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That Time Back Then

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Carol sat down with a groan. She had known that she should have stayed in bed today. She should have told both Steve and Tony and Wanda to call someone else when Doom came calling. The Fantastic Four had so much more experience with Doom and his stupid time platforms anyway.

“Maybe you should sit down,” Janet advised and pulled out a chair for her.

Carol was about to gratefully whisper “Thanks, Jan,” when with a frown she realized she had no idea when exactly Janet and Hank had come clean about their civilian identities. Had they been a secret at all? They had always been Hank and Jan to her… But she only needed to look over at Iron Man to realize how far back in time they were.

“We can find a way to send you back. It might take a few hours,” Hank was looking at the time platform parts that lay scattered around the room. “You won’t be here long.” He was trying hard to sound confident and reassuring. Which had the opposite effect on Carol at the best of times.

But across the room an older version of Steve Rogers was facing a young Captain America. “How long…?” he started asking.

“A few hours. Maybe a day,” Iron Man provided. “I’ll help Hank and maybe I can get Tony to…”

Carol caught Steve’s uncomfortable look and couldn’t stop from grinning at him lopsidedly. She shrugged her shoulders helplessly and didn’t know what else to offer him in the way of comfort. The younger Steve seemed to finally come out of his daze and looked away from himself to Iron Man. “I’m sure he will help,” he said with conviction and the look in his eyes was so hopeful and open, that it was just painful.

With a jolt of realization it became clear what all this meant to Steve: Time travel was possible. He might be able to get back to where he’d fallen asleep 70 years ago. That thought alone was painful. When had Steve settled for staying? When had “here and now” become his home?

And Carol couldn’t really help it, she burst out laughing. This whole thing wasn’t just surreal it was hilarious, with the unhappy expression on Steve’s face, the hopefully-trusting expression on the younger Steve’s face - and with Tony Stark, whom she had know for so long that it wasn’t funny, being back to talking about himself in the third person out of a sophisticated tin can. This was the kind of thing that made you drink, and drink heavily. But tears were streaming down her cheeks, because she couldn’t stop laughing, and Steve was looking at her with quiet attention and something like resigned understanding, then sighed, and the rest of the room was staring at a mad woman. So she finally caught herself and with some difficulty said: “I’m sorry, so sorry. I think this whole time travel experience is a bit much. I might have to lay down.”

Nobody protested and Carol had a feeling this was going to be a long day in the past.

Only Steve’s pleased little annoying smirk was telling her that he was confident this would work out.

“I’m sure, Tony will help,” he agreed. “From this side or the other.” And then nodded at “Iron Man” with a bright and confident smile and winked. “I trust him just like I trust you.”

That jerk. Carol was ready to burst out laughing again at it all, and if she weren’t so sure that poor Tony must be close to a heart-attack inside the suit, she probably would. She tried to communicate as much to Steve, but he was still grinning.

* * *

Two hours later the whole thing was still surreal. She was sitting in the kitchen with Jan and Thor - and both of them were so young, so different from the people she knew - and then again not. Usually she didn’t need to be guarded around either of them, but now under the circumstances she didn’t know what else to do but be careful about what kind of future knowledge she might be imparting here. Hank walked into the room to get a sandwich and Jan’s eyes lit up. Carol sighed and looked away.

Keeping the dread level down she told Jan that she was writing science fiction novels, making use of her space travel knowledge. Because how much harm could come from Jan knowing about her career choices? “I think I’ll use time travel next. It happens to be on my mind lately.”

Jan laughed loudly. “Superhero life. It never gets less crazy, does it?”

Just as she said it, Tony walked in the door, obviously in search of coffee. That was so familiar and soothing that Carol immediately relaxed a bit, until she looked up at Cap, who had been standing beside her chair, leaning against the countertop by the sink in the way that he’d been doing for years, with his cowl pulled back and his blond hair tousled. She saw his whole face light up with pure unfathomable softness.

“Tony, it’s good to see you,” he said with another of these stunningly fond smiles and Tony, who had so far not gotten close to them outside of the armor, practically froze in his tracks, coffee pot in one hand, Captain America cup in the other.

But he smiled back after a moment. “Hi, Cap,” he said. “I can still call you Cap? Nothing changed over the years?”

Steve chuckled. “You still call me Cap, yes.”

And somehow the strangest thing about the whole scene - young Tony, older Steve - was the way that Tony’s eyes flitted away nervously as if the thought that his being still friends with Captain America after years and years was somehow a remarkable revelation. Carol felt like a headache was coming her way.

Only when they were left alone in the kitchen did she ask: “Do you think Tony is okay?”

“If Doom hasn’t found a way to subdue him again, I think he’ll be fine,” he answered, arms folded in front of his chest. His voice only gave a hint of strain. “Wanda was with him. He got nearly hit by the debris though.”

“He wears tech that makes him as safe as you can be in a tank, Steve. He can take a bit of debris falling on him. If you hadn’t tried to protect him we wouldn’t have ended up on that stupid time platform. It’s not like he can’t take care of himself in a fight.”

“That’s not what I’m saying,” he said and furrowed his brow.

Only then did Carol realize what all the strain of the last weeks had been about. “You’re angry because he didn’t tell you he was hurt.”

“He’s an idiot.”

“Yeah,” Carol said fondly. “We’re kind of similar in that respect. Also don’t give me that stern Captain America look. I see the dazzling Steve Rogers smile you’re throwing around here. It’s unfair. Don’t make him snap before the other you is ready to know.”

Steve’s neutral expression was only ruined by the twinkle in his eye. “I have no idea what you’re talking about, Carol.”

“Of course you don’t, Cap, of course you don’t.” It was always nice to be reminded that Captain America could be the worst kind of troll.

* * *

When they go down to the scientists’ den, the other Steve, Hank and Tony are there. Steve is watching the proceedings with a forlorn look of longing and Tony occasionally threw him worried looks. Carol threw her own Steve a questioning look, but he only shrugged.

“So,” he said conversationally. “You and Iron Man still hang out in the library?”

Steve’s head snapped up and he blinked. “Yeah,” he admitted. “Fond memories?”

“Yes, some of the best.”

And Carol wanted to groan at the sappy smile and covert look Steve was throwing at Tony, who had stopped working and was oh so obviously listening. “Cap is an old man, he’s all about fond memories,” she remarked.

Tony actually smiled at her and it was so sweet to see him like that: At a time when he was already fighting his own failing heart, fighting enemies and people trying to take his company down, but before he’d really hit rock bottom for the first time. Some innocence had been lost over the years, obviously. She really wanted to hug him, but thought that maybe that would give everyone the wrong idea. So she instead stealthily stuck her tongue out at Cap and grinned.

Much later - Steve and Steve were still talking in hushed tones in the corner, Carol hadn’t moved away from the friend who wasn’t really her friend yet - Tony sat back in his chair and asked: “So he learned about time travel, but chose to stay.”

She didn’t need to ask who they were talking about here. “Time travel is tricky, Tony. You’re smart enough to know that. But that’s not why he stayed. This is his home, you know? All of you are here. His friends and family.”

The way Tony nodded his head said loud and clear: “No, Carol sweetheart, I don’t know, but I want to believe it.”

God, what was this? Steve couldn’t have been around for more than a year and Tony was pining for Steve already and it was so obvious if you knew.

Oh, and her Steve, the jerk, knew. Carol looked at him darkly when his alter-ego finally went to take care of something and he stepped, casually, towards them to lean against the desk on Tony’s other side. “How is it going?”

“We should be done in a few hours.”

“You look tired, Tony. Was that thing with the Unicorn yesterday or the week before?”

“What?” Alarmed Tony looked up, to meet Cap’s eyes.

“The thing with the Unicorn. You crashed. Must have been yesterday. Shouldn’t you take it slow today? Rest a bit?”

And Carol rolled her eyes. “Time travel is a complicated thing, Steve. Do. Not. Meddle.”

“I’m a strategist,” he shot back. “I know what I’m doing.”

“You… know?” Tony sounded mortified.

Another of the brilliantly, friendly Steve Rogers smiles answered his question and Carol huffed. Captain America was all about rules and procedures and the correct and right way of doing things until he was in the middle of battle and then he did what needed to be done. But he never forgot who he was, always reasonable, always strategizing, always doing what was best for everyone - right up until it involved Tony and then all bets were off. When Tony was involved, Steve could be just as unreasonable as he was stubborn.

“You’re okay, right?” he asked.

Quietly dazed, Tony nodded. “I’m not… How do you…?”

So obviously Steve decided that now was the time to be cryptic: “That’s something to look forward to.”

Carol thought it was high time she got home, because she needed to tell Tony that his boyfriend was not all justice and apple pie. But she guessed he already knew that Captain America was a troll at heart. No wonder they loved each other.

But the mix of hope and disbelief on Tony’s face right here and now made the whole thing even worse. It was like he just couldn’t believe that Captain America would ever know about him being Iron Man and remain his friend. It was painful to admit it, but Carol got it. She had always been good at her job, highly competent and working towards the future. It was hard for people to believe that in all of this she’d never learned to actually like herself very much. It was hard to admit that what she had always wanted the most was for her family, her father especially, to look at her and be proud, tell her he was proud of how far she’d come. It had never been that simple, of course.

And then life had gone crazy and she’d gone through some hard times. The hardest. She still couldn’t face some of the memories without flinching.

That was when the bottle had become her best friend. Until her friends - and Tony, who understood better than anyone - had helped her to find a better way.

This Tony had all of that still ahead of him. All of it but the near fatal injury that had turned him into Iron Man.

And here he was thinking that Captain America would doubt him if he knew the truth.

Oh, she understood. So much.

When her gaze met Steve’s blue eyes and his slightly sad and melancholy smile, she knew he understood it too.

* * *

They watched the team spring into action when there was an emergency call to assemble. “A.I.M.,” Steve told her with a shrug of the shoulders, dragging up the events of years ago from his remarkable memory, and watched them all go, Tony conveniently slipping out to “inform his bodyguard”. It was anyone’s guess why his secret identity had worked as long as it had.

“Is it weird to watch your younger self?” she asked Steve when they were alone once again.

He shrugged. “I didn’t remember how confused I was back then. New world, new home and so many experiences and realizations still ahead of me.”

“That’s no reason to interfere with them, you know,” she said sourly.

Steve grinned. “I know. But have you looked at them? I’m following Tony around the mansion like a sad, lonely puppy in both his personas. And he’s… Tony.”

“It’s all rather sweet, yes. Can we go home now? To that place where you sulk for a week because he’s an idiot who hides injuries and joins a fight anyway and where he butts heads with you when he thinks you’re wrong and he’s oh so very right. I like that place better. All these sweet reverential looks and the secret identity confusion is getting to me.”

“You like it better when we butt heads?”

“Steve, really, as long as you’re both happy and relatively stable I can roll with the punches.”

“I thought you were berating me for being too hard on him for being an idiot who goes into a fight injured.”

“I’m saying you knew what you signed up for. So don’t blame him for being exactly the person you fell in love with.” She thought she’d made her point very clearly, but Steve blinked at her as if he had to think that through.

In a noticeably smaller voice he said: “I worry.”

“Yes, you do! And so do the rest of us who know him well enough to care. He’s… just... “

“Too ready to put himself at risk,” Steve finished. And Carol could still remember the way Tony had crashed down only two days before to get in between Jan, Steve and a death beam. She couldn’t really fault Steve for worrying.

“So are you,” she pointed out instead. “He worries for you too, when you give yourself up to madmen to save other people, or when you take on powers that are beyond gods, or…”

“I get the point.”

“Let me rephrase that: You do realize you finally after years of,” she waved her hand around in front of herself to make her point, “this get together, because you got infected with a deadly virus and he thought keeping you alive at all costs was more important than Tony Stark living or dying, so he takes of the helmet that keeps him from being infected to give you CPR. Tell me again, why any of that behavior surprises you? Roll with the punches, Steve. Make him realize it by not shouting at him.”

He considered her for a very long moment, before the slight smirk came back. “I was in the process of doing that, when you pointed out that meddling was dangerous.”

She rolled her eyes. “I don’t need to point out that planting suggestions years before you even figure out your own issues is not fair play, Captain America.” When Steve smirked even wider she realized that he hadn’t just been working on Tony. “I’m surprised to say this, Steve, but you’re evil. Does Tony know you’re evil?”

But when he laughed, she felt a little less bad about the whole thing.

His expression changed back to that melancholy look paired with a fond smile that he’d been wearing for much of the day. “If I were irresponsible, I’d warn them about Kang and Immortus and… all the other horrible stuff in their future. But that’s meddling. That’s dangerous.”

“Yeah,” she conceded. “You’re not that evil.” She patted him on the shoulder like a friend, if maybe a little harder than necessary. Somewhere out there Carol Danvers was making her choices and setting herself on a path that would lead through much hardship to the place where she was now. She’d not give that up either.

Tempered steel was always stronger.

* * *

“I’m sure Tony wanted to say goodbye too,” young Steve muttered.

“He was called away on business,” Iron Man replied and his Captain America nodded sadly.

Carol had to wonder if he already liked Tony as much as he liked Iron Man. Steve would know, of course.

“Don’t worry. He can tell me hello on the other side,” Steve said cheerfully and he was visibly happy that he’d get back home now, too. Then he patted his younger self on the shoulder and said: “It’s going to be quite a journey, but you won’t go through any of it alone.”

Then he did the same for Iron Man and said: “Try to take care of yourself. You mean a lot to all of us, Shellhead.”

Tony silently nodded, although Carol was sure he’d forget all about it the moment the next dangerous situation came along. He always did.

They set the time travel platform for home and she waved at Jan and Thor and the rest and the next moment they’d winked out of and back into time and were home.

Tony - the right one, wearing a soiled tank top and skinny jeans and looking as if he’d once again worked without taking a break - stood in front of them blinking. For a moment his whole body language communicated surprise, then relief and then he glared at Steve and announced: “You scare me to death sometimes!”

Carol used her flight ability to lurch herself into the air to jump in a high arc over to Tony, beaming at him and then gathered him in a hug. “It’s so good to be back home.”

Steve stepped down from the platform also smiling. “Don’t crush him, Carol. He’s still healing.”

“You can be so glad that I vaguely remembered something like this happening, Mister, or I’d have come after you to tell you what I think of your heroics. Don’t push me out of the way when Doctor Doom pulls a stunt like this. I can build myself a time machine when I’m stuck in Camelot. What if you two had ended up in the stone age?” Tony continued his rant. But so far Steve hadn’t stopped smiling, yet. He just walked over and when Carol made way for him, ignoring Tony’s continued stream of enraged words, he gathered him in a hug and kissed him, which put an end to the tirade. “Did you have to park in my workshop?” Tony asked with a now only slightly disgruntled look, when Steve let him break the kiss.

“You can scrap it for parts.”

It was just too hilarious to watch Tony's face take on a contemplative and slightly mollified expression.

“So it’s a present?”

“It’s really good to be home,” Steve sighed.

And nobody disagreed with him on that. It was always good to come home. And today it was so much better here than watching the two idiots dance around each other without a clue.