Actions

Work Header

A New Way For Us

Chapter Text

Tony stared at the two men in front of him. “This is… the single most stupid thing anyone has ever asked of me.”

Stephen Strange and Rhodey stared helplessly at him and Tony hoped he was wearing a glowering, determined expression that would make it very clear that neither hell nor high water—and certainly no magical entity, human or sorcerer or otherwise—was going to convince him to do this.

It was reckless and completely insane, no matter how hopeless the situation looked right now.

“We need to fix this,” Strange tried again. “And we need to do it now. Go back to the beginning and work from there. That’s why I brought you here.”

“Why me?” Tony demanded to know. “I thought you were the Sorcerer Supreme here!”

“Every situation has its own imperatives. And the Eye is the one who picked you, not me.”

Tony scoffed. “The Eye.”

“Yes,” Strange said. “You want to help save this world, don’t you?”

“Of course I do!” Tony thumped a fist against the wall behind him. “I just… I can’t go back. I can’t go through all of that again. And it won’t change anything, anyway.”

Strange looked at him in that stupid docile way of his. “Then I suppose we’re doomed.”

“‘We’ being your sorcerers?”

“No, ‘we’ being me, and you, and the whole world. Every last human being.”

A pause.

Tony shifted uncomfortably. “Now you’re just being dramatic.”

“I’m being realistic. Thanos is at our doorsteps, Tony. Millions of people are dying as we speak—and you know it.”

Tony sighed as he turned around. He knew alright.

Around them, the Kamar-Taj was buzzing with the voices of Strange’s men. All the young sorcerers-in-training who had survived the latest battle with Thanos were outside, fighting the fight. Their mentor, Wong, was looking at Tony warily from across the library.

He and Rhodey had arrived in Nepal half a day ago, and ever since, it felt like they were walking in circles. Strange was now the head of the Masters of the Mystic Arts and the official reason for their visit was to complete arrangements for the sorcerers to work together with the Avengers—or what was left of them.

Tony hadn’t heard from Natasha and Bruce in over a week. All communication systems were down. Steve, Sam and Barnes—they had kept loose contact, fighting the fight in Europe with their own team. They hadn’t exactly worked together since Thanos had arrived—they’d only been on a need-to-know talking base, calling each other once a week to make sure they were still alive and fighting.

Steve’s last call had been twelve days ago.

Tony tried not to think about it too much. There could be numerous reasons why Steve hadn’t called, and yet…

Yet, Tony had a feeling that… that—

Goddammit, how had all of this happened? How the hell had they gotten to this point?

If Steve was dead, Tony didn’t know how to keep going. No matter how horrible the fight between them had been, Tony had always found a strange kind of solace in the knowledge that Steve was still somewhere —trying to do the right thing just as much as Tony was.

“I would never let you use the Time Stone if I had another choice,” Strange said, his voice suddenly very gentle. “There is usually no way to make use of it without an advanced knowledge of Mystic Arts. There are dangerous channels…”

“What channels?” Rhodey intercepted. “You said it was safe.”

“It is. The Eye will lead Tony to his desired destination.”

Tony’s jaw clenched, and he firmly schooled his expression so he wouldn’t be giving any of those feelings inside of him away. He couldn’t let Strange of all people see how much… how much all of what had happened in those last three years had broken him. This war—this stupid, pointless power game between him and Steve, and all the wreckage that had followed. The abyss that now gaped between both of their teams, the threat of a final apocalypse looming over all of their heads, the loneliness Tony felt every day when he stood in their living room, looking at the large table that had once housed many team dinners.

At some point, he’d become this broken shell, and he hadn’t yet found a way to piece himself back together again.

“I just can’t,” Tony concluded.

“I know it’s hard, Tones, but maybe you can really change what happened,” Rhodey said tentatively. “You know I distrust this whole magic thing just as much as you, but… This might be our last chance. If Thanos gets his hands on the Time Gem, too, we’re done. It’s the last one missing.”

“I can’t,” Tony snapped, though the futility of his resistance was slowly dawning on him, too.

Strange stepped closer to him and Tony had never hated him and his stupid goatee and his stupid cape as much as in this very moment.

“If we ever want to defeat Thanos,” Strange said, “we need the combined force of all heroes, and you know it. If the Avengers hadn’t fallen apart before he came here, if we had been a united force, we could’ve beaten him. Now it’s too late.”

Tony bristled. “Don’t you think I tried before?! All I did, for years, was to try and stop the team from splitting up. I tried to protect them, over and over again. And where did that get us? It was futile! I obviously wasn’t fit for the job, and I can’t watch them grieve and struggle all over again—for nothing.”

“It’s called making amends,” Strange argued. “I met the Captain, once. And I do believe the two of you can choose a different path if you try.”

“Oh fuck you,” Tony said, rubbing a hand over his eyes. “I don’t need your worldly wisdom.”

“Charming,” Strange countered, deadpan. “I saved your sorry ass out there, remember? And I fixed your wounds up for you, too. You could show a little gratitude.”

“I’d be more grateful if you could stop pestering me about fucking time travel.”

Strange had the audacity to pet Tony’s shoulder once. “You know, Tony, essentially, we are all inside a moment between moments. We’re able to affect what happens in our reality. In our future. But also in our past.”

Tony sighed, brushing a hand over his face. The air in the ancient library was stale and dusty, and Tony glanced through the dimmed light to a vault door where he guessed the Eye was hanging in the middle of the adjacent room.

It wasn’t that he’d never thought about it. What he would do if he could turn back time. If there was a way to prevent what had happened during the Sokovia Accords fiasco. But deep in his heart, he knew that Steve would never listen to him.

There was a hand on his arm.

“It’s worth a try,” Rhodey supplied. The prosthesis around his legs were giving off a slight whirring sound as he moved, and Tony vowed to fix that as soon as he got the chance.

It doesn’t matter, his stupid brain supplied immediately. Rhodey will die soon—they all would.

“If you know,” Tony started as he glanced at Strange, “that we can prevent this. Why didn’t you go back yourself?”

“I tried. But it’s not about me. It always comes down to you and the Captain. And both of you never trust me enough to truly change your ways.”

“Sounds like them,” Rhodey said with a small smile.

“It has to be you,” Strange told Tony. “Or the Captain. But as we both know, we can’t be sure he’s even still alive.”

At that, all the fight left Tony. And he knew that Strange was playing him by mentioning Steve, but that didn’t matter in the long run.

Because, dammit, he was right.

“Say I do it—go back in time,” he ventured. “What exactly do you want me to do?”

“Whatever is necessary to convince everyone to stick together.”

Tony gave him an exasperated look. “That’s… really helpful. Thanks.”

“Well, if you had to name one point in time that set off the chain reaction, leading to the team’s downfall, when would it be?”

Tony huffed. “I don’t know—how about when we all met?”

“Can you be serious for once?” Strange asked, rolling his eyes.

“I was only half joking,” Tony murmured, thinking back. “It was never apples and sunshine with us, but I guess it all turned to shit when I built Ultron.”

Strange nodded, looking at him squarely. “Then how about you don’t build him and go from there?”

Tony opened his mouth to protest, but realized that—yes, that was exactly what he should be doing. “You think it’s that easy?”

“Probably not,” Strange said. “But you can never truly predict the impact of your actions, can you?”

Tony bit his lower lip and refrained from commenting on that.

With that, the three of them walked towards the vault, Wong trailing behind them. The circular room was basically a cave lit by torches; dark marble arch with words in a strange language written on its wall. At the far end of the room, two shallow steps led up to another archway that opened on a passageway that seemed to recede forever.

And then there it was. The Eye of Agamotto.

It looked at once strange, beautiful and entirely supercilious.

“You sure you want to do this?” Rhodey suddenly whispered next to him. “It’s pretty crazy.”

“Absolutely not.” Tony took a deep breath. “But he’s right. It’s about the team, and about Sokovia. It’s about Wakanda and Lagos and Vienna and New York. And it’s…” He swallowed, hating how his voice was breaking a little. “And it’s our only option.”

Rhodey opened his mouth to say something, then apparently thought better of it. “Good luck,” he said instead, pulling him back to the present. He drew Tony into a firm hug. “I’d say I see you later, but that’s not really the case, is it?”

“Don’t do that,” Tony said, grimacing. “I’m going back in time. So if I fix this, you’ll never even know I was gone.”

“Right,” Rhodey said, smiling, then stepping back. “Tell my past self to punch Wilson in the face.”

Tony snorted, and nodded. And then, he walked closer to the Eye.

“Remember,” Strange said behind him. “These are just temporal possibilities. Time, like threads, always forms its patterns. Any weave can be unraveled and woven again, so if you unravel it, you’ll have to weave it differently.”

That probably made a lot of sense to people like Strange, Tony thought a bit hysterically. He brought the necklace over his head. The green light of the Time Gem flickered, and at once, there was a voice in his head.

So much rage in you, he heard it say. So much grief. Misdirected—at yourself, at the world.

“Why is it talking to me?” Tony asked Strange.

“It’s testing you. You’ll need to channel your mind to power your purpose!”

Channeling. All right. Tony could do that.

I only have one wish, he thought fiercely. To go back and fix what happened.

And that wish is an entirely selfish one, isn't it? the voice said. But why not? You are free to be selfish.

It’s not a selfish wish to save the world.

You rejected love, Tony Stark. You encased your heart in metal. You want to have another try.

What? Tony had no idea what that was supposed to mean. He’d rejected love? If the Eye was talking about Pepper, it really didn’t know what the hell it was talking about. Pepper had broken up with him —not the other way around.

My reasons don’t matter. I made a few bad mistakes. I want to change what I did. Take me back. “Let me try,” Tony said out loud, feeling the determination inside him rise.

Very well. I will take your essence and place it in your former self. If you wish to change the outcome, then it is you who must undo the weave.

Without hesitation, Tony took the Eye in hand, and twisted it the way Strange had shown him. Nothing happened, and Tony frowned as the room around him turned suddenly bright green. “Was that supposed to happen?” he asked, but when he looked at Strange for an answer, he saw lights coming right at him.

A white, sourceless light phasing into black. Tony was caught there, trapped between here and… somewhere else, between the green pulses pouring out of the Eye and the raging black nothingness around him, the two conflicting energies crackling through him like an unending lightning blast.

Tony’s brain shorted right out. Then he was floating in space, looking down at a crumpled form lying at the floor of the library. His form. His body.

Huh, he thought, as he drifted higher. Below him, the Kamar-Taj vanished into a swirl of time and space. The vision spun, then drifted away and faded into white. All white now. Tony was floating in glowing light that seemed to go on forever.

Something opened in front of him. Bring me back to where it started to go wrong, he thought and suddenly, he staggered, trying to keep his balance, then found a hard surface taking form under his feet. Things began to shape themselves out of the blackness.

And then everything blurred.

 

* * *

 

The next thing Tony knew he was lying on his back and Steve Rogers was staring down at him.

As on instinct, Tony flinched and raised his hands in defense. Except—this wasn’t the Steve from Siberia, the one with blood on his face, his shield raised high, and widened, hurt eyes. This Steve was only sporting pajamas and a very worried expression.

God, he was young. He had forgotten how carefree Steve had once been.

Tony was stunned, his eyes trailing over him as he tried to get his bearings. Then, he looked down at himself.

He was wearing jeans and a band shirt, no shoes, no socks, and there were oil stains on his arms. Consequently, he’d probably been working in his workshop.

“Tony?” Steve prompted softly. “Are you okay?”

Tony kept… staring. He marveled at how Steve could make him happy to see him and thoroughly furious, and really, really pissed off and annoyed, all at the same time. He kneeled next to Tony, looking down at him, and as much as Tony was glad to see him, he also kind of wanted to punch him in the face.

Tony pushed himself up onto an elbow. He was apparently not in the workshop, but instead lying on his bed in the tower. Outside, the New York skyline looked amazingly normal. No fires, no explosions, no screams of endless torment, no broken skyscrapers.

“Ow,” he said, when he felt a sudden jolt of pain, “my head hurts. What happened?”

“I don’t know,” Steve said, still worried. “I mean, we were down in your shop, talking about the mission tomorrow and you just… collapsed. I wasn’t fast enough and you hit your head on the floor pretty badly. Are you okay?”

Tony rubbed the back of his head. “I will be once the headache wears off. How’d I end up in my bed?”

“I carried you there.” Steve frowned in concern. “Do you think you should go to medical? Or see a doctor? Passing out like that is probably not good. Might be a sign of something serious.”

Tony cleared his throat. It had been a very long time since he’d seen Steve fret about him like that.

“No,” he said eventually. “It’s just… I, uh, didn’t sleep much today. Must have passed out from exhaustion, I suppose.”

“Worried about Sokovia?”

Tony blinked. “What?”

“The mission?” Steve asked, suddenly alarmed. “You do remember, right?”

“Uh, sure…” Tony said, thinking hard. Steve couldn’t possibly be talking about them fighting Ultron in Sokovia, because if he did, it was all too late already. The chain reaction had already started.

Tony needed to figure out into what time period the Eye had dropped him. Maybe he should’ve thought of a specific date when he’d put the necklace on?

He started to haul himself to his feet. “I’m just going to get a glass of water.”

“Let me do that,” Steve intervened. “You just stay off your feet for a while.”

“Oh, don’t mother-hen me, Rogers,” Tony said, making to stand up.

Steve rolled his eyes, as he pressed a hand on Tony’s shoulder, keeping him down. “Can you do one thing without arguing with me?”

“No,” Tony said, smirking at him. “Why should I? Going easy on you is only half the fun.”

“Ah,” Steve replied, mimicking his smile. “I’ll remember that next time we’re sparring.”

“Oh I dare you,” Tony shot back, then stopped.

The realization of what he was doing hit Tony like a cold slap to the face. He was bantering. With Steve. He’d fallen into it automatically, like they’d been doing it all the time within those last three years.

And it felt so good. Like a piece of home he thought he’d never have again.

Tony closed his eyes briefly, then looked down on the night stand next to his bed.

He pressed a finger to his phone (two generations older than his current phone) and glanced at the date.

Monday, April 19th, 2015.

Strange had really done it. He had sent Tony back in time. With all his memories intact. Which meant that he had a real chance of changing events over the next few years.

The mission Steve had been talking about, the mission they’d apparently face tomorrow, had to be their raid on Strucker’s base in Sokovia. The one where they’d gather Loki’s scepter.

Tony glanced at Steve, who was pouring water for him on the other side of the room. It was going to be unnerving trying to pretend nothing had happened. To pretend he didn’t know that Steve was protecting his parent’s murderer from him, right now, right in this second. That was going to be tough. Should he hide it? He didn’t know.

“Tony?”

He realized that Steve was holding a glass of water out to him.

“Oh, sorry. Thanks.” He downed the water without stopping for breath. It was either that or a stiff drink—which Steve would disapprove of, of course.

“I really think you should lie down,” Steve said.

“I actually think I will.” He mostly agreed to get Steve out of the room. He needed time to think—to plan.

Selfish, the Eye had called him. Damn right he was going to be selfish. Oh, he’d try to keep the team together, sure. But he was through worrying about other people’s opinions. This time he was going to have what he wanted. This time things were going to go his way.

And this wasn’t the Steve who had betrayed him, the one who had left him half-dead and freezing in Siberia. Not yet.

This Steve was still his friend. And Tony wanted … he wanted that second chance. He wanted to keep his team, have them by his side, and he would do everything to make that happen.

“Can I get you anything?” Steve asked.

“No. I’m just gonna call it a night,” Tony told Steve, yawning to emphasize his point.

Steve lingered, casting him a suspicious look, and dammit, Steve had always known him far too well. But eventually, he nodded. “Alright. Sleep well, and call me if you need anything, alright?”

What I need is for you to be honest with me, Tony thought, then he stomped all those feelings down. It wasn’t the time. Soon, if he could man up about it—but not today. “Sure. Thanks.”

Steve nodded, and started to walk out of his bedroom.

Tony took one last look at him, then cleared his throat. “Steve?”

Steve stopped, turned around. “Yeah?”

He reached out, hesitated, then put his hand back down on the bed. “Thanks. For taking care of me.”

Steve smiled at him—and Tony had forgotten that Steve had ever smiled at him like that. So softly. “Always.”

Watching him go, Tony let himself drop back on the bed. Here he was—back in 2015. And if this didn’t work out, the whole changing-your-future thing, he at least had a few more months before he had to fight against Steve all over again.

Chapter Text

He looked so different.

Tony stared at the mirror, the hot steam from the shower clouding it partially, but there was enough of his face visible to realize how much his former body had aged within the last three years.

Had it really only been three years since Ultron?

Sure, the few grey hairs, though unwelcome, were to be expected, but there had been a physical tiredness within him that was gone now.

Here he was. Back in 2015.

His own mind had somehow fused with his earlier body. But where had that other mind gone? That consciousness? Had it just been sublimated into his present one? He didn’t have a sense of two minds here, no sense of overlap or overlay. He had just been seamlessly integrated into this body, it seemed, all his memories of the future intact.

It was unbelievable, and… He hadn’t let Strange see it, but he was nervous. This was a huge responsibility and he didn’t have a clue how to go about it. He would try and solve the mess he’d created, but apart from that—How could he bring Steve and Sam and Clint and the rest of their team to choose a different path? He’d have to fly by the seat of his pants and it was the whole of humankind that’d have to pay the price if he got things wrong.

Keep the team together? Yeah, like he’d been so successful at that the first time around.

But he was determined not to fail, because if he did, every last man and woman on the planet would have to pay the price. Strange had said that at the end of it all, it always came down to him and Steve, so Tony needed to keep Steve on his good side, no matter how angry he still was at him. He simply needed to take it step by step, first things first and all that jazz.

He would have to keep Ultron from happening, that much was clear. Because that was the start of it. That was when the shit had first hit the fan, and the team had started to distrust one another.

Should he tell the others? And tell them what, exactly? That he knew what lay ahead, knew all the ways they’d mess up, as a team and individually, and that they should pretty please let the guy from the future fix it? Would they even trust him enough to follow his lead? And what if they didn’t? If they decided that they might be better off alone?

It’d kick off a whole other chain reaction, maybe leading them right back to where he came from.

No, the risk was too high. Knowing Steve, he probably wouldn’t believe him and there was too much at stake.

“Sir, Captain Rogers is asking for your presence.”

Tony startled. Hard.

Staring at the mirror, he gaped at himself. Oh God, he’d completely forgotten about JARVIS. That he’d still be here, in this time. It had been so long since he’d heard his voice. Well, not truly, Vision had been at his side almost until the end, but—it wasn’t the same.

Tony remembered that it had been gut-wrenching to lose JARVIS, but eventually, he’d adjusted to FRIDAY. And hearing his old A.I. again—it felt both awfully familiar and wholly foreign, felt a lot like sinking into the embrace of a friend he hadn’t seen in ages.

“Sir, are you alright? My sensors indicate you are in distress.”

“‘m fine,” Tony murmured, clearing his throat. “Just… glad to hear your voice, J.”

There was a longer pause. “Sir… are you sure you are alright?”

Tony snorted. “Why—Can’t I say nice things to you?”

“You can, but you usually don’t.”

Tony winced. Right. He probably deserved that.

“Thanks for notifying me,” he said and grabbed his clothes. His mind was on a constant spin. There would be no Ultron, that much was clear. But what about Vision? He’d played a pivotal role in their fight against Thanos. They likely couldn’t do this without him.

“What does Steve want?” Tony asked.

“You are scheduled to leave for Sokovia in T minus two hours and thirty-six minutes,” JARVIS answered. “The team is sitting down for a final debriefing as we speak.”

Right. The mission. It was crucial that they’d get their hands on the scepter, knowing what he knew now. The Mind Stone had been the one thing to turn the battle in Thanos’ favor. After he’d gathered it from Vision’s body, he’d bent their will in every direction he’d wanted.

They needed to get to the scepter, and then keep it safe as much as they could.

So he’d do just that. Go back to Sokovia and do what had to be done. And nothing more.

 

* * *

 

They were sitting at the dinner table, and Tony couldn’t take his eyes off them. His team. They were all here, sitting next to each other like it was the most normal thing in the world. Clint was tapping on his phone, probably talking to Laura. Tony wondered if he would tell them about his family when there wasn’t a life-threatening situation. Natasha was casting glances at Bruce, and for some reason, Tony had a feeling that no matter what he’d do and change, the two of them—it just wouldn’t work out.

Thor was, as per usual, the only one actually listening to Steve going over the mission plan one last time, because let's face it, Steve’s initial plan usually went to shit five minutes into the mission and they were pretty badass when it came to rolling with the flow.

The plan was the same as back then: attack from the front, take out HYDRA’s tanks while Tony looked for a way into the building. While Tony would go searching for the scepter, Steve was going to arrest Strucker, then hand him over to NATO.

And then, with any luck, Strucker would be imprisoned for the rest of his life, instead of being murdered by Tony’s psychopathic murder-bot.

When Tony glanced up at Steve, he kept his lids down and his face still to hide his expression, but his gaze couldn’t help lingering on him. Last time he’d seen Steve, face to face, Steve’d just smashed the suit’s reactor with his shield. And now here he was, once more standing in front of him as his team leader.

It was all so very strange.

“Strucker’s the head of it,” Steve said. “So our first imperative is to locate and contain him, only then we’ll go find the scepter. Tony, you can sweep in, have JARVIS locate it if possible, I’ll come after you as soon as we’ve dealt with the infantry.”

“Good,” Tony said, and paused. Last night, he’d had a lot of debates with himself, trying to decide whether or not he’d be warning the others about certain things he knew would happen. It’d be safer not to interfere where it wasn’t needed. It’d only make the others suspicious.

But then again—what if something happened on his watch? He figured it wouldn’t hurt to at least warn them about Wanda and Pietro, right?

Just as Steve was about to close debriefing, Tony cleared his throat. “One more thing. Strucker’s been performing experiments on the scepter. Transferring its power to humans. Most of them didn’t survive, but there’s two in the Sokovian base right now, and I’m pretty sure they’ll attack us on sight.”

There was a beat of silence. Steve blinked as he stared at him. “How do you know that?”

“JARVIS found some reports,” he said. Usually, no one questioned JARVIS’ vast amount of knowledge, and yep, it was the same this time around. Steve nodded, confusion disappearing from his face. “Wanda and Pietro Maximoff,” Tony explained. “Twins. She has telekinetic, telepathic and energy manipulating abilities, he has enhanced speed.”

“We’ve got to stop them,” Thor said gravely. “We can’t let the scepter’s powers run free. It’s powerful magic.”

Tony cleared his throat. “Yeah, sure… great idea, but I actually wanted to suggest we try and bring them in. Ask them to join us. They’re just kids and HYDRA’s messed with them long enough.”

He’d thought about that a lot yesterday night, too. Wanda and Pietro hated his guts, sure, but he owed it to them—to try and help.

When Tony looked up, he saw both Steve and Natasha giving him a contemplative look.

“You said they’d attack us,” Steve said. “If they’re willingly working with HYDRA…”

“They’re angry,” Tony interjected. “At me, mostly. They’re angry, misguided kids. I think we should try and see if we can help them. Once we’ve secured the base—and the scepter, of course.”

There was a light frown on Steve’s forehead, but eventually, he nodded. “Alright, we’ll see if we can talk sense into them.”

“Great.” Tony smiled at him, and he’d meant for it to be a short, thin-lipped smile, but then Steve returned that smile without so much as a second-thought, and Tony had trouble schooling his expression.

This Steve still trusted him, Tony realized, and didn’t know how to deal with that at all.

 

* * *

 

They arrived in Sokovia just before noon.

However, the fact that he knew about Wanda and Pietro didn’t change all that much. Tony figured that out pretty quickly. He listened to the others talking to each other on the comm as he circled over Strucker’s hideout. This time around, he deactivated the energy shield within mere minutes, and walked into the building with almost no problems at all. Pushing the secret door open, Tony descended into the cellar.

And damn , that was one giant déjà vu right there.

Briefly glancing around, Tony walked closer to the scepter. He could neither hear nor see Wanda approaching, but he guessed she had to be there. So far nothing big had changed. The others were busy fighting HYDRA outside, and Tony had taken the same route into the building as he had last time.

To his left and right, broken Iron Legion suits were lying on examination tables. And right in front of him—the dead Chitauri Leviathan.

“Thor, I got eyes on the prize,” Tony recited into the comm, then walked closer to the artifact, casting its soft blue light into the otherwise dark room.

The Mind Stone. How much sorrow it had caused, Tony thought, then approached it in quick strides.

There were… soft steps behind him, and it took everything in Tony not to turn around right then and grab for Wanda’s wrists. Instead, he let the vision take him once more.

It was the same as back then. The team, all dead, Steve dying in his arms, and the Leviathans flying towards Earth. The same horror gripped him, the same grief. Why had he survived? Why wasn’t he lying there, too, by their side where he damn well belonged?

It was a vision, Tony reminded himself sternly. He wouldn’t succumb to those dark thoughts once again. Instead, kneeling in front of Steve’s lifeless body, Tony took control of the vision and steered it in a different direction.

He was in New York, standing on top of his tower. He watched as a giant spaceship descended upon Earth, and listened to Thanos’ booming voice as he announced his plans for their planet. Tony forced his mind to envision the Infinity Gauntlet, the stones Thanos gathered one by one. And then, because he was an asshole and because Wanda needed to see this if he wanted her to believe him—he thought of all of those deaths he’d witnessed in the last weeks. Of cities being destroyed, of landmarks exploding, of planes falling from the sky. He refrained from showing her what had happened to Pietro—she didn’t deserve any of that—, but otherwise, he let those horrors run freely through his mind.

He was pulled back to reality, and Tony forced himself to turn around.

And there—the first difference. Instead of hiding, Wanda stood right behind him, staring him down.

“What was that?” she asked with wide red eyes. “This is not how it was supposed to go.”

Tony cast her a smirk. “Well, that’s what you get for messing with other people’s head, Wanda.”

Startled, she repeated more forcefully, “What. Was. This?”

“It’s what will happen. If we keep fighting each other, this will be the result.”

She jerked back as if he’d slapped her. “Who… who are—”

Before she could finish the sentence, though, there was a blast of air, and suddenly, Pietro was standing next to her. There were a few bruises decorating his face.

He stared at Tony, then pulled at Wanda’s left arm. “We have to go. They knew about us.”

Wanda lingered, her shocked gaze still fixed on Tony. He could practically hear the wheels in her head turning at full-speed—trying to understand what she’d seen there. But when Pietro nudged at her arm again, she nodded, and with a last look, the two vanished right in front of Tony’s eyes.

If he was being honest with himself, he likely couldn’t have stopped them. Not without the suit. Their combined powers were a force to be reckoned with, and the only thing Tony could do was hope that this might’ve been enough to get Wanda thinking.

And maybe it would be enough to save Pietro’s life as well.

Jogging towards the exit, Tony became aware of the noise at the doors, a mixture of panic and anger. Strucker came rushing through the corridor and Tony raised a brow when Steve took him out with one quick hit to the head.

“Good one, Cap,” he said and nodded when Steve saluted him.

“You got it,” Steve said and smiled as well, as he pointed towards the scepter. “Finally.”

“Yeah,” Tony said. He came to a halt next to Strucker’s unconscious form. “How about we lock him away and never let him see daylight again?”

“Sounds good to me,” Steve agreed.

The area before the main entrance was in complete chaos. Some HYDRA agents were trying to flee. Others did turn to fight, but those found themselves attacked on two sides, Thor whaling on them from the front, Clint and Natasha from the back. In the distance, Tony heard the Hulk raging.

HYDRA never stood a chance.

It was glorious—and Tony had forgotten how seamlessly they’d once worked together.

It wasn’t long before every HYDRA goon was either lying on the ground or fled.

“Shall we follow them?” Thor asked, obviously still raring to go, glaring after the last few figures racing away from the base. They stood next to each other, and Tony belatedly noted that Clint hadn’t been shot this time around.

“Nah,” Steve replied. “They’re all over the place and we’d never catch them. Too few to cause much trouble and we can take care of them over the next couple of weeks. Besides, we should get this to safety first.”

He pointed towards the scepter.

“Right.” Tony gladly handed it over to Thor when the God stepped up to him. Then, he bent over, his hands on his knees, and blew out a long breath. “That was a good fight.”

“Yeah,” said Steve with satisfaction, nudging him with his shoulder. “Damn right it was.”

They leaned back companionably side by side, catching their breaths. Then, Tony glanced up at Steve. “Watch your language.”

Steve rolled his eyes good-naturedly. “Shut the hell up, Stark.”

Tony grinned. For some reason, hearing Steve swear like that, because he could , because he was among friends , was one of the best things that happened to him in a whole long while.

 

* * *

 

Back at the tower, Bruce and Tony set out to examine the scepter. They gained all the data they had gained the first time around, and after they had finished, Tony dutifully gave the scepter back to Thor.

It was weirdly easy. And a whole lot cathartic.

The party that followed was much of the same as it had been back then. Well, minus the crazy murder bots attacking them. Bruce and Natasha were casting awkward glances at each other, Sam, Steve and Thor were drinking with the veterans, while Rhodey was telling the same old War Machine stories.

Tony let Maria Hill grill him about Pepper, but instead of deflecting like he’d done the last time, he simply told them that he and Pepper had already broken up a few months ago. He got a few pitying looks, but all in all, it went smoother than he expected.

When it was just the team, bickering on the couch about who could lift Mjolnir and who couldn’t, Tony let himself dwell in this very moment.

As he walked up to the elevators later, he scanned the pictures on the walls—those photographs of Tony and the team. He stood there awhile, staring at the huge grins they were all sporting.

They’d had so little time to actually be friends. And Tony had always thought that… given the possibility, they could’ve become a real family.

Maybe today had been a first step.

Finally, he went into the elevator and turned to go into his own room. Tony breathed in, the scent both alien and familiar. Just like everything else about this place.

Releasing a shaky breath, he wiped his eyes with his palms. He’d said all of his goodbyes here, when Thanos had started to attack New York. To Pepper, to Vision. He hadn’t been able to defend the city, had barely made it out alive.

On that cheery note, Tony crossed the room to the bed.

He was gone as soon as his head hit the pillow.

 

* * *

 

When Tony woke up the next day, he felt like a weight had been lifted off his shoulder.

He’d done it. There’d be no Ultron, and that meant there’d be no destroyed Sokovia, and no Sokovia Accords, right?

He’d have to stay alert, of course, but for now, the immediate threat had been taken care of. So he programmed JARVIS to watch out for any traces of Wanda and Pietro. Now that Ultron wouldn’t bring them together, they had to get their hands on the twins before HYDRA did.

It would be difficult to convince them, Tony was aware of that, but they needed to try. Once Thanos launched his attack, they needed all the strength they could gather.

The next days went by in a blur. He reacquainted himself with his workshop, moving his running projects forward three to four stages at once, making sure that JARVIS was up to date with everything Tony had worked on till 2018, including the defense system he’d been tinkering with after Thanos’ arrival. He anonymously transferred money to both Charles Spencer and his family and Peter Parker, making sure to remind himself to go looking for the kid once the first sightings of Spider Man became public.

One day, in the late afternoon, JARVIS reminded him that he had agreed to regular sparring sessions with Steve, so Tony, after some heavy debating with himself if he could somehow get away with saying he wasn’t feeling too well, went down to the gym.

He and Steve hadn’t done this a lot. They’d started sometime after Steve had moved here from DC, and more often than not, Tony had to cancel since he’d been busy building gear for all of them, developing the Iron Legion and whatnot. And after Ultron, after Tony’s officially resigned, well, Steve hadn’t really tried to convince Tony to join him anymore.

So yeah, to say Tony was a bit out of practice was probably an understatement.

“What’s going on with you?” Steve asked. He had that thoughtful look going for him again. “You’re not even trying.”

Tony gave off a huff. Sweat was running down his forehead, and every cell of his body screamed in protest as he sat up again. If Steve thought he wasn’t trying , he was insane.

“Your moves are just ridiculous,” Tony said and groaned as Steve pulled him to his feet. “I forgot how strong you are.”

“Do you want to complain some more or do you wanna try harder?” Steve teased, and swung the backside of his arm at him before Tony even realized what was happening.

He flung himself backward and Steve’s hand only briefly touched his chest.

“Hey, that’s cheating!” he exclaimed.

“Pre-emptive strike. It’s not cheating when someone’s trying to kill you.”

Tony blocked the backslash and hit Steve solidly in his chest, knocking him backwards.

Steve rebounded smoothly off the wall, somersaulted back and got him with a spin kick to his stomach. Tony fell flat on the mat, but rolled away before Steve could reach him.

“Good one,” Steve praised.

They were trading blows and Tony was trying his level best to hit Steve again, but he was too quick, too agile, rolling with the punches, grinning the whole time as if this was the most fun he’d had in weeks. And at some point, Tony found himself grinning, too. He couldn’t help it. It was times like these when he completely forgot that the last time they’d fought, it hadn’t been a game, hadn’t been a training session, but a very real fight, with very real consequences.

It was barely a week since he’d arrived in this time, and it already felt like months had passed since 2018.

“Nice move,” Steve called as Tony managed to sweep him off his feet.

Tony laughed. “Natasha taught me that one.”

“You’re having fun,” Steve observed and he sounded pleased.

“I am. But I’ll have more fun when I knock you out.”

“Never gonna happen.”

Tony knew Steve was right. He knew all of Tony’s moves, since he’d taught him most of them. There were only a couple of times that he was able to surprise him with a blow.

“You’re dropping your shoulder again,” Steve commented and Tony rolled his eyes.

Yeah, he kept forgetting, and Steve punished him for it with a solid blow that sent him to the floor again. It took him completely by surprise and he didn’t even have time to whirl before Steve came down behind him. In seconds, he had Tony thoroughly immobilized, Steve’s arms trapping his upper arms against his sides, his hands gripping Tony’s wrists.

Steve leaned down to him and smiled. “Give?”

“Hmfff… yeah. Give,” Tony exhaled and let his head drop down on the floor. After Steve had let go of him, he offered Tony a hand.

“You were really good today,” Steve said, watching him.

Tony nodded. “Thanks.”

“You alright? Bruce said you were a little… closed off when you worked on the scepter.”

“Don’t worry,” Tony replied. “Just have a lot on my mind, that’s all.”

He reached for his towel and the bottle of water standing next to it on the bench, then he was about to walk towards the gym’s exit.

It was Steve’s voice that made him pause.

“You can always talk to me, you know that, right?”

Tony glanced over his shoulder. Steve looked sincere, and at the same time, strangely vulnerable. And his gaze… It might be Tony’s mind playing tricks on him, but his gaze was awfully intense.

“Your friendship means a lot to me,” Steve continued and there was a pinch between his eyebrows, like he was solving an incredibly difficult puzzle and didn’t know yet if his strategy was the right one. “I know we had a rocky start, but… I think it was the right decision, for everyone to live here. I think we’re good together.”

“I think so, too,” Tony replied, and he couldn’t help himself. Something inside him stirred to life—something he thought he’d lost in a cold cave in Siberia.

They were good together. But there were simply too many secrets between them. Steve wasn’t telling him about Barnes, about his parents, and Tony—well, he didn’t know how to tell Steve that he was, essentially, not the Tony Steve thought he was. That he was just the broken shell of that man… someone with too many lives weighing on his conscience.

“I got work to do,” he told Steve, clearing his throat when he realized how raspy his voice sounded. “And then I won’t be moving for a day because I think you broke me a little.”

Steve cast him a tiny smile, but Tony could see him clenching and unclenching his hands at his side. “Sure. I don’t wanna keep you.”

No, you didn’t , Tony thought, then shook his head at himself. He should be above thoughts like that. He shouldn’t care whether or not Steve liked him. The only important thing was that the team remained a united force, that was all. He turned around, walking towards the gym's exit in quick strides.

He felt Steve’s gaze lingering on him all the way to the door.

Chapter Text

Tony watched as Steve moved about the kitchen, collecting ingredients for what he assured him would be the best breakfast Tony’d ever had.

Of course, Tony refrained from telling him that his Steve had served him that exact breakfast about a dozens of times already. It was only polite.

In the last couple of weeks, he’d made it a point to spend as much time as possible with this Steve. But the fragile friendship they’d had going for them was still a bit weird, especially since Tony couldn’t help thinking about Barnes and his parents most of the time. Or because Tony had always had trouble cherishing the good things in his life.

He and his Steve—they’d never had the chance to just be friends, without all that baggage. After Ultron, they’d still talked, sure, but it hadn’t been the same as before.

It was just… hard to stomach how good they were getting along now.

And it was hard to realize that they could’ve had this all along, if things had just played out a little differently.

“I can’t believe you’re making me breakfast in an Iron Man apron,” Tony teased.

He’d been saying something to that effect every few minutes now for the past half hour. That apron was definitely something that hadn’t been there in his time line and it amused him to no end.

Steve, however, merely glanced up and grinned, masterfully maneuvering the spatula over the eggs that were cooking in the frying pan. “It was either that or that Naked-Lady-apron Clint brought home last week,” Steve said.

“So you’re choosing me over naked women. Good to know.”

Steve rolled his eyes as he scooped a helping of eggs onto two plates, where he had the potatoes and bacon already prepared. “You want orange juice or milk?”

Tony raised an eyebrow. “You really expect me to eat all that?”

“Every bite. What do you want to drink?”

“Orange juice,” Tony decided. “And admit it. You’re fattening me up for slaughter.”

That got a snort from Steve. “I’m just making sure you don’t turn into a beanpole, Shellhead.”

He laughed uncertainly. Another new thing: He couldn’t remember his Steve ever calling him Shellhead. And he really needed to stop thinking in the terms of ‘this Steve’ and ‘his Steve’—they were both one and the same stubborn, opinionated man. “No chance of that,” he told Steve. “I tend to get a pouch-tummy.”

“In the mad world of Tony Stark’s Irrational Delusions, I’m sure you do.” He placed the plates on the counter and flashed Tony a challenging glance. “Eat. I’m a good cook.”

Tony tried suppressing a smile. “It sure smells good.”

“It does. And you don’t eat enough.”

“I eat plenty!” Tony said with a scoff.

Steve leaned closer, his face barely an inch away from Tony’s, which, for some reason, had Tony’s heartbeat quickening. “You didn’t touch that sandwich I brought you last night. You haven’t eaten since your burger yesterday at lunch.” He tapped a finger to the counter and shot Tony a look of pure superiority. “Now eat. It’s time someone takes care of your well-being, since you obviously won’t do it yourself.”

Tony’s mouth opened, and closed again. That was new as well. “Someone might think it’s a little strange how much attention you pay to my eating habits.”

Steve didn’t break eye contact. “Do you think it’s strange?”

Tony swallowed. “No.”

“Then eat, Tony. I won’t say it again.”

“You’re trying to kill me, aren’t you? Death by greasy breakfast?”

Steve sighed theatrically. “Geez, and now you found out. All those years of planning—for nothing.”

Tony grinned. He reached for his fork. “Alright. I’ll give it a try just because you look so pretty in your apron.”

Steve looked far less flustered than Tony expected him to be. “Whatever gets you going,” he shot back.

Tony took a bite, chewing slowly. “Seeing someone wearing my armor would do the trick.”

Steve’s eyes were glimmering with amusement and Tony really thought he should be concerned about Steve’s lack of discomfort, but for some reason—he wasn’t.

They were… they were flirting, weren’t they? Or was Steve not aware of how all of that sounded? It was a possibility, since Steve sure as hell had never made a move on him before.

The real question was: Why was Tony flirting with Steve, exactly? By all means, it should be the last thing he'd want to do. And yet, at one point Tony needed to admit it to himself: Most of that rage inside him, the hurt, the feeling of betrayal… had been gone before he’d even arrived in this time.

And now that he saw how easy it was to get along with Steve, a part of him simply wanted to forget about James Goddamn Barnes and finally move on.

But Tony knew Steve was still searching for him and he had secretly started doing some research himself—not because he wanted to go after Barnes, he wasn’t that petty—he simply wanted to make sure the guy didn’t do something stupid and get himself killed in the process.

They were both silent for a good minute, and Tony took a bite of eggs, sighing as though it was a big inconvenience. “I guess this is okay,” he said, doing his best to suppress how amazing it tasted and how much he’d missed Steve’s cooking skills.

“Just okay?” Steve asked with a teasing grin.

“I’ve had better.”

“Uh huh.”

Tony grinned as he lowered the fork to his plate to scoop up another mouthful. Whatever this was—it was nice, just spending time with Steve as though they were normal. As though they hadn’t tried to kill each other. As though they weren’t so horribly complicated, and the burden of the future didn’t mean every move could change their life forever.

Steve glanced up at him and Tony realized his world was already different.

“Everything alright with you?” Steve asked.

“Sure. Why wouldn’t it be?”

“I don’t know. Sometimes you look at me and you seem… sad.”

Tony shook his head, smiling. “Trust me, I’m the furthest from being sad than I have been in months.”

Steve paused at that, but eventually, he returned his smile. “That’s good, then.”

Tony nodded. Together, they ate their breakfast, and he had a feeling that he couldn’t keep his secret to himself much longer.

 

* * *

 

Tony knew he was in for another sleepless night.

More weeks passed and there was just too much on his mind. There were so many things that had already changed: They hadn’t moved to the facility at New York’s outskirts, Rhodey and Sam hadn’t officially joined the Avengers, yet, Thor hadn’t left Earth, and Bruce was still around, though he and Natasha had apparently let go of their whatever-it-was romance.

So much was different now and Tony couldn’t focus on anything without taking a detour to the ever-present question: Could he actually keep them together? With every day that passed, the heavier his burden grew. He might be on safe grounds right now, but it could all still blow up right into his face. Wanda and Pietro were nowhere to be found, the news stations—while not verbally flaying them alive each day—weren’t exactly their biggest fans, and Tony knew that the day Steve would have to fight Rumlow in Lagos was drawing nearer.

And Steve —well, he wasn’t making it any easier. For the last couple of weeks, he had always been so close to Tony and it was really setting him off his game.

A part of him wanted to stay mad at Steve, but Steve—he just had to be around him all the time; with his stupid eyes and his stupid hands and his stupid voice that went along nicely with said stupid hands as they randomly touched him whenever they were watching movies or spending time in Tony’s shop.

What the hell was that about anyway? They’d never been particularly handsy with each other. The only times they’d really touched in the past was while they sparred—or punched the living daylight out of each other.

Now though, Tony mostly had to fight the urge to touch Steve back. To return those gentle gestures and just quit worrying about everything else. And all of that culminated into one thing: Tony was unable to sleep. A grumble of frustration rumbled through him, and he sat up on his bed in defeat.

He’d planned to stay on good terms with Steve, sure, but… growing so close to him hadn’t been on his agenda. Steve obviously couldn’t care much about him, otherwise he wouldn’t still be lying to him, right? Or—not lying, but he wasn’t honest with him either.

Tony didn’t know what to do, he—he didn’t know what to feel. He didn’t really like Steve, did he? He surely hadn’t before, because…

Because that would’ve made it all a lot more tragic, right? That he hadn’t been able to tell Steve about his feelings, but instead chose to fight him. What kind of person would that make him?

God, he was messed up.

And no matter what, keeping his secret became harder by the day. Especially since he had the feeling that Steve—and Natasha, probably—were getting suspicious. They likely didn’t know why, but they knew that something was going on with him.

During the last weeks, Tony had predicted almost every attack by random villains, giving the team pointers as to what they needed to do. It was risky business, but Tony just couldn’t stand on the sideline, waiting for one of his teammates to get hurt. Last week, he’d also outed Clint’s family at a team dinner because he’d forgotten that he wasn’t supposed to know about Laura and the kids, and only barely managed to gloss it over with his ever-favorite JARVIS-alibi.

And yet, he couldn’t keep this charade up much longer. It was driving him nuts.

“Goddammit,” Tony grumbled as he heaved himself to his feet. He shuffled through the darkened living room, and stepped into the elevator. Down on the common floor, he walked towards the kitchen and turned the coffee machine on.

If he couldn’t sleep, he could at least try to work some more.

“Hey, Tony,” came a voice from the couch area.

Tony startled, then pinched his nose. Of course, he thought and turned around.

“Heya, Cap,” he said. “Can’t sleep?”

“No, not really.” Steve was sitting in the reading chair next to the large window front, a book in his hands.

“Reading a bit?” Tony asked conversationally as he brewed himself an espresso.

“Yeah,” Steve answered, doing that thing again—smiling at Tony like he was genuinely glad to see him.

Tony took a sip, once the coffee was finished, then walked over to Steve. Flopping down next to him, he glanced at the book cover. A Bright Shining Lie —one of Steve’s history doorstops.

And also one big, giant metaphor.

“Shouldn’t you be done with that by now?” Tony asked. “You know you’re not required to know about everything that happened while you were frozen, right?”

Steve rolled his eyes. “Sure. But I always thought there’s a lot to be learned for our present life if you look at our history.”

Tony chuckled. “You’re such an old man.”

Steve smirked. “Don’t you have a presentation tomorrow? At your alma mater? Weren’t they planning a gala for you, honoring the anniversary of your graduation? What kind of anniversary was that again?”

“Thirty years,” Tony said. “Also: Fuck you.”

Steve laughed and Tony found himself laughing with him, but then, he sobered immediately as he remembered something. Back then, his MIT presentation had been at the same day that Steve had gone to Lagos. Immediately, a million thoughts filled Tony’s head, but he dared not voice them.

Steve cleared his throat. “I trust you.”

A beat.

“What?”

“I trust you,” Steve repeated and cast him a smile that looked a bit strained. “I think I don’t tell you enough. And I just want you to know that you can trust me, too. You can talk to me… about whatever’s on your mind.”

“What makes you think there’s something on my mind?”

Steve only raised a brow.

Tony ran a hand through his hair. Right. He probably hadn’t been all that subtle. “Listen… Steve. I know things have been weird lately, but I’m really trying to get things right with the team.”

“I know,” Steve said. “Believe me, I know, and I appreciate it. You took us in, gave us a home when you didn’t have to.”

“That was a no-brainer.”

“No, don’t belittle it,” Steve said. “When we met, I wasn’t exactly fair to you. I don’t know… for the longest time I hadn’t figured out where the old Steve ends and where I begin. Things that I used to believe in had just lost all their meaning and I was…” He trailed off, frowning at himself.

“Lost.” Tony’s lips pursed. “I get it.”

“Yeah,” Steve admitted. He placed the book on the table in front of them, then leaned back on the couch, looking at Tony. “Talking to people, not knowing what’s what or why anything’s the way it is… it was just… hard, for a long time.” He sighed heavily, chest constricting as though all the air from the earth wasn’t enough to fill his lungs. “It—and please don’t take this the wrong way—it was almost easier for me when you were all douchebag-like. Scrutinizing every look I gave you in a way that screamed, ‘What is that stuck-up idiot from the 20s thinking now?’”

“I never thought that,” Tony insisted, staring at Steve.

Steve gave him an unimpressed look. “You did —and it’s alright. I deserved it, to some extent. But it’s… these days, people just assume I’m part of this world. So whatever comes out of my mouth might have serious consequences. People listen to me and half the time I’m still not sure I really get how this world works.”

Tony exhaled a low breath. He’d had no idea Steve was still feeling like that. He’d adapted so well, the thought had never even crossed Tony’s mind. Placing the espresso cup on the table next to Steve’s book, he turned to him. “You’re doing incredibly well. And in any case, you don’t need to know about Abba or Steve Jobs to be able to distinguish between right and wrong.”

A surprised smile tugged at Steve’s lips and he was reaching for Tony’s hand. “That’s what I meant: I’m really glad you’re my friend. I just wanted you to know that if you need someone to talk to, I’m here.”

The words hit Tony right where he didn’t need them. What was there to do? He had long stopped hating Steve for what had happened. He had allowed himself to change, too, and for better or worse, here they were now. He had never thought of Steve as a true friend before, but he could admit that the notion didn’t seem as far away. Steve was so… near.

Tangible.

Tony exhaled slowly and regained his breath. He squeezed Steve’s hand lightly. “I think you shouldn’t be so hard on yourself. You’ve braved yourself into things this far.”

There was a short silence and a huff of air. “I’m not gonna complain. Just being allowed this…” He gestured meaningfully at the room. “This, the whole team—It’s more than a sickly boy from Brooklyn could’ve hoped for.”

“How about you enjoy it, then,” Tony suggested.

Steve hummed. “Sounds reasonable,” he said, then smirked. “You sure you’re alright?”

That got a snort from Tony. He raised his hands and shoved them both into Steve’s side. “You’re such an ass, Rogers. No one would ever believe me.”

“Then how about we’ll keep it a secret, between you and me.”

Tony swallowed, and something inside him clenched painfully.

There were already enough secrets between them as it was.

“Sure,” he said anyway.

“Speaking of secrets,” Steve said, his voice suddenly subdued. And there was that strained smile again. “There… there was something I meant to talk to you about. Just never feels the right time.”

For a long beat, Tony simply looked at Steve, waiting for him to go on. Only when he noticed Steve’s hands shaking ever so lightly, he understood, with a sudden jolt of realization, what exactly Steve was trying to talk to him about.

And just like that, the air between them was suspended. Tony heard Steve breathing, in and out, before he raised his voice again. “This probably isn’t the right time either. But if I keep it to myself much longer, I’m going to go crazy, and you deserve to know.”

Tony exhaled a shaky breath himself. His hands rose, and after a moment of contemplation, he reached for Steve’s. “You can tell me anything,” he said, trying not to show how fast his heart was beating. “You just said it yourself. We trust each other.”

Steve grimaced. “I just… I just want you to hear me out, okay? This… you won’t like it.”

No, he certainly wouldn’t. “Hearing it from a friend will help.”

“You’re right,” Steve said, finally looking at him again and wow, were his eyes ever blue. “You remember that I told you Nat and I went back to Camp Lehigh, when the whole thing with Pierce went down?”

“Yes. You found that old bunker. And Zola.”

Steve nodded. “That wasn’t all we found there,” he said, almost a whisper. Steve’s fingers squeezed his, and he opened his mouth and that was of course when JARVIS raised his voice, breaking the reverie between them.

“Sir, Captain Rogers—Wanda and Pietro Maximoff have been sighted in Lagos.”

They both stared at one another for a good second longer, before they simultaneously reached for their Avengers communicators. Sometimes Tony really hated being a superhero.

“It seems they are travelling with Agent Rumlow near south side of the city,” JARVIS went on. “Coordinates are being transferred to the Quinjet as we speak.”

“Lagos,” Steve echoed, then frowned. “What’s he doing in Lagos.”

“IFID,” Tony said, and at Steve’s confused stare, he added, “Institute for Infectious Diseases.”

“He wants to steal a biological weapon?” Steve asked, then looked at Tony accusingly. “See—that’s what I mean. You keep doing that, throwing information at me and… How would you possibly know that? And if you say that JARVIS got his hands on some reports, I swear, Tony—”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Tony said and stood up. “JARVIS doesn’t have hands.”

With a touch to his shoulder, Steve held him back. “You’re keeping something from me.”

That brought a tight-lipped smile to Tony’s face. “Which is a completely foreign concept to you, isn’t it?” he asked, his voice far more venomous than it should be, because Steve had at least wanted to tell him, while Tony still didn’t have the guts to come clean about his past.

Steve looked pained. “Tony, I just want us to—”

“Be honest with each other. I know,” Tony finished, sighing. “Look, when we come back home, we should—”

“Sir…” JARVIS reminded him, and Tony groaned.

“Right. We’re going.”

“We?” Steve called after him. “But your presentation…”

“They’ll applaud, they’ll take my money, these things always end the same way. You need me in Lagos. Take Natasha and Clint and Thor. And you should call Sam.”

Steve frowned. “He didn’t yet decide if he wants to be on the team.”

“Trust me on this one: He wants to. He’s just too shy to ask for it.”

And they certainly could need all the support they could get. For once, they’d be treading on unknown grounds. Last time, Wanda had been on their side and Pietro… Pietro had been dead.

Wanda had single-handedly caused an international incident, thus pushing the UN to first discuss putting restrictions on enhanced people.

With potent dread, Tony suddenly realized that there was still every chance that they’d come full circle. And even if they didn’t—back then, Wanda had saved Steve’s life in Lagos. Without her, a bomb would’ve detonated right next to Steve.

There was no way Tony would let Steve go there without him.

Thus, on a silent agreement, they both got up and went to their floors.

 

* * *

 

They arrived in Lagos just as Rumlow had entered the IFID building in the city center. Whether Wanda and Pietro had gotten kidnapped or traveled with him out of their free will was still unclear, but the players were few—and Tony knew how Wanda operated. And while he hadn’t been here the first time around, he’d read the reports numerous times and it should be a piece of cake to take Rumlow out before he activated that bomb.

By all means, this mission shouldn’t be too hard. Or so Tony told himself.

“Do you know where the twins are?” Natasha called to Tony as they ran out of the Quinjet. “Are they scattered or are they congregated somewhere?”

“Why would I know that?”

“Don’t you?” Natasha shot back, casting him an unimpressed look.

Tony sighed. “See those big doors at the top of the loading ramp there?” he said and looked at Clint. “They should all be milling around behind that, that’s where the bio-weapons are, and they’re waiting to rush out when their commander gives the word. Shoot one of your smoke-arrows in when the doors open and you’ll have a great little party going.”

Clint grinned. “Right.”

Tony cast an assessing glance at the area. “We should go round and see where we can work our way down to where the twins are. I’m guessing he’ll be using them as guards. Rumlow will probably keep one of his goons with them and send his right-hand man to bring the vial out of here.”

“Right,” Steve said—and there was something in his voice. Confidence. In him. Not only that he could do it, but that he would. “Iron Man and I will go looking for the twins. Hawkeye, Widow, you go in, try to keep Rumlow and his men from leaving the building. Thor, Falcon, stay outside, in case someone gets away.”

Everyone set into motion, and Tony rushed through an inner debate with himself before he said, “Rumlow’s got a bomb, guys. Strapped around his torso. Beware of that.”

Everyone stilled and the looks they gave him made it very clear that that had been the last straw.

“No way you could just know that,” Natasha said.

“You have no idea about the things I know,” Tony said and Steve raised a hand next to him.

“Not the time, guys,” he said, and with the way he said it, it was very clear that it meant: But there will be a time for it—later.

“Come on, everyone: Go.”

Thus, they ghosted around the side of the building and found the fire escape. Sam and Thor stayed outside while Natasha and Clint slid up the stairs and broke open the door on the second floor as quietly as they could, then slipped inside. Tony could hear voices coming from the main floor, and the mutter and rustle of the crowd in front of the loading doors. His sensors located the twins in a central room, three or four lackeys with them. There were three accesses to that room if one counted the main one. He and Steve dropped down to the main floor and glided to the one at the back, directly opposite the loading area. Then they waited.

Tony knew the time had come when the voices stopped. Rumlow and the HYDRA lackeys headed towards the loading doors that housed the biochemical weapons, leaving only one of his minions with the twins. He heard the loading doors open and then the crash of glass as Clint shot a smoke-arrow in and the screams and the turmoil that resulted. On a silent agreement, Tony and Steve quietly walked through the door into the central room.

It was almost too easy. The twins and the one HYDRA agent were staring towards where the noise was coming from, and Tony could see as Steve raised his shield, probably wanting to knock the agent out with a smooth blow—when, suddenly, Wanda cast a blast of magic at the agent herself.

The guy dropped down to the floor and Tony and Steve stopped when the twins turned around, casting them an unsurprised look.

“You knew we were coming,” Tony concluded, and he lowered his hands, but kept the repulsors attack-ready.

Pietro grinned at him and Tony would enjoy knocking the smug smirk off the guy’s smarmy face. Wanda herself was probably the biggest contender, if she wanted to fight them. The girl didn’t look like much, but Tony had seen the way she’d handled herself. That woman could put up a fight.

“I knew you were coming,” Wanda agreed. “The question is: Why?”

Steve tossed his shield over his shoulder and leveled his eyes at her. “Tony convinced us you were worth trying to talk to you.”

Pietro held up his hands passively, “Why should we talk to you? You’re skeevy power-hungry people.”

Tony rolled his eyes. “Flattery’ll get you nowhere, toots. As Steve wa—”

“Did you just call me ‘toots’?” Pietro asked.

Tony rolled his eyes. “We came here to talk to you. That’s all.”

From a door to their right, one more HYDRA agent came running in. He made big eyes when he saw them, and tried to run in the other direction.

“Well, and to punch those people,” Tony continued just as Steve threw his shield at the guy. Then, he held him up by his uniform. By the look on his face, Steve would be all too happy to throttle the poor bastard, but eventually, he just pulled him down to whisper in his ear, “Now would be a good time for you to run.” He let him go with a shove.

“Right,” the guy said, looking at them. “Sorry!” With that, he left.

Tony turned back to Wanda. “We don’t want to fight you. In fact, we’d like you to work with us. Offer you a place on our team.”

“Why should we want to work with you?” Pietro asked. “You are the reason our parents are dead. Because of you— thousands of people died.”

“Tony never did any of those things,” Steve said firmly. “And he stopped making weapons years ago.”

Wanda’s lip curled up in a disgusted sneer. With her magic, she suddenly hauled Tony off his feet, pinning him against the ceiling, which— ouch.

“Tony!” Steve yelled with alarm, but before he could do something, Wanda had already let go of him, and Tony fell to the ground, seeing stars.

“We can help you, Wanda,” Tony gritted out. “I know you hate me for what happened to your parents. I know you had to watch them die, and trust me, if I could go back in time and can SI’s weapon’s production long before you were even born, I would. In a heartbeat.”

As he talked, Wanda’s hands were moving again, blasting red wafts of magic at Tony and he closed his eyes, letting the current course through him. It didn’t hurt exactly, but for some reason, Tony felt exposed, like the magic was slowly peeling layers off of him.

“Stop it,” Steve snarled and roughly pulled Wanda to the side.

She didn’t struggle, instead falling to her knees. “I needed to know,” she gasped, staring down at Tony.

Steve scooped Tony into his arms, pulling him against his chest. “If you don’t stop attacking us right now, believe me, I will stop playing nice with you. Tony was the one who convinced us you were worth talking to. I don’t have any problem taking you out—right now.”

“He’s not who you think he is,” Wanda told Steve. “Something in his head is different. He is not the man he was. He is not the Tony Stark you knew.”

Pietro stepped up next to his sister. Steve took a moment to glower at him before he cradled Tony’s head against him.

“You okay?” he asked, glancing down.

Tony nodded. “Yeah… thanks.”

Steve swallowed. “What is she talking about?”

Ignoring Steve, Tony looked up at Wanda. “You saw it. What will happen. We all need to stick together. This is more important than me. You—”

The door crashed open, and another HYDRA agent flew between them. He landed on his backside and skidded several feet into some shelves. Tony and Steve both turned to look through the windows at the commotion in the stockroom. Thor and Sam were in there, knocking around a few more men, and Clint rushed forward to take on the others.

There were at least thirty men fighting in there.

“Fuck. That’s more than we expected,” Steve said.

“You can say that again.” Tony turned to him. “Did you just say ‘fuck’?”

Steve only rolled his eyes. The look on his face was a mix of irritation and frustration and ‘Not the point, Tony’.

“We gotta go help them,” Steve said. “We can’t let Rumlow get away with that weapon. But afterwards…” He stared at Tony. “You’ll have some explaining to do.”

“Right,” Tony said, grimacing.

Ignoring Wanda and Pietro, Steve ran towards the next room. After heaving a loud and much-put-upon sigh, Tony followed him.

Thor had temporarily gained the upper hand on the men. He knocked them across the stockroom and into another set of shelves, too busy to notice their entrance. Natasha didn’t notice either, as she was pummeling Rumlow. She raised her arms, activating her Widow Bites.

“If he blows himself up in here, it’ll unleash a mix of deadly fumes upon the city,” Tony reminded them.

But it was too late already. Rumlow’s face held nothing but fury as he planted a hand, encased in metal, on Natasha’s chest, sending her flying to the ground. Suddenly, Wanda stepped up next to her in a protective stance and swung a hand, magic flowing at him, sweeping Rumlow’s feet out from under him. And then—Tony groaned in frustration when Rumlow raised his hands to his own chest.

“Let him go,” he told Wanda. If Rumlow had to kill himself, he couldn’t do it in here.

Wanda stared at him and that condescending way of hers, but her grip on Rumlow loosened, only a fraction, but it was enough. Rumlow wrenched an arm free and Tony saw him reaching for the bomb, so Tony shoved Wanda off him and pulled Rumlow against his chest instead.

He gave full force on his foot-thrusters, taking Rumlow with him as he flew out of the window. The detonation came not even a few dozen meters above ground, and its destruction reached at least a few of the top stories of the buildings nearby.

Tony’s eyes went wide as his faceplate was splattered with blood. Not his—but still. He let out a gasp and looked down. The explosion had done its fair share of destruction, mostly on his own armor, and the HUD went black as he fell to the ground.

He didn’t know how much time passed. Consciousness was an on and off thing, and Tony only became aware of his surroundings as Steve came running to him. He opened his helmet and chestplate with well-practiced movements and Tony followed his gaze to a bloodstain turning bigger right on Tony’s chest. Before he could wrap his brain around that, he hit the cement floor like a rag doll.

Oh God, he’d been hit.

“Tony!”

Steve gasped. Blood had pooled beneath Tony, and his undersuit was soaked with it. “Oh God, come on,” Steve coaxed as he removed the rest of his armor. “Don’t do this. Not now.” He fumbled with his utility belt then pressed something to the wound, but realized it was coming out of Tony’s back, too.

The irony wasn’t lost on Tony. That—to make sure that the Avengers were a united force once Thanos descended upon earth—he apparently had to die.

That the team could only exist if he wasn’t there to tear it apart.

Steve tore his uniform-top off over his head and tucked it underneath Tony’s back. The pain in his stomach was only an afterthought as Steve hurriedly pressed bandages against both sides of his wound, trying to staunch the flow as he secured it with his shirt. Steve shook his head. “Gotta get you to a hospital.”

“No.” His eyes fluttered open. “Stay with me.”

“I will,” he said, and with that, he pulled Tony to his chest and started to run.

Tony grabbed his wrist, but there was no real strength in his grip. “I think it was meant to be this way,” he said, and he almost couldn’t believe his own words. Never in his life had he believed in fate. He’d always been sure, one-hundred percent, that he was the maker of his own choices. But this… this felt a lot like destiny. “I think it’s the only way to make sure Earth will survive.”

“What?” Steve asked, staring down at him. “Don’t be stupid.” As he ran, he made a vague gesture at Natasha, and Tony saw her talking to someone on the phone.

Only a few meters away, Wanda and Pietro were trailing behind them.

Tony could hear his heart slowing; feel the heat ebbing from his body. Steve stared at him and he slowed down for a second, before gaining speed again. A moment later, they were in the Quinjet.

“‘m glad we got to be friends,” Tony said, raising a hand to Steve’s cheek.

That didn’t lessen the sorrow in Steve’s expression a bit. “Of course I’m your friend. Dammit, please don’t leave me now.”

Tony’s lips quirked up in a tired smile. “‘s all okay, Steve.” His eyes were locked on Steve’s, pleading with him. “Trust me, ‘s probably better that way…”

Steve’s jaw tightened as he held his gaze. “Won’t let you die. You don’t get to breeze into my life and shake up my whole world view and then just leave like this.” He shook his head as he tied the sleeve tightly around him. “I don’t care what’s going on with you, and what you’re keeping from me—You don’t get to die like this.”

How many times had Tony dreamed of this sight? He wiped Steve’s cheek with his good hand, and it came away wet. Steve was crying for him. And dammit, the sight was too much to bear.

Tony had no idea when exactly he’d lost his heart to Steve. By all means, it should be impossible that he was still able to feel for him like that, but… maybe it had always secretly belonged to him and Tony had just been too blind to see it.

Carefully, Steve lifted him in his arms. “Stay with me,” he whispered in his ear, cradling Tony against him, kissing his temple, as he lost consciousness.

Chapter Text

Tony heard water running. FRIDAY must’ve turned on the coffee machine. He considered opening his eyes to see what time it was, but the room was still dark and his pillow was so soft that he decided to roll over and burrow under the covers instead. When he tried to move, however, his gut caught on fire and pain exploded through him, making him groan.

A door opened, spilling light into the room. The sight of Steve made Tony’s breath catch—and his foggy brain remembered. Right, this wasn’t his timeline. There was no FRIDAY, no lonely tower, no thousands of dead people weighing on his conscience.

Steve’s face and front were hidden in the shadow, but the light behind him outlined his form, casting his pale skin and hair in a soft golden halo. “Tony?” he asked. “You awake?”

“Getting there,” he said, squinting at his surroundings. A nightstand beside the bed held a lamp. He started to reach for it and groaned again.

“Watch it!” Steve rushed to turn it on for him. “You’ll make yourself bleed again.” He pulled the covers back and sat beside him to inspect his bandages while Tony took in the room. Steve had brought him to his floor, but considering the sterile gauze that was neatly wrapped around his middle, he’d obviously been to medical before.

Tony looked down, bemused to see that he wore nothing but his briefs and he watched Steve’s hands gently pass over his skin. He had a cold washcloth in his hand, dabbing at Tony’s temple and neck.

“For a while there I thought they weren’t gonna get you patched up again,” he whispered.

Tony smiled. “You know what they say about… bad weeds growing tall.”

“You’re not bad weed,” Steve said, looking sad.

“Charmer,” Tony replied. “How long was I out?”

“Three days.”

Steve brushed hair back from Tony’s face, letting his fingers trail over his scalp until his hand rested against his shoulder. His thumb traced a line up and down his neck.

Oh, why did that have to feel so good?

“You gonna yell at me now or later?” Tony asked, trying to sound unbothered, when, in reality, his heart was beating a mile per minute.

A tiny smile flickered across Steve’s face. “I was thinking I’d give you a few more hours to recover, but…” He sighed. “Wanda keeps telling the team you’re dangerous. The twins are here and—you were right. They sound willing enough to stick around, but they refuse to make a decision until we know what’s going on with you. Wanda, she… she seemed afraid of you.”

Tony sighed. “Are you afraid of me?”

“Of course not. But I have to agree with her that you need to explain all of this.”

“It’s… complicated.”

“Yeah?” Steve asked, sitting back in the chair next to the bed. “How so?”

“You won’t believe me, for starters. I'm still having trouble believing it myself.”

Steve hummed and kept staring at Tony for a good minute, before he broke eye-contact. When he spoke, his voice was very quiet. “There were a lot of theories while you were out. Most of them were complete nonsense. Mind-reading, prophetic visions, hallucinations, but you know which one I found the most reasonable?”

Tony bit his lower lip, followed by a good, hard stare at the floor. “Which one?”

Steve’s expression was very calm. “Time travel.”

Well. Tony stayed very still. What was there to say now?

“There’s…” Steve trailed off and shook his head. “You keep knowing all kinds of things before they happen, you have vital information on missions, you knew about Clint’s family, when we watch the news you don’t seem to be surprised much. Last month, you bought me a set of drawing pencils because you somehow knew I was running out on them. We’ve never even talked about my sketches before, and you bought my favorite. So what I want to say is… I should be more wary, but then again, you’ve only ever protected us, helped us, so I’m having trouble believing you’re hostile.”

“I’m not,” Tony said. “I promise you I’m not.”

“Good. Then—Please tell me what’s going on.”

Tony sighed. “Fine, I will. But it’ll be at least fifty percent your fault if things go to shit because of this.”

Steve frowned. “O-kay?”

Taking a deep breath, Tony decided to just jump right into the middle. “There’s… something that’s called Infinity Stones. Cosmic… entities, if you will. Very powerful. There’s six of them. Space, Mind, Reality, Power, Soul, and Time. In… in about two years, we’re gonna be fighting a power-hungry warlord from outer space—Good friend of Loki, by the way—, and you can probably guess what he’s after.”

A beat.

“Earth?” Steve guessed.

“Among other things, yes,” Tony agreed. “The day he arrives—beautiful, sunny day in April—we aren’t exactly in good shape, and we lose control over the situation. Where—where I come from, we were still fighting but you don’t have to be a futurist to know where we were heading. So I travelled to Nepal. There’s this—there’s this cabal of sorcerers, because of-fucking-course there’s sorcerers these days, too. They have the Time Stone, it was the last gem the warlord was still missing, so that’s where I thought I was needed most. Turns out the Sorcerer Supreme got another idea.”

During his speech, Steve had stared at him with an open mouth, barely moving. For a good whole minute, neither of them said anything. And then, because Steve was a fiercely intelligent man, he came to the right conclusion.

“He sent you back.”

“Yes,” Tony admitted.

Steve suddenly stood up and took a few steps away from Tony. He brushed a hand over his head as he stared out of the window. Then, he turned around again. “Really?”

“Yeah.” Tony shrugged. “Sorry I didn’t tell you earlier.”

Steve huffed, almost a laugh. “I—You know, I was sort of bluffing back there. I didn’t really believe it was time travel, I… Christ, you think you’ve seen it all, and every time…”

“Sorry,” Tony said, simply.

“I mean I knew something was off, but…” Steve frowned. “What happened with our Tony? If you’re here, he—”

“I am your Tony,” he said. “Just with a bunch of more memories. He didn’t go anywhere, I am him. One and the same. This is time travel, not body-swapping. I just came back here and… I wanted to fix this.”

“And this is where something went wrong? Right now?”

Tony shook his head. “No. With any luck, I already fixed it.”

He could see the gears in Steve’s head turning. “In Sokovia,” he concluded, looking at Tony in question. “You arrived here the day before we went to Sokovia, didn’t you?”

“Yeah. Back in my time, I used Loki’s scepter to create something that… did a lot of damage. I was stupid, reckless, didn’t think things through. And for that reason, a whole lot of other things happened, things that were out of my control, and eventually resulted in the fact that we couldn’t defend Earth when it counted.”

“Where—I mean when… do you come from?”

“Nothing too crazy. 2018.”

“Okay…” Steve said, and there was that frown again. “You know, Tony, you’re being kinda vague for someone who’s from the future.”

Tony closed his eyes and sighed. “Trust me, you don’t want to know the details.”

“Then let’s start with this,” Steve said. “What am I to you, where you come from? What are we to each other?”

Tony stared up at him, suddenly curious. “What do you think we are to each other?”

Steve’s expression hardened. “Every time you look at me, it’s like you’re seeing a ghost. You smile and laugh and then it’s like you’re remembering yourself, remembering that you hate my guts.”

Tony breathed in deep. “We were…” His eyes drifted past Steve, searching for the right words. “Well… we are good friends. Right?”

“Of course.” Steve blinked at him, and Tony might be wrong about this, but Steve almost looked a bit disappointed. “But that’s not all—is it?”

“No,” Tony said quietly. “It was… complicated.” He shook his head. “Nothing about you and me is ever simple.”

“Yeah, I’m starting to see that.”

“We… we were close, for a while. Then I messed up with the scepter, and the team… it got even more complicated. I visited you during that time, but… then something else happened. Now, we aren’t even on speaking terms. About two years ago, or a few weeks from now—God, this is confusing—, we hurt each other. Badly.”

Steve took a deep breath and forged ahead. “And how do we…”

“It’s a really, really long story.”

Steve didn’t break eye contact. “I’ve got time.”

Tony pursed his lips. “I wouldn’t even know where to start.”

“How about at the beginning?”

Tony smiled. It was such a Steve thing to say. “After Ultr—I mean, after I messed up, I think you wanted to make sure I was more honest with you, but… turns out there was a lot we couldn’t tell each other.”

Steve paused at that, biting his lower lip, and said nothing.

Tony started to play with his nails. “Anyway, then there was the year from hell, and… well, that’s when we…” He glanced up at him. “And that was… bad.”

“How?”

“We fought each other. I think that was one of the worst years of my life.”

Steve studied him intently. “And for me?”

“I wouldn’t know.” Tony heaved a great breath. “Look… I got sent back to make sure the team remained a team. That we would be a strong, united force once the Day of Doom arrives. If I tell you all the reasons you and I eventually ended up wanting to kill each other, I’m not sure it’ll all work out. You could start to hate me again.”

“I would never hate you.”

Tony snorted. “Yeah… right. I had a couple of broken ribs that told me otherwise.”

Steve paled.

“It’s alright,” Tony hurried to say. “Or it’s… well, it obviously isn't alright, but don’t think I didn’t give as good as I got.”

“But—why?

Tony shifted uncomfortably. “As I said—we kept things from each other. Turns out that wasn’t too good of a strategy.”

“You gotta tell me what happened.” He frowned. “Or will happen. Would happen. Dammit—you know what I mean.”

Tony made a face. “No, you know what—I’m really tired.”

Steve sat back down, took hold of Tony’s chin and forced him to look at him. “What. Happens. With. Us?”

Tony grabbed his hand and pulled it away. “There’s nothing to tell!”

“You’re lying.”

“Steve…”

Tony.”

With a sigh, Tony looked at his hand, so close to Steve’s. Finally he said, “You left the team.”

Steve straightened. “That’s it?”

He folded his arms and hugged himself. “Isn’t that enough?”

Steve shook his head. “Sorry, not buying it. You're telling me that I went to so much trouble and got so close only to turn around and leave? That’s not like me.”

“Maybe you think too highly of yourself.”

“Then how was it? Explain it to me!”

As Tony stared up at him, his eyes filled with sadness. “You didn’t exactly have a choice.”

“There’s always a choice. Always.”

“Yeah, well, you made a decision. And that meant you couldn’t be with me—us—anymore.” His voice almost broke on the last word. “Now leave me alone, Steve.”

“What kind of decision?”

“No! That’s all you get.”

“You promised to be straight with me,” Steve said. “We had a deal, Shellhead.”

“Exactly! We had a deal, but you blew it! You chose someone else! You left me behind, okay?”

“Someone else?” Steve repeated, his tone urgent. “What are you talking about?”

“No, I’ve told you all that I’m going to. Do you think this is easy for me? Being here with you, having to work with you, knowing how much you secretly hated me the whole damn time? Wondering if you maybe still do.” He shook his head. “The only reason I’m even bothering with you is…”

“Is what?”

“Never mind.”

Steve’s jaw tightened as he squared his shoulders. “Tony…”

Fuck. Tony really hated it when Steve said his name in that certain way. Like he mattered. Like he hadn’t only been a convenient business-partner, but a true friend… and maybe more.

And at that, Tony felt something inside him breaking.

“In the end it was me,” he said quietly. “We broke apart because of me.” His voice cracked under the truth of what he was about to say. “I tried to kill your friend. Barnes. Almost succeeded with it. I was angry, and I didn’t think it through. That’s why you left.”

“Bucky?” Steve breathed, his eyes impossibly large. “Why would you…”

He trailed off then, and Tony saw the moment understanding seemed to dawn on him. His expression turned into a vast well of grief. “You found out, didn’t you. About the Winter Soldier. About your parents.”

“Yes,” Tony whispered. “In the worst possible moment.”

Steve shook his head. “I never managed to tell you? In your time?”

“No,” Tony confirmed, and goddammit, there were tears in Steve’s eyes, now. “Doesn’t really matter. I had a whole year to get over it.”

“It matters,” Steve choked. He leaned forward, burying his face in his own hands, and stayed like that for a long moment. “I know it’s not enough,” he said into his palms, “but… I wanted to tell you so many times. I just…” He shook his head. “I was a coward. I didn’t know how.”

“The ‘how’ wouldn’t have mattered,” Tony said softly.

Steve looked up, his eyes still glassy. “Can I… would you let me explain?”

Tony swallowed. “Yes.” Please.

Steve nodded and sat back in his chair. And Tony had likely never seen him this unraveled. “I… I didn’t put two and two together right away,” he started saying. “I mean, I knew the Winter Soldier killed Howard—and your ma—, and afterwards, I realized Bucky was the Winter Soldier… but it took a few days for it to sink in. That he was the one who—” He shook his head. “—who killed them. And by then you’d visited me in the hospital, you’d taken me back home to the tower. You gave me back my shield. We’d started to spend time more together and… you were as relaxed and as friendly as you’d ever been and… Tony, I—this isn’t an excuse, not in the slightest, but I just… I was selfish, and I didn’t want to see you hurt. I liked having you around like this. For once, we weren’t so horribly tense around each other and… and at some point, I think I missed my window.” He shook his head. “I’m sorry. For what it’s worth, I’m so sorry. I wanted to tell you before Lagos, but…”

Tony let loose a shaking breath. Hearing those words from Steve—it was more than he’d ever expected to get. “I know,” he whispered. “It’s okay. As I said, I forgave you a long time ago, but… thank you. For telling me.”

And at that moment, he wished he could’ve said the same thing to his Steve. That he’d found the courage to talk about this like adults.

Then again, this was his Steve. And maybe this was a second chance for the both of them.

“Did you really?” Steve asked, staring up at him. “ Can you?”

“I want to,” Tony said, and it was the truth.

Cautiously, Steve reached for one of Tony’s hand. “It wasn’t your fault. I mean, I wasn’t there, I don’t know the specifics, but I know you, Tony. And I know you tried your best. You always do. Please stop blaming yourself for this.”

Tony brushed a thumb over Steve’s hand, and said nothing.

“And we… we were only ever friends?” Steve asked, his voice quiet.

At that, Tony smiled, a little disbelieving. “We were never… more. If that’s what you want to know.”

Steve didn’t pull his hand away. “Since you got here,” he started, and he didn’t look half as nervous as Tony expected him to be when talking about… this elephant they’d been tiptoeing around ever since arriving here. “Didn’t you ever wonder what could’ve been if things hadn’t gotten in the way?”

“All the time,” Tony whispered and stared at their entwined hands… wondering.

 

* * *

 

“So.” Rhodey assumed the vacant seat next to Tony’s bed, plopping a mug full of coffee into his empty hands. “Maybe this will get you talking.”

Tony pursed his lips and stared at the black temptation. His gaze remained fixated on the cup of warmth that touched his skin, its tempting aroma wafting near his nostrils.

He and Steve had discussed it a lot, whether or not they should be telling the others. Earlier today, Steve did announce that there was no reason to be afraid of him, but Tony had seen it in the others’ eyes. They’d never trust him like this.

So eventually, he’d called in a team meeting for later this day, also calling Rhodey and Pepper, because they deserved to know. Pepper couldn’t make it to New York on such a short notice, but she promised to visit soon. Rhodey, on the other hand, had arrived about half an hour ago, staring at Tony like he’d grown a second head.

“I still can’t believe it. You’re from the future,” he murmured, like he’d been doing for the last half hour straight. “Let’s start with this: When exactly did you learn how to time travel? I mean, I’ve kind of been waiting for you to build a time machine for decades now, but the fact that you’re here and you obviously didn’t bring me with you, you’ll understand I’m a bit bummed.”

Tony chuckled. “I didn’t build a time machine. We met someone called Doctor Strange. Giant asshole. I’m sure he’ll love to tell you more about it, but… It was a one-man-show, sorry.”

“And you’re from 2018? That’s pretty crazy. Who got president?”

That had Tony laughing. “I won’t spoil that for you.”

His gaze dropped to Rhodey’s healthy, undamaged legs briefly, and he reached for his hand. “You were the last one I saw in my timeline. We lost contact with all of the others at some point. But you and me, we stuck together till the end.”

“Wouldn’t expect anything else,” Rhodey said, smiling. “I’m sorry you had to go through all that.”

“If we all make it through it this time around, I won’t mind.”

“Hmm,” Rhodey hummed, leaning back in the chair.

Tony lifted the cup to his lips and indulged a long, hearty taste. He raised an eyebrow. That was his favorite roasting, with a hint of vanilla. “Did Steve make this?”

“Yes.” Rhodey smiled. “He’s apparently very worried about you. And guilty. The guy looked like a kicked puppy down there. What happened?”

Tony sighed. “I told him why the team had fallen apart in my timeline. He didn’t take it so well.”

“Something he did?”

“More or less… It’s complicated. We all messed up our share.”

They fell silent for a long moment, and Tony saw Rhodey opening his mouth a couple of times, obviously not knowing how to say whatever he wanted to say.

“What,” Tony prompted.

Rhodey brushed a hand over his short hair. “He likes you, I think.”

He said it so simply. As though it meant nothing. Tony had known it by now, of course. And yet, hearing the words spoken aloud gave him some blissful kind of liberation. It filled his insides with warmth that he had feared lost to him forever.

“He likes me,” he repeated, then frowned. “He does, huh?”

Rhodey smirked. “Seems so.”

A powerful breath seized command of him. “I’m… not sure how to deal with that. When I came here… I come from a world where we ended up fighting each other. I never imagined something like this could happen.”

“Did you forgive him? For what he did?”

“Yes.” And it was true. “I—It’s hard to explain, but what happened, back then, it was such a giant mess. Someone played us, and sure, we let them, but… the more time passes the more I see that it really didn’t have to be that way. And when it finally hits home that this is the way things are now… I just don’t know how to deal with everything being so… good.” Tony shook his head. “I like him, too. A lot. And that scares me.”

“Why? You never had trouble with—”

“Because it’s him. Because it’s me. I’m no good at loving —liking, whatever. I never have been. I never managed to give Pepper what she needed.” He smiled wryly. “And that really does a number on your self-confidence, okay? The supposedly great love of my life didn’t want to be with me. I just don’t think I’m fit to love. Or how to keep the good things in my life from falling apart.” A sigh shuddered through him. “And somehow, the fact that Steve might want to be with me scares me more than all the shit that happened between us. And even so, I never thought it’d be… I never thought it would be Steve.”

“Why not? It’s… I don’t wanna be presumptuous, but the two of you… I don’t know, Tones. It’s not such a big surprise?”

Tony’s expression remained flat. “It is for me. We’re just so different. And I don’t know anymore. Everything that I did know has come apart. And that’s good. That means things changed. I’m just not sure I can get used to this new order.”

Rhodey pursed his lips thoughtfully. “Of course you can. Maybe this is not the version you’re used to. But you and Steve... you can make a different kind of right. If you want that.”

Tony could not spare himself a small grin. “You sure seem to be pushing this ‘me and Steve’ thing.”

The observation earned a shrug in turn. “I just don’t see where the conflict comes in. You have to get used to this time either way, right? You like him, he likes you. Where’s the problem?”

“It’s complicated.”

“How is it complicated?”

“It just is.” Tony’s eyes clouded with nameless emotion. He simply couldn’t think of the impact his actions were bound to have on both Steve and him. There was either amnesty or condemnation. “Love just complicates things. What if we break up badly? It could split the team up right back again.”

“That’s stupid, Tony. You’re just setting up barriers for yourself to keep you from being happy. But you don’t have anything holding you back. Just yourself.”

Tony expelled a deep, shivering breath. “But if he doesn’t want this anymore one day, it’ll...”

“Hurt?”

“Among other things.”

“You can’t go around telling yourself that every wrong move you make might destroy the world. It’ll drive you nuts. You have a responsibility to try and do good, just as much as every other man. Not more. Don’t do this to yourself. You deserve to try and have what you want. And you want Rogers, don’t you?”

Tony let his head drop back on the pillow with a sigh. “Yes.”

Rhodey shrugged. “Then no one’s keeping you.”

 

* * *

 

“How bad was it?” Natasha asked from her place on the couch. “Your future?”

“It’s the end of the world,” Tony said, simply. “I would do anything to keep it from happening.”

“And you think if we work together,” Sam said, “if we keep working together—we can prevent it?”

“If we can’t, no one can,” Tony said, because he was sure it was the truth.

The team sat around him—even Wanda and Pietro, their gazes more than a little troubled. By now, he’d told them everything, from the very beginning—all leading up to the Sokovia Accords and what had happened with Helmut Zemo. How easy it had been for him to tear the team apart, because the distrust had already been there and they had been all too ready to give in to that pent-up rage. He’d told them about Vision, about Tony’s plan to eventually get his hands on enough vibranium to build his body with Helen Cho’s help.

Weirdly enough, Thor hadn’t even protested. They’d talked about the Mind Stone in Loki’s scepter and Thor had agreed that they needed to keep it safe as much as possible. And Vision was their best option to do just that.

In the background, the news channel was reporting on the destruction in Lagos. There had been casualties, not as high a number as in the previous timeline, and not nearly as high as it would’ve been, had Rumlow activated the bomb right in the middle of the IFID building, but at the end of the day, it didn’t matter. It seemed that no matter what they did, they just couldn’t save everyone.

The irony wasn’t lost on Tony, that there were already rumors about the UN working on a certain document, a bill to finally keep superheroes in check.

After everything he’d changed, everything he’d done, it seemed he simply couldn’t change the way the world was turning. Maybe if he’d been honest with Steve from the start, maybe if he’d told him what was going on—or maybe that would’ve made things worse, there was really no way to tell.

“What is it?” Steve asked, and once more, Tony felt his hand on him, resting on his shoulder where his fingertips were ever so lightly brushing the skin at Tony’s neck.

“Just not sure I made an impact,” Tony admitted. He pointed towards the news, where Thaddeus Ross was currently giving an interview on CNN. “It won’t be the Sokovia Accords, sure. But it’ll be something similar. We’ll be facing the same problems. Once more, people in Lagos died. All of it… didn’t change anything.”

He felt like laughing then, and a little bit like crying, too, but the only sound leaving his mouth was a dry huff.

“Tony… of course you made an impact,” Steve said. And when Tony looked up, he saw Steve—saw all of them—smiling at him like he was missing something that was in plain sight.

“They’ll want to put a leash on us again,” Tony explained, and glanced at Steve. “You’ll hate it, you might not see that now, but—”

“That’s not the point,” Steve interjected. “You’re right—Sure, I might not like it. I just can’t imagine how this should work. What if someone sends us somewhere we don’t think we should go? Or what if there is somewhere we need to go and they don’t let us? But—”

Tony snorted, trying not to lose his shit right then and there. “See? That’s—you said that before. In those exact words, I think.”

Steve blinked. “Well—It’s true. But what I was trying to say is… My opinion on a lawsuit like this might not change, no matter how often you travel back in time, but… you changed everything else. Don’t you see? We’re all still here. Together. We’re a team.”

“Family,” Natasha added, and Christ, she was the last person on earth Tony had ever thought to label them like this. A family? Them?

“I can’t see us fighting over this,” Sam added, shrugging.

“No,” Clint agreed. “Do I sometimes wanna punch you people in the face hard?” he asked, grinning. “Sure. But this thing we got here—it’s good.”

“Charming,” Tony said, but there was no heat behind it. It was hard to imagine that it should be so easy. But… come to think on it, Tony could admit that they were all much more relaxed around each other. Not so prone to weighing each word the other said. They all… they all laughed more, relying on each other, trusting each other, and if Tony was perfectly honest with himself, he couldn’t imagine them breaking apart because of this, either.

Not anymore.

“We will stand as a united force,” Thor exclaimed, even smiling at Tony and raising Mjolnir like he was toasting him.

“You said we did a lot of damage in your time,” Bruce said. “And I see why we would need to work on that. If we can offer the UN some kind of safety net, I assume they might not push for a lawsuit at all.”

“I agree,” Steve said. “We’ll think of something we can offer them.”

“I’m not sure that’s gonna be enough,” Tony pointed out. “They had specific demands, and we very clearly couldn’t find common ground and—”

“We’ll work it out,” Steve interjected, and there was that smile again. A smile so fond and exasperated it really should be forbidden, because obviously Steve didn’t see how severe the situation was.

“How can you be so sure about that?” He tried not to snap at Steve, but didn’t manage to keep the bite out of his voice.

Steve still smiled, very softly. “You know, Tony, for a genius you can be so blind sometimes.”

Blind? Tony frowned, not getting what Steve was talking about. In the last months, he’d thought of every possibility, every divergence of the Sokovia Act. How to work around it, which changes to make. And that Steve had the audacity to tell him he was blind was just—

Suddenly, Steve leaned in, the hand that still rested on Tony’s shoulder moving forward, encasing Tony’s neck in a warm grip.

“What,” Tony exhaled, his eyes widening. “Steve?”

“I won’t fight you,” Steve told him quietly. “I can’t.”

Tony’s eyes dropped to Steve’s mouth. And then, their lips touched. Ever so briefly at first, and Tony could feel Steve’s shaky breath on his mouth. He was painfully aware of their audience, and his eyes raked over Steve’s as he leaned back a fraction.

Steve’s cheeks were slightly flushed. The air between them could not have been heavier. Silence stretched, taunted and teased him. With a deep breath designed to support Tony’s confidence, he shook his head and set forward. And Steve waited one second, and another, before he dived in again, too.

Steve’s hands began to wander, slowly, acquainting themselves with Tony’s face and stroking his thumbs along his cheekbones. Tony made a satisfied noise in the back of his throat that complemented the soft sighs coming out of Steve’s mouth.

“Ew,” Clint said and got a clap on the head by both Natasha and Wanda.

“You kissed me,” Tony pointed out, a bit dazed.

Steve only pulled back a little. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but we’re not so good with words.”

“No,” Tony said, breathy and light headed and… happy. “No. We really aren’t.”

“I figured I’d show you.”

“Good point.”

“Thought so,” Steve agreed, smiling.

“This might be a really bad idea.”

“We’ve had worse.”

“You say that now,” Tony said, taking a breath to say more, but Steve’s thumb brushed along his cheek, and his blue eyes bore into him, and that was all really distracting.

“I know you’re afraid,” Steve went on. “And you have every right to be, considering what you’ve been through. We won’t ever fully understand how it has been for you, but I think I’m speaking for everyone when I say this won’t be our future. Not if we can help it. Not now that you’ve told us.”

Almost blindly, Tony reached out. The relief inside him was fierce and all-consuming, and some innate part of him had to touch Steve. When his hand found Steve’s shoulder, he nearly crumpled at the raw strength that coursed beneath his fingertips.

Steve’s fingers sought out Tony’s own. The touch he offered was fiercely delicate.

There were retching sounds coming from both Clint and Pietro, and chuckles from Wanda, Bruce and Natasha. Steve pursed his lips and turned around slightly. “Can you give us a bit of privacy?”

“Go,” Tony added. “He means you should go. Now.”

They all likely threw a lot of commentary and innuendos their way, but Tony didn’t even listen. As soon as the elevator doors closed, he barreled into Steve, pressing him into the backrest. He closed his eyes as they kissed, and in this moment, Steve became his Steve and this Steve at the same time.

Steve remained in stunned delirium as Tony’s tongue pushed into his mouth, but then he was all but ravaging him. The pent up tension, the longing, the worry, the sadness—so much sadness. Everything poured into one single kiss. They tasted each other. Needing far more than could be given, needing everything and nothing at all.

With a gasping breath, Tony pulled back. "Are you sure about this?" he asked.

“I am,” Steve answered without a beat, as though he’d just been waiting for Tony to ask. “You and me… we can be a good thing. No matter what happened before, we can make it better. I’m sure we can.”

Tony gulped, then nodded.

Because Steve was right, dammit—they were all right—they would work it out, with the UN and with Thanos and his army, and screw the rest of the world, they would have a whole future together, finally making it right.

Chapter Text

The steps creaked beneath Tony’s shoes, softly but loudly enough to announce his arrival.

Steve was already waiting for him when he reached the bottom. Their eyes met. For a moment they stood still, as though afraid of breaking the thread that seemed to stretch across the room to connect them. Gradually, it pulled them closer. Tony had no name for it. It felt almost a sacrilege to try and put words to this new thing between them.

To what this new time had made him feel for Steve.

It had barely been two months. Tony knew what he wanted now, but those words seemed too inadequate, too simple—and yet still too scary. He had always put so much stock in words, and he’d always been good with them. Though in the end, words had failed him when it counted.

So he figured action was a better language. It was his turn to show Steve what this thing between them meant to him.

Even so, it was Tony who spoke first. No matter what else, he was even worse with silence. “You ready?”

Steve smiled. His head tilted as he regarded Tony. “As ready as I’ll ever be.”

A stab of nervousness went through him that Tony stomped down immediately. It would all work out. They had put so much effort into this, it just had to.

For the last few weeks, all they’d done, day in, day out, was to set up a bill of their own. Something everyone could live with and something the UN would hopefully accept. It was certainly better to present a solution of their own than being forced to sign something they didn’t believe in.

The Enhanced Citizen Act (a name Tony thought was a bit ridiculous, but everything was better than naming the bill after a destroyed city) was everything the Sokovia Accords hadn’t been.

Back then, Tony hadn’t seen that the Accords had too easily defined superheroes as weapons, something to be deployed like an arm of the military. This bill they’d worked on, it was instead founded on trust—not on fear or force. During the mess with Zemo, nearly all of them had gotten distracted from a hero’s main responsibility: to help and protect. But with any chance, they could do exactly that for the years to come, if only the UN agreed to sign this.

So to say Tony was nervous was a vast understatement. Though with Steve at his side, clad in a very well fitted suit, ready to go to Washington and put his signature on that paper, it was a lot easier to handle.

“You look like a thousand thoughts are running through your head,” Steve observed, tilting his head.

“Right now I’m trying desperately not to think at all,” Tony admitted.

“I know you’re nervous,” Steve said, a patient smile on his face. “And believe me, I would love to just stay here. Watch a movie. But the thing is that…” He swallowed. “We’ve worked hard for this day.”

The look of honesty on Steve’s face made Tony’s heart both swell and ache. “You’re right. Just, I don’t know, this feels like…”

“The end of the world as we know it?” Steve continued.

Tony rolled his eyes. “No. Not yet.”

“Not ever,” Steve corrected. “Come on. Let’s take it one step at a time.” He reached out and took his hand, leading Tony towards the elevator. “My next step is getting through this day without breaking a politician’s nose.”

Tony burst out laughing. “Glad you set some solid goals for this meeting.”

“I like to be realistic.”

Tony closed his fingers around Steve’s and stroked the back of his hand. It had been driving him nuts. All the different ways and possibilities this meeting could go wrong. But despite how nervous he was about today, he wanted nothing more than to get this over with.

“Don’t worry,” Steve assured him earnestly. “I’m with you. The last thing I want is to let you down.”

“You won’t.” Tony smiled a little ruefully. “Well, not on purpose, at any rate.”

“Very funny.”

“Come on,” Tony said. “We have a job to do.”

Steve nodded, and pulled at Tony’s hand, bringing him nearer. “Don’t worry too much,” he whispered, then kissed his lips chastely.

Tony still hadn’t gotten used to this, to Steve looking at him like this and kissing him whenever he felt like it, and it made his heart race in a way that was both frightening and exhilarating. “You won’t regret this later and hate me forever, will you?”

Steve shook his head. “I don’t do this because of you. You’re a factor, sure, but… I’m doing this because it’ll make everyone’s lives a little easier. It’ll give people a sense of security. That way, we can stay strong and prepare for Thanos’ arrival.”

He brushed his thumb over Steve’s fingers. “I’m glad you think so. You can’t imagine how much.”

They stepped into the elevator, pressing the button for the garage.

“Have I ever thanked you?” Tony asked.

“For what?”

“For taking that chance. Defending me when you didn’t even know if it was the right thing to do.”

Steve turned his hand in Tony’s, pushing his fingers open with his until their palms pressed together. He stared at them, and Tony wondered if he was as fascinated by how perfectly they fit together as Tony was. He twined his fingers through Steve’s, and for a long moment, as the elevator moved towards the garage floor, they just stood there, clasping hands.

“Always,” Steve said then, kissing him again.

“I just want you to know that I think it was worth it,” Tony murmured against his lips. “Coming back here… no matter how this turns out, with the bill, or with Thanos. It was worth all of it. Got no regrets.” He bit his lip, then laughed, a sort of wheezing sound, and shook his head. “Well, we both know that’s a lie. I got about a million regrets. And a lot of ‘em involve you… the way I handled things with you back in my time.” He raised his eyes to Steve’s. “But I’ll never regret giving you and me another chance.”

Steve stared at him—and the elevator had long stopped, the doors opening, but he didn’t move one bit. Instead, he pulled his hand from Tony’s and held his face in both hands. “You’re worth it, too. I’m so glad you believed in us enough to do all of this again. I know it couldn’t have been easy for you.”

“It got me this,” Tony said, pressing himself against Steve. “No regrets.”

 

* * *

 

One year later

 

Tony wiped the steam from the mirror and stared into it, long and hard. It was May 29th 2018, the same day he’d chosen to travel back in time—and also his birthday.

He tried to see through the eyes of his other self, that version he’d left behind in the other year 2018, wondering what the other Tony would think of him. Probably something like, “Why the hell are you even still thinking about me?” to start with.

It was all so very long ago.

Tony smiled, pushing his damp hair back from his face. He leaned in to take a closer look at the hints of lines forming around his eyes and mouth. He touched a finger to the delicate skin under his eye.

In many ways, he looked a lot like the man he’d been back then, physically exhausted and sleep-deprived, and on the other hand, he was someone else entirely.

More happy, for starters.

And anyway, first and foremost, the other Tony would have been glad to know he’d made it here, after everything that had happened. That they’d defeated Thanos. Together. Not without losses, but at the end of the day, Earth was still there, and when Tony looked through the windows of Steve’s and his bedroom, he’d see the Avengers logo gleaming in the sunlight.

He reached out and touched his reflection. “You’ve been so blind,” he said.

Back then, he’d wished a lot of things. Mostly that Steve would come back. That they could somehow fix everything that had happened. That he could apologize for a lot of things, and yell at Steve for the rest of it. But never in his wildest dreams would he have imagined this.

Letting out a sigh that seemed to come from his toes, Tony stepped back and checked the wounds on his chest and arms. They had already scabbed over. Still tender, but nothing to write home about in the pain department. He could probably do without a bandage, except that it could start bleeding again if it got scraped.

Tony shook his head.

He couldn’t believe it had already been three days since they’d defeated Thanos. He and Vision almost hadn’t made it, and Bucky and Peter were still in the hospital. Bucky had been the worst off, almost losing his other arm, too, but by now, he was recovering well.

Amazingly, they’d all made it.

Grabbing a towel and wrapping it around himself, Tony headed out of the bathroom. As he passed by the door, he felt a familiar tingle, an outward tug at his core. He froze in place for a moment, then smiled as he saw Steve sitting on their bed.

Steve’s eyebrow lifted as his gaze roved over Tony’s body. “You look better.”

“And you’re back early,” Tony countered.

Steve smiled. “I told Fury I had to go care for my wounded fiancé.”

Tony chuckled. “Bet he loved that.”

Steve hummed then walked over to Tony. His eyes moved over Tony’s chest, obviously pleased. “You healed fast.”

“Let’s have three cheers for Helen’s magical healing.”

“Hip, hip hurrah.” A smirk tugged the corners of Steve’s mouth as his eyes found Tony’s face. “Peter told me to say hi.”

Tony raised an eyebrow. “Which one?”

Steve laughed. “Parker. Our new friends from outer space just insulted you a lot before they left.”

“Groot loves me,” Tony objected.

Steve smiled briefly, just a flash of teeth, then tilted his head. “He’s not the only one.”

He reached out, and rested his hand on Tony’s shoulder, just for a moment, before sliding it forward. Tony closed his eyes and savored the sensation of Steve’s palm sliding against his. But then Steve pulled it away, and lightly—God, so lightly he could barely feel it—he traced a finger back and forth along Tony’s collarbone.

Shivering, Tony opened his eyes. Steve seemed mesmerized, his lips parted and his eyes displaying a drowsy kind of lust as he watched his finger skate across Tony’s skin.

Steve moved closer and took his face in both hands. As his thumbs stroked Tony’s cheeks, he said, “Happy birthday. I missed you.”

Tony nodded. “You better.” He covered one of Steve’s hands with his. “We’ve got all day. If…” He swallowed. “If you want to go check on Bucky first…”

Steve shook his head. “Already called him. I’m right where I want to be.” He did kiss him then, tender and tentative.

Tony’s pulled him closer, mouth open and welcoming. Not that he still hated Bucky’s guts—he’d made peace with the Winter Soldier’s actions long ago—but the words still warmed his heart. On his bad days, he still didn’t understand how Steve could have fallen in love with him so completely that it had changed their entire self-concept. Because in the end, Tony was sure that the main reason why things had played out so differently had been the two of them.

It always comes down to you and the Captain.

Steve wrapped his arms around Tony and held on. His movements mimicked Steve’s as he held him tight, one hand tangling in Steve’s hair to cradle the back of his head, the other bunching his shirt in a fist at the small of his back.

It was so easy to lose himself in Steve. They were home and Earth was safe and they had plenty of time to figure it all out.

Gently, Steve pressed him down on their bed. Their kiss was fervent, passion-filled, and Tony used it to communicate all that he was feeling at that moment: hunger, need, joy at both of them being alive. And, more than anything else: love.

Steve’s only answer was a groan. But his body communicated plenty as he pressed his whole frame against Tony’s. Tony’s hands glided up his chest and underneath his shirt to slide it off him. As it puddled on the floor, Steve grabbed him around the waist to spin them both around. Tony winced and clutched his side.

“Oh shit.” Steve let go, his hands hovering near his wound. “Sorry.”

Tony shook his head and reached for him. “Don’t be.”

But still Steve held off, afraid to touch him. “I don’t want to hurt you.”

Tony stroked his cheek. “You won’t.” He kissed him again. Ground into him and bit his lip to show he meant business. He felt Steve harden, and smiled.

After another moment of hesitation, Steve unhooked his towel and dropped it on the ground. His gaze lowered, the look on his face changing to one of pure need as his eyes drank in Tony’s nakedness.

“You’re not naked enough,” Tony pointed out, glancing down at Steve’s jeans.

“I’ll get there,” Steve promised and his voice was raw silk. Steve caught Tony’s hands in his and brought them to his lips, then held them out of the way as he leaned in. Tony thought he meant to kiss him again, but Steve gave his mouth a pass and went straight for his shoulder, sucking at the spot where it joined his neck. His lips and tongue delicately traced the same path along Tony’s collarbone that his finger had earlier. He let go of Tony’s hands and ran his own slowly down Tony’s body, thumbs scraping his nipples as his fingers molded themselves to his every inch, mindful of his wounds, finally coming to rest on his hips. Steve rubbed his hands over the skin of Tony’s stomach, bringing them up to hold the back of his neck as he nuzzled his ear.

He looked into his eyes for a moment before his mouth reclaimed Tony’s.

In moments like these, Tony liked to think that—had he known back then how good the two of them could be together, had he had one chance to kiss Steve like this—Ross and Zemo and everything else, it wouldn't have mattered.

Steve’s hands were everywhere. He was always very enthusiastically into the sex they’d had. It was as though he was studying Tony like he did with his history books. His fingers caressed his shoulders, kneading a gentle massage before he turned Tony around on his stomach. Then his mouth was back on Tony’s skin, kissing a trail down his back. He bent him forward. An arm around his waist kept him steady, and Tony put his hands on the headboard of their bed. When Steve licked the small of Tony’s back, Tony arched and shuddered, instinctively pressing backwards against him.

“You know, I never imagined it would be like this… with you.”

Steve paused and raised a brow at him. “Like what?”

“So… easy.”

“Thanks?” Steve replied, questioning.

Tony snorted. “It was meant as a compliment. I just thought we wouldn’t be so good together.”

Steve hummed then sucked at the tender spot behind Tony’s ear as one of his hands roamed lower, reacquainting itself with his belly, and still lower, reaching down to rub his length.

“We were good together from the start,” Steve said. “Just took us a while to notice.”

Tony gripped his forearms and felt them flex as Steve’s hands did their magic. “ Steve,” he moaned softly.

Steve smiled against his neck. “But I have to admit, I never imagined Tony Stark would say my name like that.” He kissed his exposed throat, then kept an eye on Tony’s face.

The denim of Steve’s jeans scraped against his ass and Tony pressed back against it. “There’s more where that came from. Come on, get the lube already.”

“Alright,” Steve said. His finger never stopped as his other hand left his body. He heard the clinking sound of a belt buckle, then after a moment Steve took Tony’s hand and guided it to his cock.

Tony’s pumped him a few times, matching the rhythm of Steve’s hand between his legs. Steve groaned, resting his head against his shoulder.

“Get to work,” Tony urged.

Steve snorted, and adjusted his grip on him. He’d lost his pants at some point, and kneeled down behind Tony.

God, Tony really needed him inside, and he could tell from the look on his face that Steve needed to be there just as badly. Leaning forward, Steve kissed him feverently. His hands cupped Tony’s middle to lift him up, then his fingers slid into him, stretching him with measured movements.

When Steve deemed him ready, Tony turned around on his back, raising his knees a little so Steve fit snugly between them. Steve brought himself into position and slid into him. Instinctively, Tony raised his eyes to Steve’s face. He always did that. That look of pure bliss never got old, and it had Tony falling in love with Steve more and more every time.

When Steve was all the way in, Tony pressed his head into the pillow beneath him. “I love you,” he whispered, briefly thinking how amazing it was that he could still think these words—much less voice them.

Laying a hand atop one of Tony’s, Steve nodded. “I love you, too.”

After everything, Steve still sounded a little surprised at himself as he said it. He touched Tony’s face and kissed him, then leaned over him and began to rock back and forth. His thrusts minutely grew faster, harder, and Tony gripped the bed sheet for purchase and met him in the middle.

It didn’t take long—Tony was already so close when they started.

“Don’t stop,” he gasped.

Steve nodded, keeping his eyes on him. Then he was there—Tony could see it in the flutter of his eyelids, the opening of his mouth. Tony gritted his teeth and closed his eyes, and felt Steve resting his face against Tony’s neck as he shuddered inside him.

Afterwards, they lay on the bed, holding each other. They talked, all the while touching, caressing each other as much as they could.

When they’d started this, Tony had done most of the talking. There was so much he’d needed Steve to hear, things he’d never thought to tell him before. Tony had felt he owed him an explanation for a lot of things. Why he’d wanted to give up Iron Man for Pepper, why he’d built Ultron, why he’d supported the Sokovia Accords. He told him about how hard it had become… how hard he had become, after Siberia… after he’d watched his mom die. After Steve had left. After all of it.

He’d wanted him to understand why it had taken him so long to love Steve.

Steve had done some talking, too. About becoming Captain America, about the war, about what Bucky’s friendship had meant to him when no one else had ever looked at him twice. About how hard it had been to find his place here, in this new time.

Something they had in common now.

His voice had filled Tony’s silences, and he’d welcomed it, letting the rich baritone of his voice wash through him. It didn’t matter what Steve talked about exactly, as long as Tony heard his voice, felt the accompanying whisper of breaths carry his scent across Tony’s skin.

“It’s crazy,” Tony said as he looked at Steve now. “That it’s over now. For the first time I think I’m seeing a future. For me… for us.”

It was probably a bit strange that it had taken him this long. They’d gone through so much together, not just Steve and him, but the whole team. And amazingly, they’d settled each problem coming their way as a united force.

It was unbelievable. How much better everything was, now that they faced it together.

And still, it felt as if he could only truly believe in it, in this happy ending, after they had faced Thanos—and won.

“Well,” Steve said after a moment, brushing hair out of Tony’s face. “That’s a hell of a thing, isn’t it?”

Tony nodded. “I can’t believe how much time I wasted fighting just the idea of us.”

Steve smiled. Something caught in Tony’s chest and started to swell. “It’s not wasted if it brought us here.”

Tony pulled himself closer to Steve, then draped the covers over the two of them. “It’s weird. I always thought it was inevitable. You and me breaking each other.”

Steve raised a hand to Tony’s face. “It took a really specific set of circumstances to break us apart. We’re here, now. Together. Things changed. You and me, we can make our own future.”

Tony’s head started to spin a little at the realization that they could.

“You came back to change what happened,” Steve whispered. “And you did. You saved us all. Now you should stop thinking all of it is your responsibility. People mess up. We’ll mess up, too, I’m sure. But we’ll work it out together.”

Tony laid his head back on his shoulder and Steve cradled him there. Steve’s heartbeat was unmistakably strong… and steady. “I used to wish that we could have just five more minutes together—after you’d left.”

Steve yawned—it was only noon, but Tony figured they deserved some extra sleep. “What did you plan on doing with those five minutes?”

Tony’s nestled his head in the hollow between Steve’s neck and shoulder as they each tightened their hold on the other. “I probably would’ve yelled at you a lot. And then… I like to tell myself I would’ve done this…” He raised himself up and caught Steve’s mouth with his, sucking on his bottom lip, opening up for his tongue, losing himself in this kiss until he no longer knew where he ended and Steve began. “And that,” he said between gasps as they broke apart, nibbling at Steve’s neck.

“Mmmm… Now’s your chance,” Steve murmured, half asleep already.

Tony smiled against his skin.

Steve was right. This was his chance.

And he wouldn’t waste it.

 

* * *

 

They stepped into the Kamar-Taj, hand in hand. The sorcerers-in-training were all over the place, some firing blasts of energy at one another, some sitting on the floor, staring into open space like they weren’t even there. At least, not psychically.

“Wow,” Steve said next to him, and his eyes were slightly widened as they took it all in. “You didn’t exaggerate.”

“Wish I had,” Tony murmured. He’d forgotten how… much… it was. The unique mix of art and practicality, all of those paintings and sculptures, the symbolic icons and Sanskrit inscriptions. And the magic. It was everywhere, and even now, after Tony had travelled back in time, after he had touched those powers with his own hands, he was no closer to understanding them.

He’d always hated things he didn’t understand.

“And this is where it happened?” Steve asked as they came to a stop in the middle of the arrival hall. The sun beat down on them, and there were little birds chirping from their places on the balustrades.

“Down in the cellar. Now that the Infinity Stones are destroyed, I’m sure they’ll just use it to hoard even more books.”

“And once more, you’re wrong,” Strange said as he walked over to them. His ridiculous red cloak was fluttering in the light breeze as he stepped up next to them. “It’ll become a place of remembrance.”

Tony rolled his eyes. “You sure need another one of those, here in this temple.”

Steve was squeezing his hand ever so lightly, probably a way of telling Tony to be nicer, but he just couldn’t help himself… Something about Strange always made him pull up his self-defensive mechanisms.

“There’s a lot to be thankful for,” Strange went on, unfazed. There was a smirk on his lips, barely there, as he gazed on the landscape outside.

It wasn’t the first time Tony asked himself if Strange remembered it--the other time they’d been here. When an army had waited at their doorsteps, when Earth had been mere seconds from its final destruction.

Strange had denied it--Why should he have searched for a timeline he hadn’t even known of?--but there had been a glimmer in his eyes, some kind of deep self-satisfaction for having been right all along. And Tony had a feeling he remembered all of it perfectly.

Tony sighed, shoving those thoughts aside. Instead, he glanced at Steve, who, in return, was looking at him with a low and steady smile.

“You don’t have to do this,” Tony said for the millionth time.

“I know,” Steve replied. “I want to.”

Reaching for Steve’s other hand, Tony turned them both around, away from Strange’s curious eyes.

He had to at least give it one more try.

“You think that now,” Tony whispered urgently. “But the only thing you’ll get is regret and hurt and a million other things you could very well live without. If you think I want this you’re wrong, Steve. If this is about some misplaced feeling of solidarity, trust me, I’m over it. And I don’t want you to go through all of this.”

Some part of Tony had hoped that now that they were here Steve would finally realize how stupid this plan of his was, but his placatory smile was still firmly in place.

“It’s not about solidarity,” he whispered. “Or guilt, or regret. I love you. And I don’t like that there’ll always be this version of us I can’t grasp. I know it’ll hurt. We fought each other, how could it not hurt? But before our wedding, I want to share this with you, all the good and the bad parts.”

“Or you’ll share it with me, and then cancel the wedding altogether,” Tony murmured, trying to step back, but Steve was having none of it. His warm hands were holding him near, and that smile, full of love and trust, nearly undid him.

“Never gonna happen,” he whispered and leaned in to press a short and sweet kiss on Tony’s lips.

“You say that now,” Tony murmured. “In a few minutes you’ll remember all the reasons why you decided a life in the middle of a goddamn jungle was better than actually talking things through with me. Why on earth can you believe that won’t have an impact on our relationship?”

Behind them, Strange made a sound of vague amusement, and Tony would’ve loved to give him a piece of his mind, but Steve’s eyes were big and blue and right in front of him.

“I never told you,” he told Tony quietly. “About the night you arrived here, the day before we left for Sokovia, did I?”

“What about it?” Tony asked, confused.

“We’d been down in your workshop. You’d been tinkering on a suit and you’d talked a mile a minute while you worked. I’m not even sure you were aware what you were saying. You talked about the recent upgrades you’ve made to our gear, about the newest developments on the Iron Legion, but you were also dropping a few hints here and there, about you and Pepper. That she was looking for an apartment in Malibu, or that you were thinking about redecorating the penthouse. You were very casual about all of it, and I wasn’t sure it meant anything, but I remember it was the first time I realized you might be single again and…”

He fell silent, looking for the right words and Tony felt his heart hammering inside his chest. “And what?”

Steve’s mouth lifted in a half-smile, almost shy. “It was the first time I considered it. You and me. I wasn’t really being serious, you’d never given me any reason to believe you’d be interested, but I remember looking at you and thinking ‘What if?’…”

Swallowing, Tony brushed a finger over the back of Steve’s hand. He wasn’t fully sure he knew what Steve was trying to say, because the thing he was hinting at couldn’t possibly be true.

“I’m not sure I understand.”

Steve stepped closer, pulling him even nearer. “It means I considered this before you came back, Tony. Before you changed anything. And that means I thought about you in your previous timeline as well. You think that other version of me hated you. That he willingly left you behind, that you didn’t matter to him. But I know--Tony I know --deep down, that this can’t possibly be true. I was never the kind of guy for a passing infatuation.”

Shaking, Tony let his head drop against Steve’s chest, the significance of all of that slowly sinking in.

“Let me prove it to you,” Steve said, pressing a kiss on his head.

“I don’t need any proof. I just need you.”

“You have me.”

It was a promise, plain and simple, and Tony took a deep breath, and finally nodded.

At the end of the day, this wasn’t his choice to make.

Together, all three of them walked down into the cellar. The room where the Eye of Agamotto had once been was now empty, aside from a single chair standing in the middle of it.

After a short, questioning gaze, Steve sat down on it, looking at Strange in expectation.

It was unnerving how much he didn’t seem to be worried.

“I can’t show you all of it,” Strange told him. “Just brief glimpses. As time, memories fade as well, and those other possibilities, they’ve almost fully disappeared by now.”

“I understand,” Steve told him, then closed his eyes.

“Try not to faint,” Strange said, and it took Tony a long moment to realize he had addressed him, not Steve.

“Fuck you,” Tony hissed and balled his fingers into a fist when Strange chuckled.

“Still very charming,” he commented, then walked up to Steve with raised hands.

There was a greenish energy floating within the room, circling around Steve’s head and those next minutes were easily the most horrible ones of Tony’s entire life.

Steve looked as relaxed as he possibly could be while he was reliving moments of a past--but not really past--life, never showing any kind of emotion, only a flutter of eyelids here and there.

You rejected love, Tony Stark, Tony remembered the Eye telling him. You encased your heart in metal. You want to have another try.

Don’t take it away from me now, he pleaded, though he knew this wasn’t about a higher power messing with their lives--this was just between him and Steve, and if they were meant to be, they’d get through this, too.

A low gasp brought Tony back to the present, and as he looked up, he immediately met Steve’s gaze. Still the same blue, but behind that--a knowledge, and yes, a certain sadness Tony knew all too well.

“Tony,” Steve breathed, horrified.

“I told you you didn’t want to know,” he whispered, fear-stricken that he might’ve lost this after all.

As if on instinct, he took half a step back when Steve stood up, but with two wide strides, Steve was right in front of him.

His hands started out resting on Tony’s chest, but gradually found their way up to his face. And Tony was growing light headed and he touched his forehead against Steve’s.

“Thank you,” Steve whispered, as he first kissed his left cheek, and then his mouth.

“For what?” Tony asked, his voice a little choked.

“For thinking we were worth another try.”

“Always.”

At that, Steve smiled at him—still loving him, despite it all, still happy, still wanting that future with him—and that simple gesture, it was the reason Tony’d come here. It was all of their million choices, the good and the bad ones, coming to one beautiful conclusion.

Love had saved them, had saved the world, and Tony knew in his heart that, despite what the Eye had once told him, their love was a weave that could never be undone again.