So this is how it ends, Tony thinks, as the water closes over his head again. He struggles and whimpers as the water drips and runs down his throat to the magnet keeping him alive. It puddles in the dirt being churned to mud by his kicking feet.
His vision is greying out, and he starts to see flashes, flickers. The urge to breathe is painful and all-consuming, but just as he decides to give in and inhale, he has a blinding epiphany, a solution to his shrapnel problem. It's so brilliant and so far too late to matter. The sound that escapes from his lips would have been a laugh had he made it above the surface.
When everything fades to black, his ears seem to ring with the sound of Pepper screaming his name from very far away.
Tony didn't think being dead would hurt so much. His chest is full of fire, and it feels like he's lying on a scrapyard's-worth of sharp and hard things. Someone nearby is talking, the words indistinct but the tone anxious. Tony's too far from reality to care, until he feels fingers investigating the wires to his chest. Then he has a hand up and wrapped around their wrist in an instant, hard enough to bruise.
“Don't touch that,” he forces out, his throat as rough as gravel. “Don't.”
“Okay,” the person says, and doesn't try to pull out of Tony's grasp. “Okay, I won't.”
Tony sucks in a sharp breath and opens his eyes. “You're American. The terrorists got you, too?”
The man he's holding on to is young, very young. He's slender and frail looking with a pale, wan face, and Tony would know him anywhere.
“Terrorists?” Steve Rogers asks, with confusion.
“Oh shit, I really am dead, and there's an afterlife, and it sucks,” Tony moans.
“I don't think we're dead,” Rogers says. “I mean, I thought maybe, when I woke up, but I'm hungry, and I hurt. I was in a machine and there was an explosion, but I'm not dead. Maybe we've been taken by the enemy?”
“If you say by Nazis, I swear I'm gonna laugh in your face, because that is so three quarters of a century ago. Jesus, I hurt. I don't just want a scotch, I want the whole fucking bottle. Help me up, kid.”
Rogers looks annoyed, but he's gentle enough as he helps Tony upright. Tony blinks in confusion at his surroundings, at the poured cement floors, the flickering fluorescent tubes and smashed cabinets.
“Huh. Well, Dorothy, we're not in Afghanistan any more,” Tony says.
Rogers' face screws up. “I don't think that's the line,” he says.
“Missing the point, Cap. We're both not where we were before. Get with the program.”
“I'm not a Captain, I just got through Basic,” Rogers says.
“Stop taking what I say literally, Rogers; it's boring,” Tony says, cuddling his car battery close.
“You seem to know who I am, but I don't know you,” Rogers says.
“You bet I know who you are, my father made you. Will make you. Who knows, you're obviously not you, yet,” Tony says, gesticulating at Rogers' weedy body with his free hand.
Rogers frowns at Tony hard and squints a little. “You're a Stark,” he says.
“Incurably, for my sins, which are many, and are they really sins if I'm proud of them?”
“Yes,” Rogers says.
“Right, you were raised by nuns. I almost forgot for a second, until you started judging me with your face and your words,” Tony says. “I've got a theory, and I'm gonna need your help to get upright to test it. Can you hold onto this for me?”
It's immediately obvious that the car battery is beyond the capacity of Rogers' under-developed muscles to carry, so Tony tucks the battery under his own arm instead, and gets Rogers to bring him a wheeled office chair from nearby. With Steve's bony shoulder to grip on to, he's able to lever his bruised body up onto its padded seat. The car battery sits neatly on his lap, and it's easily the most comfortable Tony's been since terrorists attacked his convoy, which really isn't saying much.
“Okay, right, somewhere around here, there's gonna be a panel with a dial, or a glass surface that isn't broken. I'm a bit hampered by all this crap on the floor,” Tony says, kicking at a spanner. It's lying in a pile with shreds of metal, a jack, and a dented body panel from a car. There are cubes of safety glass absolutely everywhere. “So, can you find it for me, and I'll clear a path to it, rather than me just choking up my wheels for no reason?”
“A dial, you say? Like on a radio?” Rogers says, walking the perimeter of the room.
“Yeah, let's go with that,” Tony says, taking the moment free from Rogers' scrutiny to breathe fast and have a quiet meltdown. He fists his shaking hands and stares down at the battery keeping him alive. Well, at least he knows how to solve that problem, and if his hunch is right, it'll be a lot easier than he feared.
“Mr Stark?” Rogers says, cutting through the ringing in Tony's ears. “I think I found something.”
Tony sweeps the floor between him and Rogers with his feet as he shuffles close. Rogers helps by pushing aside a fallen desk that looks like it was once a workstation. And there, there it is, instantly familiar but unfamiliar all at once. Tony's breath leaves him in a rush.
“Are you all right?” Rogers asks, and from his expression, Tony looks just as shaky as he feels.
“I'm fine, better than fine, I'm just gonna need to stand up,” Tony says, and Rogers reaches for the battery. “No, I've got it, I just might need to grab hold of you if my legs give out, so stay close.”
Rogers offers him a hand anyway, and Tony takes it, because he's got pride, but the world has gone sideways, so, fuck it, he'll take help from his proto-childhood hero who looks like a strong wind would blow him over.
The panel is cool and solid and real under his hand, and it blips happily at his touch.
“Reboot system, authorisation Anthony Edward Stark,” Tony says, and the panel blinks green as the command is accepted.
“Rebooting system,” JARVIS says a moment later, and the relief is so overwhelming, Tony leans forward, his head pressed against the wall. Rogers' body is abruptly against his, his arm around Tony's waist, his shoulder under Tony's arm.
“I'm okay,” Tony reassures him. “We're okay.”
“Sir, are you in need of assistance?” JARVIS asks, and if Tony didn't know different, he'd swear the AI was concerned.
“Pepper, I need Pepper,” Tony says.
“Ms Potts is not on the premises,” JARVIS says.
“Doesn't matter, I just need her. Pepper, or Rhodey, or Obie,” Tony says.
“Obadiah Stane is not available,” JARVIS says, and wow, that's almost frigid.
“Someone on the list, JARVIS,” Tony says.
“Understood, sir,” JARVIS says, and falls silent.
“What's going on?” Rogers says.
“No idea,” Tony says. “But I do know one thing. This workshop, this building, was built by me.”
Tony gestures at the room, strangely familiar even through the destruction.
“I built it,” Tony says, measuring out the words as he says them. “I built it, but I've never seen it before in my life.”
Rogers looks like he's trying valiantly to keep up, struggling to digest what Tony's saying, but he looks frightened, too, so maybe he's keeping up better than Tony thought. “You've lost your memory?” Steve asks.
“Possibly, but given I've got this,” Tony gestures at the battery, “time travel's looking a lot more likely. Theoretically, of course. I mean, there's you; you shouldn't be here at all, especially not in that body, so, time travel. JARVIS, gimme the date. No, I've changed my mind, just give me the year.”
“The year is two thousand and thirteen, sir,” says JARVIS.
“Five years, fuck, five years, definitely time travel, which means there's probably another me running round here, somewhere, that's gonna get complicated.”
“Two thousand and thirteen?” Rogers asks, and there's a definite quiver in his voice.
“Time travel, Rogers. Hold it together for me, please? I am really bad at comforting people. Generally, I just promise to buy them expensive things until they stop crying or leave the room, whichever comes first,” Tony says, a little desperately.
“Did we win the war?” Rogers asks.
“Yes, yes, we won, we spanked Hitler's ass and saved the world, and we've been blowing our own horn about it ever since, because that's the American way,” Tony says, and Rogers actually cracks a smile at that, even though it does look a bit like he's hanging on by a thread.
“You're hurt,” Rogers says.
“Well, right before I was dumped here, I was being beat up and water-tortured in a cave, so it could be worse,” Tony says, trying to smile, but he thinks he falls short. “You look a bit rough yourself.”
“I woke up half under something,” Steve says, gesturing over at the chassis of some kind of vehicle that Tony doesn't recognise. It's not his style at all; if he didn't know any better, he'd think it was alien. “I think I landed, and then it landed on me, because I don't remember being injured.”
“You heal fast,” Tony says. “That bruise on your cheek looks a couple of days old.”
Rogers actually laughs at that, bitterly. “I catch everything, and I heal slower than most.”
“Not any more,” Tony says. “You say you were in a machine?”
“Yeah. They gave me a bunch of needles, and then Stark had a machine with Vita-rays that made me hurt more than I'd ever hurt in my life, all at once. Something blew up, and then I was here.”
“You got some of the juice, but not the whole cocktail,” Tony muses.
“I could clean up your face,” Rogers says, actually reaching out and touching Tony's chin to make him tilt his head a little toward the light. A moment later, he seems to remember himself and stammers, “That cut on your cheek, it's deep. It probably needs attention.”
Art by kerosenesteve
“The first aid kid is in the cabinet to your right, Captain Rogers,” JARVIS chimes in.
“Uh, thanks?” Rogers says, obviously at a loss for where to look.
“That's JARVIS, he's an artificial intelligence. I made him. Think of him as a butler that runs on electricity,” Tony says.
“Like a robot?” Rogers asks.
“Like a robot and a computer had an infinitely more evolved baby that has the power to run a whole building, and the smarts to make decisions on its own and understand sarcasm,” Tony says.
“You flatter me, sir,” JARVIS says.
“He doesn't have a body, if that's what you're getting at,” Tony says, when Rogers returns with a zippered case with a big cross on the side. “The house is his body, and the circuits in the house for the lights and everything else are like his nervous system, and he can control different bits of that system with electrical impulses. You following me?”
Rogers shrugs. “Mostly. The house is automated, and your robot butler is in charge.”
“Close enough,” Tony says. “Okay, that is sterile water, you're gonna want to clean me off with that first, and then that, that's antiseptic cream, that'll stop infection.”
“No alcohol?” Rogers says.
“Only the very large drink I'm pouring us both when you're done. You drink, right?”
“Someone offered me a drink last night, but I couldn't take it,” Rogers says. “I guess there's nothing stopping me now.”
“That's the spirit,” Tony says, then hisses as Rogers gingerly begins to clean the layers of grime and blood from his cheek with gentle hands and dedicated concentration.
“I'm more used to being on the other side of this,” Rogers says, patting Tony's now-clean cheek dry with a cotton ball.
“You get beat up a lot?” Tony asks casually.
“Never met a bully I ever backed down from,” Rogers says with a smile that's almost cheeky. “Bucky's always putting me back together.” His face falls. “Was, anyhow.”
“Yeah,” Tony says, because the silence stretches out, and it feels like he has to say something.
“I was gonna ask if you knew if he survived the war, but I realised it doesn't matter. It's been so long, he probably wouldn't be 'round any more, anyway. I don't want to know,” Rogers says, delicately smearing antiseptic cream over Tony's injury, gentle, even though his voice is tight with grief. “Not yet, anyhow.”
“Okay,” Tony says, resting his hand on Rogers' shoulder. “Those little paper envelopes, they've got adhesive bandages in them. They've got instant glue, so they'll stick to my skin.”
Rogers selects a Band-Aid large enough to cover the cut, wrestles with the little paper tabs and smooths it on across Tony's cheekbone.
“Thanks,” Tony says.
“I think I'd like that drink now,” Rogers says.
“No problem,” Tony says. “JARVIS, where's the booze in this joint?”
JARVIS directs them to the remains of a well-stocked liquor cabinet on the far side of the lab. Tony drags his chair with him, and Rogers finds a step stool that's unscathed for himself. After a few moments rummaging, Tony emerges triumphant with an intact bottle. “Doesn't look like the glasses survived, sorry,” Tony says, breaking the seal with an expert twist.
“That's fine,” Rogers says, accepting the bottle without hesitation after Tony has taken a heavy swig. “You wanna tell me what that is, then?” he says, pointing at the magnet and battery contraption.
“I've got a bunch of shrapnel in my chest, a present from the war zone I was visiting. This getup is protecting my heart. But it doesn't matter, because while they were drowning me, I worked out something better that'll do the same job, and now that I'm home, I can build it.”
“I think I'd just go to a doctor,” Rogers says. “I thought you said we won the war.”
“We did. Different war,” Tony says.
“The war we were fighting was supposed to stop that,” Rogers says.
“My dad didn't teach me much worth hanging onto, but he taught me this - there's always a war somewhere, Rogers. And where there's a war, there's a Stark, making stuff go boom for fun and profit,” Tony says bitterly, drinking deeply.
“He was flashy, but he was a patriot, he was helping with Project Rebirth,” Steve protests.
“He was a mean son-of-a-bitch who only ever cared about having the biggest stick to beat people down with. You weren't a person to him, you were a science experiment, and if the Government hadn't been so damn scared of the war crossing the Atlantic, they never would have green-lighted human trials,” Tony spits.
Rogers is silent for a long moment. “I guess you knew him better.”
“You're damn right I did,” Tony says, but his rage is fading. He holds out the bottle to Rogers, and Rogers takes it.
“Did he ever make that flying car work?” Rogers asks after swallowing.
“At the Expo, he had a car that was supposed to fly. It didn't go so hot,” Rogers says with a slight smirk.
“By the time I knew him, he was more about missiles than transportation for the masses,” Tony says.
“Maybe that was for the best,” Rogers says and Tony can't help but laugh.
“That bad, huh?”
“It wasn't good,” Steve admits. “It was funny, though.”
“I woulda liked to have seen that, people laughing at dear old dad for a change,” Tony says, trying to imagine it.
“Lieutenant-Colonel Rhodes is approaching, please do not be alarmed,” JARVIS interjects.
“Right, just a warning, Rhodey's black, the world's moved on, and black people have equal rights now,” Tony says hastily.
“I have black friends,” Rogers says, like it's no big deal.
“Okay, that sentence doesn't quite mean the same thing in a modern context, but I'll just take it as read that you're not going to freak out,” Tony says.
Tony bites down hard on those last few words when it's not the familiar figure of his friend but something shiny and mechanical that flies into the workshop. It's painted up like a parade float, and there's a machine gun as thick as a rocket launcher on its shoulder.
“That's a robot,” Rogers says, faintly but definitively.
“Yeah,” Tony agrees. He's trying to force himself out of his rabbit freeze to find something, anything to defend himself with, when the mask on the robot's head shoots back, and that's Rhodey, that's his friend.
“Holy shit,” Rhodey says. “JARVIS wasn't lying.”
“Rhodey, it's twenty-thirteen,” Tony says, because he can't think of anything else to say.
“Yeah, buddy, it is,” Rhodey confirms.
“We got hit,” Tony says.
“Yeah, we did.” Rhodey moves in close, his movements slow, but Tony can still feel the power of the thing he's wearing, hear the servos whining and the glass crunching to powder underfoot. “You're a mess. We need to get you to a hospital.”
“It's okay, I can fix it, I had an idea. A miniaturised arc reactor. Attach that to the magnet, and it'll keep the junk out of my heart forever.”
“Tony,” Rhodey says gently. “You already tried it. It made you sick; you nearly died.”
“But it worked, right? If my math is right, and it always is, then it should have worked,” Tony says, desperately.
“It did work,” Rhodey says, taking Tony's free hand and placing it over the light in his chest plate. “It worked, and it's amazing. But it's not the solution for this. You already came to that conclusion yourself. You had surgery six months ago to get it all removed.”
“Yeah,” Rhodey says.
“Right,” Tony says, suddenly more despondent than scared.
“It'll be okay, Tony,” Rhodey says. “You're safe, we're in New York-”
“New York?” Tony asks.
“Yeah, you live in New York, now,” Rhodey says.
“I hate New York, the beaches suck,” Tony says.
“You never went to the beach,” Rhodey says.
“I liked looking at the beach for five minutes in the morning, before I went down to my workshop,” Tony says.
“We're in New York, and we're gonna figure this out,” Rhodey repeats. “You okay, Captain Rogers, sir?”
“Yeah, I'm fine,” Rogers replies. “But like I told Mr Stark, I'm not a Captain.”
“You are in twenty-thirteen,” Rhodey reassures him.
“But I time travelled, or something. There's no way I'm supposed to be here,” Rogers protests.
“It's kind of a long story,” Rhodey says. “And it's probably not time travel, if JARVIS is right, but it's weird enough to be above my pay grade. Let's just get you both checked out, and we'll go from there.”
Tony's hand is still against the glow of the tiny arc reactor. “My tech? This looks like something I'd make, if I ever got bored of explosions.”
“Yes, it's yours, and trust me, there are still plenty of explosions,” Rhodey says. His voice is that special kind of big-brother bitchy, but he's smiling just enough for Tony to know he's not pissed.
“Do I have one of these? And if not, why the hell not, because I want one,” Tony says, letting his fingers trail across the neat seams in the armour plating.
“Like I said, long story,” Rhodey sighs, and his eyes turn a little sad. “C'mon, there's an ambulance coming, and we have to take the freight elevator upstairs. The suit's too heavy for the regular one.”
Rhodey holds out a gauntleted hand for Tony's battery. It's instinct for Tony to shuffle back half a step, to wrap both arms around it.
“I won't drop it,” Rhodey says gently. “Steadiest hands in the world. After all, you built them.” He flexes a hand, shows the delicate articulation. “The suit is more than strong enough to handle it.”
Tony loosens up, lets Rhodey ease the battery out of his grasp.
“There you go, good job,” Rhodey says.
“Jesus, way to patronise me,” Tony mutters.
“Just talking to you at your level,” Rhodey says with a smile. “Captain Rogers?”
“I've got him, sir,” Rogers says, and slides back under Tony's arm again to steady him while they begin a slow, carefully co-ordinated shuffle to the elevator.
The ambulance is private and discreet and takes its time rather than speeding erratically through Manhattan, for which Tony is grateful. If the paramedics are alarmed by his battery accessory, they're seasoned enough not to show it. They just hook Tony up to some monitoring equipment and ask him a bunch of questions.
“Do you have any other injuries, sir?” one of them asks.
“Apart from the shrapnel in my chest, I'm peachy,” Tony says. “But I could go a cheeseburger.”
“He said they were drowning him,” Rogers pipes up from the corner, and Tony scowls when the paramedics immediately start muttering about checking his lungs.
“Traitor,” Tony says.
“I've had pneumonia half a dozen times, and my mother died of it,” Rogers says quietly, and Tony can't really keep glaring him down after that.
He decides it's best just to stare at the roof of the vehicle and submit meekly to the indignities and minor insults of the paramedics fussing over him and inserting the needle for an IV. After all, it's better than torture, and at least in the IV there's some kind of opiate-based pain relief, which is way way better than the scotch had been, even if it doesn't get close to taking away the pain all together.
At the hospital, Rogers and he get separated, and Tony's surprised by how upset he is at that.
Tony gets tutted over by a bunch of E.R. docs who send him for x-rays and blood tests and then stick him in a room of his own, saying that Tony's heart surgeon is on his way in, but he's out-of-state, and they can't do anything but wait and keep Tony stable and comfortable until then. Tony dares to ask for a cheeseburger again, and, unsurprisingly, is unsuccessful.
Rhodey had parted ways with them back at what he called Avengers Tower, promising to return with Pepper, and telling Tony with his most earnest face that he'd get his answers then. Tony's not good at waiting, especially when he's alone and kind of terrified, so it's a matter of simple bribery to get a nurse to part company with his personal computer, a tablet touchscreen thing by Apple that they apparently called an iPad, because Apple still seems to be clinging to the 'if it ain't broke' tenet of naming stuff. Tony may not have his wallet on him, or any real leverage, but he's still got the salesman's smile he learned at his father's knee. With promises of reimbursement, he takes the tablet and dives into the internet, reading up on, well, everything about the last five years.
“Hey,” someone says, interrupting his voyage of uncomfortable discovery. Rogers is standing in the doorway with an IV of his own on a wheeled stand, looking about as lost and miserable as Tony feels, which is pretty damn awful.
“Hey,” Tony says.
“Thought you'd be getting cut up right about now,” Rogers says, gesturing at Tony's chest.
“Apparently the guy who fixed me the first time is eager to have another shot. He's on his way. If you ask me, people just didn't believe him when he said I had a heart, and this time, he's going to take pictures to prove it,” Tony says, and there, that's a smile. “Pull up a chair.”
Rogers awkwardly negotiates his stand and tubing until he finds a way to sit himself down in Tony's visitor chair successfully.
“How are you holding up?” Tony asks, because if his initial internet trawling is correct, Rogers and he aren't just two people thrown together by unknown forces, they're friends, who occasionally save the world, and doesn't that take the cake. His old man must be spinning in his grave.
“I've been stuck so many times in the last day and a half, between then and now, that I think I'm a pincushion,” Rogers says with a grimace. “First, they took a bunch of blood, then they started frowning a lot, and gave me a whole lot of vaccinations,” he tugs his sleeve up to show a constellation of circular Band-Aids on his upper arm. “But apparently, I have what they called an advanced healing factor? So the vaccinations might not be necessary, but they wanted to make sure.”
“Your bruise is nearly gone,” Tony says, pointing to his own cheek to demonstrate.
“Huh, fancy that,” Rogers says, and peels off one of the Band-Aids to peer at the fading needle mark underneath. “That's handy. I guess Erskine and Stark were on to something. I wouldn't have minded being taller, though,” he says with a self-deprecating smile.
“You and me both,” Tony says, and Steve laughs.
“How about you?” Steve asks, turning more serious, concerned, and even Tony's frosty, shrapnel-dotted heart warms a little to this kid who's been dumped the best part of a century from everyone and everything he knows.
“Well, you know, there's this,” Tony gestures at his chest. “And according to the internet, the guy who pretty much raised me after my folks died is dead, my personal assistant is running my company now, and apparently, I'm sort of engaged to her? I don't know, that last one might be BS,” Tony says.
“Engaged, that's good, right?” Rogers says, tentatively. “That you've got a sweetheart?”
Tony thinks of Pepper, thinks of how she's always there, always ready for him to need her, always poised and prepared and able to deal with his shit. On paper, he supposes that if he ever felt the need to marry, she's probably one of the few who could handle him for longer than a week. But thinking of her in a romantic sense, in terms of desire and attraction, it's just so far out of left field that he's having trouble wrapping his head around it. He's never wined and dined Pepper, never turned the full force of his charm on her with intent, because she's the one who's seen him at his most vulnerable, when he's been scared and drunk and in foul moods and fucking yet another girl or guy just for the sake of it. She's seen him when he's not actively trying to be Tony Stark™, and that's enough to petrify him.
“Maybe,” he says to Rogers, because if he doesn't run as far and as fast as he possibly can when he's recovered, maybe, just maybe, it was inevitable that he and Pepper became a thing, and Tony's just never had enough perspective to see it. He clears his throat and shoves down the mental screaming, because it's totally not helping him stay cool in the face of everything he's learning.
“Also, aliens are real, they attacked New York, and you, and me, and a bunch of other freaks in costumes saved the world,” he adds.
“Sounds like something out of a comic book,” Rogers says.
“I think Rhodey and JARVIS are right, I think this is weirder than time travel,” Tony says after thinking carefully and shaping the right way to say everything in his head before speaking. “But I still don't know why, or how. Maybe it was something experimental that I was working on, something that jumped from engineering into quantum physics, since I seem to be hanging out with experimental physicists a lot these days. Maybe it was something alien, salvage of some kind from the Battle of New York that activated unexpectedly, because I'm pretty sure some of the shit in that room wasn't made by humans. Whatever it was, I think there was an accident. That you and I were caught up in some kind of explosion that, I don't know, rewrote us. Rewrote us back to earlier versions of ourselves.”
“I still don't understand how I could have been here and not been a hundred years old. I'm guessing I wasn't, if I was fighting aliens. I don't imagine aliens much respect getting smacked with a walking stick,” Rogers says.
“You were, but you weren't. It's complicated, and a lot of it seems to be classified,” Tony says, with a frown. “The best I can find is that it's got a lot to do with whatever they did to you in Rebirth, and given that my dad spent a ton of money searching the Arctic for you right up until he died, my guess is that you were frozen up there, and somehow someone found you and thawed you out, and either cloned you or revived you. I never bothered to stop funding that expedition,” Tony muses. “I wonder if it was my guys that found you, or some random explorer on a sled with a bunch of huskies.”
“The Arctic,” Rogers says slowly, like he's turning the concept over in his mind. “I've never been outside of New York, and I end up in the Arctic.”
“You ended up in twenty-thirteen,” Tony says. “I think the Arctic's less of a stretch.”
“Maybe so,” Rogers says. “But over seventy years is just so big, I can't seem to get my head around it. The Arctic, that I can. I wonder why a polar bear didn't have me for lunch?”
“Snobbery,” Tony cracks. “They're all about sushi and caviar. You're too blue collar for a polar bear.”
Rogers laughs again, but his eyes are still sad. It's like he's happy for the distraction. Tony can empathise. “I always thought they ate penguins.”
“Only when they're on vacation,” Tony says. “Polar bears live at the North Pole, penguins are down at the South. It's a common misconception. I blame Disney.”
Rogers genuinely looks a little happier at that. “People still watch Disney?”
“Oh my God, you have no idea,” Tony says with a laugh.
“A couple of years ago all the animators went on strike because Disney wasn't paying them fair,” Rogers says. “Well, a couple of my years,” he clarifies. “They joined a union, and fellas from the all the other studios came and helped them picket. I guess they worked it all out.”
“They must have,” Tony agrees, “because Disney's inescapable in the modern world, I'm afraid. Unless they've folded in the last five years.” He taps at the iPad for a second. “Nope, still here. That's horrifyingly reassuring.”
“Yeah,” Rogers says.
“We could watch one, if you want,” Tony says, holding up the iPad. He's reached saturation point for playing catch-up, anyway. He knows that half of what he's reading is PR spin and misdirection and the other half is just outright fabrication and speculation, but there's enough of what he suspects is the truth to make this new world and his place in it completely outside of his experiences to-date. A little escapism is probably what he needs.
“On that?” Rogers asks.
“Yep, on this,” Tony confirms.
“Okay,” Rogers says, and rather than having a meltdown about future technology, he just shuffles his chair and IV stand in close, so he can see.
Tony decides for certain that he rather likes him.
They don't watch Disney.
After poking around on Netflix (which offers streaming video now, rather than just DVDs, awesome), they settle on Singin' in the Rain. It's sassy and sarcastic and smart enough for Tony to handle, and it's close enough to Rogers' era that he recognises a bunch of the stars, gets the jokes and isn't left stranded by pop culture miles ahead of his time.
Nurses come and go. They bring Rogers a bland, institutional dinner which he wolfs down. Tony is on Nil By Mouth until after his surgery, and even the most impassioned bribery attempts don't sway the nurses enough to bring him the cheeseburger he's been craving since he woke up in a cave.
They remove Rogers' empty IV bag, and as the movie spools out, Tony glances at the bruise where the needle sat under the skin and watches it change colour from moment to moment, like a sunset.
Around the time Cyd Charisse is dancing, they inject another pain killer into Tony's IV, and he drifts away to surreal dreams of gauzy bolts of fabric floating in an artificial breeze and unsettlingly off kilter perspective.
When he wakes some hours later, the film is over. Rogers is sleeping all scrunched up in the chair, folded in on himself like origami, and Pepper is sitting on the edge of Tony's bed.
“Hi,” he says, because what else can he say? A couple of days ago, his time, she gave his latest one-night-stand her marching orders, and now, half the tabloids are speculating on their wedding date and the rest are already deciding who'll get what when they divorce.
“Hi,” she says with a smile that looks more brave than happy. Her eyes are red, but her dress is sharp and powerful, and she looks like she's ready for war. Maybe it's the morphine, but she's never been more beautiful in his eyes. “Rhodey had to go and sleep; he was nearly falling over.”
“That's fine, we should probably talk privately first, anyway. I've got what I could from the 'net,” Tony says, flapping a hand at the powered-down tablet, “but we both know how accurate that is. I'm going to have to get you to fill in the blanks for me.” He braces himself in anticipation of the pain to come. “Okay, I apologise for this in advance, deeply and more profoundly than I ever have in my life, or likely ever will again, but I have to ask you, the CEO thing, was that... voluntary?”
She flinches, and he hates himself, hates that he ever thought darkly enough to go to a place where Pepper, Pepper of all people, might have somehow blackmailed him into making her CEO and into a relationship.
“Yes,” she says, and though she holds her composure, he can tell he's hurt her terribly.
His breath rushes out. “Good, that's good. Shit. I'm sorry, I'm so, so sorry, but something,” he waves a hand at the iPad again. “Something isn't right, something's off, and we were never, I didn't, I mean...”
“It's fine,” Pepper says, even though it isn't, it really isn't, and Tony might have just ruined everything. She takes his hand in hers and squeezes it tight, and he finds he's squeezing back. “It's fine, Tony. It wasn't me.” There are tears standing in her eyes, but they're not spilling over.
“It was Obie,” she says, and shatters his world.
“No,” Tony hears himself say.
“It was. In Afghanistan, and then again, when you came home. It was him,” she says, and the glitter in her eyes is vengeful, not grieving.
“But why?” Tony asks, and he is crying; he can feel a single tear welling over and slipping down his cheek.
“Greed,” Pepper says simply. “He was selling to both sides.”
A fragment of a memory from a dusty desert road flickers in his mind, the Stark Industries logo writ large before a shocking splash of pain.
“That's why we stopped making weapons,” Tony realises.
“That's why we stopped making weapons,” she confirms. “You announced the decision in a press conference the moment you got back.”
“How long... how long did they have me?” Tony asks. He'd taken an educated guess that they kept it out of the media as long as possible, and that the mere sixteen days mentioned on the internet was a vastly different number from the reality. When compared to his memory, the math was wrong, but whenever he tried to work out the exact dates, his brain just shied away.
“Three months,” Pepper says, and Tony can hear the hollow sound in her voice, the grief from the not knowing that still persists, even after five years.
“Jesus,” Tony says, breathing sharp and rough. He's gripping Pepper's hand so hard he must be hurting her, but he can't seem to make himself let go.
“Obie used the board to cut you out, and when that didn't get him what he wanted, he tried to kill you himself.”
One of the machines he's hooked up to beeps loudly, and Rogers stirs in his sleep. Tony forces himself to breathe slower, to relax his hand, finger by finger, until the beeping calms down and he feels less like he's going to shake out of his own skin.
“Dummy saved your life,” she tells him, and a tiny laugh bubbles up from his throat.
“Damn bucket of bolts was worth something after all,” Tony says. “I... I didn't see him...” he realises in a rush of horror.
“Dummy and You and Butterfingers are in the workshop the next floor up from the one you were working in,” Pepper reassures him. “They're fine.”
“Christ,” he says, and he's sweating, a cold, clammy sweat of fear and shock. The machine beeps again, and this time, Rogers uncurls, blinks sleepily into the darkened room. When he sees Pepper, he flushes violent red and attempts to right himself, smoothing a hand over his disordered hair. If Tony wasn't in such a state, he'd be laughing at him.
“Ma'am,” he says, then stops, like he has no idea what to say next.
“Call me Pepper,” she says, smiling brilliantly and leaning across to shake his hand.
“Steve Rogers. Pleased to meet you. Should I go?” he asks, his eyes flicking between Pepper and Tony.
“Please stay,” Pepper says.
“Are you all right, Mr Stark?” Rogers asks, looking properly at Tony for the first time since his hasty scramble to wakefulness.
“I'm fine,” Tony lies.
“He's just had a very nasty shock,” Pepper explains.
“There’s a lot of that going around,” Rogers says.
“Call me Tony,” Tony says, because he's getting bored with the antiquated formality, and because he loathes being talked about like he isn't in the room, even if he is skating on the edge of a breakdown.
“Hi, Tony, I'm Steve,” Steve says, holding out his hand. Tony reaches out, and though the angle's awkward, he's able to wrap his hand sideways around Steve's fingers enough to squeeze them firmly.
“Hi, Steve. Pleased to meet you,” Tony says.
Steve smiles like Tony's given him a present, and even though he's still feeling the lingering vestiges of panic, Tony echoes it.
“Likewise,” Steve replies.
Three Months Later
Tony hates physical therapy. It's long and it's boring and it's painful, and even though he made his surgeon happy by letting him slice him up for the second time a day after arriving in the future, it's didn't make Tony happy, oh, no.
The surgeon gushed about how easy the second surgery was compared to the first, about the lack of scar tissue, about the ease with which he was able to remove Yinsen's makeshift device and replace Tony's missing sternum and rib bone with perfect 3D printed replicas based on chest scans Tony had had taken after a minor car accident, years before his abduction.
That last part's kinda awesome and new-sciencey enough for even Tony to get excited about.
But Tony's still tired and still sore and still not allowed to do anything strenuous, with the exception of his physio, which, fuck it. But short of chaining him up in a dungeon somewhere, they're not going to stop him working.
When he's regained enough stamina to get out of bed without assistance, the first thing he does is go down to the main workshop, because he's been on the internet, he's seen all the photos of Iron Man, and he needs to see those babies up close.
The ranks of empty cases are a profound disappointment.
Then JARVIS gently explains the Clean Slate Protocol, and once Tony's gotten past the utter waste of it all, he actually stops to think. Because this is him.
“All right, where is it?” Tony asks.
“To what are you referring?” JARVIS asks, cool and sneaky.
“The back-ups. All my notes. I never throw crap like that away,” Tony says.
“I am certain I have no idea what you mean, sir,” JARVIS says and wow, his AI just lied to him, he's so proud he might actually cry.
“C'mon, JARVIS. It's not for me. Well, it will be, eventually, but later, after, when I've finished PT,” Tony says eventually, when his wheedling and name-calling proves unsuccessful. “It's for Steve.”
“I believe you might find something relevant to your interests in the Rainy Day Folder, sir,” JARVIS says, after a slight pause.
The folder spreads out in front of him in glowing light; thousands upon thousands of pieces of detailed information, from blueprints and revisions and flight data down to energy consumption and minor scratch and dent repairs. It's dazzling and beautiful and it's everything and so much more than he could have hoped for.
“Thanks, J,” Tony says with genuine heartfelt gratitude.
“My pleasure, sir,” JARVIS replies.
With his notes, he's just playing catch-up with himself rather than starting from scratch, so it doesn't take long to draw up a design that'll give Steve what the half-baked Rebirth didn't. It's flexible and nimble, and if Steve takes to it like he took to the internet and mobile phones and using a graphics tablet to draw with, he'll be a natural. He'll be able to fly and to fight and to be a full member of the Avengers again without feeling like a burden.
Tony's got a bit longer before he can get there himself, but that's okay. One thing recovery has forced on him is a tolerance for boredom. Not patience, no, but delayed gratification, yes.
One day, it's going to be him putting on the suit. Today is not that day, but he can live with that.
“Nervous?” Tony asks Steve.
“Got the jitters,” Steve says with a smile.
“It'll be fine, the work is solid, and JARVIS can take over at any time,” Tony reassures him.
“Just, the last time I got in a machine powered by a Stark, I ended up in another century,” Steve says.
“So much sass. You're lucky you're pretty,” Tony replies, because flirting always makes Steve blush. “C'mon, try it on.”
Steve takes a deep breath. “Okay.”
At Tony's direction, he moves behind the armour. It stands in front of him, inert, waiting.
“Atta boy. JARVIS?” Tony says.
“Activating suit,” JARVIS says, and the shell of the armour opens up, allowing Steve to step straight into it. Just a moment later, it folds back down, enclosing Steve from head to foot.
“Well, would you look at that. That's incredible,” Tony says, stepping back to take a better look.
Tony and Steve had looked through pictures of Steve's costumes through the ages, and pretty much immediately nixed the idea of using most of them. At worst, they were kind of laughably gaudy, at best, there'd be too much image confusion with Rhodey's latest paint job. But Tony knew that they couldn't just throw out the design all together. As much as the rampant patriotism of the original costume was a bit ridiculous, it resonated with the public, and if Tony knew anything as well as he knew engineering, it's that you give the public what they want, whether they like it or not.
Steve was the one who worked it all out, showing up one day with an honest-to-God physical portfolio of concepts he'd drawn and inked by hand. He and Tony wound up sitting cross-legged on the dusty floor of Tony's workshop, talking through the best ones.
The design they ended up going with is subtle; too subtle for Tony, but ideal for Steve. It's navy blue all over, with the detailing in a classy silver-grey. On the helmet, the familiar capital A and wings are clearly visible. The wings are stylised and painted on, rather than standing proud of the armour. They're still not terribly discreet, but certainly less of a liability in a combat situation. A thick triple stripe runs diagonally from the points of the shoulders to a central transparent star encapsulating the arc reactor, which glows a constant blue-white.
Art by kath_ballantyne. Click for larger size and to leave kudos!
“How does it feel?” Tony asks.
The face plate flips open and Steve lifts a hand up to look at it, flexes his fingers, clenches them into a fist. Tony's reminded of Rhodey all those months ago, saying steadiest hands in the world, and thinks that's never been so accurate.
“It feels great,” Steve says, and his smile's blazing like a desert sun.
“Power at one hundred percent. All systems operating normally,” JARVIS replies.
“So, whadda ya say, feel up for taking her for a spin?” Tony asks, his most devil-may-care grin in place.
“What, fly, you mean?” Steve asks with mild alarm.
“Of course, fly. This thing is made for flying,” Tony says.
“I thought maybe we'd go to a park or something, try throwing the shield a bit,” Steve says.
“Nup, no way. If you own a race car, you don't just cruise with it, you race that baby,” Tony says.
“Seriously?” Steve says, his nose crinkling. “Wait, you own a race car?”
“I sure do. We'll play with that later. But right now, flying lessons. It's gonna be fun,” he coaxes.
Steve's expression is dubious. “Bucky made me go on the Cyclone at Coney Island, once,” he says.
“See? Baby steps,” Tony says.
“I threw up,” Steve confesses.
“Right. Try not to do that, because I think it'd end up all over your face,” Tony says.
“It did,” Steve says with a grimace.
“Well, then you're prepared for the worst case scenario,” Tony says cheerily. “Just don't loop-the-loop too many times, and you'll be fine.”
“You're not very reassuring,” Steve says, but he's smiling in that excited way he does when he's terrified but eager all at once. It's pretty much a standard response when he's trying something so futuristic to him that even believing it exists at all is a leap of faith.
“Well, sorry, kid, because this is the best I've got,” Tony says. “JARVIS?”
“Captain Rogers, when you're ready, I will assume control of the suit and fly it outside. Once I have travelled a safe distance from the city and gained altitude, I will enable you to take control and teach you the basic movements and commands needed to fly independently,” JARVIS says.
“I'm ready,” Steve says, his expression determined.
The faceplate snaps shut, and the suit moves with alarming swiftness to the open passageway that will take Steve up and out to the open air.
“Captain Rogers has reached altitude and taken control of the suit,” JARVIS informs Tony smoothly, moments later.
“Gimme visuals, audio, vitals, stats on the suit's systems, everything,” Tony says, and the workshop becomes awash with the light from a dozen digital readouts and a live image of Steve's face, alight with excitement, his mouth open. The sound cuts in halfway through a whoop of joy.
“How you holding up, there, Cap?” Tony asks.
“This is amazing!” Steve shouts, his voice full of wonder. “It's so beautiful! I thought I could imagine what it was going to be like, but I was wrong, I didn't get anywhere near. Thank you, thank you so much.”
“You're making me jealous here,” Tony says, half-joking but telling the absolute truth.
“You're gonna love it, Tony. You're gonna soar,” Steve says.
“You bet your ass I am. You're going to have to fly twice as hard just to keep up with me drifting,” Tony brags.
“I'm looking forward to it,” Steve says, and with his newly-gained control of the suit, promptly dives right in to the biggest loop-the-loop he dares.
Steve screams until he makes it back up to the top alive, and even though Tony's confined to the ground for a few months yet, he accepts the shared thrill for the gift that it is and laughs and yells the whole way round with him.