There’s no two ways around it, meeting Captain America for the first time is a massive disappointment. Really, Tony should know by now that there’s nothing that even minimally raised expectations can’t ruin for him, and the fact that he’s loved Cap since childhood with a sweetness and sincerity and – there’s no other word for it – pure-heartedness unmatched by anything else in his life, only guaranteed he was setting himself up for a fall.
He walks into the meeting room at Shield headquarters where Cap, no Steve Rogers, is waiting, and for about three seconds feels a surge of elated pride as they reach out to shake hands and Steve’s eyes rake over him. He’s been eyed up by the best, and there’s no mistaking the look. Except that apparently there is, because Steve looks up again, gets a second look at his face, and visibly recoils, and then his hand falters and drops, leaving Tony’s hanging there in hellish limbo.
And okay, if he’s honest with himself, he was half expecting it, he knows Rogers knew the old man, worked with him even, but Christ, the resemblance isn’t that uncanny. The guy’s been rendered speechless, for God’s sake. Even Fury and Coulson start to look uncomfortable as the silence drags on.
“Catching flies there, Cap,” he snaps – seriously, if he didn’t know any better he’d think Steve Rogers was some kind of slack-jawed yokel – and pulls his own hand back.
“Oh. I… Oh,” Cap manages. Yeah. There’s a leader of fighting men and an inspiration to us all.
He’s still staring.
“Okay, look,” Tony says, annoyed, “I know I look like my dad, but seriously, get over it.”
Rogers pulls himself together and looks momentarily excited. His whole face lights up, and it does funny things to the part of Tony that had a creased and faded photo of him in his civvies, face shining, grin a mile wide, tucked into the corner of his dresser mirror all through grade school. It had been an original, a gift from his dad, back when he was still young enough to be impressed that his dad knew Captain America. It’s probably still in a box of crated up childhood treasures somewhere at the Fifth Avenue house. He hasn’t been back there since the funeral.
“Howard?” Steve asks, breaking into Tony’s thoughts. “Is he-?”
“He’s dead,” Tony says. Fractionally more gently, because, okay, the guy may be gaping but he did just wake up after three quarters of a century asleep under the ice, and that does, in hindsight, entitle you to some degree of discombobulation. Thrown out of your own time and familiar surroundings like that, anyone would be at sea.
Steve’s face crumples. “Oh.”
So all told, it’s not a good first impression, on either side. But first impressions aren’t everything; they can still bounce back, right?
Rogers continues to mope around HQ like there’s nothing at all of interest to him in this brave new world. Tony visits bearing the twenty-first century version of frankincense and myrrh, namely the latest model Starkphone, not even out of beta yet, and a personally pimped out tablet that is guaranteed to pick up a wireless signal anywhere and has an auto-run program designed to hack Shield’s firewalls and access anything on earth Steve might want to look at. Naturally, when Tony dumps the logs later on he finds Captain Melancholy’s looked at precisely nothing.
He stops visiting shortly after that; there’s no point banging his head against a brick wall, and if Rogers is determined to live like some kind of fighting monk, complete with vows of poverty, chastity, and silence, so be it. He’s got better things to do, anyway, if he’s moving back to New York permanently. Pepper organises the re-fit of the penthouse at Stark Tower, turning what was essentially an executive hotel suite into something that in a dim light might approximate a home, but he flies back to Malibu to personally supervise the dismantling of his workshop and the crating up of the armours.
The place is a hell of a potential security risk, even with the stripped down version of Jarvis he’s leaving to monitor the house, and he guesses it’s a sign of increasing maturity and personal responsibility that he breaks down the particle accelerator and sends the parts to SI Cali. The R and D guys there are already crying that he’s transferred all his pet projects to Stark NY, never mind that New York was Head Office for almost fifty years, till Tony decided he preferred the sunshine and the lack of history. It’s harder than he thought it would be, though, saying goodbye. He’s never been nostalgic, hell, out with the old, in with the new is as good as a mantra to him, but he’s lived on the West Coast since he graduated college, and everything about that house is him, writ large.
He gets back to New York in time for the proto-Avengers’ first outing as a team. It’s nothing huge, nothing world saving, just some kind of inter-dimensional portal that opens up and disgorges a passel of robots that look like the prop designer from Doctor Who – the original series, no less – put them together, and, frankly, he’s at a loss as to why Fury thought it would take all three of them to handle it.
Natalie, or, rather, Natasha as she appears to go by when not impersonating an SI employee, could no doubt kill him with her pinky fingers when he’s not in the suit, but that is precisely why he will never again be naked in her presence. Well. He’d probably risk being naked in her presence… So anyway, she’s a hell of a fighter, no lie, but she’s still chiefly a hand to hand combatant, which isn’t particularly helpful against an enemy using ranged weapons, and, oh, yeah, that can fly.
The same goes for Rogers. All the time he’s been putting in in the gym has clearly paid off; he’s as fit and combat ready as if he’d just walked off the front line, but he’s seriously lacking in firepower too. The shield’s a cute toy, and it’s cool to see it in action – Tony’d never mastered the return swing with the prototype Dad had given him, and when he’d taken it apart it was equal parts curiosity and pique, if he’s honest – but you’d think a soldier would be a little less squeamish about heavy artillery. Rhodey certainly never says no to Tony’s little presents. Or big ones, even if those don’t precisely come with a gift tag.
Rogers comes up with some overly-complicated plan that’ll take too long to execute and clearly demonstrates the colossal failures of the 1930s high school science curriculum. Natasha sounds ready to endorse it, which doesn’t say much for Russian science teaching in the 90s. Suckers, no wonder they lost the cold war. He runs the specs, overrides Jarvis’ cautions, and saves the day, the girl – okay, the hotdog vendor pinned down in the cross-fire – and the city.
Technically, he also destroys half a city block, but hey, Stark Industries will probably wind up paying for the damage, not Shield, and if you take into account how slowly zoning applications down here move, he probably did the neighbourhood a favour.
Captain America doesn’t quite see it that way. He goes berserk the second they get back to HQ, shouting about cowboys and thrill seekers and the chain of command, and the part of Tony that has long been accustomed to getting lectures from disappointed authority figures just tunes him out and enjoys the show. He is stunning when he’s angry, there’s no denying it, flushed and commanding and viscerally present and alive in a way he just hasn’t been up until now, the stuff of a thousand furtive teenage fantasies made flesh. Then the part of Tony that’s actually a functioning adult kicks in and reminds him he’s being told off by a kid who’s a decade younger than he is, relativity be damned, and doesn’t know how to work an espresso machine.
“It’s called being adaptable,” he shouts back when Rogers stops for breath. “I thought that was a virtue in WWII.”
“Adaptable’s great,” Rogers says coldly, temper back in check, “but you need to be able to signal your changes of plan to the team or you’re not an asset, you’re a liability.”
“Hey now, Capsicle,” Tony snaps back, “don’t get your panties in a bunch. You’re still the Star Spangled Man. They won’t take that away from you, even if I am the one with the plan. The one that doesn’t suck.”
“You’re a spoiled brat,” Rogers says, in a scathing tone Tony hasn’t heard since he was a child, and for a moment he’s back there in the nursery, listening to a run-down of all his character defects. “And there’s more to strategic planning than blowing stuff up,” he continues. “You can’t solve every problem with a bigger and better gun. I thought you were supposed to be out of the weapons business. Or is it just too profitable to walk away entirely?”
It’s like a red flag to a bull, the soft spot his detractors have always hit on, hard, and he reacts almost like clockwork, launching into the usual spiel, about Dad, and WWII, and being a hero. He’s well aware of his own hypocrisy; that he’s proud of Howard’s achievements – and more than a little sorry Howard never got the chance to be proud of his – despite his overwhelming desire to distance himself from the actual man, and that he’s never once hesitated to use those achievements to score easy points when tasked on his own munitions making record. It always works, on bright eyed young scientists he’s trying to recruit for Stark, on journalists, on all but the most committed pacifists, and even they usually can’t trump the Nazis.
Surprisingly, it doesn’t work on Steve Rogers, WWII veteran, who actually met said Nazis.
“Don’t talk to me about your father,” Rogers spits. “You’re not half the man your father was. Or your uncle.”
And that, that stings, because never mind good old Dad, Uncle Greg spent the war in a chalet in Switzerland, wining and dining holidaying Nazi officers and exiled European royalty alike. Indeed, the fact he was good friends with the Duke of Windsor was the only thing that had kept the Starks generally off the OSS shit list; if the King of England couldn’t control his hedonistic big brother, what chance did an up and coming young industrialist from Queens have? Gregory Stark was quite possibly the one person in the whole world Howard had respected even less than he’d respected Tony.
Tony himself had never met the man; he’d drunk himself to death on the Riviera before Tony was even born, but he certainly felt like he knew him, given the number of times Howard had lectured him about being a chip off the old block. Don’t drink so much, don’t sleep around so much, don’t waste your God-given talents… You’ll wind up just like Greg… Trust Captain America’s innate goodness and Tony’s accursed luck for Rogers to have somehow managed to meet the man the one time he was doing something that could apparently be construed as decent or heroic.
“Fuck you,” he says at last, when he manages to get his breath back. “You’re a fucking dick.” Witty, erudite, to the point.
Rogers still gets the last word. “Have the class not to speak like that in front of a woman,” he says, and walks out of the room.
Sure enough, Natasha is standing in the corner, silent and deadly. Instead of chasing after Rogers to punch him in the back of the head for being a sexist dick, she just frowns at Tony, shaking her head, and heads off to Fury’s office to make her report.
Tony’s clearly been labouring under a delusion; namely that nothing could ever be worse, in this world or any other, than the team-building and leadership exercises Pepper used to force him to take part in at SI ‘corporate retreats’. It turns out a whole new level of Hell exists, and Coulson is the gatekeeper.
He appears, triumphant, one day, with a literal Norse god in tow. Thor is awesome, Tony really has nothing bad to say about him, except for the fact that he has nothing bad to say about him. Thor gets on with everyone. There’s one curly moment where he tries to apply Asgardian chivalric norms to Natasha, but he backs off quickly when she makes her displeasure and lack of damselhood known, mumbling something about ‘a follower of Sif’. He hits her twice as hard the next time they spar, and she’s won over.
Rogers likes him too, which makes his dislike of Tony feel even more pointed. He tortures himself by hacking the CCTV at Shield and watching them in the gym. They’re poetry in motion, all long limbed, blond perfection; muscles rippling, blue eyes twinkling, chiselled jaws that you could-
Okay, enough! Apparently Rogers’ dickishness isn’t sufficient to douse a flame that’s burned for decades; that’s not Tony’s fault, that’s conditioning. And anyone would be gay for the God of Thunder. But he’ll be damned if he’ll be a third wheel in his own fantasies. Cold shower it is.
It would be easier if Tony could dislike Thor, but he just can’t. The big lug is entranced by the armour, calling it ‘smithy worthy of the dwarves’, which, Tony’s read enough Tolkien to know that’s a good thing. And he can fly. For a value of flying that involves hurling a giant hammer and somehow being dragged along behind it, and Tony would try to conjure an explanation that covers electro-magnetic fields and sigma waves, but ultimately it makes his head hurt, so magic hammer it is. It’s still brilliant to have someone to share the skies with.
Clint Barton, codename Hawkeye – seriously, who comes up with these things? – comes back from wherever the hell he’s been, probably assassinating whoever cancelled Supernanny, and slots effortlessly back into the space that apparently has been open at Natasha’s side all this time. Turns out her handle’s Black Widow, and okay, that one Tony can see. They’re both so taciturn and professional that it’s impossible to tell whether they’re having wild monkey sex while swinging from the eco-friendly light fittings once he goes home, or just really good friends. The fact he can’t hack into either of their quarters leads him to suspect the former, but he’s never been a good judge of other people’s feelings.
A judicious sifting of Eyes Only reports he has no official access to, but suspects Fury knows he reads, suggests Shield is tracking Bruce Banner in South America, and in negotiations to bring him in without rousing the Hulk. That’ll really be the icing on the cake as far as he’s concerned. Less for the big green guy, though it’ll be nice to have someone else to do the heavy lifting, and more because he feels like his brain is atrophying. The Cali guys had their hearts broken for nothing; he never has time to get down to the labs anymore anyway.
Because Coulson is the devil! Seriously. He actually has them build a tower out of office furniture, that staple of 90s power seminars, and grades them on teamwork and Marxist sounding things like ‘contribution’ rather than structural integrity – Tony’s main concern – defensibility – Steve’s – or ability to withstand a siege – Thor’s. Natasha and Clint just stand there laughing their asses off as the big three get their failing grades. Unacceptable.
Then Tony remembers he’s a genius, a billionaire and a philanthropist, and stakes it all on one game-winning play. Thor’s going stir-crazy cooped up in Shield HQ, and even Rogers surely would be happier if someone forced him to go out and get some fresh air, even if the sight of New New York breaks his heart every time.
He makes his pitch to Coulson and Fury together; a mansion that runs an entire block of Fifth Avenue, plus whatever it takes to renovate and retrofit it for gods, monsters, super-soldiers, mad scientists and ninjas, in return for a permanent cessation to team-building exercises. Fury rorts him up to throwing in one group dinner or joint activity a fortnight, to be called team bonding instead of team building, and from the way he and Coulson grin at each other Tony feels obscurely like he’s been outplayed. It’s still worth it.
The Avengers finally start to come together, and Tony begins to see some of the point in being a team. They do bring different skill sets to the table, and with practice they can learn to compensate for each other’s weaknesses. He calls Thor when they partner up, and gets assigned Cap. It’s Fury’s idea, Coulson insists, to match up one meta and one mere mortal – he doesn’t put it quite like that of course, but Tony’s always been able to read between the lines – and to break up their natural inclinations and preferences, making them work for the relationship instead.
If Clint and Natasha are annoyed at being split up and assigned to babysit a god and a monster respectively, they’re far too disciplined to show it. Apparently Clint’s quiet, professional demeanour is strictly a 9 to 5 thing, and he shrugs it off with the uniform, turning into a frat-boy as soon as he gets home. Thor takes to his sense of humour with gusto, and they bond over a shared love of junk food and reality television. Thor thinks the contestants ‘petty and tiny’, but hey, there’s no denying that. Even Bruce, when he arrives, seems to find Natasha’s quiet calm soothing, and he slowly starts spending more time in the common areas than alone in the lab Tony custom designed for him.
Cap looks like he’s biting into a lemon when the partnership is announced, but he shakes Tony’s hand and promises to do his best, so the least Tony can do is make an effort. Surprisingly, it does work. Steve’s tactical eye is superb, and once Tony masters the dated military jargon he can lay out a plan with all due speed. He also takes Tony’s input and runs with it, adapting on the fly and utilising everyone’s best strengths and abilities.
Tony does air recon, and between them they can visualise the entire field of battle, and Jarvis can relay their conclusions to the rest of the team in no time. They reach a point where they can fight like a seamless unit, and they both accept that they make each other better heroes. On the street, in the air, they’re inseparable. Off-duty there’s still a strain, but they’ve at least stopped deliberately pressing on each other’s bruises.
Accidentally is another matter.
He’s picked up by now that it’s not on purpose, maybe not even conscious, but Steve has this way of looking at him that is the most dissonant thing he’s ever experienced. Continued observation confirms that his first impression wasn’t mistaken; Tony Stark has cruised and been cruised by too many guys not to recognise good old fashioned attraction when he sees it. It’s overlaid by too many other emotions to fully parse though; sadness, anger, disappointment, and a far-away look that can only be reminiscence.
Best case scenario, Man of the Year 1942 is having some kind of existential crisis about being sexually attracted to another man. Tony’s not stupid, he knows it must be hard to adjust to the constant barrage of changed social norms and cultural attitudes Steve’s facing, and if it’s a new realisation, hell, it’s one people still struggle with today.
Worst case scenario… Steve had some kind of man-crush on Howard, and when he looks at Tony he’s actually thinking about him. That is so many levels of bad and wrong that Tony actually can’t bear it, so he puts it out of his mind, and uses the Power of Positive Thinking to make himself forget he ever considered it.
They’re having a rare – but getting less rare – moment of quiet amity, sitting in the kitchen while Steve eats a midnight snack of scrambled eggs – price of his hyper-metabolism – and Tony’s mentally walking through ways to make the armour easier to hang on to, without making it easier for villains to hang on to. A couple of times now he’s had to carry Steve out of the field of battle, and Clint’s been very quick to jump all over the fact they look like Superman and Lois Lane. Unacceptable.
He’s taken by surprise, then, when Steve suddenly asks after Howard and Greg, what happened to them, and if Tony tries to rein in his customary sarcasm and defensiveness, he clearly isn’t successful. Steve is equal parts angry and disgusted and hurt, and possibly even disappointed, which is by far the worst for reasons Tony doesn’t want to examine too closely.
“Are you really that selfish, that ungrateful?” Steve asks. “You’re their only surviving family, and that’s how you talk about them?”
“Oh, what?” Tony asks. “I’m supposed to keep their secrets? Keep a stiff upper lip and cover for them and tell you they were just swell? They weren’t. Greg was a full on alcoholic and an asshole, and he died alone without a friend in the world once he’d burned through his share of the family fortune. Howard wasn’t much better by the end, though he was high-functioning, I’ll give you that, it never interfered with his work.”
“For someone who’s so angry about it,” Steve observes poisonously, “you sure drink a lot yourself. Is that a glass, or a bucket?”
Tony glances down at the tumbler he’s just refilled. They are big, to be sure, maybe pushing a pint, but he didn’t choose them; the interior designer picked them out when she stocked the bar, more for the aesthetic than any sense of practicality, big square things, heavy crystal with titanium features. It’s possible you’re not supposed to fill them, but that is not a line of enquiry he wants to head down right now, thank you very much.
The best defence has always been a good offence, so he goes on the attack. “Oh, and you’d know so much about it, wouldn’t you?” he snaps, “Mr I Metabolise Alcohol in Minutes, and Was Probably Too Much of a Buzz Kill to Cut Loose Even Before.”
Steve looks at him with more scorn than he’s seen in one gaze since he was expelled from his second boarding school and Howard had to take time off work, and write a cheque to build an Olympic-sized swimming pool, to get him into a third.
“My father was a drunk,” he says coldly, “and a bully. He used to beat my mother right in front of me, and there was never anything I could do to stop him. But by all means, carry on complaining about how your father was too busy to spend time with you.”
He shoves back his stool and leaves, half-finished plate abandoned, not even bothering to slam the door.
Well, fuck. That wasn’t in any of the files. Tony puts the glass down, and makes a mental note to order some regular sized tumblers.
There’s no two ways about it, he was in the wrong this time. As an olive branch, Tony decides to refurbish the library. Everyone needs a space to call their own, and everyone but Steve has staked one out by now. Tony has his workshop, Bruce loves his lab, Thor and Clint have colonised the home theatre. Natasha has claimed the conservatory, filling it with the kind of beautiful trinkets Tony would have assumed six months ago she wouldn’t care for. Steve hasn’t asked for anything.
Tony hasn’t set foot in the library since he moved back to New York, but he does have fond memories of it as a kid; Howard was always in a good mood when he was in there, reading for pleasure instead of work, smoking and having a quiet drink. He’d even let Tony sit on the ottoman at his feet and chatter about his day. Tony hasn’t picked up an artefact book in years, but Steve and the e-book’s mutual antipathy is well established, so he orders paper copies of everything that’s made the NYT bestsellers list in the last seventy years, and adds them to the first editions and classics that Howard and Maria had collected.
Steve’s obviously touched, and his face goes all soft and sad when he thanks Tony. The best reward, apart from the fact that they’re speaking again, is that he actually uses the space. He doesn’t seem to sleep much, which Tony can certainly empathise with, and when Tony comes upstairs after a late night in the shop he’s often still sitting there, books and magazines and newspapers spread out on the table in front of him, forgotten cup of cocoa at his elbow.
Tony pops his head in, now and then, and is pleased to get a friendly response. Sometimes they even chat, briefly, and after a while he starts stopping for a quiet drink before bed. Cocoa, not scotch. It’s weird, but he kind of likes it. He may not be the bigger man, but he is older – well, sort of – and maybe a little wiser, at least in some ways. He’s certainly seen more of the world, for all Steve fought a war to save that world.
“He didn’t stop looking for you, you know,” Tony says one night. It seems only fair. Steve is alone, and adrift, and everyone he ever knew or loved is dead and gone. If he’d cared about Howard, and talking about him will make him happy, then Tony can suck it up. “He used to take a team out every year, to look himself.”
“Really?” Steve’s whole face softens, and as the hard edges fade he’s even more gorgeous.
“I went with him once,” Tony says. “I guess I’d gotten a good report that semester or something, and he wanted to encourage me in my brief delusion that oceanography was where it was at.”
Steve smiles ruefully. “Before you discovered robots?”
“Oh, I’d already discovered robots,” Tony laughs, “I built my first robot when I was eight. But that year I discovered girls. I was desperate to get into Penny York’s pants, and she wanted to be a marine biologist.”
Steve’s blush travels all the way down his neck and under his collar. It’s adorable.
“I can’t believe he died in a car wreck,” he says suddenly. “I mean, he flew in and out of Nazi-occupied Europe solo, he blew up his own lab at SSR so many times the MPs stopped reacting, I just assumed he’d either crash a rocket ship on the way to Mars, or that he’d live forever.”
“Yeah, me too,” Tony says, surprising himself with his own honesty. “I really thought the cop they sent to tell me the news was joking, you know?”
“How old were you?” Steve asks softly.
“Seventeen.” Tony wishes he’d had the scotch tonight, if they’re having this conversation. “I was still in Cambridge. Everyone thought he’d come to arrest me when he walked into the lab.”
Steve ignores the re-direct and zeroes in on the heart of the problem.
“There was no other family at all?”
“Nah, my mom’s parents died when I was a kid; my dad’s were long gone before he ever remembered he was supposed to do something mundane like get married. There was Uncle Greg, obviously, but he was already gone, and Mom’s brother Antonio, who I was named for, who died in the war. That’s it.”
“And you don’t ever think about getting married, having a family of your own?” Steve asks, with that unerring instinct of his for the pertinent question.
He’d thought about it exactly once, when he and Pepper were at the height of their honeymoon phase, before she’d decided she could just about manage to sit at his bedside or wait for the inevitable call as his assistant, but not as his partner. Even then, it hadn’t really loomed large as a life goal.
“I’m a lot of things, Cap,” he says at last, “not all of them good, but I like to think I’m at least not a hypocrite. I wouldn’t be any better at it than Dad was.”
Steve just nods, not exactly like he agrees, but for once not offended either.
“Anyway,” he says, shaking it off, “he was almost eighty. He’d had a damn good life, by anyone’s measure, even a Stark’s. My mom was barely fifty.”
At the time he hadn’t really processed that, beyond the fact that she was gone, and she’d never again smooth his hair back when he was sick, or kiss him on the temple as she rushed out to lunch or a meeting, leaving a brilliant scarlet smear of lipstick on his skin, and a trace of heavy perfume on his clothes. Now that forty’s in the rear view mirror and he’s looking down the road to fifty himself, it seems catastrophically unfair.
He realises Steve’s looking at him, clearly waiting for him to answer, and shakes himself. “Huh?”
“I said tell me about her,” Steve repeats.
Tony stares at him for an awkward minute. No one’s ever asked him about Maria; no one’s ever cared. It’s like he sprang fully armoured from his father’s head, and wow, that metaphor’s more apt than he really cares to think about.
He gets up and pours himself that drink, mostly soda though Steve makes a point of not watching, eyes firmly on his own hands, and takes a seat opposite him at the table.
“There’s not much to tell,” he starts, and maybe he is a hypocrite after all, because he doesn’t really have much to say, beyond the fact that she was smart, and she was beautiful, and she was his.
“Dad met her parents in Italy during the war, I guess one of those times he was flying around, being Howard Stark, doing something he shouldn’t have been? Anyway, they hit it off, Dad and my grandparents, and he sponsored them to come to America after the war, to New York. I think they had a bakery in Queens. Something clichéd like that. And it must have occurred to him one day that he’d forgotten to get married when everyone else was doing it, and here he was, a multi-millionaire with a dozen factories and half of New York to his name, and no one to leave his ill-gotten gains to.”
That isn’t entirely fair; Howard had already set up a bunch of scholarships for returned GIs by that point, and together he and Maria would go on to do a lot more.
“So anyway, he remembered those old friends of his, and lucky for him my mom was pretty firmly on the shelf, thirty and unmarried, what a scandal, so it was win-win. And then they had me, and that was it, I guess.” He smirks self deprecatingly. Steve just looks sadder than ever, and wow, that’s somehow worse than when he looks annoyed.
“You don’t need to be so cynical,” Steve says. “That could be a really romantic story if you told it just a little differently, instead of assuming the worst.”
“How would you know?” Tony snaps, stung.
“I don’t,” Steve shrugs. “But I don’t think you really do either, not for sure. We never know that about other people, who they loved, and what they lost, and the things that broke their hearts. Why not put a positive spin on things; wouldn’t it make you happier? Maybe he really loved her. Maybe he was just waiting for the right person all those years.”
“Yeah, maybe,” Tony sighs.
“I hope it’s true,” Steve says, with a passion he hasn’t shown previously. “I hope they were happy together. All my friends are dead. Some of them lived to grow old, but a lot of them didn’t. My best friend died right in front of me; he was only twenty-nine. I never got to see him settle down, get married. I never got to be his best man, or play with his kids, or any of those things. I never got to do any of those things myself. It’s nice to know at least one person I care about got to do it.”
“Hey, come on,” Tony says, fighting a sudden pang of guilt mixed with genuine sympathy, and maybe something else. “You’re still only twenty-nine. You’ll get another chance. You can have it all, whatever you want, big wedding, white picket fence, you name it.”
“Yeah, maybe,” Steve echoes. “But it’s harder the second time round, you know? When you’ve already met the person you wanted to spend the rest of your life with, when you’ve already had those conversations and made those plans.”
“Oh, God,” Tony says, mortified. “I didn’t know. I’m sorry.”
Steve shrugs. “It was stupid making those kinds of plans in wartime. I don’t know what we were thinking. It probably wouldn’t have worked out anyway.”
“Of course it would have!” Tony insists, unsure even as he says it if he’s making things better or worse. Steve is starting to look glassy eyed and pinched around the mouth, and that’s nothing he ever wanted to see. “You’re Captain America!”
Steve snorts, and that at least breaks the worst of the tension.
“I mean… You’re you. Steve Rogers. What could possibly go wrong?”
“Apart from crashing in the Arctic and being frozen for seventy years?”
“Yeah, apart from that. I mean, no one’s perfect. But that’s hardly up there with forgetting to put the toilet seat down. Or buying strawberries for someone who’s allergic. Trust me. Hey! We should look them up. Maybe they’re still out there. We could go visit; I’ll drive you wherever you want to go.”
“That’s nice of you,” Steve says, smiling weakly, “but they’ve been dead a really long time.”
And this is why Tony should think before he speaks. Damn it.
“I’m sorry,” he says again, astonished by how much he means it.
“You know what the worst thing is?” Steve asks.
Tony shakes his head.
“It’s that it’s not enough that I have to find out that they’re dead and somehow carry on. I could manage that. It’s that I know that they had to find out I was dead, and that they didn’t carry on. Not as well as they should have.”
There’s nothing Tony can say to that, so he just nods and pours Steve a drink. Even if he can’t get drunk, it might give him a momentary lift.
Steve takes the drink and raises it in a toast. “I know you guys didn’t get on so great,” he says, changing the subject decisively, “but you really do remind me of your dad. I guess the war changed him, but he was a great guy when I knew him. He was very charming. Witty, confident, and so, so smart. A lot of fun to be around.”
Tony coughs, torn between habitual irritation at being compared to his father, and a vague sense of confused glee that Captain America thinks he’s charming and fun to be around. When did that happen?
Steve laughs, genuine and sweet. “We rubbed each other up the wrong way too, when we first met. I thought he was over-bearing and full of himself. The loudest voice in the room.”
Huh. That’s less endearing.
“And I thought he was making a play for my girl. Well. The girl I was sweet on, anyway.”
“Really?” Tony demands; this is a new one on him. Howard had barely had time for his wife and son; he certainly hadn’t talked about any great war-time romances.
“Yeah. Turns out fondue didn’t mean what I thought it meant.”
Tony bursts out laughing at that, visions of his mother’s “chic” seventies soirées in his head, heavy bangles clinking on her arms as she’d hauled him up into her lap and let him commandeer her fork for a moment or two before sending him back to bed. “What on earth did you think it meant?”
Steve blushes again. It’s every bit as adorable as before. “I don’t know,” he admits. “I was just a kid from Brooklyn; all I knew was that the French were the masters when it came to that sort of thing. When your dad suggested dropping everything and heading to Lucerne for the night I assumed the worst.”
“Lucerne?” Tony asks, curious. “Is that where you met Greg?”
The smile falls off Steve’s face. “What? No. He was in... I met him at HQ in London. He was working on one of Howard’s projects at SSR. I know you never met him, but Howard really never said anything about him?”
“Not anything good,” Tony says, feeling like he’s on shaky ground, for no reason he can fathom. “I guess they must have fallen out after the war.”
“Oh,” Steve says, his voice small, and oh my god, Tony thinks, are his eyes welling up?
“Oh, hey, no,” he stammers, trying to head that one off at the pass. There’s a special circle in Hell reserved for the man who makes Captain America cry, and it’s got to be below Coulson’s. “I’m sure it wasn’t as bad as all that. Maybe I misunderstood.”
“But he died alone in a French chateau with only the servants for company, before you were born, right?” Steve asks bitterly. “I didn’t misunderstand that.”
Oh, but Tony can be a prick sometimes. He bitterly regrets having said that to someone who’d considered the man a friend, but there’s no way now to take it back. “I’m sorry,” he says, surprised by how much he means it.
Steve nods. “You know,” he says, “you look a lot like him.”
“My dad?” Tony asks. “Yeah, I know.”
“No,” Steve says. “Your uncle.”
“Really?” Tony’s surprised. There hadn’t been a lot of pictures of Greg around the house when he was growing up, a few portraits of him and Howard when they were kids, a couple of old fashioned glamour shots turned into postcards from the ski fields or the beach when he was living the life of Riley in the 50s and 60s. There’d been a family resemblance, sure, all the Stark men look a lot alike, but nothing uncanny.
“Yeah,” Steve says. “That’s what threw me the first day I met you. Seeing you standing there. I reacted badly, but it wasn’t anything personal, anything you’d done.”
“Oh,” Tony says. “Okay. Thanks.”
Steve goes to bed not long after, still looking wrecked, and Tony goes back down to the workshop, pretty shaken himself.
It’s weird, the way a thing like friendship can creep up on you. Tony’s never been particularly good at it; accelerated too fast at school and always out of his peer group, perpetually too young to be included in the activities organised by his academic cohort, but far too smart, and, if he’s honest, arrogant to be welcomed back by the boys his own age. Like oldest and only children throughout the ages, he’d spent a lot of time with adults, precocious and charming and popular, at least until he started making them feel uncomfortable with questions they couldn’t answer.
His college years are a blur of sex, drugs and rock and roll, liberally soaked in alcohol, and it’s pretty telling he’s kept in touch with precisely one person he knew back then. God only knows what induced Rhodey to stick around, but it was more than likely his own incredible sense of loyalty and honour, not anything Tony did to deserve it. Pepper, too, presumably liked her job long before she liked him. He knows he’s doing them both a disservice, and would never question their generosity and kindness, but in low moments he’s always assumed they wouldn’t have had time to grow to care about him if he hadn’t been paying them a salary first.
It’s truly a surprise, then, to realise, on a perfectly ordinary day, that he and Steve Rogers are, by all accepted definitions of the word, friends. It’s even more of a surprise to realise that he’s happy; that he doesn’t miss Malibu at all, that he loves New York, and he loves the mansion, and he loves the Avengers, and he loves-
So they’re friends and partners. They are hell on wheels in combat; the message spreads pretty far, pretty fast, that you do not want to mess with any of the Avengers, but it doesn’t go unobserved that nothing gets repulsors turned to maximum faster than bruises on Captain America, and likewise any announcement from Jarvis of failing systems leads to particularly vicious application of vibranium to faces. They find the perfect way to get from place to place, and if Clint baptises it the ‘hug and fly’ it’s not a barb that hits the mark. The fact that there’s a hollow the exact depth and width of Captain America’s fingers in the right shoulder of the armour, and the boots are now fractionally wider and flatter, is a secret known only to the two of them, and to Jarvis.
The day AIM actually comes up with an advanced idea, and manages to force the arc reactor to cycle twice as fast is a lesson to Tony in not taking other people’s incompetence in matters mechanical for granted. His heart is beating so fast it feels like his chest is going to explode, completely different from the standard drag and creeping cold, and he barely has time to dump an astonished Steve on a roof-top, unable to speak to explain, before overloaded systems start shorting out. Jarvis sends an automatic distress call to get Thor to pick Steve up, and transfers all power to the repulsors. It’s all Tony can do to stay pointed in the right direction.
Crashing onto the landing pad at the mansion, he hits the emergency release and tears the chest plate off, leaving it where it falls and staggering, hampered by the dead weight of the armour, into the workshop. He can barely get the gauntlets and the helmet off, and his fingers fumble at the reactor locking mechanism; Christ, he never thought he’d be the one trying to forcibly wrench it out. It comes loose at last, and the relief is massive as he manages to drag in a decent breath.
The old familiar pins and needles kick in as he’s rushing through the security countermeasures to get to the back-up reactor. It feels worse than ever on his already overtaxed system, nausea from the adrenaline bleed-off swamping him, and he’s seriously contemplating the indignity of being found collapsed in a pool of his own vomit when he manages to dock the reactor and feels the hum as it kicks back in. The blue light is just a pleasant glow at the edge of the swallowing darkness as he slides to the floor behind the workbench.
He stirs to the sound of shattering reinforced glass, and the unmistakeable clang of Captain America’s shield hitting the concrete floor. Steve’s hands are roaming fierce and frantic all over him, pulling off the last remaining pieces of the armour, and then his fingers skirt the reactor, press at the pulse in his neck, finally find what they’re looking for, and even with his eyes closed Tony can feel him slump in exhausted relief.
“Hey,” he manages to croak.
“Oh, my God, Tony,” Steve says, and he sounds truly desperate.
Tony forces his gritty eyes open. Steve’s got the cowl down, and his face is bone white, every trace of colour gone.
“I’m okay,” he says quickly, “I’m okay.”
Steve opens his mouth to say something, then thinks better of it, pulling Tony roughly into a sitting position, and okay, that kind of hurts, and then throwing both arms around him, hugging him harder than he’s ever been hugged before. That kind of hurts too, to be honest, but it is totally, totally worth it, and Tony manages to snake his arms around Steve’s waist and hug back, burying his face in the gap between his jaw and the collar of his uniform. The smell of Imperial Leather and sweat and Kevlar is the best thing ever.
Rapidly downgraded to second best when Steve’s hand slides off his shoulder and up his neck to cradle the back of his head and gently pull him up so he can see his face. It takes all of three seconds for his eyes to shift from questioning to decided, and then he’s pressing his lips to Tony’s.
Tony opens his mouth immediately; he’d have to be all the way dead, not half, not to respond when he gets what he’s always wanted. His poor confused heart doesn’t know how to react, still going a mile a minute, but other parts of him do, and he shifts to his knees to get closer to Steve. Steve pulls him up onto his lap, hand dropping to his lower back to support him, and kisses him harder, his own mouth opening without hesitation, welcoming Tony's tongue, caressing it with his own.
Tony bites Steve's full lower lip like he's dreamed of doing for so long, then the point of his chin, then along his jaw and all the way back, kissing and licking every inch. He works a hand inside Steve's collar, desperate for the feel of more skin, and Steve's right there with him, not shy at all, pulling back and yanking at the fastenings on his battle-jacket, laughing when Tony whines at the loss of contact. He's not much better though, grabbing Tony's undershirt in both hands and ripping it open, off his shoulders, big hands stroking and squeezing and touching Tony all over.
Tony shoves him, hard, and Steve's not expecting it, falling back onto the floor, a look of surprise flicking over his face, rapidly replaced by satisfaction as Tony slides up to straddle his waist and leans over him to kiss him some more. They kiss for what feels like forever, then Tony shifts back, practised hands working at the buckles on Steve’s utility belt, snapping open the hidden fastenings on his uniform pants.
"Tony, wait," Steve groans, even as he raises his hips to help.
Tony doesn't grace that with an answer, just tears down Steve's pants and boxers, pulling them over his thighs and down to his knees. He doesn’t waste time on fancy tricks or teasing, doesn’t have the energy for it, just breathes deep and lurches in, swallowing Steve in one movement. He gags for a second as Steve's cock hits the back of his throat, then he finds the right angle and relaxes. Steve’s arching his back, head rolling on the floor, hands resolutely clenched at his sides.
Tony grabs them both and places them firmly on his own shoulders. Steve takes him at his implied word, one folding gently around his shoulder blade, the fingers of the other trailing across his neck tentatively, then curving around, not pushing, not forcing, just holding him there. Tony sucks harder, head rising and falling, pulling off enough to wrap his hand around the base and stroke firmly as he tongues the head, trailing the fingers of his free hand across Steve's thigh. The muscles are so tense they're like steel. Tony looks up quickly; it'll kill him if Steve's not enjoying this, but he'd rather die than have him pretend.
Steve's wild-eyed and breathless, biting his lip to keep from crying out, but when he meets Tony's gaze he relaxes, breathing out, allowing himself to gasp, and sigh, and smile the sweetest smile Tony has ever seen. Like the gentleman he is he pushes at Tony’s shoulder when he’s at the brink, and like the wanton he is Tony just forces his head down further and swallows everything. He keeps sucking till Steve shudders and pushes him harder, at which he pulls off with a final kiss to Steve’s softening cock. Steve doesn’t let go of him, pulling him back down, and he goes, exhausted, resting his cheek on Steve’s still heaving stomach.
He’s still hard as anything, but strangely he’s happy just to lie there as Steve’s breathing slows, stroking his thumb back and forth across Steve’s exposed hipbone. Until Steve sits up suddenly, seizing Tony by the biceps and holding him at arm’s length, staring hard at his face.
“Oh, my God,” he says, and he sounds horrified, not impressed. “Tony, what-”
“Don’t,” Tony says, skipping panic and despair and already halfway to angry. “Do not. Do not say anything, do not think anything. Just answer me this. Are you coming upstairs with me, or not?”
“I can’t,” Steve says, hands running frantically down Tony’s arms then shifting up so that his fingers skim along his temple and jawline. “Oh, my God, what have I done?”
“I’m not hurt, I’m fine,” Tony insists. “I fought Ironmonger in worse shape than this, I promise I’m fine. But you’re looking at me kind of weird and it’s freaking me out. Please, please tell me you’re not regretting it already.”
“What?” Steve demands. “What? No. No, of course not, it’s not that, I just-”
Tony cuts him off with another hard kiss. Steve kisses back, then rubs his thumbs, hard, in the hollows under Tony’s ears, right at the back of his jaw, just where Tony likes it. He shivers uncontrollably, and Steve laughs, and says, “Yeah. Yeah, let’s go.”
They stumble to their feet, Steve hitching his pants up enough to be able to walk, Tony attempting to right his torn shirt and giving it up as a lost cause. He wonders if they can make it up to his bedroom without running into the others, and Steve, reading his mind, says, “They’re at HQ, I promised I’d-”
“Jarvis,” Tony barks, cutting him off. “Send the All Clear to all Avengers. Tell them I’m fine, and not to hurry back.”
“Yes, sir,” Jarvis says demurely, and Steve bursts out laughing. They stagger up the stairs arm in arm, and it takes three times as long as usual for the number of times they stop along the way.
They do eventually reach Tony’s bedroom, and as he opens the door he experiences a moment of nervousness like he hasn’t felt in years. Steve appears to have hijacked his missing confidence, however, grabbing him around the waist with both hands and dragging him inside, kicking the door shut behind him. He manhandles Tony across the room, which okay, yes, is definitely a turn on, and deposits him on the bed.
It’s not quite how Tony had imagined it going – as a teenager he’d always cast Cap as the experienced one, of course, but as he’d gotten older, and especially once he’d met him in all his uptight glory, he’d regrouped and recast himself as the seducer – but that’s about all the time he has to ponder it, because Steve is stripping off his uniform with military speed and precision, raised eyebrow making clear what he thinks of Tony’s malingering.
Tony laughs and unbuckles his own pants, easing them down over his aching cock, which is very glad indeed to finally be involved in the proceedings. Steve is like a finely sculpted work of art, fully hard again already, cock flushed pink and standing in a proud curve against his perfectly flat stomach. Tony takes a moment to appreciate the view, then spreads his legs in open invitation.
Steve grins and climbs up onto the bed, carefully settling his weight over him. Tony isn’t exactly small, but the size difference has never been more obvious, and he feels smothered and protected all at once. He just lies there for a moment, revelling in it, letting Steve rock against him gently, then stretches out an arm to rummage in the bedside table.
“I assume you know what to do with this, soldier?” he says archly, slapping the tube against Steve’s chest.
Steve punches him in the arm, and says, “Yes; don’t be horrible. Next thing I know you’ll be calling me fast.”
“Believe me,” Tony says, overjoyed that they’ve reached a place where they can joke around like this, “I’m the one that’s fast.”
Steve slicks his fingers quickly, then lightly circles Tony’s hole. Tony spreads his legs further. Steve's first finger slides in easily, and he wastes no time in following with two together, making Tony gasp. It’s obvious he does know what he’s doing, scissoring his fingers to stretch the muscle, then withdrawing to add more lube.
“God, Steve, that’s enough,” Tony moans. “I’m ready, come on.”
Steve leans forward, kissing Tony messily, reaching down with one hand to line himself up, even as the other strokes Tony’s jaw. The head of his cock slips in easily, and he waits a moment for Tony to adjust around him, then pushes in the rest of the way in one smooth movement. Tony moans out Steve’s name and clenches, hard, and Steve cries out above him and starts thrusting, deep, slow, steady thrusts that Tony pushes back into, gripping Steve’s hips, hard, with his thighs, and using both hands to pull Steve's head down. He bites savagely at Steve's lips, sucks on his tongue, pants hot and wet against his cheek.
Steve angles himself perfectly, head of his cock gliding over Tony’s prostate with every thrust, then he turns his head and whispers hoarsely, “I love you,” right into Tony’s ear. Tony comes spectacularly, untouched, whole body jerking uncontrollably in Steve's arms, ass clenching around his cock, milking him. Steve manages another couple of strokes, then he’s coming too, crying out into Tony’s mouth.
Steve’s fascinated by the arc reactor. Every time they sprawl out in bed together, afterglow metaphorical and literal, he spends long minutes running his fingers over and around it, tracing the seams and lines of it, gliding round the edges and making Tony shiver. No one but Pepper’s ever touched it before – the few casual flings he’s had since they split up he’s made a point of keeping at least an undershirt on – and even she’d preferred not to dwell on it. Steve seems to love it though.
Once, just once, he puts his hand over it to block the light while he’s sitting astride Tony’s hips on the couch in the upstairs lounge, his other hand locked in Tony’s hair, pulling his head back, and Tony freaks out and shoves him off onto the floor with all his panic-fuelled strength. Steve isn’t offended; he just sits quietly at Tony’s feet until he calms, and then sits some more, saying nothing, while Tony tells him about Obadiah, and what it felt like to have a man he’d thought of as a father, a better father in many ways than Howard had ever been, rip his heart right out of his chest.
Steve makes no comment, just offers up stories of his own in return. He blushes when he talks about Peggy, how beautiful she was; cool and calm and collected, unflappable, the very image of grace under fire. Tony’d met her once, when he was very young; she’d been visiting the US on a joint training exercise, well into her career at what had become MI6 by then, still a beauty at sixty. He’s a lot more cautious, careful to be gentle, when he tells Steve she’d gotten married to an RAF pilot and had three children of her own.
Steve takes it better than he’d assumed, just smiling that sweet, enigmatic smile of his as though it was a personal victory to chalk up another happy ending for a friend. He still gets sad when he talks about Bucky, but it’s maybe a good kind of sad, like it’s starting to be good to remember again. He doesn’t talk about Greg, though he still reminisces about Howard from time to time. Tony doesn’t really think anything of it.
They start spending all their time together, to the great and visible amusement of the rest of the team. Thor asks Tony his intentions, which makes him bristle until he tells Steve, in high dudgeon, only to have Steve laugh and confide that Bruce had asked him the same, vowing to send the Hulk round if required. It’s so silly and clichéd, for all its operatic sturm und drang, that they both crack up laughing, unable to take offence.
They trade off quiet nights in the library for time spent in the shop, Tony fiddling with upgrades to the armour, or advanced Stark projects he now occasionally has the time for again, though the all-encompassing passion is a thing of the past. Steve tinkers with Howard’s car collection, still in the garage, most of which are as old as he is, really is, rejecting out of hand Tony’s offer to have some actual masterpieces of automotive engineering shipped out from Malibu. It’s something perilously close to perfect, and Tony is gloriously, deliriously happy. He really should know by now that means it won’t last.
It’s Thor who picks the bauble up, in the wake of another easily defeated extra-dimensional invasion, saying it reminds him of home. Not Asgardian, exactly, but ‘of the Realms’ as he puts it. It’s Tony’s own damn fault, though, for not realising that the fact that Thor could touch it with impunity meant less than nothing for the unfortunate denizens of Midgard.
He’s mid-sentence on the need to clear alien contraband, rather than bring it home, as his fingertips graze the edge of the sphere and it lights up with a burst of brilliant white that sears the eye and makes what feels like every synapse in his head fire at once.
He comes to on the foyer floor, with a splitting headache. Rolling onto his back and staring bleary-eyed at the ceiling, he’s relieved to discover that he’s not, in fact, blind, and the lights are just out. He claps his hands and calls for Jarvis. There’s no response. He’s also, he realises, alone, no sign of Thor or any of the others.
Clambering to his feet and tripping over some random piece of furniture that he’s pretty sure isn’t where it should be, he runs a hand along the wall, looking for a light switch. When he finds it at last and flips it – flips it; what happened to his touch panels? – his poor, suffering eyes are immediately assaulted by a ghastly red and black flock wallpaper in place of his tasteful ecru walls.
He stumbles up the staircase, which is at least where it should it be, even if it’s covered in an Axminster that matches – just barely – the walls. The upstairs rooms are even more of a nightmare, though he’s starting to recognise the odd piece of furniture that was in the house when he was a kid. It’s a good thing the arc reactor’s been recently overhauled, because he’s on the verge of a heart attack. Running back downstairs he skirts the foyer and heads down the back staircase – the one he had removed when he renovated – to what should be his workshop.
He finds instead, as feared, the locked fire door that often greeted him as a child when he escaped the nanny and went in search of his father. The good thing about being an adult, albeit one clearly in the wrong dimension, is that locked doors no longer represent an insurmountable obstacle. It’s the work of a few short minutes to pick the lock, using only the contents of his pockets. Any sense of self-congratulation dissipates, however, when he’s confronted with a laboratory and computer bank that would make an elementary school in a one-horse town cry.
Those fucking aliens weren’t just dimension-hoppers, they were time-travellers.
He’s breathing deep and ordering himself not to panic when there’s an unmistakeable click behind him.
“Hands in the air, pal,” a voice that skirts the edges of familiar orders. “And turn around. Slowly.”
Deciding he’d rather be shot in the front than the back, Tony does. And promptly wishes he hadn’t bothered. Glaring at him over the barrel of a cocked revolver, in an impeccable double-breasted suit, is Howard Stark. A Howard Stark who can’t be a day over thirty, if he’s even that.
“Greg?” he asks, gun wavering.
“What?” Tony says, thrown. “No. Yes. Yes!”
The gun snaps back up. “Nice try, Fritz,” Howard snaps. “You almost had me. But next time, wear a thicker shirt. Your jet-pack’s showing.”
Tony glances down at his chest, where, sure enough, the damning blue glow of the reactor is shining through his sweater. Well. No one ever said Howard Stark was stupid.
Fortunately, Tony Stark isn’t either. He puts the fact he’s talking to his father, who is currently younger than he is, firmly out of his conscious mind, and rapidly processes and discards a dozen excuses and explanations that might not end in Howard calling OSS, and him being carted off to prison as a Nazi spy. Water-boarding probably hasn’t been invented yet, but he’s in no rush to find out what the method du jour is.
There’s no two ways about it, unfortunately. If he’s to have any hope of getting home, he’s going to need Howard’s help. And that means telling the truth. Or a version of it. There’s no way in hell he’s admitting just who he is and risking some kind of touching reunion. Fortunately, Howard has given him the perfect in.
“I’m Tony Stark,” he says, “and I’m your nephew from the future.”
When Howard stops laughing, he tries again.
“Seriously. I know it seems far-fetched, but if you’ll let me reach into my pocket I can show you my ID.”
Howard laughs some more, then nods his head. “Sure, why not?” he says. “I could use a good laugh.”
Tony knows better than to bother with his driver’s licence; instead he pulls out his all-access Stark Industries master-key and his Avengers ID, both of which contain enough micro-circuitry, holographic chips, and gold-titanium ribbon to impress.
“I can also show you my phone,” he says. “Even Starkware won’t have service here, but the data storage is huge.”
Howard doesn’t put the gun away, but he stops pointing it at Tony, ushering him over to the desk and telling him to sit down. He pulls out a small torch, and starts waving it at Tony’s jaw.
“What are you doing?” Tony asks.
“Looking for plastic surgery scars.”
“Hey!” Tony just can’t help himself. “This is all me, no surgery. I have excellent bone structure.”
“You have very familiar bone structure,” Howard concedes, putting the gun in his pocket at last. “Okay, my friend, let’s say I believe you. What the hell are you doing here?”
May as well go for broke. “I need you to build a time machine and send me home.”
Howard laughs. “Well, you don’t ask for much, do you?”
It’s been a really long time since I’ve asked you for anything, Tony thinks. But if you do this for me it will make up for a lot. Out loud, he just says, “I know you can do it. I know you helped turn Steve Rogers into Captain America, and I know they’re going to ask you to work on the Manhattan Project. Maybe that hasn’t happened yet, but they will.”
Howard’s jaw drops. “Rebirth works?” he asks, incredulous.
“That hasn’t happened yet either?” Tony asks, wondering just how god damned early in the war he’s actually arrived.
Howard introduces Tony to Colonel Phillips as his brother, Gregory Stark, newly flown in from Zurich, complete with a Nazi-busting change of heart. Phillips shrugs and accepts it, along with the identity card he’d forged with disturbing ease; Howard’s a known quantity, and he’s been very, very helpful to the war effort already, providing cash and equipment as well as ideas, so they’re only too glad to have another Stark on the team. Tony’s head spins at the ease with which he can walk into a top-secret facility, but then, a real Nazi spy did too.
He’s never claimed to be particularly in touch with his feelings, but he still fails entirely to fathom what it will do to him to see Steve Rogers, version 1.0. It almost breaks his heart to look at him. And yeah, sure, intellectually he’d known that pre-serum Steve was tiny, and frail, and so, so very young, he’d even seen the sepia-tinted pictures, but seeing it with his own eyes is really something else.
Howard notices him staring, and nudges him. “He’s something isn’t he?” he says. “Do you want to meet him?”
And wow, yes, yes, yes; it’s barely been twenty-four hours and Tony already misses him, but, “No, I think it’s better that I don’t,” he says.
Yeah. Better. So he stays up in the observation booth, with Colonel Phillips and Senator Brandt and all the other bigwigs, looking down like Roman emperors on the arena below. Peggy Carter joins them at the last minute, and God, she really is beautiful, and for a lone woman in a room full of obvious posturing assholes, she carries herself with incredible grace and poise. It’s easy to see why Steve loved her.
Howard seems oddly nervous; it’s hard to imagine him ever having been less than perfectly confident, about anything, but of course this is his first huge leap, the one that made everything subsequent possible.
Steve grits his teeth for the serum infusion, but it’s when Howard throws the switch and lets the vita-rays loose, and Steve starts screaming like he’s being murdered, that Tony almost loses it. If he didn’t know for sure that it was going to work, that Steve will be okay, and better than okay, he’d be joining Peggy in shouting for Howard to shut it down. And then, like he hasn’t just been screaming himself hoarse, Steve insists, “I can do this!”
When Howard pulls off his goggles and steps back to admire his own handiwork, the manic grin is one Tony’s intimately familiar with, that of a man applauding his own genius. Of course he’s usually looking at a breakthrough in mechanical engineering, not a human being he’s just experimented on. Speaking of, Steve is clambering out of his metal coffin, and even though Tony’s been up close and personal with those muscles a hundred times by now, it’s still something. When Howard’s fingers spread out across Steve’s abdomen, and Peggy has to hold herself back from doing the same, it does something weird to his insides, but he can’t even blame them.
It’s incredibly hard to stay still once the shooting starts, much worse than he’d thought it would be. When Steve kneels over the dying Erskine, the look of despair on his face as the old man imparts his final message sends Tony spiralling back to a cave in Afghanistan, and a man who told him he could be more than he was, and better.
Howard’s furious that Tony didn’t even try to warn him, and he storms out of the complex, abandoning him to his fate. Tony sits down amongst the wreckage and waits as everyone else drifts off; Howard’s smart, he’ll figure out the butterfly effect on his own. Sure enough, he comes back a couple of hours later, and stands a safe distance away, hands clenching and unclenching at his sides.
“Can you at least tell me that we win the war?” he asks at last, and the gleam in his eye is desperate. He’s a man who knows that things are going to get worse, much worse, before they get better.
“I can’t,” Tony says, and he’s genuinely sorry. His whole life is built on the fact that he inherited his position as a merchant of death, and he’s never thought about the fact that Howard didn’t choose that as a legacy. He was forced into it as much as Tony was, in his own way. “But I can tell you that Stark Industries is going to be pretty god damned important.”
Howard smiles wanly, accepting the implication in place of a guarantee.
“You run the company now, Tony?” he asks. “In the future, I mean.”
Tony shrugs. “I used to. I’m pretty busy with other projects now. We’ve expanded a lot.”
“Me and my favourite nephew. So I don’t have kids of my own?”
Tony chokes. “Did you want any?” he asks, can’t help himself.
“I think I did,” Howard says, looking into the middle distance thoughtfully. “Family’s important. But not in a world like this. I’d want to fix it first.”
Months pass without much progress on the time machine front. Howard does try to help; he just doesn’t have the time to spare. There’s a war on, after all. His talents are in demand everywhere, Colonel Phillips and SSR in Italy locked in conflict with General Groves from the Corps of Engineers, who wants him to move permanently to Los Alamos. With typical Stark insouciance, Howard uses the fact that he can fly himself from site to site to avoid committing to either, heading home to New York as often as he can.
The strain is beginning to tell, though, and he’s changing visibly from the guy who thought nothing of stopping off for fondue after an unauthorised flight into enemy territory, to a man who spends twenty hours a day in the lab, and only stops working when he passes out from exhaustion, or, more and more often, too much scotch. It’s the first time Tony’s truly appreciated what it must have been like for others – Rhodey, Pepper, even Steve – watching him over the years.
Tony’s going stir-crazy himself, cooped up in the mansion. He has a million ideas, things he’s wanted to try before but never moved beyond the abstract on, and for a while it’s almost fun, kicking it old school, drawing up blueprints by hand. He’s itching to actually construct the thing, though – even if he wasn’t focused on the endgame, he hasn’t gone so long without building something since he was a teenager – but everything he needs is either years from being invented, or on the embargoed materials list.
Howard brings bits and pieces back with him when he can, but the last thing they want is to draw attention. The Manhattan District guys have finally figured out that security is serious business, cottoning to the fact that the Soviets might be allies now, but they won’t be forever. He offers to take Tony to Italy, let him work out his frustrations in the weapons labs, but he can’t stand the thought of watching Steve moon over Peggy, either, so he stays in New York, using every trick he knows, and a few he makes up on the fly, to overclock the computers and get some decent processing power.
He can’t stop thinking about Steve back home, his Steve; what he’s doing, how he’s feeling, if the others are taking care of him. He’s already had his heart broken once, and Tony promised him a second chance, and now he’s fucked that up, too, through his own carelessness. If he doesn’t figure out a way back then Steve is going to be alone and miserable all over again, and that is somehow far, far worse than the fact that Tony is going to be alone and miserable for the rest of his life too, without even Dummy and Butterfingers for company, because he is exiled in a technological wasteland.
He built the Iron Man prototype in a cave, with a box of scraps; it feels like it shouldn’t be so god damned hard to work this out. The fact is, though, the assorted junk he had to work with in that cave was culled from the very best of Stark technology. Here and now, the combined Allied atomic program is hamstrung by the scarcity of fissionable material; it’s pretty clear he’s going to have to use the arc reactor as his power source, and he can’t risk that till he’s absolutely sure, or absolutely desperate.
He takes his mind off things by fine-tuning some of Howard’s prototypes, just enough to feel like he’s contributing, without actually telling him anything that will let him blow up the planet. Technically, he’ll figure that one out on his own, once he’s at Los Alamos full time, but it’s probably best he not figure out how to blow a hole in the universe.
Things come to a head when Howard returns from Europe in a towering rage.
“Pack your things,” he says as he crashes into the lab, no time to waste on anything as mundane as a greeting. “We’re going to London.”
“What?” Tony asks. “I can’t.”
“You can, and you are,” Howard insists. “Or, so help me-”
“I’ve told you-”
“You’ve told me nothing except some fairy-tale about a future that isn’t going to happen unless we make it happen!” He’s completely wired, the obvious signs of a Benzedrine high in his wide eyes and the way his hands are shaking. “Now you come with me voluntarily, or I will have you arrested and shipped out in a crate.”
“You wouldn’t,” Tony says, desperate to believe it, though whether that’s because he doesn’t rate his chances once anyone else sees the reactor, or because he’s actually grown, God help him, to almost like Howard and is shocked to see him falling apart, even he can’t tell.
Howard collapses like his strings have been cut. “No,” he agrees, “I wouldn’t. But I need help. I need help, and I can’t keep doing this by myself. What is the point of having a family if you can’t rely on them for anything?”
That is the lowest blow of all time. “I’m not even supposed to be here,” Tony retorts, “I-”
“Not you,” Howard sighs. “Your father. I went to see him. We haven’t spoken since your grandfather’s funeral, but I still thought if I asked him he’d come back. I didn’t want to say anything, for your sake, but I won’t forgive him for this.”
“I’m sorry,” Tony says quietly.
“It’s not your fault,” Howard says. “But please. I need you. You’re all I’ve got.”
It’s no wonder Howard is starting to crack. SSR HQ is buzzing like a hornet’s nest and every single technical request comes direct to him. He’s working on reverse-engineering the weapons they’ve captured in raids on Hydra bases, developing countermeasures for said weapons, and finding a way to use gravitic conversion to enable vertical take-off of fixed wing aircraft, as well as consulting with U Cal by telex on a hybrid mass spectrometer/calutron to diffuse uranium, all at the same time.
Tony takes the last and blatantly lies, using Howard’s cypher book and authentication codes to identify himself, and speculating about gaseous and thermal diffusion. All three methods will be in use within another year anyway; the head start will hardly hurt. If Stark winds up getting the credit, it serves the army and navy right for not co-operating with each other in the first place. He’s more careful with the weapons because everything that came out of that research is still so heavily classified he’s not sure how far the projects actually got, and the scope for error is massive.
It’s a fantastic rush, working on such incredible projects with someone who is smart enough not only to keep up, but sometimes to actually get ahead of him. The fact he knows for sure the outcome of the war – he’s confident he hasn’t done anything to fuck that up at least – means he has a level of comfort and confidence that Howard and the other scientists don’t.
He’s still not remotely comfortable or confident enough to cope when he walks into their shared apartment after a long day to find Howard Stark, Bucky Barnes, Peggy Carter, and Steve Rogers playing blackjack in a sea of empty bottles and over-flowing ash trays and half-eaten cans of food. Howard and Bucky are completely hammered, and even Peggy looks flushed and delighted, where she’s eating smoked oysters out of a jar he can only assume Howard flew in, in complete defiance of all rationing.
Steve, of course, is stone-cold sober, and he leaps to his feet and crosses the room, hand extended. “Steve Rogers, sir,” he says earnestly. “I’m sorry about the mess; we’re on twenty-four hour leave passes, you know how it is.”
Tony has no idea how it is, but he can imagine. Twenty-four hours away from the war, twenty-four hours to see your friends and loved ones. He’s amazed they’re not all screwing like crazed weasels.
Steve’s smile begins to falter, and he drops his hand. “I’ll clear everyone out,” he says, “and let you get to bed.”
“No!” Tony says, “No, don’t.” He catches Steve’s wrist and pulls back to shake his hand. “It’s fine.”
Steve smiles, and it’s as heart-stopping as it’s always been. Will always be. “Steve Rogers,” he repeats.
It all comes crashing home like a mortar to the chest, leaving him reeling. “I’m Greg Stark.”
They wind up leaving after all, but together, Steve smiling sheepishly.
“I could use the fresh air,” he admits. “I don’t get asthma anymore, but sometimes I still feel like the smoke is going to set me off. Howard says it’s psychosomatic.”
“You spend a lot of time with him?” Tony asks. He’s exhausted – he’s been up for four days and even Howard can’t turn chicory into real coffee – but he will collapse in a gutter before he gives up one minute of Steve’s leave. He can’t believe he’s avoided him all this time when he didn’t have to.
Steve shrugs. “When I’m in town. The guys are great, but we all need to get out of each other’s hair occasionally. And it’s nice to talk to someone who remembers I have a brain as well as a good throwing arm.”
“Is that a thing? I mean, do people forget a lot?”
“I’m not telling tales out of school,” Steve says, laughing. “But yeah, sometimes.”
They end up walking the streets all night, stumbling along in the blackout, dodging wardens and steering each other round piles of rubble. It feels like they’ve known each other forever, and for Tony it’s almost true, childhood crush to friends to partners to whatever the hell this is now, one recursive layer on top of another, but for Steve… Tony’s never, ever believed in love at first sight, but when he actually does pitch headfirst into a gutter, Steve catches him round the waist, pulling him back onto the broken sidewalk, and doesn’t let go.
There’s a moment’s indecision where Tony wonders how hard he can push, and Steve looks horrified at his own boldness, and then they find themselves huddled against the side of a bombed out row-house, Steve’s greatcoat wrapped around both of them, kissing like their lives depend on it.
It’s immediately obvious that this isn’t Tony’s experienced, adventurous boyfriend he has his arms locked around; Steve is nervous and clumsy, has no idea where to put his hands or how wide to open his mouth or what to do with his tongue. After the months they’d spent together, the even longer months Tony’s spent here alone, it feels like the best thing that’s ever happened to him. The fact that Steve, this Steve, is brave enough to take such a massive chance makes him feel proud and privileged and protective all at once.
Steve’s hard against him, he can feel it even through the heavy layers of their coats and clothes, but he’s starting to squirm as much in embarrassment as arousal, and the relief when Tony gently pushes them apart is unmistakeable.
“I’m sorry,” he gasps, “I want to, but I’ve never-”
“It’s okay,” Tony interrupts, and he means it with every bit of his heart. “I promise you, it’s fine.”
“Bucky says you have to seize the moment,” Steve says, looking conflicted. “We could all be dead tomorrow.”
“He’s not wrong,” Tony agrees, though he kind of wants to kick Bucky anyway, just on principle. “But you still have to be sure. Right time, right person, it’s all up to you.”
Steve nods, looking around them at the lightening sky. “Can I come see you next time I’m in London?” he asks at last.
“Yes,” Tony says. “Yes, you can. I’ll be here, waiting for you.”
It’s not lost on Tony that he spends longer ‘dating’ this Steve than he ever did his own. They’re both his own though, he swiftly realises, both the same amazing, kind, generous, loving man; he just met him for the first time when he was reeling from too great a shock and too many losses all at once. He feels a little like a war bride, waiting for Steve to get back from missions, and it’s a whole new kind of painful, letting him go at the end of every leave, but they fall into a routine soon enough.
They do the things that normal couples do, albeit surreptitiously. They go to pubs and restaurants and to the movies; a Sherlock Holmes instalment Tony’s never seen before, where Basil Rathbone somehow lives long enough to fight the Nazis, and My Friend Flicka, which should be ridiculous but delights the war-weary audience, and I Walked with a Zombie, which Tony thinks is going to be hilarious, but is actually moodily atmospheric and creepy, and provides the perfect excuse to lean in closer to each other in the darkened theatre than is strictly appropriate.
They make love for the first time one weekend when Steve’s on extended leave, forty-eight hours instead of twenty-four, and Howard’s safely back State-side, checking up on the Los Alamos guys’ progress. It’s a far cry from the heavily orchestrated seductions of Tony’s playboy period, and all the better for it, the most perfectly imperfect thing. Tony keeps his thick woollen sweater on the entire time; Steve makes a half-hearted noise of complaint, but it’s easy to pass off as precaution when air-raid sirens are going off in the distance and they might have to get up and out at any moment.
They lie there after, wrapped up in each other and in the scratchy blankets, and Steve starts to talk about what he wants to do after the war; will Greg come back to New York with him instead of going back to Switzerland, they’ll have to be careful, of course, but it’ll be worth it, of course it will, won’t you please? And Tony, of course, says yes, yes of course he will, they’ll be together again in New York, and it isn’t even a lie, it isn’t.
There’s not enough time; there’s never enough time. Steve is away for weeks at a stretch, and when he gets back he has to squeeze in lunches with Peggy, and pub crawls with the guys, and cocktail parties that Howard organises that make Tony want to strangle him but which he dutifully turns up and smiles through. When they finally get a moment to themselves it’s inevitably just that, a moment. It’s the most incredible whirlwind of brief encounters, crashing into each other with an intensity bordering on violence, before they’re inevitably pulled apart again.
Steve’s as desperate for contact as Tony; ripping at his clothes the second they get behind a locked door, or into the dubious privacy of an abandoned tube station or air raid shelter. They’re always conscious of being caught, and while it adds a certain frisson, Tony would give it all up for some calm, peaceful time together, the languid aftermath of sex he’d always disdained before, and now would trade his entire fortune for. The one upside is that it makes it easier to keep the reactor hidden; they strip just as much as necessary, and after the first time never make it to a bed.
What few quiet moments they do have, they spend on the couch at the apartment, fully clothed and ready to spring apart at a moment’s notice. Steve loves to trail his fingers across Tony’s cheekbones and trace his eye sockets, stroking his temples with the balls of his thumbs, then shifting down to follow the line of his lips. It becomes a ritual of sorts, memorising every inch before he has to say goodbye, until one day he presses his fingers just hard enough into the base of Tony’s skull to make him shudder and come in his pants. When Tony comes back to himself, Steve is looking down at him in shocked delight.
“You like that?” he asks.
“Yeah,” Tony says, still gasping, “I love it.”
The months fly by, and in some ways it’s easier, to at least have a time-frame to work within. Tony knows he can’t disappear until after Steve does – he resolutely doesn’t think about what that means – but he also knows he won’t be able to cope here again once Steve’s gone. He works himself to the bone, and he’s just about there, he can feel the answer creeping up on him, just at the edge of his peripheral vision, as all good ideas do.
He can’t help wondering if Howard suspects something, with the amount of time they all spend together, but he never, ever says a word. It’s obvious how much he respects and admires Steve, and in a strange way that Tony still doesn’t know how to feel about, it’s clear he cares about Tony too. For his own part, he feels closer to Howard than he ever did growing up, and with the benefit of adult eyes, and first-hand knowledge, it’s becoming clear that many of their problems were born of the generation wide gulf between them, and their vast differences in life experience.
Steve cries uncontrollably for hours when Bucky dies. He arrives back in London stony-faced and calm, but Tony knows what that does to you, that kind of repression, and he forces his way through Steve’s defences, and holds him until he stops sobbing.
“I don’t know what I’d do, if anything happened to you,” Steve says at last, body still shaking in Tony’s lap.
“Nothing’s going to happen to me,” Tony says. “I promise you, as long as you keep coming back to me, I’ll be there waiting for you.”
Inevitably, the day comes when Steve doesn’t come back.
Peggy’s on the radio with him when he calls in his final position, and she ignores his pleas not to put him through to the lab; Tony catches the last of him begging her not to. She thinks that Howard will be able to help; Tony knows it’s him Steve doesn’t want to talk to. It’s an open frequency, all of them talking over each other at once, but as it becomes clear they’re saying their goodbyes everyone starts to take their turn. They pretend to be jocular and confident; Peggy promises to take Steve dancing, Colonel Phillips threatens him with fatigue duty for malingering, and Tony tells him to come by the house next time he’s in New York.
“It’s huge,” he says, clenching his hands until his fingernails break the skin and make his palms bleed. “You can’t possibly miss it. Fifth Avenue at 70th, the whole damn block.”
“I’ll be there,” Steve says. “It’s a date.”
Howard just swears he’ll find him. Tony stands back and watches him run around like a maniac, trying to figure out a way. He discards ideas almost faster than thought – in a plane we could get there while he’s still conscious, in a boat while he’s hypothermic; the serum in his bloodstream will keep his heart beating long enough to prevent brain damage; he’ll freeze rather than drown…
When Tony makes no move to help, Howard punches him in the face.
“He’s my best friend!” he shouts. “You love him too, I know you do! Don’t give me that shit about the future; it can’t possibly be a better future without him.”
Tony just sits on the floor, cradling his broken nose, and ignores the tears that mix with the blood running down his chin. Everyone else is too busy with their own grief to notice.
They go to the funeral together, the Stark brothers, the two of them in their expensive coats surrounded by soldiers in various states of disrepair. Captain America’s memorial will be at Arlington, attended by generals and politicians, but Steve’s is right here, with his friends.
The Howling Commandos organise the wake, but the Stark boys drink them right under the table. Phillips took Peggy home hours ago, so it’s just the two of them left, surrounded by unconscious soldiers and empty bottles. Dead soldiers, Tony’s paralytic mind supplies, and he cackles like it’s the funniest thing in the world. He is quite possibly the drunkest he’s ever been in his life, even counting that legendary Spring Break.
That’s the only excuse he can think of, later, for blurting out suddenly, “You weren’t such a terrible father.”
Howard puts down his half-full glass, and just looks at him. He doesn’t seem hugely shocked.
“I’m not,” he says quietly, confirming that Tony’s tongue is still running away with him. “I knew there was no way you could be Greg’s son. You’re nothing like him.”
“And I’m like you?” Tony asks, wonderingly.
“Yes,” Howard says, no doubt at all in his voice. “You’re like me.”
“It’s going to be okay,” Tony says. “I can’t tell you any more than that, but we will find him some day.”
“We?” Howard’s face lights up, and it’s heart breaking a thousand times over. Tony never knew he could feel so much pity and affection for his father. “You and me?”
Howard nods. “But not me.”
“Don’t be bitter,” Tony says, and he’s amazed to find that he really, truly means it. “There’s so much you can do. So much you will do. You’re going to have an amazing life.”
“I have a pretty amazing son,” Howard agrees. “I can’t wait to meet you properly.”
Tony’s heart seizes up. “Actually, I’m pretty much of a disappointment to you,” he manages.
Howard just looks at him. “Well, this time I know you’re lying,” he says, dead certain. “You could never have been a disappointment to me.”
“I wish you’d told me that!” Tony explodes. “Just once. It would have meant a lot more to me when I was a kid.”
Howard’s face falls. “I don’t live to see you grow up?”
Tony says nothing. What can he say?
“Then I’m glad I got to see it now,” Howard says firmly.
I’m glad too. I am.
Tony reaches across the table and grabs both of Howard’s hands in his. “Dad,” he says, and it feels so strange in his mouth. “Dad, please. I need you to get me home. I’m going to go crazy here, and I can’t stand it anymore, not without Steve. I need you to be as brilliant as I know you are, and I need you to get me home. Please.”
Howard looks him right in the eye. “Is he good to you, son?” he asks.
They wait till the very last second to pull out the arc reactor. Tony knows he only has minutes for Howard to get it wired into the machine they built in the New York lab out of pieces stolen wholesale from SSR and U Cal, and a few more at the other end for him to grab a spare. If they screw up, he’ll barely have time to realise.
“Remember,” he insists as the machine powers up. “You can’t do anything with this until the 1960s.”
“I remember,” Howard says. “I think I’ll use the time to make it bigger.”
“Yeah,” Tony laughs, “bigger is good.”
“You remember,” Howard says, as the room lights up and the glass in the windows shatters, “I love you, and I always loved you.”
Tony crashes back into consciousness on the floor of his workshop. He thinks it’s his workshop; everything’s covered in drop cloths and neatly put away. He blinks his aching eyes; can just barely make out the armours, locked away in their darkened cabinets.
He staggers to his feet and feels his way towards the safe. It’s further than he thinks, and he stumbles, almost falls. A strong pair of hands catches him around the waist. Panicked, he tries to push whoever it is away, but they just lean him up against the wall and fumble at his clothes. He really starts to struggle then, but-
“Ssh, ssh, it’s okay,” Steve says, and slots the reactor neatly into his chest. “It’s me, you’re home.”
He collapses into Steve’s waiting arms, even as the lights come on to reveal the Avengers forcing their way through the open door. Natasha’s had her hair cut short; Thor’s, by contrast, is longer. Clint and Bruce are grinning fit to bust. God only knows how long it’s been.
“Welcome home, sir,” Jarvis intones. “You set off the proximity alarms, and I took the liberty of-”
Tony buries his face in Steve’s chest and tunes everyone else out. Steve’s arms are rock solid around his shoulders, and he wraps his own around his waist in return.
“I knew you’d make it,” Steve whispers in his ear, then pulls back to look him in the face. “You’re a little late, but I’ll let it pass.”
“Late?” Tony asks, confused. He can vaguely hear the others drifting away, good-naturedly grumbling about his one-track mind, but he only has eyes for Steve.
“For our date,” Steve says with a smile, then leans in to kiss him so gently, big hands sliding up to cradle his head the way he has so many times before.
“When did you know?” Tony asks, when they break apart to breathe.
Steve digs his thumbs into the hollows behind Tony’s jaw, prompting a full-body shiver, and laughs. “From the very first time I did this,” he says. “How could I not?”
“And you waited?” Tony asks, throat thick.
Steve just smiles. “I’ve always been willing to wait. For the right time and the right person.”