, nominally, me.
I'd thought... I don't know what I'd thought. That he felt more than friendship for me, even though, when I came here, I kept telling myself his friendship would be enough and more than enough. It wasn't. I wanted everything. I had to rein my emotions in, somehow.
His voice stopped me in my tracks. I turned slowly. "I'm sorry, Tony," I said. His lips had an air of wry concern about them, but his eyes looked hurt. I swallowed.
"What's going on?"
"I can't do this," I said.
He nodded numbly. "I understand." His face was closing up, and suddenly I didn't want to begin to imagine what scenarios he was construing in his head. In that, we are similar. I needed to tell him the truth before this misunderstanding got even more out of hand.
"You don't understand," I said more sharply then I intended. Ripping off the Band-Aid was the best strategy, perhaps, but I could still try to be gentler. I took a deep breath. "I'm in love with you." His face was unreadable. "I'm sorry, Tony." His eyes, an unbreakable piece of code. Watching my every move. "I can't do this, I can't be friends with benefits with you, I can't, because I love you, and I really, really have to go now or I'll probably start crying, and I'm really trying to avoid that?" I finished matter-of-factly, because that way I kept a semblance of control over my own words.
I turned away, again, to beat it, to disappear, to pretend I'd never been there in tine first place.
But he was on his feet, then, right next to me in a matter of seconds. He grabbed my upper arm, then, and literally spun me around by sheer force of will.
His eyes were blazing, boring into mine, so filled with emotion that I didn't know how to interpret it any more. "You mean to say," he corrected me, "you're in love with the Tony from your timeline. Having in mind your opinions on the subject..."
"Having in mind my opinions on the subject," I interrupted, "I went and fell in love with you instead, now, here. I do still love the other Tony too, and I don't think that's really going to change, but... but whether you are him or not, I know you way better than I ever got to know him. I talk with you. I spend every waking hour with you, more or less. How could I not fall in love with you?" I was speaking more and more vehemently, but then I decided to shut up. "I'm sorry, Tony," I added with some defiance, "but that's how it happened, and there's nothing I can do about it now. I..." I wanted to say we could perhaps go back to the way we were, but, I thought, we probably couldn't.
Still, before I could muse on that further (morosely, in the privacy of my head), he was getting in my face, taking off his glasses, peering into my eyes. I fully expected some kind of retort, but he had the gentlest look on his face I'd ever seen.
"Yeah?" he asked softly.
I just nodded. And then he kissed me, a barest brush of his lips against mine. That was my limit, that was more than I could take standing there. I took him in my arms, pressing my lips against his, hard, harder. I was massaging his scalp with one hand, the other I used to hold his body against mine, touching, just touching as much as possible. I wanted to flow around his body and envelop it in my own, somehow, touch every inch of it. Keep him there, mine and safe. I wanted to fall to my knees and press my face into his stomach and ask him to just hold me tight. Jesus, I was a mess, but if I knew one thing, anything at all, it was that I needed and wanted and loved this man in front of me more than anything else in the world.
He let me do what I wanted for a few minutes, and then, as if he'd had enough of my fumbling, he pushed me back against a closed door, and proceeded to kiss me thoroughly, now nipping at my lip, now tilting my chin up so he could kiss a trail along my neck. I just closed my eyes and let him. Fireworks in my chest. Mist in my eyes. I'd never been much good with metaphors. But I, inconsequentially, remembered reading a book called This is your brain on music, and as the bright lights in my head came to life, warm and molten and perfect, one after another, I thought: This is your brain on Tony, and then I let all the rest of the thoughts sink into a perfect, cottony fog of pleasure.
"By the way," he declared some time later, while we were lounging on the
couch, considerably more entangled and less dressed than ever before, "I never said it, but I love you too."
"I figured," I said smiling.
"Don't be smug, Steve, it doesn't sit well with you."
"I wasn't being smug," I said. "I just figured. By the way you were kissing me."
"Oh, by the way I was kissing you," he said dryly, but his eyes were full of laughter. "That early, huh? It must have been one hell of a precognition."
"Did you really think I was trying to push you into the friends with benefits thing? Again? After you were so unhappy about it, with your Steve?"
He sat there, very still, absently toying with my fingers . He eventually said: "I couldn't figure out what you wanted."
"You," I said, because now we were where we were, and I relished in my new freedom to say it aloud. "But I thought you needed space."
"I've been waiting for you to make a move for weeks. Maybe months, even?"
I laughed. "I've wanted this for a long time."
"You did say just one kiss, just to see what it's like, though," he said, getting back to the previous conversation. "So, you can't blame me for misunderstanding."
Something crossed my mind, then. Or I can say all the details fell into place.
That other Steve was a big puzzle to me and I thought about him often. How am I supposed to feel about a different version of myself? Sometimes I think about the fact that he wielded the gauntlet, and he looks like this huge hero to me, unattainable, larger than life. Someone having nothing to do with me at all. And sometimes I feel he is this huge jerk who could never go and tell Tony he loved him, even though he surely did. And, ridiculously, this is when I feel closest to him. I can picture myself falling into that exact same trap. Hiding my emotions from Tony – and from everyone – had become a pattern that was difficult to break, over the years. Even now, with our pact and with the way we were learning to talk to each other and to be vulnerable in front of each other – even now my first impulse had been to hide what I felt, telling myself he needed his time to grieve, telling myself I would spoil everything.
"Did he say something like that to you?" I asked quietly. "Your Steve? Something that made you think it was just a way for you to... to comfort each other? Is that the reason you guys never talked about it later?"
Tony was silent for a long time – so long, in fact, that I thought he wasn't going to answer me at all. That was fine. I knew I was prying.
Then he directed a sad, tight-lipped smile at me. His voice was flat. "It wasn't he who said it."
As in many other things, we were far too similar for our own good. I put my arms around him and pulled him onto my chest. He tucked his head under my chin. That was all I could offer: a silent comfort.
"I even meant it, sort of. That first time," he added. "Why are we talking about this, by the way, how did you even get me to start talking about this?"
"Because you're still hurting," I said. "Because we're not done with our regrets. Because we're both still grieving. Because we agreed to talk about things."
"Don't you channel all those support group vibes at me."
"Screw you, Tony," I said very gently, and I knew he knew I meant something quite different.
This was going to work. We were gong to make it work.
We were still tentative around each other. It was hard for us to accept this gift we were given – having each other back – as something normal. I used to wake up, drenched in sweat, from dreams of being back in my reality, and all of this being just a dream. I woke to see his sleeping form beside me, and then I would reach out and caress his temple with my knuckles, run fingers through his hair. Usually he wouldn't wake up. He would just roll over to his side, groggily, so that I could spoon him, aware even in his sleep of what I wanted. That's what love is, I thought to myself, and felt a bit better. His warm body against mine was reassuring, the muscles of his back against my stomach an anchor to reality.
The point I was trying to make, though, is that we still tiptoed around each other. I didn't want to pressure him into anything and I didn't have the stomach to be irritated with him even when I was rationally aware I normally would have been. He later admitted that the idea of ever yelling at me tied his guts into a knot.
The problem with that was, couples fight. You have to. That's how you cope with the new situation. That's also just one of the ways to let all those big feelings out. When you love someone, they make you very, very happy, abnormally happy. They also make you angry. So, you yell at each other for a bit and let all the steam out at once or you bicker and let it out gradually. And we didn't really allow ourselves that outlet. It felt incredibly ungrateful to gripe at him because he forgot about a lunch with friends because he couldn't be bothered to tell Friday to remind him. It was trivial. Unimportant. Who cared about lunches when we somehow got reunited, defying death and laws of the universe. So we put those things aside.
They accumulated, as they tend to.
What I'm trying to say is, when it exploded, it really exploded. We'd been together for a few months already – seven, to be precise. I don't know why I'm even pretending I don't remember the exact dates; that day turned out to be quite memorable. Ridiculously enough, I can't for the life of me remember what the fight was about. I'm pretty sure it was benign enough to begin with, and then it just escalated. It lasted for hours. Everything, everything was coming out. We screamed, literally screamed into each other's faces. There were occasional lulls, and then we would start shouting again. We went from room to room yelling at each other on top of our voices. I was about to start punching walls. Tony was shaking from rage. And, hours later, as the fight was finally beginning to peter out, what was left in its wake was coldness in my stomach. I was at the point when you have to fight to keep yourself angry, because that's easier than actually having to think: Am I losing him? Have I lost him already? Is this it? Are we over? And there I was, already missing him even though he was right there, in front of me, his voice hoarse from all the yelling. Rapidly, the fight went out of me all at once, and I was left, just standing there, looking at him with sadness. Everything had just turned around, and all I wanted was to take him in my arms. I couldn't, he wouldn't want me to. So I just stood there and let him have it at me until he was done.
He finished with a final, vitriolic fuck you, Steve. Go fuck yourself. And then he looked at me for a moment. He must have misinterpreted my morose silence, because he said: "Are you leaving?" It wasn't exactly a small voice, I don't think Tony could do small voice even if he wanted to.
"Leaving?" I repeated. I was tired and sad and pretty slow on the uptake, so it took me a moment to understand what kind of leaving he had in mind. A very final leaving, as in taking my stuff and going away, apparently. Leaving him. I won't say I almost lost the ground under my feet (even though it's probably true). I can say however that I wanted to go vomit in the bathroom at the thought.
Do you want me to leave? I almost said, but I could see that conversation unravel before me, clearly as if I were the Ancient One. I knew already how it would end. Tony would shrug as if that was something unimportant and say, If that's what you want. And I would say, I don't want to stay where I'm not wanted, and he would say, whatever rocks your boat. Neither would give in an inch. Neither would admit that wasn't what we wanted at all. I wasn't going there. I really, really wasn't.
He was opening his mouth to retort something, but this time I was faster.
"You'll have to very explicitly kick me out of here if that's what you want," I said as steadily as I could manage. "Otherwise I'm not going anywhere."
This took him aback. He just stood there for a moment, blinking.
"What?" he said. "After all this? Really?" The anger had melted from his face. He wiped the sweat away from his forehead, leaned his hip against the back of a chair. Less of a show of nonchalance and more of a case of being too exhausted to stand. I could get away with taking him in my arms now, I thought. It was an opening.
Still, I had something to say – something that I'd known all along, but now it crystallized in my mind. And I had to say it, right then, or I wouldn't say it at all.
"I just don't understand you," Tony intercepted me before I could open my mouth, and that was the last spur I needed.
I planted myself in front of him. I took him by the elbows, gently, looked down into his face (God, I loved his face so much). "Tony," I said, as levelly as I could. "I'm here because you're here. That's all. I want to spend my life with you, if you want. I'm not going to leave because we're fighting. People fight. We..."
He blinked one more time. His arms hung limply in mine. "You're insane," he stated, which wasn't very encouraging. And then: "Okay if I hold you for a bit?" he asked, which only served to show how tired and heavy-hearted he was.
I took him in my arms then and told him he didn't have to ask. He buried his face into my neck, and for a moment I thought he was crying, but he wasn't. I honestly think he was too exhausted to bother.
Neither of us had ever been particularly good at saying sorry, but I think this hug counted as something in that vein.
"So. You talking marriage, eh?" he said after he let go of me. He didn't say it with his usual animation, but he did make a valiant attempt.
"I wouldn't mind it terribly," I said.
"Gee, Steve, you shouldn't have asked so nicely." His voice was dry – and still hoarse – but he wasn't running away screaming at my almost-proposal, so I supposed it was something. And then his next line suddenly took me back to 2016, with a cold pang in my stomach. "Wanna see something cool?" he asked, and I flinched involuntarily.
He arched an eyebrow at me and, without waiting for my answer, dug something out of the back of a drawer. The box was small when he stuffed it into my palm. It took me a moment to fumble it open.
Inside, two perfect, golden circlets lay together. At first I thought they were completely plain, but then I saw our symbols engraved on the insides. My shield on one, his helmet on the other. If I put one of the rings on, it would look like just another wedding band. No one but us would even know about the engravings.
Tony's grin was self-deprecating, ironic; so brittle it would break into shards at a wrong word, a wrong breath. It didn't put a stop to the spreading of warm happiness through my body, but it did warn me to thread carefully. I just looked at him, trying to let him know how I felt.
He wasn't exactly looking back at me. "I had them made after our first night,," he said as if it was the greatest joke in the world, which only meant it was extremely important to him and not to be treated as anything funny in the least, at any time, ever. "Talk about rash, huh?"
"I prefer 'impassioned'," I said mildly, without cracking a smile. "Is that a yes?"
"I don't remember you popping the question."
He'd put himself in a vulnerable position, so now he was making me pay for it, obviously. I had this terrible urge to somehow imprint the way I felt about him directly into his mind; I wanted to take him by the shoulders and shake him and repeat I love you until the fact pierced his thick skull. I loved him, more than anything. I'd known for ages that I'd come to stay forever, if he wanted me to.
And it hurt. It hurt that he doubted me. It hurt that he thought I would actually leave him. I know he had his reasons, and, having our history in mind, maybe I deserved what I was getting, but I somehow felt it wasn't fair. I'd cheated time and tricked death so that I could spend more time with him.
Too many feelings at once always make me want to step up and issue a challenge – to someone, to anyone, to the universe at large.
"Wanna do it now?" I asked lightly. He stared. The excitement that was burning low in my stomach warped my perception.
"What, like go to Vegas?" he said skeptically. "Also," he added with a tiny drop of acid in his voice, "I thought you didn't believe in institutions."
A certain lightheadedness had taken over. "Oh, I don't," I retorted. "And I didn't have Vegas in mind."
Incidentally, I did believe in marriage, actually. I'd always wanted it, even back when I didn't want it with any particular person – I just knew it was something to strive for. And now I wanted it again, fiercely so. Still, coming to think of it, it was true – I didn't really need a government official to confirm the fact that I intended to stay by Tony's side until he decided to kick me out on my ass.
I grabbed the ring with my shield on it. I also grabbed his left hand in mine. "Tony," I said, trying to burn my way into his head with my eyes, "do you take me as your husband?"
He looked down, at our hands, then back up, at me Then he laughed out. Still, it wasn't his this-is-funny laugh, and it wasn't his you-are-crazy laugh; his eyes sparkled and his grin was warm and genuine. I could see he was just simply happy, all of a sudden, bone-tired but happy, and a little startled himself at the realization. "Okay. Okay. You know what, Steve," he said. "I do. I really do."
He let me slip the ring onto his finger, but he barely waited for me to be done. He grabbed the other one and let his eyebrows dance at me for a moment. "Steve, " he said. "Do you take me as your husband, to have and to hold, from this day forward, blah blah, I don't really remember this part, in sickness and in health, until death do us part?"
The frog in my throat was an unexpected addition, a neutral observer. "I do," I managed, even though I suspect I sounded a little squeaky there for a moment. The ring slipped onto my finger as if it had always been there.
I kissed him for a long time, then, against the wall, and against the closet door and against the kitchen counter, going from room to room again, exorcising the ghosts of the fight.
We did get married properly about two months later. Still, this was the anniversary we celebrated afterwards.
What can I say about our marriage? It was my life, and how can you look back on your life and be objective in any way? I was 38 when I came to be with Tony. Our marriage lasted longer than all the rest of my life put together.
When you are together for forty years, you have good days and bad days. Hell, you get good years and bad years. I remember the year eight as being particularly hellish. We first bickered and then fought so much that we started outright avoiding each other. Tony would hide in his workshop. I would go for walks, and volunteer, and paint outside, anything just to be somewhere else. I thought we were done for sure; we were drifting apart. And what left me feeling most defeated was that I still loved him, I loved him just as fiercely as ever. It was just that I couldn't stand his presence for some reason, and he couldn't stand mine. We'd always known how to hurt each other best, how to hit where it really stung. But whatever we said during the day... come evening, I couldn't go to bed without washing his favorite mug first, so that he could have it in the morning. No matter how angry I was, I still wanted him to have his stupid mug, so that he knew I loved him. I knew he loved me back, too. He would sneak into our bed late, very late at night, and snuggle up to my back and whisper it to me because he thought I was asleep. That was our pattern. Nights were okay. Nights kept me going. Then, at some point, things started changing for the better. I can't even say how or why. Marriage has its own fluctuations, its rhythm, its ups and downs, and all you can do is keep trying with all the stubbornness you can muster. I never really lacked in that department. Neither did Tony. We're not exactly know for giving up. But, you know, most of it was good. Most of it was wonderful. I often sit back and just think I don't know what I did to deserve so much happiness in one lifetime. I can't believe I got to hold his hand every day for forty years straight.
From time to time Tony would grow sad thinking about Morgan, and he still tinkered with his interquantum travel ideas. There would be crazy spurts of work; he wouldn't raise his head for days, but he always came to the same conclusion. It couldn't work. There had to be one problem he couldn't solve, I suppose. We did talk to Strange and the Ancient One (who was still alive in our timeline), and they outright refused to help and told us not to ask again. I thought it was probably for the better, but I still hurt for Tony.
He wanted children. I could go one way or another with that, but I was always supportive. We did talk about adoption many times, but in the end we never did it. Still, it was a charmed life. We did a lot of things in those years, despite the fact we'd decided we'd done enough and we were going to just kick back and enjoy. We did retire from the Avengers. We came out of the retirement when we were needed, and Tony restored his Steve's shield for me, for that occasion. It made me feel like my old self, and I both liked it and didn't. Then, a bit later, we retired again. We did rebuild the compound. We also trained and raised at least two full generations of new Avengers. We moved house a few times. We even lived in the cottage by the lake for a decade and a half; Tony had always wanted to, and I thought it was sweet, that he still had those ideas of idyllic life. Me, I loved every place we lived together; in the end, it was as simple as that.
When we started the whole thing Tony hadn't been exactly young. The medicine did advance considerably, and thanks to it and to his own crazy sharp will and mind, he stayed spry almost to the end and he kept his mind to the last. He did worry about it quite a bit, but he was never in any real danger. Practically to the last day he still read complicated classical novels in six languages and kept working on new inventions. Me, I had the serum. As time went by, I started hating it more and more.
Tony died at the very old age of ninety five. We knew it was coming. I thought I'd accepted it. I hadn't. I don't think it's possible to accept something like that. That's all I'm going to say about it. It still hurts like hell, and I can't talk about it. Sorry.
Tony died, and suddenly, there was nothing left for me there. It was the second time it had happened to me. I'd be able to appreciate the irony, perhaps, but I was busy disintegrating on the inside at the time.
Perhaps two months later I was walking the streets rather aimlessly, when my feet carried me over to the Bleecker Street. Ridiculously enough, the Sanctum Sanctorum opened for me now, and I stepped in. The Ancient One looked same as ever. I now knew what a curse it must have been.
We got to talking. She did offer one last boon to an old almost-friend. Alone, I was inconsequential enough; my going off apparently changed noting significant. I'm actually happy about the fact. These days I'm mostly content to watch the world roll by.
The serum slows aging. That's one of its effects, it turns out. I wasn't about to stay and watch all our friends die off one by one. I went back to my original timeline instead, to give my shield and my legacy over to Sam, and to see them all young once more. You could argue they are not the same people I spent the last 40 years with. Four decades ago, I would have agreed – but, you see, that Steve was a different guy. He was me, but I'm really not him any more. And that – that is the whole point. Is me from a different timeline still me? No more or less than me from the past or me from the future. They say all cells in our bodies are replaced every seven years. Tony and Bruce always laughed at that one, but it sounds neat. In any case, our opinions fluctuate even more often than that. There is no strict definition of what constitutes 'me'; I'm the one who defines who I am. I went back to my original timeline, in order to see Sam and Bucky, Wanda and Clint, Scott and Bruce and Rhodey, and the others. I saw them, and it was them, bright eyed and young and going strong. I sat on the edge of the lake for a time and imagined a hundred different timelines in which he still lived and breathed and was being a dick to me, possibly. It gave me – well, not precisely hope, because I didn't know what I would hope for any more, but it did give me a certain kind of comfort. This is not a completely Tony-less universe. Many people who are him are still out there, and if I could send them all my love, I would. And yet, I missed him so harshly I thought it was going to turn me inside-out. I missed both of him, Tony who had been Pepper's and Tony who had been mine. Wherever he is, I'm his.
I did try to stick around for a time. I even came to see Morgan whenever I could. It was otherworldly, walking through the house in which I'd lived for 15 years with Tony, and still it belonged to someone else here, it was suffused with somebody else's presence. Pepper tolerated me for a time, but one day she cornered me.
"You went away to be with him," she said. "Didn't you? Everyone thinks it was Peggy Carter, but I don't think so."
She didn't sound reproachful, so I don't know why I had the urge to be defensive. I hadn't stolen him away from her. You were already married to Happy in that universe, I wanted to say, but in the end I said nothing. Wordlessly, I took a handful of photos from my wallet and passed them to her.
She paged through them. I always admired her quiet poise. Her expression didn't really change as she looked at them, but I still did my best to give her some privacy. She looked away for a moment, and when she turned back, she was composed again.
She smiled a small smile. "He looked well," she said. "As he got older."
I nodded. There wasn't much to say. She wasn't the type to ask for details.
"How did you guess?" I enquired.
At that, there was a momentous spark in her eyes. "You never seemed particularly interested in inner decoration before."
True, that. I suppose I did tend to move about her house, peering at things, muttering to myself about her curtains and all the other ways their version of the cottage differed from ours.
I did my best to smile at her, and I had no idea what to say. Two people who had loved the same man for a long time, we still had nothing in common. When I came over, I usually played with Morgan, and Pepper was grateful for a bit of time for herself.
"It's late," I said. I didn't want to impose on her any longer. "I should probably go."
"Okay, if you have to."
Still, as I turned to leave: "Steve."
"He loved you, you know."
I froze. Those words, like an echo from long ago. What was I supposed to say to that?
"My Tony," she clarified, when I didn't say anything, just stood there. I must have seen like an accomplished conversationalist to her, overall. "He loved all the others too, a lot. But you were... something else. You were deeply important to him. He'd want you to know that."
I kissed her on the cheek before I left. Both from me and from my Tony, to his friend and the mother of his kid. "Thanks," I said gently, "Pep."
We never talked about it again. I didn't want the solicitation of our shared fate. I did not want to be comforted, and I don't think she did either.
I lived on. I still live on.
In this timeline, my age is finally starting to catch up with me. The joints creek and ache and tend to predict weather. The stairs are becoming an enemy. I finally remember how it feels to be breathless after a run. And while I try to run on, months stubbornly crawl by.
In this timeline, the Ancient One is dead. It's Strange that finds me. "Gulliver. How was the fairy mound?" By those words I know he knows where I'd been, more or less. Still, Gulliver? I could have been Odysseus, at least.
He asks, unexpectedly, if I have one more journey in me. I look at him for a long time, then ask him what I did to deserve that and why would he do it for my happiness. "Perhaps not for yours," he says, faux cryptic.
Okay. All right.
I've tried living my life quietly, here. I've tried to fade into the background and stay there. The problem with that is that it's boring. I did wish for a bit of quiet, in the past, but what I'd had in mind wasn't the kind of quiet I would enjoy alone, even if the others are around me. Maybe it was a mistake to come here. Maybe I should have stayed with Clint and Sam and Buck, back where we're all bone-weary and gray, but I didn't have it in me to stay in that world without Tony, and this world is no different in that regard. I don't know what I expected. I just wanted out, I suppose. I keep finding good endings for myself, but the problem is, things never end. I continue. I exist. It's been months, and perhaps the pain has dulled a bit, but it's still there, an edge keen enough to stab me from the inside whenever I sit still for too long.
By the expression on Strange's face I know he knows I'll accept. Maybe my eyes grow a bit brighter. Maybe my back is a tad straighter. I do feel like I've lost a couple of pounds off my shoulders.
Strange has implied that Tony needs me; it's not as if I could say no.
I step through the portal without much preamble. The coin drops.
All I've taken with me are the clothes I have on and my wallet, thick with photos. Phones are great, but I still like to have photos I can hold in my hand.
Bizarrely, ridiculously, it's Central Park again. I don't bother with shades this time. I highly doubt anyone would recognize me like this. I suspect the Steve Rogers they remember died some time ago, looking a few decades younger and a whole lot more handsome.
I spot Morgan first. The familiar face, two decades or so older, just jumps at me out of a hundred small scenes around me. Then I notice the back of the head of a man she's hugging. They hold each other for a moment, she kisses his cheek, and then she's away. I wish my Tony could see her like this – all grown up and lovely, her jeans and doc Marten's stained with what appears to be motor oil.
I follow her with my eyes for a moment longer with no particular reason but to delay looking back. And then, finally, I trace with my eyes over the familiar curve of the head and the line of the back I know so well. I could draw it in my sleep. The first pang of pain and joy is too much, so I just stand there, my teeth on edge. I swallow and look at him. He's walking back to a bench – his steps, his movements! I breathe in, breathe out. The prospect of seeing his face again is suddenly scary. I'm not afraid of his reaction; I'm afraid of my own. I'm supposed to go look at his features and treat him as an almost-stranger? How do I explain to my heart this isn't the man I spent 40 years married to? Well – is and isn't. My whole body longs for him, every cell craves his nearness.
He sits down on his bench, and now I can see his profile from where I'm standing. The familiarity of the outline equals pain. He has a chess set with him on the bench, and for a moment I wonder if he was playing with Morgan. But he barely looks at it. He looks at the Morgan's disappearing back for as long as he can see it, and then he just sinks down. His face crumples into something way more tired and way more sad. I haven't seen him like this – maybe ever. But this is a different Tony and I don't know his story.
I take another deep breath. I have to go talk to him, but it's like I'm glued in place. I have this vague idea I'd try and show him some pictures as a proof because suddenly my own life story sounds thin, unbelievable. How can I get through this conversation, if he's going to look at me like a stranger, like an impostor? I stand there, my hand halfway stuck in the hidden pocket of my jacket, where I keep my wallet and the photos.
Coming to think of it, I might look like a crazy assassin, about to pull out a gun and take a shot.
I stand like that for a few seconds and a few more, just staring at him, when I feel something sharp poking at my kidney, and a familiar voice says: "Freeze."
It's a voice I haven't heard in a very, very long time. Suddenly, I realize I hadn't considered all the implications of alternative timelines, no matter that I've lived in one and then another and should be experienced at this.
I don't move.
"Hey, Romanoff," I say. I want to laugh, but the tears don't seem to let me. I've become that old man that always cries. "Please don't stab me?"
"Yeah," I say. I want to turn and look at her, but then she's flinging herself into my arms. She feels bonier, but I'd know that hug anywhere.
I can't exactly let go. I know I should, but I'm scared she'd just disappear on me and I'll realize it was some kind of illusion.
"Steve?" she asks again, but this time it's not Steve-is-that-really-you, it's rather Steve-what's-wrong, so I force myself to let go of her and I try to smile. Her face is a shock, not because she looks older, although she does, but because I didn't think I'd ever get to see it again. Her high cheekbones are even more prominent, but the eyes look softer around the edges. She is lovely. Years sit well with her. Late fifties or early sixties, I'd say. She's still Natasha, and my eyes are bleary with tears.
I'd have expected her to be more suspicious of me, I guess. Perhaps shapeshifting enemies don't cry with joy at seeing her, these days?
"Steve. How?" she asks.
"Different timelines," I reply. I run fingers through my hair and try to act normal.
She just looks at me for a moment, and I suppose that's enough for her to digest the information. "How's he?" she asks quietly.
Her eyes look haunted, which I notice only because she allows me to. Of course, if Natasha is alive here, it must mean Clint is dead. She must have figured out from my reaction it was the other way around where I'm coming from.
I could tell her about his arthritis and also all of his grandkids that keep him busy these days. I could also tell her he just got his family back and is thinking of starting therapy (it's going to work wonders for him, I know). But – there will be time for that. "He's happy," I tell her. "And he loves you, always." Both Clints do.
I'm getting old, just like everyone else (only slower). Otherwise, I would have heard Tony approach. "I'm here to claim the surrogate best friend privileges," he says to Natasha, coming over, not even sparing me a look. He's got his mask back on. It's not his media mask, it's his I'm-okay mask, meant for friends and family. I'm pretty sure he can fool neither Morgan nor Natasha with it, though. "Why are you talking to some rando in the park when you're here to meet me?"
His voice. It's like I've been tightly curled up around myself, somewhere on the inside, and now I've suddenly uncoiled. I know I break into a smile because my face hurts. It's an uncontrollable reflex.
"Tony..." Natasha begins, and then he looks at me.
"Please don't go into cardiac arrest," I manage.
He just blinks at me for a moment, then glances back at Nat. "Is this real? Is he...?"
"Yes," she says firmly. "And it's been twenty years," she adds with a touch of dry amusement, just to distract us all, I think. "You can stop calling yourself a surrogate best friend. I'd say you've been promoted at some point."
"Oh?" he retorts. "Now that Steve's back, though, I'd expect to be pushed down to..." he's babbling. I know he's babbling and he knows he's babbling, and then he stops. "Fuck's sake," he says. "Steve's back. Steve's back." It's as if he's only digesting it now. "Why the hell are we talking about..." He turns to me, looks me fully in the eye for the first time. "Hey," he says softly. "You all right?"
I swallow and nod.
"Diverging timelines?" It's not even a real question. He's figured it out at once, he was just too shocked to say anything.
I nod again.
I cried when I saw Natasha, but I'm not crying now. I'm like a tree trunk, my arms hanging by my sides. I feel rooted in place. But then Tony smiles a small smile that's so very him I want to bite my tongue in half, and that unparalyzes me. I take him in my arms, burying my face into his shoulder, and let out just one violent, silent sob.
He tenses at that, so I let go of him at once; I'm about to step back and start apologizing – this is not my Tony, I don't even know what this Tony thinks of me. I don't know what happened here...
But then he's pulling me back into his arms and clinging to me, and I can feel his tears on my neck. He pushes me back, then, and just glares at me. "You asshole," he says softly. "I missed you. You could have come earlier. Why didn't you?" His voice is quiet and fierce, but it's not real anger. He's just... too happy to be able to be really happy. I know that mood of his.
"I did come earlier," I say. I dig out a photo from my wallet and pass it to him. "Just not... here." Natasha peers over to see. "Is that what you had in your hand? At first I thought you were reaching for a gun." She doesn't seem in the least surprised it's me and Tony on our wedding day in the photo. But it's Natasha, she only shows what she chooses to.
"Paranoid, Natasha," I chide mildly.
Tony is studying the picture without saying anything. Then he passes it back to me. "I'm not him," he says. "Sorry, Steve. Can't help you there. I can't be that for you." He sounds more guarded now, and it's difficult to believe I'm going through this whole thing again. I didn't come here so he could take the place of my dead husband. No one can do that, not in a million years, not even his alter ego from a different timeline.
"Jesus Christ, Tony, you are not supposed to be anything for me," I say. "I just wanted to see you."
"Why this timeline?" he shoots back. He sounds more guarded than my Tony, more suspicious. "Why me?"
I shrug. "This is where Strange sent me," I say. "It's not as if there was a catalogue for me to pick from."
"Are you boys actually bickering already?" Natasha drawls. "Are the two of you for real?"
"Fair point," Tony says. He extends his hand to me. "Truce?"
It's hard. After what we'd been through together, it's hard to reset our relationship to some point in the past. And yes, I'm still aware he's not the same man I was married to, but I've come to believe he is, essentially, the same person. If I believed in souls that's how I would call it, but I don't know what I believe in any more; I do believe in his fundamental Tonyness. It's something I can't not love. And he is happy to see me. I know that. We can work with that. We can build from that.
I still don't know why I'm here. Strange wanted me to do something – something Tony needs, he'd implied.
"I think we have a lot to talk about," I say very mildly. "Wanna go get something to eat?"
That is a strategy that cannot fail. He relaxes and nods. "I think we can allow ourselves something majorly unhealthy and high in cholesterol for this occasion, don't you?"
Natasha snorts. "I'll have salad."
We do have a lot of conversations, over the next days and weeks. This time around I find myself talking even more than he does on many occasions. Tony is pressing me for every detail, as if something depends on it. It's as if he's curious to find out as much as he can about this different life he could have had. About me and him, about our marriage. The how, the why, even the where..
"He's been badly depressed ever since Pepper died," Natasha tells me two days after my arrival. We are sipping beer on the roof of Tony's mansion. (My Tony and I lived in it briefly, but Tony hated it. Too much memories, he used to say.) Tony has fallen asleep after lunch, and we are talking alone. "It's not as if it was a particularly happy marriage either."
"No?" I say. I could never really understand Tony and Pepper as a couple. Still, for the sake of the first Tony I loved, and later for the sake of his Pepper I've come to know a little bit, I have tried to feel respect for their relationship, even deep inside my own head, where I question everything.
Natasha shrugs. "Their rocky patches, put together, outlast their good years, as far as I can tell. They were even separated for three years. They patched it up when Pepper got sick." She polishes off a bottle, then very elegantly opens a new one using the chair arm.
"I could've done that for you," I say in my best gallant voice, just to wind her up.
She blinks at me very slowly and smiles. It's her murder smile. It means fuck you, Steve, but in a mostly friendly manner. "But after she died," she goes on, "it was as if he lost the light of his life. I honestly didn't think he'd take it that badly."
"It's Tony, though," I say.
"Yeah," she sighs. "It's Tony."
Doctor Strange drops by to see him later that day. In this universe they are buddies. They might have gone there in my original timeline too, perhaps, if Tony had lived; and I wouldn't put it past doctor Stranges of the multiverse to be in cahoots with one another. So now I'm wondering why they are trying to manipulate the timeline by sending me here. Is this unhappy Tony going to do something big and regrettable and perhaps catastrophic? I could see it happening, sort of. But he's not really working on anything much, these days, Natasha tells me. So perhaps he's not making something he should be making? I don't know, and Strange would probably tell me it's for the best that I don't. I sort of agreed to it tacitly when I came here, didn't I? He strongly implied that Tony needed me, and I jumped. I had my misgivings. Still after seeing them spend some time together, today, I'm beginning to think perhaps Strange did it simply for Tony. To comfort him. And if that's the case: hell, I'm game.
We hang out. Natasha finds an excuse to leave us alone more often than not. I've asked her not to do that – I love Natasha and I don't want her to feel like she's being pushed out – but she keeps pretending she has no idea what I'm talking about. Honestly, it's infuriating, in a very, very Natasha-like way that I've deeply missed over the years.
We hang out, Tony and I, and it's nothing like that period when I arrived in my Tony's timeline and we became inseparable. This time around there is less ice-cream and cuddling and quiet talks long into the night. Well. There is basically none of that. Instead, there is bickering and challenging each other and pointed questions and discussion. But, oh my god, we talk, and it's Tony, and I feel strange excitement surge up in me whenever he says: "Nonono, Big, wait a minute there..."
We discuss the nature of the multiverse, and cooking (I'm still horrible at it, but after watching years' worth of cooking shows with my Tony, I at least know the theory), and politics, and history, and gardening, and what's the best detergent. It's a constant back and forth. It's as if it gives him new life.
Some days we quarrel so much I don't even know why he tolerates me around. Still, he starts tinkering with things he thinks I'd like, so I know he's happy I'm here, even if it doesn't always look like it.
This is it, I think. I wasn't sent here to comfort him. I was sent here to argue him back to his old self. No one can prickle him like I can. We've always had thin skin when it came to each other.
He kisses me about four months in. He does it in the middle of an argument, and it takes me by such surprise that my knees buckle and I almost lose my footing. I literally melt into his arms.
"Oh, I should have known. You're so desperate for it," he teases.
"For you," I say earnestly. "Yes. I am." And I think: How many times am I meant to fall in love with this one man, over different lifetimes? Because it's somehow here again – that old giddiness and jumbled thoughts and trembly knees. In my seventies. Fallen for him like a schoolgirl. Again.
"For some version of me, at any rate," he shoots back. He's only half serious; I know him well enough to know that.
"Eat shit, Tony," I tell him very lovingly.
A few months later, I'm reorganizing Tony's bookshelves, mostly out of boredom, when he brings me the shield. He's holding it like an old, dear enemy he's reluctant to let go of. And here I thought I got rid of that thing when I gave it to Sam.
Not that I'm not happy to see the shield, actually; it's an old friend. For someone who's moved house so many times, it's strange how nostalgic I get about things. Or, coming to think of it, perhaps it's not strange at all.
"Here," he says. "Basically, it's yours. Been yours all along, really."
The metal under my fingers is familiar and comforting, but I'd say the thing itself is a tad heavier than it used to be.
Something in Tony's eyes stops me in my tracks. "This one's not mine, though," I say very gently. I hold it for him to take back, but he just looks at me stubbornly.
"I'd feel better if you had it," he says; it's such a clear attempt at manipulation. It's also piss-poor and perfectly harmless. I know him. I know he just wants me to have the shield and he tries to spin it as if I'd practically be doing him a favor if I took it off his hands. Hell, it might even be true. But there's something else behind it. Something's worrying at him.
"Why d'you want to get rid of it?" I ask him, and that elicits a small smile from him.
"It's just... time." And then a sliver of uncertainty in his face, something hesitant about his movements brings me back to 2023, and something metallic catches in my throat. I almost wait for him to say it: Resentment is corrosive and I hate it.
Instead he looks away and says: "Want a sandwich?"
I nod, so that he'd have an excuse to fuss with plates and bread and things while he figures out what he wants to say to me. Because I can see he wants to say something.
He's cutting perfectly even pieces of cheese on the cutting board when abruptly he says: "I never forgave him, you know."
I remember a conversation from over forty years ago. "For dying?"
He raises his eyes for a moment, then silently shakes his head. "For Siberia."
There is coldness in my stomach, and I'm now becoming aware that, in a way, it's been with me ever since I came here, quietly eating at me. The civil war. We never really talked about it, except to figure out it happened more or less the same way in both our timelines.
"Me," I say, my mouth suddenly dry even though all of it took place so ridiculously long ago, a lifetime ago. "You never forgave me. That was still me, I think, back then." I figure it's about then that time our universes diverged, but as per usual, I can't be. sure
He looks up sharply at that, and then suddenly he's at my side. "Darling, no," he says, and he sounds distressed, and also he's never ever called me anything but Steve or Cap or Big Man before. "That's not what I meant at all."
I blink at his tone.
"What I meant," he starts again, sounding more like himself this time, more assertive, sharper. "What I meant is, I never got to forgive him. While he was alive. We never made up. We worked together in the end, obviously. I even made him a new shield because he needed it. But..." But he never gave him back this one, and they were never friends again.
And then, two decades ago, his Steve died on that battlefield.
I know how much it meant to me when my Tony – my original Tony (God, this is confusing sometimes) – came back to the Compound and shook my hand. Like setting a sprained arm; it still hurt, like hell, but all of a sudden, somehow, it was a good pain. That was how it felt. His Steve never had that, he never got his Tony back and it must have been heartbreaking for him. But right now I only have eyes for the Tony right here in front of me, about to quietly fall apart.
"You've been sitting on this for twenty years," I say, and it might seem as if I'm talking about the shield, but I'm really not.
He hands me my sandwich. "It's ridiculous," he says, almost viciously. "As if it would have changed anything. He'd still be dead. But it's been years, and half the time all I can think about is how I wish I'd said something to him." He tries to chuckle and falls short. "A hug would have worked too. As if that could have ever happened. But he was..." He falters. "You've no idea how important he was to me."
I do have an idea. I do, because the fact that he's so straightforward about it only speaks of how distraught he is right now. The other clue is that he puts perfectly sliced pickles on his sandwich. He hates pickles, they give him heartburn. (My Tony didn't; some things are just bizarre.)
I come over to him, peel them off his sandwich, toss them in the garbage.
It takes him a minute of distracted staring to figure out what I just did. "Oh. Thanks," he says.
"He didn't hold it against you." That's the best I can come up with. Because I can't say he knew. Chances are, he probably didn't know how Tony felt about him. It's a fact that took me months of talking to my Tony to accept.
"You don't know that," he argues, just for the sake of argument.
"But I do know that," I retort. "Come on, come here."
I'm about to take him in my arms, but he steps back. It's like an instant cut straight across my heart, even though I know he's probably just not in the mood to be comforted.
"You don't get to steal my thunder," he says peevishly. And then, before I can ask, he's holding me by both my shoulders, staring up at my face, unblinking. "I'm not making the same mistake with you. Of failing to say what I came to say. So, here it is: I love you." It sounds like a challenge, the way he says it, but by the time it reaches my brain, it's somehow turned into a gentlest whisper.
"I know that, Tony," I say very softly. "I love you too."
I do know, because I know his tells, I know because I've spent half my life with a version of him, I know because I can see how he looks at me like I'm about to slip through his fingers and disappear any moment now even though I'm not going anywhere.
"Well," he says, "now you know it even more."
I kiss him, and this time he lets me.
'Do you think we can be happy?" he asks.
"Aren't we already?"
He pauses. "You know what," he says. "We actually are. We really are. Aren't we?"
"He's gotten so much better. I honestly didn't think he was coming back from his funk," Natasha says on an occasion when it's just the two of us again. I wouldn't discuss Tony like this with someone on the outside, but this is Natasha. She'd been by his side nearly every day for the past twenty years. "Steve, it's incredible. You were sent to us like a..." She trails off, probably not wanting to sound corny.
"Parcel?" I say.
"Yes, exactly, you were sent to us like a parcel, that's just what I was going for," she says dryly and I send my sweetest smile her way.
I also think he's doing well. He's making things again, which is an unmistakable sign. He has these crazy bouts of energy – more energy than me, these days, as a matter of fact. After those are over, he usually starts falling asleep on furniture, or on me, but then he wakes up restored and ready for more action.
We're not that old, in truth. I felt ancient before I came here. Ancient and useless, and without a place in the world. Here – well, we are in our seventies, and we feel it. Yesterday Tony finished the new model of the suit with better joint support; you have to start thinking of things like that at some point. But we still got some fight left in us.
This time around I'm older than Tony, though, and it's a relief. I'm 79. My bones are creaky and my reflexes aren't what they used to be even ten years ago; the other day I had to go get glasses. Tony was a little devastated for my sake; me, I don't mind. This way I'm back to sharper lines and better judged distances.
Still, we're not getting any younger. I'm perfectly aware of that. We play chess more often than we spar; or have sex. We cuddle or just sit next to each other far more frequently. We do go for a lot of walks, just the two of us or with Natasha. I know where this journey is headed, but for as long as we can string it along, we will. I can't think about what comes next or how the world is going gray around the edges and how we are slowing down, a little more with each passing day. I can't.
I'm here, with Tony, and I'm grateful for every moment. I'm sure I don't deserve all the happiness I got to have again. I've had three chances with the man I love. It's more than anyone can say. I got to know three different Tonys – and they are different. It's really obvious only now. Of course he would be different after a lifetime spent with one person or another, even if there weren't for other variables we can't know anything about. We change each other. Thank god for that. Still, he is still Tony, my Tony, one of my Tonys, and I love him, just like I suspect I would eventually fall in love with every Tony across the wide multiverse.
What can I say, I have a type.
Everything happens somewhere. Maybe out there, in the multiverse, there is a Steve who went back and had his dance with Peggy instead. I'm not that Steve. I suppose I was him at some point, or he was me, but not any longer, not for a very long time. And if everything comes to pass somewhere, maybe there is a timeline in which the ever-spinning coin lands on its rim and stays upright; there is precisely a one in 6000 chance of that happening. And, so, over there, both Steve and Tony, perhaps, walk away alive from that battlefield, victorious; perhaps they are walking very close to each other. Together, as was meant to be. Hands almost touching, but not quite. Soon, perhaps. They are so very tired. They need their rest, but nevertheless, in that moment, for them, the world is just as it should be. They'll figure it all out, I'm sure. What they mean to each other. What they can be to each other. Today, with all my heart, I am rooting for them.