The Corrupt and the Pure • Chapters 4-6
Chapter 4: The Commander
Tony’s ears were ringing. Every time he moved, a sharp edge of broken glass warned him that it wasn’t a good idea, but eventually he had to ignore that and push himself to his knees and then onto his feet. He almost slipped on the wet floor, grabbing onto the counter for support, then squinted at the destruction in the living room.
It was as if a bomb had gone off in there, but instead of smoke and fire, everything just looked like it had been shoved back like his body had been. Granted, the epicenter of the destruction looked charred, as if from intense heat, and Tony started towards it, frowning.
“Cap, you okay?” he asked, his blurry vision fixating on the familiar, hunched-over figure.
The blond raised his head at the sound of Tony’s voice, then slowly straightened and turned. Belatedly Tony realized something was very wrong with this picture, seeing as Steve’s clothing had suddenly changed into dark body-armor and the shield that had been on his arm was now on his back, bearing a much darker paint job than the one Tony had just handed to him.
Blue eyes locked with his, bright and familiar, but an inch to one side Tony detected deep scarring, taking over almost half his face in a shape that seemed random at first, yet with longer scrutiny was almost like a grotesque hand-print.
It was Steve, but it wasn’t.
“Stark,” a voice came from his right and Tony jumped, his neck protesting as he whipped his head to the side to watch a more familiar Steve Rogers push himself to his feet. The clothes and shield were correct this time – and no facial scars, either. “You have an explanation for that?” Steve asked, shifting his shield minutely towards the third person.
“I was hoping you’d have one,” Tony started, looking back at the banged-up copy of his teammate.
“Tony,” the second Steve spoke up, sending shivers down Tony’s spine. Even his goddamn voice was the same, although he had expected that. The man took a step forward, then stopped and looked at the item in his hand: the Tesseract. A somewhat deranged laugh rose from his chest as he looked up at Tony again, his jaw muscles jumping restlessly as if they didn’t know which expression to settle on. “I didn’t dare to hope it would work,” he said then, eyes quickly giving his counterpart a once-over. With Cap’s photographic memory, he needed nothing more. “At most, I thought it would jump me back in time.”
“Okay,” Tony started slowly. “Let’s start from the beginning. Who are you?”
New Steve’s gaze was heavy, making Tony want to look away, but he felt like he shouldn’t. “Steven Grant Rogers,” the man retorted. “We’ve met.”
“You and I haven’t,” Tony corrected.
A slow nod answered his words. “Tony – my Tony… God, he looked just like you. Talked just like you.”
“Where is he?” Original Steve spoke up, slowly walking over to stand beside Tony to form a unified front.
A shadow passed over the scarred face. “He’s dead.”
Tony grimaced, unable to help it. “Are you from the future?” he ventured to guess, because if the Tesseract could open a door between two edges of the universe, it wasn’t a farfetched idea that it might be able to bend the rules of time and matter as they knew them.
The scarred Steve took a slow look around. “What year is it?” he asked.
“2014,” Tony replied easily.
Another slow nod. “Same year, then,” he stated and once again looked at Tony, then at the other Steve. “A… different version, I think.”
“That’s a safe assumption,” Tony agreed.
“What do they call you?” the alternate Steve asked, pointing a finger at Steve.
Steve frowned. “Steve Rogers – Captain America,” he added.
“Hmm,” the other hummed.
“What about you?” Tony asked. “I see you have the shield and some… gear.”
“The Commander,” the man replied and looked at Steve again. “Born in Brooklyn in 1918?”
“Yes,” Steve nodded.
“Joined the super-soldier program in December 1941 –”
“Toured with the USO group in 1942 –”
“Saved Bucky and the other POWs in 1943 –”
This drew a smile from the real Steve’s lips before it vanished. “Lost Bucky in the winter of 1944. Thought he was dead.”
“Not dead,” his scarred version agreed. “Took out Skull and downed the Valkyrie in 1945.”
“Found in the ice in 2011.”
“Ah,” the alternate Steve sighed. “There finally comes the defining moment in our pasts.”
Steve frowned. “When were you found?”
“Does that mean he’s older than you?” Tony joked at the man standing beside him, then fixed his gaze on the second Steve Rogers again. “So, Commander –”
“Call me Cap,” the man cut him off. “You always called me that, even when it was meant as an insult.”
“Seems kind of rude when we barely know each other,” Tony hedged. Normally he wouldn’t mind insulting a person, but this was another Captain America and he didn’t want to get started on the wrong foot the way he had with his own version of the man.
The Commander chuckled. “That never stopped you before. You reveled in the fact that you could get under my skin with such a simple word, to remind me of the man I no longer was. And then, after…” His expression grew distant for a second. “In the end, it was a reminder of who I could be; an indication that I could be free.”
“Free?” Tony frowned.
“Of HYDRA. You never approved, thinking that because I fought them once I should fight them again. That that man was still somewhere in me.”
Tony gave his own Steve a confused look, then directed it at the Commander – or whatever the hell he wanted to be called. “You work for HYDRA?”
“I take it he doesn’t,” he guessed, motioning at Steve.
Tony had to laugh at that. “He just took them down for a second time, less than a month ago.” Steve gave him a look and Tony cleared his throat. “No, he most certainly does not work for HYDRA.”
“So, you are still Captain America,” the Commander said slowly. “Are you an Avenger?” he asked out of the blue.
“We both are,” Steve replied.
Yet another nod, like the Commander was slowly accepting these facts that weren’t part of his own life. Tony didn’t envy his task, although he was still a bit unclear why the Commander was here in the first place. An accident, perhaps. Those seemed to happen around the Tesseract – which reminded him of the cube resting in the Commander’s grip.
“You mind if I take that?” Tony asked, motioning at the Tesseract.
The Commander looked down at it, the blue light reflecting off his eyes, playing mean tricks on the deep scars of his face. He shrugged, then, like it didn’t matter, tossed it over to Tony, who caught it with so much trepidation he almost dropped it. “I am where I want to be; I have no further need for it,” the Commander stated.
“And what is it that you want?” Steve asked, voice tense. Clearly, he wasn’t thrilled to learn that some version of himself was working for HYDRA. Truth be told, that was more than a little unsettling.
The Commander looked back and forth between them. Tony felt like he was being evaluated. “How would you define your relationship?” he asked.
Steve’s frown increased, while Tony felt like laughing again.
“We’re teammates,” Steve replied, then looked at Tony for confirmation.
“You could say that,” Tony agreed.
The Commander’s hum was almost dismissive, and it seemed to tick Steve off: “You didn’t answer my question: why are you here?”
“I’m here to replace something I lost,” the Commander stated.
“And what is that?” Steve pressed. “If it’s HYDRA, I’m sorry to inform you that that ship has sailed.”
“Him,” the Commander replied coolly, pointing a finger at Tony.
“Me?” Tony frowned. “Look, I’m sorry I died in your crummy world – it sounds like a really unpleasant place if you’re carrying the HYDRA flag – but this is where I belong.”
“I’m not going back,” the Commander said. “There’s nothing for me back there. My best friend killed the man I love because he thought he was making me weak and question my orders – and he was right.” He took a step towards Tony, who backed away.
“Hey!” Tony snapped. “I’m not sure if I just completely misunderstood, but in case I did not, I’m obligated to tell you that this ain’t gonna happen,” he gestured between them, clutching the Tesseract a little harder than necessary. “There are some profound differences between our world and yours, clearly, and until we determine whether you’re a threat, working for HYDRA –”
The Commander moved forward so fast Tony barely had time to hold the Tesseract out of his reach, but instead of going for the cube, the Commander gripped Tony’s upper left arm in a tight grip.
Steve moved, too, placing his shield between their bodies, wedging between them even when he wasn’t able to dislodge the Commander’s hold. “Let go of him,” Steve ordered.
“You have no idea what you’re interfering with,” the Commander growled, fingers already leaving bruises on Tony’s skin.
“I know exactly what it looks like – and you just confessed to being HYDRA, which makes you an enemy in our book.”
“We were enemies in my world, too,” came the sharp retort. “He was Iron Man, the leader of the Avengers, a hero to the masses. We tried to kill each other for years.” His eyes fell from Steve’s and met Tony’s over the Captain’s left shoulder. “And yet, you and I ended up sharing something special.”
“That’s not how I remember it,” Tony replied, trying to keep calm. He itched to drop the Tesseract and pry the Commander’s fingers from his arm, but the cube had caused them enough trouble in the past and he was certain Steve could take down his HYDRA counterpart if necessary.
Something like hurt flashed in the Commander’s eyes, but it swiftly turned into steel – as did his grip, making Tony utter a small sound of pain, which prompted Steve to shove his shield more firmly against the Commander’s midsection.
“I told you to let go of him,” Steve warned. “I won’t ask again.”
“Your time is up, Captain,” the Commander snarled back. “You wasted your chance with him. I won’t make the same mistake.” His right hand came up fast, trying to seize Steve by the throat. Tony leaned back, giving Steve room to act, and the shield moved up, slamming against the Commander’s arm, blocking his attack and then banging him right in the face.
Tony tore himself free of the Commander’s grip when it loosened fractionally, stumbling to the side. He almost fell over when Steve flew past him, landing on top of an upturned chair. Steve was rolling back as soon as the chair had collapsed beneath his weight, though, shield up and determination on his face.
“Tony, get out.”
“Just let me secure the Tesseract and I’ll help you beat him up,” Tony promised.
Steve nodded, eyes on his opponent.
The Commander was slowly releasing his own shield from his back, motions measured, unhurried. Tony was kind of glad the room was already in need of repairs because he had seen what Steve could do on his own, and to imagine two of him clashing together…
“J.A.R.V.I.S., I need Mark 43,” he ordered as he dashed off to the other side of the room to Access his lab.
“Still in progress, sir.”
“Also, evacuate the building, just in case.”
“Also in progress since the Tesseract charge began building up,” the AI replied. “Most of the Tower has been cleared.”
“Good,” Tony acknowledged as he reached the lab door. J.A.R.V.I.S. let him in without any trouble and locked the door behind him, the sounds from the living room muted by the barrier. “Open the high-risk containment safe. Top priority protocols to open it; use the pre-prepared list of people on the ‘alien artifact’ threat protocol.”
“Very well, sir.”
Tony placed the Tesseract within the safe that opened, then watched as J.A.R.V.I.S. sealed it away. He wasn’t going to get caught with his pants down when it came to the cube, but right now it felt like securing the object wasn’t his top priority and he needed to get back to apprehending the Commander.
Something slammed hard against the lab’s wall behind him, the sound of impact making him jump. Tony turned around to see Steve pinned against the reinforced safety glass, the Commander pressing his forearm at Steve’s throat while blocking his attempts at escaping. It looked like Steve was losing, which was a surprise, and it made Tony even more aware that he should not underestimate this threat.
“Tony,” the Commander grunted out, effort evident in his voice; it wasn’t a breeze for him to hold down Captain America. “Come out,” he ordered.
“I’ll come out shooting,” Tony muttered.
“Sir, you are aware that after the latest launch tests, the Mark 43 armor is still located on the assembly ramp outside?”
Tony huffed out a breath to keep from swearing. “Okay, new plan: running, then shooting. Assemble the armor, ready it for speedy pilot entrance.”
“Is there a slow version of it, sir?”
“Not now, J,” Tony ordered, although his AI had a point: Tony rarely entered the armor these days when he wasn’t in some kind of a hurry.
His eyes briefly moved towards the struggling men. The angle was not ideal, but Steve looked bloodied and bruised, and the arm on his throat was definitely sapping his strength. The Commander looked like he was waiting, eyes aimed at a spot by Steve’s shoulder – trying to locate Tony within the lab. J.A.R.V.I.S. must have made the walls opaque to the outside, which gave Tony a tiny advantage. Then again, there was just one door, and while the two men weren’t right beside it, Tony knew the Commander could count his exit routes with one finger of a single hand.
Tony grinned and walked to the right, entering the door between his and Bruce’s labs. He moved quickly, knowing the door would take him a bit further from the assembly ramp, but it would also give him more room to maneuver once outside; Steve was a fast runner, so he had to assume his HYDRA counterpart was as well.
Taking a few deep breaths, Tony pressed his hand to the door, prompting it to unlock and open. As soon as he could squeeze through the gap, he did, running out towards the windows and the platform outside where Mark 43 was already assembling independently.
“Tony!” A strangled, rough shout reached his ears, and Tony couldn’t resist looking over his shoulder to check its origin: Steve had sagged down to his hands and knees on the floor, looking out towards him, blood staining his face and chest heaving; the Commander was running after him and Tony realized he wasn’t going to outrun him no matter how he tried.
“J.A.R.V.I.S.!” he yelled, stopping and turning to face the approaching threat, “activate weapons systems.”
“Booting up, sir,” the AI said, informing him that they were a few seconds away.
“Alright,” Tony muttered, lowered his stance and tried to think back to all the lessons he had gotten in self-defense, but knowing that if this man had taken down Steve Rogers, he wasn’t going to fend him off without the suit. “Bring it on,” he told the Commander anyway, who slowed down, stopping three feet in front of him. That he didn’t outright attack Tony was unnerving, making him wonder what would happen next.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” the man told him. “I’m not here for that.”
“You’re HYDRA,” Tony started, which was a pretty good leading argument.
“I was HYDRA the entire time we slept together,” the Commander snapped.
Tony tried not to dig too deep into that statement. “Then the ‘me’ in your version of the world was an idiot,” Tony decided.
A rueful smile met his words. “Really? That’s your argument?” He began slowly moving, sideways rather than towards him, and Tony followed, not letting him any closer, always facing him. “I’ve spent countless nights with you. I know you,” the Commander claimed.
“I doubt it,” Tony countered and heard the telltale snaps of the final sealing joints of the armor. He shifted his hand, indicating for J.A.R.V.I.S. to bring the armor forward and back him up.
The motion was not lost on the Commander, who slowed down his circling, keeping Tony between himself and the approaching armor. “I fought you longer than I fucked you,” he added. “I know your tricks and toys.”
It was a too-familiar choice of words, but Tony let it go. “You and the Steve Rogers I know are like day and night. Doesn’t inspire much confidence that I and your Tony Stark are much alike, either. You know nothing about me – and I’m more than willing to prove that, too.”
The Commander nodded an affirmative. “Tell me something before we begin.”
“What?” Tony snapped impatiently, listening to the armor’s approach. The room was a tight space for flight, although Tony and J.A.R.V.I.S. would make it work if they had to.
“Do you have Extremis?”
Tony faltered. “How is that relevant?” he asked.
A smile tugged on the Commander’s lips. “Not so different, then.” His eyes flashed onto the armor while his right hand dug into a pocket of his uniform.
“Careful, J,” Tony murmured. “He might have some tricks of his own.”
“I am scanning his body-armor,” the AI responded through Mark 43’s speakers. “Weaponry and explosives detected; the shield is vibranium, identical to Captain Rogers’. He is also in possession of a substance labeled as Tranq-Ex.”
“What’s that?” Tony asked.
“I would require a sample to inform you, sir.”
“It’s something my Tony created, to prevent the more…. volatile side-effects of Extremis,” the Commander said. “The fact that you don’t know that leads me to suspect you’re either not using Extremis to the same extent he did – or are just a slow learner.”
“Hey!” Tony snapped, insulted. “For that, I’ll punch you in that all-American jaw of yours.”
“You will try,” the Commander said. “Often, you failed.”
“I am not him,” Tony stressed and looked past the Commander to spot Steve getting back to his feet, looking pissed off and a little too disoriented for it to be a good sign. “Also, it’s not just me you’re up against,” Tony added and began walking backwards towards the armor. “I don’t know how things worked in your world, but here… the Avengers are a team.”
Well, that wasn’t exactly true, seeing as they had only battled one alien invasion together, but Tony had made certain boasts in this very room while alone with Loki, and he could do it again. He just hoped he wasn’t getting tossed out of the window again.
Steve relocated his shield and slipped it on his arm, starting to approach the Commander from behind. Tony took that as his cue to hurry things along and quickened his step, hearing the armor start to unlock to let him inside.
The Commander pulled his hand from his pocket, holding something that looked like a tiny button or a disc. He rubbed his fingers over it, as if warming it to his touch – then leaped forward.
Tony reacted instinctively, trying to get out of the way. He stumbled past the armor that was in the last stages of opening up, and then his feet were swiped out from under him, sending him onto his back on the floor. The Commander slipped past him, tackling the armor to the floor as well – then veered back towards Tony.
Jerking away, Tony tried to get to his feet, knowing Steve was very close to reaching them; he had to hold on for a few seconds and then this embarrassing spectacle would be over.
The already-familiar iron grip returned, taking him by the shoulder and yanking him back. Tony blindly jabbed back his elbow, trying to catch something that would hurt, but the other man’s larger weight pressed him down, not trying to restrict him or incapacitate him as much as reaching for his face.
“I’ll burn your face off,” Tony hissed in warning, anger spiking inside him.
“You already did,” the Commander retorted and firmly pressed the small button-sized disc against his temple.
Tony screamed as sharp pain assaulted his nervous system – then everything went numb, shooting like a wave from his brain, traveling across his body to the very tips of his fingers and toes, bringing nothing but blackness in its wake.
to be continued…
Chapter 5: The Duel
From the second he’d wedged himself between Tony and his counterpart from some alternative reality, Steve had known it was going to come to blows. He wasn’t looking forward to it, but the other man was out of line and seeing Tony go on the defensive made up Steve’s mind for him.
Steve was hyper-aware of the tight grip the Commander had on Tony’s arm. Despite his warning, the other man wasn’t letting go, and for some reason it felt like he really didn’t care for the Tesseract at all. Steve wasn’t certain why exactly they were fighting – or what the Commander really wanted – but he was going to take him down and ask those questions later.
It wasn’t chivalry that made Steve act, although he would have always defended a dame being handled in such a way. Tony was no dame, but he was his teammate and this HYDRA agent wearing his body was a threat. Until Tony got into one of his suits, Steve was going to look out for him, knowing he was at a disadvantage.
Every time the other Steve spoke about his life – and his obvious connection to Tony – he got a feeling akin to taking a punch in the gut. Steve wasn’t innocent; he understood what lay beyond the insinuations, and they made his skin crawl. He stayed out of it, listening and trying to learn their enemy that way, knowing that Tony was the one with words and would eventually make the Commander reveal his true colors.
Indeed, it did not take long before Tony hit a nerve of some kind, and the Commander’s grip must have tightened if the sound of pain coming from Tony was any indication. Steve knew his own strength – that he could crack bones when he wanted to – and he pressed his shield more firmly against the Commander’s body, trying to put an extra inch between him and Tony. “I told you to let go of him,” Steve reminded, readying himself for a fight. “I won’t ask again.”
“Your time is up, Captain,” his scarred copy replied in a snarl, but instead of issuing some threat, he returned to the one topic that kept throwing Steve off: “You wasted your chance with him. I won’t make the same mistake.”
Steve almost missed the shift in the other’s balance, the Commander’s free hand coming up to strike him, but Steve lifted his shield just in time, slamming his hand up and then thrusting forward, smashing the shield into his copy’s face.
Tony wrenched himself free behind him, falling back. Steve was just about to check on him, to make sure he was okay, when the Commander recovered faster than he thought he would, spinning and kicking Steve high in the chest, sending him flying backwards; he crashed on top of some piece of upended furniture that cracked beneath his weight and collapsed like a house of cards.
His muscles singing with readiness, Steve rolled back to his feet, eyes on his target. “Tony, get out,” he called through the ache in his chest, not wanting Tony to get caught in the middle – holding the Tesseract of all things.
“Just let me get rid of the Tesseract and I’ll help you beat him up,” Tony replied, much as Steve should have expected.
He nodded his agreement, eyes still on the Commander who was slowly removing the shield from his back – a motion Steve was quite familiar with. The body armor was much like his stealth suit had been, designed by S.H.I.E.L.D. – or possibly by HYDRA, as it turned out. No wonder there were similarities…
The Commander let out a scoff, like he was disappointed with his adversary, and Steve moved forward, to show him just how wrong he was. He was not going to lose to a version of himself that was part of HYDRA – not when there was still fight left in him. The other might not be from their world, but wherever he came from, taking him down would be for the better.
As Steve rushed into an attack, the Commander stood his ground – then shifted at the last moment, trying to attack Steve from the side. Predicting it, seeing as it was a tactic he often used, Steve twisted accordingly, bringing up his shield to block the impending attack.
The collision of vibranium against vibranium felt like it was going to grind into Steve’s bones, pain radiating down his arm. It took him by surprise, having never experienced it before.
His counterpart either shook the shock of the impact faster or didn’t feel the pain, socking Steve in the jaw with a fist that felt like it was metal covered by flesh. Steve flew back, reflexively blocking the next strike and trying to get in one of his own, but the Commander was just as fast.
They circled each other viciously, throwing punches, blocking them, testing each other’s fighting styles, finding them nigh identical. Steve noticed the Commander was fractionally less agile, perhaps due to some old injuries seeing as he had been awake longer, and he decided that would give him an edge.
“Nice try,” the other growled after Steve had rolled to the side, kicked back from a wall and managed to elbow the Commander in the juncture of his neck and shoulder. “You’re running out of time, though.”
“Better make this fast, then,” Steve spat back. “I’m not the one going down.”
“Oh, but you are,” the Commander informed him, as if he knew it for a fact.
“How d’ya figure?”
“Because you have nothing at stake in this fight.”
Steve stilled for an instant. “I can think of plenty –”
“Bullshit,” the other hissed. “You’re fighting me because you think that’s the right thing to do. I’m fighting for something I love.”
“He’s not the man you knew,” Steve told the other, slowly positioning his body in between the Commander and the lab where Tony had disappeared. “I’m sure you came here with a purpose, but he isn’t it.”
“You have no idea,” the Commander snapped and moved forward, throwing in a punch. Steve blocked it easily and kicked the other in the head, making him drop his shield. Knowing his chances had just improved, Steve moved forward, following the Commander’s attempt to evade his attack – then heard a familiar slip of metal from beneath him a second before his foot landed on his opponent’s fallen shield. The Commander gave it a shove, upsetting Steve’s balance, and in a fraction of a second he was going down, the other’s elbow following him, banging his skull into the floor.
Steve’s ears rang, skull throbbing painfully, blood flooding his mouth. He struggled to get up and received a vicious kick in the gut that felt like it might just come out through the other side. The force behind the kick made him roll a few feet to the side, leaving him sprawled and disoriented on the floor.
“I know you learned to play dirty in the war. Seems like you forgot the beautiful art of deception and taking a few punches to land the most important one,” the Commander sneered at him as he strode over and then bent down to pull Steve up by his hair – then punched him right in the face. Before Steve could see through the spots filling his vision, a hand was on his throat, painfully tight, lifting him up with all the strength he knew he possessed and then some.
Steve struggled, trying to land a kick of his own, but found his body slammed backwards into a wall and the fingers replaced by a forearm on his throat, threatening to break his neck and depriving his lungs of air. A countdown started in the back of his mind, telling him how long he had to land a punch and get himself free before he no longer could, but the Commander was pressing his body just close enough to make his struggling ineffective.
“Tony, come out,” the Commander called out, voice strained as Steve tried to twist himself free one more time, his legs working to hit something that would make the other’s stance falter. He was fighting himself, though, and it was starting to dawn on him that all the tricks he had up his sleeve were known to his opponent. The Commander wasn’t trying to punch the daylights out of him, but instead waited for his body to shut down on its own from lack of oxygen.
Steve’s eyes searched the room wildly, trying to see an out – to see whether Tony was taking the bait. He ached to tell him not to, but Tony was notorious for following his own instincts, and seeing as Steve had just about lost the fight…
A door opened farther down the length of the room; it wasn’t the lab Tony had entered, but it put some distance between them as Tony took off running towards the windows.
The Commander pushed away from Steve, letting his body drop to the floor like a discarded toy. Steve’s lungs struggled to draw in air and keep himself from falling unconscious. He kept his head up even though his vision was still spotty and realized that no matter the head-start, Tony was going to be caught.
“Tony!” Steve called out in warning, not knowing where he was headed but knowing he wasn’t going to make it.
Tony, the idiot that he was, turned to look over his shoulder – then stopped entirely, calling out to the computer-voice. He turned towards the Commander who promptly came to a halt, seeing as his prey was no longer moving. They faced each other, Tony looking like he was going to fight, which made Steve struggle to get to his feet, knowing his teammate was outmatched out of his armor.
He heard bits and pieces of their exchange, Tony’s retorts sharp while the Commander was trying to convince him of what had passed for truth in his world. Steve was glad for Tony’s quick wit because he would have had no idea what to say to the man in response to his claims.
Heavy footsteps from the far side of the room made Steve fix his gaze in that direction, and to his relief he saw Tony’s armor begin a steady approach; Tony suddenly seemed more confident while the Commander grew wary.
As the two of them spoke, Steve focused on getting his body under his control again, knowing that time was of the essence but that he also needed his wits about him if he wanted to win against the Commander. Failure sat ill with him, after all these years, and if anyone asked Steve, he was far from finished.
Problem was, as much as he could do this all day – so could his opponent, most likely. He needed to be aware of that and think of alternative ways to defeat him, and that was where teamwork entered the picture: with the armor in play, Tony could tilt the scale in their favor. Steve wasn’t about to leave Tony to battle the Commander alone, though, and he began searching for his shield in order to get back in the fight.
Locating the metal disc with his eyes, he pushed himself up and proceeded to walk over to his trusty weapon, carefully bending down to retrieve it, not making a sound.
The Commander’s attention was completely aimed at Tony, his hand reaching into his pocket for something – a weapon, perhaps – and Tony was retreating towards his armor which was opening up at the front in a very complex-looking way.
It was definitely a warning sign that Steve had difficulty focusing on their conversation, even though it was getting easier by the second. When he heard Tony use the words ‘Avengers’ and ‘team’ in the same sentence, he knew the other was expecting him to join the fight. It wasn’t like Tony to ask for help, but Steve knew they should not underestimate the Commander – especially when he had boasted that he had extensive knowledge of Tony’s armor and fighting style.
Steve ordered himself to move, sensing they were running out of time. It didn’t matter who made the first move because the other two would adapt to it, but he still had a feeling they shouldn’t let the Commander set the pace of the fight any more than he already had.
As he approached, eyes moving between the Commander, Tony, and the armor, he saw the Commander removing his hand from his pocket, an item between his fingers. It was small, the shape and size of a coin, but he didn’t get a good look at it before the Commander launched towards Tony.
Instinctively, Tony moved back to get out of the way, which made it easy for the Commander to move his foot and unbalance Tony. The Commander swiped Tony’s legs from under him – just as Steve expected he would – but instead of immediately going after him, Steve’s alternative counterpart rushed the armor instead, his weight tackling it to the floor as if the suit didn’t have full control while still waiting for Tony to get inside.
The Commander turned back towards Tony, who was trying to move away as quickly as possible, but the super-soldier was faster, yanking him back by his shoulder. Tony’s elbow almost caught the Commander in the face before the man pressed down on Tony with all his weight, hands reaching for his face.
Steve forced his feet to move faster, sprinting forward. His first instinct was to throw his shield but he didn’t want to let go of it when their enemy could handle it with the same knowledge he did. He came to regret it a second later when the Commander reached his goal and pressed the tiny disk-device against the side of Tony’s face.
The effect was immediate: Tony screamed and jerked, then went completely still.
Steve had led troops into battle in dozens of missions before his long sleep in the ice. He knew the signs when victory began slipping from their grasp, the momentum tilting in their enemy’s favor – and losing his only advantage in this battle was a sure sign that if he did not act swiftly, they were not going to recover.
With a yell of determination, Steve tackled the Commander, forcing the man off Tony’s unmoving form. His opponent grunted and hissed, rolling to recover his balance, and Steve quickly did the same, backing up, shield raised between them as he remained crouched beside Tony.
He chanced a quick look at the man. “What did you do to him?!” he demanded, eyes on the Commander; he could not afford to let him out of his sight, knowing such a mistake would cost him dearly.
“He’s merely unconscious,” the Commander replied, rising to his feet. “I didn’t come here to fight you, but if you refuse to get out of my way…” he threatened, taking a few slow steps towards Steve.
Knowing that he needed to even out the playfield, Steve got to his feet. He could do nothing for Tony right now – not before he had subdued the threat standing before him. “If you know me at all – which I think you do – you’ll know that I won’t budge an inch,” Steve promised.
A hard smile countered his words. “We can do this all day,” the Commander agreed. “However, I don’t intend to make this last.”
The fingers of Steve’s shield arm tightened into a fist. “We’ll see,” he vowed.
With a sneer, the Commander attacked. Steve met him head on, thrusting his shield and shoulder up as he dodged lower, throwing the other’s body up and over. Most men would have crashed down, but the Commander reacted just in time to grip the edge of Steve’s shield. That resulted in both of them falling down, Steve’s left forearm flaring with pain as his opponent used the shield to twist his arm while his legs wrapped around Steve’s body.
Knowing he needed to get free and fast, Steve wriggled his arm free of the shield’s straps and fought to turn around in the other’s hold, punching before he could even see his target.
The Commander parried the strike but wasted precious seconds tossing Steve’s shield to the side, unable to block the next punch. Steve didn’t let up, his advantage shaky at best. Beneath him the Commander snarled, trying to catch one of his hands – then Steve felt his lower body shifting and the Commander boosted his lower half off the floor, one knee almost catching the side of Steve’s head.
Rolling to the side to avoid being caught in a hold that might break him, Steve struggled to his feet and advanced, knowing that he had the upper hand until the Commander got to his feet. He fully intended to use that against him, but the Commander surprised him by not even attempting to get fully upright, instead ramming his body towards Steve’s while he was barely on his knees, almost tackling him back to the floor.
He kept his footing but something seriously hurt in his gut at the impact, signaling to Steve that he probably had injuries from their first round that required medical attention. Hell, it was possible the shotgun wounds were still acting up, seeing as it wasn’t that long ago he was lying in a hospital bed.
With his reaction time lagging, the Commander seized the opportunity and without hesitation or a flicker of sympathy elbowed Steve in the groin. Without a uniform to absorb some of the blow, the pain brought Steve to his knees – just in time for the Commander to stand and deliver one last kick to his head that sent him to the floor, the world spinning violently.
“You got in my way, Captain,” the man told him, almost as if he regretted their fight. “Should we cross paths in the future, do not make the same mistake.”
Steve saw his boot swinging towards him before he felt the heat of pain on his face and neck and everything went dark, swallowing the pain with it.
to be continued…
Chapter 6: The Armor
His equivalent in this world was tough, but Steve was on a mission and he would not be deterred. Once the Captain lay still on the floor, blood running down his face, he turned to fetch his shield and his prize – only to realize all opposition had not yet been overcome: the armor he had tackled to the floor was leaning over Tony Stark’s still form.
With a growl of frustration, Steve looked around for his shield. He located it – still laying where he’d left it on the other side of the room after setting his trap for the Captain while Tony was still hiding in his lab.
While Tony’s armors did not often act on their own, he knew of J.A.R.V.I.S. and that the AI could make independent choices. There had been instances where Tony had been incapacitated and J.A.R.V.I.S. had shown his true colors and capabilities; the AI was capable of truly astonishing levels of destruction, all of it precise and calculated in order to reach the intended goal.
Not knowing how the J.A.R.V.I.S. of this world matched the one he had dealt with, Steve chose the next best thing and slowly walked over to the Captain’s fallen shield, picking it up. Identical to his own in weight and shape if not the paint job, it would work just as well as his own.
As he began to approach the armor, the helmet turned towards him, making it abundantly clear his presence had been noted. “Deactivate the Tranq-Ex,” the AI demanded through the armor’s speakers.
“Can’t do that yet,” Steve replied, moving closer.
“Cannot or will not?” J.A.R.V.I.S. challenged, the armor standing up and facing him. The repulsors whined, coming to life in blatant threat, and the right arm rose in one of Tony’s signature poses, ready to fire.
Briefly he wondered if Tony and the Captain had ever really fought each other. Did J.A.R.V.I.S. know how to best counter his attacks, or would Steve be facing a standard pattern detection? There was no way of knowing and he had wasted enough time on his copy as it was.
“I’m taking him with me,” Steve announced. “You can try to stop me, but you will fail.”
The AI did not reply verbally, firing instead. Steve brought up the shield, the blast bouncing off it, striking the armor in the shoulder, forcing it to take a step back and stumble in order not to land on top of Tony’s unconscious body.
Taking the opening, Steve charged, slamming shield first into the armor’s chest, barreling them both down to the floor. Without hesitation, knowing he might get shot or shocked at any second, he lifted the shield and turned it on its side, hands squeezing the edges hard as he brought it down against the armor’s chest, just beside the arc reactor, seeking to severe its connection to the rest of the armor.
He had tried to slice an arc reactor in two back in the day – and had come to regret it instantly. Sure, the following explosion had almost finished both him and Iron Man, but he still carried various old burn marks that ached in a certain kind of cool, damp weather, and there were so many other ways to dismantle the suit without getting both of them killed.
Not that there was a pilot inside right now, and he could not afford to forget that: man and machine moved differently. That was why the armor’s hand came up to punch him to the side, almost dislocating his jaw; he may have caused damage, but J.A.R.V.I.S. was much harder to shock and surprise than his creator, and the AI’s response time was that of an intelligent, sentient program.
With a deep gash in its chest spitting sparks, the armor got to its knees and then to its feet, aiming at Steve again, firing a repulsor. Steve twisted his body, getting the shield between himself and the blast just in time. The repulsor blast rebounded and hit a wall, carving a deep hole into it.
J.A.R.V.I.S. decided not to shoot at him for a third time, learning from his previous two attempts. It was more than could be said for Tony, who had spent countless battles tirelessly attempting to get past Steve’s defenses – even though Cap’s use of his shield had been legendary since WWII.
Some people never learned – or they thought that if they kept pounding on the unyielding obstacle long enough, it would eventually yield.
Steve was not about to wait that long, knowing that if he went head-to-head with J.A.R.V.I.S., he would lose.
Knowing it was a risk, not knowing how well aware the AI was of his fighting tactics, Steve sent the shield flying. It collided with the armor’s forehead before bouncing against the ceiling and back to his hand when he moved to the side to catch it. Then he sent it flying again, this time catching the armor’s knee with it, almost sending it tumbling down.
Third time, the armor tried to catch the shield, but was too slow to do more than scrape against the metal disc.
Smiling, Steve moved to intercept the shield once more – then sent it flying with much more force, right at the armor’s faceplate. While he knew J.A.R.V.I.S. could use the cameras in the room, the AI was likely to rely more on the sensors of the armor, and that put him into a similar position as a human pilot: reflexively, the armor’s arms moved up to block the shield.
It was too late to stop the projectile from striking its mark, sending the armor stumbling back, and Steve turned and ran, knowing this was his chance to go and fetch his own shield. As similar as the borrowed shield was, it was not the same, and besides, two weapons were always better than one.
He heard the Captain’s shield being flung to the side and the armor moving back to its feet – then taking flight. That surprised him, making his steps falter slightly, but he still continued on towards his shield, bending down to fetch it from the floor and turning around to face the armor which was now hovering in the relatively tight space of the room. What advantage J.A.R.V.I.S. thought he would have by flying, Steve did not know, but he had defeated Iron Man on open ground and he could do so in the confines of an enclosed space, especially when he knew the AI would try to avoid damaging the building around them.
The gash on the armor’s chest was still spitting sparks every now and then, but it seemed J.A.R.V.I.S. had contained the damage. It was also possible this armor was a stronger design, seeing as this Tony clearly didn’t rely on Extremis as much as his Tony had.
Steve decided it didn’t matter: he fought to win, to get back what he had lost, and no one would stand in his way as long as he was still breathing. He had come this far – had crossed the barrier between two realities – and he could almost taste Tony’s skin under his lips…
The telltale whine of a repulsor warned him before the armor fired at him again, giving him ample time to get out of the way. Another shot followed, almost grazing his shin, and Steve decided he had wasted enough time; the armor had a certain advantage at being airborne, even indoors, and they could continue the game of hit-and-miss until the Captain stirred and Tranq-Ex ran out of juice.
Steve was not about to lose this chance to reunite with his lover. He had come too far, burned the bridges behind him, and besides, Steve Rogers never gave up. Not as a 90-pound asthmatic weakling, and not as a 240-pound serum-enhanced soldier.
‘You gave up when you rolled onto your back for HYDRA, spread your legs, and stopped thinking of America.’ Tony had told him that once, in the moment of his own defeat, his armor broken as he lie on the ground, bloodied and full of spite. Steve had hit him, feeling angry – feeling ashamed – and relished the taste of copper as he had kissed Tony for the first time.
He had tried to fuck the fight out of Tony, but no matter how hard, the words had always been at the tip of Tony’s tongue, ready to remind him of his shortcomings, of what he had allowed HYDRA to twist him into over the years.
The poison in Tony’s words had not weakened even when his insults had grown father apart; stinging remarks had been exchanged for gentler reminders of his downfall, and for a time Steve had preferred the words filled with hatred and disdain. Tony’s anger had always been easier to dismiss than his true feelings.
With Tony’s death, Steve felt like he had lost the only chance at ever reclaiming the man he used to be. He hadn’t known whether that was even possible anymore, nor had he truly considered atonement, but there had been a small seed growing in the recesses of his mind that would have eventually blossomed into a choice to cut ties with HYDRA, even if it meant a life on the run or being forced to destroy HYDRA in its entirety to ensure his own survival.
Without Tony’s influence, he never would have grown to challenge HYDRA’s conditioning. Serving HYDRA’s cause hadn’t made his life intolerable. However, if they had thought removing Tony from the equation would make him fall back in line, they were sorely mistaken.
HYDRA ought to be thankful the Tesseract had transported him into a different world, because otherwise he would have burned them to the ground after reuniting with Tony. In this world, his counterpart had already finished the job for him – an added bonus to the fact that he had Tony within his grasp once more.
His resolve had never been harder: not HYDRA, Captain America, nor J.A.R.V.I.S. were going to stand in his way.
As the Iron Man armor fired at him once more, Steve dodged and leapt, one foot landing on an upturned couch, boosting him up. He spun as he jumped, sending the shield flying, and he saw it hitting the armor on the head as he landed back on the floor, dashing towards the Captain’s abandoned shield.
The armor was not out of the game yet, but the hit bought him enough time to pick up the identical weapon and use it to block the next two blasts from the repulsors as he rounded the room to locate his own shield once more. He saw it on the floor near the hovering armor and raced to it, the Captain’s shield raised to protect him as he set his foot down with extra force, the tip of his boot landing on the edge of the shield in a practiced move that bounced the shield into the air and into his waiting hand without him missing a beat.
It was time to end this.
With the armor right above him, Steve braced himself and jumped up. His left arm, bearing the borrowed shield, arched back and then forward, striking the armor with the edge of the vibranium disc. With the shield digging into the armor, just deep enough to keep him from falling, Steve struck with all his strength and brought his own shield against the nape of the armor’s neck.
His arms ached from the force of his strikes, but the shield cleaved the armor’s helmet clear off its mechanical shoulders, crashing them both to the floor. With control of the armor momentarily lost, J.A.R.V.I.S. was incapacitated. Steve knew better than to believe the battle was won before its time, however: a headless chicken could still run around, and the armor was functional even though its helmet had been removed. J.A.R.V.I.S. would switch to external cameras – or worse, bring up another armor – so there was no time to waste.
Steve dug into his pocket, ignoring the throbbing pain in his muscles. He would have time to recover once this was over, and allowing physical pain to interfere with a mission had long since been trained from his body. That had clearly been another advantage over his version inhabiting this world.
His fingers closed around a small device in his pocket: an EMP generator. It had a short range and no internal power supply, but depending on the external power source used, its range and effectiveness grew exponentially.
The first time Steve had used it on the Iron Man armor, the end result had been spectacular and fried anything within a five-mile radius. Since then, Tony had devised ways to block it, but he doubted they had anything remotely like it in this world. Even if they did, plugging the EMP into the arc reactor would disable J.A.R.V.I.S. long enough to ensure he made a clean getaway.
He pulled out the device, pressed on two of its sides to prompt it to open up like a flower, then slammed it smack-dab in the center of the armor’s chest. The petal-like extensions flattened out over the arc reactor and tiny little spikes burrowed down through the reactor’s cover like a half-dozen drills, having detected an energy source. The tiny blinking lights brightened and flashed on and off at an increasing pace, the charge growing. Steve rolled away from the EMP generator, anticipating the wave just before it darkened the room around him, blowing up a couple lamps before a silence grew thick around him, steadily expanding as the building’s functions died.
Slowly rising to his feet, Steve looked around, checking the dark room. The EMP had no effect on the surrounding blocks, limited to the building they were in. His eyes checked the Manhattan skyline for the first time, searching for differences, but he could find none that were too glaring.
He would have time for that later; right now, he needed to focus on leaving the premises, and he had limited time to do that.
As Steve’s eyes fell on Tony Stark’s unconscious form, a sudden wave of anxiousness filled him. He crouched down to blindly retrieve his shield, placing it on the magnetic hold at the back of his uniform while he kept his eyes on the prize.
“You will see,” Steve mused out loud, walking over to Tony. “You will see, just as he did,” he decided and dropped down on one knee, sliding his arms beneath the other’s body to pick him up.
As he rose, his eyes moved towards Captain America’s fallen figure. Steve could kill him easily, but taking out a defenseless target usually left a bad taste in his mouth, and he couldn’t be certain at this time that the Captain would even come to oppose him later.
He chose to leave him and kicked the Captain’s shield over to him as he passed it on his way to the door leading to the stairwell. If they crossed paths again and the Captain insisted on a fight, Steve would finish the job. Until then, his double did not pose an immediate threat.
Maybe he just didn’t want to kill himself, simple as that, but the Commander had done worse things and he dismissed that as the primary reason for letting the other Steve Rogers keep on breathing. After all, he had gotten what he came for, and that didn’t involve his double in any way.
to be continued…