[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 narwhale_callin and salmastryon for the beta.  Also thanks to hogwartshoney, Enmuse (Scifiroots), actionfan, kuhekabir, iloome, and CatChan for being kind enough to leave reviews.
Notes: So let me start off by saying there's a new tag.  It was brought to my attention that I didn't tag for the slight victim blaming in a previous chapter, and it is now marked properly.  The character in question is aware that they are doing it because they don't want to think of what is probably closer to the truth, but it's still there.  I apologize for any triggering this might have caused, but it's a long fic and I don't always remember everything that goes into it, especially when it's one of the more minor part of the things that go into a long fic.

Also, can I just say that life really sucks for posting at the moment?  If I don't respond to you immediately, please realize I'm working full time, looking for a new apartment, preparing for the move that has to be done within ten days, and generally trying to sort through life right now.  I currently see no problems with updating on time next week, but it'll also be updating in the midst of moving (provided I've even found an apartment by that time.  >.< ) so if it's late, I apologize.  I do promise you will get the last chapter however.  This fic will not be left unfinished.  I've got a pretty big track record that you can see by looking through my other fics when it comes to finishing fics, and I don't post what I haven't already finished.  So if it does come late, don't worry about it never being finished.

Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five

~

Tony finally convinced everyone that he wasn't going to die if they blinked. It was hard work, especially with Rhodey and Bruce, but he won out in the end without having to call hospital security to forceably remove them from his room, which he counted as a plus. Several hours of arguing finally convinced everyone to leave, and no, he was not going to ruin all of that by calling one of them up to say he was lonely in the cold hospital room.

That didn't mean he wasn't tempted.

The hospital itself wasn't bad. The room was plush enough for someone with his kind of money, and all the annoying machines that beeped were either gone or muted. Tony didn't like hospitals, but he knew that the others weren't going to let him out without the doctors' permission, and Tony knew when to pick his battles. Getting out early wasn't worth making Pepper worry more, not when he'd nearly died. He'd made her cry enough. Besides, if he tried to sneak out, Steve would haul him back and then he'd definitely have babysitters twenty-four/seven.

That didn't stop the hospital room from feeling gapingly empty with everyone gone though. He tried to think of it as a hotel room, but that illusion never lasted long enough to work. There was no JARVIS to talk to here, and it was colder than he liked, even though the room temperature was normal. It was dark, the only light coming from the arc reactor, and it was cold, and he really wanted to be at home, because home meant a Tower full of people who actually liked Tony rather than a building full of strangers who were just one tabloid paycheck away from earning some quick cash.

He sat up immediately when the door slipped open, figuring it was one of the nurses come to check on him. Instead of a nurse, however, his own face was starting at him, back lit from the lights in the corridor. Tony forced a scowl on his face. "I told you I don't need a babysitter," he said, because of course he couldn't just keep his mouth shut when opportunity presented itself.

"And what if I need one?" Antonio said, moving out of the doorway and closing the door behind him.

Now lit by only the arc reactor and the small lights from the remaining machines, Tony could see the still dark circles under his eyes. "You haven't been sleeping," Tony said simply, knowing far too well how that felt. When the long hours turned to days down in the workshop as he desperately tried not to think about water or dying among the sea of stars, Tony didn't sleep either.

"Every time I try, I see Natasha as she shot Jarvis through the head," Antonio said quietly. "I see Greg as Thor electrocuted him, or as he was charred, lying in the hospital bed as I told them to turn the machines off. I see a kid I should have trained better, because we failed to be there when he needed us. I see Anthony disappearing and Reed standing over me, opening up my brain to kill both me and Anthony completely. I see Steve not breathing under the water because I couldn't get to him in time. I see you, lying there because I..."

Tony felt his voice catch in his throat, too many emotions racing through him to speak. His other self had screwed up as much as he had. Tony Stark, the eternal fuck-up in every dimension. Would either of them be able to get it right?

"To sleepless nights," Antonio said, raising a flask he pulled out of his suit and swallowing about a shot's worth of whatever alcohol was in there.

"I'm okay," Tony said, scrambling for what ever comfort he could offer. "I'm not... You saved me too."

"You nearly died because of me," Antonio said. "And all I could do was sit and watch them discuss your living will."

"I'm fine now," Tony repeated, swallowing heavily.

"No, you're not."

"Excuse you, I'm always fine. Anyone would tap this," Tony said, doing a little shimmy in bed. "Even you. And I'm as fine as we normally are." Which, admittedly, wasn't very fine at all. He slept just as much as Antonio did and was just as broken. But he had his baseline, and that was what counted.

His doppelganger sat beside him, and Tony could see the minute shaking running through his shoulders. He passed Tony the flask with trembling hands. "Is that so?" he asked dryly. "And what's normal for us?"

Tony braced himself for what he was about to say. He had never said this to anyone else, but he could admit it to himself, right? "I see the men and women who were killed by my weapons while protecting me," he said quietly. "I feel the water in my lungs and hands on my back keeping me under. I feel the burning of the battery as it was shoved into my chest to keep me alive. I see..."

Tony broke off. He felt an arm snake around him, pulling him close. "I see Yinsen dying," he continued. "And I smell people burning. I never could put the flame thrower back on the armor. I see Obie standing above me as he took the arc reactor out, and I see his face as he fell. I see an alien spaceship exploding because I chose to kill them instead of letting New York burn. I see the stars, cold and far away. And I die alone, because not even JARVIS can reach me out there and I'm fucking terrified of that. And I see a blue sun dress, spotted in red, with Jasmine's hand severed and lying a few feet away. Always because of my weapons."

He threw back the flask, relishing the burn down his throat. Tony was shaking now as well, and it was all he could do to screw on the top the flask and lean into his other self's shoulder. "No matter what I do, it's never enough," he whispered. "And I'm alone and I can't..."

"You're not alone," Antonio said. "You have Steve and Rhodey, Pepper and Happy, and all of the Avengers. You have them."

"And what about you?" Tony asked, not able to agree with his other self's words just yet. "Are you alone?"

"I don't know," Antonio said, his voice small. "I suppose I'll see when I get back. But I don't... After seeing things here, I don't know. I might not be as alone as I thought I was."

Tony had no reply to that. He curled himself around Antonio and leaned them back against the bed. He could feel the nanites chattering at the close encounter with someone else's nanites, which was weird, but it was a feeling he could get used to.

"You want to sleep after that conversation?" Antonio said incredulously.

"No," Tony admitted. "But I want..." He didn't know what he wanted, but he did know he didn't want to be alone right now. And for once in his life, he knew he wouldn't betray himself.

He felt a soft kiss on his forehead as the other Tony gathered him closer. "Alright," he whispered.

It was a long time before they both stopped trembling. Even longer before they fell asleep. But that was fine, because the hospital room didn't seem quite as lonely any more.

* * *

Steve knocked softly on the door to Tony's room. The nurse said he'd been sleeping during the last round, so Steve didn't want to wake him. When he got no response, he slowly inched the door open, peering in to catch a glimpse of the familiar blue light. He wasn't quite prepared for what he saw.

There were two Tonys instead of one, curled around each other on the bed, their hair mussed and a metal flask between them. Steve was going to have some strong words with both of them about drinking while medicated, but for now Steve was content to watch over them.

They looked like a pair of brothers separated at birth who couldn't bear to be apart again. If it hadn't been for the fact his Tony was wearing jeans and a t-shirt Rhodey had brought in while Antonio wore a suit, it would have been hard to tell them apart at first glance. The signs were there though. There were extra laugh lines around his Tony's eyes and a slight hint of grey that he would deny until the sun went nova. The obvious weight loss from Antonio's bulkier frame and the gaunt lines of sickness gave him away. Steve had had more than a few dirty thoughts about the pair of them over the past couple of weeks, but this was a moment that felt too sacred and precious to break.

Steve stepped into the room, taking his normal chair by Tony's bedside. He wanted to take Tony's hand - it felt strange to be sitting here without it, after holding it for so long - but the hand was currently tangled up between them, and Steve wouldn't break them apart. He leaned back in the chair, enjoying the moment of peace as much as he could. It was a pity he'd gotten in the habit of leaving his sketch book at home, considering one of his hands was usually occupied. He'd have liked to draw this.

It was about an hour later when Steve heard the door creak open again. He was expecting one of the nurses, since the other Avengers were all going to drop by after lunch. This was no nurse that walked in the door, however.

Steve was on his feet in an instant, not allowing shock to still his movements. He launched himself at the intruder, grappling with him for a few seconds before the man went forceably limp in his grip. "Who are you?" Steve growled.

A pair of very, very familiar eyes glared back at him, and Steve knew he was only holding the intruder because the man allowed it.

"Never took us for being that stupid," the intruder replied. Steve pressed his forearm against the man's throat, but the intruder wasn't intimidated. "And that's not a regulation hair cut."

"Listen, I don't need a lecture from you on-" Steve started.

He was interrupted by the sound of slow clapping. "The punch first, question later response appears to be the same in any universe," one of the Tonys said, probably Antonio by his tone. "Though I'll admit, I'm impressed with my Cap for holding back in this case."

"Stow it, Stark," Steve said. He was surprised by the duality of the sound, until he realized that both he and the intruder had said it at the same time. He growled at the intruder again, and there was a dangerous glint in the intruder's eyes that promised pain. Steve was pretty sure he could take whatever this guy tried to deal out.

Then he felt a hand on his shoulder. Antonio. "As much as I appreciate watching alpha male posturing," Antonio said. "A hospital isn't the best place for it, old boy. I can vouch for him. This is the Steve Rogers from my world, so you can stand down and assume he's not a threat."

Steve glared at the intruder - who he was not calling Steve Rogers - and held him there a moment longer. Before the other man could make good on his implicit threat, however, Steve let go.

He took a few steps back, never taking his eyes off his other self and standing protectively over Tony's bedside.

"Does anyone else feel awkward here?" his Tony asked from his spot on the bed. "Because I feel the awkward. Which probably means a threesome is out."

"Foursome, old boy," Antonio said with a pout. "You can't have all the fun for yourself, you know."

Steve tossed his Tony an exasperated glare. This wasn't the time.

"Shit, the look of disapproval is the same in every dimension," Tony said, looking at the intruder.

"I did warn you," Antonio replied.

"What is he doing here?" Steve asked, knowing if he let the Tonys babble, they would get nothing done.

"Collecting him," the intruder... Rogers said, tilting his head in Antonio's direction. "You're late for the rendezvous, Tony."

Antonio looked down. "Things got complicated," he said.

"How did you get this close without anyone noticing?" Steve growled, wrenching control of the conversation back.

"We look the same so long as I keep my cowl on," Rogers replied. "Besides, who stops Captain America to ask for an ID?"

Steve gritted his teeth. He was going to have a very long talk about security and knowing who was already in the building with Fury when this was all over. Not that he hadn't taken advantage of the lack of ID check before, but security breaches like this shouldn't happen.

Antonio sighed. "Knock it off, both of you. The testosterone levels are starting to be stifling."

"Wow," Tony said. "Double the looks of Cap disapproval. That's scary."

"You're not helping," Antonio said as he shot Tony an exasperated glance, but sat back down on the bed when Tony tugged him back down and smiled cheekily at him. "We found the tech, caught the culprits, and saved the day," Antonio said. "Then I was needed here. I'd like to stay a while longer to make sure the nanites work properly. Oh, and tell Monica she's got a mole problem, because there was far too much stolen tech and people here for just one jump."

Rogers's eyes flickered over to Steve's Tony, which raised Steve's hackles for no reason. He moved closer to his Tony, not losing the tension in his shoulders.

His Tony rolled his eyes, but he took Steve's hand, massaging his palm gently. He placed a hesitant kiss to Steve's palm. Steve felt himself melt a little, smiling down at Tony. He was being ridiculous, wasn't he? Steve could deal with his other self. They'd just gotten off on the wrong foot.

Then he looked up and decided that it wasn't the wrong foot. The look of disgust was quickly hidden on his counterpart's face, but it was enough to send Steve right back to growling. This was the version of him that saved Bucky? A bigoted adulterer?

"Okay," Antonio said slowly. "Apparently the alpha males need some time to beat their chests and look menacing. Which means you're taking it out of the hospital room before you get us all kicked out."

Steve let Antonio pull him out of the chair, not really connecting the intent until Antonio was pushing them both out the door. "Wait a-"

"I, for one, am down for watching the alpha males parade around so long as ample popcorn is provided," his Tony said as they were pushed out.

"Invalids don't get a vote," Antonio replied over his shoulder. "Think about that next time you lie about your arc reactor."

The door swung shut before his Tony could retort, though Steve could imagine the pout he was sporting. It was nothing like the look of anger that was on Antonio's features right now though. "You two, sort it out. But not in front of him. Anthony was dying only forty-eight hours ago, so you can take your petty arguments and posturing else where."

Steve felt his mouth fall open for a moment, then shut it quickly as he looked down. The nanites were helping Tony recover, but he still needed rest. Arguing with his other self wouldn't help that.

"Christ," Antonio muttered. "Identical kicked puppies."

He turned to go back to the hospital room, but Rogers took his arm. Steve only just held back slapping his other self's hand away, mostly because of the pained look on his face. "You called him Anthony..."

"It's someone different. Coincidence, that's all," Antonio said, a tight tension in his shoulders.

"Tony," Rogers said softly. "That's not Gregory either."

Antonio deflated, his shoulders slumping as he closed his eyes. "I know," he said. "But this is something I have to make right. Just... give me another week."

The concern in Rogers's eyes surprised Steve. Considering the disgust earlier, Steve would have assumed this much more overtly-flamboyant Tony would have rated disapproval (especially after all Antonio had said about his world's Steve Rogers not liking him very much). Sure, the alternate Tony had mentioned Rogers had been there to stop a few suicide attempts, but Steve hadn't been expecting this level of worry. He let go of Antonio's arm, but didn't relinquish the concern radiating off him. "If you say so, Stark," Rogers said finally, but he didn't look happy over leaving.

Testing out a theory, Steve stepped up, putting a hand on Antonio's back. "Look, we'll take care of things with SHIELD. Watch over him for me?"

Steve was not a petty man by nature, but he was a bit smug when Rogers growled quietly.

Antonio watched Rogers, then turned to Steve with a calculating look in his eye. Steve, in return, did his best bond-selling smile paired with an innocent expression. If the raised eyebrow he received in return was anything to go by, Antonio was not fooled and not impressed, but he let it pass without comment, which Steve was willing to count as approval.

Rogers hadn't missed the exchange either, if his scowl was anything to go by. "Just don't kill each other," Antonio said, shaking his head in exasperation as he went back into Tony's hospital room.

Which left Steve staring down an angry version of himself. An angry version of himself who had an affair, had been President, and saved Bucky. It kind of grated on Steve's nerves that Rogers had all of that when Steve had been left with an empty future until he'd started to let the other Avengers in. Rogers had every thing dropped into his lap, while Steve had to sort through the broken pieces.

"You and this world's Stark-" Rogers started.

"You and a married woman," Steve tossed back before Rogers could finish that thought.

That got a reaction out of Rogers, though the look of pure grief was unexpected. It was quickly replaced by anger. "At least I wouldn't hit her like her husband did," Rogers spat back.

Her husband hit... Steve didn't know if that was worse because Rogers was clearly taking advantage of her, or if the niggling feeling in the pit of his stomach was saying how he might have done the same. He hadn't counted on the grief either, though maybe he should have, given Antonio's reaction when he'd mentioned it the first time. Neither of them were very good with falling in love with someone on the straight and narrow, it seemed.

"Your Tony," Steve said, looking away. "He said... How is Bucky, in your world?"

"Were you in love with him too?" Rogers asked.

The nurse who walked by wisely ran the other way when she saw Steve clocking another Captain America.

Rogers straightened up, touching his bloodied lip absently as he spat some of the blood into a near by waste basket. He glared at Steve but didn't answer the question. He also didn't take a swing, which from what Steve had heard showed remarkable restraint. "Let's go," Rogers said.

Steve walked by his other self without a backward glance.

* * *

"Okay," Clint said as he sat down next to Natasha. "Does anyone else think it's weird that the Tonys get along, but the Caps hate each other's guts?"

Natasha looked up from her nails, not pleased to be interrupted. She liked painting her nails. There were many things about being a femme fatale that ended up being necessary evils, but painting her nails (or going with Pepper to have them done), was one of the things she liked. Clint knew better than to interrupt her and potentially make the coats uneven.

Clint held up his hands in surrender. "Hey, I waited until you were done with that nail. I'm just gonna need some help here if this turns into a fist fight, because I have problems taking on one Captain America, much less two of them."

Natasha looked at the screen Clint held up for her to see. On it both Steve Rogers were helping prisoners into the now open portal. The Steve from the other world had shorter hair, but other than that they were extremely hard to tell apart. They were also glaring murder at each other any time they thought no one was looking.

"Go find Thor," she said, starting on the next nail. "I'm not the Avengers nanny."

"Really? You're throwing me under the the bus because your nails aren't done?" Clint asked, rolling his eyes.

"I'm saying they're both big boys who don't need my help if they want to pound each other into the pavement to prove their dominance," Natasha said.

"It is weird though," Clint said. "How similar they are."

Natasha nodded, making long strokes of the brush as she debated if she should ignore Clint. He wasn't going to leave this alone until he got a reply out of her, she decided. If she wanted to be left alone, she would have to respond. "Antonio has been taking pains to keep our Tony's resentment down. Given that he had a twin brother, I'm assuming he wants a different sort of relationship with Tony than what he had with his brother."

"Huh," Clint said, stretching his arms back. "It's just surprising. Tony, for all he seems confident in front of the cameras, doesn't like himself all that much. His skills and toys, sure, but himself? Not so much. Cap at least likes himself well enough. Well, when there's not an alternate version of himself here."

Natasha nodded at his assessment, carefully checking the coat on her nails. "Steve doesn't like things that aren't in his world view. He can accept a lot, but do something he finds morally appalling and he holds a grudge. And he holds himself to a very high standard. It makes sense he won't get along with someone who is just as judgmental as himself."

"What did the Caps do to piss each other off?" Clint asked, baffled.

"Their choices in sexual partners, apparently," Natasha said. It was her turn to roll her eyes.

"Wow," Clint said. "Cap's life is a soap opera waiting to happen. Our Steve though, he's holding up fairly well."

Natasha looked down at the screen, seeing the strained lines around Steve's mouth and the tension in his muscles as he moved. "He's tired," she said, narrowing her eyes.

"Antonio mentioned it after the press conference," Clint said quietly. "Apparently Bucky in that world survived the war."

Natasha waited to finish off her current nail before replying. "Steve knows this?"

Clint nodded. "Antonio's good, but I can tell the difference between when Tony is carefully mentioning something he thinks is important by now. He must have let it slip to Steve without realizing, and he wanted someone else to be aware of the potential problem. Steve knows."

That... put things into a new light. "You should be looking after him," Natasha said.

"Well, I was looking for help with that, but since you're busy doing girly things, I'll go find Thor or Bruce," Clint grumbled. Then softer, "You're going to check in on the Tonys?"

"That was the plan," she replied.

"Should I be jealous of how you and Tony are besties now?" Clint asked.

"Never use that word, Clint," she said, frowning slightly at her drying nails. They didn't look off balance, but she was willing to blame Clint for it anyway, because Clint had grown far too complacent with her recently. A prank was in order, and she knew just the man to go to if she wanted help for this particular prank. Tony was a lot more devious than most people gave him credit for.

"You didn't answer my question," Clint said.

Natasha looked down at the nail polish. Blue. The color of the other Tony's eyes. "He was a mark."

"He's more than that. He always has been."

"He never could stay between the lines," Natasha admitted.

"Maybe he doesn't need to," Clint said softly.

Natasha was quiet for a moment, considering her words. "Doesn't it scare you, what the Avengers are doing to us?"

"A little," Clint replied. He shrugged as he stood up. "But I've never had a proper family before, and I'm willing to try anything once. Besides, I always wondered what having one would be like."

Natasha thought of the ring in her pocket and what her other self had thrown away. She had a chance for a family, so why hadn't she taken it? Had she been too cowardly?

Was Natasha any better than her other self in that regard?

Clint tweaked her nose as he walked by. "Just give it some thought, okay?"

Natasha nodded, glancing down at the screen one last time. "You might want to get back. They're throwing punches," she said, contemplating the nail polish.

Clint swore, racing out of the room as he called for Bruce and Thor. Natasha's hands weren't quite as steady as before when she went back to her nails though, which meant Clint was long over due for a healthy dose of fear of the Black Widow. She glared over her nail polish, plucking out the purple one for later use.

Getting to SHIELD Medical was uneventful. The driver dropped her off without too much traffic and there was added security after the SNAFU with the second Captain America, but that was more annoying than anything. Finally, there was nothing between her and Tony beyond a door.

She opened it quietly, peering inside. The sight that greeted her was endearing. Antonio was curled around her Tony, half-sitting, half-propped up on the pillows, their legs a tangle of limbs. They had three tablets between them, flicking data back and forth between them or simply stealing the tablet right out of the other's hands. Natasha couldn't pretend to understand what they were animatedly chatting about, and though she was trained to memorize conversations regardless of her knowledge of the meaning, she didn't bother remembering the words now.

Instead, she leaned in the doorway, watching the two of them bicker. Her Tony had a frazzled, restless look about him that meant he was going stir crazy and they'd only be able to keep him hospitalized for a short while longer. He had on a black shirt and old jeans that he clutched at when he didn't immediately grab for a new tablet.

Antonio was more relaxed despite the suit he wore, not rising to her Tony's bait unless it was with a good-natured quip. He was smiling, Natasha noted with a start. Not the fake kind Tony gave the press that was this side of brittle, but a real, genuine smile that lit up his blue eyes. He was acting the older brother right now, which was a power relationship she found flipped depending on which Tony was more vulnerable. They were both oddly protective of the other in ways she never would have guessed would happen.

One that she witnessed now, as her Tony noticed her and moved to block Antonio from view after an apologetic glance. She nodded at him, a non-verbal acknowledgement that she understood. He knew she wasn't a threat, but he needed to protect Antonio anyway.

"Natasha," he said casually. They both saw how Antonio's shoulders went rigid at the name. Part of Natasha went dark at that. He hadn't been quite this jumpy around her before. He was tense around her, yes, but now there was a hint of fear that she, not her other self, had put there. She was the only one to blame now.

Her Tony briefly tightened the hug around his other self. "Come to make sure we haven't blown anything up yet?" he asked her cheekily.

"I'd expect a large 'boom' from just one of you," Natasha replied. "With two of you, I expect nothing less than world domination or global extinction."

Tony looked Antonio. "Do you want to take over the world?"

"Too much trouble," Antonio said. "And Pepper would kill me if I handed it all off to her later."

Tony made a face. "Good point. Then in the words of the immortal Tom Lehrer, We'll all go together when we go!"

Natasha raised her eyebrows at Tony's off-key singing. Then she turned to Antonio. "Fury wants you to sign off on the tech and make sure none of it is missing as it goes through the portal."

Antonio looked at her in disbelief. "I somehow doubt that, darling."

Natasha shrugged. "He's willing to put up with losing the tech as long as someone makes sure Steve Rogers doesn't kill himself. The paper work of deciding if that would be a homicide or a suicide would be a bitch."

"Which Steve is picking the fight," Tony asked with a wince.

"Both of them," Natasha replied. "Though it was the other Cap who threw the first punch last time."

They both winced at the words 'last time'. Antonio sighed. "I take it I've been elected to make them behave like mature adults? You do realize what a spectacularly bad idea that is, right?"

"Your Steve is being stubborn. Fury thinks he'll listen to someone from his own dimension. Our Steve will listen to you because of him." Natasha nodded her head towards her Tony, who smiled innocently up at her. "And since neither of them are listening to the rest of us, Fury's run out of options."

"Very well," Antonio said with a toast to her. "One does what one must." He untangled himself from Tony, ruffling his other self's hair with a tender sort of fondness.

He tensed again as he passed her, but when she looked up, she saw a weak smile. It wasn't the smile that he had been giving Tony earlier, but it was a true one.

She felt her neutral expression soften as she reached out, pulling her hand back at the last second because she couldn't take him flinching away from her. He took her hand before she could put it down, kissing it gently. His lips brushed over her ring finger. Then he straightened and left the room.

Natasha stared after him, then down at her hand. Her other self had thrown that away, and there was nothing she could do to fix that. All of her skill set, all of her vast knowledge of how to manipulate people, and she couldn't figure out how to help when it mattered.

She turned back to her Tony, seeing a look of compassion on his face. She sat down on the bed as he made room for her.

That was apparently permission enough for Tony to throw himself into her lap and nuzzle against her thigh. "Pet me," he demanded.

Natasha smiled in spite of herself, which had probably been the point. She ran her hand through the dark hair of the idiot resting his head in her lap. Brown eyes closed in pleasure, and if Tony were a cat, she was sure he'd be purring right now. "I shouldn't be indulging your whims," she remarked dryly.

Tony stuck his tongue out at her. "Whims are threesomes involving bondage kinks. This is an eccentricity," he said. "Besides, it worked."

Tony didn't have to say what worked. So she let him get away with being outrageous and 'eccentric' just this once. She sat there for awhile, watching Tony relax under her fingers. If she kept this up for too long, he'd start to fall asleep, and that would defeat the purpose of her getting him alone here. She also didn't want to bring up the reason she was here, wanting to etch this moment of peace into her memory.

In the end, Tony made the move for her. "So did you come just to pet me into submission or do you have ulterior motives?" he asked.

"What's to say I haven't already gotten what I wanted?" Natasha asked.

"Sweet cakes, if you'd gotten my bank accounts, you'd be leaving me for a younger man."

Natasha's hand froze in his hair and Tony opened his eyes. "Natasha?" he asked uncertainly, knowing he'd made a misstep, but not knowing where.

She could see him working out the implications, however, so she spoke before he could work it out entirely. "You once asked me a hypothetical question."

"Which you answered, and I then twisted it into one of the worst moments of my life," Tony replied, picking up her meaning.

She resumed her petting, both to soothe him and to steel herself. "Now I have a hypothetical question for you. If you had to betray everyone, hurt them in every way you know because their lives and many others hung in the balance, would you do it?"

"Yes," Tony said without hesitation. She looked down at him in shock, seeing brown eyes staring seriously up into hers. "They can hate me as much as they want, but at least they'd be alive and safe enough to do so. That's worth becoming a villain for, and that's what matters."

"And forgiveness after?" Natasha asked. She felt him tense up in her lap, and she continued her petting as his shoulders hunched.

It was a long moment before Tony answered. "There might not be forgiveness to be had. But if there were... I don't know. I don't know if I'd deserve it, after whatever I'd done."

"Saving them doesn't warrant forgiveness?"

"Not always."

Natasha wondered if there would be forgiveness for her in the end. The ends don't always justify the means, though she was more willing than most to bend for that rule of thumb. Her other self had murdered and twisted to get what she wanted, and Natasha was just as able to do those things if the goal was necessary. Was the only difference between them the willingness? Or maybe there was no difference at all.

She felt a hand on her cheek, and she leaned into it. "Hey there, sugar pie," Tony said. She looked down at him again, brown eyes set in concern. "What's this about? You look like you were going down some place pretty dark."

She could tell him. Warn him. Work out a sign of some sort, if not with Tony, then with Clint. Someone who could act when it mattered, then let the others know it wasn't the truth. Except that no act would be convincing enough for some of the leaders of the underground that she knew of. Codes could be understood by the wrong people. Signs were too risky. That was a risk she couldn't take.

Natasha looked away. "He gave me the ring," she said quietly, substituting one problem for another.

"The ring?" Tony asked.

"The engagement ring Antonio gave to his Natasha."

The look of understanding as he connected the dots was both a relief and a disappointment. "Natasha, you wouldn't do what she did," Tony said. "You're not fighting for yourself, not anymore.  You wouldn't do what she did, even if you did have to go undercover."

"All of you ended up as heroes," Natasha said, playing into the part.  "Why didn't she?"

"The other Bruce didn't," Tony replied, looking away.  "So it's not just you.  Different worlds, different people.  Come on, let's see the ring."

"Bruce, huh?" Natasha asked, but Tony didn't look like he wanted to talk about it.

She pulled the ring out of her pocket, holding it out for Tony to see. He whistled lightly. "This cost a fortune," he said.

"He said to keep it," she replied. "That it didn't matter if I never looked at it again, but to just..."

Tony sat up, and she leaned into his shoulder. While they only had one night of sharing a bed, the sense of intimacy with Tony had never really faded. The only other person she was this intimate with was Clint, and he had taken years to get that close. They had both been wary of hurting each other. Tony had only needed one night where he was open and vulnerable, letting her in. Natasha hadn't counted on that doorway working both ways, but it was nice.

"What do you want to do with it?" Tony asked.

"I don't know," she admitted. She wasn't a sentimental person by nature. Sentiment too often tied her down in ways she couldn't afford. But this was different. Whether it was a lesson or... or a favor for a friend, she couldn't say, but she couldn't just toss it out.

"I could put it on a necklace for you," Tony offered. "It's not gaudy enough to really stand out, which I'll admit was a bit of a surprise. Probably something Pepper had a hand in, rather than Antonio."

"You think I should keep it?"

"I don't know either," Tony said. "It's up to you. But I can see why he gave it to you, is all."

Natasha felt her breath catch. "And why is that?" she asked, her voice soft and low, as if she couldn't quite dare to ask.

"You're not her," Tony replied calmly. "You may have been like her in the past, but you're not her now. Never have been."

Natasha laughed softly. "And that's enough reason to hand over something that's worth a small fortune?"

"It's a good enough reason for me," Tony replied.

He handed the ring back to her, and this time when she closed her eyes, she saw blue, not brown in her memories. She wasn't sentimental, but even Natasha was willing to have a reminder. Because when that day came, she would need all the reminders she could get that she wasn't the same monster that would kill Clint's family and put that wounded look in Tony's eyes. Someone was willing to believe she wasn't that person, despite the fact he had every reason to assume it. Natasha wouldn't throw that away.

"Lie back down," she commanded, lifting off his shoulder. Tony grumbled a little at the movement, but that was soothed away with a few passes through his hair. "I might take you up on that," she said after a few minutes.

"On what?" he asked sleepily.

"On making a necklace for the ring."

Tony smiled at her, bright and open in the way that Antonio hadn't been able to be. For one brief moment she wondered if she could have fallen in love with this man. She dismissed the thought just as quickly as it came - she'd kill Tony before the end of the first month of dating him, because honestly she didn't know how Pepper put up with the insufferable idiot for that long. Steve patience was just barely up to the task as well. It was a nice dream, but not one she could realistically entertain.

What they had now, however, that she would keep as long as she was able to. Though the position was awkward, she managed to lean down, kissing the top of his head. "Go to sleep, kotyonok."

"Mm. It is comfy," Tony said, nuzzling further into her thigh.

"Just remember how easily I can kill you with them," Natasha said in retaliation.

Tony laughed, a happy, relaxed sound that she'd been missing since the incident with the little girl. He wasn't over it, not by a long shot, but he was finally getting better. "I'll keep that in mind," he said. "Wonder if Thighs of Death are more deadly than a bed of nails."

Natasha smiled. "This is a better way to die. It's more comfortable."

"There is that," Tony agreed.

~TBC~

Mem: And that's the chapter.  All that's left is the epilogue, so yay for that!  Anyway, as I said earlier, I see no current problems with updating next week, but that's currently up in the air as to how much things will work out.  So keep in mind if it does come a little late.  I promise not to leave this unfinished though.

Quote of the Chapter:  (some advice for Steve)
"The worst loneliness is not to be comfortable with yourself."
-Mark Twain

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