Four, and his circuit board has all the grooves of a seashell on a beach of glass, sharp edges and the tips of his teeth as he grins up at his parents, hangs from the chandelier, kicks his older cousin in the shin, plots fiendishly after Obie's watch. Four years old, and everyone knows Tony Stark, Howard's boy, Maria's pride, a hurricane on two legs who decomposes steaks in his bedroom and collects the flies in a killing jar. One two three four. He counts them on the tip of his finger, whispering that word they always seem to say around him — prodigy, which he hates because when he's four he hates the sound of every word that ends in 'y'. He likes 'r' the best, like tiger and survivor and molecular. When he is four years old, he reworks the stove and nearly starts a fire, except a man in blue, red, and white scoops him up and sets him aside.
"There is no way," Tony says angrily. "There is absolutely no way — none at all — that Steve would ever agree to time travel."
"I disagree," Bruce says. His voice is calm and impassive, and Tony wants to dismantle every piece of equipment in his laboratory, because maybe then he'll finally see him sweat. "Steve knew from the very beginning that there were unknown variables in the experiment. Fourth dimension research is tricky, to say the least. There are multiple ways it can go wrong. He agreed to the risks. It's informed consent inasmuch as anyone can be informed."
"Because he's stupid!" Tony says. "Because he's stupid and patriotic, and if you throw around words like 'for the benefit of your country', he'll do anything! Up to and including getting stuck in a goddamn time loop!"
"Don't overreact," Bruce says.
"Overreact?" Tony's vowels could cut granite. Then he takes a breath. Inhales. Lets it out. "I'm not overreacting," he says. "I'm cool. I'm calm. I could go and host the Oscars right this very moment. But you—" He swings a finger at Bruce and doesn't care even if he Hulks out at the threat. Tony can deal with that when it happens. Tony can deal with all sorts of weird and unexpected situations that come up as being a part of the Avengers. "Get him back," is what he says, and Bruce nods.
"It would be easier," he says, "if we send someone into the time loop to go after him. I'll conduct the search from present day, but it would go faster if we searched from both inside and outside."
"Fuck," Tony says, because that's just the way it goes, doesn't it? Hey, you're Tony Stark, you're born, you nearly die, and now how about wandering through unstable space-time configurations in search of your hopelessly lost best friend? "Fine," he says. "Whatever it takes. And as long as the radiation won't make me grow ten legs from the side of my head."
"I've only ever seen five, max," Bruce replies, and Tony laughs until it turns into a wheeze.
Seven, and he's knocking the juice over the dinner table, asking why they don't give him wine. All the grownups drink wine, and he doesn't understand why he has to sit here sipping grape juice instead when he can dismantle a computer into its components and how many of them can claim that? His father, that's right, and maybe Obie, but it's not a large number. Seven isn't a large number either, according to everybody around him, but seven's the lucky number, the holy number. Everyone knows Tony Stark, a miracle on two scrawny legs, reaching up for his father's sleeve, demanding his attention until Howard makes a noise, and they see the man appear at the window: the blond man with the shield.
"You don't ever tell me anything about you," Steve had said the day before Bruce's experiments.
Tony had peered at him above the angles of his Tom Ford sunglasses. "Well, what do you want to know, buddy? My shoe size? The number of awards I've won? How many cars I have? I'm an open book, public property. I'll do anything, I'll tell you anything."
"Nothing that matters," Steve said.
"Cars matter," Tony said. "They go fast, attract women, and they have leather seats. That's the very definition of crucial and important right there." He grinned, but Steve was looking at him with his brows furrowed into a dip of a V, looking at Tony like Tony was a math problem they'd thrown at him and Steve wasn't quite sure where to put his Ys and Xs. Tony bet no one ever called Steve a prodigy, and that made him inexplicably sad, because Steve was a wonder. Steve was a supernova in a landscape of darkness, and sometimes Tony wanted him so much it was a fork to his ribs.
"You never talk about what you used to do. Before we met," Steve said.
"What, make weapons?" Tony said mercilessly. "It's all over the internet. I know you've learned how to google, Cap."
"Yeah, but that's like hearing it over the radio," Steve said. "I used to hear things all the time over the radio, during the war. About victories we won, about how America was going to beat the war by Christmas. Didn't mean it was true." He looked at Tony plaintively, honest curiosity written all over his broad, handsome face, and Tony felt tenderness like an IED. Short sharp burst, destruction everywhere.
"Truth is something we build out of construction paper and tinsel," Tony said. He saw Steve frown, but he said it anyway, because Steve was too open, too fearless, too exposed — heart and lungs and muscles, all his vulnerable spots. Not to everyone, true. Only Tony. But that was the most dangerous decision of them all, because Tony saw that heart, those lungs, those muscles, and all he could think of was the scorched ground in Afghanistan, thirst building a monument inside his throat. "Truth is what we make it," he continued. "It's something we build, it's something we have design plans for. That's the twenty-first century love song, baby. Glitz and glamour and every one of us is a liar."
"I know you're a liar, Tony," Steve said.
"And that's why you love me, right?" A million dollar smile, perfect teeth.
Steve sighed and looked down at the threads of his sweater, contemplative. "That's why I stay," he said.
Eleven, and he talks too much, babbling always to the air, to the sun, to the devastatingly endless stretch of sky above him as he moves from school to school, from air base to air base, following Howard on his work. He has to learn because someday this will all be his, and eleven is too young, says Maria. Eleven is perfect, says Howard. And everyone knows Tony Stark, who has an invisible friend even though Howard does his best to get rid of it. He's too old for this, Howard says, but the developmental psychologists mutter about displacement and emotional damage. To what, Howard asks, being too rich, too smart? No one knows why Tony's always talking to his friend-in-the-air, the friend no one else seems to see, the friend who talks back quietly, who always seems a bit lost — Steve, Tony says, and his friend says yes.
Time travel isn't a precise art. As a science, it's the equivalent of pissing in the dark during a camping trip when you've had the entire six-pack of beer, and there are mosquitos buzzing all around your head, a low-frequency hum that gives you a headache for days. "Hold on," Bruce says, and Tony steps inside the chrome chamber and holds on until one of his nails rips off.
"Ow," he says, and there are three things in his life that have felt this way: the upside down scoop of a roller coaster, the crash of a car into a concrete wall, the Iron Man armour giving out and sending him plunging down over the city — and it's that very city he sees now, standing in the middle of 1940s Brooklyn, in front of a dingy apartment with laundry strung out in lines by the window.
"You made it?" Bruce asks over the comm link.
Tony clear his throat. "Yeah," he says. "Yeah, I made it."
"According to the SHIELD records, this is where Steve grew up," Bruce says. "We don't know exactly when and where in time he's gotten himself lost, but out of all the possible combinations, this is the most likely."
"Right," Tony says, because it's true. He sees dogs on the streets without owners, and two kids lounging outside, drunk-brave with cigarettes dangling from their lips. They stare at Tony, at how effortlessly he's put together, and Tony has a brief moment to wonder if he's going to have to deal with getting mugged by Steve's childhood friends. But then they say nothing, their eyes are cups that Tony can't see to the bottom of. This is war-time. Everything is different, and these boys are too young to fight but they're not too young to feel the helpless anger, the swaggering bravado — guns and bombs and America all wrapped up in an industrial tin can, as innocuous as the kind they use to sell tuna.
Tony picks his way across the street and up to the apartment building. "Fourth floor, second to the right," Bruce tells him, and it feels like something Tony should have known already, but he doesn't. What Steve says cuts both ways, apparently.
He knocks on the door, and an old woman answers. "Yes?" she asks.
"I'm looking for Steve Rogers," Tony says. "Young guy, blond, probably kind of skinny and weak looking." He waves his hand at Steve's approximate pre-serum height, calculating it from what he's seen of SHIELD photos.
"Don't know who you're talking about," the woman says.
"You're not a Rogers?"
"I'm a McKenzie," she says, "and don't insult me like that, boy." She closes the door, and Tony tries to think about what next to do when a younger woman comes up the steps with a bawling baby. She looks tired, and lovely, and worn at the edges, a photo that's been creased one too many times. Tony can imagine an entire history for her: recently married, husband off in the war, her knuckles reddened from the chemicals in her laundry and her hours in the factory, building ammunition that Tony will perfect in sixty years' time.
"If you're looking for the Rogers, they don't live here anymore," she says. "They moved last year."
"Do you have a forwarding address?" Tony asks.
"No," she says. "Sorry." She juggles her ration coupon groceries with her crying baby daughter, and somehow still has the energy to give Tony a curious look. "Are you friends with him? Steve, I mean."
"I — " Tony shrugs. "I don't know what we are."
"Then why do you want to find him?" she asks.
This question is easier to answer. "Because he's got to come home," Tony says.
Fifteen, and he doesn't have an imaginary friend anymore, but he doesn't have many real ones either. He's drinking too much, too hard, throwing up over the glossy MIT courtyards, and ladies and gentlemen, everyone knows Tony Stark, because everybody's stumbled across him at four in the morning, passed out over the carpet. Or everybody's had a cigarette with him, inhaling the smoke against his mouth, and it's illegal, fuck it, he's underage, but they're all waiting, and so is he. Fifteen, he has no shame, only Steve Rogers who appears sometimes when Tony's got his head over the toilet. Steve sits on the edge of the bathtub and talks him through his nausea, telling him stories about armies and victory. "Who are you?" Tony asks, because Steve's definitive proof that he's gone crazy. "Why do you keep showing up?"
Steve looks at the mirror, at the tiles, at the curve of fifteen-year-old Tony's cheek. "Because you're the only thing I know," he says, "and I can't get back."
New York, New York, and Tony wanders through the street with his suit jacket slung over his shoulder and a practiced casualness he doesn't feel. Steve's out here somewhere, and Tony's got to find him, but it's a big city, the city of dreams, and Tony barely even knows where to start. Bruce gives him a list of possible checkpoints, so he goes to each one of them: war recruitment offices, art schools, public parks, the addresses of Steve's known friends and associates. He talks to the mother of Bucky Barnes, who smiles at the memory of Steve, and then he watches as the smile slides to sorrow because in her mind Steve's gone, just like Bucky, just like all the boys of Brooklyn. They could write a song about that, the boys of Brooklyn, but no one wants to hear sad songs.
It's a city that he knows and doesn't know. The buildings seem familiar but the streets don't seem quite right, and the women all have lips as red as poppies, and the men smoke in grey plumes, watching Tony go with steely eyes.
Tony buys a hot dog with all the dressings, and he eats it on the corner of 72nd Street, eats it until the relish drips down his chin and he wipes it with the sleeve of his five thousand dollar shirt. Why not? He's fucking Tony Stark, intrepid time traveler, and when he finds Steve, he's going to clock him one, because it's just like Steve to volunteer for a dangerous experiment and get lost in time. That's practically Steve's entire life story right there, isn't that right folks, cue audience applause.
Tony lets himself think about the worst possible scenario: that Steve's lost forever, that they're never going to find them, that Steve is sitting on this very corner in 1959 or 1967 or whatever year he's gotten himself to — and he'll never know that in 1942 Tony ruined a very expensive shirt because he just didn't care. He just wanted Steve back.
"He might not be stuck in one place," Bruce says into Tony's comm piece. "Time is flexible. He might be traveling back and forth, trying to get back to us."
"But he can't quite get there."
"Well, Steve isn't a scientist or an engineer," Bruce explains. "He can't run the same calibrations we do. We think in spirals. He thinks in straight lines. He's not like us."
Good, Tony thinks. It's the best thing about him. He throws the rest of the hot dog away. He stands up and wipes his hands on his slacks. "Then beam me up and out, Scotty. Let's try another year."
Eighteen, and Tony's heart is a piece of film set on fire, cellulose nitrate that burns and burns and burns, houses falling down around him, Stark Industries crumbling, until Steve grabs him by the shoulders and says, "Get a grip on yourself." What do you mean, Tony wants to say, because everyone knows Tony Stark, and everyone knows that geniuses have all their rough edges, the smoky curl of a collapsing warehouse blinding the night sky an ashy grey. This is the only thing I know how to do, Tony says, and it seems like enough most days. Build and build and immortality's in the stars where they shoot missiles, and Steve is a stranger who looks at him with old eyes and says, "You are better than this."
"No, I'm not," Tony says, because at eighteen he knows everything, and this is the truth, the only truth.
"Something's changing," Tony says out loud. "My head hurts. I'm starting to remember."
"I'm scanning your brain waves right now," Bruce says on the other side of time. "There's nothing abnormal in the scans. Well, nothing abnormal that wasn't already there, before we began."
"Something's wrong," Tony insists. It's 1949, and there are parades on the street, trumpets, big smiles, relief, but all he can do is press two fingers to his forehead. "I passed by Stark Mansion, and it triggered this memory in me, of when I was young and living there — and Steve was in it."
"He was in Stark Mansion?" Bruce asks.
"No, he was in the memory," Tony says. "He's appearing in some of my other memories too. He —" The realization strikes fast and strong. "He was at my parents' funeral," he says, and the fury washes through him in salt waves, his fists swinging around but there's no one to be angry at, no one except himself. He can remember it now: the procession of black cars, the wreaths of white-and-red, and Steve Rogers appearing out of nowhere to put his hand on Tony's back and say, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry.
He was there, Tony realizes, lodged into the memory like a key in an engine. Suddenly Tony's having trouble remembering the other set of memories, because they're becoming ghostly, the memories where the car crunched and his parents died and Steve Rogers was never there. Tony never cried three weeks later when he was sitting in his lab. He never held his tongue for the press and the well-wishers until it felt like asphyxiation, and in the soundproof walls of his lab he started shouting, screaming, ripping his vocal chords hoarse. He's starting to forget that, the new memories warring with the old, and he can see the glint of sunlight off Steve's hair in the cemetery, the only beautiful thing in all that wreckage.
"He's using you as a fixed point," Bruce realizes. "He's traveling around, trying to get back, and he's using you as his control variable. That's smart."
It's frightening, is what it is. Because it's not enough that Tony thinks about Steve all the time as an adult, but now he's got a head full of Steve from when he was four, seven, eleven, fifteen, eighteen — remembering how Steve would appear like a phantom, stepping through the door, and how happy Tony would be in those rare instances when he visited, this strange man, at times his only friend.
You don't ever tell me anything about you, Steve had said, and now it's Tony's heart, lungs, muscles being exposed, his history unspooling in threads over the floor, spilling everywhere, water and music and fever-regret.
This is how it follows, like this: Tony builds, and Steve swings and knocks it all down.
Twenty-one, and Tony's got so much money he can smell it on his fingers, money and sex and power, and still he lies in bed at night, looking up through the skylight windows, waiting for Steve to come. Steve does come, though less and less, and when he appears Tony feels joy, and then want, and then anger, blistering twenty-one-year-old anger, reckless and fearless and everything too bright behind his eyelids. "Where do you go when you're not here?" he asks. Steve straightens his shoulders, soldier-rigid.
"I travel," he says.
"What, to Hawaii? To Dubai? Where? Did Obie hire you to watch over me? Tell me the truth," Tony says, and he can't stop himself from being rude, from being callous, from words tumbling from his mouth like poker chips, like a twirl of the roulette wheel where only half the time he's right. Steve's watched him as he's cried over his parents' graves — there's no one who has more power over Tony than that. Everyone knows Tony Stark, but only Steve knows this.
"You're drunk," Steve says. "You're unhappy. I'll come back another time."
But Tony's out of the bed and grabbing Steve by the arm, spinning him around. Steve lets him, waiting patiently, and fuck, Tony isn't the only one who's unhappy, is he? "What are you looking for?" Tony demands. "What is it you're trying to find? Whatever it is, I'll buy it for you."
Twenty-one, and Tony knows: everything has its price.
Tony doesn't want to know, doesn't want to see. Whoever he used to be, the constituent parts that put him together — he doesn't want anything to do with it anymore. But this time, he doesn't have much of a choice.
There's a boy playing on a beach, a boy all by himself, picking seashells and hammering them against Pacific rocks, and Tony says, "This is the most surreal stalking experience I've ever been involved in, and that includes the time with the clones."
"It can't be that bad," Bruce says. "It's you."
"Exactly," Tony says, and he watches the boy break the shells into a thousand tiny pieces, because even then what Tony Stark made, Tony Stark destroyed. There's an uneasiness in his movements and a fear in his eyes, and when the boy finally crawls out of the beach and towards his waiting mother, Tony looks away. He doesn't want to see because it hurts, and he's not good with children or with pain.
"Steve, you bastard, where are you," Tony mutters, and he travels from four years old to eight years old, from eight years old to twelve. He wanders through the halls of Stark Mansion, through five iterations of wallpaper, through the sound of his mother holding parlour with her cognoscenti friends, and the occasional boom of his father's work in his laboratory. He remembers this, with a fierceness that makes him twist his tie in his hands. He doesn't want to be here. Retrospectives are for the dead, and Tony ain't dead yet.
He watches himself, at fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, years tracked by variations of facial hair, of the way Tony looks at himself in the mirror, at the slipperiness of engine oil on his hands and the glaze of cocaine on his tongue. This isn't what he wants Steve to see. For Steve, he wants to be like an immaculate conception, Tony drumroll Stark stepping out of the box like he was designed in a factory, shiny perfect and put together. This isn't like that. This is Tony in pieces, Tony in increments, years and inventions and used condoms all sliding together, and they don't even fit properly, the grooves are all wrong.
He thinks of Steve when Steve was younger, Steve in his increments — and in his mind he can see a skinny Brooklyn boy, endlessly brave, hopelessly compassionate. Steve might be embarrassed about who he used to be, but he's never been Tony Stark. He's never walked the desolate fields where the bombs fell with high-pitched whistles, each landing on a carefully marked X. Steve kills in single numbers, because he has to — Tony killed because he was good at it, because it was his talent, because it never occurred to him not to.
Thirty, and the board room at Stark Industries seems to go on forever, all these faces of old men Tony doesn't remember, and he knows, he knows, he knows that one day he's going to be one of them. The thought makes him sick. The thought makes him do crazy things: go sky-diving, sleep with Miss Universe pageant winners, spend nights in his lab until he comes up with five new patents. "Steve," he says meanly when Steve appears one day, showing up to rummage through Tony's cupboards, looking for cereal. "You know what I think? About why you always show up? I think you love me."
Steve freezes, his fingers rubbing the edge of a box of wheat germ that's Pepper's doing, no doubt.
"Sure I love you," Steve says. "You're my friend."
Tony smiles and advances, his breath hot against the side of Steve's face. Steve goes stiff, but he doesn't move, and Tony slides his fingers through Steve's hair, saying, "Yeah, you want to do me, don't you? You want to fuck me right against this counter. You want to make me scream."
Steve pushes him away. "Stop it," he says. "This isn't right."
Tony grits his teeth. "I'm not blind, you know." He makes another move, but Steve is fast, astonishingly fast, and he sidesteps Tony entirely.
He smiles tiredly. "One day," Steve promises, "one day this will all be different. One day you'll understand." Tony flinches because it sounds so much like his father, like Obie, like everyone knows Tony Stark, says it to him: One day you'll be a great man. But he's still here, he's still waiting.
In 1986, Tony turns the corner and sees a glimpse of blond hair, broad shoulders, Captain America uniform. "Steve," he says. It falls from his lips so easily, because in that instant it's the only name he knows, the only name left that matters. One day the world will end, and Tony will still wake up in the mornings, sheets twisted around the remains of nightmares where he killed everyone, and he'll say "Steve" in that exact same way: breathless with hope.
Steve doesn't hear. Tony runs after him, shouting his name, but it's like there are dimensions between them, a veil that cuts off sound and vibration. Steve keeps walking, and Tony's out of breath, the soles of his shoes worn down—
And Steve vanishes.
"Fuck!" Tony says. "I just missed him. Fuck fuck fuck."
"You should have run faster," Bruce says in his typical straightforward way.
"I saw him right there," Tony says furiously. "Can't you calculate his trajectory? I was ten feet away. Can't you figure out where he's gone off to?"
"No," Bruce says simply.
"Science is useless," Tony says, and he rips off his comm set and throws it to the ground. Later, he'll go back for it because he needs Bruce. He needs Bruce to run the calculations and transport him, but he was ten feet away, and isn't that the way it always works with Steve, ten feet away and a thousand miles between them at any given point, Steve's smile and Tony's longing, a bridge that keeps on falling.
It's not that Tony thinks Steve deserves better, because Tony's selfish. He'll take whatever he can get, and he'll run with it all the way to the bank. But Tony doesn't know how to ask. If there are words for what he wants — if there are ways that won't make Steve's eyes go wide and his jaw go stern, if there are ways that won't take what Tony's built and drop it to the floor.
When Tony returns to the lonely corner and picks up the comm set from the pavement, he says, "We'll try again." His voice is flat, determined. No more excuses.
"On my count of three," Bruce says, and Tony is ready.
Thirty-six, and this is what Tony Stark knows about love: that it's a scar in your chest, a hitch to your breath, a virus that comes in and wipes everything out. He's running fast and gunning hard, and every time he sees Steve it's like he doesn't know what to be anymore. Everyone knows Tony Stark, and Tony Stark knows that love should be quarantined and then injected in precise inoculations. Because what love needs most is immunization, and Steve's eyes are so blue that Tony can't even look at them anymore. "I've figured it out," Tony says when he's thirty-six. "You're from the future. Don't even argue with it — I've looked at all the possible variables, and this is the only one that makes sense."
"You're right," Steve says, sitting by him on the docks. The water is cold against Tony's bare feet, and Tony's hiding from Pepper, from Rhodey, from everyone and all the meetings in his schedule. He's hiding from Steve too, but Steve always manages to find him.
"What am I going to be like one day?" Tony asks.
"Do you really want to know?" Steve asks.
"No," Tony says. "It'll ruin the surprise. What if I go bald?" He looks out at the New York skyline, Manhattan rising from the water like a mermaid.
"There's nothing to be afraid of," Steve says quietly. "I've been lost in time for so long. Before, and now, and everything that I've had to leave behind — and it turned out okay. I found people that I cared for. It'll turn out okay this time too."
"You're so confident," Tony marvels.
"It's because I know you," Steve says. "I know that you'll come to save me."
Tony starts leaving letters. He goes from ages four to forty, and he slips letters against windowpanes, in cupboards, anywhere he thinks Steve will look. For S. Rogers, he writes on the outside of the folded piece of paper, and inside he writes:
Steve, you are being really annoying, don't you know that when you get lost you're supposed to stay still in one place. I AM TRYING TO FIND YOU, so stop making it difficult.
If you read this, meet me in 1996, in the Stark Mansion gardens, by the ugly fountain with no head.
He doesn't sign the letters. Steve will know who it's from.
"Statistically speaking, most of the letters will go missing within the first few days," Bruce says. "You're leaving them in high-traffic areas. The cleaning staff will throw away probably eighty percent of the letters, especially since you didn't sign them."
"All we need is for one letter to make it," Tony says, "at the right time, in the right place." His wrist hurts from writing all the letters, because he's wandering around in an age that has yet to invent the photocopier, and it's so barbaric he wants to slip design proofs under an engineer's doorstep. There's so much temptation to mess with time, to bend it to Tony's persuasion, but Bruce is hanging over him and Tony's watched enough disaster movies to know you don't mess with time streams, or with DNA-resurrected dinosaurs.
I know that you'll come to save me, he remembers Steve saying, and he thinks of the warmth of Steve's arm around his shoulders, that thousand-watt smile. Love, Tony thinks, and it's a synonym for everything he's written in the letters, even if Steve never sees it.
"It's a waiting game now," Tony says.
Forty, and the window is open on a too-humid summer night while Tony sleeps, sprawled out on his water mattress, dreaming of JARVIS reconfigurations and electric tattoos. When he wakes up hazily, it's half past midnight, and Steve is sitting on the edge of the bed, reading a piece of paper in his hand.
"Hey," Tony says groggily. "My favourite time traveler. When did you get in?"
"Hi. Just now," Steve says, and then he smiles. He leans over and kisses the top of Tony's head, and everyone knows Tony Stark, genius billionaire playboy philanthropist, but no one will know the way Tony shivers. It's just between them.
"Me too," Steve says.
"Huh?" Tony says.
Steve tucks the piece of paper away and stands up. "Don't worry about it," he says with that same happy smile. "I'll see you later."
Tony turns the corner and sees the statue with the missing head, as ugly as he remembers it from his childhood, and he sees the gardens blooming all around them, and he sees Steve standing there, always alert, always ready. The air flattens out of his lungs, and it's joy the way Tony has never felt it before, because Steve's here, after all. Steve made it. Steve was lost and now he's found.
Tony saunters over. "You know how much time I've wasted trying to track you down?" is the first thing he says.
"Actually, yes," Steve replies. "I do know." He grins at Tony, but Tony's trying to play it cool. He's still holding his cards to his chest.
"I went places where there wasn't internet for you," Tony accuses.
"You were born before internet," Steve says. "Stop trying to make it sound like such a hardship."
"It is a hardship," Tony insists, "and you are going to make it up to me in every way you can, Rogers. You owe me. I own your ass."
Steve raises his eyebrows, and Tony's skin pricks in goosebumps, because he remembers everything, all the altered memories, all the pieces of Steve, glimpses through half-open doors, running after him through streets slick with rain. "Tony," Steve says patiently, "this is all nice and swell, but I'd like to go home. We can talk about how much I owe you then."
"Bruce is setting everything up. It'll take a few minutes," Tony says.
"It didn't take so long for me to jump around in time," Steve points out.
"And look how good you were at it," Tony says. "It takes time to do it right."
"I guess it does," Steve says. He looks thoughtful, and Tony feels an itch beneath his fingertips. Steve says his name again, and Tony knows then, that something is different, that there's the mosquito buzz in the air, but this time it's got nothing to do with time travel and everything to do with anticipation. "Tony," Steve says again. All Tony wants is to hear that over and over again, branded on Steve's beautiful mouth and the crook of Steve's smile.
"What?" Tony asks hoarsely. Steve takes a step forward. Tony remembers being thirty and propositioning Steve. Steve said no, and a part of Tony is expecting a repeat of that. Therefore he's startled when Steve touches his forearm, when Steve's hand slides upward and cups Tony's jaw.
"We're friends, right?" Steve asks.
"Uh," Tony says, "if you asked me that ten minutes ago, I would have given a resounding yes. But right now? Confused signals."
"Good," Steve says. Then he darts forward and kisses him. The touch of his mouth is tentative and unsure, and Tony realizes that despite all this time, Steve doesn't quite get it. Steve is brave and fearless and willing to take risks, but Steve doesn't yet know that Tony's a sure thing, the only sure thing in this wild, messed up world. Tony kisses him back, and he sees the moment when Steve does get it, because the kiss turns hot and deep, a bit desperate.
Steve's got his hands against Tony's back now, and Tony's got his fingers in Steve's hair, and they're kissing, kissing, kissing the story of each other's mouths, kissing helplessly as Bruce reboots the algorithms and the garden shifts vertical around them. They're kissing as they tumble back into their own time, tripping over their feet, Tony banging his elbow against Steve's ribs, Steve falling over onto a table, and it's rough and it's awkward and it's home.
It's a new memory, fresh and shiny, the press of Steve's fingers against him, leaving bruises. Tony arches into him on the bed, their legs tangled together. He pauses to flash his teeth at Steve and say, almost-teasingly, "So which Tony was the worst? Come on, you don't have to lie."
"There was no worst," Steve says, counting the knobs on Tony's spine.
"That's a cop-out answer," Tony complains, but Steve kisses the nape of Tony's neck, and Tony can't stop grinning.
"They all became you," Steve says. "And I'm kind of, uh, biased where you're concerned."
"Are you now?" Tony asks. Steve ducks his head sheepishly, and he's so gorgeous and perfect that Tony feels stunned by the weight of this. He doesn't know the rules, the boundaries, the limits of what this will yet be, and for a moment there's a rush of fear and loss — but then he takes a breath and he remembers. Everyone knows Tony Stark, and Tony might never know the rules, not ever, but hey, as it turns out, he can build them, and then he can break them. One by one, twisting up all the laws of space and time, and it's a bright new future where they're at, the only one that matters.