vain_glorious: (ironman)
[personal profile] vain_glorious
Title: Good Luck and Trouble on Our Side
Author: [personal profile] vain_glorious
Fandom: Avengers
Wordcount:
~11,600
Rating:
PG-13
Genre:
Gen
Notes:
Post-Iron Man 3, pre-AoU, pre- Captain America 2, pre-Thor 2.
Disclaimer:
Not Mine.
Summary:
“Tony turned himself evil in the lab?” Steve suggests. He pauses and adds, hopefully: “Accidentally.”
“I hoped Bruce would discourage that,” Natasha says, flatly.


A strange noise echoes through the hallways of Stark Tower, oddly loud, low, and continuous. Steve Rogers ignores it at first, because he thinks it might be a form of what the 21st century calls music. He’s tried to stop complaining about modern music or what passes for it now, or at least timing himself before he does, because of the sheer amount of impolite ways Tony Stark responds: making the noise louder, calling Steve names which he doesn’t understand but makes even the stone-faced assassins start giggling, teaching Thor that Lady Gaga is the greatest bard of Midgard and that she needs a backup singer, etc.

Also, it might not be music. Sometimes Tony and Bruce cause weird, loud noises in the lab. Usually accidentally, and usually followed by the emergency evacuation siren.

He knows it’s not Thor and thunder, which is also loud and fairly constant, but less bothersome because Thor doesn’t do it to be annoying or malicious.

The sound is too not-the-building-getting-knocked-down to be the Hulk. And it’s not Black Widow or Hawkeye, both of whom are the quietest roommates.

So, that’s why Steve ventures out of his apartment. Also because the landlord likes to invite all and sundry enemies to fight him in the front yard, and sometimes they take him up on it.

He immediately runs into Natasha, who has also come out of her apartment to investigate.

“New band?” he asks her, friendly and not at all judgmental.

Natasha smiles at him, but she looks concerned. “No,” she says. “It’s not.”

“Stark blow something up?” Is his next guess.

Natasha nods, uncertainly. “Let’s find out,” she says.

Steve follows her down the hall towards the elevators. Stark rarely accuses her of being a reactionary killjoy, so if she’s curious it’s probably worth checking out.

The sound stops as suddenly as it started, fading out into a strange, newly shrill pitch. Steve and Natasha look at each other in the silence.

“No explosion,” Steve says optimistically.

“Those aren’t always immediate,” Natasha replies. She trusts Stark and his borderline pyromania about as much as Steve does.

The elevator doors slide open on Tony’s floor, and Steve realizes it looks different. Not in a recently exploded or presently on fire way, but different like Stark had giant metal gates and a security guard station installed at the entrance. Steve doesn’t come down here often, so he decides it’s a new containment measures. A rare considerate action – probably Bruce’s idea.

“This is new,” he says to Natasha, who looks at the set up suspiciously.

His voice catches the attention of the security guard, who is slouched in his chair doodling on a tablet. The man raises his head and Steve immediately recognizes Happy Hogan.

“Hello, Happy-“ Steve begins.

“Where are your badges?” Happy says, as if by rote. Then he stops speaking and stares at them. “What? How – Oh my God!”

Panic crashes across Happy’s face and Steve is too confused by it to notice the man scrabbling in his desk drawer and bringing a gun to bear on them.

Natasha reacts faster than Steve does, weaving the right directions while Happy shoots a bullet Steve doesn’t even notice – because Happy Hogan isn’t supposed to shoot at him - ‘til after it rips right through his shoulder. Steve staggers backwards, tripping over Natasha’s legs as she sweeps him to the floor. More bullets explode directly over their heads.

Natasha has her own gun out, in a tense crouch. “Stairs to the right,” she snaps at him. “Go!”

And then she turns her weapon towards Happy, who is trying to reload and, from the sound of it, dropping rounds all over his desk.

“I don’t know how you got in here!” Happy yells. “But you’re going to regret coming to this floor!”

Steve grabs her arm before she can fire.

“Don’t shoot Happy,” he orders.

“He shot you,” she says, shoving him back with a hand purposefully over his already healing wound. “I’m not going to kill him, I’m covering you. Get out of here, Rogers.”

Steve obeys, because it sounds like Happy has successfully reloaded and Natasha is not as bulletproof. He crawls as ordered, as Natasha starts shooting behind him. He doesn’t look back, knowing that she is a better marksman than Happy is, for sure, and trusting that she won’t actually kill him, hopefully.

In seconds, Natasha joins him in the stairwell. She’s not injured and she looks at the hole in his shirt that has already stopped bleeding.

“What-“ Steve begins to say.

He’s cut off by the sudden blaring siren over the stairwell intercom. “Intruder alert,” JARVIS says, stoically. “Intruder alert.”

“We need to get out of here,” Natasha says, already moving. She goes as if to grab him, but this time he’s ahead of her.

“Stay behind me,” he orders. “I’ll cover you.”

He’s pretty sure Natasha rolls her eyes, even as they both take off running. He adjusts his pace so she stays safely in his shadow.

They don’t encounter anyone else on the stairs. But the cameras affixed to every corner twitch as they go by. Natasha reloads before they get to the door that exits to the lobby.

“Maybe it’s just Happy,” Steve says.

Natasha nods, but she doesn’t agree. “Want my six?” she asks.

“No,” he says.

The sirens stop and JARVIS shuts up. Natasha’s eyes flick up, not finding the sudden silence at all comforting.

“Oh hey,” Tony Stark’s voice comes over the intercom. “Yeah, I see you. Muscle guy, stupid pants. Ginger with the little gun.” Natasha raises her aim and expertly shoots out the nearest camera.

“Ooh, you got me,” Tony says. “No, wait. That was an inanimate object.”

“Tony,” Steve says, confusion and shock turning into frustration and anger. “What are you doing?”

Either Tony can’t hear him, or he just goes on without caring. “Just so you know, there is a very large, very animate, not so much an object, just outside that door. And I think he’s angry. At you.”

That’s when Steve hears the roar. What little color was left immediately drains from Natasha’s face. She always reacts that way to the Hulk, but Steve is still having trouble even processing the situation. He shakes his head, disbelieving.

“So, to review,” Tony’s familiar, yet suddenly horrifying voice continues. “Your choices are to drop your weapons and surrender, and rely on my renowned mercy and compassion, or for the violent crime cleaning crew to be scraping your bio matter out of the carpets for the next three weeks. Gross, right?”

“OG Emergency tunnels,” Natasha says, with a levelness defied by the look on her face.

“Are through that door,” Steve says.

Natasha nods. “You need to take a hit. Can you take one hit?”

“From the Other Guy,” Steve says, since she won’t say it. “I don’t know.”

Natasha considers this, glancing up the stairs like that’s an option, like the Other Guy is constrained by human architecture.

“Oh come on,” Tony says, testily. “I’ll be nice.” He pauses. “Nicer. Whatever.”

“We go,” Steve says. “I’ll take the hit. You get out, I’ll be right behind you.”

“Alright,” Natasha says, curtly. She straightens her shoulders. “Take the door.”

What happens next is a terrifying and painful green blur. Steve kicks the door into the Hulk, who only gets angrier. He loses track of Natasha in the ensuing effort to keep his spine attached to his head. It feels like it’s not such a sure thing, and then he’s thrown into a wall. Before the Other Guy is on top of him, Steve slides down the wall and into the emergency egress that Bruce designed to baffle his alter ego just long enough.

Steve comes out on top of Natasha, who quickly rolls out of the way.

“Get up,” she says, her hands all over his chest and his head and coming away red. “Get up.”

“Ow,” Steve says, on the ground.

“Rogers!” For being so much smaller than him, Natasha is remarkably strong. She’s trying to pull him up.

“He won’t find us,” Steve says. “That’s the whole point.”

“Not him,” Natasha says. “Stark built the damn thing, we have to go.”

Steve gets to his feet, but everything still hurts. “I got your six,” he says, and this time Natasha is in front as they run.

~

A lot more has changed. This isn’t the New York Steve knows, or any New York he’s ever seen. Natasha slows them to an inconspicuous hustle after a certain distance, at which time she points out everything she’s noticed. Steve caught that it’s cleaner and quieter – not in the nice old way but in a weird, new way – but Natasha adds the number of security cameras and the fact that they’ve passed a couple cop cars that no longer say NYPD. They read Stark PD.

“That noise was something,” Steve says, when they duck into the anonymity of a crowd crossing a street. “It changed something. Something big.”

“Agreed,” Natasha says. “We have to disappear.”

This means they duck into a clothing store and change, first off. Steve doesn’t like what Natasha grabs off the racks for him, or that she steals a Mets hat off a guy on the street and makes him wear it. She doesn’t look all that different in a hoody and black jeans.

“What do you think happened?” Steve asks, when they’re both suitably disguised.

“I have no idea,” Natasha says.

“Tony turned himself evil in the lab?” Steve suggests. “And made himself King of New York.” He pauses and adds, hopefully: “Accidentally.”

“I hoped Bruce would discourage that,” Natasha says, flatly.

Steve knows they’re walking towards SHIELD’s uptown headquarters. And he bets Tony, or whoever sounded a lot like him and was gleefully imagining their violent evisceration, knows it, too. He mentions this to Natasha.

“You have a better idea?” she asks him. “I need more guns.”

“No,” Steve admits. He’d like his shield, too.

Except SHIELD headquarters, formerly beneath a tiny, vacant bodega, is gone. The bodega shell is gone, too. And there’s a none too subtle blast mark on the concrete. There’s nothing but burned concrete and a gold manhole cover. Natasha blinks at the spot, brow creased.

“Maybe Stark doesn’t know we’d come here,” Steve offers. “Since he already took care of this place.”

“How do you know –” Natasha begins, although she seems inclined to believe him.

“That manhole,” Steve says, knowing he can see it at this distance but she can’t. “Says Stark Industries.”

“Wow,” Natasha says. “That is obnoxious.”

She walks towards the metal plate, while Steve casts a concerned glance behind them. He half expects the Hulk to be on their heels, honestly.

He hears Natasha gasp before he sees anything. He turns toward her, in time to see her wavering in place. A feathered dark sticks out of her neck ‘til Natasha knocks it off. She’s drawn her gun, but she is seconds from unconsciousness.

“Run,” Natasha says, at the same time that Steve hears more darts hissing through the air.

It’s too late. Steve tries to get out of the way, but there are shooters in two places. They know it’s going to take more than one. And they aren’t stopping.

Natasha hits the ground with a thud, completely limp. Steve takes a step towards her, and more importantly her gun.

“Keep shooting,” Steve hears his own voice. “It’s going to take more than that to get me.”

Steve drops to his knees. The darts sting but the drugs aren’t working, yet. All the same, he needs to talk to himself, so he closes his eyes and pretends.

Steve fakes unconsciousness for about as long as is believable. The actual drugs feel only vaguely fuzzy, and it’s fading quickly. He doesn’t open his eyes while hands grab him and snap heavy metal cuffs over his wrists. At least three people work together to throw him into what’s probably the back of a truck. A warm deadweight that is probably Natasha lands on top of him. He can feel her breathing, and that she has her own pair of cuffs.

“If they move, shoot ‘em,” he hears his own voice again.

Natasha twitches suddenly, following the hiss of the tranq gun firing. Someone just shot Natasha again, for no reason.

“Hey,” he says, opening his eyes. “That’s not necess-“

The same shooter fires again, joined by his friends, and Steve doesn’t have to fake unconsciousness anymore.

~

Steve wakes up in SHIELD’s Hulk Containment Unit. It’s a somewhat familiar sight, though not from this angle. He’s alone. And he stays alone for quite some time. Even when he calls out for SHIELD employees, by name. He still feels a little, well, smashed and drugged, but he’s getting better by the minute.

In that time, he notices a couple differences about this place. Mostly, it’s dirtier. SHIELD’s premises are always spotless. Not so here. Everything looks older, too. Steve wonders if whatever Tony did launched Steve and Natasha into the future. A future where SHIELD looks like this, and Tony is the villain.

Steve is left alone long enough to start testing the HCU’s integrity.

It’s designed to keep the Hulk in, and Hulk is stronger, but Steve is pretty confident he has better reasoning skills. The cell is designed to thwart smashing, not careful screw removal. He’s already broken the handcuffs off his wrists, so it’s easy.

Natasha shows up just after he’s yanked the fifth screw out. She’s barefoot and her hands are cuffed in front of her. There’s a bandage on her right arm, but otherwise she looks unharmed.

Beside her stands, well, himself. Another Steve Rogers, who stares at him with suspicion.

“Are you okay?” he asks, not hiding his attempts to dismantle the cell.

“Still a little tranqued,” Natasha admits. “Enough to convince them I’m not a robot.”

Steve blinks. “Robot,” he repeats.

Natasha nods. “The other options are cyborg and clone. They took some blood to test.” She purses her lips, clearly annoyed.

“We’re not robots,” Steve says, incredulously, to his counterpart. “Or clones or…what was the other?”

“Cyborg,” Other Steve says, without humor.

“Tony Stark’s current project,” Natasha volunteers. “Building cyborgs to infiltrate the resistance. I’m not clear on if he’s been successful or it’s just a paranoid fantasy that’s grown traction with SHIELD.”

“This is SHIELD,” Steve says. “The resistance?”

“One and the same,” Other Steve says. He puts his hand on Natasha’s shoulder. “I let you see him; we’re gonna keep talking.”

“I’ll talk, too,” Steve volunteers, before they can leave. “What do you want to know?”

“How’d Stark make you?” Other Steve asks. He looks disgusted by whatever he’s imagining.

“Stark didn’t make me,” Steve says, easily. “A man named Dr. Erskine did.”

It takes a while, but with much helpful and/or manipulative prompting by Natasha , Other Steve gradually begins to believe that they’re not Stark Industry products. And then he slowly answers some of their questions.

They’re not in the future, which had been Steve’s first guess. Maybe he’s just too used to losing time. Other Steve thinks it’s the exact day and year as it was when Steve left his apartment.

But they were right about Tony. He’s gone bad and he’s in charge.

“He used to be an arms dealer,” Other Steve says. “The U.S. government got in his way, so he got rid of it.”

Steve frowns, horrified. His counterpart makes the same face.

Natasha clears her throat. “SHIELD has seen better days, too, Captain Rogers.”

“Yeah, well,” Other Steve says. “He’s got the Monster.”

“The Monster?” Steve asks, not following.

“Bruce Banner,” Natasha guesses. “The Hulk.”

Other Steve nods. “That’s right. We don’t know what he did. Put a computer in his brain, maybe. But the Hulk is under Stark’s control. We’re doing the best we can.”

Steve thinks about the friendship the Tony he knows has with Bruce. It’s possible this Tony, however different, has something similar. He glances at Natasha, who gives him a microscopic headshake. She wants him to keep that information to himself, for now.

“I believe you’re not from Stark,” Other Steve says. “But our operatives saw you leave Stark Tower this morning. What’s the story?”

“We don’t know,” Steve admits.

Natasha recounts the events to Other Steve. However, she omits the part where they were living in Stark’s tower, voluntarily, and that he’s their teammate and friend. And so is Bruce Banner. She lies well, but that just makes the story even weirder.

Other Steve glances at Steve’s face, and Steve does his best to act normal. “You’re leaving something out,” he accuses Natasha. “I know what I look like when I lie,” he adds.

“Sorry,” Steve apologizes to Natasha, who looks annoyed.

“We don’t know what’s happened,” Natasha says, carefully. “This is not the city we know. And I thought only one Captain Steve Rogers existed.”

Steve fights to keep his face blank, when Natasha tries to leave it at that. She clearly doesn’t want to disclose that this isn’t the Tony Stark they know, either.

“I’m going to have to put you in the cell with him,” Other Steve tells Natasha.

“Why?” she asks.

“Because you’re not telling me the whole story,” Other Steve says. “And the others aren’t going to believe what you’ve told me, even if any of it is true.”

“Others?” Steve asks. “I would really love to talk to Director Fury.”

“So would I,” Other Steve says, grimly. “Back up,” he orders.

Steve steps to the back of the cell and Other Steve firmly shoves Natasha inside and locks it again. Natasha is making her best fake distressed face, meaning she probably wants to be inside the cell.

“I’ll come back,” Other Steve promises. “I need to help the others.”

“Help them with what?” Natasha asks. “Stark?”

“Other doubles came out of Stark Tower this morning around the same time you did,” Other Steve says.

“Doubles,” Steve mutters.

“Good a word as any,” Other Steve says. He flicks his earpiece. “But I guess we’re having a lot more difficulty bringing them in.”

“That’s because I surrendered so we could talk,” Steve says.

“That’s because we shot you full of enough drugs to sedate the Hulk himself,” Other Steve corrects.

“Who else came out?” Natasha asks, sharply. She adjusts her tone, trying to smile. “Maybe we know them.”

“I’m sure you do,” Other Steve says, not telling her. “I’ll be back. I’m going to go give Loki a hand.”

“Loki?” Steve asks, almost a shout. He looks at Natasha’s shocked face. “Loki came out of Stark Tower?” he demands.

“That’s not what he said,” Natasha corrects. “Loki is with SHIELD?”

“I have to go,” Other Steve says, puzzled by their reactions. “We’ll talk later; I’ll bring you a roommate.”

He starts to walk away, but Natasha yells after him.

“If it’s Clint, he’ll die before going anywhere with Loki.” Other Steve stops in his tracks and turns around. “Clint Barton,” she says. “Hawkeye. He won’t let Loki take him alive.”

This clearly isn’t making any sense to Other Steve.

“You need to know that,” Natasha says.

~

Natasha’s warning does some good. Other Steve returns maybe an hour later, carrying Clint in a fireman’s hold.

“He’s fine,” Other Steve says, when Natasha rockets off the floor. “Step back.”

Steve joins Natasha in the back of the cell while Other Steve more gently lays Clint’s still form on the floor, then steps out and locks the door again.

Natasha moves to Clint’s side and drops to her knees, one hand checking his pulse. She dispensed of the handcuffs a long time ago.

“What did you do to him?” Steve asks.

“He shot himself,” Other Steve says, grimacing. Steve looks over to find Natasha has rolled up Clint’s sleeve and found a thick gauze dressing on his lower arm. “I mean, our Hawkeye shot him,” Other Steve explains, “to get him to put down the bow. Then we tranqued him like you two.”

Steve isn’t sure what to say to that.

“He did calm down a lot when I called Loki off,” Other Steve says. “You want to explain that?”

“Loki’s not on your side,” Natasha says, from her position on the floor. “He’s dangerous and not to be trusted. Clint knows that.” Her tone drips with what she thinks of anyone who might disagree.

“Well,” Other Steve says. “That’s interesting.”

He turns to leave again.

“We getting any more roommates?” Steve calls after him.

“I don’t know,” Other Steve says, not turning around. “Why don’t you tell me?”

~

Between the two of them, Steve and Natasha have probably figured out how to get out of the cell. But they wait for Clint to wake up. Steve could carry him, but Natasha says they definitely need to explain the situation to him, what little of it they understand. Especially if Loki was just chasing him around.

“Everyone was home, right?” Steve asks, softly. “Including Thor?”

He sits next to Natasha, who has Clint’s slumbering head in her lap. His face is bruised and Natasha says so is the rest of him.

Natasha nods.

“You think they figured out what happened?”

“We don’t know what happened,” Natasha says. “I think it’d be obvious something’s not right. “

“Thor already thinks New York is weird,” Steve points out. “He might not notice.”

“He’d notice our landlord’s lost his mind,” Natasha says, mindful of listening devices. “But I don’t know if he’d know to come to SHIELD.”

“That’s how they found Hawkeye,” Steve realizes.

“And us.”

“Tony wouldn’t go to SHIELD,” Steve says, thoughtfully.

“Neither will Bruce,” Natasha says. She tilts her head to the side, as if suddenly figuring out something upsetting.

“What?” Steve asks.

“There are now two Hulks,” Natasha says.

“Oh,” Steve says, taking in Natasha’s frozen expression. “At least one of them is on our side.”

~

Natasha is insistent that they make a break for it. Steve feels that talking to their doppelgangers is a better plan. He’s a reasonable man and there’s nothing to suggest this other version of him is a bad guy. SHIELD isn’t necessarily the enemy.

“They’re working with Loki,” Natasha points out, keeping her voice low. “We need to go.”

Clint confirms this when he finally wakes after much pinching from Natasha. He’s still bleary from the tranquilizers, but not so much that he doesn’t try to warn them.

Steve has to grab him when Clint tries to deck Natasha. He’s not tracking well enough to realize who he’s trying to kill. “Loki,” Clint slurs, once he realizes he’s in the arms of friends.

“We know,” Natasha says. “Shh.”

Clint stumbles to his feet, though he can barely stand on his own.

“Was Thor with you?” Steve asks.

A deep frown overtakes Clint’s face as he nods.

“Where is he?” Natasha asks.

“With Loki,” Clint says. “He went with him.”

It’s Natasha’s turn to frown. “Are you sure?”

Clint nods again, vigorously. This makes him dizzy and he almost falls down, so Steve grabs him under the arms.

“I don’t like that,” Natasha says, evenly. Steve isn’t sure he follows her thinking.

“Can you run?” she asks Clint, who nods even though Steve is still holding him upright.

“Where do you want to go?” Steve asks, since they’re already at SHIELD. A SHIELD that locked them in Hulk’s cell, but there’s nowhere else that makes more sense.

“Lunch,” Natasha says.

She looks up again at the walls of their cell. “I’ll hold him,” she says. “You pull the camera wires.”

Natasha’s plan probably would have worked. Except instead of easy to overpower SHIELD employees, Other Steve comes back. With Thor and Loki in tow.

Loki looks different. He’s not in his Asgardian armor, just unremarkable black human clothing. His hair is gone, chopped short, and he’s grown a goatee. Steve still thinks he looks crazy.

Thor looks the same. Except, Steve isn’t sure if this is Thor. It could be…Other Thor.

Natasha can’t decide between dropping Clint so her arms are free or holding him tighter. Steve watches her entire body tense with indecision.

“Can you stop breaking the cell?” Other Steve asks, politely. “We only have one of these.”

“Let us out,” Natasha replies, eyes glued to Loki.

“Your efforts of persuasion leave much to be desired,” Loki says, chidingly.

“Brother, I warned you not to taunt them,” Thor says, frowning.

“How else would I be known to them?” Loki asks, smiling back.

Steve looks at Natasha, then back at the trio outside the cell. He still isn’t sure if this is Thor. Or, at least the Thor they know. If Natasha has figured out, she doesn’t tell him.

“Thor told us everything,” Other Steve says.

“Of course he did,” Natasha mutters, quietly exasperated. Steve frowns at her.

“It means I’m going to let you out of the cell,” Other Steve says. “If you promise not to try to kill Loki.”

“No,” Clint says, even though he still can’t stand up.

“I feel imperiled,” Loki says, still smiling and looking just as crazy as always.

“I promise,” Steve says, because he wants to get out of the cell. “Natasha.”

Natasha just stares at Loki.

“I promise I’ll stop her,” Steve says, finally. Other Steve looks at Loki for assent.

Loki shrugs. “My savior,” he tells Steve.

Other Steve disarms the door and it swings open. “Everyone play nice.”

~

Other Steve leads them to a conference room. It’s just as dingy as the hallway they walk through to get there. Steve is hauling Clint, who can barely walk. He sees Natasha scanning their path for an exit route. He’s pretty sure she’s leaving soon, regardless of the conversation Other Steve wants to have. With or without her shoes.

Thor knows what happens. The sound they heard in Stark tower is an Asgardian spell.

“What kind of spell?” Natasha asks.

“Wish fulfillment,” Thor says. He looks guilty.

“Did you wish that Stark was dictator of New York?” Steve asks.

Loki leans forward and begins to speak. Thor cuts him off. “Did we not decide on your silence?” he asks. Loki closes his mouth into the infuriating smirk again.

“I made no such wish. This spell opens time,” Thor continues. “So the wisher may see it in practice.”

“Time?” Steve asks. “It’s the same time.”

“Alternate reality,” Natasha guesses. “Where that happened.”

“That seems to be the case,” Other Steve says.

“In your origin,” Loki says, “A version of myself may be responsible.”

“Thor explained some pretty significant differences,” Other Steve says.

“Here,” Loki says, “I have overcome my regrettable youth.”

“I’ll help you overcome your youth,” Clint says, sounding both more lucid and more deadly.

Loki stares at him, then looks over his shoulder at Thor. “Am I proscribed from defending myself?”

“You worsen matters,” Thor says. “He is no threat.”

“Loki is a friendly,” Other Steve. “You try to harm him, we’ll stop you.” He takes in their reactions. “I understand you’re having difficulty with this, but he’s helped us out more times than I can count. He’s one of our best agents.”

“Agent,” Natasha says, incredulous. She looks Other Steve in the eye. “In our reality, he killed dozens of SHIELD agents.”

“Regrettable,” Loki says, softly. He might be sincere, but the way he says it makes Steve want to jump across the table at him. He’s tempted to put an arm out so Clint doesn’t try. Natasha beats him to it, grabbing Clint’s collar seconds before the man lunges.

“Cease speaking,” Thor orders. “You do yourself no favors in their eyes.”

“He tried to take over the planet,” Clint says.

Loki raises an eyebrow. “I have no such ambitions,” he offers. “I give you my word.”

“He’s trying to save our planet,” Other Steve says. “So knock it off. He’s not the threat here; Tony Stark is.”

Clint and Natasha say nothing. Natasha has schooled her face into something unreadable; Clint still looks murderous. Natasha lets go of Clint’s clothing and folds her hands on the table.

“Why don’t you tell us some of the differences?” Steve prompts, because this is going nowhere.

“Tony Stark,” Other Steve says.

“Got that part,” Natasha replies. “What happened to make him try for world domination?”

“I missed a lot of that,” Other Steve admits. “I’ll call in some agents who can explain better. They might look familiar.”

Steve looks towards the door, not all that surprised to see an Other Natasha and an Other Clint.

“Well,” he says. “Matching sets.”

“Not quite,” Other Steve says.

Other Clint and Other Natasha look mostly the same. They sit down opposite their counterparts, which is a weird mirror image.

“You shot me,” Clint says, without anger.

“Yeah,” Other Clint agrees.

Natasha looks her double over. “What happened to you?” she asks.

“Brain injury,” Other Natasha says. “Occipital lobe.”

“Let me guess,” Natasha says. “Tony Stark.”

“No,” Other Natasha says. “The Hulk.”

“I don’t follow,” Steve says, when that makes Natasha lean back in her chair.

Other Natasha turns unfocused eyes toward him. “I’m blind,” she says.

“Oh,” Steve manages. “Sorry.”

“They asked about Stark,” Other Steve takes over. “Theirs is different.”

“Tony Stark was taken captive in Afghanistan several years ago,” Other Clint reports. “He came back wrong.”

“With a powersource in place of his heart,” Other Natasha adds. “More than literally. And a weaponized suit of armor.”

“Since then he’s been amassing power and weapons,” Other Clint continues. “There’s not much he doesn’t own. Or control.”

“And if he doesn’t own it, or control it, or like it,” Other Natasha says. “He burns it down. Or sends the Hulk.”

“Some of that is familiar to you,” Other Steve says.

Steve nods. “A lot of it isn’t.”

“SHIELD’s been fighting back the best we can,” Other Steve says. “Underground. They found me. They recruited Thor and Loki. But it’s been an uphill battle.”

“Where is Thor?” Natasha asks. “Your Thor.”

“My brother perished,” Loki says, voice cold. “Defending this planet from its own.”

“That was Tony Stark,” Other Natasha speaks up.

“I’m sorry,” Steve says. It‘s a weird thing to say to Loki, but Loki inclines his head in gratitude. Clint turns to look at Steve, incredulous.

“This reunion was…” Loki looks at Thor reverently. “Unanticipated.” He smiles again, which hasn’t stopped being unsettling.

Natasha isn’t sharing the moment. “To what purpose is this spell?” she asks. “And the duration?”

“Loki tells me it’s to see what could have been,” Other Steve says.

“Bullshit,” Clint says.

“That’s not it,” Natasha agrees. “Not worth it.”

“You don’t seem to like this reality very much,” Other Clint points out.

“Do you?” Clint retorts to himself.

“It is only for distraction,” Loki say. “A spectacle.”

“When’s it end?” Steve asks

“I did not cast this spell,” Loki replies. He waves a hand. “The spheres will separate again in time. It is only a glimpse.”

Natasha’s face is unconvinced. Steve is right there with her. Other Loki must have no idea how evil his counterpart is.

“So, now that the mystery is solved,” Other Steve says. “We need to bring in the others from your reality. Especially Dr. Banner.”

“He’s not like yours,” Steve says. “He’s in control.”

“And he’s not going to come in so you can put him in a cell,” Natasha adds. “Even for a ‘glimpse,’ if that’s how long the spell is for.”

“Stark can’t be allowed to get his hands on another Hulk,” Other Natasha says, deadly serious.

“I’ve never met anyone able to get their hands on Hulk,” Natasha replies to herself.

“I have,” Loki says. “My brother who perished.”

“I have explained,” Thor says, quietly. “That I have not had reason to battle the Hulk. Dr. Banner is a friend.”

“And I explained he has reason now,” Other Steve says. “We can use all of you. For however long we have you.”

“And if we don’t bring in your Dr. Banner and your Stark,” Other Clint says. “I guarantee you our Stark will and it will be bad.”

Abruptly, Natasha looks at Steve. “They have a point,” she says. “We should get to them first.”

Steve nods in agreement, a little surprised by how quickly Natasha acquiesces.

“How?” Steve asks.

~

The plan is a little rough. Other Steve wants Loki involved and isn’t very receptive to the arguments that this is a terrible idea. Steve hopes he’s more reasonable when Clint and Natasha argue with him about tactics than his double is being.

Loki is just about as obnoxious as he always is. Other than the hair cut, the only real difference Steve has noticed is he hasn’t tried to murder anyone at the table. Thor is visibly torn. He has to constantly reproache Loki for acting like the Loki they all know, while clearly overjoyed to have met a Loki who isn’t a homicidal maniac. It’s not helpful for either side.

Other Natasha is extremely paranoid and doesn’t trust them. She wants to keep Clint, the most banged up, as collateral. Clint, of course, is opposed to this, and Other Clint seems a little confused over how he should feel about keeping himself hostage.

“Stark will notice,” Natasha says. “He’s not going to come in under those terms.”

“How will he know?” Other Natasha asks, “Are you going to tell him?”

“He’s still a genius,” Steve says. “And...”

“He doesn’t like SHIELD much in our reality, either,” Natasha adds.

“He doesn’t do well with ultimatums,” Clint says. “And I’m not his favorite.”

There’s the added complication of searching for Tony and Bruce in a warped city where other versions of Tony and Bruce are on the lookout for themselves and the rest of the Avengers.

“We need weapons,” Natasha says.

“No,” Other Natasha says, instantly.

“I promise I won’t shoot you back,” Clint tells Other Clint, his tone not entirely believable.

Steve doesn’t even bother asking Other Steve if they can take turns with Captain’s America shield.

“You can have Thor,” Other Natasha says. “You won’t need weapons with him.”

Natasha and Clint argue a little more, but eventually give in. Natasha gets her shoes back, though, so she’s hardly without weapons.

The four of them will search the city without Loki, or any of the Others. Moving as inconspicuously as possible and really hoping not to find or be found by Other Tony or Other Bruce. Steve thinks it shouldn’t be hard to find their Tony – but he also thinks it’s a good bet Tony already sought the other version of himself out. He has no idea what that means.

And they’d all know by now if the Hulk had met Other Hulk.

~

As silently agreed upon, they ditch the tracking devices furnished by SHIELD immediately. Steve would like to argue about it because he’s really not sure that lying to everyone is a great starting point. But Natasha and Clint just look at him, and if he starts, Thor will think he gets to argue more about Loki coming along.

They split up to baffle the surveillance teams. Steve and Clint stay together, mostly because Clint is not moving so fast by himself. Thor has to promise Natasha he’s not going to lead the Others to them, although all this secrecy is clearly both baffling and irritating to him. Steve kind of agrees with him, honestly.

After leading and hopefully ditching SHIELD on a merry and wild goose chase across the city, they all arrive at their destination: the out of business Shawarma shop.

“Think they’re here?” Steve asks Natasha, who’s fiddling with the lock apparatus.

“Yes,” she says, giving up on the lock and swinging a powerful kick in to the center of the door.

The door flies off its hinges, landing several feet back on the darkened interior.

“Hello?” Steve calls, as Natasha walks inside.

“You’re late,” Tony Stark says, from somewhere in the darkness. “And I didn’t know our secret knock was kicking the door down. You know how much Bruce enjoys sudden unexplained loud noises and movements.”

“I’m fine,” Bruce says.

“Point stands,” Tony says.

Steve is pretty sure he hears Clint sigh with what has to be relief. He and Thor follow Natasha inside. After they’ve entered, Steve retrieves the door and props it back in place.

It’s pitch black for a second before something that glows blue illuminates the abandoned restaurant.

It takes the others’ eyes a few seconds to adjust to the change, but Steve immediately sees that Tony has a pile of electronic devices and the light source is among them. They’re spread out on a dusty table, where Tony and Bruce are sitting.

“Where’d you get that stuff?” he asks.

“It’s mine,” Tony says.

“Stark tower,” Bruce says. “The one here in crazytown, not ours.”

“Still mine,” Tony points out.

“You had time to look around?” Natasha asks.

“Turns out my biosecurity measures don’t work against me,” Tony tells her. “I’m going to correct that. Not sure how, yet, but it’ll come to me.”

“Find anything interesting?” Clint asks, joining them at the table and sinking into a seat.

“Just a newly developed deeply personal sense of inferiority and underachievement,” Tony says, grimly. He looks at Clint’s battered face. “What happened to you?”

“I met myself,” Clint says, concisely.

“Have you met yourself?” Steve takes the opportunity to ask Tony. It sounds like something he would do, immediately.

“Just the statue of myself that’s in Central Park,” Tony says, with a smile.

“He defaced it,” Bruce says, trying not to look amused and failing. “Does anyone have any idea what happened, by the by?”

“It was Loki,” Natasha says before anyone else can try to answer. “A spell.”

“Mmm,” Tony says, unsurprised.

“You told him a wish,” Thor says, sounding a little accusing. Tony makes an innocent face. “This world is a glimpse of that wish.”

“Don’t think so,” Tony says. “But do I get two more? Because I do have some wishes, and I think I should get a free one, or at least some coupons, because this is not what I ordered.”

“Is this going to go away by itself,” Bruce asks, “or do we have to jam Loki back in his lamp or something?”

“Loki claims that first thing,” Clint says.

“But I’m not sure I believe him,” Natasha adds.

Thor, of course, looks hurt. “The Loki of this dimension is not the one of ours,” he says.

“Either way, let’s see if he fits in an oil lamp,” Tony says, thoughtfully.

“SHIELD is going to find us,” Natasha says. She’s about to tell Tony and Bruce what the rest of the Avengers have been up to, but Tony interrupts.

“I don’t think so,” he says, flatly. “Psycho-villain version of me has a trophy case – which is beyond creepy and juvenile and I would never have – ”

“There’s an eye patch in it,” Bruce interrupts. “We’re pretty sure Director Fury is dead, here.”

“Also wouldn’t do that,” Tony volunteers, quickly. “For the record.”

“That may be,” Natasha says, “But SHIELD captured the rest of us and let us go to find you two.”

“Oh,” Tony says, tilting his head. “I bet they hate me even more.”

“Good bet,” Steve says.

“Is there a cage?” Bruce asks, mildly. He’s looking at Steve, but Natasha answers.

“Yes,” she says. “But not two, and we’ve made the argument that…”

“The Other Other Guy,” Clint fills in.

“Needs it more,” Natasha concludes.

“Thanks,” Bruce says, quietly.

“Did you get the story there?” Steve asks Bruce, as tactfully as he can. He doesn’t think Natasha and Clint have quite communicated the situation with, er, Other SHIELD.

“I don’t think he likes SHIELD, either,” Bruce says, and leaves it at that.

~

It takes a while to get a rundown on what they each know. Everything coming from Steve, Natasha, and Clint came through Other SHIELD. Steve wants to believe them. But he can admit that they’d deceive him if they thought it’d help them. Everything coming from Thor came from Loki, who naturally no one (except Thor) wants to believe. And everything Tony and Bruce have came from the computer in Stark tower.

“Rose-colored glasses,” Tony admits. “Or, in this case, blood-stained contact lenses. Whatever. I’m inclined to believe me, even ‘Dear Leader’ me.”

But Other Stark doesn’t actually know very much that can help them. His computer files are largely about finances and weapons, with only a small amount of data devoted to SHIELD.

“Under I for ‘irritating,’ Tony says. “And ‘insignificant’. I don’t think they bother me much. “ He coughs. “Him.”

And nothing, of course, on undoing Loki’s spell.

“You talk to you?” Tony asks Thor. “You’re the non- pathological liar in the family, right?”

“We couldn’t do that,” Steve says.

“I no longer live,” Thor says, evenly.

“Uh-” Tony starts.

“At your hand,” Thor interrupts.

Tony stops talking and just blinks at him. “Uh…sorry?” he says, after a second. “I have no idea how I’d do that. No, I do. Improvised Explosive Device. IED. In a cheeseburger. Is that how I did it?”

“We don’t know,” Natasha says, seriously.

“Is, uh, everyone else alive here?” Bruce asks, while Tony looks peeved that no one else thinks killing Thor is funny.

“So far,” Clint says. No one mentions blinded Natasha. “And we have a new team member.”

“Who?” Tony asks. “Who could possibly substitute for me?”

“Loki,” Clint says.

“He’s the one that you talked to about his spell,” Bruce says, remarkably unsurprised. “Or our Loki? The crazy, evil, lying one…?”

“Our Loki?” Clint repeats, then frowns distastefully. “No, it wasn’t. It was theirs.”

“Let’s not claim ownership,” Tony agrees.

“He’s not here,” Natasha says.

“Or SHIELD didn’t catch him,” Steve says.

“Seems like he would have much more fun staying in our universe,” Tony says, “without us, or his big brother, in it.”

“But then he couldn’t watch us, you know, enjoy this,” Clint points out.

“What do you think, Thor?” Steve asks, figuring he’s more likely to know.

“I am unsure,” Thor admits. “Both scenarios would attract him, but for different reasons.” He looks down, disturbed.

“He could be going full-tilt crazy in our New York,” Bruce says, concerned.

“That sounds entirely too well planned for the Loki we know and…despise,” Tony says. “He’s definitely here. Watching.”

“Why?” Steve asks, though he’d prefer that option.

“Because it’ll be funny to watch us fistfight ourselves,” Tony offers. He looks at Clint. “Was it?”

“No,” Clint says. “It hurt.”

“I believe Stark,” Natasha says, after a moment. “He’s here, and he thinks we’ll fight ourselves. Maybe wipe out SHIELD in two different dimensions. That’d be fun for him.”

Tony nods. “Yeah,” he says, then grimaces a little and shrugs when he realizes that sounds a bit too enthusiastic.

“We’re not fighting each other,” Steve says, plainly.

“SHIELD asked us to help them against their Tony Stark,” Natasha says.

“Like you said,” Tony notes. “Wipe out SHIELD in two dimensions.” Before anyone can even try to speak, he rushes on. “I will massacre you all, in this reality or any other.”

“Now, that’s funny,” Clint says.

“They let us out of the cage to find you,” Natasha says, purposefully changing the subject.

“Let?” Bruce asks, tilting his head. “Oh really?”

Tony makes a face. “So, this is a trap?”

“No,” Steve says. “We ditched them.”

“Uh-huh,” Tony reaches out and pokes Steve in the chest.

“What are you doing?” Steve asks.

Tony doesn’t answer. He sweeps around the room, doing the same finger jab to everyone but Bruce. Natasha raises her eyebrows and he diverts his hand to her shoulder.

“So either, they’re surrounding the building,” Tony says, “or one of you is..” He pauses in front of Thor and pokes him in the chest, too.

“Loki,” Natasha guesses.

Tony nods, right before he jabs at Clint. Clint steps back, dodging the contact.

“He’s injured,” Steve defends him, but he already kind of suspects that Stark is right.

“Captain Gullible, I’m not surprised,” Tony says. He looks reproachfully at Natasha. “But somebody should be ashamed of themselves.”

Clint shimmers in place. In a second, he’s gone, and Loki is standing there.

Bruce takes a step back.

Loki performs a short, obnoxious bow. “You summoned me,” he says to Natasha, whose hands are itching at her side like she has a weapon.

“Where’s Hawkeye?” she asks.

“Slumbering in the infirmary,” Loki says. “Yours is a fragile species; why ever would you take your injured comrade on a dangerous mission to meet the beast.” He looks at Bruce, and smiles.

“Oh, yeah, totally different guy,” Tony says, with an eye roll.

Steve wants to put himself between Loki and Tony. Without the suit, Loki could kill him in an instant. Even if this Loki isn’t as murderous as the one they know. Thor seems to have the same opinion, because he motions Natasha to get behind him. She’s not dumb, moving so she’s blocked from the confrontation and also no longer as close to Bruce. Tony, of course, stays right where he is.

“Deception was unnecessary,” Thor snarls at Loki, who lolls his shoulders.

“Pardon my disinterest in prolonging this charade,” Loki says. “My orders were to locate Tony Stark…”

“You follow orders?” Bruce interrupts, with a confused head tilt.

“That’s new,” Stark agrees.

“You all will return with me,” Loki continues. “I would prefer you skip the futile violence.”

“Bruce,” Tony says. “How do you feel about being called ‘futile’? Doesn’t it make you angry?”

“Transformation in these quarters will harm your friends,” Loki warns.

Something is off. Steve isn’t sure what. Maybe this Loki is different, maybe he’s never met the Hulk. He is way, way too calm about this.

“We can take a few booboos,” Tony says, eyeing Steve like he’s finally realized it’d be good to get behind him.

Loki shrugs again. “By all means,” he says, cheerfully. “Bring out the beast.”

Very deliberately, he walks over to Bruce and stands opposite him.

Tony immediately moves behind Steve. “That’s your cue, big guy?” he says, after a second.

Nothing has happened. Bruce makes a confused, almost pained face.

“Uh,” he says.

“Dr. Banner?” Natasha asks. This is the first time Steve has seen her look alarmed about the absence of the Hulk.

“I’m pretty pissed,” Bruce says. “And, uh, nothing is happening.”

Loki grins wider. “Four humans, unarmed, and two Gods. Do you wish to surrender?”

“You’re counting wrong,” Tony says, remarkably composed. “Or you have the teams wrong. Also, have you met Captain Mild-Mannered Violence here?”

Loki casts a sidelong glance at Steve. “It was you that ordered me to retrieve Stark and Banner,” he says. “And Thor is my brother.”

“Wasn’t me,” Steve says. This feels absurd.

“I will not harm them,” Thor adds, finally.

“Very well.” Loki looks down. “I am defeated.” He shimmers and Tony yells out a warning.

It’s too late, because Loki reappears behind Thor, long arms wrapped around Natasha. One is at her throat, pressing hard against her neck.

“I will kill this one,” he declares, suddenly sounding much more familiar. Natasha struggles, desperately trying to free herself. “Oh, we removed all of your weapons, with your own guidance,” he hisses into her ear.

“Let her go,” Steve demands.

“You declined to give me orders,” Loki tells him. “This universe already has one of her,” he says. “And she told me this one will inevitably lie and ultimately betray.”

Steve hears pounding footsteps. Loki lead SHIELD to them. The door, already off its hinges, lifts easily away and an armed team files inside.

“I ask again for your surrender,” Loki says. “Your charms will be much less without a head attached to your body,” he tells Natasha.

“Tranq ‘em,” Other Steve’s voice echoes in the darkness.

“You don’t have to do that –” Steve protests, trying to find his double.

But it’s too late. Stinging darts, what feels like dozens of them, hit Steve. He goes into the blackness and hears nothing else.

~

Steve wakes up back in Hulk’s cell. He’s not alone this time. The other Avengers, minus Thor, are with him. Natasha and Tony are still out; Bruce is stirring. Clint, hopefully the real Clint, still looking battered, sits next to Natasha.

“I take it that went well,” he says, when Steve sits up.

“Could have gone worse,” Steve mutters, since they’re all alive and Natasha’s head is still on.

“You really thought Loki was me,” Clint continues, reproachfully.

“Blame her,” Steve says, pointing at Natasha’s still form.

Clint scowls at him. “I do.”

The others wake up gradually, much later. Steve barely notices the after affects of the drugs, but apparently they’re unpleasant and Clint and Natasha were just stoic about it, because Tony wakes up groaning and proceeds to spend the next couple hours complaining about how much more fun other types of illegal drugs are, in comparison.

Natasha and Clint are comparably quieter, but they’re arguing with each other. At least one of the topics is which of them will get to kill Loki. Clint feels Natasha can’t be trusted to identify him, and thus he gets to do it. Thor isn’t there to get offended, so Steve just tries to ignore them.

“Hey, Bruce,” Steve says, to his quietest cellmate. “How you feeling?”

Bruce sits cross-legged, about as far from the group as he can get. “Still pretty angry,” he says. “Still fitting into my pants.” He shrugs.

“Do you know what that’s about?” Steve asks, trying to be polite about it.

“No idea,” Bruce says, instantly. “And I’m not liking it as much as you’d think.”

“Want to smash someone?” Steve guesses.

Bruce picks nervously at his chin. “Couple of people,” he admits.

The absence of the Hulk is on everyone’s mind. Other Steve, Loki, and Thor show up outside the cell and want to talk about just that. Or at least, Other Steve does. Loki probably wants to taunt them some and Thor wants to be there to reprimand him.

Instead, Tony gets pissed at him. “Why didn’t you warrant an orange jumpsuit?” he demands.

Thor looks confused and Loki just smiles.

“The cell wouldn’t contain him,” Other Steve says.

“It doesn’t contain me, either,” Steve points out, because he’s not enjoying this, either.

Clint grunts and elbows Natasha, silently indicating that they could break out, too.

“Since we’ve established that we’re all voluntarily staying in here,” Tony says, rising and standing against the door, “Why don’t you let us out?”

“You try to get out, you’re all going to spend some more time involuntarily unconscious,” Other Steve says, dismissively.

“You still don’t know how to threaten,” Tony says to Steve, like he was the one speaking.

“How did you heal the monster?” Loki interrupts, voice genuinely curious. “You must tell us.”

“I don’t take orders from you,” Tony retorts. He crosses his arms. “No.”

“It wasn’t him,” Bruce speaks up. “I’d like to know, too.”

“Thanks, Bruce,” Tony mutters. “Thanks for following my lead there.”

Bruce stands up, ignoring him. “The Other Guy should be here,” he says, looking directly at Loki. “Believe me.”

“He is here,” Natasha speaks up from the back of the cell floor. “Steve and I met him, first thing.”

“She’s right,” Steve says, grimacing. “And he was angry.”

“Our Stark controls the Hulk,” Other Steve says. “How?”

“No idea,” Tony replies, sulkily. “Bribery? Positive reinforcement? Validating his anger?”

“You looked at his computer,” Steve remembers. “Find anything?”

“I wasn’t looking for that,” Tony says, with a hand wave. “And if it’s a really dangerous thing I solved, I don’t keep a file on it for busybodies to steal.”

“There are differences between this world and the one I know,” Thor says, but he’s asking Loki.

“Yeah, let’s interrogate the evil genie” Tony says.

“I’m more interested in the evil genius,” Other Steve says.

Tony recoils. “I only like one of those words.”

“In our world, the Other Guy is not really predictable,” Bruce says, interrupting the staring contest between Tony and Other Steve. “Tony and I have both tried to find a way to suppress him permanently and it hasn’t worked.”

“Well, in this world,” Tony mutters, pacing the confines of the cell and almost stepping on Natasha and Clint. “I’m probably less concerned with suppression and more focused on smashing your smug super serum face.” He flicks a glance at Steve. “Not that I haven’t thought about it, though.”

“Plenty of people have tried to weaponize the Other Guy,” Bruce says.

“I haven’t,” Tony tells him. “We’ve tried to get rid of him. Bringing him out is a totally different matter.”

“What are you suggesting?” Natasha asks, from the floor. “Bringing him out isn’t the problem.”

“It’s also not hard,” Steve says.

“It is if I want to be the giant green puppet master,” Tony counters. “If I want to be the only one capable of pulling the smashing strings.” He turns and looks at Bruce. “I’ve never tried that.”

“How is that different?” Bruce asks.

“Well, this me is different,” Tony says, pacing some more. “This guy might not care if he has to put your bean bag in a vice or use the blood of elephants and the foreskins of Vietnamese orphans to make it work.”

“Are those options?” Bruce asks, making a face.

“Would you be okay with them?”

“Not the bean bag or the blood thing,” Bruce says, scratching his neck.

“If I don’t mind keeping you in some kind of perpetual drug coma, I’d figure out the chemical cocktail that keeps the Big Guy down, and then, when I wanted some really wanton violence, I’d yank the IV and watch what happens. Have some pop corn.”

“I’m not in a coma and I’m not green,” Bruce points out.

“What he said,” Steve adds.

Annoyed, Tony spreads his arms. “Okay, okay, it’s a hypothesis. Why am I having to remind the people on the inside of the cell that I didn’t actually do anything?”

“But you think like him,” Other Steve says.

“Really don’t think that’s true,” Tony says, wincing.

“There’s another difference between our worlds,” Other Steve says. He points at Tony’s chest. “Our Stark still has an arc reactor in his heart; you don’t.”

Tony immediately crosses his arms over the non-existent arc reactor. “Well, I was molested while I was unconscious. Thanks, Captain Handsy.” He glares. “In this universe, I’m probably too distracted with wanting to kill you to bother with that little cosmetic procedure.”

“It wasn’t a cosmetic procedure,” Natasha pipes up, again. “And it’s probably the easiest way to kill you. I mean, him.”

“Shut up, Peanut Gallery of the Macabre,” Tony tells the back of the cell. “And I was never easy to kill, you know that.”

Natasha smirks at him.

“You want us to kill Stark for you,” Clint says. “Is that where this is going?”

“Actually, I want Stark to kill Stark for me,” Other Steve says. “But you can help.”

There’s silence in the cell for a few seconds.

“Oh shit,” Tony says. He grimaces. “Hmm, well, I think I know the wish Loki heard when he conjured this nightmare on Broadway.”

“Did you want the opportunity to fight yourself?” Steve asks. “Why?”

“I just said I’d love to take me on,” Tony says, shaking his head. Then, he shrugs, “Still kind of true.”

~

“What’s the plan,” Tony asks. “March into my tower, pretending to be a mirror?”

“He knows you’re here,” Natasha points out. “By now he’ll have reviewed your security tapes and realized the six of us exist.”

“Is he automatically going to assume we’re doubles from an alternate universe?” Clint asks. “Maybe he’ll think SHIELD was on a recon mission with a guy in a Stark mask.”

“Depends on if this is just another Saturday afternoon adventures with Loki in his life,” Tony muses, “but I put my fingers in everything and made a mess of his files…he already knows I’m not just a guy in a Stark mask.”

“Must you malign me,” Loki protests. “I am not your enemy.”

“Yes, and also, no,” Tony replies, instantly. He opens his mouth to say something else.

“How shall we defeat you,” Thor interrupts. “I mean, the other one?”

“He’s dying of Palladium poisoning, right?” Natasha says, still on the floor.

“What?” Other Steve asks.

“Probably,” Tony mutters.

“So we help him,” Natasha says, totally casually. “It’s not hard.”

“It is too,” Tony retorts.

“Or we could just yank that thing out of his chest,” Clint adds.

“Could you people sound less creepy, please?” Tony demands.

“How do we get access to him?” Steve asks.

“We have bait,” Other Steve says. “With the six of you and our team, we have enough people to protect her.”

“Her…” Tony prompts.

“Miss Potts,” Other Steve says. “Come on in.”

Tony’s face drops in surprise.

Pepper, well, Other Pepper, walks into the room. She looks much less like the Pepper that Steve knows. Her face is sharper and warier, and she’s dressed in military fatigues instead of her usual business attire. She looks tired and sad.

“What the hell are you wearing?” Tony says. Then, “I mean, oh hey, Pep.”

Other Pepper approaches the cell, stopping next to Other Steve. She peers at Tony, face conflicted.

“It’s not him,” Other Steve assures her. “I promise.”

“I know,” she says, after a moment. “I can tell.”

“You good with the plan?” Other Steve asks, gently.

Other Pepper nods. “I’m still not sure how this happened, but it’s the best shot we got.”

“That one,” Tony says, pointing accusingly at Loki. “That psychopath right there.”

“Yeah?” Pepper reaches out and squeezes Loki’s elbow. “Thanks.”

Loki inclines his head while everyone inside the cell just stares at them.

“Don’t touch him,” Tony grinds out. “Why are you touching him?”

“Don’t tell me what to do,” Other Pepper says.

“Okay,” Tony says, “But don’t touch him.”

~

Steve has some doubts about Other Steve’s plans. But he doesn’t want to voice them in front of Tony. Because his doubts are pretty much all Tony.

“While I have you, “ Other Steve says, “Can we discuss the side effects of the serum?”

“You mean the total lack of sense of humor,” Tony interjects. “Or the immunity to alcohol? Because those two things together are ridiculous.”

“In private, maybe,” Other Steve continues, grimacing.

“Oh, you’re letting him out for a conjugal,” Tony calls after them, but the others in the cell mostly seem okay with Steve speaking alone with his counterpart.

“I’ve had no side effects from the serum,” Steve begins, when they’re alone in what is probably the interrogation room.

“Good,” Other Steve says. “Me neither.”

“Ploy to get me alone,” Steve realizes.

“Yes, but not in the way Stark meant.” Other Steve continues. “I want you to know most people here think we should just preemptively execute him.”

“Him…ours?” Steve says.

“I’m not seeing much difference,” Other Steve replies.

“We don’t see much difference between your Loki and our Loki,” Steve retorts.

“We’re not trusting Loki to kill Loki,” Other Steve says. “That’s a difference.”

“You don’t trust him,” Steve repeats.

“But I trust you,” Other Steve says. “

~

Tony forgets the pissing match he was having with Other Steve, pretty much completely distracted by Other Pepper. She gets him to agree to the plan to infiltrate his tower, using a combination of the intel from the data he and Bruce downloaded when they showed up here and SHIELD’s knowledge. She’s as intelligent and canny as the Pepper they know, and Tony follows at her heels just like he always does.

Real Pepper was safely off on the other coast when Loki triggered this little party, and Steve is immensely relieved. Not just because she’s safe, but because the last thing they need is another double in this situation.

The plan is really quite simple. With Other Pepper around, Other Stark isn’t going to send in the Hulk. And once they’re close enough to touch him…

Steve presumes Natasha or Clint will take it from there. This is an assassination, after all. He’s not expecting Tony to do anything but make wisecracks at himself.

Bruce is coming along mostly to see if he can find out how the Hulk is under Other Stark’s control. The Other Avengers and Loki will be outside for back up.

Loki tells them that once Tony confronts himself, this universe will fade, and quickly. Steve is glad. He wants to go back where there’s only one of everyone.

There’s an interminable van ride over to the tower, first.

“Why’d you leave me?” Tony asks.

“Because you lost your mind and tried to take over the world,” Other Pepper tells him. She looks at the rest of the Avengers. “I guess that didn’t happen where you’re from.”

“We haven’t let him take over the world,” Natasha interjects.

“I haven’t tried,” Tony retorts. He pauses. “Though clearly I should.”

“No,” Pepper says. “Don’t. I like you better, already.”

“You like Loki?” Stark probes. He glances at Steve. “What about Captain Throwback?”

Other Pepper just ignores him and settles for looking a Bruce, who blinks at her awkwardly.

“Hi,” he says.

“I’ve never seen you not green,” she offers.

“Don’t suppose you know how I pulled that off?” Tony asks.

She shakes her head. “You don’t like to talk about business,” Other Pepper says.

“Where we’re from, you’re in charge,” Clint tells her. Other Pepper blinks, interpreting that.

“But you haven’t taken over the world,” Clint adds.

“But you also haven’t tried,’ Tony says.

~

Infiltrating Stark Tower is surprisingly easy. Tony bypasses biosensors designed to admit him, then allows the rest of them access. The Other Avengers, plus Loki, stay outside for the moment. Mostly to keep Stark focused on the task at hand, Steve thinks.

Once they’re in one of the labs, Bruce starts combing the databases for info on the Hulk. Other Pepper joins him, downloading as much as she can and transmitting it to SHIELD. Tony scrolls through some screens, fingers flying as he programs it. Then, he steps back.

“Well,” Tony says. “This is boring.” He scowls and glances at Steve. “I am better than this.”

“You are,” Natasha says, worriedly.

As if on cue, a transparent divider slams down from the ceiling, cutting the room in half and blocking Tony off from the rest of the group.

“Ok, getting better,” Tony says, “Uh, Thor, let me out.”

He barely finishes speaking when Natasha hits the floor with a thud, unconscious. Pepper follows her, nearly bouncing off the computer console. Bruce catches her and lowers her down. He has to sit, getting dizzy. Clint is out next.

“What is this?” Thor asks. He wrinkles his nose.

“Gas,” Steve declares, because he’s starting to feel it. “You feel okay?” he asks.

“I am fine,” Thor says, but he’s swaying. Or that’s Steve. It’s hard to tell. This is not Stark’s style. Steve tries to walk, trips, and ends up on the ground. He tries to stay conscious, but it’s hard to focus, and all of a sudden the melody from “Rock-a-bye Baby” is broadcasting through the room. Now, that’s more like Stark, Steve thinks, before he blacks out.

~

They wake up in a dungeon, because in this universe, Stark Tower has a dungeon. Steve makes a note to ask Tony about that, just in case, when they get back. Tony and Pepper aren’t there. Everyone else is still out, but Thor is beginning to stir.

“This Stark is a coward,” Thor says, rubbing his temple.

“I don’t disagree,” Steve tells him. He checks on Clint and Natasha, discovers they’re breathing well but have been disarmed. He moves on to Bruce. “Where’s Mjolinar?”

Annoyed, Thor sticks out his arm and waits. And waits some more. Thor frowns.

“Definitely a coward,” Steve offers, when nothing happens.

Bruce wakes up next.

“What happened?” he asks.

“Stark gassed us all and took himself and Pepper,” Steve sums up. “Oh, and we don’t have any weapons and Thor can’t get Mjolinar to come.”

“Stark figured something out for that,” Bruce mutters. “I saw it in the files. I think that’s part of how he managed to kill Thor here.”

Thor scowls some more.

“Great,” Steve says, lightly. “You find anything in there about the Big Guy?” They could kind of use him right about now, if only to get out of the cell.

“Stark’s being poisoned by Palladium,” Bruce mutters, “like Natasha said. He’s actually very weak and isn’t able to fight much at all.”

“And?” Steve asked.

“Gas doesn’t take much energy,” Bruce says. “Gas and robots. This Stark is basically bedridden. “

“Is that how he’s controlling the Other Guy?” Steve asks, since Bruce has avoided the question.

Bruce nods. “It’s in the air in the building,” he says, evasively, and he has the look on his face that Tony gets right before he accuses Steve of being SHIELD’s lapdog.

“Not a viable option?” Steve asks. Bruce shakes his head. “Sorry,” Steve says genuinely.

“Thanks,” Bruce says, after a second. “Bet you wish he was here to break out of this place?”

“Yeah,” Steve says. “I do. “

Thor raises his arm again, beckoning for Mjolinar. Nothing happens.

Eventually, Clint and Natasha wake up as well. Steve updates them on the situation.

“Things are going well, then,” Clint remarks.

“We don’t know what’s happening upstairs,” Steve says.

“Other Stark is forcing Tony to help with his arc reactor,” Natasha guesses.

“Think he’ll do it?” Bruce asks, wondering outloud what Steve is thinking.

Natasha tilts her head. “Yeah,” she says.

~

“Say thank you,” Tony says, when he arrives in their cell, escorted by what Steve guesses is a robot that looks a lot like Iron Man. “For your lives.”

He glares at the robot, which retreats from the cell just as the doors slam shut.

“What did you do?” Steve asks.

“Persuaded him not melt your lungs,” Tony mutters, “Among other things.”

“Our lives or Pepper’s?” Natasha asks, mildly.

Tony scowls at her. “Don’t get technical.”

“Where is she?” Thor asks.

“About to become a widow,” Tony says, pausing before he grins slyly. He strolls across the width of the cell. “I do not work well under pressure, make all kinds of mistakes, sabotage all kinds of vital life-sustaining things.”

Steve almost exhales in relief. Tony looks at him sharply. “Have some faith,” he says, offended.

“Never doubted you,” Steve says.

“Yeah, you did,” he says, dismissively. “But let’s hope Loki wasn’t lying about how long it’d take us to get back.”

“Why?” asks Clint.

“Because I programmed the building to self-destruct,” Stark says, half under his breath. “Just in case I outwitted myself.” He gestures in the general area of his chest.

“Hmm,” Bruce says, looking a little worried.

“So the airborne drug thing won’t work,” Tony says to Bruce. “But it lasts a couple of days, might be a starting point. I mean…you wouldn’t necessarily have to live in a bubble.”

“Well, if we don’t die in the next ten minutes, we can work on that,” Bruce says, cheerfully.

“Five,” Tony says. “More like five.”

“Goody,” Clint says. “Why didn’t you program the dungeon to unlock?”

“Because I don’t have a dungeon.”

Then Steve hears the same sound that got them here. He sees Natasha close her eyes in relief and then there’s more noise and the cell around him vanishes in a blur of color.

He blinks again, the cell is gone. The Avengers are in the same positions, but they’re in the gym of Stark Tower. Thor immediately raises his hand and Mjolinar smashes through the nearest wall.

“Hey!” Tony yells. “You know, I’m going to build that dungeon, God of Wanton Destruction.”

“Home Sweet Home,” Clint says.

“I must return to Asgard and find out how Loki was able to do this,” Thor says, without apology for the giant hole in the wall.

“Go outside before you do that!” Tony says, peevishly.

“I’ll be in my lab,” Bruce says, pinching the bridge of his nose. “By the way, I’m pretty sure the suppressant is gone.”

“Stop pissing him off,” Natasha tells Tony.

“Dungeon,” Tony mutters. “Women’s section.”

Thor steps out on to a balcony to do his blasting into the sky trick, Bruce vanishes into his lab, and Natasha takes Clint to get checked out at an infirmary in this universe.

“You aren’t going to go super villian if I go check in with SHIELD, are you?” Steve asks Tony.

“After that glimpse, I think you’d want to stop tempting me,” Tony retorts, with an eye roll.

“After that glimpse, I think I’ll be the one to stop you, period,” Steve says, and lets that sink in.

“Yeah, I’m gonna think on that one,” Tony says, eyes narrowing in a way that Steve doesn’t particularly love.

“You do that,” Steve says, trying not grin. He slaps Tony on the arm, but not hard enough to send him sprawling.

Tony is trying his best to get at him, showing no signs of any distress over what he just did to, well, himself. This world is so much better than the one they just saw and Steve is so filled with relief, he doesn’t even bother reacting to Tony’s deeply aggravated face.

“I’m thinking deep freezer next to the dungeon,” Tony yells after him. “With some Stouffer’s and a baby mammoth!”




The End
~please feed the author~
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Date: 2016-12-22 07:50 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
This was fabulous. I really enjoy all your stories. :)

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