Chapter 1: Present
Germany, January 1944
Bombs whistled through the air around Tony as he dodged mortar fire, sweat trickling down his back as he cursed the weight of the armor that protected him. His guns chattered as he picked off another of the gunners hiding behind makeshift barricades of sandbags and tumbled stones from the ruin around them. He heard more machine gun fire to his side and turned to aim at another gunner, swearing as he caught a flash of red out of the corner of his eye. He saw Steve rushing ahead with reckless abandon and no backup, the rest of the platoon scattered behind him, caught up in their own battles with the enemy.
In front of the battlefield, the crumbling ruins of a once-majestic castle rose, silhouetted against the afternoon sun. In any other circumstances, Tony would have appreciated the scenic backdrop. Today, the thick walls only provoked an estimate of their height and strength, and Tony absently ran force/weight ratios in the back of his mind even as he plotted the gun emplacements along the length of the battlements.
Since the ruin lay on a strategic hilltop with the surrounding approaches clear of all obstructions, there had been no possibility of a surprise attack. Instead, General Fury made arrangements for a special group of Allied troops to assist Captain America in a direct frontal assault. War Machine could be seen to the south, running ahead of the troops and taking out artillery units. Pepper was still on the airship, having told
Tony in no uncertain words that she wasn’t about to be left behind and how could she chronicle his adventures if she wasn’t there? Remembering her flashing eyes, Tony had to laugh.
The problem, Tony thought as he flung himself to the side to avoid a grenade, was that he remembered. He remembered everything the Tony from the other world did, and he remembered too much, too vividly. Grunting from the impact of the shock wave, he took to the air. He didn't have far to go to catch up with Steve, and although he'd be more of a target flying, it would be quicker. His gaze flicking across the combat raging below him, he admitted to himself that he was absolutely terrified. Not of injury or death - not for himself, anyway, although he would of course prefer to avoid both of those things - but for Steve. He only possessed the other Tony's knowledge of Steve's stories and the man's own research, but Tony could recall every detail of that information. He knew exactly which battle this was.
In the other world, this battle cost Steve everything he loved.
Seeing the castle before him, Tony pulled up sharply, banking to his left in order to avoid a mortar shell and sent a quick burst of fire at another machine gunner. He heard a scream, muffled amongst the echoing reverberation of gunfire and explosions and screams and moans from the injured and dying, and felt grim satisfaction that he had hit his target. He reminded himself for the thousandth time they were only targets - that was all they could be. If he began thinking of them as people, with loved ones and lives beyond the targeting and firing of a gun, he would never be able to do what he needed to do.
As Tony looped around, he thanked god he had at least been able to adapt some of the rocketry designs from the other world to use with the armor. Without the ability of flight, his part in the battle would have already been over. The new metal alloys making the suit lighter and more mobile didn't hurt either, but it was primarily the flight capability that had made Iron Man such a valuable ally to Captain America over the last few years of surprise attacks and mission to flush out Nazi encampments and ruin secret research.
The radio had begun malfunctioning as soon as they'd closed to within a mile of Zemo's castle fortress. Through the loud buzzing as his equipment fought to carry the signal, Steve's voice reached his ears.
"-ny, the entran- *bzzt* *hiss* ahead. *crackle * -ing in!"
Tony swore, scanning the area for any sign of red, white, and blue, his heart pounding in his chest when he couldn't find Steve. A flash of movement caught his eye and a familiar wave nearly made him gasp with relief. Then a low burn of anger swept through him as he watched Bucky, smirk firmly in place, casually fire over Steve's shoulder and pick off the Nazi lieutenant standing halfway up the stairs on the inside of the gate. The enemy soldier didn't even have a chance to pull the trigger on the pistol he held aimed at Steve. As the man toppled, the gun falling from his suddenly limp grasp, Cap's shield flashed past, taking out the two soldiers lurking farther up the stairs before either Tony or Bucky saw them move.
Steve paused, reclaiming his shield as it rebounded from the angled wall and looked up. Even through the armored mask, somehow Steve knew exactly where to look in order to meet Tony's eyes, and something inside Tony twisted. If only they'd met under different circumstances, or at a different time... if only they hadn't been so caught up for the last two years fighting this damned war that they'd barely even had time to breathe, let alone think about doing anything for themselves... Now was not the time, Tony reminded himself. Particularly not now, not with Zemo waiting for them, and the rocket... that damned rocket.
"Iron Man!" Cap called out, one hand moving in a casual wave. Tony lost altitude, landing as gracefully as could beside him. The shudder from the surrounding stones as he touched down and the bone-jarring shake he took inside the suit only made him jealous all over again of that other Tony for his world's technological advances, especially the durable, lightweight metal alloys which didn't shake someone half to death whenever they landed heavily. Which was every time he landed, since the suit still weighed hundreds of pounds. At least the servos had been improved.
"Cap," Tony returned, flipping up his faceplate, his lips curving as their eyes met. The flush of excitement on Steve's face was just the normal adrenaline rush of battle, but Tony never tired of seeing it. He could watch Steve's face for hours.
Staring at Steve's eyes, Tony felt as though the world had momentarily stopped, pausing in the midst of the horror and the chaos of the battle, just for the two of them. In their azure depths, he could see clearly determination to do the right thing, to do what was necessary to stop Zemo's evil plot, which he expected to see. The courage and the hint of fear hiding behind it weren't a surprise either, but what stunned Tony, what made him want to fall to his knees in front of the man before him, was the compassion and concern and hope and another emotion that Tony didn't dare examine closely, all written clearly in his eyes, and all of it aimed directly at him.
He didn't know what Steve saw in return in his own face, but something in Steve's face softened slightly and a red-gloved hand came up to rest on his shoulder. The touch couldn't be felt through the armor, of course, but Tony knew what Steve was trying to convey and he allowed his lips to curve slightly.
At Cap's back, Bucky coughed deliberately, breaking the increasingly tense moment, and Tony shook his head, his smile turning mocking. Steve didn't quite smile back, but Tony could see the amusement, and the frustration, in his eyes.
"This is it. The rocket's inside, in the central bunker." Tony motioned with one gauntleted hand, and Bucky frowned. Tony wondered if he'd ever been that young, even at the same age, as the teenager with the goofy outfit and the mask standing in front of him. The teenager, he reminded himself with some bitterness, who was a crack shot with a sniper rifle and trained in hand-to-hand combat by Cap himself.
"If it's in the bunker, how's he going to launch it? I thought you said he was planning to blow up Washington or something. All he'll blow up that way is his own head."
"Cute, kid," Tony sighed. "It's a specially-designed bunker. From the look we got at it from the zeppelin, it looks like the roof rolls back on either side. Besides that, it would blow up a hell of a lot more than just Zemo if it went off in here. It'd leave a crater the size of Manhattan in these hills, instead of these scenic castle ruins."
"So we get inside and stop the launch."
Tony frowned a little at Steve's steady words. With his faceplate up, the sounds of battle all around them resounded, and he wondered how much longer they could stand in the little alcove before the fight caught up to them. The stench of burning flesh and the sharp tang of blood wafted across his nostrils and he coughed, trying to clear his throat of the automatic gag reflex.
"Yes and no," he hedged. Steve knew that Tony knew more than he had let on about this fight. All of the not-quite-arguments they'd had over the battle had made that clear. It wasn't the first time Tony had withheld information gained from his borrowed memories, but it marked the first time he’d outright refused to share any of his knowledge with Steve.
Tony still wasn't sure why he'd refused so completely, except for the voice in the back of his head which nagged at him that if Steve knew what had happened in the other world, he might freeze up at a crucial point here. If it happened at the wrong moment... he would die. Tony had promised the other dimension's Tony that he would take care of Steve Rogers. That promise might not have been specific, but he would be damned before he let this world's Captain America die because of him. Now he understood all too well just what compelled that other Tony to continually throw himself in front of threats to his world's Steve Rogers, and that understanding only made his conviction stronger.
"There are guards between us and the inside fortress, to start with," Tony pointed out, not allowing any of his confused emotions to show on his face or in his words, although he could see an odd glint in Steve's eye as the man listened. "The fight's getting caught up against this outside wall, and Zemo's bound to have traps galore inside this place. We can't just go barging in -- that's exactly what he wants us to do."
"So we send a bunch of these Nazi creeps in ahead of us to set off the booby traps," Bucky said, aiming a derisive kick at the nearby body of a fallen enemy soldier. Steve winced.
"No, Bucky. They're still people, and we can't just use other humans as bait. If we did, we'd be no better than them." Steve kept his words level, but Bucky flinched at Cap's gently reproving tone and his mouth twisted as he nodded.
"So we go in slow and careful, not guns blazing," Tony chose to ignore the exchange, knowing from experience that anything he said would only make it worse. "Let me scan the way ahead of us, and between us, we should be able to spot everything." From the corner of his eye, he spotted movement that hadn't been there before.
The roar of mortars firing and the whistling as bombs fell around them abruptly became audible, even as the chatter of the machine guns on the battlements exchanging fire with the rifles of the charging Allied troops rang in Tony's ears again. Steve saw something in Tony's suddenly narrowed eyes, and let his hand fall away from the armor even as he dropped to the ground, pulling Bucky flat down with him, ignoring the younger man's protests.
Tony let it all wash around him, slamming his faceplate down as he opened fire on the half-hidden soldier who had raised a rifle to take aim at Captain America. From the decorations on his epaulets and the black and purple of the uniform, the colors bright compared to the drab uniforms of the other soldiers they'd seen so far, he must have been an elite guard, maybe even one of Zemo's personal guards. Regardless, Tony felt nothing but grim satisfaction as the man shrieked, one arm flying up as he dropped the gun he'd held in the other, before topping forward out of sight.
"Are you all right?" His question, asked in a voice hoarse from dust and not a little worry, had Bucky grimacing again as he sat up, brushing futilely at the dirt on his chest, but Steve's quick smile told Tony more than a verbal answer would have.
"Thanks," Steve said instead. "Good eyesight."
Tony shrugged, then realized Steve wouldn't be able to see it beneath the armor and waved a hand. "Good motivation." Even as he said it, he winced. He didn't sound like himself, couldn't sound like himself with half-remembered second-hand knowledge bubbling away in his brain, every gunshot, every whiff of blood and smoke, every sight of his partners working together, all combining into a mass of confused emotions and remembered feelings and need to make sure that what happened in another world didn't happen here. He saw Steve's eyes narrow and braced himself for a continuation of the argument they'd been having for the last week, since first being briefed about this mission.
"If you two are done," Bucky said, sarcasm dripping from his words, "We do have a bad guy to catch and a rocket to stop. Somewhere over in that direction." He waved toward the central fortress, its walls recently reinforced with stones recovered from the rest of the ruined castle. Tony could have kissed Bucky for the interruption. Then he could have shot himself in the foot for even thinking that. He snorted and Steve shook his head in amusement before settling back on his heels, shield again in his hand, seriousness setting on his face as he surveyed the open ground in front of them.
"We'll be sitting ducks," Bucky said, breaking the silence.
Tony tilted his head as he took in the scene. From the half-collapsed entrance they were standing in, the wall curved away to either side. In front of them stretched a wide courtyard, its only distinguishing feature the lack of any structures whatsoever. The flagstones were cracked, tread marks crossing them from the main gate to the front doors. Tony thought about tanks transport trucks and missiles and bit back a growl. If it were just the courtyard, it might be okay. Raising his head, he eyed the high walls of the main keep, noting the narrow slots that had once provided protection to archers; now they probably shielded snipers and grenade launchers. The crumbling battlements lit up in irregular bursts of light and noise as artillery fired at the approaching Allied troops. The Armor could make it, but Captain America and Bucky? There was no way they could cross that area without a distraction.
“Slight change of plans, I think,” Tony commented, keeping his voice casual. He exchanged a glance with Steve over the top of Bucky's head and Steve let out a long sigh.
"Fine. But I don't like it, Tony." Steve never liked it when Tony made himself a target, but there was no way Tony was going to let Cap or Bucky risk themselves in a race against bullets through an area with no cover. That was a race they were bound to lose, in a too-permanent way.
"You don't have to. It's the only way and you know it," Tony retorted, feeling the nervous twitch of adrenaline once again rising throughout his body. "Get your shield ready. I don't want you or Bucky getting hit by any ricochets."
He saw Steve angling to the side, tugging Bucky along with him as he crouched, his shield coming up protectively in front of both of them. The vibranium alloy gleamed brilliantly in the last rays of the setting sun, and Tony hoped it distracted some of the snipers in the windows ahead of them, if not outright blinded them. Eyeing the courtyard and the windows in the building ahead, Tony took a moment to plan his route, then stepped out from the sheltering alcove, his guns at the ready.
Almost immediately the impact of machine gun fire had him staggering, the echoes of the bullets ringing stridently in his ears. He did his best to ignore it all, moving forward at a steady pace, returning fire as he could. From the occasional shrieks and groans, he scored some hits of his own, but not enough, he was sure. The courtyard wasn't as smooth as it had looked from the shadows; the cracks and tilted stones from the weight of vehicles moving over them made it tricky to maneuver.
Halfway across the courtyard, a sudden roar in his ears and a ringing impact that shook him to his knees made him realize he'd drawn more attention than intended. The mortar had knocked him off balance and Tony hoped it hadn't damaged the Armor. His head ached fiercely and he blinked hard to clear his eyes as he checking his system displays. Tony frowned at one indicator, hovering in the yellow before glowing greenly at him again. His power should be fine, since he'd run the pump past capacity before the battle and he hadn't been here long enough to run it down too far yet. The indicator remained green, and Tony shrugged to himself. No time to worry about it right now.
His collapse had pulled even more attention to him, and he could hear someone yelling in harshly accented syllables from the roof of the building in front of him, but with his ears still ringing from the mortar impact, he couldn't decipher them, let alone figure out who was yelling. He didn't dare look behind him to see how Cap and Bucky were faring, but he fervently hoped they were taking advantage of the huge distraction he was providing. That had been the unspoken plan, after all, even if Steve still didn't like the idea of Tony using himself as a moving target. It was practical, it worked, and he'd be fine against anything the Nazis had.
A low rumble alerted Tony to movement off to the side and he turned in that direction as he staggered back to his feet. His eyes widened, and then he swore long and low as he headed toward the wide doorway that was his goal. He'd be fine against the normal weaponry carried by Nazis -- but this was something he hadn't anticipated. He should have, since they were fighting Zemo and they all knew now how the Zemos worked, but who could have anticipated a short-range missile being aimed at Iron Man from less than a thousand yards away? The thing would cause immense damage to the surrounding structures and soldiers, but he suspected they were collateral damage.
Maybe he shouldn't have gone out of his way to piss the Nazis off so much over the last several years, he mused as he took out two more snipers. Then they wouldn't have made taking out Iron Man one of their main goals, right up there with capturing Captain America. Of course, the two of them together had caused all sorts of problems for the Reich over the last several years, so his earlier efforts probably didn't even matter in comparison.
A glance behind him and he swore again, re-estimating his chances of survival and finding the numbers low and getting lower. Since they were aiming the missile directly at him, he did have one chance... if his timing were perfect. He stopped, turning to face the missile squarely, taking the opportunity to shoot down a few of the soldiers manning the huge piece of equipment. Unfortunately, either the person actually operating the missile was hidden behind it or it was remotely operated. Considering that they were in the courtyard of Baron Zemo's fortress, Tony knew which option he was banking on.
Turned back towards the half-fallen wall he'd come from, he could see Cap and Bucky now, moving along the wall in the opposite direction from the missile. Bucky was firing in short, practiced bursts, and Tony would be willing to bet each shot found its target. The kid was terrifyingly good with a gun. Cap kept mostly on the defensive, still using his shield as protection even as he managed to overcome a soldier who'd been lurking in the shadows. The brief flash of the shield as Steve swung it in a short, sharp arc that intersected directly with the soldier's head didn't seem to attract any attention. Cap paused, looking back at Iron Man, and Tony winced. Don't do anything stupid, he pleaded mentally. I'm not suicidal and I'm not malfunctioning -- just keep going. A flash of pain passed over Steve's features, visible even under the cowl. Then his jaw firmed and he turned back to the side door he and Bucky were aiming for.
Tony let out a breath he hadn't realized he was holding, and watched the missile shake as it started to fire up. Whoever was controlling had triggered the launch sequence, and within seconds it would be in the air. Tony stood his ground, staring at it, counting down in his head. Hopefully Zemo -- or whichever flunky might be in charge of the missile -- would think he was frozen in place with fear.
Flames lashed out from the rear of the missile, and Tony flipped a switch on his armor. The shaking and the din intensified, and with earth shattering explosion the missile left its cradle... heading straight for Tony.
Tony pressed a button. The thrusters in his boots ignited and he ascended at a pace that tore the breath from his body, sending his heart hammering almost out of his ribcage. The thrusters hadn’t been designed for this and he was aware of the warning light from earlier blinking at him again. The force from the explosion lifted him higher, and his vision darkened around the edges. He fought desperately to stay conscious, knowing that his only chance lay in not blacking out. Sweat rolled down his face and his head throbbed, but he held on. He tried not to wonder if Steve and Bucky had found their way into the underground bunker before the missile exploded.
Seconds later and Tony rallied, drawing in a steadying breath and blinking, then firing the thrusters in the Armor to control his descent as the initial rush of height and speed began to fall. While he couldn't fly in his armor with the same finesse or capability his otherworldly double had, he could fly for limited times. Something like this, where only speed and distance had been necessary without having to judge fine details of angle or target, was ridiculously easy.
Below him, the front wall of the reinforced inner building now lay in ruins. The occasional swastika-emblazoned corpse told him not all of Zemo's men had escaped the area before the missile hit. Not surprising, since the missile hadn't been designed for use at point-blank range. That sort of improvisation made him worry, though; whoever this Zemo had been, he would be dangerous to underestimate. The clunk and shudder that ran through the Armor when he hit the ground made him worry, the blinking yellow indicator making him aware that the thrusters had been damaged somehow. It didn’t matter. He couldn’t do anything about it in the middle of a battlefield, and he had better things to do at the moment.
The fighting on the field around the front wall of the ruin had paused as the combatants dealt with the shock and backlash of the explosion, and he could see men looking at him, pointing, as he headed past the fallen wall. He needed to find out what had happened to Steve and Bucky. The urgency that swept over him as he thought of them was unexpected, but there was no arguing with its truth. Not at this point; he may have spent the last four years fighting against what he knew he felt, but at this moment, on this battlefield, knowing what he knew about it, he couldn't deny that he loved Steve Rogers. Maybe it was a kind of fate, he mused cynically, as he approached the side entrance. The other-him had loved his Steve, and this one a little too, and in all the universes his double remembered, Tony Stark and Steve Rogers were inextricably bound together, for good or for ill.
Gah. When had he become a philosopher? Snorting at the lofty direction his thoughts had taken, Tony stopped in front of the main door and scanned the area with his heat sensors. No heat sources registered on the scanners. He wished he could believe that meant there were no enemies nearby, but after his first encounter with Baron Blood two years back, he knew better. Too bad he had never figured out how to build an undead scanner.
Cautiously, Tony reached out and pushed at the door. The door, heavy oak reinforced with steel bindings, swung loosely on its hinges, opening without so much as a squeal at his touch. Inside was a surprisingly well lit hallway, leading further into the building. Whatever damage the missile had done, it hadn't reached here. Moving silently in the Armor was impossible, of course, but Tony tried to keep the noise to a minimum. He couldn't be sure if Cap and Bucky had come in here and cleared the way as they went or if they'd slunk along the corridors, silently hugging the shadows and trying to avoid encounters with the enemy. Knowing Bucky, Tony doubted they had taken the latter option, but on the off chance, there was no point in blowing any cover they had managed to maintain by forcing his way through the building like a bull in a china shop.
Audio sensors turned up almost to full, scanning the heat and movement sensors Fury would probably kill him for not sharing if he knew about them, Tony bit his lip as all detectors stayed silent. He tried thumbing the radio again, futilely. Somewhere in the ruined castle Zemo had set up some kind of radio interference they hadn't been able to penetrate. He couldn't even call Jarvis to send in War Machine as a backup if things got too rough. Of course, if he went long enough without communication, War Machine would be more than happy to take a break from field support and come after him, Tony's wishes in the matter be damned.
Now, walking down this damned interminably long hallway, bare fluorescent lights glaring off the walls and the Armor, he was incredibly conscious of the space behind him, the emptiness where War Machine usually stood to watch his back in these situations. At least he'd managed to talk to Rhodey into backing up the men on the field while he did the same for Cap and Bucky, instead of Iron Man and War Machine just charging into the middle of the enemy stronghold. Right about now, he really wished he had lost that argument.
Ahead, the lights changed, the hallway curved slightly before opening up, and Tony could hear voices, machinery, an occasional gunshot and someone shouting in heavily accented English. The gun had to be Bucky's pistol -- it was far too light for any of the rifles they had seen the Nazis carrying. That meant that the sharp metallic sounds... were Cap's shield ricocheting off of the machinery that Tony could hear working in the background. Damn.
Abandoning all attempts at remaining quiet, Tony sped down the hallway, his footsteps echoing like metallic explosions against the stone walls, his mouth pressed into a tight line. He had to get there, had to stop Steve and Bucky from trying to take out that rocket by themselves. He hadn't been able to tell them why this battle had chilled him so much when they'd first been briefed. He’d had to turn away altogether from the concern in Steve's blue eyes before he said too much in front of Fury and revealed the secret that they'd all been keeping for almost three years... before he revealed his own secret to Steve, and that was something he didn't need hanging over his head right now.
As Tony entered the central control room, he took in the machinery lining its walls, the catwalks along the far sides, the soldiers stationed along them and the technicians cowering behind consoles, all in a glance. His immediate attention was captured by the large upright shape in the center of the room, the rocket a long, clean cylinder that spoke starkly of death and destruction as Tony's eyes fell upon it.
"Ahh! And here we have Iron Man! All the better to join us now, so that you too may witness the destruction of all that you know and hold dear!" His head jerked up at the triumphant snarl, already knowing what he would see.
Above him stood Baron Zemo, purple uniform and mask firmly in place. Tony still didn't know who the current Zemo was, but the man was clearly convinced that he held all the cards. As Tony took in more details, he found that he couldn't disagree with that assessment: Zemo not only held a machine pistol in one hand as he stood protectively beside what had to be the main control console for the rocket, but he held Bucky in what looked like a fiercely painful grip with his free hand. Bucky was struggling, but with the awkward half-crouching position Zemo held him in, there would be no easy escape.
And Steve, standing in the middle of the floor, shield flat on the floor three feet in front of him, was clearly aware of that.
Inside, Tony cursed as he feverishly ran through options and alternatives in his mind. What good would his presence do if, rather than saving Steve and Bucky, he got them killed? And right now, that's what it looked like was going to happen. No. He couldn't let that happen, he had to prevent it -- he'd promised himself. He was not about to let Steve die before they actually had a chance to figure out what this thing between them was... the thing that they both knew about, had both acknowledged, but had never once acted on. He'd be damned before he let that go without a fight.
"I see the zemo chemicals still have that nasty side effect of megalomania and grandiose plans," Tony called back, wishing that he had a way to edge toward Zemo without being obvious about it. "Too bad that little brainwashing chemical soup seems to bring along a big side dish of stupidity." He heard Zemo's snarl, caught Cap's sidelong look, and wished desperately that he could talk to Steve, let him know that he wasn't just rattling his chains, that he did actually have a plan. Not a great plan, sure, but anything was better than just standing here and watching while people he cared about got killed in front of him and then this rocket blasted off to start destroying the rest of his world.
"And I see that years have not yet taught you that you are not invincible as you claim," Zemo snarled. "Do not think that your armor will protect you, Tony Stark. I do not have to harm you personally in order to hurt you." And Tony saw, with rising horror, Zemo's hand swing around to point his pistol at Steve.
He stepped forward, one arm coming up as he unconsciously began to trigger the miniature missile he carried there. Zemo's finger tightened on the trigger, his aim not wavering even as he turned to look directly at Tony.
"Go on, Man of Iron. Test me. See if I truly mean what I say." Zemo's tone was light, teasing, but Tony clearly heard the steely determination beneath and forced himself to stop, to lower his arm. Dammit. If he could only distract Zemo long enough for Cap to grab his shield, somehow make him change his aim...
Tony flipped up his faceplate. From the corner of his eye he saw Steve's eyes widen, but with obvious difficulty, he forced himself to stillness. Bucky's eyes narrowed and Tony inclined his head ever so slightly in acknowledgement as Bucky's eyes flicked up, to Zemo's hand that held the pistol, then back to Tony. Bucky's lips twitched, and for the first time, Tony was grateful to Steve for insisting on all of their training. Without that practice together, this plan would never work.
"I don't gamble with madmen," Tony said icily, wishing his heart would stop hammering in his chest. It was deafening.
Zemo's hand twitched and Tony almost stopped breathing.
Then Bucky was moving, a blur of motion as he lunged up and forward, one leg rising in a graceful snap kick to Zemo's hand before he twisted around, caught Zemo on the back of the skull with his other foot, then sprang forward over the railing in a controlled dive to the floor. Zemo's angry shout seemed to startle the guards around the perimeter into action, but Cap was already there. As soon as Bucky began to move, he'd grabbed his shield from the floor. Now it spun, with graceful, deadly precision, around the perimeter of the room. Tony saw it knock out the guards around the central console before returning to Cap, who caught it with easy grace.
"Cap! The console! We have to shut it down!" he called, already moving for the controls, his faceplate flipped down again as soon as Bucky moved. Cap nodded sharply, then whirled around, a flash of gleaming red and white all that Tony saw before another guard topped from a balcony behind him. Even now, Steve was watching his back better than he ever did himself. In turn, Tony's shoulder-mounted guns never ceased spitting deadly bullets across the room, taking out soldier after soldier until a strange quiet fell.
At some point, the technicians had fled for their lives. Tony didn't try to stop them. The Allied forces at the front of the castle would catch them, if they made it that far. Their mission was much more crucial and of instant importance: Stop the rocket from taking off.
He glanced around, not liking the silence that had fallen over the room, and immediately saw the reason for it. Bucky was just straightening from beside the body of a guard on the far side of the room, a look of smug content on his face, even as Cap approached him, shield carried lightly on his left arm, his expression stern to hide the worry that Tony knew lay just beneath the tense surface. Between them, they had managed to take out the remaining guards. If any still lived, they had fled.
"Where's Zemo?" he called, scanning the room for any signs of the insane leader. Bucky shrugged and Steve's brows furrowed.
"He disappeared after I got my shield back," Cap answered, glancing around himself for any signs.
"That's very much not a good thing," Tony muttered, closing the distance between himself and the main controls. Casting a quick look across them, he felt the knot of worry in his chest ease somewhat. "These look simple enough, at least." Given the memories he had managed to acquire from his other self, they actually looked nearly primitive, but he wasn't about to start underestimating Zemo now. After his first encounter with Zemo and learning about the chemical brainwashing that made the person chosen to be Zemo both undetectable and absolutely inhuman, he’d spent the last six years chasing after him and cleaning up after his schemes; Tony had learned that lesson.
His hands flew across the console, flicking switches and pressing buttons, pausing to type in the stolen code that had cost Fury some very good men to acquire, and heaved a deep sigh when the low rumbling that had filled the chamber since he first entered it quieted and stopped.
"You did it." Steve was at his elbow, and as Tony turned to look at him, he saw the emotions in his blue eyes and his own breath caught. Then a flicker of movement beyond Steve caught his attention and his eyes narrowed. Steve saw the movement and turned, shield already poised to throw as Zemo reappeared, his machine pistol gone. Instead, Tony saw with a sinking heart, he held a remote control.
Dammit. After all this, all the pain and death and trying so hard to make sure this didn't happen... Tony fiercely cut off his thoughts. It wouldn't happen here. No matter what, he would make sure that Captain America and Bucky walked out of this battle alive.
"Yes, good work, Iron Man," Zemo called down tauntingly. "Too bad that it was all for nothing, ja?" Almost as if in slow motion, Tony saw his finger press the button in the center of the remote control. Of course it would be red, he thought distractedly. The Nazis were never ones to pass up a good cliché.
"Tony...?" Steve's question was interrupted by the sound of the rocket's engines rumbling to life.
"The rocket!" Bucky's eyes were wide. "He's igniting it! But you turned it off!"
"We have to stop it."
Tony felt time slow to a halt at Steve's matter-of-fact words.
He felt as though he were standing in the middle of a thick fog, unseen cotton wool hindering his movements. All he could do was stand there, in front of the console that he'd so easily and confidently made sure was dead, watching as Steve took off at a dead run for the rocket with Bucky close on his heels.
They'd managed to discover enough about the blueprints that they all knew about the failsafe switch on the rocket itself. It was only to be used as their last resort. Tony had sworn to himself that it wouldn't come to that.
Yet here he was, standing still and watching helplessly as Cap and Bucky ran toward the rocket, both of them focused on exactly that switch. The rumbling of the engines increased in pitch and the walls began shaking. Overhead, Tony was aware of Zemo, still trailing self-satisfied chortles, dropping the remote and disappearing through the door he'd come through. If we don't get out of here, Tony thought clearly, we'll all die in the backwash from the engine ignition.
That proved to be the spark that reignited his mobility. Swearing loudly, he activated his crippled thrusters. They might not be capable of getting him off the ground again, but they could catch him up to Steve and Bucky as they were clambering up the ladder along the outside of the rocket. Steve was only inches away from the switch, fingers stretching toward it, when the rocket lifted out of its cradle.
"Hang on!" Steve screamed down to Bucky, the rushing winds whipping away his words. Bucky nodded frantically at him, his fingers white knuckled around the steel rungs. Tony grabbed the ladder, letting himself be hauled along with the rocket on its course as he tried frantically to figure out how to get them all out of this mess. He tried signaling Jarvis, but got another burst of static in his ear for his efforts. Maybe Rhodey was down on the ground, had seen them... but what good would that do? War Machine's flight was limited to long jumps, and there was no way he'd be able to reach the altitude necessary to save them. To save Steve. Somehow, Tony suspected that dying alongside the man he had known he loved for the last few years was not what the other world him had meant when he had made Tony promise to take care of him.
Cap crawled painfully up another rung, sweat streaming down his face from the effort, and bashed in the emergency failsafe with the heel of his hand. For an instant, they all stared at the red light that glared forth from the switch. The countdown had started. The failsafe wouldn’t work now. Zemo’s goal of taking out one of the most important American cities would succeed if they didn’t stop the missile somehow. With his thrusters out, Tony couldn’t just fly them all away; if that were an option, he could just rip apart the targeting system and make the missile explode over the ocean where it wouldn’t hurt anyone. Tony's mind raced, the seconds crawling past as he watched the timer count down.
Communications were out. He didn't know where the airship was.
War Machine couldn't reach them.
The ground spiraled further away with every second.
Tony glanced at Steve, seeing the knowledge written in his eyes; resignation, the grief.
Bucky's eyes were wild, the truth not hitting him yet.
Memories exploded in his head. So many times Tony had sacrificed himself to save Cap. So many.
The one overriding factor in all of them: The world needed Captain America more than it needed Iron Man.
Another look at Steve's face, imprinting it into his memory.
Some things didn't change. A symbol of courage and hope was a hell of a lot more important than some crazy adventurer.
Unlocking one hand from the rungs, Tony jammed his gauntlet into a trigger at his hip.
The flare whistled past, already behind them at the speed they were moving, and exploded in a red burst.
Steve stared at him, eyes wide and confused, and Tony shook his head.
"Sorry." Even the slightest chance, however remote, of surviving the fall (of being frozen alive for decades) was better than dying like this.
He shoved. Hard. Forced himself not to watch as his partners, his friends, fell away into thin air.
Please let War Machine have seen that flare.
A spark of light drew his attention and he lifted his head, squinting painfully against the gale.
Jarvis must've followed them from the minute the missile launched.
Tony allowed himself to hope.
He reached down, past the metal shell of the missile, tearing with the gauntlet, and pulled.
Metal shrieked. The missile bucked wildly.
Tony bared his teeth in a fierce grin beneath his helmet. If nothing else, no more innocent people would die by Zemo's hand today.
The world exploded.
Chapter 2: Past
Stark Laboratories, Autumn 1941
The flash of light made Tony wince and duck his head even as his eyes closed instinctively, one hand coming up in a futile gesture to shade his eyes. The brilliant light was gone almost as quickly as it had appeared, and Tony blinked frantically, dimly aware of the man on the other side of the room -- Steve Rogers, this world's Steve -- doing the same. And, part of his mind noted, probably using that same light as the excuse for the tears that Tony could see on his face.
Damn. He'd promised that other-world version of himself that he would take care of Steve, and he had meant it. Even with just that brief exchange, he'd known what the other Tony meant: Let him play his role, fulfill his duty, do his part in the upcoming war between the nations, but protect him. Don't let him die, don't let him lose his best friend, don't let him get lost and frozen in ice and be left alone and friendless, lost in a future that isn't his, the way that the other world's Steve was. Don't let that happen to this one.
But looking across the room at him, his own eyes still smarting from the shock of light, Tony wondered if that would be possible. He hadn't expected to see the look of heartbreak on the other man's face, and he knew, just by looking, that Steve had never told the other Tony just how much he felt for him. That he loved him. Undoubtedly that was what the other Tony had stopped him from saying, just before kissing him.
The rush of concern and worry made Tony blink. How long would these memories last, he wondered, before they started to fade away? Would they fade? Watching as Steve closed his eyes, obviously trying to regain some kind of control over himself, the flash of anger he felt surprised him. He hadn't asked for these memories, dammit, let alone all the emotional crap that the other-him had dragged around with him. Everything he felt when he looked at Steve Rogers, Tony reminded himself sharply, wasn't real. Not for him. He didn't know this man, didn't have any feelings toward this man, and didn't owe him anything. Except for that damned promise, he thought bitterly. God, he was a bastard no matter what universe he was in. Pushing all of that away for the moment, Tony watched as Steve struggled for control.
Tony suspected that even the sight of him was enough to cause the younger man pain. Not that he could blame Steve for wanting to avoid him because of that, because he would do the same thing if their situations were reversed, but... No. Dammit, they were in the same position. Nothing he knew thanks to that other universe applied here, and nothing Steve knew about Tony Stark applied to him. He struggled himself for a minute, caught between that sharp reminder and the need to get to know Steve beyond what he knew of him from an alternate universe's version, filtered through his own other self's memories of the man. He wondered at the insistence on that, wondered if it was really his want to know the young man or if it was a side-effect of all of the other world's Tony's repressed emotions. That thought made his eyes close as he fought back his anger. When he re-opened them, Steve was still standing in the middle of the room, staring at the doorway that their other-worldly twins had disappeared through.
Clearing his throat, he took a few steps toward Steve, his voice hoarse as he fought between sharp fury and desperate need and wondered which of them, if either, were his own feeling. "Steve? Are you--"
His words caught in his throat as Steve's head jerked up, the openly wounded expression in his eyes taking Tony off guard. It was only visible for a moment, but that was enough for Tony to fall silent, the hand he had started to reach out towards the other man hovering uselessly in mid-air for a moment before falling back to his side. Even as he watched, he saw shutters drop down across those brilliant blue eyes, hiding Steve's emotions from him, just as the chiseled face smoothed, the lines of pain fading as Steve regained some of his control.
"Tony Stark." The words held a hint of the pain that Steve's face no longer showed. "It's... nice to meet you." Steve paused and Tony wondered if he was going to offer to shake his hand. Nothing awkward about this moment, no. He cursed the other-him again, suspecting it would become a lifelong habit to do so. "Do you..." Steve swallowed. "Do you remember the other Tony, the way he remembered you?"
Tony weighed his words before answering, knowing that Steve wasn't going to like his response no matter what he said. After a long, tense moment, he shrugged. He'd never been one to sugarcoat things and he wasn't going to start now. "Yes. Up until the point where we switched places in the alternate dimensions." He saw the frown draw down Steve's brows and rephrased himself. "I mean, until he came here, and I went... there. Anything after that, no. I don't remember any of that." His voice softened a bit involuntarily as he watched Steve take that in, working out what it meant, his throat moving convulsively.
"So you don't remember... me."
"I'm sorry," Tony said softly, and realized that he sincerely was. Whatever the other Tony had seen in the man before him, whatever they had managed to build, Tony really wished he did know. He was more than a little jealous of the time that the other-him had had here, he realized; he had had to work with an already-established relationship in the other world, and now he was facing the same situation all over again. The irony wasn't lost on him.
Something in Steve's face made Tony wince and he wanted to close the distance between them, reach out and offer comfort to the man in front of him... but he didn't dare. He wasn't the Tony that Steve knew, and he had no idea if it was really his urge to offer that support. Until he could know for sure, he needed to be very careful around Steve Rogers.
"Me too," Steve said quietly, and for a moment, Tony was reminded of just how young the other man was. What, 21? 22? Compared to my well-past-mid-thirties. He hid a wince at the thought. He was very nearly old enough to be Steve's father, and that sort of thinking absolutely would not help either of them here. Instead, he focused on Steve, taking in the closed-off body language, the crossed arms, the almost physical aura of misery radiating off of him. "You just…you look just like him, and I know that you're not, but I…"
Steve paused and Tony could see him visibly struggling with the words. Loved him, Tony completed in his own head, and held back a sigh. When he had first been trapped in the other world, all he had been able to think of was how badly he wanted to get back home. It only took a few days for him to understand just how much the other Tony had that he didn't, and how much of it that Tony either took for granted or had forced away from himself. While he was jealous of that Tony's support system, he'd been quick to see everything that Tony Stark had, he'd paid for time and time again, in ways that Tony possibly didn't himself understand. Friendships, lovers, businesses, money... none of it had been enough to make Tony forget what he had waiting in his own world: Jarvis, Rhodey, Pepper, the Armor, his adventures...
The longing that struck him now, watching a man that he didn't know -- twice over -- took him by surprise. What the hell is wrong with me? But he already knew, didn't he? Those damned memories, striking again. Not my pain, not my love, not my best friend, dammit. I have to get a handle on this.Tony thought decisively, and shoved away the hurt that welled up at the idea. The notion of not seeing Steve again was surprisingly painful, and he bit his lip. Okay, that wasn’t an option, not if he actually wanted to follow through on that promise to keep the man safe. I have to get these memories under control.
In front of him, Steve swallowed, his fingers clenching, as he squeezed his eyes shut. After a long, tense moment, he said, his voice hoarse, "I loved him." Tony saw a faint line of pink creeping across the sculpted cheeks, tingeing the ears, and repressed a reluctant smile that would undoubtedly be misinterpreted. Steve opened his eyes and met his gaze defiantly, chin jutting out. "I don't care what you think about that, either. I loved him, and he loved me. And you might think that's wrong, but I don't think it could be, because love is something that should be treasured." The words held a faint ring of recitation, and Tony wondered briefly if that were a phrase that Steve had heard from his mother.
"Look, I…" Tony hesitated, wondering how to phrase this. He couldn't just blurt out that he had loved men very nearly as indiscriminately as he had loved women, because that would convey completely the wrong impression to Steve. He wasn't trying to get the man into bed, after all; right now, he'd settle for not scaring him away. But he had to let him know that the question of sexuality was one that he couldn't care less about. Steve stared at him defiantly.
"I think that it doesn't matter who you love," he finally said carefully. Steve blinked at him, then relaxed slightly. Tony decided to press on while he seemed to be on the right tack. "I'm sorry that he couldn't stay," he added, watching Steve carefully. The sorrow that welled up in the blue eyes wasn't unexpected and he wasn't surprised when Steve turned his head, staring down at the floor as he struggled to regain control of himself. "I wouldn't dream of trying to… to take his place." He faltered for a moment, trying to approach things delicately - not something he had a great deal of experience - or success - in doing. "However close you two were, I respect that. That was the two of you. All I want, Steve, is a chance to get to know you - a chance to be your friend." Steve's hands relaxed and Tony felt himself relaxing in turn.
"Because of the other world's Steve, or because of me?"
He blinked, caught off guard by the question. Steve's mouth was compressed into a line, although his blush hadn't completely gone away.
"Do you want to know me because of me, or because of what you know about that other world's Steve Rogers? Do you want to know me, or are your memories of… of the other Tony… motivating you?" Steve faltered slightly as he mentioned the other world's Tony, but otherwise fixed Tony with a piercing stare. Tony raised an eyebrow and hoped that he wasn't about to blow things.
"I honestly can't say that the other world doesn't have a part in this," he said bluntly. "I have the other Tony's memories, and I've met the other Steve." He decided that mentioning he'd kissed the other Steve would not be a wise thing to do at the moment. "But I would have met you even if that transfer had never happened, because I would have been the one working on Operation: Rebirth's security." He watched as that sank in, then continued, "Partly, I think that what I remember of the other world tells me that we have the potential to be great friends, Steve. And partly, you intrigue me."
Steve let out a harsh bark of laughter, shaking his head. "Now I know you're lying, Stark. I'm not intriguing."
Damn it, thought Tony, seeing any hope of fulfilling his promise crumble as Steve began to turn toward the door. "You're wrong, Steve. You're… you're brave, and strong, and you totally believe what you're doing. That's rare, and you… you're a rare man." He stopped, seeing the expression of disbelief on Steve's face, and sighed. "I just… I think we could be friends. If you don't, or you just can't stand to even look at me… I can't say that I'll be happy with that, but I'll understand."
Steve stared at him, obviously taken aback by his frank tone, and Tony was a little surprised at himself. Honesty had never been his first choice, especially when it came to interpersonal relations. Of course, he thought sardonically, look how well that had worked with Madame Masque. The twinge of pain at her betrayal hadn’t entirely faded even after all these years.
"I don't know what to think about you," Steve stated after another long moment of staring at him. This time it was Tony's turn to raise an eyebrow in inquiry at the honest words. "You look so much like him, and you… when you say some things, or when you move in certain ways, I could think… But you aren't him. And it's hard to remember that when I look at you, but… I get the feeling that you mean it. What you said. About getting to know me," he added awkwardly, and to Tony's inner delight, the appealing pink flush returned to the tips of his ears. "And… I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'd like that, too." Tony felt his lips curling in a smile, and Steve smiled tentatively back at him.
"That's fantastic, Steve," and he truly meant it. "I'm sure it'll be strange for both of us, and I'm sure we'll end up stepping on each other's toes more than once," he said, deciding that continuing honesty was probably the best tactic. "But if we're both aware of that, and willing to go with it… well, I think we could be good friends." He held out a hand to Steve, who looked at it uncertainly before reaching out and grasping it. The sudden thrill of heat that ran up Tony's arm at the touch made him blink, before he clasped Steve's hand in return and shook it firmly, a smile on his lips.
"Great. So… I'll, uh… see you around?" Steve asked uncertainly.
Not trusting his voice, fighting the flood of confused memories notminenotminenotmine pouring in, Tony nodded. Steve looked at him for a long, silent moment, then turned and left the room at a pace just slow enough to not be called running.
The door slammed behind him, leaving Tony alone in the lab.
Tony wondered absently if his dress uniform fit him that well, then glanced around the lab and collapsed onto the couch with a sigh. Reflectively, he stared at his hand, tracing the fingers that Steve had grasped with his other hand, and questioned if he had any idea what he was getting into. That sort of reaction to a simple touch… yeah. This wasn't going to be simple. At all.
Ten minutes later, the door slammed open again.
Tony ignored it, caught up in dismantling the prototype interdimensional communicator that his other self had been working on. One look at it had convinced him that it needed to go. Tearing apart delicate wiring and carefully-soldered connections seemed to soothe the indefinable anger that still radiated through him. Goddamned selfish self-absorbed asshole, Tony's internal voice ranted, unable to tear his mind off the loop it had been stuck on since he walked back into his own lab and saw himself kissing Captain America in the middle of it. If tearing apart this damned gadget didn't make him feel better, he was going to grab the whiskey from his private stash down here and drink himself into oblivion. Anything would be better than this confused muddle of thoughts and feelings that weren’t his and that he didn't want.
"My god." The soft words would have gone unnoticed any other day. Today, he froze, then carefully pulled his hands out of the device, untangling wires from his fingers before slowly turning around. The expression on Jarvis' face made the flippant words hovering on the tip of his tongue vanish.
He watched, his eyes a little wild, as Jarvis stared at him, obviously sizing him up, before crossing the room in four ground-eating strides and reaching out. He flinched, half-expecting a punch for some reason. Instead, Jarvis grabbed his shoulder and opened his mouth before shutting it again, his voice apparently failing him. Then he was pulled into the first hug he could remember receiving since his father's funeral. Jarvis' arms squeezed him too tightly for him to respond in kind, so he contented himself with awkwardly patting the older man on the back. Only when he was breathless did he push at Jarvis' shoulder, wondering if he hadn't just received a cracked rib.
"It's really you." Jarvis stepped back but didn't release his grip on Tony's shoulder, still staring at him. "Thank god. I didn't know if--" He cut himself off, and Tony reached out, placing his own hand on Jarvis’ shoulder in turn. He didn't say anything. He didn't need to.
Later, sprawled in the chair behind his desk, Tony took a long drink from his glass and let out a sigh as the alcohol burned pleasantly on the way down.
"Well, well, well." He turned over another page in the report in front of him before leaning back in his chair and propping his feet up on his desk, crossed at the ankles. "That other-me was a busy little bee, wasn't he."
It wasn't a question, but Jarvis answered him anyway. The older man was seated in the chair on the other side of Tony's desk, a pile of folders, paper spilling out of them, stacked on the desk between them.
"I think he had to be," and Tony raised his eyebrows at the tone of Jarvis' voice. Jarvis shrugged. "He couldn't stand boredom any more than you could, but from what you've told me, you had immediate help and hope of returning home. He didn't. I tried to help a bit, but his knowledge was too far advanced for me to really do much but get in his way." Jarvis paused, and Tony cocked his head at him.
"Spill it, Jarvis. What did he do?"
"He fell in love," Jarvis replied dryly, then snorted at Tony's expression. "As if you couldn't tell. Oh, I'm sure it was nothing like what he felt for the Steve he knew at home, but from the first day he met Steve Rogers, that Tony wasn't the same. His motivation changed. Instead of working on that communicator that he'd been so desperate to build for the first few weeks he was here, he spent all his free time up at the base, or with Steve. After Erskine got killed, Steve was here probably just as much as Tony was up there."
Tony made a noncommittal noise in answer and Jarvis shook his head. "I don't know what you're going to do about him, but you can't ignore him."
Jarvis ignored the sarcastic drawl. "Really. As far as General Fury and the government know, you've been their number one aide on Operation: Rebirth. Even if Fury was ready to kill you after Erskine's assassination, Tony and Steve were inseparable. If you cut him off now, or let him do it to you, a whole lot more people will be wondering what's really going on than Pepper or Rhodey."
"Damn." Tony set his glass down, staring at the report in front of him. The photograph clipped to the top of the page taunted him: Captain America and Iron Man, visor flipped up, and both of them grinning exultantly into the camera as a Nazi construct smoldered behind them.
"Oh, only if you count the fact that I remember all of that other-me's memories... including his feelings." Tony didn't bother to hide the bitterness in his words, and Jarvis eyes lit with understanding.
"Exactly." Refilling his glass, Tony swirled the alcohol slowly, watching the light gleam through amber reflections. "I don't know the kid, Jarvis, but part of me's pretty damned sure that I love him anyway." He saw the concern in Jarvis' eyes and shrugged. "I don't. I just have to convince myself of that. The bigger problem is that I've got to convince him that we need to work together. Aside from what you so ably pointed out, I made myself a promise."
Jarvis frowned. "What the hell does that mean?"
Tony's lips quirked in an unamused smirk. "It means that I am a bigger manipulative bastard than anyone's ever given me credit for." He recounted the story of his return from the other dimension, and his brief conversation with his other self, and watched as comprehension settled over his lifelong friend.
"That is..." Jarvis trailed off, shaking his head.
"A mess, to put it very kindly," Tony filled in. They sat in silence for a while. "Where're Rhodey and Pepper, anyway? I'd've thought they'd be tearing down the door by now," Tony finally asked.
"They're still in Los Angeles, following up on that research you promised Namor last summer." At Tony's blank stare, Jarvis said, "Something about an Oriental legend, that's all I know. Magic rings, or soldiers, or some damned thing."
"Ah. Well... give them a call, will you?" At Jarvis's silently reproachful look, Tony shrugged. "I've got to get caught up on my business, whatever crazy things I'm supposed to have done with Captain America, and convince the man to at least try to play nice for a while. Who's got time for patchy cross-country telephone calls? Speaking of the business, I hope that the other me managed to sign my name decently. I'd hate to have to explain away bad forgeries."
"He signed it better than you do," Jarvis said as he stood up, heading for the doorway. He paused, then tossed Tony a smirk. "But still not as good as Pepper does."
He was at his desk reviewing the financial reports for the last quarter when the door flew open. His head jerked up, mouth opening to demand an explanation, when he realized who was standing in the doorway.
"Pepper. It's good to see you again." The genuine warmth in his words made Pepper blink, but otherwise the woman remained silent as she crossed the room, her eyes never leaving him. One of Tony's eyebrows raised as he tracked her progress. "Are we not on speaking terms again? I thought we were in one of our okay swings, but I could be--"
The words stopped abruptly as she slapped him. He blinked away tears from the unexpected blow, letting his pen slip out of his fingers as he touched his burning cheek, his eyes wide. Before he could ask her what was wrong, she put her hands on his shoulders and looked into his eyes.
"Don't you ever do that to us again," she said roughly, glaring at him. Then her mask slipped and Tony saw her eyes shining. Before she could protest, he turned and reached out, sliding an arm around her waist and hugging her to him. He didn't say anything. A choked sob escaped her, but when he looked down, her eyes were fierce, startling a smile out of him.
"I missed you, too," he said quietly. She snorted, and his smile widened.
"You're a bastard." Her voice wavered a little, but her glare didn't. She pushed herself away from Tony and he leaned back in his chair, watching her. "While you were off gallivanting around in some other universe, we had to stay here and pretend everything was fine and act like somebody who looked like you really was you even though he was a bigger mess than you've ever been."
He remained silent, listening to her as she browbeat him, her voice fierce and passionate. He hadn't realized how much he'd missed her until now, her voice sharp and her words biting, and he resolved to tell her that... someday. When she wouldn't hit him again just for saying it. When she finally fell silent, he pushed a glass toward her. She picked it up and swallowed its contents, only a blink betraying the burn of the alcohol. Setting it back down, she let out a sigh, then sat down in the chair across from him.
"Go on, then. Tell me everything." Her voice was calm and Tony relaxed, grateful for the silent friendship that had grown between them. Pepper tapped her fingers on the arm of the chair pointedly, and he grinned.
"Fine, then." He did.
He turned another page in his book, relaxing back into the overstuffed recliner, feet propped up on the ottoman. For once, he was able to focus completely on the story in front of him, losing himself in the words of a skilled storyteller, forgetting his stress from corporate politics and military contracts and super villain plotting.
Until he heard the shouting.
Tony was at the library door by the time the book hit the floor, part of his mind cringing at the sound of the high-quality paper crinkling at the impact with the wooden floor. The rest of his mind ignored that, busy identifying the voice and the location of the cries, now fading in intensity to long, loud moans.
Swearing under his breath, Tony raced down the hallway to the door of Steve's room, pausing outside just long enough to overrule the debate in his mind of whether or not he should knock or just barge in by turning the thick metal handle and swinging the door open. Standing there, one hand on the doorknob and the other resting on the frame of the door, his heavy blue bathrobe belted loosely over darker blue pajama bottoms, Tony felt like an intruder as he stared into the darkness of Steve Rogers' bedroom. Captain America's bedroom.
He could still hardly believe that. Captain America. The Avengers had pulled him from his icy prison only months before, and although the man had seemed to acclimate well enough, quickly adjusting to modern cars and planes and phones and traffic, he still got hung up on Jan's wardrobe, or on Tony's computers, or even just his own speech. The team as a whole went out of their way to make him feel at home, to feel welcome, and they largely succeeded, but every so often Jan would giggle at one of Steve's old-fashioned slang words, or Hank would sigh impatiently as he tried to explain something to Cap -- again -- and Tony would see a shadow in those blue eyes. It was a shadow that he wanted nothing more to do with than to sweep it away, to chase it out of those eyes that should always, always be smiling and happy... Rolling his eyes, Tony forced his mind back to the moment.
Currently, Steve Rogers was tangled in his own bedding, moaning frantically as he struggled with an unseen enemy, hands clenching and swinging as he tried to dodge blows that only he could see or feel. Tony wanted to move forward, to calm him down, but the sound of those moans was awakening something else inside him, and he bit his lip hard enough to draw blood as he struggled with his own desires.
God, what the hell did it say about him that watching Steve in the midst of what looked to be an absolutely mind-blowingly horrible nightmare turned him on? Sure, the moans had lowered in volume to something that he might hear during lovemaking, and Steve seemed to have a habit of going to bed wearing practically nothing, but even the sight of his bare chest and limbs was no excuse for Tony's libido acting up and overriding his sensibilities, let alone plain old compassion.
Taking a deep breath, glad that the rest of the team was still in Phoenix dealing with the fallout from the Red Ghost's latest power play and that Jarvis had taken the night off to visit his mother, Tony moved forward, letting the door close behind him. Normally the sound of the door closing, even as a quiet "click", would have had Steve awake and alert instantly, his war-trained instincts still strong. Tonight, whatever enemy held sway over him in his nightmares kept him from responding even as Tony crossed the room, his bare feet padding almost noiselessly across the floor.
Only when he reached Steve's bedside did Tony wonder what he was going to do. He couldn't exactly shake the man awake unless he wanted to very likely end up with a black eye or two, if not a broken limb or two. A series of late-night conversations about philosophy and literature and late-afternoon ramblings about modern politics and technology didn't exactly make him familiar enough to Steve to be able to wake him without further alarming him. Maybe he should have stopped to grab the Iron Man armor, Tony thought, a touch of bitterness in the thought. Cap seemed to respond well enough to him.
Dismissing the thought as soon as it occurred to him as self-pitying nonsense, Tony knelt beside Cap's bed and whispered, "Steve... Steve, it's all right. You're here, at the Mansion. You're safe." A grimace crossed Steve's face and he whimpered. Tony's heart clenched at the sound and he shook it off hurriedly, not wanting to examine the reasons for the reaction too closely. "It's Tony. You're safe, Steve." Slowly, he reached out until he could touch one of Steve's hands, fisted in the sheets at his waist, with a finger and ghosted a soft touch over it. Steve's entire body stiffened and he moaned again, head shaking, and Tony's mouth went dry. Not daring to touch any other part of the body so enticingly revealed to him, he repeated his touch, stronger this time, and whispered Steve's name again.
Steve's eyes flew open.
"Shh, Steve, you're at the Mansion," Tony said, keeping his voice low and soothing. "You're safe. You're safe."
Steve let out a slow, shaky breath and his entire body collapsed limply against the mattress. He pressed his eyes shut again and said, his voice gravelly, "Tony."
"Yeah, Steve. It's Tony." Daringly, Tony wrapped his hand around Steve's, gently urging the tight fist to relax until he could weave their fingers together, focusing on that so that he wouldn't notice the way that Steve's skin gleamed in the faint light coming through the half-open curtains or the warmth that he could feel emanating from him.
"Thanks," Steve finally said, after a silence lasting several minutes. Tony made a soft noise of acknowledgement, not quite daring to meet his eyes. Instead, he laid his head on the mattress beside Steve's shoulder, his eyes drifting shut as he ignored the protests of his knees at their lengthy stint on the hard wooden floor.
Tony had to wonder, remembering his dreams, whether his other-universe self had fallen in love with Steve Rogers that night or if he'd simply realized something that had always been there, as he knelt there, holding Steve's hand, listening to him fall back asleep. Neither of them had ever referred to that night again, but he -- the other he -- had never forgotten it. Now, as he threw himself into his laboratory and his work and the armor, Tony found himself unable to forget it, either.
The nightmares had been born of Steve's last fight, the encounter where he'd lost Bucky. That much Tony knew, simply from the moans and mumbled names Steve had called out in his sleep.
His Steve, he vowed to himself, would never suffer from those nightmares. He would make sure of that, no matter what the cost.
A week after that, Tony had grown tired of waking up from confused dreams wherein he couldn't tell if Commander Rogers was kissing him or if it was his own Steve Rogers who was screaming at him for risking his life yet again. He found himself staring at his own reflection in the bathroom mirror, razor held loosely in his right hand as he leant on the counter with his left, gazing into his own shadowed eyes. I'm just remembering the other Tony's feelings for his Steve Rogers, Tony told himself intently. This isn't me, or my feelings - just memories of emotions felt by my double in the other universe. I don't even know Steve Rogers here, so it's ridiculous to think that I could be falling -- feeling anything for him. Besides lust, of course, he added, smirk at himself in the mirror. He'd have to be dead not to appreciate that sort of scenery. From the various narrow-eyed glares he'd gotten, he suspected Jarvis was just biding his time, waiting for him to bring young Steve home and fuck him silly, before tossing him out on his finely-shaped ass.
If that were the case, Jarvis was in for one hell of a surprise.
Since he wasn't trying to court Steve, Tony didn't do any of the normal things he did when wooing a lover. There was no showing off the lab, or his fast cars, or taking him out to overly-expensive restaurants. Instead, Tony spent as much time as he could locked up inside his lab, not even letting Jarvis see what he was working on. While he knew that he couldn't reproduce the armor that his other-worldly double possessed, he could at least incorporate what advances he could integrate into this world and he planned on doing just that. Light-metal alloys, cleaner lines, smaller controls, finer response time, lighter weight... if he couldn't actually build micro circuitry, he could come damned close. The armor wasn't sensitive to his thoughts, but with the way it moved, especially compared to the earlier suit, it might as well have been.
Out of sheer perverseness, he left it completely unpainted, glimmering with the unmistakable sheen of silvered steel.
"Tony?" The name, said in a strangely hesitant tone, didn't register in Tony's mind for a minute. Then he blinked, dropped the tools in his hand, and turned around, his lips stretching into a grin at the sight of James Rhodes standing in the doorway.
"Rhodey!" The delight in his voice was real. Last time he'd seen his best friend had been shortly before the inter-dimensional accident and they hadn't parted on the best of terms. Remembering their pointless argument now, Tony felt his smile slip away. Rhodey noticed it, his expression darkening before he took a breath and smiled.
"I'm glad you're back, Tony," he said simply. Tony blinked hard, and then Rhodey was in front of him, arms wrapped around him in a surprisingly tight hug. One hand thumped his back and Tony made weak noises of protest even as he returned the embrace. Being trapped in the other world for even such a short time had made him jealous of that Tony's friendships and skills and resources, but he could slap himself for ever having forgotten this. Just having Rhodey here made him feel better, made the nasty words they'd parted on fall apart like they'd never been said. When Rhodey tried to step back, his ingrained sense of propriety obviously beginning to embarrass him at the scene they were making, Tony tightened his embrace. There was a brief, silent struggle, and then Rhodey sighed and relaxed, and one hand moved up to clasp Tony's shoulder for a moment. When he stepped back that time, Tony let him go.
"I missed you," he said with a shrug, answering the wary question he could see in Rhodey's eyes. Jim raised an eyebrow at him, then looked at him again. Tony's chest tightened as that gaze swept over him, taking in the exhaustion and the worry and... whatever else seemed to be trailing behind him.
"I missed you, too," Rhodey said quietly. "That other Tony, he... whatever was going on with him, he wasn't too thrilled to see me." Tony heard the unspoken weight of anger and guilt behind the words and winced.
"He and his Rhodey weren't... on great terms," he offered. "From what I could tell."
"Seems to be goin' around, huh?"
Tony's lips tightened. He drew in a breath and blew it out again, watching as anger fought with chagrin in Rhodey's eyes. His shoulders slumped. "I'm sorry, Jim."
Rhodey's eyes widened. "What?"
"I'm sorry. I know we haven't been doing real well ourselves lately, and it's because we're both stubborn sons of bitches, and because I didn't want to listen even though I knew you had a valid point. But..." He dragged in another breath, ran his hand through his hair, stared at the floor. "You're my best friend. You know that, right?" The silence that followed his question made him reluctant to look up, until Rhodey blew out an exasperated laugh.
"You are such an ass, Tony." A hand clamped down on Tony's shoulder and he looked up, into dark eyes that shone with relief and laughter. "No, you don't listen to me, and you're an idiot for not seeing the problems that the rest of us see. But that's... you. And I don't want that to change, not really, no matter what I said. You're my best friend, and I love you, and if you ever tell Pepper I said that, I will murder you in your sleep."
Tony's lips tugged upward. "Thanks. And... me too, you know."
Rhodey snorted. "And hopefully that's the last time we'll ever have to have that conversation, boss."
The light in Jim's eyes told Tony that he'd been right -- his friend had needed to hear that, to know that things were right again. Almost as much as he had. If nothing else, having the other-Tony's life in the back of his mind would make damned sure that he didn't make the same mistakes the other man had. He didn't have enough friends to push them away, even with the excuse that it was for their own good. He was too selfish, and not nearly willing to lie to himself enough to make it believable.
"Now that that's out of the way, talk to me," Rhodey urged, taking a seat on the stool across the work table from him. Tony lifted an eyebrow, then sat down on his own stool.
"I thought you said we were done talking, Rhodes." He tipped back a swallow from the glass he'd set down on the table earlier, enjoying the burn of expensive whiskey as it went down. He didn't bother to hide his grin at Rhodey's glare.
"You know what I mean. What happened? What was it like? The other Tony hardly spoke to me, didn't even really fill Pepper in on anything, except for some ridiculous stories about ancient Egypt." Rhodey leaned forward, one hand flat on the work table. "Where were you?"
Leaning back in this chair, Tony stared at the ceiling for a few minutes, pondering where to begin. "Well... he told you it was a different world, right?"
Rhodey nodded. "Something about a... parallel dimension? Alternate universe? Something like that."
"Right. It's this world, but... with a different set of potentialities. For one thing, they're about seventy years ahead of us."
"You were in the future?" Rhodey's voice failed to hide the awed tone, and Tony snorted.
"Sort of, but not really. I was in their future, not ours. Think of it... like a tree. There's the main trunk, and everything runs the same up along it. Then at some point, there's a branch that splits off and goes its own way. That other world and this one, we're two different branches. I don't know when the split happened, but just because that world's current time is farther along than ours doesn't mean that their future is what ours will be." He cast a sideways glance at Rhodey, pleased to see his friend nodding in comprehension.
"Well, then. Once that split happened, each branch went its own way. Thing might be similar in some ways, but totally different in others. From talking to other people over there, I think the closer to the split, the more similarities, and the farther apart we get from that split, the more differences there'll be. There are so many variables that there's just no way it'll all work out the same." He tossed back the rest of the shot and sighed. "It's damned frustrating, honestly. I have all of that Tony's memories, but they're pretty much unusable in any real, meaningful way. The tech level is so far beyond ours, because of the time difference and probably differences in their history of tech development, that most of what I know because of those memories is just... useless."
"Can't you backtrack from what he knew, see what you can do with what we have here?"
"That's what I've been trying to do. If nothing else, the armor he had..." Tony trailed off into a longing sigh. "That won't happen in my lifetime, I'm pretty sure. If I even make it to old age, between the adventures and everything else," he said with a laugh.
Rhodey snorted, then pinned Tony with a look. "What are you going to do about Steve?"
"Steve Rogers. I know there was one in that other world, so I know you know who he was there and I'm sure you already know that the other Tony was a complete fool for the man. There, and here."
Tony's fingers tightened on the empty glass and he thought of getting up to refill it, but the serious look on Rhodey's face told him that any attempt to sidetrack this conversation would fail. "Yes, I knew the other Steve. And I've met this one."
"He knows everything that happened. What are you going to do about him?" Beneath the immediate tension of the question, Tony fancied he could hear actual concern, and cocked his head at his friend.
"What are you really asking me? You seem to care for the kid," he observed, and Rhodey growled.
"I want to know what you’re going to do with him. The other you was all over him, and he was enough like you that I'm pretty sure you'd like to be all over him. Besides the fact that he's dangerous with that knowledge, I want to know if you're going to make it worse by moving in on him."
"Why, Rhodey," Tony grinned. "I didn't know you cared." He fluttered his eyelashes, but his friend ignored it.
"Steve's a good kid, Tony. I like him. I don't want to see him get yanked around. He's young, and it's pretty obvious that he felt more than friendship for that other you."
"He's also Captain America," Tony said sharply. "He's not what I'd call a helpless young thing."
"No, and that almost makes it worse," Rhodey retorted. "You have to remember that he's not the Steve you remember." He tapped the side of his skull and Tony rolled his eyes. "He's not some great friend of yours, or anything else, and this Steve doesn't even know you."
"Trust me," Tony said dryly. "I'm very much aware of that fact." He tilted his head back and stared at the ceiling, conscious of Jim's gaze on him. "Honestly? I have no idea. I promised the other me that I'd take care of him, but convincing myself that everything I remember doesn't apply here is... difficult."
"Hmph." Rhodey sounded thoughtful, but Tony didn't look at him. "That's better than I thought you'd be. At least you're willing to admit that you don't know everything." Tony's lips curled.
"The problem is actually that I know too much," he pointed out. And feel too much, but he wasn't about to tell that to Rhodey.
His friend grinned at him, leaning back and crossing his arms behind his head. "At least you won't be bored. You're a bastard when you're bored."
The next day, Tony finally succumbed to the overwhelming temptation and went to the Army base. He had a bad moment when he had to ask the guard where Steve would be at and received an odd look.
"Funny you should ask, Mr. Stark, you've been there often enough." The guard narrowed his eyes slightly in vague suspicion and Tony gave a self-conscious laugh.
"Well, to be honest, I had quite the night last night, if you know what I mean, and my head still isn't really screwed back on," he said in a low, confiding tone, lips moving into a natural smirk as he winked at the young man. The guard returned the conspiratorial grin, his suspicions obviously alleviated by the story. After all, Tony Stark was well known for his excesses, even if his other world self was living in some sort of self-imposed purgatory.
"Got you, Mr. Stark," the guard grinned, pointing down the road. "Right down that way. Rogers'll probably be in the gym if he's not in Barracks Alpha. Seems to really love tiring himself out in there." The slightly wondering expression made Tony repress a smile of his own. Instead, he nodded his thanks and headed down the road toward the barracks building indicated by the guard.
As he approached, he realized that he was nervous: his hands were sweaty and his pulse heightened as he got closer. He told himself firmly that this was nothing to be nervous about, just meeting up with Steve. Steve Rogers, a voice in the back of his mind said pointedly. A Steve Rogers that you've actually only met once and who is head over heels for another version of you - a version that left him behind when he returned to his own world to be with his Steve. What is there to possibly be nervous about? He huffed slightly, annoyed by his own internal doubts, and entered the building.
At this time of day, it was largely empty. He caught a few curious glances thrown his way from the soldiers reclining on their bunks, most of them reading, but ignored them. Searching for Steve, he very nearly jumped in alarm when a younger man, still in his mid-teens if he was a day if Tony was any judge, hailed him.
"Hey there! Are you looking for Steve?"
Tony stopped and regarded the thin teenager in front of him. A cocky grin, dark hair ruffled, no doubt by one of the passing soldiers, and decked out in full OD garb. Bucky, part of his mind supplied. He remembered - the other him remembered, anyway - grainy black and white photos of the man in front of him. Not very many, and even fewer that showed him in standard Army dress rather than the costume he had donned as Cap's sidekick, but no doubt that hadn't happened here. Yet. If it hasn't happened, maybe I should try to keep it from happening, he thought, and frowned. That seemed… wrong, somehow, even though it would be so much safer for Bucky, would prevent his ever being injured or captured and brainwashed and turned into a Soviet assassin.
"Well?" Bucky persisted, his tone sharper, no doubt at Tony's frown. Belatedly realizing what his expression probably looked like to the boy, Tony cleared his throat and lightened his expression.
"As a matter of fact, I am," he answered easily. "Do you know where he is?"
"Depends," Bucky shot back. "Who are you, and what do you want with him? You're no Army officer, not in those fancy duds."
Finding himself unexpected amused by Bucky's protectiveness, Tony paused before answering. "I'm… a friend." I hope, anyway, he added to himself. "I'm Tony. Tony Stark."
Bucky's eyes widened and he skipped backwards a step before breaking out into a grin. "Really? That's just ace! Steve's been moping around all week, an' I'm sure it's 'cause he wanted to see you. Did you two have a fight or something? He hasn't been acting like himself lately," Bucky added, the words tumbling out almost without pausing for breath, and Tony smiled, raising his hands in a defensive gesture.
"I've wanted to come see him, too, but I've been… busy," he answered somewhat lamely. From the narrow-eyed look Bucky gave him, even the teenager could sense the weakness of his reply. "I came as soon as I could. And no, we didn't have a fight. We've just… been trying to deal with something."
"Really." Bucky sounded unconvinced. Tony wondered abruptly just how well Bucky actually knew Steve. In the other world, Bucky had been Steve's best friend, but Steve hadn't been around long enough here for that to happen yet, had he? Either way, how much did Bucky know about Steve and Tony? Did he suspect that they were more than just friends? As he wondered that, he realized with some dismay that their conversation, innocent as it had been, could be taken more than one way. Not that Steve is anything more than a friend, of course, he reassured himself. Not to me, anyway. The other Tony… I don't think so, either. But I know Steve felt more than friendship for him. Maybe… He forced himself to cut off that train of thought. That was something he didn't need to be worrying about anytime soon. Right now, he would settle for just being able to call Steve a friend, rather than remembering how close the other-him was to a different Steve Rogers and wistfully wishing that he could have that, too.
"Really. But I think we've about got it worked out now, and I wanted to see if Steve was up to hitting the café down the street with me. I've been missing my usual dinner conversation," he said, trying for a light tone. Thank god Pepper had mentioned the dinner routine that Steve and the other-him had fallen into.
"You're going out for a burger?" Bucky bounced on his toes and his voice reflected his excitement at the thought. Tony cursed himself; if the teenager wanted to go with them, there was no real way for him to say no, and no reason for him to do so. Even if he had wanted to be able to sit down with Steve and try to talk through some of their awkwardness… Bucky tilted his head and looked at him, eyes still narrow, before grinning.
"He's down at the gym. Tell the big lug he owes me one." Tony swore he saw a smirk on the young man's face before Bucky turned and left the barracks.
He followed Bucky out the door, hands in his pockets as he thought. He had spent the last week avoiding Steve, and allowing Steve to avoid him just as easily, because he needed some time to straighten out his thoughts. And his feelings, he admitted to himself. Having another him's memories in his head, feeling memories of emotions that weren't his, were enough to completely confuse him on any subject, let alone one as loaded as Steve Rogers. The other him had been in love with his world's Steve for years, no doubt about it. He’d just never admitted it to the other man, and hardly even to himself. All the years spent hiding that secret even while making it one of the central focuses of his life, meant that Tony now had a whole lifetime of memories of being in love with his best friend… a lifetime of memories that weren't his.
It made knowing how to deal with his own Steve Rogers… complicated.
From the little he knew about this Steve, he wanted to be his friend. The last few weeks had at least enabled him to be sure of that much. He wasn't so achingly lonely as that other Tony had been; he had Jarvis and Rhodey and Pepper, after all. Steve was brave and determined and dedicated and absolutely willing to put himself in the line of fire in order to serve his country and help people. Tony admired all of that. They were qualities that seemed to resonate across worlds, from his borrowed memories of other worlds' Steve Rogers. The thought rose in his mind of wanting more than just friendship, and he shoved it away. This Steve wasn't the type for a casual fling any more than Commander Rogers had been, and Tony wasn't looking for anything deeper.
As he approached the gymnasium, he realized that he was nervous. Shaking his head slightly, his lips quirked in a self-deprecating smirk as he entered the building.
It didn't take long to find Steve.
Pushing open the doors, Tony stopped to appreciate the sight of Steve twisting in the rings, body looping gracefully before he released, landing steady on his feet. Tony saw the exact moment when Steve spotted him: His face lit up, smile spreading across his lips, before the truth of the current situation obviously occurred to him and his smile dropped away, his body language closing in again. Tony hesitated near the door, uncertain as to whether or not he should continue in. Maybe he should have just waited for Steve to finish and return to the barracks.
"I didn't expect to see you here," Steve said after a long, uncomfortable silence, his face unreadable. Tony hesitated himself before answering, then gave himself a mental shake. Stop acting like a teenaged girl! he scolded himself. If there's going to be anything between you and Steve, he has to get to know the real you, not this weirdly hesitant uncertain creature that you're portraying.
"I thought… maybe we could go out, get a burger at that little place I spotted down the street," he said, trying for casual. Steve's eyes tightened slightly and Tony frowned, not sure what he had done wrong. After another pause, Steve let out a long breath, then reached for the towel he had draped across the horse, turning away from Tony as he wiped his face.
"Maybe it's just an Anthony Stark thing," Steve finally said, voice slightly muffled as he continued to stare at the back wall, away from Tony. "But Tony - the other Tony, I mean - introduced himself to me in here, too."
Shit, Tony thought grimly. Way to go, Stark - screw things up right from the get-go by reminding him of the guy he lost. Steve turned around again, towel held loosely in his left hand, something in his eyes telling Tony some of the pain he had been suffering over the last week.
"We ate at that diner at least twice a week," Steve finally said, voice low, his eyes steady on Tony's face. Tony winced himself at that.
"I'm sorry," he said, feeling helpless and hating it. It was not a familiar feeling for him. "I just… I'd like to get to know you, you know?"
"You remember his memories." It wasn't a question, and Tony nodded silently, biting back everything he wanted to say. "You remember his world's Steve." Another nod. Steve nodded himself.
Tony couldn't let Steve say what he was so obviously thinking. "Believe it or not, Steve, I've spent a lot of time pondering this," he said, trying to keep his voice level. "It's incredibly complicated, knowing that you remember someone else's experiences and feelings, and not knowing if what you're feeling is really your own emotion or that other person's. But I've been learning how to do just that. And… I met the other Steve, while I was in that other world. You and he are similar, but remarkably different, too. I don't know him very well, although I know how the other Tony felt about him."
He could have kicked himself for that when he saw the flicker of pain cross Steve's face at his words, but at the same time, it had to be better to be honest from the start, right? "Most of all, I know that the friendship they have, that they've had the entire time they've known each other, is something I'm… envious of. And I know that we really don't know each other, but I'm sure we could have that kind of friendship ourselves. And I think that that's something worth exploring."
There was another silence, filled with a sort of tentativeness that made Tony hope, just a little. He watched Steve, trying not to look over the half-naked body that the workout clothes presented, attempting to keep his eyes firmly on Steve's face and tried to convey his absolute belief in the possibility he had just painted. When Steve's shoulders relaxed minutely, something in his face giving way to a sort of relief, Tony felt like shouting; he knew he had won his point even before Steve started to speak.
"I - You're right." Steve swallowed, one hand coming up to rub awkwardly at the back of his neck. Tony immediately swore to himself that he would not ever tell Steve that the other world's Steve had the same nervous habit. "If… if we could be friends…" He trailed off before offering Tony a shy smile. "I'd like that. I'd like that a lot."
Tony debated with himself for a moment, then thought to hell with it, and took the plunge.
"Have dinner with me tomorrow." He saw the doubt creeping across Steve's face and rushed on, "Just a 'getting to know you' sort of thing. No expectations. Okay?"
Steve's face cleared, although he still looked a little uncertain. "Okay."
Tony called after him, "Steve?" He paused, looking back over his shoulder, and Tony grinned. "Wear your uniform."
New York City, October 1941
He could do this. There was absolutely no reason whatsoever to be nervous. Tony stared at his reflection in the mirror, running a hand over his hair for the twentieth time, smoothing down invisible wrinkles in his slacks... generally displaying all the nervous twitches of a virgin on his way to the encounter that would permanently remove that title from him.
And he definitely, he thought darkly, should not be thinking of sex while he was getting ready to meet Steve Rogers for dinner. His lips curled at the thought. The two had been intertwined for weeks now in his subconscious if nothing else. The earliest dreams had been similar to those he'd had while trapped in the other dimension: luscious fantasies of Commander Rogers, or Captain America, or Steve -- however he'd been attired or addressed each night -- slowly sauntering up to him, wearing a knowing smirk on his lips and nothing else to speak of.
He swallowed. Those had been the dreams of his other-world duplicate, the dreams that he could even now remember having for years.
His dreams more recently weren't like that.
No, his more recent dreams were altogether different. They still featured Steve Rogers, but this was a younger, more innocent Steve. No longer the veteran of World War II -- and that term still sounded so foreign to him, torn as it was from those other-him's memories -- his Steve didn't have the command training, the combat experience from years fighting Nazis and super villains and anyone else that threatened everything he stood for. This Steve still blushed if Tony's eyes lingered on him for too long, twitched nervously if anyone swept their intent gaze over them.
This Steve was the current star of Tony's almost-nightly erotic dreams.
His Steve also didn't have the nearly twenty years of age that the other dimension's Rogers had.
Staring at himself in the mirror, Tony's lips tightened at that thought. He was past his mid-thirties. Steve Rogers was barely into his twenties. Even for him, that age difference was an uncomfortable one. He'd be forty by the time the war ended, if their world followed the pattern of the other one that he remembered. Steve would be in the prime of his life.
And all of that, he thought sourly, was beside the point. He wasn’t trying to date Steve, but befriend him, and doing that depended almost purely on Steve's giving a damn about him in the first place. No matter how Steve might have felt -- or feel -- about his other world duplicate or how that same other-him felt about his own Steve, that was a damned big assumption to be making.
For now, Tony would be happy if he managed to get through dinner without embarrassing himself. And that in itself was ridiculous, honestly. He was Tony Stark, for god's sake. He'd wined and dined the most famous, most beautiful people around the world. Why would he be nervous about meeting a soldier for dinner?
Because, he reminded himself sharply, Steve wasn't just a soldier. Steve was Captain America. Steve was, to some part of him at least, his best friend. He had the potential to really be his best friend. Judging from his borrowed memories and his own interactions with that other world's Commander Rogers, Steve possibly had the potential to be his lover.
Right now, he'd settle for friend. The rest was too damned complicated, given that he couldn't be sure if his motivations were his own or if they were being prodded by the other-him's memories. The question of whose emotions he was feeling -- or remembering -- was one he'd already spent too much time trying to answer.
Tony barely kept himself from glancing at his watch for the fifth time in as many minutes, his foot, unseen, tapping nervously against the leg of the elegant table he was seated at. He'd gotten to the restaurant early, and although he would have been happier picking Steve up, Steve's widened eyes and immediate polite, if flustered, refusal of that offer had ensured that he didn't bring the possibility up again. Instead, he was seated at the table he'd reserved a week ago, waiting for his date – no, for Steve to show up.
He tried to tell himself that he wasn't at all nervous about the possibility of Steve not showing, but deep down, he could still remember the stricken expression on Steve's face after their other worldly counterparts had vanished from his lab in that flash of blinding white light. He wanted to get to know Steve Rogers for himself, not rely on someone else's memories of a different version of the man, but he also didn't want Steve to roll him up into his knowledge of the other Tony. The other-him was very much a different person and Tony wanted Steve to see him, not the man who’d left him behind.
Jarvis had smirked at him, he remembered vividly, when he’d mentioned making reservations at this restaurant for himself and Steve. When Tony had narrowed his eyes at him, Jarvis had merely raised his eyebrows.
"Thought you weren't going to date him, Tony." The words were teasing, but Tony could see the questioning light in his eyes and had bitten back the too-sharp words that wanted to tumble out of his mouth.
"I'm not dating him, Jarvis. I'm just taking him to dinner," he had said instead, his voice light and the words flippant. Jarvis rolled his eyes, and Tony had shaken his head, pulled his goggles back down over his eyes, and leant back over his workbench. The hiss of the blowtorch had drowned out anything Jarvis might have said afterward.
"Sorry I'm late," came the apologetic words, shattering Tony's reverie. Blinking, he looked up and rose to his feet as Steve approached, standing hesitantly beside the table in his dress uniform. Steve looked uncomfortable, nervous, but Tony found himself drinking in the way that the uniform fit Steve, all crisp corners and flatteringly tight across the shoulders and hips.
"You're not late," he said airily, reassuring Steve without a second thought. "I came in a few minutes early. Got tired of puttering around Stark and staring at the walls." He smiled, but although Steve smiled back, he could tell that Steve didn't believe him. Probably because he'd known the other Tony well enough that even his brief acquaintance with him was enough to make the thought of Tony being bored with working in the lab laughable. If he could have taken back the words, he would have; he didn't want Steve thinking that he was lying to him from the get-go.
"Come on, have a seat." He waved at the chair across from his and settled back into his own. The unobtrusive waiter, immaculate in his black tie, was immediately at his elbow and Tony ordered a fine vintage to enjoy before dinner. With a nod, the waiter was gone and the two of them were left alone, looking at each other across the table. There was an uncomfortable silence.
"I'm sorry," Steve finally said awkwardly. "I'm just... You look just like him. I keep thinking... even though I know you're not him, you're you, I just..." The words tumbled out of his mouth until he jammed it closed with a faintly embarrassed air, and Tony kept the slight smile on his lips though sheer force of will. This was only to be expected. It was the same thing he'd spent all afternoon thinking about, and Steve was just much more upfront about it than he was.
"It's okay, Steve. I understand," he said glibly. And he did, he completely did. It didn't make it any easier to hear. After a barely-perceptible pause, Tony said, his voice softer, "Maybe it would help if we both approached this as though we'd never met. After all, if you don't count that first time in the lab, or our few meetings in passing at the base, we really haven't."
Steve slowly nodded, his fingers worrying at the napkin in front of him. "That... sounds like a good idea."
The atmosphere relaxed slightly, but tension still showed in the set of Steve’s shoulders and the way his gaze kept flicking around the room before returning to stare down at the white tablecloth. When the waiter returned with the bottle of wine, Tony held up his hand and leaned forward, catching Steve's uncomfortable glance out of the corner of his eye.
"Okay, Steve, spill. What's wrong?" He ignored the waiter for the moment, pinning Steve in place with his gaze. Steve flushed and looked awkward.
"Well, uh... I'm just not used to this sort of fancy place, Tony. It's really... not something I'm used to. I mean, I don’t even know which fork to use," he finally confessed, staring down at the napkin still clenched in his hands. Tony blinked, then leaned back. Glancing around, he took in the expensive wooden floor, the teak and mahogany bar in the back, the waiters in black tie, the low murmur of other diners, all of whom were decked out in silk and satin, the men in formal dress and the women in a rainbow of ruffles and jewelry. Steve looked almost miserable when Tony finally met his eyes again.
"I'm sorry. Just ignore me. I--"
Tony cut him off by pushing his chair back from the table and standing abruptly. Steve peered up at him in confusion, and the waiter tilted his head questioningly.
"Is there a problem, sir?" he asked. Tony shook his head, a grin breaking out on his face.
"Not at all, unless you count my own lousy judgment. Come on, Steve." He reached down and pulled Steve to his feet, dropping a bill on the table that made Steve's eyes widen at the denomination.
"But, but I thought--" he began to stutter. Tony held up a hand.
"Nope, I was wrong. This place is all wrong for this, if we're supposed to be getting to know each other. Let's go somewhere else." He pulled Steve, ears pink with embarrassment and still protesting, out of the building.
An hour later, Tony's jacket lay discarded in a rumpled heap beside him, his tie hung loose around his neck, the top three buttons of his shirt were unbuttoned, and his sleeves were rolled past his elbows at he took a swig of beer, grinning at Steve. Steve hadn't been able to casual down his outfit quite as well as Tony, but the formal jacket lay neatly beside him and the collar of the dress shirt had been unbuttoned.
After some hesitation over the diner near the base, the reluctance written on Steve's face had told Tony more clearly than words that the place still carried too many memories of the other Tony for him. That meant it was a definite "no" to taking Steve there, no matter how good he’d heard the food was. Instead, Tony settled for his favorite bar. It served good, simple food and even better beer, and Steve had relaxed his ramrod-stiff back almost as soon as they had walked through the front door.
"So you were an art student," Tony said, eyeing the other man. He knew all the clichés about art school, but the man in front of him didn't appear to fill any of them. Then again, he had seen the photos of Steve before the super solder serum, but even so... clichés weren't something Tony really believed in anyway. Judging from the defensive air that Steve took on at his not quite a question, they were also something he had spent too much of his life fighting against.
"Yes. I worked on murals and posters and such," Steve explained, thawing a little as he seemed to realize that Tony had sincerely meant it as a question, not an accusation. "And then I got picked for the super soldier project, and, well..." He shrugged a little, although Tony could detect some longing in his voice. He made a mental note to pick up some basic art supplies -- pencils and pads of paper; best to keep it simple for now -- and gift them to Steve at an opportune moment in the near future.
"How did you get picked for it?" Tony sipped at his beer again.
Steve leaned back and raised his eyebrows. "Didn't you read the report?"
Tony nodded. "I did, but I'd rather hear it from you. If nothing else, the report doesn't say why you agreed to it. You knew it had an excellent chance of killing you. What made you take that sort of risk?"
The silence that followed was thoughtful, not uncomfortable, and Tony spent it watching Steve's face as the younger man thought. The slight furrow in his forehead, the thoughtful, faraway look in his eyes, the casual air of relaxation as he leaned against the booth... Tony took in all of it and filed it away for future consultation. He had a deep suspicion that he wouldn't have anywhere near as much time as he would like to have with the man in front of him in the upcoming months. Not if the things he knew from his other-self's memories held true here as well, anyway. He could only do so much to change things that big… But that was neither here nor there; pushing away the unhappy thoughts, Tony waited as patiently as he could for Steve to tell him his story.
"Well... I know it sounds goofy, but I really wanted to serve my country," Steve finally said, flushing a bit as he watched Tony defensively again. Tony waited, drinking more of his beer without speaking. "I just... I felt like I really wanted to do something to help, so I enlisted. Well, I tried to enlist, anyway," he said, mouth twisting a bit. "I got turned down because of my health. I was always sick growing up and was all skinny and pale, so I guess it shouldn't have surprised me, but it upset me anyway."
Tony nodded, silently encouraging him to keep talking. "I guess that's when Dr. Erskine saw me. He never really said, but when I was getting dressed again, some men in dark uniforms came up to me and asked me to go with them, so I did... and there was Dr. Erskine, and General Fury. Fury asked me if I really meant it, about wanting to serve my country. I must have sounded pretty pathetic in the line." Steve's almost brutal honesty surprised Tony a little, but he bit back the questions that began bubbling up, not wanting to interrupt. He wasn't sure if he would ever be able to get Steve to tell this story again.
"I told them I did, I really meant it and I would do whatever I could, whatever it took." Studying Steve as he sipped from his glass, Tony could picture the scene. The thin young man he had seen in the photos, arguing defiantly, almost desperately, with Fury... that would have made quite an impression on the man. Maybe that would even explain the occasional odd flashes of fondness that slipped out of Fury when Tony talked to him about Steve. "The general just sort of smiled and nodded, but Dr. Erskine started talking, telling me about what a risk it would be but what a wonderful chance it would be to serve my country in a way that no one else could, and I just... I didn't have anyone, you know. No family, no close friends once I was in school..."
"No one to miss," Tony supplied softly. Steve jerked slightly, as if he had forgotten he had a listener, then shook his head.
"No one to miss me," he corrected, his voice just as quiet. "But everything to gain, if it worked. So I agreed. I think, if they hadn't been willing to take me then, I would have gotten down on my knees and begged."
Tony couldn't keep himself from picturing that, imagining Steve on his knees, begging... From the sudden flush on Steve's face, some of his thoughts must have shown on his face. Rather than apologize, Tony set his glass down and leaned forward, lacing his fingers together below his chin. "We need to keep working together, you know." From Steve's blank stare, he had no idea what Tony was talking about. "I mean, Captain America and Iron Man, and Steve Rogers and Tony Stark. If we abruptly stop working together, or stop talking, or stop acting like we're friends, people will notice. And if they notice something, they'll talk about it. If they talk about it, someone will investigate. And if they investigate..." He let his words trail off.
Steve nodded, his mouth pressed into a tight line. "Logical. So that's what tonight was really about?"
Tony stared at him. "What? No, no that's not it at all. We already covered this. I want to get to know you." He paused, rewinding his words, and grimaced. "First thing you need to know about me is that my mind moves about a thousand times faster than my mouth. Usually I'm better about it than this, though."
Tony blinked at the smirk on Steve's face, the effect spoiled by the pink tinge on his ears, then burst out laughing. "No one will ever believe that Captain America has a dirty mind."
Lips twitching into a real smile, Steve nodded at him. "Not coming from you, anyway."
As Tony laughed again, he began to hope that this might actually work.
New York City, November 1941
Within a month, Iron Man and Captain America had taken out three Nazi spy nests around Washington, flown to London to consult with MI:13 once, been summoned to Fury's office for chewing out four times, and had gone on nine dates. Not that the dates were public knowledge, of course, but Tony knew. Not that he was counting. Their initial awkwardness around each other seemed to have been smoothed over, although they both still had moments where their knowledge of their other selves caused momentary stumbles. Finding out that Steve wasn't afraid to stand up for himself or his opinions had been a joy, since Tony never got tired of arguing. Discovering his sly sense of humor was even better. Finding out that Steve's closest friend had suspicions about them was something else entirely.
"Bucky asked me if you were trying to get me in the sack."
Steve's words, delivered in the dry tone he used to disguise amusement, caused Tony sputter into his coffee. Steve watched him, looking prim and proper in his uniform, laughter in his eyes. When he'd recovered, Tony demanded, "What? What brought that on?"
"Well, you do spend a lot of time with me," Steve pointed out mildly. "And you take me to dinner -- and lunch -- and to see movies -- and to your lab --"
"Okay, okay, I get the point." Tony carefully set down his coffee cup, wondering what he was supposed to say to that. Coming from Rhodey, he'd have no doubt in firing back a smart-alec comment that was sharp enough to cut, or from Pepper, something obliquely suggestive enough to provoke the flush high on her cheeks that spoke of both outrage and amusement. From Steve?
He looked sidelong at the other man, still sitting calmly across the table from him, eating his salad with normal deliberation. "Maybe I don't." Steve paused and looked up at him. Tony sat back, spreading a hand in front of him. "I mean, sure, it was funny. But... is it something you're wondering, too?"
Steve set down his fork and folded his hands together on the table in front of him, then met Tony's gaze squarely. "Yes."
Tony swallowed, feeling almost nauseated as his stomach abruptly did flip-flops. Then he cursed himself for acting like a teenaged girl. Steve seemed to bring that out in him, he realized. "If you're wondering what my motives are, Steve, just ask me," he said with more of an edge to his words than he had intended.
Steve drew in a breath, then shrugged slightly. "Fine. Are you trying to get me into your bed?"
Even though he'd been expecting it this time, Tony discovered that he didn't have a response. Steve waited patiently, only his eyes showing any of the anxiety that Tony knew he must be feeling.
"That's... a hell of a question, coming from a soldier," he finally said, smirking. Steve didn't smile back. The smirk fell away from Tony's face. "You realize that my answer could get me arrested?"
Steve cocked his head. "Depending on what that answer is, maybe," he said, and Tony sighed.
"Fine. Am I trying to get you into my bed? No. Would I be at all upset if things ended up happening that way? No." He tried his best to keep his voice calm, but the sheer amount of time he had spent considering these very questions made it difficult. Steve nodded, as if he had expected that answer -- and quite possibly, thought Tony, he had. Steve had an uncanny knack for judging people, and he had come to know Tony very well over the last few months.
"I feel the same way."
Tony's breath caught in his throat. Teenaged girl, he reminded himself, his mental tone savage, but he couldn't seem to find the words to answer Steve.
"But, like you pointed out, Tony, I'm a soldier. I have responsibilities. And duties, to my country and my fellow soldiers, and to the ideals I stand for as Captain America."
"And sleeping with me would betray all of those," Tony was surprised by the bitterness in his own voice. Steve shook his head, then reached across the table to lay a hand on top of Tony's.
"No. Not to me, anyway. Sleeping with you would only betray something if it didn't mean anything," Steve informed him quietly. "And... I want it to mean something." Tony barely prevented himself from gaping at the other man, not missing his phrasing. Steve's lips curved slightly. "You're probably the best friend I've ever had, Tony. I just... if things were different... if the timing were different..."
Tony sighed, getting what Steve was driving at. "If there wasn't a war on."
Steve nodded, his eyes serious. “War’s coming to America, too, and we all know it. I can’t think just of myself right now.” From anyone else, it would have sounded self-righteous and condescending. From Steve, it just sounded sincere.
"You realize that 'there's a war on' is probably the most-often used line these days for getting somebody into bed, right?" Tony asked, and was gratified to see Steve blush. The younger man had been so self-assured and calm during what had to have been a stressful conversation for him that it was beginning to worry Tony. The blush reassured him that Steve was just as discomfited by the discussion at hand as he was.
"I hope I'll get better than an over-used line." Steve's words were level, but combined with the flash in his eyes, they were enough to make Tony reach for his glass, hoping the drink would soothe his dry throat.
Once he could speak again, he eyed the younger man. "Would you be interested in an entirely new line?" The sinking nervousness in his gut made him lose his grip on the flirtatious tone he'd been going for, but Steve's widened eyes made it worthwhile.
Steve swallowed, then met his eyes squarely, ignoring the pink Tony saw blooming on his face. "From you? Yes."
He couldn't prevent the smirk that spread across his face. "I'll be sure to work on something special."
Late November, 1941
Tony found himself humming as he headed down the stairs to the main lab facilities. He didn’t visit the labs as often as he had in the past, but the new armament project they were working for the Army demanded some personal supervision. After spending the last few weeks in South America hunting down rumors of a crystal skull, combined with a trip to Panama for Fury that hadn’t been as short as planned, he was frankly glad to be on home ground again. If nothing else, having dinner with Steve tonight would allow them to do some catching up. He’d found his thoughts turning to Steve time and again during the Panama mission; although his partnership with Rhodey still worked like a well-oiled machine, part of him kept expecting to see a gleaming shield come spinning past every time he got in a fight. The thoughts no longer distracted him the way they had in the first few months since the inter-dimensional accident, but that didn’t prevent Jim from laughing at him as soon as they got back to the airship when it did happen.
The telephone call that he received almost immediately after getting home that told him Steve was thinking of him just as much had been a very nice surprise. The hesitation in Steve’s words when he asked if Tony had time to spare tonight had drawn a smile even while Tony was assuring the younger man that he had plenty of time. A sharp-eyed look from Jarvis had him amending that to, “Plenty of time… as soon as I get a quick inspection done.” He’d hung up with Steve’s laughter ringing in his ears.
“You’re gonna be useless for the rest of the day, aren’t you, boss?” Rhodey’s voice, dripping amusement, broke into Tony’s thoughts and he cast his assistant a quelling glance.
“Not at all,” he assured his friend, knowing that Rhodey wouldn’t believe a word of it. “I’m totally focused on my work here. Besides, it’s just an inspection. What could go wrong with that?” Jim shook his head, grinning, and didn’t bother to answer.
Tony rolled his eyes and continued down the stairs, pausing only long enough to enter his security code in at the main lab doors. One thing that he’d been able to adapt quickly from the other universe was a form of electronic security, something he’d been increasingly glad of as world events continued to move along similar lines as those he remembered from his borrowed memories. Stark hadn’t had many problems yet, but being able to up the security of the company -- and the military, as he’d given the specs to Fury once he’d gotten them working – made him feel better.
The greeting stopped Tony in his tracks. Behind him, he heard Rhodey shift, ready for anything. The scientist who had greeted him looked at him, his eyes wide, and Tony forced a smile to his face even as his eyes roved, searching the room. Another good idea. The thought flitted across Tony's mind. Specific titles to be used in case of an emergency... although I was hoping I'd never hear this one. "Director" meant that there was immediate danger present -- someone in the room, ready to cause damage. Or injury, Tony thought grimly.
"Doctor Lang," he replied, only the barest hesitation to his words. "Good to see you. Thought I'd come down and see how things were going." The cheerful tone in his voice was all forced, but hopefully didn't sound like it. Doctor Lang didn't move, but his eyes flicked to the side, indicating an area that Tony couldn't see, hidden behind the heavy machinery that took up the center of the room. Tony inclined his head, taking in the positions of the other two scientists; they were close to the area Lang had indicated, both looking frightened. Tony's lips tightened. Someone had made it into one of his main laboratories and was threatening his people. Anger flared up.
"Hey, doc, could you give me a hand with this?" Rhodey asked casually. Tony glanced at him and he nodded, flashing the nervous scientist a smile as Lang moved forward and took the clipboard out of his hands. That took one non-combatant out of the way. Tony found himself wishing for his gun, but dismissed the thought. Even if he had it, he wouldn't be willing to risk firing randomly in this lab. There were too many expensive machines, too much risk of damaging something that was urgently needed by the military.
The other two scientists -- Stanley and Jackson, his mind supplied -- looked desperate. Weighing the risks, Tony took a step forward.
"So, how's the new armor design working out?" he asked, waving at them to come closer. They exchanged a nervous glance, then Stanley looked to the side. Behind him, he heard Rhodey take a breath. Shifting his weight, Tony watched as the scientists stumbled forward, hoping that his guess as to the location of the intruder was right, and lunged.
A man dressed in a business suit, gun in one hand and strange metal briefcase in the other, swore and pivoted to fire at him. He felt a burn along one shoulder as he twisted to the side. Dammit, Jarvis is going to be pissed, he thought absently. The sound of Rhodey's pistol echoed in his ears and the man staggered, then tried to push past Tony. Tony grabbed for him, but came away with a tearing sound, a ragged piece of grey fabric clenched in his fingers. Around him, a siren began to sound. Somebody triggered the alarm, he realized, and looked up to see Doctor Jackson at the main communications console, speaking animatedly into the telephone.
The intruder threw the metal briefcase at Rhodey's head, forcing him to duck, then shoved Doctor Lang toward him. The hapless scientist staggered forward, slamming into Jim and causing them both to hit the ground as the intruder pounded up the stairs. Tony cursed, getting back up to his feet and heading up the stairs, feeling his shoulder begin to burn with pain. In the doorway, he looked down both ends of the hallway but didn't see anyone.
"God dammit," he muttered, slumping against the door frame. Rhodey was beside him a minute later, his face set. "No," he said sharply, waving Rhodey back. "He's gone. Either security will catch him or it's too late to matter." Rhodey swore under his breath and Tony let out a bark of laughter.
"Mr. Stark, I'm so sorry -- he just walked in, and we didn't think anything of it until he pulled the gun," Doctor Stanley said breathlessly. Tony straightened; he hadn't heard the man coming up the stairs, as focused as he'd been on the intruder. "He -- Mr. Stark, you're bleeding! Are you all right? Sit down, sir -- Jackson, call for a doctor!" Tony shrugged off the scientist's hand, turning to face Rhodey instead.
"We need to know what he got away with."
"Right." Rhodey began to head back down the stairs, then paused. "And then what, boss?"
"Then?" Tony's mouth compressed as he stared grimly down into the lab. "Then we get it back."
"You can't be serious." Pepper sounded more resigned than indignant, and Tony flashed a grin at her. He leaned back in his chair, propping his feet up on his desk, and gestured, careful not to aggravate the bandage on his shoulder.
"You know better than that," he teased, before becoming serious again. "Rhodey managed to track him down to that warehouse, and I'm going there to get back what he stole."
He suspected Pepper was protesting more because she felt she should than out of any hope of success in changing his mind. He couldn't think of a single Marvels story she'd written where he didn't go into one of the big fights with an injury -- usually one worse than a bullet graze.
"She's right, Tony." However, Steve would be more difficult to convince. Dammit. Who called him, anyway? As he looked up, his eyes met Steve's steady gaze. The younger man shook his head. "I'm not going to try to convince you not to go. I know better. But I am going to go with you."
Tony's feet hit the floor with a clatter as he leaned forward, taken aback by the vehemence in Steve's voice. "You don't--"
"I'm going with you." The sharp words left no room for disagreement. "If Stark Industries was infiltrated by a saboteur, Captain America has every right to work with Iron Man to bring the man to justice. Besides the fact that we're partners, you can't tell me it wasn't military information he stole." Brilliant blue glittered as Steve pinned Tony in place with his glare. Determination, Tony could have overlooked. Faced with the clear worry in Steve's face, he found he couldn't argue.
"No, I can't. He took the design for the new tank armor we've been developing." A pause, and then Tony's lips curled. "I guess this wasn't quite what you meant when you asked me out tonight, was it?" Steve's startled expression lasted until Pepper began laughing, and he shook his head, a smile curving his mouth.
"Can't say I'm surprised, though."
"Good. Then let's get to it, Captain," Tony said crisply. "I've got to charge the pump, and then we're heading to the docks."
The gleam of the shield, even at night, made it easy to track on the Armor’s sensors. As it spun across the wide open space in front of them, Tony kept an eye on it even while he watched the heat sensor that told him where the saboteur was hiding. Behind a few less crates, judging from that splintering sound, Tony thought smugly. Cap dove forward as the saboteur fired, neatly dodging the shot as he rolled and came up with the shield in his hand, held protectively in front of him.
"I think that's done it," Tony rasped into his mike. Steve didn't respond, but he saw Cap lean forward, balancing for a quick sprint to catch the man they were after. Another shot, and Tony raised an eyebrow at the sound of a hollow ping as it ricocheted off the Armor. What did the man expect that to do? Ignoring it, Tony strode forward, the Armor clanging at every movement. In front of him, the saboteur lurched to his feet, then pivoted to run. As soon as his head rose above the slight cover of the wrecked crates he'd been crouching behind, the shield flew through the air again. With a strangled cry, the man fell to the floor as the disc swept his feet out from under him. Before he could rise again, Tony was standing over the top of him.
Flipping up his faceplate, Tony grinned viciously down at the man. "I believe you have something that belongs to me." His voice held no trace of pity, and the man's eyes narrowed as he stared up at Tony. "I want it back. Now." He held out his hand.
"I don't have it anymore," the man spat, and the harsh accent told Tony everything he needed to know. He activated his radio.
"Rhodey. Tell Fury we were right." He paused, listening to Jim's assent, and added, his eyes never leaving the man below him, "Fire War Machine up; there should be a sub in the harbor that's not cleared to be there. Take it out."
He was aware of Cap beside him, the sidelong glance that he threw him, but Steve remained silent. The man on the ground did not.
"You are bluffing, Stark! There is no way you could know what my assignment was," the saboteur snarled. Tony raised an eyebrow, contempt written on his face.
"You think so? Maybe you should take better precautions, Fritz." Tony nodded at Cap, and his partner knelt, pulling handcuffs from his belt and fastening them tightly on the saboteur's wrists before pulling him to his feet.
As they watched the black and white pull away, Tony sighed, the adrenaline fading and leaving him more tired than anything else. Cap cocked his head inquiringly. "Just tired, Steve. I think I'll have to take a rain check on dinner tonight." Regret weighed down his words, but Steve only shrugged.
"I think we spent some pretty meaningful time together tonight, even if it wasn't in the way we expected." His smile, a little shy and a lot sincere, made Tony's breath catch in his throat. Some knot of worry inside him that he hadn't consciously been aware of eased at the sight and he found himself returning the smile before he realized it.
It wasn't until they were back at Stark that Steve asked, "So... how did you know about the sub?"
In the process of getting out of the Armor, Tony paused. "It was a logical guess," he answered, voice smug. Steve snorted.
"That wasn't a guess. I'm guessing Rhodey actually took care of it, or we'd be out in the middle of the harbor right now." At Tony's approving nod, Steve repeated, "So how'd you know?"
"When I said he should take better precautions? I meant it," Tony finally replied, hanging the Armor’s helmet in place before he stepped away from its bulk. "Among other things, once we had him pinpointed on the security footage, Jim and Pepper were able to backtrack him to the hotel he stayed at. He was in such a rush to get here today that he didn't actually finish destroying his paperwork. Apparently he -- or his bosses -- didn't know we'd gotten back into town yesterday. They thought it'd be easy to get the info they were after, since they just had to dodge scientists."
Steve nodded slowly. "So when they heard you were back, he panicked and rushed in?"
"Exactly." Tony paused, standing close enough to Steve to smell sweat and leather, scents he would forever associate with the man. "Rhodey's fine, by the way. He radioed when we were heading back this way. He and Jarvis are working through the security to figure out how exactly the guy got in, tighten the holes." He watched, wondering what was going on in Steve's head as Steve frowned, apparently thinking, before his face cleared.
"Well..." Tony blinked as Steve slung an arm around his shoulders, smiling at him with that almost painfully earnest smile again. "I don't think either of us are up for going out for a proper dinner, especially not at this hour, but how would you feel about some company for a late-night snack? I don't know about you, but I'm starving."
A slow smile crept across Tony's face. "I think I can manage some sandwiches back at my place," he offered. Steve bit his lip, and Tony realized what he'd said. He hurried to add, "Just sandwiches, Steve. I think Jarvis would rather eat Jim's cooking than mine, after what happened last time I tried to cook. You're welcome to crash on the couch, if you'd like... if it won't get you in trouble with your C.O."
"Nope, I took leave for tonight," Steve answered. "Told the captain I'd be staying with a good friend who I didn't get to see often enough." Tony couldn't keep his surprise from showing, and Steve smiled again. "Your couch is fine, and so are sandwiches. From the stories I've heard from Pepper, I don't think I'd trust you to boil water." Feigning injury at the dig, Tony took the chance to put his arm around Steve's shoulders in turn. It was, he thought, something he could get used to.
New York City, December, 1941
"Mr. Vice President, Mr. Speaker, members of the Senate and the House of Representatives: Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 - a date which will live in infamy - the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.
The United States was at peace with that nation, and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its Government and its Emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific. Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in the American island of Oahu, the Japanese Ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to our Secretary of State a formal reply to a recent American message. And while this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or of armed attack.
It will be recorded that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago. During the intervening time the Japanese Government has deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace.
The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian Islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost. In addition American ships have been reported torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu.
Yesterday the Japanese Government also launched an attack against Malaya.
Last night Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong.
Last night Japanese forces attacked Guam.
Last night Japanese forces attacked the Philippine Islands.
Last night the Japanese attacked Wake Island.
And this morning the Japanese attacked Midway Island.
Japan has, therefore, undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday and today speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation.
As Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy, I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense.
But always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us. No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.
I believe that I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us.
Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory and our interests are in grave danger.
With confidence in our armed forces-with the unbounding determination of our people-we will gain the inevitable triumph-so help us God.
I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7th, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire."
Tony listened to the emergency broadcast from the radio in his office in shock, his pen dropping from suddenly limp fingers onto the desk with an impact that sounded loud in the empty room. He ignored it. His mind was racing. For some reason, even though the other world's him had known this, had known the date and the time, he hadn't thought it would happen here. Things had been different, with negotiations proceeding well -- he had been keeping a surreptitious eye on them, purely because of this. He should have known it would happen, in some way or at some time, but this...
Steve. He had to get to the base.
He was halfway out of his chair when reality hit him in the face.
"Tony! Did you hear?" The office door slammed back into the wall, something that Tony would normally have had something quite sharp to say about, but one look at the expression on his friend’s face and he bit it back. Pepper wasn't a woman given to hysterics. She had survived months out in the wilderness without complaint, trips around the world without blinking, had gotten through torture at the hands of Nazi spies on her first job with Tony by laughing at her torturers and daring them to try harder. Tony wasn't used to hearing the note of frightened excitement from her that he heard in her voice now.
"Pepper!" Catching her as she got to his desk, her eyes wide and her face pale, Tony caught hold of her shoulders and held her steady, looking into her face. "Pepper, calm down. Take a breath... there you go. Now another one." When she finally got her breathing back under control and her heart was no longer racing under Tony's fingers, he gently pushed her backward until her knees hit the couch in the corner and she collapsed onto it, still staring at him.
"You... did you know about this?" she demanded abruptly, anger lining her voice, and Tony flinched. "You did! You knew about this, knew it would happen, and you didn't do a damned thing to stop it! You could have saved people, Tony, saved the lives of those men who just got killed!"
"I--" Words failed him as he stared at her, the shock and accusation and anger clear on her face, and he closed his eyes in pain as her words washed over him. He sank to the floor, his hands falling to her knees, and he stared sightlessly at the expensively plush carpet. "You're right," he whispered. "I did know, I could have stopped it, I could have, I should have, but I didn't think... I didn't think it would be the same, I didn't think it could happen the same way here, not with all the differences, with everything I've done to try to help..."
"Oh, Tony." The quiet words were almost like a balm to his wounded soul, sorrow and dawning understanding in Pepper's tone, and Tony allowed himself to lean his head on her knees. "I'm sorry. I didn't... I knew better. I know you would never let something like that happen if you could prevent it. I'm sorry." Guilt suffused her tone, clear under the shocked grief, and he shook his head silently. She was right, but she was wrong.
Another man might have wept, out of sorrow and shock and the sudden understanding that he could have changed something horrible into something good. But Tony didn't do that. Instead, he forced himself to breathe, deeply and calmly as Pepper's hands moved in soothing circles on his shoulders, until his heartbeat slowed and he didn't feel like clawing at the carpet beneath him anymore. When he finally raised his head, his face was calm and collected, his voice level when he spoke.
"I need to find Steve. And Fury. Captain America is about to go to war, and I'll be damned if he's going to go alone."
Tony's hands tightened into fists and he hid them in his lap, forcing himself not to glare at General Fury. The glower on the general's face was enough to raise the temperature in the room by a few degrees all by itself, and the last thing Tony wanted to do was get the man into the mood he was named for. His temper was infamous for a very good reason.
"Look, General, all I'm asking--"
Fury's hands slammed down on his desk as he leaned forward. "You're asking me to violate military policy, Mr. Stark, not to mention threatening the identity of America's only super soldier. I will not allow you to do either."
Tony's frustration welled up. Why couldn't Fury see that all he wanted to do was keep Steve safe? "I'm not threatening anything, General. I just think that a small strike force, headed by Captain America, and carried by a single, fast-moving airship would be far more effective in the upcoming war than sending "America's only super solder" overseas disguised as a buck private whose only real skill is in peeling potatoes! The sheer fact of him trying to maintain that sort of disguise while still being able to go off on his own for the missions that we both know are going to arise is damned near an impossibility!"
"You're asking me to grant you and Captain America a free license to play conquering heroes in the middle of a war zone!" Fury snarled. "No way in hell is that going to happen. You’re too much of a loose cannon. If we keep Captain America on the ground with our troops, he'll have all the support and backup he'll ever need."
"That's a load of shit and you know it, Fury! The Armor alone gives me more capability than most of your recruits, and I've spent the last three years working for you, taking out Nazis and running missions the boys in Washington would have heart attacks if they knew about," he shot back, damning the man in front of him. "This is a hell of a time for you to decide to start playing by the rules and I don't believe you for a second." He gestured at the stack of classified files on the corner of Fury's desk. "You're sure as hell not going to let my “lack of training” stop you from handing me those damned secret assignments every few weeks when you realize I'm the only one who can handle them!"
Fury gazed at him, unyielding. “You’re needed here, Stark. The U.S. needs you and your company desperately, and that spy you caught last month tells us that our enemies know that. If you’re off gallivanting around the world with James Rhodes and the rest of your team, who’s going to protect SI’s – and the military’s – secrets? Who’s going to head up the research that only you can do? Who’s going to keep your people safe?” Tony hid a wince, but Fury leaned forward as if sensing he’d hit a sore spot. “You’re right, I’ll still need Iron Man and War Machine for specific missions, but we need you too much here to let you run loose in Europe. It’s time for you to grow up and put your country ahead of yourself.”
The ensuing silence could've peeled one of Private Rogers' potatoes for him.
Tony slumped back in his seat, admitting to himself the futility of arguing with General Fury any longer. He had known it would be this way, had known that Fury would dismiss anything he said out of hand -- and he couldn't give him any reason not to. They had managed to hide from Fury the fact that he had been switched with another worldly copy of himself for a large chunk of the year, although there had been some dodgy moments when he had to claim stress-related forgetfulness about the entirety of Operation: Rebirth. Everything he knew about that he knew from Steve, and he was pretty damned sure Steve hadn't told him everything that had happened on that day.
He could feel Fury watching him, and he ground his teeth together impotently.
"Fine. Send your super soldier overseas to play soldier with the rest of the boys in uniform. Just don't be surprised when something happens to him because of the untenable position you've put him in," he snapped, standing. Fury narrowed his eyes.
"Is that a threat, Stark?" The words were cold. Tony laughed humorlessly.
"Are you kidding, General? If I'm a Nazi sympathizer, then you must be Hitler himself... and that's one hell of a good disguise, mein Fuehrer." He didn't bother hiding the contempt in his voice. If Fury couldn't see the disaster brewing from this plan, Tony didn't know what else to do to convince him. All he could do now was sit back and watch and hope to hell that he was there in time to help Steve when it all blew up in their faces.
"Get out, Stark." The words were delivered as a low growl and Tony's lips curled as he nodded sharply before turning and leaving the room.
"I hear you went to see Fury today."
Tony didn't even glance up. He stared at his half-eaten cheeseburger, wondering if he shouldn't have followed his first instinct and avoided food altogether after that exchange. His stomach was still roiling, and the food hadn't helped at all. Having this particular discussion on top of all of that wasn't exactly high on his list of things to do, and he wondered apathetically if at some point in his adventuring career, he'd managed to get himself cursed. It would certainly explain a large part of his life.
"Tony." The concern in the voice, warmth and worry all wrapped up in a single word, broke his resolve and he looked up to meet Steve's eyes as the other man slid into the booth across from him. Steve was wearing his uniform, Tony noted, and not his dress uniform.
"I hate that uniform," he said without thinking, and mentally kicked himself as Steve's lips thinned. "I didn't mean it that way, Steve. I just... I hate that you wear that uniform, and you don't get to show the honors you've earned. That uniform is a lie, and I hate that you have to live that lie." Something flickered in Steve's eyes and for a moment Tony was afraid that he had gone too far. Then Steve let out a breath, and Tony could suddenly see the resignation and the weariness in the younger man's face.
"I understand, Tony, even if I don't agree." The knot inside Tony's chest eased a little at the words and he watched silently as Steve waved the waitress over, ordering his usual double cheeseburger with extra fries. Once she had walked away, hips swaying in what Tony was sure was a deliberate attempt to keep Steve's eyes on her, Steve looked back at Tony.
"I appreciate what you did, Tony."
"I didn't "do" anything," Tony snapped, frustration spilling out again. "Fury wouldn't listen, and--"
Steve interrupted him. "I appreciate the effort, and I hope you'll appreciate where I'm coming from when I tell you to never do that again."
Caught off guard, Tony stared at the man he had come to call his friend, utterly confused. Steve sighed, and Tony could hear some of his own frustration echoed in the sound.
"Tony. You can't run the world. You can't change things, or make things happen, just because you want them to." Tony opened his mouth to protest, but one look at Steve's face made him shut it again. "I appreciate that you went to Fury out of worry, and I'm sure you remember something that made you think it was a good idea, but it's not your place. I'm a soldier. Soldiers go to battle. I can't desert my men when they need me the most."
"But -- they're not your men, Steve! You're a private." Tony practically spat the word, hating the sound of it on his tongue as applied to Steve. "If you have to be involved with standard combat troops then dammit, you should be leading them, not sitting around on KP because you have to maintain your cover! You're needed for missions, for special tasks that they can't follow you on. How are you going to be able to get away from the squad to fulfill your other duties? How are you going to keep your identity intact when all anyone will have to do is put two and two together and come up with a red, white, and blue shield? Hell, how are you going to hide the damned costume? Privacy's not exactly in huge supply on the front. All I wanted to do was--"
"I know exactly what you wanted to do, and I appreciate it. But you can't just come in and try to run my life, try to change how the military works and get me special exceptions. Captain America is supposed to be a symbol of everything that our country stands for, not a symbol that has no link to that reality."
Tony bit his lip, staring down at his plate again. "I didn't mean it like that. I just... I wanted to try to help, to give you more freedom. If you're crawling around the continent with a regular squad, you'll be tied down, your work will be harder."
A hand covered his on the table. Tony lifted his eyes, finally meeting Steve's serious gaze. He didn't bother trying to deny the thrill that went through him at the simple contact; he already knew that he was madly in lust with the super soldier in front of him, just as he knew that there was nothing to be done about it right now.
Unlike his other world duplicate, he wasn't in denial -- he was facing reality. The onset of the war, Steve's devotion and duty, and Tony's own responsibilities, both to the people he employed and the people that would be in the field -- like Steve -- meant that this was not exactly the ideal time to pursue a serious romantic relationship. Especially not with someone who had fallen for that other-world duplicate of him and who had exactly zero experience with flouting the rules of society in order to be with someone of his own gender. The fact that he himself was still struggling with remembered love and lust and loss only made it that much more difficult. Tony sighed to himself and thought, not for the first time, if he couldn't have Steve, at least he could have dreams of Steve.
"I know, Tony. I understand your worry, and honestly, I think you're right. But this is what my superior officers want me to do, and if I try to deny them or get out of following their orders, what kind of soldier will that make me? What sort of example would I be setting?" A long pause, and Tony realized abruptly that they had spent several long seconds staring silently into each other's eyes. In any other situation, that would be a sign to lean forward and take the kiss that was so obviously on offer. Instead, he cleared his throat and leaned back slightly, not missing the slight hint of... disappointment? in Steve's eyes.
"You're right," he sighed reluctantly. "But they're wrong."
Steve's lips curled slightly. "I'm not arguing with you on that one. I don't think they know what to do with me, honestly. They want me on the front lines as some sort of “secret weapon,” but they don’t seem to have any idea of how to make it work. I don’t know how they think it’ll work better than our partnership does, but maybe they just don’t want that much publicity attached to whatever I’m doing." He sighed, the weariness in his voice obvious to Tony. “I don’t know how I’m supposed to make it work.”
Tony pursed his lips, not missing the fact that Steve's hand was still covering his and absolutely unwilling to point it out for fear that Steve would move it. "Well... it's not a long-term solution, but for right now... how about you sit here and eat with me? I think I could use the company, and it looks like you could, too." A pause and he tilted his head, seriousness falling across his face. "How are you, anyway? It's been... quite a day, for everyone."
Steve sighed, his free hand rubbing the back of his neck briefly. "The base is still wound up. I... I didn't know anybody stationed in Hawai'i, but some of the guys did and they're trying not to panic. The brass hasn't told us anything and I don't even know if they have anything to tell yet. I just... I feel like I should have been there, been able to do something, save people. That's what they made me for, dammit, and all I'm doing is sitting here, useless!"
Frustration spilled out in his words and Tony shifted his hand, working his fingers through Steve's. "No one knew, Steve. Even if you had been in Hawai’i, what could you have done? It was an aerial attack, and last time I looked, Captain America can't fly."
Steve met his eyes and Tony could see the knowledge in his eyes. "No, he can't. But Iron Man can." Tony drew in a breath.
"Iron Man isn't going to be deployed with Captain America," he said carefully. "General Fury made that very clear. Cap's goals are more surreptitious than that. No blowing up Nazi fleets of airships for you, fella."
Steve smiled slightly, but Tony could see the darkness lingering in his eyes. After another silence, Tony knew before Steve even opened his mouth what he was going to say.
Tony bowed his head, his fingers tightening on Steve's. The moment lingered uncomfortably until the arrival of their waitress with Steve's order broke it. Tony stiffened, expecting Steve to wrench his hand away from the waitress's raised eyebrow, but he didn't. Instead, he smiled at the perky blond and flushed slightly at her teasing, much to Tony's amazement. Then she glanced down at their joined hands and her face softened.
"Did you lose somebody today too?" Tony blinked at her. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to pry. It's just... we've had a lot of guys in here today from the base and a lot of 'em were real upset, had friends or family over in Pearl Harbor."
"I... you could say, that, yeah," Tony said quietly. The waitress bobbed her head, sympathy written on her face.
"I'll leave you two alone. Just signal if you want anything else, okay?" And she was gone, her hip swaying noticeably absent this time.
Tony could feel Steve's gaze on him and he sighed, his shoulders slumping, before looking up to meet his eyes again. "Yes. I knew."
The explosion of anger and betrayal that he expected didn't happen. Instead, he received a frown and honest confusion. "Why didn't you say anything, try to warn someone?"
"How, Steve? Walk into Washington D.C. and announce to the Secretary of Defense that the country that we're in negotiations with, the country that has promised to try to work things out, is about to launch a surprise attack on us without advance notice? Even if he believed me, how could I possibly explain how I knew it? What was I supposed to say, a traveler from another world told me earlier this year and although I hoped it would go differently, I could see things working up to it and then it was too late to change anything? That's as bad as claiming little green men from Mars gave me the secrets to the universe." He let out an aggravated huff. Why didn't anyone ever stop to think that maybe, just maybe, he had thought about doing exactly that? Had considered the pros and cons of doing so, and had decided against it for some very good reasons?
"Even if I did get them to believe me, even if I did manage to give them answers they would believe -- I would have to answer to Fury. And explain why I didn't mention any of this sooner, and tell them everything I knew about the way the war had gone in that other world, even though there's no reason whatsoever to believe that it will go the same way here. What if I told them about some pivotal battle in the other world and the Allies changed their plans... and everything blew up in our faces? I could make things worse by trying to help. There's no way to know what will be the same. In fact, there's every reason to believe that significant things will be different."
His voice grew softer, his indignation turning to exhaustion as his own words reminded him of how wrong he'd been. "I thought this would be different. It looked like it was going to be. It just... it doesn't work that way, Steve. Just because I was in a future doesn't mean it's going to be our future. It was a whole different world, and all sorts of things we know here never happened there, and vice versa." Steve's hand tightened on his.
"I'm sorry. You've told me that before, and I... I should have known that you would have thought about it. I know you wouldn't choose to let people get hurt if you didn't have to." Steve's voice was quiet, his eyes filled with shame and regret.
Tony hesitated, debating his request, then took the plunge. "When you... when you deploy." The words lodged in his throat. Steve looked at him, waiting patiently. "When you deploy... keep in contact. As much as you can. Please." That was as close as he could come to saying what he really wanted to say -- what he didn't dare say, because he still wasn't sure how much was his feelings and how much was the remembered emotions of the other worldly him. How could he possibly tell Steve that he loved him... if he didn't? That was a mistake he absolutely was not going to make.
"Of course I will," Steve was saying, his thumb rubbing reassuring circles on Tony's wrist. "I'll write. Every day, if you want." Tony smiled faintly.
"People will talk if you do that."
"Let them." Steve looked at him fiercely, and Tony was taken aback; for a moment, he could see turbulent emotions roiling in those blue eyes and he wondered suddenly if he was the only one confused about his feelings. He didn't dare put a name to anything he saw in Steve's eyes, but he saw enough to give him hope that his own cause wasn't hopeless. When did I stop hoping for friendship and start wanting something more?
"What can they say? That I must care about you a lot if I write to you every day? It would be the truth." Tony's breath caught. He flicked his tongue out to moisten suddenly dry lips and wondered desperately if he really needed to worry so much about doing the Right Thing, just this once. Just this time, couldn't he return to his old ways and do what he wanted to do instead of what he should do?
"I... me too," he managed to stammer out after another long pause, hoping to God that Steve didn't interpret his momentary silence as hesitation or disagreement. Part of hi was still telling him to just blurt it out, tell Steve everything, share all of his jumbled confusion, and have it all out in the open. The larger, louder, more mature and more importantly in control part of him told his selfish inner voice to shut the hell up. The last thing he wanted to do was distract Steve at a time less like this. Steve smiled, and the sheer sweetness of it was breathtaking. Another thing to dream about, he thought absently.
"I... yeah. I meant, though," and he rallied bravely, using his years of experience to overcome Steve's youthful exuberance and continue on with his original thought, "That you should take the communicator with you. That way you'll be able to contact me if you need me for an emergency, or just... to talk. Or whatever." That, he thought savagely to himself, was absolutely pathetic. But Steve's smile warmed and the thought lost of some of its virulence.
"Sure, Tony," he said. "I'll remember that."
Letting out a breath, Tony forced himself to relax and smile at his friend. “Good. Good. At least that way I can keep everybody updated on your status. Pepper worries about you, you know.”
"Pepper worries, huh?” Steve’s eyes crinkled up in the way that meant he was suppressing laughter. “Okay, then. I'll call you as often as I can."
Somehow, Tony was sure that his pathetic attempt at a lie hadn't fooled the other man.
Tony was sitting at his desk in the office atop the Stark Industries building the next day when Jarvis walked in. Setting down the pen he had been using to sign the stack of the paperwork in front of him, Tony leaned back in his chair and raised his eyebrows at the older man, waiting for the explanation as to why he had interrupted Tony at work after badgering him for the last week to do just that.
"Fury called." Tony could see a glint in Jarvis' eyes but wasn't sure how to interpret it yet. The man's voice was calm, but something about him, the way he stood, told Tony that he was upset.
"What did he want this time? Tanks that can fly?" Tony asked dryly. His relationship with Fury had never been wonderful, but it had degraded greatly after his argument with Fury over the military's idiotic plan on how to handle Captain America by having him "in disguise" in a regular Army unit. As far as Tony could tell, that meant that he would be sent overseas to Europe any time now and then expected both to fulfill his duties as America's sparkling, star-spangled hero, and to maintain his identity as Private Rogers, A-class klutz.
It would make so much more sense to pull Steve Rogers from the unit he was in, give him a base to work from and no red tape or secret identities to worry about, and let him do what was needed... and of course the military wasn't about to do that. At least partially, Tony suspected, because of who was pitching the idea. He might be Iron Man, but to General Fury and the military complex that the man represented, Tony was unreliable, someone who didn't play by the rules, and not someone they particularly wanted their new American symbol to be tied to. Never mind that they had spent the last three months -- well, seven, if he counted the time the other-Tony had done it, too -- acting as a team, and a damned good one at that. Unfortunately, the one part of Fury’s argument that Tony couldn’t refute was the need for him to be here, at SI, working on top-secret projects and helping his country best by protecting those secrets and the people developing them.
Jarvis shook his head, and Tony's gut tightened in dread. "Rogers' unit is being activated. They'll be sent overseas in three days."
Tony realized that his fingers had tightened on his arms of his chair when they started aching and he spared a moment to glance down, attempting to look casual as he drew in a deep breath and forced himself to relax. From the narrowed eyes watching him when he looked up again, it hadn't worked.
"Steve's going with them."
"Damn." Jarvis nodded in silent agreement with Tony's frustrated curse, and Tony tipped his head back, resting it against the back of his chair as he stared at the ceiling. "He has the radio communicator that the other Tony gave him. That’s the one that doesn’t seem to have a range limit, right?"
"Yes. I'm not sure what he did to it, but the set of radios that he and Steve shared don't seem to follow the same blueprints that he left in the lab. Not that I'm surprised by that," Jarvis added, looking sidelong at Tony as he sat down in the chair across the desk from him. Tony smiled involuntarily.
"It does seem to be a common failing," he admitted freely. "I'll have to devote some serious time to reverse engineering that thing... after the war. For now..." He spun his chair around in a slow circle. "Since it doesn't rely on relays or satellites--" He caught Jarvis' puzzled frown, replayed his last few words, and frowned. "Damn. Sorry. It doesn't need any outside help, at least. Good. I got him to promise to stay in contact as much as he could. I want the airship to have a set permanently tuned to that frequency, Jarvis. I have the other radio in the set, so I can at least let you know--"
"Not necessary," Jarvis interrupted. "The other you did that. And whatever he did to the airship's radio, it works the same way. I did tell you that," he added, a reproving note in his voice at the accusatory look Tony flashed him. Tony pursed his lips, then shrugged.
"You probably did. I've been a little busy lately," he said, anticipating the annoyed glare that it earned him, and smiled before continuing, “That means that we can stay in touch no matter what happens."
"Unless the Nazis work out some sort of interference that actually works with the design," Jarvis pointed out. "With people like Zemo working for them, it's definitely a possibility. You have to be ready for that."
"I know, I know." Tony spun the chair around again. "At least they don't have the Arsenal plans anymore. That's one super-weapon that we don't have to worry about coming across."
"We shouldn't have to worry about coming across any super-weapons at all, Tony." Jarvis' voice was tight as he pinned Tony with a narrow-eyed stare.
"We won't, Jarvis," Tony responded airily, his tone belying the spark in his eyes. “No matter how much I’d like to think otherwise, Fury was right about one thing: Iron Man isn’t as valuable in this war as Tony Stark.”
Jarvis stared at him, the nodded sharply. “Good. I know you don’t like it, Tony, but it’s true. Iron Man is useful enough, but for you to do the most good for the most people, you should be here, doing what you do best.”
“Building better bombs?” Tony didn’t bother hiding his bitterness.
“No, dammit! Building better ways to protect people. Making sure our boys overseas are safe and that as many of them come home alive as possible.”
“That’s a load of crap, Jarvis, and you know it.” The glare he received didn’t stop the angry words. “I build bombs and weapons and things that kill people, not things that make the world better. And right now, I know it has to be that way.” He forestalled the objections he could see brewing on Jarvis’ face by raising a hand. “I know that. But it doesn’t mean I have to like it, and it doesn’t mean that I have to be happy about sitting back here in my safe little lab while Steve and Bucky and our soldiers go overseas and slog through mud and disease and risk their lives so that my god damned death-designing laboratory is kept safe.”
Jarvis opened his mouth, visibly thought better of it, then stood up and left the room without speaking another word. As the door closed softly behind him, Tony wondered just what his old friend was thinking. Probably that he was a stupid bastard, Tony thought, frustrated, and eyed the paperweight on his desk for a long moment, longing to throw it at the door just for the satisfaction of the noise and the damage it would cause. Instead, he closed his eyes, counted to ten, and pushed aside the anger and frustration and the fear that lay beneath all of it, picked up his pen, and went back to work.
"You can't be serious." Rhodey was aghast at Tony's plan, as Tony had known he would be. Jarvis would only sigh and glare at him without bothering to argue, but Jim had never backed down from a fight with Tony. Pepper wasn't there yet, wouldn't arrive back from her research trip until tomorrow, but Tony had known his old friend would be the hardest sell.
"Why not? he demanded. "Fury can't tell me not to go if we don't tell him. He'll be sending me over there anyway, with those secret missions he won't admit he saves up for me, and what he doesn't know won't hurt him. Or me."
"So you want to go to Europe, shadow Steve's squad, and fly in to play hero whenever you're needed? Tony, that's... that's ridiculous."
"When you put it like that, it sounds ridiculous," Tony said petulantly.
"Tony..." Rhodey's voice trailed off, and Tony was suddenly afraid that they were going to have one of their Talks, the ones that always ended badly for him. The ones where Rhodey told him how selfish and narrow-minded and bigoted and terrible of a person he was. Before he could draw breath to ask anything, Rhodey said, "Tony. We've never actually talked about this before, not outright, and honestly I would just as soon never discuss it again. But obviously we need to talk about it now." Jim drew in a breath, and Tony caught himself before he bit his lip.
"I know you sleep with men." The words were blurted out and Tony was positive that if Rhodey weren't so dark-skinned, he would be beet red. As it was, the fact that Rhodey couldn't look at him told Tony that his friend was embarrassed in a way that he rarely was. "I've known it for a long time. And I don't care, just so that you're straight on that. I don't think it's wrong, or evil, or whatever else they've called it. I don't understand it, but I I'm okay with it."
Tony sat down. In all the years he'd known James Rhodes, the closest they'd ever come to discussing his sex life, let alone his sexual preferences, were some roundabout conversations, similar to the first one they'd had about Steve. Rhodey knew more about Tony's private life than he wanted to, just from knowing him for so long, but this... was unexpected. In a good way, Tony supposed, but he suspected he knew where this was going and already didn't like it.
"Okay," he said slowly. "And I'm glad to know that, but... where are you going with this?" Rhodey swallowed.
"I know you have... feelings... for Steve. And I know that you want to protect him. But out of everyone you've ever been involved with, Steve Rogers -- Captain America -- is absolutely the least in need of that protection, Tony. We can't take the zeppelin and fly to Europe and run the company long distance. It won't work. Now that we're at war, Stark's overwhelmed with contracts and deals, but we’re in danger of running short on supplies and personnel. You have designs to finish, ones that only you can do. You have responsibilities here and you can't just abandon them, not for the sake of one person -- no matter who that person is."
A long, long silence enveloped them. Tony stared down at the cement floor, at his scuffed black leather shoes, and fought with himself. The hurt pouring through him was an absolutely normal reaction, but it was ridiculous to feel betrayed because one of his best friends had just told him that he was being a stupid, selfish ass. Besides... Jim was right. Tony couldn't just walk away from Stark at this point.
Even his half-formulated plan of running the company from one of its European offices wouldn’t work now; with the war on, there was no way that would fly, and he knew that there were already several folders stacked up on his desk upstairs from the military, all marked "priority" and "urgent" and "top secret" that he’d signed contract stating he would work on personally. For a moment, he envied his other-worldly self for being able to cut himself off from the military contracts and work that had been the lifeblood of his company for so long. But then, his other-self wasn't living in the middle of a war. If war broke out, a world war like this one, Tony had no doubt that no matter how much ethical or moral debate was involved, his other self would be involved just as he was in this one.
"Fine." The word was quiet and uttered and, Tony knew, sounded like the whiny petulance of a four-year-old boy who had just been told that he couldn't have the last cookie he wanted before bedtime. Rhodey heard him anyway.
"Tony. You're a good man," and he swatted Tony's shoulder even as Tony huffed cynically at that statement, "and Steve's a good man. But Steve has a job to do, and so do you. And your job is here, taking care of your company and your people and trying to make things better for those people that are going to be over there with Steve. And Steve will be over there, taking them care of them too."
"Dammit, Rhodey," Tony sighed a moment later, a sad smile on his lips as he looked up at his friend. "When did you get so smart?"
Rhodey snorted. "I've always been smart. You just had to stop being too damned stupid to see it."
They were still laughing when Jarvis walked into the lab a few minutes later.
"Just calling for my daily check in," came Steve's voice across the radio and Tony couldn't prevent the smile that crossed his lips, even through the static and crackle of interference and distance. Steve sounded tired, but good, and Tony hoped that would continue. The unit had only been overseas for a few months and Cap had already landed in more hot water than Tony cared to think about, with no one there to back him up. Even though the newsreels didn't cover it all, Fury's insistence on making sure that Tony had all the latest intelligence reports concerning Captain America meant that he knew more than he really wanted to -- but it still wasn't enough.
"Good to hear your voice, Cap," he answered, trying to hide his own exhaustion. He'd gotten back from the last mission for Fury early in the morning and gone straight to the lab to work on the new tank design the Army wanted. Sleep didn't enter into the equation, but Steve didn't need to worry about him on top of everything else. "What's the word?"
There was a silence, long enough for Tony's skin to start crawling in dread and anticipation. When Steve finally spoke again, the smile was gone from his voice, replaced with an oddly defensive note that Tony didn't understand.
"I know you've been worried about me being over here by myself," he said, obviously dancing around whatever the subject was that he really wanted to discuss, and Tony frowned. He hadn't made any secret of that worry, because he didn't want to lie to Steve. Not about anything important, like how you really feel about him, a voice in the back of his mind sneered. He shook his head, impatient with himself, and shoved the thought away. He couldn’t be honest with Steve about something he was still trying to work out for himself, after all.
Leaning back in his chair, he answered slowly, "Yes. But you've known that.”
"Well... that's not something you have to worry about any more."
Tony blinked, then sat up straight, staring at the radio in his hand. "Who found out?" he demanded, his words sharper than he had intended. Steve's laugh was an odd mixture of relief and amusement.
"I expect you already know, what with your... borrowed knowledge," Steve said carefully. They had agreed from the beginning never to directly reference the dimensional transference, Tony's knowledge and memories of that other world, or their own names while using any public communications, even the radios. Tony raised an eyebrow, then huffed as things came together.
"Your young friend." Tony bit back a curse. He'd been the one to pull strings to ensure Bucky went with the squad, even though the thought of sending the kid into the war zone in Europe made Tony's blood run cold. He'd done it because of the possibilities, because of this. He didn't want Steve thinking he was upset about it. Even if part of him was envious of the fact that Bucky could stand by Cap's side, while he could only flutter around the edges, making better tech and trying to take out enemy forces so that Cap wouldn't have to.
"Yes." The pause following his answer spoke volumes to Tony.
"I... I couldn't say anything," he said lamely, knowing exactly what look of frustrated anger Steve was directing at the radio in his hand, wherever he currently was. "We've talked about this. I couldn't know for sure, and if I told you the wrong thing, and something else happened, it could have been worse."
"I know." Steve's tone was calmer, almost reassuring. "I know, T-- I know, and I understand. It's just... hard to deal with, sometimes." Tony winced at the near-slip; Steve didn't make that sort of mistake very often.
"I'm sorry," he said softly. "If I really knew how things would work out, without just fumbling around blindly, terrified to make a mistake and make it all worse..."
"I know," Steve said again, amusement creeping back into his voice. "I know."
Late November, 1942
Tony grinned humorlessly as he fired his machine guns again, grateful for the improved sound shielding that kept the ricochets from deafening him. The Nazi gunner half-hidden behind the embankment screamed and toppled to the side. The hail of bullets ceased. For a moment, there was a glorious silence. Then it was broken by a shriek of "Heil Hitler!" and Tony sighed as he swiveled to aim at the new gunner.
For all that Fury needed him on these missions, for all that they kept him busy and feeling useful and mostly kept his mind off of Steve, Tony really hated being Fury's Nazi bloodhound. Well... Fury's death-dealing bloodhound, to be honest. This was just another of the same thing that Fury had had him doing for the last four years, although the frequency of the missions had increased over the last six months. Every time Tony went to Fury's office to talk to him, whether it was a report on new ballistic missiles for the Army, new wing designs for the Air Force, or updating him on SI’s overseas offices, he was greeted with another mission to find and take out a Nazi hideout as soon as he got back to his office. Tony suspected that the general had a special stack of the reports just for him that he doled out as he felt necessary.
This one, for instance. This wasn't even a laboratory operated by the current Zemo, or by Baron von Strucker, or even one of the secret bases where the Nazis performed their hideously inhuman experiments on the helpless Jews and other prisoners of war that they had rounded up through the countries they'd taken. No, this was just an ammo and supply dump, as far as Tony could tell. There was really no reason for Iron Man to be here at all. Part of him was grateful for the distraction, regardless, but the rest of him was irritated and frustrated.
"Any sign of more activity on your end?" he asked through the radio link in the Armor.
"None this way, boss. That last salvo took 'em out." War Machine sounded tired, but Tony could hear the grin behind the tired words.
Static crackled briefly in his ear, and then Jarvis' voice came through, reassuringly loud. "That looks like the last one. If you head up this way, I can drop a bomb on the place and blow it to kingdom come."
"You got it." Weariness laced Tony's voice and he allowed himself to acknowledge the yellow warning light on the suit's charge level. "Good thing Rhodey came along; this would've been boring without some company." Two voices laughed over the link, and Tony hit his jets, gaining altitude and trying to pretend he didn't feel like a whale, wallowing in the surf, as he did. One thing he definitely still envied his other-worldly counterpart for: Lightweight metal alloys and high-powered jet engines. Especially the micro-sized jet engines. Someday, he would get there... but not today. Shaking his head, Tony reminded himself that the Armor was decades ahead of where it had been. It was sleeker and lighter than it ever had been before, even if it did feel huge and awkward compared to the armor that part of him could remember living inside him like another part of his body.
Grunting as he hit the landing ramp, Tony staggered slightly as the weight of the suit hit him again, then recovered and headed into the bay, flipping up the Armor’s faceplate as he did so. Jarvis stood waiting for him, arms crossed. Across the bay, Jim was already half out of the War Machine armor.
"You let the power levels get too low," he observed. Tony shrugged, although the movement was lost beneath the mass of steel, and began the laborious effort of getting out of the Armor.
"It lasted." A gauntlet landed on the table with a clang.
"Barely." Jarvis tugged the latches on the chest plate, levering it open, and Tony sighed.
"But it lasted." He climbed out. A wave of light-headedness swept over him unexpectedly and he reached out, clutching at the edge of the table for support as he wavered. Jarvis was beside him immediately, strong arms around his shoulder and his waist, guiding him to the recharging station.
"At least you don't have to use jumper cables on me anymore," he said, wincing at the threadiness of his voice. Jarvis didn't say anything, but lowered him carefully into the chair before heading for the controls. Tony attached the charger's plug and took a deep breath. As the current shot through the cable, his body stiffened, his lips compressing into a thin line of pain. It didn't hurt like it used to, when it was raw current directly to his heart, but it still wasn't anything that he could call enjoyable.
Once it was over, he released his breath and opened his eyes, staring sightlessly up at the ceiling of the bay as he waited for his body to recover. It only took a moment, but it was the longest minute of his life every time he did this.
"I would say that you need to stop taking risks," Jarvis said, his voice suspiciously level, "but I know better. At the very least, though, you need to start focusing. You're not taking these things seriously, and that's going to get you hurt, if not killed."
Tony sat up, his lips set in a crooked grin. "If I started taking things seriously, Jarvis, it would take all the fun out of them." He saw Jarvis' eyes narrow before the older man let out a sigh, shaking his head.
"If I told you that you should take it seriously enough to survive -- for Steve's sake, if not for your own -- would you listen to that?"
Tony winced, his smirk slipping away. "That's a low blow, and you know it."
"That's why I'm still alive," Jarvis responded. "And why you're still alive. And if that's what it's going to take, then that's what I'm going to do."
Tony didn't answer, instead standing up and buttoning up his shirt. "Any word from Steve lately?"
He didn't even try to hide the worry in his voice. It was unusual for Steve to go more than a few days without some sort of contact, and this time it had been almost an entire week. Fury hadn't said anything, but Tony had seen the lines around his eyes grow deeper as time passed. He had set Pepper to turning up any information she could on the Red Skull's activities over the last few months, but nothing had panned out. He was beginning to suspect that Zemo was involved, but no one had seen Zemo for a year or more, and no one knew where he was. Or who he was. If he could even find out that information, he'd have a lot more confidence in his ability to deal with the situation.
"Not yet." Jarvis was almost apologetic. Tony sighed. He hadn't expected anything else.
Early December, 1942
"We found him."
Tony dropped the gauntlet he was working on fixing onto the table and spun around. Rhodey stood in the lab doorway, grinning at him, relief in his dark eyes. He might not be as close to Steve as Tony, but their friendship had taken off over the time they'd all worked together.
"Where? How? When?" The words tumbled out of Tony's mouth before he forced himself to silence again. Rhodey's grin widened a little.
"About ten minutes ago. He called us, and he's safe. He's not exactly sure of the "where" yet, but he's guessing somewhere in northeastern France. Apparently Red Skull had a hand in the last Nazi nest him and Bucky took out. He couldn't go into much detail, even on a scrambled call, but he said that there was some sort of trap waiting for them. A gas; it took him but Bucky got away. He was unconscious for a while, got carted somewhere else from the first location, and spent the last week chained up in some ruined old dungeon. He wasn't even sure how long he'd been there until Bucky showed up to unlock him. The kid's got balls, boss." Jim’s voice sparked with approval, and Tony smiled a little.
"Good, for both of them. He's okay?" He tried to keep the worry from his voice. From the knowing look Rhodey shot him, he failed miserably.
"Yep. Tired, sore, nothing serious or permanent. They should be back with their squad in a few hours." Tony frowned, and Rhodey raised his eyebrows questioningly.
"Back with their squad." He shook his head. "I've got to go talk to Fury again. There's no way that Steve's going to get out of this one without someone accusing him of trying to desert, and it just proves that the situation's ridiculous. This could be the ideal time to get Fury to pull him out of there."
"Itching to play hero again?" Rhodey's tone was light but the words were pointed, and Tony narrowed his eyes at his friend.
"Hardly. I'd be just as happy working in my lab for the next decade than I would be taking out Nazis, and even happier if said lab work didn’t involve any military contracts. Steve doesn't get that sort of option and I'll be damned if I'm going to let him flounder around in the field with half-assed support from Washington when the Chiefs can't even keep track of where the front line is from day to day." His own vehemence surprised him, but Rhodey just shook his head.
"Go get 'em, boss. If anyone can convince 'em, you can."
"Dammit, Fury, you know that I'm right!" Tony slammed his hand down on Fury's desk, ignoring the narrow-eyed glare that the general gave him. Instead, he glowered right back, letting his righteous ire feed his words. "We did it your way, and look what happened! Captain America was captured by the enemy because he didn't have anyone at his back! We're damned lucky that he managed to break away on his own."
"That's not entirely correct, Stark." Fury was almost gleeful, and Tony had to bite back the sharp words that came to mind. He wasn't supposed to know about Bucky, even though Fury must know. It wouldn't make Tony's point invalid, and it sure as hell wouldn't stop him from pushing until he got what he wanted this time.
"What do you mean?"
"Captain America has a new friend," Fury said, steepling his fingers in front of him on his desk and allowing himself to smirk, just slightly. If he was hoping to provoke a reaction from Tony, however, he was disappointed. After a short silence, he huffed and added, "He's picked up a sidekick. Name of Bucky."
"Bucky Barnes?" Tony's voice was nearly flat. Fury gave him a piercing look, then slowly nodded. Tony was willing to bet that Fury was remembering just who had been the main agitator for allowing Bucky to go with the rest of the men, when Fury had been ready to ignore the kid's arguments and keep him stateside.
"Yeah. Apparently the kid caught him changing one night, so Steve swore him to secrecy in exchange for training him up as his companion."
Tony snorted. "I've met the kid. I'm not surprised."
"So your entire point is blown out of the water, Stark. Cap isn't in this alone anymore. Now he has Bucky--"
Tony interrupted Fury before the general could get any further. "So in your opinion, a sixteen-year-old boy is sufficient backup for America's only super soldier?" Fury's lips tightened, and Tony pushed his advantage. "All it does, General, is prove my point! A teenager in Steve's squad caught him! We're lucky that it wasn't the duty sergeant. Or his captain! Or hell, an enemy spy. If you've been making him change into a costume in his own tent, it's a wonder the entire Axis doesn't know who Captain America really is by now."
"Fine, Stark. I'll concede the point. We took a risk. So far, with that one exception, it's paid off. By having Steve Rogers remain with his squad, he's been in a central location, easily accessible, easily reachable to communicate with, and highly mobile."
"Except when he isn't," Tony retorted. "He's been stuck with his squad, which makes it damned near impossible for him to get out of camp to perform the duties you've given him without being caught. He's already been accused of cowardice and damned near accused of desertion by his C.O. How is ruining the squad's morale helping any of them?" Fury's continued silence told Tony that he'd hit a sore spot and he pressed on. "By keeping him with his squad, all you've done is given him a huge Achilles' heel and a constant headache. It's been a year, Fury. If Bucky found out, the others will find out, and probably sooner rather than later. For that matter, how is Steve supposed to train Bucky if he's masquerading as a klutzy, dim-witted private? He can't exactly train the kid in hand-to-hand combat without showing just how capable he is, and that alone will start the other men in that unit wondering."
Tony paused. Fury's anger had vanished, replaced with a calm, measuring expression that Tony recognized. With a jolt, he realized that he had probably given away more than he had intended to. As long as Fury didn't guess why he was so interested in Steve's safety...
"How have you been communicating with him?" Fury asked blandly. Tony's fingers clenched before he caught himself and willed them to relax again.
"A specialized radio communicator, set to a scrambled frequency that only I can pick up," he admitted. "Before you ask, the design has been in the military's hands for the last seven and a half months. The only difference is that Cap's can't be switched to a different frequency." And of course the booby trap set for anyone who tried to get creative and take it apart, but it was measured specifically to destroy the device without injuring anyone. Permanently, anyway. "Mainly, it's been his letters, as I'm sure you're aware."
Fury nodded slowly. "You're determined about this, Stark. How many times have you been in here to confront me about it over the last year?" Tony didn't bother to answer, aware from Fury's tone that it was a rhetorical question. "Rogers means that much to you?" Damn, thought Tony, knowing that he had to answer that question very carefully indeed.
"He's one of my best friends, General," he said deliberately. "Yes, he means a lot to me." Fury raised one eyebrow.
"I would have thought that James Rhodes would claim that honor," he said. Tony's eyes narrowed.
"Rhodey is my best friend, General. He's stuck with me through more craziness than you have any idea of. But Steve..." His voice trailed off as he struggled for an explanation before he shrugged, repeating his first answer. "Yes, he means a lot."
Fury considered him for a long moment. "What's your proposal, Stark?"
Tony sank back down into the seat on the other side of Fury's desk. "The same as it's been. Stop using Iron Man for the little stuff. Instead of keeping Steve trapped in the middle of an untenable situation, take him out of it. Him and Bucky. Use my airship as a mobile base, allow me to team up with him -- with them -- and you'll have a stronger, more effective, quicker response team. We proved before the war began that Captain America and Iron Man work well as a team. Let us be one again."
Fury gazed at him in silence for long enough to make him uncomfortable, then stood up. "Get back to your lab, Stark." Tony frowned at him, confused by the abrupt dismissal. Fury smiled slightly. " The other Chiefs'll scream about it, but I happen to agree with you. I always have. At this point, I have enough pull to get your buddy out of his squad with a reasonable excuse. So go, get your armor ready, get your airship ready, and keep your team on standby. You're not military, thank god, but as of right now, Iron Man – and War Machine, as needed – has just been conscripted as a special strike unit, to be partnered with Captain America -- and Bucky -- until further notice. Make it work, and I'll make it permanent."
Tony stared at him, aware of a low, simmering anger over Fury's manipulations, but pushed it aside in favor of more immediate concerns. "That's it? That easy, you're just going to agree with me?"
"Mostly." Tony didn't move, and Fury's lips tilted in something that could have been a smile on almost anyone else. "You'll find a new contract on your desk when you get back to your office. We've been working on some other projects and I want your input on them. Some better armor, better weapons... some outside consulting for a group down in New Mexico. Nothing outside your fields of expertise."
Tony's hands clenched on the arms of the chair before he could force himself to relax. New Mexico could only mean one thing, and he'd already heard rumors of America's experiments with splitting the atom. He wasn't happy to have yet another thing that the other-him remembered confirmed as true, but if it would get him where he needed to be, get Steve and Bucky away from the bad situation they'd been in... He let out a breath. "Fine. Consider it done. As long as you come through on your end of it, you've got a deal."
Stark Mansion, New York City, December 1942
Watching Steve polish his shield was fascinating, Tony decided. The unique disc had only recently been presented to Captain America, and Steve had yet to let it out of his sight. Tony didn't really blame him. The vibranium-steel alloy was beautiful, and the way the colors had been dyed into the metal made them nearly as permanent as the shield itself. Part of him itched to get his hands on it and study it, but most of him stomped firmly on that part. He knew he could never take something like that away from Steve, and he'd much rather see it in Steve's hands, being used as it was intended to be used, than have it in the lab being studied and leave Steve unprotected.
"Okay, Tony. You've been staring at me for the last ten minutes. What's going on?"
Tony blinked, raising his gaze from the polished metal to Steve's amused stare and smiled ruefully. "Sorry. That thing is... fascinating."
Steve rested a hand lightly over the star in the middle and smiled. "I know. And I'm sure you're just dying to get it into the lab, but that will have to wait. For a long time, I'm afraid."
Tony shook his head and crossed the room, dropping lightly into the chair facing Steve. He'd invested specifically in comfortable armchairs for the library after his sojourn in the other dimension and was gratified to see them being used almost exactly as he'd hoped when he bought them. He wasn't above shamelessly trying to recreate some of his favorite memories -- both his own and his double's -- in his own home.
"No, the lab can wait. But we need to talk." Steve raised an inquiring eyebrow, and Tony plowed ahead. "Fury's pulling you from active duty." He raised a hand to stem the objections he could see brewing on Steve's face. "Let me clarify that. He's pulling Private Rogers from active duty. You're not going back to your squad this time, Steve." Steve frowned at that, but Tony thought he saw understanding dawning in his eyes. "He finally agreed to what I've been asking. You won't be tied down with your squad, having to lie to them all the time, and you'll have constant support."
The relief on Steve's face at the thought of not having to lie to men who trusted him was clear, but his frown returned and Tony started to worry. "Look, I'm not trying to interfere in your life, Steve. Not this time. We've talked about this! You agreed that your experiences made you sure this was a better options, and all I did was go to Fury to --"
"Calm down, Tony. I'm not accusing you of anything." Steve's voice was mild and Tony relaxed, feeling a little foolish at his immediate assumption. "I just want to know where Bucky will fit in to all of this. I won't leave him behind, you know. I made him a promise."
"I know," Tony answered, smiling again. "And one of the things I pointed out to Fury was that you could hardly train a sidekick in hand-to-hand combat, let alone any other skills you wanted him to know, while you were pretending to be the clumsy fool that all of your squad mates took you for. He's coming with. And on the airship, or here at the mansion, you can train him as much as you want without fear of interruption or discovery."
"That's wonderful, Tony!" Steve's pleased smile made Tony flush slightly. "That means we can train together, as a team, too. That'll be even better."
"It'll be good to have people living here again." Tony knew that Steve could hear what he really meant: It'll be good to have you living here. "No one’s really occupied this place since I moved out, years ago. You can start moving in whenever you want. Fury's already cut the orders; they're probably waiting for you when you get back to base."
Steve made a noncommittal noise. "I'll want to bring Bucky by first. If he's not open to the idea of living here, I'm not going to force him." Tony bit back his impatience. Bucky was sixteen. If they tried to force the teenager into something he didn't want, it would be sheer misery for everyone involved. He knew Steve was right, but after the last year of waiting, his impatience was beginning to crest. "I can do it tomorrow, if that works for you," Steve offered, the glint in his eye telling Tony that his inner battle for patience hadn't gone unnoticed.
"Tomorrow's fine," he said easily. "I'll just let Jarvis know." His lips twitched upward at the sidelong glance from Steve. "If we're going to make this our team base, my main lab will have to be moved. Fortunately, there's plenty of space in the basement."
"I'm glad you could come," Tony said and immediately cursed himself. The sharp look that Bucky shot him told him that his "Boardroom Voice" had gone over exactly as well as he had suspected it would: not at all. Repressing a sigh, he ushered Bucky and Steve into the room, once again glad that he had chosen to meet them at the mansion he hoped they would all be calling "home" soon. The place was undoubtedly too ritzy for their tastes, but at least it was fairly casual. Well, more casual than a corporate boardroom, at least.
Steve glanced around with mild interest. "You've decorated," he observed.
Tony took a look around himself. He hadn’t even noticed the decorations going up; he’d been too busy supervising the movement of his lab equipment all morning to even think about wandering through the main part of the mansion. "Jarvis must have reminded the servants," he murmured. "I forgot." Bucky shot him another look.
"You forgot about Christmas?" he said incredulously. Tony shrugged.
"It's been a long time since I've really had anyone to spend it with," he answered mildly, meeting Steve's cautioning look over the top of Bucky's head. "Jarvis and Rhodey and Pepper, and that's about it. And that's just when Jim and Pepper aren't visiting their families. The holidays around here tend to be pretty quiet… well, except for the annual Stark Christmas Party, of course." He caught Steve's raised eyebrows at the audible capital letters in the sentence and grinned. "They've been a tradition since my grandfather. Everybody who's anybody shows up, eats very expensive food, drinks even more expensive booze, and makes complete asses out of themselves. It's a very productive night for business deals."
"I can imagine," Steve muttered darkly. Tony chose to ignore the comment, instead leading them into the sitting room.
"Have a seat." He gestured at the couches, dark and comfortable. Steve sat down on the corner of the couch as Bucky bounced into the plush loveseat with a startled noise. Tony smiled a little, then sat on the other end of the couch Steve had chosen after a moment's hesitation.
He had barely seen the other two for most of the last year, and the time they had spent overseas had changed them. Watching them surreptitiously as he rang for the butler, he took in the changes that he could see. Bucky had grown, of course. Nearly a foot taller than he had been and still as lanky, Tony could now see a young man sitting across from him instead of a kid. He wondered if the cynical glint in Bucky's eyes had been there before they went to war, and realized that he couldn't remember. The way Bucky moved had changed, too; months of intensive training and dangerous assignments had turned the young man into a very dangerous opponent, reflected in the carefully quiet way he moved with unconscious grace, his eyes scanning all corners for possible threats.
Steve, though… Steve looked the same, except for a few lines on his face, around his eyes, that hadn't been there before. He too moved with a sort of unconscious grace, still carrying the wary edge that bespoke of battlefields and unexpected gunfire, but he hid it better than Bucky did. They both looked out of place in Tony's sitting room, dressed in their plain Army uniforms, but he dismissed that thought. Surrounded by leather and velvet and mahogany, he found that he was more comfortable with the two men in olive drab than he was with the home that he barely spent any time in.
Silence rose up between them, not tense but not comfortable, and Tony wished that he dared sit closer to Steve. Bucky's eyes flickering over him, taking in his positioning and body language, convinced him not to move even as he mentally revised his estimate of the younger man's capability upwards by quite a bit. Of the two other men in his sitting room, Steve was more capable, but Tony suddenly had no doubt whatsoever that Bucky was the deadlier of them. Steve would try not to take life unless he had no choice; Bucky would take the more expedient option whenever a chose arose. Tony knew that, remembered the conversations he had had with Steve via their private radio channel over the last few months as Steve told him about that, about the things that troubled him with Bucky. All Tony could do was listen, and try to help Steve believe that it was purely the effect of the war.
Looking at them now, Tony wasn't so sure. Something about Bucky told him that regardless of the situation, the younger man would have been dangerous, would have found some sort of vocation where he could indulge that capacity. At least by working with Steve, that ability was being put to good use rather than any darker possibilities.
The maid brought in coffee and sandwiches before leaving again, silently. Bucky immediately helped himself to a cup of coffee and crammed a sandwich into his mouth, devouring it as though he had been starved for the last three weeks. Steve caught the bemused glance Tony gave him, and shrugged.
"It's another growth spurt," he explained, reaching for his own coffee cup. "He's been eating like that for the last two months." The fond tone in his voice reassured Tony that whatever had been bothering Steve about his young partner the last time they had talked over the radio link had been largely resolved. That, or Steve had come to terms with it. Probably the latter, since there wasn't anything Steve could do to change the man that Bucky was becoming except continue to be there to provide what he saw as a good example.
"I remember that age," Tony said, his tone light as he took a drink of his own coffee. It burned going down, but he barely noticed, too used to drinking the stuff either hot enough to scald or as cold as ice to take notice of the temperature of it anymore. They passed several minutes in more companionable silence, Steve and Tony both eating a sandwich and drinking their coffee as they watched Bucky devour the rest of the plate.
"I would say that coffee stunts your growth," Tony commented, watching Bucky finish his third cup of the stuff, "But obviously I'd be wrong in your case." Bucky flashed him a grin.
"Okay, Tony. You didn't ask us over here just to feed the starving cub," Steve said, setting his cup down and turning to face him. Tony shrugged, refilling his own cup before answering.
"You're right." He took a long sip of coffee, using the moment to measure the other two men. They looked more relaxed than they had half an hour ago when they showed up on his doorstep, but the tension of spending so many months in the front lines in Europe were still obvious to anyone who knew what they were looking at. Tony couldn't do much about that, but at least he could try to make things better in the future. "I asked you over here so I could talk to you about next year."
Steve leaned back, his gaze not wavering from Tony's face. Bucky grimaced, then finished the last sandwich, washing it down with another swallow of coffee, and perched on the edge of the loveseat, watching Tony intently.
"By now, I'm sure that General Fury has told you that you won't be returning to your unit overseas." He began carefully, not wanting to step on any toes. Bucky's eyes narrowed slightly and Tony held up a hand. "That was his decision, not mine. You know how I felt about your being assigned to a standard unit in Europe in the first place, Steve, and how much of a difference my opinion made to the brass." Steve nodded slowly even as Bucky frowned, and Tony thanked god that Jarvis had convinced him to brief Steve the day before.
"You didn't want us going over there?" Bucky demanded. Tony raised an eyebrow at Steve, who met it expressionlessly. Well, if Steve was leaving it up to him…
"No," he replied simply. "At the time, you weren't Cap's sidekick and you didn't know who Steve really was, remember, so don't be offended when I say that it had nothing to do with you. Not initially, anyway. I protested their sending Captain America overseas in disguise as a regular soldier because I couldn't see how it would do anything but impede him in the duties they really wanted him to fulfill." Bucky nodded thoughtfully. "Once I knew you were going too, I protested mainly because of your age. A war zone is no place for a kid." Even one destined to end up as Cap’s partner, Tony thought. He saw the thoughtful expression on Steve’s face and wondered if he’d figured out that Tony’s protests at the time had been mainly for show.
"I'm not a kid!" Bucky protested, a fire lighting up in his eyes. Tony nodded.
"I know. But you're not old enough to enlist, either," he pointed out, and Bucky subsided, grumbling under his breath. "Using the excuse that you were trained as the unit photographer only made it slightly better. Knowing that Cap would be there to keep an eye on you made it almost okay, but I still wasn't happy. You're a unique case, Bucky. And once you found out who Steve really was…" Tony sighed. "I went back to Fury and argued with him some more. Uselessly."
"But we're not going back this time," Steve interjected quietly. "So obviously something worked, since Fury pulled us from the front lines… where we were doing good, Tony. Hitler and Red Skull are committing horrors over there, and we're needed." Tony nodded in agreement and thanked Pepper once again for insisting that he tell Steve what was really going on before bringing Bucky in on it. He could just imagine the argument he’d have if Steve thought he was being high-handed with their assignments again.
"I know. And I agree. That's why you're not going back - as part of your unit." He paused, waiting for that sentence to sink in, before he continued, "You're going back the way you should have gone in the first place, as Captain America and Bucky, a team, not two guys having to pretend to be simple soldiers while juggling your other roles." Bucky's eyes widened, and Steve leaned forward.
"And what do you get out of it?" he asked pointedly. From the look on his face, he’d been sitting on that question since their conversation the day before. Tony winced theatrically, clutching at his chest, wishing that Steve weren't so damned perceptive. He'd told him the truth the day before... mostly.
"Steve, I'm wounded! What do you think of me?" he protested. Steve rolled his eyes.
"I think that you're a manipulative bastard who won't stop until he gets what he wants," Steve said bluntly. "In this case, I happen to know that Iron Man is involved, so spill the beans. What did you get Fury to agree to?"
Tony leaned back, reassured both by Steve's candor and the spark of humor in his eyes as he looked at Tony challengingly. After their first conversation about Tony "trying to run his life," Tony knew that Steve took that question, no matter how lightly phrased, very seriously indeed. Even so, he couldn't prevent the small smile that played on his lips as he answered.
"I got Fury to agree to involve Iron Man, basically. Cap and Bucky will still be assigned missions, still do covert ops, still stop Zemo and Skull from whatever atrocities they're planning - but now, you'll be able to work from a mobile base. No more skulking around with a unit trying to hide your identities," and Tony shot Bucky a half-amused glance, which the teenager returned with a smirk, "No more trying to explain sudden extended absences, and a lot more mobility."
Steve continued to watch him. Tony spread his hands, and Steve rolled his eyes. "Out with it, Tony. How do you benefit?"
"Your mobile base will be my airship," Tony admitted. Steve waited and Tony finally huffed, then said grumpily, "Fine. And Iron Man will be your partner. Well, available to be your partner as needed. War Machine too, if he’s needed.”
"You mean… instead of me?" Bucky demanded. Tony was taken aback by the accusing tone; he hadn't actually thought of that possibility, not since the first days when Steve had adopted the younger man as his partner. Once Steve made that promise, all bets were off and Tony knew it.
"No, of course not!" he answered quickly. "I wouldn't dream of doing that, Bucky, I swear to you." Bucky eyed him doubtfully for a long moment, then nodded slowly in acceptance. From the corner of his eye he saw Steve watching him contemplatively. "As much as I hated having you two over there on your own, there's no way I could even think of breaking up the team you've created. All this does is offer you guys the option of adding me, and Rhodey, to your team when and if needed." Which I really hope is pretty much all the time, he thought, hoping the pathetic sentiment didn't show on his face.
"So, instead of sneaking in through muddy fields and sniper fire, we can fly in?" Bucky sounded excited, and Tony grinned.
"Probably not, Bucky," Steve said seriously from the side, and Bucky grimaced. "But it does mean we'll have better equipment and better communication while we're working."
Bucky's expression as he took in his surroundings was priceless; as Tony showed him around the mansion, he looked more and more like a kid in a candy store who had just been told he could have anything he wanted and less and less like a sixteen-year-old military brat who'd been fighting for his life for most of the last year. As they headed downstairs, Tony wondered if Bucky would be more excited about the kitchen -- with its seemingly endless pantry -- or the training room. Rooms, really, although the shooting range had been a recent and fairly last-minute addition. Given his predilection for fighting and how incredibly quickly he had picked up on everything Steve had to teach him, Tony wasn't about to start betting which area would place higher.
"This is some place, huh, Steve?" Bucky grinned up at Steve, who smiled at him indulgently.
"It sure is. And it's awfully swell of Tony to let us stay here while we're working together," Steve added, his voice mild but Bucky immediately picked up his point.
"Yeah, thanks, Tony!"
Tony suppressed a smile of his own, wondering how Steve managed to pull off that sort of ease with everyone he met. It didn't matter what age, sex, or ethnicity anyone was -- everyone responded to Steve Rogers when he turned his attention on them.
"No problem. It'll be nice to have people here again," he said instead, turning a corner to the stairwell leading down to the training rooms. "I'm hardly here these days, and I've never really felt right leaving it empty. Besides, with Fury pulling you two off the front lines, you had to stay somewhere safe."
"And living with Iron Man has got to count as safe," Bucky said with a grin. Tony smiled, although he exchanged a glance with Steve over the top of Bucky's head. They had debated about that, actually; Tony would have been happier if they had been able to stay at one of the homes he owned in Britain, where they would have been nearly anonymous. Fury had been insistent that they remain close by for easy access, so Tony had reluctantly agreed to provide his family's estate, outside New York's city limits, with its mansion and large grounds, as their home base. He didn't have any objection to Steve and Bucky being there; in fact, he truly meant what he had said about not liking the place to be empty. He just would have felt safer somewhere that didn't necessarily have the Stark family name emblazoned on it.
"You said you don't stay here anymore?" Steve asked, and Tony's smile faded. He shrugged, watching his feet as they headed down the stairs.
"No. I grew up here, but after my dad..." Tony hesitated, struggling for words. He'd never fully recovered from the shock of discovering who Baron Zemo really was. He'd spent so much of his life knowing that his father had died when he was young that it was even more difficult now to accept the fact that he had killed him. Jarvis had repeatedly assured him that the zemo chemicals meant that his father truly had died years before, but he'd eventually given up, faced with Tony's icy silence on the subject.
Steve raised his hand and clasped Tony's shoulder, offering silent comfort. Tony knew Steve read Marvels religiously, so he had to know the bare bones of the story from the write-up Pepper had done, even though they had never discussed the subject. Tony flashed him a grateful glance. "Well, after my father was gone, Jarvis took me to live in the city proper. I have a penthouse there, on Stark Industries land, so that I can be close to the company and my labs."
"Do you have a laboratory here, too?" Bucky asked, only his quick glance between Tony and Steve giving away that he wasn't oblivious to the strained undertones of the conversation. His attempt at changing the subject was obvious, but still something Tony seized on with some relief.
"I do. It's down this way; we decided it would be best if it were underground, for the safety of the mansion and its inhabitants."
"Do you blow stuff up in it?" Bucky's tone was excited. Tony's mouth quirked in a wry smile.
"Not on purpose." Steve laughed and Tony felt himself relax, the tension of moments earlier gone. "But we can look at that some other time."
"Aww. I wanted to see Iron Man!" Bucky whined, and just an instant, Tony felt old. He had a good twenty years on Bucky, which meant that he really was old enough to be his father. And Steve wasn't that much older; that age difference was one more reason why Tony had spent so much time attempting to ignore the draw he felt toward the man.
"You'll have plenty of chances to see Iron Man, Bucky -- here and in action," Steve told him, ruffling his hair. The gesture provoked a scowl as Bucky tried to smooth down his wayward curls again, and Tony felt something inside him warm. For so long, he'd only had Jarvis... and Rhodey and Pepper, but they didn't live with him and even as close as they were, a certain distance was inevitable as they lived parts of their lives in their own homes. This, though... this was almost like having a family in the house again.
He paused momentarily at that thought, then felt Steve's curious gaze on him and stuffed it into the back of his mind. Later. For now, he would just concentrate on showing Bucky and Steve the house and the grounds, and figuring out their immediate plans. After all, Fury had sent more than a few dossiers with him this morning. If nothing else, they would need to look over the files tonight and start to plan out their next line of attack, in a very literal way. The current Zemo was starting to make his presence known again, and taking care of him was at the top of Fury's priority list. Tony could hardly disagree with that.
After they finished with dinner, they returned to the library, where Tony poured himself a shot of brandy and Bucky excused himself to go "take a look at the grounds." Steve excused him with an amused tilt of his head. Tony watched the exchange with a raised eyebrow.
"He wants to go play in the snow," Steve explained, "but he doesn't feel like that's dignified anymore, since he's all of sixteen now." Tony returned the smile, appreciating the situation. Then the smile fell off of Steve's face and Tony took a swallow of his drink in order to hide his apprehension. "Tell me honestly, Tony. What did you promise Fury?"
Sighing, Tony set down the now empty glass on the sideboard and leaned against it, crossing his arms over his chest as he eyed Steve, sitting on the couch in the same spot as earlier. "I don't suppose you'd believe me if I said he was eager to send me over there to support you?" he asked half-heartedly. Steve's eyes narrowed and Tony shrugged. "It was worth a shot. Look, Steve - he wanted some concessions on some military contracts, and he got them. It was worth it. This way you two can be safer in the field without being out of touch." And I'll be there to back you up so that Skull can't capture you and torture you again, he added in the silence of his own mind.
"Tony-" Steve started warningly, and Tony held up a hand, interrupting him.
"Don't. Just… don't, Steve," he said firmly. "Something had to give, and I'd rather have let him have what I did than keep sending you two into needless danger. I knew you wouldn't like it, but I liked it better than the other options. It's done, and there's no point in arguing over it now."
"I hate it when you do things like this, Tony," Steve muttered, collapsing back against the couch again. Tony didn't quite know how to interpret the comment, so he remained silent. He tried not to let himself linger on the lines revealed by Steve's Army uniform; when he looked back up, Steve's eyes were steady on him. He cleared his throat, wanting to go sit beside him, but unsure of his reception if he tried.
"And that's what I hate. I know that you worry, and I understand that." Steve's mouth pulled into a rueful grimace at his own words and Tony wondered at that. "But I hate that you're okay with using yourself as a bargaining chip. You're not just merchandise and you shouldn't act like you are."
"I…" Tony trailed off, trying to regroup his confused thoughts. "I don't act like that. But when it came to making sure that you - that Captain America was being given the support he deserved, making some concessions on my contracts was pretty damned minor in comparison."
Steve sighed and heaved himself to his feet before crossing the room to stand in front of him. Tony shivered a little as one of his hands reached up to clasp his shoulder, Steve looking directly into his eyes.
"You're not minor in comparison to anything, Tony. Not to me." Tony's eyebrows furrowed a little at the words and Steve sighed. "I don't know how else I can explain it to you. You matter."
"I don't matter as much as Captain America," Tony protested, aware of Steve's glare. He suspected that he’d missed Steve’s point. "Iron Man is… a hero, of sorts, sure, but Captain America is a symbol. He's an important symbol to us and to our allies and if anything were to happen to him - to you - I don't know what I - what we would do." He cursed his slip of the tongue, knowing better than to hope that Steve hadn't noticed it. Regardless of what Steve thought, keeping Captain America safe and sound was far more important than keeping Iron Man safe, or even keeping Stark Industries pure; hell, Stark had been built on military contracts, so it wasn't like there was any purity left there to worry about anyway. From the determined expression on Steve's face, though, there was no way to convince him of that.
"I can't promise that nothing will happen to me," Steve said softly. "But I can promise you that I will do my best to make sure that it doesn't, that I come home from every mission." Tony's mouth went dry at the look on Steve's face, the word "home" resonating in his mind. He wanted to step away, place some distance between them and regain his composure. He wanted to step closer, to close the remaining gap between them and… He swallowed. Steve leaned forward, his free hand reaching out to grasp the sidebar beside Tony. Tony's fingers twitched as he breathed out Steve's name.
"Wow, Steve, you should see this place!"
Steve took an abrupt step backwards, his hands falling to his sides, and Tony was aware of his elevated heart rate and his quickened breathing, even as he looked up, past Steve, to see Bucky burst into the room. The teenager's face was flushed from the cold, his nose red and his eyes sparkling, and he trailed snow behind him. In the back of Tony's mind, the image of his mother, horrified at the thought of snow dripping over her expensive imported carpets, made him want to laugh. The exuberance on Bucky's face faded into surprise as he took in the body language between them, to be replaced by a sort of knowing smirk that made Tony want to glare.
Steve neatly removed the decision from his hands by turning to Bucky and declaring, "It's time to go. Tony has work to do, and you've got some photos to process still, don't you?"
"What? Oh, photos. Yeah, sure, Steve. I've got some I can process," Bucky answered, glancing between them. Steve glanced at him, inclined his head, and left. Bucky followed him back out with a wave. Tony listened to their footsteps in the hallway, the quiet murmuring as the maid fetched Steve's coat, and the door slamming closed behind them. Then he sagged against the sidebar again, staring at his reflection in the mirror above it. Brilliant, he thought sardonically. That went just beautifully, Tony. Taking a deep breath, he poured himself a stiff shot and tossed it back, hoping that the burn would sear away the memory of Steve leaning into him.
Stark Mansion, March 1943
"So, at the end of the story with the Aztec skull and the lost tribe, I was thinking of leading into that saboteur incident."
Tony made an absent mm-hm noise, caught up in welding together a new model of the Armor’s jet boot. Not as efficient as that other-world's, perhaps, but a damned sight better than what he'd had. He had high hopes for this model, and if he could actually fly instead of just doing long-distance jumps... He flipping off the welding torch, setting it down with a careful motion and raised his mask before turning to face Pepper. She sat perched on the stool at the drafting table by the wall, close enough for him to hear her but far enough away to be out of range of any welding accidents. Currently, she wore an all-too-amused half-smile as she watched him.
"That saboteur incident?" Tony wasn't really asking her, and she knew it. "The time Steve and I chased down that spy?"
She nodded. Tony chewed his lip thoughtfully, musing over the idea. He didn't want to turn Marvels into the Iron Man & Captain America magazine -- Cap already had his own comic, after all. But once in a while... "Fury would probably have to okay any story involving Cap," he finally pointed out. Pepper's smile widened.
"That's why I asked for permission to use the character before you even got back from that other world," she said smugly. "Once Iron Man teamed up with Cap, I knew readers would be clamoring for stories about the two of you, and I was right. You should see the mail we get, Tony! You've been okay with Cap getting mentioned, but I've never had a chance to write up one of the missions you've done together, since they're all classified." She made a face, and Tony couldn't hold back his laugh.
"Damn straight," she agreed with a grin. "So, if that meets with your approval, boss?"
Tony had hired her to write his stories; who was he to argue with something that was a guaranteed win for everyone? "Write it."
The sound of the door opening interrupted the conversation, and Pepper waved at Steve. "Speak of the devil! I just got Tony to agree to let me write Cap into one of the Marvels stories," she informed him with a glint in her eye. Steve stopped, staring at her, then looking at Tony.
"But... Tony, I thought... Marvels is your magazine..." he protested. Tony frowned, wondering why Steve was objecting when he knew that Steve had been a fan of the magazine for... oh. He'd almost forgotten about the bad case of hero worship that Steve had had for Marvels and the hero of its pages. Rhodey had taken great delight in informing him of that once he'd gotten back. Tony fought back his laugh that time, not wanting to upset his partner.
"It is, but we have been partners for a while," he said instead, keeping his tone light. "I know you like the magazine, and I absolutely defy you to say "no" to Pep. Well, and get out of this room alive. She does pack a deadly punch." Pepper grinned at Steve as she slid to the ground, straightening her skirt.
"Just ask Madame Masque," she winked. "You can't really hate the thought of being in Marvels, can you?" From the sparkle in her eye, Tony knew that she was thinking of the early hero worship too, and getting vast amusement from the thought. Steve stared helplessly down at her before glancing toward Tony for help. Tony spread his hands wide and shrugged, his lips twitching. Steve looked back at Pepper's expectant expression and opened his mouth again before closing it with a sigh.
"...Fine. I can't stop you," he surrendered. Pepper's grin threatened to split her face.
"Smart man." She reached out and patted him comfortingly on the shoulder. "Thanks, Cap. I promise I'll make you look good. Of course, compared to the boss's luck, even poor Private Rogers would look like a superhero."
Steve's face tightened a little. "Tony's more than capable--"
Pepper reached up and placed a finger against Steve's lips, silencing him immediately. "I know, Steve. I've been accompanying him around the world for years now, you know." The chuckle took the sting out of her words. She glanced between the two of them and shook her head. "I'll leave you two alone. I'm sure I'm just the third wheel in this party anyway."
The door closed behind her before Tony dared try to speak. Even with the additional pause, he couldn't keep the smile off his face. "She was just trying to get a rise out of you, you know."
Steve raised an abashed face to him and shrugged. "I know. You're the expert in heroing, after all. I'm the Johnny come lately."
Tony harrumphed but didn't bother to argue the point. Besides, Steve was right. Iron Man was around years before Captain America was. Instead, he asked, "So, what brings you down here? Usually you stay clear of the lab."
"Well.... you've been down here a lot lately," Steve began, circling the workstation at a slow pace.
"And? That's nothing new."
"I worry, Tony. You've been working and not eating. You didn't come up for dinner, and Bucky asked why you missed training this morning." The reproach in Steve's eyes kept his initial joking response from escaping, although Tony was at a loss as to what Steve wanted to hear.
"I lost track of time. That's not unusual for me." He shifted to keep Steve in his line of sight.
"It's a bad habit." Steve came around the corner of the table, stopping in front of him. The angle forced Tony to look up to meet his eyes, and when he did, he almost stopped breathing. Intense blue eyes looked back down at him, full of emotions that he didn't dare try to name. "You've been dreaming."
Tony blinked as he processed Steve's meaning. Once he did, his lips twitched. "Sorry if I've woken you -- I've been told I'm quite the noisemaker in b--" Steve's hand covering his mouth effectively silenced him.
"Not just... those dreams," and Tony was gratified to see those chiseled cheekbones pinken with embarrassment at the vague discussion of erotic dreams. "Other dreams. You haven't been sleeping well because of nightmares. I've heard you." He must have caught the expression on Tony's face, since his blush deepened. "I can't help it if I have good hearing," he said primly. "And anyway, I was just... worried. Is there something I can do to help?"
The question caught Tony like a punch to the gut. His mind filled with wonderfully explicit images of exactly how Steve could "help" him get to sleep. "God, Steve, if only you could..." He stopped himself before he finished the sentence. He wasn't going to proposition his partner in the middle of his lab, for god's sake. He wasn't expecting Steve to move, wrapping his arms around him and pulling him close. His own arms came up automatically, wrapping around Steve's waist.
"If I could only what?" Steve asked, his breath huffing against his ear, and Tony bit his lip.
"If only you could do things that would get me arrested for even saying them out loud," he said hoarsely. Steve froze against him, and for a long moment, Tony was afraid that he had said too much.
They had spent the last year and a half, in the increasingly rare times they spent alone together, dancing silently around the subject of each other, moving awkwardly from it whenever they got too close. Quite possibly, he had thrown off that careful dance. He found that part of him, the part still unaccustomed to waiting for things he wanted, hoped that he had. Another part of him, the part that had grown into dominance over the last few years, since the onset of the war and his cross-dimensional trip, hoped quite fervently that he hadn't. If nothing else, he still despised talking about his feelings. The odd, sentimental statement that escaped him every so often was different, but not something he especially wanted to pursue.
The silence between them stretched on as Steve watched him speechlessly, and Tony forced himself not to twitch. Instead, he soaked in the feel of strong arms around him, well-muscled body against his, and his fingers tightened against Steve's back before he could stop himself.
"Eventually, you know we'll have to talk about this." Steve's voice was a quiet murmur against his temple, and Tony stiffened almost imperceptibly for an instant before relaxing again, an insouciant shrug lifting one shoulder.
"Maybe. But not right now." It wasn't a request, and Tony could see Steve's lips twitching up into a reluctant smile out of the corner of his eye.
After another moment, Tony stepped away from Steve, quelling his inner reluctance to do so with a mental glare and forcing himself to be only relieved that they had managed to regain their balance on the tight wire that was their relationship. There were times, he mused, where he really wanted nothing so badly as to punch a wall; without that damned accident from the other world, he and Steve would have met anyway, and probably would have become best friends similarly to how the other Tony and Steve had done.
As it was, they both spent too much time fighting against memories of the other-thems and forcing themselves to remember who they were actually dealing with. It made anything more than friendship... difficult. But not unwanted, Tony admitted in the depths of his mind. As time passed, his own memories were becoming easier to deal with, the other Tony's memories fading not away, but into the background as proper memories, without rising up unasked and unwanted to throw unexpected thoughts and feelings at him.
Which meant, of course, that his current reluctance to take a step forward in his wished-for relationship with Steve was all his own doing.
"You need to get out of this lab for a while," Steve observed, and Tony knew that if he turned around, he would find Steve leaning against his work table, ignoring the sharp corner poking into his hip, arms crossed across his chest, a small wrinkle of concern furrowing his brow even as his lips curved into a fond half-smile. He didn't turn. Instead, he busied himself picking up tools and re-ordering them, busy work that made it possible for him to try to regain some measure of self-control.
"You just want to go throw me around some more." His words were light, masking the thread of want that ran through him as he spoke. Those damned other-Tony memories had subsided, but having them meant that he had double-doses of dreams at night, especially now. The nightmares had been bad enough for all the months that Steve had been stationed in Europe. Now, though... now he had those other dreams. Dreams that left him sticky and satiated and yet still frustrating, longing to wake up to find them reality rather than just the product of an over-worked -- and often, he thought bitterly, overly creative -- imagination. He knew that Jarvis and Pepper worried about him, worried about his decision to marry himself to his work rather than seek out other forms of companionship, but he also knew that they understood why he had made the choice. Even Jim understood, and Tony often wondered just how badly he had underestimated his old friend, for Rhodey to be able to spring that on him out of nowhere.
"A workout would be good for you," came Steve's response, and Tony fought back the warm shudder that ran through him at the words. It really had been too long since he had had any companionship of the more intimate variety, if the offer to spar provoked that sort of response in him.
"I'm not sure that I'm really in the proper mood for it," he tossed over his shoulder, trying to deflect Steve's well-meaning intent. Suddenly, the thought of some time alone with some oil and silk sheets and his damned imagination sounded terribly good to him. He tried to snake a hand down to his trousers to adjust himself without being too obvious about it.
"Probably not," Steve agreed easily, and Tony found himself being turned to face the other man, their proximity too close for him to even think about hiding what being around Steve did to him. He watched as Steve's smile fell from his face, replaced in heartbeat by surprise. Tony could see Steve's eyes darken and he couldn't stop himself from pressing close to him, moaning softly as Steve's fingers tightened on his shoulders. He leaned forward without meaning to, his eyes fastened on Steve's, a sudden yearning to feel his lips on his own sweeping through him.
His fingers lost their grip on the pliers he had picked up moments earlier and the tool fell to the ground with a metallic clatter that sounded terribly loud in the tense silence surrounding them, breaking through the haze made up of their harsh breathing and rapid heartbeats, and Steve jerked back, his hands falling away from Tony. Tony lurched forward in an abortive attempt to follow, brought up short by his own realization of what had just happened, and he turned away, back to his work table. Gripping the edge of it tightly, he fought with himself, trying to regain control of his body. Dammit. The especially unfortunate side effect of getting close and personal with his work and his projects rather than another human being was this -- his increasing lack of self-control around one Steve Rogers.
After a long moment, Tony pulled his lips tight in a grimace, then cleared his face. He leaned down to pick up the troublesome pliers, then turned back around with a casual movement, his eyes sweeping over Steve as he did so. His friend looked flustered, flushed, and generally turned on. Tony swore, loudly and freely, in the privacy of his own mind, and for an instant, he hated that other him. At least the other Tony had actually gotten to kiss Steve a few times. He hadn't even been able to do that.
"I -- you..." Steve's voice cracked, and Tony wondered, not for the first time, just how much worldly experience his younger friend had. Not much, he suspected, from reactions like that one, but the thought failed to provoke the normal spark of amusement. Instead, he had to grapple back thoughts of teaching Steve the ways of the world, introducing him to the pleasures of the flesh, and bit his lip firmly. The slight pain helped him regain control over his thoughts and he carefully placed the pliers back down on the work table.
"Sorry," he said, and then cleared his voice to rid it of the lingering hoarseness. Steve stared at him. "That wasn't really what I was planning to do, just so you know." He tried to sound casual and could only hope the attempt sounded better to Steve than it did to him.
"I... I didn't..." Steve stopped, shook his head, and tried again. Tony found himself smiling a little, a fond warmth swelling through him as he watched Steve try to find words. "I didn't think it was," he finally settled on. Tony made an airy gesture and shrugged.
"I do try not to make a habit of seducing people in my lab," he said lightly. "If nothing else, it creates its own unique set of hazards. Not to mention that I generally prefer a bed to a cement floor." He could probably spend the rest of his life watching Steve blush, he mused idly. It really was a very becoming look on the man, although he would have to remember not to tease him while in uniform. Seeing Captain America blush in public would very likely damage the icon's reputation, and he had no desire to do that.
"That wasn't the sort of workout I meant," Steve finally blurted out, then looked horrified. Tony managed to repress his laugh, but only barely.
"I didn't think it was," he parroted back Steve's own words and was gratified to see a semblance of a normal expression return to his friend's face as Steve narrowed his eyes at him. "I have to apologize, though," he said somewhat reluctantly. "I usually have rather better control than that."
"Better... control?" Steve repeated blankly, then blinked. "Oh. I... ah... usually?" He turned a questioning look on Tony, who spent a moment wishing that the man didn't have the most absolutely infuriating way of picking up on exactly the bits of conversation that he didn't want him to, before answering.
"To be quite frank, I haven't gone this long without..." He hesitated, trying to phrase things so as not to further embarrass Steve, then gave up. At this point, that was probably a lost cause. "Intimate companionship, I suppose I could say, since I was a teenager. A very young teenager. It tends to put me rather on edge." He watched Steve again as the other man worked his way through that, although this time he didn't get the blush that he had come to expect. Instead, a sort of vague sorrow swept over the blond's face.
"I'm sorry, Tony." The words were soft and sincere, and Tony frowned because there was quite clearly something else going on that he wasn't picking up on. Steve caught his look and shrugged uncertainly. "I never... I never thought of that. I mean... I know that you... you're... waiting... for me," and Steve swallowed. Tony had to tear his gaze away from the length of Steve's throat and stare at the wall above the man's shoulder. "And that we've never really talked about it. At all. I just... I didn't realize that you would..." He shrugged again. "Would deny yourself like that."
Tony lowered his gaze back to Steve's, almost incredulous. And, he realized with some surprise, he was angry. "You expected me to just keep fucking people, is that what you're saying?" he demanded, and the crudity had its desired effect. Steve narrowed his eyes again.
"I didn't think you would stop, no," he answered. Tony's hands tightened on the edge of the table again, but this time not from passion.
"After this long, I would have thought you would know me better than that," Tony said carefully, trying to keep his anger from speaking for him. It wasn't entirely Steve's fault if he thought that Tony would keep sleeping with people even through their ongoing, awkward... courtship? He wasn't even entirely sure what to call it -- if it could be called anything at all. Maybe it was all just in his own head.
"Know better than what? That all of the women you've dated, the girls you've taken to parties and dinners while I was in Europe, all of them were just... just... a cover?" Steve's own voice was sharper now and Tony winced.
"That I don't hurt the people I care for," he answered, his words sharp. "Not when I have the choice."
Steve winced this time. "I'm an idiot. I know you don't, Tony. I'm sorry. I just..." He raised a hand, fingers clenched, as his face tightened in frustration. "I don't know what to do. I keep saying the wrong damned things, and the last thing I want to do is make you mad. That's just all I seem able to do when we're not out fighting together."
"Steve... you know that the girls are... necessary, right? I can't exactly go out in public and announce the world that I like to swim in both ends of the pool, you know." Tony had never been more jealous of that other-world him than he was right now, because in that other world, he'd be able to do exactly that and the worst that would happen were a stock drop and some nasty comments. Here, he could lose everything. Steve's eyes closed for a minute before he looked up at Tony with a sad smile.
"I know." The silence this time was companionable rather than tense, even with the unhappiness lurking below it. Finally, Steve shook his head. "You know... if you could... if we could tell the world... I would."
Caught off guard, Tony blinked at him, speechless, and Steve reached out, taking his hand with a shy smile. "For the right fella, that is."
Small Island in the North of Germany, Autumn 1943
“Are you sure about this?” Tony muttered at Steve as they stood on the airship's ramp, the wind whistling past them with enough force to make Bucky grab Iron Man's hip to remain standing. Steve glanced sideways at him, smiling slightly.
“As sure as I can be. This is where Fury's intelligence said it was,” Steve reminded him. Tony shook his head.
“I know, I know, but… of all places.” He allowed himself the shudder, secure in the knowledge that neither of his teammates would see it through the Armor. He'd never expected to return to this particular island again. Looking down, he tried to take in the tactical layout of the place. He hadn't had time to do so last time he was here. “They fixed the holes in the wall that Rhodey and I made,” he observed. Steve shifted his grasp on his shield and didn't say anything. Instead, he moved behind Tony and mounted the armor, Bucky climbing on behind him. Tony shook himself out of his reverie and hit his jets.
So far, their approach had been quiet. There were apparently no sentries in the countryside or at the walls, at least none that were shooting at them. Tony didn't hold out much hope that it would remain that way for much longer. As he moved forward, leaving the wavering security of the airship ramp, he activated his heat sensors. Now there was a reading on the HUD showing him himself, Steve, and Bucky… and no one else. He frowned and toggled the radio switch.
“Nobody out here!” he called, mindful that Steve would have wind rushing past his ears. He could picture the frown on Steve's face as the other man stared down at the approaching castle.
“It can't be deserted,” he responded, his voice tinny in Tony's ear.
“Either they're all inside past the sensor range, or they're not alive,” Tony said, scanning the area ahead of them to make sure it was clear to land. He found himself hoping desperately that the Nazis they were after were hiding deep inside the inner walls. He'd fought Nazi-created vampires more than once and still had the occasional nightmare about the encounters.
“Either way, we're about to find out,” came Steve's response as Tony touched down. Someday when he had more time, he promised himself, he would devote the time necessary to develop better jets. For now, though, he had to be content with having functional jets in the first place. He never had told Jarvis about the explosion with the Mark I jets; he liked his head where it was, thank you, and didn't want to have to stave off an attack by his father figure due to his own stupidity. Besides, they had worked - just too well.
Steve and Bucky dismounted lightly and Tony saw them move back slightly. He waved to indicate his direction, then moved forward and took aim with the mini missiles mounted on his shoulder. Seconds later, the heavy gates - newly installed since his last visit, he noted grimly - disappeared in a rain of dust and splinters. Steve circled to the side, approaching the gateway from the side in shadow, Bucky heading the opposite way. Tony strode forward. If there was anything in the inner courtyard that could hurt them, he wanted it hitting him first. That was the whole point of the armor, after all.
The inner courtyard contained only silence.
Tony cocked his head, frowning, as he turned a slow circle, scanners at full, and still picking up nothing. Dammit. He really wished he had sensors with even half the sensitivity of the other world's capabilities, but even these were better than nothing, which is what he had had two years before.
“Anything?” came Cap's question, asked softly.
He shook his head, then answered, “No. It's got to be a trap, Steve.”
“We still have to go in,” came the calm answer. Tony gritted his teeth, and stood at the ready as Bucky tugged open the door into the building. The teenager scanned the area, then waved them forward and disappeared inside. Tony still didn't like sending Bucky in first, but as the boy himself had pointed out more than once, he was a hell of a lot better at stealth work than either Tony in the Armor or Steve in his uniform and gleaming shield. Not to mention that Tony had seen Bucky's combat skills up close and had no doubt that he could take care of himself.
The inner keep remained stubbornly empty of enemies. There weren't even bodies to reassure Tony that someone else had gotten there before them. There were, however, too many disturbed trails in the dust for it to be the work of anything but a squad of men. He gestured at the floor and Steve dropped down to examine the tracks, tracing them for several feet before getting back to his feet and brushing his hands off against his leather pants.
“Recent. Very recent. Several men, at least, and at least one set of equipment of some sort,” Steve reported crisply, his voice still quiet.
"Something big." It wasn't a question, but Steve nodded. Tony bit back the curses that wanted to escape and turned down the hallway. "You go ahead, scout it out -- keep hidden." Stay safe, he didn't add, but Steve must have heard it in his tone anyway, from the look he flashed at Tony.
"Right." And he was gone. Bucky had disappeared while they were still talking, but he had a radio too if he needed them. The miniaturized comms were the easiest thing he'd worked on from the other universe yet, and they were amazingly effective. Fury had even stopped grumbling at him about pulling strings to get Cap working with him once he'd seen how useful the small radios were. For now, though... Tony just hoped that none of the walls inside the keep were more than four feet thick or reinforced with lead, because that would put a stop to the radios' usefulness. And usability. The wall thickness was probably okay now that they were past the outer defenses, but the lead was still a possibility. They had seen stranger things in the Nazi labs, especially in Zemo's.
Trying to focus on the here and now, and not on worrying about his partners, Tony cautiously walked down the hallway. The Armor made an unmistakable banging and clanging racket, and even though he wished he could make it quieter, right now he was just grateful that it would draw any attention down here to himself, rather than to Cap or Bucky. He'd been a useful target before, and was sure to be again the future. He turned on the light mounted on his helmet and used it to sweep the darkness ahead of him. Still no heat readings, which was beginning to worry him, but not nearly as much as the continued silence did.
"Cap! You've gotta--"
With a crackle, the sudden radio flare up was gone and Tony did curse, speeding his steps. Bucky hadn't sounded hurt, but if something was interfering with their communications, they definitely needed to not be so spread out. A flight of stairs and several twisting hallway turns later, Tony found himself on a balcony overlooking what had to be a grand hall. What used to be a grand hall, he corrected himself, staring down at the technological maze below him. A flash of movement caught his eye and he saw Steve sliding carefully the corner on a balcony that overhung the facing wall.
Below them lay a jungle of twisting cables and wiring, running from console to console and meeting up at a central cylinder that was filled with a light blue liquid. Something was inside, although Tony couldn't tell what it was from his angle. There were no lab techs manning any of the consoles, no mad genius gloating over the setup... and no Bucky.
"Cap?" he said softly. Steve's head jerked up from where the other man had been engrossed in his own study of the area. "Any sign of Bucky?" A quick shake of the head, and then Steve was backing up, flipping his hand toward the wall to his left. Tony looked, and swore. Loudly.
"Ah, mein Kapitan! And the Man of Iron, so lovely of you to take the time to drop by our little villa," came a loud, mocking voice. Below them, holding a struggling Bucky in a punishingly tight grip, was Zemo. To his side, Red Skull grinned up at Tony, the bad lighting not hiding the insanity blazing in his eyes. "So very kind of you, in fact. It saves our having to hunt you down ourselves. And of course, it allows us to witness the fighting efficacy of both your little team." Tony could hear the sneer in Zemo's voice even without being able to see the man's face as he continued, "As well as the ferociousness of our little pet."
"Let him go." Steve's voice was cold. Red Skull's grin widened.
"You want your little… partner, ja?" The inflection in his voice left no doubt about the slurs he was casting on Bucky's partnership with Steve and Tony saw Steve's free hand tighten into a fist before he forced himself to relax again. The depth of his own outrage surprised him, but he pushed it aside for the moment, watching Zemo closely in an effort to figure out some sort of plan that could get them out of the trap.
Above them, lights suddenly came on, harsh fluorescents casting strange, twisted shadows across them from the maze of tubes and cables running through the room. The consoles lit up, and Tony saw lab technicians appear at two of them, wearing garish yellow jumpsuits with visors that hid their faces. Some sort of hazmat suit, he thought, but was too caught up in watching the two master villains to pay much attention to them.
The sound of a generator switching on, the hum growing in volume, made him rethink his priorities as lights began flashing on the cylinder in the middle of the room. He cast a quick glance at Steve, meeting Cap's eyes in a sidelong, silent glance that communicated their lines of thinking without needing speech.
"Cap - you take them," he said in as soft a whisper as he could into the microphone inside his helmet. "I'll try to stop whatever it is down here." Steve's head inclined ever so slightly in acknowledgement and Tony swallowed, feeling the familiar buildup of nervous tension manifesting itself as a solid knot in his gut. Then the adrenaline began to kick in and he became aware of his heart, racing in his chest.
Eyeing the movements of the lab technicians from his vantage point, Tony was still hyper-sensitive to Cap's every movement. It hadn't taken long to fall into a rhythm with him when they worked together as a team, and it paid off at times like this, when it was especially important that they predict each other's movements. When Cap shifted his weight, Tony angled his body. Red Skull's snarl was expected, but Zemo's call to his technicians was not.
"Do not even think of trying to throw your shield, Captain," Zemo's cold voice, still and calm, cut sharply across the background noise of the generator and the bustle of the technicians. "Begin the power-up sequence!"
A quick nod from the technicians and their movements became quicker, more frantic but still controlled. Zooming in on their movements, Tony could see their hands shaking and couldn't tell if it was from excitement or from fear. Taking a closer look at the thing in the cylinder, he rather suspected it was both -- seeing the vague outline of Zemo's latest project certainly didn't send a bolt of joy through him, at least.
"Iron Man, are you enjoying the show?" Zemo asked, and Tony glanced up at him. From the tilt of Zemo's head, Tony suspected that the man was smirking, if not actually gloating, beneath the mask.
"I've seen better in kindergarten classes, Zemo," he replied laconically, fingers itching to fire the missiles in his shoulder-mounted pods at the man and wipe him out of existence, but knowing better than to try with Bucky so close. The growl that Zemo emitted was audible on his pickups and he smirked. One shot that definitely hit home, at least.
"Oh, don't worry -- you will get to enjoy this particular pet up close and personal," Zemo snarled, his arm twisting with a sharp movement. Bucky didn't make a noise, but Tony could see the sudden flash of pain on his face. Red Skull gestured, the smile on his face especially distorted as he enjoyed the apparent sight of his enemies helpless before him.
"Do not worry, mein Kapitan," Skull called to Steve, obviously just as aware of Cap's impotent fury over their handling of Bucky as Tony was, "We will treat your boy with all of the respect and dignity that he deserves." The lascivious smirk that he turned toward Bucky, looking the young man up and down in a slow, overplayed motion, brought bile to Tony's throat. "I am sure that he has many... hidden talents."
"Disgusting," said Zemo, shaking his head, and Skull shrugged.
"Perhaps. But I suspect mein Fuhrer would forgive some little playing with our enemies before we hand them over to the firing squad." He paused, then smirked again. "Or perhaps, for this one, I should give him to you once I'm finished. He would still be usable for your experiments... if nothing else."
"Calmly, Cap," Tony whispered frantically, watching the lab technicians speed their movements. "Whatever they're planning, they're stalling for time now. We won't let them get out of here with Bucky." He could see Steve's hand clenched on the edge of the shield. If it weren't for the thick gloves, there would be blood pooling across that gleaming surface from the strength of his grip. Cap nodded again, a sharp jerky movement.
Bucky remained silent, and Tony was pleased to see that although he was obviously frightened, he wasn't panicking. Instead, the teenager's eyes were sharp, following their movements. The earpiece for his radio was missing and Tony wasn't sure if that meant that it had fallen out or if Zemo had taken it when they caught him. Unfortunate, since he couldn't let Bucky know what they were planning. Or at least, let him know that they were trying to work out a plan on the fly.
A sudden spark from one of the consoles drew both Zemo's and Red Skull's attention, and Tony barked, "Now!" into his microphone. With one smooth movement, Steve drew back his arm and sent the shield sailing across the room. Red Skull ducked, but Zemo looked up just in time for it to strike his shoulder, forcing him to release his hold on Bucky. With a growl, Bucky ducked. The stone railings on the balconies kept Tony from seeing what the teenager did next, but the cries of pain from Zemo and Red Skull made him smile fiercely inside his helmet. He caught the gleam of metal as the shield rebounded from the railing, arcing back across the room to where Steve had vaulted onto the floor and rolled, waiting for it to reach him.
"Down!" he called, and triggered the missiles. Steve rolled out of sight into the shadows at the edge of the room and Tony narrowed his eyes, bracing himself as the miniature rockets exploded into the consoles, making the lab technicians scream with pain behind the clouds of smoke that began billowing out from the disintegrating controls. A quick glance across the room to the other balcony showed it to be empty and Tony cursed to himself, but wasn't surprised. Zemo and Red Skull seemed to excel at slipping out of their grasp. As long as they didn't have Bucky, Tony could live with it -- this time.
He activated his jets and launched himself upward enough to get past the balcony, then guided himself toward the floor. From this angle, the room looked like the same workshop that the previous Zemo had used to build the Arsenal units, the ones that Tony and Rhodey had taken out when they destroyed a good portion of the castle in their rescue of Pepper. At least, Tony thought with some grim amusement, this fight didn't involve any permanently-scarred and murderous exes of his. As far as he knew, anyway, since the current Zemo's identity was still a mystery. Not that he could share that tidbit with Fury, of course. The humor of the comment would completely go over the man's head.
As he turned his attention to the consoles, the brightly-lit cylinder in the middle of the room cracked open. The slithering creature that emerged, light blue fluid sluicing from its flanks, resembled something out of a nightmare. Tony's breath hissed past his teeth as it stopped, hesitating, before turning in his direction. Cap and Bucky were gone -- pursuing Red Skull, Tony assumed -- and the lab technicians had cleared the room as soon as he'd taken to the air.
"Just you and me, then," he muttered. He raised one arm, the firing mechanism locking into place.
"Are you all right?" Tony asked, raising his faceplate as Cap stopped, Bucky at his heels. Behind them, smoke billowed up into the sky from the shattered remains of the castle. Tony had taken a vicious pleasure in activating the self-destruct sequence he'd found after putting an end to Zemo's monster. Steve glanced up at him and sighed, then pulled back his cowl. Smoke residue was streaked across his face but he looked unharmed. Bucky looked exhausted, at least as smoke-streaked as Cap and, Tony suspected, his own armor, but otherwise okay.
"Yeah. I really, really wish that we hadn't let them get away."
Tony nodded. "I know. At least we managed to get that -- thing -- in there taken care of." He shuddered slightly at the thought. "And we did manage to get what we came for. That's a victory in my book. Even if it's not a very satisfying one."
Steve rubbed the side of his face, smearing the ash further into his blond hair. "I know. And whatever they're working on, I know we needed to get the plans. I'm glad you were able to salvage them from Zemo's research, after you went to so much effort to blow it all up." His tone was wry and Tony mock-glared at him. Bucky snickered.
"Since I grabbed them, you mean," the teenager interjected. Tony snorted, knowing that Bucky would only get defensive if he showed too much worry.
"You're okay, right? They didn't manage to do anything to you before you broke free?" he asked, knowing that Steve wouldn't, not now and not without provoking a rebellious denial from his younger sidekick. Bucky flushed, his eyes narrowing.
"You mean, like what Skull was saying? No, they didn't... they didn't do anything," he said, kicking awkwardly at a stone. "Skull sort of... groped me, a little, but that's it. And nothing happened, otherwise. Not even any weird injections or being tied up, this time." Bucky grinned up at him and Tony pushed aside the voice that kept screaming no place for a kid. Bucky wasn't a kid any more than he was, regardless of his age. Not anymore.
Tony's gaze flicked over to meet Steve's and he could see his own concern mirrored there, along with his relief. Thanks to his 'borrowed' memories, he was fully aware that Red Skull's actions could lead to its own trauma, but from Bucky's actions so far, he couldn't force himself to worry too much. It could have been far, far worse, and now that he knew how Skull intended to treat their younger partner if he ever managed to lay his hands on him... Tony was caught off guard by the rage that boiled up at the thought and swallowed it back. This was not the time or place. Right now, they had to get out of here, back to the airship, and decipher Zemo's plans.
Cap must have been following his thoughts, because he nodded, dropping a reassuring hand on Bucky's shoulder and squeezing. Tony was gratified to note that Bucky didn't flinch from the touch. Instead, he sighed a little, his body relaxing, and grinned up at Cap.
"Come on, soldier," Steve said brusquely. "We've got bad guy plans to figure out. If Fury was right, this is something big and we need to know as much as possible as soon as possible so that we can put a stop to it."
Tony stared down at the folder in front of him, his mind racing. There were too many thoughts, too many memories and half-memories, for him to sort through, so when Fury's hand slammed down on the desk in front of him, he jumped, his eyes darting up to meeting Fury's exasperated expression.
"You didn't hear a damned thing I just said, did you?" The general huffed, not even waiting for Tony's answer. "This is your next mission, Stark, and it's a big one. Really big. Took us weeks to decrypt the damned things, but as far as we can tell, this is what Zemo's been working on for the last year."
Tony looked back down at the folder, at the blurry photos taken through telephoto lenses at maximum magnification, then blown up again and again until any possible details were lost. They weren't needed. The shape remained recognizable, and he could feel dread -- fear -- solidifying into a solid lump in his gut.
"Zemo's been building a rocket," he said flatly. Fury nodded sharply.
"And as far as we can tell, he's going to aim it at Washington."
Pinching his nose in a vain effort to stave off the headache he could feel rushing up with the force of a freight train, Tony wordlessly opened the folder. He could sense Steve's vague concern at his side, along with Bucky's intense focus, but ignored all of it. Of the four people in this office, he was the only one who knew, really knew, what Zemo's rocket foretold. And he was absolutely damned if he was going to let it happen.
"At least this time they didn't go back to those damned ruins again," he muttered. Bucky laughed, and Cap glanced sidelong at him.
"Zemo claimed that place belonged to the god of thunder, didn't he?" he asked, referring to Pepper's write-up in Marvels. It was an obvious attempt at trying to make Tony smile. Tony didn't.
"Yeah. At least, he said the guy acted like he thought he was Thor. Two visits there were two too many. A third time would definitely not be the charm, here," Tony replied, his voice flat.
Steve's fingers twitched, and Tony wondered if Cap were trying to refrain from dropping a comforting hand on his shoulder. If so, he really wished that he would do it, Fury's opinion of it be damned. He wasn't thrilled about his "team of not-so-secret invaders" that he kept having to send in on really sensitive missions, but he at least acknowledged their closeness, regardless of what he thought about it. Actually, Tony was fairly certain that if he thought about it at all, he treated it the same way as he treated any group of soldiers who formed close bonds in times of war; he ignored it but did minor things that showed he acknowledged it -- such as allowing them all to be present when being briefed, instead of only having Tony there, or Tony and Cap, leaving them to fill in Bucky, the way he had done when they had first formed their working team.
As it was, Tony's thoughts were in chaos. He could hardly tell Steve that he was suddenly afraid that this mission would mean Steve and Bucky's deaths, or nearly so, especially here in Fury's office. The one thing they had agreed on from the beginning was that Fury could never, ever know of his time spent in the alternate world, or of his own double's time spent here. Nothing good could possibly come of that, and Tony could picture lots of bad things coming of it if he knew. Steve tended to poke awkwardly at Tony's knowledge of "future events" in broad strokes and leave it alone whenever Tony balked.
At least Steve understood that the 'future' Tony remembered wasn't necessarily the future they were going to see. If Fury had even the slightest inkling of the things Tony knew, the general would have him locked up and interrogated for the rest of his life, to get every last bit of usable intelligence out of him. The fact that it was an alternate dimension, not time travel, would no doubt be dismissed as unimportant, even though it meant that everything he had managed to learn about that other world was inherently untrustworthy when it came to their own.
Even after they left General Fury's office, Tony remained mostly silent as he turned over the possibilities in his head. There was absolutely no way he was going to tell either of his partners the possibilities, or what had happened to their other-worldly counterparts on this same mission. Just as equally, there was no way for him to leave them out of the mission. Not only would Fury be upset, but even if he could figure out a way to leave them behind, it wasn't a mission he could fulfill on his own. Even the sketchy intelligence they had on the hidden base made that obvious. The three of them together would be touchy enough, although Tony trusted their teamwork and their skills to get them in and get the job done. Getting the job done wasn't his concern, though; getting Steve -- and Bucky -- home again, alive, was.
"What's eating you, Tony?" Bucky asked as they headed for the car, his brows furrowed in concern. Damn. If Bucky was worrying about him, he was definitely being too obvious. Tony shrugged.
"I can't say, really. I guess if we'd ever found out who the current Zemo was, I'd feel a lot better. As it is, we can't be ready for whatever traps he's got set up around that place because we don't know how he works." It was the truth, if not the actual reason for his brooding, but it was good enough to distract Bucky and get him thinking about their previous encounters with the chemically-altered mad genius. From the sidelong looks Steve was giving him, Tony's ploy hadn't worked so well on him, but he was willing to let it lie. For now.
Chapter 3: Present
Somewhere over the North Atlantic Ocean, January 1944
Tony could never remember later exactly what happened.
He had vague flashes of War Machine, and flame, and pain, and crashing waves spinning up to meet him. He remembered Jarvis' worried face, and Rhodey pounding him on the chest, yelling at him to breathe, goddammit! He remembered the searing pain of his repulsor pump charging from zero, forcing a heart that had given up the battle to keep going to start functioning again after all.
When he finally came back to himself, he was lying in the Armor bay, still hooked up to the charger. He gasped, staring around him with wild eyes as his mind tried to connect the severed threads of his last memories with his current setting. "Steve! Bucky--"
Jarvis turned away and Rhodey only looked at him, eyes filled with sorrow. He forced himself upright, the pain constricting his chest this time having nothing to do with his physical heart. "Dammit, Rhodey! Tell me."
"Steve's hurt, but he'll be fine," Jarvis broke in, pressing his hand against Tony's shoulder. Tony stared at him, heart racing. "Bruises and cuts, mostly, from the explosion and War Machine catching him. Bucky..." Jarvis' voice trailed off and Tony's hand came up to tangle in Jarvis' shirt.
"He's not dead, Jarvis. He can't be dead, he can't be!" The words tumbled out of him, half-demanding and half-begging. Rhodey's hand on his other shoulder made him jerk and turn to look up at his best friend, desperation in his eyes. After all this, everything he'd worked on, everything he'd tried to do...
Rhodey's fingers tightened on his shoulder. "Bucky's... alive." Tony drew in a deep, gasping breath before his friend's somber expression penetrated his haze. Jim hesitated, then said, his voice low, "I’m so sorry, Tony. I tried, but he was too close when the rocket went up – we think a piece of it hit him. He lost an arm. It's looking pretty bad."
"We're on our way to New York," Jarvis added. "I've got him stabilized in the med bay, but the best surgeons are in New York. At top speed, we'll be there in the morning."
"...Good. He deserves the best," Tony finally said, dropping his gaze to the floor. He didn't ask where Steve was. He knew.
Once he could stand, Tony staggered down the hall of the airship, stubbornly refusing Rhodey's help. He paused for a long moment outside the med bay door before pushing it open. Once inside, Tony found that he had no words. All he could do was sit silently in the high-backed wooden chair against the wall of the sickbay, watching Steve. Steve's face was pale and he seemed unaware of the tears sliding silently down his cheeks as he sat on a matching wooden chair, scooted up to the edge of the bed that Bucky lay on. He grasped Bucky's hand firmly between his own.
Tony never knew how long he sat there, watching Steve watch Bucky, occasionally whispering things to him that Tony couldn't make out. He might have dozed off, his own body screaming at him for rest. His bruises could wait, though. Bucky was the first priority. After some indeterminable length of time, Steve finally broke his silence.
"You knew." The words sounded like they hurt, coming from a dry and cracked throat. They were nothing compared to the pain in the tear-filled blue eyes that turned to pierce Tony like a dagger. Tony was too tired to try to deny it. Whatever showed in his eyes, on his face, answered Steve's statement, his quiet accusation, and Steve's eyes narrowed. "You knew. Dammit, Tony, you knew this would happen and you didn't say anything, you didn't do anything! You could have--"
"Gentlemen." Jarvis' crisp voice cut through Steve's increasingly loud words and they both turned to look at him. He looked worn down -- old, Tony thought, for the first time -- but his back was ramrod straight as he crossed the room to stop at Bucky's bedside and check on him. "We'll be arriving in New York in four hours. He'll stay sedated until we can get him to the hospital for surgery. Until then, might I suggest that you continue your -- discussion," and the finely-calculated pause that conveyed Jarvis' utter anger at the pair of them brought a flush to both Tony and Steve's faces, "outside of this room. Mr. Barnes needs his rest, not to be subjected to the two of you squabbling at each other like school children."
Steve reluctantly let go of Bucky's hand, placing it down on the bed with a gentle pat, then turned and stalked out of the room without even looking at Tony again. Tony watched him go, wondering how in the hell he was supposed to be able to fix this. He didn't notice Jarvis watching him with sympathy in his eyes until he finally stood, groaning as his aching body registered a growing series of complaints at the movement.
"You did everything you could, Tony," Jarvis said softly. Tony looked away, his shoulders slumping as he took in the sight of Bucky, looking small and vulnerable on the bed, his face pale from shock and blood loss. The heavily-wrapped stump of his shoulder was jarring and Tony blinked hard as he turned toward the door.
"It wasn't enough." His words were quiet, toneless, and fell into the room with grieving finality. Jarvis didn't respond, and Tony trudged out the door, following Steve down the hallway into the meeting room.
Steve was standing in front of the wide window that took up the majority of the outer wall of the room, hands clasped behind his back and his feet spread, resting his weight in the military at-rest position. Only the stoniness of his face belied his seemingly calm posture. Tony stopped just inside the doorway, taking in the sight. Cap's uniform was scorched and burnt, his leather pants blackened and his gloves, tucked into his belt, were cracked and brittle. The uniform top was torn and Steve's face was still grimy with sweat-streaked exhaust burns. The black streaks even continued into his hair, turning the normally light blond into grimy, streaked grey. Tony knew that he didn't look much better, although the Armor had largely protected him from taking any actual burns.
"We're lucky to be alive," he observed neutrally, not moving from his stance at the doorway. He could see Steve's shoulders tighten, although he didn't turn to look at him.
"Alive, if not whole," Steve said coldly. Tony winced.
"Would you rather that he was dead?" he demanded, his voice filling with frustration and anger and pain. "He nearly died, Steve. That was why I didn't want him there in the first place -- why I didn't want any of us going on this damned mission."
Steve whirled around, all semblance of calm gone. Fury flashed in his eyes and he took a step forward before halting. "Of course not, Tony. I'm grateful beyond measure that Bucky's alive. But god damn it -- you knew about this mission, you knew what would happen, and you didn't do anything. You knew, and he still got hurt!"
"That's bullshit and you know it," Tony retorted, his voice tight. "I knew what could happen, that this was probably the same mission that Cap and Bucky were lost on in that other world, but that other me wasn't around in World War II. He read all the reports, heard the stories from his Captain America, but I couldn't be sure. I couldn't be sure that things would happen the same damned way, since so much is different between there and here. My presence alone, versus the team that Cap worked with over there, makes things completely different. I did everything I possibly could, Steve. Everything." His voice cracked and all he could picture was Bucky, screaming as the rocket exploded, his arm being torn off by the metal shrapnel shredding through him, blood everywhere. He sagged, leaning back against the door frame for support, and squeezed his eyes shut, shaking his head in an effort to get the image out of his mind. "I tried... so hard. And it still wasn't enough." His last words came out in a whisper.
Silence rose between them, tense and hard, and Tony couldn't stand it anymore. "Steve..." His voice was strained. "I promised him."
"What?" He could hear the frown in the other man's voice, could almost see the furrowed brows staring at him confusion.
"I promised him. Me. The other-me. I promised him that I would take care of you."
"I remember that. Why--"
"Because... because I need you to know. At first, I wanted to get to know you because of that promise. And because half of my memories told me that Steve Rogers was my best friend, and I wanted that to be true. That other Tony... he and his Steve, they have so much together, years of history and friendship..."
"And love." The sharp words made Tony look up again finally and he wasn't surprised to see mingled pain and anger on Steve's face.
"And love," he agreed. "But not -- not like that."
"I know." This time Tony really looked at Steve and felt like a heel.
"I thought--" he started, and Steve shook his head, sinking into one of the chairs at the table.
"He told me." Steve paused and Tony stared. They had never talked about the other-Tony, except in passing, and he had never asked Steve what exactly had happened between them. He had been able to pick up on some of it, enough to know that although Steve had loved the other Tony, they hadn't ever done anything more than kiss and that, apparently, rarely. From what he had witnessed the day the other Tony left his world, that Tony had loved this Steve as well and that more than anything else made Tony wonder; having a Steve who loved him, how had that other Tony managed to resist the temptation to take things further? Steve met his wide eyes and laughed, a harsh, unamused sound. "The night of Rebirth, Tony – the other Tony – came looking for me. From what he said, I knew... I knew that there was more going on than what he had told me. And he... he fell apart. He told me about the other world, and you, and his Steve... and that he loved him."
Tony winced and allowed himself to slump down to the floor, still leaning back against the door frame. God, that sounded like a horribly bastard thing to do, even for him. Steve must have caught the look on his face, because he added, "And that he loved me." This time the pain echoed in his words and Tony knew that Steve was reliving that moment.
"What... what did you do?" he asked quietly. Steve shrugged.
"I kissed him." Tony couldn't help it; he started to laugh. Short, quiet, exhausted bursts of noise that made Steve look down at him in worry before his own lips started to curve. "It seemed like the appropriate thing to do at the time."
"I'm sure he didn't mind," Tony answered, his breath still hitching with laughter.
"No. He didn't." Steve sighed. "Although he didn't really like it when I told him after that that he couldn't stay." He shrugged at Tony's unspoken question as their eyes met again. "He wasn't happy here, and I didn't want him to be miserable just so he could be with me."
Tony's breath caught. Steve had no idea, none at all, of the depth of that other Tony's love. Not that he himself knew how the other Tony had felt about this world's Steve Rogers, but knowing how he felt about his own Steve, he suspected that it had taken about five seconds for his other-worldly duplicate to fall head over heels in love with this world's Steve Rogers after he met him. And that meant that it would have absolutely broken his heart to walk away from him, which Tony had long suspected to be the case just from the expression on the man's face as he and his Steve had left them, those years ago.
"Tony. You said... you said that those memories were why you wanted to get to know me?" Steve questioned, his own exhaustion obvious in his voice. Tony shrugged and nodded. They'd talked about this before, but rehashing old ground was better than Steve ignoring him altogether. Whatever reassurance Steve needed, Tony was more than willing to provide.
"Originally, yeah. I keep my promises." Steve nodded silently. "And... I was so jealous of that friendship. I never... I never had anything like that, and even just the taste of it that I had there, even with that other Steve trying so hard to ignore me..." He let out a long breath. "I wanted that for myself. And it was so horribly awkward once they were gone, and you were so hurt, and I didn't even know if it would be worth it for me to try to get to know you, with what had apparently happened between the two of you."
"Nothing ever did happen, you know." Steve's voice was quiet but matter of fact, so that it took Tony a moment to process the words. Then he blinked hard and looked up at Steve again. There was a hint of pink across Steve's cheeks, but he continued, "Besides a few kisses. I... I loved him. But I just couldn't do anything. I mean, between the Army and being Captain America, and the threat of war... well..." He cleared his throat before continuing awkwardly, "I was raised to think that that sort of thing just didn't happen, you know? Two men loving each other... it was wrong. By the time I realized how I felt about Tony, I knew that couldn't be right, but it wasn't something I could just ignore, and the time was so... busy, and... well."
Tony contemplated the exhausted, embarrassed man before him for a moment. "You're a virgin, aren't you?" Steve flushed scarlet and the wave of embarrassed silence gave Tony his answer.
"Damn it, Steve," he sighed with no anger in his voice. "You have no idea how hard you are to resist, do you?"
"Wh... what?" Steve stammered in reply. Tony's lips quirked.
"You are one of the most gorgeous men I have ever seen, and yes, I'm including the other-me's memories in that statement. You're brave and honest and trustworthy and fearless and absolutely handsome. And over the last three years, you have been driving me insane."
Part of Tony wondered what the hell he was doing, babbling this all out to the man he had spent the last three years lusting over. Knowing that the man was a complete virgin had only added that much more to everything else that made the man nearly irresistible. Five minutes ago Steve had been ready to punch him through a wall over the state Bucky was in, and now he could feel the rising tension between them crawling beneath his skin, setting his nerve endings tingling and waking up parts of his body that twenty minutes ago he would have sworn were too exhausted to show life for the next week.
"I promised the other me that I would take care of you, and I badgered the hell out of Fury for a year so that I could be in a position to do that. When you met Bucky, part of me was happy because you finally had someone at your back, and part of me was horrified because I knew what happened to that other Bucky."
"He died." Steve's voice was flat again. Tony shook his head.
"No, although I'm pretty sure that he would have been happier that way, at least later on. He got found by the Soviets and trained as an assassin." He watched the horror bloom across Steve's face and wondered if Bucky's losing an arm would finally start seeming like at least a better option than that. "The other Steve rescued him, years and years later. It's... long and weird and complicated. But it all started with that damned rocket that Zemo built."
"Just like here."
"Just like here," Tony confirmed. "You should have seen the temper tantrum I threw back at the lab, the night that Fury gave us those orders. Jarvis damned near had to hold me down to keep from breaking everything."
"So you knew, the whole time, what this mission could be. For me and for Bucky." Steve's voice was calmer this time, but the words were tight and Tony sighed, his head falling forward to rest on his crossed arms.
"I knew what it could be, but not what it was. All I could do, all this time, was hope that I'd done enough, changed enough, that it wouldn't happen, and when it did... I tried so damned hard to keep it from happening the same way. From what the other Steve said, though, it was damned similar, with you and Bucky charging up to that damned rocket and jumping on, and then it exploding..." He stopped, shuddering. "I don't know what I would have done if I couldn't have saved you, Steve." His voice was raw, emotions bleeding through, and he didn’t care anymore.
"You... you..." Steve seemed to be at a loss for words.
"I'm being honest," Tony supplied. "Enjoy this while it lasts, because I think I'm too damned punch-drunk and high on adrenaline to not say things." He looked up again, wry amusement in his eyes as he watched Steve gape before closing his mouth with a snap, a sudden thoughtful expression on his face.
"I'm sorry, Tony." Steve met his eyes and Tony could read the shadows, the guilt there. "I knew you did everything you could, and even knowing that you knew about the rocket... there was no way you could have kept us from going in there." Steve's voice grew thoughtful, almost contemplative, and Tony wondered what the man was thinking. The apology wasn't entirely unexpected, but its sincerity -- and timing -- was surprising. "You saved Bucky's life by being there. Without you, he would have died."
"So would you," Tony said without lifting his head, watching Steve from his sideways angle. Steve's lips pursed, then he nodded.
"Probably, yes. I'm sorry I accused you of not caring. I know that's not true."
"Damned straight," Tony interjected. Steve's eyebrows raised.
"You do care," he said carefully. Tony nodded. He was so tired... too damned tired to deny anything. "Tony... how much do you care?"
"You're my best friend." Tony phrased his answer carefully, not wanting to push Steve away, not now. They were both in a tired, hazy, post-adrenaline crash and he felt oddly vulnerable. He could only imagine that Steve felt similarly.
"And you're mine. But that wasn't what I meant, and you know it," Steve said reproachfully. "You said I've spent three years driving you crazy. How... what did you mean by that?" Even as Tony wanted to protest the questions, tell Steve that after everything that had happened he should damned well know, he realized that the look on Steve’s face meant that Steve knew quite well what Tony had meant. Tony's stomach tightened. This was it, then -- the moment of truth. Not the time or place he would have chosen, if it were left up to him, but Steve had taken it quite neatly out of his hands. Finally, Tony shrugged.
"I mean that you have provided fodder for every fantasy I've ever had: I've thought about killing you more times than I can count, but... I've thought about other things, too." From Steve's stare, that wasn't enough of an answer, and Tony took a deep breath. "Fine. You want to know... here you go. I want you," Tony supplied helpfully. "In bed. Out of bed. As my partner, my lover, my friend."
"Tony... what are you..."
"I'm telling you that I have spent the last three years completely lusting over you and most of that time falling head over heels in love with you." Tony knew that after twelve hours of sleep he would be absolutely horrified at the words spilling from his mouth, but currently he couldn't seem to stop them. "And I know, absolutely, that what I'm feeling is my feelings and not half-remembered things from the other-Tony," he added before Steve could ask.
Steve pushed his chair away from the table and stood up, walking around the table to slide to his knees beside Tony on the floor. Tony held his breath, not able to tell what the other man was thinking as he stared at him, face serious. After a moment, Steve reached out, his hand gentle on Tony's shoulder as he urged Tony upright, until they were nearly face to face.
"Tell me." Steve's voice was soft, but Tony could hear the clear note of command underlying the words.
"I love you." The words were easier to say than he thought they would be. Steve's hand moved up to cup his cheek, his thumb brushing against Tony's lips. Tony shuddered, and Steve smiled.
"You know, the war isn't over," he said casually, and Tony's heart plummeted. They had both known something like this was coming, and they had both danced around it because of the war, because of their duties and responsibilities. But this, with what had just happened, he had hoped... Steve's fingers tightened slightly on Tony's face. "Don't do that, Tony. Stop reading things into what I say that aren't there."
Licking dry lips, Tony said, his voice almost steady, "Then tell me what you mean."
"The war isn't over," Steve repeated, but this time Tony could hear the underlying longing beneath it. "But I think for now, for us, it is. We'll be out of the field while Bucky recovers, and I think... I think I'd really like to spend that time with you."
Tony stared at Steve, hardly daring to breathe as he searched his friend's face, hunting desperately for confirmation of what he had just heard. Steve's eyes crinkled a little around the edges as he smiled, and Tony drew in a long, shuddering breath. His entire body ached, he was beyond exhausted, and even with Steve's forgiveness, the guilt at knowing that Bucky was lying in the med bay horribly injured, barely saved from death even through his best attempts, hovered on the edge of his mind, waiting for its chance to start worrying away at him. He knew he would have nightmares of that moment over and over again, similar to that other world's Steve... but his nightmares would involve losing two of the people he cared most about.
"Tony." As Steve's voice penetrated his hazy thoughts, Tony became aware that Steve had been speaking to him for a few minutes and was now clasping his shoulder tightly, his voice tight with worry but deliberately soft. Of course, Tony thought. Steve knows better than to shake someone who's in shock to get their attention. He blinked, very slowly, then reached up and covered Steve's hand with his own.
"I'm here." The words were a promise, and he could see the relief in Steve's eyes. He wondered what Steve had been saying; he had the feeling it had been something important, but the exhaustion pushing through him wouldn't let him focus enough to follow that thought. "I'm... I think I need to lay down." Steve nodded briskly and stood up, helping Tony to his feet, wrapping an arm around his waist for support. Tony sagged against him, feeling incredibly guilty for leaning on Steve when Steve had been just as involved, just as injured, as he was.
"Shush, Tony. I'm fine." Tony frowned up at him and Steve shook his head. "You really are tired if you didn't even know that you were talking. You're hurt and you're tired, and so am I, but I recover faster than you do. Let's get you to bed."
"Yes, please," Tony said fervently before he could catch himself. Steve pinkened and shook his head reprovingly, although a hint of a smile lingered on his lips.
"You never change."
"You wouldn't want me any other way," Tony countered with a smirk. It probably looked more like a grimace, but at least he had tried. Steve paused at the doorway, meeting his eyes steadily.
Before Tony could find the words to answer the teasing challenge in those words, Steve had nudged the door open and was heading down the hallway.
"We should tell--" Tony started to protest, knowing that Steve was about to put him to bed and wouldn't let him up again until they had arrived in New York, if then. Steve shook his head.
"No. Jarvis will figure it out. You're going to bed, and you're going to stay there if I have to hold you down," he said firmly. As they turned the corner to the hallway in front of Tony's bedroom, Tony pondered that thought. As Steve pushed open the bedroom door, he looked up at him, flashing his eyelashes coyly.
At Steve's outraged expression, Tony burst into laughter, great heaving roars of amusement that he couldn't seem to stop. Through the tears gathering in his eyes, he could make out concern and patient understanding written on Steve's face as the other man maneuvered them towards the bed. He stumbled as his knees hit the mattress, which made him laugh harder. Then Steve's arms were around him and the tears took over, his laughter turning to heaving sobs, harsh and shaking, that left his whole body tired and sore. Throughout it all, Steve held him securely, his hand rubbing comforting patterns on Tony's back even as he talked softly. At some point, Tony slipped into unconsciousness, where his guilt and his fear couldn't chase him anymore.
Opening his eyes, Tony stared at the ceiling, tracing the pattern of the wooden beams in his mind for some unknown length of time, letting the world creep back into his awareness as slowly as possible. He was in his bed in the zeppelin. Depending on what time it was, they might even have arrived in New York, but Jarvis wouldn't have woken him up if he were exhausted enough to pass out, especially in the middle of... Damn.
He made a face as he remembered falling to pieces on Steve's shoulder. To be honest, he would be more worried if he hadn't shown signs of shock, but there was more than a trace of humiliation present in having lost it so thoroughly in front of someone else, even if that someone else was Captain America, who had doubtless seen worse. Well, it was over and done, so no use worrying about it now. He did feel better, so between the emotional outlet and the sleep, he had started to recover.
His mind flashed to an image of Bucky, small and still in the med bay, and he sucked in a sharp breath, the guilt hitting him harder now that he didn't have the protective comfort of shock to blanket him from its effects. He didn't regret not sharing the other-him's knowledge of the mission, because his logic had been good; he did regret that he hadn't been able to do enough to make it turn out differently... make it turn out better.
A grimace crossed his face when he shifted and his body abruptly woke up, telling him in hundreds of aches and bruises and in no uncertain terms just how very abused it felt and how unhappy it was about the situation. He groaned softly, then froze as he felt the bed shift beside him. Slowly, he became aware of the warmth of another body pressed close against his, the weight of an arm across his chest, the soft breeze from another person's breath against his neck. Turning his head carefully in order to avoid aggravating any of his lingering injuries, Tony saw Steve lying beside him, eyelashes a light shimmer against his cheeks, a strangely peaceful expression on his face.
He didn't know how long he stayed like that, watching Steve sleep, relishing the feel of Steve's body against his own, before Steve's eyes opened, brilliant blue meeting his gaze.
"G'mornin'," Steve half-whispered, his voice husky with sleep. A shudder passed through Tony's body at the sound of it and part of his body alerted him that it wasn't so tired and sore as to be unresponsive to that. He bit his lip, trying to restrain himself from following through on any of the thousand impulses that were currently running through his mind, and Steve's lips curved.
"Thought about this a thousand times," he confessed softly, and Tony stared, too aware of the sudden, urgent need coursing through his body to have any words ready to respond. Steve shifted, turning so that the entire length of body pressed against Tony's and Tony shuddered again at the feel of the hot, hard length of him nudging against his hip. Steve's smile widened and he repeated the movement, rubbing deliberately against Tony, his lips parting to let out a soft moan. Tony swallowed back the noise that wanted to escape and reached down, grabbing Steve's hip in order to stop the movement.
"Steve... stop," he whispered, his own voice hoarse. Steve frowned.
"Why? Thought... thought you wanted me," he protested. From the drowsy tone of his voice, Tony wasn't entirely sure he knew he was awake. The super soldier serum did wonders, but with the injuries Steve had received... dammit, maybe Steve was in shock. Or concussed. Or worse. Suddenly wide awake, Tony tightened his grip, intending to sit up and throw back the blankets so that he could check Steve over. The weight of Steve's body covering his in one abrupt movement put a stop to that intention and Tony bit his lip as he tried not to react, instead meeting Steve's half-lidded gaze with his own sharp, worried stare.
"Steve, stop," he said again, intending it to be a sharp protest. The words slipped out almost in a whine, and Steve shook his head, moving his hips in a long, slow glide that left Tony breathless, his body demanding to know why he was fighting against the very thing he had spent three years fantasizing about.
"Steve!" he growled, frustrated at his own inability to control himself, and the note penetrated Steve's haze. Tony whined at the loss of friction, but he tried to pull himself together, pushing against Steve's chest until the other man sat back, allowing Tony to sit up. Tony ran a hand through his hair, scooting back to lean against the headboard as he stared at his friend, trying to quiet his racing heart and urgent need.
"Steve, we can't... I can't just..." He ground to a stop and uttered a frustrated noise at his own confused protest.
"What if I want us to, Tony?" Steve asked softly. Tony stared at him. His hair was rumpled, longer than regulation, long enough for a small lock to fall across his forehead. Tony wanted to run his fingers through the blond hair, smooth it down, grasp it as he kissed Steve breathless... Carefully, he drew in a deep breath.
"This is... god, Steve, this is such a... a bad time," he finally said, knowing that it wounded weak. Steve frowned, drawing away slightly, and Tony immediately wished he could take back the words. "I just... I mean... we're both exhausted, and hurt, and Bucky's hurt, and I don't even know if you know what you're doing--"
The press of Steve's mouth against his cut off his words. They had never kissed before. Tony had always thought that Steve would feel like that other Steve had, soft and warm and addicting as hell. He was right, but he was so, so wrong. This kiss had nothing soft about it. It was all heat and want and clashing tongues and teeth and need, and if he'd thought that he was desperate for Steve's touch before, it was nothing to how badly he wanted him when they finally broke apart, both of them gasping for breath.
"I may not have your experience," Steve said harshly, "but I know what I want. I want you, Tony. So much... I can't even..." Apparently giving up on his struggle for words, he reached out and grasped the back of Tony's neck, drawing him back close again. His tongue traced over Tony's lips with a teasing touch, awkward from inexperience but leaving no doubt in Tony's mind that Steve meant what he had said. Parting his lips, Tony leaned forward, his tongue darting out to lick against Steve's. Steve shuddered, and Tony licked his way into his mouth, learning the taste and feel of him with urgent thrusts of his tongue. His hand tangled in Steve's short hair before sliding down to his neck, blunt nails scratching softly at the tender skin there. Steve moaned into his mouth and Tony growled back as he felt Steve's body moving in short, frantic motions, rubbing against him.
A sharp rapping at the door penetrated the lust fogging Tony's mind and he pulled back, Steve whining against him, casting a look at the door.
Which, he saw with absolute clarity, wasn't locked.
He had the faintest memory of Steve half-carrying him into the room earlier, right before he had dissolved into near-hysterics on him... and of course neither of them had thought once about locking the door. Damn it. He ran a hand over his hair, conscious that there was no way to disguise the state he was in -- that they were both in -- and very much aware that no matter how Steve felt about things right now, he would be embarrassed beyond belief if someone were to walk in on them.
"No -- don't go--" Steve whispered, and Tony cursed the world at that moment, wanting nothing more than to stay exactly where he was and spend the rest of the day in bed with the gorgeous man begging him to do just that. Instead, he disentangled himself, wondering what it would take to get Steve into this gloriously un-self-conscious state in the future. Standing up, he reached down to adjust himself, biting back a groan at his own touch and wishing that he didn't favor such well-tailored trousers.
"I'm sorry, Steve. I have to find out what they want," he said quietly, and Steve frowned up at him before his expression cleared. With a touch of sadness, Tony watched as Steve came back to himself, glancing around the room, the bed, their matching wrinkled clothing, and flushed brilliant red.
Tony smiled a little and leaned down, pressing a kiss -- just the one, a quick one, he told himself -- to the corner of Steve's mouth before pulling away again regretfully. "You should stay right there. Well... in bed, anyway," he corrected himself as another sharp rapping sounded from the door.
Pressing gently against Steve's shoulder, he got the other man to lay down again, pulling the covers up over him, then gave up all hope of straightening his own clothing once he glanced at himself in the mirror. He couldn't do anything about the flush or his swollen lips -- or other areas -- but he didn't much care, either, as he crossed the small room to the door, swinging it open but standing in the doorway to block as much of the room from view as possible.
"I'm right here, Jarv--" The words stuck in his throat and he blinked, wishing that he actually had time to take a shower -- a very, very cold shower -- because although he had known it was Jarvis knocking from the distinctive rapping, he hadn't been expecting anyone else to be standing there. Especially not one General Nicholas Fury. Damn.
He barely prevented himself from glancing behind him to make sure that Steve couldn't be seen from the doorway. If he couldn't, there was no need to draw Fury's attention to him, and if he could... well. Two men falling asleep in one bed, fully clothed, after they'd barely survived a horrific battle, was nothing unheard of. His own state... well... if nothing else, he could blame it on a very good dream he'd been having before having the misfortune of being awoken by Jarvis' knocking and finding himself next to Steve Rogers rather than Betty Grable. His preference would be to avoid the topic altogether.
"Sorry, sir," Jarvis said dryly, the raised eyebrow as he took in Tony's appearance telling him that his old friend hadn't missed a single detail and knew exactly what he had just interrupted. "We arrived in New York a short time ago, but General Fury insisted on seeing you immediately."
Tony caught the unspoken message that Bucky was already at the hospital and nodded in acknowledgement, noting that Jarvis didn't bother hiding the note of anger in his voice. He wondered just what strings Fury had pulled to get on board his airship and get Jarvis to pull him out of his own bedroom.
"That's fine, Jarvis. Just so long as the general realizes that I'm not exactly at my best at the moment." Tony turned his gaze on Fury, who met it expressionlessly. With a shrug, he stepped out into the hallway, swinging the door closed behind him as he moved. If Fury saw Steve in his bed... no matter what the circumstances or how good the reasons, or even how innocent the situation may be -- not that this one was – Fury would have something to hold over both of their heads, even if he never said a word about it directly. That was something Tony absolutely was not willing to risk.
"I realize this isn't the best time, Stark," Fury said, and Tony barely kept back the snort at the words. "But I need to know exactly what happened down there as soon as possible. The lieutenant on the ground already gave me his report, but I need to have something to show the President. The other Allies are already complaining about our high-handedness in sending in a special strike team." Fury shook his head, his eyes glittering with frustration. "They're calling you guys the "Invaders," only they're not joking this time. Tell me that you didn't just blow everything to hell without getting some sort of proof of what you found down there."
Leaning against the doorframe, Tony rolled his eyes. "The Invaders? That's rich." Stretching and yawning, he headed down the hallway, talking without looking back to see if Fury was following. "I don't have camera footage, if that's what you wanted. Pepper should have been able to get some photos from the airship, but otherwise, I can only give you some of the information the Armor recorded."
"Well, that's a start," Fury growled. Tony stopped and turned to face him, his face cold.
"If what I have isn't good enough, perhaps you can show them pictures of one of my partners having his fucking arm blown off by a missile that was set to take out our capital." His voice was even. "I'm sure we can pick up pieces of the missile, if Namor hasn't already done so. Pepper can coordinate with him to find out." He flicked his eyes to Jarvis, whose face wore a calm mask. The glitter of anger in his eyes was unmistakable to Tony, and Jarvis nodded at his unspoken question before heading for the control room. "Whatever information I have is yours. If that's not enough, it's your fucking problem. You already have the plans showing the missile and the fact that Zemo was aiming it at Washington."
Fury faced him unflinchingly, one hand at his hip. "Speaking of Zemo, did you kill him?"
"I don't know. I suspect not, since he wasn't there when the missile actually launched. Even if you found a body, it wouldn't mean anything, since we don't know who the current Zemo is." Fury nodded, and Tony ground his teeth together before turning sharply and heading for the meeting room.
At the doorway of the conference room, Tony froze in place, remembering vividly the conversation he and Steve had had in this same space only hours before. Remembering the kiss they had shared -- the kisses. Their first.
As he paused at the door, Jarvis approached again, his steps rapid. "Sir, Namor tells me that he's already picked up what debris he could find. Pepper is working on developing the photos she took yesterday and hopes to have them done later today."
He sank carefully into the chair at the head of the table, not bothering to hide his smirk at Fury's disgruntled expression when he did so. "Let's get this show on the road," Tony announced, leaning forward. "No, wait. Jarvis?" The older man stopped at the doorway, turning around to flash him an inquiring look. "How's Bucky?"
Jarvis' face softened. "He's out of initial surgery. The surgeon tells me that he's cleaned up the wound and it looks like it'll heal with minimal scarring, but that's really all they can do for him. Depending on how he recovers, there may be further surgeries required."
Tony let out a breath, relief washing through him. "But he'll live."
"Thank god," Tony muttered. "The arm, I can do something about. There's a new alloy I've been working with--"
General Fury cleared his throat pointedly. Tony sighed. "Let Steve know, please. I'm fairly sure he's awake by now." He managed to sound casual, and only someone who knew Jarvis as well as he did would have caught the amused glint in his eyes.
"I'm sure you're correct. He'll probably want to go see Bucky for himself, so I expect we'll be at the hospital whenever you're done."
"Thanks, Jarvis." A short nod and Jarvis headed out of the room. If Pepper's in the photo lab, Rhodey should be in the control room, Tony thought absently, manning the controls as they got ready to put the airship into a real dock for a while. Tony turned his attention back to Fury as the door closed. "So, Fury. What do you want to know?"
New York City, January 1944
Only as he watched the airship's ramp close again behind Fury did Tony allow himself to sag. His entire body felt like one big bruise, and he wanted nothing more than to go take a nice long soak in boiling hot water, followed by a lengthy, thorough massage. Instead, he checked with Rhodey about getting the airship safely stowed away in his private hangar and visited Pepper to see how the photos were coming. Both of them were grim but understanding and both of his friends made a point of telling him to call them the next day so they would know when to come see him and Steve.
The thought of being home with Steve was enough to keep him moving through a hot shower and a change into fresh clothing. He paused along the way to swallow some aspirin down with a shot of very expensive whiskey; he figured he had earned it, after dealing with Fury for the last god-knew-how-many hours. Maybe by the time he got to the hospital, he'd start to feel almost like a human being again.
By the time he reached the hospital, Tony was regretting his decision. The roads of New York, never friendly even at the best of times, had been hell on his bruised and aching body, and he managed to maintain his posture and composure through the lobby and into the private waiting room only out of years of ingrained habit. Once in the room, his own aches and pains vanished from his mind as he spied Jarvis and Steve sitting in the comfortable chairs against the wall… one of the benefits of a private waiting room, and one that he was glad Jarvis had opted for without waiting to ask him first. The Stark family had invested enough money in this city and this hospital specifically over the years that it was a privilege Tony could take advantage of without feeling one iota of guilt over.
"How is he?" Even though they were the only people in the room, his voice was automatically pitched in the low tone that people reserved for use in hospitals. Steve glanced up, surprised, and Tony frowned. If Steve were so absorbed in his own thoughts and worry that he had been surprised by Tony walking in... Jarvis' voice interrupted his thoughts before he could get too carried away.
"He's fine. Still sedated. He'll be awake in the morning, at the latest." Jarvis cast a measured look between the two of them and rose to his feet. "I'm going to head out, get some fresh air. I'll be back in a bit." He shut the door firmly behind him, and Tony caught the half-embarrassed, half-amused look on Steve's face.
"How are you?" he asked, eyeing the drawn look on Steve's face. Even the super soldier serum couldn't do anything about worry and frustration, let alone exhaustion, and Tony was fairly certain, given the way Steve had acted that morning, that he hadn't had enough sleep yet. Remembering exactly how Steve had woken up that morning forced Tony to remind himself pointedly that they were in a hospital, for god's sake, and that their partner was in a critical condition.
"Tired," came Steve's honest answer, and at Tony's frown, he smiled a little. "I'll get over it. How did your meeting with General Fury go? It lasted a long time." Tony rolled his eyes.
"Only because the military is a bunch of idiotic--" He cut off the words before Steve could frown at him. "As well as could be expected," he amended.
"You look tired."
"I am tired."
"Then sit down before you fall down."
Tony sat. He really was exhausted, even after sleeping for however many hours they had spent in his bed, but his body was most definitely not recovered or even started. The meeting with Fury had only served to exhaust him mentally all over again. The only high point of his day so far had been waking up with Steve beside him, and even that had been questionable, considering Steve's mental state at the time. Tipping his head back against the wall and letting his eyes drift shut, Tony let out a long breath, wincing only slightly as his ribs protested.
The quiet words took a moment to penetrate the drowsiness of his thoughts, and then Tony's eyes were wide open as he twisted around to look at Steve, wondering if he had heard him correctly. Steve didn't look away, meeting his eyes directly... honestly.
"About earlier, I mean. When I... when I blamed you. For Bucky." Steve seemed to be searching for the right words and Tony let him, because he had no idea what to say in return. "I know you tried to keep things from happening like they did over... over there, in that other world. And you saved him, you saved his life. He would have died without you there, and so would I. I'm sorry I lost my temper. You didn't deserve that," Steve finished quietly. Tony stared at him for a long, silent moment before he finally squeezed his eyes shut, shaking his head.
"Don't be. You didn't say anything that I wasn't already thinking," he said harshly. "I should have done more, done something, to keep him safer. To keep you safer. If I'd told you from the beginning about the rocket, about Zemo's plans, I could've--"
"You couldn't know," Steve interrupted, reaching over to place a hand on Tony's knee. Tony drew in a sharp breath at the contact but remained where he was. "Tony. Look at me." Steve's command voice, the one that brooked no refusal, Tony thought, and reluctantly opened his eyes, meeting a narrow-eyed glare. "You did everything you could. I was scared to death, and worried about Bucky, and still hopped up on adrenaline and I took it out on you. I'm sorry."
Tony shook his head again, opened his mouth to protest, and caught the steely glint of determination deep in the azure eyes pinning him in place. He slumped back with a sigh. "I... fine. Apology accepted, although there's no need for it." Almost unwillingly, he thought back to earlier that day, to meeting those eyes at an even closer range, and had to take another deep breath to try to regain control over himself. The hand on his knee tightened, and then there was a matching grip on his other leg and he was almost face to face with Steve as the soldier sank to his knees between Tony's legs, leaning into him.
"I'm sorry about earlier, too," Steve said quietly, and Tony's heart dropped into his stomach like a stone. Dammit, dammit, dammit, he wanted to shout. It wasn't fair. After all this time, everything they had been through together, and Steve still felt like he couldn't do anything, couldn't even kiss Tony without apologizing for it? Of course, they had done more that morning than just kiss, part of Tony's mind reminded him, and he wanted to curse all over again as he felt heat flood through him at the memory of Steve moving against him, his eyes almost black and his voice fogged with lust...
"Stop that," Steve said reproachfully, and Tony's eyes shot open -- when had he closed them? -- to see Steve watching him with an expression of mixed affection and amusement. "I'm not sorry about kissing you, Tony. Or about... anything else." Steve still blushed charmingly, Tony thought distractedly. "I'm just sorry that we were interrupted. I meant what I said."
"You..." Tony gaped at him for a moment, his thoughts blown away by the images that Steve's words brought forth in his mind. Steve's lips curled and his eyelids drooped, and Tony feared momentarily that all of the blood in his body had abruptly left his brain for regions further south at the unabashedly seductive expression on his friend's face.
"Meant it," Steve confirmed, his voice still soft but now rough around the edges, a husky note creeping into his words. "I've thought about waking up in bed with you hundreds of times. Thought about being in bed with you thousands of times. Thought about what I wanted to do. What I wanted you to do to me. What it would feel like to touch you, kiss you, taste you--"
Tony broke. He reached out, grasped Steve's waist, and drew the other man flush against him, groaning at the feel of it. One hand crept up his spine to the back of his head and he crushed his lips against Steve's, demanding entrance, until he felt the other man's lips part on a moan muffled by his own mouth and his tongue swept inside, learning, devouring. Steve's tongue licked along his and he shuddered, all too aware of the length of Steve's body plastered against his.
"Tony, Tony, Tony," Steve whispered against his lips, and Tony groaned again at the note of lust in his voice. "God, I want you..." His words were muffled by another kiss, Tony already addicted to the taste of Steve's mouth and not caring at all. Only when he had to pull away in order to breathe did Tony break the kiss, leaning his head against Steve's as they both gasped for air, his heart racing, echoing in his ears.
"I want to take you home," Tony said hoarsely, and felt Steve's shudder at his words. "I want to take you home and undress you and worship you, show you how wonderful it can be, make you fall to pieces in my hands." Steve moaned his name again and his hands tightened painfully on Tony's shoulders and Tony didn't want him to ever move.
"Do you have any idea what General Fury would say if he saw you two like that?"
Steve stiffened at the words, but Tony tightened his grasp, refusing to let him move, and raised his head so that he could look across the room to the doorway where Jarvis stood watching them with a smirk on his face.
"I can imagine all sorts of things," he said, clearing his throat. "And quite honestly, I don't give a damn. What we do out of uniform -- or armor -- is none of his damned business."
"Quite so, but if you two don't learn to control yourselves in public places, he'll end up having plenty to say, whether he wants to or not. You know the current policy, Tony. Money can only do so much against society mores." Jarvis closed the door behind him and crossed the room. As he approached, Tony realized that he was carrying a tray on which sat three cups, steam curling from the tops with a familiar scent. His mouth watered.
"Coffee," he sighed, releasing Steve's neck in order to reach out and take a mug. "You're a saint." Leaning back slightly, he took a long swallow, then sighed in contentment. Steve moved back and Tony's hand clenched at his waist. Steve met his eyes, smiling softly, although Tony could clearly see the sparks still in his eyes.
"I need to sit down," Steve said. “In my own chair,” he added pointedly, laughing, and Tony reluctantly loosened his grip, crossing his legs as Steve stood up, determined to keep what little scrap of dignity he had left, after being interrupted with Steve by Jarvis twice in one day.
They passed the time in silence after that, Tony drinking his coffee with greedy, grateful sighs, as Steve sipped at his, both of them casting sidelong glances at each other that turned into heated stares whenever their eyes met, broken only by Jarvis' pointed throat clearing. Tony found himself smiling, even considering the seriousness of the situation, and Steve had at least had his mind taken off of brooding over Bucky's condition. Sometime later, as Tony's stomach rumbled for the third time and Steve was giving him a long, concerned look, there came a rapping at the door.
"Sirs? Mr. Stark?" A pretty young nurse, brunette and shapely in her trim white uniform, her nurse's cap adjusted just so atop her careful bun, came in through the door. Tony gave her his normal once over and appreciative smile, only aware of doing so when Steve's foot touched his in a short, sharp movement just short of a kick. The pointed look he received when he turned to protest silenced him, although the nurse looked a little puzzled at his smile as he turned back to her.
"That's me," Tony said easily. Somehow, knowing that Steve was jealous whenever he gave attention to others, even in passing -- purely out of habit, really! -- made him feel more relaxed, more confident. Their heated moment earlier had only managed to make his resolution adamant about getting Steve home and into bed as soon as possible, if not sooner... but their location guaranteed that priorities would be handled appropriately. Setting down his now-empty coffee mug, Tony asked, "How is Bucky? Is he awake yet?"
The nurse nodded and gestured toward the door. "He's conscious, but only just. It’ll probably only last a few minutes. Would you like to see him?" She was asking him, Tony knew, because it was his name on the bill, although Steve obviously didn't know that, from the slightly puzzled look he turned toward Tony. He shook his head.
"No. Steve, you should go. You're practically family, and you're all he has," he said softly. Steve's worried expression softened a bit and he smiled at Tony.
"That's not true. He has you, too," he said, then rose to his feet, heading for the door. Once at the doorway he stopped and looked back. "Thank you," he said, then closed the door behind him. Silence rose up in the room, until Tony sighed and turned to Jarvis.
"All right, Jarvis. I know you've been dying to say something ever since you walked back in here. Out with it, already," he ordered, trying not to brace himself for the lecture he was afraid was coming up. He was nearing forty, for god's sake, he didn't have to be afraid of someone old enough to be his father lecturing him. But, he admitted privately, at least when it came to Jarvis, he still was. Jarvis eyed him, then turned a corner of his mouth up in a lopsided smile.
"No, no lecture today, Tony. A reminder to better choose your times and places, perhaps," Jarvis said, and Tony twitched slightly at the reminder of what the older man had interrupted. "But mainly I wanted to ask you something: Are you sure?"
Tony stared at him, not understanding his meaning, until Jarvis sighed. "Are you sure about Steve? That it's what he wants -- that it's what you want? That it's not those memories, of his or of yours, choosing for you?" Understanding dawned, and Tony frowned.
"I..." He shook his head. "I wasn't expecting that. But yes, I'm sure. I've had long enough to make sure, you know," he pointed out, and Jarvis' smile widened slightly. "It's been almost four years."
"And I'm amazed that you've managed to wait this long, honestly," Jarvis shot back. "You've never been one to deny yourself anything, especially pleasures of the flesh, before." Tony felt his cheeks heat and blinked at himself in astonishment. He was blushing. What in the world...? A moment spent regaining control of himself, and he shrugged, attempting to look casual.
"It's Steve," he said simply, as if that should explain it all. And it should. Jarvis looked him over carefully, then nodded.
"You love him." It wasn't a question. Tony nodded silently. "Hmm." Another silence, this time more uncomfortable as Tony found himself wondering about that little thoughtful noise. Finally, Jarvis stood up, and Tony gave him a sidelong look. "I'm going to go check on Steve -- I suspect Bucky's long since asleep again, and without a reminder of what's waiting for him out here, our Mr. Rogers may very well spend the night at his bedside. And quite frankly, if I interrupt you two one more time, I think I'll end up locking you both in your bedroom for the next month. You're right snippy when you've gone too long without sex, you know."
Tony was still blinking at the door as it shut behind Jarvis, although something in the region of his heart warmed at the smile Jarvis had given him before leaving. That was the closest they would ever come to really discussing things, he knew, and it was as near as Jarvis would come to giving them his blessing. It felt surprisingly good, knowing that his old friend approved of them. Although disapproval had never stopped him from going after what he wanted -- and it certainly wouldn't stop him from pursuing Steve -- it was deeply reassuring to know that pursuing the man he loved wouldn't alienate the man he considered family.
Tony caught himself at that thought. The man he loved. That sounded... good. It sounded right. Smiling a little himself, he stood up and crossed the room, following in Jarvis' footsteps.
Bucky's room was across the hall and he hesitated outside of it, glancing through the window in the door. The teenager was indeed asleep again, although Tony knew that drugs had more to do with that as exhaustion, and Steve was standing beside the bed, Bucky's hand in his, as he spoke quietly to Jarvis. Whatever they were discussing, Tony suspected that he didn't want to know, judging from the seriousness of the expressions on their faces. Instead, he rapped carefully on the door, nodding at them as they looked up to let them know that he was outside, then stepped away, forcing himself not to pace as he waited.
Some moments later, Jarvis stepped out of the room, followed closely by Steve. Jarvis nodded at Tony, a small smirk on his lips, then turned and headed down the hallway. Tony waited for Steve to meet his eyes. When he did, he was surprised by the crinkle of amusement around Steve's eyes.
"What did he say to you?" he asked before his better judgment could prevent him. Steve's amusement deepened.
"Probably the same thing he said to you," Steve answered easily. "Was I sure about this, did I mean it, how do I feel about you. Probably the standard speech that every concerned father gives to a potential suitor." Tony raised his eyebrows.
"That's an interesting way of looking at it," he said carefully, trying not leap on the "how do I feel about you" part, although he desperately wanted to. He knew that Steve wanted him, lusted after him, but... he had told Steve earlier, when he was still too exhausted and punch-drunk to keep the words back, that he loved him. Steve hadn't returned that sentiment. Tony wasn't exactly a sentimental fool, but...
Steve reached out and took his hand, pulling him close, too close for their semi-public surroundings, but Tony didn't care if Steve didn't. "I told him that I was absolutely sure," he said softly, pitching his words for Tony's ears alone. "That I definitely mean it, and that I have loved you for the last two years."
The casualness of the declaration allowed Tony to stare at Steve blindly for a long moment, long enough for Steve's small, happy smile to fall away, replaced by a small worried frown.
"Tony? I told you last night... You... you did say, earlier..." Steve's voice trailed off uncertainly, and Tony shook himself. He'd been more out of it than he'd realized, if he hadn't heard Steve telling him something so important. His hand tightened on Steve's as he stared at the man he loved. The man who loved him. That was... something he never thought he would have. Something must have shown in his eyes, as Steve's face cleared and he leaned closer.
"You... I..." Tony cleared his throat and tried again. "We should go. Home. I mean, to my home. We--" Steve placed a hand over Tony's mouth, silencing him, and his smile widened.
"I never thought I would see Anthony Edward Stark at a loss for words," he teased softly. Then his voice went serious. "And yes, we definitely need to go home. I want..." This time it was Steve's turn to clear his throat, even as his ears turned pink at the tips. "I want to spend the night with you. Making love with you." Tony swallowed harshly, memories of their earlier interrupted moments returning full force.
"Bucky--" he began, and Steve pushed gently against his mouth with his hand, quieting him again.
"Bucky would understand," Steve replied to the unspoken protest. "He's been wondering why we haven't done anything sooner, anyway. And I don't -- he wouldn't want us spending all of our time here worrying about him. I spoke to him, briefly. He'll be fine." His face flickered, remembering too late that Bucky wouldn't be "fine" again.
Tony reached up, gently removing Steve's hand, and replied, "He will be. I have alloys I've been working with, and even though some of the latest refinements I've made to size and delicacy have been for military projects, they have applications for prosthetics, too." Steve's eyes lit up at that, and Tony forbore from mentioning that a lot of his work in the field had been re-creating aspects of the other-Tony's inventions. Regardless of the hows or whys of it, he knew that somewhere in the back of mind for the last three years had been the fear of this exact event, motivating him to research the prosthetics possibilities. Now he was glad he had, but wished he had done more. He pushed those thoughts away. Tonight, just for once -- when it came to Steve, at least -- Tony was going to revert back to every bad habit he had ever had and be completely, utterly selfish.
"Let's go home," he suggested firmly, and Steve nodded.
They barely made it to Tony's bedroom before clothes started coming off. Even as Tony shoved Steve up against the wall, plundering his mouth, he reminded himself desperately that this was Steve's first time, he had never done this before, and he needed to make it worth every second of waiting. From the frantic moans as Steve's hands tightened on his shoulders, he had a good start. Reaching to the side, he fumbled open his bedroom door without removing his lips from Steve's until the door swung open. Then he pulled away, grinning up at a panting Steve, and pushed against him, walking him backwards into the room until he could swing the door shut again. This time he remembered to lock it.
Turning to look at his best friend -- his soon to be lover -- Tony allowed his gaze to sweep slowly over the other man, taking in the sight of the flushed face, the heaving chest, Army uniform stretched across his muscled frame. Steve blushed further as Tony stared, much to his amusement. When his hands went to his uniform shirt, however, Tony grabbed them before they could move.
"No. I've been looking forward to this for too long," he said hoarsely, answering Steve's unspoken question. Steve hesitated, then nodded, and let his hands fall to his sides. Tony set his hands on Steve's waist, pulling them together, groaning at the feel of Steve's hard length rubbing against his, even muffled as it was through the layers of cloth. He leaned in and pressed a firm kiss to Steve's lips, then stepped back, his hands going to the buckle of Steve's belt, working the tongue loose and out, then leaving the ends hanging. He flicked open the button on the fly of Steve's uniform pants, provoking a quiet whine, and smiled as his hands moved up to the collar that Steve had unbuttoned while they were still at the hospital. He made quick work of the rest of the buttons, then pulled the shirt out of Steve's pants.
He lifted each hand, pressing kisses against the fingertips and palm as he unbuttoned the cuffs. Once done, Tony pushed the shirt off of Steve's shoulders, leaving it to puddle on the floor. For once, Steve was too distracted to protest the inevitable wrinkles from that kind of treatment. The white undershirt quickly joined it, and Tony was faced with an expanse of bare skin that he had been dying to touch for nearly as long as he had known Steve.
Leaning in, he pressed a kiss to the skin over Steve's heart, then smirked up at him mischievously and licked across a nipple before sucking it into his mouth. Steve's breath escaped him in a gasping groan, one hand going to Tony's shoulder in a tight grip as Tony sucked on the small nub of flesh, working it between his lips, until the pitch of Steve's whines told him it was becoming too sensitive. Then he released it, licking across the skin to the other nipple and repeating the process. By the time he was done, Steve was gasping for breath.
When Tony stepped back, Steve looked at him wide eyes, pupils blown nearly to black, and whimpered. The sound sent a flash of lust through his body straight to his dick and he pressed a hand against his throbbing groin. "God, what you do to me," he breathed.
"Let me touch you," Steve said, his voice low. Tony shivered. God, he wanted that, so much, but...
"Later. Later," he promised, kissing Steve fiercely. Steve's hands clenched at his sides for a minute, but he nodded again, trusting Tony.
As his hands moved to Steve's pants, Tony pressed kisses along the line of his throat, nibbling at the sensitive skin. Biting there made Steve gasp, a sharp, needy noise, and Tony repeated it until a red mark bloomed beneath his mouth. Steve moaned, and Tony smiled against him. While he worried at the mark, wondering if it would even show the next day, he made quick work of unzipping the uniform pants and pushing them over Steve's hips. Pulling away, he pressed a quick kiss to Steve's swollen lips before sinking to his knees in front of him. Steve let out a muffled groan as he did and Tony leaned back, smirking up at him.
"You like me on my knees?" he asked, and Steve only stared at him, making his smirk widen. "I think I could get used to it down here," he muttered, turning his gaze to the hard flesh pressing against the thin barrier of Steve's boxers, a damp spot showing how excited Steve already was. Tony moved forward, pressing his lips against the wetness, delighting in the full-body shudder that swept through Steve at the touch.
He pulled impatiently at the boot laces, mouthing Steve's erection through the thin fabric as he yanked the boots off. With Steve's cooperation, his normal grace turned clumsy with need, socks and pants soon followed, and Tony settled back on his heels, looking upward again, taking in the sight of Steve nearly naked and desperate with lust.
Steve groaned his name, his voice low and harsh, and Tony reached out, resting a hand on Steve's hip, his thumb rubbing small circles. One look told him that Steve wasn't going to stop him, so he hooked his fingers in the boxers and tugged them down carefully until they lay pooled at Steve's ankles. A soft gasp escaped Steve when Tony closed his fingers around Steve's cock. Tony licked his lips and Steve moaned wordlessly, watching him. Rising up on his knees, Tony swiped his tongue across the head of Steve's dick, licking up the precome gathered at the slit. Steve moaned again, louder, and Tony reached up with his other hand and grabbed his wrist, placing Steve's hand on the back of his head.
He felt Steve's fingers clench as he licked again, and groaned himself to let Steve know how much he liked the feeling. Then he lowered his head and wrapped his lips around Steve's cock, the startled noise that broke from Steve's throat making his own dick twitch. He shoved aside his own lust, concentrating solely on Steve, and began to bob his head. As he pulled his head back, he allowed his teeth to scrape lightly along the sensitive skin, making Steve gasp; on the way back down, he flicked his tongue against the sensitive spot on the front of the head before consciously relaxing his gag reflex and swallowing Steve down to the root. A few passes and Steve was panting, one hand clenched in Tony's hair and the other clinging hard enough to Tony's shoulder to leave bruises. That thought sent another shiver through Tony and he redoubled his efforts, until Steve threw his head back with a shout, his body shaking as he came, his release pouring down Tony's throat.
Tony swallowed, licking the taste of Steve’s come from his lips as pulled back, letting Steve's length slip out of his mouth. He pressed a kiss to the softening flesh and Steve made a quiet noise, then tightened his grip on Tony's shoulder and pulled him to his feet. Hot eyes met his, and then Steve was kissing the breath out of him, his mouth slanting across Tony's with surprising urgency. Tony's muffled whine seemed to spur Steve on, and he opened his mouth willingly to let Steve inside. One of Steve's hands crept to the back of his neck to hold him in place, and Tony's hands closed on Steve's hips, the knowledge that Steve was completely naked while he was still fully clothed making him even hotter.
"Tony," Steve breathed against his neck, and Tony shivered, tilting his head back. "Too many clothes," Steve muttered, and Tony let out a choked laugh as fingers began flying across shirt buttons.
When Steve paused after pushing his shirt open, Tony tensed, all too aware of what he looked like with the bubble over his heart, especially compared to the perfection of Steve's body. When he met Steve's eyes, his body tight with defensiveness, he didn't see the pity or the horror he expected. Instead, Steve curved a hand around the bubble, fingers tracing its edges with a gentle caress.
"I've seen it before," Steve said quietly, watching Tony's face. Tony shrugged, trying for his normal mask of nonchalance and aware that he was failing miserably.
"Not like this," he finally answered. Something in Steve's expression shifted then, and Tony was taken off-guard as Steve bent down, pressing his lips to the bubble before straightening again.
"It's part of you, Tony, and I love all of you." Tony blinked at the fierce edge in Steve's words and a knot he hadn't been aware loosened inside him. The small smile on Steve's face begged to be kissed, so Tony reached up and tugged his head down, kissing him with all the urgency he felt. When they broke apart that time, Steve's eyes were blazing and Tony felt him pressing against his belly, hard and hot.
Tony raised an eyebrow and grinned at him. "Already? I didn't believe what I read about the super soldier serum, but you might just change my mind." The flush on Steve's face didn't stop him from stripping Tony with quick efficiency, leaving the expensive suit lying on the ground. As Steve's eyes ranged over him, Tony thought about their ages, thought about his scars, and thought to hell with all of it. All that mattered was him and Steve, and right now.
Closing the distance between them, he hooked an arm around Steve's neck and murmured into his ear, "Let me show you what you've been missing all these years."
New York City, February 1944
"Are you sure you're okay waiting out here?" Steve asked anxiously.
Pepper smiled, shaking her head. "Steve, it's fine. We don't want to crowd him, and we'll just be outside the room." She gestured at the waiting area, and Tony watched, eyes dancing, as Steve gave in to her quiet insistence.
"Go on, boss. Get our boy ready to come home," Rhodey grinned from his chair in the corner. Jarvis, leaning against the wall beside him, nodded in agreement.
"C'mon, Steve, we've received our orders." Tony took Steve's arm, pulling him toward the door, and heard their friends laughing behind them.
They paused outside the door, Steve's face tightening with worry. "What if he's--"
With a careless noise, Tony cut him off. "You've been visiting Bucky every day, Steve. He's ready. Anyway, Jarvis dropped it off an hour ago." When Steve turned to stare at him accusingly, Tony shrugged. "I thought if he at least got a chance to look at it without us staring at him, it'd be easier. And Jarvis could help him try it on if he needed to."
Steve let out a sigh. "I just... I worry." Tony's hand tightened on his arm, as demonstrative as he dared to be in a place as public as a hospital, and Steve met his eyes. "Thanks." So much lay unspoken behind the simple word, but Tony heard it all anyway.
"Yeah. Now come on, soldier -- we've got a comrade in arms to pick up." Tony kept his voice light, knowing that Steve could see right through him. Steve's lips twitched, and he opened the door.
Inside, the private hospital room seemed nice enough, if cramped. Tony glanced around it, then dismissed it. They'd all become too familiar with the room in the weeks following the Zemo incident, while Bucky recovered. Today, they got to take Bucky home.
"Steve!" Bucky wrapped the man in a ferocious hug as Tony watched, not missing the fact that Bucky's left arm was gleaming metal. He swallowed back a lump in his throat at the sight. For all of his hope that things would turn out differently, something inside him had made him work long hours developing that alloy. Last summer he hadn't understood the motivation that kept driving him to sleepless nights; today, he was thankful for it. Stronger than expected arms wrapping around him drew him out of his thoughts, and he grinned down at Bucky, ruffling his hair
and laughing at the face the teenager made.
"Good to see you too," he said, stepping back as he eyed the fit of the prosthetic.
Bucky held out the arm for him to inspect and grinned. "I wasn't expecting this, you know. It's amazing, Tony!"
“How’s it feel?” The worry he'd been trying to hide spilled out in his voice and he bit back a wince. Steve’s sidelong glance told him that his reaction hadn’t gone completely unnoticed, and his lips curled. Steve reached out and grasped Tony’s forearm in a familiar, friendly motion. The contact relaxed Tony before he knew it, his spine relaxing. He tilted his head at Steve, who tightened his grip for a moment in response.
Bucky, his face creased in concentration as he watched his gleaming arm, missed the exchange. “It’s… weird. Heavy, but… I can feel it.”
Tony felt like cheering. “We can work on the weight. This is just a prototype, and—“
“I know, Tony.” Bucky met his eyes, face calm but eyes sparkling. “Thank you.” The simple words made Tony’s throat close and he swallowed harshly, knowing that the kid – no, the young man – in front of him wouldn’t miss that sign. He couldn’t even curse himself for it. Seeing Bucky with both arms – even if one was metal instead of flesh – made something inside him too warm, too full, to miss his normal composure.
Bucky’s gaze flickered over the two of them, Steve sitting a hair too close to Tony for friendship, and he broke into a grin. “You two finally quit dancing around each other, huh?”
Tony’s lips pulled into a matching smile and he turned to look at Steve. His lover’s face was calm, but the pink creeping over his cheeks gave him away. He turned his arm over, tangling his fingers with Steve’s, and shrugged, keeping his voice nonchalant. “Figured three years was long enough.” He paused, watching their younger partner. “Got a problem with it?”
Steve twitched and turned a shocked gaze on him. “Tony! You can’t just—“
“S’okay, Steve,” Bucky interrupted. He met Tony’s eyes. Tony could see a weariness in his eyes that hadn’t been there before, and his heart hurt at the sight. At least, he reminded himself fiercely, they’d all come out alive. Bucky might not have made it out whole, but missing an arm was a damn sight better than being a prisoner of the Reds and used as a soulless assassin. Bucky shook his head, clearly amused. “You know I don’t, Tony. I always knew you guys were waiting for things to calm down. I don’t blame you for deciding to go for it now.”
“Bucky, if you’re not okay with it—“ Steve started, his voice earnest, and Tony cut him off.
“No, Steve.” Steve looked at him with wide eyes. Tony shook his head. “No. Bucky means a lot to you – to both of us – but if he’s not okay with us being together, that’s his problem.” He laid his other hand over their still-entwined fingers and leaned toward Steve. “We’ve earned this, Steve. We’ve gone through hell and back and deal with more than anyone should ever be asked to. We deserve to be happy. I don’t care who has a problem with that. I’d tell the president – no, I’d tell Fury himself to go to hell if he tried to cause a ruckus over it.”
“Good.” The fierceness in Bucky’s voice caught Tony by surprise. They both looked at the younger man, who grinned, a sharp edge in the expression. “He’s right, Steve. You shouldn’t care what I think, or what anybody else thinks. Just… be happy.” He took a breath, then continued, his smile losing the fierceness and sliding into real fondness, “You two belong together. And I’m proud to call you my partners.”
Silence filled the room, but the matching smiles as Steve and Bucky looked at each other made the quiet comfortable. Steve pulled his hand out of Tony’s grasp and reached out, tugging on Bucky’s arm until the younger man was close enough for him to pull into an embrace. For once, Bucky didn’t fight it. Instead, his arms came up around Steve’s shoulders. They stayed like that for a long, intense moment, and Tony found himself blinking dust out of his eyes. When they finally parted, Bucky’s eyes were bright.
“I’m proud of you, too,” Steve said simply, his voice hoarse, and Bucky swallowed, then nodded. He looked toward Tony, who quirked one side of his mouth up into a grin.
“You ready to go home?” Bucky’s face lit up.
“You bet! The food here is terrible.”
“Better get packing, then.” Tony gestured at the few mementos on the side table, and Bucky nodded eagerly. Tony watched him, aware of Steve’s eyes on him in turn.
“He’s getting used to it already,” Steve murmured. Tony nodded.
“It’s too heavy,” he said just as softly. “I’ll fix that. I want it to be perfect.” Steve reached out and caught his arm, startling Tony into looking at him again. In that shared gaze, Tony saw love and thanks and concern, and he knew Steve could see his love and worry for the teenager currently cramming his meager belongings into an Army duffle.
“It will be,” Steve said. Tony glanced at Bucky long enough to make sure he was still occupied, then reached up and pulled Steve closer. He pressed his lips to Steve’s in a quick kiss, knowing that Steve didn’t need the words he wouldn’t say. Steve sighed against him and deepened the kiss, and Tony forgot all about the world around them.
“Oh, ew. Come on, give me a break!”
Tony laughed against Steve’s mouth and broke the kiss with one last promising lick before turning toward Bucky again. Bucky’s face was drawn up into an exaggerated moue of disgust, but as soon as he caught sight of Steve’s blush, Bucky fell into laughter. Tony stood up, Steve following, and cocked his head.
“I assume that means you’re ready,” he said steadily. Bucky nodded, still giggling. Tony shook his head and reached out, ruffling his hair. He ignored Bucky’s protest and glanced at Steve. “You?” Steve nodded. With one last glance around the hospital room, Tony opened the door. “Come on. Let’s go home.”
He watched Bucky almost bounce out of the room in excitement, oblivious to the stares his metal arm was causing as Pepper swept him into a hug. Beside him, Steve couldn't keep a smile off his face, and Tony figured he was probably just as bad, seeing the sidelong glance Rhodey gave them. He didn't care. As he and Steve approached the group, Tony had to blink hard, taking in the sight of Pepper grinning at them and Rhodey's hand now protectively on Bucky's shoulder, as Jarvis stood watchfully behind them.
A mismatched bunch they might be, but they were family. They were his family, and they were going home. For the first time in a long time, home meant something.
~ fin ~