[personal profile] dragonofmemory
No Black and White in the Blue
By: Memory Dragon
Disclaimer: I do not own the Avengers movie-verse or Marvel Ultimates, nor do I make any claim to. Also don't own the song 'Blue' by Mai Yamane/Yoko Cano, from which I've stolen the title.
Characters: Steve Rogers/Tony Stark, Natasha Romanov/Ults Tony Stark, slight Tony/Tony, Clint Barton, Thor, Bruce Banner, Rhodey, Pepper Potts, Ults Steve
Warnings: Please note Ults Tony Stark is a self-professed higher functioning alcoholic. According to canon he's also had a few suicide attempts, and he does think about and doesn't quite care as much as he should about some of the fatal consequences of drinking too much. Keep that in mind, if you are unfamiliar with Ults and this is a problem for you. Also, there's a lot of talk about grief and the (off-screen) death of a child. The child's death was a little on the gruesome side, but there are no real descriptions of the event. Again, just take into consideration your own comfort levels. Finally, this fic was written in order to kill iloome through feels. That stated, there are a lot of feels. Really, a lot. I'm told they're pretty effective. Don't say I didn't warn you if you become collateral damage.
Rating: PG 13
Summary:Anthony Stark just wants to drink and contemplate his failures in peace. Unfortunately, Antonio Stark chose just that moment to appear. Now Tony has to deal with an alternate version of himself, the tension between him and Steve, and the differences between the dimensions on top of everything else.

But the biggest monster maybe too much for even two Tonys to stop...
Thanks: Many thanks to [livejournal.com profile] narwhale_callin and [livejournal.com profile] salmastryon for the betaing and tips.  Also thanks to AnonEhouse, kerravon, hogwartshoney, iloome, nightwalker, ladedanixie, Tonystarktastic, kuhekabir, and krusca for leaving comments!
Notes: Okay, so there's more suicide idealization and talk of the effects of alcohol in this chapter, so be prepared for that.  Also, there's a lot of hand-wavy medical science and talk of nanites.  Which, I'm pretty sure the comic book writers don't know what the nanites do, so I'm just taking that as my leave to make stuff up as I go along.  Finally, there is angst in the chapter.  Lots of angst.  Don't say I didn't warn you.


Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four

~

Steve wanted to be out running. He wanted to destroy the punching bags back at the Tower until his hands bled. He wanted to go out, walk into the middle of a fight and mouth off at assholes who he knew would take a swing at him. He wanted to burn the energy he didn't have but couldn't avoid the ghostly tendrils of.

He didn't do any of that. He sat in the cold, plastic chair of the hospital, hunched over with his head in his hands.

It was Natasha who prowled the room restlessly, looking like she was five seconds from biting the head off the next junior agent who walked by with no news. Thor sat across from Steve, his posture screaming anguish as he kept watch over the far door. Rhodey stood, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed over his chest defensively. He looked like he could have fallen asleep standing with his eyes closed like that, if not for the tension in his shoulders. Bruce was making tea again, his hands shaking as he poured the water. He'd move on to coffee soon, making rounds to all of them. They'd all had at least three or four cups by now, but no one had the heart to tell Bruce to stop. Clint was on the roof, needing to be some place high where he could watch for intruders that wouldn't come, but Steve knew he had his ear piece in and was listening to every breath they took down here in hopes of news.

Steve wanted to close his eyes, but if he did, he wouldn't stop seeing.

"Anthony. Anthony, answer me. Wake up. You can't leave me too," the doppelganger said, his eyes wide as he shook the armored body on the floor. It was obvious he was in shock. Steve himself was frozen in the doorway at the sight of his Tony's face tight with pain despite being unconscious, his armor dark, lacking the blue light of the arc reactor. Antonio's blue eyes were a sharp contrast to what his Tony didn't have.

Natasha pushed past him, shoving the unresisting Antonio against the wall, accusations and threats that Steve could only half-follow falling from her lips. Antonio kept pleading softly, so obviously unaware of the danger as Thor and Clint had to pry her off him. Hulk roared in the background as Rhodey flew in, pulling Tony into a bridal carry, armor and all, and taking off just as swiftly as he shouted over the comms to JARVIS.

But Steve could still see Tony lying there on the ground, broken and unmoving, his chest dark and still as the others-


"Potts on the approach. East entrance," Clint called softly in Steve's ear. Steve opened his eyes, seeing that everyone else had heard as well.

Sure enough, five minutes later a furious click of heels signaled Pepper Potts's approach, followed by a very subdued-looking Happy Hogan. Her eyes were red and her make up was running, but she had an outward appearance of calm that she held onto with an iron fist. Her eyes swept over the room, taking in all of their faces. "Still nothing?" she asked, her voice only shaking for a second.

"With JARVIS's open feed, you'd probably have known before us," Rhodey said, pushing off the wall to take a seat by Steve. Pepper followed him, leaning against Rhodey's shoulder as he put an arm around her. Steve watched as her eyes started to glisten, but she didn't let the tears fall.

Happy stood off to the side awkwardly, wringing his hands. "Hey, it's the boss we're talking about, right?" Happy said, looking over the Avengers, needing the assurance as desperation clouded the optimism of his words. "He'll pull through. You'll see. He always does."

None of them said anything. The silence in the room dragged on, threatening to smother them all. Happy finally looked away, hiding his own sniffles.

It felt like an eternity, but it had to have only been forty-five minutes going by Steve's internal clock, when they all jumped at Clint's voice in their ear. "Antonio's at the west entrance."

"What is it?" Pepper asked as Natasha stilled, taking up Rhodey's abandoned spot against the wall, packing away any sign that Tony's operation was affecting her. The lack of trust was still strong in her, and Steve couldn't say he blamed her.

"The other Tony is coming back," Rhodey said quietly to Pepper. She'd been informed of the second Tony Stark when he first appeared, but she had been on the west coast and hadn't seen him for herself yet. "Brace yourself. They look pretty similar."

Steve fought down his own anger at the news. Antonio was showing up now? He'd disappeared shortly after they all arrived at the hospital, and not even Rhodey had offered to go after him and make sure he wasn't drinking himself to death. While Steve didn't blame Antonio for what happened, he did resent the alternate version of the genius for leaving them with a short wave and a brittle smile.

When Antonio appeared, he burst into the room, all manic energy and a wild, fevered look in his eyes. He hadn't slept, or even been drinking that much, if the shaking of his hands gripping a small black box was anything to go by. There were bruises around his neck that Natasha's eyes traced before she looked down, and Steve worried for a moment if she was debating trying again or if she was feeling guilty.

"Bruce!" he shouted, not even glancing at any of the others as he made a beeline to Bruce. "Bruce, I've done it. JARVIS approved of the code, and he made sure I didn't leave any back doors. This will work. They're better than I could have made them by myself, and-"

"What are you talking about?" Bruce growled, a hint of green in his eyes. Antonio took a step back, with look of hurt and fear that must have come from the other world's Bruce Banner if what Steve had heard about him was true. Bruce backed down immediately with an apologetic air, but Antonio rambled on.

"The nanites, old boy," he said, rapidly regaining his mania. "For me. Well, the other me. We've managed to give them a slight healing factor that should help repair the damage to his heart, among other things. JARVIS and I specifically tailored them to help keep his heart beating for at least two hours if the arc reactor goes out again, and Anthony can probably lengthen that when he's up and about, though it's not a full cure. Like an alternative battery source, though they'd be working in a completely different way from the reactor, so not really a battery. And they're already shielded against every EMP I know of, so-"

"Peace, Antonio," Thor said, laying a hand on his shoulder. "You say you have a way to help our Tony?"

"That's what I'm trying to explain!" Antonio snapped. He deflated a little at Thor's stern look, shoving a data pad at Bruce. "It's all in there. JARVIS put it together, so if you don't trust me, you can ask him. Not that I'd blame you for-"

"You..." Pepper interrupted, her hands covering her mouth. "Oh, my god."

Antonio turned to look at her and Happy, a genuine smile on his face. "Ms. Potts. Happy. Always good to see familiar faces."

Steve was a little relieved. At least Antonio had some good people in the other universe.

"You said you made something that might help the boss?" Happy asked, clearly throwing his trust behind Antonio if it meant renewed hope.

Steve looked at Antonio again. There were dark lines under his eyes, and his hands never quite stopped shaking. He looked haggard and exhausted to the point where Steve didn't know how he was staying on his feet. There was nothing but steel in his eyes, no spark that made him Tony Stark. It was almost as if he hadn't woken up from the shock yet, or was so far in denial in his mind when his body acknowledged the truth of his exhaustion and grief, and that settled a cold fear in Steve's stomach.

Pepper saw whatever was wrong too, if the blood draining from her face was any indication. "Tony."

"No time to talk, Ms. Potts. We need to start preparing for-"

"Tony, we can't," Bruce said quietly, looking up from the tablet.

Antonio spun around, anger and desperation in his voice. "Why not? I've checked five times. JARVIS has checked five times. I haven't hacked him either. You can see the data for yourself!"

"Tony, these nanites are amazing," Bruce said, his gentle voice cutting through Antonio's frenzy. "They really are. I can't even guess how you..." He shook his head, continuing on. "But it's not that we don't trust you. At this point, the transfusion needed might just as well kill him. The nanites would put too much strain on his system trying to fix him."

Antonio took the words like a full body blow. "Not fast enough. Never smart enough," Steve heard him mutter in a low voice that only the serum allowed him to hear. His eyes went a little blanker as he spoke louder this time. "I'll figure something else out then. I'll-I'll find something to-"

He jumped at Pepper's hand on his shoulder, turning to look at her with wide eyes. "You can't fix everything," she said softly as if this were an argument she had with their Tony frequently.

"Why not?" he snapped, gesturing wildly with his hands. "I did this, so why can't I fix it?!"

"Oh, Tony," she said. Antonio looked down, closing his eyes. For a moment, it was almost easy to forget the gaunt lines and see their Tony standing there, the likeness of their guilt was that strong. "Come and sit down," she said, guiding him to the chairs and pushing him down between her and Rhodey.

Steve had never seen Tony so broken. Their Tony, he packed things away until they burst, but this Tony was all feelings hidden behind years of alcohol abuse and a charming smile. Now that they had stripped the alcohol away, all that was left was laid out and broken. "Bruce," Steve said, looking on helplessly. "Could we at least check with one of the doctors about the nanites? It might not be too late."

Bruce nodded, looking over the tablet again. "I'll see what they say, but don't get your hopes up. By this time-"

"By this time, we're losing him anyway," a new voice said. They all looked up to see a woman with short black hair in a doctor's lab coat. She held a clip board at her side.

Pepper made a short, choked noise as Rhodey stood up, his hands in fists. "What do you mean, Dr. Anderson?" he demanded.

The woman looked them all over, pausing on the second Tony Stark. Rhodey nodded, motioning for her to continue. "He's with the team. He's got clearance to know."

"Mr. Stark's heart is too damaged this time," the doctor said. "Even with the new arc reactor, the shrapnel has moved around too much. There's no current donors that could match Mr. Stark available either, and that would have the same problem with straining his body."

"He wouldn't want to be bumped up the list if someone else needed a transplant too," Pepper said tearfully. "Oh, God. Tony..."

Bruce immediately handed over the data on the nanites, his mouth set in a firm line. "These should be able to repair his heart, but his body accepting them..."

"It would tax his already strained body," the doctor agreed, glancing through the data. "I would need weeks to even understand all of this, much less verify what it does. Ms. Potts, Colonel Rhodes, the two of you act as Mr. Stark's medical proxy. This could kill him faster."

"But if we do nothing, he dies anyway," Rhodey said, his hands clenching and unclenching in an untraceable rhythm. "Pepper?"

Steve held his breath as they waited on her response. Tony was dying, a fact that still hadn't sunk in yet, and Steve couldn't... Tony would hate the nanites, especially since it was something his other self had done, rather than something he had worked on personally. He was so paranoid that he'd have spent weeks going over the code to make sure there were no back doors, no way to shut him down remotely, or worse, control him. But they should be able to get rid of the nanites if he objected, right? They couldn't pass up this chance, not when it was their only one.

But this wasn't his decision to make. It was Pepper and Rhodey's, and it just about killed Steve that he had no say in this. If he hadn't waited so damn long to dance around the subject of him and Tony, this could have been his right too. Now all he could do was sit anxiously and wait.

Pepper wiped her eyes, looking at Antonio who was still collapsed against his chair. His eyes were closed, his shoulders slouched in defeat and despair. She sat beside him again, carding her hand through his hair. "Is there any way to control Tony through those nanites?" she asked.

"I... I guarded them just like mine. Better. JARVIS looked over it too. It's possible someone could crack it, but I tried-"

She placed a finger over his lips, and he looked up, his eyes as wet as hers. "Then you better start setting things up," she said. "Bruce, if you could go over the data and the procedure? I know you're not a medical doctor, but you know as much about the reactor as Tony does at this point. And if there's anything that could raise his chances..."

"You don't even have to ask," Bruce promised.

Pepper dragged Antonio to his feet, staring at him with a stern gaze. "We're trusting you."

"I..." Antonio said, fear and panic crossing his face. "If it doesn't work, I can't..."

"It's not your fault," she said, pulling him into a tight hug. "And you're going to help me yell at the idiot when he finally wakes up, understand? Just do what you can for him."

Antonio nodded, setting his shoulders with one last deep breath. "It's a pity my world's you never let me sleep with her," he said, some semblance of his old self returning.

A familiar look of exasperation crossed Pepper's face. "She knows better than me."

"Ouch, man. He walked into that one," Clint said over the com, startling a soft laugh out of Natasha. She waved off the questioning glances from those who weren't connected.

"I probably deserved that," Antonio said with a wince.

But he hesitated going after Bruce. Pepper smiled reassuringly, though it was a fragile little thing. "Happy, make sure Mr. Stark has everything he needs."

"Yes, Ma'am," Happy said, standing straighter when his name was called.

"Will that be all, Mr. Stark?" she asked.

"That will be all, Ms. Potts," he said, falling into the role easily. Steve realized with a start that that had been the point, to give Antonio comfort in something familiar.

"Some things never change," Rhodey muttered beside him, echoing Steve's thoughts.

Antonio strode out with renewed purpose, following after Bruce and the doctor, talking a mile a minute at Happy detailing the things he'd need. Pepper collapsed back down in the seat next to Steve this time, closing her eyes in exhaustion.

"I'll come down and keep watch over him," Clint said over the com. "Just to make sure about... Well, you know."

"I'll meet you there," Natasha replied, tapping on her tablet with a soft frown on her face, but she seemed much more relaxed than earlier. "I've got an untampered version of JARVIS checking the data. We'll make sure he's done what he says he has."

"Thank you," Pepper said. "Though I meant it when I said I trusted him."

Steve nodded his permission to Natasha as she walked off. Not that she needed it, but she allowed him final say in a lot of things, particularly if she thought he might need her elsewhere. He was tempted to call her back, but he trusted her not to lose her temper like she did at the Hydra base.

"Doesn't hurt to check," Clint muttered over the com, despite the fact Pepper wouldn't hear him.

Thor frowned. "They will not find anything amiss. Antonio's heart is sometimes misguided, but he is as true as our Tony."

"It'll make them feel like they're doing something," Rhodey said with a sigh as he waved Thor's concerned gaze off. "They know it too, I think. Just let them have the illusion of doing something helpful. I wish I could do the same."

"Ah, that is wise indeed," Thor said with a nod. "I'll admit I envy them that as well. I fear I can neither help with human medicine nor with the kind of technology our Tony creates."

"Waiting sucks," Rhodey translated eloquently.

Steve felt a small hand on his shoulder, and he looked over to see Pepper's worried eyes. "You're awfully quiet, Steve," she said.

"There hasn't been much to say."

"How are you holding up?"

"I feel like I should be asking you that, not the other way around," Steve said, not answering her question. Pepper's responding eyebrow was not impressed. He should have known better than to try deflecting to someone who regularly put up with Tony.

He leaned forward, placing his elbows on his knees. "Don't think it's really sunk in yet," he said. "I don't..." He took a deep breath, pushing back the fear that was
threatening to overrun his walls. "I feel just as useless as Thor. We've caught the Hydra cell, have the Serpent Society in holding to be sent back to the other world, and Thor and I took the stolen tech and data back to the Tower personally so that SHIELD won't get it. Natasha destroyed what was left of..."

Steve paused, this time forcing down bile at the thought of making a person with the sole purpose to slaughter. That's what the serum could have been, if they'd gotten it to work. Instead of the atom bomb, a human weapon. It made him sick just thinking about it. "But now..." he continued with a shuddery breath. "Now I don't know. And Tony's still..."

Pepper slipped her hand into his, squeezing gently. "Now we stand vigil," she said. "Tony's not religious, and neither am I really, but I don't think he'd mind if you wanted to pray."

Rhodey snorted. "He does mind," he said, earning him a small glare from Pepper. "But what he doesn't know won't kill him. I just don't tell him anymore."

Praying sounded good right now.

"I would like to stand vigil too, if I may," Thor said. "I do not know much of Midgardian religions, as Jane is also an atheist like Tony, but I know of some charms my mother taught me as a child. I am not well versed enough in magic for them to have power, but..."

"Another thing Tony hates. Magic," Rhodey said with a weak grin. "Man, you've got to join us now. It'll be our revenge for him making us worry."

Steve's breath hitched painfully in a way it hadn't since before the serum as Thor chuckled softly. "Aye," Thor said. "It seems like a fitting revenge."

Steve looked over at Pepper, who was once again fighting back tears of her own. He squeezed her hand in return, and she wrapped her arm around his, leaning against his shoulder.

He wanted... He wanted Tony's smile, spreading across his face as Steve entered the room. He wanted brown eyes instead of blue, with a wicked gleam in them as he discussed his prank war with Clint. He wanted to hold Tony in his arms and breathe in the scent of oil and metal. He wanted... He wanted Tony.

Steve bowed his head and moved his lips silently. If prayers were the only thing he could give right now, he would give them.

* * *

Steve woke with a start at the sound of footsteps, shaking Pepper awake with him. He didn't know when he'd fallen asleep. He hadn't even thought he was capable of it, considering the situation, but he must have slipped under at some point.

Clint was standing there awkwardly. "It's done," he said, his voice soft.

"Is he..?" Thor asked tentatively, not moving. Rhodey was sleeping against his shoulder, snoring lightly.

"We don't know yet," Clint said with a shrug. The archer looked exhausted, and Steve could see him eying the stairs and what little comfort the roof might bring him belying his casual tone. "He survived the transfusion because he's a stubborn S.O.B., but we don't know if his body will accept the nanites, or if he'll wake up at all. Dr. Anderson said..." Clint swallowed, looking away. "Well, it might be our last chance to sit with him, if it doesn't work. They're letting a few of us in at a time."

Steve saw more than felt Pepper's nails digging into his arm. He pushed back the burning sensation in his eyes. "You and Rhodey should go in first, with Happy if he's still around," he heard himself tell her distantly.

"Steve, you-"

"I can wait," he said. He couldn't, not really, because he wanted to see Tony more than anything. But he needed some time to compose himself before then, and to mentally prepare for the sight of Tony, not alive and vibrant, but pale and barely breathing. There would be machines and the like - he'd seen some of the modern television shows and had been down in Med Bay enough to know what to expect. Machines that would keep Tony alive, until either he woke up or Pepper and Rhodey decided to...

'I turned the machines off,' he heard the Antonio say. He wondered how Antonio was fairing. It was better than imagining all too easily how his Tony must look.

Pepper leaned over and kissed his cheek, and Steve knew from her eyes that she heard what he didn't say. She left his side to rouse Rhodey, and Steve felt adrift without anyone to weigh him down.

He ended up being the last to go in.

"He listens to you," Rhodey said as he walked out, frustration in his voice. "I know that look. It's like he's found another way to try to kill himself, and it's scaring me and Bruce. He doesn't have the same connection with the Bruce Banner in his world, and that damned other version of me hurt him too much for him to really listen to me," the colonel continued, his voice growing quieter.

"I'll see what I can do," Steve replied. He didn't know how much he could do, but he could try.

As he braced himself, he felt Rhodey's hand on his shoulder. He felt pathetically grateful for it.

It was too bad Rhodey didn't follow him in, because Steve missed the contact acutely when he saw Tony with all those tubes and machines looming over him. He looked pale, so fragile, lying there like a broken doll. Steve felt his stomach tying in knots, then it dropped out from under him entirely. Tony's eyes were shut, no hint of the brown Steve wanted to see so badly.

"You need rest," he heard Bruce say, drawing Steve's attention away from his Tony to pay attention to the desperation he heard in the words.

Antonio's blue eyes were open, and seeing them almost felt like a physical slap. "I need to be here if something goes wrong," Antonio said. "The nanites obviously aren't fixing things correctly, so-"

Antonio glanced over to see who had walked in, his eyes immediately turning downcast. "Steve..."

Bruce sighed, looking over at Steve as well. This time he kept the eye contact. It was an odd disconnect, for Tony to avoid meeting Steve's eyes while Bruce sought it. There was silent pleading in his gaze. Steve nodded, sliding down into a chair by Tony's bed as Antonio swiped at his tablet.

"You should get some sleep too," Steve told Bruce. "I slept earlier, so I'll take over the..." The words 'death watch' stuck in his throat. "Night watch," he finished, only choking on the words a little.

Bruce slid his gaze over to their Tony, lying so still on the bed. He hesitantly reached out to touch Tony's forehead, looking more lost and afraid than a man who could change into a green giant should ever be. He glanced over at Antonio, who was still staring at the floor, and the look intensified. "He'll pull through," Bruce said helplessly, raw pain instead of anger in his eyes. "He... he will," he repeated, before fleeing the room, likely to calm the raging green that Steve had seen flashes of as he left. He couldn't help but wonder if maybe the Hulk wanted the chance to sit with Tony too before...

Was it only a few days ago that he'd sat like this beside Tony sleeping? It was so different from that time, when Tony had lightly pressed a finger to his lips. But now it was like his fears from that night were actualized. He was losing his Tony, and he wasn't sure he'd be able to keep the other one from slipping away either if that happened.

"Always so stoic," Antonio joked with trembling fingers.

"You need sleep," Steve replied, wondering when the last time Antonio had had a drink was. He hated to admit it, but he was almost tempted to offer the man some alcohol if just to put off what he knew was coming. "Have you-"

Antonio pulled out a flask, which oddly enough, calmed Steve's fears. "I'm not that far into withdrawals," Antonio said.

"But you haven't been drinking it, have you?" Steve replied, mentally going over what little he'd heard of withdrawals. The shaking, the anxiety, the lack of sleep, his snappish attitude earlier. Antonio was sweating a little too, even though the room wasn't that warm. With as much alcohol as he drank, these symptoms were likely to only be the start of it. Steve remembered Clint talking about how sometimes it was fatal, and while they were already at the hospital, he couldn't take that chance. Not now. "Why?" he asked, struggling to keep the broken sound out of his voice.

"Because if I start, I won't stop," Antonio admitted. "And if I don't stop, then I can't help if something goes wrong."

"So you're going to try to kill yourself this way?" There was a quiet horror in Steve's words. "Is that your punishment?"

"It would be ironic," Antonio mused, not denying either statement. "The other you and Thor were both convinced I'd die of alcohol poisoning, but instead, it's the withdrawals. And no Anthony to help me through them this time. I've killed both of them, haven't I?"

"Tony-"

"I'm not smart enough," Antonio snapped, growing agitated. "I'm never smart enough, not like everyone thinks. God knows no one is as smart as everyone things I am. I'm always one step behind, or not quick enough. Greg was smarter. If he were here, I-"

"Don't," Steve pleaded. "Not like this. I can't... I can't fail two of you."

Wide eyes looked at him for the first time since he entered the room. "Steve, it's my fault, not yours. It's not-"

"Isn't it?" Steve asked bitterly. "I can't stop either of you from courting death. He knew this would be suicide for him. He knew and he sounded happy about it. And now you want to leave as well? What do I have to do to make you both want to stay? Name it, because I'll do it. Anything, just..."

Steve felt his shoulders rise as his breath hitched painfully. "I need him," he said softly, repeating his words from that night. "And I don't know if I can take losing a second Tony if we lose him. Don't leave me. Please."

He felt a shaking hand touching his cheek, and Steve realized with a start that it was hard for him to see clearly. He blinked, but it was still hard to see. "I-I," Antonio said. "If I start, you'll stop me?"

"Yes," Steve replied without hesitation, rubbing his eyes to clear them. He felt bad, using Tony's innate sacrificial nature as a means to ground the man to the here and now. He couldn't regret the neediness, nor the selfishness that caused it though. Not if it got Antonio to stay. He couldn't have both of them in danger, not at the same time.

"Okay," Antonio said. Steve had to help him unscrew the cap on the flask, and once he could see better, Steve texted Clint to bring in more in the morning. It wasn't long before exhaustion took over Antonio, his head resting against Steve's shoulder as the trembling subsided.

It felt wrong. Antonio was a hair too tall, a shade too thin and gaunt (still dying, with or without the alcohol), and his hair was too long against Steve's neck. He wanted his Tony.

Steve reached out, tentatively taking Tony's hand in his. It was cold - too cold - but still alive in his fingers. "I need you," Steve repeated quietly into the stifling hospital air. He brought Tony's hand up to his lips, pressing a kiss into the smooth back, then into the calluses on Tony's palm and fingers. He didn't let go when he finished, claiming Tony's hand as his, as he should have done ages ago.

He settled in to wait, watching Tony's chest rise and fall, terrified to blink in case he missed the last. Letting the hours pass him by, Steve waited through the night, standing guard over the person he'd failed to protect.

It was close to o-six hundred hours by his internal clock when he felt the hand in his twitch. Steve held his breath, desperately looking for any other sign to prove he hadn't been imagining it. "Tony?" he whispered, feeling Antonio stirring beside him.

Tony's hand moved again, and Steve gave it a gentle squeeze. "Tony," he repeated.

The eyes fluttered open, showing the shade of brown that Steve had longed for so hard that it ached. Tony - his Tony - moaned softly as if in pain, but it was one of the most beautiful sounds Steve had ever heard. It meant he was alive. Against all odds, the lucky bastard survived again.

With his free hand, he ran his fingers through Tony's hair, leaning down to kiss his forehead once Steve reached his cheek. He thought he saw brief recognition in those gloriously brown eyes before they fluttered shut again. "I love you," Steve whispered, not stopped by his own hesitance or Tony's this time. "And don't you dare do this to me again."

"Is he..?" Antonio asked. Steve spared a glance at him to see that the man still looked absolutely wrecked, but at least he didn't look like he was about to shake apart any time soon.

"He woke up," Steve said, never once letting go of Tony's hand. It was short, but if Tony could wake up once, he could do it again.

Antonio was immediately scanning through the data on his tablet, flicking through the information faster than even Steve could follow. Then he looked up, truly meeting Steve's eyes for the first time since the fight. "They worked," he said incredulously. "The nanites. They worked."

"They did," Steve agreed, making sure he wasn't squeezing Tony's hand too hard. "Thank you."

"I didn't..." Antonio started.

"Without you, he wouldn't have stood a chance," Steve said.

"Without me, he wouldn't be in this mess," Antonio snapped.

"You think he wouldn't have found a way to do this to himself regardless?" Steve asked dryly. Antonio looked away again, but Steve couldn't help smiling. "You saved everyone from that weapon and him. Thank you," Steve said again.

Antonio didn't respond, but he leaned back onto Steve's shoulder. As Steve texted the others to let them know, he never once let go of his Tony's hand.

* * *

Tony woke up the first time feeling pain. He didn't believe in heaven or hell, but the pain was enough to throw some doubt into his normally scientifically-based views. Either that, or he was still alive some how, and Tony didn't believe in miracles any more than he believed in the after life. Either way, Tony was done. He wanted science and logic back, and for the damned fire that seared through his veins to stop.

He heard his name a few times, so he tried to open his eyes. He thought he saw Steve, which if he were going to hypothetically allow angels into his world view, Steve could make it up for it. He couldn't think of anyone else he wanted to see in his (still non-existent, damn it) afterlife.

Then he heard a voice, which wasn't British like all the movies suggested. Hell, even Thor and Loki sounded British. If God was going to prove his existence and shatter Tony's world view, the asshole should sound British like in all those old movies. Or in the very least, he should sound like Morgan Freeman. But the voice didn't sound like any of those. It was, however, comforting and warm, and it was the last thing he heard before going under again. Tony wished he could stay awake to ask - beg - to hear it again. But he could only grasp at the words as he was pulled under.

'I love you.'

The second time he woke up was much the same, though this time there was lots of talking and a warm pressure on his hand that he tried to squeeze back. He was under again before he could tell if he'd succeeded.

The third time, the fire running through his body was a little more bearable, but still really fucking painful. Go away, he thought, trying to push the fire back. To his great surprise, the fire went away. It was replaced by a painful hammering in his chest that left him gasping for breath.

There was shouting, and sounds that Tony vaguely recognized as part of a hospital (great, so it really was a fucking miracle? Tony was going to find a way to blame it on math or science if it was the last thing he did, because he was science's bitch, thank you very much), and the hand squeezing his felt strong enough to break bones. There was a minute or so of nearly overwhelming pain before the fire came back. Tony was pathetically grateful for the fire in his veins despite its own brand of pain, so long as it soothed his pounding heart.

It wasn't long before, of all things, his brain got a ping. How his brain got a ping was a question Tony was going to investigate with a vengeance once he was able to, you know, actually move, but at the moment all Tony could really do was open the message that came with it. He wasn't going to think about how whatever was done to him was startlingly intuitive and user friendly.

The message was simple and in all caps. 'DO NOT TURN THEM OFF, YOU DUMB FUCK.'

Tony was mildly offended by that. He'd have been more offended if he hadn't been in pain, which meant there was only so much of his attention he could divide into being offended. Mildly it would have to be.

'Hurts,' he sent back, not entirely sure how, but willing to go along with it if it meant the pain might stop.

'The nanites hurt?' came the reply a few moments later, this time in normal punctuation.

Nanites. Einstein bless the laws of physics, now he knew who was to blame for his sudden technopathic abilities. He would decide later if he should hurt his doppelganger for this, or thank him for explaining the miracle as science. The latter did make him feel pathetically better. He decided not to admit that. 'Yes,' he sent back.

It was a longer wait for a response this time, and Tony felt warm fingers intertwining with his. At least his chest had returned to normal, even if his veins still felt like they were on fire. The hand holding his felt nice too, now that it wasn't crushing him.

Finally, there was another ping. 'Okay, slight hiccup. Your nanites are more advanced than mine, old boy, and I didn't exactly have time to test how the healing factor would work on a live subject. Bruce, JARVIS, and I are working on a patch now. Do not turn them off again.'

'Bastard,' he sent back, too tired for anything longer.

He heard two laughs, one a quiet chuckle and the other a more feminine laugh. Pepper, his mind supplied, though it couldn't have been her hand holding his. It was too big.

Tony forced his eyes open to see Pepper and Steve sitting at his bedside. When Steve saw he was looking, he raised Tony's hand to his lips, kissing it lightly. In front of everyone. If it weren't a struggle to keep his eyes open, they would be blown wide. Steve was never that openly affectionate in front of the others. Steve was holding his hand.

Steve just smiled like it was the most natural thing in the world. He had dark circles under his eyes and an air of exhaustion about him, but he sounded happy when he spoke. "Hey, Shellhead," he said, his voice soft. "They're working on a way to stop the pain now, but the doctors are going to put you under again until it's fixed. I'll see you when you wake up, okay?"

He didn't let go of Tony's hand, and he ran his free one through Tony's hair, letting him nuzzle sleepily at Steve's palm. If this was a pain-induced delusion, it was a nice one.

Ping. His other self talked too much. 'I'm sorry. I'm sorry, I...' Tony was asleep before he could read the rest of the message.

The next time he woke up, Tony admittedly felt a lot better. The message he'd been reading earlier was gone completely, and he could still feel the nanites, which was weird, but he could at least think without pain. That was always a plus.

He opened his eyes cautiously, seeing three things. Rhodey, first off, was sitting off to the side with a big grin. Then there was Steve, still holding his hand. Steve looked the worse for wear, as though the others hadn't managed to bully him home. At least he had changed out of the dirty uniform he'd been in earlier.

Finally, he saw Antonio, slumped over the bed with dark bruises under his closed eyes. He was sleeping now, but Tony doubted he'd been sleeping much at all before he'd succumbed to exhaustion. He felt a little guilty, not being there to act as a sleeping buddy.

"Welcome back," Steve said, smiling down at him.

"Hi," Tony croaked, his voice hoarse.

Rhodey helped him with a few ice chips then latched on for a tight hug. He slumped against Rhodey's shoulder, breathing in the scent of Rhodey's aftershave as he curled closer. Even with all the machinery and the IV Tony was hooked up to, Rhodey still gave the best hugs. "Don't scare us like that again," Rhodey said quietly into his ear.

Tony nodded silently, letting the aftershave soothe away the remaining tension. "Did no one gang up on Cap to make him go home?" Tony said after a few minutes with a disgusted sniff in Steve's direction.

Rhodey laughed as Steve's cheeks gained a bit of color. "I went home yesterday to change and sleep," he said stubbornly.

"After Pepper threatened to castrate you with her shoes if you didn't," Rhodey added.

Tony blinked. "Tell Pepper she can't. I need those bits. A good chunk of my future sex life depends on them," he said, forgetting that verbal filters were a good thing when it came to Steve's highly valued privacy.

"TMI, man," Rhodey said, though he was grinning as Steve reddened even more. "Way too much TMI."

Tony just squeezed Steve's hand in reassurance and apology, wondering if he was still a little loopy from being doped up. Steve smiled back, despite the faint blush still gracing his cheeks and the look of fond exasperation in his eyes.

That was when Tony's attention was drawn to a soft whimper. Antonio was clutching at the bed sheet. Nightmare, Tony realized. He started to move automatically to help, but Steve's hand slipped through Antonio's hair before he could, petting the doppelganger softly.

Tony raised an eyebrow. "It usually calms him down," Steve said with a shrug. And yeah, okay. Tony was man enough to admit that he knew exactly the way someone petting his hair could make him feel. He would, however, deny the twinge of jealousy seeing Steve do that to his other self. From the looks of it, he hadn't been able to hide it from Rhodey.

"So when are you going to bust me out of here?" he asked, mostly to keep Rhodey from commenting.

"A week at the least," Rhodey said sternly.

Antonio calmed, and Steve returned his attention back to Tony. There was longing in those blue eyes as they turned on him. Longing and promises.

Tony thought back to the three words he'd heard when he first woke up. He exhaled sharply. "Tony?" Rhodey asked, pulling back with a concerned look.

"I'm okay," Tony said, giving Steve a hesitant smile. "I'm... I'm good."

* * *

Natasha looked up from the couch where she'd been reading as Tony stumbled into the room. Not Tony. The other Tony. Antonio. Hers was still in the hospital. The ever-present martini glass in his hand was a bit of a relief, especially when they'd all seen how badly he'd been shaking those first hours at the hospital. Cutting off cold turkey would have been just as good as a death sentence for the man.

She hesitated calling out. After what she'd done when she'd found her Tony lying on the ground... "Did they finally kick you out of the hospital?" she asked, not looking up from her book.

Out of the corner of her eye she saw Antonio tense at the sound of her voice. "It seems Anthony is insisting he's a big boy now and doesn't need us hovering," he said dryly.

Natasha nodded, not blinking or taking her eyes off the page. If she closed her eyes, she would see her hands around the blue-eyed Tony's neck as her Tony lay prone on the floor, dark and hidden by the darkness in ways that her Tony Stark should never be. The bruises on Antonio's neck had only just started to fade.

Finally she looked up at the man, who was looking at something small in his hand. "I'm sorry," she said, cutting straight to the point.

"What for?" Blue eyes glanced up at her in confusion. She remembered all too well what they'd looked like while he'd still been pathetically calling out for 'Anthony' under her hands.

"I attacked you," Natasha said. "I assumed you betrayed us and hurt our Tony." But that was a lie, wasn't it? Saying that implied rational thought, and she had launched herself on Antonio with a cold-blooded rage that would have done the Hulk proud. She had also thought the worst of him when he'd left the hospital, muttering under his breath random equations. He'd driven himself to the point of near collapse creating the very things that saved her Tony's life, and she had written him off as drowning in his self-pity with vodka.

None of that came close to the sick feeling in her stomach as the shock of what had happened had worn off of Antonio, before Thor and Clint could tear her off him. Blue eyes that were wide, going from unseeing to raw betrayal.

Even now the alternative Tony flinched at the reminder, putting whatever had been in his hand in his pocket. "You were angry," he said after a moment where he visibly composed himself. "I don't exactly blame you."

Which made the whole thing worse. Because he wasn't just saying that to make her feel better. He meant that. And he believed she was right to be angry with him, when it was her Tony that had made the choice not to tell him the truth about what the EMP would do to the arc reactor.

"You should," Natasha replied. "You were in shock and I..."

Antonio's free hand rose, stopping half-way before he put it back down. Natasha could read into the move, though. He'd been about to rub his neck before he realized it would call attention to the bruises. "You were striking out at the person who hurt Anthony," the Antonio said as he gingerly sat down beside her on the couch. "The other you did that for me once. She was probably just protecting her investment, but..."

Antonio closed his eyes, bringing the martini up to his lips. When he brought it back down, he was smiling faintly. "That night she gave me bruises, and a large number of hickeys down my neck. She said if anyone else tried to mark me that wasn't her, she'd make sure the body was never found. It was her brand of sweet and romantic, but I found that possessive streak appealing. Something about knowing someone cared enough to get angry when someone else hurt me."

And how many people had done that in Antonio's life? In her Tony's life? The sickness in her gut twisted painfully at the thought of her other self using that against this Tony. "She never should have done that to you. She didn't deserve to claim you like that," she said, wishing she could erase the marks given to him by another version of herself. This Tony Stark was a wreck of a man who made her Tony look like he'd lived an idyllic life, and he deserved better than what her other self had done to him. What she herself had done to him, creating the bruises around his neck when that was the only skin she could reach through the armor.

"We were fighting Thor at the time," Antonio continued, as if she hadn't spoken. "I watched the footage through her suit afterwards. At one point, she tricked Thor into lowering his guard by saying she was pregnant with our baby after he'd hit her."

It was Natasha's turn to wince. That was a low blow. Antonio was rather blazé about the matter, but she had to wonder if it was an act.

"Afterwards though, I..." Tony said, breaking off suddenly. Natasha started to reach out - Tony Stark always did better with physical affection - but stopped herself before she could make that mistake. The image of that same hand around his neck was too strong.

"I wondered what it would be like, if it'd been true," Antonio admitted softly, looking down at his martini. "She never let me bring it up, and I... Regardless of what Monica said, I'd probably be a terrible father. I still... I wanted it, no matter how selfish that was."

"That's not selfish," Natasha said. She didn't want kids herself, but she respected people that did. Tony - both Tonys - would make very good fathers, if just to spite Howard Stark's legacy. But they both cared, and no matter what other failings they had, they would do anything for a child. "Who's Monica?" she asked, deciding to give Antonio an out if he wanted it.

"The second Black Widow, ex-wife of Nick Fury, mother of his child, and current director of SHIELD," he listed off.

Natasha whistled. That was a pretty impressive resumé. "I wouldn't argue with a woman like that, if she said you'd make a good father."

Antonio shrugged. "She said I was a better father to my brain tumor than Nick Fury was to their own son."

That... did not sound like a compliment. Natasha had no idea what to make of that statement, so she was just not going to touch it. "For what it's worth," Natasha said softly. "I think both you and my Tony would be good fathers."

Antonio put down his drink, reaching out to take her hand. He pressed a kiss to it, shocking Natasha into silence. "You don't have to wear it. You can throw it in a drawer somewhere and never look at it," Antonio said, pressing a small object into her hand - a ring, her mind supplied. "But I want you to have this. You deserve it far more than she did."

"I can't-" Natasha started.

"You can," Antonio replied. "It was her engagement ring. I took it off her when..." He shook his head, closing his eyes for a moment. "Not like it matters now. As I said, you can bury it somewhere. Just... keep it. Please."

"I can't be a replacement for her," Natasha said, her throat dry.

"You're not," Antonio agreed. "But I wanted... If I've given my heart to Natasha Romanov, there's at least one universe where she doesn't scorn that. And that's enough for me. I want you to have it."

She looked down at the ring in her hand. It was gorgeous, with enough diamonds to show that it cost a fortune, but not gaudy. It sparkled in the light as she moved it in her fingers, feeling the metal that she knew wasn't gold, but probably something off Tony's armor. "Alright," she said, her voice trembling more than she wanted to admit. "I'll keep it."

"Thank you," Antonio said. He finished off the martini and stood. "And now I'm off to bed before JARVIS rats me out to Steve. He was quite insistent I sleep, though I think he was more upset that Anthony kicked him out as well."

"Good night, Tony," she said, holding the ring tightly in her hand.

He looked back at her, a myriad of emotions rolling across his face. His eyes were a gateway to his heart in that second, broken and so very blue. "Good night, Natasha," he said, his voice carrying a finality to it.

She looked down at the ring again as he left, hoping that some ghost of his had been laid to rest. She wasn't sentimental, but she could appreciate the gesture. "He's still too naive," she said to herself in the quiet that remained. "Too many ideals. He still trusts people too easily. But that's good. The world needs more idealists like him than people like me. And you tried to ruin that." She didn't know if she was speaking to the ring or to herself.

It was a sin she hadn't yet committed, but the lash of conscience gripped her tightly. She was compromised, and she didn't know how to go back to the way things were. And if that was a good thing or a bad thing, she didn't know any more.

~TBC~

Memory:  You should all be happy to know that the angst starts to get better after this.  This was probably the worst chapter.  XD  Also, Ults Steve comes in the next chapter, since Ults Tony has really sort of missed his rendez-vus at this point.

Anyway, have the quote of the chapter.

"Pray that your loneliness may spur you into finding something to live for, great enough to die for."
-Dag Hammarskjold
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